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Bart Ehrman - The Bible, a Big Fat Lie


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While I'm certainly a fan of Colbert, I don't think he does justice to Ehrman here. Ehrman is not just some "author" but one of the world's leading scholars in early Christian studies, also known as Patristics (the study of the early church).

In fact, when the Gospel of Judas (a Gnostic text) was discovered a few years back, Ehrman was one of a small team of scholars that worked on translating it before it was released to the general public.

When I say that Colbert doesn't do justice to Ehrman, I also mean to suggest that Ehrman comes off as a partisan for naturalism here, which he is not. Ehrman was raised a Fundamentalist Christian, and through his training and experiences gradually became secular. He is probably the best known public academic in the study of religion today.

As a scholar in the study of religion, his interest is in using all the tools of historiography and the social sciences, and letting the cards fall where they may. Theological claims generally do not hold up to these standards, and thus are not used in assessing the age of texts, their composition, the historical-cultural milieu from which they come, etc.

For example, it is generally maintained in scholarship that Jesus did exist. This is mainly attributed to that fact that there are extra-Christian sources that mention his name (i.e., Roman sources). As for what he may have said and done, the general rule of thumb is the older the manuscript, the more likely it is to be accurate. If you have x number of manuscripts from the first century that say roughly the same thing, they are thought to be more reliable than similar manuscripts from the second century. It is also worth keeping in mind the rhetorical style of the authors of these texts (whose names we don't know; we just call them Matt, Mark, Luke, and John. Paul is said to have written 13 texts in the NT, but only 7 of them are attributed to him by scholars). In the first century (the gospels were written between 30-100 after Jesus' death) the general rhetorical style was not to recap what the protagonist of a story had actually done, but rather to embellish events so as to evoke something about their character. Understood this way, the New Testament is more of an allegory than a literal document for the word of God.

But I'm rambling on here. The point I want to stress is that scholars of the study of religion (which is mainly a non-confessional and agnostic discipline) don't really care whether a faith claim is true or not, but rather want to use the tools of the social sciences to try and understand the context, history, and meaning that religion had and has for individuals and communities. While rejecting theology, the study of religion is generally interested in the cultural-symbolic meaning of religious statements and beliefs. Looked at this way, it can serve as a decent bridge for opening up productive conversations between religious and secular individuals, by offering a sort of translation program between sacred and profane language. The task then becomes how to communicate more effectively (as a secular) with the religious, having a greater understanding of just what the hell they are saying.

To repeat, I don't think Ehrman wants to be a partisan for atheists. He is a serious scholar, but wants to avoid the politics of theism vs. atheism. If he is perceived as a partisan for atheism, then his work looses its appeal for many religious individuals--and let me tell you that in the study of religion he is very popular, among secular and religious students alike.

Here's a lengthy interview with him from Conversations with History, FYI:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Trt1ZWR5PqQ

There's also a clip of him from the Daily Show on Google Video discussing his book Misquoting Jesus. This interview does better justice to his approach than his interview with Colbert.

For example, it is generally maintained in scholarship that Jesus did exist. This is mainly attributed to that fact that there are extra-Christian sources that mention his name (i.e., Roman sources).

As someone who's a student of religious studies I am very familiar with Ehrman's work. While the scholarly consensus is that Jesus existed it seems to be done so purely to not lose one's credibility, at least to me. Read Ehrman's 1999 work entitled Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium where he goes over the scant "extra-Christian sources." All of the evidence we have of Jesus derives from hearsay. If we're honest with ourselves we would have to say that at best we can speculate that maybe a Jesus existed, but that this speculation does not derive from the evidence so much as either a desire for it to be true or because it's been deemed that way for quite some time that it would seem looney not to.

To repeat, I don't think Ehrman wants to be a partisan for atheists.

I agree, hence what I mentioned about Jesus. Moreover, in most of his work he lays out the facts for all to draw their own conclusions although he's very open about most of his views like the fact that he doesn't believe in God and his reasons why.

Thanks for your ideas.

While I think you're right to say that the jury is out on Jesus, I think it's worth keeping in mind that evidence for his existence is at least as strong as many other historical figures whose existence is rarely called into question.

My issue is with those who identify as religious or as atheists, who want to use this information to score cheap partisan points. I don't find it controversial though to say that according to current scholarship it is deemed likely that Jesus did exist.

Your right to suggest that it has been taboo to say otherwise, but as we both know, to say that Jesus probably existed is to say nothing about claims to his divinity.

And this is why I don't like when scholarship is overly politicized. There's faith claims to "truth" or meaning, or whatever (both secular and religious), and then there's scholarly evidence and procedures, where we put aside these claims and try to be as objective as possible. Personally, I don't think the two should be conflated, as it tends to make people too emotional and strategic in their responses.

Also, it's interesting to note (as perhaps you have) how some religious people still maintain their faith after reading Ehrman's work. While their faith would certainly be challenged, it need not destroy peoples faith, but, at the very least (and hopefully), force them to be much more critical on these issues. I think that if Ehrman has any politics then this is it, which means that he would not likely see it as productive for his texts to be used as proof that it's all "a big fat lie." This would marginalize the religious from reading his books, and thus minimize the potential impact that he could have on people who are raised like he was.

I think it's worth keeping in mind that evidence for his existence is at least as strong as many other historical figures whose existence is rarely called into question.

I'm usually not convinced by this argument because as soon as I ask for examples I end up finding contemporary evidence (even if minimal) that places them in better standing historically.

And this is why I don't like when scholarship is overly politicized. There's faith claims to "truth" or meaning, or whatever (both secular and religious), and then there's scholarly evidence and procedures, where we put aside these claims and try to be as objective as possible.

I agree. Whenever something is overly politicized and/or sensationalized in gernal it tends to put pressure on the part of the scholars to go above and beyond their academic duty. I feel it's unfortunate for candid conclusions that would have otherwise been drawn from the data to be circumvented to appease the masses. I respect Ehrman greatly, though, for taking information that typically floats in academic circles only and presents it to the public in plain language. Regardless of where the data may take anyone, it seems almost criminal to leave it locked up amongst elite scholars when the public has a right to know about where their traditions and beliefs arose from.

I like your comments on biblical scholarship, but am not concerned about how Colbert handled him

In terms of authors, Colbert's interviews serve to expose the work done; that's pretty much it. Colbert's character is O'Reilly's protege, so everything is about himself, including "his" views. The interviews are set up more to expose/ridicule right-wing commentary. If you want to see/hear real interviews with authors, watch or listen to another show, as you have linked.

Thanks for your thoughts.

I suppose I wasn't too clear on Colbert. I'm aware of his schtich, and I didn't mean to criticize him in any way. What I was trying to suggest is that Ehrman didn't get to represent himself as a serious scholar. He was just some "author" (they didn't mention his credentials), who gave Colbert a lot of fodder to have fun with.

My concern stemmed from the title of the post for this link, "The Bible, a Big Fat Lie." What I inferred from this title was that Ehrman (with what little he said) was denouncing the Bible in the interview. And after watching the clip, it did kind of come off that way.

My point was that in more serious interviews (like the one I posted) one can see that Ehrman, while secular and critical, is not trying to score political points for atheism. For me it is a big problem when scholars try to do this, as it politicizes their work and makes them persona non grata among the religious. In religious studies, we don't want to alienate the religious, but urge them to think more critically through scholarly methods (as difficult as this may be).

I also have a huge problem with the use of such scholarship by the New Atheists (Sam Harris, for example, recommends one of Ehrman's books in Letter to a Christian Nation). While Harris has some important things to say, he also uses his analysis of religion (like Hitchens) to support the war on terror (and is quite Islamophobic as well).

In short, I wanted to clarify what I think Ehrman is about for those who hadn't heard of him before now. He's one of the best scholars of religion around (or at the very least, one of the best in his area of early Christian Studies), and has a lot to offer the so-called culture war debates.

My concern stemmed from the title of the post for this link, "The Bible, a Big Fat Lie." What I inferred from this title was that Ehrman (with what little he said) was denouncing the Bible in the interview. And after watching the clip, it did kind of come off that way.

Ah; I see your point. After watching, I felt that Colbert's thing was to make Ehrman out to be a bible denouncer because he didn't follow the fundie line. I can see how the clip and headline could pull things the other way.

I reccomend www.netzarim.co.il which contains research about Ribi Yehoshua (the Messiah) from Nazareth. The research implies that he existed.

Anders Branderud

As someone who's a student of religious studies

Erick, perhaps you mean to say a student of Christianity. I note that you didn't engage jonathan in his challenge to discuss judaism.

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