Thursday, July 15, 2010

yes, but no: reading Bart Ehrman

I'm reading Bart D. Ehrman's book (Is it a classic yet? I suspect it is.), The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), which I've assigned to my History of New Testament Interpretation students. My interest in Ehrman's work stems primarily in his careful reading of actual ancient texts (rather than modern critical editions of ancient texts), though in my exposure to Ehrman thus far I can't help but think he moves too quickly and too easily from the data to his conclusions.

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It's taking me a long time to work through this book, precisely because it takes so much effort to disentangle the helpful bits from the problematic bits. Usually I wouldn't think the effort was worth it, but when Ehrman is insightful I typically think he's very insightful. Here, for starters, are some of the points I find especially helpful, with my comments interspersed.
The documents of this new canon could be circulated, of course, only to the extent that they were copied. And they were copied by warm-blooded scribes who were intimately familiar with the debates over doctrine that made their scribal labors a desideratum. It was within this milieu of controversy that scribes sometimes changed their scriptural texts to make them say what they were already known to mean. (xii; Ehrman's emphases)

New Testament critics have become accustomed over the last two centuries or so asking how the social, historical, and rhetorical situations in which authors wrote and readers read affected the texts in question. Ehrman reminds us that, prior to Gutenberg's revolution in book-making, every stage of book-production (especially the stage[s] of scribal transmission) was subject to socio-historical and -rhetorical processes. As my subsequent comments on Ehrman's argument will bear out, I think "changed" is perhaps too strong a term (at least in the way Ehrman uses it). But certainly copying a manuscript involved clarifying the text's wording in service of its meaning. For those of us who privilege a text's wording over its meaning (which is a distinctly post-Enlightenment development; at least, this is a working assumption I bring to the table and am interested in testing throughout the course of my career), this seems a very foreign perspective on the task of "copying" a written manuscript.

A little further on, Ehrman writes about the task that "intellectual historians" (and let's be wary of the exclusionary value of the adjective here) set for themselves:
Intellectual historians may be able to adjudicate some of the historical claims of the various Christian groups—their claims, that is, to stand in basic continuity with earlier forms of Christian belief. But by their very nature the historical disciplines do not allow for judgments in any ultimate sense concerning who was "right" and who was "wrong." (12)

I think Ehrman has a rather clear sense of what history can offer us here. Historians can investigate the historical contexts and dynamics of the Christian faith, but they cannot validate (or falsify) that faith. I admit I'm a little skeptical of how he will "adjudicate some of the historical claims of the various Christian groups" precisely because Ehrman, in the words of the Washington Post's Neely Tucker, "peered so hard into the origins of Christianity that he lost his faith altogether" ("The Book of Bart," March 5, 2006). That's nonsense, not because history can only confirm Christianity's truth but because historians, qua historians, aren't looking for their faith. They're looking for the realia of life in the past, and the Gospel of Thomas is as much a historical artifact as are Paul's letters (even if some of us don't look for our faith in Thomas like we do in Romans or Philippians).1 In my experience, it's hard for both historians and theologians (including Ehrman; including also myself) to respect the boundaries that distinguish the various disciplines.

So I appreciate what Ehrman's doing, even if I'm taking a critical stance toward his book from the very beginning. And there's lots to give us pause. As one example, in Ehrman's apologia for continuing to use the labels orthodoxy and heresy, he says:
For it is a historical fact that, owing to a variety of reasons, one group within early Christianity achieved social dominance and enforced its views on other groups that had supported divergent opinions. Looked at in sociohistorical terms, orthodoxy and heresy are concerned as much with struggles over power as with debates over ideas. (12; my emphasis)

This is hardly a historical fact. At what point in Christian history (even up to the twenty-first century, let alone before the fifth) did a single, monolithic group ever come to dominate the entire Christian church? Certainly ecclesial centers tried—with varying levels of success—to exercise control over other groups; Rome was never the only church to flex its muscles when a church somewhere else began to teach or do something someone found unnerving. Rome also wasn't the only church to find its efforts to control churches in other areas successful sometimes and at other times ineffectual. My point is that not just Christianity (broadly conceived) but orthodoxy itself exhibits a surprising measure of diversity. And if so, I'm just not sure how Ehrman's thesis will pan out.

But there's still lots of book to go, and we'll have to encounter his arguments as he makes them. Hopefully we'll find much to learn from Ehrman. And where we find his argument unconvincing, hopefully we'll sharpen and refine our own argument.

1 Indeed, most graduate students in a program such as the one in which I teach need to realize the difference between historical and theological investigations—the different questions and modes of inquiry relevant to each, the variant traditions of thought constraining each, and the different rhetorical postures relevant (and appropriate) to each.


Rich Griese said...

I like Ehrman's coining of the term "proto-orthodox". It allows us to have a term for what would eventually become the dominant Christian group view, BEFORE it became the dominant one. This is a good edition that Ehrman has made to the field.

Cheers! RichGriese.NET

clk said...

In response to your first question, absolutely it's a classic. Although the seeds were sown much earlier, Ehrman's Orthodox Corruption helped reinvigorate textual criticism and create a subdiscipline within it that's not interested primarily in variants and manuscripts per se, but in what they tell us about the social history of early Chrisitianity. Of course, some people don't like this approach to textual criticism (see your earlier post on Elliott's review of my book!).

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