Bart Ehrman in church black and white

A Critique of Bart Ehrman’s Methodology as a ‘Historian’

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I was very excited to begin reading How Jesus Became God by Bart Ehrman, having recently read and reviewed another of his books, Misquoting Jesus. The latter book gave some very interesting insights into the transmission of the Christian sacred texts (i.e. how they have been copied, shared, and interpreted since the days of Jesus), and I hoped How Jesus Became God might help me resolve some of my ongoing uncertainty concerning whether or not I should consider Jesus to be God.

I have read about 35% of How Jesus Became God on my Kindle, and for the most part I have found it very interesting. I certainly learned a few things about ancient Greek and Roman beliefs that I hadn’t previously encountered. However, I have stopped reading the book (possibly only temporarily) for reasons which are a little complicated to explain, yet very important. I’ll do my best to explain these reasons in this article.

In Chapter 4, entitled ‘The Resurrection of Jesus: What We Cannot Know’, Ehrman proceeds with a long discussion about the methodology historians use to examine historical evidence. The argument Ehrman makes is that certain events that are described as happening in the past cannot be considered to have happened because not ‘all historians’ share the presuppositions behind them. Ehrman argues that it is impossible for historians to say whether there is evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead by God, because “the historian has no access to information like that, and that conclusion requires a set of theological presuppositions that not all historians share.” (location 2213)

I find this argument very unconvincing, to say the least. There are no two historians who hold to exactly the same presuppositions; claiming that ‘all historians’ have the same presuppositions about any issue is highly misleading, in my view. It’s similar to when scientists say “What we know about black holes, is…” or “What we know about the origin of the universe, is…”; the truth is there is never consensus on any issue, historical or scientific, because we live in a world of infinite possibilities, and there is nothing in relation to which ‘we’ (which, in the examples given above is said to refer to the whole historical research or scientific community — or even the whole of humanity) completely agree.

Any statement of ‘fact’ is dependent on subjective reasoning and interpretation, and anyone who claims an idea is certain in an objective way is inflicting their personal bias upon everyone else in a way that is really misleading. It’s actually a subtle form of bullying when people deny their own bias and claim their own views have universal acceptance or application.

The history we are taught in schools is biased. The science and philosophy we are taught in schools is biased. Every time someone voices an attitude towards something; they are betraying their personal bias. There are always an infinite number of things that could be said to be contributing to the cause of a particular event, so describing historical events is a process that necessarily involves bias.

In my book God’s Grand Game, I give the example of a football being kicked in order to demonstrate this. What causes a football to be kicked? Is it the swing of a leg? Is it the run-up to the ball? Is it the footballer’s arrival on the pitch? Is it the footballer’s birth into existence? Is it the footballer’s friend who drove them to the pitch? Is it the ‘Big Bang’? There are always an infinite number of different ways of explaining things.

I’m not sure, now that I understand Ehrman’s methodology, whether or not I will continue reading his books. Ehrman is a self-confessed unbeliever (he states that he is around location 2132 in the Kindle version of How Jesus Became God) and he demonstrates a significant bias against taking certain kinds of events seriously. People who don’t believe in God often dismiss everything which they consider could be ‘supernatural’, and Ehrman seems to do this. However, the truth is that even the appearance of an apple on a tree is just as miraculous as someone rising from the dead, so separating events into a category of believable events on the one hand, and a category of supernatural events on the other hand — and arguing this is some kind of objective methodology that ‘we’ use — is deceptive and unconvincing (to me).

I have been taking notes and highlighting passages as I’ve been reading Ehrman’s books, and the notes quite often simply say ‘conjecture’, because Ehrman repeatedly makes statements about historical ‘evidence’ that are simply a matter of opinion. So yes, if you want to read the opinions of a biased unbeliever about who the ‘historical Jesus’ was, read Ehrman’s books. But if you want to have a personal encounter with God, and really understand what the Christian faith is about, your time would be better spent praying, or attending a worship service, or reading the sacred Scriptures, or reading the views of interpreters of sacred Scriptures who are transparent about their own bias.

Just as a side note, I have found a lot of value in Ehrman’s books, as they taught me things about the way textual critics work that I wasn’t aware of, for instance. I respect Ehrman and am grateful for his work, but I just find his arguments around methodology unconvincing, and this gives me reservations about continuing reading his work (though I may still do so, as the topics he discusses are very interesting to me).

Finally, on a separate note, I just want to point out that no page numbers are present in my Kindle version of How Jesus Became God, which is strange and unusual as they appear in other books I am also currently reading on my Kindle. So I have given approximate location numbers for references instead.

2 comments

  1. Ehrman is a skeptic and unbeliever, yet a smart man. I prefer to listen to Paul and what he says about a smart man’s wisdom: 1 Cor 2: 10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.[d]

    14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

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