Comments on Peter Williams vs Bart Ehrman Debate on the Historical Reliability of the Gospels

Two comments from readers:
1) I watched the debate between Peter Williams and Bart Erhman as well as Erhman’s other presentations over Youtube. Williams arguments are persuasive but he was uncomfortably defensive in contending with a combative and skilled debater like Erhman. Erhman position is that one can accept the gospels and the New Testament writings from the theological point of view and I suppose he meant by faith but not from the rigorous analysis of historians. Would appreciate your thoughts on this.

My Response:
Bart Ehrman attributes his loss of faith to his study of early manuscripts of the gospels. He shared that he grew up as a fundamentalist (note his journey from Moody Bible Institute to Wheaton College and then to Princeton seminary) who upheld a rigid understand of inerrancy. Following his rigid understanding of inerrancy, Ehrman insists that if God inspired the writers he wouldn’t have allowed scribal errors or textual variants. As such,  Ehrman abandoned his faith when he was exposed to manuscript variants during his seminary studies. The basis of Ehrman’s faith couldn’t have been more flimsy or misplaced. It is certainly indefensible. Ehrman’s view of inerrancy is uncommon as it would be hard to find a conservative scholar working with biblical manuscripts and Christian origins who actually who shares Ehrman’s rigid view of inerrancy. However, unlike Ehrman, conservative scholars do not seem to be troubled by the existence of manuscript variants. Perhaps, Ehrman has other hidden reasons that led him to abandon his faith. Indeed, Ehrman continues to rely on his distorted view of inerrancy as a fig leaf to camouflage the real reason for his loss of faith which is probably a deeper problem of the heart. That he continues to stigmatize conservatives with his earlier distorted view of inerrancy suggests that it serves as a convenient strawman for him in his writings.

Effectively, Ehrman would accept the inspiration of the gospels only if he has access to “uncorrupted” manuscripts. Put in current lingo – he may believe the gospels only if there are verified mp3 recordings of the actual words of Jesus. Actually, I suspect he still won’t believe even if he were given mp3 recordings since ancient manuscripts or their equivalents are imperfect and inherently contested in details – that’s why textual criticism is unavoidable and indispensable. Ehrman’s demands are simply impossible to meet – even by secular historical standards. Of course, Ehrman knows he is asking for the impossible, but he continues to insist on his impossible demands as they make a good debating strategy in putting his opponents on the defensive.

Ehrman relies on further excuses – he rejects harmonization of parallel reports from different authorial perspectives which account for different selections of significant details in their reporting and telescoping of historical narratives etc. We should note that secular historians and court lawyers do the same in their reporting all the time. But Ehrman simply rejects this common practice of both secular and biblical historians who follow Aristotle’s dictum that the benefit of doubt is to be given to the document itself, not arrogated by the critics to himself. Even Ehrman in his book, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (Oxford, 2011) has to begin with the premise that we can recover the original writing in order to determine how orthodox scribes sometimes commit errors or corruption in the transmission of the text. Pushed to the logical conclusion – Ehrman’s strictures would mean that we should doubt all historical accounts, secular or biblical. In passing, Muslim apologists who like to champion Ehrman should note that Quranic history with the hadiths will be rejected out of court based on Ehrman’s criteria of historical & textual authenticity.

All too often, Ehrman comes across as having no interest other than trying to demolish the proposal of his opponent, without offering plausible alternatives in its place. This is why I describe him as a spoiler who offers no constructive approach to biblical history – he is only interested in finding faults and poking holes at issues. The reason is simple, Ehrman is a scholar who consciously eschews theology and its truth claims. But, until he is willing and able to integrate history and theology he won’t be able to offer a constructive and holistic account of the origins of Christian faith. Sometimes I wonder why we take him seriously. We should just focus on exposing his unacknowledged bias. This shouldn’t be too difficult. It is clear from Ehrman’s books that his expertise in theology and exegesis does not match his expertise in textual criticism.

When you note that Ehrman view is that one may accept the gospel accounts from a theological viewpoint we should be frank to say that Ehrman has in mind a dubious faith that is shaped by credulity and prejudices as it rests on inadequate/corrupted manuscript evidence & bias history. He simply brushes off any proposals given by conservatives because he is really a snob (he considers conservative Christians to be ignoramus because they did not go to the right secular universities).

Of course Ehrman tries to intimidate his opponents with aggressive but contestable assertions tho’ he was more careful with Williams. Have you notice him smile at all? Yes, Williams gives a good defence of the historical reliability of the gospels, but he remains simply too passive in defence. He should have strongly challenged Ehrman’s presuppositions. But Williams couldn’t do it because he is a gentleman. I suspect Williams also has not spend as much time equipping himself with presuppositional analysis apologetics that would allow him to mount a strong critique of Ehrman. To be sure, it is not fair to blame Williams here. Life is short and we can only be world-class scholars in limited areas of research. In any case, Ehrman studiously avoids entering into debates that require him to go beyond his narrow focus on secular historiography and textual criticism. He sets up the terms of the debate.

Other people who left their faith quietly carry on their own lives. Ehrman enjoys attacking his old faith as this gives him fame or notoriety, and lots of income from his writings. Yes, precisely because he keeps testifying that he was an old time fundamentalist who became a high profile apostate (this is a fair and accurate description of anyone who has abandoned and proceeds to attack his old faith), he got people’s attention. No wonder, Muslim apologists actively promote Ehrman. To be sure, he defends his desertion of faith supposedly because of technical problems with the gospels (and to be fair, we readily acknowledge Ehrman to be an established scholar). But in the final analysis, only God knows the real excuses of the heart for Ehrman’s aggressive unbelief. Enough said.

2) Yes, Ehrman was very intimidating, staring unsmiling and directly at Peter Williams, and to those watching he came across as very confident and sure of his position. I thought Williams by sometimes avoiding Ehrman’s stares unnecessarily conceded the psychological mind-game which Ehrman had embarked on. But that’s not important. More of concern, however,was that by admitting that he wasn’t sure of the dating as well as authorship of the 4 gospels, Williams lost some ground on the core premise of the debate which was about their historical validity.

I watched Craig’s debate with Ehrman and got the impression that he did not do much better than Williams when dealing with Ehrman.

I am trying to get your views on how scholars including historians could deal with Ehrman more effectively than what I had watched so far. This is important as Ehrman claims scholarly credentials that are relevant and very impressive.

My Response:
Of course, Ehrman plays mind games, but I think his disdain for his opponents also plays a significant part in his aggressive approach to debates. Without question, Williams’ expertise in textual criticism is as sophisticated as Ehrman. However, one of the problems with conservative scholars is that they hesitate to criticize strongly the “historical critical method” premised on Enlightenment epistemology which reigns supreme in all the university academic departments. No one wants to have an academically tarnished reputation as someone who fails to embrace the reigning paradigm of the scholarship guild – perhaps Williams is mindful of this? This is ironic since postmodern criticism of standard historiography has been around for quite a while (altho’ Christians should also reject the postmodern historiography).

Yes, in some sense Williams is right to say that we don’t really know the exact dating of the gospels. ‘Moderate’ scholars in the academia generally suggest the following dates for the gospels – Mark (AD 55-60), Matthew (AD 60-65), Luke (AD 60-65)/Proto-Luke (mid 50s), and John (AD. 85-90). Critical scholars like Ehrman give later dates – Mark knows the fall of Jerusalem (after AD 70); since Matthew and Luke both use Mark as a source (AD 80-85); John being the most theologically developed gospel should be later still (AD 90-95).  Note that the dating of the gospels is inferential and relative to the inferred dates of other historical events.

These dates are popular but they can be challenged because they are premised on secular skepticism which rejects the possibility that Jesus could foresee or prophesy the fall of Jerusalem in 70s (see the secular skepticism at work here?). This is certainly the case of unacknowledged theological presuppositions influencing how we interpret historical data.

Williams appealed to the fact that all the earliest manuscripts of the gospels have no other names than the designated apostles as the authors. Though the manuscripts do not give explicit dates, they confirm their apostolic authorship. The gospels are accordingly early & authentic enough for him (see also Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and one Gospel of Jesus Christ (Trinity Press, 2000). But what is good enough for the scholar may not be good for public communication and debate. So based on appearance, it is possible that some viewers may perceive that Williams has conceded grounds to Ehrman (unnecessary) and therefore conclude that Williams’ is defensive because his case rests on shaky ground. This is why good academicians with subtle and sophisticated knowledge often do not make good debaters – unless they confidently assert their views without too many qualifications and smile while they twist the knife into their opponent’s heart! I beg for penance…

On the other hand, we may challenge the fashionable views of the academia by following alternative dating paradigms, following scholars (whose scholarship credentials are indisputable, but whose views are conveniently ignored by the academia). We may refer to the infamous critic of orthodoxy, John AT Robinson (Honest to God) who dated all the gospels to before AD 70 (Redating the New Testament (SCM, 1976), Likewise, we may appeal to the renowned German liberal NT historian Adolf Harnack who dated the gospels early.  His reasoning: Since Acts was written before the death of Paul in AD 65, the gospel of Luke has to be written earlier, along with Paul’s letters which are dated around the AD 50s. Mark was written even earlier than Luke – based on Markan priority in synoptic criticism.

Of course, It is easy for me to defend publicly these dates because I don’t care about my reputation in the academy, nor do I care whether I have good opportunities for publication of books & journals articles. Beware, taking conservative position will likely undermine one’s chances of securing teaching appointment which is controlled by critics who run professional guilds. Thankfully there are scholars who are much better than me who courageously defend conservative positions in biblical scholarship.

Examples:
Dr. Dan Wallace makes a good case for an early dating for the gospel according to Mark, around 55-61 AD – Mark: Introduction, Argument, and Outline.

John Wenham in the final chapter of his book, Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke: A Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem (IVP, 1992) gives the following dates of the Synoptic Gospels. He believes Luke was written before 55, that Mark was written around 45, and that Matthew was written in about 40. His early dating really pushes the envelope, but it deserves careful considerations.

Finally, I would recommend we read the old and trustworthy standard evangelical texts on the subject of New Testament Introduction:
Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (IVP, 1990).
D.A. Carson & Douglas Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (Zondervan, 2005).

Related Post:
Peter Williams Shows the Right Way to Debate Bart Ehrman

3 thoughts on “Comments on Peter Williams vs Bart Ehrman Debate on the Historical Reliability of the Gospels”

  1. I watched the debate. Thought that William was a bit hesitant particularly on dating. Could have sounded more confidently while not be dogmatic. The eg by Ehrman on bom in London is flawed as he began assumption of bom did not take place. Precisely for NT assuming to be agnostic we want to know if the event has taken place and whether the record is reliable, the accuracy of minor details enhances the credibility. This was not rebutted.
    Still there are 2 questions which Erhman raised need to be answered.
    1. That corruption is sure to take place because of oral transmission even in the short time of 30 to 40 years post events. He quoted a few studies by scholars I have no inkling. To be fair he said that Jesus prophesied the fall of Jerusalem.

    2. The obvious difference in language and content, perhaps the style of John fom Synoptic Gospels .

    Perhaps this could be dealt with. Don’t expect it in such a short debate

  2. Hi CWang:
    Difference between language & content bet John & Synoptic gospels does not imply erroneous memory or record. John has access to different tradition. Dealt long by C.H. Dodd and more recently by Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel (IVP-Apollos, 2001).

    Ehrman’s argument for the unreliability of social memory & the oral tradition behind the gospels is questionable as (1) his view is based on wrong anthropological models, (2) he ignores the literacy (& therefore 3” X 5” cards taken down by the apostles – just joking but also serious in substance, (3)he ignores the specific characteristics of oral tradition in Jesus’ time (4) his late dating of the gospels may help his case, but we challenge the late dating & (5) his memory model ignores how people remember well what has been traumatic or really matters to them – See short video by Darrell Bock – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=–Qy3VcbwGE&feature=youtu.be

    Social memory and the gospel tradition is currently one hot topic in NT scholarship. Ehrman likes to point to the old “telephone game” to prove the unreliability of oral tradition before the gospels got written. Big subject. Maybe will address it one day. But meanwhile, just suggest some introductory literature on the subject.

    Will recommend works by Anthony Le Donne (google for samples?) Ehrman is relying on models taken from anthropologists who studied strictly oral societies. The case in Jesus apostles context is different. See also easily accessible book, The Jesus Legend by Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd. I seriously disagree a lot with Boyd in matters of penal substitutionary atonement and open theism, but on this subject appreciate his emphasis in the book that there was a higher rate of literacy in ancient Israel than critics like Ehrman suggests and that the early church also relied on the role of written material in preserving information about Jesus prior to the writing of the gospels. I appreciate Larry Hurtado (eminent NT scholar who just passed away) ongoing critique of scholarship which exaggerates the role of “oral performance & reading” in early Christian tradition. His great piece is “Oral Fixation in NT Studies, NTS 2014. But just visit his blog article which reviews Ehrman, Bauckham & Bird on Memory & Jesus – https://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2017/09/11/reviewcritique-of-ehrman-bauckham-and-bird-on-memory-and-jesus/

    Also note the following critique by Michael Kruger – Did the Early Christians Get the Jesus Story Wrong? – https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/jesus-before-the-gospels/

    Actually memory is not as fast & loose as Ehrman suggests. See ignored work by Biger Gerhardss0n on controlled transmission of oral tradition through the Jesus and the apostles(for me with a due caveat on acknowledging some redactional elements in the transmission process) – https://www.amazon.com/Manuscript-Tradition-Transmission-Christianity-Biblical/dp/0802843662 [Oh, this book is definitely not introductory literature, but seminal work]

    *** For good video responses to Ehrman – see The Ehrman Project – http://ehrmanproject.com/

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