My biggest problem here is a matter of scope. Condensing 4000 years of religious history into 500 pages would be nearly impossible if you were confiniMy biggest problem here is a matter of scope. Condensing 4000 years of religious history into 500 pages would be nearly impossible if you were confining yourself to a single tradition. Armstrong does not confine herself; she tries to explain the evolution of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all in the same space. Moreover, she makes a point of exploring the variety of religious experiences that have flourished at the margins of these greater traditions. Armstrong does this to celebrate diversity, but also to highlight similarities and moments of spiritual convergence and cross-pollination among the three Abrahamic religions. Unfortunately, her comparisons and digressions come at the expense of clarity and narrative cohesion. What she ends up with reads like a set of jumbled bullet points for an expansive and illuminating--but sadly hypothetical--multi-volume work.
Then there is the matter of agenda. Armstrong's book is called "A History of God," but is as much a work of apologetics as one of history. Which is to say, Armstrong's affinity for mysticism over against fundamentalism is never far from the surface. While I share her sympathies, I also believe a work that styles itself a history should seek to maintain a greater measure of objectivity. It's hard to imagine a fundamentalist reading this and feeling convinced rather than just bullied....more
Over the past few years, Bart Ehrman has earned a reputation for rankling Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists. Some of this is almost certainlyOver the past few years, Bart Ehrman has earned a reputation for rankling Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists. Some of this is almost certainly intentional. Compared to other NT scholars who take a similar stance on the historical Jesus (e.g., E.P. Sanders, Dale Allison, etc.), Ehrman's popular histories read like mystery novels. Ehrman's fans will call this energetic scholarship. His critics will call it breathless sensationalism. As with most things, the truth probably sits somewhere in between. But even allowing for the charge of sensationalism, nothing about Ehrman's claims is especially sensational.
The main ideas here--that the gospels present conflicting accounts of Jesus' life and teachings, that Jesus was most likely a first-century Jewish preacher whose message hinged on prophecies of imminent apocalypse, that the high christology espoused in the Nicene Creed was not a part of Jesus' own teaching--are neither new nor controversial among scholars. In fact, they reside comfortably within the mainstream consensus and have for over a century. But the way Ehrman articulates these positions cuts hard against fundamentalist shibboleths, in particular the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. Frankly, I see no problem with this. Evangelicals have worked hard to make Christianity incompatible with critical thinking. The sooner the message gets out that their doctrine is undercut by a basic comprehension of the facts, and so then bankrupt, the sooner the church can move beyond the dubious theology that has come to characterize large swaths of twenty-first-century Protestantism.
So what about this book specifically? It's good. Where previous efforts focused on biography and scripture, the focus here is on the development of christology and doctrine in the early church. It's a little broad, simplifies some things (a necessity in books of this kind), and doesn't always give a clear sense of when Ehrman is straying from the consensus into more hotly contested territory, but if you're new to the world of NT studies, this book is a satisfying primer. The endnotes and citations are ample enough to keep you busy for a long time if you're someone inclined to check sources. And if you're already familiar with the historical Jesus, critical textual analysis, or the history of early Christianity, Ehrman's latest makes for a good refresher.
For Ehrman completists, it seems worth noting that he admits changing his mind on several points since his last book. One notable switch centers on the question of the empty tomb and a previous dispute with John Dominic Crossan. It's nice to see a scholar who's honest about his own process and serious about rethinking his assumptions; it sets a strong example for the rest of us....more