Finally found a little time to summarize the debate my institution (MBTS) hosted as part of a Dead Sea Scroll’s conference. I’ve noticed a mention of the debate recently popping up over at the Textual Criticism blog, a post actually highlighting the debate which took place the night before at a local church. My post reflects the second debate which took place at the seminary. The two debated the reliability of the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection in the Gospels New Testament.
Ehrman began with a “historian’s wish list” as it might relate to verifying an event such as the resurrection of Jesus Christ–several accounts, preferably from eyewitnesses close to the events, corroboration between accounts without evidence of collaboration, etc. He then asserted that the Gospels were not eyewitness accounts, were written 30-60 yrs after the event they narrate, have an apologetic flavor, and contain discrepancies. [Funny thing is that I’ve heard many of these same facts used to argue the opposite point!]
Evans began by focussing on the reliability of the apostle Paul as an eyewitness. He noted how the concept of the resurrection of the Messiah would have been beyond Jewish expectations, thus Jewish followers of Jesus wouldn’t have come up with such a theological position without the actual event. He asserted (1) the disciples knew Jesus died; (2) they knew he was buried; and (3) they knew he exited that place. He also highlighted Paul’s conversion–that Paul’s belief in resurrection would have changed from the typical Jewish belief in a general resurrection to the sort which is reflected in his writings.
Of course, there were further responses, but these didn’t amount to much. Mainly, Ehrman wanted Evans to explain differences in how the Gospels present the empty tomb account, and Evans wanted to appeal to the apostle Paul and Jewish backgrounds to argue in favor of the resurrection.
One would have to include how Ehrman appealed to the “telephone game” as support for his distrust in the reliability of the Gospels. It felt a bit elementary!
Evans accused Ehrman of “reverse fundamentalism,” and seemed to successfully match Ehrman’s usual confidence and “matter of fact, can’t-you-see-it?” attitude on stage.
Ehrman explained his journey from an evangelical to an agnostic as follows: (1) Evangelical fundamentalist [Moody, Wheaton, then to Princeton]; (2) Conservative w. disclaimers [around the Princeton years]; (3) Liberal [a few years later?]; (4) An agnostic out of dissatisfaction with answers to the problem of pain and suffering. I was surprised this was the issue that tipped him to agnosticism.
I believe Ehrman’s criteria for determining the reliability of the NT are too rigorous. His “historian’s wishlist” is satisfactorily met by the NT in my estimation, but obviously not in his. By “reliability,” he must refer to the absolute confidence that a document is completely accurate (according to modern standards, mind you!) by virtue of pure archeological (and related historical) verification. This simply doesn’t need to be the case!
[Since this is an important issue and I don’t want to be misunderstood, I reproduce part of my comment below here (see the first two comments below):
I think Ehrman’s view of ‘reliability’ is a modern “court-room,” beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt concept. Is this our measure of truth and reliability? It need not be. The fear of not subjecting the Bible to trial after trial is that (as Believers) we might not be able to justify our trust in the Bible. This is not the case. Yes, history and archeology support the Bible’s reliability, but enough with the trials. I resonate with Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones:
The authority of the Scriptures is not a matter to be defended, so much as to be asserted. I address this remark particularly to Conservative Evangelicals. I am reminded of what the great Charles Haddon Spurgeon once said in this connection: ‘There is no need for you to defend a lion when he is being attacked. All you need to do is to open the gate and let him out.’ We need to remind ourselves frequently that it is the preaching and exposition of the Bible that really establish its truth and authority. – Authority, Lloyd-Jones]
As respectable a scholar as Ehrman is, I think he is demanding that either the Bible fit into his former conception of it in his early Christian years, or else it cannot be trusted. Unfortunately the world isn’t so black and white, and most conservative scholars are well aware of (and comfortable with) this! I’m sure Ehrman would disagree.