LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The major festivals of the Christian year often prompt major cover stories in the nation’s weekly news magazines. Time, Newsweek and US News & World Report all regularly featured major articles timed for Christmas and Easter. The days of these cover articles may soon be over, however, since US News & World Report is no longer publishing a print edition, and Newsweek’s final print edition will be dated Dec. 31, 2012.
In years past, these cover articles had featured the work of reporters who interviewed a range of scholars and authorities from several theological perspectives. More recently, both Time and Newsweek have instead featured essays written by a single author.
Timed for this Christmas, Newsweek just released a cover essay by Bart D. Ehrman, who is well-known for his belief that the New Testament is largely historical fiction. “Who is Jesus?” is the question on the cover. “The Myths of Jesus” is the headline on the essay itself.
Newsweek’s agenda is clear, and it has chosen to feature a cover article denying the historical basis of Christmas as one of its last print editions.
Ehrman begins, predictably, by reviewing the controversy concerning the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” that emerged earlier this year when Professor Karen King of Harvard University claimed a tiny papyrus fragment to be a monumental discovery. Even as she insisted that the fragment did not prove in any sense that Jesus had a wife, she fueled the confusion in carefully-staged media appearances in which she referred to the fragment as “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.”
A professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Ehrman’s academic specialization is in the history of the New Testament and its times. As such, he dismissed the papyrus fragment as either irrelevant or a hoax. He writes, “As it turns out, most experts on early Christianity have come to think the fragment is a hoax, a forgery produced in recent years by an amateur who, unlike King and scholars of her stature, was not well versed in the niceties of Coptic grammar and so was unable to cover up the traces of his own deceit.”
A close look at that statement reveals a strong critique of Professor King who, according to Ehrman’s logic, should have been able to detect problems with a papyrus fragment probably manufactured by an amateur.
Ehrman cites that controversy, however, in order to make the point that there were hundreds of “proto-gospels” about Jesus floating about in the first few centuries of the Christian church, and that much of what modern people think they know about Christmas is actually not to be found in the New Testament.
He rightly states:
“As Christians around the world now prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth, it is worth considering that much of the ‘common knowledge’ about the babe in Bethlehem cannot be found in any scriptural authority, but is either a modern myth or based on Gospel accounts from outside the sacred bounds of Christian Scripture.”
That is profoundly true, of course. The New Testament tells us that Jesus was born in unusual circumstances and placed in a manger because “there was no room in the inn.” There is no innkeeper in the New Testament, however. There is no record of the number of the magi, no reference to Dec. 25 as the date of Christ’s birth, and no mention of barnyard animals, much less a little drummer boy.
Beyond these rather familiar matters, Ehrman also points to a host of claims about Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the larger Christmas story that amount to “legends and fabrications” that are rightly recognized as implausible and untrue.
Ehrman then turns to press his case on the New Testament itself, however. After reviewing a number of traditions and non-biblical accounts, he then asks: “Are the stories about Jesus’ birth that are in the New Testament any less unbelievable?”
He then says that the answer to that question “depends on whom you ask.” To leave no doubt, Ehrman answers the question directly in his essay. The New Testament writings “are not historically reliable descriptions of what really happened when Jesus was born,” he asserts.
Ehrman juxtaposes those who are “interested in affirming the narratives of Scripture” and those who are more interested in “knowing what actually happened in the past.”
He then explains:
“And there is indeed a very wide swath of scholars – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, agnostic, and others – who have a very different view of the accounts of Jesus’ birth in the New Testament and who realize that there are problems with the traditional stories as they are recounted for us in Matthew and Luke, the only two Gospels that contain infancy narratives. However valuable these writings may be for theological reflection on the meaning and importance of Jesus – and why should anyone deny that they are tremendously valuable for that? – they are not the sorts of historical sources that we might hope for if we are seriously engaged in trying to reconstruct the events of history.”
In other words, Ehrman argues that Matthew and Luke simply can’t be trusted to convey historical truth. He points to what he insists are inconsistencies and erroneous historical claims, arguing that though some try to explain these questions in an attempt to affirm the veracity of the Gospels, it is better just to abandon them altogether if you are “seriously engaged in trying to reconstruct the events of history.”
Just as a practical matter, a reading of Bart Ehrman’s many books, along with similar efforts, reveals that those who claim to abandon the New Testament in order to “reconstruct the events of history” find themselves coming back to the New Testament again and again. The reason for this is simple – there are no comparable sources.
But Ehrman reveals his real agenda in the sentence that follows his denial of the historical truthfulness of the New Testament. He asserts, “For some Christian believers that is a problem; for others, it is a liberation, as it frees the believer from having to base faith on the uncertainties provided by the imperfect historical record and the fallible historians who study it.”
In Ehrman’s view, liberation comes in freeing the believer from a faith based in the claims of the New Testament, or in any historical record, for that matter.
The interesting point about Ehrman’s proposed path of liberation for Christian believers is the fact that Ehrman is himself no longer a believer. He was once a conservative evangelical, but now describes himself as an agnostic who has left the church.
Like many others, Ehrman tries to argue that the New Testament is still useful for “theological reflection on the meaning and importance of Jesus.” He asks, “And why should anyone deny that they are tremendously valuable for that?”
But the New Testament does not present itself merely for the purpose of theological reflection. It makes unvarnished historical claims and direct statements of fact. Ehrman attempts to sideswipe this truth, stating that the New Testament contains writings identified as “gospels” rather than “histories.” But the word “history” in that sense is a fairly modern invention. The Gospels do contain interpretation and theological elaboration, but all four Gospels, including Matthew and Luke, contain explicit and pervasive historical material – the bedrock historical claims of Christianity itself.
Christianity stands or falls on the truth concerning Jesus, and thus it also stands or falls on the authority and truthfulness of the Bible. What you believe about historical truth defines what you believe about Jesus Christ. Without the revealed truths of the New Testament, there is no Christianity, just superstitions and fantasies about Jesus.
Interestingly, Bart Ehrman does believe that Jesus existed. In a recent book he debunks those who dismiss all claims about Christ as mere myth. He believes Jesus to have been a Jewish apocalyptic prophet, but not God incarnate in human flesh.
The cover article in the magazine, timed for maximum publicity at Christmas, was a premeditated act. Securing Bart Ehrman to write the essay set the course, and the cover art is intended to sell the magazine.
So, in the waning days of Newsweek as a print magazine, the editors decided to take on the New Testament. Readers should note carefully that it is Newsweek, and not the New Testament, that is going out of print.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – R. Albert Mohler is president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. This column first appeared at his website, AlbertMohler.com.)