Saturday, March 03, 2018

Tarry in Jerusalem

Last night I was watching the recent debate between Mike Licona and Bart Erhman: 

In this post I'm just going to comment on some of Ehrman's allegations. Ehrman is a tedious debater because he recycles the same objections year after year, from one debate to the next. In this debate he used many of the same examples he cited in his written debate with Licona. Likewise, he used many of the same example he cited in his 2005 book Jesus Interrupted. Ehrman rarely revises his examples and objections in response to correction. Rather than transcribe or summarize when he said in his recent debate with Licona, it's simpler to quote the same objections in written sources:

1. Verbatim Recollection

In the Gospel of Matthew we have the famous “Sermon on the Mount.” It is one of the best known and most beloved set of ethical teachings the planet has ever seen. It takes up fully three chapters of the Gospel (it is not found in any of the other three). But Matthew was writing his account some 50 years or so after the sermon was allegedly given. How would he know what was said?

Give it some thought. Suppose you were supposed to write down a speech that you yourself had listened to a while ago. Suppose it was a speech delivered by a presidential candidate last month. If you had no notes, but just your memory—how well would you do? Or suppose you wanted to write down, without notes, Obama’s first “State of the Union” address? That was only seven years ago. How well would you do? How well would you do with the first “State of the Union” addressed delivered by Lyndon Johnson? My guess is that you wouldn’t have a clue.

i) For starters, I doubt that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount at one sitting. It would be impossible to a listener to absorb that density of the material. Rather, I suspect the Sermon on the Mount is a composite speech. Some of that was spoken on that occasion, and some of that was spoken on other occasions.

ii) I don't assume that the Gospels are the product of what the authors could naturally remember. Rather, their memory is enhanced by inspiration. 

2. Synoptic/Johannine Christology

In John, however, Jesus’s preaching is almost entirely about his own identity. Here he makes the most breathtaking claims about himself, repeatedly claiming to be God, to the dismay of his Jewish listeners who regularly take up stones to execute him for blasphemy. You don’t find anything like that in the public ministry of Jesus in the other Gospels. But here in John, Jesus says such things as “Before Abraham was, I am” (Abraham lived 1,800 years earlier! John 8:58); “I and the Father are one” (10:30); “If you have seen me you have seen the Father” (14:9). Here, Jesus speaks of the glory that he shared with the Father before the world was created (17:5).

These are spectacular passages, all of them. But did the man Jesus, during his life, actually say such things about himself? Here is a point worth considering. The other three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are all considered to be based on earlier sources. Scholars call these earlier sources Q (a source used by both Matthew and Luke for many of their sayings of Jesus), M (a source used just by Matthew), and L (a source used just by Luke). All of these sources were written much earlier than John, much nearer the time of Jesus’s public ministry. 

So, here is the question. If the historical Jesus actually went around claiming that he was God on earth, is there anything else that he could possibly say that would be more significant? That would be the most amazing thing he could conceivably say. And if so, it would certainly be what someone who was recording his words would want their readers to know about him. If that’s the case, how do we explain the fact that such sayings are not found in any of our earlier sources? 

That's a deceptive comparison. John is far more selective than the Synoptics. If your read an outline of John, he doesn't recount that many incidents in the life of Christ. Rather, he prefers to focus on the most dramatic episodes. He spends more time on fewer incidents. By contrast, the Synoptics spend less time on more incidents. 

3. Tarry in Jerusalem

Let me explore briefly just one of those differences to show you why the accounts seem to be truly at odds with one another. Do the disciples meet Jesus in Galilee or do they never leave Jerusalem? In Mark’s Gospel, the women are told to tell the disciples to go to meet Jesus in Galilee. But they never tell them. So, it’s not clear what Mark thinks happens next: Did no one ever hear? Surely, someone heard, since Mark knows the story!

In any event, the women are told something very similar in Matthew, and there they do tell the disciples to go meet Jesus in Galilee. And the disciples go to Galilee (again, it’s about over 60 miles, and they would have gone on foot). Jesus meets with them there and gives them their final instructions, and that’s the end of the Gospel.

But how does that stack up with what we find in Luke’s account? In this case, the women are not told to tell the disciples to go to Galilee...Jesus then appears to the disciples, shows them he has been raised from the dead, and gives them their instructions, which include the injunction that they are to “stay in the city” until they receive the promised Spirit from on high (24:49).

I am giving this relatively detailed summary in order to make a fundamental point. In Luke’s version of the events, the disciples are told to stay in the city of Jerusalem and they do stay in the city of Jerusalem. Not for a day or two, but for weeks. This is where Jesus appears to them before ascending. But in Matthew’s version, they leave Jerusalem and travel up to Galilee (it would take some days to get there on foot), and it is there that Jesus appears to them.

So, which is it? It depends on which Gospel you read. Can they both be absolutely accurate? I don’t see how. They are at odds on a most fundamental point. 

i) Ehrman fails to distinguish between contradictory commands and contradictory events. Although contradictory events are impossible, contradictory commands are not impossible. 

At most, this would be a case of Jesus giving a general command, then contravening his general command with an exception. It's not inaccurate for a historical account to record conflicting commands. If someone gives a command, then contravenes the initial command, an accurate account will record the original command as well as its abrogation or exception. 

ii) And this isn't just hypothetical. For instance, God gives Abraham contradictory commands (Gen 22:2,11-12). Likewise, God appears to send mixed signals to Balaam (Num 22:20-22) and David (2 Sam 24). Each of these prima facie discrepancies takes place in the very same account by the same narrator. Back-to-back commands. A divine command permission followed by what seems to be an inconsistent divine reaction. 

My point is not to explain these examples, but demonstrate that this phenomenon doesn't imply that the source is inaccurate. Ehrman's inference is fallacious. 

ii) One way to understand what a statement was intended to mean is to consider the implicit point of contrast. The disciples didn't live in Jerusalem. They were in Jerusalem for the Passover. Left to their own devices, they'd go home. Moreover, they had an additional incentive to go home because it was risky for them to hang around Jerusalem. The Roman and Jewish authorities had their eye out for the disciples. 

In context, I take Christ's prohibition to mean, Don't leave on your own initiative. Put your own plans on hold. Wait for further instructions. 

The 50-day interval leaves ample time for an excursion to Galilee. They were back in Jerusalem in time for Pentecost. They didn't have to be there the whole time to be there for Pentecost. And Jesus is at liberty to make an exception to his general command. 

iii) And the larger point is that rather than returning home, they are required to preach about Jesus in the very city where he was persecuted and executed. That's provocative. That exposes them to danger. If they had their druthers, they've exit Jerusalem for their own safety. So they need to be commanded to resist that impulse. 

4. Nativity chronology

Luke then indicates that eight days later, Jesus was circumcised and 33 days later, after Mary performed the “rites of purification” (this is in reference to a law in the Old Testament, Leviticus 12), they returned back to Nazareth.

In Matthew, Herod decides to kill all the children in Bethlehem because he doesn’t want any competitors for his throne as “King of the Jews.” But Joseph is warned in a dream and he escapes with Mary and Jesus to Egypt, where they stay until Herod dies. But if that’s right, how can Luke also be right that they stayed in Bethlehem just 41 days (eight days till the circumcision; 33 days before the rites of purification) and then returned to Nazareth? If Luke’s right, then Matthew can’t be, and vice versa.

i) The episode of the Magi took place over a year after the birth of Christ. So that's after the Lucan account. We need to draw a further distinction:

a) Luke doesn't say the flight into Egypt ever happened

b) Luke says the flight into Egypt never happened

(a) doesn't imply (b). Luke's silence doesn't contradict Matthew. 

5. Census of Qurinius

The Gospel of Luke is quite explicit (see 2:2) that Jesus was born when Quirinius was the governor of Syria; this was also during the reign of Herod, King of Israel (1:5; and, of course, Matthew 2). But this is an enormous problem. Luke appears not to have known the history of Palestine as well as we might like. We know from clear and certain statements in Josephus (the prominent Jewish historian) and inscriptions that Quirinius became governor of Syria in 6 CE. But Herod died in 4 BCE, ten years earlier. Their reigns did not overlap. Luke has simply made a historical mistake. It’s an anachronism. 

i) Notice Ehrman's selective credulity and incredulity. He's credulous about Josephus but incredulous about Luke. Erhman constantly says the Gospels are unreliable because they were written decades after the fact. Yet Josephus is writing decades after the fact. Indeed, it's arguable that Josephus is writing some 30 years later than Luke. So even assuming there's a discrepancy between Josephus and Luke, why does Ehrman assume Luke made a historical mistake rather than Josephus? See how arbitrary Ehrman is when appealing to historical evidence? 

ii) Our information for that period is scattershot. There are many gaps in our knowledge of the period. 

6. Naming names

Using the right names has no bearing on whether the stories are accurate or not. It simply means that the storytellers knew what names they should use in telling their tales.

Yet out of the other side of his mouth, Ehrman keeps telling us that the Gospels are unreliable because they were written at a different time and place from the life of Christ. Well, he can't have it both ways. If the Gospels authors are that out-of-touch with Palestine during the life of Christ, then how can they be so accurate in this respect? 

7. The genealogies of Christ

The easiest way to see the difference is to ask the simple question, Who, in each genealogy, is Joseph’s father, patrilineal grandfather, and great-grandfather? In Matthew the family line goes from Joseph to Jacob to Matthan to Eleazar to Eliud and on into the past. In Luke it goes from Joseph to Heli to Mathat to Levi to Melchi. The lines become similar once we get all the way back to King David (although there are other problems, as we’ll see), but from David to Joseph, the lines are at odds. Jesus Interrupted (37).

i) First of all, it's prejudicial and misleading to classify this material as genealogies. That has narrow, technical connotations for a modern reader that may be off-the-mark in reference to Scripture. In Scripture, genealogies have more than one function. It's not just to trace lineal descent.

For instance, the genealogies on Gen 5 & 11 function as shorthand history. They form a bridge between major events. The narrator doesn't wish to give a continuous history. He skips around. Genealogies are a way of filling gaps and preserving historical continuity without having to narrate the intervening events. They transition from one anecdote to the next. 

In addition, the Table of Nations (Gen 10) doesn't have a single unifying principle. Rather, it's about ethnicity, geography, mother tongues, &c. 

ii) Apropos (i), genealogies are a way to locate an individual within a particular time, place, or people-group. Biblical genealogies evoke Jewish history and world history. The genealogies of Christ aren't simply about lineal descent. In Scripture, ancestry is a broader concept. The genealogies of Christ identify Jesus with Jewish history and world history. Named individuals in the genealogies evoke particular periods in Jewish history and OT history. They trigger associations in the mind of a reader steeped in OT history. They situate Jesus in the history of his people (Jews), as well as world history (Gentiles). People he came to redeem. The relatives of Jesus needn't be linear ancestors to discharge that function. 


  1. Thanks for sharing...
    Bart is really a sincerely wrong person. You might need a lot of educational prowess to explain most of the objections raised by Erhman but the nativity chronology is what really shows the rational reasoning capacity of Bart which is really flawed. There is surely a difference between the baby Jesus and the Child Jesus..... Erhman couldn't see it despite his educational abilities in the field of his expertise....

  2. I assume question 6 is his attempt to interact with Richard Baukham.

  3. I think the "tarry in Jerusalem" command was probably uttered closer to the ascension. Since Luke doesn't indicate when everything happened and is being inexplicit about chronology (and may have been running out of scroll or finishing hastily for some other reason that we don't know), we have no specific time indicator for the "tarry in Jerusalem" claim. We don't know when Jesus and his disciples came back to the vicinity of Jerusalem after the meetings in Galilee, but it might well be that this command was stated to them after those meetings and shortly before the ascension, when it would be quite literal. Perhaps even immediately before the ascension.

    1. Very interesting explanation.

    2. In his commentary on Luke, James Edwards says the conclusion (Lk 24:50-53) is a "liturgical priestly benediction" (739).

    3. I completely agree with Lydia McGrew. In fact, Luke implies in Acts that the very PURPOSE of tarrying was to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Which Luke himself in Acts teaches would arrive after Christ's ascension. If so, then there would have been no point to tarry in Jerusalem before that time.

      [BTW, I think Luke 11:13 doesn't necessary contradict my interpretation since it's likely that in Luke's mind all "good things" [cf. Matt. 7:11] are bestowed upon believers via the Holy Spirit. So, Luke likely adjusted Jesus' strict words for the interpretive benefit of the believers who would read his gospel.]


  4. I found it slightly disingenuous for Ehrman to point out in the debate that only in the Gospel of John does Jesus explicitly claim to be God, without acknowledging the fact that he has recently changed his mind and now believes that all four canonical Gospels teach Jesus is divine in some sense [i.e. different senses per book]. Of course the two issues are distinct, but without acknowledging his change of mind in the debate, his statements could have been interpreted by the audience to mean that only the fourth Gospel teaches Jesus is divine [in some sense].

    I don't understand why Ehrman thinks it's implausible that the Gospel writers used secretaries. Or that they could have re-worked the materials with the help of the author to make the work more literarily polished. If some government officials could have become Christians, why not some secretaries? Ehrman implies that a secretary would not help re-work the material but would basically be translation machines. But that only makes sense if the social status and relationship of the author and secretary remained distinct and business-like between (say) a superior over an inferior. But one of the objections to Christianity at the time was that Christians were "levelers" who were advocates the abolition of social distinctions. That's partially true and false. It's conceiveable for an apostle to be in one sense superior to a non-apostle, and in another sense equal in another sense since one of the models of the church is one of family (cf. Philemon 1:15-16). Also, only two of the purported authors of the Gospels are apostles. Neither Luke nor Mark were apostles.

    I'm glad Licona called out Ehrman's strawman where he (Bart) represented Licona as saying [merely] because the names and their frequency matched the data we now have regarding that period and location, that therefore that alone proves the Gospels are reliable. Nowhere did Licona make that claim. That was JUST ONE of the factors Licona cited that lends support to their reliability. Ehrman really seemed desperate at times in the debate, and this was one of them.

    Ehrman's analogy of the map (IMO) backfires. One would be foolish to assume that an old map would perfectly correspond to modern geography. IF one were GENUINELY after a treasure (in this case historical truth), one would factor in changes in the geography like deforestation, the changing directions up of rivers, the drying up of lakes, snowmelt et cetera.

    Regarding the Census, Triablogue has addressed this issue a number of times as well as posting links to interesting resources on the topic. I've collected some of them in my blogpost here:

    Regarding the genealogies of Jesus, there are so many ways to reconcile them that any informed person would have to be partially dishonest to say that they are clear and irreconcilable contradictions. There's an ingenious solution that actually goes back to the early church that I find plausible. The fact that it has deals with the intricacies of Jewish legal system would lend some support for it's historicity since it's a Gentile (Eusebius) who records the alleged tradition in the 4th century when the Church was mostly composed of Gentiles. See the two videos I've linked to HERE:

    1. Another blatant example of Ehrman desperately grasping at straws was when he used Jesus' alleged statement "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34) to bolster his claim that the Gospels portray very different conceptions of Jesus during His passion. As one of the TOP living textual critics in the world HE KNOWS that textual variant is NOT viable (i.e. plausibly going back to the original). That's BLATANTLY DISINGENUOUS on his part.

    2. Also, it's just not true that Jesus doesn't use "ego eimi" in the Synoptics. Bart may argue that the uses of the phrase in Mark 6:50, Matt. 14:27 and John 6:20 (all parallel passages) likely doesn't have the implication of a divine self-identification on Jesus part, but he can't say with certainty that they don't. When in fact a (good [IMO]) case can be made that Jesus does exactly that when the context is taken into consideration. Same with Mark 14:62. So, EITHER Ehrman was incorrect if he meant to say that "ego eimi" isn't used by Jesus in any of the Synoptics, OR Ehrman is being disingenuous in saying or implying that no statement the Synoptics where Jesus says "ego eimi" could possibly be interpreted to be a case of divine self-identification. If he were both accurate and honest on this issue, he would have specifically said something like, "While it's true that Jesus does use 'ego eimi' in the Synoptics, it's highly unlikely that he was using it to claim divinity". Even though, he'd likely admit that Jesus does so in John 6:20, though (IMO inconsistently) not in Mark 6:50 & Matt. 14:27 which are parallel passages. But he gives no such qualifications to his statements.

      It's almost as if Bart doesn't mind if knowledgeable folk know he's wrong or imprecise in his statements, so long as the majority of the audience thinks he's making good points/arguments. If so, that's a mark of someone who's more interested in preserving his public image than finding & affirming the truth.

    3. Above I left implied was might be better stated explicitly. I wrote:

      Ehrman's analogy of the map (IMO) backfires. One would be foolish to assume that an old map would perfectly correspond to modern geography. IF one were GENUINELY after a treasure (in this case historical truth), one would factor in changes in the geography like deforestation, the changing directions up of rivers, the drying up of lakes, snowmelt et cetera.

      Taking into consideration changes in landscape since a map was drawn would be analogous to reading the NT in light of the literary conventions of the time. Doing so would better enable one to find the "treasure" (i.e. golden nuggets of historical truth).

  5. On the issue of the deity of Jesus and John's gospel, we need to keep in mind Ehrman's late date for that gospel. And I agree with dating it to the closing decades of the first century. But by that time, Jesus' deity was widely understood. It's referred to in some Old Testament passages, such as in the Suffering Servant prophecy that was widely applied to Jesus by Christians long before the fourth gospel was written. John himself appeals to such Old Testament passages. Paul often refers to the deity of Christ, Mark's gospel opens by applying an Old Testament passage about God to Jesus, Matthew's gospel concludes with Jesus' name being set beside the Father's and the Spirit's in a context of authority and devotion and a reference to Jesus' presence wherever his disciples went (best explained by omnipresence, an attribute of God), etc. By the time John wrote in the late first century, the deity of Jesus wasn't something Christians didn't yet understand or had just learned about. The fact that John focuses so much on Jesus' deity isn't necessarily because it's a new or unpopular concept. Similarly, it would be ridiculous to conclude that prophecy fulfillment was a new or unpopular concept when Matthew wrote, since he focuses on it so much. Mark was aware of prophecy fulfillment and considered it important, but didn't want to emphasize it as much as Matthew did. Christians were well aware of Jesus' deity before any gospel was written. Whether to give the issue much attention was optional for the gospel authors from the start. John had more interest in the subject for whatever reasons. If his interest was partly or entirely in response to a recent development (e.g., a heresy that was undermining Jesus' deity), then expecting the other gospels to give the issue comparable attention, even though that later development didn't yet exist, wouldn't make sense.

    Concerning Quirinius, Luke doesn't say that Jesus was born while Quirinius was governor. Jesus and his family don't enter the narrative in Luke 2 until verse 4. In verse 2, where Quirinius is mentioned, the subject is still "this census", the census discussed in verse 1. Quirinius is mentioned to further identify what census Luke has in mind, a census that occurred under multiple local governors. Quirinius presided over a well-known phase of the census, which probably is the reason why Luke mentions him, but it doesn't follow that Jesus was born while Quirinius was governor. The multi-phased nature of the census, involving multiple local governors, is by far the best explanation of what Luke has in mind in verse 1. The idea that Luke was thinking of everybody across the empire participating in a census within a short period of time, such as under the governorship of Quirinius, is absurd, for reasons I explain in some material I'll link below. And the contrast between the peaceful setting of Luke 1-2 and the tumultuous setting of the 6 A.D. census, which Luke shows knowledge of in Acts 5:37, suggests that Luke was aware that two different timeframes were involved. For more about these issues, see here.

    Regarding whether Matthew and Luke are consistent on issues of chronology and geography related to Jesus' childhood, I agree with mr bangs. Ehrman's approach is simplistic. Here's a post I wrote in response to the New Testament scholar Annette Merz on such issues.

    1. Very good point concerning the writing of John. It's incredibly important (as you have done) to call out the blatantly biased assumption that a document that states or emphasizes a doctrine, even stating that it was taught by Christ and describing scenes in which he taught it, must mark the invention of the doctrine. That something was written down in x decade does not at all mean that it was dreamt up in x decade. Not to mention the fact that such an argument assumes *without* argument that an author such as John would have invented fictional scenes out of whole cloth as a setting for fictional sayings by Jesus teaching a doctrine. It's astonishing to me that these assumptions are not more often questioned, especially by evangelicals. Surely they reflect an obvious bias against the historicity of the documents on the part of the scholar making the claim (e.g. "John was written in x decade, so it looks like this doctrine wasn't understood as he understands it until x decade") but if we have any idea at all of *affirming* the historicity of the documents, we should at least bring the assumptions to light and question them. Far too many people are too intimidated to come right out and say that John's writing something at such-and-such a time doesn't mean it wasn't understood prior to that time and also that we have no good reason to think John made up scenes out of whole cloth. Bart and co. need to provide evidence for such a picture of the author, which they have not done. And indeed there is evidence against.

    2. I agree with both Jason and Lydia. But to be fair to Bart (and other skeptics) they don't normally claim the doctrine was invented by John. Their point is that the [alleged] contrasting difference in doctrine is consistent with, and is likely evidence for, development from a primitive low Christology to a very high one.

    3. Then they are claiming that the high doctrine was invented at a time fairly close to John. From my perspective that is just terminology. The false methodological assumption about time of composition and the arising of the doctrine (or if you prefer, the version of the doctrine) is the same.

    4. And they certainly have to be claiming that someone invented the *scenes* and the specific *sayings* of Jesus to reflect the more developed version of the doctrine.

      Yet we find the gospel authors often recording Jesus' discussion of doctrines that they did not understand at the time--the parable of the prodigal son and its relation to the Gentiles, for example.

      Inferring the development of doctrine from words attributed to Christ is a question-begging enterprise when it comes to the accuracy of the gospels.


      I agree that critics of the deity of Christ sometimes take that sort of approach. That's why I referred to a variety of potential scenarios in my post above (Christians "had just learned about" the deity of Jesus, it was a "new" concept, it existed as an "unpopular" position).