Friday, 5 December 2008

Bart Ehrman and the Grace of Agnosticism

Having made the assertion in a previous blog that text critics are the nicest people in the world, I’m sorry to say that I’ve seen a couple of glaring exceptions, both involving panel book reviews at Society of Biblical Literature, and both involving Bart Ehrman.

The first exception was at SBL a couple of years ago. Larry Hurtado’s excellent volume on biblical manuscripts as the earliest artefacts of Christianity was presented for review by Prof. Ehrman and three others (Kim Eitzen-Haines and Anne-Marie Vanl.) Prof. Ehrman was perhaps more than forthright. Off the top of my head, I seem to recall that among the issues of contention was Prof. Hurtado’s presentation of evidence for the preferential status of writings which would later receive canonical status, as contrasted with writings which would later be deemed heretical. The vigorous exchange between the two good professors culminated in Ehrman’s explicit accusation that Hurtado was prejudiced by his prior theological commitments to historic Christianity, evoking Hurtado’s telling response that he was not the only panel member with prior theological commitments. This withheld statement screamed loudly the news that Ehrman’s recent publication, Misquoting Jesus was a shameless apologetic against historic Christianity, and precipitated Ehrman’s newest (2008) anti-apologetic work about how the Bible cannot explain the problem of pain.

I witnessed the second exception just last week at the annual SBL meeting in Boston. Again, the context was a panel review, this time of David Parker’s latest work on textual criticism Title. The panel featured perhaps five of the most recognised names in textual criticism: Eldon Epp, Ehrman, Hurtado, and Michael Holmes, and of course Prof. Parker. In this session, Prof. Ehrman was vitriolic and struck me as ungracious, if not outright vicious.

Before proceeding to Ehrman’s review, I should say something about Prof. Epp’s contribution. He briefly described the book, and then quickly moved to a point of contention he has with Prof. Parker. Prof. Parker seems entirely pleased to get beyond text types, but Prof. Epp doesn’t share such a dismissive perspective. He gave an excellent defence of text types, which he describes as being more like textual constellations. We look forward to reading his discussion of the topic in the coming year. Prof. Hurtado also reinforced Epp’s discussion.

After Prof. Epp’s paper, Prof. Ehrman proceeded to heap the highest praise on Prof. Parker, followed by what struck me as a concerted effort to be as insulting as possible. The primary point of substantial criticism was that the book fails to be an introductory text to our discipline, contrary to its subtitle. One gets the impression that if Prof. Parker had omitted the subtitle, Ehrman’s presentation would have been reduced down from 20 minutes to three or four. One or two others mentioned the same thing to me in private, but I found it interesting that instead of conceding the point, Prof. Parker took time in his response to embrace the notion that his book is indeed an introduction.

I should note that if the book is indeed to be read as an introduction, then Ehrman’s criticisms struck me as having the sound of truth in them. In this regard, I found Ehrman’s vitriol curious. At first, his comments seemed witty and good natured, evoking a number of chuckles throughout the large audience. However, after a string of such comments, their more sinister nature seemed in evidence. They seemed designed to ridicule and humiliate, and eventually, many in the audience realised that chuckling to these sorts of cheap shots was unbecoming of academia. Ehrman’s nasty as possible approach to critiquing this work was unnecessary. He could have graciously pointed to the weakness of referring to this volume as an “introduction” without trying to ridicule Parker as dithering and inept. Indeed, one or two of the other panellists mentioned the same criticism, but did so with respect and appreciation for Prof. Parker.

A good example of a stinging and crippling review with class and respect is Gordon Fee’s review of Ehrman’s Orthodox Corruption. In this short review, Prof. Fee’s criticism of Ehrman’s work is entirely devastating. However, the destructiveness of Prof. Fee’s criticism is actually rather subtle; one needs to read it carefully to see its power. Most importantly, Fee seems pained to write such a devastating critique. His criticisms are not the sort which are “in your face.” One need not be insulting when critiquing another person’s research.

I was impressed with Prof. Parker’s gracious response toward Prof. Ehrman. I would have been tempted to ignore Ehrman’s critique in its entirety, and spent my time engaging with the other three panellists.

It seems that Prof. Ehrman is destined to continue to sit on future review panels in textual criticism sessions at SBL, simply because he draws a crowd. This may indeed be rather unfortunate. I was told by someone that at least one significant text critic with close professional ties to Prof. Ehrman was quite embarrassed by his performance. Rightly so, and for this reason, one would hope that future reviews will be more disciplined.

One scholar asked if such ungraciousness is simply typical of someone who has made a major paradigm shift from Evangelicalism to agnosticism. The question may be enlightening.


Stephen C. Carlson said...

Interesting remarks. I wonder if the different assessments over what's "introductory" level may have to do with American vs. British educational systems.

Can you give a cite or a pointer to the review of Ehrman by Fee? I hadn't heard of it (not that I was looking....).

Tommy Wasserman said...

I know it was in an issue of Critical Reviews of Books in Religion, I think vol. 8 (1995).

Stephen C. Carlson said...


James E. Snapp, Jr. said...

It sounds like it was an interesting discussion. I wonder if it occurred to anyone that there might appear to be a conflict of interest when the co-author of TotNT is called upon to present a prominent review of a book which might compete with TotNT as a standard introduction to NTTC.

Yours in Christ,

James Snapp, Jr.

ukusm said...

Aren't these SBL reviews video taped or recorded? If they are, where can we get hold of them?