The National Catholic Review
Bart Ehrman, chair of the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has become an amazing phenomenon in religious publishing. His literary and historical introduction to the New Testament is widely used as a textbook in universities across the United States. In recent years he has produced many scholarly and popular books on the Bible and related topics (like the apostolic fathers and The Da Vinci Code) at a very fast pace. His 2005 book on New Testament textual criticism, Misquoting Jesus, even made its way onto the bestseller lists of The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Ehrman has often told (as he does here) the story of his religious journey from biblical fundamentalism to agnosticism. From his text-critical studies he concluded that the New Testament text contains so many errors and corruptions that it could not be the inerrant word of God. One of the other elements in what he describes as his “deconversion” to agnosticism was his being overwhelmed, while teaching a course at Rutgers University on biblical approaches to suffering, by the massive suffering in our world today and his own dissatisfaction with the answers he found in the Bible. His goal in this book is to explore critically the biblical responses to the problem of suffering and to help readers make a judgment (as he has done) on their adequacy.

After describing his own crisis of faith with reference to personal and global suffering, he discusses the classical view of suffering (sometimes called the law of retribution)—foolish and wicked persons get what they deserve by way of suffering, and wise and righteous persons are rewarded—and how this approach dominates much of the Old Testament and even parts of the New Testament. He also explores the related approach that focuses on the bad consequences of the evil deeds done by others, and investigates the theme of redemptive suffering with reference to biblical figures such as Joseph, Moses, the Suffering Servant and Jesus. Next he asks whether suffering makes any sense at all in the light of the poetic parts of the book of Job, and finally finds a kindred biblical spirit in Ecclesiastes/Qoheleth and that author’s views that suffering sometimes defies explanation and that the best approach is simply to enjoy life in the present. Then he considers the “apocalyptic solution” in the Book of Daniel, the teachings of Jesus and Paul and the Book of Revelation. In this perspective God’s omnipotence and justice will be fully manifest only at the final coming of God’s kingdom, when the righteous will be vindicated and rewarded and the wicked will be condemned and punished. In passing he treats the biblical ideas that suffering can be a test or a discipline, and that God can and does draw good out of evil. At each point Ehrman explains why he cannot accept any of these answers.

Despite Ehrman’s thoroughgoing agnosticism about God and the mystery of suffering, this is a book worth reading even by believers. The author knows his Bible well, and describes the content of the pertinent biblical passages objectively and clearly. And sometimes his agnostic perspective can sharpen the understanding of believers and challenge us to view the Bible and the human condition in a fresh light. I regularly teach a course on suffering in the Bible and intend to include Ehrman’s book in my bibliography.

In my opinion, however, the problem treated in God’s Problem is more the author’s problem than God’s. It shows very well that the Bible does in fact answer our most important question (why we suffer) in many different ways. His problem is that at this point in his life he does not like any of the answers the Bible gives. But none of these answers is put forth as the only, one-size-fits-all, always-and-everywhere appropriate solution.

The Bible is not that kind of book. It is an anthology of all kinds of writings from many different periods and places, not a treatise in philosophy or systematic theology. Each of the biblical approaches has its own set of possibilities and problems. Moreover, Ehrman sticks to the Protestant and Jewish Hebrew Bible canon. But the problem of suffering takes on a different cast when the so-called deuterocanonical books found in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles are included. The problem of suffering is a major theme there, and the Book of Wisdom is especially important. Finally, while Ehrman struggles to do so, it is hard to put together working for social justice and Ecclesiastes/Qoheleth’s advice to “eat, drink and be merry.”

The sales of Ehrman’s books indicate there is a large audience for what he does with the Bible. In place of Christian faith, he seems to have adopted the perspectives of the European Enlightenment, and uses them as criteria for judging the biblical approaches. But in his approaches to both the Greek New Testament text and to the biblical theme of suffering, it seems that his former fundamentalist quest for certainty remains, but now everything has been turned upside down. And if you think that the Enlightenment philosophers do better with the problem of suffering than the biblical writers, you should read Susan Neiman’s Evil in Modern Thought.

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. is professor of New Testament at Weston Jesuit School of Theology, Cambridge, Mass. His most recent books are How Do Catholics Read the Bible? (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005) and Jesus: A Historical Portrait (S

Comments

lLetha Chamberlain | 1/28/2008 - 5:35pm
I am so struck by how little reference is made to the Apostolic Letter of Pople John Paul II on suffering, Salvifici Doloris, a recent and, for me, seminal work that has underlined my own writing on the issue of suffering. It is my contention that ALL human suffering is redemptive through the Passion of Christ--and, therefore, meaningful. Although this may take the eyes of a believer to see--it IS the case and seems to be backed up in this letter when one digests it. The people who are not believers, of course, would not see it--but we who do are so enriched by our beliefs that life takes on depth and breadth "beyond all imagining". Eternal life is just begun to be understood for the gift that it is. And the glory of heaven on earth is ours for the opening of our hearts...