Yesterday as I watched the first debate between Bart D. Ehrman and Craig A. Evans (see my post “Ehrman-Evans 2012 debates”) I became increasingly frustrated by the phrase “historical reliability” since it seems like an undefined oblong blur. Evans and Ehrman agreed on much, especially that the Gospels don’t do modern history, they have contradictions between them, they provide different pictures of Jesus, and that we can reconstruct a “historical Jesus” from them. After this they go separated directions because Ehrman thinks that while we can get a picture of Jesus from the Gospels they are unreliable historically (overall) while Evans thinks that the picture is a bit clearer than Ehrman will allow and that because we can get this clearer picture we must consider them historically reliable (overall).

I wrote Greg Monette who moderated the debate and he made this great point:

“One thing I find frustrating with both Ehrman and Evans is that they never explained how to decide at what juncture a text becomes either reliable or unreliable. What I mean by this is: say 10% of the text is historically inaccurate (I’m just throwing out a random number). Does this mean the text as a whole is historically unreliable? Or does it mean it is 90% reliable and 10% unreliable? If there is a scale, at what point does the ancient text become reliable or unreliable? 95-5; 90-10; 80-20; 60-40; 51-49? I mean, what tips the scales? Is there a science to this sort of thing? Does a text have to be 100% accurate to be historically reliable? Because if that is the case, there is hardly anything/anybody in history that is historically reliable.”

This is a great point worth clarifying. If we were to place Ehrman, Evans, and another of Ehrman’s former debate partners Daniel B. Wallace together in a room would they have different “percentages” of reliability? Would Ehrman the skeptic say “10%” while Evans says “60%” followed by Wallace (who affirms inerrancy) saying “90%” with some genre clarifications?

At times it felt like the differences between the two debaters was minimal, but the trajectories of those differences were vast. As we continue to discuss what we mean by “historical reliability” we must clarify what we mean by this.

If we were discussing the life of Julius Caesar would we make blanket statements about the works of Livy, Suetonius, or Plutarch? Would we say that their historical inaccuracies make them completely reliable or completely unreliable? Would we say they are “historically inaccurate” if one of them did not intend on framing Caesar’s life chronologically, but ordered it to make a moral point? What if in the middle of a history there was a section full of sayings from Caesar that we know came from different times and places but that the author strung together to provide a overview of Caesar’s philosophy? I imagine the discussion would be different.

There is more at stake when Jesus is debated. He is more relevant to modern peoples. I think this clouds discussions of historicity at times from both sides. Some skeptics may avoid generalizations that frame the debate as “all-or-nothing”. Some Christian historians may be able to admit that while they believe Jesus did this or that miracle they know it is not verifiable using modern historiography (this is where Craig Keener’s recent work becomes so controversial). Whatever the case may be we need to provide more clarity for future audiences as we debate subjects like the “historical reliability” of the Gospels.