Posts Tagged ‘Bart Ehrman’

Ralph, Bart, & Jesus

December 14, 2012

I thought it was pretty much all over but the grading, except for one last exam yesterday. But we also had one last report presentation: Jesus!

Jacob, standing by his man and citing C.S. Lewis’s weird and cryptic statement about prophets who claim to be poached eggs etc., said we finally have just three basic belief options:

  • Jesus was not who he claimed to be, God (the, not just a… like Phil Connors) and he knew it. Or,
  • He was sincere but deluded. Or,
  • He was the real deal.

Well, I told the class, at least two more options leap instantly to mind: he was misrepresented, and he was misunderstood. Call them the Ehrman* and Emerson options, respectively.

Ehrman contends that the New Testament is riddled with contradictions about the life of Jesus and his significance. He has provided compelling evidence that early Christianity was a collection of competing schools of thought and that the central doctrines we know today were the inventions of theologians living several centuries after Christ.  Commonwealth Club

Ehrman has lived those contradictions. He was “born again” at 15 in Kansas (where he was a pal of my colleague Mike Hinz, btw, which is why Bart spoke on our campus February before last), a religion student at arch-conservative Moody Bible College (where all his teachers were required to sign an oath to represent only one perspective on the question of Biblical literalism and “inerrancy”), Wheaton College, and Princeton, and a devout Christian well into his career at Chapel Hill. The problem of suffering ultimately disabused him of his faith and made him a “heretic.” He came to understand that we shouldn’t follow anyone or anything with unwavering, unquestioning obeisance. We’re all individuals. We all have to think for ourselves.

rweJesus Christ estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, `I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.’ But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the following ages! …`This was Jehovah come down out of heaven. I will kill you, if you say he was a man’ …He spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain. Emerson, “Divinity School Address

We could do a course on this Emersonian sort of naturalized religious sensibility. Throw in the Jefferson Bible, along with some other ways of moving naturalism forward. Some Jamesian pluralism, some Deweyan natural piety, some humanistic science.

Maybe we will.

*Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed  the Bible and Why

Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible

Forged: Writing in the Name of God-Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are

God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question-Why We Suffer

Students in philosophy class handle snake

September 9, 2011

It’s not every day a student comes to class with her new pet python. It was a first, in fact, for me. Aasia’s friendly serpent Salazar (yes of course, named for Harry Potter’s “Slytherin”) got to watch our discussion of Job. I found the conversation so riveting that soon I was not even conscious of the fact that the young woman in the back row was wearing a writhing necklace. I’m not sure her seatmates were similarly forgetful. But doesn’t it make an intriguing headline? Students in philosophy class handle snake…

There was one moment of confusion for which the snake was blameless, and that I should clear up. Jennifer Hecht’s claim on page 73 of Doubt, following Jack Miles, is that God never speaks again in His own voice in the Hebrew Bible after the Book of Job. That’s the Old Testament. The New Testament does speak of a voice from heaven. Read what Miles wrote here. The renowned Bible scholar Bart Ehrman, who visited our campus last February, also has interesting thoughts on Job here.

If God is at work in the darkness, feeding the hungry with the miraculous multiplication of loaves, why is it that one child– a mere child!– dies every five seconds of hunger. Every five seconds.

I think we can all be excused (of malice, if not of responsibility) for our exegetical inattention yesterday. We were distracted by a viper. But again: not his fault.


February 19, 2011

Our anticipation was not disappointed, the Ehrman talk yesterday afternoon filled the large auditorium as well as the closed-circuit spillover room (of the same building, btw, where our latest campus outlaw had been apprehended at the beginning of the week).

It must also have filled the Bible thumpers in the house– and there were just a few, judging by some of the Qs from the floor during Q-&-A– with discomfort. Bart was respectful but firm, as when he responded to one: “I don’t believe iconic paintings of the Blessed Virgin weep tears of oil paint, but if you do I have no problem with that.”

He’d already respectfully and methodically assembled damning evidence of the Bible’s “copy of a copy of a copy…” of an errant copy pedigree. But still he declined to insist on construing this most errant text-by-committee’s obviously all-too-human provenance as conclusive proof of the adventitious nature of Christian holy writ. Only those literalists and fundamentalists who assert the Bible’s straight, immaculate, unadulterated descent from the Creator’s mouth to our ears need feel subverted by this scholarship.

Not that they will, or will admit it. Nor will the True Believers of other faiths admit that sauce for the goose sauces their gander too. One thanked Bart for pointing out the Bible’s imperfections. “We Muslims have been saying that for years.”  Bart was too modest and polite to point out the findings of Koranic scholars that their holy book

could well stand as the supreme example of a man-made text, worked over and doctored to an unfathomable extent, and subsequently endowed with a transcendental provenance by the associative and projective proclivities of the human imagination… ‘if you look at it, you will notice that every fifth sentence simply doesn’t make sense…. The fact is that a fifth of the Koranic text is just incomprehensible.’

Then someone asked if Bart would be willing to discuss his own personal journey from evangelical fundamentalism to agnosticism. He gave us the short version of God’s Problem:

I realized that I could no longer reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of life. In particular, I could no longer explain how there can be a good and all-powerful God actively involved with this world, given the state of things. For many people who inhabit this planet, life is a cesspool of misery and suffering. I came to a point where I simply could not believe that there is a good and kindly-disposed Ruler who is in charge of it.

…If God is at work in the darkness, feeding the hungry with the miraculous multiplication of loaves, why is it that one child– a mere child!– dies every five seconds of hunger. Every five seconds.

Unlike my colleague who described himself, at the post-talk party, as a “F*$k You, you’re wrong!” kind of guy, non-pluralistic and proud of it, Bart refrains from insisting that his own response to the problem of suffering is coercive. It’s for each of us to wrestle with, and decide in conscience.

Speaking of the post-talk party: I loved hearing from Bart what it’s like to meet Stephen Colbert in the Green Room (he’s been on the show twice) and then try to keep up with his lightning wit under the klieg lights.

It was also terrific, at the party, to hear from a colleague in another department that ours has gained a strong reputation for the way we responded to administrators’ attempts, awhile back, to question the need for a philosophy department at all. If nothing else, we’re needed to sponsor Lyceum talks like yesterday’s.

Thanks for coming, Bart. (And thanks for inviting him, Mike.) Give our best regards to Chapel Hill.

“Misquoting Jesus”

February 18, 2011

We’ve been anticipating Bart Ehrman’s visit for a long time. The day is here.*


The Department of Philosophy is happy to announce a lecture by
Professor Bart D. Ehrman
“Misquoting Jesus: Scribes Who Changed the Bible and Readers Who May Never Know”
Friday, February 18 at 3:30
State Farm Room of the Business and Aerospace Building

The lecture is free and open to the public. Professor Ehrman will be signing copies of his books immediately following his lecture.Bart Ehrman is the James A. Gray Professor with the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Among Professor Ehrman’s fields of scholarly expertise are the historical Jesus, the early Christian apocrypha, the apostolic fathers, and the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.He is the author of over twenty books.  Among his most recent are a Greek-English edition of the Apostolic Fathers for the Loeb Classical Library (Harvard University Press), an assessment of the newly discovered Gospel of Judas (Oxford University Press), and three New York Times Bestsellers: Jesus Interrupted (an account of scholarly views of the New Testament), God’s Problem (an assessment of the biblical views of suffering), and Misquoting Jesus (an overview of the changes found in the surviving copies of the New Testament and of the scribes who produced them). His books have been translated into twenty-seven languages.The lecture is part of the annual Applied Philosophy Lyceum sponsored by the Department of Philosophy with appreciation to the Distinguished Lecture Committee.

Bart Ehrman radio interview w/Gina Logue, WMOT

level best

September 10, 2010
Very interesting, yesterday’s discussions of the problem of evil (or suffering, if the e-word connotes too much woo-woo for you).
Some of us clearly didn’t want to consider, at all, any challenge to comfortable conservative Sunday School orthodoxy. At least one of us was moved to leave her Professor a note, to the effect that the whole class period had been a big waste of time.
But others were quite open to the obvious question: shouldn’t an omnipotent and omniscient moral exemplar, knowing all, capable of anything, be expected to spurn all the horrible child-abusing mother-raping violence and mayhem so sadly familiar in our mixed-bag world of woe and wonder? Or at least some of it? And how far does free will take us, really, towards an accepting comprehension of all this? Not very.
It seems quite clear: a transcendent and benevolent Deity will need all the help we mortals can give, in pursuit of a better— not the best, by a long shot– world. That’s what William James meant, in inviting us to consider ourselves co-creators with a less-than-omnipotent God.
Suppose that the world’s author put the case to you before creation, saying: “I am going to make a world not certain to be saved, a world the perfection of which shall be conditional merely, the condition being that each several agent does its own ’level best.’ I offer you the chance of taking part in such a world. Its safety, you see, is unwarranted. It is a real adventure, with real danger, yet it may win through. It is a social scheme of co-operative work genuinely to be done. Will you join the procession? Will you trust yourself and trust the other agents enough to face the risk?”
Count me in, sign me up, start the procession.  Whether God is your co-pilot or not, metaphysical perfection is way over-rated,  and our level best may have to be good enough. Best possible? How ’bout let’s start with the best available, and then see where we can take it from there.
That’s become the view of Bible scholar and former committed Christian Bart Ehrman, for whom the problem of suffering was instrumental in helping him lose his religion and gain his newfound Ecclesiastical spirit. He’ll be our guest at MTSU next semester, on February 18. Stay tuned for details.
Here he is with Terry Gross:

Job & Ecclesiastes

February 9, 2010

The two great pronouncements of Jewish doubt– or as I prefer, spirit— are the Books of Job (between 600 and 400 BCE) and Ecclesiastes (250-225 BCE). Both exalt an inquisitive and challenging sensibility, a clear-eyed reaching for justice in the face of life’s least tolerable facts that concedes nothing to implacable mystery.

The influence of Epicurus seems to pervade the latter especially, with his most solid practical wisdom transmitted by Ecclesiaastes’ author Koheleth: Love your spouse. Get some work to do… enjoy the simple pleasures. Forget worldly recompense; forget the afterlife; forget being watched or judged by God. And hardest of all, for most of us in this world of vanity: forget being remembered. Oh, and don’t expect life to be fair. Under the sun, the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong etc.

Bart Ehrman: “It cannot be overlooked that in the divine response from the whirlwind to Job’s passionate and desperate plea for understanding why he, an innocent man, is suffering so horribly, no answer is given… suffering does not come for known causes or known reasons. Suffering just comes, and we need to deal with it as best we can.” God’s Problem

Ecclesiastes, like Job, before him, ends up surrendering. There is no reason to struggle against the great, and the crazy, and the evil: we ought simply to be glad we are alive.

Why? Why can’t we be glad but also gird our loins and get out there and scrap for justice? As James said, life feels like a fight so let’s go.

That doesn’t mean we refuse to acknowledge our appreciation for life’s treasures. Woody Allen’s answer to Job, in the person of his schoolgirl friend Tracy, deserves to be heard. “You’re God’s answer to Job.You would have ended all argument between them.He’d have said “I do a lot of terrible things but I can also make one of these.” And Job would’ve said “OK, you win.”

But– sorry, Woody– that’s just too Hollywood. This is a bit trivializing too, but I still like it:

At first, Job’s friends counsel passive acceptance of his accumulating scourges– including the deaths of his loved ones– with a centuries-early foreshadowing of Leibnizian theodicyJob must have deserved this punishment, since it was happening, so it must be all for the best. Right.

His faith finally stretched beyond possibility by cruelly-targeted conspiratorial assault, Job quite reasonably explodes: Miserable comforters are ye all… I loathe my life. He begins at last to press an aggressive prosecution… but then crumbles when faced with God’s righteous indignation, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of earth” etc.

God’s defense offers no apologies, no promises of ultimate justice, nothing but the rhetorical equivalent of a smack-down. He is great, Job is puny  and ignorant, so just shut up. Might makes right, as Plato’s Thrasymachus would have it. Not nice.

And Job caves. I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes. What?!!?

There’s nothing for Job to apologize for, from any reasonable standpoint. We have an explanation for most of the natural wonders in Job… we feel the opposite of how Job did (small and powerless). OK, we’re still small enough to warrant some humility. But we’ve been places and understood some natural phenomena, we’re not worms. We don’t need to grovel, and He’s got some explaining to do, to have as little sense of justice as the universe exhibits… What kind of God is that? If the main reason for persisting in believing in God is that he made the world and all the creatures in it, it will be hard to argue that he does not have the power to make it a less actively dangerous and chaotic world.

Job may have relented, and accepted his substitute/consolation family, but he did get sort of get the last word: after the Book of Job, God never speaks again.

And btw: how about an explanation of the no-time before time itself began? Yes, we know: that’s hard.

Why not the best?

September 23, 2009


bniz: this universe must be in reality better than every other
possible universe…Leibniz

This universe must be in reality better than every other possible universe Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716)

Dr. Pangloss taught metaphysico- theologo- cosmolonigology. He could prove that there is no effect without a cause; and, that in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of all castles, and My Lady the best of all possible baronesses.

“It is demonstrable,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as allpangloss things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles, therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings, accordingly we wear stockings… Voltaire (1694-1778), Candide

So she’s like all “problem of evil.” And I’m like, “theodicy, barmaid, theodicy!”

..if you wish for superficiality incarnate, you have only to read that charmingly written Theodicy of Leibniz, in which he sought to justify the ways of God to man, and to prove that the world we live in is the best of possible worlds… William James, Pragmatism wj

Philosopher Susan Neiman reminds us that eighteenth century thinkers like Voltaire saw the great Lisbon earthquake as a metaphysically game-changing event.

For some, Lisbon lessened either God’s beneficence or his power.

For others, the quake lessened their estimation of human reason  and a reasonable world. Nature, according to enlightened minds,  was a benign and intelligible force. Its well-oiled operation  reflected the intelligence and skill of a designer God. Could we,  though, retain our confidence in reason, and thus in God’s ways,  in the rubble of Lisbon?

voltaireWhere are our Voltaires, spotlighting the suffering wrought by natural phenomena (Katrina, quakes, tsunamis, tornadoes et al) and the challenges they pose to any rational theist?

Well, there’s Bart Ehrman. (BTW: Ehrman is a former classmate of my colleague Mike Hinz. We hope to bring him to our fair campus next year.) He’s a respected Bible scholar at the University of North Carolina who until quite recently considered himself a devout Christian.

The leading reason given by atheists and agnostics for their disbelief is the problem of suffering or evil. David Hume put it this way, in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: “Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered. Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

In God’s Problem, Ehrman joins the skeptics. He writes:  “the Bible fails to answer our most important question– why we suffer.” Suffering, he says, “is not only senseless, it is also random, capricious, and unevenly distributed… Why are the sick wracked with unspeakable pain? Why are babies born with birth defects? Why are young children kidnapped, raped, and murdered? Why does a child die  of hunger every five seconds?”

That was Dostoevsky’s question too, in Brothers Karamazov (Book V, Ch. 4 – “Rebellion”), where Ivan asks:  “Are you fond of children, Alyosha? I know you are, and you will understand why I prefer to speak of them. If they, too, suffer horribly on earth, they must suffer for their fathers’ sins, they must be punished for their fathers, who have eaten  the apple; but that reasoning is of the other world and is incomprehensible for the heart of man here on earth…

dostoevskyI renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed… to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony.”

So is Ehrman the Christian-cum-agnostic in despair about evil? No. “The solution to life is to enjoy it while weecclesiastes can, because it is fleeting. The idea that this life is all there is should not be an occasion for despair and despondency. It should be a source of joy and dreams—joy of living for the moment, and dreams of trying to make the world a better place… This means working to alleviate suffering.”

Finally, consider a somewhat banal analogy. “Suppose you found yourself at school in a dormitory. Things are not too good.  The roof leaks, there are rats, the food is almost inedible, some students in fact starve to death.

dormThere is a closed door, behind which is the management, but the management never comes out. You get to speculate what the management must be like. Can you infer from the dormitory as you find it that the management, first, knows… …exactly what conditions are like, second, cares intensely for your welfare, and third, possesses unlimited resources for fixing things? The inference is crazy. You would be almost certain to infer that either the management doesn’t know, doesn’t care, or cannot do anything about it. Nor does it make things any better if occasionally you come across a student who declaims that he has become privy to the mind of the management, and is assured that the management indeed knows, cares, and has resources and ability to do what it wants. The overwhelming inference is not that the management is like that, but that this student is deluded. Perhaps his very deprivations have deluded him.” Simon Blackburn, Think

And perhaps belief runs hotter in nice dorms. Should it?