For some Christians, Bart Ehrman is a kind of bogeyman. He marches in with a Ph.D. from Princeton, claiming that the biblical writers were mistaken about parts of Jesus’ life. He says that some of the books of the New Testament were deliberately forged in the names of apostles like Paul and Peter. He offers numerous reasons why the text of the New Testament is suspect. He even implies that there may be unscrupulous reasons why seminary-trained ministers keep promoting the doctrine of inerrancy when they know that the Bible contains mistakes. So why am I thankful for Bart Ehrman?
He Shows Us That We Have Gotten Lazy. Ehrman challenges us to look at the biblical text more closely than many of us do. If recent polls are remotely accurate, the average Christian barely opens his or her Bible during the week. If he or she opens it at all, it’s on Sunday morning – assuming it wasn’t left in the car or at home. Many of us carry a Bible just for show, or as little more than an accessory for our Sunday attire. The basic lack of familiarity many Christians have with the Bible—the very book they claim is the Word of God—is appalling.
He Forces Us to Think Through the Evidence. Ehrman’s conclusions aren’t always correct – that’s why we have to think. Some of his work is very helpful, particularly his book Did Jesus Exist? in which he defends the historicity of Jesus. But he has written extensively on the supposed errors—reaching into the tens if not hundreds of thousands—found in biblical manuscripts. This means that we must understand the objections raised against the reliability of the biblical text, and know how to answer them. Ehrman’s objections aren’t unanswerable; in fact, many highly-qualified scholars have answered them repeatedly. It’s up to us to be familiar with these points when our skeptical neighbors ask important questions.
He Defends the Historicity of Jesus. In Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, Ehrman does a respectable job of presenting the evidence for a historical Jesus. Although there are some errors in the book, he capably explains historical method. He also shows why the claims that Jesus was merely a myth are, at the end of the day, fairly silly. This book even inspired two rebuttals from a number of these mythicists, such as Earl Doherty’s The End of an Illusion: How Bart Ehrman’s “Did Jesus Exist” Has Laid the Case for an Historical Jesus to Rest and Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus (by multiple authors). (I have not read these books, mainly because (1) I refuse to spend good money on the intellectually vacuous and evidentially bereft material I can get free of charge from any number of mythicist blogs and websites, and (2) I’ve already read this kind of stuff elsewhere, and it isn’t impressive. Mythicists have a habit of rehashing the same material even after it’s been irrefutably answered.)
Human beings tend to be reactionary creatures. We tend to attack what we dislike, which includes those who disagree with us. We see challenges as something to conquer rather than something from which we can learn. Many people see Ehrman this way. I don’t. (I happen to like the guy. I briefly met him at a lecture at Middle Tennessee State University a couple of years ago) I prefer to see him as someone who can help me think through my faith—and the evidence supporting it—even though I powerfully disagree with some of his positions.