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Biblical fundamentalists often interpret the scripture’s more poetic moments in a literal fashion — understanding, for instance, the Bible’s “historical” stories in the same way they think proper, modern history should be written. This is especially so in the case of the Gospels, those writings that narrate the activities and teachings of Jesus. Jesus spoke every word, performed every deed — and he did these things in the locations and sequences stated in the Gospels. Or at least this is what is assumed.
But there is a problem. When the Gospels are placed side by side and carefully compared, differences emerge. One will notice variations in the wording of Jesus’ utterances, variations in the details of some of the stories, and sometimes variations in chronology and sequence. These differences can shake one’s confidence in the reliability and truthfulness of the Bible. The solution, fundamentalists believe, is to find ways of harmonizing the discrepancies. If harmonization is successful, then the fundamentalist view of the Bible remains viable — all is well. But what if harmonization doesn’t work?
This is where New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman and several of his popular books of the last decade come in. From Misquoting Jesus to his new How Jesus Became God, he hammers away at the pat answers and simplistic harmonizations. Biblical fundamentalism, Ehrman contends, is simply wrong. Therefore, he reasons, the Bible really can’t be trusted.
There is just one problem with this conclusion — it is flawed at its very core.
In Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman argues that today’s text of the Bible (and he mostly speaks in reference to the Greek New Testament) does not exactly match that of the original writings and that some of the changes in the text were deliberate, at times motivated by theological dogmas. Therefore, we really don’t know what the evangelists originally wrote. In Jesus, Interrupted, Ehrman shows why the Gospel narratives cannot be harmonized, nor their histories trusted. In Forged: Writing in the Name of God, he argues that several books of the Bible were not written by their ascribed authors. Most recently, in How Jesus Became God, Ehrman argues that the early church’s belief that Jesus was divine was not what Jesus claimed, nor what his original disciples believed.
Some of what Ehrman claims is not controversial in mainstream scholarship. All scholars of the Bible, including conservative evangelicals, know that there are some textual uncertainties. All, including most conservative scholars, know that oftentimes we cannot harmonize discrepant details. And all know that there was development in theological thinking about Jesus, especially after the resurrection.
The problem is that, in his popular books, Ehrman is frequently guilty of the logical fallacy of the excluded middle, the idea that there are only two options — either we have every word of the original text or we do not; either we have harmonious accounts of the teaching and activities of Jesus or we don’t.
Bart Ehrman is arguing like a fundamentalist. It is an all-or-nothing approach. If the Bible is truly inspired (and therefore trustworthy), it must be free from discrepancies. But this is not how most seasoned scholars think, including evangelicals. Nor was it the way early Christians thought.
One of the first to comment on the Gospels was Papias of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Writing near the beginning of the second century, Papias says the author of the Gospel of Mark compiled chreiai (“useful, instructive anecdotes”) and wasn’t concerned with exact sequence and chronological order. The scholars and lecturers of this period of time instructed their pupils in the chreiai of the great thinkers, teaching them how to edit, contract, or expand the chreiai, and to give them new application, in order to make clear to new audiences the true meaning and significance of the wisdom of the great thinkers. Creative adaptation was expected. Remaining true to the original idea was essential.
This is what the writers of the New Testament Gospels did. Indeed, this is how Jesus taught his disciples when he said, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matt. 13:52). That is, the disciples of Jesus are to pull out new lessons and applications, as well as the old, from the treasure of teaching Jesus has given them. Why should anyone be surprised that the disciples and the evangelists who followed them did what Jesus instructed them to do? Each evangelist presented the life and teaching of Jesus in his own fashion, using creative ways that made it understandable and relevant to different cultures and settings. The numerous differences and discrepancies we see in the Gospels are the result of the writers doing what Jesus taught — and in many ways reflect the standards of history writing current in late antiquity.
At work in Ehrman’s books is an unrelenting attack directed against the fundamentalist understanding of the Bible. Ehrman is not attacking a straw man, for the object of his attacks does indeed exist. But his books address fundamentalist readings, not mainstream understandings of the Bible and the stories it tells. Christian scholars of every stripe believe that the biblical text, especially the Greek text of the New Testament, is well preserved, that the Gospels are accurate and tell us what Jesus really taught and did, and that the conviction that Jesus was in some sense divine is rooted in Jesus himself, in what he taught, and in the extraordinary things he did.