Bart Ehrman’s Worldview Problem
by Michael Kruger
I have just finished my formal review of Bart Ehrman’s latest book, How Jesus Became God–The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (HarperOne, 2014), and it should be available on the Reformation 21 website in the next week or so (I will provide a notice when it is posted).
In the meantime, I am beginning a series of blog posts responding to Ehrman’s new book. Some of these posts will draw on aspects of my forthcoming review, and some of these will be new observations about his book. This first post falls into the latter category and concerns the internal contradictions within Ehrman’s own worldview.
Even though Ehrman does not offer a comprehensive assessment of his own worldview, it is important to observe that throughout the book he presents himself as simply a historian. For 300-plus pages Ehrman claims he is just doing, well, what historians do. He is very clear that “religious faith and historical knowledge are two different ways of ‘knowing’” (132) and he puts himself in the latter camp. He is only interested in studying those events that “do not require faith in order to know about them” (132).
So committed is Ehrman to his role as a “historian” that he chides anyone who wants to insert value judgments into historical discussions. For example, Ehrman insists that we should not use terms like “heresy”or “orthodoxy” because that implies that somebody is really right and somebody is really wrong, and historians cannot make such judgments. These terms should be avoided because they are “value-laden” (319). Indeed, he says, “the historian has no access…to what is right in the eyes of God” (288).
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Thus, Ehrman is clear. Historians should be value-free in their declarations. They should not declare what is right and wrong. Why? Because historians, as historians, do not have access to such values.
But, then there is the epilogue. And it is here that Ehrman’s professed worldview begins to unravel. Having just written a book where he chides others for inserting their own values into historical discussions, Ehrman begins to insert his own. Here he offers a litany of complaints about the immorality of early Christians and how they were guilty of anti-semitism–anti-semitism which is caused, argues Ehrman, by the Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus. A belief that he claims has “horrific” implications (277).
At this point, however, the reader is mystified. Wasn’t it Ehrman who insisted that historians were not supposed to weigh in the rightness or wrongness of historical views (such as the Christian view about the divinity of Jesus!)? Wasn’t it Ehrman who insisted that it is the historian’s task to avoid declarations that are “value-laden”? Yet, here he feels completely free to offer his own moralizing at the end of his book.
But, the problems for Ehrman are even deeper…
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