Mar 11, 2009

"Jesus, Interrupted", Reviewed

Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them), by Bart D. Ehrman; Harper One; 2009; 292 pp.

In any legitimate field of human study, be it physics of the material world or psychology of the mind’s world, there is something as a subject of study that can be pointed to, so to say, that is independent of the person studying it. Even if a physicist’s, or psychologist’s, or economist’s, or philosopher’s theory or idea is dead wrong there is at least something in reality we all (at least in principle, if not in actual practice) can experience, have access to, observe for ourselves, be aware of perceptually or conceptually, directly or indirectly. If so, we can see how his theory or idea is dead wrong and therefore, correct it. For example, anyone can, in principle, look to economic reality and see how the economics of Karl Marx were dead wrong. The subject matter is there to be seen and understood - or even misunderstood again, but it is there and independent of the mind. It is no profound observation to state that men will always find more to learn about the subject matter of physics, economics, psychology, etc.

There is one subject of a long and tremendous amount of “studying” to which, the above, however, does not apply. That is religion.

Go to the origins of any religion or religious concept and what one will find is the historical and cultural context of the person(s) who originated that particular religious idea. One can certainly see how it satisfied their specific religious, political, or cultural need, question, or concern of that time in that place - but of the actual religious (i.e., supernatural) being, entity, process, etc., one will find utterly and absolutely nothing in reality that the mind can be connected to or be aware of perceptually or conceptually, directly or indirectly. Nothing. One can see that it was an arbitrary assertion pulled out of thin air by the originator of some god, messiah, other-worldly realm, revelation, or whatever because it suited some need. That’s it; find an exception to this in religion’s long history. Instead of finding any subject matter that is external to the mind and in principle accessible by others there is in religion a pathetic and shabby substitute: those others who believe and act as if the religious concept is a proven fact. Their “authority” said so, so it is true. That does not place us any closer in reality to the actual subject matter of any religious idea. It only places us that many minds removed from the mind that religious idea originated in. The subject matter of religion is based solely on someone’s say-so, not anything in reality independent of his say-so.

I learned this based on much studying of religion. At first religion may be seen as having a formidable appearance to penetrate that maybe, at bottom, has something to it somehow. Afterall it has existed for so long with so many adherents and defenders. There is so much of religion all around us with so much built upon it including entire civilizations, and yet eventually I found how arbitrarily man-made it is. Religion, however dominant and far-reaching it may be, ultimately, rests on nothing in reality apart from beliefs in the minds of men. That is the nature of the subject matter of religious beliefs - they are beliefs that are not legitimately derived from reality but are applied to reality.

This taught me a principle that I have come to consider a universal “law,” which is that one will find, the more and more one studies religion, the less and less there is to religion. Perhaps we should call this “The First Law of Religion.”

The eminent biblical scholar, Bart Ehrman, has an interesting and revealing new book, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them) - and it substantially backs up the First Law of Religion.

Jesus, Interrupted is about Jesus, the New Testament, and the development of Christianity. What is in the book, Ehrman states, is actually nothing new - to scholars, or those who have attended a seminary, that is. There is, though, plenty in the book that would be new to the man “on the street and in the pew,” like that the Bible actually contains forgeries and most of the New Testament authors are really unknown, and that Jesus saw himself as a Jewish apocalyptic prophet, not as God’s offspring, and plenty more like that - facts that challenge the version of Christianity most people accept. Ehrman’s thesis is that the Bible is a very human book and the Christianity we have inherited is very human-made. Prof. Ehrman, who was an evangelical Christian who turned agnostic, does not, however, intend to attack the Christian faith as such. He does intend to “let the cat out of the bag” as he puts it, about what scholars, theologians, and pastors have known for two or three centuries about the Bible and early Christian history but have kept from the public for whatever reasons. What Ehrman does is show the layman how to look at the Bible from the “historic-critical” approach apart from the usual “devotional” approach and explain what scholars using the historic-critical approach have learned about the Bible.

The way to find the contradictions, discrepancies, and other problems in the Bible is to use “horizontal” reading, which Ehrman distinguishes from “vertical reading.” Vertical reading means to start reading the gospels with Matthew, reading it from beginning to end, then on to the next gospel from beginning to end, and so on. Read that way they pretty much seem alike. “In a horizontal reading you read a story in one of the gospels, and then read the same story as told by another gospel, as if they were written in columns next to each other. And you compare the stories carefully, in detail. Reading the Gospels horizontally reveals all sorts of differences and discrepancies” (21). Horizontal reading clearly shows the discrepancies between the four gospels on the matters of Jesus’ birth, his ministry, what he taught, his death, etc. that a vertical reading might overlook.

In the first third of the book Ehrman goes over the inconsistencies on the more important matters in the four gospels and Paul's writings. From this the overall lesson is that “each author of the bible needs to be allowed to have his own say, since in many instances what one author has to say on a subject is not what another says. Sometimes the differences are a matter of stress and emphasis; sometimes they are discrepancies in different narratives or between different writers’ thoughts; and sometimes these discrepancies are quite large, affecting not only the small details of the text but the very big issues that these authors were addressing” (99).The contradictions are much to an atheist’s delight and even amusement, so I shall not divulge the details here like a “spoiler.” The point is, the material is all pretty shocking and is great intellectual ammo to use against Christians - right out of their own book!

Ehrman draws three conclusions from the horizontal reading of the gospels and Paul’s letters. The first is the belief in biblical inerrancy is simply not true. Secondly, the reader should “let each author speak for himself and not pretend that he is saying the same thing as another”(60). Thirdly, that there are discrepancies means that we “can’t read these books as disinterested historical accounts. None of them is that”(60).

Ehrman moves on to biblical authorship, a subject that will be very surprising to many. “Though it is evidently not the sort of thing pastors normally tell their congregations, for over a century there has been a broad consensus among scholars that many of the books of the New Testament were not written by the people whose names are attached to them. So if that is the case, who did write them?” (102)

Most New Testament books fall into three groups. Misattributed writings is the first group, which includes the four gospels. They were actually written anonymously. Then there are homonymous writings. These have the same name on them as someone famous, but are not written by that famous person. The book of James was written by someone named James, but not James, the brother of Jesus, as the church fathers assumed. Lastly are the pseudepigraphic writings which are forgeries written under someone else’s name, like many of the letters attributed to Paul. They were written by later followers using his name and thus giving his authority to their writings.

After spending a fascinating chapter on who did and did not write the New Testament texts, Ehrman moves on to the center of it all, Jesus. This is even more fascinating and revealing. A careful analysis of what the biblical authors say about Jesus placed in the context of history at that time brings conclusions as convincing as they are startling; and that are quite different from how Christians now view Jesus. Again, this is so good that I do not want to spoil this chapter for any readers so I will only pull this quote from the chapter: “For over a century now… the majority of scholars in Europe and North America have understood Jesus as a Jewish apocalyptic prophet”(156). Based on the evidence they do not believe that Jesus saw himself as the son of God, but merely another prophet. Like Ehrman said, he’s letting the cat out of the bag - and it is one big cat.

The next cat to leap out of the bag is how the New Testament canon was formed. "The problem in the development in the canon of scripture was that each and every one of the competitive groups of Christians - each of them insisting they were right, each trying to win converts - had sacred books that authorized their points of view. And most of these books claimed to be written by apostles. Who was right? The canon that emerged from these debates represented the books favored by the group that ended up winning. It did not happen overnight. In fact, it took centuries”(191).

Ehrman surveys some of the major Christian sects and how they differed and argued with each other, and as the centuries went by the Christianity that finally won out was far removed from the original Christian beliefs. “The group that won out did not represent the teachings of Jesus or of his apostles. For example, none of the apostles claimed that Jesus was ‘fully God and fully man‘… as the fourth-century Nicene Creed maintained”(215).

Ehrman concludes the book by considering the question of how biblical scholarship may impact a believer’s faith. It is an interesting chapter and Ehrman explains the role it played in his loss of faith, which was important but not decisive. He does not see his book with its historic-critical approach as an attack on Christianity - nor he says, do many Christians. Instead, what biblical scholars have learned has given some Christians a better historical understanding of their religion. As impressed as I am with Ehrman’s knowledge and analysis of early Christianity I find that I cannot agree much with him philosophically. That Christians, be they biblical scholars (most are Christian) or their students, can retain their faith anyhow in light of what biblical criticism has revealed only demonstrates what faith really means: holding a belief despite lack of evidence and contrary to reason.
Ehrman's book and others like it are, by their nature, regardless of their intent, overwhelming attacks on Christianity simply by virtue of reporting and explaining the facts and realities that Christian beliefs fly in the face of. If I were a Christian, learning what is in books like Jesus, Interrupted would end my faith. For me they would be painfully clear in explaining how man-made religion is.

Examining the Bible and early Christianity like any other area of study as done in Jesus, Interrupted shows us, as Ehrman intends to show us, they are very man-made. We have this holy book that has been of foremost importance in Western civilization, yet the original texts that comprise it are lost, the surviving texts are copies that are from centuries later and are all different; also there is the problem of forgeries and later additions and omissions to the biblical texts; much of the history in it is inaccurate; and beliefs about God, Jesus, heaven and hell, etc., are known to be very man-made. Ehrman does a great job of explaining all that and more. Jesus, Interrupted offers one a thorough look into the origins and history of the most significant Christian beliefs - and the bottom line is there is not much there, just the say-so of the religion’s originators. "The Bible is not a unity, it is a massive plurality. God did not write the Bible, people did“(279).


  1. A very good review of the Prof. Bart Erhman’s new book “Jesus, Interrupted” and I agree with you entirely. Just to add some more background, this book is building on top of his previous books which are mentioned in the chapter notes. The first book is “Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew” which goes into more details on the various groups of Christians, each with very different views, all vying for converts. To quote from Prof. Erhman “The early Christian church was a chaos of contending beliefs. Some groups of Christians claimed that there was not one God but two or twelve or thirty. Some believed that the world has not been created by God but by a lesser, ignorant deity. Certain sects maintained that Jesus was human but not divine, while others said he was divine but not human”. The second book is “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why” which covers the fact while the various groups of Christians were competing with each other; they also intentionally rewrote parts of their scriptures to prove their points. See the fascinating chapter 6 titled “Theologically motivated alterations of the Text”. The winning group used the power of the state to suppress dissenting groups and rewrite the History of Christianity (see Constantine and Eusebius).

  2. Yes, I have both books and they are great. He also has a good 6-hour course available from the Teaching Company called 'The History of the Bible.'

  3. Thanks for contributing to the carnival this week!

  4. Tom,

    Great post and great subject. Let me introduce you, if you don't know of it already, to the blog of Dawson Bethrick:

    Dawson is an Objectivist who blogs solely on atheism and the Historicity of Jesus. His blog is a treasure trove if you are interested in this stuff. If you search his archives you will find many posts on the arguments over the historicity of Jesus. Dawson, like myself, is a believer in the Mythical Christ theory; ie that there was no historical Jesus Christ but that Christianity started as a decentralized faith movement which in time came to attribute its founding stories to one individual preacher.

    This approach is based on the works of some of the best critical scholars in the field of New Testament scholarship; namely Robert Price, G.A. Wells and Earl Doherty. Dawson writes about the works of these men frequently. If I had to recommend one book on this subject (and I have read many), I would recommend "The Jesus Puzzle" by Earl Doherty. That one book alone will show how Christianity is entirely the product of religious syncretism, as you would say: entirely man-made.

    Do go over to Dawson's sight and look around. I discovered it about a year and a half ago and have since read the better parts of 6 or 7 books on the subject of Christianity's origins.

    Here is a link to Dawson's posts on Christianity's legends:


  5. My immense pleasure, Jenn!

    Thanks, Madmax. I think the mystical Christ theory is plausible, so is the scholarly consensus that he was just a prophet who was elevated to God's status over time in a culture thoroughly superstitious and ignorant. We'll probably never know for sure, though.

  6. I tried to post a comment but it said, "your comment cannot be processed."

    Thanks. Duh

  7. Nice post. I'll definitely add Jesus, Interrupted to my "to read" list.

  8. The book definitely seems interesting and I wanted to forward it to all my Christian friends. I'm actually a Muslim and many of the controversies that Biblical scholars have been studying are taught to us in Sunday school as children and we're made aware of some of the contradictions via the Quran. Muslims honor and venerate Jesus, while the Quran clearly denies the divinity of Jesus. People assume just because Christianity has flaws and contradictions, ALL religions must also have these same flaws (in reference to Tom's critique). However, if you pick up the Quran and read it (which many are afraid to do) you will see that there are no flaws nor contradictions and the Quran describes God as being the One God to Whom everyone should turn to (not turning to those whom He sent). . .everyone is accountable for their actions (no dying for sins of man), and of course many other topics that apply to daily life. If the Quran wasn't revealed, the last major testament would have been the man-altered Bible that we have today filled with confusion, contradiction, and worst of all, the worshipping of other than the One who actually created us, created the skies, the earth, the individuality of our fingertips (all of which are mentioned in the Quran). Jesus never claimed to be the Creator nor did he say to worship him.

  9. After reading this book I understand why Muslims consider Jesus to be only a prophet.

    I cannot agree that the Quran is without flaws and contradictions, even if it were that does not lend it credibility because it is still based on supernaturalism - and that contradicts reality.

    Just to clarify, I did not write that because Christianity has these flaws and contradictions, so must other religions. that would be a fallaciuos argument. I have studied other religions and am no more impressed with them than with Christianity.

    A relevant example: I read some chapters in Ibn Warraq's book, "Why I am not a Muslim," that were about the Quran, hadith, and Islam's origins and the story there is pretty much the same as in Christianity. Western scholars have discovered that the Islamic texts are actually forgeries from up to two-hundred years after Mohammad allegedly lived. The original Muslims were actually a sect of Jews expecting the world's end and made up Islam as they went along, modeling Mohammad and the religion after the Old Testament Moses story. It was very revealing as are biblical criticism and biblical archaeology.

  10. I just have to wonder though, why you think we need ammo against christians? I mean, if what they believe is wrong, how is it harming you? I know a lot of christians who are forthcoming about their beliefs, but when they come accross an agnmostic, an athiest, a muslim, a mormon or a jew, they don't fire their biblical weapons to prove the other guys wrong

  11. Their wrong beliefs are necessarily harmful. This is a religion that held back progress for centuries. False belief-systems when accepted and acted on have bad consequences.

    I have to disagree with your last claim - and that is what my point is related to. They do uphold their bible as authoritiaive on how to live one's life and what to believe. The problem for them is that their bible has all the flaws men can make. Their 'Word of God' has forgeries in it. It has misattributed and misdated texts. It has alterations. There never was a stable, fixed text of the Bible. Many of their beliefs about their God and Jesus are not supported by the Biblical texts: they simply assume they are biblically-grounded, or they project those beliefs onto the Bible when they are not to be found in it. Then they say we should accept the authority of the Bible! If they actually took that advice and applied it to themselves, they'd have to discard many of their 'Christian' beliefs as un-Christian! And even if Christians did not "fire their biblical weapons to prove the other guys wrong" that does not mean that rational people who take ideas seriously should do likewise.

    In short, my point is that if the Bible undermines and even contradicts widely-held Christian beleifs, then what does support them? Well, nothing does - other than their mere say-so. So the lesson for us all to learn is: let's dispense with religious beliefs based on arbitrary assertions and form ideas and principles that are rationally demonstrable and valid. We'll all be better off then.

  12. JBP, Maryland29 December, 2009

    I completely agree that Christians beliefs are harmful, even deadly as soldiers of yore under Constantine's reign tore into Great Britain and other places under the banner of Christianity. What a bloody beginning of evangelical Christianity, eh? And yes they are dangerous today. Live in the Bible Belt for a good deal of one's life and one will see and experience that at some point. Look at the possibly harmful resurgence of the KKK spouting their version of Christianity. And can any of the right wing Christians be as dangerous as Al Queda? I'd say so. Bomb an abortion clinic and there are worse things I'm sure they could come up with given the right circumstances.

  13. Hello, I do not agree with the previous commentator - not so simple

  14. Perhaps the leaders of so called religious movement are not themselves religious but use the devout ignorance of the masses to sway their agenda. Wolves in sheep's cloth.

    Oppressors will use what ever means necessary to accomplish their goals; be it faith patriotism or even science, look at the green movement. If they find the niche they will exploit it to the best of their ability.