Monday, March 16, 2009

The hidden contradictions of Ehrman

I’m continuing my review of Bart Ehrman’s new book, Jesus Interrupted (HarperOne 2009). Now I’ll examine some the errors he imputes to the NT. In a subsequent post, I’ll examine some of the errors he imputes to the OT.

Ehrman is banking on the fact that the average reader doesn’t have access to good commentaries and other reference works. His presentation is deliberately one-sided. Also, the natural constituency for his material are fellow unbelievers. Because he’s pandering to a sympathetic audience, he thinks he can get away with deception–and, to some extent–he’s right.

For several reasons, I’m not going to discuss every single example. For one thing, life is short. I have other projects. Furthermore, I already discussed some of his stock objection in This Joyful Eastertide. Finally, there’s nothing he mentions that a good commentary wouldn’t address.

But I’m going to examine some representative examples to illustrate how untrustworthy he is in presenting the evidence.

The Infancy of Jesus

“A careful comparison of the two accounts [in Matthew & Luke] also shows internal discrepancies…The wise men, who are following a star (presumably it took some time) come to worship Jesus in his house in Bethlehem… Joseph and Mary are still living in Bethlehem months or even a year or more after the birth of Jesus. So how can Luke be right when he says that they are from Nazareth and returned there just a month or so after Jesus’ birth?” (34).

Matthew doesn’t say they were “still” living in Bethlehem, as if they were living there continuously.

“In Matthew’s account they are not originally from Nazareth but from Bethlehem.”

Matthew doesn’t say where they’re “originally” from. Moreover, it would hardly be surprising if Mary’s hometown was different from Joseph’s. They’re husband and wife, not brother and sister.

“Even more obvious, though, is the discrepancy involved with the events after Jesus’ birth. If Matthew is right that the family escaped to Egypt, how can Luke be right that they returned directly to Nazareth?” (34).

Because the flight to Egypt occurred some time after the return to Nazareth.

The Cleansing of the Temple

“The Gospel of Mark indicates that it was in the last week of his life that Jesus ‘cleansed the Temple’…whereas according to John this happened at the very beginning of his ministry (John 2). Some readers have thought that Jesus must have cleansed the Temple twice, once at the beginning of his ministry and once at the end. But that would mean that neither Mark nor John tells the ‘true’ story, since in both accounts he cleanses the temple only once” (7).

i) What a stupid statement! The fact that a historian is selective doesn’t mean his story is false. Either Ehrman is dense or he’s equivocating. To record just one occurrence of an event is not the same thing as asserting that it occurred only once. There’s an obvious difference between mentioning only one occurrence of an event and stating that it occurred only once. I might write an autobiography in which I mention seeing Halley’s comet. That doesn’t mean I think it only appeared in my lifetime.

ii) It’s quite possible that Jesus cleansed the temple on just one occasion. Gospel writers sometime arrange their material topically rather than chronologically.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Historians must often alternate between a topical and chronological arrangement for the simply reason that history includes simultaneous or overlapping events as well as sequential events.

iii) On the other hand, it’s quite possible that Jesus cleansed the temple more than once. Blomberg defends both options. Cf. C. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (IVP 2007), 216-21.

In the same connection, Ehrman says, “Historically speaking, then, the accounts are not reconcilable” (7).

But this commits a level confusion. It’s quite possible for two different accounts of the same event to be irreconcilable at the narrative level, but reconcilable at the historical level.

Both accounts may be accurate, albeit, partial descriptions of what happened. Yet because both accounts are partial descriptions, and we lack direct access to the entire event apart from partial descriptions, it may not be possible to fully harmonize one account with another. We don’t see how it all fits together since we don’t have access to the unmediated event to supply the overall framework.


Predictably, Ehrman also raises the musty canard about the timing of Peter’s denials. But as one commentator explains: “Why then does Mark have the cock crowing twice, and later make a point of mentioning the crowings in his narrative at vv.72? The simplest explanation, particularly for those who take seriously the tradition that Peter was himself the source of much of the material in Mark’s gospel, is that Mark preserves the account in its fullest and most detailed form (as Peter himself would have remembered and repeated it), but that the double cockcrow was omitted as an unnecessary additional detail in the other accounts. There is after all nothing improbable in a repeated crowing: even a single cock would be unlikely to crow once and then stop, and if there were others in the neighborhood they would take it up,” R. France, The Gospel of Mark (Eerdmans 2002), 579.

In this same connection, Ehrman exclaims that, “In order to resolve the tension between the Gospels the interpreter has to write his own Gospel, which is unlike any of the Gospels founding the New Testament. And isn’t it a bit absurd to say that, in effect, only “my” Gospel–the one I create from parts of the four in the New Testament–is the right one, and the others are only partially right?” (7-8).

Once again, is Ehrman really that stupid? If he is asking us how one account relates to another, then, of course, we have to go beyond the confines of any one account to show how they’re interrelated. By definition, a relation involves two or more relata. And the harmonistic exercise is generated by his demand.

Two Angels?

Regarding the number of angels at the tomb, he says, “Do they see a man, as Mark says, or two men (Luke), or an angel (Matthew)? This is normally reconciled by saying that the women actually saw ‘two angels.’…The problem is that this kind of reconciling again requires one to assert that what really happened is unlike what any of the Gospels say–since none of the three accounts states that the women saw ‘two angels’” (8).

This objection suffers, in part, from the same stupidity I noted under the Cockcrow heading. Beyond that, Ehrman is also too dense to distinguish between sense and reference. The fact that one writer uses the word “man” while another writer uses the word “angel” doesn’t mean they must be referring to different entities. If, in context, the “man” or “men” denotes angelic beings, then to say the women saw two angels is not asserting that what really happened is unlike what any of the Gospels say. What matters is not what word is used, but what type of entity is meant by that word–which is determined by context, and not by isolated designations.

How Many Signs?

Ehrman thinks there’s a discrepancy in the number of signs Jesus performed (Jn 2:11,23; 4:54). But as one commentator explains, “The reference to a ‘second sign’ here is to the second sign Jesus performed after he had come from Judea to Galilee,” A. Köstenberger, John (Baker 2004), 172.

Throughout his book, Ehrman does an excellent job, not of proving the Bible to be in error, but proving Ehrman to be in error.

The Farewell Discourse

Commenting on the apparent discrepancy between Jn 13:36, 14:5, and 16:5, Ehrman says “either Jesus had a very short attention span or there is something strange going on with the sources for these chapters, creating an odd kind of disconnect” (9).

But this is well-trodden ground in the exegetical literature. As one scholar explains, “The alternative reading attempts to take account of the characterization of the disciples in the discourse as a whole. It notes that Jesus does not say ‘None of you has asked me’ but ‘None of you is asking me,’ thus drawing the readers’ attention to the difference between the present response of the disciples and their response at the beginning of the discourse. Their earlier superficial questioning has revealed a total lack of compression about the implications Jesus’ departure. Since the last question from a disciple, Jesus has given uninterrupted teaching from 14:23-16:4. As Jesus’ comment in v6 makes clear, now at least the disciples’ lack of questioning indicates a partial, if still very inadequate, understanding,” A. Lincoln, The Gospel According to Saint John (Continuum 2005), 418.

The Chronology of the Passion

Ehrman asserts a contradiction between Markan chronology and Johannine chronology on the timing of the Passion. A basic problem with his allegation is that, true to form, he disregards any evidence to the contrary. For example, Blomberg has a detailed discussion of this very issue, which Ehrman passes over in silence. Cf. C. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (IVP 2007), 221-229.

The Genealogies of Jesus

“The real problem they pose, however, is that the two genealogies are actually quite different” (37).

This objection assumes that there is only one way to reckon descent. But as one scholar points out, that’s a dubious assumption:

“Obviously, in a small and close-knit community, there is every probability that someone could trace their descent from the same source by two or more different routes. The Maori themselves can give several different genealogies for themselves, depending on which ancestor they want to highlight and how much intermarrying has taken place. Different tribal sub-units can trace their descent in different ways for different purposes, resulting in criss-crossing links of all sorts.”

“This is so even in modern Western society. After my own parents married, they discovered that they were distant cousins with one remove of generation. Think of the little country of Israel in the period between David and Jesus; similar things could easily have happened. Many could have traced their descent to the same ancestors by at least two routes,” Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (WJK 2004), 39-40.

Ehrman has another complaint:

“The problem is that the fourteen-fourteen-fourteen schema doesn’t actually work…In the third set of fourteen there are in fact only thirteen generations. Moreover…It turns out that Matthew left out some names…” (38).

i) It’s true that his tabulation is selective. So what? This is not meant to be a pure genealogy. Rather, it’s an exercise in gematria. So we’d expect the arrangement to be somewhat stylized. Matthew is writing to Jews, using Jewish conventions.

ii) As to the alleged numerical discrepancy, there are at least two explanations:

a) ”In this statement [v11] the genealogist needs to evoke the end of the David kingship, with the collapse of the nation and exile…How can all this be evoked? We recall that in Septuagintal usage the grandson of Josiah is called either ‘Jechoniah’ or ‘Jehoiakim,’ in the latter sense using the same name as for the father…In the statement, ‘Jechoniah’ is first and foremost himself, but secondarily a cipher for the father with whom he shares a name.”

”The third fourteen takes us from Jechoniah to Jesus, and are achieved by counting both Jechoniah and Jesus. The genealogist probably does not consider this to be double counting because in counting Jechoniah in the second fourteen, he really had in mind Jehoiakim; this leaves Jechoniah actually to be counted in his own right in the third fourteen,” J. Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans 2006), 84-86.

b) ”Matthew's numerically structured genealogy parallels this arbitrary schematization of Israel's history. Moreover, the supposed discrepancy between the statement of verse 17 that there are fourteen generations from the Babylonian deportation to the Messiah and the actual number thirteen names listed in the table is resolved by it. Indeed, it is in the third division of the genealogy that the scheme of twelve plus two or fourteen has its real application. That is, there are twelve ancestors and Jesus the Messiah who, in contrast to all the other individuals in the family tree is to be counted twice. He represents two generations, not consecutively, but simultaneously from the beginning of his life.”

“His birth marks the end of the age of exile…He is ‘the king of the Jews’ who draws the Magi from the east, and "they rejoice with exceeding great joy’ when they arrive at his home in Bethlehem in order to pay him homage. But his birth also elicits the dreadful response of Herod the Great who dispatches his soldiers to slaughter all the infant boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding regions. Jesus as the sole survivor of this massacre becomes the bearer of this holocaust character and will embody its judgment at the end of his life when this sequence of the new age and death will be reversed…Because Jesus' life is the ground on which the consummating events of history occur, he is the bearer of two generations. His death not only relates him to the thirteenth episode in the scheme of the Messiah Apocalypse; the resurrection of the saints effected by the emission of his final divine breath of life (27:50), links him to the fourteenth, the beginning of a new time.”

Because Ehrman always assumes that Scripture must be wrong, he makes no effort to understand it. As such, we’re treated to a steady stream of superficial objections. Real scholars try to understand what the writer is saying.

The Baptism of Christ

“Mark especially is quite clear about the matter, for he states, after telling of the baptism, that Jesus left ‘immediately’ for the wilderness…In John…the day after John the Baptist borne witness to the Spirit descending on Jesus as a dove at baptism (John 1:29-34), he sees Jesus again…(John is quite explicit, stating that this occurred ‘the next day’)” (40-41).

But “immediately” (Gr.=euthus] is just a stylistic feature of Markan syntax–occurring some 40 times in his Gospel. In Markan usage it doesn’t generally carry any special temporal significance. Most of the time it functions “merely [as] a connective conjunction,” N. Turner, Grammar of New Testament Greek, vol. III (T&T Clark 1980), 229. Doesn’t Ehrman know Greek?

The Census of Quirinius

“The historical problems with Luke are even more pronounced. For one thing, we have relatively good records for the reign of Caesar Augustus, and there is no mention anywhere in any of them of an empire-wide census for which everyone had to register by returning to their ancestral homes…If the Gospels are right that Jesus’ birth occurred during Herod’s reign, then Luke cannot also be right that it happened when Quirinius was the governor of Syria. We know from a range of other historical sources, including the Roman historian Tacitus, the Jewish historian Josephus, and several ancient inscriptions, that Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until 6CE, ten years after the death of Herod” (32-34).

But there are several problems with this assessment:

i) One basic problem concerns Ehrman’s own rules of evidence. In attacking the historicity of the Gospels, he says the following:

“The problem is in part that the Gospels are full of discrepancies and were written decades after Jesus’ ministry and death by authors who had not themselves witnessed any of the events of Jesus’ life…If scholars had their wish, they would have lots of sources…These sources should be contemporary with the events they describe, not based on later hearsay. They should include reports by disinterested people, not simply biased accounts…But they [the Gospels] are not written by eyewitnesses who were contemporary with the events they narrate. They were written thirty-five to sixty-five years after Jesus’ death by people who did not know him, did not see anything he did or hear anything that he taught…The accounts they produced are not disinterested; they are narratives produced by Christians who actually believed in Jesus, and therefore were not immune from slanting the stories in light of their biases” (143-144).

But even if we accept this tendentious characterization of the Gospels, it’s equally applicable to Tacitus and Josephus on the career of Quirinius. It’s not as if Tacitus and Josephus are free of apparent inconsistencies. It’s not as it Tacitus and Josephus are free of bias. Moreover, Tacitus and Josephus were not contemporaries of Herod or Quirinius. They wrote many decades after the fact. They didn’t see or hear anything Herod or Qurinius said or did. They rely on hearsay information. So why does Ehrman have one yardstick for the Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but a very different yardstick for Tacitus and Josephus?

ii) Moreover, Luke’s historical accuracy on this issue (and others) had been defended by various scholars. For example, Cranfield says (in part), “A far-reaching reform of the administration of the empire was certainly carried out under Augustus and it certainly did involve censuses or taxation-assessments of a very thorough and comprehensive kind. Plenty of evidence for them has survived. The work of assessment took varying amounts of time according to the circumstances obtaining in particular areas: it could take several decades,” C. Cranfield, On Romans (T&T Clark 1998), 157.

iii) Furthermore, let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that Luke’s statement falls short of strict accuracy. Would that impugn the inerrancy of Scripture? Not at all.

Rather, it would be a typical case of Lukan hyperbole. Hyperbole is a deliberate overstatement for rhetorical effect. The Bible often resorts to hyperbole. For example, “Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry” (Ps 18:7).

Luke is fond of hyperbole, as Robert Stein has documented in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke. If Lk 2:1-2 is hyperbolic, then all this means is that Luke is telescoping a number of events in time and place as if they all took place at one time.

Hyperbole is not an error. It would only be erroneous if the author intended to be strictly accurate. Hyperbole is a standard rhetorical device. Luke’s original audience would appreciate that fact. Ehrman is simply tone-deaf to Luke’s literary conventions.

The Death of Judas

“Luke wrote a second volume to accompany his Gospel, the Book of Acts. Acts gives an account of what happened to Judas after the betrayal, as does the Gospel of Matthew, but it is striking that the two accounts stand directly at odds with each other on a number of points…the two reports give different accounts of how Judas died…And they are flat out contradictory on two other points: how purchased the field (the priests, as per Matthew, or Judas, as per Acts?) and why the field was called the field of blood (because it was purchased with blood money, as Matthew says, or because Jesus bled all over it, as Acts says?)” (46-47).

Several problems:

i) Luke doesn’t say how Judas died. Luke isn’t the speaker. Peter is the speaker. Luke is recording a speech.

If the statement is erroneous, that’s not a Lukan error, but a Petrine error. It is not erroneous to quote an erroneous statement. The accuracy of a quote doesn’t depend on whether the quote is true or false.

Even if Peter were in error, that would do nothing to call Luke’s accuracy into question. Luke quotes a lot of people in Acts. There’s no reason to think he’s vouching for everything they say. After all, some of them are enemies of the faith.

I’m not claiming that Peter’s in error. I’m simply drawing an elementary distinction between direct and indirect discourse.

ii) The speeches in Acts are probably summaries rather than verbatim transcriptions. As such, we’d expect them to gloss over the details. They’re not intended to reproduce every nuance of what was originally said. Rather, they’re meant to capture the gist of what was said. It’s pedantic to think that this was ever intended to be a detailed statement of what happened. It’s a little two-verse précis of what occurred.

iii) Even if it were a verbatim transcription, this is a speech, not a formal report by a forensic pathologist. We often speak rather loosely. That’s the nature of oral discourse. If the field was purchased with money that the priests paid Judas, then there’s no moral distinction between what he did and what they did. What he did with their money or they did with his money–since it’s all the same. Peter is simply speaking in shorthand, which is what we’d expect in authentic speech. The spoken word is not pedantically precise.

iv) Acts doesn’t say why the Field of Blood was so named. That’s Ehrman’s personal gloss.

“How could he both hang himself and ‘fall headlong’ so that his stomach split open and his intestines spilled all the ground”? (47).

I find that easy to imagine. Why were Jews supposed to bury their dead? To avoid ritual desecration by scavengers. Feral dogs were scavengers. They would eat carrion and human corpses. Remember the fate of Jezebel (1 Kg 14:11; 16:4; 21:19,23; 2 Kg 9:36)? It’s easy to imagine a pack of feral dogs wrenching his body from the makeshift noose. Have you ever seen nature shows of lions going pulling down a suspended piece of bait?

If you ask me how it “could” happen, that’s a simple explanation, based on other things we know from Scripture. Doesn’t take much ingenuity.

The Triumphal Entry

“When Jesus entered Jerusalem during the Triumphal Entry, how many animals did he ride?” (50).

i) To begin with, the syntax is ambiguous: “Addition of the prefix leads to a change of Mark’s επ αυτον, ‘on him,’ to επανω αυτων, ‘on top of them,’ which probably refers to the saddle garments rather than to the animals…It is doubtful that he intends his readers to visualize a trick rider balancing himself on two animals at the same time. Therefore we are to think that the garments were draped over both animals, just as in modern Palestine both mother donkeys and their unridden colts trotting after them have garments put across their backs…Though Jesus sat on top of the garments only on the colt, the association of the garmented mother makes a kind of wider throne,” R. Gundry, Matthew (Eerdmans 1994), 410.

ii) Moreover, even if we think the second auton refers to the animals, it’s pedantic to assume that Matthew took this literally: “it hardly means that the evangelist alleges that Jesus actually sat upon both animals at once (!) or even in succession. Instead it means that here the two animals, which were kept so closely together, are conceptually regarded as a single, inseparable unit,” D. Hagner, Matthew 14-28 (Nelson 1995), 595.

The Thirty Pieces of Silver

“When Matthew indicates that Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty piece of silver, he notes (as we now expect of him) that this was spoken in fulfillment of Scripture…The problem is that this prophecy is not found in Jeremiah. It appears to be a loose quotation of Zechariah 11:3)” (51).

But as one commentator explains, “ This is not, however, a simple quotation of a single text, but a mosaic of scriptural motifs, some of which do in fact come from Jeremiah (see below). Like the combined quotation of Mark 1:2-3, it is attributed to the better known of the prophets concerned, even though its opening words are from the minor prophet. As a ‘quotation’ about a potter’s field it was naturally associated with Jeremiah as the prophet most memorably associated with potters and with the buying of a field. Note that Matthew’s attributed quotations name only the major prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah…together with one specific allusion to Daniel (24:15), while formal quotations drawn from the minor prophets are elsewhere left anonymous,” R. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans 2007), 1042-1043.

“Some interpreters are content to consider ‘Jeremiah” in Mt 27:9 a simple mistake, indicating limited access to scriptural texts on the part of Matthew. But the series of links with texts in Jeremiah which we have been exploring count strongly against this view. Matthew has other quotations that merge texts: Mt 2:5-6 merges Mi 5:1 with 2 Sa 5:2; Mt 21:4-5 merges Is 62:11 and Zc 9:9,” J. Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans 2005), 1156n322.

“Given his ability to retranslate the entire Hebrew text based on revocalization…it is unlikely that Matthew simply got his attribution wrong,” C. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans 1999), 657n140.

Throughout these objections, Ehrman thinks he’s being oh-so clever when he merely exposes himself as shallow, ignorant, and obtuse.

The Lucan Paul

Ehrman also plays up alleged discrepancies between Acts and the Pauline epistles on the life of Paul.

To correlate one man’s writing with another man’s writing is obviously a complicated business. There are entire books that defend the Lucan Paul. From reading Ehrman, the uninitiated would never know that this material even exists. For example:

Hemer, C. The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Eisenbrauns 1990)

Porter, S. Paul in Acts (Hendrickson 2001)

Riesner, R. Paul’s Early Period: Chronology, Mission Strategy, Theology (Eerdmans 1998).

Ehrman may be a competent textual critic, but when he strays from his field of expertise, he comes across a nothing more than big-name hack.

1 comment:

  1. steve i think you are indeed one of the most able defender of the Christian faith in this generation.