Robert Cargill posted YouTube videos from a 2010 debate between Bart D. Ehrman and Craig A. Evans on the topic of the reliability of the gospels. Rather than write a lengthy comment on his blog I decided that I would split the debate in half and comment a little on each clip on my blog. I welcome you to provide your input here or back over on Cargill’s blog.

The pastor of the church hosting the debate spends some time introducing Ehrman, Evans, and a few other guests. The debate itself begins around the 3:50 mark. The first question asked is, “Are the gospels reliable?” Ehrman is given the floor first.

He briefly rehearses his well-known testimony from fundamentalism to his current position. He asks Evans (1) whether he thinks there are any historical errors in the gospels; (2) if not, how does he explain this as a historian who knows that every historical document has errors; and (3) if he affirms that there are errors what does he deem an error and how we can know if there are not many errors if we affirm any errors.

Ehrman acknowledges that there are historically reliable parts of the gospels, but that a careful reading shows that there are also discrepancies. He points out the differences between the genealogies in the First and Third Gospel; the differences between when Jesus is acknowledged as Messiah in the Second and Fourth Gospels; and a few other differences.

Since Ehrman finds discrepancies great and small he determines that the gospels are unreliable.

Evans is given the floor with the same question and he affirms that the gospels are reliable. He attempts to reframe the question by saying that the gospels are reliable though not like some Christian laity or biblical scholars may want them to be (affirming a statement made by Ehrman in another debate).

Evans points out that both laity and scholars would like to know more about Jesus’ life, but they have to deal with the academic issues related to the time that we do have available. He asks if the gospels tell us what we need to know even if they don’t tell us every thing we would like to know. This would be the very basic gospel message of 1 Cor. 15.1-8 or the apostolic preaching of Acts 2.38.

Evans reframes the discussion by asking if the gospels agree on the simply, basic matters and says that they do. He notes that Josephus’ description of Jesus and early Christians matches the basic historical information we know about Christian origins.

At this point there may be some frustration from viewers because Evans does not answer Ehrman. For those in Ehrman’s corner (see the YouTube comments) this is a sign of weakness, but we must first ask, “Should Evans concede the direction of the debate to Ehrman simply because Ehrman challenged him with some questions?” I don’t think he should. As Jacques Derrida observed that interviews can be misleading because of the artificial atmosphere that seems so natural, and because of the leading questions that seem so simple, so I think Evans would have been mistaken if he had moved away from the point that he wants to make simply because Ehrman wants to go another direction. Ehrman’s questions aren’t simple, innocent challenges. They’re an attempt to control the debate.

When Evans ignores Ehrman’s bait and continues with his own thoughts he challenges Ehrman’s grasp at control. The audience may not like this because once the questions are asked they are also asked by the audience who inadvertently adopts them (Ehrman knows this), but that doesn’t mean Evans was wrong to continue down his own path.

At this juncture (3:41) the moderator asks, “Do the gospels accurately preserve the teachings of Jesus Christ?” Ehrman repeats his challenge to Evans, “Are there discrepancies?” This leads to his argument for the fact that there are sayings of Jesus in the gospels that go back to Jesus himself and then he asserts that some where “made up” by the evangelists. On this assumption, Ehrman asks if the gospels are inaccurate in some things what makes them not inaccurate in more things and if in more things what makes the gospels trustworthy?

Ehrman notes that in the Fourth Gospel Jesus says much about his divinity while he does not seem to be as blunt about it in the Synoptics. Why is this? Ehrman assumes that the fourth evangelist created a Jesus different from history (and he says most critical scholars agree; only conservative evangelicals and fundamentalist disagree).Also, he points out that the narrator of the Fourth Gospel sounds the same no matter who is talking; therefore, how can we trace this back to Jesus?

Let me make an aside here: (1) I think Ehrman goes further than the Fourth Gospel with Jesus’ claims. He asks why Jesus was not stoned to death for claiming to be God. If we read the Fourth Gospel we realize his claims to divinity are very, very nuanced. He claims to be the Danielic Son of Man. If we read Dan. 7 and we ponder the relationship between the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man (as many Jews of that day did) then we see that there seems to be a sense in which the Son of Man is more than human but not quite the same as the Ancient of Days. Or when Jesus claims to be one with the Father, he never says something as absurd as “I am the Father” which would have been a different claim altogether.

That the Fourth Gospel depicts Jesus as the “Word of God” and the “begotten God” (1.1-18) shows the evangelist’s Christological agenda wherein he frames Jesus’ words. Jesus himself didn’t exegete his own sayings like the fourth evangelist did. What we need to avoid doing is assuming that if Jesus said anything like what we find in the Fourth Gospel that it must have been understood as the fourth evangelist understand it. The fourth evangelist depicts plenty of confusion and ambiguity over Jesus’ identity from both the crowds and Jesus’ own disciples.

Also, I don’t know what major point is being made by pointing out that the narrator controls the voice of Jesus and everyone else in the Fourth Gospel. He is right that only fundamentalist and very conservative evangelicals would argue against this. But that says little to the historical roots of the Fourth Gospel. It only shows us that we must acknowledge that like a story teller near a camp fire all of the characters say and act as the evangelist describes them saying and acting.

The moderator returns to Evans at this point (9:08) with the same question. Evans answers that they do. He notes that scholars disagree on various points, but that the central proclamation is agreed upon by scholars.

Evans outlines the basic message of Christ: the Kingdom and rule of God, love of God and neighbor, and so forth. He spends most of his time addressing the Kingdom of God, this statements appearance in the DSS, and how it fit into the message of Jesus. He points out that Jesus’ disciples followed Jesus, this means they should be capable learners who “learn the essence of his message, believe it, practice it, and teach it to others” and not “tape recorders”.

This is Evans way of addressing Ehrman, but it is a round about way. Again, let me say something about how Evans functions in this debate. Ehrman wants it to present a fundamentalist reading of Scripture where every time the original teaching of Jesus is morphed or contextualized it is somehow corrupted. Evans is showing that it is not so black-and-white. We must ask how ancient pedagogy works. Is the recontextualization of the words of Jesus “misquoting” him or recontextualizing him? If recontextualizing then yes, it is hard to reconstruct the original historical setting (it is anyways), but is not the same as misquoting or inventing our thin air. Ehrman seems to think so and he wants to position Evans in such a way that if Evans admits that the evangelist said something Jesus didn’t say (we should nuance as he said it) then this is unfaithful to Jesus. Not true. Every quotation of anyone in any source recontexualizes the original saying. There is a sliding scale of faithfulness, sure, but this is different that the modern “Did he says it like that or not?” approach.

At 3:37 the moderator says of Evans, “Sound like an evangelist.” Cargill points this out to hint in a way that seems to demean Evans, but it should be noted that Ehrman is no less an evangelist. Ehrman embodies his presentation as well and he shows an desire to convince his argument. If one wants an “objective” debate then we need droids on stage, not humans.

Ehrman is asked the next question (3:44), “Do the gospels accurately preserve the actions of Jesus Christ?” He begins by focusing on Evans once again by trying to point out how Evans does not commit to saying what Ehrman says though he thinks Evans seems to agree with him more than he let’s on. He notes that Evans says the evangelist “adapt” the word of Jesus. Ehrman says this equates to “change”. I addressed this above.

Ehrman wonders if the adaptions actually delude the activities of Jesus. The tellings and retellings of the story eventually dilute the accuracy. Ehrman sees discrepancies as evidence that the activities of Jesus cannot be deemed reliable. He goes over a few examples from the gospels where the details, major and minor, seem different.

Ehrman’s main example is that Jesus on the way to his death is silent in the Second Gospel. He notes that Jesus says much in the Third Gospel and some the the First Gospel. Ehrman points out that when people merge the gospels they create their own gospel and he says that this shows lack of trust in any and all of the gospels.

This is true and false. Yes, we should let each gospel tell its story its own way. But we should not reach the same conclusion as Ehrman that because the story is told differently, and because different details are included and excluded for whatever reason, that this somehow equates to radical discrepancies.

Evans is then asked the same question and he affirms that the gospels to accurately relay the deeds of Jesus.

Evans lists seven facts determined by E.P. Sanders about Jesus’ activity “about which we may be relatively confident: (1) Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist; (2) Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed; (3) Jesus called disciples and spoke of there being twelve; (4) Jesus confined his activity to Israel; (5) Jesus engaged in a controversy about the temple; (6) Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities; and (7) Jesus’ followers continued even after this.

Evans adds (8) the institution of the Lord’s supper and (9) Jesus ate and drank with sinners.

Evans list several criteria that historians evoke in order to show the historicity of this core understanding of Jesus. It should remain apparent that Evans has a script that he brought to the debate and whether or not one wants him to answer Ehrman on Ehrman’s terms he simply will not.

The next question asked of Ehrman is, “Do the gospels contain eye-witness tradition?” Ehrman says he did “before I began my serious scholarship” on the matter. Ehrman then challenges the audience to “use your brain” because “God gave you a brain” (interesting claim for an agnostic). He notes that the gospels do not claim to be written by eye-witnesses and that none of the gospels claim to be written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Ehrman concludes that the gospels are anonymous and do not contain eye-witness accounts.

He notes that even if there were eye-witnesses, this would mean little for accuracy since eye-witnesses can be wrong. The decades after the gospels were written, that the gospels were written in Greek (Jesus spoke Aramaic), that they were written in different countries (not Galilee or Judea), that they were written based on oral tradition is all evidence that the gospels are not historically reliable documents.

This part ends with Evans being asked the same question. We’ll begin with his answer next time.

If you’ve watched this far what thoughts do you have on the debate? Do you find any particular weaknesses in either presenter’s argument? Do you dislike either presenter’s approach to the debate?