by Bart Ehrman
Started: August 5
Finished: August 12
Notes: I've read so much of Christian apologetics of late, I thought I'd give the other side a shot, so here I turn to the more skeptical. The author is a former Christian who has become an agnostic, and he is a Biblical scholar and history professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, by coincidence only about an hour from me.
Mini review: To call this book "skeptical" is somewhat of a disservice to the author because his approach here is strictly historical, not theological. He makes it plain he himself is no longer a believer, but for the most part I felt he approached his subject matter without becoming overly subjective. That doesn't mean I don't have some problems with his conclusions, but again, more from a historical than a theological approach. First off, he approaches the New Testament, specifically the Gospels, from a traditional historical/literary criticism point of view, one which I do not subscribe to. Why don't I subscribe to such views? Because, in my opinion, they are not based upon any sort of historical evidence. I'll give a most basic example. If one is even vaguely familiar with historical and literary criticism of the Gospels, especially the Synoptic Gospels and specifically the Book of Mark, one will be familiar with the "Q" document. The Q document are writings and perhaps some oral traditions that apparently existed between the death of Jesus and the earliest New Testament writings, mainly before the writing of Mark and perhaps even before Paul's letters. This Q document is supposed to have had a big influence upon Mark, but also Matthew and Luke, and if one studies the Q document closely enough, one can discover what the earliest Christians believed. The only problem is, there's no historical evidence whatsoever for the Q document. None. Oh, I'm sure there are plenty of historians, armchair and professional alike, who would argue with me, but I feel I can objectively say they are wrong. There are no Q writings that have survived, no archaeological evidence, not even a direct mention of these documents by church fathers. Historians have surmised the Q document (as well as a number of other documents) must have existed because they believe they can detect the Q documents presence within the Gospels by pursing the texts, by deciding what does or does not match the rest of what can be found within one particular book of the Gospels. I'm over-simplifying here, but to go into all this would take a book itself. Anyway, I can fully believe there were earlier Christian documents than Paul's letters (generally believed to be the earliest surviving Christian texts) and the Book of Mark (generally believed to have been the first Gospel written), and that there was an oral tradition telling stories of Jesus and the like, but what I cannot subscribe to is that historians can gather any real information on the Q document and similar texts or traditions. They can't. I'm sorry, but doing so is mere guesswork at best. Just because a group of history professors agree upon something, that doesn't mean it's true. It's speculation at best, but often enough all kinds of speculations, historical and theological, are based upon legendary documents when we have no real idea what was said within those documents. As a writer myself, I know that often enough people read all kinds of things into my writings, things that I did not intend, so I cannot imagine trying to pull any hidden substance by bisecting the work of another writer, especially one writing 2,000 years ago. The few exceptions to this would be someone like James Joyce, an overly literary writer who often intentionally set out for the reader to have to search for hidden texts and the like. My rant for the day. On more theological ground, the author here believes at least three individuals actually believed they saw Jesus after Christ's death. Those three are Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene. I can go along with that, though the Bible says otherwise. But where the author loses me is in some of his interpretation of what brought about this witnessing. He does not go into detail, which is fine because it's not really the point of his book, but basically he comes down on the side of Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene having seen illusions, sort of mass delusions but not all at the same time. He bases some of this opinion on modern science which proves to him that individuals can suffer from such illusions, and that even groups can believe they experience such illusions. Again, I can follow along so far. Where I have a hard time accepting part of his premise here is that he leans towards the notion that individuals are susceptible to such illusions after a time of loss, during a strong emotional upheaval in their lives. Basically, the three saw Jesus because they were in emotional turmoil at the time. There's only one problem with this. Why would Paul have been in emotional turmoil? Why would Paul have held a dense sensation of grief at the loss of Christ? If anything, Paul was an enemy to Christianity before his conversion. Peter and Mary Magdalene are other matters, obviously, but Paul? I'm not worried about the theological implications here, but the historical ones. I believe this is an area the author needs to think more on. I'm not saying he is necessarily wrong in his thoughts on Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene, but that he hasn't fully worked to an outcome as of yet, or at least one I don't find fully acceptable. For those with interests in this subject matter, I can say this author has a pretty good style, easy to follow, and while he does delve into some sticky matters, for the most part he won't bore you too much. For a fairly basic look at the early Christians fathers, especially the first four centuries, this book would be a good kicking off point for believers and non-believers alike; there might be some unfamiliar territory, but the writer does a pretty good job of giving basic definitions where needed.