The Problem With Bart Ehrman: SBL 2011

For me, this year's Society of Biblical Literature meeting in San Francisco was one of the best I've ever been to.  While I had to attend a lot of meetings, I also got to sit in on a number of very interesting sections and hear some intriguing papers. Unfortunately, I did not have time to blog (or really even upload pictures for that matter), which was unfortunate. Regardless, there was one presentation that I would like to comment briefly on. I'm speaking here of Bart Ehrman's paper, which he gave on Friday night.

Ehrman sat on a panel with Dom Crossan, Amy-Jill Levine and N.T. Wright. The session was supposed to be on biblical scholarship within the last 200 years and the influence that certain exegetes have had on the guild/discipline. While Crossan veered somewhat off topic, ultimately, his paper was still relevant to the subject. Levine and Wright both gave excellent lectures. However, I cannot say the same for Mr. Ehrman. In so many words, I must say that I was completely underwhelmed with his presentation. Not only was he completely off topic, his paper was quite out-of-line.

I have posted the video of the complete session just below. Ehrman gives the second speech, which comes just after Crossan. It is 20-25 minutes in length if you care to watch it. However, if you do so, you may well just be wasting your time. In a nutshell, the thesis of Ehrman's paper was this: Until you publish a dissertation and 2-3 monographs, you are not a biblical expert and therefore, cannot speak to the wider public about biblical matters or issues.

From my vantage point, this is just absurd. By the way, I must say that the entire time I was listening to Ehrman's paper, I thought that he must have been, in a veiled way, addressing a certain person but I did not know who. I heard the next morning that this presentation was likely an attack against Nicholas Perrin, who has written a book critiquing Ehrman. My view is that if Ehrman had a bone to pick with Perrin, he should have done that elsewhere and stayed on the topic assigned. Either way, Ehrman's paper was incredibly weak in its thesis.

So, here's my beef with Ehrman's thesis: 1) The fact that Ehrman set himself up as A) The one who gets to define who is and isn't a "biblical expert" and B) His own criteria for deciding this, is very problematic. Since he is the one who gets to do this, of course, he is using himself as the measuring mark. He sets himself up as the "expert" who gets to speak to the wider public and uses his own resume to base his judgments on. Anyone with a brain can see the problem in this. It, in fact, flies in the face of A) Democracy within biblical studies, and B) The entire concept of peer-review. This brings me to my second point.

2) Within the world of biblical studies, it is NOT enough or even proper to judge a person's work based on a person's name. Those who publish should have their work reviewed on the basis of content. This is why, within the scholarly world, we have the process of peer-review anyway. This is also why we have editors and readers at publishing houses. With reputable publishing houses it is not as if just anything gets by. Ehrman, of course, knows this. Yet, he needed to belabor the point and so, he seemed to conveniently ignore it.

3) Ehrman's work to the wider public, which he uses as the standard for speaking to the wider publich and which he said takes a lot of skill and talent compose (of course he would say this right, because these are traits, which again, he himself believes he has!), has a ton of flaws in it. In fact, a great number of his books were questioned and challenged by scholars before ever going into print. However, he ignored those comments and published anyway. Essentially, he ignored the peer-review process. So, the question must be raised, how can this "expert" (by his own terms) who has written for the wider public and whose work has been so wrong and/or misleading at many points, pass as real, sound scholarship and expertise? By the opinions of many reputable scholars, much of Ehrman's work is dubious and not to be taken seriously. The contradiction in terms, then, is that his own work is incredibly flawed, yet he still submits it to the wider public!  Perhaps it is the fact that at HarperCollins, once you reach a certain threshold of sales, you receive an extra $100,000 check.  This seems like a fine enough reason to keep publishing the same type of work all the while ignoring what peers in the guild are suggesting!  

4) What about the whole notion of growth in thought and scholarship? Inevitably, every scholar will have theological changes over the course of their careers. Here's a scenario then: If a scholar writes an initial work to the wider public at age 30 and then publishes a decade later, at age 40, but has changed his/her mind within that time span, does that negate the "expertise" of his or her earlier work? Ehrman's criteria simply cannot account for this fact. Therefore, this is but another reason I cannot take it seriously.

5) In his paper, Ehrman did not really distinguish between the "wider public" or the "Barnes & Noble crowd" and those who are church-goers. The fact is, the Barnes & Noble crowd is NOT one and the same as the church crowd! Many scholars do not have as their target audience the B&N crowd but rather, those within the church. Therefore, Ehrman is misguided in this area; he needs to make that distinction. Just because he is writing for the B&N audience does not mean everyone else is. Perhaps this not only shows Ehrman's ideological biases but his out-of-touch state with the church. Of course, it is his right to not write for church-goers. But it is NOT his right to deem who is and who is not allowed to write for the church or the wider public, nor to unwittingly conflate the two. Again, this is another reason I think Ehrman's paper was completely unfounded and impossible to take seriously.

While I do think that Ehrman should be taken seriously on other matters, this paper he gave should not be taken with any amount of seriousness whatsoever. I was highly disappointed that I wasted 20 or so minutes of my life hearing such a weak presentation from someone who has received so much acclaim. Yet, I am glad I got to hear Levine and Wright and for that matter, Crossan. Ultimately, these are just a handful of thoughts I wanted to scribble down and share. In the end, even several of the editors of reputable publishing houses that I talked to also thought the speech was incredibly vain and empty. Having said all that, the video is below, if you'd like to watch. Yet, if you want to make the best use of your time, watch Crossan, Levine and Wright; you'll enjoy it!

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