One or Many Gospels?

Many Christians may never have heard the names Walter Bauer or Bart Ehrman, but chances are they’ve heard their ideas, particularly, Ehrman. Who is Bart Ehrman, and how much influence do you think he has on the ideas people hold about the New Testament? 

Bart Ehrman is the head of the religion department at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he typically teaches NT survey and other classes taken by college freshmen who become the unsuspecting victims of his skepticism. To some, it has appeared that his agenda is to convert his students from Christianity to atheism or at least agnosticism, though he denies this. According to Ehrman, he is simply providing people with “the facts” – at least the way Ehrman sees them.

Ehrman is also a bestselling author who has a knack for addressing scholarly topic in a way that is accessible for a lay audience and so has been highly influential even on those who may not know who he is or what his agenda is. Ehrman presents himself as a historian who looks at the evidence apart from any faith commitment and so is able to enlighten those who have been indoctrinated by the institutional church with a faith that is unsupported by the evidence.

However, as we show in our book The Heresy of Orthodoxy and also in two other volumes, Truth Matters and Truth in a Culture of Doubt, Ehrman often only tells his audience one side of the story, which alleges that the Bible is full of contradictions and corruption, when that is in fact not true at all. So, ultimately, he is very misleading and tendentious and pursuing a skeptical agenda that we seek to expose and unmask especially in the first chapter o Truth Matters which bears the title “Skepticism 101.”

Who is Walter Bauer and what influence did he have on Ehrman’s ideas? 

Yes, so Walter Bauer is a German theologian who did his work mostly in the first half of the 20th century. People know him primarily for his Greek dictionary and his work in linguistics, but he also wrote a book called Heresy and Orthodoxy in Earliest Christianity in which he sets forth his famous Bauer thesis. He first published that book in 1934 but translation into English only occurred in 1971. Even though Bauer’s work has numerous egregious flaws, Ehrman still uses it because it serves his purpose to discredit Christianity as only one version of the Christian faith rather than as the definitive, authoritative expression of it.

What is the Bauer thesis? 

Well, yes, in short, Walter Bauer’s theory says that in the beginning, Christianity was diverse, and only later coalesced into what we know today as the Christian faith. In other words, in the first and early second century, Bauer claimed, there was no such thing as orthodoxy. There were rather multiple Christianities (in the plural) that could equally stake the claim of being true.

How diverse was early Christianity? Was it simply a melting pot of ideas about Jesus? 

Well, the funny thing is that even though Bauer called his work, Heresy and Orthodoxy in Earliest Christianity, he never actually studied the first century! His is essentially a study of Christianity in the second century in four major urban centers such as Ephesus. So his claim to have studied “earliest” Christianity is patently false. What we find when we actually look at the first-century evidence, as we show in our book, is that there was a very strong definition of apostolic Christianity and the gospel and people who taught contrary to it were denounced by the first Christians in the strongest terms possible. Think of Acts 2:42, for example, where Luke writes that the first Christians were “devoted to the apostles’ teaching.”

Or take a look at Galatians 1, where Paul writes that some in Galatia were “turning to a different gospel” and goes on to say that if anyone were to preach a gospel contrary to the one he preached to the Galatians, he should be accursed. And he repeats that if anyone were to preach a gospel contrary to the one the Galatians received, let him be accursed. He says that because he got the gospel from Christ himself on the road to Damascus! At the beginning of Romans, he calls himself an apostle set apart for the gospel of God, and goes on to say that this gospel God “promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures” (Rom. 1:2).

So, here is the deal: apostolic Christianity in its core beliefs was fixed from the very beginning, because the gospel was not a new invention but had deep roots in the Old Testament teaching about God, his righteousness and covenant faithfulness, and the Messiah he would send. So there is one God, and one Messiah, and one way of salvation, just there is also one gospel, one message of good news of salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ. There was no diversity in any of that whatsoever in the first century within the bounds of apostolic, historic, orthodox Christianity.

Can you talk about the difference between heresy and orthodoxy? Is it true that orthodoxy was decided by the winners of certain theological battles? 

So, heresy is a distortion of orthodoxy or accurate teaching about the Christian faith. In the first century, orthodox teaching centered around the gospel, the saving message about Jesus Christ. For example, in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Paul writes that the gospel says “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to” countless people after he rose from the dead.

And in Romans 1:16-17 he writes, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes …. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”

Then, in the second century, the early church Fathers called the gospel “the rule of faith.” So in both the first and the second centuries, there was already a clear understanding what the gospel was, and there was no diversity as to the core Christian message. There may have been some diversity on non-essential matters, but that’s a different issue.

Also, there was diversity in the sense that we have four Gospels, each written from a particular vantage point in a unique style and with unique emphases, but none of that rises to the level of contradiction or disagreement as to what the core gospel is.

So part of the problem with Bart Ehrman, we believe, that he lumps all of this together into the category “contradiction” and “diversity.” Instead, we need to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate diversity, that is, legitimate diversity with regard to worship styles, personalities, and so forth, versus illegitimate diversity, that is, contradictory messages on the core beliefs of Christianity.

And, no, it is not true that the winners of certain theological battles decided orthodoxy. That’s more of a conspiracy theory and part of a sociological theory that truth was decided by the powerful but that in fact there is no such thing as absolute truth. So here Ehrman essentially presupposes that there is no such thing as absolute truth and then engages in circular reasoning when he tries to show that truth is merely a result of the powerful imposing their beliefs on the powerless.

When we talk about the New Testament canon, what do we mean? What is the canon? 

The canon is essentially the collection of the NT writings, which consist of 27 books, in a particular order. The English order, as you know, is the four Gospels, the book of Acts, the Pauline and non-Pauline letters, and finally the book of Revelation. Again, Ehrman claims that it was only in the 4th century that the church decided on those books, but history shows otherwise.

The fourfold Gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John was already widely accepted in the second century, as we can see in canonical lists such as the Muratorian Canon or church Fathers such as Irenaeus who said four Gospels are as natural as four winds or the four corners of the earth.

But, really, the idea of a New Testament relates closely to Jesus’s establishment of a new covenant, so just like the Old Testament canon chronicles several covenants God made with his people, so the New Testament is essentially the record of the new covenant and the implications of that new covenant on the life of believers in Jesus.

How did the canon process work for the New Testament? 

Well, so that’s an interesting question. There was definitely a process involved, so we see a development that is common called the process of canonization. At the same time, we would argue that God inspired the New Testament writings, such each of the twenty-seven books bears an intrinsic spiritual quality or attribute of divine inspiration. In other words, the New Testament writings were divinely revealed and inspired right as the Holy Spirit moved the various writers of Scripture.

Then, it took the church several decades to acknowledge the inspiration of those writings, for the most part assessing their connection with the apostles, whether direct or indirect. It’s a little bit like the COVID vaccines, which are already effective but which still need to go through a process of verification and testing by the FDA before receiving formal approval.

One of the claims that Ehrman often focuses on is the idea that so much of the New Testament changed from the time it was written until it made its way into our bookstores. How do you respond to that claim?

Yes, he routinely says there are hundreds of thousands of variants, so we don’t really know what the NT says. That’s highly misleading. First of all, the vast majority of the New Testament variants are completely inconsequential and involve trivial matters such as spelling errors, easy-to-spot nonsense readings, variation in word order, or Greek article changes. Second, none of these variants affects any major Christian doctrine in any way. Third, having a lot of variants is in part the result of having so many NT manuscripts in the first place which is surely a good thing.

Of course, the more manuscripts, the more variants, so Ehrman here puts the Bible in a no-win situation. If we only have a few manuscripts, he says we have weak support; if we have many, he says there are too many variants. The truth is, there is a scholarly discipline called textual criticism, which is normally able to determine the likely original reading when there are multiple variant readings. Even Ehrman presupposes this, or he couldn’t be so sure that the current New Testament is corrupt!

I should also add that many of our New Testament manuscripts are very early, so there is little time during which errors could have crept in. The fact is, it was human who copied manuscripts, so human error could have crept it, but that doesn’t affect the original, inspired text. We’ve always defined inerrancy as pertaining to the original autographs, not to later copies.

In The Heresy of Orthodoxy, you write that the Bauer-Ehrman thesis is invalid, and that early Christianity was a “largely unified movement that had coalesced around the conviction that Jesus was the Messiah and preached Jesus crucified, buried, and risen on the third day according to the Scriptures.” Why do you think the Bauer-Ehrman thesis continues to remain popular despite being so soundly discredited?

Well, as I said, Bauer’s theory claims that in the beginning, Christianity was diverse, and only later coalesced into what we know today as the Christian faith. You can see how this appeals to contemporary culture, which, as the subtitle of our book suggests, are fascinated with diversity. This is why people like Bart Ehrman, who acknowledges the flaws of Bauer’s theory in many respects. Yet he still draws on it to affirm Christian diversity in the first century and uses it to debunk the truthfulness of the Bible and its claims regarding Jesus.

As a result, Ehrman speaks of the writers of Scripture as “proto-orthodox” and says it was only the Roman church later on that used its clout to decree what Christians were to believe and branded everything else as heretical. It’s really a rather cynical view, as it says there is no such thing as absolute truth; all truth is relative and simply a matter of what the powerful impose on others. So, that’s why Bauer’s theory still hangs around: It resonates with our contemporary culture’s fascination with diversity and imposes it onto first-century Christianity.

You are an expert on the book of John. Why did you choose John to focus on? 

Of all the Gospels, John wrote last, and so provides the capstone of the fourfold Gospel. Also, as the one closest to Jesus during his earthly ministry, he was in a unique position to bear witness to Jesus. I love the fact that John is so simply in his language and yet so profound in his theology. He also most clearly identifies Jesus as God and affirms his eternal existence with God the Father from all eternity.

You’ve written several commentaries and introductions. Why did you write your new book, Signs of the Messiah?

The immediate occasion were several chapel messages and talks I gave at Midwestern Seminary for a workshop for people in the local community. When the last set of talks were going to be virtual because of the pandemic, I decided to write those up for publication and to publish all nine of them in Signs of the Messiah. My purpose was to equip anyone who would like to engage in in-depth study of John’s Gospel with a basic sense of the historical background, the literary structure, and the theological message of the Gospel.

I also wanted to provide a straightforward, accessible introduction to John’s Gospel for all believers and even unbelievers who are interested in assessing the claims of Christ for themselves. I’ve been fascinated with John’s Gospel for over thirty years now, and in this book I wanted to distil my work in the Gospel over the years to hopefully leave a lasting legacy of believing scholarship on John’s Gospel.

Often, people claim that the book of John is very different from, or even in contradiction to, the other three Gospels. How would you respond to that?

Well, as far as John being different from the three earlier, so-called Synoptic Gospels, is concerned, I’d say to some extent, guilty as charged! But that’s an asset, not a liability, as there would have been no point writing up for a fourth time what the first three Gospels already said. I believe that as eyewitness, and writing a couple decades later than the earlier Gospels, John wrote to supplement the earlier Gospels and to give us unique theological perspective on who Jesus was. To that end, he omits a lot of material from the Synoptics: the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s prayer, demon exorcisms, even parables and Jesus’s teaching on the kingdom. He also doesn’t feature Jesus’s end-time Olivet Discourse and doesn’t include the account of the Transfiguration.

I could go on. Instead, John shows that Jesus came as God incarnate, as God in the flesh, and focuses on seven selected messianic signs of Jesus. That’s what I focus on in my new book, Signs of the Messiah. He features those to show that Jesus presented more than enough evidence to prove that he was the Messiah – he healed the sick, he opened the eyes of the blind, and he even raised the dead. So if anyone is assessing the evidence that Jesus is the Messiah, he or she has no reason not to believe. To show that, is the burden of John’s Gospel: “God so loved the world, that he sent his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Note: These are notes for an interview with Alisa Childers (though not the transcript). To listen to the podcast, click here.

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