William Lane Craig on historical reliability of the gospels

From Reasonable Faith, a challenge from a non-Christian who watched the Craig-Ehrman debate. (PDF of the transcript here at Apologetics 315)

Here are his questions:

1) What outside sources (outside of the canon) are there that support Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection in bodily form, and ascension into heaven?

2) The message of Jesus was spread by word of mouth until the gospels were written. How do we know legend wasn’t developed? Such as Jesus being buried by Joseph of Arimathea.

3) What about other pagan miracle workers such as Honi the Circle-Drawer, Hanina be Dosa, and Apollonius of Tyana (p 27). Doesn’t the fact that these pagan people doing miracles similar to Jesus discredit Jesus as a miracle worker?

4) What about the seeming contradictions in the different gospel accounts? Please give me a different answer then “These are only secondary details and does not lie at the heart of the matter.” If we go to a University that declares the Bible is inerrant, then shouldn’t we be able to explain these?

I quote from Mr. Ehrman in his debate vs Craig on p. 11:

“What day did Jesus die on and what time of day? Did he die on the day before the Passover meal was eaten, as John explicitly says, or did he die after it was eaten, as Mark explicitly says? Did he die at noon, as in John, or at 9 a.m., as in Mark? Did Jesus carry his cross the entire way himself or did Simon of Cyrene carry his cross? It depends which Gospel you read. Did both robbers mock Jesus on the cross or did only one of them mock him and the other come to his defense? It depends which Gospel you read. Did the curtain in the temple rip in half before Jesus died or after he died? It depends which Gospel you read. Or take the accounts of the resurrection. Who went to the tomb on the third day? Was it Mary alone or was it Mary with other women? If it was Mary with other women, how many other women were there, which ones were they, and what were their names? Was the stone rolled away before they got there or not? What did they see in the tomb? Did they see a man, did they see two men, or did they see an angel? It depends which account you read. What were they told to tell the disciples? Were the disciples supposed to stay in Jerusalem and see Jesus there or were they to go to Galilee and see Jesus there? Did the women tell anyone or not? It depends which Gospel you read. Did the disciples never leave Jerusalem or did they immediately leave Jerusalem and go to Galilee? All of these depend on which account you read.”

Now check this out – Dr. Craig quoting Ehrman to respond to a challenge raised by Ehrman:

4. What about the seeming contradictions in the different gospel accounts?

Here’s your straight answer, Grant: they don’t matter. I could accept that all of these apparent discrepancies are irresolvable, and it wouldn’t affect my historical argument one wit. Don’t believe me? Then let’s let Bart Ehrman speak for himself. Does he think that the seeming contradictions he lists undermine the historical credibility of the facts upon which my argument is based? No! He says,

The resurrection of Jesus lies at the heart of Christian faith. Unfortunately, it also is a tradition about Jesus that historians have difficulty dealing with. As I said, there are a couple of things that we can say for certain about Jesus after his death. We can say with relative certainty, for example, that he was buried. . . .

Some scholars have argued that it’s more plausible that in fact Jesus was placed in a common burial plot, which sometimes happened, or was, as many other crucified people, simply left to be eaten by scavenging animals (which also happened commonly for crucified persons in the Roman Empire). But the accounts are fairly unanimous in saying (the earliest accounts we have are unanimous in saying) that Jesus was in fact buried by this fellow, Joseph of Arimathea, and so it’s relatively reliable that that’s what happened.

We also have solid traditions to indicate that women found this tomb empty three days later. This is attested in all of our gospel sources, early and late, and so it appears to be a historical datum. As so I think we can say that after Jesus’ death, with some (probably with some) certainty, that he was buried, possibly by this fellow, Joseph of Arimathea, and that three days later he appeared not to have been in his tomb (“From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity,” Lecture 4: “Oral and Written Traditions about Jesus” [The Teaching Company, 2003]).

The same goes double—well, many times more than double—for Jesus’ crucifixion. This event is widely recognized as the most solidly established fact about the historical Jesus, denied only by kooks and Muslim true believers. Yet Ehrman’s first five discrepancies are all connected, not with the burial and empty tomb narratives, but with the crucifixion accounts! So are you going to deny that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified under Roman authority at the time of the Jewish Passover feast in AD 30 because of these differences in the narratives? If so, Grant, then you will have not only intellectually marginalized yourself but also shown that you are not a sincere seeker after truth.

Do you see now, Grant, why I refused to be drawn into a dispute about how many angels there were at the tomb? Insofar as the historicity of the empty tomb is concerned, it just doesn’t matter.

This article also contains a bit of broad, educational material on how to do history:

In addition to these general considerations, scholars have enunciated certain “criteria of authenticity” to help detect historically reliable information about Jesus even in a document which may not be generally reliable. What the criteria really amount to are statements about the effect of certain types of evidence upon the probability of various sayings or events narrated in the sources. For some saying or event S, evidence of a certain type E, and our background information B, the criteria would state that, all things being equal, Pr (S|E&B) > Pr (S|B). In other words, all else being equal, the probability of some event or saying is greater given, for example, its early, independent attestation than it would have been without it.

What are some of the factors that might serve the role of E in increasing the probability of some saying or event S? The following are some of the most important:

1. Historical congruence: S fits in with known historical facts concerning the context in which S is said to have occurred.
2. Independent, early attestation: S appears in multiple sources which are near to the time at which S is alleged to have occurred and which depend neither upon each other nor upon a common source.
3. Embarrassment: S is awkward or counter-productive for the persons who serve as the source of information for S.
4. Dissimilarity: S is unlike antecedent Jewish thought-forms and/or unlike subsequent Christian thought-forms.
5. Semitisms: traces in the narrative of Aramaic or Hebraic linguistic forms.
6. Coherence: S is consistent with already established facts about Jesus.

Notice that these criteria do not presuppose the general reliability of the Gospels. Rather they focus on a particular saying or event and give evidence for thinking that specific element of Jesus’ life to be historical, regardless of the general reliability of the document in which the particular saying or event is reported. These same criteria are thus applicable to reports of Jesus found in the apocryphal Gospels, or rabbinical writings, or even the Qur’an. Of course, if the Gospels can be shown to be generally reliable documents, so much the better! But the criteria do not depend on any such presupposition. They serve to help spot historical kernels even in the midst of historical chaff. Thus we need not concern ourselves with defending the Gospels’ general reliability or every claim attributed to Jesus in the Gospels (much less their inerrancy!).

Click here for the rest. It is very important that Christians be able to use the Bible as a historical source with non-Christian challengers who do not accept the Bible as inerrant, nor even as generally reliable. The best way to learn is by seeing how Christian scholars make the case in debates and discussions.

One thought on “William Lane Craig on historical reliability of the gospels”

  1. Not a question significant to the point of the post, but you refer to this as “a challenge from a non-Christian” and urge Christians to “be able to use the Bible as a historical source with non-Christian challengers” (which is all well and good), but I noticed that this particular challenger says, “If we go to a University that declares the Bible is inerrant, then shouldn’t we be able to explain these?” It looks like this particular challenger is closer to being in the category of “believers”.

    The point of my side point, then, is that Christians seem to be having a hard time with answers easily as much as non-Christians are. These things ought not be.

    I think that this is as much the point of Apologetics as any use of the method for evangelism.


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