Benedictine XVI, Bart Ehrman, and the Historical Truth of the Gospels
- ISBN: 9780813229089
- Published By: Catholic University of America Press
- Published: January 2017
Matthew J. Ramage’s monograph, Jesus, Interpreted: Benedict XVI, Bart D. Ehrman and the Historical Truth of the Gospels, compares the exegetical presuppositions and conclusions regarding the overall truth of the historical events presented in the Gospels of biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman and Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger). Ramage contrasts both methodologies in considerable detail, and while not presenting any formal arguments, he demonstrates that Benedict’s method is “every bit as scholarly and no more reliant on unprovable assumptions” than Ehrman’s (4). Ehrman is presented as the main representative of the modern academy “because he tends to base his arguments on consensus views among scholars, because he is immensely popular, and because he is a fair-minded interpreter who is not so overcome by his own agenda as to think that every rational person ought to see things his way” (4).
In chapter 1, Ramage laments the insufficient apologetic responses to the problems biblical scholars raise (7-9). In his usual respectful tone, the author confronts the assurance “marketed” by apologists, by reminding his readers that Ehrman has sufficiently disabused “one of the notion that the Gospels differ only in accidentals such as order and number” (7). The response that presents the canonical Gospels as books without any problems is not only dishonest but also contrary to Benedict’s faithful approach, which addresses these problems “head-on” (9).
The following chapter functions as a defense of Benedict’s hermeneutic within the Roman Catholic tradition. Benedict, while being part of the same legacy of Popes Leo XIII and Pius X, is a strong advocate of the modern scholarly methodologies utilized by Ehrman and other contemporary critical scholars (16-22). Joseph Ratzinger humbly and boldly confronts the position of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, explaining that magisterial decrees are “provisional pastoral determinations,” which, despite their foundational kernel, allow for later particulars and accidentals to be corrected (27, 46). Ramage considers the standard scholarly positions concerning the authorship of the Pentateuch (28), the two-source hypothesis (23, 32-35), that some texts in the Hebrew Bible are not prophetic despite their New Testament appropriations (30), and that the disciple John did not write the Gospel of John (31). He concludes that Gospel composition involves much more than four independent eye-witnesses transmitting objective accounts of the historical Jesus (36).
In a sense, then, both Benedict and Ehrman are agnostics in their own respect: the former leaves open many historical-critical questions, while the latter leaves open the philosophical questions concerning God’s existence. With regard to the faithfulness of the canonical portraits of Jesus, Ramage presents Ratzinger as an alternative voice who believes the authors were careful not to influence any of the essentials (37). For Ratzinger, the Christian faith always undergoes “development and change within a fundamental identity” (43). Thus, while it is possible to contrast contemporary and ancient Christian practices, both would still maintain the identity of a “Christian” tradition.
The third chapter highlights Ratzinger’s “Method C” as the synthesis patristic-medieval exegesis (Method A) and historical-critical exegesis (Method B). The weakness of Method A is that it attempts to extract spiritual significance from a text that cannot be read in its literal sense (60). The weakness in Method B is that it brackets the fundamental essence of the Bible, which serves as an encounter between the living God and the reader (63). In other words, while the first method ignores that God acted through cultures, biases, prejudices, and faulty human beings throughout history (83), the latter ignores God all together. Benedict’s hermeneutic of faith approaches the spiritual question only after he has grappled with the diversity and unity around the historical nucleus of the Gospels (99).
The next three chapters are an in-depth look at how Ehrman and Benedict deal with tough questions concerning the biblical witness. Ramage outlines Ehrman’s presentation of the textual and historical problems around Jesus and the New Testament, and presents other scholars (Richard Hays, Richard Bauckham, N.T. Wright, and Dale Allison) to respond to Ehrman’s briefly outlined position. When Ramage contrasts Ehrman’s methodology with Method A, he makes it clear that both are essentially looking over and beyond the text in search of “another” substance that is not readily available in the words themselves—the former trying to find a spiritual meaning, and the latter looking for what is historically reliable (144). Benedict’s approach grants that the Gospels are thoroughly wrapped with theological agendas, which gives the readers an insight into the early church and how God providentially guided God’s Word (147).
The decision to either include or exclude God from how the data is dealt with is a presupposition “assumed rather than proved empirically” (149). Thus, while both scholars can recognize the evident problems with texts and traditions, how the hypothesis is formulated depends ultimately on a decision made before the text is even examined. While dissatisfying for some readers, it is sobering to read an honest evaluation that does not present the opponent as “blind” and takes seriously the philosophical foundations of any methodological enterprise.
The last chapter concludes the discussion in an apologetic tone. In the face of Ehrman’s recognition that everyone has presuppositions and Benedict’s acknowledgement that objectivity simply does not exist (232-237), Ramage asks the question of “whose philosophical presuppositions best position us for an accurate understanding of the Bible and of the nature of things in general?” (236). Recognizing that “it is unreasonable to dismiss Ehrman’s agnostic approach to the gospels as illegitimate based on internal evidence alone” (240), he deals with the philosophical question of the problem of evil, presenting Brian Davis’s greater good theodicy (241-243), C. S. Lewis’ notion that morality and evil are vacuous without God (243-245), and Alvin Plantinga’s argument ad absurdum that rationality is not reliable without the existence of God (245-249).
The author brings the book to a close by reminding the reader that divine interventions cannot be disregarded because of textual or historical matters, and that the Christian experience serves as warranty (a criteria for how Ramage defines a true belief), as subjective as they are, for Benedict’s presuppositions (249-261). While the book becomes increasingly more apologetic as it progresses, Ramage is kind, honest, and open-minded in his presentation of Ehrman’s work, modeling the way Christians and non-Christians should dialogue.
Natan Behrendt de Carvalho graduated from the College at Southeastern in Philosophy and Biblical Studies.Natan Benrendt de CarvalhoDate Of Review:March 30, 2020