They Teach Early Christianity Like Night and Day—Bart Ehrman vs Luke Timothy Johnson
December 11, 2020
Preaching Jesus was no picnic in the first century. “Are you speaking of that fellow that they executed?” someone would say. “He’s the savior of the world?” That’s just plain idiocy, thought the non-Jew. The Jews would think it beyond idiocy—they would think it blasphemy, for they would recall the Torah verse of how anyone hung on a stake was accursed by God. (Deuteronomy 21:22-23)
Luke Timothy Johnson tells how early Christians had to overcome their “cognitive dissonance” on that point. Paul, the apostle, tells how he approached Corinth “in weakness and in fear and with much trembling” because he knew they would regard him as a snake oil salesman. (1 Corinthians 2:3) But only Bart Ehrman, the Bible-thumper who became an anti-Bible thumper but you can still see the Bible thumper in the anti-Bible thumper, actually presents him as a snake-oil salesman—Paul the itinerant preacher competing with hundreds of other itinerant preachers, each trying to yank the narrative of Christ his own way per his own “theology”—each concerned primarily with saving his own rear end from fire in the hereafter.
When Bart takes up the challenge of presenting Jesus as Messiah to that world, he likens it to presenting David Koresh as messiah to the modern world. “David Koresh—the man who abused children and stockpiled weapons? He’s the messiah?” he anticipates modern reaction. Why does he make such a dumb comparison? I get it that either one is supposed to be shocking, but still...
When you tell an illustration, you’re supposed to make sure all aspects of it line up with the subject—otherwise someone will be sure to spot the discordant part and throw out the entire illustration in consequence. Here the discordant part is glaring. Did Jesus abuse children? Did Jesus stockpile weapons? His “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword” is among the best-known adages on the planet.
There’s no way Bart can’t know this. How can one not conclude that he has so little regard for the subject that he just doesn’t care? Even Mark Twain, reputed atheist with some of the most scathing invectives ever uttered on religion, never had an unkind word for Jesus. The problem, according to Twain, was that nobody followed him. “There has only been one Christian,” he wrote. “They caught and killed him—early.” But trashing Christ is all in a day’s work for Bart.
Luke Timothy Johnson and Bart Ehrman both teach religion courses for the Great Courses lecture series. Their topics aren’t exactly the same but there’s plenty of overlap—they both cover the spread of Christianity in the first few centuries after his death. Comparing the two approaches reveals all the difference between a violin and a fiddle—the style is so different that it’s hard to believe the instrument is the same. Luke follows a traditional religious approach, Bart the historical critical approach. Luke examines his subject from within, Bart examines it from without. Luke looks for points of agreement. Bart looks for points of disharmony. Luke’s take is how early Christians complement. Bart’s take is on how they compete—just like organisms do in the survival-of-the-fittest evolutionary world.
Luke isn’t keen on the historical-critical approach as he acknowledges that it dominates religious study at the university level these days—send your child there so they can break down his or her faith (my words, not his). He cites David Strauss, an early advocate of that approach, who observes that “critical historiography can only deal with events in human times and space.” Therefore, as Luke Johnson restates it, “the historian cannot take up anything having to do with the transcendent, or the supernatural, the historian cannot talk about the miraculous birth of Jesus, his miracles, his walking on the water, his transfiguration, his resurrection from the dead, and so forth.
“Well, fair enough. The historian can’t talk about those things, but that methodological restraint of Strauss very quickly becomes implicitly an epistemological denial, that is ‘the historian cannot talk about these things, therefore they are not real.’”
Exactly! It is as though a mechanic approaches an ailing car with a toolbox equipped only with wrenches. Finding a screwdriver is needed, he does not reproach himself for not bringing one. Rather, he declares the problem unsolvable. Helpful as science is, there are times when it wouldn’t know a fact if it choked on one.
Back to Luke: “And so...the narrative of Jesus and the biblical story simply gets eliminated, [with] each item looked at through the political agenda of the writer—what was [this or that writer] trying to accomplish, rather than, ‘How is God speaking to us?’” Sure enough, when Bart tackles subjects as Jesus’ miraculous birth, his miracles, and his resurrection, he concludes that they cannot be proven scientifically. Duh.
The mother of all obtuseness appears when Bart examines the reason behind Christian persecution in the first century. Rome burned, the populace suspected Nero of setting the fire (to clear the way for urban renewal) and to deflect blame from himself, he redirected it to the Christians, who were hunted down and killed in the most heinous ways. Bart’s conclusion: “So Christians weren’t persecution for being Christian—they were persecuted for arson!”
Bart leaves untouched the 800-pound question behind the arson charge: “What was it about Christians that made them such perfect scapegoats?” It doesn’t occur to him to go there, though it would anyone else. Why didn’t Nero blame the Mafia, the spies from Egypt, the fortune tellers, the crazies, or a host of more likely suspects?
His obtuseness is heightened by the fact that Tacitus tells him the answer—and it doesn’t strike him as significant enough to mention. According to that Roman historian, Christians were “convicted, not so much on the charge of burning the city, as of hating the human race.” How can Bart possibly miss that?
It’s not as though are so many sources that this one fell through the cracks. There are only four contemporary historians that even mention Christianity—Tacitus, Pliny the younger, Philo, and Josephus—and none of them write more than a paragraph or so. Christianity was a movement of the lower classes, and then, as now, the doings of such people are beneath the notice of the chroniclers.
No, Bart is just obtuse to the spiritual nature of his subject. His obsession with historical and scientific facts causes him to overlook the only FACT that matters—early Christians were regarded as radicals—yes, call them ‘extremists’—who were “hating the human race.” That is the absurdity that bears looking into, not the technicalities of the arson charge. Why in the world would Jesus followers—the ones who heeded his command to not take to the sword—be thought haters of the human race? The answer is very close to the reason Jehovah’s Witnesses are persecuted today in Russia, and are targets of general disapproval in most other lands.
Of course, their pacifism means non-participation in war efforts, and neutrality bumps it up a notch to not supporting in any way the war effort. That will always put you on the black list of a nationalistic world that demands everyone stay on the same page—“when we say ‘It’s war, that means you applaud!” But the distaste is for reasons more basic than that.
Luke Timothy Johnson observes how Christians “would not even perform the minimal political gesture of offering a pinch of incense to the gods.” This is because the gesture was religious to them. To everyone else, it was “political”—not a big deal. Why could they not grasp the Christian point of view?
The polytheistic world back then had no problem with Christians bringing in another god—not in itself. There was always room at the table for another god—pull up a chair. The problem was that once Jehovah was seated at the table, he ordered all the other gods away. None of the other gods were so possessive. All took it for granted that you worshipped many, and even when some human (such as the empiror) claimed divine status, it was not a problem for anyone other than the Christians (and Jews).
That situation isn’t exactly analogous to JWs and the flag salute? Anyone else will do it. Outright scoundrels and traitors will do it with fingers crossed behind their backs. Only Jehovah’s Witnesses read a violation of the Ten Commandments into it. “You must not make for yourself a carved image or a form like anything that is in the heavens above or that is on the earth underneath or that is in the waters under the earth. You must not bow down to them nor be induced to serve them, because I Jehovah your God am a God exacting exclusive devotion.” (Exodus 20:4-5) Though the U. S. Supreme Court has acquiesced to Witness interpretation, that does nothing to garner them acceptance in the popular mind.
“I Jehovah your God am a God exacting exclusive devotion,” says the verse. “There you go again,” said Ronald Reagan to Jimmy Carter, calling him on an attitude out of sync with the changing times and winning the election partly on the strength of that line. When the popular mood favors inclusiveness, it does not help to follow a God who requires “exclusive devotion.” It caused Christians to sit out events of life that others followed as a matter of routine, and that dependably annoys people.
Bart points out that Christians were reproached for dividing families—just as Jehovah’s Witnesses are today, and just as Jesus counseled would be the case. “Do not think I came to bring peace to the earth; I came to bring, not peace, but a sword,” he says. “For I came to cause division, with a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” As a practical matter, Christianity that strives to stay true to Jesus’ words will do that.
The “haters of the human race” charge becomes easier to envision in view of Jesus’ words above. Sitting out routine events in life based on “exclusive devotion” simply gets people’s dander up. Kicking back at such charges, the same as Jehovah’s Witnesses must do today, Paul points out, “We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have taken advantage of no one.” (2 Corinthians 7:2) The same undercurrent of “victimhood” so popular today finds its counterpart back then. “There is nothing new under the sun.” Christians stood so apart from routine areas of life, choosing the company of each other instead unless it was to spread their faith, that they were thought to throw sand in the gears of community life.
Why doesn’t Bart, who enmeshes himself in the gears of “science,” see that? He describes the executions of early Christian martyrs. In many cases, Roman officials gave them every chance to recant, pleaded with them to recant, patiently tried to persuade them that offering a pinch of incense to the emperor was too tiny a gesture to be concerned about, and—incredibly (considering his evangelical background), Bart sides with the Romans and expresses amazement that the martyrs could be so stubborn. “Why, when they had so much to offer this world, would they be so eager to leave it?” is the gist of one of his review questions.
Should you want to read up on how the Bible canon was assembled, either of these two writers and lecturers will get the job done. However, Bart with his atheistic point of view, is relentlessly annoying, and Luke, with his devotional point of view, is unobjectionable. Ditto if you want to read up on the early church “fathers” and apologists. Watchtower publications are light on those topics. The canon is explored in places as the Scriptures Inspired book the Insight book, but Bart or Luke expands it into much greater detail. And Watchtower articles on the early apologists are downright sparse, and tend to focus on what they got wrong.
I rather like how Luke Johnson puts it: “I think there is perhaps no greater evidence of Christianity’s success as a religion, that is, as a movement quite apart from imperial sponsorship and the politics of empire than these ancient versions from lands extending from present day Iran, Central Asia, Syria, Egypt, and Turkey, up into Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and Western Europe. Something in the Bible must have spoken to all of these far-flung people and touched them in some fashion, not only to the dukes and the nobles and the bishops, but also the ordinary people who seemed eagerly to receive the word in their own languages. Indeed it may be an oblique but very real compliment to the energy and the power of Christianity in the first millenium of its existence that so many peoples in so many lands found these odd stories from ancient Palestine and the Greco-Mediterranean world of the first century to be both compelling and convincing.”
Yes, it is wordy. Yes, you half expect him to say, “All roads lead to heaven.” Yes, he may grumble when he finds out you don’t do the trinity, and discard your claim to Christianity on that account. Yes, when he says it was dangerous to be a Bible translator in the Middle Ages, he never says why—in his own way he is just as prone to ignore the 800 lb gorilla as is Bart—but since he does speak appreciatively of spiritual things we’ll let it slide. At any rate, I’ll take him in a heartbeat over Bart. The latter irritates me, though possibly not on purpose.
Bart annoys me as well. His refrain of being a historian and his admitted hyper-skepticism/agnosticism doesn't sit well with me.
Posted by: JP | December 11, 2020 at 10:46 PM