Monday, 16 December 2019

Ehrman's error

Bart Ehrman is a New Testament textual critic who used to be a professing Christian but is now an agnostic and writes books that seek to cast doubt on the reliability of Scripture, but his arguments are self-contradictory.

He was recently in debate with New Testament scholar, Peter J. Williams on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? show.

Williams has written an excellent book called Can We Trust the Gospels, which I reviewed here.

Ehrman granted that Williams did a very good job of showing that the Gospel writers were accurate in the incidental details. Williams argued that this gives us good reason to think that they got their information from people who were there, because these incidental details are the things that get corrupted as the story passes from one generation to the next. It is hard to imagine that the incidental details were preserved accurately but the main thrust of the story got corrupted.

Ehrman unintentionally agreed with Williams on this at a different section of the debate when he was talking about what he viewed as an irreconcilable contradiction between Matthew’s account of the death of Judas and Luke’s account. He said that he believed Jesus had a disciple named Judas who betrayed Him, and then had an untimely death and it was connected with a field. In other words, the main gist of the story was preserved, but the incidental details got corrupted. (This is not an admission of a contradiction – I find it pretty simple to put the two accounts together with no contradiction, but I’m just taking Ehrman’s point as true for argument’s sake.)

But when Williams said that the accuracy of the incidental details gives good reason to trust the main thrust of the story was accurate, Ehrman disagreed. He asked us to suppose that 2000 years from now a scholar finds a story about a debate that took place in a radio studio in Westminster between an American named Ehrman and an Englishman named Williams from Cambridge, and Ehrman took a train from Wimbledon to Vauxhall and then walked across Vauxhall Bridge, but before Ehrman gets to the debate there was an explosion because of a gas leak. The scholar goes on an archaeological dig and finds evidence of a train line from Wimbledon to Vauxhall, and a radio studio at Westminster. He investigates some more and finds there was an American scholar named Ehrman and a Cambridge scholar named Williams. Does that mean then that the explosion happened? And the answer is, of course, no. So, Ehrman says, the accuracy of the Gospels in regard to names, geography, customs, etc. (which Ehrman grants), does not mean that Jesus did and said what the Gospel writers claimed He did and said.

There are a few fairly obvious problems with this. I’ll just mention a couple here for brevity.

First, if our hypothetical future scholar found no corroborating evidence of a gas explosion it should make him wonder if it actually happened, and he might well doubt it or be agnostic if all he has is one source. But when it comes to the claims of Christ, His miracles and resurrection, we are not dependent on a single source. We have multiple, independent sources testifying to this, even those who were once sceptics and enemies.

Second, even if our hypothetical future scholar believed the story about the explosion, no one living at the time and place would have believed it. Such an invention could only fool future generations. This isn’t analogous to the details about Christ. The Christian message was proclaimed at the time and in the place where the alleged explosion happened. They weren’t interested in fooling future generations. They were writing and preaching to their own generation who could check their claims.

The fact that Christianity grew rapidly in, and spread widely from, Jerusalem is indisputable. There’s no doubt there was an “explosion” following the death of Christ. Only the resurrection could have sparked that.