Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Taking on scholarship is never a bad idea, just a tricky one. However, taking on scholarship in a blog post is a bad idea; if only because there's little room for scholarly nuance in a blog post.

Bart Ehrman's position here is that pseudonym = lie, and even if we don't think so today, people did "back then." And we don't think so today. George Goodman called himself "Adam Smith" and penned a number of works on economics under that name. Everyone knew it was a pseudonym for the famous economist; no one called George Goodman a liar. "Betty Crocker," I was reminded this morning, was not only a fictional character but a radio personality; and I've yet to hear anyone call the creators of Betty Crocker liars. Ann Landers was also a pseudonym; were those columns all lies? I know of several modern novelists who publish so many books a year (some publish one a month) that it is impossible for one person to produce so much prose. Yet they are published under one person's name. All liars? Were the people of ancient times more scrupulous about these things than we are today? We know of a number of works attributed to famous names which were not actually the personal creations of those famous persons: are all those creations lies? And really, are all the biblical scholars wrong, and Ehrman alone has the true revelation?

We have lost, over time, a great deal of bibliographic material about creators and origins and sources. Indeed, the practice of bibliography is the preservation of this knowledge; but just because we've lost information and misunderstood ancient writings because of that loss, is no reason to call the creator of that work a liar. Is the writer of 1 Timothy a liar because he extended the rather conservative advice of Paul in 1 Corinthians to another community, and used Paul's authority to do so? Should we, by the same token, declare a lie the ancient claim that the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures are the books of Moses? Everyone knows they aren't; but they were accepted as such originally, or at some point in the creation of the canon. Does that mark them forever?

My personal opinion is that Ehrman has tasted the sweet honey of fame and notoriety, and he wants to go on tasting it, so rather like Karen Armstrong, he tries to make fashionably outrageous statements that pretend to take modern Biblical scholarship to the people, while still proving he's not a hidebound and pedantic scholar, but still "one of us." It's an awkward position to take, and he doesn't stand on it as well as he thinks he does.

Indeed, we don't really need that stance. Are there conflicts within the canon? They exist as early as the first history of the church, the second part of "Luke" known as "Acts." Peter and Paul disagree over whether the teachings of Jesus should go to Jews alone, or also to Gentiles. Even after a vision from God, Peter can never quite give up his conviction that the message of the Messiah was for the children of Abraham alone (not because they were superior to Gentiles, but because they were members of the covenant with God, from Moses on Sinai, from Abram in Genesis 12.). And the letters attributed to Peter emphasize matters Paul never discusses or expresses concern with. Some of that emphasis creates conflict between the teachings of the letters. Certainly 1 Timothy's admonitions against women conflicts with Paul's "legitimate" letters in the canon. And what church takes every word of every letter as binding law which must be followed in order to be "truly" Christian? And how many of us who profess Christianity think such restrictiveness is necessary to our confession?

Ultimately, Ehrman is trying to provide a solution to a problem that doesn't exist, and to do it he wants to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I find it easier to disagree with 1 Timothy, or to understand its position in the canon and as a pseudo-Pauline work. Besides, scripture engages my mind, not my blind devotion to what is considered canonical.

1 comment:

  1. I always hesitate to comment on someone whom I haven't read, but every time I picked up "Misquoting Jesus" in a bookstore I found it depressingly disingenuous wherever I flipped. (I never even found where Jesus was misquoted.)

    There is that breathless sense that he's revealing some hidden, shocking secret, as if this stuff hasn't been around since the days when Victoria reigned. If it's not widely known, it isn't because it hasn't been there for perusal. And if it isn't preached, I suspect that's because there's not much point to preaching it. So what if Peter didn't write Second Peter? If that means it has no authority, it should come out of the canon. If it has the authority of scripture, it doesn't need the authority of Peter. So what's the point?

    You can glipse Ehrmann's evangelical background in the way that he traces the male priesthood to the application of a sentence in the Timothy letter. Does he imagine that there was a great cadre of female clergy, who were removed from office when someone passed off this letter as Paul's? Surely, if the letter were by someone else, it would have reflected conditions in the Church, rather than have made wrenching changes.

    And there is that attribution of inerrency to the prevailing consensus. Personally I am persuaded that 2 Peter is not the work of Peter. But I don't know that. The same goes for the identification of the "genuine" letters of Paul. I appreciate the arguments, but they at best speak to possibilities. One could as easily assert that the author of "The Dead" could not possibly have written "Finnegan's Wake." Who am I to say that, based on this, a given author could not possibly have written that?

    What is irritating about Ehrmann is that he speaks mainly to those with no familiarity either with scripture or with the critical enterprise of the last hundred and fifty years. His assertions of "misquoting" and "lying" mostly operate to give the uninformed permission to remain that way. It's a shame that that's what popular scholarship has come to be about.

    But I'm trying not to care.