When the average Christian take up their Bible and reads, the assumption is generally made that what is being read is the inspired word of God. Yet in popular contemporary scholarship there is a rising tendency to re-interpret the history of the early church in such a way that the average Christian would no longer be able to have this same assurance.
The primary goals of this new scholarship are twofold: on the one hand the integrity of the Scriptures is called into question, the argument being that it is impossible to know what those texts actually taught due to intentional and unintentional changes to the original texts; on the other hand the argument is being put forward that rather than one Christianity there were actually various competing ‘Christianities’ – with the orthodox position being merely the position which won the struggle for supremacy – such that there is no true and unified Christian tradition that has been transmitted from the time of the apostles onward.
Thus, not only is the trustworthiness of the Scriptures questioned, but so also is the reliability of the canon, which then allows for a wide number of ‘Christianities’ to find credence.
This tendency is rooted in a number of errors in the way this type of scholarship approaches the early church. These errors include (1) the presuppositions of modernism and postmodernism skewing the perspective taken by the scholars, (2) failing to take into account the Biblical data (in part due to an insufficient understanding of Scripture, which flows from the aforementioned presuppositions), and (3) potentially operating off of a deliberate bias to reinterpret and/or misrepresent the standing narrative.
False Cultural Biases – Rationalism
The greatest influence upon much of contemporary scholarship’s flawed interpretations of early church history boils down to these scholars allowing the social and cultural presuppositions of the last hundred years to play too much a part in determining how they view history. Two scholars whom this is most readily visible in are Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels.
In the case of Bart Ehrman, the presupposition which most heavily impacts him is that of modernism; that is, both in his religious upbringing and in his intellectual assumptions he is dedicated to the philosophy of rationalism (even when it fails). When an individual takes up the lens of rationalism they are then forced to dismiss all those things which cannot be verified for certain via reason or scientific experimentation; accompanying this quest for scientific certainty is a desire to study only the facts of history, and thereby to try and apply a similar objectivity to history as is present to an extent in science.
The way that this plays itself out for Ehrman is that because he cannot verify with absolute certainty the authorship, the original texts, or the authority of the Scriptures, he then calls the legitimacy of all of these things into question.
This sort of approach can be seen all throughout Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus when he laments that modern scholars “have only error-ridden copies” of the New Testament due to the ways in which scribes altered the texts both intentionally and unintentionally. This brings Ehrman to the conclusion that it does little good to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God “if in fact we don’t have the words that God inerrantly inspired.”
If these ‘errors’ were of any significant import, Ehrman might have a point; unfortunately for him – and as he himself admits – these errors don’t actually change anything about the Biblical message. His qualm, instead, is that no uncertainty can be allowed at all (even when that uncertainty has no practical or theological import or relevance).
Rationalism of this sort ultimately finds its roots in the Enlightenment, yet Ehrman was also influenced by the traces of rationalism which had found their way into the fundamentalist background in which he was raised. In regards to this Timothy Paul Jones in his book Misquoting Truth makes the observation that “[Ehrman] inherited a theological system from well-meaning evangelical Christians that allowed little – if any – space for questions, variations or rough edges.” Ehrman describes this journey himself in the introduction to his book Misquoting Jesus, where he explains how he came to discover discrepancies in the various source texts, and in turn began to doubt the inerrancy of Scripture – that is, because he found that he could not verify such things with 100% certainty, what faith he had in them was removed.
When Ehrman’s attempts to prove the authority of Scripture failed under rationalistic standards, his system crumbled. His system crumbled not because of any fault in the integrity of Scripture, but due to the faults in the rationalistic system through which he attempted to analyze it.
As Wheaton scholar Nicholas Perrin points out in his book Lost in Transmission: “The notion that we believe the Bible to be God’s Word on certain proofs is not a biblical notion; it is a notion of fundamentalism inherited from the scientific age.”
Both the quest for certainty – especially in the realm of history – and the quest for absolute objectivity are inherently doomed to failure. As Perrin again notes: “To observe is to interpret… Balance is a fine ideal, but purely objective history, something else entirely, is an illusion.”
In this sense Ehrman’s journey followed the same general trajectory as all of contemporary scholarship between the age of modernism and that of postmodernism; when they found themselves unable to verify things with absolute certainty during modernism, they plunged into the relativism and subjectivism of postmodernism.
Despite the failure of rationalism, it is this assumption which lies at the foundation of the flawed worldview that plagues contemporary scholarship. Indeed, it is the failure of rationalism, coupled with a devotion to the tenants of rationalism as the only avenue to truth, which results in the aforementioned relativism; when the supposed only avenue to truth fails, it is assumed that there is either no avenue to truth or that they are all equal.
When this sort of relativism is applied to the division between orthodoxy and heresy scholars such as Ehrman and Pagels cease speaking about Christianity and instead move on to speaking of Christianities, assuming that these are all valid forms of the faith. In order to account for the prominence of orthodoxy they then rely upon their devotion to relativism – and therefore a disdain for authority – to create a narrative in which the proto-orthodox were the “victorious party” which “rewrote the history of the controversy.” Rather than being ‘correct’, the orthodox are seen as those who simply powered their way to the front and as the winners rewrote history. It is merely taken for granted that whoever ‘won’ must have rewrote the story to suite themselves, with all concerns of whether the winners were actually ‘correct’ being pushed to the side.
Ignoring Textual Testimony – Failing to Account for Biblical Data
Apart from the basic presuppositions which accompany a reliance upon (and the subsequent failure of) rationalism, another factor which plays a large part in the way contemporary scholarship misinterprets the early church is by failing to take into account the Biblical data.
Perhaps the most pointed example of this comes from Ehrman when he states that:
We need always to remember that these canonical Gospels were not seen as sacrosanct or inviolable for many long years after they were first put into circulation; no one, except possibly their own authors, considered them to be the “last word” on Jesus’ teachings and deeds.
In one swoop Ehrman is thereby able to assert the early church did not take the authority of the Gospels seriously and – knowing that the Biblical testimony contradicts this – dismiss this contradiction as merely the biased opinion of the authors.
That the early church didn’t take the texts seriously is thereby not reached as a conclusion, but is used as a starting point around which the rest of Ehrman’s narrative can be built, as it is only be ignoring the actual words of the Biblical writers that one could assert that they did take their texts as being sacrosanct.
Yet, Ehrman does not quite clear himself by simply noting the personal bias of the individual authors, for various Biblical authors cite one another as authoritative, such as in 2 Peter 3:15-16 where Paul’s letters are cited as ‘Scripture’, and Paul in 1 Timothy 5:18 quoting Luke as Scripture. Thus, it is only by ignoring the actual testimony the Scripture itself that such scholars can take the view that they do.
Rhetoric Over Evidence – Misrepresentation of the Facts
A final problem with contemporary interpretations which must be noted is the apparent deliberate misrepresentation the standing narrative; that is, in some instances, modern scholars – who are themselves not Christians – act off of an agenda to try and discredit the faith.
Such harsh accusations should no doubt not be made without warrant, but in this case it seems that such accusations are warranted, primarily through clear misrepresentations of the source material. Such clear misrepresentations of the source material can be seen perhaps most clearly in the internal discrepancies in the texts of these authors.
As an example, in his book Misquoting Jesus Ehrman plays up the thesis that we have only error-ridden copies of the New Testament, and that because of scribal errors and because of intentional changes to the text, the question of inerrancy is irrelevant; yet at the same time in his book Lost Christianities he makes the assertion that in spite of these various differences “scholars are convinced that we can reconstruct the oldest form of the words of the New Testament with reasonable (though not 100 percent) accuracy.” These two assertions seem wholly at odds, that the texts can be so riddled with errors that one must ask what good it does to speak of the originals as inspired when we do not have the originals, and yet the oldest forms of the New Testament can be constructed with reasonable-if-not-100% accuracy.
Similarly in Lost Chritianities Ehrman can be found stating that “most scholars think that 1 Timothy is pseudonymous,” which is immediately followed with a firm assertion that it is no wonder the early church was “forging documents in Paul’s name condemning the practice of having women speak in church (1 Timothy).” This is a subtle move taking the reader from a state of possibility to one of certainty.
Other such tactics can be seen when Ehrman asserts that “almost all of the ‘lost’ Scriptures of the early Christians, were forgeries” and then claims that those canonical texts which are of uncertain authorship are forgeries; yet it is a long jump from ‘uncertain authorship’ to ‘forgery’. Ehrman can also be seen starting with the assertion that the church “gained” a doctrine of the Trinity, and that someone “decided” which four Gospels would be canonical, and that there were a ‘diversity’ of Christianities. All of these are subtle assertions which serve to push the bias of Ehrman before he has actually proved his thesis.
In Pagels, this bias presents itself in her book The Gnostic Gospels by assuming ulterior motivations – primarily political – for each advancement of orthodoxy. Each of these is stated as a premise rather than arrived at as a conclusion in the locations they appear, and so while it does seem nitpicky to point such things out, it does show the underlying bias which is in effect in such writings – a bias which seeks to instill the conclusion at the outset which the text is supposed to be arriving at.
In analyzing these three areas one may come to a fuller understanding of that which has had the greatest influence on contemporary interpretations of the early church.
Due to the dedication to the Enlightenment standard of certainty, contemporary scholars necessarily misinterpret the history of the early church, for the seek certainty where none may be found and strive for rationalism where it cannot be had; as Nicholas Perrin notes: “our being Christian does not also require us to be rationalists.”
When this rationalism necessarily fails, contemporary scholarship embraces the same relativism as the rest of contemporary culture, and in turn read the current struggle for tolerance and incredulity toward authority back on the early church. Due to not being able to verify the Scripture by rationalist standards they then fail to take into proper account Scripture’s testimony of itself, which causes them to leave out crucial source of data in interpreting the early church. Finally, there is a blatant bias and agenda present in the scholarship done which comes across as an attempt to undermine Christianity rather than arrive at any truth.
In order to realign itself contemporary scholarship must realize these hidden underpinnings to its endeavor. Until it gives up on its Enlightenment devotion to scientific certainty – which necessarily leads to a wall between the spiritual and the material worlds – it will be impossible for contemporary scholarship to describe itself using any other words than those of Ehrman regarding himself, that “all of this, of course, is rank speculation.”
Indeed, the rank speculation of relativism is all that is left when the rationalistic system has failed and that same failed system remains being seen as the only avenue to truth.