Sunday, April 17, 2016

Ehrman's Argument Against Bauckham And The Gospels Fails

The second half of the gospels debate between Bart Ehrman and Richard Bauckham is now available. Before I address that second part of the debate, I want to summarize what I've argued so far.

Ehrman's position is highly speculative and highly unlikely, relying on layer after layer of implausibility. He has no good explanation for the internal evidence for the traditional authorship attributions of the gospels, ignores most of the external evidence prior to Irenaeus and may not even be aware of much of it, doesn't have a good explanation for the evidence from Irenaeus onward, and provides no external evidence for his own position. He has Matthew and Luke using Mark as a source, yet refuses to acknowledge the likely implication that those gospels would have been given titles and/or other identifying marks involving the authors' names, so that the documents could be distinguished in contexts in which they were being used together. (Since authors' names were the widespread means of distinguishing among the gospels from the second half of the second century onward, that means of distinguishing among them is the most likely one to have been used earlier. Continuity is more likely than discontinuity.) Ehrman wants us to believe that the gospels were collected in libraries, public and private, for several decades and were used in church services during that time, all the while remaining anonymous. I've used Irenaeus as an illustration of how implausible such a scenario would be. The general principles I've applied to Irenaeus must also be applied to Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and every other relevant source, including the many heretical and non-Christian sources who corroborated the traditional authorship attributions of the gospels. When that kind of scrutiny is applied to Ehrman's hypothesis, it breaks down again and again and again.

The second part of the debate was largely about the reliability of human memory and the likelihood that the gospels preserved accurate memories. Ehrman affirmed the historical probability of some aspects of the gospels, but was mostly pessimistic about their reliability. He said that the gospels don't claim to be written by eyewitnesses, weren't written by eyewitnesses, and were written forty or more years after the events they narrate. He asked how the author of Matthew, writing fifty to fifty-five years after the events he's discussing, would remember what happened. Ehrman even refers to the author of Matthew "waiting fifty years" to remember the events. He compares remembering the Sermon on the Mount to people in our culture remembering the entirety of a State of the Union speech. He cited some examples of what he takes to be inconsistencies and other deficiencies among the gospels and other early Christian literature, especially the Gospel Of Thomas. He also cited some modern examples of the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, such as people's faulty memories of the events surrounding the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 and how well people remembered unusual events they were asked to participate in. (e.g., People were asked to either bow down before a Pepsi machine and propose marriage to it or think about doing so, and people would sometimes misremember whether they had done it or only thought about doing it.) Ehrman's portrayal of human memory is so negative that he even goes as far as to comment at one point that "stories are changing the minute they're told and retold". He's so pessimistic about the oral and literary conventions of early Christianity that he says that the early Christians thought they had "complete license to change stories". He includes the Gospel Of Thomas with the canonical gospels as an "early source", and he uses examples from Thomas to illustrate how scholars agree that the early Christians made up accounts.

And Ehrman wasn't challenged much when he made such claims. Though Bauckham has many merits as a scholar, he isn't much of a debater. He withheld a lot of arguments he could and should have used. Ehrman ignored or said little about some of the best points Bauckham made, and Bauckham didn't put much effort into getting Ehrman to offer more of a response. I was disappointed by how little Bauckham had to say in response to some of Ehrman's criticisms. (For example, contrast Ehrman's critique of Bauckham's material on eyewitness memory to what Bauckham actually provides in his book. Not only is Bauckham's material more substantial than Ehrman suggests, but it's also more substantial than what the vast majority of relevant scholars offer in their works that comment on eyewitnesses. If Bauckham's treatment of the subject is inadequate, what does that say about the adequacy of Ehrman's treatment in the large majority of his books and the treatment other scholars have offered?) Judging by his tone of voice and comments at the end of each program, Ehrman sounded like he was pleased with how the discussion went. He had a lot of reason to be pleased.

As I recall, the argument for the reliability of the gospels from the Divine inspiration of scripture never came up. It's a subject that New Testament scholars, historians, and other scholars don't say much about, largely because the subject is often considered something that's outside of their field of study. But the evidence for the Divine inspiration of scripture is one of the reasons we have for trusting what the gospels tell us, and it has to be taken into account.

Near the end of the second program, Bauckham brought up a point that wasn't discussed enough. The sort of radical skepticism toward the reliability of human memory that Ehrman sometimes suggested would make life unlivable. Ehrman would have to add a lot of significant qualifiers to his comments during the debate in order to justify his own dependence on human memory. He frequently relies on his own memories when discussing what happened in his life decades earlier, what he read in a book or article years ago, etc. And he trusts the memories of others, like what other scholars tell him about what they remember of their own experiences (what they've read in the sources they're relying on, what they discovered during archeological excavations, etc.). All of us rely on our memories and the memories of other people many times in our everyday lives, including memories of events that happened decades ago. Ehrman's citing of memory studies is itself an exercise in relying on human memory (his and the researchers').

Let's think about the examples of unreliable memories cited by Ehrman. Was the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle an important event? Yes, but I doubt that many, if any, of the people whose memories of it were tested had much involvement in the most important aspects of the events. Rather, they observed the shuttle explosion from a distance (saw it on television, heard about it on the radio, etc.), without much personal involvement, viewing it as one significant event among thousands of other highly similar ones that have occurred in their lives. The Challenger events weren't of much importance to them, and they wouldn't assign much importance to remembering those events in the context of a memory study conducted years or decades later. And though Ehrman cites a somewhat high rate of failed memories about the Challenger events, that high rate apparently (judging by what Ehrman said) was accompanied by a high rate of accurate memories. The unreliability of some individuals' memories didn't prevent other individuals from having reliable memories. Group efforts can weed out what's bad and retain what's good. The early Christian movement was a group movement involving many people, including many eyewitnesses (e.g., Luke 1:1-4). On a lot of issues, like the feeding of the five thousand and the empty tomb, Ehrman wants us to believe that all of the gospels are wrong when they all say the same thing without any early source contradicting them. I doubt that any memory study would find that nobody remembers the Challenger explosion or that everybody thinks the Challenger was a school bus rather than a space shuttle. Even when people disagree over some of the details related to the Challenger explosion, there's a large number of facts that everybody or the vast majority agrees about. The faulty nature of people's memories related to the Challenger explosion is far too limited to justify the sort of radical skepticism that Ehrman and others apply to Christianity.

It should be obvious how irrelevant it is to bring up people's memories of whether they proposed marriage to a Pepsi machine. In a frivolous culture like ours that's so accustomed to overdosing on humor, people do that sort of thing frequently, and they don't have much concern about the accuracy of their memories of it. Depending on the context (Ehrman doesn't provide much), saying that you remember doing something like proposing marriage to a Pepsi machine, even when you don't actually think you remember it, would appeal to a lot of people. (It makes you seem more humorous, more spontaneous, etc.) Much of what I said about the explosion of the Challenger above is applicable here.

It should be noted that a lot of what Ehrman said about eyewitnesses and memory was anticipated and answered in Bauckham's book and other material he's published. It's not as though the sort of memory failures Ehrman brought up hadn't been considered or addressed by Bauckham.

In my first response to Ehrman, I addressed why I think he's wrong about the authorship and dating of the gospel of Matthew. But even if we were to accept Ehrman's positions on those issues for the sake of argument, why should we think the author of the gospel would have "waited fifty years" to remember the events he wrote about? The events would have been remembered, discussed, written about, etc. before they were recorded in the gospel of Matthew. When Ehrman writes about his adolescence or early adulthood in a book today, is that the first time he made any effort to remember what happened? Matthew itself says that much of what's recorded in it was to be frequently remembered and taught from the earliest years of Christianity onward (Matthew 10:5-23, 26:13, 28:19-20, etc.). If Matthew itself says that such aspects of Jesus' life, like his teachings, were frequently being remembered and taught from the earliest years of Christianity onward, why would Ehrman burn a straw man by acting as though Matthew's author would be making his first effort to try to remember what happened fifty years after Jesus' death? Luke refers to "many" accounts of Jesus that circulated before he wrote (Luke 1:1-2). Bauckham has observed, "Such notebooks [as ancient rabbis used] were in quite widespread use in the ancient world (2 Tim 4:13 refers to parchment notebooks Paul carried on his travels). It seems more probable than not that early Christians used them." (Jesus And The Eyewitnesses [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006], 288) Most likely, a much larger number of documents discussing Jesus than the ones now extant were circulating in the early to mid first century.

To compare remembering the Sermon on the Mount with remembering a State of the Union speech is ridiculous. The Sermon on the Mount is much briefer. It was delivered in a much different culture that was far more accustomed to trying to preserve memories and develop memory skills. And the issue isn't whether one individual would be likely to remember the entire Sermon on the Mount after hearing it one time. Rather, the issue is how well a large number of people (i.e., the early Christians and others involved with remembering the Sermon on the Mount) would remember enough of the highlights of what Jesus said to produce the collection we see in Matthew's gospel. Since Jesus surely repeated himself at times (when he traveled to other cities, when he was addressing different groups of people, etc.), his teachings would have been reinforced even during his lifetime. The traditional Christian view involves many people remembering what Jesus said, often what he said more than once, repeating his teachings many times over the years, perhaps recording them in notebooks and other written formats at times, then recording them in documents like the gospels under Divine inspiration. To compare that to a scenario in which one individual, or even a group of individuals, tries to remember an entire State of the Union speech, after hearing it one time in a modern context like the United States, is inadequate.

Ehrman kept objecting to alleged inconsistencies among the gospels without interacting with the counterarguments that have been circulating for hundreds of years. See my post on the subject here, which I wrote in response to Ehrman last year, after he had debated Tim McGrew on the same radio program. Ehrman's view of the unreliability of the gospels is remarkably radical and indefensible.

He made much of the fact that John is so different than the Synoptics. But he didn't address the evidence we have that John was supplementing one or more of the Synoptics, meaning that he intentionally made his gospel different. Clement of Alexandria cites a tradition, whose sources probably go back at least to the first half of the second century, to that effect. It would make sense for the last gospel to attempt to supplement the earlier ones. The most Johannine sources of the early patristic era (Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, etc.) speak highly of the Synoptics and their content. That makes more sense if John was trying to supplement the Synoptics rather than contradict them. During his debate with Bauckham, Ehrman acknowledged that Jesus probably said a lot about the kingdom of God. Ehrman thinks that aspect of the Synoptics is historical. John's gospel is aware of the kingdom of God theme. It appears in chapters 3 and 18. But it's much less prominent in John than in the Synoptics. John surely was aware of Jesus' exorcisms, and it's doubtful that he would have objected to them for some reason, yet he doesn't include them in his gospel. John differs from the Synoptics even when he's aware of their material and agrees with it. It seems highly likely that John's differences from the Synoptics are largely a result of a supplementary motive. And though there are substantial differences between John and the Synoptics, their agreements are underestimated by critics like Ehrman. See here regarding Jesus' childhood and family background, for example.

Near the end of the second program, Bauckham made the point that ancient cultures had more interest in preserving some memories than others. Preserving the teachings of the Messiah would be more important to ancient Jews than preserving a fictional story would have been to ancient Greeks. What did the early Christians think they were preserving?

Christian interest in eyewitness testimony is present from the start. The highest church office, that of apostle, consisted only of eyewitnesses (John 15:27, Acts 1:21-2, 10:40-1, 1 Corinthians 9:1), and the churches that had a historical relationship with the apostles were the most prominent in the second century (Rome, Smyrna, Ephesus, etc.). As early as the late first and early second centuries, we see Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and Polycarp showing awareness of and interest in the historical activities of Jesus and the apostles, the churches the apostles founded, how those churches interacted with the apostles, and what had happened in those churches since then.

In a book Ehrman has called "the standard authoritative scholarly account" of the New Testament canon (Misquoting Jesus [San Francisco, California: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005], n. 10 on 220), Ehrman's mentor, Bruce Metzger, refers to the "'authority' that underlay the impulse to form a canon of Scripture - an authority that rested upon the testimony of eye-witnesses....As Prorector of the University of Utrecht, van Unnik delivered a learned address on the status of an eye-witness and an ear-witness in vouching for trustworthiness of what was included in early collections of New Testament books." (The Canon Of The New Testament [New York: Oxford University Press, 1997], 28-9) For more about how interest in history and eyewitness testimony shaped the early Christians' selection of a canon of scripture, including their canon of gospels, see here and here.

The early Christians were concerned with eyewitness testimony in other contexts as well: Luke 1:1-4, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, 2 Peter 1:16, Papias (in Eusebius, Church History, 3:39), Quadratus (in Eusebius, Church History, 4:3), etc. Oskar Skarsaune, a professor of church history who's specialized in the study of Justin Martyr, writes that for Justin, the gospels are credible historical accounts composed by the apostles and their associates, similar to Xenephon's memoirs of Socrates (in Sara Parvis and Paul Foster, edd., Justin Martyr And His Worlds [Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2007], 71-4). Skarsaune writes:

"Justin counters this by implying that the Gospel accounts are historically reliable in the ordinary way of such accounts. The gospels were written by Jesus' disciples or their successors, who faithfully and reliably remembered what Jesus had said and done. There is nothing more to it, and nothing more is needed. Justin evidently sees considerable argumentative value in the fact that these Memoirs [the gospels] were put into writing at an early stage, by Jesus' closest disciples, the apostles, or by their immediate followers. We therefore do not have to rely on oral tradition only, transmitted through a large number of intermediary transmitters." (ibid., 73)

Robert Wilken writes:

"Pagan critics realized that the claims of the new movement [Christianity] rested upon a credible historical portrait of Jesus. Christian theologians in the early church, in contrast to medieval thinkers who began their investigations on the basis of what they received from authoritative tradition, were forced to defend the historical claims they made about the person of Jesus. What was said about Jesus could not be based solely on the memory of the Christian community or its own self-understanding." (The Christians As The Romans Saw Them [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984], 203)

That's the context in which the gospels were written, circulated, discussed, and accepted as canonical. It's not an atmosphere in which largely unhistorical accounts with little interest in eyewitness testimony would be composed after the apostles were dead, then circulate anonymously for several decades before there was any significant concern about their authorship.

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