In Memoriam – John Webster, 1955-2016 and Kenneth Bailey, 1931-2016

It seems appropriate, though unfortunate, on this Memorial Day to remember two Christian scholars that have passed away this past week. Kenneth Bailey was the author of the very popular book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (IVP Academic). During my time at the store I can say sometimes it was hard to keep his books on the shelf. They enjoyed wave after wave of popularity as people were introduced to him and his writings. You can read more about him here.

Kenneth Bailey

John Webster was Anglican British theologian and was the Chair of Divinity at St. Mary’s College, University of St Andrews, Scotland. I was introduced to the writings of Webster in just the past few years. Scholars who wrote in areas of his interest knew they had to interact with his thinking. I think he was just starting to break through to the awareness of the educated lay reader. You can read about him here.

John Webster

We will keep their family and friends in our prayers. May the writings they left behind to the church be used mightily by God.


“Jesus Before the Gospels” by Bart Ehrman – First Impressions

Bart Ehrman is a scholar who knows how to write so the layperson can understand what scholars are talking about. In his newest book, Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne), Ehrman sets out to show what recent studies on memory demonstrate about the accounts of the life of Jesus. He says, “I’m interested in knowing which memories of Jesus are historically probable.” (p. 47) Take for example the commonly held view that many of the traditions in the Gospels were memorized. Ehrman cites the popular study by the Scandinavian specialist in New Testament and early Judaism Birger Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript (Eerdmans). This is a book is often cited in books that I’ve read. Ehrman quickly disarms this by saying “[u]nfortunately, very few scholars find Gerhardsson’s views convincing. In part that is because there is almost no evidence for them.” (p. 68)

Another scholar that is commonly cited by conservatives is Kenneth Bailey. Again, Ehrman is not impressed. “For one thing, on the very basic level, one might wonder what evidence Bailey cites to show that early Christians came together to recount their community tradition in the manner of the haflat samar. In fact, he doesn’t cite any at all. So far as I know there is no evidence.” (pp. 72-73) But what about eyewitness testimony? In particular what about the research done by British scholar Richard Bauckham in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans)? Ehrman says that ‘[o]utside the ranks of conservative evangelical Christians, very few if any biblical scholars have found Bauckham’s case persuasive. It founders on numerous grounds, not the least of which is its steadfast refusal to take seriously scholarship on eyewitness testimony undertaken for more than a century by such experts as legal scholars who see the real-life importance of the question.” (p. 101)

Ehrman says many of the things we’ve been taught about memory such as people from oral cultures have better memories, the early church memorized events from the life of Jesus and carefully and accurately passed them on, people have better memories when it is a very significant event in their life personally, and so on are all no true. Our memories simply don’t work that way. And they are notoriously unreliable. Eyewitness testimony is also no guarantee of accuracy. But it would be wrong to conclude that Ehrman thinks everything in the New Testament regarding Jesus is the result of a false or distorted memory. He clearly says, “I am decidedly not saying that all of our memories are faulty or wrong. Most of the time we remember pretty well, at least in broad outline. Presumably, so too did eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus.” (p. 143) The Gospels are probably fairly accurate when it comes to “gist memories of Jesus”. (p. 144) The challenge is how does one determine “if a memory of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels is accurate, by which I mean that it is something that in fact did not actually take place?” (p. 151) Ehrman offers two criteria: accounts that contradict each other can’t both be right so one of the accounts is a distorted memory and some things are just have “inherent plausibility.” (pp. 151-57)

The book is a tour de force and ought to be engaged in a serious fashion by those who will no doubt disagree with the implications of his thesis. Ehrman spent a couple of years studying the research surrounding the issues of memory. Any response to Ehrman will have to take that research into consideration.

Jesus Before the Gospels is a hardcover with 336 pages and sells for $27.99.

Bart D. Ehrman is one of the most renowned and controversial Bible scholars in the world today. He is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and is the author of more than twenty books, including the New York Times bestsellers How Jesus Became God; Misquoting Jesus; God’s Problem; Jesus, Interrupted; and Forged. He has appeared on Dateline NBC, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, CNN, History, and top NPR programs, as well as been featured in TIME, the New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and other publications. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

Jesus Before The Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior  -     By: Bart D. Ehrman


Medieval People Did Not Believe the Earth Is Flat

In his new book, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians (Brazos Press), Chris Armstrong does a lot to dispel some of the many myths surrounding the medieval period. What may the biggest myth of all is the notion that people believed the Earth is flat. Armstrong explains why this is not true and how it got started.

“Many modern Protestant Christians still assume medieval people were ignorant haters of scientific knowledge who believed in a flat earth and were sitting around waiting for the Enlightenment to happen so they could finally crawl out of the darkness and into the clear light of reason. In order to get back to the genius of medieval theology, we first need to overcome the stereotype that medieval people were, well, stupid. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

One source of such nonsense today is a misbegotten (and still bestselling) book by William Manchester called A World Lit Only by Fire. Manchester was a historian, but he didn’t let a staggering lack of knowledge of the medieval period hinder him from filling the book’s pages with the Enlightenment polemical agenda hinted at in his title. This resulted (and I’m just scratching the surface here) in lurid and titillating exposés of the period’s supposed barbarous sexual habits and a straight-faced argument that everyone in the Middle Ages believed the world was flat. Historian of science (and editor of the eight-volume Cambridge History of Science) David Lindberg says, “Nonsense.”

Manchester’s story goes that before Columbus, Europeans believed nearly unanimously in a flat earth—a belief allegedly drawn from certain biblical statements and enforced by the medieval church. This myth, according to Lindberg, seems to have had an eighteenth-century origin. For their own reasons, the philosophes of the Enlightenment era, and many academics since then, developed and perpetuated the stereotype of medieval ignorance. But that doesn’t make these stereotypes true. In fact, American author Washington Irving flagrantly fabricated evidence for the flat-earth belief in his four-volume history of Columbus. It was then picked up and widely disseminated in twentieth-century America by the anti-Christian president of Cornell University, Andrew Dickson White (1832–1918), and others.

The truth is that it’s almost impossible to find an educated person after Aristotle (d. 322 BC) who doubted that the earth is a sphere. In the Middle Ages, you couldn’t emerge from any kind of higher education, whether in a cathedral school or in a university, without being perfectly clear about the earth’s sphericity and even its approximate circumference.” (pp. 76-77)



Book Giveaway

This week I’m offering Chris Armstrong’s new book Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians (Brazos Press). Here’s the catalog description:

“Many Christians today tend to view the story of medieval faith as a cautionary tale. Too often, they dismiss the Middle Ages as a period of corruption and decay in the church. They seem to assume that the church apostatized from true Christianity after it gained cultural influence in the time of Constantine, and the faith was only later recovered by the sixteenth-century Reformers or even the eighteenth-century revivalists. As a result, the riches and wisdom of the medieval period have remained largely inaccessible to modern Protestants.

Church historian Chris Armstrong helps readers see beyond modern caricatures of the medieval church to the animating Christian spirit of that age. He believes today’s church could learn a number of lessons from medieval faith, such as how the gospel speaks to ordinary, embodied human life in this world. Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians explores key ideas, figures, and movements from the Middle Ages in conversation with C. S. Lewis and other thinkers, helping contemporary Christians discover authentic faith and renewal in a forgotten age.”

Leave your name in the comments section by NLT Friday, May 20 6:00 am EST. I’ll announce the winner that day. If I don’t hear back from the winner within seven days the book will go to another entry.

Chris R. Armstrong (PhD, Duke University) is the founding director of Opus: The Art of Work, an institute on faith and vocation at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, where he also serves as a faculty member in biblical and theological studies. He formerly served as professor of church history at Bethel Seminary and was founding director of the Bethel Work with Purpose initiative. Armstrong is senior editor of Christian History and senior editor of the Patheos Faith and Work Channel. He is also the author of Patron Saints for Postmoderns.

Cover Art

Some Recommended Reading on Mary

In the Catholic Church the month of May is dedicated to Mary. In honor of that celebration I offer some recommended titles for my readers: Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox. Unfortunately, some of these are out of print but I listed them anyway because they are, well, just really good.

By Protestant Authors:

Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary, by Beverley Roberts Gaventa & Cynthia L. Rigby, eds. (Westminster John Knox, 2002)

Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture by Jaroslav Pelikan (Yale University Press, 1996). (Note: At the time of the writing Pelikan was Lutheran. Two years later he was received into full communion in the Orthodox Church.)

Mary For Evangelicals: Toward an Understanding of the Mother of Our Lord by Tim Perry (IVP Academic, 2006, out of print)

The Real Mary: Why Evangelicals Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus by Scot McKnight (Paraclete Press, 2007)

Mary for All Christians by John Macquarrie (Eerdmans, 1990, out of print)

Christian History magazine devoted an issue to the topic of Mary. You can find that here.

By Catholic authors (The amount of material on Mary from Catholics is enormous so I’m highlighting only a few that I’ve read myself in the past couple of years.) The last two books are not on Mary specifically but include a good chapter on her.

Behold Your Mother: A Biblical and Historical Defense of the Marian Doctrines by Tim Staples (Catholic Answers Press, 2014)

The Marian Mystery: Outline of Mariology by Denis Farkasfalvy, O. Cist. (St. Pauls, 2014)

Mary’s Bodily Assumption by Matthew Levering (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015)

What Does it Mean to be Catholic? By Jack Mulder, Jr. (Eerdmans, 2015)

Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith by Robert Barron (Image Books, 2011)

By both Catholic and Protestant:

Mary: A Catholic—Evangelical Debate by Dwight Longenecker and David Gustafson (Brazos Press, 2003, out of print).

For an Orthodox perspective and some recommended readings see “Mary the Theotokos and the Call to Holiness” by Kyriaki Karidoyanes Fitzgerald in Mary, Mother of God edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (Eerdmans, 2004)

The Virgin Mary by Alexander Schmemann (Celebration of Faith series vol. 3, St. Vladamir’s Seminary Press, 1995)