jesus, interrupted

June 3, 2009

Through I was given an opportunity to review Jesus, Interrupted by Bart Erhman. (I promise this blog isn’t going to be reduced to an outlet for book reviews even if it’s looked like that lately!)

For those unfamiliar with Ehrman, he has an interesting background. A former evangelical, he was educated at Moody, Wheaton, and Princeton Theological Seminary. He describes his transition between these schools and his own progression from a very conservative view of Scripture to a, uh, not so conservative view. Some years later, Erhman did reject Christianity, though he describes that rejection in connection to the inconsistencies he sees between suffering in the world and the claims of the Christian God.

For the most part, Jesus, Interrupted serves as an introduction to the historical critical approach to understanding Scripture. Simply put, this approach evaluates Scriptures not as a sacred devotional text, but as historical documents that merit critical scrutiny. Erhman’s primary thesis is that most pastors learn about the historical critical approach, and the difficulties it brings to how we view Scripture. Yet, most lay people in church have no knowledge of this as pastors don’t talk about it. Jesus, Interrupted seems to be Erhman’s attempt to bring this conversation to a wider audience.

A few thoughts that came from my experiences reading the book:

  • From what I understand, Erhman has a bit of a reputation at times of being somewhat condescending in his tone toward Christianity. I didn’t get that feel out of Jesus, Interrupted at all. I appreciated the tone with which he wrote the book.
  • I also appreciate the attempts to present a historical-critical understanding of Scripture at a more popular level. I think it is an important conversation to bring in to churches. I’m not aware of a book that has attempted to do this from a Christian scholar at a popular level…thus enforcing one of Erhman’s main points.
  • Because the book was written at a popular level, there is the danger of overgeneralizing, and I think Erhman did so. After reading the book, one would be left with the impression that all conservative Evangelical Bible scholars don’t see any inconsistencies in the Scripture, and all non-Evangelical scholars see many and doubt the authorship of a good portion of the New Testament. The discussion simply can’t be reduced to those two camps with those two views.
  • Ehrman’s approach seems to be hyper modern in that he only wants to view the Scriptures through a historical critical approach. I can respect this and think seeing Scripture as a historical text sheds a great deal of light on our reading. Yet I also think it is important to understand that the Scriptures weren’t written by people who even comprehended a rational modern way of thinking, and can’t be evaluated only in that light. To oversimplify my point, I wonder if this would be akin to only critiquing Edgar Allen Poe as very poor Haiku. The historical critical approach should not supersede attempts to approach Scripture as a sacred devotional text, and vice versa.

If there is a shortcoming to the book from a Christian perspective, it comes in the fact that Ehrman writes this as an agnostic scholar. I give him credit for saying that he didn’t become agnostic because of the material he is presenting. And he doesn’t demand that others do so. But, he also doesn’t seem compelled to provide a way forward for someone who is just being introduced to this material. I suppose he is hoping that a reader will bring the conversation into their own faith circles…and he is probably right.

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