Sunday, October 27, 2019

Ehrman v. Williams rematch

I watched a recent debate between Bart Ehrman and Peter Williams:

1. I think Williams did very well. I agree with everything he said. 

There are always missed opportunities in debates like this, in part because the topics keep shifting so that it's impossible to develop a line of thought. Hence, the debater has to make snap judgments about what to discuss. Many worthwhile lines of thought are left out because there's only so much he can discuss within the time constraints. 

In addition, debaters play to their areas of strength, so there will be neglected lines of thought since that isn't their forte. Which is why the Christian side needs to be represented by debaters with a variety of skill sets. 

Although I watched the whole debate from start to finish, I'm going to focus on Ehrman's presentation. 

2. Modern readers below a certain age have grown up with televised news coverage. That puts the viewer in a position analogous to an eyewitness. 

i) When you watch a televised recording of an event, you are not only seeing what happened–you are seeing how it happened. You're like a firsthand observer at the scene. And, of course, the proliferation of cellphone cameras has made that experience even more ubiquitous. 

As such, saturation exposure to televised news coverage may condition or bias the modern reader when he studies biblical narratives. That's an artificial frame of reference to assess written accounts. Historical narratives, whether biblical or extrabiblical, tell you what happened rather than showing you how it happened. 

ii) Apropos (i), this means that when attempting tovisualize a historical account, the reader must mentally fill in the background details. All he's got is a verbal description. Compared to a televised recording, biblical accounts are very spare. 

3. Apropos (2), this means that when it comes to historical reconstruction, a reader must use his own imagination to fill out the picture. Of necessity, he is mentally adding details not contained in the account. That's hardly unique to Scripture. That holds true for historical writing generally.

To an unbeliever, Gospel harmonization smacks of special pleading. But the Gospel harmonist isn't doing anything unusual. He isn't switching from one mode of reading the text to another. When he endeavors to harmonize apparent discrepancies, he's using the same approach he uses when reading accounts with no apparent discrepancies. 

To a cynical unbeliever, this may appear ad hoc, but when we read historical narratives, and when we attempt to go from what happened to how it happened, every reader must postulate additional details not contained in the text. So there's nothing essentially sneaky or strained about what Christian readers are doing. That's a perfectly normal and necessary way to process historical narratives, whether or not they exhibit apparent (or real) discrepancies. Ehrman is very naive in that regard (among others). 

4. Ehrman cites the death of Judas as a showcase example. There are striking differences in how Matthew and Acts report this event. But even in that respect, it's equally striking that both accounts say the death of Judas occurred at the same place (the "Field of Blood"). If, however, these are independent legends, then how do you explain that parallel? It only makes sense if both accounts have a common source in a common event. Judas did indeed die at that location. 

5. Ehrman makes a big deal about Judas falling "headlong" (in Acts). I think the point Ehrman is driving at is that, from Ehrman's perspective, if Judas hanged himself, his feet would point to the ground, so that if for some reason he fell, he'd maintain the same position on the way down. If he fell feetfirst, the body would land feetfirst rather than headfirst. 

But if that's what Ehrman has in mind, notice that both sides are attempting to visualize the logistics of the two accounts. Ehrman, no less than Williams, is postulating conjectural background details to create a mental picture of what the description implies or rules out. 

6. Suppose Judas hanged himself on the branch of a tree on the ridge of a hill. There's nothing unrealistic about that scenario. 

Suppose, in addition, Judas didn't simply fall from the tree. Suppose the rope didn't break from the weight. Rather, what if the body was pulled down. 

By what, you ask? What about scavenger dogs? It's not unrealistic to posit scavenger dogs. We know they exist. Packs of dogs on the prowl for carrion. That happens. 

If the dogs got on their hind legs, perhaps supported by the tree trunk or the corpse, grabbed the corpse by the armpit, and kept tugging, and if that dislodged the corpse, the corpse wouldn't just fall down but fall over. It wouldn't fall feetfirst but headfirst. For the very act of pulling it down would reposition the corpse. 

(Incidentally, I once saw a nature show in which photographers hung meat from a branch to photograph the reaction of lions. The lions were very persistent in attempting to pull the meat down.) 

The only remaining question is if it falls headfirst, does it land headfirst? I'm no expert, but when we watch swimmers highdive (10 meters), they dive headfirst and land headfirst. Their body doesn't change position in mid-fall. 

From what I can tell, there's nothing unrealistic about my harmonization. These are things that naturally happen.

Sure, my reconstruction is speculative, but that's true for historical reconstructions in general. Ehrman's objection requires conjectural details to fill in the mental picture. To have a complete mental image of what the description implies or rules out, the reader must do that. And that's germane to so many of Ehrman's list of "contradictions. 

7. Some other scenarios:

i) Suppose you have a corpse that falls from a hilltop. The slope of a hill means that it's narrower on top but spreads out further down. Depending on the slope, a body could tumble down a hill. It's in one position when it begins the descent, but rolls over and over, picking up speed on the way down. It's in a different position when it reaches bottom.

ii) Or a corpse might begin the descent feetfirst in freefall for several yards, then strike the side of the hill one or more times. Bouncing off the hillside repositions the body. 

There's nothing ingenious about these explanations. They're realistic, commonplace scenarios. 

8. One problem with how he dismisses corroborative evidence Williams marshals for the historical accuracy of the Gospels is that Ehrman has backed himself into a position that he can't credit the historicity of the Gospels even if they are historically accurate. As Williams pointed out:

In order get the story wrong you'd have to have a different mechanism of information–so it's like they've gone to the effort of doing research to get all the context right and then you're going to say they were casual about the stories; and for that you need to have some sort of system of selective corruption of information that corrupts the most important stuff and leaves all the trivial stuff in place. 

9. Ehrman rattles off names like Milman Parry and Albert Lord to demonstrate that oral tradition undergoes creative change. 

i) But a problem with his comparison is that scholars like Milman Parry, Albert Lord, and John Miles Foley were examining the role of creative change in epic poetry. Yet the fact that epic poetry may undergo significant change in the process of transmission from one bard to another is not directly comparable to historical narratives. He's drawing fallacious extrapolations from one genre to a very different kind of genre. 

ii) In addition, it's demonstrably false that oral tradition can't preserve factual information intact:

10. Ehrman posits that the sources for the Gospels passed by word-of-mouth through many links before the authors wrote down the latest oral traditions. But there's no presumption that that's the case.

If, however, traditional authorship is correct–and Williams provides some direct evidence as well as alluding to other evidence–then Matthew and John were eyewitnesses. For that matter, Mark was probably an eyewitness. He's a younger contemporary of Jesus living in Jerusalem at the time of Christ's public ministry.  

Moreover, there's no presumption that Luke's sources involve a chain of transmission. He could easily interview eyewitnesses to the life of Christ. Many were still alive at the time he conducted his investigations. So there's no justification to stipulate a series of intervening links. The same holds true if Matthew, Mark, or John supplement their firsthand observation with testimony from other informants. The same holds true even if Matthew, Mark, and John weren't eyewitnesses. 

11. Evidence for harmonization. That's not an evidentiary question but a logical question. It doesn't require any evidence to demonstrate how two accounts are possibly consistent. 

12. Ehrman said:

What would it take, if you're already committed to the idea that there can't be any mistakes, then how would you be open to the idea that there might be a mistake. It's doing theology, it's not doing history. History isn't done by coming at it with a theological presupposition about what had to happen. You look at the evidence. You don't approach it by saying this has to be right. If you're going to do proper history you can't allow your presuppositions about God to affect the outcome. You're saying Christian history isn't the same as history. If you go to a history department there are criteria. 

i) One problem is Ehrman's fallacious argument from authority. But that's just an observation about the sociology of history departments as secular universities. 

ii) We all evaluate historical claims based on our plausibility structures. We come to historical claims with views about what we think the world is like. What's possible or impossible, realistic or unrealistic. What's antecedently probable or improbable. 

Ironically, that's exactly what Ehrman is doing with his methodological atheism. He isn't confining himself to the raw evidence. To the contrary, he takes a position, in advance of the fact, that any divine explanation must be disallowed. He takes that position before he sees the evidence. So even if divine agency is a direct factor in some outcomes, Ehrman is always committed to a naturalist explanation regardless of whether that's the right explanation. He's saying the only proper historical explanations must be naturalistic explanations–even if that explanation is wrong. 

iii) There's an interplay between evidence and plausibility structures. Up to a point, your plausibility structure ought to be revisable in light of evidence. Keep in mind, though, that there's an asymmetrical relationship between naturalism and supernaturalism in that respect. If your naturalistic plausibility structure is based on lack of perceived evidence for God, providence, or miracles, then it only take some positive evidence to the contrary to falsify your plausibility structure.  

It's much harder to come up with what would even count as conclusive evidence for God's nonexistence. Even if (ex hypothesi) God is generally inevident, it only takes a few good examples to disprove a universal negative. 


  1. My quick thoughts having watched the video a few days ago...
    Ehrman's objections based on oral tradition begs the question that the oral sayings recorded in the Gospels are from oral traditions far removed from the events rather than oral history which are closer and based on living eyewitnesses (as Steve pointed out).

    Ehrman makes the leap that the Gospels are necessarily inaccurate or unreliable merely because [ex hypothesi] they were written in a fanciful way to make theological points. But the literary devices that Mike Licona believes are used in the Gospels don't necessarily entail that the stories are made up wholecloth. My views are somewhere in between Licona's and Lydia McGrew's.

    Ehrman does a similar thing in postulating possible massive corruptions in the texts of the NT in between the time they were first written and the time of our earliest extant copies and fragments. Despite no evidence for massive corruptions. The fact that we can identify and document few major interpolations like the Pericope Adulterae, Comma Johanneum, the longer ending of Mark, and The Word of Forgiveness [Luke 23:34] suggests there aren't major corruptions, interpolations and conspiratorial changes. Otherwise they would be detected in the same ways as those few just listed.

    I think when dealing with Bible contradictions with non-believers it's a good idea to challenge them to give their VERY BEST examples [say, top 3, 5 or 10]. Then ask them hypothetically that if you were able to show that their very best examples aren't necessarily contradictions, whether they would be willing to grant the possibly that there are no real contradictions in the Bible. Many skeptics will be unwilling to give such a list because it would endanger their hope to continue justifying their persistent unbelief. Also, because it would reveal their superficial knowledge of the Bible and the possibility they are dismissing the Bible too casually because of their bias of not wanting the Bible to be true and its obligations to be binding on them. Additionally, get them to admit in advance that it's logically possible that the Scriptures are generally reliable and that Christianity could still be true EVEN IF there were minor errors in Scripture. Since even ordinary communication doesn't require inerrancy to get the general message across. If you can get them to admit all that, it would undermine much of their objections to the Bible and Christianity.

    Williams' explanation of Judas' death seems quite plausible, yet Ehrman either doesn't understand it or just dismisses it. The idea is that Judas may have been overhanging a cliff and when his body fell his feet struck some rock which caused him to tilt forward so that as he fell further forward and downward his head and torso struck the rocks which lead to his already decaying and bloated body to burst open. It might be objected that no one would have been present at the right moment to observe that that's what happened. But that chain of events can be reasonably inferred by the position of the body.

    Having said that, I prefer the possibility that I came up with and later found out other apologists also have considered. Matthew was writing to a primarily Jewish audience who knew their Tanakh very well. Matthew might have said that Judas hanged himself figuratively [i.e. committed some form of suicide] after betraying Christ just as Ahithophel hanged himself after betraying David [the greatest type of the Messiah]. See the videos I linked to HERE


    1. Regarding the the "I Am" sayings missing from the Synoptics, I've written a blogpost on the topic HERE.

      I'll post an excerpt below:

      //...The issue is one example of the more general question of why the Synoptics are so similiar to each other but very different from the Gospel of John (GJohn).

      Another possible reason for the differences is that the Synoptics often record the statements that Jesus made publicly in crowds in Galilee, while some of the unique sayings of Jesus in GJohn were spoken in private or more intimate settings. Often in Jerusalem (rather than Galilee) which would have a greater number of Jewish leaders, rabbis and scribes who would understand the theological innuendos and hintings of Jesus which the less learned masses would not get/understand in rural Galilee. In GJohn Jesus would seem to intentionally make statements which are sufficiently vague that His hearers couldn't pin Him with what they would rightly regard as blasphemy were Jesus merely a man as they thought. Yet, at the same time those statements would be sufficiently clear that one could infer a possible claim to full deity. See for example my understanding of John chapter 10 and my quotation of Daniel Waterland HERE.

      While Jesus was willing to make such shocking statements, the Synoptics may have intentionally left such statements out in order to not offend possible Jewish readers and so immediately cause them to dismiss Christian claims about Jesus. By the time GJohn was written, the majority of Christians were Gentiles and therefore it was safer for the author to recount and record the more scandalous statements of Jesus where He (upon further theological reflection made more evident to the contributors of GJohn) intimated and hinted at His own self knowledge of His divinity [e.g. "I Am" sayings].

      Another reason why there would be some differences between the Synoptics and GJohn is that the latter was likely written by a direct disciple of Jesus (possibly the Apostle John son of Zebedeee). Whereas of the three Synoptics only Matthew might have been written by a direct disciple. Luke was not a direct disciple of Jesus. Mark may or may not have been, but Peter from whose recollections and sermons Mark allegedly [per tradition] wrote his Gospel was a disciple of Christ. Both Peter and John (of Zebedee) were both fishermen, and therefore not trained to be rabbis. In which case, Peter may not have recognized the theologically pregnant statements of Jesus in his recollections which were written down early in the history of the church. Whereas John had decades to reflect on Jesus' statements which he could later recognize as having implicit claims to deity.//

    2. typo corrections:
      //grant the possibly [possibility]//

      //Matthew might have said that Judas hanged himself figuratively [i.e. committed some form of suicide] after betraying Christ just as Ahithophel hanged himself [[literally]] after betraying David [the greatest type of the Messiah].//

    3. In summary, what possible reasons might explain why there are fewer (not none) "I AM/Am/am" sayings in the Synoptics than in GJohn if they were actually spoken by Jesus?

      With GMark (assuming its priority), Mark may not have been a disciple of Jesus. If he was, as I understand it, it would have been in the latter part of Christ's ministry and he likely wasn't among Jesus' inner circle. Nor with Jesus on a daily basis. Remember, he was young at the time, and youths are usually less zealous in their religiosity. Though he might have cryptically referenced himself as the youth who ran away naked in Mark 14:51-52. So, Mark wouldn't be in a position to remember the "I Am" sayings. GMark was likely based on Peter's sermons and recollections, but we have to remember that Peter was a man of action, not necessarily a man of deep philosophizing and theologizing thought. Peter's personality as a man of action shines through as he highlights Jesus' own personality when he repeatedly writes "immediately" or "forthwith" or "straightway" Jesus did this or Jesus did that. Also, [likely] being the first canonical Gospel, much time hadn't elapsed in which Peter (and his community) could contemplate the deeper meaning and implications of Jesus' "I Am" statements. Though, Mark does record two instances that are pregnant with implications of divine self-awareness. 1. When Jesus was walking on water reminiscent of an Old Testment theophany (Mark 6:50). 2. At Jesus' trial when Jesus applies to Himself the combination of Dan. 7:13-14 with Ps. 110:1 [Mark 14:62].
      [see HERE for why Dan. 7:13-14 teaches a divine "Son of Man"]

      With GMatt, assuming it really was written by Matthew/Levi, one would think he would include the "I Am" sayings. Since, being a levite, he might have some special training in Judaism slightly above the average Israelite. Even if he was never really religiously studious or pious in his youth. However, as noted above, he wrote his Gospel with his fellow Jews [evangelistically] in mind and it would have likely been too shocking for unconverted Jews for Matthew to include too many "I am" sayings. Jews might have quickly dismissed the Gospel as blasphemous, otherwise. Though, Matthew does have one in Matt. 14:27. It's the same incident also recorded in Mark 6:50 and John 6:20. All three passages in each of the three Gospels have a seemingly theophanic context.

      With GLuke, Luke wasn't a disciple of Christ, so he couldn't have remembered the sayings. His sources might have remembered, but Luke [likely a Gentile writing primarily for Gentiles] may not have recognized the divine implications of the "I Am" sayings and so might have excluded them. Or recognizing them himself, excluded them because his Gentile readers wouldn't have picked up on them. Excluded them especially since he had so much to record that he had to be very selective. GLuke of course being the longest canonical Gospel written. Like GMatt, GLuke's ending is clearly rushed/clipped/succinct because he was running out of space for the type and size of scroll he was looking to have his Gospel copied onto for mass distribution.


    4. With GJohn, it was likely written by John son of Zebedee. Though some modern scholars speculate some other John or possibly even Lazarus wrote it. Assuming it was by Zebedee's son, it's true he was a "simple" fisherman like Peter. But he apparently was more contemplative than Peter and (as noted above) had many more decades to recall and reflect upon Jesus' sayings and recognize in them divine self-identification. GJohn being likely written in the 90s CE. The Ehrman's of the world like to emphasize the clear divine claims of Jesus in the "I Am" statements, but when we look at them, they are both clear and vague at the same time. Clear enough for us readers to see (partly) because of how they are recorded in the Gospel. Yet, if we were among the original audience, vague enough for us not to be absolutely sure what Jesus was saying or claiming. Even in GJohn Jesus doesn't go around shouting on the rooftops "I Am God!". The same [or similar] type of cryptic and enigmatic methods of speech Jesus is recorded to have used in the Synoptics on other topics is used of Jesus in GJohn regarding His divine identity.

      Also, by the end of the 1st century, Jews in the empire would have known of the destruction of the temple. They would have known that something dramatic had occurred in their relationship with YHVH. That God may have been displeased with them or some how distanced Himself from them for some reason. The older generation of Jews would have already made up their mind to either follow or reject Jesus, while the younger generation of Jews wouldn't have been so sensitive to the "I Am" sayings. So, John wouldn't be in the situation that Matthew was in during the early fledgling Jesus Movement. Where he had to tiptoe around Jewish theological sensibilities. By the late 1st century the vast majority of the church was now Gentile and John was the last Apostle. Now was the time for him to disclose and record for posterity any deeper and more revealing teachings of Jesus beyond what was sufficient for evangelism and basic discipleship. Mark and Matthew were likely written when the church still had the hope that Christ's return might be in their lifetime. Whereas Luke had an inkling (Luke 19:11ff.), John started to strongly suspect that in all likelihood the Lord's return wouldn't be any time soon.

    5. "But the literary devices that Mike Licona believes are used in the Gospels don't necessarily entail that the stories are made up wholecloth. My views are somewhere in between Licona's and Lydia McGrew's."

      Sorry to hear that. :-)

      Come further over to the dark side. We have cookies. And no Gospel authors making stuff up.

    6. If you baked cookies like you do apologetics, then I'd definitely like to try them. Maybe even steal the recipe and sell it to Mrs. Fields for big bucks.

      If you, Mike and Steve were the points of a triangle, my position on inerrancy would be somewhere in the middle.

    7. Depends what kind of a triangle you have in mind (one can’t assume equilateral or isosceles) and who’s at each point! :)

    8. Perhaps one should assume it’s a “right” triangle, but who’s right? ;)

    9. Get T-MOM and see if you're still in the middle after you read it.

      Of course it also depends on what one means by the space. Is this supposed to be a position on what counts as inerrancy? A position on whether there are errors? A position on whether the Gospel authors ever deliberately invisibly changed historical facts? I'm most concerned to convince people that the answer to the last of these is "no."

    10. I intentionally didn't mention the type of triangle because there are many factors involved. My views would be analogous to many different types of paper triangles, representing different aspects of the issue, skewered like barbecue at different "centers" or even points [e.g. I side with Steve's Calvinistic triangle point]. If talking about only one triangle, then generally my view is somewhere in the "center".

      //A position on whether the Gospel authors ever deliberately invisibly changed historical facts?//

      Lydia, I'm nobody, you really shouldn't be wasting your time reading/responding to my comments. But, if you'd like to answer the following questions, you're free to. Though, if I were just to read more of your materials I'm sure I won't have to ask these questions.

      As someone who doesn't positively hold to inerrancy, what difference does it make to you whether the error is due to an unintentional mistake or a deliberate change based on [alleged] compositional devices if in both instances the general drift of the story is true? Why should it matter?

      For myself, the outcome/product of Scripture is more important to me because it's supposed to be inspired by God. I want inerrancy to be true and I hold to it by faith, though I don't think the truth of Christianity hangs on the truth of inerrancy. I think it's logically possible, even if implausible for theological and Biblical grounds, for God to have inspired a fallible Bible. So, I want to affirm and defend inerrancy as much as possible, while at the same time insisting that it's not necessary for Christianity to be true in order to remove obstacles in the way that keep non-Christians from converting, as well as to prevent apostasies.

      For example, I'm satisfied by the fact that the Hebrew word for firmament in Genesis 1 need not necessarily imply a solid dome. Or that the word "protos" in Luke 2:2 can mean either "first" or "before". In both instances, the ambiguity of the word can relieve the Scriptures of an error even if [ad arguendo] the original author meant it in a way that would create an error. So, the end product of Scripture is more important to me than the intention of the authors.

      Another example, I tend toward a two minds view of Christ. In Christ's divine mind He knew the planet was round, but I'm fine with the possibility that His human mind might have believed the earth was flat. [Though, that need not be the case since ~500 years earlier Eratosthenes had discovered it's a sphere]. If the Lord [or any Biblical writer] had erroneous beliefs that were reflected in any of their statements recorded in Scripture but it didn't technically amount to an error in Scripture, I'd be pleased. The integrity of Scripture, for me, trumps authorial intent. As important as the latter is as well. Conversely, authorial intent can also be appealed to in order to defend inerrancy.

      It seems odd to me that you are concerned to convince people that the Gospel authors never deliberately invisibly changed historical facts when, given Mike's thesis, the authors didn't think they were lying and rightly expected their intended 1st century readers to understand and expect such license when relaying a story. Might you not be falling into the erroneous literary and historical expectations of modern skeptics? Again, I probably just need to read more of your materials.

      BTW, I do think Mike is too hesitant/reluctant to do harmonizations, and too readily willing to use compositional devices that involve fudging the details to explain apparent contradictions/errors.

    11. Yep, you totally need to read more. Do get the book. But here are some things I've written elsewhere, including on this very site: Here is a comment I wrote in response to this very question:

      It's amazing to me that anyone would think that a prior commitment to inerrancy is the only possible "beef" one could have with these literary device views.

      There are two different ways to see why this is not so. First of all, there is the question of what is at stake. As Steve says, my position is that from an epistemic point of view good faith errors on the part of honest witnesses are far less damaging to reliability than deliberate changes. In a court of law, a witness who made a minor good-faith error and admitted it would be a far more trustworthy witness overall than one who shrugged his shoulders and said, "Yeah, I changed that to make a better story." The latter would not be infallible anyway, so he might *also* make ordinary errors, so you have just introduced an *additional* source of unreliability. But also, the invisible changing of stories is not subject to control except his own subjective idea of what will make a better story or advance his agenda, whereas we have a better idea of how often well-informed, habitually honest witnesses make minor good-faith errors.

      Second, it is a sheer matter of evidence and truth. I have *examined the evidence*, and I think there is *no good reason to believe* that the Gospel authors *did* make these types of changes. It is kind of astonishing to me that no one thinks one could examine the evidence for these literary device claims and just find it wanting and think it important to make that known. Can we have only a priori objections? What about the sheer question of whether it's *true* that the Gospel authors engaged in such changes? I have argued at length that the evidence even for the *existence* of such literary devices in the surrounding culture is wanting, that the additional evidence that the Gospel authors did so is wanting, and that there is counterevidence that they would not have deliberately made such changes. The rejection of harmonization in many cases is itself far more strained than traditional harmonizations themselves. (For example, the extreme negative evaluation of two Temple cleansings is unwarranted--a point in which I agree with D. A. Carson, Craig Blomberg, and St. Augustine.)

      And here is a post I wrote on this subject:

      Please do recall that these alleged devices were invisible even to the original audience in the document. So the entire document had to be taken with several grains of salt. There was no tag in the text whereby even the original audience would be able to distinguish truth from non-factual invention. Licona has been repeatedly explicit on this.

    12. Thanks for the response. I also just read your blog, "What if the Gospels are bio-pics?". I'll have to think about that for a while.

    13. Licona's method, however much he might deny it, casts doubt on everything but the very highest-level generalizations in the Gospels that are asserted in multiple documents. Pretty much anything that anyone would call a "detail" is fair game for "could be changed, for all we know." And even whole incidents as well. Licona and Keener think that Matthew made up an entire healing of the blind. Licona thinks John may have made up the dialogue between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Licona considers very plausible that John invented the entire Doubting Thomas sequence, and then he only sets it narrowly aside in favor of the idea that Luke deliberately conflated two scenes instead.

      These theories are so widespread and so highly conjectural that *if they were true* and *if the Gospels really were documents of this type*, then the mere fact that the audiences were "okay with" their being documents of that type doesn't make the slightest difference to recovering reliability. They simply would not be reliable documents. I'm okay with historical fiction too. I love it. I read it all the time. But I don't, and couldn't, commit my life to someone based upon it! This idea that all is well and it's no big deal as long as the audience didn't mind is just deeply, deeply confused.

      There is nothing inherently limited and modest about the genre theory being applied here. Nothing that limits it to trivialities. Nothing that limits it only to a few places. Nothing that limits it only to the things the theorists happen to have dreamt up so far. (In fact, they don't even all dream up the same things!) And certainly nothing that gives us, or gave the original audience, any rational, objective, intelligible way to distinguish fact from non-fact.

      If you are relying upon the Gospels to tell you what Jesus did and said, in history, for all kinds of purposes, then you need to know that you can't rely on them in that way if these theories are correct. Their proponents won't admit that, but that is what it would come to *if* their theories were true. So it's worth your while to find out if their theories are true, and not simply if you're a pre-committed inerrantist.

    14. //These theories are so widespread and so highly conjectural that *if they were true* and *if the Gospels really were documents of this type*, then the mere fact that the audiences were "okay with" their being documents of that type doesn't make the slightest difference to recovering reliability.//

      Setting aside whether they were actually used, I'm not so sure that appealing to these compositional devices themselves would undermine reliability, rather than their overuse.

      I've always been curious whether your method of apologetics and epistemology would allow a literate or illiterate medieval person without modern historical methods to be rationally warranted in believing the Gospels, its message and trusting in Christ for salvation [assuming he doesn't experience any miracles]. And what roll the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit plays in your understanding of conversion. As I see it recognizable/identifiable Gospel reliability is a desideratum [something desirable] I wholeheartedly welcome, but it's not absolutely necessary [not sure if the Latin for that would be a "necessitatem"]. I'll have to do some more searches on your blog.

    15. Here's the thing: We don't have some kind of contract signed by the evangelists: "Some things may be changed for literary reasons, but not more than x of them, and they are all trivial, so don't worry."

      In fact given the nature of the alleged devices, it is arbitrary to limit them in such a way. "Overuse" just ends up meaning "use that a given person feels uncomfortable with." The nature of the alleged devices themselves lends itself to what anyone concerned about reliability should call "overuse."

      There is this odd idea that we can just do a kind of smorgasbord thing: An undesigned coincidence here (in which we take the details to be plausibly historical), a non-factual redaction over there, a fact-changing fictional device over here. But we just sort of *decide* not to use the latter "too often," not to "overuse" them beyond what we think would undermine reliability.

      There is nothing methodologically principled about that. It has no empirical or evidential rationale.

      I'm not sure why the question about whether an illiterate medieval person would be justified is coming in here. "Modern historical methods," at least as that phrase is usually used, are not something I'm advocating, that's for sure. It's my opponents who are being anachronistic, as I see it and as I argue. An illiterate person who hears the Gospels read can notice all kinds of internal evidences of verisimilitude. He may be better at doing so than a hyper-literary critic who obscures such evidences with his redactive theories.

    16. //Get T-MOM and see if you're still in the middle after you read it.//

      I'm excited to do so. BTW, I suspect that like many others I would have preferred you dialogued with Mike a few weeks ago instead of Richard Howe.

    17. I appreciate that vote of confidence. As I know you already know, the dialogue would not have taken place if I had been the other interlocutor. Mike has refused to dialogue with me in multiple venues--the Unbelievable show, the pages of Philosophia Christi, or indeed *in general* when Tom Gilson urged him to do so. I have been told by an eyewitness that Mike stood around after that dialogue with Richard Howe, speaking to a group largely composed of his supporters but in a public location, and spoke at large about my alleged lack of qualifications even to address these issues. This does not bode well for the probability that he will respond carefully (or at all)to the arguments in TMOM, despite the fact that part of his previous objection was to the fact that I had published my criticisms on the Internet. But evidently a book form will not make any difference, because I am (in his view) completely unqualified even to speak to the issues.

      So people will have to decide for themselves without further direct interaction on Mike's part with the arguments. I did (as you saw Steve link on here) post about the very strange moment when Mike tried to co-opt Norm Geisler (of all people!) as allegedly agreeing with him about a fact-changing literary device. This remarkable piece of exegesis was achieved by ignoring the achronological/dyschronological distinction.

      I will be at Defend 2020 and will be presenting there at a breakout session on these topics. Of course, the book is more thorough than a breakout session can be, but it will boil down some matters and present them in briefer form.

    18. I was surprised he mentioned you at all in the dialogue since I've gotten the impression in the past that he's trying to avoid dealing with your criticisms. I too was surprised of his use of Geisler. Like you said he wasn't even careful enough to preface his use with an acknowledgement of the possibility that he's misinterpreting Geisler. It's almost as if someone else found the quote, gave it to him and he didn't bother to get a copy of the book and read the context.

      Also, I've heard rumors that Geisler sometimes had his students write large portions of his books and I figured that maybe the quote slipped by Norman's proofreading. That was my first thought. But your achronological/dyschronological distinction makes much more sense.

    19. As I understand his current approach, he's not averse to mentioning me, but he will do so only in a drive-by way. He'll mention me to say I'm not qualified or to say I'm a flat-footed literalist or something of that kind. And in this case I think the intention was also to "out" me with that particular audience as not being an inerrantist. I've certainly not hidden it, but at this point I think Licona and his followers are more or less implying that if *anyone* in *any* context hasn't happened to hear the news that I'm not an inerrantist, then I must be concealing it. I was joking recently that maybe I should create a big scarlet letter (E, perhaps?) and wear it on all occasions so that Kurt Jaros and others will not go around implying that I'm hiding something. I think there is some frustration there with the fact that Defending Inerrancy and the Norm Geisler ministry, also Phil Fernandes who is a really strong traditional inerrantist, have been promoting my work. There was a table at the SES there, manned by people from that "wing," where they were handing out physical copies (all prettied up) of my review of Licona's book published in J. W. Montgomery's Global Journal of Classic Theology. (With Montgomery's permission, of course.) I think Licona is kind of astonished that I'm making that connection; it was more expected that I was going to be shunned there for being too liberal, shunned on the moderate evangelical side for being too conservative, and left with no allies of any kind at all. But actually if Norm Geisler had lived just a little longer it's highly probable that he would have endorsed TMOM, though he was informed very explicitly that I am not an inerrantist.

      So Mike will mention me briefly, but he's really determined to do it in a way that dismisses me without taking seriously the idea that I might have a point anywhere. That will work with some people. I know that. But with others it may actually backfire. People will get tired of the ad hominems, the credentialism, and the use of labels rather than arguments. After all, what does it really do for the argument to call my position about Matthew and the centurion "flat-footed literalism"? Licona *himself* thinks that Matthew portrayed the centurion as coming personally to Jesus! So his position as far as what Matthew is trying to portray is exactly the same as mine! The difference between us is that I think in that case Matthew *believed* that the centurion came personally to Jesus rather than trying to portray something that was not true. I cannot see how either of us is more of a "flat-footed literalist" than the other, and at least I'm not adding the extra epicycle that Matthew was trying to make things look to his readers in a way that was contrary to fact.

    20. Mike is often talking about what he is doing as an historian. "An historian" is his preferred self-designation, and the question he sometimes wants to ask is, if we set aside theological presuppositions how would we see these documents. So let's do that! If you had two witnesses in ordinary life, where you were investigating an historical situation, and they told the story of the centurion as Luke and Matthew did, perhaps both of them having gotten the story at one remove from someone else (Luke himself wouldn't have been an eyewitness, and Matthew's calling didn't occur probably until a little later) what would you conclude? Suppose that you concluded (as Mike and I are both inclined to think) that Matthew was portraying it as if the centurion came to Jesus. I submit that any police officer, lawyer, or ordinary person would conclude that Matthew really believed that and that he just didn't happen to hear about the servants. *Given* what Licona and I agree on (that it looks like Matthew is portraying the centurion as personally present), by far the simplest, commonsense explanation is that he just missed the memo that the centurion sent servants and carried out an exchange with Jesus indirectly. Why would we even think that he deliberately *made it look* that way, realistically, but *thought it was false*? That is unnecessarily complex, and one can say that *as an historian*, which is precisely what Mike says we're supposed to be trying to decide. What is historically probable? What should an historian think? We can even think of a very plausible scenarios where Matthew hears an eyewitness tell the story somewhat ambiguously with some details left out (where *that* person just *accidentally* gives Matthew a false impression) and writes it up in good faith as he understood it.

      There are two types of reasons why you would be averse to that: One is that you want to retain the *label* of "inerrancy" while changing the meaning, so you dub it "inerrant" for Matthew to give this utterly invisible false impression, on the grounds that he knew in the privacy of his own mind that he was doing it and on the grounds that the original readers wouldn't have minded if they were misled by the narrative (because they were thinking of it like a biopic). But that's a pretty hollow victory for the mere term "inerrancy," since the concept is quite different from traditional inerrancy. Phil Fernandes and I were discussing this at some length in the interview he did with me. The other type of reason is that you've got the idea that it's *cooler* to interpret things as deliberate changes with a heavy literary label on them than just to think of the common explanations that we find in daily life for such apparent discrepancies. If you put a label on it (like "transferral") and say that Matthew did it on purpose, that is supposed to appear deep and scholarly.

      But by that logic, there would be no reason to retain all the garden-variety discrepancies that we find in secular history either. This doesn't look literary. It looks like a garden-variety apparent discrepancy! So if we make this one into a literary device, then how do we retain our common sense in other cases rather than turning everything into a "literary device"? This is a point that J. Warner Wallace has made in interviews about his own work as a detective. It's not a good way to do historical investigation.

    21. //I was joking recently that maybe I should create a big scarlet letter (E, perhaps?) and wear it on all occasions so that Kurt Jaros and others will not go around implying that I'm hiding something.//

      Well, Halloween is tomorrow. That gives you less than 24 hours to find 17th century garb. OR find some of your old clothes to match the late 70s when the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy was drafted. Kidding of course.

      That Fernandes interview was great. Though, the audio could have been better.

      Regarding Matthew's version of the centurion story, I'm open (even lean toward) a literary device that's based on the Jewish shaliach principle. Writing primarily to Jews, Matthew could reasonably expect his fellow Jews to understand that a sent agent "is as himself". I think the principle is abused by Unitarians to exclude the concept that Jesus is also fully God as the Father is. But I think it's perfectly acceptable for Matthew to use the principle to condense and shorten his version of the story to save scroll space for the other things he wanted to record.

  2. Just a few quick comments on the debate:

    1. Judas' body may have become "bloated" at death. That's because death by asphyxiation is normally associated with congestion and edema (which in turn is due to obstructed venous blood return).

    Basically the picture is that the face, lips, and tongue become swollen. Likewise there's tissue swelling in the internal organs.

    All the more so in cases where the decedent is strangled to death such as in a ligature strangulation by hanging with rope. Contrary to popular conception, it's not common for the relevant neck bones or vertebrae to fracture in a suicide in this manner; hyoid bone fractures are more common in homicides.

    A bloated body might more easily shift position when falling.

    2. On the one hand, Ehrman argues the historian shouldn't presuppose whether or not Jesus is God. On the other hand, Ehrman (qua historian) presupposes Jesus is not God in the Synoptics but that Jesus "became" God in John.

    3. Ehrman claims he's attacking a "fundamentalist" view of the Bible where the Bible contains "no mistakes". Technically the debate is supposed to about the historical reliability of the Gospels, not inerrancy. Of course, inerrancy could be relevant, though Ehrman never connects the dots, but I bring it up to ask: why did Ehrman jettison his faith in Christianity and become an atheist when he could have found a mediating position, maintaining his faith, but denying a "fundamentalist" view of inerrancy? (Which he never defines.) Take Mike Licona. I strongly disagree with Licona, but Licona's position is better than entirely jettisoning one's faith like Ehrman has done.

    1. As I understand it, I think it was the problem of evil and suffering that lead to Ehrman's rejection of Christianity. Both 1. the problem we see in the world in light of God's alleged attributes, and 2. the problem of the disparate/differing and seemingly contradictory views in the Bible on why evil exists in the world, how the different Biblical authors propose differing theodicies to vindicate God and how we're supposed to deal with it.

    2. Plus the corpse cooking in the hot sunshine.

  3. If Judas hanged himself then at some point the body must have come down. And when it came down, it probably came down heavily rather than gently. Ehrman’s attempt to make an issue of this tells us everything we need to know about his agenda. No honest historian would start a debate about the precise way in which a body falls to the ground. Unfortunately, Ehrman has a track record in this area. He has become a professional debunker. By “professional”, I mean that he gets paid for doing it; not that he is any good at it.

    Like other debunkers, Ehrman does not have a remotely convincing alternative theory of Christian origins. He can’t tell us why the disciples believed that Jesus rose from the dead, for example. He can only offer vague and pointless speculations about “hallucinations”. His ideas about the exalted view of Jesus which arose at an early stage are equally unimpressive. Since Ehrman can’t actually explain anything, the only thing left for him to do is nit-pick.

  4. “Licona and Keener think that Matthew made up an entire healing of the blind. Licona thinks John may have made up the dialogue between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Licona considers very plausible that John invented the entire Doubting Thomas sequence, and then he only sets it narrowly aside in favor of the idea that Luke deliberately conflated two scenes instead.”

    This is even more shocking than Licona’s take on the resurrection of the bodies in Matthew 27.

    how can he (and Keener) claim to be conservative or believe in Inerrancy if he believes this?

    where does he actually say that ?
    Book and page # ?

    1. Yes, much more shocking. I have said for several years that the raising of the saints stuff is small potatoes by comparison with many other things Licona et. al. are saying.

      I do have one small correction to my earlier comment. In the case of the healing of the blind, Keener is confident of this whereas Licona raises it as one possibility in a "menu" of options and does not decide between them.

      Here are the references. For the Matthew reference and the blind men, Keener's commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, pp. 282, 306. There Keener also says that Matthew doubles the *number* of blind men involved as well. Keener repeats this implication though without spelling out clearly what he is saying in his latest book Christobiography, pp. 317-318.

      Licona suggests the theory that the healing of the blind in Matthew 8 may be a "doublet," duplicated deliberately in order to have Jesus' sign of healing the blind occur prior to the coming of the disciples of John the Baptist, on p. 135 of Why Are There Differences in the Gospels. He does not decide that this is the case but lists it as one option which, he believes, would constrain his options for explaining why there are two blind men in the story. (The explanation of *why* it would constrain those options is too convoluted to explain at length, but the short version is that if Matthew invented an extra blind man out of whole cloth in the healing in Matt. 20, Licona thinks he probably didn't invent a whole extra healing out of whole cloth in Matt. 8, but vice versa is also the case. If one thinks that he invented an extra healing in Matt. 8--a "doublet"--then that probably means he didn't invent the second blind man in Matt. 20. Keener, in contrast, thinks he did both simultaneously!)

      On the dialogue with Mary Magdalene, Licona says that either Matthew has deliberately "relocated" the appearance to Mary Magdalene--thus making it seem that she saw Jesus with the other women when in fact she saw him later, alone--or that John has "relocated" the appearance, thus making it appear that she saw him later, alone, when she actually saw him in the scene with the other women recounted in Matt. 28. This is, of course, quite a different interaction. Licona even emphasizes that this theory that one or the other (he does not say which) changed the setting of Jesus' first meeting with Mary Magdalene is fairly extensive, for he says, "This shows the extent to which at least one of the evangelists or the sources from which he drew felt free to craft the story," Why Are There Differences, p. 176.


    2. On to Doubting Thomas:

      Licona is concerned about the alleged contradiction in which Luke says that Jesus appeared to the 11 in his first appearance after his resurrection, whereas John says that on this occasion Thomas was absent. This does appear to be the same appearance. One harmonization, wh. Licona emphatically and definitely rejects (not even treating it as a "finalist") is that the phrase "the eleven" may have been a non-counting term referring loosely to a group including the majority of that band of closest disciples. (Paul uses the phrase "the twelve" in apparently just this way in 1 Cor. 15.)

      Licona instead considers only two finalist theories. Either John "crafted" the Doubting Thomas sequence "in order to rebuke those who, like Thomas, heard about Jesus’s resurrection and failed to believe" or else Luke "conflated" the first two appearances of Jesus, making it appear that Jesus only appeared one time to the eleven when in fact he appeared on two different occasions, one with and one without Thomas. Licona narrowly decides that the latter is probably the correct explanation, but he does so on the basis of what is, on his own terms, a poor argument. His only argument for it is that the non-counting use of "the eleven" seems implausible to him. But this is confused. It is that rejection of the non-counting use of "the eleven" that *sets up the alleged contradiction in the first place*. That does not tell us which of his two "finalist" theories is to be preferred. He repeats the dichotomy that "Either Luke conflated two appearances into one or John has crafted an appearance" in his chapter summary! He seems to prefer the "Luke conflated" theory. The pages here in Why Are There Differences are 177-178 and 182.

      These and many more documented in The Mirror or the Mask, which (as Steve has kindly posted) just became available today for pre-order

  5. Lydia,
    What is “T-MOM” ?

    I just purchased “hidden in plain view” and I am enjoying it I just started reading it .
    Thanks for your good work .

  6. Ah, sorry! T-MOM is "The Mirror or the Mask: Liberating the Gospels From Literary Devices." I coined the acronym T-MOM because it is pronounceable. Also because of the humorous resemblance to T-Rex. Here's the publisher's link for pre-order, which has a further link to the Amazon pre-order page:

    Be sure to check out the blurbs on the Amazon page. :-)

    1. Lydia,
      Thanks for taking time for all that - great stuff you have analyzed and uncovered!