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.