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05 / 06

The Work of Bart Ehrman

William Lane Craig speaks at Gracepoint Church

Time : 01:05:55

William Lane Craig speaks at Gracepoint Berkeley Church on The Work of Bart Ehrman.

Transcript

The next topic that I was asked to address is the work of Bart Ehrman who is the chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and the best selling author with Oxford University Press in their retinue of various authors. Ehrman is an interesting person. I had a debate with him several years ago at Holy Cross College [1] and discovered in reading his autobiography that he and I have a remarkably similar background. We both came to Christ as teenage boys who were somewhat marginalized and had a passing acquaintance with the Christian faith but whose lives were turned upside down by receiving Jesus Christ as our personal savior when we were around 15 or 16 years of age. Eager to serve the Lord, we both attended the same college in Illinois – Wheaton College in the Chicago suburbs. We even took Greek under the same professor – Gerald Hawthorne. After graduation, we both went on to pursue doctoral studies.

But then our paths radically diverged. I received a fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation to study the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus under the direction of Wolfhart Pannenberg at the University of Munich and Cambridge University. And as a result of my studies, I became even more convinced of the historical credibility of Jesus’ resurrection. Now, of course, ever since my conversion, I believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead and I still think that this purely experiential approach to a knowledge of the resurrection is perfectly legitimate. But as a result of my studies, I came to find that there was a remarkably good, historical case that can be made for Jesus’ resurrection as well. So I was even more confirmed in my Christian faith as a result of my graduate studies.

Sadly, Dr. Ehrman came to radically different conclusions as a result of his studies at Princeton University. He pointedly describes how he came to doubt the doctrine of biblical inerrancy as a result of his studies and how this finally led him to abandon faith in Christ. Eventually, he became an agnostic, finally an atheist, and today he is an apostate Christian to all appearances and writes books against the Christian faith which are enormously destructive and which have proved very troubling to many Christians who read them and as a result are filled with doubts about their own Christian faith and experience.

So I was invited to share some thoughts about Bart Ehrman’s objections to Christianity which I am eager to do with you this morning.

First, I want to just say a brief word about Ehrman’s work on textual criticism of the New Testament. Bart Ehrman’s area of expertise is the text – the original Greek text – of the New Testament. He is a textual critic. Although he likes to posture himself in his books as a historian – an expert or scholar in life of Jesus research – in fact that is not his area of specialization or training. He is a textual critic who is someone who works with manuscripts to establish the original text of the autographs – or the original writings – of the New Testament. He studied with Bruce Metzger, the great textual critic at Princeton University, and took over from Metzger editing the Greek text of the New Testament. Unfortunately, Bart Ehrman has used his prestige as a text critic to give the impression to lay people that the text of the New Testament is terribly corrupted and uncertain. He wrote a book called Misquoting Jesus in which he gives the impression to lay people that we really don’t know what the original New Testament said because, as it has been copied over the years, so many thousands and thousands and thousands of variants have crept into the manuscripts that it is just uncertain what the original text read. [2]

Here what has happened, I think, is there are really two Bart Ehrmans that are on display. Dan Wallace, who is a textual scholar at Dallas Theological Seminary, likes to distinguish between what he calls the scholarly Bart Ehrman and the popular Bart Ehrman. The scholarly Bart Ehrman knows that the text of the New Testament has been established to 99% accuracy. That is to say, the original wording of the New Testament is now established to about 99%. So the degree of uncertainty of the text of the New Testament is only about 1%. There are about 138,000 Greek words in the New Testament. Of these, only about 1,400 are uncertain today. 99% are established with real certainty. Of that 1% that still remains uncertain, virtually uncertain, bad Bart deliberately misrepresents the situation to lay audiences to make them think that the New Testament is incredibly corrupted and uncertain. It is very interesting that when the bad Bart is pressed on this issue by someone he will come clean and admit this. For example, I heard Bart Ehrman interviewed on a radio show some time ago about Misquoting Jesus and the interviewer was talking to him about how uncertain the text of the New Testament is, all the thousands and thousands of variants that there are, and how uncertain it is, and finally the interviewer said to him, “Dr. Ehrman, what do you think the text of the New Testament originally really said?” And Ehrman replied, “I don’t understand what you mean. What are you talking about?” And the interviewer said, “The text of the New Testament – it has been so corrupted as it has been copied. What do you think the original text actually said?” And Ehrman said, “Well, it says pretty much what we have today – what it says now.” And the interviewer was utterly confused. He said, “I thought it was all corrupted” and Ehrman said “We’ve been able to reestablish the text of the New Testament as textual scholars.” So he knows and when pressed admits that the text of the New Testament is 99% established.

Now, let me just be very clear about this. That doesn’t prove that the text is true. This doesn’t prove that the text is historically accurate. It is just to say that we know what 99% of the original wording of these documents was. That is not the same as saying it is established with historical accuracy. Sometimes Christians make this mistake. It is just to say that we now know what 99% of the original words in the New Testament were and that 1% that is still somewhat uncertain are just utter trivialities on which nothing hangs. So don’t be troubled when you hear the bad Bart talking about the corruptions and the variants in the copies of the New Testament. The bottom line is that the text of the New Testament has now been established to about 99%.

That leads to the second point that I wanted to talk about and that is Bart Ehrman’s work on the historical Jesus. I want to talk first of all about what are called the criteria of authenticity. This is absolutely crucial because in order to establish what is historically provable about Jesus of Nazareth you need to have certain criteria that will tell you what can be established historically about Jesus. These criteria are crucial in historical study and therefore it is vitally important to state the criteria accurately and precisely. If you don’t get the criteria right, the conclusions you draw are going to be wrong. Therefore, it is very important to state the criteria accurately and precisely.

I must say I was very surprised when I read Dr. Ehrman’s writings on the historical Jesus and found the sloppiness with which he states and applies these criteria. [3] In every single case, Dr. Ehrman misformulates the criterion and then he goes on to misapply it. There is example after example after example of this which I will give. This is a consistent pattern in the way Bart Ehrman deals with the historical Jesus. First, he misstates the criterion and then he misapplies it. This is important because when I formulate my case for the resurrection of Jesus I do so with these criteria deliberately in mind. When I give those four facts on which the inference to the resurrection of Jesus is based – namely, the honorable burial of Jesus in the tomb, the discovery of his empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection – every one of these four facts is established by the very criteria that Bart Ehrman states and endorses. So even using his own criteria there is no basis for being skeptical about these fundamental facts with respect to Jesus’ resurrection. Let’s look in more detail at the criteria of authenticity as Bart Ehrman states them.

1. Independent attestation. Here is how he states the criterion of independent attestation:

An event mentioned in several independent documents is more likely to be historically accurate than an event mentioned in only one. (TC, 45)

This comes from his lectures on the historical Jesus with the Teaching Company. That is what TC stands for with the page number in his Teaching Company lectures on the historical Jesus.

What is the problem with this formulation of the criterion of independent attestation? Notice it makes the criterion a comparative measure between two different events. It says an event mentioned in several independent documents is more likely to be historically accurate than some other event mentioned in only one. As such, by making it a comparison between two different events, it is obviously false because the singly attested event could pass other criteria which make it as likely, or even more likely, than the multiply attested event. The event which is found in only one source might pass other criteria, like the criterion of embarrassment or the criterion of dissimilarity, and then be highly historically probable even though it is only singly attested rather than multiply attested. So Ehrman has simply misformulated the criterion of independent attestation.

Here is the correct formulation:

An event mentioned in several independent documents is more likely to be historical than it would have been had it been mentioned in only one.

Or, more simply:

Independent attestation increases the probability that an event is historical.

So if an event in the life of Jesus is attested in independent sources then it is more probable that it is historical because it is unlikely to be independently made up by two different sources. This is one of the most important criteria that historians use in assessing historicity of events – whether it is independently attested.

2. Dissimilarity. Here is how Ehrman states the criterion:

Any tradition about Jesus that does not coincide with, or that works against, the vested interests of the Christians who preserved it is likely to be historically reliable.

What is the problem with this statement of the criterion of dissimilarity? Two-fold.

Number one, it conflates and distorts two distinct criteria – namely, the criterion of dissimilarity and the criterion of embarrassment. [4] It conflates these two and distorts them. Here is what the correct statement of the criterion of dissimilarity should be:

If a tradition about Jesus is different from the Judaism that preceded him and the Christian movement which came after him, then it is likely to be historically reliable.

The idea there is that if it is not from antecedent Judaism then likely it didn’t come from there. If it is unlike the later Christian church then it was unlikely to be made up by them. So it probable originated with the historical Jesus himself. That is the criterion of dissimilarity.

Here is the criterion of embarrassment:

If a tradition about Jesus is embarrassing or awkward for the early Christian movement, then it is likely to be historically reliable.

Because it is unlikely the Christian movement would make up or invent stories about Jesus that would be awkward or embarrassing for the Christian faith.

Ehrman’s statement not only blurs these two criteria together but it leaves wholly out of account Jesus’ distinctiveness from Judaism. He fails to mention that if something is dissimilar from antecedent Judaism then that increases its historical probability. That is the first problem, is that it conflates and distorts these two separate criteria.

Here is the second problem with his statement of the criterion of dissimilarity. He consistently confuses this criterion with the problem of bias in one’s sources. That is just not the same thing. Dissimilarity and embarrassment are positive criteria for establishing historicity. If something is dissimilar or embarrassing, that is a positive argument in favor of historicity. But Ehrman uses them negatively to undermine historical credibility. This negative use of the criteria is widely recognized as fallacious because it would yield a Jesus who had absolutely no impact on the movement which followed him and who was utterly unlike antecedent Judaism which preceded him. So it would give you a bizarre Jesus – a Jesus who was utterly unlike Judaism and who had no impact on the Christianity which followed him! So a negative use of the criteria is illegitimate. They can only be used to establish positively historical traditions about Jesus, not to call into question historical traditions about Jesus. In other words, if something is not dissimilar or not embarrassing, that is not a proof that it is unhistorical. If something is dissimilar or embarrassing, that counts in favor of historicity – that is the positive use of the criteria. But if something is not dissimilar or not embarrassing, that is no proof that it is not historical.

3. Contextual credibility. Here he says:

Any tradition about Jesus that cannot be plausibly situated in first-century Palestinian context cannot be accepted as historically reliable.

Well, that is just a truism. The problem with that truism is that it is purely negative and so it doesn’t establish what is historical about Jesus. It would just exclude something that would be unhistorical but it doesn’t establish anything positively about Jesus.

The correct formulation of the criterion of contextual credibility would be

Traditions about Jesus which cohere well with already established facts about Jesus have a good probability of being historically reliable.

So, correctly understood, we have four criteria for establishing traditions about Jesus: independent attestation, dissimilarity, embarrassment, and contextual credibility. [5]

Let me show next Bart Ehrman’s misuse of the criteria of authenticity. First, his use of the criteria results in a distortion of the historical Jesus. A real historical person is a much richer reality than what can be proved about a person. Think of Napoleon for example. The historical Napoleon is a much, much richer figure than what we can prove about Napoleon, right? What you can prove about Napoleon is a small subset of the man who actually lived. We don’t know a lot of things about his private life or what he was doing that wasn’t recorded by historians. But Ehrman equates “a strictly historical perspective” with “what we can show on historical grounds” (TC II. 37). He equates the historical Jesus with what you can prove about Jesus. That leads to a reconstructed Jesus which is a pale abstraction of the robust reality that actually lived. The historical Jesus who actually lived is a much richer reality than what we can prove about Jesus. They are not the same thing.

The next major point I want to make is that the criteria, when properly used, show the reliability of traditions about Jesus but Ehrman tries to use them negatively to show unreliability. He misuses the criteria. The criteria can be properly used only to establish positively historical elements about Jesus but Ehrman uses them negatively to try to show unreliability. For example, he says, “Some of the best known traditions of Jesus’ birth cannot be accepted as historically reliable when gauged by our criteria” (TC I. 53). Notice that is a negative use of the criteria. But the criteria can’t be used negatively to establish non-historicity. They can only be used positively to establish historicity. So it is impossible when they are used properly to say that these birth narratives are shown to be unhistorical in nature. What he should say is that some of the best known traditions of Jesus’ birth cannot be positively proven to be historical by these criteria. That is unobjectionable. There can be lots of things about Jesus that we cannot prove using these criteria that are nevertheless recorded in the Gospels. So you see how he slides from saying these birth traditions cannot be proven to be historical by the criteria to saying that therefore they cannot be accepted as historically reliable on the basis of these criteria.

Here is another example. “We don’t have any reliable information concerning what Mary actually thought of Jesus, because the traditions . . . are not multiply attested . . . and . . . don’t pass the criterion of dissimilarity” (TC I. 56). See the negative use of the criteria there? Because they are not multiply attested, because they are not dissimilar, therefore he says none of this information is reliable that we have in the Gospels. You can’t use the criteria negatively in that way. At best the criteria could be used to establish positively reliable information about what Mary thought. But, if the traditions are only singly attested or not dissimilar, then all you can say is we can’t prove these to be reliable. But that doesn’t prove that they are unreliable. So this is just one illustration of this constant misuse by Bart Ehrman of the criteria in an illegitimate negative way.

Let’s look more specifically at some of the specific criteria.

1. The criterion of independent attestation. Let me give you some examples of his misuse of this criterion. He gives study question #1 to his students – “Pick two events, one provable, one not [by independent attestation]. What is the difference in the evidence” (TC I. 47)? Notice this is a misuse of the criterion because it is comparing two events rather than one event. [6] The criterion only applies to one event, not to two. So, it is a misuse of the criterion.

Another example – he admits that the virgin birth passes the criterion of independent attestation. It is found in both Matthew and in Luke’s Gospel and these are independent of each other. So the virgin birth passes the criterion of independent attestation. But Ehrman complains it is not more widely attested (TC I. 53) and therefore he denies its historicity. Well, that is misusing the criterion again. It is independently attested, that counts in favor of its historicity, and in any case you can’t use it negatively to deny historicity.

Or, again, the birth in Bethlehem passes the criterion of independent attestation. We have independent accounts in Matthew and Luke that Jesus was born in Bethlehem but again Ehrman complains about a lack of more sources and says there are secondary inconsistencies in the narrative and therefore we can’t know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem which is simply a failure to apply consistently the criterion of independent attestation.

Another example – he argues against the historicity of the trip to Bethlehem by Joseph and Mary because it is not multiply attested (TC I. 54). That is an illegitimate use of the criterion. Just because it is not multiply attested, you can’t infer that it is unhistorical.

Finally, he rejects Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem despite the fact that it is multiply and independently attested in Mark’s Gospel and in John’s Gospel. Why? He rejects it because it is not dissimilar (TC II. 38). But that is denying both the criterion of independent attestation and misusing dissimilarity in a negative way.

These are just some examples of his misuse of the criterion of independent attestation.

2. What about the criterion of dissimilarity? Well, here are some illustrations of his misuse of this criterion. He says, “Some traditions may strike us as suspect in view of the criterion” (TC I. 50). That is impossible because the criterion can only be used positively to show that something is likely to be historical because it is dissimilar. If it is not dissimilar, that gives no reason to think it is suspect.

Or, another example, he says it casts “a shadow of doubt” on certain traditions in the Gospel of Thomas (TC I. 49). Again, that is using the criterion negatively. You cannot use the criterion to cast doubt on certain traditions, only to establish them.

Another example, he says sources for the virgin birth have a vested interest in the doctrine and so it doesn’t pass the criterion. Well, this confuses dissimilarity with vested interest. Just because they have a vested interest in believing in the virgin birth doesn’t mean that the story of the virgin birth isn’t dissimilar. In fact, the story of the virgin birth is radically dissimilar to antecedent Judaism and paganism. Contrary to what you hear on the internet, the fact is that there are no parallels to the virgin birth in pagan religions in the ancient Near East. The stories of divine human offspring of a god and a human female in ancient mythology were not virgin birth stories; they were stories of the god coming down from heaven and physically having sexual intercourse with a human woman and impregnating her so that she bears a child that is then a divine human being like Hercules. But there is nothing in pagan mythology or antecedent Judaism that is similar to the virgin birth story of Jesus which is emphatically not a story of a god coming down from heaven in human form and copulating with a human female. So it is dissimilar, in fact, as well as multiply attested.

He says the story of the wise men doesn’t pass the criterion of dissimilarity because it has theological purposes (TC I. 54). But, again, failure to pass the criterion doesn’t show that it is unhistorical. That is just a confusion.

He denies Jesus’ passion predictions because they are not dissimilar (TC II. 37).  [7] That again is a misuse of the criterion – just because something is not dissimilar doesn’t mean it is unhistorical.

He denies the crowd’s calling for Jesus’ crucifixion because that is not dissimilar (TC II. 48). But, again, that is to use the criterion negatively rather than positively.

Finally, he denies the thirty pieces of silver for which Judas betrayed Jesus because it is not dissimilar (TC II. 44). But, once again, you can’t judge a narrative to be unhistorical because it is not dissimilar.

So I think you can see over and over and over again he misuses the criteria of authenticity.

3. Finally, what about the criterion of contextual credibility? Remember I said that this criterion properly stated can be used to establish historicity by showing its context. Here Ehrman, I think, actually uses the criterion properly but it is contrary to his misstatement of it. His misstatement was, you will remember, a negative misstatement that you use it to exclude historicity and yet he argues Jesus spoke Aramaic because it makes sense contextually. He argues Jesus was an apocalypticist because of contextual credibility (TC II. 8). He argues that the title “Son of Man” is an authentic expression used by Jesus because it is contextually credible (TC II. 12). And he argues that Jesus was an exorcist because that is contextually credible. Those are all proper use of the criterion – positive arguments on the basis of the criterion. But you remember that wasn’t the way he stated the criterion. He stated the criterion negatively to say that if something wasn’t contextually credible then it was unhistorical. So here, ironically, he winds up using the criterion correctly, positively, because he abandons his own misstatement of it.

I think you can see that when you look at Ehrman’s statement of, and use of, the criteria, this is really a disaster. It is really an embarrassment that a New Testament scholar should be this sloppy.

Let’s look specifically at Jesus’ claim to be the Son of Man. We saw that Ehrman does agree that Jesus used the title “the Son of Man” as a self-designation. This is extremely important because, by using the title “the Son of Man”, Jesus is alluding to that divine-human figure prophesized by Daniel to whom God would give all authority and judgment over all the kingdoms of the earth; that all the peoples of the earth should worship and serve him. [8] Jesus’ claim to be the Son of Man is dynamite theologically because it shows Jesus’ divine-human self-consciousness and understanding. How does Ehrman regard the title Son of Man? He believes Jesus did use the title “the Son of Man” but he didn’t think Jesus claimed to be the Son of Man because he thought Jesus was referring to somebody else. So when he predicted the Son of Man will come and do this or that, he was talking about another person. This is a bizarre interpretation of the title which was held by Rudolf Bultmann back in the mid-20th century and which was influential at that time in Germany. But it is no longer a widely held view. I asked several of my New Testament colleagues about this – “Can you think of anybody who thinks that Jesus used the title ‘the Son of Man’ to refer to somebody else other than himself?” They couldn’t even think of any other contemporary scholar that holds to this view. Why not? Why are so few persuaded by this Bultmannian view?

First of all, there is no good evidence for this interpretation. Ehrman’s only proof of this interpretation is Jesus saying in Mark 8:38, “Who ever is ashamed of me, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him.” Ehrman says we could take this to mean that if you are ashamed of Jesus, then the Son of Man, whoever he is, will also be ashamed of you – somebody other than Jesus. Well, yeah, you could take it that way. But there is no reason that you should. In fact, that seems an extremely contrived interpretation. [9]

That leads me to my second point. There are good reasons to reject this interpretation.

First of all, first point, over and over again in the Gospels, Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man. This is Jesus’ favorite self-designation in the Gospels. Some eighty times he refers to himself as the Son of Man. Dr. Ehrman’s view would require that all of these statements of self-reference by Jesus are inauthentic – that these are creations of the early Christian church. But here he faces a huge problem. The title “the Son of Man” appears only once in the New Testament outside the Gospels. One time in the book of Acts it is applied to Jesus. [10] Now, what that shows is that this title was not a title that was widely used in the New Testament church for Jesus. So, by the strictest use of the criterion of dissimilarity, it must belong to the historical Jesus. This was evidently a title that Jesus used of himself but which didn’t catch on in the early church and soon dropped out of use. By the criterion of dissimilarity, we have very powerful grounds for thinking Jesus used this title as a self-designation.

Number two – there are authentic Son of Man sayings which clearly refer to Jesus. There are specific Son of Man sayings that clearly refer to Jesus. Let me mention three of them.

1) Jesus saying in Matthew 8:20, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Obviously, the Son of Man in this saying is not referring to some future coming cosmic king. Incredibly, Dr. Ehrman himself on page 31 of part 2 of his lectures on the historical Jesus agrees that this is an authentic saying of the historical Jesus. So clearly Jesus did think of himself as the Son of Man and Ehrman admits this saying is authentic.

2) Matthew 19:28 [11], Jesus tells his disciples “in the renewed world, you shall sit upon twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” Dr. Ehrman himself accepts this as a historically authentic saying of the historical Jesus. But this raises a very interesting question. If the disciples will sit upon twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel, who is going to be the king over all of Israel? Well, Dr. Ehrman answers unhesitatingly – Jesus, himself. He says, “The earliest traditions indicate that Jesus thought he would be enthroned.” Jesus would rule over the disciples. So Jesus will be the king of Israel over the disciples who are on the twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. But look at what the full text of Mathew 19:28 says. “In the renewed world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you shall also sit upon the twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” This is a Son of Man saying in which Jesus is calling himself the Son of Man who will be the king of Israel. So Ehrman himself is committed to saying, in this saying, Jesus uses it as a self-designation.

3) In Jesus’ trial scene, before the High Priest, Dr. Ehrman cannot make sense out of Jesus’ condemnation by the Sanhedrin. You will remember at the trial [12] , the High Priest asks Jesus, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the blessed One.” And Jesus responds, “I am. And you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the High Priest rips his garment and says, “Blasphemy!” and the council all unanimously votes to condemn Jesus to death as a blasphemer. [13] Now, since Dr. Ehrman takes Jesus to be referring to somebody else when he says “You will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” he can’t make any sense of why the Sanhedrin condemns Jesus for blasphemy. He writes,

It is difficult to understand the trial because the charge of blasphemy cannot be rooted in anything Jesus said. It wasn’t blasphemous to call oneself the Messiah nor to say that the Son of Man was soon to arrive. Yet the High Priest accused Jesus of blasphemy.

Dr. Ehrman’s view cannot make sense of Jesus’ death which violates one of the basic criteria of authenticity; namely, that you have got to have a view that coheres with what is firmly established about Jesus like his crucifixion. By contrast, if Jesus did identify himself as the Son of Man then everything falls into place. And Dr. Ehrman admits this. He says, “One could conceive of his statement as blasphemous only by assuming that Jesus was the Son of Man because then Jesus would be saying that he had a standing equal with God.” Right! Right!

So, again, there are specific Son of Man sayings that show very clearly that Jesus wasn’t talking about somebody else; he was talking about himself. That is my second point.

My third point by way of criticism is that Dr. Ehrman’s view cannot make sense of Jesus’ claim to ultimate authority. There is something of a consensus among New Testament scholars that Jesus of Nazareth came on the scene with an unsurpassed sense of authority. Ehrman himself recognizes that Jesus thought that people’s fate ultimately hinged upon their response to him and that he thought they would be judged before the Son of Man on the basis of their response to Jesus. Jesus thought that he would be the king in the Kingdom of God. He put himself in God’s place by his words and actions. But then, you see, it makes no sense at all to think that Jesus thought that somebody else was going to come who would judge the world and who would presumably judge Jesus himself, someone to whom Jesus would be submitted as if he were merely a human prophet. Jesus’ unsurpassed sense of divine authority is incompatible with the view that he thought somebody else was the coming Son of Man who would judge mankind and Jesus himself.

In summary, then, I think it is very clear that there are good reasons to reject Ehrman’s interpretation that, although Jesus used the expression Son of Man, he wasn’t talking about himself but about somebody else.

Finally, the last point that I want to make in my critique of Ehrman is to say something about his views on the resurrection of Jesus. Although Dr. Ehrman says that there cannot be any historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, what he really means, I think, is that the resurrection cannot be the best explanation of the evidence – not that there is no evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.

There are two basic contentions, or moves, in constructing a case for the resurrection:

(I) First, there are four historical facts which must be explained by any historical hypothesis – the burial, the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection.

(II) Second is to show that the best explanation of these facts is that Jesus rose from the dead.

Although Ehrman says there is no evidence for the resurrection, in fact, he doesn’t dispute point (I). What he really means is point (II) – the best explanation of the evidence cannot be the resurrection. This is the part of the problem of miracles. I don’t think we are going to have time to go through all of this because of our time constraints so let me just skip ahead and I simply want to make this point. [14] With respect to that first major point (I) – Ehrman actually agrees with all four of those facts that I mention. [15] Again, here is the difference between the good Bart and the bad Bart. The good Bart in his scholarly lectures admits all four of these facts. The bad Bart, in his public debates, tries to cast doubt upon these by saying the narratives are filled with contradictions and uncertainties, the number of angels at the tomb, the names of the women that went to the tomb, whether they went when the sun was risen, whether they went when it was still dark, what did they do after they saw the angel, did they go tell the disciples or did they tell no one? He gives the impression to lay people that the narratives are so hopelessly contradictory that they cannot be believed in their historical core. I lost all respect for Bart Ehrman, frankly, when I saw in public debate how he deliberately and deceptively tries to mislead laymen about this because, in his scholarly work, the good Bart knows that despite these inconsistencies and contradictions nevertheless the core facts that I have listed are credibly established. Here is what Bart Ehrman says in his lectures on the historical Jesus with the Teaching Company. He says,

. . . there are a couple of things that we can say for certain about Jesus after his death. We can say with relative certainty, for example, that he was buried. . . .

. . . the accounts are fairly unanimous in saying (the earliest accounts we have are unanimous in saying) that Jesus was in fact buried by this fellow, Joseph of Arimathea, and so it’s relatively reliable that that’s what happened.

We also have solid traditions to indicate that women found this tomb empty three days later. This is attested in all of our gospel sources, early and late, and so it appears to be a historical datum. And so I think we can say that after Jesus’ death, with some (probably with some) certainty, that he was buried, possibly by this fellow Joseph of Arimathea, and that three days later he appeared not to have been in his tomb. [16]

He also acknowledges the earliest disciples saw appearances of Jesus and that they came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead. So the good Bart recognizes that even given all the inconsistencies and contradictions in the narrative, the four fundamental facts remain firmly historically established.

So, what Ehrman’s real problem with the resurrection is in saying the resurrection cannot be the best explanation. Why not? The reason is because the resurrection is a miraculous explanation and he says historians cannot adopt a miraculous explanation as the best explanation.

Here is Ehrman’s Egregious Error:

Because historians can only establish what probably happened, and a miracle of this nature is highly improbable, the historian cannot say it probably occurred. [17]

To the lay person, that sounds really plausible doesn’t it? Because historians can only establish what probably happened and a miracle of this nature is highly improbable, the historian cannot say it probably occurred. This is just David Hume’s old argument against the identification of miracles warmed over. The fallacy is this: the only factor he considers in assessing the probability of the resurrection hypothesis is in red – the probability of the resurrection on our background information B [Pr(R|B)]. [18]

He is saying a miracle is inherently improbable because, relative to our background information of the world, dead men do not rise from the dead. And so that makes the resurrection hypothesis intrinsically improbable. But what he fails to understand is that the probability calculus for accounting for the resurrection hypothesis is not just the probability of the resurrection on the background information but also the probability of the resurrection on the background information and the evidence E and the evidence E will be things like the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection. [19] What Ehrman concludes is that because the probability of R|B is low, therefore the probability of R|B&E is low and that is just mathematically, demonstrably fallacious. It only considers one factor in the probability calculus. You also have to figure what is the probability of the evidence given the background information and the resurrection [Pr(E|B&R)] and what is the probability of Jesus not rising from the dead on the background information [Pr(not-R|B)] and the probability of the evidence of the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ faith given our background information and the fact that Jesus did not rise from the dead [Pr(E|B¬-R)].

The bottom line is that when you compute all those other factors, it is perfectly plausible and possible for the probability of the resurrection on the background information and the evidence [Pr(R|B&E)] to be very high even though the Pr(R|B) is very low. The probability of the resurrection on the background information and the evidence can be very high even though the probability of the resurrection on the background information alone is very low. That is Ehrman’s Egregious Error as I’ve called it – thinking that because the probability of R|B is low therefore the probability of the resurrection is low. That just is a fallacious inference.

Bart’s Blunder – here is an even more egregious error and he repeats these errors over and over again in his writings. It is just shocking:

Since historians can establish only what probably happened in the past, they cannot show that miracles happened, since this would involve a contradiction – that the most improbable event is the most probable. [20]

So it would be a contradiction to show the resurrection happened because that would be to show that the most improbable event is the most probable event. In fact, there is no contradiction at all because you are talking about two different probabilities. One would be the probability of the resurrection on the background information which would be perhaps very low. The other probability is the probability of the resurrection on the background information and the evidence and that probability could be very high. So there is no contradiction at all in saying that an intrinsically improbable event is the most probable event given the evidence. There is just no contradiction at all. It is an enormous blunder on Ehrman’s part. It shows that he simply doesn’t understand probability theory or how to compute the probability of the resurrection hypothesis.

One final point that I want to make – let’s go back to Ehrman’s Egregious Error. You remember that we saw that he assumes that the probability of the resurrection on the background information is very low [Pr(R|B)]. He just assumes that. But how does he know that? Why is the hypothesis “God raised Jesus from the dead” highly improbable on our background information? Whether this is very low or not will depend on whether or not the background information includes the existence of God. If the background information includes, as I think, the Cosmological Argument, the Teleological Argument, the Moral Argument, the Ontological Argument [21] then I don’t see any reason to think that the probability of the resurrection on that background information is terribly low. Because the background information includes the fact that God exists! What is the probability that God would raise Jesus from the dead relative to our background information which includes that God exists and all of our information about the historical Jesus, including his radical personal claims to be the Son of Man and the divine revelation of God? Well, I can’t see any reason to think that is highly improbable. So, what I would agree with Ehrman on, and what is highly improbable, is that Jesus rose naturally from the dead. That is highly improbable. Corpses don’t just come back to life. It is highly improbable that Jesus rose naturally from the dead given our background information. But given our background information, especially if that includes the existence of God and Jesus’ radical personal claims, I just can’t see any reason to think that the probability of R|B is very low. [22] If that is right, then it just completely evacuates his argument of any significance because then the probability of R|B is not unacceptably low. Therefore, the probability of the resurrection on the background information and the evidence can be very high indeed.

There is a lot more that I could say about this. The transcript of my debate with Bart Ehrman is available on our website reasonablefaith.org. [23] You can read yourself how Bart Ehrman responds to my charges that he has committed an egregious error and an enormous blunder and see whether or not you think he has a convincing response. I don’t think that he does. Therefore, I don’t think that he has good grounds for denying that Jesus of Nazareth was who he claimed to be and that God raised him from the dead in vindication of those radical claims.

QUESTION: I was wondering if I could get your opinion on this. It stems from the fact that many objections to Christianity come from the basis that God is all knowing, that he exists across all time, and that he is all powerful. I know that you respond to many of these claims using Molinism which I think you have developed pretty well. But what I thought – I am not even sure if this is correct or not, I want to get your opinion on this – if you were to take those concepts of God being all powerful and God existing across all time and map them onto mathematics you get infinities. If you try to make an analysis of those and put them together and put operations on those that is not really mathematically possible.

ANSWER: I am not sure I am following the question. Are you saying that in virtue of being omnipotent that that would imply the existence of a sort of actual infinity? Is that the problem?

FOLLOWUP: Yeah, that these sort of imply properties of God that are infinity.

ANSWER: Let me respond to this and see what you think. When theologians talk about God’s infinity, they are not talking about a mathematical or quantitative concept. They are talking about a qualitative concept. To say that God is infinite is just to say that God is all powerful, all knowing, all good, necessary, eternal, and so forth. They are not saying that God is a composite of an actually infinite number of definite and discrete parts. So the infinity of God isn’t a quantitative concept at all. It is a qualitative notion. It just means that God has these superlative attributes. Indeed, I don’t think that really God’s infinity is any distinct attribute from all of those others. If you took all of those away there isn’t some attribute left over called infinity. To say that God is infinite is just a way, an umbrella term, for saying he is omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect, eternal, necessary, and so forth. None of those involve quantitative mathematical concepts. So I don’t think that that would contradict what I said earlier in the Kalam Cosmological Argument that an actually infinite number of things cannot exist.

FOLLOWUP: To give an example that relates to that – using, for example, the fact that God is outside of time. How is it possible to use that to make an analysis off of that fact since if you are outside of time then you can’t really do anything because everything has always existed from outside of time?

ANSWER: OK, I am not sure again I understand you. If God exists outside of time, then it is not true that he has always existed. “Always” is a temporal concept that implies a duration. If God exists timelessly then temporal categories and words don’t even apply to him. So I am not saying God has existed for infinite time. I am saying time is finite and had a beginning and God transcends time – he is just not in the temporal dimension.

QUESTION: My question is not on this topic but I was wondering have you ever experienced doubt in your faith and if you have any practical advice for us that are doubting our faith? [24]

ANSWER: I have written a chapter in my book Hard Questions, Real Answers on the question of doubt. [25] I think that anybody who believes a particular worldview will have doubts about the truth of that worldview. He’ll say, “How do I know that this is really true? Am I deluded? Is this really right?” This is common and you should not panic over that. We all question whether or not what we believe is true.

But I think the secret to victorious Christian living is not allowing unanswered questions to become destructive doubts. We will all have unanswered questions that we will carry to the grave. But that doesn’t mean they need to become destructive doubts that paralyze us spiritually and cause us to be impotent in our spiritual lives. The real key, I think, to victorious Christian living is not to remove all your questions but to learn to live with unanswered questions. I make a number of suggestions in the chapter such as understanding the proper relationship between faith and reason. I think that the proper basis for our knowledge of Christianity’s truth is not argument and evidence but the inner witness of the Holy Spirit and that really underlines the importance of living a spirit-filled life. Every morning asking God to fill us with his spirit, to guide us and empower us, to reveal to us sin in our lives, and to constantly confess sin rather than live with unconfessed sin because it is that that will cause your doubts to grow and to be the most poignant when you are not in proper relationship and fellowship with God. But when the witness of the Spirit is strong and vibrant in your life then these doubts will become secondary, I think. That would be a real fundamental thing.

Another important factor would be to take opportunity to pursue your doubts into the ground and get answers to them. Take one of those questions that has troubled you and begin to do research on it. If you are a student, make it the topic of an assignment for a class and go after that until you come to intellectual peace with that issue. I have to say that this is one of the most exhilarating experiences of the spiritual life – to take something that has really troubled you and nagged at you and to pursue it into the ground until you come to a satisfying answer with it. It gives you such tremendous peace and confidence. In my own life, for example, I was troubled for some years about how God could be eternal and yet also become incarnate in Christ. It seems obvious that there was a time at which the second person of the Trinity did not have a human nature and there was a time after which the second person of the Trinity did have a human nature. Therefore, it just didn’t make sense to say God is timeless and yet enters into human history. So I struggled with that. Eventually I had a chance to really pursue that. I spent thirteen years studying the relationship between God and time, wound up writing six books on the topic, and came to a view of the understanding between God and time that I find perfectly satisfying, philosophically coherent, and biblically warranted. The issue is settled for me now. I just don’t have any difficulty with that issue at all. Lest you be discovered by the amount of time I spent investigating that, let me say that I came to the solution long, long before I finished my research. It is just when you are doing philosophical research you have got to research all the alternatives, all the objections, all of the scholarly literature on the topic so that you can speak authoritatively to it. But the solution that I wanted to propose I had in mind long before the research and writing was completed. You can find answers to your questions within a limited amount of time, I think, if you will pursue them.

But beyond that, take a look at the book. I also would recommend the work of Gary Habermas on doubt. Gary has written some really good things and what Habermas shows that I didn’t show or realize in my own work on this question is that doubt is really primarily emotional rather than intellectual. Gary has really interesting material on this. He says, for example, your doubts are greater at night than they are during the day. Why? Because you are tired, you are stressed out, and so your doubts are worse at night. Which shows this isn’t rational, this is emotional. Many other factors go to contribute emotionally to doubt. So Gary talks about ways of really getting a handle on these things emotionally and dealing with this in an effective way. His work on doubt is very good and I would commend it. [26]