Monday, April 6, 2009

Jesus, Research, and Faith: Bart Ehrman and Dale Allison

How could two books, so similar in their subject matter and in the opinions they advance, feel so different and earn such diverse receptions? New books by Bart Ehrman and Dale Allison, two highly accomplished scholars, review the implications of historical critical scholarship for the life of faith. Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them) comes from HarperOne, a major trade publisher – complete with national media interviews, a promotional video (okay, that’s really cool), and a spectacular dust jacket. (And thanks to HarperOne for the review copy.) Allison’s The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus comes from a significant theological publishing house, has garnered little attention so far, and features a well designed cover for its paper case.

Ehrman and Allison agree on most everything important. The canonical Gospels provide our best source for the historical Jesus, who was most likely an apocalyptic prophet. It seems Allison’s Jesus regarded himself as a key, perhaps the central, figure in God’s plan for history, while Ehrman’s more modestly pointed ahead to that plan. Beyond that, both authors recognize that the Gospels cannot be relied upon for straightforward reporting of Jesus’ words and deeds. Both acknowledge that miracles lie beyond the bounds of historical provability. From a historian’s point of view, most any explanation is more probable than a miracle. Both recognize that the Gospel authors and their predecessors revised, embellished, and outright composed some of our most treasured stories. As Allison puts it, “The Gospels are parables” (66). Both affirm that the Gospels promote diverse understandings to important issues. And both conclude with – or begin from – the premise that historical research rules out narrowly creedal, or biblicist, understandings of Jesus and his significance. Historical research bears both theological and spiritual implications. So Ehrman: In the light of critical research, “Some theological claims are certainly to be judged as inadequate or wrong-headed” (279).

I might add that both Allison and Ehrman agree on historical method. We cannot verify the historicity of individual passages, but we can derive a general picture of Jesus from the patterns that emerge in the Gospel narratives.

Of course the books are different. Allison focuses on a simple question and its follow-up: Should theology attend to historical Jesus research? And if so, how? Though Allison does not surprise us by answering in the affirmative, he rejects the idea that theologians should passively submit to this or that historical reconstruction. Ehrman ranges far more broadly, including matters of authorship, the transmission of the text, the formation of the canon, and the emergence of orthodoxy.

But that’s not all. One never wonders why Allison wrote or for whom. He’s addressing a question that believers care about. Some of our seminarians find the question absolutely compelling: how does faith respond to the challenges of scholarship? To be honest, I wish Allison would spell out his own resolution, however provisional, a little more directly. But one conclusion emerges clearly: the historical Jesus will satisfy neither creedal literalists (Jesus did not think he was God incarnate) nor humanist liberals (Jesus did understand himself to have a distinctive role in history).

And Ehrman? It’s less certain. He devotes extensive attention to reminding his audience that he is not out to destroy their faith, indeed that faith can be enriched by historical analysis. Ehrman recounts his own journey from fundamentalist to agnostic, but he denies – repeatedly – that historical criticism caused his agnosticism. It simply ended his fundamentalism.

It seems Ehrman’s main aim is to introduce biblical scholarship to a popular audience so as to reveal that fundamentalist biblicism doesn’t make sense. This argument will appear to theological liberals (and some moderates) and to the broad secular audience that is fascinated by religion. Few can explain biblical scholarship to a broad audience as effectively as Bart Ehrman does. But marketing makes all the difference. As scholars, Allison and Ehrman are reaching mostly the same conclusions with nearly identical methodologies. Yet consider Ehrman’s dust cover: “Jesus, Paul, Matthew, and John all expressed fundamentally different religions.” What is that about? Do these figures reflect very – and I mean VERY – different sensibilities? Absolutely. But so do Buddhists in Sri Lanka differ from Pure Land Buddhists in Japan. Something unites them as Buddhists nonetheless. Every major religious tradition expresses itself in diverse expressions.

This sort of sensationalism, packaged in such an attractive way, sells books. But anyone with a good college or seminary background in Bible knows most of this stuff. Allison grapples throughout with how to make sense of it. Ehrman, however, spends so much time saying, “The Bible’s not what some people think it is,” that only at the end of the book does he get around to grappling with why anyone might find it compelling. It’s easy to see why religious conservatives respond to him with such hostility. As a recent Salon article crows, “Bart Ehrman's career is testament to the fact that no one can slice and dice a belief system more surgically than someone who grew up inside it.” Is that all there is to it? Interviewed for that same article, Ehrman says, “I'm not trying to convert people to become agnostics like me. I'm trying to get people to think. If I can make somebody a more thoughtful Christian, then I think I've succeeded in what I'm supposed to be doing.”

You can find Bart’s book easily – just walk into any Borders. Why not take the trouble to find Dale’s?


Karen Richter said...

Thanks for the recommend on Allison. I am always looking for new books. In the past several years, I have picked up several from Bart Ehrman only to put them back down. In my thinking, there are other scholars who write for a popular audience who assume that faith and scholarship are not mutually exclusive. The Ehrman books that I've looked at cover the same ground as J. D. Crossan but with a more sensational slant.

James said...

I think one thing that rankles Ehrman, and motivated him to write the book he did, is the sense that many pastors are being less than candid and forthcoming, or even less than honest and straightforward, than they should be. Pastors, even those who've stayed in an evangelical straitjacket, learn things in seminary they don't let onto to their parishioners.

I'm not sure that this is anything deliberate or nefarious preachers are up to--they're busy, and it's pretty hard to even get those in the pew to open the Bible except maybe around Christmas, to read Luke 2:1-14 once more. But back in the 60s Walter Kaufmann lodged the same charges as does Ehrman today, and much more vociferously.

Anders Branderud said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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