Thursday, March 22, 2012

It's Settled! (Not!)

Bart Ehrman, James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has for a few years been very popular among atheists interested in the early history of Christianity, having written a few books for popular audiences on New Testament textual criticism, New Testament apocrypha and the rise of Christianity. He's been popular with the atheists in part because he's more open about his agnosticism than many other agnostic and atheist Biblical scholars and theologians, in part because of his talent for finding cameras making TV shows and documentaries and placing himself in front of them, and partly because he's generally an affable, likeable guy. But it appears that he just went and ticked off a large part of his audience, the part who didn't realize that he was firmly of the opinion that Jesus existed. The firmness of that opinion could be said to be the subject of Ehrman's newest book, Did Jesus Exist? I was never a big fan of Ehrman's, it always seemed to me that many atheists overestimated the distance between him and the theological-Biblical-historical mainstream and overlooked the sensationalism inherent in much of his work -- for example, the way he suggested to unwary lay readers in his book Lost Scriptures that New Testament apocrypha represented an entire alternate history of early Christianity, while greatly underplaying the dates of these apocryphal books from the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and even 6th centuries. By the 6th century it's beginning to be a stretch to talk about "early" Christianity, whether established or alternative. Ehrman hyped this non-existent alternate universe much like History Channel likes to do.

Back to Ehrman's latest book, about the historical Jesus. Ehrman is firmly convinced that Jesus was a real man and not a fictional character. This is not a change for Ehrman, he's held that opinion all along, but it appears that many of his atheist fans who are not of the same opinion were not yet aware of this. Indications of shock and disappointment are widespread. But it's more than just Ehrman making his opinion on this matter book-length clear. What stings even more for those who so long ago were his adoring atheist fans is that Ehrman doesn't state it as an opinion but as a fact: "Jesus certainly existed."

I was surprised by this too. If Ehrman had merely said that he was firmly convinced, implying that reasonable people may hold different opinions on the matter but that it seemed clear to him, that would have been one thing. But in the manner of traditional Christian theology and New Testament scholarship, Ehrman states that there is no controversy, no uncertainty.

But it's not merely that Ehrman declares the discussion to be over: he states as well, on no firm basis whatsoever if you ask me, that no accredited professor in the Western World "who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics" disagrees with him. That already puts Ehrman into no-true-Scotsman territory. But he doesn't stop there. He compares those who disagree with him and the theological mainstream with Holocaust deniers and birthers.

Ehrman is quite simply wrong when he states that it's certain that Jesus existed. That's the part that hurts his admirers so. But in the larger context the more serious problem is that Ehrman is right when he states that the vast majority of his academic discipline agrees with him. He's wrong when he claims that this virtual unanimity extends to all academics with any competence in any fields related to ancient history. Flat wrong. But when it comes to Christian theology and New Testament studies, he's right that they're almost all on his side. And they almost all state their opinion not as an opinion but as a certainty. and many of them, perhaps not all, also verbally abuse anyone with the temerity to actually want to discuss the matter as if it were not settled.

170 years ago the Prussian government withdrew Bruno Bauer's permission to teach in their universities because he published works stating his opinion that Jesus may have been every bit as much a mythical construct as Abraham. In those 170 years much has changed for the better in freedom of expression. But Bart Ehrman has made it very clear how far theology and Biblical studies continue, not only to lag behind that progress, but to stifle it. Academics in those fields are not inclined to discuss the historicity of Jesus, and many of them are perfectly willing to behave with crude, medieval contempt toward anyone who does.

1 comment:

  1. Not just Bruno Bauer.
    Strauss had problems getting tenure after he published his "Life of Jeus" descibed by one as "the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell".
    More recently the Vatican rescinded Hans Kung's authority to teach theology.
    Michael Goulder resigned as a priest after having, so I understand, a crisis of faith although ,as Wiki charmingly puts it, "he never became an aggressive atheist"

    There can be a cost to questioning.