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Raining on Bart Ehrman’s Easter parade

"Raining on Bart Ehrman’s Easter parade" Continued...

Knowing this was ahead of me, I continued walking around the book exhibits wondering if I should write a preemptive response. During my saunter I chanced upon several friends who I thought might be interested in joining me in such a project, and it turned out that they were. So I teamed up with four colleagues, including Craig Evans (Acadia Divinity College, Canada), Simon Gathercole (Cambridge University, UK), Chris Tilling (St. Mellitus College, UK), and Charles Hill (Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, Fla.), all leading authorities in their own field, to come up with an immediate response to Ehrman. Thanks to the generosity of HarperOne, we read a pre-publication copy of Ehrman’s manuscript over the Christmas break and then set to work to write up our own accounts about the when, where, how, and who of the origins of belief in Jesus as God.

Our book, How God Became Jesus: The Real Origin of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart D. Ehrman, attempts to give a more authentic and historically accurate explanation of how belief about Jesus as a divine figure emerged in the early church. In brief, we contest Ehrman’s description of ancient monotheism and its significance for emerging beliefs about Jesus, we object to his depiction of Jesus’ self-understanding, we challenge his reconstruction of what happened to Jesus’ body after his crucifixion, we strenuously contest his interpretation of what the apostle Paul and the Evangelists thought about Jesus, and we offer a competing narrative about the trajectory that belief in Jesus’ divine nature took in the early church.

Bart D. Ehrman
Handout photo
Bart D. Ehrman
Sadly, Bart Ehrman has a huge following: He teaches packed courses at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he’s a New York Times best-selling author, and he’s always doing the rounds of the talk show circuits as the resident celebrity skeptic, delightfully reassuring secularists that the whole Christian thing is just a big mistake. In a recent interview on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, Ehrman was asked what he regards as the meaning of Easter. His response was that, as an agnostic, he believes Easter shows that there is still horrible injustice and oppression in the world and that we should wrestle against it. He added that the Easter story, while not historical, on some allegorical level is about God’s “no” to political evil by raising Jesus from the dead.

I push back against Ehrman here, too. Easter isn’t an allegory about good versus evil. Instead, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is about the God’s victory over sin, death, evil, and wickedness. In the cross of Jesus we see God crucified, Jesus our substitute taking our sins upon Himself, absorbing them like a cosmic sponge, cleansing us, and purchasing forgiveness for all men and women. In the Resurrection, we see the beginnings of a world born anew, testifying to the goodness of God’s power and the power of God’s goodness, hope rising from the ashes of grief and death. Still, that story only has power to shape our lives, to stimulate our imaginations for beauty, and to inspire us to courage against evil, if Jesus really is God incarnate. Only if Jesus is truly the Son of God can we believe Him at his word, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 ESV).

Ehrman’s method: Erroneous manuscripts, historical criteria, and the historical Jesus

By Michael F. Bird

[Bart Ehrman] thinks that we cannot take the Gospels at face value as historically reliable accounts of the things Jesus said and did. Ehrman makes some broad and sweeping comments about the sources behind the Gospels and the nature of the Gospels as faith-documents that should render us historically suspicious of their accounts of Jesus. He does not think that the Gospels are useless as historical sources, but because they are more interested in proclaiming Jesus than with giving a true history of Jesus, we have to sift through the Gospels with the aid of various criteria to separate the fictions from the facts. A couple of comments are required here.

First, if the Gospels are not, in their basic outlines at least, somehow reliable, then we might as well stop wasting our time and go fishing. I like how Dale Allison puts it:

Either they [the Gospels] tend to preserve pre-Easter memories or they do not. In the former case, we have some possibility of getting somewhere. But in the latter case, our questing for Jesus is probably pointless and we should consider surrendering to ignorance. If the tradition is seriously misleading in its broad features, then we can hardly make much of its details.

Listen to Warren Cole Smith’s interview with Bart Ehrman on this weekend’s edition of Listening In, a production of WORLD Radio.

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