Feb 28, 2013

Time in the Mind of Bart Ehrman

Lots of things Bart Ehrman says have been said by others who either directly or indirectly attack traditional Christian teaching and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

But he is the prominent anti-Christian voice of our time, so I want to record here, over the next several weeks, my response to some of his widely publicized statements.

My credentials -- that authorize me to take on this task -- aren't much, but they are adequate: (1) I like to read and think about the value of what authors have to say, especially when the topic is Jesus. (2) Ehrman’s popular books are addressed to ordinary people like me, presumably, so we can check out what he thinks.

He’s a scholar. I am not. But he has communicated with me – and the whole world – in a way we’re supposed to understand. So I’m just communicating back and inviting you to join in the conversation.

We’ll begin our discussion by responding to some of the things he has written in The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. (Eventually, we’ll also refer to some of his other books and articles.)

Here's about as much as we need to know about Bart Ehrman, before we get to what he says about timing issues relative to the New Testament:  Ehrman believes that diversity of opinions about Jesus was the norm among Christian groups from the beginning; and the diversity in these opinions was  radical.

He promotes what he calls “a rigorously comparative approach” (p. xix) to these writings, sharply contrasting what each of them have to say.

He suggests, on p. xix, that: (1) Mark, John, and Thomas (a second century document, not included in the New Testament) “do not understand Jesus in the same way.” (2) Matthew, Paul, and Barnabas (another non-biblical document, also dated to the second century by most scholars) “do not see eye to eye on the Jewish Law.” (3) 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy and Revelation “do not share the same views of the end times.” (4) Jesus, Paul and Luke “do not even represent the same religion!”

The traditional approach to the study of these books has been very different from Ehrman’s.

Conservative Christian scholars assert that: (1) There is diversity in the New Testament, but it is not as radical as Ehrman suggests. (2) The faithful church vigorously opposed ideas that were radically different from those taught in the New Testament.

I take a traditional point of view and will defend it as I analyze Ehrman’s technique and conclusions.

We begin by focusing on how he treats the time element, relative to the New Testament, especially the four Gospels.

Here’s how he begins, “The books of the New Testament represent only some of the writings produced by the earliest Christians” (p. xix).

Pay close attention to the category he creates here: “the writings produced by the earliest Christians.”

On the same page that he insists on giving the label “earliest” to books not included in the New Testament, Ehrman indicates that the Epistle of Barnabas and the Gospel of Thomas are among these early books (p. xix).

Scholars have: (1) known about the Letter of Barnabas and the Gospel of Thomas for a long time (2) recognized that evidence indicates all -- or nearly all -- the books of the New Testament were written between about AD 50 and 95 (3) recognized that evidence indicates that Thomas and Barnabas were probably written at least 25 to 30 years after the latest New Testament books and at least 65 to 75 years after the earliest ones.

Even Ehrman knows these things are true. He says, “The only Christian writings that can be reliably dated to the first century are found in the New Testament” (p. 3). And he concludes that the Gospel of Thomas was written in AD 120 (p. 41) and the Epistle to Barnabas was written in AD 130 (p. 360).

As for the Gospels, he has concluded that, at the latest, the Gospel of Mark was written by AD 70; Matthew and Luke were written by AD 85; and John by AD 95 (p. 41). (Many competent scholars believe these books were written even earlier than Ehrman allows.)

So the Epistle to Barnabas and the Gospel of Thomas – that Ehrman claims were among the writings of the earliest Christians – clearly are not as early as books included in the New Testament, based on his own analysis.

Books in the New Testament are the only writings we have from any group that can be rightfully called the earliest Christians, and the rest come from individuals and groups that are later.

Someone may respond by saying that even 50 years – the amount of time that separates the writing of Mark and Thomas, according to Ehrman – is not such a long time, but this brings up a real problem.

When Ehrman speaks of the New Testament Gospels, he states that they “were written long after the fact” (p. 16).

So, in Ehrman’s mind, the Epistle of Barnabas and the Gospel of Thomas – written 50 to 60 years after the Gospel of Mark and 90 to 100 years after the events of Jesus’ life – are among documents written by the earliest Christians, while the Gospel of Mark – written 40 years after Jesus – is a document written “long after the fact.” I can see how both these ideas can rest together in his mind, if he carefully defines his terms. But I have a problem with the way he states the matter. He chooses his words in a way that is out of balance.

It appears that he calls the New Testament Gospels late, because it suits him to discredit the value of their contents; then he calls other documents early, including Barnabas and Thomas, because it suits him to credit the value of their contents.

Yet Mark is closer to the time of the events of Jesus’ life than Thomas is to the time of the writing of Mark!

The truth is: The criteria that makes Mark late, in Ehrman’s analysis, should make Thomas later – more than twice as much later – so he should conclude and state that the so-called "Gospel of Thomas" is not among the earliest Christian writings.

Ehrman also states, “Christian diversity is somewhat easier to document in the second century” in contrast with the first century (p. 3). Then he announces that he will begin investigating the New Testament “by examining several examples of later forms of Christianity” (p. 3).

He also says: (1) The reason for the difficulty in searching out diversity in the first century is “quite simply, there are more documents” that come from the second century (p. 3). (2) Although he is investigating books of the New Testament from the perspective of the century following the production of all or most of them, he will eventually tell us how these documents "are relevant to the study of the New Testament itself” (p. 3).

Very well, we will examine Ehrman’s last two assertions at the time he explains them.

But for now, in summary, we choose to keep in mind the two important realities that Ehrman makes obscure in the way he talks about the time of the writing of these documents:

(1) It can be reasonably argued that all or most of the documents included in the New Testament were written in the first century, making books of the New Testament the only documents we have from what can be called the earliest Christians.

(2) Even in Ehrman’s understanding, it is easier to demonstrate the existence of different, irreconcilable ideas about who Jesus is in the second century than in the first.

[Next time, we'll continue discussing Bart Ehrman's views on the time of the writing of key parts of the New Testament.]