Jesus, Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman

I believe The Bible can be a very dangerous book.  For most people The Bible is a book they read occasionally, and use it for inspiration to be a good person.  There are better books to teach ethics but we can overlook that like we can overlook casual drinking, a minor indulgence.  I use the drug metaphor very intentionally, because I believe The Bible alters people’s mind and how they see reality.  Because some people take The Bible too far, into cocaine, heroin and LSD levels of use, and they become addicted, deluded and cut themselves off from reality.

The Bible can be like a computer virus that infects the minds of those who read it.  This is true of any religious literature.  The Bible does not describe reality. The Bible can not predict the future.  And most important, The Bible does not describe God (if there is a creator), at best The Bible presents very ancient theories about God.  In terms of philosophical theology, it is very important to separate the concept of God from any description about God.  Holy books captures how people thought thousands of years ago and that’s a huge danger because people minds become paralyzed by seeking closure on mysteries that will never be solved.  It’s mental quicksand.

The reason why I call myself an atheist is because I’ve never heard a definition of God that I could accept.  If there is a God he is unknowable in the same way that a bacteria in our blood can never know who we are.  People want a personal God, and that’s understandable, because life is scary and we’d love to have a spiritual parent to protect us.  But that’s a dangerous desire because it causes people to avoid real sources of strength, other people and ourselves.

There are many reasons why people seek religion and embrace holy books:

  • They want answers about reality (knowledge)
  • They want to know how life began (ontology)
  • They want a history and genealogy
  • They want instructions on how to be a good person (ethics)
  • They want to worship and be thankful (appreciation of life)
  • They want rules for equal justice for all people (law and order)
  • They want to know the future (prophecy)
  • They want a promise of protection (security)
  • They want an afterlife 

The reason why holy books like The Bible are so dangerous and powerful is our minds are extremely powerful.  Holy books transmit powerful memes.  All books do, but holy books come with extra-strength memes.  The concept of God is a meme.  Once an idea is let lose in culture it’s very hard, if not impossible to erase.  What happens instead is people alter memes.  Think of a virus mutating.  If you study just The Bible you’ll actually come up with dozens, if not hundreds of meme variations for the original meme for God, which was created thousands of years before the Jews existed.  There is no one God in The Bible.  There is no one Jesus, which brings us to the book Jesus, Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman.

Jesus-Interrupted

Many people divide the world into the secular and the divine.  Believers in divine knowledge think its more important than down to Earth knowledge.  That’s an illusion.  The divine is a meme too.  Beliefs are more powerful than reality.  In fact, all we have is beliefs.  What we want is to keep beliefs that validate reality and jettison fantasies, but religious beliefs can’t be validated, but how you got them can.  That’s what Bart D. Ehrman is doing in his writing.

For example, do you believe that Jesus is a divine being?  Who gave you that idea?  How old were you?  Why did you believe them?  Where did they get the idea?  What Ehrman is doing in Jesus, Interrupted is working on a cold case that goes back 1900 years.  Where did the origin of the meme that Jesus was divine come from?  He calls this research a historical approach to Bible study. 

Jesus, Interrupted is a significant book on many levels, but proving that will be difficult because what he says challenges people’s beliefs.  Bart D. Ehrman is most famous for his book Misquoting Jesus, but this newer book is even more exciting to read, that is, if you find history and academic research exciting.  Ehrman claims he is not trying to be sensational with his books on The Bible, and claims he is only relating what any mainstream seminary teaches.  Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He started out as an evangelical Christian but after many years of studying The Bible became an agnostic.  Since I’m an atheist, reviewing a book about The New Testament written by an agnostic will be hard to convince Christians the value of reading Jesus, Interrupted.

I don’t ever expect Christians to give up their faith.  I figure most will ignore this book, but I expect others will combine the knowledge that Ehrman provides with their faith and create a new synthesis.  Whether this leads to a new reformation is another issue, but in cruising around the net trying to find reactions to Ehrman I was surprise by some reactions of the faithful.  Some reviewers say Ehrman goes too far, others just dismiss him, but others have jumped in and started their own analysis using his historical approach to test and validate Ehrman’s ideas.

Ehrman says many times in his book that he has no wish to destroy anyone’s faith, but anyone with a deep faith in The Bible being the absolute word of God will be tested by Ehrman’s books.  Ehrman started out as a person believing God inspired The Bible and it had no errors, but his desire to study it deeply and thoroughly led him to believe that it is the work of men, chock full of errors, forgeries, and contradictions.  I think anyone examining the historical evidence will also conclude that men wrote The Bible without guidence from God.

The next logical step in theology is to ask how God might inspire men to write about the metaphysical.  I don’t believe in the divine, but most people do.  I expect them to keep looking for the doorway between the physical world and the spiritual world.  And that’s okay.  Religion is deeper than memes, and I expect humans to always invent new and better religions.  Some atheists want to throw off religion and God, but that’s like being a vegetarian wanting the rest of the world to give up eating meat.  Evolution is a nasty word to the righteous, but everything evolves.

So why should agnostics and atheists even concern themselves with this book?  Ehrman still believes The Bible is the greatest book ever written and still provides inspiration.  For me, I want to understand Christians and how they evolved in history.  Jesus, Interrupted is a quick survey of the first four hundred years of Christianity and how The New Testament was written.  I think it explains why we have hundreds of different Christian faiths, and it also explains part of the psychology of conservatives and liberals, something Ehrman wasn’t intending.

Ehrman says most people study The Bible devotionally, but for the last two hundred years scholars have applied a historical approach to understanding it.  Ehrman also says most people only read The Bible randomly, just studying a few lines here and there.  Even if you read it vertically, from top to bottom, Ehrman believes you will miss much of what’s in The Bible.  He recommends studying it horizontally, comparing one gospel against another, or how one incident is depicted by multiple writers.  Jesus, Interrupted focuses almost exclusively on The New Testament except where gospel writers claim events were foretold in The Old Testament.

When you study the gospels this way you quickly see they conflict.  And not in minor narrative details, but in great theological differences.  In fact, much of what Christians believe today does not come from The New Testament at all, but from later theologians.  What many Christians might be shocked at is the gospels were not written by the disciples that knew Jesus, but educated people writing decades later, living in another country, speaking a different language than what Jesus and his apostles spoke.

The reason why there are so many conflicting stories in The Bible is because it was written by many different people, each with their own agenda.  I cannot do justice to the vast research the Ehrman puts into his book, so don’t trust me, and read Jesus, Interrupted for yourself.  Then read reviews by people who oppose Ehrman, and there are plenty.  Interpreting The Bible is a academic black hole that I want to avoid, but I do think it’s possible to study The Bible without falling into its gravity well.

I think there will be many different audience reactions for this book.

  • Atheists will get a good overview of Christianity, but also find intellectual support that The Bible is not a divine communication to the human race.  If they have any residual guilt about religion from early Sunday School programming, this book will help deprogram those feelings.  I found the book a fascinating history, explaining much of Western culture in a surprising way.  It was a real page turner for me.
  • Liberal Christians will expand their theological foundation and maybe invent a new synthesis.  Ehrman explains how new theological concepts developed in the first few centuries of the common era shaped The New Testament, but Christian evolution did not stop there.  Christianity is always evolving and diverging, and modern Christianity has little resemblance to Jesus and his times.  I think Ehrman’s book should have been called The Evolution of Christ.  I think books like this, using historical studies to examine spiritual doctrine, will inspire some folks to invent new theological memes.
  • Conservative Christians can choose to ignore the book, or counter it.  I think Christians constantly redefine and reinvent God.  God is a mutating meme.  Creationism and Intelligent Design are fundamentalist adaptations to their philosophy from reacting to science.  I expect similar ideas generated from reacting to historical studies of The Bible.  Theological evolution does not have to be logical, for example, look at the doctrine of the Trinity.  Essentially, a monotheistic religion accidently reinventing polytheism while trying to rationalize how a human could be the one and only God.  And don’t get me wrong, I’m not making fun of this theology – it’s a deadly serious pursuit by some folk to grapple with reality, but my point is religion doesn’t stand still, it’s constantly being reinvented to jive with current knowledge.
  • Believers from other religions will find a concise overview of The New Testament that might quickly explain the diversity of Christian faiths and sects.

Everyone feels like they are an expert on The Bible, even if they’ve only read a few passages.  I think the historical studies of The Bible will up the ante for anyone getting into the game.  Ehrman claims that most mainline ministers know what’s in this book already, but they seldom preach this knowledge to their parishioners.  I don’t know if that matters. 

Most people only want simple answers.  They are happy with a very few concepts to embrace.  There is a God.  There is a heaven.  Believing in Jesus is the way to heaven.  Period.  No more study.  This covers all the bases for this life and the next.  As long as these believers stay out of politics I don’t want to challenge their beliefs.  Don’t read this book. 

No use confusing the simple faithful by trying to explain that heaven is a theological invention that came well after Jesus.  Nor should we cloud the water by proving the God of Moses is not the God of Paul, even though some modern apocalyptical Christians want to bring back an Old Testament genocidal God.

Ehrman proves The Bible can be a black hole of academic study, but it’s also an endless engine that justifies hatred and intolerance.  Ehrman illustrates this with a quick lesson in how Christianity created anti-Semitism.  And I certainly wanted to read more about the development of the Orthodox Church at the expense of heretical sects.

Jesus, Interrupted is an important book beyond Bible studies because it explains so much modern psychology.  Rush Limbaugh is not just a conservative Republican, but an apostle of orthodoxy attacking the heretical liberals.  What Ehrman shows is Swift Boating a technique well illustrated in The New TestamentJesus, Interrupted unintentionally shows a relationship between the Bible belt and conservative thinking and behavior.  If someone like Lee Atwater had lived in the first century he might have written a gospel to get his point across.

Liberals who want to understand why conservatives are the way they are should study Jesus, Interrupted carefully.  I always assumed Republicans got their rhetorical skills from the Greeks, but that is only half-right, and they might have studied classical Greeks, but they also learned rhetoric from the Greek speaking writers of  the New Testament.            

JWH – 6/8/10

One thought on “Jesus, Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman”

  1. Great review, Jim. The book sounds fascinating.

    I’m certainly not an expert on the Bible, but it’s hard to believe that anyone could think it error-free. Heck, it contradicts itself right off the bat, with two different versions of Genesis. The weird thing is that fundamentalists are always studying the Bible, too.

    But mostly, that study seems to be in learning explanations for why the Bible doesn’t actually mean what it says. I’ve overheard these Bible-study groups, and the explanations tend to be convoluted and bizarre. But I guess if you really, really want to believe that the Bible is inerrant, you can generally swallow such things without too much effort.

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