Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible
(and Why We Don’t Know About them)
By Bart D. Ehrman
HarperOne, 2009, 292 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin
Can knowledgeable people who are convinced that what they read in the Bible is not totally true, who see that many of their coreligionists have added superstitious and non-rational ceremonies and practices to their religion, abandon the unreasonable parts of their religion, accept the biblical stories as myths, and still think of themselves as good Christians, Jews or Muslims?
This question is both significant and relevant. On April 13, 2009, Newsweek reports that “the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990, rising from 8 to 15 percent.” The magazine also states that the percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 percentage points since 1990, from 86 to 76 percent” and the “proportion of Americans who think religion ‘can answer all or most of today’s problems’ is now at an historic low of 48 percent,” down 10 percentage points since the Clinton years, a remarkable drop in such a short time.
The question looms large in the zeitgeist of our times. Books on atheism and agnosticism make the best seller lists. This year marks the two hundredth birthday of Charles Darwin and the hundred and fiftieth year since he published his Origin of the Species. Some scientist, such as Jerry A. Coyne writing in The New republic of February 4, 2009 insist that science and religion are irreconcilable. Others, seeking to hold on to their faith, are searching for a rational approach to religion.
Most of the disillusioned religious people are turned off by what they see as the strangeness of their religion, its superstitious base, its non-rationality, its irrelevance, its insistence that its adherents accept what they, the disenchanted, consider the silly outmoded views of seemingly insufficiently educated ancients. Thus the question is important: can these people find a way to shrug off those aspects of their religion they consider wrong and still consider themselves religious?
Bart D. Ehrman answers “yes.” His book, Jesus, Interrupted, written in clear unscholarly language and directed to non-scholars, introduces his readers to a rational Christianity based on historical-critical studies. This is a religion that abandons the supernatural aspects of the New Testament. It points out that the New Testament has over one hundred thousand mistakes, inconsistencies and other problems. Ehrman cites numerous examples how the original teachings of the New Testament have been changed to a theology that Jesus could not recognize; his mission was interrupted.
Dr. Ehrman, author of more than twenty books, some New York Times best sellers, a professor at the University of North Carolina, has devoted his life to New Testament studies. He was a fundamentalist Christian before entering graduate school. However when he was introduced to biblical scholarship, he abandoned his fundamentalism and accepted the scholarly historical-critical approach to the Bible that he advocates.
The scholarly-historical approach recognizes the many contradictions between the different New Testament books and the frequent inconsistencies that exist in each book. It realizes that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not write the gospels ascribed to them. The true authors, now anonymous, placed these well-known names to their documents. None of these writers had firsthand knowledge of the events they depict or the persons they describe. Most if not all of them lived in a country different than Jesus’ Israel. They spoke another language, Greek rather than Aramaic. Many if not all had a scant knowledge of Judaism. We do not have the originals of these four gospels or of any of the 27 books of the New Testament, only copies made by careless copyists who inserted numerous mistakes. Although Matthew comes first in the New Testament, scholars recognize that Mark was the first gospel written, and it was composed decades after Jesus’ traditional death, with absolutely no first-hand knowledge, only stories and fables.
Ehrman cites some of the multitudes of problem episodes, including that only Mark and Matthew relate a story about Jesus’ birth. This is an important event in Christian history because of the current pivotal practice of the celebration of Christmas. Yet it is not in any other New Testament writing; it is not in Paul or Mark, the early writings, or in John, written at the end of the first century. What is striking is that the birth tales in these two documents are radically different in dozens of significant ways. For example, each author says that he will list the ancestors of Jesus’ father Joseph – a curious statement since Christian theology maintains that Jesus’ father was God – and remarkably each has a different list. There are many errors in these lists; names of several generations of Judean kings, supposed ancestors of Jesus, are omitted. One author states he will list fourteen names and has only thirteen. As a result, Christians celebrating Christmas with depictions of what they think are the events surrounding the birth of Jesus are mixing items from the two divergent gospels and are creating something that neither gospel writer wrote or would accept.
Even more significant is the striking discrepancy as to when the last supper and crucifixion occurred – an event recalled in the other important Christian holiday, Easter. According to Mark 15:25, Jesus died on the day of Passover at 9 A.M., the morning after having had the Passover meal (the last supper) with his disciples. However in John 13, Jesus and his disciples eat a meal together that is not the Passover meal. Jesus does not tell them that the bread is his body and the wine his blood, a statement that grew into a significant ritual in many churches. And, most remarkably, John’s Jesus dies a day earlier than the day Mark mentions, on the day before Passover about noon (19:14).
Other contradictions between the gospels include: What did the heavenly voice say at Jesus’ baptism? How long did his ministry last, a few months or a few years? How did Judas die: was it a suicide or was he murdered? Did Jesus pre-exist his earthly birth as John says, or not, as indicated in the other New Testament books? The gospels also differ on who was present at Jesus’ resurrection and who they saw; this is a crucial event in Christian theology and one would think that the gospel writer should have gotten this right. Most Christians think they know the answers to these questions. They would be surprised to learn that the gospel writers tell the stories differently and they contradict one another.
Ehrman is struck by something far more significant than this “world of contradictions” – the proliferation of problems that exceed the number of words in the New Testament – the fact that each of the gospel writers wrote his book to offer his readers his own unique understanding of Jesus life and mission. Their views are greatly different. For example, Mark writing a little more than several decades after Jesus’ traditional date of death, emphasizes that Jesus was predicting, as the basic teaching of his ministry, the advent of a new world on earth during the lifetime of those listening to him. In contrast, John, who composed his work decades later, after the death of all of Jesus’ contemporaries, states that Jesus’ message was that people should strive to achieve everlasting life in heaven, not on earth.
Having pointed out the multiple contradictions and widely different ideologies that cannot be squared with each other, Ehrman emphasizes that he is definitely not attacking Christianity as a religion or attempting to dilute Christian faith; he only wants his students and readers to understand the truth about the New Testament. He is convinced that the historical-critical approach to the Bible can lead to “a more intelligent and thoughtful faith.”
Christians, according to Ehrman, should recognize that the New Testament is not a divinely inspired series of books. It is a human collection of divergent volumes about a religion that developed over centuries, ideas that were not part of the original Christian thinking. The biblical events, he writes, should be seen as myths, stories with messages, some but not all of which can be relevant in the twenty-first century. The Bible is “a historical record of the thoughts, beliefs, experiences, activities, loves, hates, prejudices, and opinions of people who stand at the very foundation of our civilization and culture.” People “need to use their intelligence to evaluate what they find to be true and untrue in the Bible.”
Ehrman’s view that people should use reason and select those parts of the New Testament that can enrich their lives is not a new idea. Many others advocated it long before him. It is similar to Thomas Jefferson’s concise version of the New Testament, currently called The Jefferson Bible and to Leo Tolstoy’s The Bible in Brief. Both of these books focus on the ethics of the New Testament. Although he does not mention these books or the others, Ehrman recognizes that what he writes has been written by others.
Ehrman does not address the question whether Christians, Jews or Muslims who accepts Ehrman’s understanding of the difficulties inherent in their religion can still observe its practices. For example, if Christians reject the miraculous aspects of wine turning into blood and wafers becoming Jesus’ body, can they still ingest these items? Put differently, can people reject the “orthodoxy” of their religion – “orthodoxy,” based on the Greek dox, “belief,” means the general population’s understanding of their religion’s beliefs – and become “orthopractic” – meaning, accepting all or many of the religion’s ceremonies (from the Greek praxis, meaning “practice”). Ehrman would probably answer “yes,” because the ceremonies, although originally thought to be miraculous, could be seen by a rational person as a symbol of a truth.
Thus, while Ehrman is not stating something new, he is informing his readers of thought provoking information they should know, whether or not they accept it as true, and does it in a very interesting manner. He also informs people who doubt the truth of many parts of their religion how to act.