Book Review: Misquoting Truth – By Timothy Paul Jones

 

Timothy Paul Jones Misquoting Truth.pngLetter IIn 2007 atheist/agnostic professor Bart Ehrman published his book Misquoting Jesus, which attempted to discredit the reliability of the texts of the Christian New Testament. Misquoting Truth is pastor Timothy Paul Jones‘ response to that book, in which he attempts to point out the errors in Ehrman’s scholarship.

As Jones goes about addressing the various errors of Ehrman’s text, three of his primary points are that most of the changes which Ehrman plays up are minor grammatical changes which disappear when the text is translated, that where there are discrepancies “it’s possible to look at the manuscripts and recover the original wording”, and that contrary to Ehrman’s claims, “the copyists were more concerned with preserving the words of Scripture than with promoting their own theological agendas.”

While going about this Jones also focuses on attacking the philosophical presuppositions which skew Ehrman’s perspective, primarily his dedication to an Enlightenment era devotion to absolute [rational] certainty as the only avenue to truth – that is, rationalism. Jones’ counterargument is to point out the way in which God works through human beings in order to convey is message, that God doesn’t “work around humanity to preserve his words” as Ehrman expects Him to.

Perhaps the most insightful point made by Jones is his note that: “A recent Washington Post article described Ehrman as having ‘peered so hard into the origins of Christianity that he lost his faith altogether’… And yet, it appears to me that the problem was not that he peered too deeply into the origins of Christian faith; it was that he inherited a theological system from well-meaning evangelical Christians that allowed little – if any – space for questions, variations or rough edges.”

All in all, Jones book is a very well written critique of Ehrman’s text.

Memorable Quotes:

“From my perspective, a significant alteration would be one that requires Christians either to rethink a vital belief about Jesus Christ – a belief that we might find in the Apostle’s Creed, for exmaple – or to doubt the historical accuracy of the New Testament documents.”-p.54

“Here’s my point: You cannot absolutely prove that any past event actually occurred.”-p.108

“Many years did pass before Christians agreed concerning which books should compose their sacred Scriptures. And, yet, a definite standard directed this process – a conviction that these writings must be rooted in reliable, eyewitness testimony about Jesus Christ.”-p.136

“… despite the sensational title of Misquoting Jesus, I find only a half-dozen times when Jesus might have been misquoted, and most of these supposed changes simply echo ideas that are found elsewhere in Scripture.”-p.71

Specific Criticisms

As a personal bias, I would have preferred if Jones had gone into greater depth concerning the philosophical presuppositions which undergird Ehrman’s position, however I think he did sufficiently cover the issue for a lay audience. I also think that there are various places where Jones uses words such as “may” or “most” which may be indicative a larger anomaly than he is willing to account for, however I cannot substantiate that, it is merely a suspicion I have when authors use such words without explicitly enunciating the exceptions they are taking.

Rereading the Faith for Today – Gnostic Tendencies and Defending Against Them

 

Princeton.pngLetter IIn his book The Everlasting Man G.K. Chesterton asserts that “the whole world once very nearly died of broadmindedness and the brotherhood of all religions.”

Chesterton is here referencing the way the early church had to deal with their contemporary culture attempting to bring all religions into one accord; the solution as Chesterton presents it was to formulate a creed, to define the Christian faith against those who pushed for mere assimilation.

One of the groups which Chesterton has in mind here are the early Gnostics. Although early Christianity was able to overcome the threat of Gnosticism in its day there is a perpetual tendency to re-interpret the faith, a perpetual tendency for sinful man to read the faith in a way congenial to his own culture. The failure of one attempt, such as the rationalistic Christianity of the Enlightenment, is followed by another, the Gnosticizing relativism of our present day.

When the the stars of cultural tendencies in which people re-read the faith align -as they have done today – the result in something akin to ancient Gnosticism.

This perpetual tendency to re-interpret the faith thus gives the appearance of an ongoing gnostic tendency plaguing the church throughout its history. As Nicholas Perrin puts it “The battle between orthodoxy and Gnosticism isn’t over yet and probably won’t be any time soon.”

Gnosticism in its Origins

In his systematic theology The Christian Faith Michael Horton provides a definition of Gnosticism in which he states that the primary underpinning was dualism, such as a contrast between the God of the Old Testament and that New Testament or the contrast between matter as evil and spirit as good.

They sought salvation from the evil material world, and believed this could be accomplished by gaining a secret knowledge. The cause of this as laid out by Horton is that this group of Jews and Christians “tried to reinterpret the biblical narrative in a basically Greek philosophical framework.”

When we read Tertullian’s writing against the Gnostic heretic Valentinus one realizes that Horton’s definition is only a rough generalization of the Gnostic position. Gnosticism as it expressed itself during the period of the early church had a very elaborate metaphysic consisting of varied and convoluted emanations from the central deity which comprise the various spirits of the world, a complex creation account which places the god of the Old Testament at fault, and has the creation of mankind (and the material world as a whole) being an error.

Although the original expression of Gnosticism is quite complex it is not necessary to go into the exact details of the system. Part of the reason for this is because Gnosticism was expressed in a wide variety of ways during the period of the early church, and because it had such a strong focus on subjective experience and interpretation it is difficult – if not impossible – to give any explicit statement of exactly what Gnosticism entailed.

Another reason for this is because Gnosticism is to a large degree merely a borrowing of philosophic trends popular of any given period; in the instance of the early church this borrowing was done primarily from Platonism.

The result was a group which focused on “a subjective, immediate experience” and “concerned themselves above all with the internal significance of events.” It regarded “all doctrines, speculations, and myths – their own as well as others’ – only as approaches to truth.”

Because the focus here is on the subjective “knowledge of the self as divine is the essential pillar of Gnosticism.” It is with these attributes in mind that one may analyze how Gnosticism is affecting contemporary Christianity.

General Gnostic Aspects in Contemporary Christianity

Ideas reminiscent of Gnosticism entered the contemporary era in a variety of ways, and it might be said that it was these tendencies which brought about the revival of interest in Gnosticism proper present in contemporary academia.

While one of the more recent expressions of gnostic-esque ideals was the New Age movement of the 1980’s and 90’s, the principle characteristic responsible for the gnostic presence in contemporary Christianity is the aforementioned way in which the Gnostics attempted to reinterpret the faith in the light of their culture’s philosophy.

In H. Richard Niebuhr’s analysis of the different ways in which Christianity interacts with the world around it – Christ and Culture he labels this sort of approach towards society as ‘The Christ of Culture’. As described by Niebuhr this is the approach which interprets Christ “wholly in cultural terms and tends to eliminate all sense of tension between him and social belief or custom” and seeks to “reconcile the gospel with the science and philosophy of their time.”

In not-to-distant history this can be seen in the way Enlightenment and modernist worldviews attempted – in step with their gnostic forebears – to interpret Christianity in light of the science and philosophy of that time period.

The result of this attempt was a rationalistic Christianity which put forth the idea “that truth must be a risk-free venture, leaving us with only two options: absolute certainty or thoroughgoing skepticism.” One of the results of this was an adherence to “the notion that we believe the Bible to be God’s Word on certain proofs” and a standard which required an “interpretation-free history.”

It is rather ironic then that in an attempt to find an interpretation-free history, the liberals of the day merely managed to “reinterpret the faith by the pagan philosophy of the day.”

When this ideal of absolute certainty inevitably failed and skepticism took center stage the door was opened for writers such as Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels – and prior to them Walter Bauer – to try and legitimate the original writings of Gnosticism.

Through the perpetual tendency to re-interpret Christianity via the lens of the popular philosophy, ancient Gnosticism itself was once again able to gain a hearing in the public square.

Yet the rise of Gnosticism is not merely a result of the Enlightenment and modernist thinkers attempting to rationalize Christianity. Other philosophic developments have occurred since then – some of them good and some of them bad – which have also served in one way or another to promote this revival of Gnosticism. Perhaps one of the most relevant philosophic developments in this regard are those of Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault.

The first of these philosophic influences which has opened the door for Gnosticism – while at the same time itself owing its existence to the influx of gnostic tendencies –  is that of Derrida’s idea that there is ‘nothing outside the text.’ The idea presented is that reality is always being interpreted through the lens of language, so much so that reality itself is a sort of text requiring interpretation.

When interpreted through a more liberal schema, this is seen as showing that since everything is merely interpretation that the truth cannot be truly arrived at objectively, and therefore all interpretations are valid.

It is with cognitive dissonance that writers such as Ehrman and Pagels on the one hand insist on the modernist standards of an interpretation-free history, and on the other push the idea that all interpretations are valid.

Another of the primary philosophic influences forging the way for the Gnostic revival is the idea of Lyotard that has a disdain for meganarratives and an ‘incredulity toward metanarratives.’

The meganarratives are those which attempt to tell a grand story arching over human history, while metanarratives are those which attempt to legitimate themselves through appeal to some sort of universal reason.

The major result of this view was that the overarching narrative of the triumph of orthodoxy over the innumerable heresies began to be questioned, with a secondary result being an attack on the legitimacy of that orthodoxy’s appeal to something outside itself.

The last of these philosophic influences which was both brought about by gnostic tendencies in the faith and in turn enabled a newfound focus on ancient Gnosticism is Foucault’s idea that ‘power is knowledge’.

The idea behind this notion is that those in power have the ability to influence what is considered true ‘knowledge’, they are able to define what is the ‘correct’ interpretation of a given set of data.

For the resurgence of Gnostic thought-patterns, this meant that contemporary interpreters focused their attacks to a large degree on the way in which – according  to their view – the success of orthodoxy was merely the result of the dominant party powering their way to the front and rewriting the narrative surrounding their history.

Specific Gnostic Aspects in Contemporary Christianity

Even before there was an explicit focus on Gnosticism as a system, gnostic-esque ideas were working their way into the overall worldviews surrounding the church.

The primary of these aspects is the aforementioned tendency to re-interpret the faith through the lens of the popular philosophy.

During the early church period this played itself out in such a way that a variety of Platonism was brought into the church; during the modern period it played itself out in such a way that rationalism was brought into the church; in the contemporary period it is playing itself out in such a way that subjectivism and relativism have become major aspects of many churches.

The most aspect most reminiscent of Gnosticism in the contemporary church is the present focus upon individual experience, where truth is ultimately personal.

As has been already stated, the gnostics concerned themselves primarily with the internal significance of events, which in turn causes them to focus on the internal significance of whatever is perceived as conveying truth.

One way in which this presents itself in the church is a tendency in many Bible studies to focus on ‘what the passage means to me.’

Often, rather than attempting to try and discover what the intended meaning of a certain Biblical passage is, such groups focus on whatever personal feeling or message the reader thinks the passage is trying to tell them, and each person’s interpretation is just as valid as the next person’s. This individual interpretation and experience is elevated above adherence to any particular doctrine.

Indeed, the doctrines of the church are seen as things to be stretched and molded to suite one’s own personal understanding of truth.

A common phrase on the lips of those who take this line of thought is that ‘I have a relationship, not a religion.’ Here a false dichotomy is set up, for what they have is both a relationship and a religion, with the proper term for this being the church.

One chief effect of this focus on individual experience and interpretation is that it produces a class of Christians who are generally ignorant regarding what they believe or why they ultimately believe anything.

When faced with skeptics these individuals often find their faith shaken; when faced with those such as Bart Ehrman who tell them that there are other legitimate versions of their faith or that their faith is founded upon a lie, they have no idea how to respond (and may thus even end up embracing Gnosticism itself as a system, as opposed to merely being influenced by some of its aspects).

Those such as Rob Bell call them to question the doctrines of the faith, but fail to give any advise on actually arriving at an answer to those questions or on what standard these doctrines are supposed to be held to.

This is because the standard being looked to is not external, but internal.

The Christian faith turns to focus on “contemporary ideals of self-discovery, self-awareness, self-actualization, and self-salvation” coupled with a “dislike of any kind of authority” such as that represented in many doctrinal statements.

When the goal becomes this sort of self-discovery not only is the result a group of poorly informed individuals, but also a group that has little real cause for evangelism; since personal experience cannot be conveyed from one person to the next an attitude of ‘if it works for you, do it, if not then try something else’ is adopted.

Not only is simply difficult to be evangelical with a message of subjectivism, but such individuals must also worry about whether they are forcing their own beliefs on others – this fear of being imposing is perhaps the thing that kills evangelism the fastest.

Responding to Gnostic Aspects in Contemporary Christianity

Figuring out how best to respond to these trends is one of the challenges of thoughtful Christians.

tertullian (1)One good way to figure out how to respond is to look back to those who responded to these issues the first time they came about, such as Tertullian. In Tertullian’s writings at least three approaches may be found, to include: making others aware of what is influencing them, pointing out the shortcomings in their belief system along with the strength of the orthodox position, and appealing to the truth of Scripture.

The first way of response which can be picked up by Tertullian is simply to point out what it is that the other side is doing. That is, to bring it to their attention the way in which popular philosophy is influencing their beliefs.

This sort of approach is seen in Tertullian when he asks “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?” and goes on to exclaim “Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition.”

His goal here is to bring it to the attention of his opponents – and more importantly to those who might be influenced by his opponents – where the true origins of their beliefs lie. The previous sections detailing the general and specific aspects of Gnosticism present in the contemporary world (including how they came to be there) are themselves an attempt at this approach, and thus while they served to be primarily informational, that information is an apologetic in and of itself.

Tertullian’s approach may be emulated in the contemporary world by pointing out the way that the church was originally influenced by modernistic values, which then led to its influence by postmodern values. Before the problem can be properly addressed those who fall prey to it must be made aware of it.

Another way of response which can be found in Tertullian is the need to point out the failings of the opposing position.

This sort of tactic can be seen throughout Tertullian’s writings, such as in his writings against Marcion, where he systematically goes through the different implications of Marcion’s views to show how they are inconsistent with themselves. One example of this is where he shows that Marcion’s god is weak and unjust, for “how is it possible that he should issue commands, if he does not mean to execute them; or forbid sin, if he intends not to punish them” because “it would have been far more right, if he had not forbidden what he meant not to punish.”

In the contemporary world this may be accomplished by pointing out the ways in which subjectivism and relativism really keep the individual from saying anything meaningful, and that merely adhering to the popular philosophy is simply to trade one master for another – except whereas one master is constant and able to speak to people consistently over thousands of years, the other is fickle and ever changing with every new fad of thought.

Yet not only does Tertullian demonstrate the shortcomings of the opposing view, he also demonstrates the consistency of the orthodox view.

An example of this is Tertullian’s classic line that “the Son of God died, it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.”

His point is not that the Christian faith doesn’t make sense, but that for it to make sense one must accept it as a whole.

In this case that entails accepting that Christ was a man of flesh, and that in turn “Christ could not be described as being man without flesh… just as He is not God without the Spirit of God.”

In the contemporary world this may be accomplished by pointing out the ways in which Christianity, or the world at large, only makes sense when taken from an orthodox point of view. Furthermore, because the Gospel message is true, it is the only thing that will be able to fully account for their feelings and experiences, and to then offer hope.

A final way that Tertullian gives a good example of how to approach contemporary Gnostic influences in the world is through appeal to the Scriptures.

As he states, “We want no curious disputation after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief.” Thus Tertullian can be seen appealing again and again to truth as presented in the Scriptures, such as detailing the authority of Christ from Luke, or proving the nativity through Matthew.

In the contemporary world Christians must appeal to the truth of Scripture, because ultimately it is the only avenue to any sort of salvific truth. If individuals are convinced to follow Christianity because of something other than the truth of Scripture, then more than likely they are merely adhering a different philosophy than they were before, but have found no true conversion.

Today

The perpetual tendency to re-interpret the faith has resulted in the resurgence of gnostic-style influences being alive and well in the world today, and through these influences a newfound focus on Gnosticism itself has arisen.

The primary of these influences is the tendency to interpret the faith in the light of the popular philosophy of the day, which in turn leads to a relativising and a watering-down of the truth.

The danger that this presents to the church is not something seen only by those defenders of the faith such as Chesterton. Quite the contrary, those promoting such gnostic views realize exactly what the danger is; as Elaine Pagels puts it, “Had Christianity remained multiform, it might well have disappeared from history, along with dozens of rival religious cults of antiquity.”

The difference lies in the fact that those such as Pagels view having dozens of rival religious cults as a better thing than having only one, because in the opinion of herself and those like her all of the rivaling cults are merely diverse approaches to truth and God. Because such individuals places no real truth-value on orthodox Christianity it is not a true problem for them if it fades into obscurity beneath a newfound diversity – indeed, that would be a good thing from their perspective.

Yet with a proper understanding of Scripture and of the theological and philosophic issues surrounding it, the Christian is aware of just how dangerous these trends can be.

Gnosticism is far from dead; as put by Alister McGrath, “Its echo is heard today in those who interpret Christianity as a religion of self-discovery, not redemption.” 

The Christian knows that grace and redemption is what is needed by the world, and it is with this in mind that they are called to fight against the influences which would try and make the faith palatable by making it relative.

 

 

 

Book Review: Misquoting Jesus – Bart D. Ehrman

MisquotingJesusEhrman1.png
Letter Tisquoting Jesus is author Bart Ehrman‘s account of the origins of the Christian New Testament, specifically as involves the transmission of the text and the formation of the canon. While Ehrman claims to have originally had a strong belief in the Christian faith, as he dove deeper into the text this faith faltered, till he found himself as an agnostic due to not feeling he was able to trust the words of Scripture as reliable. This book is an attempt to detail his reasons why the Scriptures that we have today cannot be seen as transmitting the truth.

Perhaps the quote which best sums up Ehrman’s argument against the canon is one which asks “… how does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact we don’t have the words that God inerrantly inspired, but only the words copied by the scribes – sometimes correctly but sometimes (many times) incorrectly. What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don’t have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways” (p.7). This is Ehrman’s argument, that due to errors made by scribes – either unintentionally or deliberately to push some agenda – that the New Testament texts are unreliable accounts of whatever was originally written.

Ehrman makes his argument by appealing to grammatical errors made by scribes, to changes made to the original text (such as the long ending of Mark or the story of the woman at the well), and to the idea that rather than having been seen as authoritative from the get-go, those texts which made it into the New Testament were simply the “one group eventually ‘won out’ in these debates” (p.153).

In essence, Ehrman’s text revolves around subtly putting forth a handful of presuppositions which exclude the authority of the text, and then barraging the reader with numbers and overplaying the significance of changes to make it appear that the changes he is pointing out actually matter on the grander scale. In fact, they don’t. As Ehrman himself says in another of his books “In spite of the remarkable differences among our manuscripts, scholars are convinced that we can reconstruct the oldest form of the words of the New Testament with reasonable (though not 100 percent) accuracy” (Lost Christianities, p.221), which is echoed by scholar Timothy Jones when he makes the statement [in reference to Ehrman’s ‘changes’] that “In each of these cases, however, it’s possible to look at the manuscripts and recover the original wording” (Misquoting Truth, p.71). 

The problem for Ehrman is that he is purely a product of his time, and is trying to interpret the Bible through the lens of Enlightenment modernism – that is, rationalism, a system that insists on 100% certainty (either through reason or science) for any truth claim. This rationalism is a philosophy which was dominant throughout the Enlightenment into the early 20th Century, and – while Ehrman ascribed to Christianity early on – the type of Christianity he was brought up in was also one swamped in this philosophy (that is, fundamentalism). Both are systems which want absolute certainty, just the bare facts, no interpretation, etc. The problem is, these things are simply impossible, regardless of the field of study. In the words of Nicholas Perrin “History cannot prove anything” and “To observe is to interpret” (Lost in Transmission, p.93, p.10). Ehrman wants to have proofs for believing the Bible, but this sort of rationalism is inapplicable.

When Ehrman finds that rationalism fails – as it does inevitably in any field it is applied – he ends in despair (that is, he follows the typical route from modernism to postmodernism) and embraces relativism. Thus he argues that orthodoxy were merely the winners, and that ‘heretics’ were just as much Christians as the rest; i.e. “Eventually, some of these Christian books came to be seen not only as worthy of reading but as absolutely authoritative for the beliefs of Christians. They became Scripture” (p.29). In order to do so he blatantly ignores biblical evidence to the contrary (such as 2 Peter 3:15-16 or 1 Timothy 5:18), or the many places Paul condemns those who change the gospel presented to them, and makes up his own story.

There are a few good portions of this book. It does enlighten one to the problems of textual criticism, and helps one understand the way in which the Bible came into its current form. It even is helpful – and truthful – in the way it handles some of the texts which were added into the Scriptures.

Yet, overall, Ehrman is skewing the facts in order to push his agenda that the Bible is unreliable; an agenda not founded upon the evidence, but upon a false adherence to rationalism (even when it fails). Not only this, but even if every example that Ehrman gives were to be taken at face value, it still wouldn’t matter, the chief reason being that none of the changes he notes actually change any central tenant of Christianity, or even a minor one. The doctrines found in the changed areas are all born out elsewhere in Scripture, so even if one were to remove all the changed areas, Christianity would remain the same. Thus, the worst part about the book is that it is an irrelevance playing at importance. It is, in a word, sensationalism. 

Memorable Quotes:

– “This oldest form of the text is no doubt closely (very closely) related to what the author originally wrote, and so it is the basis for out interpretation of his teaching.”-62

– “The reading that best explains the existence of the others is more likely to be original.”-132

– “The King James Version is filled with places in which the translators rendered a Greek text derived ultimately from Erasmus’ edition, which was based on a single twelfth-century manuscript that is one of the worst of the manuscripts that we now have available to us!”-209

Specific Criticisms

One minor nitpick is Ehrman’s statement that “By this period it was widely believed among pagans that the gods were not subject to the petty emotions and whims of mere mortals, that they were, in fact, above such things” (p.201) He doesn’t offer any citation for this statement, furthermore, the entire point of the Platonic dialogue Euthyphro is that the gods are petty, and therefore piety can’t be based upon ‘what is dear to the gods’. Then again, perhaps Ehrman is aware of a source documenting a change from Plato’s stance.

“All of this, of course, is rank speculation” – or, 3 Main Problems with Modern Scholarship’s Account of the Early Church

manuscript.jpgWhen 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.

So what?

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.