On Easter Sunday, April 12, Christians will fill church pews to hear the familiar story of Jesus' resurrection from the dead and his ascension into heaven. They'll read from the Gospels—the four books of the New Testament that recount Jesus' experience on Earth—and affirm their collective belief in the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
As an evangelical Christian teenager in the Midwest, religion scholar Bart D. Ehrman never thought to question the veracity of these fundamental tenets of Christianity. But after years of study, which informed and abetted the destabilizing of his own faith, Ehrman would deliver a much more complex and ambiguous message to Christian believers, were he invited to speak in church during Holy Week.
Looking professorial in his round-rimmed glasses, the evangelist-turned-agnostic might explain that the Trinity is never mentioned in the Gospels; the concept emerged nearly two centuries after Christ died as Christians struggled to resolve the conundrum of a divine "Son of God" within a monotheistic faith.
He could also explain that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the only Gospels in the New Testament because political struggles in the early church led other gospel texts to be purged.
Or he could tell them that some of their favorite stories from the Gospels were made up. Remember the story of the adultress who was about to be stoned by an angry mob until Jesus stepped in and said, "Let the one who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her"? It's not in the earliest manuscripts of the Book of John. It's one of several stories scribes inserted as they copied the manuscripts over the centuries.
While scholars may have known these things for centuries, they're bombshells to most of us. Ehrman's ability to translate scholarship for a popular audience has made the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill a superstar in the publishing world. His most well known book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, sold more than 300,000 copies and made the New York Times bestseller list.
"I think part of my audience are people on the left who want to hear some alternative voice to the religious right," Ehrman says, "and there are people who are open-minded who want to hear another side of the story from what they've heard before. And part of my audience is the evangelical audience who wants to hear what the other side is saying so they can attack it."
His latest book, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them), even more explicitly addresses the gap between what scholars have learned about the New Testament and what the average Christian learns in Bible study.
"It's a very odd phenomenon," Ehrman says, "that pastors who go to mainline denominational seminaries—Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian, these kind of standard Protestant and also Catholic seminaries—this is the material they learn in their Bible classes. But when they start working in the church, it's as if they forget it all, or they decide not to tell their parishioners about it."
Defenders of the Christian faith have written books denouncing Ehrman (sample title: Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman's "Misquoting Jesus"). Christian bloggers ask people to pray for him.
On campus, too, young detractors sign up to debate him. Ehrman says most of the students who take his Introduction to the New Testament class at UNC are conservative evangelical Christians. "Some of them want to take the class so they can argue against me among their friends who take the class," he says. "But most students, I think, find it very interesting and challenging. Some of them want to hear another perspective from the one they were raised on. In my class, I don't simply tell them my opinions. When the Gospels tell a story I have them compare the two Gospels and look at the similarities and differences and have them figure out why there are so many differences. That can be pretty convincing to somebody."
Ehrman insists he's not intent on destroying anyone's faith. His success among popular audiences comes at a time when the religious right is losing its control over religious understanding.
"On the far left of that are the new atheists, people like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, who are really embracing atheism and are attacking religion," Ehrman says. "I'm not in that camp, because I'm not opposed to religion and I'm not trying to convert people to atheism. I'm not an atheist myself.
"But part of the reaction against the right is historical scholarship on the Bible, and that's where I fit in. I'm pointing out what historians have been saying about the Bible for all these years that people on the right have often never heard of."
Before Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman wrote more than a dozen scholarly books and textbooks on the New Testament. He began writing for a general audience just as the question of "historical Jesus"—what scientists and historians have pieced together about the life of Jesus the man—began to surge within popular culture.
Mike Licona is an evangelical New Testament scholar from Atlanta who has debated Ehrman in the past and plans to do so again next month in Matthews, N.C. Like Ehrman he is frequently asked to speak on university campuses and other venues. "'What was the real Jesus actually like?': That's a hotter topic today than the creation/ evolution debate," Licona says. "There is a hunger right now by the American public for books that call into question the traditional understanding of Jesus, and that's one of the reasons Bart's books sell so well."
But what really put Ehrman over the top was telling his own story.
Born in the mid-1950s and raised in Kansas, Ehrman had a classic born-again experience as a teenager. He became a fundamentalist who believed in the Bible as the literal Word of God. He learned Greek so he could get as close to the original text of the Bible as he could. That, it turns out, was his path to doubt.
After attending the Moody Bible Institute and evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois, Ehrman went to Princeton Theological Seminary, where he was exposed to historical criticism of the Bible. That's where he learned that scribes over the centuries inserted both errors and deliberate changes into the text. Many are inconsequential—misspellings, for instance—but some are profound. The notion that there could be mistakes in the Bible shook Ehrman's faith at its foundations.
"For a lot of seminary students, it does cause them to doubt the Bible, which is a bit of a shock to their system, but their faith is rooted in other things—for example, the worship of God in the Christian liturgy or their experience of God personally," Ehrman says. "The fact the Bible might have errors in it isn't something that destroys their faith.
"But if your faith is rooted in a belief in the Bible, in a literal understanding of the Bible, and that gets taken away from you, then what do you have left? You either have to change the way you believe or you have to give up your belief."
Yet Ehrman says scriptural contradictions weren't what ultimately caused him to lose faith. "My understanding of the Bible changed and I became a kind of mainstream, mainline, liberal Christian who thought the Bible had discrepancies but I still believed in God and still believed Christ was the Son of God and still believed in his death for salvation." In God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer, Ehrman explains that his deepest doubt set in after grappling with the problem of a good God allowing people to suffer.
Putting his own tale of lost faith at the center of his work has made Ehrman a target for critics, among them United Methodist Bishop William H. Willimon of Birmingham, Ala., who for 20 years was the dean of Duke Chapel and a professor at Duke Divinity School. In his review of God's Problem, Willimon blasts Ehrman's "anti-theology as autobiography":
"Ehrman proves the dictum that old fundamentalists never die; they just exchange fundamentals and continue in their unimaginative, closed-minded rigidity and simplicity. [...] The radical subjectivity and narcissism of evangelical pietism must be tough to shake."
But if putting his own story forward has made his critics' attacks more personal, it's also helped Ehrman achieve the goal of engaging with an audience outside of academia. He says he receives about a dozen e-mails a day and tries to answer all but the "antagonistic" ones.
Sitting in his office on the UNC campus on a recent afternoon, Ehrman looked at a four-page hand-written letter from a man with an experience uncannily similar to his own. Some people write to ask if Jesus ever really existed. (Yes, he says. "I think there's solid historical evidence for it.") Others, usually Mormons and Muslims, attempt to convert him.
"It's a free world," he says with a chuckle. "They're welcome to convert me. I'm welcome to convert them."
Bart Ehrman will read from Jesus, Interrupted at the following dates and times: March 25, Bull's Head Bookshop, UNC campus, Chapel Hill, 3:30 p.m. and Quail Ridge Books & Music, Raleigh, 7:30 p.m.; March 31, Regulator Bookshop, Durham, 7 p.m.; April 3, McIntyre's Books, Pittsboro, 2 p.m.