Thoughts on Ehrman/Licona Debate – Part 2

So what about their arguments?  Were they effective?  First let’s examine Mike Licona.

Licona has argued this historical approach for proving the resurrection in a book entitled The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, co-authored with Gary Habermas.  The approach is fairly straight-forward and effective at making a historical case for the resurrection.  Licona, along with Habermas, has clearly done a significant amount of research on the topic, and his claims about the historical facts about Jesus were not at all disputed by Ehrman.

The problem with his approach, however, is that it will always remain unconvincing to any person who does not believe that the God of the Bible exists.  To the person who is a serious skeptic of the existence of God, any explanation will be better than Jesus rising from the dead.  The skeptic has to at least be open to the existence of God, or Licona’s argument will fall on deaf ears.  This is exactly what happened in the debate.

This is a general weakness of historical apologetics.  Worldview and philosophical presuppositions will often prevent the argument from winning over skeptics, which leads us to Ehrman’s case.

Ehrman disputed Licona’s historical argument on the grounds that historians must always reject an explanation that includes the supernatural.  The problem with Ehrman’s claim is that he rejects the possibility of a miracle ever occurring without ever examining the evidence.  Ehrman will tell you that a historian can never show you that Jesus rose from the dead.  But isn’t this a classic example of begging the question?

A person begs the question when they assume what is trying to be proven.  The question before Ehrman is whether historians can prove that Jesus rose from the dead.  He is to give evidential reasons as to why they cannot.  But his response to the question is, in effect: “Since historians can never prove whether the resurrection occurred (because it is miraculous), well then the resurrection can’t be proven by historians.”  Ehrman fails to consider any evidence, and basically rules out the possibility of proving any miraculous event from the start.

There is another problem with Ehrman’s argumentation.  He spent considerable time denigrating the historical reliability of the gospels, claiming they were written by partisan Christians who were trying to convert people.  He also claimed that the oral and written traditions of the early Christians were purposefully changed many times in order to better reach their audiences.  In other words, the writers of the gospels felt free to deceive people to win them over.

In addition, Ehrman cited numerous alleged examples of discrepancies and contradictions among the gospels.  He documents all of these in his books.

Ehrman, while explaining the alleged late dates of the gospels, also mentioned that he believes Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke copied material from Mark and from each  other.  This is the standard position that many New Testament scholars hold.

What occurred to me while listening to Ehrman is that these positions he is holding do not make sense, when taken all together.  If the writers of the gospels were writing their material to gain converts, and they were copying each other, then why in the world did they make so many mistakes?  Ehrman claims to have found numerous discrepancies and contradictions that are supposed to undermine the accuracy of the gospels, but why are these discrepancies there?

Were the gospel writers so idiotic that they each changed the previous Jesus narratives, knowing they were contradicting previous oral and written testimonies?  Did they think nobody would notice?  By this theory, the writers of the gospels were not only liars, they also were ridiculously stupid and careless.

But it gets even worse.  The church fathers started compiling the four gospels in the second century and left all of the alleged errors in there!  By Ehrman’s logic, they also knew of these issues, they also were hoping to gain converts, and they also were willing to change history to succeed.  Why not change the gospels and clean them up?  If you are Ehrman, you have to believe that the gospel writers and church fathers were all deceptive and all stone dumb.  They were unable to get their stories straight, and in the end just left a big mess for enlightened scholars like Ehrman to clean up.  This theory strains credulity, does it not?

Isn’t a better explanation that the gospel writers wrote the accounts of Jesus from different perspectives, shared their accounts with each other to ensure accuracy, and strove to retain the historical truth?  Almost all of the alleged discrepancies can be readily explained, after all, by realizing that the gospel writers were recording history with different perspectives and different goals in mind.  And maybe the church fathers refused to change anything because the church community had always accepted these writings as authentic and accurate, and maybe, just maybe, they are.

9 thoughts on “Thoughts on Ehrman/Licona Debate – Part 2”

  1. Historians frequently try to figure out where earlier historians got things wrong. The author of Luke may have used Mark as a source but he also had available to him other sources both written and oral. At that point, he would not have considered any of his sources to be inerrant. He would not have hesitated to correct things that he thought Mark got wrong any more than other historian of the day would. He may have been unconcerned about discrepancies simply because he expected his writing to be accepted as the definitive work.

    It is only later when the church started declaring particular gospels to be canonical and others heretical that the discrepancies become a cause for concern. At that point, however, the church’s hands are somewhat tied. When Irenaeous wrote Against Heresies in 180 A.D., he attacked Marcion and other heretics for abandoning the true faith that had been handed down by the apostles. Having declared Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to be the only gospels with apostolic origins, he was kind of stuck with them as they were. He could not very well straighten out the discrepancies while simultaneously declaring them to be exclusive and authoritative without providing amunition for his opponents.

    In fact, some in the early church did try to resolve the discrepancies. The harmonization composed by Tatian around 160 A.D. appears to have become the definitive account of Jesus’ life in the Syrian church.

  2. Hi Vinny,
    That’s an interesting theory that you’re proposing, but it is not what Ehrman was arguing. He was arguing that the writers of the gospels were not interested in accurate history, but in gaining converts. He argued that they felt free to make changes to the oral and written traditions in order to expand Christianity.

    By your theory, you seem to be granting that the gospel writers were indeed true historians who were attempting to capture truth and who were willing to correct others who they thought were wrong. I applaud this viewpoint, as it is exactly the view of traditional Christianity.

    God bless,

  3. My point was merely to address your argument that there was something illogical in believing that the gospel writers changed the traditions. I think my reasoning applies even more if the writers were intending to write theology rather than history. Certainly the most important thing would be to tell the story in the way that won the most converts even if it meant changing something.

  4. Hi Vinny,
    You can’t have it both ways. If you say the gospel writers were trying to do accurate history, then you are admitting that the gospels are at least somewhat reliable, historical documents. But that is exactly what Ehrman tried to deny.

    If you say the gospel writers were not interested in history, but just gaining converts, then it makes no sense as to why they would “contradict” each other so many times when they were using each others’ writings as source material. They would have known that the previous gospels they used as sources were already in wide circulation and that it would raise a lot of unnecessary questions.

    Your assertion that the hands of the church fathers were tied applies equally to the gospel writers. They knew that the gospels predating their own were widespread and were considered, if not canonical, at least extremely important to the Chrsitian community. Again, if the church fathers were only interested in gaining converts, why not change the gospels wholesale and create new Jesus stories even better than the original four?

    That’s exactly what the apocryphal gospel writers did, and the church rejected them as frauds, whereas the original four gospels were very early accepted as authentic witnesses of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. When you look at the history of the early church, you see time and again that they were interested in recording real and accurate history. They claimed that they were recording real history, so why doubt them?


  5. If a writer follows terrible historical methodology, he is going to produce unreliable historical documents regardless of what he was trying to do. Luke seems to have thought of himself as writing history, but he doesn’t give any evidence of scrutinizing his sources in the way that a historian like Suetonius did. The question isn’t whether Luke thought that the things he was writing were true as much as why he thought they were true.

    Ancient historians often gave their purpose as instilling virtue or promoting good citizenship. When modern scholars try to figure out what really happened, they take into account the earlier sources biases.

    There is no evidence of early widespread circulation and acceptance of the gospels. External references are not found until the second century and unambiguous external references are not found until late in the second century.

    The Gospel of Peter was rejected as a fraud because its theology was deemed heretical, not because of any historical evidence. The evidence shows that orthodox writers were willing to alter the texts to suit their theological purposes as well. There is no reason to think that the gospel writers considered their sources any more sacrosanct than anyone else.

  6. Vinny,
    What evidence do you have that the gospel writers were inept historians? Maybe that would be useful discussion to have.


  7. Good historians detail their sources. They explain how they got their information and how they resolved conflicts between their sources.

  8. Vinny,
    A detailed list of sources would be nice, but is a person who didn’t list all of their sources automatically rendered suspect? I, personally, have written many accurate statements about history without listing my sources. Many times, because I witnessed things myself, I did not feel the need to list other sources. The gospels are traditionally held to be largely eyewitness accounts from people who saw the events described.

    Also, there is a difference between writing a historical work and writing a work that contains historical facts. Nobody is arguing that the gospel writers were attempting to be professional historians. I am arguing that they intended to record history accurately when they did record history. I don’t think you’re holding the gospels to the correct standard. Maybe they did not all have PhD’s in historical analysis, but that hardly proves they weren’t capable of writing accurate history.

    Another question, do you have evidence that all “accurate” historians of the ancient world faithfully recorded their sources and explained conflicts? It seems like your point is that “accurate” historians of the ancient world all did X, but the gospel writers did not. I’m trying to see evidence that all of the “accurate” historians of the ancient world really did X. Do you have examples from Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, Julius Caesar, and so on? These men all wrote about historical events of the ancient world, so I wonder if they included all their sources and explained conflicts. I don’t know because I’ve only read excerpts from their writings.

    Also, how would you explain this quote from historian William Ramsay, who studied Luke’s historical accuracy for 20 years and concluded: “Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness. Luke is an historian of first rank. [He] should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.” Is he just wrong?


  9. The question is how to decide when they intended to write history. As I understand it, ancient historians often expressed the purpose of their writing as instilling virtue or patriotism or good citizenship. Sometimes they detail their sources and other times they simply recount a story without indicating where it came from. When modern scholars examine their works, they try to determine when the ancient historian seemed to be applying critical methods to his sources to determine what really happened and when he was just passing along stories because they were good stories that suited his rhetorical purposes. Modern scholars do not simply take the ancient writer at face value.

    This doesn’t mean that the ancient historian is deemed a liar when his basis for relating a particular story cannot be determined. It is simply deemed a story for which there is insufficient evidence to reach a conclusion. For example, Roman historians are confident that Julius Caesar was assassinated on the ides of March, but they are less confident of all the details surrounding it. Some sources report various omens such as Caesar’s wife urging him not to go to the senate that day because she had dreamed of his death the night before. I think most modern scholars would say that there is no way to know whether that really happened. The ancient sources may simply have included it because it made a good point.

    It is my understanding that the best of ancient historians were abominable by today’s standards, but that doesn’t stop modern historians from applying critical methods to their work to try and figure out what probably did happen, what probably didn’t happen, and what we cannot have any certainty about.

    I think that Luke made an effort to place the stories about Jesus in as accurate an historical and geographical context as possible. I have read that most scholars believe that he was very good about getting that kind of detail right. However, that doesn’t mean that he had good sources for everything he wrote. Many modern scholars believe that Mark was Luke’s primary source for the stories about Jesus. There does not seem to be sufficient evidence to determine that these were in fact eyewitness accounts rather than stories that had been told and retold many times over.

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