Bart Ehrman, a distinguished professor of religious studies at the Univ. of North Carolina, is one of the foremost popularizers of New Testament (NT) research today. His latest book, "Jesus Interrupted," continues along the path he followed in his previous and more technical work, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, but is superior in that he now is dealing with fundamental issues of the Bible and Christianity that are of more interest and relevance to the average layperson. While being a more provocative book than MJ, it is still not nearly as controversial as one would think from the inappropriate subtitle, which, like the subtitle for MJ, appears to have been chosen for marketing purposes. In fact, no new ground is broken here, as he once again devotes a lot of space to material he has covered thoroughly in other books, and people who are well-versed in NT research are unlikely to encounter anything that they haven't seen before.
Prof. Ehrman's motivation in writing this book is to introduce the results of 200 years of critical NT scholarship to the masses. He laments the poor level of knowledge of the Bible, even among students entering seminaries, so here he gives an overview of what has been determined through historical-critical methods, focusing generally only on the most widely agreed (among critical scholars) conclusions. Even though this material has been a standard part of the education of ministers and priests for decades, little of it has been passed on to their congregations, a deficiency that the author hopes to address.
However, he also appears to have a second, implicit motive, namely, he argues against a literalist understanding of the Bible. Prof. Ehrman was an evangelist and Christian apologist when he entered Princeton Theological Seminary, but what he learned there convinced him that his beliefs in the inerrancy of the Bible were unsupportable. After much resistance, he adopted a more liberal view of Christianity, one that is very common among his peers in theology departments, but eventually he lost even that faith through his inability to reconcile his beliefs with the suffering present in the world, which is the subject of his book God's Problem, not this one. But he still holds a very positive view of liberal Christianity, although no longer of fundamentalism. By no stretch is this book anti-Christian, and he even complains about atheists using his research uncritically to support their views. He repeatedly emphasizes that he is not out to weaken anyone's faith - he just wants people to think about their religious views.
Since he intends to counter literalism, he devotes a couple of chapters to a discussion of contradictions in the NT. This is only a small subset of all the contradictions that have been claimed to exist, as he is not attempting to be comprehensive (contrary to what the subtitle seems to suggest, this book is NOT unduly focused on contradictions in the Bible). He treats a few major contradictions among and in the Gospels (Was Jesus crucified before or after Passover dinner? What happened immediately after his birth? Who saw the resurrection and when?) and some minor ones, which may be more familiar (e.g., Judas's death). Even while going into some of these in depth, he still abbreviates the discussion (e.g., giving only a partial explanation of the discrepancies in the genealogies of Jesus), presenting only enough material to make his point without belaboring it. After discussing counterfactuals he moves on to differences in the points of view between the different authors of the books in the Bible, differences of opinion on such important questions as, Who was Jesus? What did he teach? Why did he have to die?. Again, he treats only a few cases, such as Paul's and Matthew's differences over whether Christians should follow Jewish customs. His point is that the authors of the different books, who were separated from each other in time and space, didn't all agree on every issue, and each should be allowed to have his own say, without conflating one author's opinion with another.
The next chapter goes through the NT, book by book, presenting scholarly consensus on who wrote each book and when. Ehrman gives an explanation for the majority belief that only 8 books (7 of Paul's letters and Revelation) were written by the people claimed, while the rest were misattributed or pseudepigraphic (i.e., forged). He discusses the widespread practice of forgery in ancient times, and why it was so common. He doesn't justify so much his dates for the Gospels, which are perhaps slightly more conservative than that for the average critical scholar.
Unfortunately, the rest of the book largely regurgitates material from his other books. He spends a chapter speculating on the historical Jesus, and concludes that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher (as he expounds more fully in his book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium). He briefly touches on the evidence for the existence for Jesus, but his discussion of Josephus and Tacticus is very superficial. He also presents his theory about why Jesus was executed and Judas's involvement, which can be found in Ehrman's The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot. He fails to acknowledge, however, that some of the views expressed in this chapter, unlike those in previous ones, are more particular to him and not as widely accepted. Moreover, he barely addresses the wide disagreement among scholars about what Jesus actually said and did.
The next few chapters cover textual criticism, the main topic of his Misquoting Jesus, and the development of the canon. He talks briefly about variations in the text of ancient NT manuscripts and why we don't know what was originally written in some cases. Here he defends himself well against some conservative criticism of MJ, and to his credit he even lists 3 books and 2 websites that oppose him, although he doesn't present much detail on their objections. He also explains how the books of the NT were selected from among all the competing early Christian literature, and then peruses that literature and describes the wide diversity of early Christian groups that wrote and used it. His conclusion is that the final version of Christianity that won out was not the same as the original religion of Jesus or Paul. Again, his treatment is a summary of the material is his other books, in particular, Lost Christianities and The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.
He ends with defense of the notion that faith is possible even given the knowledge we have of the Bible as a product of humans; in fact, he feels that this knowledge can enhance one's faith. While repeating his reasons why literalism is in his opinion unsustainable, he argues that it is impossible to prove or disprove the resurrection historically, and that one should be able to build a personal Christianity that uses only selective parts of the Bible. He concludes with an explanation of why Bible study remains relevant, even if it is not the inerrant Word of God ("inspiring even if not inspired"), as it is after all "the most important book in the history of Western civilization."
Overall, this is an excellent summation of basic NT criticism, Ehrman's best book yet. He succeeds in presenting knowledge that every believer should have in a thought-provoking but non-threatening way that seeks to challenge not faith, but rather the reader's assumptions. It may even inspire a more open discussion of the Bible by the clergy, as I'm sure this will generate many questions from their congregations.
On the other hand, I do have a few criticisms of this book: None of the material is original, with even the author himself having covered most of it in earlier and fuller books. There is no index and the meager bibliography is scattered among the end notes, although in his defense, this is after all not an academic work but a popularization. He also doesn't carefully distinguish the few places where he is presenting his own opinions that are not as widely held. I also think he should've presented more evidence to support his assertions, even though this material may be well known among scholars. Finally, he hardly addresses at all the conspiratorial-sounding question of why the contradictions in the Bible are not more widely known, but instead spends only one page saying that pastors don't discuss the knowledge gained from historical-critical analysis because either they don't know how, they're afraid it may weaken faith, or they think it's irrelevant. (BTW, there's a bad typo on pages 41 and 71: On both pages, the name Matthew has been replaced by Mark on the right-hand margin in roughly the middle of the page.)
If you are interested in learning what scholars have concluded about the Bible through centuries of research, and you're not already an expert, then I highly recommend this book.