Bart Ehrman: The Upton Sinclair of Jesus Studies

Look at the title of Bart Erhman’s new book in contrast with the title of its “flea” (the apologetic book that piggybacks on it):



Notice that Ehrman’s book title invites the reader to explore something available to investigation and data: the historical process by which Christians came to believe that Jesus is God. In other words, we all know that this was not a rabbit-out-of-the-hat process. Beliefs emerge out of history, and Ehrman attempts to trace the history and evolution of an idea. Ehrman is a historian. He’s not pronouncing on the metaphysical question of God’s existence or Jesus’s divinity.

But the historical question nerves out the apologist because it’s obviously not the sort of question that lends itself to certainty, clean presentation, and confident proclamation.

Ehrman is thus the Upton Sinclair of Christianity. His books are different iterations on The Jungle. They are histories of the manufacture of religion.


By contrast with Ehrman’s Jungle writing, the apologist really doesn’t want the religious flock to think all that much about the messy and contingent historical processes by which this or that religion evolved. He or she just wants to lay the plate of religious sausage before the consumer and say, “Eat.” So the history question gets sublimated or gussied up by the apologist beyond serious recognition, and in place of history, the apologist introduces metaphysics: Jesus is God right up front, he became man, and now I’ll spin the history in the light of this (unsupported) assumption.

It’s dishonest. It assumes in advance what is actually in question and in need of argument. It’s the game of confidence men, not seekers after truth. The truth is that we know less than we would like to–and pretend to know more than we do. And the truth is that every idea has a history–an evolutionary history.

It’s not always pleasant to think about how sausage is made–religious or otherwise. Ehrman’s new book is the chronicle of how the religious sausage of Jesus’s divinity got made before it hit our table.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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