There is another striking story in Matthew. A rich man comes up to Jesus and asks him, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus tells him, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” When asked, “Which ones?” Jesus lists as examples some of the Ten Commandments. The man insists he has already done all these—what else is needed? Jesus replies that he should give up everything he owns, “and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:16–22). Jesus then says, “And come, follow me”—but note: following Jesus comes only after the man will have inherited heavenly treasure by giving all away.
I wonder what would have happened if the same man had come up to Paul, twenty years later. If Paul were asked how someone could have eternal life, would he have said, “Keep the commandments”? Not Paul. The commandments have nothing to do with it. Jesus’ death and resurrection do. Would Paul have said that giving away all he owned would earn him treasure in heaven? No way. Only faith in Jesus could bring eternal life.
One can’t argue that Jesus was talking about salvation before his death, and Paul about salvation afterward, because Matthew was writing after Paul. Moreover, in Matthew, Jesus is talking about the last judgment, which obviously would take place after his death and resurrection. And so the problem is this: if Matthew’s Jesus was right, that keeping the law and loving others as yourself could bring salvation, how could Paul be right that doing these things were irrelevant for attaining salvation?
(Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted p. 92-93)
Bart Ehrman for all his familiarity with the Bible, Biblical concepts, and historical settings, seems to not understand the fluid plot of the Bible. It is as if a scholar researching the Titanic, knowing every detail of the ship (passenger names, daily food rations, cleaning schedules), looked at a picture of the sunken ship against a picture of a floating ship, threw up his hands in despair, and claimed a massive contradiction. To understand history, it is not sufficient to understand the minute historical settings, but also to understand the context. Who was the being addressed by whom, for what purpose, and when was it written. Ehrman seems to dismiss such context with a fleeting sentence on timeframes.
Although Bart Ehrman seems to indicate a semi-familiarity with dispensationalism in the last paragraph but seems to have not consulted a dispensationalist about his dismissal of the timeframe argument. It is a crude understanding of Paul’s ministry to think that different methods of salvation were implemented at the death of Christ. Paul’s missionary journeys were not until over a decade after the death of Christ and until that time, the apostles were not teaching anything resembling Paul’s gospel. Paul emphasizes these facts in Galatians, in which he documents his initial alienation from the apostles, traveling to Jerusalem to consult them about his unheard gospel, and his personal dispensation to the gentiles:
Gal 1:17 Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus.
Gal 1:18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days.
Gal 1:19 But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother.
Gal 2:1 Then fourteen years after I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and took Titus with me also.
Gal 2:2 And I went up by revelation, and communicated unto them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to them which were of reputation, lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain.
Paul names the leaders to whom he had to convince:
Gal 2:9 And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision.
This passage illustrates the fact that Paul was preaching and traveling concurrent with the ministries of the apostles. It also details the various gospels to the Jews and Gentiles. Paul’s gospel did not begin at the death of Christ, but after it was revealed to Paul on the road to Damascus. Furthermore, it was not until 3 years later that any of this was preached to the public. Paul’s message was individual and new. Paul states that before him, none of this had been revealed:
Eph 3:5 Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit;
Eph 3:6 That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel:
If Paul had not been specifically endorsed by the rest of the apostles, one might be prone to think he was a Gnostic heretic (using a loose definition of Gnostic). He upstages and denounces other apostles (Gal 2:11) and teaches doctrine specifically being attacked by disciples of the other apostles (Act 15:1, Act 15:24). Certain early Christian writings even characterize Paul as the greatest enemy of Christianity masked by the name Simon Magnus (Pseudo-Clementine Literature). If Paul was not specifically accepted by the apostles, he might today rank with the likes of Valentinus and Marcion. Some authors and writers have claimed Paul was this very thing, propagating a new mystery religion or version of Gnosticism, but that will need to be addressed at another time.
Contrary to Ehrman’s assertion, Paul was teaching a transitory and not permanent methodology of salvation. This is detailed in Romans (note: Ehrman thinks Romans is one of Paul’s genuine letters). Paul talks about God’s specific plan to go to the gentiles to make the Jews jealous after the Jews had rejected their risen messiah (Rom 11:11). Turning to the gentiles will hopefully cause the Jews to return to him at which time God will resurrect his plans for Israel (Rom 11:25-26). God has not forsaken the Jews, but, like a vineyard owners exhausting all farming methods to produce grapes, God is trying something new to get Israel to follow him. This would never have happened if, after the death of Christ, the Jews accepted a risen Savior. Christ would have returned at the time he predicted, and we would have never heard of Paul. Because God responds to his creation, he has changed his original salvation plan.
Naturally, implementing this change while disciples of the old plan are still in circulation would cause some major issues. That causes a transitory and disruptive state in which disciples from the various teachings would argue among themselves. This is specifically described in Paul’s earliest letter, Galatians. Paul had to travel specifically to Jerusalem to quell this strife (Act 15:2). It was decided there that Paul would continue to the gentiles and the apostles to the Jews, both with their respective gospels (Gal 2:7). Within a century, Christianity turned from a Jewish following to a Gentile following and the gospel of the circumcision faded, although the teachings have not died even until the present day.
If one looks at these facts like a 2 dimensional picture book, they can be very confusing. The key is timing and context. Development must be traced throughout the lifespan. Extracted quotes might look contradictory, just as a picture of a sunken Titanic next to one of the Titanic in its heyday, but placed property they tell a dynamic and important story.
Paul Ehrman does his best to provide a static understanding of the Bible which he can tear to pieces. Perhaps that is his best strategy because most Christians understand the Bible as a static text. Two verses saying opposite things will cause many of the best Christian scholars to digress into trivial wording tricks to circumvent contradictions. But more astute Bible scholars should attempt to understand the context, the plot and plot changes in the Bible.