Craig Evans vs Bart Ehrman debate on the reliability of the gospels

This is the first debate ever between these two top-ranked scholars. Both Evans and Ehrman are probably 2 of the 10 most recognized historical Jesus scholars.

The MP3 audio and a link to the video is here. (From Brian Auten at Apologetics 315)


Bart Ehrman

Dr. Ehrman, is a graduate of Wheaton College (Illinois), Professor Ehrman received both his Masters of Divinity and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, where his 1985 doctoral dissertation was awarded magna cum laude. Since then he has published extensively in the fields of New Testament and Early Christianity, having written or edited twenty-one books, numerous scholarly articles, and dozens of book reviews. Among his fields of scholarly expertise are the historical Jesus, the early Christian apocrypha, the apostolic fathers, and the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.

Craig Evans

Dr. Evans received his B.A. degree in History and Philosophy from Claremont McKenna College, his M.Div. degree from Western Baptist Seminary in Portland, Oregon, and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Biblical Studies from Claremont Graduate University in southern California. Author and editor of more than fifty books and hundreds of articles and reviews, Professor Evans has given lectures at Cambridge, Durham, Oxford, Yale, and other universities, colleges, seminaries, and museums, such as the Field Museum in Chicago and the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa.

More bio-stuff here.


Snarky things I made up are in italics.

Question 1: are the gospels historically reliable?

Bart Ehrman opening speech:

  • I used to be an ignorant fundamentalist like you!
  • but then I went to Princeton, and now I know better
  • to Craig: are there errors in the Bible
  • the gospels have some reliable and some unreliable info
  • only careless readers don’t see contradictions in the gospels
  • contradictions in the genealogies
  • contradictions in timing of recognizing Jesus as the Messiah
  • contradiction about when Jesus died
  • contradiction about when the stone was rolled away
  • contradiction about who was at the empty tomb
  • contradiction about when the disciples went to Galilee
  • contradictions in minor details means the gospels are unreliable

Craig Evans opening speech:

  • the question is “do the gospels tell us enough about Jesus for faith?”
  • the gospels don’t tell us everything, but they tell enough for faith
  • the extremely early creed in 1 Cor 15:3-7 has an outline of the gospel
  • it contains the burial, the appearances to eyewitnesses
  • and it agrees with the early sermons of Peter in Acts 2
  • the gospels agree with these extremely early summaries
  • the gospels are based on earlier sources
  • the gospels are corroborated by the Jewish historian Josephus

Question 2: Do the gospels accurately preserve the teachings of Jesus Christ?

Bart Ehrman

  • are there any discrepancies in the gospels?
  • the gospels have things Jesus said, and things he didn’t say
  • if the Bible is inaccurate in some minor details, then it’s all unreliable
  • in the latest gospel, John, Jesus calls himself God and sees himself as divine
  • but these high-Christology statements are not in the synoptics
  • therefore, Jesus really didn’t say these things
  • why didn’t the synoptics record these claims to divinity
  • the author of John changed the words of Jesus and John the Baptist?

Craig Evans

  • E.P. Sanders (a non-Christian scholar) says we can know what Jesus taught
  • cites E.P.’s list of Jesus’ core teachings that are agreed on by most scholars
  • Jesus’ focus was talking about the Kingdom of God – the rule of God
  • Jesus’ followers were expected to record and understand the words of Jesus
  • It is permissible for the followers of Jesus to have some editorial license

Question 3: Do the gospels accurately preserve the activities of Jesus Christ?

Bart Ehrman

  • E.P. Sanders agrees with me that there are discrepancies in the gospels
  • E.P. Sanders agrees with me that there are mistakes in the gospels
  • If Jesus’ followers changed his words a little, then we can’t know anything he said
  • If the author changes the story a little, then the story was changed a lot
  • If there not 100% accurate, then they’re not accurate at all
  • contradiction of the ordering of Jesus’ temptations
  • contradiction of the number of animals Jesus rode into Jerusalem
  • contradiction of whether Jesus spoke or didn’t speak in some instance
  • contradiction of what Jesus said on the cross
  • contradiction of the number of robbers who speak to Jesus
  • Jesus can only say ONE THING when he’s on the cross
  • the gospel writers have to be in complete agreement

Craig Evans

  • E.P. Sanders (non-Christian) lists 7 virtually indisputable facts about Jesus
  • just because there are discrepancies, doesn’t mean there are no minimal facts
  • in additional to E.P. Sanders, there are other facts that are widely-accepted
  • many assertions in the gospels are embarrassing to the author
  • many liberal scholars think that Jesus was a healer and an exorcist
  • all scholars agree on the crucifixion
  • most scholars accept the “King of the Jews” placard placed over the cross
  • this means that Jesus was viewed by his followers as the Messiah

Question 4: Do the gospels contain eyewitness tradition?

Bart Ehrman

  • I used to be an ignorant uninformed fundie, like you all
  • but then I started to study seriously, not like Craig Evans
  • I changed my mind based on intense research, not peer pressure
  • My apostasy has nothing to do with the problem of evil and suffering!
  • I use my brain, and Craig Evans and you fundies don’t use your brains
  • the gospels don’t claim to be written by eyewitnesses
  • the titles of the gospels were added later
  • the gospels don’t claim to be written by the authors attributed to them
  • the gospels were written anonymously
  • the gospels only had names attached in 120-140 AD
  • even if gospels were written by eyewitnesses, they are not always accurate
  • written 40-60 years after Jesus died
  • written in Greek, not Aramaic
  • written in different countries
  • based on stories that were told and retold and changed over time

Craig Evans

  • Richard Bauckham says the gospels are largely based on eyewitness accounts
  • the gospels were written while there were still eyewitnesses alive
  • the people who met Jesus were there to correct the written accounts
  • there were many disputes about things in the early church, so if the early church invented sayings, then why not invent sayings of Jesus to resolve the disputes?
  • there is no evidence of things being invented wholesale by the early church
  • Pappias says that he talked to Christians who knew the eyewitnesses to Jesus

Question 5: Do archaeologists and historians use the gospels as sources?

Bart Ehrman

  • archaeologists do not use the gospels, they just dig things up
  • historians do use gospels
  • Jesus is not mentioned by any Greek or Roman non-Christian source for 80 years after Jesus’ death
  • The earliest Jewish source is Josephus, writing 60 years after Jesus’ death
  • Paul is the earliest source, but says nothing about Jesus’ words and deeds
  • the earliest sources for words and deeds are the discrepancy-filled gospels
  • the gospels are based on telling and re-telling of the stories

Craig Evans

  • James Charlesworth has a 700-book about archaeology and the Bible
  • the book contains hundreds of references to the four gospels
  • the four gospels and Acts are viewed as the best sources for archaeologists
  • they provide accurate information about the way things were
  • the gospels and Acts helps archaeologists to know where to dig for things
  • the Biblical sources are early and based on eyewitnesses
  • the gospels and Acts fit well in the first century culture
  • the gospels and Acts talk about real events and real places and real customs
  • the gospels and Acts talk about real buildings and real public figures and real groups
  • the language of the gospels traces back nicely to Aramaic
  • the gospels talk about geography and climate
  • archaeologists discover many things discussed in the gospels

Question 6: Have the gospels been accurately preserved done through the centuries

Bart Ehrman

  • if God inspired the Bible without error, he should have preserved it without error
  • but the originals have NOT been preserved without error
  • so I no longer accept the inerrancy of the autographs (the originals)
  • we don’t have the originals
  • we only have copies of copies… of copies… of copies… of copies
  • and the copiers all made mistakes
  • the first manuscripts are decades later
  • and the manuscripts we have are different from one another
  • the earliest copies have the most mistakes
  • even if we have many copies, they are late, so we don’t know what the original said
  • we don’t have early manuscripts

Craig Evans

  • we know where the discrepancies in the manuscripts are
  • the discrepancies are marked in your Bible
  • the discrepancies affect peripheral issues
  • some discrepancies are supported by other verses
  • Mark doesn’t have the appearances, but 1 Cor 15 does, and it’s earlier
  • the errors are things like spelling and grammar errors, typos, etc.
  • we have fragments that are earlier than the full manuscripts
  • some early manuscripts have errors, but other early manuscripts are correct

Question 7: Do scribal errors and textual variants significantly impact any teaching of Jesus or any important Christian teaching?

Bart Ehrman

  • the woman caught in adultery is a late addition
  • the ending of Mark is a late addition
  • can we handle snakes or can’t we?
  • did Jesus sweat blood or didn’t he?
  • some manuscripts have errors – that should not be allowed by God
  • some scribes are careless – that should not be allowed by God
  • we have to have perfect copies of the originals, or I won’t believe!
  • if God really inspired it, it all has to be perfect! Perfect! I was lied to!!!!
  • if the snake-handling verse isn’t there, then the whole Bible is lies! Lies!

Craig Evans

  • no variants impact any teaching of Jesus or significant Christian teaching
  • the vast majority of the manuscripts agree on 98-99% of the text
  • often, the theology gives rise to a variant, which is introduced later
  • variants aren’t central enough to affect any theological doctrines

And then there are concluding speeches by each speaker.

I made this summary based on the video, which is here on Apologetics 315.

Further study

The top 10 links to help you along with your learning.

  1. How every Christian can learn to explain the resurrection of Jesus to others
  2. The earliest source for the minimal facts about the resurrection
  3. The earliest sources for the empty tomb narrative
  4. Who were the first witnesses to the empty tomb?
  5. Did the divinity of Jesus emerge slowly after many years of embellishments?
  6. What about all those other books that the Church left out the Bible?
  7. Assessing Bart Ehrman’s case against the resurrection of Jesus
  8. William Lane Craig debates radical skeptics on the resurrection of Jesus
  9. Did Christianity copy from Buddhism, Mithraism or the myth of Osiris?
  10. Quick overview of N.T. Wright’s case for the resurrection

Debates are a fun way to learn

Two debates where you can see this play out:

Or you can listen to my favorite debate on the resurrection.

Extra stuff

Stand to Reason has a post featuring Mike Licona discussing Ehrman.

29 thoughts on “Craig Evans vs Bart Ehrman debate on the reliability of the gospels”

  1. Thanks for posting this, even with the snarky comments. :) As an agnostic, i’m kind of biased towards Ehrman, as i’ve noticed some problems with the bible, but sounds like craig admits errancy but supports doctrinal infallibility and teaching. I think this is actually reasonable, even though I don’t personally believe in Christianity. I’ll have to watch the whole thing later on.


    1. Although I am an inerrantist, that position only entails that the autographs are without error. I am free to admit to all kinds of difficulties that emerge later in the text.

      Moreover, there are historical tests to decide what facts in the Bible are “historical”, which means that they pass certain criteria so that we can know that they are likely to have happened apart from fatih. For example, no one doubts the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. And no one doubts that the disciples had experiences in which Jesus appeared to him after his death. Even wacky atheists like Crossley and Ludemann agree with that.

      So Evans’ position is not very liberal. Finally, you don’t have to accept inerrancy in order to be a Christian – but I do not think you should throw verses out because you don’t LIKE them. If you think something like the guard at the tomb or the earthquake where the graves open are apocalyptic imagery by the author of Matthew, that is fine with me! I think inerrancy is the right position though, but you don’t have to start with that. N.T. Wright is not an inerrantist.

      I think it’s important to note that the only two variants cited by Ehrman that are at all interesting are the ending of Mark (which I care about) and the woman stoned in adultery (which I don’t care about). I wish the ending of Mark were real, and some scholars think it is real. But’s all that’s significant in the hundreds of thousands of variants. One or angel or two angels – who cares?


  2. WK – thanks for the snarkies — definitely value-added!

    Agnostic-guy named “Craig” — it must be tough — your name isn’t William Lane Craig Evans by any chance??!!

    Craig Evans believes that the gospels are authentic historical witnesses to Christ; I think he would say that strict inerrancy is something we unnecessarily”read into” the text. I have heard him say that the NT Church was born and thrived for decades without the NT, and our faith is founded on the resurrection of Christ, not the inerrancy of the NT.

    Having said that, I believe in inerrancy, in the sense that the Scriptures have the degree of accuracy intended by the original authors with the blessing of the Holy Spirit. E.g., when the Scripture writer says that the whole town went out to hear Jesus, it does not mean the whole town went out to hear Jesus. Or, when Luke says “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas”, it does not mean that they did not take bathroom breaks, or take time-out to eat, sleep, etc.

    Similarly, if Stephen says that something lasted for 400 years, and it was really 420, it is not an error, any more than if I say something cost $5 when in fact it was $4.99. Same with Pi being approximated at 3.

    Some of the arguments for errancy get downright ridiculous. It’s like someone says, “The bridge is out three miles down the road, watch out!!!!” and someone wants to argue that the bridge is only 2.8 miles away, so this message cannot be believed. The central fact that you have to pay attention to is that the bridge is out, and there is danger going that way. The broad-sweep message of the Bible is absolutely clear, and it is reliably reinforced over and over again.

    Here it is:
    God created heaven and earth and man in his image for fellowship with him.
    This fellowship has been broken by our rebellion and sin.
    God has done something about it. He has taken our penalty for sin upon himself. He has also entered into our human condition via the incarnation, and, as a man, been swept back up into the highest heaven.
    Those who believe this, and accept his free offer of forgiveness and eternal life, get planted into the God-man, and share his eternal destiny as the Favored One who sits at the right hand of God forever.

    As I like to say (this is my apologetic) — “the gospel is too good not to be true”.


    1. Craig deserves a hug. It takes a sound and focused person to respond to Erhman Barth they way he did even with the indirect insults he time to time rained down on Dr. Evans. This has so much made me see that it’s a just a privilege to learn from him.


  3. I just listened to this debate and I thought it was quite interesting, especially as I don’t know much at all about the reliability of the Gospels, the canon, textual criticism etc. I mostly listen to the more philosophical debates on the existence of God and about morality so this was a nice change. However, I think it’s pretty clear that Ehrman won this debate. He was more passionate, more memorable and created more doubts than Evans dealt with. I thought that Evans should have been slightly more confrontational like, “Professor Ehrman said so and so, but this is just plain false.” Or, “Professor Ehrman seems to enjoy greatly exaggerating the facts. Here’s what the truth is…”
    Ehrman seemed to get away with a lot of the stuff he was saying.


  4. Evans was decimated in this debate. I was rooting for him but he was completely ineffective. His stance was basically “Well these self-serving writings by people who clearly had an interest in Jesus’ divinity and resurrection caught the spirit of the life of Jesus, even though the details are all wrong.” Come on Evans, you can do better than that! I am tired of these apologists getting annihilated in debates with these non-Christians. It is starting to make me doubt a little, I have to admit..


    1. Can you list the specific passages that are brought into question because of the number of variants? I want the references. So far, the count is zero, which means that Ehrman is wrong. Now I want to see that list or I will know that you are just an atheist who will believe anything that pleases you, without any evidence. Produce the list of passages that are theologically relevant that are undermined by variants and do it right now, or you are a liar.


      1. I’m not sure what more evidence of variance you could require. I think the most important point to make to this question is that in John Jesus clearly identifies himself as the Son of God and divine while no such claims are made in the Synoptic Gospels. It is also interesting that virtually all scholars agree that John was by far the latest Gospel written, with Mark being the first. I think that’s “theologically relevant”.
        The narrative is in agreement is some very basic ways, Jesus lived in Galilee, had disciples, was a charismatic rabbi, went to Jerusalem and was crucified and then resurrected. But how does it differ from a legend then? Many people wrote basically the same story about the deeds of Hercules, but we don’t take them as fact. Historical scholarship uses details to assign credibility to accounts. Does that not make sense?


        1. Ok so you admit that Bart Ehrman has zero doctrines that are undermined by variants, so the discrepancies that he complains about are not related to central Christian doctrines.

          Regarding your other point, here is a post to help you deal with that:

          The divinity of Jesus is in the earliest sources. Please comment in that post.


          1. I guess I simply don’t know what you mean here. Ehrman doesn’t have “doctrines”. I guess I don’t know what you mean by “central Christian doctrines”? If they’re not the trinity, the divinity of Jesus, and his resurrection, what are they? Ehrman simply pointed out the discrepancies found in the gospels regarding all these points. I think his argument was devastating, and I am a person of faith, (and also a university student).


          2. Which discrepancies? Would you PLEASE name ONE discrepancy that affects one of the core doctrines. Ehrman can’t, so I’ll be happy if you can.


          3. I am agreement that the Gospel of Mark does talk about the Son of God and how it will bring about the radical Kingdom referenced in the Synoptics. However I am starting to see Ehrman’s point that Jesus makes no reference to HIMSELF as the son of man until John. In the Synoptics he seems to be referring to the Son of Man in the third person. In the Synoptics he seems to be a kind of prophet talking about the impending apocalypse than a divine being. We will of course disagree but Ehrman’s points here and in his books do make considerable sense in my view..


          4. Brian, Jesus most certainly refers to himself as the Son of Man within the Gospels. Most of the references make no sense any other way given the context, such as his declaration in Mark 14:62-64 (why is he guilty of blasphemy if he’s basically repeating Daniel’s prophecy that the Son of Man is coming in the future?) or Matthew 8:18-22 (He responds to a man wanting to follow him by saying “Okay, but this other guy that’s coming later has no bed to lay his head in.”???) just to name a couple.

            Additionally, compare parallel verses in Matthew & Luke which alternate “Son of Man” and “I”, such as Matthew 5:11/Luke 6:22, Mark 8:27/Matthew 16:13, or Matthew 10:32-33/Luke 12:8-9.

            Further, given Jesus penchant for assuming the authority of God (Matt 19:28, Luke 22:28-30,Mark 2:5-7, etc) it makes no sense for him to speak about another man whose coming to judge the world, (including Jesus himself).

            See William Lane Craig’s ‘Reasonable Faith’ or Ben Witherington’s ‘Christology of Jesus’ for more info.


        2. The evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus and numerous appearances of Him alive after He died is agreed upon by virtually all (at least 95%) scholars, both liberal and conservative (see Dr Gary Habermas, world’s most renowned scolar on Christ’s Resurrection, as well as other scholars). The “explanations” of Swoon Theiry, hallucinations and group think have been decimated by experts. So, what is the explanation?


        3. Jesus claims to be God in The Gospel of Mark (widely accepted as the earliest and most reliable of the Gospels) in Mark 2:5 (forgiving sins),
          Mark 2:28 (Lord of the Sabbath) and Mark 14:61-64-this one is very explicit.
          The definition of Innerancy is “free of error” and the definition of Error” is “unintentional deviation from truth or accuracy.”
          It is clear to me Jesus claimed to be God (in other than John’s Gospel) and the original manuscripts of the Bible are inerrant.


        4. Sorry for this very late post (!) but I just noticed this blog. I dont understand how you can state that ‘Son of God’ was only really applied to Jesus in John’s gospel. That simply isnt true. Out of interest I looked through Matthew-

          Matt 4 – Satan to Jesus ‘If you are the Son of God…’. Jesus replied ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test…’.

          Matt 8 – again the demonic recognise Him as ‘the Son of God’.

          Matt 11 – there is no doubt, when read in context, that Jesus is referring to himself as ‘the Son’.

          Matt 14 – Disciples , after Jesus calms the storm,’ Truly you are the Son of God’.

          Matt 16 – Simon Peter ,’You are the Messiah, the Son of God’. Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, ..this was revealed to you…by my Father in heaven’.

          Matt 17 – Transfiguration -‘This is my Son’.

          Matt 28 – ‘…go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son…’. Again, in context, He is clearly referring to Himself.

          So from the start of Matthew through to the end, Jesus is recognised as the Son of God, either by others (including the demonic) or Himself. And I havent looked at Mark or Luke.

          Note that in the instances when someone else has called him directly the Son of God, Jesus does not attempt to contradict them. There are other indirect passages referencing His divinity but I have not included them as the specific title ‘Son of God’ is not mentioned. And it should not be forgotten that the ‘Son of Man’ title that Jesus often used is accepted by most to reference the ‘son of man’ from Daniel, who was clearly much more than human!

          The truth is, if John’s gospel did not exist, we would still have good reason to view Jesus as the unique Son of God.

          Its a shame that writers such as Ehrman don’t see that, and are trying to convince others of the same.


  5. Wow…I sure can’t tell who you side with!

    Anyone who has read Ehrmans books knows that he doesn’t claim everything to be wrong. He points out how we can not know for sure what was originally written thus we cant know for sure if what we are reading is accurate or not, what he is doing is showing reason for doubt and if there is any doubt then to assert that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. That the Bible is not infallable. He readily admits that the meaning of most passages are not changed by the Differences that we know of but in some the changes to change the meaning. It is also imortant to note that if we can find 400,000 differences regardless of their impact you must consider what differences haven’t we found?


    1. Hello. The only thing that matters is the list of variants that are theologically significant. By Ehrman’s own admission, he has only four. And I found those to be irrelevant. It’s a lot of dishonesty to pretend that there is something important there, but there isn’t. This is only important for the people who read Dan Brown hoping to undermine the reliability of the Bible. Bart Ehrman is essentially Dan Brown but less entertaining. It’s a bunch of speculation that falls apart the minute he steps into a debate with a real scholar.


    2. What Ehrman fails to tell his readers, at least in the ‘popular’ version of his books which the ‘man in the street’ would read, are ALL the facts. Eg in stating there are 400,000 variants within the NT, firstly that figure is debated which he doesnt mention, and more importantly that these variants are spread over approximately 25,000 documents! He tries to give the impression that given his figure of 400,000 variants being more than the total number of words in the NT (140,000?) that therefore the NT is absolutely full of errors. Which simply is false. Or in discussing the possible change from ‘anger’ to ‘compassion’ iro Jesus healing the leper, Ehrman conveniently fails to tell his readers that Jesus’ anger is mentioned on other different occasions in the same gospel – he tries to give the impression that our view of Jesus was being tampered with, which could hardly be the case given the other examples. But sadly those who just see the headline-grabbing marketing and who have little knowledge of the NT take it all in. I suggest you read Craig Blomberg’s book,’Can we still believe the Bible?’ which, in my view, gives a better, more balanced account of the facts.


  6. All of Ehrman’s main critic’s against the New Testament are base purely upon presupposition and nothing more; and are bereft of any historical facts. Further, he has absolutley NO contemporanious evidence to back up ANY of his assertions.


    1. That is correct. He presents a lot of assumptions, suppositions, innuendos, “what ifs,” possibilities, probabilities, etc.
      In all seriousness, I think Ehrman has some OCD issues; everything is black or white, all or nothing. How arrogant of him to state God should have preserved the inerrancy of manuscript copies….


      1. mmmne4,

        I agree with you. I think Ehrman has problems with obsessive compulsive disorder. He’s sees the world (not only Bible texts) through a filter of absolutes, contradictions, discrepancies, etc. while others do not. This makes him a great textual critic, but a poor pastor/theologian. I actually felt kind of bad for him during the debate. Did you see how the other two were looking at him (not Dr. Evans)? Ehrman appears a little ….well “off.” He really believes if he could just explain to everyone else the facts, they will see the “truth.” I don’t really think he his aware of the OCD….it’s everyone else.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s