Thursday, March 5, 2009

Mr. Ehrman's New Book

Scholar Bart Ehrman makes an appearance on a recent Fresh Air podcast to discuss his latest book, Jesus, Interrupted, the subtitle of which is also the substance of his conversation with Terry Gross, "revealing the hidden contradictions in the Bible (and why we don't know about them)."

Some of us do know about them, but judging from Ehrman's previous work, the new book is worth reading. Still, in the first several minutes of the podcast, he stumbles over what doesn't strike me as a difficult conundrum: the reason people read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in a way that works so hard to flatten the contradictions between them is that they assume they are reading works of history. It is analogous to the way discrepancies between American and Japanese soldiers' accounts of Iwo Jima are flattened on the assumption that an underlying truth can, in principle, be established.

Ehrman, by contrast, has the good sense to read the Gospels as literature. This approach allows for an appreciation of the particularities of each writer, and is willing to see the contradictions as departures from a common set of characters, plots, tropes, themes, and traditions.

The interesting thing to watch for in Ehrman's new book is whether he advances effective arguments against the Gospels-as-history view and for the Gospels-as-literature view. Practically speaking, this means discrediting the Gospels as works of factual, this-really-happened, veridical history. Textual analysis, however well-informed, will not close this inquiry. The fundamental question -- is the Bible history or literature? -- cannot, it seems to me, be sidestepped.

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