Apparently, Bart Ehrman is getting cranky. His most recent book is Forged: Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible’s Authors are not who we think they are.
His argument seems to be that certain of the authors of biblical texts intended to “defraud or bamboozle” their readers. In other words, he is attacking both conservatives, who think the texts were written by the authors named in them, or attributed to them by later tradition, as well as mainstream scholarship which has argued for centuries that many of the texts, such as several of the letters attributed to Paul, were written pseudonymously. Ben Witherington offers his take-down here. So Ehrman is going from writing about errors in the text to malicious biblical authors. It’s clear he has a few issues with scripture.
Another book I’m not going to read is Defending Constantine, by Peter J. Leithart. This is one part biography and one part attack on those who view Constantine’s conversion as an epochal shift, and not for the better, in the History of Christianity. His chief target is John Howard Yoder.
Constantine was a complex and enormously important figure and Leithart is correct in problematizing recent and not-so-recent historiography. But in his effort to do so, he seems to go a bit overboard and perhaps even distort the story. The sources are problematic and historians have debated for decades whether or when Constantine in fact converted. That he declared Christianity a licit religion is not in question. What is in question is the depth of Constantine’s own faith. The fact that he was baptized only on his deathbed gives many pause.
That his conversion changed the relationship of Christianity to the state is also clear. To go from being persecuted by an emperor to having an emperor sponsor the construction of churches and calling church councils in a little over a decade was amazing, and disorienting for Christians. There were gains as well as losses in the historical development that took place in the wake of Constantine.
We are living, once again, in a post-Constantinian age. Many Christians, especially on the right, seem not to recognize that the role of Christianity in contemporary culture has changed dramatically in the last fifty years (see my previous post). While there is much in Yoder with which I disagree, I think his call for the church to recognize this situation, to claim it as an opportunity to rethink the relationship of the church to the gospel, and to think creatively about what the church’s role in culture might be, is vital if we are to continue to be a faithful witness to the gospel in the twenty-first century.