So why am I spending so much time on the introduction to Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?
My reasoning here is that I want to do my best to understand the author’s point of view: where is he coming from? Where does he want to take us? This is the place where readers start their journey from their own daily lives and enter the world of the author, the set and setting for what is to come. This is our introduction to the author and frames the arguments he is about to undertake.
Like the first day of class we learn what we are to expect from our instructor and what is expected of us.
Now there are at least a couple of levels this works on in human communication. There is the literal level where we can simply accept what we are told at face value, where we can passively receive and record the information like empty vessels being filled. Many students get the impression that that is what their teachers expect of them – that how they will be graded in the end is based on how well they regurgitate what is fed to them. This is why you constantly hear from your fellow students “Will this be on the test?” You might call this ‘rote learning’ – it is simply aimed at making the grade.
But there is also an interactive level of learning, where we collaborate with the instructor and not simply repeat what we are told but use new information to build an understanding that is uniquely our own. We engage with the materials in a creative way and form our own opinions informed by what is presented to us. We may be stimulated to search out additional information not on the syllabus. Here we are doing more than being taught what to think, but how to think for ourselves. Hearing a lecture, reading a text, participating in a conversation, or viewing a film is part of a dynamic process where new information is evaluated and integrated in an open ended ever-expanding exploration of the world around us.
Then there is a critical level where we can actively use our own intelligence and life experience to get a fix on what is perhaps unintentionally communicated to us. Like the way body language – or tone of voice – can either reinforce or create a dissonance between the literal meaning of the words one chooses and how we perceive that message. Sometimes a teacher will subtly indicate what sort of student he expects us to be. We can form opinions about whether the person is talking at us or to us. We might get an impression of how important they think the material is, or their attitude toward students, even how they feel about having the responsible position they do.
This is why I think the introduction is important to spend time and a little effort on: the author is trying to establish a certain relationship with us. And I think it’s important to seriously consider what kind of relationship the author is trying to build because the rest of the book will probably be informed by that initial ‘suspension of disbelief’ – do we accept the respective roles Ehrman is offering us?
Bart Ehrman is a respected member of the academic community, he knows that and wants to make sure we know that, too. He styles himself the ‘expert’ representing a consensus of ‘experts’ and spills quite a bit of ink in these first seven pages about what being an ‘expert’ entails. As I have already discussed, Ehrman seems to think the views of the ‘experts’ is generally unknown and implies that people interested in the topic don’t want to know what the opinion of the ‘experts’ is.
Like any story, conflict is needed to involve the reader and ultimately take sides – who are the heroes and who are the villains? It seems like Ehrman is casting himself in the role of hero, a voice crying out in the wilderness of ignorance.
Now is this the least bit credible? Here’s what Bart Ehrman says about himself:
Bart D. Ehrman is the author of more than twenty books, including the New York Times bestselling Misquoting Jesus and God’s Problem. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and is a leading authority on the Bible and the life of Jesus. He has been featured in Time and has appeared on Dateline NBC, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, CNN, the History Channel, major NPR shows, and other top media outlets.
Ehrman is employed teaching his views on Jesus, writes book after book about Jesus, appears as an expert on Jesus on in major media outlets. Ehrman is hardly laboring in obscurity!
Maybe he’s the only expert whose views get a hearing?
Of the thousands of scholars who do teach at such schools [major and minor accredited theological seminaries, divinity schools, universities, and colleges worldwide], none of them, to my knowledge, has any doubts that Jesus existed.
So it seems the ‘experts’ have a virtual lock on controlling any discussion about Jesus. It’s their job – they get paid to expound on Jesus to every student passing through those thousands of schools, and as far as Ehrman knows they are not merely the majority in the field but hold every last paying job in the field. And many of these other Jesus scholars have books out too, and no doubt get invited to share their perspectives on the radio, on television, in newspapers and magazines, and speaking engagements all around the world.
Despite Ehrman’s telling us all this, he still wants to paint himself and his thousands of like-minded experts as the underdogs, unwanted and unloved.
It seems very clear to me that Ehrman’s contention here is incredible. Quite the opposite!
But it makes a good story, doesn’t it?