Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He spoke this past Friday at Middle Tennessee State University here in Murfreesboro. His topic was “Misquoting Jesus: Scribes Who Changed the Bible and Readers Who May Never Know.” He has written over 24 books including Misquoting Jesus, Jesus Interrupted, and Lost Christianities.
Ehrman is an accomplished academic, an engaging speaker, and a Biblical scholar, but he is not a Christian. The last statement is not based on my assessment but his own declaration. He is an agnostic; not a combative agnostic but a professing one nonetheless.
To his credit, Ehrman did not bring up his religious inclination (or lack thereof) in his presentation. This surfaced in the question and answer period afterward, and he was specifically asked to recount his journey to this position. He explained briefly that he had been “born again” in a fundamentalist church in Kansas as a teenager and went on to study at Moody Bible Institute. From there, he went on the more liberal (you are allowed to smile here) Wheaton College. There he exhibited a skill in Greek translation and was encouraged by a professor to attend Princeton Theological Seminary and study under New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger. After receiving his master of divinity there, he went on to receive the Ph.D. (magna cum laude) and even pastored a Baptist church briefly while in graduate studies.
Along the way, he went from fundamentalism to liberalism to agnosticism, primarily due to his study of the New Testament documents and his growing awareness of the “mistakes” and inconsistencies found there. What really pushed him over the edge, however, was his struggle with the problem of suffering in the world. From his perspective, a God who has the power to intervene to relieve the suffering of the world and chooses not to is not worth worshipping. Therefore, he questions whether there really is a God.
I have a great deal of respect for Professor Ehrman. I was first introduced to the idea of “alternative Christianities” and “proto-orthodox Christianity” by reading some of his more popular works. He is a brilliant man and is honest about his point of view. In his lecture, he was not critical of the Christian faith (although he pointed out how little Christians really know about the Bible) and responded graciously to those who attempted to challenge his scholarship and his faith stance.
Professor Ehrman, however, is as much a literalist as any Christian fundamentalist. It seems to me that he continues to perceive theological questions out of the worldview he learned as a teenager in a fundamentalist church. He is either captive to that worldview or just doesn’t care to consider other alternatives.
Although I am not endowed with the scholarly qualifications of Professor Ehrman, may I suggest that the point of the Christian faith is not the book but the Christ? Although the present state of the Biblical documents does reflect human error, neglect, and even deviousness, the message is still there for us to appropriate in beliefs that give meaning and direction to our lives. For example, one belief that gives me encouragement each day is that the present age is not all there is. Although we take seriously the inbreaking of God’s kingdom into this world, we are just at the beginning of God’s redemption of humankind. God’s love breaks through in many ways into the present age, but God’s work will not be finished here.
God continues to use broken and bent instruments of all kinds to give new meaning and purpose to humankind. I do not fully understand the process, but I embrace it.