05 / 06
birds birds birds

Craig Evans vs. Bart Ehrman

August 24, 2014     Time: 22:34
Craig Evans vs. Bart Ehrman


Dr. Craig offers perspective on an article discussing a major flaw in Ehrman's criticism of the Bible

Transcript Craig Evans vs. Bart Ehrman


Kevin Harris: In the studio with Dr. William Lane Craig for the Reasonable Faith podcast. I’m Kevin Harris. I’ve got an article here from Craig A. Evans. Tell us a little bit about Dr. Evans.

Dr. Craig: Craig Evans is one of the premier historical Jesus scholars today. He is Canadian. He teaches at Acadia University, which is over there in Nova Scotia in Canada, where they have flipper pie and things like that to eat! [laughter] But Craig is doing fantastic work that is just universally respected. He is a really top of the line historical Jesus scholar. I always learn from him and have appreciated so much what he has written.

Kevin Harris: This article is called “Fundamentalist Arguments Against Fundamentalism.”[1] When I first saw the title I thought, “Oh boy, what skeptic is writing this?” But it is from Dr. Evans, and he says starting out, “The all-or-nothing approach to the Bible used by skeptics and fundamentalists alike is flawed.”

Dr. Craig: Right. Now that key sentence is important for understanding his article. He is saying that the fundamentalist arguments against fundamentalism are arguments offered by these fundamentalist skeptics against fundamentalist believers. He characterizes this as an “all-or-nothing approach to the Bible.” Either you can demonstrate that it is all reliable or nothing is reliable. This all-or-nothing approach really is, I must say, a kind of common assumption by ultra-conservative Christians on the one hand and ultra-rabid New Atheists on the other. Neither one seems to have an appreciation that the task of Christian apologetics can be carried out quite successfully just by showing that the Gospels, or the New Testament documents, are reliable in the key things that they say about Jesus’ radical personal self-understanding and the facts concerning the fate of Jesus – what ultimately happened to him. In order to show these facts to be historically credible it doesn’t involve showing every single detail or discrepancy in the New Testament documents to be historical.

Kevin Harris: Boy, you would really get bogged down doing that anyway, wouldn’t you? Making a modest claim using – what does Habermas call them? – a minimal-facts case is going to save you time and also do a lot more to moving a skeptic along or anybody who has questions.

Dr. Craig: That is exactly right. You wouldn’t get bogged down in questions about the number of angels at the tomb of Jesus, for example.

Kevin Harris: I thought you were going to say on the head of a pin!

Dr. Craig: No, no!

Kevin Harris: Minutia.

Dr. Craig: Exactly. There will be these core historical facts that I think can be established by historical scholarship without any presupposition as to the Bible’s inerrancy or even general reliability, frankly. These will be sufficient to ground belief in Jesus’ identity and in God’s confirmation of those radical personal claims for which he was crucified by his resurrection from the dead.

Kevin Harris: Would you make a quick distinction on what would be necessary for the apologetics and philosophical task and the theological issues?

Dr. Craig: When I defend Christianity, as you know, I am talking about what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity” – those central truths that are common to all of the great confessions of Christendom. Principally, I think the Christian faith rests on two separate pillars – one would be the existence of God and the other would be God’s decisive self-revelation in Jesus. If you can support those two facts – that God exists and has decisively revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth – I take it that you will have established the truth of Christianity. Then all the rest is an in-house debate working out the details – doctrines of election, and calling, and salvation, and the last things, and of the church, and doctrines of creation. These are all in-house debates among Christians.[2] But these central truths of mere Christianity I think are truths that we can establish through the arguments of natural theology that go to prove the existence of God, and then through Christian evidences which go to support God’s decisively revealing himself in Jesus.

Kevin Harris: Just as a sneak preview, we are going to start getting into Bart Ehrman here. Dr. Evans wants to talk about it. Bill, we can be misunderstood when we say “fundamentalism” because fundamentalism as a term has undergone change. It used to mean you would hold to the essentials or the fundamentals of the faith. Now it is starting to mean something totally different.

Dr. Craig: Yes, and in that sense I am unhappy with the terminology that Dr. Evans uses in this article. I think what he is attacking here is, as he says, this all-or-nothing approach that is common to both skeptics and then those who have a certain view of the nature of inspiration that would preclude any sort of freedom on the part of the authors of Scripture to paraphrase, to order events in different chronological order, and things of that sort.

Kevin Harris: OK, so here is what he says,

Biblical fundamentalists often interpret the scripture’s more poetic moments in a literal fashion — understanding, for instance, the Bible’s “historical” stories in the same way they think proper, modern history should be written. This is especially so in the case of the Gospels, those writings that narrate the activities and teachings of Jesus. Jesus spoke every word, performed every deed — and he did these things in the locations and sequences stated in the Gospels. Or at least this is what is assumed.

Dr. Craig: Yes. So you have, for example, red-letter editions of the New Testament where the words of Jesus are printed in red, as though we actually have the very words of Jesus like a tape recording. At one level we know that that is not true because the Gospels are written in Greek, and Jesus probably spoke Aramaic most of the time even if he was bilingual. So by the very nature of the case we are getting a different language. It would be as if a German were to report in German the substance of our conversation here today. So we don’t have the very words of Jesus in the Gospels except when the Gospels do sometimes quote Aramaic such as the words on the cross when Jesus says “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” The Gospels quote the original Aramaic. For the most part though it is in Greek so it is not as though we have a tape recording of what Jesus said. The Gospel writers can use paraphrase or summary to report to us the words that Jesus spoke, or the substance of it.

Kevin Harris: If you read the red-letter Bible, or at least the ones I had when I was a kid, they have Jesus saying John 3:16 – “Jesus said, ‘For God so loved the word.’” That may have been John’s commentary.

Dr. Craig: That is a very good example of where the distinction between direct discourse and indirect discourse gets really blurred. We are talking here about manuscripts where they didn’t even have the device of quotation marks. You don’t have quotation marks in the Greek. So sometimes it is very difficult to tell where the direct discourse ends and indirect discourse begins. In fact, Kevin, I found another example of this in the preface of the book of Acts. I’ve been starting to read Acts in the Greek in my devotions, and in the preface of the book of Acts Luke tells in the third person of how he has described in the Gospel everything Jesus began to do and teach and that while he was staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem but to wait for the promise of the Father. Then all of a sudden it says, “Which you heard from me, for John baptized with water but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Without warning it just switches from indirect discourse to direct discourse. There is no sort of device of quotation marks to indicate this. So you are quite right in saying that it can often be very ambiguous as to what words are even attributed to Jesus in the New Testament.

The point here, I think, getting back to Evans’ editorial, is that the assumption that every word we read in the New Testament attributed to Jesus was spoken by Jesus is just on the face of it not right.[3]

Kevin Harris: He says,

But there is a problem [with this “Jesus spoke every word, performed every deed — and he did these things in the locations and sequences stated in the Gospels”]. When the Gospels are placed side by side and carefully compared, differences emerge. One will notice variations in the wording of Jesus’ utterances, variations in the details of some of the stories, and sometimes variations in chronology and sequence. These differences can shake one’s confidence in the reliability and truthfulness of the Bible. The solution, fundamentalists believe, is to find ways of harmonizing the discrepancies. If harmonization is successful, then the fundamentalist view of the Bible remains viable — all is well. But what if harmonization doesn’t work?

Dr. Craig: It seems to me that at the very worst, if the harmonization doesn’t work, then you would say that that portion of the narrative isn’t historically correct. It is not historically credible. My point is that doesn’t undermine the historical value of the core historical facts that can be gleaned from these narratives. In other words, in order for the Gospels to be historically credible sources for the life of Jesus, they don’t need to be regarded as inerrant. You can admit that there are inconsistencies, irreconcilable differences, contradictions, and this won’t undermine the evidential task of showing those central facts about Jesus that would go to justify belief in God’s decisive self-revelation in Jesus.

Kevin Harris: Dr. Evans continues,

This is where New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman and several of his popular books of the last decade come in. From Misquoting Jesus to his new How Jesus Became God, he hammers away at the pat answers and simplistic harmonizations. Biblical fundamentalism, Ehrman contends, is simply wrong. Therefore, he reasons, the Bible really can’t be trusted.

Now, Dr. Evans says, “There is just one problem with this conclusion — it is flawed at its very core.”

Dr. Craig: And that is that all-or-nothing assumption that lies at the core of Ehrman’s belief. So if you can knock down this view that it is all reliable then nothing is reliable. I have found this assumption over and over again shared by skeptics and New Atheists. If there is any sort of error or discrepancy then the value of the document historically goes out the window. Of course that is utterly unrealistic. No historian treats his sources in this sort of all-or-nothing manner.

Kevin Harris: He says,

The problem is that, in his popular books, Ehrman is frequently guilty of the logical fallacy of the excluded middle, the idea that there are only two options — either we have every word of the original text or we do not; either we have harmonious accounts of the teaching and activities of Jesus or we don’t.

Dr. Craig: Now Dr. Evans charges that Bart Ehrman has committed a logical fallacy, namely, the fallacy of excluded middle or false dilemma. That is to say, Ehrman is presenting us with a false either-or choice that we don’t have to make. Unfortunately, the way Dr. Evans goes on to explain this isn’t correct. What he in fact states are instances of the law of excluded middle which is a logical truth that is necessarily true. The law of excluded middle says either A or not-A. And that is right. But what Ehrman assumes is either A or B – either the Gospels are completely and totally reliable or they are not reliable at all. Obviously, in between those two extremes there is a third alternative C – it is reliable on some things and unreliable on other things, and it may be quite a range of difference.

Kevin Harris: Ehrman wants to put one on the horns of the dilemma then?

Dr. Craig: Right.

Kevin Harris: And you can only split the horns of dilemma if there is a third horn.

Dr. Craig: Right. You split the horns of the dilemma by finding a third alternative.

Kevin Harris: He says, “Bart Ehrman is arguing like a fundamentalist. It is an all-or-nothing approach.”

Dr. Craig: What Evans is charging is that Ehrman thinks that Christianity stands or falls along with this very wooden interpretation of the text. That is what Evans is, I think, quite rightly challenging. As I’ve said, you don’t require a text that is even inerrant much less free of every apparent discrepancy in order to establish the central truths of Christianity.[4] So it is simply a false dichotomy to say Christianity stands or falls based upon this view of the text.

I take it from what Evans is saying is that he would say a view of the text of the Gospels according to which Jesus spoke every word, performed every deed in the locations and sequences in the Gospels would be a wooden view of the text. The authors of the Gospels have greater freedom in reporting the events and the sayings of Jesus than such a view would allow.

Kevin Harris: Dr. Evans gives an illustration of this. He says,

One of the first to comment on the Gospels was Papias of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Writing near the beginning of the second century, Papias says the author of the Gospel of Mark compiled chreiai (“useful, instructive anecdotes”) and wasn’t concerned with exact sequence and chronological order. The scholars and lecturers of this period of time instructed their pupils in the chreiai of the great thinkers, teaching them how to edit, contract, or expand the chreiai, and to give them new application, in order to make clear to new audiences the true meaning and significance of the wisdom of the great thinkers. Creative adaptation was expected. Remaining true to the original idea was essential.

Unpack that for us.

Dr. Craig: The claim here is that when you look at Papias, this very, very early church father, he didn’t have a wooden view of the text. He expected that words of Jesus would be paraphrased, that they would show their application to later situations, and it was essential to remain true to the original teaching that was given but it wasn’t expected to be a sort of verbatim tape recording of what was actually said.

Kevin Harris: That is very important because we think of it as that quite often – just a tape recording verbatim. But ancient writers can be trusted to get the gist of it and to be accurate as to its meaning.

Dr. Craig: Right. The Gospel writers could arrange the events in different chronological order without thinking that this was betraying the historicity of their account.

Kevin Harris: We don’t do that today. So that might be kind of strange.

Dr. Craig: Not typically unless, for example, in films you might have flashbacks where things are told out of order, but we understand it was a flashback.

Kevin Harris: Dr. Evans says,

This is what the writers of the New Testament Gospels did. Indeed, this is how Jesus taught his disciples when he said, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matt. 13:52). That is, the disciples of Jesus are to pull out new lessons and applications, as well as the old, from the treasure of teaching Jesus has given them. Why should anyone be surprised that the disciples and the evangelists who followed them did what Jesus instructed them to do? Each evangelist presented the life and teaching of Jesus in his own fashion, using creative ways that made it understandable and relevant to different cultures and settings. The numerous differences and discrepancies we see in the Gospels are the result of the writers doing what Jesus taught — and in many ways reflect the standards of history writing current in late antiquity.

Bill, “discrepancy” – using that word doesn’t necessarily mean error, does it?

Dr. Craig: No. I think that is the whole point he is making here. What counts as an error might be very different for an ancient historian than for a modern historian. He is suggesting that these ancient writers enjoyed a good deal of freedom in telling their stories that didn’t equate to there being mistakes.

Kevin Harris: Concluding here, he says,

At work in Ehrman’s books is an unrelenting attack directed against the fundamentalist understanding of the Bible. Ehrman is not attacking a straw man, for the object of his attacks does indeed exist. But his books address fundamentalist readings, not mainstream understandings of the Bible and the stories it tells. Christian scholars of every stripe believe that the biblical text, especially the Greek text of the New Testament, is well preserved, that the Gospels are accurate and tell us what Jesus really taught and did, and that the conviction that Jesus was in some sense divine is rooted in Jesus himself, in what he taught, and in the extraordinary things he did.

That is how he concludes his article.[5]

Dr. Craig: I would agree with Evans that based upon the texts found in the New Testament, we can historically recover what the Jesus of history believed and taught about himself, specifically that he was the Messiah prophesied of old, and that he was the Son of God in a unique sense that set him apart from other men, and that he was the Son of Man, the divine human figure prophesied by Daniel in the Old Testament. Moreover I would add to that that on the basis of these records we can show that Jesus was crucified, that he was buried in a tomb, that that tomb was found empty on the Sunday morning after his crucifixion, that thereafter individuals and groups experienced appearances of Jesus alive, and that the original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead. You can show those even while recognizing and admitting discrepancies in the narratives – the number of angels at the tomb, the names of the women who come to the tomb, the order of the resurrection appearances, the time of day at which the women left to visit the burial site. All of those discrepancies do nothing to undermine these central core historical facts which are well established historically. That is why this all-or-nothing approach is so, I think, misleading. An all-or-nothing approach that is presupposed by skeptic and ultra-conservative Christian alike, which says that Christianity stands or falls with the number of angels at the tomb or the time of day that the women set out to visit the tomb. That is simply not the case. In order to have a historically credible case for God’s self-revelation in Jesus, you don’t need to presuppose this wooden understanding of the text that Ehrman thinks you have to[6]