The Book of Bart

In the Bestseller 'Misquoting Jesus,' Agnostic Author Bart Ehrman Picks Apart the Gospels That Made a Disbeliever Out of Him

By Neely Tucker, Washington Post
March 5, 2006

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. Where does faith reside? In the soul? The mind, the marrow of the bones?

In the long hours of the night, the voices of the evangelical preachers on the AM dial seem to know. Believe, they say. Then daylight comes and the listeners' questions fade.

Bart Ehrman is a sermon, a parable, but of what? He's a best-selling author, a New Testament expert and perhaps a cautionary tale: the fundamentalist scholar who peered so hard into the origins of Christianity that he lost his faith altogether.

Once he was a seminarian and graduate of the Moody Bible Institute, a pillar of conservative Christianity. Its doctrine states that the Bible "is a divine revelation, the original autographs of which were verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit."

But after three decades of research into that divine revelation, Ehrman became an agnostic. What he found in the ancient papyri of the scriptorium was not the greatest story ever told, but the crumbling dust of his own faith.

"Sometimes Christian apologists say there are only three options to who Jesus was: a liar, a lunatic or the Lord," he tells a packed auditorium here at the University of North Carolina, where he chairs the department of religious studies. "But there could be a fourth option -- legend."

Ehrman's latest book, "Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why," has become one of the unlikeliest bestsellers of the year. A slender book of textual criticism, currently at No. 16 on the New York Times bestseller list, it casts doubt on any number of New Testament episodes that most Christians take as, well, gospel.

Example: A crowd readies itself to stone an adulterous woman to death. Jesus leans down, doodles in the dust. Says, let the one without sin cast the first stone. The crowd melts away. It's one of the most famous stories in the Bible.

And it's most likely fiction, says Ehrman, seconding other scholars who say scribes added the episode to the biblical canon centuries after the life of Christ.

There are dozens of other examples in "Misquoting Jesus," things that go to the heart of the faith, things that have puzzled scholars for centuries. What actually happened to Jesus of Nazareth, there on the sands of Judea? Was he a small-time Jewish revolutionary or the Son of God? Both? Neither?

These ancient questions have been the guideposts to Ehrman's life. His take on them -- first as devout believer in biblical inerrancy, then as a skeptic who rejects it all -- suggests a demand for black and white in an arena where others see faith, mystery and the far traces of the unknowable.

"I think Bart is writing about his personal journey, about legitimate things that bother him," says Darrell Bock, research professor of New Testament studies at the Dallas Theological Seminary. Like many Christian scholars who have studied the ancient scrolls, Bock says his faith was strengthened by the same process that destroyed Ehrman's.

Even if I don't have a high-definition photograph of the empty tomb to prove Christ's resurrection, there's the reaction to something after Christ died that is very hard to explain away," Bock says. "There was no resurrection tradition in Jewish theology. Where did it come from? How did these illiterate, impoverished fishermen create such a powerful religion?

"I can appreciate people feel differently. But sometimes I wonder if we are not all guilty of asking the Bible to do too much."

On a recent afternoon, Ehrman, 50, pulls off his fedora at the front of an auditorium. Some 350 students are filing in for Religion 22, one of the most popular classes on campus.

His text for today is the Gospel of John.

Thought to be the last written of the four Gospels that form the narrative of Christ's life, death and resurrection, it forms a cornerstone of the Christian faith. The problem is that it is distinctly different from the other three Gospels.

Ehrman looks the professorial part -- a not-too-tall man with a receding hairline, dressed in casual slacks and sport coat over a sweater. His shoes are scuffed. He is energetic and possessed of a gregarious personality that endears him to the student body. (He holds informal office hours on Wednesday nights in a local bar/restaurant.)

But as he paces back and forth across the stage, Ehrman ruthlessly pounces on the anomalies -- in this Gospel, Jesus isn't born in Bethlehem, he doesn't tell any parables, he never casts out a demon, there's no last supper. "None of that is found in John!" The crucifixion stories are different -- in Mark, Jesus is terrified on the cross; in John, he's perfectly composed. Key dates are different. The resurrection stories are different. Ehrman reels them off, rapid-fire, shell bursts against the bulwark of tradition.

"In Matthew, Mark and Luke, you find no trace of Jesus being divine," he says, his voice urgent. "In John, you do." He points out that in the other three books, it takes the disciples nearly half of Christ's ministry to learn who he is. John says no, no, everyone knew it from the beginning. "You shouldn't think something just because you believe it. You need reasons. That applies to religion. That applies to politics . . . just because your parents believe something isn't good enough."

The class files out a few minutes later.

"Most of the students have never heard anything like this in their lives," says Ben White, a graduate student. "For a lot of them, it's very threatening."

Ehrman doesn't mind this. He's often on CNN, the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, a scholar amused by "taking something really complicated and getting a sound bite out of it."

"Misquoting Jesus" is just that to some extent, a book of pop history about biblical misconceptions. The first of his 19 books to be a bestseller, it reads like one of his lectures -- an exploration into how the 27 books of the New Testament came to be cobbled together, a history rich with ecclesiastical politics, incompetent scribes and the difficulties of rendering oral traditions into a written text.

To get an idea of how complicated this can be, consider: Greek, the lingua franca of the day, was written without capitalization or punctuation.

Here, you play biblical translator. Look at this, an example in English, from Ehrman's book:


Does it say: God is now here.

Or: God is nowhere.

Sorting out these mysteries is the life Ehrman saw for himself since he was an uncertain teenager in Lawrence, Kan. He attended Trinity Episcopal on Vermont Street in Lawrence, but he and his family were casual in their faith. Lost in the middle of the pack in school, Ehrman felt an emptiness settle over him, something that lingered at nights after the lights were out, when the house was quiet.

One afternoon he went to a party at the house of a popular kid. It turned out to be a meeting of a Christian outreach youth group from a nearby college. In private talks, the charismatic young leader of the group told the 15-year-old Ehrman that the emptiness he felt inside was nothing less than his soul crying out for God. He quoted Scripture to prove it.

"Given my reverence for, but ignorance of, the Bible, it all sounded completely convincing," Ehrman writes.

One Saturday morning after having breakfast with the man, Ehrman went home, walked into his room and closed the door. He knelt by his bed and asked the Lord to come into his life.

He rose, and felt better, stronger. "It was your bona fide born-again experience."

The void in his heart was filled. The more he read the Bible, he says, the closer he felt to God.

His devotion soon engulfed him. "I told my friends, family, everyone about Christ," he remembers now. "The study of the Bible was a religious experience. The more you studied the Bible, the more spiritual you were. I memorized large parts of it. It was a spiritual exercise, like meditation."

He soon became a gung-ho Christian, a fundamentalist who believed the Bible contained no mistakes. He converted his family to his new faith. Schoolmates went off to the University of Kansas, but he enrolled in the Moody Bible Institute, an austere interdenominational institution in Chicago that forbade students to go to movies, play cards, dance, or have physical contact with the opposite sex.

It was spiritually thrilling.

For the next 12 years, he studied at Moody, at Wheaton College (another Christian institution in Illinois) and finally at Princeton Theological Seminary. He found he had a gift for languages. His specialty was the ancient texts that tried to explain what actually happened to Jesus Christ, and how the world's largest religion grew into being after his execution.

What he found there began to frighten him.

The Bible simply wasn't error-free. The mistakes grew exponentially as he traced translations through the centuries. There are some 5,700 ancient Greek manuscripts that are the basis of the modern versions of the New Testament, and scholars have uncovered more than 200,000 differences in those texts.

"Put it this way: There are more variances among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament," Ehrman summarizes.

Most of these are inconsequential errors in grammar or metaphor. But others are profound. The last 12 verses of the Gospel of Mark appear to have been added to the text years later -- and these are the only verses in that book that show Christ reappearing after his death.

Another critical passage is in 1 John, which explicitly sets out the Holy Trinity (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit). It is a cornerstone of Christian theology, and this is the only place where it is spelled out in the entire Bible -- but it appears to have been added to the text centuries later, by an unknown scribe.

For a man who believed the Bible was the inspired Word of God, Ehrman sought the true originals to shore up his faith. The problem: There are no original manuscripts of the Gospels, of any of the New Testament.

He wrote a tortured paper at Princeton that sought to explain how an episode in Mark might be true, despite clear evidence to the contrary. A professor wrote in the margin:

"Maybe Mark just made a mistake."

As simple as it was, it struck him to the core.

"The evidence for the belief is that if you look closely at the Bible, at the resurrection, you'll find the evidence for it," he says. "For me, that was the seed of its own destruction. It wasn't there. It isn't there."

Doubt about the events in the life of Christ are hardly new. There was never clear agreement in the most ancient texts as to the meaning of Christ's death. But for many Christians, the virgin birth, the passion of Christ, the resurrection on the third day -- these simply have to be facts, or there is no basis for the religion.

"The fundamental truth claims of the biblical record were historical things that were believed to have happened, not 'once upon a time' in a fairy tale or somewhere outside of time and space, but at specific times and places that belonged to the total history of the human race and that could be located on a map," writes Jaroslav Pelikan, one of the field's most respected scholars. "If the history of the resurrection of Christ had not really happened, the message . . . according to the authority of the apostle Paul, had to be 'null and void.' "

Ehrman slowly came to a horrifying realization: There was no real historical record. It was, he felt, all incense and myth, told by illiterate men and not set down in writing for decades.

Dark Bubbles

It is a difficult thing to chart the loss of faith.

Where does it go, this belief in things not seen?

Let's look at "In the Beauty of the Lilies." This is John Updike's novel of the fictional Rev. Clarence Arthur Wilmot, a Presbyterian minister, and his loss of faith. Wilmot, beset by doubt one afternoon in the rectory, "felt the last particles of his faith leave him. The sensation was distinct -- a visceral surrender, a set of dark sparkling bubbles escaping upward . . . there was no God, nor should there be."

For Ehrman, the dark sparkling bubbles cascaded out of him while teaching a class at Rutgers University on "The Problem of Suffering in Biblical Traditions." It was the mid-1980s, the Ethiopian famine was in full swing. Starving infants, mass death. Ehrman came to believe that not only was there no evidence of Jesus being divine, but neither was there a God paying attention.

"I just began to lose it," Ehrman says now, in a conversation that stretches from late afternoon into the evening. "It wasn't for lack of trying. But I just couldn't believe there was a God in charge of this mess . . . It was so emotionally charged. This whole business of 'the Bible is your life, and anyone who doesn't believe it is going to roast in hell.' "

He kept teaching, moving to Chapel Hill, kept hanging on to the shreds of belief, but the dark bubbles fled upward. He was a successful author, voted one of the most popular professors on campus, but he awoke one morning seven years ago and found the remnants of faith gone. No bubbles at all. He was soon to marry for the second time and his kids were grown. He stopped going to church.

"I would love for him to be there with me, and sometimes wish it was something we share," says Ehrman's wife, Sarah Beckwith, a professor of medieval literature at Duke University, and an Episcopalian. "But I respect the integrity of decisions he's made, even if I reject the logic by which he reached them."

"Bart was, like a lot of people who were converted to fundamental evangelicalism, converted to the certainty of it all, of having all the answers," says Dale Martin, Woolsey Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University, and a friend of three decades. "When he found out they were lying to him, he just didn't want anything to do with it.

"His wife and I go to Mass sometimes. He never comes with us anymore."

* * *

Life after the loss of faith, even for the deeply religious, is not necessarily a terrible thing.

Ehrman tools home from campus on a recent morning in his BMW convertible. He has a lovely house in the countryside, a wife who loves him and an ever-growing career. He is, he says, a "happy agnostic." That emptiness he felt as a teenager is still there, but he fills it with family, friends, work and the finer things in life.

He thinks that when you die, there are no Pearly Gates.

"I think you just cease to exist, like the mosquito you swatted yesterday."

On this particular morning, he turns his attention to his new book, the story of Judas Iscariot, the man who betrayed Christ. Judas resides, according to Dante, in the ninth circle of hell.

Ehrman's desk is filled with open books. His study is sun-filled, with a glass door giving onto a patio and the gentle pines of the Carolina forests.

Where does faith reside? Does it leave a residue when it is gone?

Bart Ehrman begins writing, the day unfolding, shafts of light falling through the window, the mysteries of the Gospels open before him.

» go to Atheists of Silicon Valley Debate page «

» go to Atheists of Silicon Valley home page «