A Scholar That Changed My Perspective: Small Tribute to Bart D. Ehrman

As an old saying goes: We are all standing on the shoulders of giants. Despite the fact that some of us like to believe that everything we think is an isolated product of our own mental capacities, we are all, as Aristotle noted, by nature, social animals. We learn by looking at other people. The same holds true in academia. To become an expert in a particular field of history, one must read what experienced scholars before have said about it. You have to know what other people who have devoted their lives to a journey you are just about to embark on have said. More than 10 years have passed since I, for the first time, shift my focus to early Christian history. I have read countless books and articles written by other scholars and experts in the field. Some good, some bad. But none of them have influenced my academic world as Bart D. Ehrman did.

For those unfamiliar with the name, Bart is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He is a renowned expert in early Christian history and an author of numerous books and articles. His Ph.D. (Princeton) was related to textual criticism – a branch of textual scholarship, philology, and of literary criticism that is concerned with the identification of textual variants, or different versions, of either manuscripts or printed books. But he expanded his research interest to the historical Jesus and (generally speaking) the early Christian world. Moreover, he has a blog (much better than mine!) dedicated to bringing different early Christian topics to common people. You have to subscribe (a monthly fee of 5 or 6 dollars!) to read posts. Every penny he earns through the subscriptions goes to charity!

Already at the start of my academic journey, I was introduced to Ehrman through a debate he had with the Christian apologist William Lane Craig. The topic was: Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus? And as in so many stories before, this one began with great hostility. Why was that? To answer that I have to give a piece of background information regarding his life. Bart is known as a person who experienced a significant ideological shift in life. He was an Evangelical Christian who later denounced faith and became an agnostic. Although some claim that this happened because of his discoveries about the Gospels having numerous discrepancies and historical contradictions, the real reason he left his faith had nothing to do with early Christian history. Like countless people before him, Bart left Christianity because of the problem of evil. He could not reconcile the concept of a good and merciful God with so much evil and suffering in the world. Needless to say, he has been (and still is) a persona non grata within the traditional (conservative) Christian circles in the United States. Unfourtantly, I fell into the same trap. Being a Church going person back then, I saw Bart as an enemy who I have to debunk whenever I can. I was under the impression that his primal goal was to disprove Christianity and attract people to the atheistic or agnostic side.

As it turned out, I had to bow to the Master and recognize that lots of his arguments are persuasive. Just to name a few:

  1. Yes, the Gospels, from a historical perspective, contain numerous discrepancies and can’t be taken at face value.
  2. Historians can’t prove (or disprove!) Jesus’ resurrection because it is beyond their methodological framework. This was the position Bart defended in the above-mentioned debate with Craig.
  3. Jesus of Nazareth has to be looked for by scrutinizing all available sources just as you would do with any other historical person.
  4. Early Christianity didn’t grow in a vacuum. Christians developed ideas and beliefs using the shared cultural and religious milieu. So, yes there indeed are, for example, Platonic elements in early Christian tradition! In my earlier “hostility” stage of life, I was sure that the early Christians, to use a title from a book I read back then, didn’t borrow from Pagan thought. However, the concept of borrowing itself is misleading. But, we don’t have time for that now!
  5. Christianity did not storm through the Roman Empire with miraculous speed. Rather, the Christianization of the Empire was a complex phenomenon driven by various social, cultural, and theological forces that can be studied just as you would study the spread of any other religion in the history of mankind.

Most of these things are common knowledge among contemporary scholars. So, strictly speaking, some of the arguments listed above are not things he discovered and developed. But, none of them have the same ability in writing as Bart does. He always manages to present arguments in a simple but educational way. His style of writing is amazing! He shifts through different categories and explains complex issues without getting into the realm of boredom. To be fair, Bart’s wife is a professor of English literature. Maybe she has a hand in it! Jokes apart, if you want to learn about the early Christian world, Bart’s books are the place to go. But, it’s not just the books or articles. He is all over that place. It’s like his day lasts for 48 hours! In addition to the blog he runs and a series of books he wrote, Bart offers numerous online courses related to early Christian history, debates other scholars (which is always a great opportunity to hear different perspectives and arguments), gives online lectures that are recorded and available on YouTube, and he always finds time to answer questions. I had several lovely correspondences with him. One time I even manage to change his mind about a certain topic: the historical background of December 25th as the date of Jesus’ birth. At least, I think I did. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

On a serious note, I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. Bart is not an all-powerful God. There are a lot of areas where I disagree with him. Unlike him, I do think Jesus referred to himself when he spoke about the Son of Man. Moreover, I’m not persuaded by his arguments regarding Jesus’ burial. Bart thinks Jesus was never buried in a tomb. He believes that story regarding Joseph of Arimathea is fictional. I don’t think that the arguments he gives (and he relies heavily on J.D. Crossan’s views) are persuasive. The point I’m trying to make is that despite various disagreements, he has impacted my professional life in a more profound way. What do I mean by that?

Being a historian of early Christianity, you are always torn between historical scholarship and religious beliefs (whether you are a believer or not). I had the misfortune of experiencing discomfort from certain individuals who thought that my ideas and theories are a danger to Christianity. Speaking about contradiction in the Gospels is for them a serious breach of the norm and a sin worthy of punishment. Nevertheless, I’ve always tried to remain truthful to critical scholarship and the methodology of historical criticism. In part, because of Bart and his work. He always emphasizes the importance of historical truth. It is paramount to be open to arguments and ready to be convinced despite your previous ideological (religious or irreligious) beliefs. If you are a Christian and because of that you are absolutely sure that there are no historical errors in the Gospels, look at the arguments with an open mind! As St. Augustine said centuries ago: All truth is God’s truth! Also, if you are a hardcore atheist and because of your atheism, you believe that Jesus never existed, look at the arguments. Don’t allow yourself to be blindsided by your hatred or animosity toward Christianity. It serves you no good to enter into the realm of conspiracy theorists. Open your mind and look at the arguments. The ugliest truth is still better than the prettiest of lies. This is the most important lesson Bart has taught me and for that, I will be forever grateful.

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