Skip to main content

The Gospel Truth: Sometimes A Little Hazy

Bible scholar Bart Ehrman says the Gospels are at odds with each other on important points regarding the life, death and divinity of Jesus.

44:07

Other segments from the episode on March 4, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 4, 2009: Interview with Bart D. Ehrman; Commentary on Pinnochio.

Transcript

*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20090304
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
The Gospel Truth: Sometimes A Little Hazy

TERRY GROSS, host:

From WHYY in Philadelphia, I’m Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. What is the story of Jesus’s
birth? How did Judas die? What did Jesus say when he was crucified? It
depends on which gospel you read. Bible scholar Bart Ehrman says there
are irreconcilable differences among the gospels. Those differences, and
what they tell us about Christianity and the authors of the gospels, is
the subject of Ehrman’s new book, “Jesus Interrupted.”

Ehrman is a distinguished professor of religious studies at the
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and he’s the author of many
books about bible history, including the bestseller, “Misquoting Jesus.”

As a young man studying at the Moody Bible Institute, he was an
evangelical Christian who believed the Bible was the inerrant word of
God. But later, when he was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary
and started reading the Bible with a more historical approach, analyzing
the contradictions among the gospels, he lost faith in the Bible as the
literal word of God. He now describes himself as an agnostic.

Bart Ehrman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. In your book, “Jesus
Interrupted,” you compare the gospels and discrepancies from one gospel
to another in everything from factoids to what Jesus said before he
died. Why is it important to consider these discrepancies?

Dr. BART EHRMAN (Professor of Religious Studies, University of North
Carolina; Author, “Jesus Interrupted”): I think it’s important to know
that each of these authors of the New Testament had a different message.
What people tend to do is ally to the various teachings of say, Matthew,
Mark, Luke and John - so that if Matthew portrays Jesus in one way, and
Mark portrays him in a different way, what people do is they conflate
the two accounts so that Jesus says and does everything that he says in
Matthew and in Mark. But when you do that, you in fact rob each of these
authors of their own integrity as an author.

When Matthew was writing, he didn’t intend for somebody to read some
other gospel and interpret his gospel in light of what some other author
said. He had his own message. And so, recognizing that there are these
discrepancies is a, kind of, a key to the interpretation of these books
because it shows that they each have a different message and that you
can’t smash the four gospels into one big gospel and think that you get
the true understanding.

GROSS: Let’s look at one of the most significant moments in the story of
Jesus, and that is Jesus’s death on the cross. In Mark, Jesus dies in
agony, unsure of the reason he must die, and he asks God why have you
forsaken me. Whereas in Luke, he prays Father, forgive them for they
don’t know what they’re doing. Can you talk about those two different
points of view of what happens to Jesus as he’s dying on the cross?

Dr. EHRMAN: Right. People don’t realize that these are very different
portrayals. But when you read Mark’s account very carefully, Jesus seems
to be in shock. He doesn’t say anything the entire time. He’s mocked by
everybody - by the Roman soldiers, by people passing by.

In Mark’s gospel, he’s mocked by both robbers who are being crucified
with him. And at the end, his only words are his cry of dereliction, as
it’s called: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? And then he cries
out and dies, and that’s it.

And so it’s a story that’s filled with pathos and emotion, and Jesus is
clearly in great agony going to his death. Whereas in Luke, you have a
very different portrayal. Jesus isn’t silent, in Luke, while being
crucified. When they nail him to the cross, he prays for those who are
doing this. Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.

While he’s hanging on the cross, he actually has an intelligent
conversation with one of the other people being crucified. One of the
others mocks Jesus, and the second person tells the first to be quiet
because Jesus hasn’t done anything to deserve this. And he turns his
head to Jesus, and he says Lord, remember me when you come into your
kingdom. And Jesus replies, truly I tell you, today you will be with me
in paradise.

And so Jesus knows fully well what’s happening to him and why it’s
happening to him. And he knows what’s going to happen to him after it
happens. He’s going to wake up in paradise, and this guy’s going to be
next to him. And the most telling thing of all is that in Luke, instead
of crying out my God, my God, why have you forsaken me, instead of that,
Jesus says Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

And so what happens is people take this account of Luke, where Jesus
seems to be calm and in control and knows perfectly well what’s
happening and combines it with Mark, where Jesus is in doubt and
despair. And they put the two accounts into one big account. So Jesus
says all the things that he says in Mark and in Luke and thereby robbing
each account of what it’s trying to say about Jesus in the face of
death.

GROSS: And those two stories are so contradictory, it, kind of, makes no
sense to combine the two?

Dr. EHRMAN: I think it makes no sense because Mark is trying to say
something quite specific about what it was like for Jesus to go to his
death. And if you bring into Mark the details from Luke, then Mark’s
message is lost. Jesus is no longer the way Mark wanted to portray him.

And then, of course, what people do is they also bring in what Matthew
has to say, and then they bring in what John has to say. And you end up
with this massive account in which Jesus says and does all of these
things, which is unlike any of the gospels.

So in effect what people do is by combining these gospels in their head
into one gospel, they, in effect, have written their own gospel, which
is completely unlike any of the gospels of the New Testament.

GROSS: What’s typically brought into the story of Jesus’s final moments
of earth from Matthew and John?

Dr. EHRMAN: Well, an example from John is that Jesus is hanging on the
cross, and he cries out, I’m thirsty. And the author tells us that the
reason Jesus said he was thirsty wasn’t so much because he was thirsty
but because he wanted to fulfill the scripture because there’s a
scripture, a Hebrew Bible passage, an Old Testament passage, where it
talks about being thirsty.

And so in John’s gospel in particular, Jesus’s death isn’t an agonizing
moment for Jesus. It’s an opportunity for Jesus to fulfill scripture.
And so you combine that with what’s going on with Mark and Luke, and
then you throw in the material from Matthew, and what you end up with is
this famous idea that Jesus had seven last dying words - the seven last
words of the dying Jesus, which becomes important in churches today that
celebrate these seven last words. But in fact, they’re not found in any
gospel. They represent conflations of the accounts of Matthew, Mark,
Luke and John.

GROSS: Now, let me bring into these versions of Jesus’s last moments on
earth a story from “The Coptic Apocalypse of Peter,” which is what? What
is this book?

Dr. EHRMAN: Well, this is a book that was discovered in 1945 in Egypt,
along with a number of other gospels that are - apparently were written
apparently by gnostic Christians: Christians who believed that the way
of salvation wasn’t through believing in the death and resurrection of
Jesus, but in knowing the truth about who they really are and about who
Jesus is and the truth that Jesus reveals.

And so “The Coptic Apocalypse of Peter” tells an alternative version of
what happens when Jesus is crucified. And to modern readers, it sounds
very peculiar indeed. Peter is standing on a hill, talking with Jesus,
and then all of a sudden, he sees down below an image of Jesus being
arrested. And he can’t understand how he’s seeing both things at once.
But then he sees Jesus get crucified, and above the cross he sees
another image of Christ, who’s laughing.

And so Peter – so Peter sees three different representations of Christ.
And so, to the Christ next to him, he asks, what am I seeing? I don’t
understand. And Jesus replies to him that the soldiers think that
they’re actually crucifying him, but they can’t crucify him because he’s
a supernatural being. They’re only crucifying his earthly shell, his
body. But his real self is above the cross, laughing at them for their
foolishness in thinking that they can hurt him, the Christ, when in fact
they can’t harm him at all because he’s not a physical being.

GROSS: Does that story, in a way, combine the two conflicting stories of
Mark and Luke, because you have, like, the mortal Jesus being crucified,
but that’s just his shell? But the more – but the spirit of Jesus is,
kind of, laughing at the Romans, who don’t realize that they’re just
killing the shell and not the soul and not the spirit.

So you’ve got this – in a way, you’ve got the suffering of the body but
the transcendent soul. So you’ve, in a way, got two Jesuses there: One
who’s suffering and one who can also say forgive them, Father, they
don’t know what they’re doing.

Dr. EHRMAN: Yeah – no, that’s a really interesting way to look at it

because the “The Coptic Apocalypse of Peter” was written after these
other gospels, and he may well have known them. And in a sense, you
could say that it is even more influenced by something like the Gospel
of John because in John’s gospel – John is the only gospel where Jesus
is explicitly identified as himself being a divine being, being himself
God.

In the other gospels, he’s talked about as the son of God, but in Jewish
circles, the son of God wasn’t a divine being. The son of God was always
a human being. But in the Gospel of John, Jesus is absolutely a divine
being. And so, when he gets killed in John’s gospel, there’s some
question about, well, how physical is it, really?

I mean, Jesus talks about his death as his exaltation in the Gospel of
John. And so, it’s his chance to return to his heavenly home. And that’s
kind of like what happens in this “Coptic Apocalypse of Peter,” that the
death of Jesus isn’t a serious moment of agony. It’s simply a way of
Jesus getting out of this world.

GROSS: Well, if you’re just joining us, my guest is Bible scholar Bart
Ehrman, and we’re talking about his new book, “Jesus Interrupted:
Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible and Why We Don’t Know
About Them.” We’ll talk more about some of those contradictions after we
take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Bible scholar Bart Ehrman. He’s the author of several
bestsellers. His latest book is called “Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the
Hidden Contradictions in the Bible and Why We Don’t Know About Them.”
And we’re talking about some of the differences from one gospel to
another. And what that says about different interpretations of Jesus and
how Jesus was seen in his time and shortly after his time.

And another difference from one gospel to another, that you write about
in your new book, is John’s version of Jesus has Jesus talking about
himself and proclaiming who he is, saying I am the bread of life. I am
the light of the world. Whereas in Mark, Jesus teaches principally about
God and the coming kingdom and hardly ever talks directly about himself.

Can you elaborate on those two different visions of Jesus?

Dr. EHRMAN: Right. A lot of people who read the Bible don’t see the
difference because – I guess because of the way they read the Bible,
which is they simply open up and read a portion here or a portion there,
but they don’t do a careful comparison of what one author says with what
another author says. But the reality is that when you read Mark’s
gospel, which was probably our first gospel, Jesus says very little
about himself.

He talks about how he must go to Jerusalem and be rejected and be
crucified and then raised from the dead. But he never identifies himself
as divine, for example. He never says I am the son of God. The only time
in Mark’s gospel that he admits that he’s the Messiah is at the very
end, when he’s put on trial, and the high priest asks him are you the
Messiah, and he says yes, I am.

So in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is not interested in teaching about himself,
But when you read John’s gospel, that’s virtually the only thing Jesus
talks about - is who he is, what his identity is, where he came from -
he came from above with the Father – where he’s going – he’s returning
to the Father. And he, himself, is in some sense divine: As he says in
John Chapter 10, I and the Father are one. Or as he says in Chapter 8,
before Abraham was, I am. Abraham was the father of the Jews, who lived
1,800 years before Jesus. And Jesus actually appears to be claiming to
be a representation of God on Earth.

This is completely unlike anything that you find in Mark or in Matthew
and Luke. And it - historically, it creates all sorts of problems
because if the historical Jesus actually went around saying that he was
God, it’s very hard to believe that Matthew, Mark and Luke left out that
part. You know, as if that part wasn’t important to mention.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EHRMAN: But in fact, they don’t mention it. And so this view of the
divinity of Jesus on his own lips is found only in our latest gospel,
the Gospel of John.

GROSS: So do you have any explanation about why John’s version of Jesus
would be so much different than the other gospels?

Dr. EHRMAN: What scholars have thought for a long time now is that John
is the last gospel to be written and that the understanding of Jesus had
changed dramatically in the years between the gospels. And that,
typically, John’s gospel was written in a community that was a heavily
persecuted Christian community that started out probably as a community
of Jews worshipping in the synagogue, who had come to believe that Jesus
was the Messiah but had been kicked out of their synagogue - probably
because they were trying to convert people, and people didn’t want to be
converted. And they ended up making themselves into a nuisance. And they
got kicked out of their synagogue.

And so, they started their own community of faith. And in that
particular community - the community that John, out of which John wrote
his gospel - this community tried to understand why it is we’ve been
rejected by our Jewish families and friends. And the way they started
imagining it was that the reason they’ve rejected us and have rejected
Jesus as the Messiah is because Jesus actually doesn’t come from this
world. And these other people are thinking just in worldly terms.

They’re from the Earth, and Jesus is from heaven, and they can’t
understand a heavenly being because they are earthly beings. And so,
with this process of thought, over time Jesus becomes more and more of a
heavenly being who’s a mystery on Earth that only the insiders can
understand.

And so with the passing of years, Jesus develops a, kind of, an exalted
status in this particular community until, by the time the gospel of
John is written, Jesus is understood as being equal with God himself: A
divine being who came down from heaven to reveal the truth that can set
people free, so that those who believe in him will have eternal life up
in Heaven with God.

And so, this is a distinctive teaching of this particular community that
– an understanding - that developed because of the social history that
took place before the gospel was written.

GROSS: Now, earlier we were talking about contradictions in the gospels,
about Jesus’s final moments on Earth. There are different
interpretations in the gospels about why Jesus died. You write that for
Mark, Jesus’s death is an atonement. Whereas for Luke, it’s the reason
people realize they’re sinful and need to turn to God for forgiveness.
Can you discuss these two interpretations?

Dr. EHRMAN: Right. This is another thing that a lot of people don’t pick
up on because everybody assumes that the entire Bible must have the same
view about why Jesus died. But in fact if you read the different
authors, there are markedly different views.

The earliest account we have of Jesus’s life, of course, is the Gospel
of Mark. And in Mark, there’s a fairly unambiguous view. In Mark’s
gospel, Jesus states, during his ministry, in Mark, chapter 10, that he,
the son of man, came not to be served, but to give his life as a ransom
for many.

So this encapsulates Mark’s views - that Jesus’s death somehow brings
about an atonement for sin, that because Jesus dies, people can have a
right standing before God through the death of Jesus.

Luke was writing probably 15 years, maybe 20 years after Mark - and
actually knew the Gospel of Mark. He reproduced a good bit of Mark’s
gospel in his gospel, in the Gospel of Luke.

What is striking is that he took out this verse that – where Jesus says
that he’s come to give his life as a ransom for many - Luke took out
that verse. And when Luke portrays the crucifixion of Jesus, there’s
nothing about the crucifixion scene that makes you think that this death
is meant to be an atonement for sin.

In fact, Luke also wrote a second volume that we have in the New
Testament. He also wrote the Book of Acts, which talks about the spread
of Christianity through the Roman Empire. And there are a number of
sermons in Acts in which the apostles are trying to convert people. And
in these sermons, they talk about the death of Jesus, but they never
mention that Jesus’s death is an atonement for sin.

Instead, what they say is that Jesus’s death was a huge miscarriage of
justice. The people who did it are guilty before God, and they need to
turn to God so that God – in repentance - so that God will forgive them.

In other words, the way the death of Jesus works in Luke is not that it
brings atonement for sin. It’s the occasion that people have for
realizing their sinfulness so that they can repent and God will forgive
them.

GROSS: So that’s a pretty fundamental difference in the perception of
the symbolic significance of Christ’s death.

Dr. EHRMAN: Absolutely. And it’s not the only – these are not the only
two views. The early Christians had a lot of different views about the
significance of Jesus’s death.

The thing that made them all Christian, I think, is that all of them
thought that Jesus’s death in some way was important for human beings
standing before God. But as it turns out, there are some groups of
Christians - in the first, second century - who didn’t think that the
death of Jesus actually mattered that much for salvation.

And so some of gospels that didn’t make it into the New Testament see
the death of Jesus as just, kind of, a blip on the screen.

What really matters isn’t Jesus’s death. What matters is the secret
teachings that he delivered. And it’s these secret teachings that can
bring salvation. This is a view that ended up being opposed by other
Christians, and so the books containing this particular view didn’t make
it into the canon.

GROSS: One of the things that Christians say about Jesus is that he died
for our sins. So how does that statement fit into these conflicting
stories about Jesus’s death?

Dr. EHRMAN: Well, I think that that statement would be true for some of
the authors of the Bible who do think that Jesus died for sins. This is
true of Mark, and it’s true, for example, of the writings of the apostle
Paul. But I don’t think it’s true for the Gospel of Luke.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus dies out of a – because of a miscarriage of
justice. He’s an innocent man who’s unjustly put to death. And the way
it relates to sins isn’t that he dies for sins. He dies, and when people
realize this huge mistake they made in crucifying Jesus, they feel
guilty, and they turn back to God, and God forgives them. So that the
death isn’t what brings about an atonement for sins. It’s a forgiveness
that God gives them. And the death of Jesus then is simply an occasion
to repent.

GROSS: Bart Ehrman will be back in the second half of the show. His new
book is called “Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions
in the Bible.” He’s a distinguished professor of religious studies at
the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I’m Terry Gross, and this
is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Back with Bible scholar Bart
Ehrman. His new book “Jesus, Interrupted” is about the contradictions in
the different gospels’ versions of Jesus’s life and death. Ehrman also
analyzes what those contradictions tell us about the authors of the
gospels and early Christianity. Ehrman is a distinguished professor of
religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
He’s also the author of the best seller “Misquoting Jesus.” In which
gospels is Jesus portrayed as an apocalypticist?

Dr. EHRMAN: Right. So this is a term that scholars have used about
Jesus, that he was an apocalypticist. For over 100 years, this was the
view that was popularized - especially by Albert Schweitzer. Before he
became a great medical missionary, he wrote his most important book “The
Quest of the Historical Jesus,” in which he argued that Jesus had an
apocalyptic view, which was the view that this world we live in is
controlled by forces of evil. But God is soon going to intervene in the
course of the affairs and overthrow the forces of evil and bring in good
kingdom on Earth.

And in three of our gospels, Jesus takes on this point of view,
predicting that the end is coming soon, and people need to repent and
prepare because the kingdom of God is soon to arrive. And when Jesus
talks about the kingdom of God in these ways, he doesn’t mean heaven
when you die. He actually means a kingdom here on Earth. There’s going
to be a kingdom that’s going to be ruled by God as opposed do these
crummy kingdoms ruled by Rome, or whatever other power. Now, God’s
kingdom will arrive. So this point of view is taught prominently in
Mathew, Mark and Luke, our three earliest gospels.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is quite clear that this end of the age, this
cataclysmic judgment of the world, is going to happen very soon. As he
tells his disciples in Mark, some of you standing here will not taste
death before they see that the kingdom of God has come in power – or, as
he says later in Mark, chapter 13, after describing how the heaven will
turn dark and the moon will turn to blood. And the stars will fall from
the sky. In other words, the whole world is going to be uncreated when
this catastrophe hit. And he says to his disciples, this generation will
not pass away before all these things take place. And so this was a view
found in the earliest documents we have about Jesus.

GROSS: So, as you write, as an apocalypticist, Jesus preached that you
should change your behavior not necessarily for moral reasons - not to
make life on earth better - but to save your soul and get entrance into
the kingdom of heaven when the apocalypse comes. Is that a fair way to
look at it?

Dr. EHRMAN: Yeah, that’s right, that’s right. I mean, today, people have
all sorts of grounds for ethics. But one of the major grounds that
people have is they think that you should be ethical so that we can all
get along for the long haul. You know, it would make Earth a better
place for everybody. And so because that will put us in good stead over
a long period of time. Well, Jesus didn’t think there was going to be a
long haul. So, when people say that Jesus was a great teacher of ethics
I think that’s absolutely true.

But one needs to understand that his ethical teaching is rooted in a
completely different world view from the one that most people have
today. For Jesus, the reason that you needed to start following God and
doing what God wanted you to do – the reason to behave ethically - is
because the judgment day was coming and it could be sometime next
Thursday. And you need to be ready for it by behaving in the ways that
God wants you to. So that when this cosmic judge of the earth arrives
and catastrophe starts happening, you’ll be on the right side.

And you’ll be able to enter into this good kingdom that God’s bringing,
because if you disobey God and you are acting badly, you’re going to be
destroyed when this cosmic judge arrives.

GROSS: But I - you know, I’ve read several scholars of the historical
Jesus who see it very differently. And they see Jesus as the social
activist of his era, somebody who worked on behalf of the poor. And who
had egalitarian impulses, who is almost a socialist in his thinking.

Dr. EHRMAN: That’s right, there’s a wide range of opinions about who
Jesus is. And in the last 20 years, there have been people who wanted –
scholars - who have wanted to redefine Jesus so that he’s not an
apocalypticist. But the majority of scholars don’t agree with that. But
there is something to be said about Jesus as a social reformer and
somebody who promoted egalitarian principles. But the reason is not the
one that’s sometimes given. The reason Jesus wanted to reform society in
support of things such as the roles of women in society and such, is
because he thought that’s what the kingdom was going to be like.

In the kingdom there’s not going to be inequality. There’s not going to
oppression. There’s not going to be war. There’s going to be equality of
all people. And so you should start implementing the ideals of that
future kingdom in the present.

GROSS: Could you say that the apocalyptic, utopian vision of what the
future would be like is used by Jesus as a kind of metaphor as a utopian
ideal, that should be, that one should strive for even if one can’t
fulfill on earth? One should strive for this utopian ideal. Could you
see it in a metaphoric way, like that?

Dr. EHRMAN: Right.

GROSS: As opposed to, like, he literally believed that there would be an
apocalyptic end-times and then a literal heaven.

Dr. EHRMAN: Right. There are scholars who want to see all of this talk
about this coming judgment of the earth and the catastrophes that are
going to happen as pure metaphor. And I think the reason they want to
see it that way is because if you think that Jesus literally thought
that there was going to be a coming end of the age, well it didn’t
happened. And so, Jesus would’ve been wrong. And some scholars are
uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus could be wrong.

I think the only way though to decide whether this is metaphor or meant
to be taken literally is by looking at what other Jews in the first
century were saying. And as it turns out, there were a lot of Jews who
were talking about the literal end of the world as they knew it,
including, for example, John the Baptist who thought that the end was
coming right away and that people needed to prepare or they would be
judged, including the people who produced the dead sea scrolls, which
are filled with this apocalyptic kind of thinking and including Jesus’s
own followers.

The apostle Paul definitely feels that Jesus is coming back right away -
that Jesus is going to be this cosmic judge. And that the earth is going
to be transformed. And Paul describes it not in metaphorical terms but
in literally what’s going to happen at the end. And so, I think the
desire for Jesus not to be literally meaning this, is rooted in an
understandable theological move that you don’t want him - have Jesus say
things that didn’t come true.

But if we actually situate to Jesus in his own historical context, this
is the sort of thing that a lot of people expected was going to happen -
just as people today. I mean, in evangelical Christian circles today,
there are many people who think that Jesus is coming back and they don’t
mean that metaphorically. They think that Jesus, literally, is going to
comeback. And I think they had their predecessors in the first century.

GROSS: I’m interested in what you think of the popularity of that point
of view - and there’s the “Left Behind” series of novels, which have
sold a remarkable - I don’t having figures on hand, but, like, tens of
millions of copies. And that’s a novel – a series of novels based on the
apocalypse. A lot of people today believe in the rapture, that the
second coming of Jesus is imminent and the people who are believers will
rise to heaven, will be raptured to heaven and everybody else will be
left behind to face the trials and tribulations and wars and plagues and
so on. And there are several very politically powerful people who
believe that now.

Dr. EHRMAN: Yeah, that’s right. And, you know, the “Left Behind” series
sold far more copies than “The Da Vinci Code.”

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EHRMAN: As hard as that may be to believe but, in fact, it did. And
what’s striking is that this idea that we are now living at the end of
time, and that current events are showing us fulfillments of Biblical
prophecy - exactly the same thing was being said 10 years ago about
things happening 10 years ago - and 10 years before that, and 10 years
before that, and 10 years before that. You can go all the way back in
Christian history and every decade thought that they were living at the
end of time and that the prophecies was being fulfilled in their own
day.

You can trace this back through the Middle Ages, all the way back to
early Christianity. In fact, you can trace it back to the apostle Paul
and the historical Jesus. People have thought this from day one. And
what I sometimes tell my students is that you can say two things about
these people who think that the end is going to come within their
lifetime. One thing is that everyone of them bases it on their certain
interpretations of the Bible – especially, for example, the Book of
Revelation. And the second thing you can say is that every single one of
these people has been completely wrong.

The point though is that this view actually does go back to the
historical Jesus. Jesus also predicted that the end was going to come
within his generation and, of course, it didn’t.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us my guest is Bible scholar Bart Ehrman.
He’s the author of several best sellers including “Misquoting Jesus.”
His new book is called “Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden
Contradictions in the Bible.” We’ll talk more about some of those
contradictions after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: My guest is Bible scholar Bart Ehrman and his new book is called
“Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible.”
And the book is largely a comparison of what the different gospels has
to say about Jesus and analyzes where the contradictions lie. How did
the historical approach to reading the Bible affect your faith? You
know, what you’ve told us before that you had been a devout evangelical
Christian. You studied at the Moody Bible Institute.

Then you went to Princeton Theological Seminary and there undertook a
historical reading of the Bible, as opposed to a devotional one. So what
impacted the historical reading of the Bible and seeing the
contradictions - many more contradictions than you’ve been telling us
about today, you know, from one gospel to another - how did that affect
your faith?

Dr. EHRMAN: Right. So, when I started off studying the Bible, I had had
this born again experience in high school and had become an evangelical
Christian. In some ways I suppose I would’ve been classified as a
fundamentalist. I believed that the Bible was completely inerrant, that
there were no mistakes in it whatsoever, of any kind. When I took Greek
in college, and realized that I was pretty good in it, I decided that I
wanted to pursue the study of the Greek New Testament - largely for
religious reasons because I thought these are the words that God has
given us and I want to know these words in the original language, in
Greek.

And so I went off to study the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament,
at Princeton Theological Seminary, because the leading scholar in that
field, a man name Bruce Metzger, happened to teach there. Princeton
Seminary - the faculty there - did not share the view that the Bible was
inerrant word of God.

They were all Christians and many of them had very high views of
scriptures. But they were not fundamentalists, or even strong
evangelicals. Many of them recognized that, in fact, there are lots of
discrepancies in the Bible. And that the Bible might convey the word of
God, but the very words were not dictated by God in any way.

And so, I resisted that view for a long time, while I was in seminary.
And then I went on and did my PhD at Princeton, also with Bruce Metzger.
But the more I studied the Bible, the more I started realizing that, in
fact, you know, I could say there weren’t any errors in the Bible, but
the closer you looked at it, it sure looked like there were errors in
the Bible.

And many of the ones that to got my notice were very small little
details here and there. Discrepancies between where one gospel says and
another gospel says or discrepancy between what the New Testament says
versus what the Old Testament says. Or discrepancies within the Old
Testament. And I got to a point where I started realizing that I
couldn’t reconcile all of these discrepancies. And, you know, many of
them are, just, quite clear contradictions - some of the ones we haven’t
actually talked about on the program so far.

But I got to a point where I realized there are contradictions. And once
I said that, it had a serious effect on my faith because my faith was
rooted in an inerrant revelation from God. And I began realizing that,
in fact, this revelation was not inerrant. This revelation, in fact, had
errors. And once I started seeing errors I started finding them
everywhere.

GROSS: Well, you, kind of, pose the question in your book: Is faith
possible after you studied the Bible historically and you start to see
these contradictions and discrepancies from one story of Jesus to the
other?

Dr. EHRMAN: Right. So the reason I wrote this last chapter - Is Faith
Possible - is because some people who have read some of my earlier
books have said that once I realized that there were differences among
our Greek manuscripts, that we don’t know what the original text is,
because of that I become an agnostic, which is not just wrong but a
little bit crazy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

I mean. I didn’t become an agnostic because I realized that there were
differences in our manuscripts. And, in fact, I didn’t become an
agnostic when I realized that there were discrepancies in the Bible, or
contradictions. For about 15 years, I continued to be a very devout
Christian. I went to church every week, confessed my sins, believed in
God, believed Christ was the salvation for the human race and all the
rest. But I did start developing a different view of the Bible - that I
started seeing it less as a literal word from God and more as a set of
books that contained important spiritual teachings by religious people,
some of whom are religious geniuses, like the apostle Paul, for example
- or the authors of the gospels who had real insight into the spiritual
world.

And so, it’s not that they gave an inerrant revelation but they had
insights into the truth and they had different insights into the truth.
So that Mark’s views were different from Matthew’s because Mark had
different perspective than Matthew. And I came to think that you can’t
just reconcile the two because that - when you reconcile Matthew and
Mark, and pretend they’re saying the same thing, then you’re not paying
attention to what either one of them is saying. And so, for about 15
years or so, I continued to be a Christian of a more liberal persuasion.

And the reason I left the faith, ultimately, had nothing to do with my
historical study of the Bible per se. What really did me in was the
subject of this other book I wrote “God’s Problem,” the problem of
suffering. I just came to a point where I no longer could believe that
there was a good and powerful God who was in control of this world,
given the state of things here.

GROSS: You used to be devout. You’re now an agnostic. You used to
believe in heaven and hell, which is quite a motivator.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And also, if you believe you’re going to heaven, that’s a cause
for a feeling of inner peace?

Dr. EHRMAN: Yes.

GROSS: And a sense of meaning on life. For life - that life is, just,
you know, a kind of stepping stone toward an after life, a profound
after life. So now that you no longer are a believer and therefore you
probably no longer believe in heaven and hell, has it changed your
motivation for what you do on Earth and has it changed your sense of
what the meaning of your life is?

Dr. EHRMAN: That’s a great question. You know, what happened with me
with respect to heaven and hell - I guess is what happened with a lot of
the Christian doctrines - is as a historian I came to see where these
ideas came from. And I realized that these ideas didn’t descend from
heaven one day soon after Jesus’s death. That, in fact, the doctrines of
heaven and hell were human creations, that the humans came up these
views of heaven and hell.

And in my book, I explain a little bit how that happened, that doctrines
of heaven and hell developed within early Christianity, that they
weren’t actually the teachings of Jesus or of his earliest followers,
but they were later developments, as were the doctrines of the trinity,
for example, or the divinity of Christ.

But as to what effect that had on me personally: One of the reasons I
was afraid to become an agnostic was, when I was still Christian, I
thought that if I became an agnostic I would have no grounds for ethical
behavior. I’d have no moral compass. And I thought that that would
probably lead to become a completely licentious reprobate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EHRMAN: But as it turns out, that’s completely wrong. I think I
actually have more of a sense of the meaning of life now than I ever had
as a believer. There are lots of reasons to behave ethically. I think
many of us are simply hardwired to want to love our neighbor as
ourselves. And to try and do unto others as we’d want them to do unto
us. And I think that since life is all there is - this life is it, that
after we die we no longer exist - that we should grab life for
everything that it can give us. And we should live life to it’s fullest
and should enjoy it as much as we can because this is not a dry run for
something else.

This is it and we should help other people who are suffering now so they
too can enjoy life. And so, in fact, my giving up on the sense of an
afterlife has made this life for me much more meaningful.

GROSS: Bart Ehrman, it’s great to talk with you again. I really
appreciate it and thank you so much.

Dr. EHRMAN: Okay, thanks for having me.

GROSS: Bart Ehrman’s new book is called “Jesus Interrupted: Revealing
the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible”. He’s a distinguished professor
of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
101389895
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20090304
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
Collodi’s Brooding, Subversive ‘Pinocchio’

TERRY GROSS, host:

“Pinocchio,” the story of a puppet who becomes a real boy, is one of the
world’s best known children stories. There are many different versions
of the tales and Carlo Collodi’s original book, which has just been
released in a new translation by the New York Review of Books, to Walt
Disney’s famous animated film which is being released in the 70th
anniversary DVD and Blu-Ray package on March 10th. Our Critic-at-large,
John Powers, who was raised on the movie, finally read the book a few
days ago and discovered that there are very different ways of pulling
the puppet boy’s strings.

JOHN POWERS: Near the end of E.L. Doctorow’s novel “The Book of Daniel”,
its alienated young hero goes to Disneyland. Walking through the park,
he points out that much of Disney’s work is derived from dark,
subversive writers like Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain and the Brothers
Grimm, but that his movies and rides erase all the darkness and
subversion. Disney turns their stories into sentimental lies.

I thought about this when I picked up Geoffrey Brock’s brisk new
translation of Carlo Collodi’s “Pinocchio.” Although the story of the
puppet-boy is part of our modern mythology, like “Peter Pan” or “The
Wizard of Oz,” I soon realized that I didn’t have a clue what was in the
1881 original. Everything I knew about Pinocchio had come from the 1939
Disney cartoon that I saw as a kid and still love today.

Now, the rudiments of Collodi’s tale are similar to what most of us
remember from the movie: Pinocchio is a puppet, fashioned in the
workshop of the craftsman Gepetto, who has adventures that turn him into
a real boy. Along the way, he gets suckered by a scheming fox and cat,
goes to a seductive toyland where boys are turned into donkeys and gets
swallowed by an enormous fish. When Pinocchio lies, his nose grows.

Yet for all of these familiar things, Collodi’s book is, from the
beginning, a very different — and much wilder — experience. Gepetto
isn’t a kindly old man — he’s hot-tempered and grindingly poor. There is
a talking cricket, but it’s not named Jiminy, doesn’t wear a top hat,
and, by the way, Pinocchio squishes it 12 pages in when the insect tries
to give him advice. This lack of sentimentality runs through the book,
whose sense of a reality reflects the harshness of life in Collodi’s
Tuscany. This is a place driven by hunger, brutality, greed and social
injustice.

Which isn’t to say that the book’s depressing. In fact, it’s filled with
wonderful surreal touches, many involving animals, like the huge snail
that offers to let Pinocchio into his house and then takes nine hours to
reach the front door. A similar anarchic spirit infuses Pinocchio
himself - who’s not the cute, anodyne figure we remember from the movie.
He’s a selfish, unruly, sometimes cruel puppet — the very soul of
childhood.

Which is one reason Disney had so much trouble turning Pinocchio into a
movie. People know the story, Uncle Walt said, but they don’t like the
character. And so his team set about making Pinocchio likable — drawing
him less as a wooden puppet than as a jerky little boy, and giving him
an intrinsic innocence. He never willingly does bad things. He’s led
astray, as in the sequence when he’s taken in by Honest John the fox and
his dim feline sidekick, Gideon.

(Soundbite of movie, “Pinocchio”)

PINOCCHIO (Cartoon Character): I’m going to school.

Mr. WALTER CATLETT (Actor): (as Honest John) School. Yes. Then you

haven’t heard of the easy road to success.

Mr. JONES (Actor): (as Pinocchio) Unh-unh.

Mr. CATLETT: (as Honest John) No? I’m speaking, my boy, of the theater!

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CATLETT: (as Honest John) Here’s your apple. Bright lights, music,
applause! Fame!

Mr. JONES (Actor): (as Pinocchio) Fame?

Mr. CATLETT: (as Honest John) Yes! And with that personality, that
profile, that physique – why, he’s a natural born actor, eh Giddy?

Mr. JONES (Actor): (as Pinocchio) But I’m going…

Mr. CATLETT: (as Honest John) Straight to the top. Why, I can see your
name in lights, lights six feet high. Uh, what is your name?

Mr. JONES (Actor): (as Pinocchio) Pinocchio.

Mr. CATLETT: (as Honest John) Pinocchio! P-I-N-U-O-…uh, P-I…uh huh. Boy,
I’m wasting precious time. Come on to the theater!

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CATLETT: (as Honest John) (Singing) Hi-diddle-dee-dee, an actor’s
life for me, a high silk hat and a silver cane, a watch of gold with a
diamond chain. Hi-diddle-dee-day, an actor’s life is gay. It’s great to
be a celebrity, an actor’s life for me.

(Soundbite of music)

POWERS: That’s a terrific song by the way. Of course, one could say that
Disney himself took the easy road in making “Pinocchio.” Rather than
preserving Collodi's tough-minded picaresque, he deliberately gave the
story a reassuring shape: From the cozy seductiveness of Gepetto's
workshop to Jiminy Cricket crooning, “When You Wish Upon a Star.” And it
clearly worked. Disney's wish-fulfilling “Pinocchio” eclipsed the
original far more than did his forgettable versions of “Peter Pan,”
“Alice in Wonderland” or “Huckleberry Finn.”

This is partly because it's a far better movie — one of Disney's
greatest. And partly because the film actually surpasses the book in two
bravura sequences: That nightmarish scene on Pleasure Island where the
boys turn into donkeys and the scary escape from Monstro the Whale. Yet
the big reason Disney's “Pinocchio” could colonize Collodi's is that for
all its wish-fulfillment, it hasn't wholly lost the original's primal
sense of pain and danger: Money-loving puppet masters, boys sold into
slavery, the haunting image of Pinocchio lying face down in the water,
seemingly dead.

All that is in the Disney version, which is one reason why when it was
first released, audiences didn't cotton to it as they now do. The movie
was too dark for a country faced with depression and World War II. It's
hard to imagine anyone feeling that way today. We’re all more accustomed
to images of violence and cruelty. Although I'm not sure that the last
70 years have made us stop wanting to wish upon a star. We’re still more
comfortable with Disney than Collodi. Even now, the audience would
shriek with outrage if they saw Pinocchio flatten Jiminy Cricket with a
wooden mallet.

GROSS: John Powers is a film critic for Vogue.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: You can download pod cast of our show on our Web site
freshair.npr.org. FRESH AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller, our
engineer is Fred Snider Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant.
Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I’m Terry Gross.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
101413512
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

New Book Argues Migration Isn't A Crisis — It's The Solution

Climate change has put organisms on the move. In her new book, The Next Great Migration, Science writer Sonia Shah writes about migration — and the ways in which outmoded notions of "belonging" have been used throughout history to curb what she sees as a biological imperative.

33:48

Brooklyn Borough President On Fighting Police Brutality From The Inside

At 15, Eric Adams was beaten by police. He later joined the force and worked to reform NYC policing by co-founding 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. He retired from the force after 22 years.

06:54

Identical Twins Become Divided By Race In 'The Vanishing Half'

The Vanishing Half tells the multi-generational story of the Vignes sisters, Desiree and Stella, two very pretty identical twins who grow up in the small town of Mallard, La. It's a town where all the residents are light-skinned African Americans.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue