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331 of 387 people found the following review helpful
This review is from: The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Paperback)
This book is well written and closely argued, but as an introduction to the subject matter it fails on at least one important level: Unlike, say, John Drane's "Introduction to the New Testament" or Raymond Brown's more detailed overview from the Catholic perspective, Ehrman does not introduce us to a representative sample of scholarly thought. Instead it mainly argues the case for Ehrman's own position, and in the process it takes for granted certain assumptions that are more widely contested than he seems willing to admit. In other words, there is a tendency to cite opinions that other equally reputable scholars would contest as though they were established fact.
Another difficulty with using this book as an introduction to the subject is that Ehrman does not give the reader enough assistance in investigating his influences and antecedents. He makes some quite radical assertions (e.g. challenging the traditional view that the oral traditions of pre-literate societies tend to be transmitted reliably) without the conventional footnotes quoting authorities and sources. Apart from some general further reading suggestions at the end of chapters, Ehrman's assertions along the lines that "recent research has shown" or "it is now accepted" have to be taken on his say-so alone.
Actually, Ehrman's antecedents are fairly obvious to anyone who has read theology - he continues the tradition of 19th century liberals like Wrede (and their 20th century disciples like Bultmann) who drew a sharp distinction between (i) the Jesus of history and (ii) the Christ of the Church's faith, and assumes that the Bible can only inform us about the latter. And yet this view is already past its sell-by date; from the systematic reconstructions of Tom Wright at the conservative end of the spectrum to the liberal "cherry-picking" of the Jesus Seminar, the energies of the critical community are heavily focused on a "Third Quest" for the historical Jesus. There is nothing instrinsically wrong with Ehrman's scholarship, but once again it is one-sided.
A more serious issue is that Ehrman goes a stage beyond Reimarus, Wrede and so on in his assumptions that first century Christian thought was at least as heterodox as we know second century thought to have been, that the ascendancy of the orthodox "brand" of Christianity was simply by a process of natural selection, and that generations of "proto-orthodox" NT redactors constantly and consciously changed and added to the texts as they went along - their intention being to filter out any ideas that seemed to challenge their prejudices and to provide ammunition in the fight against "heresy". This position is not systematically spelled out in the book under review (for that, see one of Ehrman's other books, "The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture"), but it needs stating here because these assumptions inform his whole approach to the subject.
This is more radical than it may sound, because it would imply that the four canonical Gospels are not necessarily any more authoritative as insights into the historical Jesus than the Gnostic and other apocryphal writings of the second century such as the "Gospel of Thomas". In fact, the very starting point for Ehrman's main discourse is the non-uniqueness of the traditionally-supposed key points of Jesus' life: He begins by recounting the miraculous birth, life, death and resurrection of a man the readers is allowed to assume is Jesus, but then (surprise!) turns out to be Appollonius of Tyana, a mythical miracle worker whose exploits are chronicled in the "histories" of Philostratus.
Ehrman's book has many good points. Its discussion of Marcan priority is the most lucid summary I have read, and its assessment of the historical background to each of the biblical Gospels and the Pauline writings is also outstanding. My problems with the book arise from its shuttered perspective. In the context of a more open discussion, and with greater care in documenting his sources, the author could have argued his own opinions just as coherently and with less danger of giving the inexperienced student a one-sided view of the issues.
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Tracked by 4 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 13 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 17, 2007 1:14:40 AM PST
Excellent review.

Posted on Apr 8, 2007 8:45:17 AM PDT
This is probably the most well-written book review I've read to date. I can't wait to read the book after finishing "Misquoting Jesus."

Posted on Jan 6, 2008 10:46:12 PM PST
NWG says:
3rd quest for historical Jesus is a big failure. As will be the fourth and the fifth and the sixth etc. etc. etc. If there's still no consensus amongst scholars, just as there wasn't a hundred years ago, what progress has been made? None. Zilch. We know next to nothing for sure, and even the few things that are agreed upon, no one can seem to agree on the whys wheres whens and hows of those things. Bultmann was right. As Robert Price said "I can make the new testament say anything I want it to". It is time to give up this Jesus Quest nonsense once and for all.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 6, 2008 7:50:48 AM PDT
J. Krueger says:
I heartily disagree with Mr. Greeley's comment. There's no consensus on how evolution works either, or how life came into existence, etc. Scholarship moves in fits and starts, and the professional sociology is a mess, to be sure, with competing paradigms. Agreeing wholeheartedly with others doesn't really get you promoted or published, so you need to quibble. But I would argue that the folks who are paying attention to the conversation (and not being contrarian or contentious) are learning a lot more to fill out the sketch of who Jesus was. Archaeological evidence can only do so much, but the successive fragmentary approaches each in turn add new facets to the mosaic of Jesus.
Humbly, Jim K.

Posted on Oct 19, 2009 4:50:05 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 19, 2009 4:52:07 AM PDT
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In reply to an earlier post on Dec 24, 2009 7:05:05 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 24, 2009 7:05:58 AM PST
M. Williams says:
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In reply to an earlier post on Apr 13, 2010 9:03:35 AM PDT
Strategos says:
Clearly, Mr. M.P. Williams has a high opinion of himself as a "textual critic for three decades" and a low opinion not only of Ehrman, but of the "ignorant general public" - whom he calls a "willing, foolish few". (Incidentally, the "general public" should surely be "many" rather than "few", but for Williams' taste for alliteration.

But with Williams' waiting for the end of days and posturing in the words of "Our Lord", why waste his time writing such a review? After all, he's one of the "Saved" because of his faith and his subtle critical capability!

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 22, 2010 9:27:15 AM PDT
Swampgirl says:
Mr. Williams says, "Our Lord stated "They will hate you as they hated me." There is little one can do about the dark side of human nature within these willing, foolish few until the end of days. "

Well if you would have just stated that you were a believer at the beginning of your comments, it would have saved me the time of reading it. Is calling yourself a "textual critic" a means of legitimizing your obvious bias?

Thank you, I've just purchased the book.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 25, 2010 8:39:48 AM PDT
Ditto, Swampgirl, I will also buy this book. After all, one must protect one's self from such long standing textual critics as Mr. Williams.

Posted on Jan 25, 2011 12:39:05 AM PST
apophenia says:
I must concur. Excellent review. I usually skim the haters, as they tend to be less adept at hiding their bias, and if a book has negatives, there is where they'll be found -- not in the groupies comments. It's refreshing to find a review that is critical but fair. As an atheistic Taoist, bordering on anti/theist, I thoroughly enjoy Ehrman's books, but I must confess that even I have blanched once or twice at his biased treatment of things -- especially his treatment of what he feels to be the appropriate stance towards the historicity of miracles, a view I doubt he could satisfactorily justify. Anyway, thanks again for the review. I'll probably purchase the book at some point, though I will consider the alternatives you mention (particularly Metzger, as Ehrman thinks highly of him, and so does the critic -- apparently Metzger is a good compromise). It's a shame Ehrman didn't footnote his work properly -- that's a negative for scholar or critic alike.
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