For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. ---Ephesians 6:12

"The age of casual Catholicism is over; the age of heroic Catholicism has begun. We can no longer be Catholics by accident, but instead must be Catholics by CONVICTION." ---Fr. Terrence Henry TOR, Franciscan University of Steubenville

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Lost Credibility

Book review
Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew
By Bart D. Ehrman

When I purchased this book at Borders in Philadelphia during the summer of ’05, I had been looking for an analysis of the Gospel of Thomas and other apocrypha, because I was curious as to why some books were canonized into the Bible and some weren’t. I grabbed this one because it looked like a comprehensive study not only of different gospels, but of the different faiths surrounding them.

But as I read through this book I discovered some new truths. First, just because someone refers to himself as a “Bible scholar” doesn’t always mean that he believes in the Bible. Most people would be surprised to learn that many religious studies classes at public universities analyze the Holy Bible purely from a secular point of view. Second, no matter how hard the most educated scholar may try to sound objective, he will invariably give away his political position if he is allowed to espouse long enough. This author, in fact, does just that.

Let’s start with P52, which is a credit card sized piece of papyrus thought to be the oldest surviving scrap of scripture of the Gospel of John. Mr. Ehrman repeatedly declares that it was found in a “trash heap in Upper Egypt.” In fact, Mr. Ehrman declares this every time P52 is mentioned. To paraphrase Ralph Manheim, “It is the half educated writer, without clear ideas, who generally feels that to say a thing only once is rather slight.” Mr. Ehrman is much too intelligent to be doing this by accident. According to Dr. Bruce Metzger, to whom Mr. Ehrman dedicated his recent book, Misquoting Jesus, that fragment “was purchased in Egypt as early as 1920, but sat unnoticed for years among similar fragments of papyri” (see interview in Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ). Hmmm, I thought a trash heap was a mountain of garbage one finds in a landfill with vermin crawling about and seagulls flying overhead. Mr. Ehrman has altered its definition to include any stack of papyri containing Holy Scripture.

While Mr. Ehrman gleefully tears apart any possibilities that most of the apocrypha could have any credibility (he claims nearly all of them are fakes or forgeries, and probably correctly), he nonchalantly mentions off the cuff that all but seven of the New Testament books are forged as well (those seven themselves also being tampered with). The latter is, I believe, the real purpose for writing this book. Lacking the courage to make this the focused topic, he covertly slips it in. Since then he has gathered enough courage to make it the focus of the afore mentioned Misquoting Jesus.

Another gutless tactic he employs is to present a hypothesis very distasteful to Christians, laying out all of the best arguments to solidify the point, then in the final sentence saying that he doesn’t actually believe it himself, without offering any facts to back up his late contradiction (which means he really does believe it!). It is truly a coward’s way of arguing a point, (pretending to disagree) which he does more than once. It is done most notably when relating the story behind the naked man in sack cloth who flees when Jesus is arrested (see Mark 14:51, 52). He presents the claim of some “Bible scholars” that “missing chapters” detail a relationship laced with homoerotic overtones between Jesus and the naked man. How can one take an author like this seriously?

The tendency for conspiracy theory to emanate from Mr. Ehrman is common. For instance, there can be many reasons why so many more recently hand copied manuscripts of the New Testament differ from the oldest ones. Mr. Ehrman points to large political movements most often while ignoring some more obvious reasons.

Case in point: the Gospel of Mark. He says the earliest copies show Jesus reacting angrily to just about everything that confronts Him. Reasoning that the oldest surviving versions must be the correct ones, Mr. Ehrman assumes the newer copies were purposely changed by scribes in order to sound more like the other three gospels. But could it be possible that these oldest copies survived because it was known back then that they were wrong? Consider the likely possibility that a scribe or two might’ve thought a “compassionate” Jesus was rather weak and so rewrote Him to be angry all the time to show a more powerful God. These “angry” copies were then set aside by church elders from the other more often handled “compassionate” copies and preserved for any number of reasons, perhaps as examples of bad behavior by “foolish knaves,” while the correct copies were handled so much they fell apart and were discarded. Just look at your own bookshelf. The books that last the longest are the ones read the least. It is an incorrect assumption on Ehrman’s part that the oldest known copies in existance today were the only copies written at the time.

Regarding the differences among the four Gospel accounts: If scribes were so prone to change the Gospels to make them more uniform, why after 2,000 years and countless hand copied manuscripts are there still differences in accounts of events, such as when Jesus died in relation to the timing of the Passover meal or what garments were found in the tomb after the resurrection?

Also, could some of those “lost Christianities” which competed with what Mr. Ehrman refers to as the prevailing “proto-orthodox” views (as shown in today’s Holy Bible), have failed the test of time simply because they were wrong? And if history is suspect anytime it is “written by the winners,” should we also be inclined to doubt the holocaust or the failure of Soviet Communism? Perhaps Mr. Ehrman thinks that slavery didn’t get its fair shake from an historical perspective. Maybe he’ll start rooting for the Chicago Cubs. One can only wonder.

In defense of Mr. Ehrman, I will say that his writing style is engaging and lively, and not totally without fact. And while he is no Dan Brown, who stands behind utter falsehoods to bring Jesus down to our level, Mr. Ehrman’s transparent agenda forces me to question his credibility. It is not uncommon these days for secular Bible scholars to attack the KJV simply to shake the foundation of the “religious right.” After reading this book and hearing him interviewed on NPR, I think that’s exactly what he’s doing.

On there are several glowing reports of this book submitted by “secular fundamentalists” who applaud anything that contradicts the New Testament, rejoicing in having NO God looking over their shoulders telling them with whom they can and cannot sleep.

I think it's quite possible that Mr. Ehrman may have committed apostasy since leaving the Moody Bible Institute. Only he and God know for sure. Mr. Ehrman needs our prayers (whether he wants them or not).


Peter said...


St. Blogustine said...

Thank you for your input.

Nancy O. said...

Thank you for writing this. A friend recommended this book to me to help me make up my mind about God. I think I just dodged a bullet.