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Evangelicals counter Bible scholar

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Posted: Wednesday, March 30, 2011 10:15 pm

The release of a new book by Bart Ehrman, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's pre-eminent New Testament scholar, has long been an unnerving and occasionally intimidating time for evangelical Christians on campus.

The pugnacious professor, whose challenges to cherished Christian beliefs make him a nemesis among some, relishes the role.

The titles of some of his best sellers -- "Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why" and "Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible" -- testify to his penchant for knocking dogmas.

Now he's at it again with "Forged: Writing in the Name of God -- Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are" (HarperOne, $26.99).

This time, campus evangelicals are better prepared.

In January, leaders of Campus Crusade for Christ, an international student ministry at 1,140 colleges and universities, decided to fight back with a website critical of Ehrman's conclusions.

In a polite, straightforward way, The Ehrman Project (ehrmanproject.com) attempts to offer students alternative views to those drawn by the superstar scholar whose Introduction to the New Testament class draws hundreds of students each semester.

"A lot of people struggle with what he teaches," said Miles O'Neill, director of Campus Crusade for Christ at UNC-CH. "We just wanted to give students other resources because we feel he gives a one-sided view."

The site consists of short video clips of scholars from evangelical schools offering their views on Christian orthodoxies:

Does the Bible include errors?

Did the early church leaders conspire to misrepresent what Jesus said to conform to their emerging theology?

The website's scholars, professors at conservative evangelical schools such as Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., and Dallas Theological Seminary, maintain that the Bible is reliable and that the changes made by scribes over the years are trivial.

But, Ehrman contends, their views do not represent the consensus among scholars using historians' techniques to analyze ancient texts.

"Look at their credentials," said Ehrman, 55. "None of them teaches at state universities, Ivy League schools or prominent four-year liberal-arts colleges," he said. "People with those views would never get a job at UNC."

The website's creators acknowledge that the views presented on their site are one-sided. They even give Ehrman credit for helping educate people about Christianity.

"Bart Ehrman is challenging evangelical Christians' literacy," said Dustin Smith, a senior who helped create and maintain the site. "Leaders in the Christian community haven't raised issues such as apparent contradictions in Scriptures. We're not for an ignorant faith. But we want students to know there are other conclusions."

These Christians ask why Ehrman, who calls himself "a happy agnostic," finds it necessary to indulge students in his personal loss of faith and to delve into issues of good and evil, as he did in a book called "God's Problem."

Ehrman said he talks about his loss of faith because students ask.

His main task, he said, is to apply techniques used by historians to ancient texts. He believes Jesus was a historical figure, but in his research he shows how ancient scribes altered the early manuscripts of the New Testament to promote their particular theological viewpoints on Jesus.

This kind of scholarship is not new. It's been going on for at least 150 years. But few churches have kept apace and, as polls consistently show, most Christians know little about their faith, even less about how the Bible came to be. A 2010 survey on religious knowledge by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed most Americans were able to answer correctly only half of the survey's questions about the Bible.

Many students who went into Ehrman's class with a strong Christian faith said the professor drove them to wrestle with facts and examine what they had taken for granted.

"It's been very challenging for me," senior Will Lamb said. "I've had to study the Scriptures to understand why I disagree with him."

What students don't like is Ehrman's tone, which students described alternately as "arrogant" and "sarcastic."

Take his most recent book, "Forged."

Scholars have long resisted the term "forgery" to characterize biblical writings made under false authorship. For centuries, scholars labeled some writings, such as the six New Testament epistles attributed to the Apostle Paul but actually written by others, with a technical term, "pseudepigraphy."

Ehrman dispenses with such formalities. Even the ancients, he said, knew that writing a book in someone else's name was deceitful.

"This common view that it was acceptable is flat-out wrong," Ehrman said. "It's not acceptable."

Over the next few weeks, Ehrman will be taking his book on a five-city tour including Boston, Philadelphia and Washington. This is Ehrman's fourth title written for a wide audience.

Meanwhile, Christian students at Chapel Hill are working hard to keep the faith.

Since the site launched, they have gotten more than 60,000 page views.

They're getting the word out on social-networking sites and building their case.

"Ehrman takes everything at face value," Lamb said. "But there are many things Christians believe that can't be historically proven."

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