Please Pardon This Interruption
Review of Jesus Interrupted by Bart Ehrman
Published: 15 June 2009(GMT+10)
Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman has lately made a career out of brokering Biblical scholarship for the average reader. Regrettably, Ehrman is a self-professed agnostic and former ultra-fundamentalist1 Christian who all too often has permitted the exegetical excesses of his past to color his writings of the present.2 In prior volumes, there was some room for doubt in terms of whether Ehrman was simply naïve in this regard, or had some overarching agenda to attempt to argue others into following in his spiritual footsteps. With his latest volume, Jesus Interrupted, the scale has come down heavily on the “agenda” side of the equation.
Jesus Interrupted is a broad attempt by Ehrman to undermine the reliability of the New Testament. A couple of chapters are summary versions of the contents of his prior books (Misquoting Jesus, God’s Problem, and Lost Christianities), volumes not without serious problems of their own. But within the remainder of Jesus Interrupted are some new arguments; or better said, new to Ehrman, but not to the experienced Christian. In part, Ehrman roots his way through the liberal side of NT scholarship, delivering the standard canards regarding the inauthenticity of the NT books, but he also scrapes barrel bottom to argue for contradictions within the NT. Some of these appeals are the sort that can be found in scholarly literature, but several are of the pedantic variety that one would normally expect to find in the writings of a teenaged atheist writing for his school newspaper.
Therein lies the rub, which weighs heavily on the “agenda” side of the equation. Bart Ehrman, as a Biblical scholar, could not possibly be unaware of solutions to the problems he poses, but he almost never deals with any views contrary to his own. Indeed, in many cases it becomes hard to believe that Ehrman is indeed a Biblical scholar, for his errors are so manifest as to be embarrassing.
A significant example tells the tale. Ehrman finds some difficulty in terms of the length of Jesus’ ministry as presented by the different Gospels [42f]. He writes of getting a “distinct impression” from Mark’s use of the word “immediately” throughout his Gospel that Jesus’ ministry in Mark lasted only “a few months.” In contrast, he says, John’s Gospel has Jesus’ ministry lasting approximately three years.
‘Ehrman proves the dictum that old fundamentalists never die; they just exchange fundamentals and continue in their unimaginative, closed-minded rigidity and simplicity.’ — Liberal Methodist bishop William Willmon.
Ehrman does not quantify his claims concerning Mark’s use of “immediately,” and it is hard to believe that he has not done so. Once we do examine each of Mark’s uses of the word, however, we find that Ehrman’s description fails to do justice to Mark’s presentation.
Mark uses the word “immediately” (in two related forms) 57 times; but Luke uses them 21 times, and Matthew 15 times. Word counts, especially of single word, simply don’t prove anything by themselves; by Ehrman’s logic, he ought to have gotten a “distinct impression” from Matthew that Jesus’ ministry was only about a year long, and from Luke that it was perhaps two years long. Ehrman’s sense “impression” from the use of this single word is worthless.
But it gets much worse. To get his case for a short ministry in Mark past a “sense impression,” Ehrman ought to analyze precisely how Mark uses the word “immediately” and show that he uses it to compress time. But in not one case are any of those 57 uses effective in compressing time. Many of thise uses occur in parables, and so have no bearing on the length of Jesus’ ministry (e.g., Mark 4:5, 15, 16, 17, 29, 6:27). Some refer to how quickly a person was healed by Jesus (1:31, 42; 2:12; 10:52). Some refer to an immediate sense perception by Jesus of another person’s actions or thoughts (2:8, 5:30).
Some uses refer to the speed of an action performed by someone (5:2, 6:50, 14:43). Others are like these:
- Mark 1:12 And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness.
- Mark 1:28 And immediately his fame spread abroad throughout all the region round about Galilee.
These give specific markers that might give us a context of time relative to action, but neither one would suggest that Jesus’ total ministry lasted only a few months. In this light, one wonders how Ehrman supposes any of these “immediatelys” have any bearing on the chronology of Jesus’ ministry. They simply don’t. This is but one example of many such errors, and they raise serious questions about either Ehrman’s competence as a scholar or his honesty as a broker of information.
In other areas of Jesus Interrupted, Ehrman comments on theological issues, despite his professions to not be a theologian. He dispenses with the doctrine of the Trinity in a shockingly naïve way, with such questions as, “If Christ is God and God is God, are there not two Gods?”  As has been noted by scholars, “God” (theos) was not used as a proper name in the New Testament; it was, rather, a noun describing the properties of someone (in the same way one might use the word “deity”).3 Ehrman is confused by the modern (and admittedly, indeed confusing) usage of the word “God” as a proper name for the Father. His statement ought to be corrected to: “Christ is God and the Father is God.”
Ehrman also remains under the impression (as he was in Misquoting Jesus) that 1 John 5:7–8 is the one and only passage that supports the doctrine of the Trinity. More serious scholarship recognizes numerous other relevant passages (e.g., John 1, Col. 1:15-18, Hebrews 1:3, etc.) and sees the Trinity as prefigured by pre-Christian Jewish ideas.4 Even worse for Ehrman’s pretentions of honestly dealing with his opponents, the leading Trinitarian defenders have never used the passage Ehrman thinks is essential—the Greek Church Fathers like Athanasius and Basil the Great who fought so strongly against the Arian Heresy in the fourth century AD,5 Dr James White in his detailed Trinitarian book The Forgotten Trinity (1998), or for that matter CMI or Tekton in our own uncompromisingly pro-Trinitarian articles.
Since it is difficult to countenance the idea that a scholar with Ehrman’s credentials is unaware of responses to the arguments he uses, and since Ehrman continues to repeat some of the same errors in this book that he has been corrected on before, it is hard not to conclude that Ehrman is misusing his platform as a popular writer to abuse the public trust. The bright side of the equation is that as long as Ehrman continues to write in this vein, he will make it that much easier to erase his credibility with critical thinkers.
- But see Russell Grigg, Anyone for fundamentalism? Creation 30(4):15–17, 2008; this distinguishes between the original “fundamentalism” meaning adherence to foundational doctrines of Christianity, and the more modern meaning of anti-intellectual rigidity. Return to text.
- Even Christians of a more liberal theological persuasion have noticed this in Ehrman. In a review of Ehrman’s book God’s Problem in the liberal magazine Christian Century, 30 December 2008, Methodist bishop William Willmon writes: “Ehrman proves the dictum that old fundamentalists never die; they just exchange fundamentals and continue in their unimaginative, closed-minded rigidity and simplicity.” Return to text.
- Similarly, the Trinitarian Church Father Basil the Great wrote: “In a brief statement, I shall say that essence (ousia) is related to substance (hypostasis) as the general to the particular. Each one of us partakes of existence because he shares in ousia while because of his individual properties he is A or B. So, in the case in question, ousia refers to the general conception, like goodness, god-head, or such notions, while hypostasis is observed in the special properties of fatherhood, sonship, and sanctifying power. If then they speak of persons without hypostasis they are talking nonsense, ex hypothesi; but if they admit that the person exists in real hypostasis, as they do acknowledge, let them so number them as to preserve the principles of the homoousion in the unity of the godhead, and proclaim their reverent acknowledgment of Father, son, and Holy spirit, in the complete and perfect hypostasis of each person so named.”—Epistle 214.4. Hence the Greek Trinititarian formula of “three substances (hypostases) in one essence (ousia)” or the Latin equivalent of “three persons (personae) in one substance (subtantia)”. Return to text.
- For more on this subject, please see my article, “Jesus: God’s Wisdom”. Return to text.
- Pointed out by New Testament Greek scholar and pro-Trinitarian Dr Daniel Wallace, The Textual Problem in 1 John 5:7 8, Bible.org. Return to text.