Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Book of the Month: Jesus, Interrupted

Since it's a new year and I've been doing a serious amount of reading lately, I think it's time to bring back my old book of the month feature.

January's book of the month is Bart Ehrman's Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them).

If you want a primer on Biblical research from a scholar's point of view, then this is an excellent place to start. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he specializes in Biblical scholarship. Basically, he knows what he's talking about when it comes to the Bible.

Now the central thesis of Jesus, Interrupted is that the Bible is a historical document like any other, and should be treated as such. Ehrman stresses he is not trying to destroy anyone's faith or convert believers to nonbelief. He simply wants to make well known knowledge available to the masses.

Starting out, Ehrman recounts his experience in the seminary where he first learned about the errors and contradictions and the wrongly accredited books within the Bible, all of which have been well known to theologians for centuries and are not particularly noteworthy. As for why the general public does not know about these basic facts, Ehrman doesn't really have an answer, but his speculations sound plausible enough considering the nature of religious discourse in the US. Generally, he figures most seminary trained pastors have little interest in damaging their parishioners' faiths or delving into scholarship when they have preaching to do.

Then Ehrman gets into the meat of the book, focusing on the differences and inconsistencies of the Gospels. He discusses the timeline of when each book was written and which book was based on the other, including which were based on texts that are now lost. Then he examines the differences in the actual stories told within and how they really don't line up no matter how much hand-waving is done.

Next, he covers the evolution of Christian doctrine in century following Jesus' death. In the beginning, Christianity was far more egalitarian and subject to wildly differing interpretations depending on the sect. However, this changed as time progressed and a particular sect or sects (the details have been lost to history) sought a more hierarchical approach, either discrediting rival sects or incorporating them into the growing, centralized church. This evolution is evident within the Bible, if one understands the background of each book and who actually wrote them.

The last few chapters deal with what a historian can actually say about Jesus and early Christianity, based on the available evidence. First off, a scholar can't really say whether or not Jesus performed miracles or was resurrected. Historians must stick with the most plausible explanation when the evidence is lacking. Obviously, miracles and resurrections wouldn't exactly fit. Instead, Ehrman offers a more likely explanation: Jesus was a heretical rabbi who learned his apocalyptic views from John the Baptist. Eventually, he took his end of the world sermons to Jerusalem, where he upset the temple priests, leading to his execution. The rest of the story is simply the work of legend as the tale grew with the telling.

I could keep sharing the nuggets of wisdom contained within Jesus, Interrupted, but you'd be better off reading the book yourself. It's a delicious tonic for biblical literalism.

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