In a previous post I commented on the first half of this debate between Bart D. Ehrman and Craig A. Evans on the reliability of the gospels. In this post I will be commenting on the second half.
Evans answers the question of eye-witnesses by citing the work of Bauckham and Taylor in support that the gospels can be traced back to those who “heard and observed Jesus”. He is skeptical of the thesis that Jesus sayings arose simply to address doctrinal issues. He notes that there are many debates in the early church (spiritual gifts, the role of women, etc) where a saying of Jesus would be helpful, but none are given. Furthermore, the Apostle Paul sometimes distinguishes between his own views and those based on sayings from Jesus. For Evans it is quite a leap to simply assume that the early church created Jesus sayings from thin air.
Evans emphasizes that the early church did recontextualize (which is different from inventing). Also, citing Papias, he argues that the early church often sought to base their message on tradition. Even if one does not hold to inspiration and/or inerrancy this does not mean that one has to deny the strong historical foundation of the gospels.
Ehrman is now asked (4:06) whether archaeologist and historians use the gospels as sources. Ehrman says of archaeologist that the answer is “flat out no”. He affirms that historians do because there are no other reliable sources and that this creates a problem since even the gospels are not useful documents. He notes that until eighty years after Jesus’ death there is no mention of Jesus in non-Christian sources and that Josephus briefly notes him sixty years after his death.
The only sources on Jesus must be Christian sources. He notes that the earliest source is the Apostle Paul, but that he says very little about Jesus’ life. This leaves us with the gospels.
Ehrman challenges the argument that eye-witnesses could have checked the accuracy of the gospels by citing the geographical breadth of early Christianity. He says that there is no way that eye-witnesses could regulate the evolution of the stories. Therefore, all we have are stories based on oral tradition.
Evans responds next (9:04).
Evans begins by examining whether or not archaeologist use the gospels. He cites the works of archaeologist who often cite the canonical gospels though rarely cite the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, and the Gospel to the Hebrews. This leads back to his assertion that the gospels are shaped by the testimony of eye-witnesses because they go back further to the source than any other gospels. He provides common arguments for early eye-witnesses like the Jewishness of the gospels, real people, real events, real places, real customs, real institutions and offices, real belief systems of others, and so forth.
Ehrman is then asked if the gospels have been accurately preserved over the centuries (6:24). Again, he recalls his testimony of his former beliefs to his current ones. He rightly notes that we do not have the autographs, only copies. He points out that there are many errors across these copies so we cannot know the autographs and that most of our copies are old.
Evans answers that many other textual critics have different views. He himself thinks that the copies, though there are variants/errors/embellishments, come very close to the likely original (even citing Ehrman’s former professor, Bruce Metzger). He discusses some examples, but does not find any major Christian doctrines as being impacted by the variants.
The final question is whether or not scribal errors significantly impact any teaching of Jesus or significant teaching of Jesus? Ehrman cites several sayings of Jesus found only in textual variants. He argues that the variants do matter and that they do impact many of Jesus’ teachings.
Evans responds saying the opposite. He notes the percentages of accuracy given to most translations (e.g. Metzger’s scale). That we can be confident in much of our reconstruction. Yes, some variants by themselves change things (e.g. 1 Jn 5.7), but it takes more than than few passages to alter whole teachings (again, see Evans’ list based on Sanders’ list of things we can confidently say about Jesus as an example).
Ehrman and Evans give their final statements.
Final thoughts: This debate was frustrating on two fronts: (1) Ehrman seemed to be under the impression that this would be more back and forth; Evans seemed under the impression that each were to set forth their previously prepared presentations. (2) Ehrman was asked the question first and Evans second and then the question was set aside. It seemed a tad unfair to both presenters, but I think it gives further justification for Evans ignoring Ehrman’s challenges. Why interact in a way that the format does not allow?
Sadly, some of these questions were not worthy of this style of debate. Ehrman and Evans can only assert things about the texts. They cannot show how this works. In the end, the audience must read more on this themselves.
I do wish Evans would have addressed the issues Ehrman raises. He stuck with his prepared approach and that is fine, but for the untrained it appears he is simply evading Ehrman. On the other hand, Ehrman needs to nuance some things and not present them from such an extreme stance. Yes, there are many variants, but there are many serious textual critics who do not think that the variants cause an infinite chasm between the autographs and our reconstruction.
At best this debate introduces people to the issues. If you read the YouTube comments you find people who think someone “won”. I am not sure that is possible. Neither debated on the same wave length. Ehrman wanted more interaction. I think all viewers would like this but I think Evans rightly noted the format and didn’t play into Ehrman’s attempt to control the discussion.
For those who say of Ehrman he is just a heretic or a showman, I think they ignore that he has been a serious and respected scholar over the years. He makes claims that are often too bold and too black and white, but he is no idiot as some evangelicals assert.
Likewise, those who said things (see the YouTube comments) about Evans not knowing his stuff simply do not know Evans. Evans is well respect and accomplished in the areas he addressed.