Sharing the Faith at a Gay-Pride Parade

Protesters at the Pride Parade

Last month I was going for a jog in Balboa Park here in downtown San Diego when I noticed the park was more crowded than usual. I headed toward the sounds of music and noticed more and more rainbow flags as I neared Cabrillo Bridge. “Maybe, just once,” I thought, “this will be a festival celebrating God’s covenant with Noah!”

Not so much.

It was San Diego’s 40th annual “Gay Pride Parade,” which this year boasted 300,000 participants who marched through San Diego’s Hillcrest neighborhood (known for its LGBT flair) to Balboa Park for a concert.

The participants were joyful and carefree—until they walked by a group of Christians protesting their event. The Christians, who I assume were conservative Evangelicals, held signs that said things like, “Jesus is the only way to salvation” and “Love is self-giving.”

They weren’t doing anything I considered offensive or outrageous, but I also thought their approach would not be very effective—and I was right.

An unexpected springboard

As the Christians preached through bullhorns, most of the LGBT festival-goers walked by laughing or saying things like, “You know you’re probably gay!” or “God is love!” They also said a lot of other things I can’t repeat without diving into indecency.

Others stopped to yell at the Christians or even just plead with them. One woman said, “There are real sinners down at the county jail. Why aren’t you there?” The Christian responded, “I go to the jail all the time. Lots of Christians do that, too. I’m here today to help you people.”

As the police stood warily nearby, I watched and observed alongside the festival attendees, getting a feel for the whole situation.

Suddenly I had a flashback.

Deja vu all over again

After college I used to travel the country with a pro-life group named Justice for All. We would setup exhibits with large pictures of unborn children before and after abortion and talk with college students about the pro-life worldview.

During those outreaches I would sometimes walk around and act like a student on campus. I wouldn’t lie about who I was, but I also wouldn’t immediately say who I was with, either. I would just ask students looking at the pictures, “So what do you think of this big ugly thing?” Pretty soon we were off to the races having great conversations.

So I wandered around the pride parade asking people who were staring at “the big, ugly Christians” a simple question: “What do you think of those guys over there?” I ended up having several conversations about the Bible, same-sex morality, and faith in general.

One young man, whom I’ll call Greg, was especially memorable.

What does the Church say?

I asked him what he thought of the Christians, and we began to talk, along with his two male friends. All three of them identified as being gay, and they asked me what I was doing at the festival. I said that my wife was out of town and I decided to go on a jog through the park until . . .

“Until the gays showed up!” one of the young men interjected.

“Something like that,” I said.

I explained that I worked for an organization called Catholic Answers and that my job is to explain and defend the Catholic Faith. One of them then asked, “So what does the Church say about me being gay?”

I was nervous but also felt the Holy Spirit giving me the right words and tone.

“Well, the Church makes a distinction between someone’s desires and someone’s actions. We can’t control our desires, and so they shouldn’t be central to our identity. You also can’t say someone is sinning just because they have certain desires because, like I said, you can’t control them. I wouldn’t say that I’m straight or that you’re gay, but that you and I are men made in God’s image with different desires for sexual intimacy.”

Wrong even for straight people

They nodded, so I continued.

“So our desires don’t define us, and they don’t condemn us. But our actions do define us, and we can be held accountable for them. Or, as Batman would say (switch to guttural Batman voice), “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.”

We shared a laugh.

“It’s actions, not desires. This is important, because the Church teaches that we shouldn’t use sex for a purpose it wasn’t intended for. That means it’s wrong for anyone to engage in same-sex behavior, even if they’re straight.”

They raised their eyebrows at the unexpectedness of what I said, and I went on.

What is sex for?

“For example, if a straight guy has been in prison for a long time and he just wants sexual release, he might have sex with a man, even though he says he’s not gay. But that would be wrong, because sex isn’t just for satisfying your urges. For me, the big question I ask when I think about tough issues like same-sex attraction is: What is sex for?”

To my surprise, one of the young men said, “Procreation?”

My eyes lit up.

“Yes! I mean, that’s not the whole reason, but for me it makes sense to say that sex is ordered towards making babies and uniting men and women for their good and the good of any babies they might create. That’s also why as a Catholic I’m against contraception, because it goes against what sex is for.”

Rather than be offended, the three young men pondered what I said and seemed to appreciate the reasonableness of it, as well as the fact that I didn’t just quote a Bible verse and rest my case.

A pebble in the shoe

We talked a bit more, and then Greg and I talked one-on-one for a while. We discussed his religious background and his decision to leave the Mormon Church (which was motivated by his same-sex attraction but also by critical examination of the Book of Mormon).

As our conversation came to a close, I encouraged him to visit the website of Courage, which I described as a nonjudgmental ministry that helps Catholics who have same-sex attraction lead chaste lives. I said, “They really try to meet people where they’re at. They’re not about ‘praying the gay away.’” Greg said he was relieved they weren’t “like that” and said he’d check them out.

We parted ways, and I walked back to Balboa Park across the Cabrillo Bridge, remembering that conversion happens slowly, bit by bit. Sometimes the best we can do is plant a “pebble in their shoe” or a thought in the mind that will roll around until the person has an “epiphany moment.”

As I walked I also thought about how amazing it would be to take two dozen Catholics, well-formed in their Faith and trained to engage people in civil and compassionate dialogue, to an event like this. It would be a time to not try to win arguments but to win people and show that, even if we disagree about sexual ethics, we can still treat each other with respect and kindness.

Maybe next year . . .

Priests Should Not Be Forced to Break the Seal of Confession

Confessional_bourgesAccording to the Catholic News Agency a priest in Louisiana may be forced to reveal what was said during a confession when he testifies in an upcoming civil suit. The article says,

In May, the state Supreme Court ruled that the priest in question, Fr. Jeff Bayhi, may be subject to mandatory reporting laws regarding sexual abuse, and cannot invoke the privilege of confidentiality regarding an alleged confession made to him about sexual abuse by a young girl.

The diocese explained that a priest is under the gravest of obligations not to reveal the contents of a confession or if the confession even took place. He cannot do so even under threat of imprisonment or civil penalty, and incurs automatic excommunication if he breaks the “seal of confession.”

I’m not going to comment on the specifics involved in the case with Fr. Bayhi because, frankly, doing so would be irresponsible. Most stories covering this case take advantage of the fact that both dead men and priests who hear confessions can’t defend themselves. Instead, of focusing on what Fr. Bayhi allegedly said in the confessional, I’d like to focus on a broader issue. Namely, when a priest learns about child abuse in the confessional, either from a victim or a perpetrator, should he be legally compelled to report that abuse to the authorities? Should he be compelled to testify about what he heard in the confessional in a courtroom?

Debating the Seal of Confession

For most Catholics the issue is cut and dry, summarized pithily in the Catholic code of canon law – “The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.” (Canon Law # 983. §1)

But among secular observers it’s not so clear. They say that, yes, communication between clerics and penitents is privileged, but so is communication between doctors and patients. However, in most states the law mandates doctors to report any suspicion of child abuse. This also applies to other professionals like teachers, therapists, and law enforcement. Should priests be treated differently than everyone else just because of their religious views?

Now, it’s certainly true that we should act in any reasonable way to protect children from child abuse, but we can think of many things the government should not do even when it comes to the lofty goal of protecting children from abuse. For example, the government should not secretly make audio recordings in our homes even if the goal were to protect children from abuse because losing the good of privacy outweighs any possible good that could come from such a tactic (not to mention it being an affront to the rights we have under the fourth amendment).

Even if doctors and teachers are required to report child abuse, there may be some groups who should not be required to report it because the harms of requiring them to report would be too great and certain fundamental rights would be violated as a result. I can think of one group this would apply to besides priests, which shows that such an exemption is not unfair or unheard of — defense attorneys.

Will the Defense Rise?

As far as I know, no state requires a defense attorney to report suspected child abuse if he learns about such abuse from his client. Of the nearly 50 kinds of people required to report suspected abuse in California, none of them are defense attorneys. One 2006 article from the New Mexico Law Review even says such mandatory reporting would hurt domestic violence victims.

Of course, an attorney is free to stop working with a client he suspects may have abused a child, but he can’t divulge what the client told him about the past crime to anyone else. This is part of a confidentiality privilege that has existed for a long time in the law called attorney-client privilege. According to Geoffrey C. Hazard,

The attorney-client privilege may well be the pivotal element of the modern American lawyer’s professional functions. It is considered indispensable to the lawyer’s function as advocate on the theory that the advocate can adequately prepare a case only if the client is free to disclose everything, bad as well as good. The privilege is also considered necessary to the lawyers function as confidential counselor in law on the similar theory that the legal counselor can properly advise the client what to do only if the client is free to make full disclosure.

Now, there are exceptions to attorney-client privilege. One exception includes communication that involves both the client and attorney planning to commit a crime together, such as plans to destroy evidence or to “cover up” a past crime. Another exception would be if the client says he plans to commit a future crime that will cause serious harm, which; in that case, the attorney must then report to the authorities.

But in general, communication about a past crime to an attorney is privileged and must remain confidential — but why? Isn’t reporting child abuse more important than helping criminals and their “sleazy” defense attorneys?

Stopping abuse is important, but it’s not worth overturning one of the fundamental components of our justice system. It’s not worth losing the role of an advocate who will provide someone accused of a crime, be he guilty or innocent, the best possible defense in a court of law.

So how does this relate to priests being forced to divulge what they learn in confession?

Rights of the Accused and the Damned

Just as forcing defense attorneys to report suspected child abuse would have the chilling effect of discouraging those accused of abuse from seeking legal counsel that can help them stay out of jail, forcing priests to report suspected child abuse that they learn about through the confessional will have the chilling effect of discouraging those who have committed those crimes from seeking absolution that can help them stay out of Hell.

While it’s important to stop child abuse, we can’t accomplish that goal through the deprivation of our fundamental rights (such as government surveillance of our homes that I mentioned earlier which would violate our right to privacy). For Catholics, this includes the right to see a priest and through him have God forgive us of our sins. While the seal of confession is inviolable in a way attorney-client privilege is not (since it allows for no exceptions), this makes sense because the stakes are infinitely higher.

Confession exists so that anyone, if he genuinely repents, can be forgiven of his sins no matter how heinous they may be. If the Church is accused of hiding abusers because of this narrow confidentiality privilege, then we can say that law firms are guilty of hiding abusers when they don’t turn in every client suspected of past abuse who confides in an attorney.

As Catholics, we aren’t asking for a sweeping exemption so that everything ever said to a priest is “off the record.” We are just asking for, oh, I don’t know, a wall of separation between Church and State. Specifically, a wall made up of the dark enamel of the confessional that lets us make “personal decisions” between ourselves, our priest, and our God without government interference.

If a man can be granted secrecy with his legal counsel so that he can protect his freedom, then that same man should be granted secrecy with his religious counsel so that he can protect his very soul.

Senator Rubio is Right – Human Life Does Begin at Conception

inset_article_lifer_2Last week senator Marco Rubio said on the Sean Hannity show that “Science is settled . . . human life begins at conception.” While some people who support legal abortion might scoff at the senator’s remarks, the fact is that all the evidence stands firmly behind what he said.

Now, science can’t prove a valuable human being, or a person, or someone with an immortal soul begins to exist at conception because concepts like “the soul” “value” or “person” are immaterial and are therefore outside the realm of science (even thought they are still real concepts). Instead, science shows us that biological human beings begin to exist after sperm and egg successfully unite to form a zygote, or a one-celled human organism.

Make Your Case

Pro-life advocates should avoid making simplistic claims such as “Abortion kills a life” or “Life begins at conception.” This leaves them open to a rebuttal such as this one from atheist Carl Sagan:

Despite many claims to the contrary, life does not begin at conception: It is an unbroken chain that stretches back nearly to the origin of the Earth, 4.6 billion years ago. Nor does human life begin at conception: It is an unbroken chain dating back to the origin of our species, hundreds of thousands of years ago.[1]

While it is true that living cells or human cells have a long history, the same is not true for individual human beings. Sagan’s criticism is overcome if we drop the assertion “Life begins at conception” and say instead “A human organism begins to exist at conception” or “The life of an individual human being begins at conception.” This may seem like semantics, but it is important to use this vocabulary with pro-choice advocates who may think an embryo is alive in the same sense that sperm and egg are alive.

This mistaken set of assumptions may cause the pro-choice advocate to think that an embryo’s life never really began at conception. He might instead think that at conception life in the form of sperm and egg was rearranged and became life in the form of an embryo. For them, the newly formed embryo might have the same value as egg or sperm until it “becomes a human being” later in pregnancy.

When it comes to defending the claim that an individual human being begins to exist at conception, I don’t recommend only making appeals to authority such as “Science says life begins at conception” or “All scientists agree life begins at conception.” The members of your audience may simply not believe you, or they may think the authorities you are citing are simply wrong.

Instead, I recommend using a simple argument that shows that at conception two body parts (sperm and egg) recombine and form an entirely new body that is a living, whole, human organism who is growing and developing into adulthood. After making this argument, it is then helpful to cite authorities which show humans begin their lives at conception (or twinning in the case of identical twins).

A Ten-Second Apologist

My favorite argument for the humanity of the unborn is based on Stephen Wagner’s “10-second pro-life apologist.”[2] Steve was once flustered that he could not defend his pro-life beliefs in a conversation that took him by surprise, so he went home and crafted a 10-second sound bite that goes like this:

  • If it’s growing, isn’t it alive?
  • If it has human parents, isn’t it human?
  • And human beings like you and me are valuable, aren’t we?

Sometimes, Steve’s sound bite will do the trick, and the person with whom you are talking will accept that the unborn are biological human beings. Other times you may have to use more evidence to prove that the unborn are (1) alive, (2) human, and (3) whole organisms.

Clearly, the unborn are alive, because they are receiving nutrients from the woman that cause the fetus to grow via cellular reproduction. And they are human because they came from human parents and have human DNA. Some critics will say in response to this, “Yes, the fetus is alive and human, but every cell in my body is alive and human. Is every cell in my body a human being?”

Not Just Any Cell

But this false argument confuses parts and wholes. Saying, “A fetus is alive and human. Sperm and egg are alive and human. Therefore, a fetus is a body part like sperm and egg” is as fallacious as saying, “A truck is made of metal. Nuts and bolts are made of metal. Therefore a truck is a car part like a nut or a bolt.” Because two things have traits in common does not mean they are the same kind of thing. Sperm, egg, and other body cells are parts of a human body. In contrast, a fetus, embryo, or even a one celled zygote that exists after conception is a whole human body that is able to develop itself over time.

The unborn are not mere tissue or body parts like sperm, egg, or skin cells. They are also not like cancerous tumors that can grow and even sprout body parts such as hair or teeth but have no potential to develop into an adult human.[3] Instead, an unborn child, when given time, nutrition, and a proper environment (i.e., not outside the uterus) will develop into a mature human being if he does not die prematurely, which is not true of sperm, egg, or body cells. Embryologist E. L. Potter says,

“Every time a sperm cell and ovum unite, a new being is created which is alive and will continue to live unless its death is brought about by some specific condition.”[4]

The fact that some embryos and even other born children die before they become adult humans does not negate the fact that they are human beings. They still are human beings because they have the intrinsic capacity to develop into a mature human being even if their development is tragically cut short.

Pro-choice bio-ethicist Peter Singer agrees:

“[T]here is no doubt that from the first moments of its existence an embryo conceived from human sperm and eggs is a human being,” he says, “and the same is true of the most profoundly and irreparably intellectually disabled human being, even of an infant who is born anencephalic—literally, without a brain.”[5]

Call in the Experts

Once you have defended the claim that from conception the unborn are biological human beings by using the ten-second pro-life apologist, it is more than appropriate to augment that argument with appeals to relevant authorities. For example, in Planned Parenthood v. Rounds (2008), the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals found that requiring abortionists to say that the fetus is a “living, separate, whole human being” does not force an abortionist to espouse an unconstitutional religious viewpoint. The court ruled that this statement was a biological fact that even physicians affiliated with Planned Parenthood accept![6]

Distinguished scientists and philosophers also back up the court’s opinion. The standard medical text Human Embryology and Teratology states, “Although human life is a continuous process, fertilization is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is formed.”[7] (Among embryologists, the preferred term for the beginning of life is fertilization instead of conception).

Keith Moore and T.V.N Persaud’s textbook The Developing Human states, “Human life begins at fertilization” and Langman’s Medical Embryology also states that, “Development begins with fertilization.”[8] The fourth chapter of Scott Gilbert’s textbook Developmental Biology is simply titled, “Fertilization: Beginning of a New Organism.”[9]

Finally, David Boonin, the author of A Defense of Abortion, writes, “Perhaps the most straightforward relation between you and me on the one hand and every human fetus on the other is this: All are living members of the same species, homo sapiens. A human fetus after all is simply a human being at a very early stage in his or her development.”[10]

Case Closed

The fact that an individual member of the species homo sapiens, or a human organism, begins to exist at conception (a.k.a fertilization) is, as philosopher Robert George once said, “A stubborn fact of science.” But science can only tell us what something is, not whether it is valuable or has any rights. At this point you should ask your pro-choice friend, “Is there anything wrong with saying that all human organisms, no matter how old or young they are, should have the same basic rights and be treated equally with one another?”

Now you’re on the right track to make a powerful “case for life.” To learn more about how to make such a case, check out my DVD, “Making the Case for Life” available from Catholic Answers.

Notes


[1] Carl Sagan. Billions & Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium. (Random House Publishing: New York, 1997) 201.

[2] Stephen Wagner. Common Ground without Compromise: 25 Questions to Create Dialogue on Abortion (Stand to Reason: San Pedro, CA, 2008) 69.

[3] These tumors are called teratomas which comes, not surprisingly, from the Greek word for “monster.”

[4] E.L. Potter, M.D., and J.M. Craig, M.D. Pathology of the Fetus and the Infant (3rd Edition). (Year Book Medical Publishers, Chicago, 1975)  page vii.

[5] Peter Singer. Practical Ethics. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) 85-86.

[6] The court ruled: “Planned Parenthood’s evidence at the preliminary injunction stage does not demonstrate that it is likely to prevail on the merits. . . . The State’s evidence suggests that the biological sense in which the embryo or fetus is whole, separate, unique and living should be clear in context to a physician. . . . Planned Parenthood submitted no evidence to oppose that conclusion. Indeed, Dr. Wolpe’s affidavit, submitted by Planned Parenthood, states that “to describe an embryo or fetus scientifically and factually, one would say that a living embryo or fetus in utero is a developing organism of the species Homo Sapiens which may become a self-sustaining member of the species if no organic or environmental incident interrupts its gestation.” Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota; Carol E. Ball, M.D vs. Mike Rounds, Governor, in his official capacity; Larry Long, Attorney General, in his official capacity” United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit No. 05-3093 Section I Filed June 27, 2008.

[7] Ronan O’Rahilly and Fabiola Müller. Human Embryology and Teratology, 3rd edition.(New York: Wiley-Liss, 2001) 8. The full quote reads, “Although human life is a continuous process, fertilization (which, incidentally, is not a “moment”) is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is formed when the chromosomes of the male and female pronuclei blend in the oocyte.”

[8] Keith L. Moore and T.V.N. Persaud  The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 9th edition. (Philadelphia, PA: Saunders, 2013). 2. The full quote reads, “Human development begins at fertilization, approximately 14 days after the onset of the last normal menstrual period.” T.W. Sadler. Langman’s Medical Embryology. 11th edition. (Williams & Wilkins: Baltimore, 2010) 13. The full quote reads, “Development begins with fertilization, the process by which the male gamete, the sperm, and the female gamete, the oocyte, unite to give rise to a zygote.”

[9] Scott F. Gilbert. Developmental Biology. 10th edition (Sinauer Associates, Inc: June 30, 2013).

[10] David Boonin. A Defense of Abortion (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2003) 20.

How Jesus Became God: A Critical Review

9780061778186_custom-28b4317067be2a2fb7edbfcd7c35ce7bfbda9842-s6-c30Most Christians say the apostles came to believe Jesus was God after seeing how Christ’s resurrection vindicated his claims to divinity. But Bart Ehrman’s newest book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, offers another theory.

Ehrman is popular New Testament textual critic who was once a Fundamentalist Christian and is now an agnostic. Ehrman’s big claim to fame came with his 2005 book Misquoting Jesus, where he argued that the text of the New Testament was corrupted through the scribal copying process. He then argued that this corruption jeopardizes our orthodox understanding of the Bible. The book has sold millions of copies, and you’ve no doubt seen or heard Ehrman on late-night television, including the Colbert Report.

Ehrman’s thesis in his latest book is that the divide between human and divine in the ancient world was not as clean cut and “uncrossable” as it is for modern religious believers. According to Ehrman, in the ancient world it was common for the divide to be crossed in either the “gods come down in the likeness of men” direction or the “men go up and become gods” direction. Within this cultural milieu it was not improbable for the apostles to believe that their good rabbi had become “God.”

I enjoyed the book, and I think it’s disappointing how many Christians jump into an automatic “pan-the-heretic” mode before reading it. Don’t misunderstand me: I think Ehrman is wrong, but his book is well-written.

Gods and men in the Ancient World

The first two chapters describe the malleable barrier between gods and men. The first few pages left a sour taste in my mouth. Ehrman begins with a story about a first-century miracle worker whose disciples believed he was the Son of God and had survived his own death. But, surprise! Ehrman’s not talking about Jesus but another supposed miracle-worker and contemporary of Jesus named Apollonius of Tyana. This sets the stage for Ehrman to talk about how in the ancient world men who become gods and vice-versa were really a dime a dozen.

However, Ehrman neglects to mention that although we have multiple sources for the life of Jesus we only have one source for Apollonius. Ehrman says this source, Philostratus, recorded what eyewitnesses said about Apollonius, but neglects to mention that the only eyewitness mentioned is one Damis from Nineveh, a city that didn’t even exist in the first century (which means Damis probably did not exist either). Ehrman also doesn’t mention how the wife of emperor Severus commissioned Philostratus to write the biography of Apollonius over a century after Apollonius’s “death.” The Life of Apollonius was probably created as a competitor to the Gospel accounts of Jesus which, by that point, were in wide circulation across the Roman Empire.

Ehrman acknowledges this theory in a footnote but then claims that all he is doing is showing how belief in “God-men” was easily accepted in the Roman cultural context; but I find this answer unsatisfying. If belief in a God-man like Apollonius was only easily accepted because it was crafted to imitate Jesus, it still doesn’t explain how Jesus’ divinity came about.

Perhaps the most striking concession Ehrman makes in this section is that Apollonius is the only story of a true “God-man” like Jesus. Ehrman writes, “I don’t know of any other cases in ancient Greek or Roman thought of this kind of “God-man,” where an already existing divine being is said to be born of a mortal woman.” If the story of Apollonius is parasitic upon the story of Jesus, then that makes the story of the “God-man” Jesus all the more exceptional and difficult to explain without recourse to a miracle.

The Resurrection of Jesus

In chapter three we get a crash course in “historical Jesus studies” or the use of objective criteria to find what the nineteenth-century Biblical critic Martin Kähler called “The Jesus of History” (as opposed to the supposedly non-historical “Christ of faith” who inhabits the catechism). At about this point I noticed that some of what Ehrman was discussing also popped up in his previous book, Did Jesus Exist?

I think it was New Testament critic Burton Mack who said that the greatest mystery of Christianity is the question of how Jesus came to be worshipped as God so quickly after his death. Mythicists who deny Jesus existed have a simple answer: he was always worshipped as God and the human part was added later. Ehrman rejects that view, but has to find a way to get Jesus up the “ontological totem pole” at a very fast rate. Ehrman claims to be able to do this in his analysis of the Resurrection, an “event” that he says was necessary for Jesus not to be remembered as just another failed messiah.

Ehrman is adamant that this was not a fluffy “resurrection of Easter faith,” nor was it a “spiritual resurrection” as other critics try to make it out to be. It was instead a real bodily resurrection that the apostles proclaimed. He is careful to say, however, that it was belief in the resurrection that caused the apostles to think Jesus was God, and not the resurrection itself. Ehrman then devotes two chapters to providing a natural explanation for how this belief in the resurrection came about.

His main point is that although he once believed that we could know Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus, he has now changed his mind and says we can’t know that for sure. He says we simply can’t know what happened to the body of Jesus. We can know, however, that the apostles had visions of Jesus after his death, but that was probably because they were bereaved and such visions are actually quite common. He says the answer to the question of whether or not these visions were real or hallucinatory is beyond the reach of the historian.

My Thoughts on the Resurrection

I’m not convinced by Ehrman’s arguments against the authenticity of the burial tradition. Hesays that because Joseph and the empty tomb are not mentioned in the creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, this shows it was probably a legendary development. But the creed’s use of the word buried (in Greek, hetaphe) implies something formal and ceremonial, not a mere chucking of a body into a ditch. In addition, there’s no reason to include those details in 1 Corinthians because they were not needed. When the creed says “Christ appeared” it’s natural to ask “to whom did he appear?” The creed answers this question with a list of witnesses. When it says Christ was buried, we don’t need to know who buried him, just as we don’t need to know who killed Christ (something the creed in 1 Corinthians also doesn’t mention).

In regards to the visions, how do we know that the disciples would have been bereaved and not angry that Jesus turned out to be a fraud instead of the messiah? I’m sure the disciples of John the Baptist mourned his death and may have felt guilty for not aiding him during his imprisonment, buttheir grief did not lead them to proclaim he had risen from the dead.

Overall, Ehrman’s treatment of the resurrection is good when he goes in depth about a subject and poor when he gives an off-hand response to an objection. For example, his cursory write-off of the resurrection accounts being contradictory and therefore not being reliable is not compelling because the accounts only differ in secondary details. Many ancient histories do the same. For example, among Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio we have three different accounts of where Nero was when Rome burned, but that doesn’t mean Nero wasn’t in the city when it happened.

The Path to Orthodoxy

In chapters eight and nine Ehrman narrates the struggles within the early Church as Christians sought to lay out in specific detail what they believed about God and Jesus. If you ever take the time to read the canons from councils like Nicea and Chalcedon, then you see how it’s really difficult to describe orthodoxy correctly. It’s really easy, however, to make your view a heresy. What is the Trinity? Are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit each gods? Nope! That’s tri-theism. Are the Father, Son and Holy Spirit each a part of God? Nope! That’s modalism. While Ehrman’s description of the early Christological controversies is fairly useful, there are parts where I think he oversimplified to the point of error.

One of those would be his assertion that the third-century popes endorsed the heresy of modalism, which claims that there is one God who is one person and that this person appears in different “modes” or roles.  In this view of God, there is no relationship between the Father and the Son since they are the same person (God) just as my role as “husband” has no personal relationship as “son.” Ehrman says that Pope Callistus I (218-223) endorsed this view, but our only source for this charge is Hippolytus, who, Ehrman neglects to tell his readers, was a bitter opponent of Callistus—making his charges unreliable. Callistus was certainly no modalist because he excommunicated Sabellius, one of modalism’s primary proponents (another name for modalism is Sabellianism). J.N.D. Kelly’s Oxford reference book on the popes gives a good description of the matter here.

Closing Thoughts

There’s a lot more to discuss here (especially Ehrman’s view of Paul’s Christology), but overall I think Ehrman’s work represents the typical “Jesus was a failed end-times prophet” approach that is popular within historical Jesus studies. Ehrman does part ways with some of his like-minded colleagues, such as Dale Allison (see page 185 of How Jesus Became God), and at those points it’s nice to see Ehrman put forward a compelling argument instead of just lobbing an assertion.

For readers who want a fuller treatment of the arguments in opposition to Ehrman’s case, I’d recommend the following resources:

How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart Ehrman. As the tile suggests, this book represents the viewpoints of five authors who disagree with Ehrman’s thesis. Kind of a mixed bag when it comes to quality, but Craig Evans’s essay on Jesus’ burial is worth the whole price.

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. This book by Richard Bauckham is a must-read for anyone who glosses over Ehrman’s claim that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses and so cannot be trusted.

The Resurrection of the Son of God. The well-known New Testament scholar N.T. Wright gives one of the most comprehensive treatments of both the resurrection and the surrounding cultural context that makes a natural “legend-based” explanation of the resurrection very implausible.