Sunday, November 20, 2005

Live (and Late) from SBL

Here's a belated report on yesterday's panel discussion with Bart Ehrman, Tom Wright, Dominic Crossan and Dale Martin on the authority of the Bible. The panel was reviewing Ehrman's and Wright's latest books. Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus is (it is said) the first ever layperson's introduction to textual criticism. It begins, unusually, with Ehrman's 'testimony' of how he was brought up in a church-going, but not very religious family, got 'born again', went to the Moody Bible Institute, then Wheaton (where doubts began), then Princeton (where he was finally flipped by the difficulty of Abiathar in Mark 2:26). Nothing so personal has yet appeared from Ehrman in print to my knowledge. I'd say that Wright and Ehrman came off about equal. Tom has brilliant verbal skills; Crossan came across as weak; Martin tried to pursue the line that Bart and Tom were making category errors by connecting history and theology too closely.

Bart clearly came across as the only one who knew about textual criticism and his premises were not challenged. The audience was about 500 and there was a lively debate in which various people were involved from the floor, including David Parker (against Tom) and Voelz (against Bart). Tom was the only one who defended anything like a traditional Christian approach to the Bible, though he explicitly distanced himself from speaking about 'God's words' as a designation of Scripture. The whole panel seemed agreed that verbal inspiration was moribund and only a belief maintained by the 'ultra-conservative'. Historically, of course, it is mainstream.

Overall I think that it is a pity that some of the premises of the discussion were not challenged, but I think that classic evangelicals have to do a bit more work on honing arguments before such a public debate would be at its most profitable.

[Update 3 Jan 2006: my review of Misquoting Jesus is now available here.]


  1. What was david parker saying against Wright?

  2. Peter, I totally agree with your summary of the debate and your exhortation about TC. I'm gonna read Ehrman's Lost Christianities in the next few weeks.

  3. Wright had been making positive statements about the accessibility of the NT and how manuscripts did not get in the way of that. Parker responded that Wright seemed to be treating manuscripts as a hurdle to be got over, when in fact they were the basis of everything. Earlier discussion had dealt with the history-theology divide. Parker said that it was not possible to divide the two in studying manuscripts.

    I should mention that, on reflection, Voelz's intervention was probably more related to Crossan than to Ehrman.

  4. Has anyone read Bart's book yet?

  5. Reading the jacket and the first several pages of Prof. Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus, one gets the impression that this is not just a pop introduction to textual criticism, but a motivated apologetic against Evangelicals, or at least a segment of Evangelicalism.

    He details that he grew up in an ordinary Episcopalian home, but that his conversion to Evangelicalism was precipitated by the efforts of a Campus Life youth leader who was really cool and who, Prof. Ehrman makes a point of saying, was paid for doing this work.

    This cool leader, a few years older than the rest of the teens and thus influential, claimed that Jesus could fill the void in their lives. This, Prof. Ehrman says, was appealing, after all they all experienced void in their lives, not because of a lack of a personal experience with Jesus, but because "We were teenagers!

    I suppose the provocative title and jacket cover were designed to sell books. (Prof. Ehrman said in the SBL session that his publisher didn't like his original title, and changed it accordingly for the Barnes and Noble crowd.)

    I wonder if the book follows the contours of his Orthodox Corruption which has the provocative title, makes early provocative claims, and then mitigates the provocation toward the end.

    Regarding the Evangelical claim to having an experience of salvation to fill personal void, I'm impressed that the very early non-Canonical work Odes of Solomon testifies to the same experience. Perhaps it is not as Christologically orthodox as we would like, since it was written in a Jewish-Christian community trying to sort out its monotheism with the notion of the incarnation and the present experience of the Spirit. Be that as it may, the Odes overflows with one attempt after another to convey this newfound experience of a relationship with God. Somehow, I think this corresponds with the Evangelical experience.


  6. I'm only on p. 83 at the moment, but so far I have found that the contents are rather innocuous compared with the title.

  7. Is there any chance that this debate / book review was recorded and can be posted online as an mp3?

  8. I'm not sure whether it was recorded. I guess that this doesn't usually happen at SBL. There certainly wasn't a microphone for the audience.