Jesus, Interrupted

Silly me.  Not only did I forget to charge up my Kindle 2 before our CA trip (so it was dead on the flight out), but I also forgot my jump drive with my blog loaded on it, so five days from now, you’re going to discover five days of information suddenly uploaded to the blog.  Sorry for the delay.

We’re having a splendid time seeing family, since this is little L’s first time seeing grandparents and uncles and aunts and cousins.  The reading at Vroman’s Bookstore today went wonderfully—made up of mostly family and friends.  Have you seen Vroman’s?  It’s like a labyrinth library, the best of all places to hide and hang out and browse.  Wonderful little place in Pasadena, if you’re ever in the area.

Since my Kindle was dead on the plane, and since I had nothing to read, except this week’s The Week, which I quickly finished, Dan bought me Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted from one of the airport bookstores.  How did he know that I had just been talking to my friend Clare about this book?  How did he know Misquoting Jesus, another one of Ehrman’s books, is waiting at home to be read?  He didn’t, which made it an even nicer gift.  So, I’m a few pages from finishing the book, and let me tell you, it succinctly says what I’ve been saying all along—and Ehrman is so level-headed and conversational, that anyone can understand what he’s saying.  My question is the same as his: why, if so many pastors and theologians have gone through these schools of learning, have they dismissed what they’ve learned, shelved the information, and gone right on teaching the standard Sunday morning fare to their parishioners?  Why have they not been changed by the facts—and altered the way they’ve taught…or believed?  I, for one, would be grateful not to have the same old drivel directed at me every Sunday.

Ehrman says: “Scholars of the Bible have made significant progress in understanding the Bible over the past two hundred years, building on archaeological discoveries, advances in our knowledge of the ancient Hebrew and Greek languages in which the books of Scripture were originally written, and deep and penetrating historical, literary, and textual analyses….Yet such views of the Bible are virtually unknown among the population at large.  In no small measure this is because those of us who spend our professional lives studying the Bible have not done a good job communicating this knowledge to the general public and because many pastors who learned this material in seminary have, for a variety of reasons, not shared it with their parishioners once they take up positions in the church.  (Churches, of course, are the most obvious place where the Bible is—or, rather, ought to be—taught and discussed.)  As a result, not only are most Americans (increasingly) ignorant of the contents of the Bible, but they are also almost completely in the dark about what scholars have been saying about the Bible for the past two centuries.  This book is meant to help redress that problem.  It could be seen as my attempt to let the cat out of the bag.”

Now, for some Christians, none of this knowledge would affect their faith, because their faith is more important to them than the Bible’s accuracy.  [Curiously, Ehrman, when teaching his classes at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, asks his students on the first day of class how many deem the Bible an important piece of literature.  Nearly every student raises his or her hand.  Then he asks how many students have read the Harry Potter series.  The same thing—nearly every student raises his or her hand.  Then he asks how many have read the Bible all the way through, and a paltry number of hands are raised.  Why is this, he asks, when they’ve just claimed that it’s an important piece of literature?]

But for some of us, faith is wrapped up in Scripture, because if Scripture is errant, then what else of our doctrine or behavior is errant?

Discrepancies are rampant throughout the Bible—both in the Old Testament and New Testament, and Ehrman does a nice job summing up the most important ones.  Some that are near and dear to my heart, after writing Eve, are the ones about creation.

Here’s Ehrman again: “The creation account in Genesis 1 is very different from the account in Genesis 2.  Not only is the wording and writing style different, as is very obvious when you read the text in Hebrew, and not only do the two chapters use different names for God, but the very content of the chapters differs in numerous respects.  Just make a list of everything that happens in chapter 1 in the order it occurs, and a separate list for chapter 2, and compare your lists.  Are animals created before humans, as in chapter 1, or after, as in chapter 2?  Are plants created before humans or afterward?  Is ‘man’ the first living creature to be created or the last?  Is woman created at the same time as man or separately?  Even within each story there are problems: if ‘light’ was created on the first day of creation in Genesis 1, how is it that the sun, moon, and stars were not created until the fourth day?  Where was the light coming from, if not the sun, moon, and stars?  And how could there be an ‘evening and morning’ on each of the first three days if there was no sun?”

Even more damning, I think, are the Gospels, which are not thought to have been written by the apostles we think they’ve been written by.  The Gospels’ language is in scholarly Greek, not in fisherman’s Aramaic, and anyway, the disciples probably wouldn’t have known how to read or write, although that’s an educated guess.  Mark is the oldest Gospel, and has a completely different “take” on Jesus than, let’s say, Luke.  Mark wants to get across a suffering Jesus–the one persecuted, rejected, and crucified.  Luke wants to get across a stoic Jesus, calmly absorbing everything until the very end.  Neither Gospel claims that Jesus is God.  The only Gospel to do this is John, and John was written almost 95 years after Jesus’s death, years after the other Gospels were written, and with enough time to have passed that a certain theology about Jesus had emerged—not from eyewitnesses but from people who had heard from people who had heard from people.

Now I have to read the Gospels again, and this time not linearly (what Ehrman calls “horizontally”), but “vertically,” where I’ll have to take each story and compare it to the same story in the other Gospels.  In this way I’ll be able to compare the historical contexts and language choices in the stories.  There was always an agenda in the writing of texts, and the Gospels are no exception to that rule.

Ehrman ends with a hard look at how our New Testament came to be, and it’s interesting to me that this isn’t discussed first in any religious training before deciding whether or not to believe what’s written.  The Bible we know today is not the same sacred text that the early church was using, and why is that?  Ehrman lays it all out.

I still have to read Misquoting Jesus, but I have a feeling when I do, my next question will be: What would God look like, stripped of all organized religion?

[Post image: Bart Ehrman]

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