My chat with Bart Erhman

The importance of intellectual hospitality


Bart Ehrman wandered into the IVP Academic booth today.

Ten years ago the prospect of chatting to a scholar of Ehrman’s standing would have been overwhelming. I would have awkwardly asked if I could help him find a book or, better, looked at the carpet.

Two decades ago I would have felt awkward at having such a prominent critic of Christianity in my presence–was his lack of orthodox belief communicable?

As I’ve aged I’ve come to recognize that things are very rarely as they seem on the surface.

It’s not an absolute rule, but its at least true some of the time that those who doubt may be closer to the truth than those who parley the truth into a lucrative career in evangelicalism.

I’m not say this applies to Bart, but it may do and I have no way of knowing whether or not it does.

Christians must be generous to those with whom we disagree

If you’re not familiar with his body of work you really should be. Here’s how he’s described on wikipedia:

Bart Denton Ehrman (/bɑːrt ˈɜːrmən/; born October 5, 1955) is an American New Testament scholar focusing on textual criticism of the New Testament, the historical Jesus, and the development of early Christianity. He has written and edited 30 books, including three college textbooks. He has also authored six New York Times bestsellers. He is currently the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Educated in evangelical institutions (Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College) prior to graduate work at Princeton Theological Seminary, Ehrman has become a public intellectual whose work is critical of the received tradition. 

He has been described as a terror to innocent evangelical undergraduates at UNC Chapel Hill. He tears at the shallow foundations of their received belief. His ‘radical’ and revisionist approach is part of his charm and much of his career. Iconoclasts always stand out.

At the same time he’s a nice guy.

We had a wonderful talk.

I mentioned that my wife is an Carolina alum and acquires in the area of Biblical studies. He asked when she graduated and how she got into publishing.

He seemed genuinely interested.

Then he said, “your [that is IVPs] academic books are your best ones.” It’s not a compliment precisely but it’s nice to know that he sees at least some marginal value in our publishing work.

It’s also not surprising that our books that posit Jesus as an object faith wouldn’t really be his thing.

By introducing myself to him and telling him that I value his work I wanted to extend a welcome to someone whose views are sharply different from my own.

The truth is, however, that without the challenge of scholar like Ehrman my own evangelical faith can easily become shallow and vapid, devoid of any serious intellectual content. One need only look at the best-selling Christian books to see this reality come to bear.


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