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:
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.
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
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
what are the main points of Misquoting Jesus?
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
the reason we have so many variants is because the number of manuscripts is large
Angry Jesus or compassionate Jesus in Mark
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
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?
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
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!
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
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!
hmmmn…. I kind of like “apart from God” – why is this such a big scandal again?
you don’t care? how can you not care? it has to be inerrant! or the whole thing is false!
Moody Bible Institute says!
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
but what if pastors try to use this passage in a sermon?
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
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?
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
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!
There is not much snark in this summary, because Crossley is a solid scholar, and very fair with the evidence.
William Lane Craig’s opening speech
There are four minimal facts that are accepted by most historians
The best explanation of the four minimal facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead
Contention 1 of 2:
Fact 1: The burial
The burial is multiply attested
The burial is based on the early source material that Mark used for his gospel
Scholars date this Markan source to within 10 years of the crucifixion
The burial is also in the early passage in 1 Cor 15:3-8
So you have 5 sources, some of which are very early
The burial is credited to a member of the Sanhedrin
the burial is probable because shows an enemy of the church doing right
this makes it unlikely to to be an invention
Fact 2: The empty tomb
The burial story supports the empty tomb
the site of Jesus’ grave was known
the disciples could not proclaim a resurrection if the body were still in it
the antagonists to the early Christians could have produced the body
The empty tomb is multiple attested
it’s mentioned explicitly in Mark
it’s in the separate sources used by Matthew and John
it’s in the early sermons documented in Acts
it’s implied by 1 Cor 15:3-8, because resurrection requires that the body is missing
The empty tomb was discovered by women
the testimony of women of women was not normally allowed in courts of law
if this story was being made up, they would have chosen male disciples
The empty tomb discover lacks legendary embellishment
there is no theological or apologetical reflection on the meaning of the tomb
The early Jewish response implies that the tomb was empty
the response was that the disciples stole the body
that requires that the tomb was found empty
Fact 3: The appearances to individuals and groups, some of the them hostile
The list of appearances is in 1 Cor 15:3-8
this material is extremely early, withing 1-3 years after the cross
James, the brother of Jesus, was not a believer when he got his appearance
Paul was hostile to the early church when he got his appearance
Specific appearances are multiply attested
Peter: attested by Luke and Paul
The twelve: attested by Luke, John and Paul
The women: attested by Matthew and John
Fact 4: The early belief in the resurrection emerged in a hostile environment
There was no background belief in a dying Messiah
There was no background belief in a single person resurrecting before the general resurrection of all of the righteous at the end of the age
The disciples were willing to die for their belief in the resurrection of Jesus
The resurrection is the best explanation for the transformation of the disciples from frightened to reckless of death
Contention 2 of 2:
The resurrection is the best explanation because it passes C.B. McCullough’s six tests for historical explanations
None of the naturalistic explanations accounts for the minimal facts as well as the resurrection
James Crossley’s opening speech
Appeals to the majority of scholars doesn’t prove anything
the majority of people in the west are Christians so of course there are a majority of scholars that support the resurrection
there are Christian schools where denial of the resurrection can result in termination
The best early sources (1 Cor 15:3-8 and Mark) are not that good
1 Cor 15:3-8 doesn’t support the empty tomb
verse 4 probably does imply a bodily resurrection
the passage does have eyewitnesses to appearances of Jesus
but there are no eyewitnesses to the empty tomb in this source
appearances occur in other cultures in different times and places
Jesus viewed himself as a martyr
his followers may have had hallucinations
Mark is dated to the late 30s and early 40s
The women who discover the tomb tell no one about the empty tomb
The gospels show signs of having things added to them
Jewish story telling practices allowed the teller to make things up to enhance their hero
one example of this would be the story of the earthquake and the people coming out of their graves
that story isn’t in Mark, nor any external sources like Josephus
if there really was a mass resurrection, where are these people today?
so this passage in Matthew clearly shows that at least some parts of the New Testament could involve
what about the contradiction between the women tell NO ONE and yet other people show up at the empty tomb
the story about Jesus commissioning the early church to evangelize Gentiles was probably added
there are also discrepancies in the timing of events and appearances
why are there explicit statements of high Christology in John, but not in the earlier sources?
William Lane Craig’s first rebuttal
Crossley’s response to the burial: he accepts it
Crossley’s response to the empty tomb: he thinks it was made up
rabbinical stories are not comparable to the gospel accounts
the rabbinical stories are just anecdotal creative story-telling
the gospels are ancient biographies – the genre is completely different
the rabbinic miracle stories are recorded much later than the gospels
the rabbi’s legal and moral ideas were written down right away
the miracle stories were written down a century or two later
in contrast, the miracle stories about Jesus are in the earliest sources, like Mark
the rabbinical stories are intended as entertainment, not history
the gospels are intended as biography
just because there are some legendary/apocalyptic elements in Matthew, it doesn’t undermine things like the crucfixion that are historically accurate
Crossley’s response to the evidence for the empty tomb:
no response to the burial
the empty tomb cannot be made up, it was implied by Paul early on
the women wouldn’t have said nothing forever – they eventually talked after they arrived to where the disciples were
no response to the lack of embellishment
no response to the early Jewish polemic
Crossley’s response to the appearances
he agrees that the first followers of Jesus had experiences where they thought Jesus was still alive
Crossley’s response to the early belief in the bodily resurrection:
no response about how this belief in a resurrection could have emerged in the absence of background belief in the death of the Messiah and the resurrection of one man before the general resurrection of all the righteous at the end of the age
What about Crossley’s hallucination theory?
Crossley says that the followers of Jesus had visions, and they interpreted these visions against the story of the Maccabean martyrs who looked forward to their own resurrections
but the hallucination hypothesis doesn’t account for the empty tomb
and the Maccabean martyrs were not expecting the resurrection of one man, and certainly not the Messiah – so that story doesn’t provide the right background belief for a hallucination of a single resurrected person prior to the end of the age
if the appearances were non-physical, the disciples would not have applied the word resurrection – it would just have been a vision
the visions could easily be reconciled with the idea that somehow God was pleased with Jesus and that he had some glorified/vindicated non-corporeal existence – but not resurrection
not only that, the hallucination hypothesis doesn’t even explain the visions, because there were visions to groups, to skeptics and to enemies in several places
What about the argument that only Christians accept the resurrection?
it’s an ad hominem attack that avoids the arguments
James Crossley’s first rebuttal
Regarding the burial:
I could be persuaded of that the burial account is accurate
Regarding the non-expectation of a suffering/dying Messiah:
Jesus thought he was going to die
this thinking he was going to die overturned all previous Messianic expectations that the Messiah wouldn’t suffer or die
the early Jews could easily reconcile the idea of a suffering, dead man killed by the Romans with the power of the all-powerful Messiah who supposed to reign forever
no actually bodily resurrection would have to happen to get them to continue to identify an executed corpse with the role of Messiah
Regarding the belief in the bodily resurrection:
it would be natural for Jews, who believed in a general resurrection of all the rigtheous dead at the end of the age, to interpret a non-physical vision of one man after he died as a bodily resurrection, even though no Jew had ever considered the resurrection of one man before the general resurrection before Jesus
Regarding the testimony of the women:
Just because women were not able to testify in courts of law (unless there were no male witnesses), the early church might still invent a story where the women are the first witnesses
first, the disciples had fled the scene, so only the women were left
and it would have been a good idea for the early church to invent women as the first witnesses – the fact that they could not testify in court makes them ideal witnesses and very persuasive
also, it’s a good idea to invent women as witnesses, because the Romans had a rule that said that they never killed women, so they wouldn’t have killed these women – Romans only ever kill men
in any case, the first witness to the empty tomb is angel, so as long as people could talk to the angel as being the first witness, that’s the best story to invent
Regarding the consensus of Christian scholars:
I am not saying that Craig’s facts are wrong, just that appealing to consensus is not legitimate
he has to appeal to the evidence, not the consensus
Regarding my naturalistic bias:
I don’t know or care if naturalism is true, let’s look at the evidence
Regarding the genre of the gospels:
the creative story-telling is common in all genres, it’s not a genre in itself
stuff about Roman emperors also has creative story-telling
Regarding the legendary nature of the empty tomb in Mark:
First, Christians interpreted the visions as a bodily resurrection
Second, they invented the story of the empty tomb to go with that interpretation
Third, they died for their invention
William Lane Craig’s second rebuttal
Bill’s case doesn’t need to know the specifics of the burial, only that the location was known
the location is important because it supports the empty tomb
to proclaim a resurrection, the tomb would have to be empty
a tomb with a known location is easier to check
The empty tomb:
creative story telling was common in Judaism: retelling OT stories (midrash), romances/novels, rabbinical anecdotes
but the gospels are none of these genres – the gospels are ancient biographies
Craig also gave five arguments as to why the tomb was empty
the burial story supports the empty tomb
there is multiple independent attestation, then it cannot be a creative fiction invented in Mark alone
the witnesses were in Jerusalem, so they were in a position to know
regarding the women, even though Jesus respected the women, their testimony would not be convincing to others, so why invent a story where they are the witnesses
the male disciples did not flee the scene, for example, Peter was there to deny Jesus three times
if the story is made up, who cares what the male disciples did, just invent them on the scene anyway
the angel is not authoritative, because the angel cannot be questioned, but the women can be questioned
there was no response on the lack of embellishment
there was no response to the earliest Jewish response implying that the tomb was empty
we agree on the appearances
The early belief in the resurrection:
he says that Jesus predicted his own death
yes, but that would only cause people to think that he was a martyr, not that he was the messiah – something else is needed for them to keep their believe that he was the Messiah even after he died, because the Messiah wasn’t supposed to die
and of course, there was no expectation of a single person rising from the dead before the general resurrection, and certainly not the Messiah
The consensus of scholars:
Jewish scholars like Geza Vermes and Pinchas Lapide accept these minimal facts like the empty tomb, it’s not just Christian scholars
Against Crossley’s hallucination hypothesis:
it doesn’t explain the empty the tomb
it doesn’t explain the early belief in the resurrection
hallucinations would only lead to the idea that God had exalted/glorified Jesus, not that he was bodily raised from the dead
the hallucination theory cannot accommodate all of the different kinds of appearances; individual, group, skeptic, enemy, etc.
The pre-supposition of naturalism:
if Crossley is not committed to naturalism, then he should be open to the minimal facts and to the best explanation of those facts
the hallucination hypothesis has too many problems
the resurrection hypothesis explains everything, and well
James Crossley’s second rebuttal
well, there are lots of other religious books
those other religious books have late sources, and are filled with legends and myths, and no eyewitness testimony
so why should we trust 1 Cor 15 and the early source for Mark and the other early eyewitness testimony in the New Testament?
if other religious books can be rejected for historical reasons, then surely the New Testament can be rejected for historical reasons
the genre of ancient biography can incorporate and commonly incorporates invented legendaryt story-telling
this is common in Roman, Greek and Jewish literature and everyone accepts that
Empty tomb: multiple attestation
ok, so maybe the empty tomb is multiply attested, but that just gets back to a belief, not to a fact
multiple attestation is not the only criteria, and Craig needs to use the other criteria to make his case stronger
Empty tomb: invented
if there is a belief in the resurrection caused by the visions, then the empty tomb would have to be invented
why aren’t there more reliable stories of people visiting the empty tomb in more sources?
Empty tomb: role of the women
there are women who have an important role in the Bible, like Judith and Esther
Mark’s passage may have used women who then kept silent in order to explain why no one knew where the empty tomb was
if the fleeing of the men is plausible to explain the women, then why not use that? why appeal to the supernatural?
we should prefer any explanation that is naturalistic even if it is not as good as the supernatural explanation at explaining everything
Empty tomb: embellishment
well there is an angel there, that’s an embellishment
anyway, when you say there is no embellishment, what are you comparing it to that makes you say that?
I’ve read anthropology literature that has some cases where people have hallucinations as groups
the hallucinations would not be interpreted against the background theological beliefs that ruled out the resurrection of one man before then general resurrection of all the righteous dead
these hallucinations could have been so compelling that they made the earliest Christians, and skeptics like James, and enemies like the Pharisee Paul abandon all of their previous background beliefs, proclaim the new doctrine of a crucified and resurrected Messiah which no one had ever expected, and then gone on to die for that belief
the hallucinations could have changed all of their theology and reversed all of their beliefs about the what the word resurrection meant
William Lane Craig’s conclusion
None of the four facts are supernatural, they are natural, and ascertained by historians using normal historical methods
the supernatural part only comes in after we decide on the facts when we are deciding which explanation is the best
a tomb being found empty is not a miraculous fact
the gospels are not analagous to these rabbinical stories, the purpose and dating is different
what multiple attestation shows is that it was not made-up by Mark
and the argument was augmented with other criteria, like the criterion of embarrassment and the criterion of dissimilarity
Judith and Esther are very rare exceptions, normally women were not viewed as reliable witnesses
if the story was invented, whatever purpose the inventors had would have been better served by inventing male witnesses
Craig grants that the angel may be an embellishment for the sake of argument, but there are no other embellishments
the real embellishments occur in forged gnostic gospels in the second and third centuries, where there are theological motifs added to the bare fact of the empty tomb (e.g. – the talking cross in the Gospel of Peter)
he had no response to the earliest jewish response which implied an empty tomb
Belief in the resurrection:
there was no way for Jewish people to interpret an appearance as a bodily resurrection before the end of the world, they did not expect that
they could have imagined exaltation, but not a bodily resurrection
James Crossley’s conclusion
as long as there is any other other possible naturalistic explanation, we should prefer that, no matter how unlikely
some of these creative stories appear within the lifetimes of the people connected to the events (none mentioned)
you should compare to earlier stories when looking for embellishments, not later
and we don’t have any earlier sources, so we just don’t know the extent of the embellishment
they probably just heard about the empty tomb, and didn’t check on it, then invented the stole-the-body explanation without ever checking to see if the tomb was empty or not
Here is Dr. William Lane Craig giving a long-form argument for the historical event of the resurrection of Jesus, and taking questions from the audience.
The speaker introduction goes for 6 minutes, then Dr. Craig speaks for 35 minutes, then it’s a period of questions and answers with the audience. The total length is 93 minutes, so quite a long period of Q&A. The questions in the Q&A period are quite good.
Many people who are willing to accept God’s existence are not willing to accept the God of Christianity
Christians need to be ready to show that Jesus rose from the dead as a historical event
Private faith is fine for individuals, but when dealing with the public you have to have evidence
When making the case, you cannot assume that your audience accepts the Bible as inerrant
You must use the New Testament like any other ancient historical document
Most historians, Christian and not, accept the basic minimal facts supporting the resurrection of Jesus
Fact #1: the burial of Jesus following his crucifixion
Fact #1 is supported by the early creed found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15)
Fact #1 is supported by the early Passion narrative which was a source for Mark’s gospel
Fact #1 passes the criterion of enemy attestation, since it praises one of the Sanhedrin
Fact #1 is not opposed by any competing burial narratives
Fact #2: on the Sunday following his crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by some women
Fact #2 is supported by the early Passion narrative which was a source for Mark’s gospel
Fact #2 is implied by the early creed found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15)
Fact #2 is simple and lacks legendary embellishment, which argues for an early dating
Fact #2 passes the criterion of embarrassment, because it has female, not male, witnesses
Fact #2 passes the criterion of enemy attestation, since it is reported by the Jewish leaders
Fact #3: Jesus appeared to various people in various circumstances after his death
Fact #3 is supported by the early creed found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15)
Fact #3 is supported by multiple, independent reports of the events from all four gospels
Fact #3 explains other historical facts, like the conversion of Jesus’ skeptical brother James
Fact #4: the earliest Christians proclaimed their belief in the resurrection of Jesus
Fact #4 explains why the earliest Christians continued to identify Jesus as the Messiah
Fact #4 explains why the earliest Christians were suddenly so unconcerned about being killed
Dr. Craig then asks which hypothesis explains all four of these facts. He surveys a number of naturalistic hypotheses, such as the hallucination theory or various conspiracy theories. All of these theories deny one or more of the minimal facts that have been established and accepted by the broad spectrum of historians. In order to reject the resurrection hypothesis, a skeptic would have to deny one of the four facts or propose an explanation that explains those facts better than the resurrection hypothesis.
I listened to the Q&A period while doing housekeeping and I heard lots of good questions. Dr. Craig gives very long answers to the questions. One person asked why we should trust the claim that the Jewish leaders really did say that the disciples stole the body. Another one asked why we should take the resurrection as proof that Jesus was divine. Another asks about the earthquake in Matthew, which Mike Licona and I doubt is intended to be historical, but is more likely to be apocalyptic imagery. Dr. Craig is also asked about the Jewish scholar Geza Vermes, and how many of the minimal facts he accepts. Another questioner asked about the ascension.
You can see this evidence used in an actual debate, against a historian who disagrees with Dr. Craig. That post contains a point by point summary of the debate that I wrote while listening to it.