I've been on a Bart Ehrman kick lately. I didn't plan it that way. It began when I reviewed his debate with Tim McGrew. Then, about the same time, he and Mike Licona began a serial debate. So I decided, for the sake of completeness, to view and review some of his other debates. I'm going to comment on this one:
Having now listened to several of his debate, I notice that Ehrman has a stump speech. He uses the same examples. He always raises the same objections. It's a cumulative case against the Christian faith.
1. In their three debase, Bart Ehrman and Craig Evans speak past each other. That's because, as Evans explains at one point, even when he agrees with Ehrman on the phenomena of Scripture, he disagrees with Ehrman's inferences and conclusions.
Throughout the debate, the plausibility of Ehrman's argument hinges on how he frames the issue. That tilts the scales.
i) One of Ehrman's fallacies is to posit that differences between two or more Gospels amount to discrepancies. If you listen closely, you will notice that he never gets around to demonstrating that these differences must be, or even probably are, contradictory. He simply ticks off a list of differences, then proclaims a contradiction. But in order to prove his point, he needs to show how they cannot be reconciled. Mere addition or omission of details is not an indication that these are incompatible details.
ii) In addition, it's unreasonable to suppose that at this distance from events, we can always harmonize different accounts of the same incident. We weren't there. We didn't see or hear what happened. So we lack the overarching perspective to know how to piece together selective accounts. We don't know the original order. We don't know where the gaps are.
iii) Of course, it's easy to show that the Gospels contain discrepancies of you define a contradiction to mean two accounts can only agree if they are formally identical. Verbatim quotes. Strict chronology. No additions or omissions. But if that's his standard, then he needs to defend his standard. It's not something he's entitled to take for granted.
iv) He acts as though it's inherently suspect that one Gospel contains information, or more information, than another. But that's irrational. To begin with, it would be pointless to have several Gospels if each one covered the very same ground.
In addition, let's take a comparison. It's not unusual for histories and biographies written soon after events to be briefer than histories and biographies written a generation or so later.
Critical histories and critical biographies are often much longer, more detailed, than accounts written shortly after the events. Sometimes they run into multiple volumes. But that's not legendary embellishment. That's not a phone game. The fact that an academic historian adds so much new information doesn't mean he's making stuff up that never happened, but supplementing previous accounts, based on additional evidence.
iv) Suppose some members of my high school graduating class start a Facebook group. Suppose one of them asks us what we remember about a particular teacher or student. You will get a series of anecdotes from former classmates about the student or teacher in question. However, their stories may have little in common with each other. For instance, they remember the teacher said something striking in class one day, but other students may not remember because they didn't have the same teacher. Or they had her a different year. So they weren't in class that day. Or maybe they were in class that day, but they don't remember because they weren't paying attention. They were daydreaming, or gazing at a pretty girl.
Likewise, a student might remember something a classmate said or did one day when they were hanging out on the football field. But other students may not remember that because they weren't at that particular spot at that particular moment. If they were in the cafeteria or the gym, they weren't on the football field. If they arrived at the football field a minute later, they'd miss what was said or done.
You could have a collection of anecdotes about a particular student or teacher, which might never overlap. No two stories the same. But that's to be expected.
Or if two or more students did remember, they wouldn't quote the teacher verbatim. They'd quote the gist of what was said.
Likewise, this string of anecdotes wouldn't be in any particular order. These wouldn't be dated events. Although students might remember what happened that day, that doesn't mean they remember what day it was. You can easily recall something occurring on a particular day without recalling the date. Without recalling if that was a little earlier or later than another incident you recall.
Suppose you ask each student what they remember about high school. Suppose they attended the same school during the same years. I think it would be striking how little their accounts have in common. Each student would have very compartmentalized knowledge. Depending on the size of the school, they might be superficially acquainted with all the teachers and students. Know them by name. Know them by sight. But different students would have different teachers.
Moreover, students would naturally break down into smaller groups. They'd only socialize with a handful of classmates.
Suppose you had a schoolyard fight. Suppose students gave accounts of the fight. Some students might be present when the fight broke out. Other students would arrive after it began, drawn by the commotion. A crowd attracts a crowd. Some students would have a better view than others. So you'd have different descriptions of what went down.
v) For instance, Ehrman posts a discrepancy in the number of donkeys Jesus used during the triumphal entry. Was it one (Mark, Luke, John) or two (Matthew)? Well, the answer is that he only rode one (the colt), while the mare accompanied the colt. Yet that's only a discrepancy if Mark, Luke, and John intended to say there was only one donkey, in contrast to two. But Bart does nothing to demonstrate that Mark, Luke, and John intend to say one to the exclusion of two. In this and other examples, he needs to show how one description was meant to be in opposition to another description.
2. Historical sources
Here's another example of how Ehrman tilts the scales by the way he frames the issue.
Ehrman said (in reference to the Gospels): if it's inaccurate in some things, how do we know it's not inaccurate in lots of things. If not 100% accurate, how do we know they are at all accurate. Why trust them as historical sources?
For someone who casts himself in the role of a historian, that's a wildly skeptical way of treating historical sources. Does he hold Tacitus or Josephus to that standard?
And not just ancient history. Take war memoirs by Sherman, Grant, Churchill, or Eisenhower. Would any war historian say that unless these are 100% accurate, there's no reason to assume they are at all accurate? Unless these are 100% accurate, they are untrustworthy historical sources?
Clearly, Ehrman has a double standard when it comes to NT narratives. He says he approaches the issue historically rather than theologically, but he's blind to his own residual conditioning. Ehrman is still approaching the Gospels theologically. He holds them to the standard of inerrancy (as he defines it). Unless the Gospels are inerrant, he deems them to be unreliable. But that's a theological criterion, not a historical criterion. And it's based on his very square notions of inerrancy and historical accuracy.
3. False dichotomies
Ehrman said, in reference to the allegedly lower Christology of the Synoptics (compared to John), that if Jesus went around Galilee and Jerusalem calling himself God, explain on historical, not theological grounds, how he managed to escape getting stoned to death for blasphemy.
Notice how he frames the issue by stipulating a historical explanation rather than a theological explanation. But what if that's a false dichotomy? Indeed, his disjunction is simply incoherent in this situation.
Suppose Jesus is God Incarnate. An omnipotent being would have no difficulty eluding death squads. He could not be cornered or executed unless or until he allowed himself to be taken into custody, or put to death. If the very question at issue is the deity of Christ, and the implications thereof, you can't logically exclude a theological explanation for his ability to elude lynch mobs. That follows from the nature of the ascription, if true. Ehrman must tacitly assume that Jesus wasn't God Incarnate. But isn't that a theological rather than historical judgment on his part?
Ehrman's dichotomy, which is question-begging even in general, becomes downright incoherent in this context. If the question at issue is whether Jesus was divine, and that's combined with the additional question of how he could escape stoning for blasphemy, then the true explanation may well be inseparable from his true identity. For instance, he could cause them to hallucinate, which would give him time to escape from their clutches.
4. Critical consensus
Ehrman said his position reflects the consensus view among critical scholars. The only people who say the Bible is inerrant are fundamentalists or conservative evangelicals. But how can that be? Is everyone else apart from evangelicals not as intelligent? Are they blind? Demonically inspired? How is it that the only ones who think differently (the Bible is completely reliable) are evangelicals? That reflects a particular theological point of view. They take that position for theological rather than historical grounds. For theological rather than historical reasons. Their theological views require inerrancy. Otherwise, they'd agree with everyone else.
i) It doesn't occur to Ehrman that he's raising a circular and reversible objection. To begin with, that's an illicit argument from authority. It takes "critical consensus" as the standard of comparison. Yet that's the very issue in dispute.
ii) In addition, his objection amounts to a tautology: only inerrantists subscribe to inerrancy. Well, that's true by definition. But by the same token, only atheists subscribe atheism. And Ehrman calls himself an atheist.
Likewise, are inerrantists like Gleason Archer, John Frame, Vern Poythress, Benjamin Warfield, Edwin Yamauchi, E. J. Young et al. not as intelligent? By the same token, are theists like Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Newton, Pascal, Edwards, Euler, Maxwell, Faraday, Riemann, Newman, Eccles, Gödel, Geach, van Fraassen, Plantinga, Dembski, Sheldrake, Don Page, John Lennox, Alexander Pruss et al. not as intelligent?
Atheism reflects a particular atheological point of view. That's not a historical viewpoint, but a philosophical viewpoint. Likewise, an atheist secularizes historiography. He makes methodological naturalism a presupposition of historiography. Yet that is not, in the first instance, a historical viewpoint, but a philosophical viewpoint. The resultant historical viewpoint is the consequence of his prior commitment to secularism. Atheism requires methodological naturalism.
iii) Conversely, if the Biblical God exists, then the disjunction between history and theology is a false dichotomy–for if the Biblical God exists, then he is intimately involved in the historical process. There's no value-free position on historiography. To bifurcate history and theology is not to take history as your starting-point, but to take naturalism as your starting-point.
5. Textual transmission
i) It's revealing that while Ehrman appeals to critical consensus in attacking the inerrancy of Scripture, he doesn't appeal to critical consensus in attacking the text of Scripture. Presumably, that's because his skepticism regarding the text of the NT is unrepresentative of textual critics generally.
ii) Ehrman treats the transmission of the text as a purely naturalistic process. But Christians believe God preserved the text "by his singular care and providence" (WCF 1.8). We are blessed to have such early and abundant attestation for the text. Although Ehrman would dismiss that as a theological claim, it's a claim that enjoys corroborative evidence. Moreover, to deny the role of providence is a philosophical assumption rather than a historical assumption. Ehrman's position is just as value-laden as the Westminster divines.
iii) Ehrman said, If God inspired the Bible without error, why hasn't he preserved the Bible without error?
A problem with that objection is that it he just leaves it dangling there. But if you're going to press that objection, then you need to ask yourself what that would involve. To change one variable changes other variables. It generates a domino effect. Moreover, the impact fans out over time, expanding exponentially. The farther into the future you move, the greater the change.
Compare it to a family tree. You begin with a couple. They have kids. Their kids have kids. And so on and so forth. What started with two branches out over time. If you were to change that initial variable, that would generate a different set of forking paths. When the timeline is changed, there are losers as well as winners. Some people miss out.
In addition to that general consideration, the need for textual criticism makes scholars extremely attentive to the exact wording of Scripture. That's a good thing.
iv) Ehrman complains about the number of mistakes in Greek MSS. But is that a weakness, or a strength?
a) When you have more MSS, you have more mistakes. But that's a side effect of having more evidence for the early text of the NT. Ehrman acts as though have more attestation for the NT text should make us less certain rather than more certain of the text. But that's a backwards way of viewing corroborative evidence. Having more lines of independent evidence ought to raise our confidence, not lower our confidence.
b) To say they contain mistakes takes for granted that we can identify the mistakes. These aren't indetectable errors, but easily recognizable errors. So how is that a problem? Moreover, for every MS that contains a mistake, you have several that contain the correct reading.
c) Ehrman is judging ancient MSS by the standards of the printing press or Xerox copies. But since we're talking about transcriptions that were copied by hand, you naturally have accidental scribal errors. They won't exhibit the uniformity of photocopies, because human scribes aren't machines. Their work product lacks that mechanical regularity. But there's nothing deficient about that.
d) Furthermore, it's a good thing. It means there was no centralized command-and-control in the early church. It wasn't possible for any particular faction to gerrymander the text of Scripture as it comes down to us. No collusion. No concerted effort to doctor the text of Scripture. No way to supplant the original text with something else.
iv) Ehrman describes the chain of transmission this way: someone produced the original autograph of Mark. Then someone copied the original. Then someone else copied that copy. Then someone else copied the copy of the copy. Then someone else copied the copy of the copy of the copy. And so on.
Notice how Ehrman frames the issue. He presents it as though someone directly copied the original just once. Then the next person copies the copy of the original. And so on down the line. Hence, you have a chain of transmission like this:
Someone produces a single original autograph of Mark. A scribe then makes a single direct copy of the original. Call that A. The next scribe makes a copy of A. Call that B. The next scribe makes a copy of B. Call that C. And so on down the line.
So Ehrman depicts this as if you have a linear series or sequence, where each succeeding copy must be a transcription of the immediately preceding copy. It can't go straight back to an earlier exemplar. No cutting in line! The way he lays it out, a 10th generation copy must be copied from a 9th generation copy, which must be copied from an 8th generation copy, and so on, up the line, going through one link at a time.
Now stop and think about how artificial that is. As long as the original autograph of Mark was available, there's nothing to prevent many different scribes from making direct copies of the original. So you wouldn't have one A, but many A's. By the same token, you'd have many B's. Rather than having nth generation copies, a scribe could skip over intervening copies to transcribe an A or B exemplar. There were many A's and B's in circulation.
Moreover, that isn't just speculation. Let's take some historical comparisons. As I understand the process, in a medieval scriptorium the monks copied Scripture, church fathers, &c, from editions in the monastery library. It's not as if Brother John copied the library edition, then Brother Bartholomew copied Brother John's transcription, then Brother Thaddeus copied Brother Bartholomew's transcription, &c. Rather, these are all first-generation copies of the same exemplar.
Likewise, suppose you were a medieval college student at the University of Paris, where Aquinas was your theology prof. Aquinas dictates a lecture to Reginald. (Reginald, was, in fact, a scribe assigned to Aquinas.) Reginald files that transcript in the library. Students then make hand copies of that transcript. It's not one student who copies another student, who copies another student, who copies another student. Rather, these are all first-generation copies of the same exemplar.
Why does Ehrman seem to think the process was any different for Christian scribes? Or does he know better, but he's attempting to hoodwink a lay audience?
6. Ehrman says that in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus, John the Baptist, the narrator all sound the same. That's because the author modified voice of narrator to make them say what he wants them to say. He changed words of Jesus!
This allegation raises a range of issues:
i) Does John the Baptist sound the same? In Jn 1:19-28, he's a dead ringer for the Synoptic John the Baptist.
ii) Since Jesus usually spoke in Aramaic, and the Gospels are written in Greek, there's a sense in which the authors never use the words of Jesus when they translate his statements into Greek. So, yes, you could say they "changed the words of Jesus". They substitute Greek words for Aramaic words. Greek synonyms for Aramaic originals. It isn't even possible to quote him verbatim if you translate his statements into a different language.
But there's no point acting as if that's a shocking admission. Jesus founded a missionary religion. He never meant for his message to be confined to an Aramaic-speaking audience. The key principle isn't to reproduce the words of Jesus, but the sense of Jesus.
iv) Regarding John's Gospel in particular, I think the reason Jesus and the narrator sound alike is because John, unlike the Synoptics, contains a lot of theological exposition. It will quote Jesus, then comment on his statement. Now, when you comment on what someone says, it's natural to use some of the same words and phrases in your exposition. If he expressed his ideas in certain words and images, then it's only natural for your editorial reflections to adopt the same vocabulary. So I'd say the narrator echos the voice of Jesus. That's why Christ's statements and John's editorializing seem to blend into each other, so that it's sometimes hard to discern when the quote ends and the exposition begins. For John takes his cue from Jesus. He continues in the same vein. When he expounds something Jesus said, he picks up on the same words and motifs.
7. Ehrman trots out differences in the post-Resurrection accounts. Here I'll make a specific observation. There are different ways of presenting the same event. They can written from the viewpoint of the narrator, or they can be written from the viewpoint of observers. Unless the narrator is an observer, the narrative viewpoint is indirect. He's talking about what other people saw, from a third-person perspective. That's how the Synoptics present the first Easter. Keep in mind that even if the narrator is an eyewitness, he may assume a third-person voice when recounting events that include other people. That's a stock convention.
By partial contrast, John is more selective. And he chooses to narrate the first Easter through the eyes of two witnesses in particular: Peter and Mary Magdalene. That's more direct. He isn't just talking about what they heard and saw, from his vantage-point, but describing it from their own perspective, as they personally experience that event. And the Johannine narrator was, himself, a participant. John uses a few people as the lens, but relates more about their particular experience, whereas the Synoptics mention more witnesses, at the cost of saying less about how they individually experience the event. Both approaches are historical. It's analogous to the difference between direct and indirect discourse, viz. first-person speech and third-person narration.
8. Erhman said: Was Jairus's daughter sick, but still alive when Jairus came to ask Jesus to heal her, as in Mark–or did she just die before Jairus came, so that he asked Jesus to raise her from the dead, as in Matthew? Hard to see how it could be both ways.
i) But that fails to draw a distinction between direct and indirect discourse. Let's take an example: Suppose someone said the narrator told Eve that she wouldn't die if she ate the forbidden fruit. But that's not true. The narrator didn't say that to Eve. Rather, the Tempter said that to Eve, and the narrator quoted what the Tempter said (Gen 3:4).
ii) On the one hand, there's whatever Jairus and his servants originally said. On the other hand, there's how the narrator quotes, paraphrases, or summarizes what was said. Jairus is addressing Jesus, but the narrator is addressing the reader. So these operate at different levels. Jairus isn't speaking directly to the reader. In Mark, you have two statements about Jairus by different speakers: Jairus and his servants. Due to narrative compression, Matthew simplifies a two-stage report as a one-stage report. The end-result is exactly the same. That's only a problem if you operate with Ehrman's boxy view of historical reportage.
iii) That, in turn, raises the question of what makes for an accurate quotation? Suppose a speaker misspoke. He failed to say what he meant. Should you quote him verbatim, or should you attributed to him what he intended to say? A verbatim quote is more accurate in reference to what he actually said, but less accurate in reference to what he meant to say.
Likewise, it's common for people to speak in incomplete sentences. That's because speakers often interrupt each other. They don't give the speaker a chance to finish his sentence. If you were quoting him, should you reproduce his broken sentences, or should you fill in what he meant to say (if you knew how he was going to end his sentence)?
By the same token, speakers often talk over each other. If you quote them, you have to sort that out. Since they were speaking at the same time, there is no one correct sequence. Even if you had a tape recording, it would be necessary for you two separate out the overlapping statements, and put one after another–although that's not how it happened in real time.
9. Ehrman dusts off the musty chestnut of the two genealogies in Matthew and Luke. I'll venture some observations:
i) These aren't straight genealogies. Both genealogies are intentionally selective. Both genealogies use numerology as a selection criterion. In Matthew, that's explicit, with his units of 14. And in Luke, 77 is the numerological principle. Cf. R. Bauckham, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus, chap. 7. In addition, some names in Matthew's list are double entendres, to trigger literary associations with more than one individual. Cf. V. Poythress, The Gospels and Inerrancy, 70-71.
ii) There's the question of sources. Matthew and Luke probably had incomplete genealogical lists to work from. And their edited versions are even less complete. So their genealogies are two steps removed from the complete family tree of Jesus. That makes it difficult for us to collate the two.
iii) Keep in mind that Jesus wasn't born to famous parents. Rather, he made them famous. And he wasn't a famous child. Consider Jesse. No one would remember Jesse if he hadn't fathered King David.
Descendants of famous people may be prospectively famous or well-known. Their lineage is documented. By contrast, ancestors of famous people are retrospectively famous or well-known. As a result, their lineage may be undocumented or poorly documented. If people knew at the time that they'd have a famous descendent, then there might be a record of every link in the chain leading up to the famous descendent. But since that's only known in hindsight, the records may be fragmentary or nonexistent. Take Queen Elizabeth II. Even though she's one of the world's most famous individuals, and there are royal historians who expend enormous labors charting and retracing her lineage, they eventually hit a wall. That's because no one could know in advance that one of their descendants would be queen of England.
Unless Matthew and Luke knew by direct revelation the entire family tree of Jesus, they were only working with the links they had. That doesn't make their presentation erroneous, just incomplete. We can't fill in the gaps if we don't even know where they are. Not to mention the use of double entendres in Matthew.