- Great swaths of agreement
- Disagreement #1: Are the gospels generally historically reliable?
- Disagreement #2: Did Jesus claim to be divine?
- Disagreement #3: Was Jesus a failed apocalyptic prophet?
- Disagreement #4: Is the Bible inerrant?
At the foundation of all of Ehrman’s disagreements with evangelicals are divergent views about the overall historical reliability of the New Testament. Because I’ll devote a separate section to a discussion of the doctrine of inerrancy (the belief that the Bible is free from error, whether historical error or theological), I will start by focusing on a less dramatic claim: that the biographies of Jesus found in the gospels are generally historically reliable. While evangelicals believe that the gospels can be trusted to provide accurate information about Jesus, Ehrman’s view is quite different. For him, the gospels preserve not only some information about the historical Jesus, but many fictional stories that were fabricated by early Christian communities and passed along with an ever-growing oral tradition. He describes the process by which the gospel tradition originated in the following way:
Stories about Jesus were thus being told throughout the Mediterranean for decades to convert people and to educate those who had converted… The stories were passed on by word of mouth, from one convert to the next; they were told in different countries, in Egypt, Judea, Galilee, Syria and Cilicia, throughout Asia Minor, Macedonia, Achaia, Italy, and Spain. They were told in different contexts, for different reasons, at different times. They were told in a language other than Jesus’ own… often by people who were not Jews, almost always by people who were not eyewitnesses and had never met an eyewitness. (p. 50-51)
You are probably familiar with the old birthday party game, ‘telephone’… Invariably, the story has changed so much in the process of retelling that everyone has a good laugh…Imagine playing ‘telephone’ not in a solitary living room with ten kids on a sunny afternoon in July, but over the expanse of the Roman Empire (some 2,500 miles across!), with thousands of participants, from different backgrounds, with different concerns, and in different contexts, some of whom have to translate the stories into different languages over the course of decades. What would happen to the stories? (p. 51-52)
To support his thesis, Ehrman gives two examples of what he considers to be later fabrications: the timing of Jesus’ crucifixion in John’s gospel (p. 32-36) and the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (p. 36-39). Similarly, throughout the book, Ehrman highlights alterations in wording, the omission or inclusion of different phrases and stories to support this general picture of New Testament origins. Because so many evangelical scholars have addressed the issues Ehrman discusses, I won’t go into them here. Interested readers can consult the works listed at the end of the essay. Instead, I want to focus on a frustration I have not only with ‘critical scholarship’ but with ‘evangelical scholarship’ on this issue: the almost wholesale reliance on internal arguments rather than external evidence.
As a scientist, one thing that immediately strikes me when reading everyone from Bart Ehrman to Craig Blomberg is that the debates are almost entirely textual. That is, scholars argue about whether different gospels yielded real contradictions or whether those contradictions were merely apparent. They argue about the dating and textual relationships between the gospels. They even produce elaborate reconstructions of the theology of the early Christians communities which produced not only the gospels that we have, but theoretical source documents like Q (an enterprise about which Ehrman and I seem equally skeptical.) What is markedly absent is an appeal to external evidence that might be used to either corroborate or discredit the New Testament accounts. As a theoretical chemist, I’m hardly a thorough-going empiricist. But surely, if there is any external evidence that has bearing on the historicity of the New Testament, shouldn’t it at least be mentioned?
For example, the New Testament gospels do provide us with accurate information about geographical features of 1st century Palestine: hills, mountains, rivers, lakes, elevation changes. They correctly name numerous cities and even small villages within 1st century Palestine: Bethany, Bethphage, Capernaum, Bethlehem, Nazareth. They provide accurate depictions of Jewish religious customs: the various Jewish festivals, Sabbath injunctions, sectarian conflicts between Pharisees and Sadducees. They name real, historical political and religious figures: Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, Herod Archelaus, Pontius Pilate, Annas, Caiaphas. While all of this information is admittedly general, it is worth comparing the accuracy of the canonical gospels (those found in the Bible) with the apocryphal gospels (those not found in the Bible), which omit such details almost entirely. If the gospels were indeed written 40-70 years after the death of Jesus by non-eyewitness authors living outside of Palestine as Ehrman suggests, they certainly seem to have done a good job in setting their stories in the appropriate historical context.
Archaeology can confirm more than just general information about the historicity of the gospels, albeit in a necessarily more limited fashion. For example, archaeologists have unearthed the pool at Bethesda mentioned in John 5, the pool of Siloam mention in John 9, the synagogue at Capernaum where Jesus preached in Luke 4, and the ossuary of the high priest Caiaphas who is mentioned in Matt. 26. Accuracy with respect to both the general historical setting and with respect to such minor details ought to give us some confidence in the accuracy of the gospels authors. I’m not saying that there are no apparent discrepancies (the census of Quirinius comes immediately to mind), but -on balance- the evidence seems to point in favor of historical reliability. I suspect that Ehrman would rightly point out that such evidence is not conclusive. But, if Ehrman’s telephone analogy is truly apt, we have to begin to wonder how so many accurate details about 1st century Palestine would have been retained after transmission “over the expanse of the Roman Empire (some 2,500 miles across!), with thousands of participants … over the course of decades” (p. 52). Either the transmission was far more accurate than that of a child’s party game or early Christian communities throughout the Meditteranean had a remarkable talent for inventing historically realistic narratives!
An even bigger problem for Ehrman’s basic thesis involves evidence that was described by Dr. Richard Bauckham in his 2006 book ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.’ Bauckham tabulated the frequencies of proper names for individuals found in the gospels and Acts and compared them to the frequencies of proper names found on Jewish ossuaries from the same period. Do the frequencies of proper names found in the New Testament match the frequencies found in the archaeological record? The answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ Not only do we find that the most popular New Testament names match the most popular names found on the ossuaries, we even find that the percentages roughly agree for both male and female names (see the inset). Now, I fully grant that these data cannot definitely prove that the gospels are historically accurate. But they call into serious question the transmission scenario described by Ehrman. Do we really believe that thousands of mostly Gentile individuals playing the telephone game across two continents over the course of four to eight decades would manage to give their characters the correct Palestinian names? That seems extremely unlikely. Far more plausible is the traditional suggestion that the gospels accurately record the stories of real, historical individuals who provided accounts of Jesus which -quite naturally- included details of Jesus’ first century context that can be substantiated by historical inquiry. If that’s the case, then I think we have good reasons to view the gospels as generally historically reliable.