Gospels: Canonical and Otherwise

I attended a public conversation (read: debate) tonight between Duke Divinity School’s Professor Richard Hayes and UNC-Chapel Hill’s famous agnostic religion professor Bart Ehrman. It was held in Goodson Chapel at Duke Divinity School. The conversation was prompted by the flurry of publicity that has surrounded the release several years ago of Ron Brown’s imfamous work, The Davinci Code. Apparently there is a movie soon to be released which features the acting of one Tom Hanks who supports a singularly disturbing head of hair. He does not look professorial so much as goblinesque. In addition, Ehrman was part of the very public process of authenticating and releasing to the mainstream media the Gospel of Judas (which I understand is available online at the National Geographic’s Web-site if you are interested in reading it.)

Graduate Christian Fellowship (the graduate InterVarsity group at Duke University) was part of the consortium of organizations that sponsored the event.

I can distill the essence of the conversation as follows:

1. Both Ehrman and Hayes agree that the book is poorly written and is totally lacking in evidentiary support for its thesis.

2. Ehrman contends that the early Christian church (he uses the term ‘proto-orthodoxy,’ i.e., ‘early mainstream Christian tradition) chose the four canonical Gospels over the twenty-five other gospels that exist in order to advance their own theological agenda. Ehrman believes that silencing these ‘alternative Christian witnesses’ has led to a less rich Christian tradition–lacking in theological diversity. Ehrman also (tonight) came close to inferring that the reasons that proto-orthodox believers “suppressed” the other gospel witness was basically a “power play.”

3. Hayes, on the other hand, readily agrees that the early orthodox Christian community chose Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the canonical gospels on the basis of theology. It is not somehow incongruous that a theological convocation should deems certain works to fail to adequately reflect theological truth and thus reject them. Basically the early date of authorship, the consistency of the canonical gospels with the canon of the OT (i.e., many non-canonical gospels are critical of the OT), and their continuity with the received tradition of the Church revealed these works to be of legitimate apostolic origin–although certainly orally transmitted to several generations before being written down in autographs that we no longer have.

It was an interesting talk and I realized just how much I have forgotten (or never knew) since I was in seminary. Regardless of whether one agress with Ehrman, Hayes, neither, or both, the level of their scholarship is quite impressive.

I should like, at a later date, to reflect on Ehrman’s methodology, which I contend is fundamentally modernistic and is the equal and opposite response to the conservative voices he so dislikes from his early days at Moody Bible Institute, which he mentioned no less than five times tonight!

One Reply to “Gospels: Canonical and Otherwise”

  1. It’d been 9 years since I’d heard Ehrman, and his tune hadn’t changed at all. The only difference was that I was much better prepared to hear him and sift through his presentation tonight than when I was a college sophomore.

    The quote of the night, which summed up why I can’t take Ehrman seriously, was “miracles cannot be proven historically.” Close behind was “the Gospel of Mark does not portray Jesus as God.” You’re exactly right that his take is quintessentially modern, and I’d say it’s an endless overreaction against the flaws of literalism that he rightly points out.

    I thought Hays did an excellent job of articulating a faithful Christian way of approaching modern scholarship.


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