Bart Ehrman has become the new media darling of the 21st century. He’s been on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, the Colbert Report, and virtually all the major news media (e.g., NPR, ABC, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, and countless others). Publisher’s Weekly, which reviews newly released books for a general readership and is the bible for the main secular bookstores in America, ran an article not too long ago called “The Ehrman Effect,” showing that books by Ehrman as well as those stimulated by his writings (both pro and con) have captured a large market. Beginning with Misquoting Jesus (2005), followed by God’s Problem (2008), and most recently, Jesus, Interrupted (2009), Ehrman’s books have sold by the tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands.
What makes him so popular? Essentially, he’s a former evangelical who is becoming increasingly outspoken about leaving the faith. He’s now a ‘happy agnostic.’ And he’s not just someone who abandoned the faith, but someone who is a bona fide biblical scholar. The media are fascinated by him. Most recently, CNN ran a story on him (May 15, 2009) entitled, “Former fundamentalist ‘debunks’ Bible.”
To those who live in the world of biblical studies, CNN’s headline is a yawn. We’ve heard it before. Some years ago, I was on a committee that was working on a revision of the standard Greek grammar of the New Testament. The grammar, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, by Blass and Debrunner and translated by Robert W. Funk in 1961, has been known by students of the New Testament simply as Blass-Debrunner-Funk or BDF. Yes, that Funk, the former head of the Jesus Seminar. This small committee met annually for about ten years; Bob Funk occasionally showed up to urge us along in his own inimical style. Since he died and the chairman of the committee, Daryl Schmidt, died, the revision of this important work has come to a standstill.
In one of our annual two-day meetings about ten years ago, we got to discussing theological liberalism during lunch. Now before you think that this was a time for bashing liberals, you need to realize that most of the scholars on this committee were theologically liberal. And one of them casually mentioned that, as far as he was aware, 100% of all theological liberals came from an evangelical or fundamentalist background. I thought his numbers were a tad high since I had once met a liberal scholar who did not come from such a background. I’d give it 99%.
Whether it’s 99%, 100%, or only 75%, the fact is that overwhelmingly, theological liberals do not start their academic study of the scriptures as theological liberals. They become liberal somewhere along the road. I won’t discuss why that is here; that’s for another blog post. My point is simply this: Bart Ehrman is hardly unique.
But he’s adored by the media because here, finally, is someone who has seen the inside of the evangelical movement (or fundamentalist fortress) and can speak intelligently both about it and about the Bible—but from a viewpoint that no longer embraces either. Or so the media think. This is old news to biblical scholars. But what makes Ehrman different is that here’s a liberal scholar who not only writes for the public square; he also speaks about his own spiritual journey in those books.
I guess, in the end, I do get Bart Ehrman. He’s capitalized on a trend that finds its greatest impetus in Bob Funk’s Jesus Seminar: liberal scholars speaking in the language of the people, and being brutally honest about their beliefs (or lack thereof). But for anyone to think that the ideas presented in such trade books are new, earth-shaking, never-before-heard-of or dealt-with trouncings of the historic Christian faith knows very little about the state of biblical scholarship today.