- 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?
Disagreement #4: Is the Bible inerrant?
In the preceding sections, I’ve outlined what I believe are three of the biggest disagreements between Ehrman and evangelical Christians: the general reliability of the gospels, the identity claims of Jesus and Jesus’ predictions in the Olivet Discourse. In each case, I tried to present historical arguments that challenge Ehman’s conclusion without delving into theology. However, in this last section, I’ll discuss an issue that is almost entirely theological: the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.
Briefly stated, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy holds that the Bible is without error in all that it teaches. The definition of inerrancy used by most modern American evangelicals is provided by the Chicago Statement, which can be found here and is worth reading in its entirety. For those unfamiliar with the Chicago Statement, a few points are worth highlighting:
- The doctrine of inerrancy applies only to the autographs, the original writings penned by the authors. Although we do not possess these autographs, even non-Christian textual critics like Dr. Ehrman agree that the thousands of copies of the New Testament we possess allow us to reconstruct the original text with a high (>99%) degree of accuracy.
- The doctrine of inerrancy does not guarantee that all biblical teachings are equally clear or that their interpretation will always be easy.
- The doctrine of inerrancy does not make historical, textual, and hermeneutical scholarship unnecessary.
- The doctrine of inerrancy allows for the fact that the Bible contains many different literary genres that accommodate poetic language (‘the hand of God’), approximate speech (‘three or four miles’), metaphor (‘I am the vine’), hyperbole (‘if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out’) and even allegory (‘these may be taken allegorically’).
In making these provisions, we’re not treating the Bible differently than we’d treat any other ancient document. For example, let’s say we were reading a 1st century Roman biography. The work might happen to be inerrant; that is, it might contain no factual errors. But the inerrancy of the original work would obviously not prevent errors in transmission when the manuscript was copied (point 1). Nor would inerrancy guarantee that every passage in the manuscript were equally perspicuous or that there were no debates over the author’s meaning (point 2). Most importantly, any serious study of the document would have to take into account cultural context, figures of speech and literary devices common to the genre of 1st century Roman biographies (points 3 and 4).
To see how these considerations play out in the interpretation of an actual biblical passage, let’s return to one of the two “‘true’ stories that didn’t happen (at Least as Narrated)” (p. 32) that were mentioned by Ehrman as evidence that the Bible includes a mixture of historical fact and fabrication: the day of Jesus’ death in John’s gospel. While the Synoptic gospels agree that Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples was a Passover Meal held on the Thursday of the week before his death, in John’s gospel “were told that his final meal took place before the festival of the Passover (13:1).” Similarly, the Synoptic gospels portray Jesus as being crucified on Friday (the day of Passover) while John tells us “it was the Day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon” (19:14). Can this discrepancy be explained or is it an error?
Let me provide examples of how two different evangelical scholars, both of whom affirm the Chicago Statement, have resolved this apparent discrepancy. Craig Blomberg, an evangelical scholar whom I mentioned earlier, takes the more traditional route of noting that the key term “paraskeue tou pascha” does not need to be taken literally to mean ‘day of preparation of the Passover.’ By the 1st century, the word ‘paraskeue’ had been used to simply mean ‘Friday’. Likewise, rabbinic sources refer to the entire feast of unleavened bread which spanned the week following Passover as ‘Passover’, a usage which continues today. Therefore, it’s possible that the phrase “paraskeue tou pascha” should be understood to mean “the Friday of the Passover Week,” leading to perfect agreement between John and the Synoptics on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion.
On the other hand, Dr. Michael Licona -another evangelical scholar- agrees with Ehrman’s belief that John displaces the timing of the crucifixion for theological reasons. But Licona notes that such ‘temporal displacement’ was a common device used by ancient biographers like Plutarch to make literary points. If the genre of the gospels is Greco-Roman biography (as Ehrman and other scholars would affirm), then we ought to interpret it in light of the accepted contemporary standards of that genre. To give an uncontroversial example of this principle, almost all scholars recognize that quotations in the gospels should generally be understood as indirect quotations (“Jesus said to gather up the left over pieces”) rather than direct, verbatim quotations (“Jesus said: ‘Gather up the left over pieces'”) because ancient Greek lacks quotation marks. Hence, it would be anachronistic to demand word-for-word agreement between statements recorded in the gospels. In the same way, Licona would argue, temporal displacements are not errors but an intentional literary device employed by ancient Greco-Roman biographers.
So which solution is correct? I’m not sure. Blomberg’s solution is certainly possible, but there are a few other passages in John which make his interpretation less than obvious. Licona’s alternative is also possible, although many evangelicals are admittedly uncomfortable with its implications. But if we conclude that neither proposal is entirely satisfactory, why not consider the possibility that the Bible is simply in error? The answer depends on our beliefs about the nature of the Bible. Evangelicals generally accept the doctrine of inerrancy because they believe that the Bible is not merely a human book, but is also a book inspired by God. Because God cannot err, it follows that his words in the Bible cannot err. I understand that this belief appears confusing if not outright ridiculous to most non-Christians, let me take a few moments to explain it.
First, the number of alleged contradictions that one is likely to find on popular internet sites like evilbible.com or project-reason.org are vastly overstated. Even a cursory glance at some of these discrepancies reveals that they are based on very shallow readings of the text. Moreover, because skeptics tend to focus on contradictions, they sometimes forget that apparent contradictions are actually fairly rare. As Ehrman himself said in a recent debate, if you simply open up the gospels and begin to read, you find four books which all tell the same story of the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus. Before assuming that the Bible is simply an unadulterated mess, I’d urge skeptics to read the primary sources themselves and consider what a consistent and coherent portrait of Jesus they provide. Accepting inerrancy does not require patching up an endless series of holes and discrepancies in a set of hopelessly contradictory narratives. More often than not, it involves reading the text carefully and giving the benefit of the doubt to the biblical authors where the text is unclear.
Second, in the majority of cases, apparent contradictions involve extremely minor details in the gospel narratives rather than anything of intrinsic theological or historical significance. For example, some of the most commonly cited discrepancies include items like the number of angels at Jesus’ tomb, the number of blind men on the road to Jericho, whether Jesus was leaving or entering Jericho when he healed the blind men, what color Jesus’ robe was, etc… Given how small these details are, it’s no wonder that even serious readers of the Bible are often wholly unaware of them. While I grant that even these tiny details are relevant for our understanding of inerrancy, I question whether this approach is entirely sensible for someone seeking to know whether the basic truth claims of Christianity are true. Are we really willing to reject Christianity because Jesus actually healed two blind men rather than one? What bearing would this fact have on the truly central, earth-shaking claims of Christianity like the deity of Christ, his death for our sins, or his resurrection from the dead?
This last observation dovetails well with my final point: the motivation behind inerrancy. I will hazard to guess that no Christian claims to believe that the Bible is inerrant because they have infallible knowledge of ancient history and have satisfactorily resolved every apparent contradiction in the Bible. Instead, beliefs in inerrancy are and ought to be built on our beliefs about Jesus. It’s because Christians believe that Jesus is God that we believe that his teaching is true, teaching which is replete with implicit and explicit statements about the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures. The Christian’s reasoning is then: if Jesus is God, then the Scriptures are inspired. If the Scriptures are inspired, then the Scriptures contain no errors. So the place for both Christians and non-Christians to start is not with inerrancy but with Jesus himself: who is he? What did he do? Is he trustworthy?
Speaking personally, I’ve followed a similar trajectory in my own belief in inerrancy. When I first became a Christian, I had very little knowledge of the Bible and attended an evangelical mainline church which did not accept inerrancy, although it still had a relatively high view of Scripture. But as I learned more about the Bible, theology, and about Jesus’ teaching, my confidence in the Bible grew. I also discovered that what once appeared to be intractable difficulties often had very satisfying solutions. All of these experiences gradually led me to the doctrine of inerrancy. Of course, that’s not to say that I can â€“even now- answer all of the apparent contradictions in the Bible. I know excellent answers to some, plausible answers to others, and no really good answers to a handful. But my view of the Bible isn’t based on my ability to solve all biblical contradictions; it’s based on who I think Jesus is.
Throughout this series of essays, I’ve highlighted the main agreements and disagreements between Ehrman and evangelicals. In the first section, I discussed several substantial areas of agreement. In the second section, I discussed a disagreement in the historical reliability of the gospels that forms the backdrop to differences in methodology. Based on the evidence I presented, I think we are justified in concluding that the gospels are generally historically reliable rather than being largely comprised of later fabrications as Ehrman suggests. That conclusion will lead to significant methodological differences in how we approach the statements of Jesus. Next, I discussed Ehrman’s claim that Jesus believed in a separate divine figure whom he called the ‘Son of Man.’ Even adopting Ehrman’s own methodology, I showed that we should conclude that Jesus saw himself as the ‘Son of Man.’ In the fourth section, I examined Jesus’ prophecy in the Olivet Discourse, which Ehrman sees as a failed prediction of the world’s end within a generation of Jesus’ death. Again, adopting Ehrman’s methodology, I showed that the earliest account of the discourse predicts the destruction of Jerusalem (which occurred in 70 A.D.) within a generation of Jesus, but does not specify a date for the end of the world. Finally, I examined the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, discussing both what it means to modern evangelicals and its foundation on the identity of Jesus.
For readers who are Christian, I hope this essay has provided a helpful counterpoint to Ehrman’s book. Even if I haven’t answered every issue to your satisfaction, I think I’ve provided at least a sketch of why traditional Christian beliefs about Jesus can withstand historical scrutiny. If there are other issues raised by Ehrman which you find troubling, you’re welcome to email me.
For non-Christians, I hope that this essay showed that an examination of the evidence does not lead unavoidably to skepticism about the Bible. Not only do external sources like archaeology and onomastics affirm the reliability of the gospels, but the biblical texts themselves actually provide a very coherent picture of the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, one which Ehrman in large part affirms. I think Ehrman’s book is also helpful in calling into question the infallibility of New Testament scholarship. Earlier, I alluded to Ehrman’s criticism of the Jesus Seminar and other, less-scholarly popular depictions of Jesus found in fiction or on the Internet. How is it that the two-hundred-plus scholars who comprise the Jesus Seminar can confidently assert that “Jesus was not an apocalyptic prophet” (The Gospel According to Jesus, Funk and the Jesus Seminar) while Ehrman and others just as confidently assert that this was, in fact, Jesus’ central self-identity?
C.S. Lewis, who was himself a noted medievalist and Oxford scholar answered that question fifty years ago. In his well-known fictional work The Screwtape Letters, he writes:
In the last generation we promoted the construction of such a “historical Jesus” on liberal and humanitarian lines; we are now putting forward a new “historical Jesus” on Marxian, catastrophic, and revolutionary lines… The documents say what they say and cannot be added to; each new “historical Jesus” therefore has to be got out of them by suppression at one point and exaggeration at another, and by that sort of guessing…on which no one would risk ten shillings in ordinary life, but which is enough to produce a crop of new Napoleons, new Shakespeares, and new Swifts, in every publisher’s autumn list.
Here, Lewis expresses a similar sentiment to Albert Schweitzer, the renowned New Testament scholar, whom Ehrman quotes approvingly: “There is no historical task which so reveals a man’s true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus” (p. 126). When we approach the figure of Jesus, we always encounter the temptation of remaking him in our own image. This temptation is probably responsible for many of the portraits of Jesus that we find in New Testament scholarship.
But this temptation is not confined to skeptics. Christians have to actively work against the desire to mute Jesus, to silence his radical teachings, to skip over places in the gospels that offend us, and to create a Jesus who fits comfortably into our lives. It is here that I have come to appreciate the resources that a conservative approach to Scripture provides. While critical scholars can dismiss any teaching which does not fit into their preferred picture of Jesus as ‘unhistorical’, that option is not open to inerrantists. We must include all the biblical data, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. Our biases may color it, twist it, or distort it. But at the end of the day, we cannot dismiss it. Thus, while you do see some variation in the portraits of Jesus presented by conservative evangelical scholars, there is absolutely no comparison to the wild diversity you find among skeptics. The full text of the gospels will always act as a check on our imagination and prejudices.
In conclusion, let me encourage readers to return to the primary sources: the gospels themselves. If you have read Ehrman’s 250-page book, why not also read the four 30-page gospels that are its subject? While I may not have convinced you that they are the inspired word of God, I hope I’ve convinced you that you don’t need to approach them with ingrained skepticism. In them, you’ll find a figure who has captured the imagination of humanity for two thousand years. In all that time, the message that he preached is just as potent, challenging and transforming as ever.