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How to ask hard questions about Jesus

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A new book answers popular skeptic Bart Ehrman

I vividly remember idling in a Kansas City Shell station waiting to get gas. Plenty of pumps were free — but I wasn’t. I was listening to author Bart Ehrman debunk New Testament passages on NPR and I didn’t want to miss any of it.

It was fascinating not because it was an attack on my faith, but because his critique didn’t sound like an attack at all. It had all the signs of being a clear-eyed and fair examination of the evidence for — and, for the most part, against — the divinity of Christ, the truth of the resurrection, the inerrancy of Scripture, and more.

He was extremely convincing, and I didn’t have Jesus, Interpreted to answer him then.

I do now.

The new book’s author is Dr. Matthew J. Ramage (rhymes with “damage”), a theologian at Benedictine College in Kansas. He got a lot of attention for his previous book that dealt with “problem” Bible verses, Dark Passages of the Bible.

In both books, Ramage looks at key contemporary questions about Scripture through the work of Pope Benedict XVI. The books are scholarly but not impenetrable in the way academic theology often is for the lay reader. For me, Ramage’s book is an indispensable guide to Benedict’s theological works on the life of Christ.

Ramage lines out what the pope is saying and why. He also speaks directly to my gas station experience. Jesus, Interpreted is a direct response to Ehrman’s work, including Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted. Ramage explains:

“I have chosen Ehrman for my principal 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.”

Ramage clearly has great respect for Ehrman, and that helps the book take his questions seriously — all the questions I heard on NPR, and more.

To understand the Gospels you have to understand what their purpose is. “The primary aim of the Gospels,” Ramage writes, “is to proclaim Jesus. They are not purely historical documents, but neither are they anti-historical.”

By analogy, think of Medal of Honor citations. They present the stories of war heroes in their essentials, but with a view to proclaiming their heroism to the world.

Presumably, if someone were to make a more detailed account of each hero’s life, they would reveal subtleties and nuances to those stories. A critic of the military could use these to cast doubt on the citations. An admirer of the military could use them to deepen the story told by the citations.

This is the central point Ramage wants to make. As Ratzinger puts it, “pure objectivity is an absurd abstraction … the observer’s perspective is an essential determinant of the outcome of the experiment.” Thus the debate about Scripture is “not at its core a dispute among historians, but among philosophers.”

Knowing this means Ramage can often concede key points to Ehrman in such a way that he takes all the life out of them. For instance, when Ehrman says that the Church’s Christology developed more in the first decades of Christianity than in all the centuries of dogmatic development that followed, he thinks he is saying that Jesus’s identity was a question mark that early Christians — not Jesus himself — filled in.

Ramage is not troubled by that.

“The question is whether the Christology developed during this period was the fruit of truthful and providential reflection up on the mystery of Jesus or whether it was a misguided, delusional, desperate or even conniving power play,” he explains.

He shares one example. Ehrman cites Paul in Romans 1:3-4 saying Jesus “was designated son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his Resurrection from the dead.”

Since Ehrman wants to argue that Paul believed Jesus was angelic, not divine, he decides that the phrase “in power” was “probably added” to an earlier creed Paul inherited.

Asks Ramage: “Which is made more visible by this sort of exegesis — the face of the historical Jesus or the face of the interpreter?”

The book does this with many of Ehrman’s questions, not so much settling them as re-situating them. Ramage does a great service in sorting out what new insights are being gained and what key themes are being ignored by even the best scholar-skeptics of the Bible.

If what Catholics believe is true, not only can our faith withstand rigorous examination, it will be strengthened by it. Jesus, Interpreted does exactly that.

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