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#701 Coping with Ehrman

September 27, 2020

Hey Bill,

I'm a freshman at UNC Chapel Hill taking a class on the historical Jesus under Dr. Bart Ehrman, whose work I'm sure you are well acquainted with. Unfortunately, spending two days a week with one of the top textual critics in the western world has caused me to question my faith. I've watched your Defenders series on biblical inerrancy and my current understanding is that a Bible that is not inerrant does not necessarily pose a significant doctrinal issue for Christians. So, I guess my questions are:

1. Is there an interpretation of the Bible that would have Jesus taking on a non-literal view of OT history, for example the story of the flood?

2.If not, are we stuck between the options of Jesus possibly being wrong based on scientific evidence (which may negate his omniscience and/or divinity?) and the Bible "misquoting Jesus" (in reference to Dr. Ehrman's book) and thus rendering itself errant?

3. Would an inerrant Bible undermine the historical reliability of the New Testament?

Please elaborate if possible.


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Dr. craig’s response


It just hurts to receive a letter like this revealing the needless damage wrought by Bart Ehrman’s critique of New Testament Christianity. I can only hope that by going through this acid bath of criticism you will emerge in the end strengthened by the trial. I’ll address your question in order.

1. “Is there an interpretation of the Bible that would have Jesus taking on a non-literal view of OT history, for example the story of the flood?” Yes, there is, and it is featured in my forthcoming book In Quest of the Historical Adam (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans). You can get a preview of such an interpretation in my Defenders, Series 3, lectures on Doctrine of Creation: Excursus on Creation and Evolution. Let me reproduce here an excerpt from my book on Adam which could be applied equally to Noah and the flood.

Many scholars have attempted to distinguish between the literary Adam and the historical Adam. The literary Adam is a character in a story, specifically the stories of Genesis 2-3. The historical Adam is the person, if such there be, who actually existed, the actual individual that the stories are allegedly about. By way of analogy, the Pompey of Plutarch’s Lives is the literary Pompey, whereas the Roman General who actually lived was the historical Pompey. What we want to know is how closely the literary Pompey of the Lives resembles the historical Pompey. Pretty well, we think, for Plutarch was a good historian. Similarly, we want to know how closely the literary Adam of Genesis 2-3 resembles the historical Adam, if such there be, or more precisely whether NT authors assert that the literary Adam of Genesis 2-3 closely resembles the historical Adam.

This distinction implies a further distinction between truth and truth-in-a-story. A statement S is true iff S states what is the case. A statement S is true-in-a-story iff it is found in or implied by that story. So if I say, for example, that Gilgamesh slew the Bull of Heaven, my statement, though true-in-the-Epic of Gilgamesh, is false. Truth-in-a-story does not, however, preclude truth. In the Epic of Gilgamesh are, or are implied, statements, such as “Gilgamesh was an ancient Sumerian king,” which are both true-in-the-epic as well as true. So the relevant question for us is whether the relevant NT passages are intended to assert truths or merely truths-in-the-stories-of-Genesis.

With those distinctions in hand, we must further distinguish between a NT author’s using a text illustratively and using a text assertorically. Using a text illustratively is using the text merely to provide an illustration, real or imagined, of the point that the author is trying to assert. Such an illustrative use of a text does not commit the user to the truth of the text itself, but merely to truth-in-a-text. For example, Greek mythology, so familiar to Western culture, is frequently the source of illustrations for us. We speak of something’s being a Trojan Horse, or of someone’s having an Achilles’ heel, or of someone’s opening a Pandora’s box, without thinking that we are thereby committing ourselves to the reality of the relevant mythical entities.

These distinctions are not drawn in order to weasel out of commitments on the part of NT authors to the truth of the Genesis stories and, hence, to the historical Adam. Rather they are important in our treatment of many NT passages, which, if interpreted assertorically, would be unfounded in the OT and sometimes plausibly false. Intriguingly, . . . some of these passages involve the citation of pseudepigraphal and mythological texts to whose truth we should not wish to be committed.

I then proceed to criticize what I call “overly easy proofs of historicity” based on NT citations of OT as well as pseudepigraphal and mythological writings. I then apply this to a couple of Jesus’ sayings:

So returning to our list of texts concerning Adam in the NT, we find that some of them plausibly do not go beyond the literary figure of Adam in Genesis. The statements of our Lord concerning Adam are plausibly illustrative. He begins by drawing attention to the literary Adam “Have you not read. . .?” He then cites Gen 1.27, “male and female he created them” and weds this statement with Gen 2.24, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” This forms the basis for his teaching on divorce. Jesus is exegeting the story of Adam and Eve to discern its implications for marriage and divorce, not asserting its historicity.

Similarly, Jesus’ statement that “the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah” (Lk 11.50-51) is a paradigmatic case of the use of literary figures. Commentators have often remarked that what is surveyed here is not the history of the world but the history of the OT canon. Jesus is talking about the literary history of the OT and the literary bookends of it.

The same principles could be applied to Jesus’ statements about the flood of Noah. He’s talking about the literary Noah and so does not imply historicity. So to infer historicity is overly easy, as the pseudepigraphal and mythological references so clearly show.

2.  “If not [i.e., if there is no interpretation of Jesus’ words which does not commit us to OT historicity], are we stuck between the options of Jesus possibly being wrong based on scientific evidence (which may negate his omniscience and/or divinity?) and the Bible ‘misquoting Jesus’ (in reference to Dr. Ehrman's book) and thus rendering itself errant?” What a great question! The dilemma is that if these OT stories are unhistorical, are Jesus’ statements about them false or has he been misreported by the Evangelists? Again, in my book on the historical Adam I attempt to show that even in the worst case scenario we are not caught on the horns of this dilemma but have a third alternative. I explain that alternative in QoW #693. Rather than repeat myself here, I commend that answer to your reading.

3.  I think you meant to ask, “Would an errant Bible undermine the historical reliability of the New Testament?,” since a Bible without errors would obviously be historically reliable. Such an errant Bible would not be inspired, but would just be a human record of God’s revelatory acts in history, culminating in Jesus. Very many contemporary theologians so understand the Bible. Nevertheless, a great many of these same scholars treat the Gospels as fairly reliable records of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Obviously, a historical record of events need not be errorless in order to be generally reliable.

In particular, as I have shown in my published work, the wide majority of NT critics agree that historically (1) Jesus of Nazareth was executed by crucifixion by Roman authority at Passover time in Jerusalem; (2) Jesus’ corpse was interred in a tomb by a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin named Joseph of Arimathea; (3) Jesus’ tomb was discovered to be empty on the Sunday following his crucifixion by a group of his female disciples, including Mary Magdalene; (4) various individuals and groups of people on different occasions and under a variety of circumstances experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead; and (5) the original disciples came suddenly and sincerely to believe that God had raised Jesus from the dead despite their having every predisposition to contrary. Bart Ehrman himself in his Teaching Company lectures on the historical Jesus agreed with all these facts. Only later, after my debate with him on Jesus’ resurrection, once he saw where this was leading, did he walk back those conclusions, despite having no new evidence and in opposition to the majority of scholars. These facts undergird the inference to the resurrection of Jesus, in which case Christianity is shown to be true, regardless of biblical inerrancy. 

I want to recommend to you some popular lectures I gave on Ehrman’s view of the historical Jesus which expose many of his mistakes and, frankly, deliberate deceptions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zANl-OcPnfI. With respect to the criteria of authenticity, about which you have no doubt heard him lecture, he with alarming consistency first misstates each criterion and then misapplies it, thereby vitiating his conclusions.

- William Lane Craig