Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Craig/Ehrman Debate

As Paul Manata mentioned yesterday, a transcript was recently posted for a debate on the resurrection between William Craig and Bart Ehrman that occurred this past March. I saw Steve Hays' article on the debate just as I was completing this article. Steve makes many good points, and I recommend reading his piece.

Craig won the debate, and he won it by a wide margin. He had a better understanding of the relevant issues, was more focused, provided more documentation, and made fewer mistakes. However, Ehrman brought up a large enough number of topics so as to make it implausible for Craig to say much about most of what Ehrman mentioned. Nobody who has much familiarity with the relevant issues should conclude that Ehrman won the debate, but Ehrman probably was effective in planting doubts in the minds of people who are less informed.

Before I address some of the more significant issues, I want to comment on a negative aspect of Ehrman's behavior during the debate. He repeatedly made comments about Craig's Evangelicalism and the fact that the university where he teaches is an Evangelical institution. He kept asking about Craig's position on Biblical inerrancy, even though, as Ehrman acknowledged during the Question and Answer segment, it's obvious that Craig does believe in inerrancy. Why did Ehrman keep asking the question if he already knew the answer? He refers to Craig as an evangelist at one point, contrasting an evangelist with a historian. Anybody who has read much of Craig's material, though, and knows about his academic credentials, should recognize that Craig is highly qualified to speak on the resurrection and some of the related philosophical issues. I would say that Craig's qualifications in such fields are better than Ehrman's. Yet, I don't recall Craig ever making negative comments comparable to Ehrman's, regarding Ehrman's scholarship.

Probably the most important part of the debate was Craig's First Rebuttal. He demonstrated the fallacious nature of Ehrman's claims about the probability of miracles, and Ehrman never recovered. Ehrman did keep speaking, and that would be enough to mislead people who are highly ignorant or who desire that Christianity be false, but he might as well have left the debate after Craig's First Rebuttal. Ehrman kept speaking, but nothing he said was able to salvage his case.

During the debate, Ehrman often made assertions without evidence, ignored counterarguments, ignored large amounts of data contrary to his conclusions, and changed his arguments in mid-discussion. Near the end of the debate, for example, during the Question and Answer segment, there was a discussion about calculating the probability of Jesus' resurrection, something which has been done both by Christians, such as Richard Swinburne and Gary Habermas, and by non-Christians, such as Michael Martin. Ehrman, in typical form, responded with an unargued dismissal. He commented that calculating a historical probability for Jesus' resurrection is a practice that would be laughed at in "any university setting in the country". When Craig told Ehrman that he was mistaken, Ehrman's response was to make another negative comment about the Evangelical university where Craig teaches. He suggested that applying probability calculations to the resurrection might be acceptable at a university like Craig's, but not elsewhere. Craig then pointed out that Richard Swinburne, who has applied Bayes' Theorem to Jesus' resurrection, is an Oxford scholar. Ehrman then responded by changing the subject to whether Swinburne's approach is popular. That sort of exchange occurred often during the debate. Craig behaved better and had better arguments.

There are far too many problems with Ehrman's claims to discuss all of them in this article. I want to briefly touch on several more issues. Before I do that, though, I want to recommend that people interested in answers to Ehrman's assertions consult the archives of this blog. A lot has been posted here about the empty tomb, the hallucination theory, etc., particularly in recent months.

A couple of quotes from the Question and Answer segment illustrate some of the most significant problems with Ehrman's approach:

"If you were trying to ask for probabilities, what is the probability that a human being can walk on a pond of water unless it’s frozen? The probability is virtually zero because in fact humans can’t do that....Historians aren’t going to conclude that because the miracle simply is a violation of the way nature typically works. And so you can’t ever verify the miracle on the basis of eyewitnesses."


"We’re talking about somebody who lived 2000 years ago, and we don’t have eyewitness reports at all. And the reports we have are from people who believed in him. They’re not disinterested accounts."

Ehrman repeatedly made inaccurate, careless comments like the ones above. Does Christianity claim that Jesus did miracles by means of the normal course of nature? No. Does Ehrman's claim that no miracle account should ever be accepted make sense? No, it doesn't. At other points, Ehrman will say that miracles are highly unlikely, not impossible, and he'll suggest that more modern miracle reports would be more plausible than more ancient ones. But if "you can’t ever verify the miracle on the basis of eyewitnesses", isn't "can't ever" an assertion that closes the door to any possibility? Either Ehrman hasn't thought through these issues well or he isn't expressing himself well, if not both.

And why the claim that we have no eyewitness accounts? What about Paul? And what's the significance of claiming that there are "no disinterested accounts"? We can believe a witness in a court of law when he testifies about what he saw, even though he believes that what he saw did happen. Men like James and Paul were initially skeptical of Christianity, and we have good evidence that early non-Christian sources were acknowledging facts such as Jesus' performance of apparent miracles and the empty tomb. Ehrman can keep raising the bar, always asking for more evidence, but as Craig explained to him in the Question and Answer segment:

"Compared to the sources for Greco-Roman history, the Gospels stand head and shoulders above what Greco-Roman historians have to work with, which are usually hundreds of years after the events they record, usually involve very few eyewitnesses, and are usually told by people that are completely biased. And yet Greco-Roman historians reconstruct the course of history of the ancient world."

Throughout the debate, Ehrman misrepresented the significance of the dating of the gospels. He made no attempt to interact with arguments for an earlier dating, and he ignored the evidence for material in the gospels that predates the composition of the gospels themselves. But even if we accepted Ehrman's dates, eyewitnesses and contemporaries of Jesus and the apostles lived well into the second century. Polycarp didn't die until the beginning of the second half of the second century, and he died by unnatural causes (martyrdom). He could have lived even longer. We know of named individuals who knew Jesus and lived until the late first century or later (the apostle John, Jesus' cousin Symeon, etc.). The concept that Mark's gospel could be written around 70, for example, and be as unhistorical as Ehrman suggests, is ridiculous. The Christians living in 70, 80, or 90, for example, wouldn't be as forgetful or as careless as Ehrman suggests, and the early enemies of Christianity wouldn't have been either.

All four gospels create major problems for Ehrman's case. Mark is reported to have been a disciple of the apostles and to have had Peter as his primary source. That's problematic for Ehrman. Luke was a companion of Paul and had met James, for example. Lukan authorship of Luke and Acts would be problematic for Ehrman. And Matthew and John would have been eyewitnesses. The traditional view of the origins of these documents was, in each case, either universally or almost universally accepted early on. (See here for more about the evidence we have for the gospels.) During the debate, Ehrman does little to interact with the arguments of conservative scholarship in support of the traditional view of the gospels' origins, and he refers to the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as later and unreliable additions to the gospels. But, as Martin Hengel has argued, it's probable that the gospels had the authors' names attached all along. And the documents would have been accompanied by oral accounts of their authorship from the start. The concept that the early Christians made up names of authors later on, and came to universal or almost universal agreement on those fabricated names, is absurd. Martin Hengel's rebuke is applicable to Bart Ehrman:

"Nevertheless the fact remains that it is utterly improbable that in this dark period, at a particular place or through a person or through the decision of a group or institution unknown to us, the four superscriptions of the Gospels, which had hitherto been circulating anonymously, suddenly came into being and, without leaving behind traces of earlier divergent titles, became established throughout the church. Let those who deny the great age and therefore basically the originality of the Gospel superscriptions in order to preserve their 'good' critical conscience, give a better explanation of the completely unanimous and relatively early attestation of these titles, their origin and the names of authors associated with them. Such an explanation has yet to be given, and it never will be. New Testament scholars persistently overlook basic facts and questions on the basis of old habits." (The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ [Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000], p. 55)

Ehrman also made some misleading comments about the genre of the gospels. In his First Rebuttal, he comments:

"Mark’s Gospel is filled with theological reflections on the meaning of the life of Jesus; this is Mark’s Gospel. It’s not a datasheet; it’s a Gospel."

The gospels are Greco-Roman biographies. They were meant to convey history. They were so interpreted by both the earliest Christians and the earliest non-Christians. See here for more details.

While Ehrman repeatedly questioned the gospels, he was less critical of the many apocryphal and heretical documents he cited during the course of the debate. In his First Rebuttal, Ehrman comments that "he [William Craig] might consider the arguments used by Basilides, who was the disciple of the follower of Peter". Notice how Ehrman presents heretical claims of apostolic lineage without the sort of skepticism that he applies to much better attested sources like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

In his Closing Remarks, Ehrman raises the popular objection that we don't have evidence that the early Christians died for belief in Jesus' resurrection. For a refutation of that argument, see here.

Regarding the resurrection appearances, Ehrman comments, in his Closing Remarks, that "Some of them were actual visions like Paul, others of them were stories of visions like the five hundred group of people who saw him." Paul refers to how most of the more than 500 men are still alive (1 Corinthians 15:6). He was familiar with the group, and he was following their lives. Paul wasn't just telling a story about a group that was distant from him. Rather, he seems to have known some details about the group. The most natural reading of 1 Corinthians 15 is to see these people as historical individuals who claimed to have an experience like that of the other resurrection witnesses.

Throughout the debate, Ehrman refers to "visions" without going into much detail. See the archives of this blog for articles addressing the historical problems with dismissing the resurrection appearances as some sort of subjective experience. See here, for example.

Ehrman mentions the deception theory, the possibility that Christians are being deceived by some sort of god other than the God of Christianity. But such deception theories can be applied to any worldview, not just Christianity. If the evidence leads us into deception, then what choice do we have but to be deceived? Speculating that the resurrection might be such a deception isn't sufficient reason to reject the Christian view of the event.

Ehrman repeatedly raises the issue of miracle claims in non-Christian sources, and he repeatedly ignores what Craig says in response. As Craig explained, a Christian may accept non-Christian accounts on a case-by-case basis. And the examples Ehrman mentions, such as Apollonius of Tyana and Muhammad, aren't problematic for Christianity. Craig repeatedly mentioned the lateness of the accounts for those individuals, but Ehrman kept ignoring such distinctions. On the issue of how Christianity interacts with non-Christian accounts of the supernatural, see here and here.

A lot more could be said, but a good summary of the erroneous nature of Ehrman's approach is found in his Opening Remarks. He tells us:

"After the days of Jesus, people started telling stories about him in order to convert others to the faith. They were trying to convert both Jews and Gentiles. How do you convert somebody to stop worshipping their God and to start worshipping Jesus? You have to tell stories about Jesus. So you convert somebody on the basis of the stories you tell. That person converts somebody who converts somebody who converts somebody, and all along the line people are telling stories."


"The way it works is this: I’m a businessman in Ephesus, and somebody comes to town and tells me stories about Jesus, and on the basis of these stories I hear, I convert. I tell my wife these stories. She converts. She tells the next-door neighbor the stories. She converts. She tells her husband the stories. He converts. He goes on a business trip to Rome, and he tells people there the stories. They convert. Those people who’ve heard the stories in Rome, where did they hear them from? They heard them from the guy who lived next door to me. Well, was he there to see these things happen? No. Where’d he hear them from? He heard them from his wife. Where did his wife hear them from? Was she there? No. She heard them from my wife. Where did my wife hear them from? She heard them from me. Well, where did I hear them from? I wasn’t there either."

Read the New Testament. Do the people alive at that time present their history the way Ehrman does? Does Ehrman leave out any significant details? Yes, many. He leaves out the fact that eyewitness testimony was at the heart of the earliest Christian movement, the fact that eyewitnesses traveled around the world, the fact that the eyewitnesses performed miracles themselves (including miracles performed outside of Israel), the fact that people living outside of Israel would often travel to Israel or to other places the apostles had visited, the fact that some of the prophecies Jesus fulfilled could be verified without consulting an eyewitness, etc. Ehrman makes absurd generalizations without much supporting evidence, and he ignores large amounts of evidence contrary to his conclusions. His case depends primarily on his argument for the improbability of miracles, and William Craig refuted that argument early in the debate.


  1. Could you talk about what Erhman actually believes that Craig had no chance to respond to? It is in the final paragraph of Erhmans closing comments.

  2. Anonymous,

    I don't know every detail of what Ehrman had in mind when he accused Craig of not answering his questions. But more issues are addressed in the Question and Answer segment, after Ehrman's closing remarks. I think Craig did address at least some of what Ehrman had in mind during that Question and Answer segment. In his first rebuttal, Ehrman mentions issues such as Biblical inerrancy and miracle accounts in non-Christian sources. He repeatedly asked about those issues, and Craig did respond. Steve Hays and I have responded here as well.

  3. See my comments on the debate here.