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A Good Debate

via James McGrath, a debate between Bart Ehrman, former fundamentalist who through Biblical scholarship became a very liberal skeptic, and Craig Evans, an evangelical Bible scholar. Oral debates are, in my view, more often counterproductive than helpful to the project of helping people get a better and deeper grasp on areas of study that are subject to controversy. The rare exception is a debate between people who hold varying views but are able to nonetheless present factual information responsibly. This is more often true when the “sides” are less polarized, when both participants have taken great pains to educate themselves responsibly, when both are cognizant of their own weaknesses and infallibility, and when both are making an effort to educate their audience with solid material that will be useful and beneficial to them.

This debate was among those rare exceptions. When one of those comes along, you don’t talk about who won or lost the debate, as much as what you learned from it. Unfortunately, Bart Ehrman is unskilled at oral debate and sounded uncomfortable and strident. In addition, he did not always argue as effectively as he could have. So, if we have to speak of a winner, it is the conservative, Craig Evans. But both were interesting, and both made a number of valid points. I’ll recap a couple. But right now, it’s time to watch the video. It’s just shy of an hour and a half, so watch it when you have some time.

First, some points about Evans. I really admired his closing statement which contrasted the humility of evangelical Christianity with the false confidence of fundamentalism. I believe that even fundamentalists hearing him defend conservative Christianity would appreciate his viewpoint (and might, without giving up the doctrines of hard inerrancy and other unfortunate aspects of fundamentalism, think of themselves as being closer kin with his view than with the view they have historically espoused).

Second, while his presentation on such issues as whether the gospels “contain” eye-witness testimony, whether we have sufficiently well-attested witnesses to the originals, where we can have a good deal of confidence about concerning the historical core of the gospels, and how the gospels can be and are used by historians and archaeologists, was relatively partisan, it was also essentially correct. In the case of how historians and archaeologists use the gospels, it was more correct than Ehrman’s contribution.

Third, for whatever reason, he left a number of points very conspicuously unanswered.

Fourth, he was in very questionable territory on a couple of items.

For his part, Ehrman was somewhat far afield in answering the question about how archaeologists might employ the gospels. He was not his usual professorial self (I’ve seen instructional videos in which his style is much more somber and reflective) – instead he did come across as strident and uncomfortable. In addition, apart from his answer on archaeology, his answers were essentially correct – but very partisan in presentation.

His strongest point – and one which did go unanswered – concerned the question of who Jesus said that he was. He is correct that John differs from the other gospels in that it portrays Jesus as being self-consciously Divine in terms of equality or near-equality with the Father. Before I go into more detail on this let me diverge for a moment.

Evans cites a short list of items that can be historically known about Jesus from the Gospels – including that he was known as a healer, that he was baptized by John, and that he preached the Rule or Kingdom of God, among other things. He also points out that he was received as a messiah-figure by (some, at least, among) his disciples and may have acknowledged such a designation himself. These are all important facts about Jesus that it would be foolish to discard lightly, and they attest to a certain amount of reliability of the gospels in terms of how they characterize Jesus life, and teachings. Ehrman probably agrees with most of those points, but treated them dismissively. As I said, his approach was partisan.

Significantly, this list of Evans correctly omits any notion that Jesus thought of himself as uniquely Divine. In fact, Evans would have been irresponsible to defend that notion as being anything like a historical certainty. Ehrman made the point that many evangelicals ask the question – is Jesus who he said he was? Ehrman, rightly in my view, made the point that these same evangelicals hold an unjustified assumption – that Jesus said he was God. In my view, he never believed that or thought it.

That isn’t to say that John invented the notion (or even held it in the same way modern Evangelicals do). Notions of the divinity of Jesus certainly predated John and showed up in the writings of Paul and even, obliquely, some of the synoptic gospels. John is simply the gospel that presents that notion least ambiguously and attributes it to Jesus himself. One of the most interesting fields of study I’ve recently run across is trying to understand in the context of first century Judaism what was meant by the notion of divinity, especially as it was applied to Jesus. If Evans had answered Ehrman’s challenge on the historical reliability of the notion that Jesus and his immediate followers conceived of him as co-equal with the Father, then the discussion would have inevitably become more technical and begun to explore some of those issues. I believe that Evans avoided that in part because he did not relish that discussion – knowing as he must that there is little support in the Bible or in the context of first century Judaism for the idea that Jesus was, thought he was, or was thought of as being “fully God”.

This is the biggest point of contention, I believe, between the liberal or secular student and the conservative one: the identity of Jesus. On this point, I think Ehrman’s position is stronger. The next biggest point of contention between the liberal or secular student and the conservative one is the nature of the Bible. On this point Evans does engage, and in some ways corrects Ehrman’s views which – presented from the partisan viewpoint of counter-apology – are a tad extreme. However, Ehrman is largely correct – there are good reasons to discount the doctrines of inerrancy and infallibility. Evans, to the extent that he only corrects Ehrman’s occasional over-reach but does not answer his basic charges, seems to agree with Ehrman in spirit, even if he holds to a strong notion of Biblical reliability and considers it the authoritative word of God. He consistently defers the repeated question: does he finds in the Bible the same irreconcilable contradictions that others find. In short he does not base his “high” view of the scripture on the idea that there are no “errors” in the Bible, but rather on the idea that the Bible is generally reliable and tells a consistent and believable story.

Even when stated this way, I disagree with him. Yes, the New Testament is harmonious on certain matters central to Christian theology. Furthermore, there are no written testimonies to Christian views from the same early period that profoundly contradict the New Testament position on those matters (though there is ample evidence that such contradictory Christian views did exist in that early period – and there is reason to surmise and some limited evidence that in fact non-Christian views of Jesus from those in as good a position as Paul and the Evangelists to evaluate the stories was also at odds with the Christian narrative).

But even if we take the view on face value that the Bible is generally reliable concerning the life and teachings of Jesus, it is still quite a task to derive from that support for wide swaths of evangelical doctrine. As Ehrman pointed out, important doctrines (including the Trinity) are without Biblical foundation apart from layers of interpretation in light of doctrines unheard of at the time the New Testament was written. (Furthermore, taking into account the cultural context of New Testament writings, it might be said that the Bible is directly or indirectly at variance with, for instance, Trinitarianism as later conceived). This is one area where Evans may have overstated his case – in suggesting that issues which come up in textual variants are resolved by other, better-founded, texts – and including the Trinitarian formula of First John. He would be hard pressed to produce those texts and show how they are properly interpreted in light of the cultural context of their writing in support of the spurious formula of the Johannine comma. As Ehrman pointed out, a number of teachings historically (and currently, in many circles) held to be important and worth repeating and sermonizing over, are based on insecure variants. Not all are as clearly spurious as the Johannine comma, but quite a few are at least disputable. Taken together with ample evidence to doubt the absolute reliability of every statement in the New Testament, with good reason to read the Gospels as each expressing its own position, with an honest appreciation of the tension between their accounts, and mindfully of which are most representative of what the earliest followers of Jesus thought and believed about him, it follows that the weight of modern conservative theology, including doctrines about the Bible itself, is very insecure.

That said, I like Evans’ approach. While he still holds (unjustifiably in my view) to much of conservative theology and a traditionally high view of scripture, he divorces himself from fundamentalist absolutes both by leaving Ehrman’s strongest charges unanswered, and by – in his closing statement – positively pointing out the futility of an absolutist interpretation of the Bible. He acknowledges, rightly, that his views are contingent and debatable, and that while he holds to the authority of a traditional interpretation, that rejection of that tradition is also a valid and honest position. It is precisely this humility that separates the modern evangelical from the modern fundamentalist, and lends respectability to the conservative position.

2 comments to A Good Debate

  • I will try to be brief…:)
    You went to the heart of the issue when you said:

    His strongest point – and one which did go unanswered – concerned the question of who Jesus said that he was.

    Herein lies the difference in Evangelicals and non-evangelicals, knowing who Jesus is.

    I know very little about either of these two men other than what you or they tell us here and that Ehrman seemed much more emotionally involved than Evans. What they have to say is interesting, but Evans did not attempt to answer each charge leveled. There are many volumes written on these questions and they really couldn’t be covered in 1 1/2 hours.

    What I do know is that each of the gospels were recorded and preserved through the ages for different purposes. Much of what Ehrman mentioned here was the fact that there is a difference in what different men recorded. Each record is for a different purpose. Just because something is left out by one author and not by another doesn’t necessarily mean that it didn’t occur.

    Luke is the only person who gives some insight into the type of record he made.

    John had a more intimate relationship with Christ. John is the author who best answers the question, “Who is Jesus?”

  • I would disagree with you about John having the most accurate answers about who Jesus was. John was writing 50 years after Jesus, and is, of all the gospels, the most theological and least biographical. It is likely that the author belonged to a community that remembered the teachings of one of the original apostles, but it is unlikely that this apostle was still living at the time that John wrote. John uses a unique set of sources – which may have rivaled the sources of the synoptic gospels in terms of age and accuracy, but which largely lack attestation outside the gospel. Mark, on the other hand, was likely written during the lifetime of one or more of the apostles, and may have had the benefit of sources much closer to Jesus. The fact that Luke and Matthew relied heavily on Mark as a source speaks to the good reputation it enjoyed as a biography. It is unlikely that any of the evangelists knew Jesus during his life, but a case could be made that Mark had the best access to traditions reflective of the apostles of Jesus.

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