So late on Easter Sunday someone in channel mentions that my name appeared in a USA Today opinion piece. I click on the link and find the graphic to the right. At first I didn’t give it a second thought until I noticed that the guy on the left isn’t wearing a tie, and hence is dressed just like Bart Ehrman. If that isn’t purposeful, it should be! So I am wondering, is this taken from the debate in January? Hard to say.
The piece is titled “Fightin’ words,” and it is written by Tom Krattenmaker. Here is the bio offered on his website:
I am a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life. I write regularly for USA Today’s “On Religion” commentary page as a member of the newspaper’s editorial Board of Contributors. My work has also appeared in recent years in Salon, the Los Angeles Times, the Oregonian, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
A onetime newspaper reporter for the Orange County Register and Associated Press (Minneapolis and Trenton bureaus), I have an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota and a master of liberal arts degree in religion in public life from the University of Pennsylvania. By day, I am an administrator at Lewis & Clark College in Portland (which is a very cool school).
The sub-title on his website banner is, “on religion in American public life.”
Let me say at the start that I would have been happy to talk to Mr. Krattenmaker, had he contacted me. It is always possible that he tried, but could not reach me. I only make myself available for two full hours every week on the DL, etc. But many of these writers have very short deadlines, so I guess there wasn’t enough time to get “the other side” of this particular story.
Further, I see no evidence that Mr. Krattenmaker took the time to do more than look at Ehrman’s claims. Counter-claims, or even a study of the relevant fields of NT studies, do not seem to find a place in the background research for the article.
The subtitle on the USA Today page reads, “Is the Bible the literal word of God, or a historical compilation written by different people in different situations over a period of years? This question has provoked some soul-searching about the very foundation upon which the Christian faith is based.” Of course, the answer to the question is, “It is both.” Only reductionists like Ehrman think there is a conflict between the two. The Bible is historically rooted without being limited to a mere narrative of historical events. But that answer is not even allowed at the table, of course, in the modern media.
The main portion of the article focuses upon Bart Ehrman’s new book, Jesus, Interrupted, and I show up in the article as one of “Ehrman’s chief critics.” We would have gladly sent Mr. Krattenmaker a DVD of the debate with Ehrman from just a matter of weeks ago, but no request was made. But that aside, I am at least thankful for a link to the blog which provides to the reader a fairly wide selection of the videos I have provided in response to Bart Ehrman’s claims.
Of course, though this is an opinion piece, it would still be nice to see some kind of balance provided in discussing the subject. But none is provided. For example, we have this paragraph offered up:
If the Bible is the literal word of God, Ehrman asks, how could it be inconsistent on so many details large and small? Let’s start with an example appropriate to the just-concluded Easter season marking the Savior’s death and resurrection: As Jesus was dying on the cross, was he in agony, questioning why God had forsaken him? Or was he serene, praying for his executioners? It depends, Ehrman points out, on whether you’re reading the Gospel of Mark or Luke. Regarding Jesus’ birthplace of Bethlehem, had his parents traveled there for a census (Luke’s version) or is it where they happened to live (Matthew’s version)? Did Jesus speak of himself as God? (Yes, in John; no, in Matthew.)
If our author is aware of sound, thorough, careful yet believing responses to all of these issues, he doesn’t tell us about them. Indeed, I provided the following video in response to the first of Ehrman’s pet “problem texts,” yet no mention is made of it:
As to the birth narratives, it should be remembered that as in all of Ehrman’s criticisms, the one option that is, by nature, dismissed, is that of harmonization. Ehrman says that to harmonize is to show disrespect for the individual gospels. That sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Who would want to do that! But of course, he then uses the lack of harmony as evidence that the Christian faith is bogus! There’s a huge leap from “we need to let Matthew and Mark and Luke speak in their own contexts” to “and as a result, we see that they are contradictory and therefore untrue, and unreliable as historical sources.” Ehrman uses a partial truth to leap a mile down the wrong road to a complete untruth. Yes, Mark must be allowed to be Mark: he must be allowed to have his own audience, his own purposes. Ironically, Ehrman insists upon only one context and purpose for Mark, while removing him from the early Christian community, a community marked by the continuing presence of the eyewitnesses of the events of Jesus’ life. He demands that we accept a theory of slavish literary dependence, where Mark is written first, and Matthew and Luke simply plagiarize him, altering his text as they see fit. The volumes of Christian scholarship contesting this kind of theory (and the resultant abuse of the text) do not even cross Ehrman’s radar screen, and hence find no place in this USA Today piece, either.
Now, let me offer a little experiment here. I would love to publicly debate with Ehrman on his attacks on the deity of Christ. Of course, I doubt he would do it, since, as he reminded us in January, he’s a historian, not a theologian. Be that as it may, this article demonstrates, once again, how easy it is to enunciate a falsehood and yet how much time it takes to properly refute it. We have, “Did Jesus speak of himself as God? (Yes, in John; no, in Matthew.)” Now, the paragraph from which this is taken contains a grand total of 119 words (according to Pages, anyway). Now, what if Mr. Krattenmaker had taken the time to contact yours truly, and offered me even 119 words to respond to these claims? What would I have said? Well, here are some examples. First, in response to the allegations about Mark and Luke and the “forsaken” Jesus:
Dr. Ehrman ignores the fact that Mark clearly presents Jesus predicting His own death and even speaking of His own burial. He is in fact in complete control in Mark, and His citation of Psalm 22:1 should be understood as being reflective of the Messianic nature of that Psalm and its fulfillment in Him, not as an indication of abandonment. Ehrman’s reading forces us to think Luke would contradict Mark while writing for the very same audience that already possessed Mark’s gospel. It is only Ehrman’s anti-Christian prejudice that precludes his allowing all the data to speak and that forces him to turn Luke and Mark into enemies rather than friends. (113 words)
And another example, this on the allegation that John presents the deity of Christ, while Matthew does not:
As the great Princeton scholar B.B. Warfield pointed out nearly a century ago, the evidence for the deity of Christ found in all four Gospels, Matthew included, is overwhelming. In the original context of Matthew’s gospel the words and actions of Jesus clearly transcend any merely human prophet. Ehrman is simply in error to say that the Jews of the first century believed the Son of God was merely a human: while a human could be called one of many sons of God, the language Jesus uses in Matthew (11:27 among others) and all the other gospels shows us He is the Son of God in a unique way, a way that plainly indicates deity. (117)
If Mr. Krattenmaker would like to provide these replies in a future piece, I’d be happy to offer them to him!
The major failure of this piece is the ignorance it shows of even the book it is discussing. Note this paragraph:
Ehrman’s book has met with a fierce reaction from some quarters, which is understandable. Who among us isn’t inclined to fight back when our deepest, most cherished beliefs are challenged? But there is no need to demonize him as a “wolf” on the prowl against the church, as one critic has. His ideas, like so many other new thoughts and new insights that keep coming around with the surety of the seasons, need not be regarded as insults against God or bids to prove the Bible false.
As Ehrman himself repeatedly admits, his work is not “new.” In fact, the entire promotion for the book includes the assertion that “scholars” (read that liberal, far left scholars) have been saying these things for decades on end. And that is quite true. But modern Americans, ignorant of history, are gullible enough to buy repackaged versions of old arguments, as long as they are advertised well. Just like the worn-out, repudiated, failed arguments about Jesus being a mere parallel to Osiris, or Mithra, or Dionysus, were buried long ago in scholarship, the Internet, and the short memory of the West today, allow them to be dug up, propped up, and called “new” by dishonest purveyors of anti-Christian rhetoric all the time. There is big money in attacking the Christian faith today, to be sure.
So Mr. Krattenmaker missed the boat to characterize me as “demonizing” Ehrman for his “new” views. They aren’t new. They are old, and in the vast majority of cases, have been answered by believing scholarship for a long time. But Ehrman doesn’t give the time of day to those solid responses, and those who support him blissfully ignore all that counter-argumentation as well. But what is more, Krattenmaker has ignored the context of my statement about Ehrman being a wolf in sheep’s clothing, possibly out of malice, but possibly just out of ignorance. In either case, as I noted late last evening on this blog, he pulled this phraseology from this article from March 2nd, 2009. The context is Ehrman’s dodging of theological questions based upon his being a “historian” and not a “theologian.” Yet, he keeps writing very theological books–theological in the sense of attacking the Christian faith. And then I provided a citation that, one would think, would catch any reporter’s eye:
There is not literally a place of eternal torment where God, or the demons doing his will, will torture poor souls for 30 trillion years (as just the beginning) for sins they committed for thirty years. What kind of never-dying eternal divine Nazi would a God like that be? (p. 276).
Maybe I’m just naive, but isn’t it rather obvious that when Ehrman openly identifies the historic, orthodox Christian position regarding eternal punishment as entailing a God who is a “never-dying eternal divine Nazi” he is expressing his true feelings, feelings that are very relevant to my thesis that he is not just some unbiased scholar out to share the results of his unprejudiced, neutral studies? And don’t you think that might be relevant to the context of my using biblical terminology (Acts 20:29-30) in a pastoral context to warn about his obvious intention to spread unbelief far and wide? Obviously.
So what does Mr. Krattenmaker mean by saying that I am attempting to “demonize” Ehrman? Evidently, given his confusion in thinking that pointing to the supposed “Synoptic Problem” is somehow “new,” our author believes that we conservatives have no response outside of attempting to demonize and “poison the well.” Of course, if that was the fact, why would I debate him before video cameras in public? Our replies may not be as widely disseminated by the press as Ehrman’s accusations, but that does not change the fact that we have offered them, and rarely find the Ehrmans of the world interacting with them. Why should they? With compliant writers like Mr. Krattenmaker, they do not need to. He is not reviewing Ehrman’s work, he’s promoting it:
If criticisms of Ehrman veer toward the personal it’s because his evidence – the Bible’s own text – is what it is. And there is no denying the inconsistencies he surfaces between the various Gospels and letters that form the New Testament.
There is likewise no denying the fact that most writing in the press today have no interest at all in reading the other side or doing just a little bit of digging. It would also help to have some level of understanding of orthodox belief. Our author opines, “Is the Christian imperative primarily to do good, or to accept and proclaim the Jesus as God?” Can anyone say “category error”? Evidently this is a very poor attempt to portray Matthew as a works-gospel, and John as a confession of a theological faith alone-gospel. This surface level reading of the text, rampant indeed in Ehrman, who refuses to allow any of the gospels to speak in a chorus, is based upon the atomization of the NT. Ehrman gets this from his radical view of the early church as this massively disparate group without any consistency (arising from his exaltation of later gnostic writings and a projection of these ideas into the first century). Every heretic is magnified, any consistency of the “proto-evangelicals” diminished as part of Ehrman’s purposeful and thought out anti-Christian agenda. This allows him to project a completely different context for any NT book or author, and hence to make them as contradictory as he wishes. Of course, if that is not enough, he can always deny, say, Pauline authorship of the Pastorals and others, allowing him to create even more havoc. So, for example, we have the following:
“With the passing of time,” Ehrman writes, “the apocalyptic notion of the resurrection of the body becomes transformed into the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. What emerges is the belief in heaven and hell, a belief not found in the teachings of Jesus or Paul, but one invented in later times.”
Now, the poor student who knows his Bible (better than most op-ed writers, it seems) might go, “Wait a minute, didn’t Paul write this to the church at Thessalonica?
5 This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering–
6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you,
7 and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels
8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,
10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.
(2Th 1:5-10 ESV)
Pretty obvious, right? No, because Ehrman denies Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians. Ironically, he does so on the basis of his own very poor grasp of the exegesis of the text and its resultant theology, but still, few evangelicals are prepared to give a defense of their view that Paul wrote this book (or the Pastorals, for example).
We read the following at the conclusion of the portion on Ehrman’s book,
Ehrman’s central message is that the New Testament is a human book, written by different people in different situations with different audiences and different objectives. Is this a bid to disabuse believers of their Christianity? Absolutely not, Ehrman says. But he acknowledges that his scholarship and writing, if taken seriously, are bound to change the faith of one who believes in the Bible as God’s perfect holy writ.
Yes, the New Testament is a human book. It says of itself, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2Pe 1:21 ESV) Men spoke. God used men. No question. But that does not preclude the rest of the assertion: that they spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. In Bart’s world it is either divine, or human, but it cannot be both.
Let us not be fooled by protestations that Bart Ehrman is merely an unbiased scholar plying his trade. The last two books he has produced have forever banished that idea. Their imbalance is plain and manifest to anyone with sufficient knowledge of the field to detect it. The fact that men like Mr. Krattenmaker give him a free pass on the matter does not change the reality that is so plain to be seen.
Finally, the article goes on to note another offering from John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg. I would invite him to view the 2005 debate on the historical reliability of the gospels with Dr. Crossan if, once again, he is actually interested in how believing Christians respond to this kind of approach. [Likewise, I truly hope that within the month the mp4 of the debate Dr. Renihan and I did with both Crossan and Borg will finally be available for download]. We will search in vain for references to solid Pauline scholarship of the past that stands in such striking contrast to the agenda-driven material being produced today.