Category Archives: News

Peter J. Williams debates Bart Ehrman on his book “Misquoting Jesus”

Dr. Peter J. Williams, an expert on New Testament reliability
Dr. Peter J. Williams, an expert on New Testament reliability

I have to re-post this debate between Bart Ehrman and Peter J. Williams, because Dr. Williams just followed me on Twitter. I noticed that he had re-tweeted one of the two senators I follow on Twitter, so I re-tweeted him. I like Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley, and he re-tweeted Senator Hawley talking about free speech.

Bart Ehrman posted the debate audio on YouTube:

Details:

Bart Ehrman is the US author of the bestselling book “Misquoting Jesus” (In the UK “Whose word is it?”).  He calls into question the authority of the New Testament as scribal changes over time have changed the documents.

So can we trust the scripture? Bible scholar Peter Williams believes in the reliability of the New Testament and that Bart’s prognosis is far too pessimistic.

This post is a re-post from 2011. I have been listening to this lecture by Peter J. Williams on “Misquoting Jesus” this week, and it reminded me to re-post this debate. (I checked to make sure the MP3 link is still good, and it is)

Summary of the Williams-Ehrman debate:

Note: this summary is snarky. If you want an accurate view of the debate, then listen to it. My summary is meant to be humorous.

Ehrman:

  • I had a mystical experience in childhood and became an evangelical Christian
  • I went to Moody Bible Institute, and they told me that the Bible was inerrant
  • For a while, I was committed to the view that there are no mistakes in the Bible
  • At Princeton, I was taught and graded by professors who did not accept inerrancy
  • By a strange coincidence, I began to see that the Bible did have errors after all!
  • We don’t have the original documents written by the original authors, we only have thousands of copies
  • if the words of the Bible are not completely inerrant, then none of it is historical
  • if all of the words in all the copies of the Bible are not identical, then none of it is historical

Williams:

  • I would say the New and Old testaments are the Word of God
  • We don’t need to have the original Greek writings in order to believe in the authority of the Bible
  • I believe in inerrancy, but doesn’t mean there are no problems
  • the doctrine of inerrancy has always referred to the original Greek copies, not the translations

Moderator:

  • what are the main points of Misquoting Jesus?

Ehrman:

  • we don’t have the originals of any of the books of the New Testament
  • we have copies that are much later, sometimes even centuries later!!1!
  • the copies we have all differ from one another – they were changed by scribes!!1!
  • we have 5000 manuscripts in the original Greek language
  • there are hundreds of thousands of differences!!1!
  • most of the differences don’t matter
  • some differences are significant for meaning or doctrine
  • errors are propagated because the next scribe inherits the mistake of their source copy
  • a large gap between the time of writing and the first extant copy means more errors have crept in

Williams:

  • the reason we have so many variants is because the number of manuscripts is large

Angry Jesus or compassionate Jesus in Mark

Ehrman:

  • most manuscripts say that Jesus was compassionate when healing a leper, but one says he was angry
  • it makes a huge huge huge really really big difference if Jesus is compassionate or angry
  • the whole Bible needs to be thrown out because of this one word between different in one manuscript

Williams:

  • this variant is important for understanding the passage, but it has no great meaning
  • the change is probably just an accident – the two words are very similar visually in Greek
  • it’s just an accident – it emerged in one manuscript, and it impacted a few more
  • the tiny number of manuscripts that have the error are geographically isolated
  • I’m pretty sure that WK prefers the angry Jesus anyway – so who cares?

Ehrman:

  • no! someone changed it deliberately! it’s a conspiracy! you should buy my book! it’s a *big deal*!!!!!1!!1!one!!eleventy-one!

The woman caught in adultery in John

Ehrman:

  • it is isn’t in any of the earliest manuscripts
  • this is an apocryphical story that some scribe deliberately inserted into the text
  • most people don’t even know about this! it’s a cover-up! you need to buy my scandalous book!

Williams:

  • that’s right, it’s a late addition by some overzealous scribe
  • and it’s clearly marked as such in every modern Bible translation
  • the only people who don’t know about this are people who don’t read footnotes in their Bible
  • and in any case, this isn’t a loss of the original words of the New Testament – it’s an addition

Grace of God or apart from God in Hebrews

Ehrman:

  • well this is just a one word difference, but it makes a huge huge really really big difference!
  • the words are very similar, so it’s could be an accident I guess
  • but it wasn’t! this was a deliberate change! it’s a conspiracy! it’s a cover-up! scandal!
  • buy my book! It’s almost as good as Dan Brown!

Moderator:

  • hmmmn…. I kind of like “apart from God” – why is this such a big scandal again?

Ehrman:

  • you don’t care? how can you not care? it has to be inerrant! or the whole thing is false!
  • Moody Bible Institute says!

Williams:

  • yeah Bart is always saying that every change is deliberate but it’s just an accident
  • the words are very similar, just a few letters are different, this is clearly an accident
  • I have no problem with apart from God, or by the Grace of God
  • please move on and stop screaming and running around and knocking things over

Moderator:

  • but what if pastors try to use this passage in a sermon?

Williams:

  • well, one word doesn’t make a big different, the meaning that appears is fine for preaching
  • it’s only a problem for people who treat the Bible as a magic book with magical incantations
  • they get mad because if one word is out of place then the whole thing doesn’t work for their spell
  • then they try to cast happiness spells but the spells don’t work and they experience suffering
  • the suffering surprises them since they think that fundamentalism should guarantee them happiness
  • then they become apostates and get on TV where they look wide-eyed and talk crazy

Ehrman:

  • hey! are you talking about me? a lot of people buy my books! i am a big success!
  • it is very important that people don’t feel bad about their sinning you know!

Is Misquoting Jesus an attack?

Williams:

  • it’s rhetorically imbalanced and misleading
  • it tries to highlight change and instability and ignore the majority of the text that is stable
  • he makes a big deal out of 5 or so verses that are different from the mainstream text
  • he says that scribes deliberately changed the scriptures, but he doesn’t prove that
  • it’s just as likely that the differences are just scribal errors made by accident

Ehrman:

  • well, maybe the variants aren’t a big deal, but what about one angel vs. two angels?
  • that’s a significant issue! significant enough for me to become an apostate – a rich apostate
  • if one word is different because of an accident, then the whole Bible cannot be trusted
  • it has to be completely inerrant, so a one word difference means the whole thing is unreliable
  • we don’t even know if Jesus was even named Jesus, because of one angel vs two angels!!!1!
  • buy my book! you don’t have to read it, just put it on your shelf, then you’ll feel better about not having a relationships with God – because who’s to say what God really wants from you? Not the Bible!

Cosmologist Luke Barnes answers 11 objections to the fine-tuning argument

Christianity and the progress of science
Christianity and the progress of science

This is from the blog Common Sense Atheism.

Atheist Luke Muehlhauser interviews well-respect cosmologist Luke Barnes about the fine-tuning argument, and the naturalistic response to it.

Luke M. did a good job explaining the outline of the podcast.

Details:

In one of my funniest and most useful episodes yet, I interview astronomer Luke Barnes about the plausibility of 11 responses to the fine-tuning of the universe. Frankly, once you listen to this episode you will be better equipped to discuss fine-tuning than 90% of the people who discuss it on the internet. This episode will help clarify the thinking of anyone – including and perhaps especially professional philosophers – about the fine-tuning of the universe.

The 11 responses to fine-tuning we discuss are:

  1. “It’s just a coincidence.”
  2. “We’ve only observed one universe, and it’s got life. So as far as we know, the probability that a universe will support life is one out of one!”
  3. “However the universe was configured, evolution would have eventually found a way.”
  4. “There could be other forms of life.”
  5. “It’s impossible for life to observe a universe not fine-tuned for life.”
  6. “Maybe there are deeper laws; the universe must be this way, even though it looks like it could be other ways.”
  7. “Maybe there are bajillions of universes, and we happen to be in one of the few that supports life.”
  8. “Maybe a physics student in another universe created our universe in an attempt to design a universe that would evolve intelligent life.”
  9. “This universe with intelligent life is just as unlikely as any other universe, so what’s the big deal?”
  10. “The universe doesn’t look like it was designed for life, but rather for empty space or maybe black holes.”
  11. “Fine-tuning shows there must be an intelligent designer beyond physical reality that tuned the universe so it would produce intelligent life.”

Download CPBD episode 040 with Luke Barnes. Total time is 1:16:31.

There is a very good explanation of some of the cases of fine-tuning that I talk about most on this blog – the force of gravity, the strong force, etc. as well as many other examples. Dr. Barnes is an expert, but he is also very very easy to listen to even when talking about difficult issues. Luke M. is very likeable as the interviewer.

Robin Collins and atheist Peter Millican discuss the fine-tuning of the universe for life

British Spitfire and German Messerschmitt Me 109 locked in a dogfight
British Spitfire and German Messerschmitt Me 109 locked in a dogfight

You might remember Peter Millican from the debate he had with William Lane Craig. I ranked that debate as one of the 3 best I have ever seen, along with the first Craig  vs Dacey debate and the second Craig vs Sinnott-Armstrong debate.

Details:

Science has revealed that the fundamental constants and forces of the cosmos appear to be exquisitely fine-tuned to allow a universe in which life can develop. Is God the best explanation of the incredibly improbable odds of the universe we live in being a life-permitting one?

Robin Collins is a Christian philosopher and a leading advocate of the argument for God from cosmic design. Peter Millican is an atheist philosopher at Oxford University. They debate the issues.

From ‘Unbelievable?’ on ‘Premier Christian Radio’, Saturday 19th March 2016.

The debate:

As usual when the atheist is an expert, there is no snark or paraphrasing in the summary.

Summary

Brierley: What is the fine-tuning argument?

Collins: the fine-tuning is structure of the universe is extremely precisely set to allow the existing of conscious, embodied agents who are capable of moral behavior. There are 3 kinds of fine-tuning: 1) the laws of nature (mathematical formulas), 2) the constants of physics (numbers that are plugged into the equations), 3) the initial conditions of the universe. The fine-tuning exists not just because there are lots of possibilities, but there is something special about the actual state of affairs that we see. Every set of laws, parameters and initial conditions is equally improbable, but the vast majority of permutations do not permit life. The possible explanations: theism or the multiverse.

Brierley: How improbable are the numbers?

Collins: Once case is the cosmological constant (dark energy density), with is 1 part in (10 raised to 120th power). If larger, the universe expands too rapidly for galaxies and stars to form after the Big Bang. If smaller, the universe collapses in on itself before life could form. Another case is the initial distribution of mass energy to give us the low entropy we have that is necessary for life. The fine-tuning there is 1 part in (10 raised to the 10th power raised to the 123rd power).

Brierley: What do you think of the argument?

Millican: The argument is worth taking very seriously. I am a fan of the argument. The other arguments for God’s existence such as the ontological and cosmological arguments are very weak. But the fine-tuning argument has the right structure to deliver the conclusion that theists want. And it is different from the traditional design argument tended to focus on biological nature, which is not a strong argument. But the fine-tuning argument is strong because it precedes any sort of biological evolution. Although the design is present at the beginning of the universe, it is not visible until much later. The argument points to at least deism, and possibly theism. The argument is not based on ignorance, it is rooted in “the latest results from the frontiers of science” (his phrase).

Brierley: Is this the best argument from natural theology?

Collins: The cosmological argument makes theism viable intuitively, but there are some things that are puzzling, like the concept of the necessary being. But the fine-tuning argument is decisive.

Brierley: What’s are some objections to the fine-tuning argument?

Millican: The argument is based on recent physics, so we should be cautious because we maybe we will discover a natural explanation.

Brierley: Respond to that.

Collins: The cosmological constant has been around since 1980. But the direction that physics is moving in is that there are more constants and quantities being discovered that need to be fine-tuned, not less. Even if you had a grand unified theory, that would have to be have the fine-tuning pushed into it.

(BREAK)

Millican: Since we have no experience of other laws and values from other universes, we don’t know whether these values can be other than they are. Psychologically, humans are prone to seeing purpose and patterns where there is none, so maybe that’s happening here.

Brierley: Respond to that.

Collins: It is possible to determine probabilities on a single universe case, for example using multiple ways of calculating Avogadro’s number all converging on the same number makes it more probable.

Millican: Yes, I willing to accept that these constants can take on other values, (“principle of indifference”). But maybe this principle be applied if the improbability were pushed up into the theory?

Collins: Even if you had a grand theory, selecting the grand theory from others would retain the improbability.

Brierley: What about the multiverse?

Millican: What if there are many, many different universes, and we happen to be in the one that is finely-tuned, then we should not be surprised to observe fine-tuning. Maybe a multiverse theory will be discovered in the future that would allow us to have these many universes with randomized constants and quantities. “I do think that it is a little bit of a promissary note”. I don’t think physics is pointing to this right now.

Brierley: Respond to that.

Collins: I agree it’s a promissary note. This is the strongest objection to the fine-tuning argument. But there are objections to the multiverse: 1) the fine-tuning is kicked back up to the multiverse generator has to be set just right to produce universes with different constants, 2) the multiverse is more likely to produce a small universe with Boltzmann brains that pop into existence and then out again, rather than a universe that contains conscious, embodied intelligent agents. I am working on a third response now that would show that the same constants that allow complex, embodied life ALSO allow the universe to be discoverable. This would negate the observer-selection effect required by the multiverse objection.

Brierley: Respond to that.

Millican: I don’t see why the multiverse generator has to be fine-tuned, since we don’t know what the multiverse generator is. I’m not impressed by the Boltzmann brains, but won’t discuss. We should be cautious about inferring design because maybe this is a case where we are seeing purpose and design where there is none.

Brierley: Can you negate the discoverability of the universe by saying that it might be psychological?

Collins: These things are not psychological. The selected value for the cosmic microwave background radiation is fine-tuned for life and for discoverability. It’s not merely a discoverability selection effect, it’s optimal for discoverability. If baryon-photon value were much smaller, we would have known that it was not optimal. So that judgment cannot be explained by

Millican: That’s a very interesting new twist.

Brierley: Give us your best objection.

Millican: I have two. 1) Even if you admit to the fine-tuning, this doesn’t show a being who is omnipotent and omnisicient. What the fine-tuning shows is that the designer is doing the best it can given the constraints from nature. If I were God, I would not have made the universe so big, and I wouldn’t have made it last 14 billion years, just to make one small area that supports life. An all-powerful God would have made the universe much smaller, and much younger. 2) The fine-tuning allows life to exist in other solar systems in other galaxies. What does this alien life elsewhere mean for traditional Christian theology? The existence of other alien civilizations argues against the truth of any one religion.

Brierley: Respond to those.

Collins: First objection: with a finite Creator, you run into the problem of having to push the design of that creature up one level, so you don’t really solve the fine-tuning problem. An unlimited being (non-material, not composed of parts) does not require fine-tuning. The fine-tuning is more compatible with theism than atheism. Second objection: I actually do think that it is likely that are other universes, and life in other galaxies and stars, and the doctrine of the Incarnation is easily adaptable to that, because God can take on multiple natures to appear to different alien civilizations.

Other resources (from WK)

If you liked this discussion, be sure and check out a full length lecture by Robin Collins on the fine-tuning, and a shorter lecture on his very latest work. And also this the Common Sense Atheism podcast, featuring cosmologist Luke Barnes, who answers about a dozen objections to the fine-tuning argument.