Bart Ehrman is a bible scholar with an interesting conversion experience. He was an active Christian as a high school and early university student, but then began to wonder about the accuracy of the New Testament gospels. He studied NT Greek and tried to answer the question, “Are the Gospels reliable?”

His lifetime of study led to his conversion experience. Watch him debate Craig Evans, another NT scholar.

Sunday’s Sermon

8 thoughts on “Sunday’s Sermon

  1. Ehrman is quite forceful in this “debate” – Evans never seems to deal with the questions posed by Ehrman, but just goes on with his prepared suff. “Does it matter that …” is great rhetoric.

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  2. I thought Evans did a respectable job defending the conservative side, even though I think Ehrman had the better arguments. Ehrman, it seemed to me, was a little too bullying in his tone to win over any converts, if that was his aim. Still, it made for good and exciting watching, and delicious for those of us who agreed with him.

    I did think that Ehrman presented one weak argument, though: he asked rhetorically whether it isn’t very suspicious that the only scholars worldwide who still believe in biblical inerrancy are fundamentalist evangelical Christians. It could be said, by the other side, that it’s equally suspicious that the only scholars who _reject_ biblical inerrancy are _not_ fundamentalist evangelicals. Where does that get us?

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    • Justin writes, “I did think that Ehrman presented one weak argument, though: he asked rhetorically whether it isn’t very suspicious that the only scholars worldwide who still believe in biblical inerrancy are fundamentalist evangelical Christians.”

      I thought his point was that many non-fundy Christians are still Christians even though they allow for metaphorical readings vs literal meanings. What if that is the case is the foundation of the believers’ belief? Or, as Crossan puts it so succinctly, “Just because the Bible says “Jesus is the lamb of God”, it doesn’t follow that Mary had a little lamb.”

      Evans never seemed to answer any of the questions put to him – how much inerrancy is needed to conclude the document in question is a human document?

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      • Thanks, Bob. I’m trying to be fair, here: you know which side of the issue I’m really on!

        It seems we both understood that argument of Ehrman’s as follows:

        P1. There is strong evidence for some degree or error in the Bible.
        P2. The only Biblical scholars who deny the force of this evidence and maintain that the Bible is absolutely without error are conservative fundamentalists.
        P3. Conservative fundamentalists also maintain that the Bible must be true in an uncompromisingly literal sense, and that no true Christian can deny this.
        P4. But there are, in fact, many true Christians who deny uncompromising Biblical literalism.
        P5. Therefore, the only deniers of the force of P1 are lacking in credibility.
        C. Therefore, there are errors in the Bible.

        Now, I think that sort of argument could be effective for an audience that accepts P4. But by Ehrman’s reaction to the show of hands at the beginning of the debate, I got the sense that most of Ehrman’s audience were in fact conservative fundamentalists. Presumably, such people would just maintain that a rejection of Biblical inerrancy _is_ enough to disqualify someone as a Christian. Ehrman also didn’t give any support for P4. So I think that, for that audience, his argument was not very good.

        Also, while Ehrman cites the witty point from Crossan about “Jesus is the lamb of God” not implying that Jesus was an actual lamb, I wonder whether that might be a bit of a straw man attack in this case. I’ve met many theologians who called themselves Biblical inerrantists, but none of them actually maintained that there were no metaphors in the Bible. What they _did_ all insist on was that certain key Christian doctrines and historical details given in the Bible should not be interpreted metaphorically. They also, when pressed, were glad to provide me with principled reasons for interpreting some passages literally and some non-literally. Were those principles somewhat ad hoc? They struck me that way, but even so, it seems unfair for Ehrman to imply that conservative fundamentalist theologians are theoretically compelled to believe that Jesus was a member of the genus ovis.

        I think a similar point pertains to your complaint about Evans. At first, I also felt that he was just ducking Ehrman’s questions. But as the debate continued, I started to feel that he was responding to them, even if he should have made clearer what his answer was. I take it that his response was as follows: yes, there have been transmission errors in the Gospels; and yes, it is important for Biblical scholars to take this seriously. Biblical scholars have done this (says Evans), carefully considering the earliest manuscript copies as they emerge with an open mind. When this has been done, it has been found in all cases that every important Bible-based theological doctrine traditionally held by evangelical conservatism is supported by even the earliest copies that have been discovered. Moreover, he says (though he is shakier on the exact details in this debate), there are good independent grounds for thinking that the early churches preserved adequate scriptural accuracy up to the point of the earliest extant copies, and that the Gospel writers were also likely to be accurate (though he says very little about that in this debate).

        Again, I think these arguments are ultimately unsuccessful; but I at least think (though I didn’t until part-way through) that he made a decent attempt to respond to Ehrman.

        As for why the acknowledgement that the Gospel accounts contain errors on unimportant points doesn’t commit one to an acknowledgement that they might also be mistaken on important points of Christian doctrine,the standard line I’ve heard (though Evans didn’t say it) is that there are extra-Biblical religious grounds for thinking that the Holy Spirit would guarantee that the Scriptures would never be corrupted on points of theological or ethical importance, while not wishing to intervene to correct errors on such relative trivia as Jesus’ genealogy. Not very convincing to a nonbeliever, it’s true; but perhaps an adequate defence for someone who already believes in the Holy Spirit!

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  3. Good analysis, Justin. I thought E was making the point that those who will not budge from a position of inerrancy no matter how many errors are pointed out are guilty of begging the question: “God wrote it; God is infallible; so, it’s infallible.”

    Once you let metaphor in it has a way of corrupting the text, eh? And to discriminate between what is to be read metaphorically and what is to be read literally requires a new principle of hermeneutics that will need to be argued for. Much like the way in which some Christians dismiss as “out of date” some of the many commandments of the OT that are clearly wrong. (But what principle are they using to dismiss them. That’s where the action is.)

    “Does it matter” (love that rhetorical flourish [Karen claims it comes from E’s early days as a Christian organizer]) that the bible says pi = 3.0? Does it matter that the bible says the earth is the center of the universe? Does it matter that snakes and asses talk? etc., etc.

    E’s claim seems to me to be that at some point it becomes irrational to believe in a text that is so fundamentally flawed. The only way to do so is to dismiss all evidence that challenges an a’priori position.

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  4. Bob, if Ehrman was making the point that circular reasoning is not good support for evangelical belief, I agree that the argument was good. But then, I wish he had made it clearer that that was what he was doing, and which of his opponents were doing that! I have actually heard some Christians do blatant circles like that, but many are more sophisticated. Maybe I zoned out at some point and missed that part of the debate.

    I wish more people would push the ‘out of date commandments’ issue as you do. It just seems so incriminating! I’ve asked many Christians how they can defend the view that a book is moral when it clearly recommends A, B, and C. When they’re well-trained, they seem to give one of these two answers: 1) Those commandments were ceremonial, not moral, and were intended only for the Hebrews before the time of the first Temple; and/or 2) When one considers the commands in context, they are morally quite reasonable (e.g. if the Hebrews didn’t slay _all_ the Midianites, even the infants, they really would have come to eradicate God’s chosen people and His message for humanity (and besides, if any of the slaughtered infants were innocent in their hearts, God would give them eternal reward to compensate for their lost lives); there really _were_ some very gossipy women who frequented the Corinthian church, and Paul was right to advise that they put a sock in it; etc.)

    These both seem pretty weak to me, and it seems to me that my Christian interlocutors realize it when they get pressed on it. Sure, the first defence explains why those moral commands are not in effect _now_; but why would a perfectly moral being _ever_ have commanded them? And couldn’t God, with His unlimited power, have found a way to protect his people and his message without counselling the slaughter of countless people who had no reason to think they were doing anything wrong, etc.? Don’t all these things point to the conclusion that God must be really, really immoral, if He exists?

    The answer I get to that is that God’s morality is totally unlike our morality, and we can’t even recognize it on our moral terms. Again, when pressed on this, some Christians seem uncomfortable with the implications. Are we not _really_ sure that slaughtering innocent people and giving the virgins to the priests as ‘booty’ is immoral, period? If God were to command tomorrow that torturing your best friend to death purely for the sake of mayhem, with no higher purpose being fulfilled, is the only morally acceptable course of action, wouldn’t it follow that God’s command is immoral, and that morality is therefore independent of God’s commands?

    Again, most Christians feel enough of a commitment to common morality to feel uneasy about this. But I’ve met a couple of people who are ready to bite the bullet. And that’s what really bothers me these days, dialectically. How does one proceed with people like that? Sure, we can dismiss all the evidence that supports their position, as you suggest. It’s very poor evidence, given our presuppositions. And I think there is excellent reason to think that our presuppositions are correct, and that we should preserve them at the cost of losing religion. But what of those who see it the other way around? We can ignore them, or call them insane, stupid, or fanatical. But they can, and do, say the same thing about us, and they seem to be pumping out children at a much higher rate. Rather than face off in a big baby derby at the expense of the planet, I think we should face off intellectually. But I’m less confident than I used to be that we can win easyly against the die-hards.

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    • I share your sense of despair, Justin. Once upon a time I was invited to talk to a moral philosophy class taught by a serious believer in the Catholic Church. I began by setting up on the chalk board a sort of Venn diagram with overlapping circles representing 1. moral, 2. religious, 3. legal – with the intent of engaging the students in a discussion of the different sorts of “rules” (moral, legal, religious). We tried to find some “laws” that would be all three – perhaps “Thou shalt not murder”. And some religious ones like “Thou shalt not wear a head cover in the sanctuary” and some like “Thou shalt not jaywalk”- anyway it was going well and the class was right into it when suddenly the instructor jumped up and reported on how he had experienced a religious conversion and God or Christ had spoken to him etc. He reckoned that my Venn diagram was blasphemous and that thinking about moral rules was not too important – just listen to the authorities of the Church and you will be OK. What an opportunity for public discussion, eh?

      But, no, I got so angry that I stormed out of the room with students chasing me down the hall urging me to come back (“Come back, Lane”). So, yes, emotion runs high. And my first response was fight/flight and not argue/discuss.

      And many people forget Plato’s lesson in the Euthyphro: Is a thing good because god says it is or does god say it is because it is good.

      So I agree with you when you write, “But I’m less confident than I used to be that we can win easyly against the die-hards.” Hell, I cannot even stay in the room!

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  5. Hi Bob,

    The guy sounds like a real piece of work. And he was teaching a class on ‘moral philosophy’?? How could you teach a course like that if you hold that “thinking about moral rules [is] not too important”? He sounds like a first-rate idiot. As the saying goes: the less they know, the more they think they know.

    Still, I’m oddly not as worried about interacting with people like that. Maybe I should be. What I find more troubling is a student I once had in an introductory ethics course who took the first option of the Euthyphro problem: things are good because God says they are. He admitted that it had some counterintuitive results, but was prepared to accept them because rejecting God’s moral voluntarism seemed more counterintuitive to him. This was a smart guy who argued well, and I gave him an A+ on his paper. He understood the opposing position very clearly, but just rejected it: his intuition that God exists and is the source of morality really was stronger than his intuition that torturing your neighbour to death at God’s command for no higher reason is immoral. And that was that. I didn’t think that he held that view because of some key piece of information he was missing, or anything he hadn’t thought through.

    The ‘teacher’ in your story, by contrast, just sounds like a meathead. As you describe it, it’s difficult to imagine that the guy would even have had the patience to listen to the opposing view under any circumstances, let alone take the time to understand it and see whether he could resist the arguments supporting it. That worries me less because I feel entirely justified, in _those_ cases (as opposed to cases involving that student of mine or someone like Evans), in just dismissing the person as a jerkoff who isn’t even trying. And I hope most fair-minded people would see that right off the bat.

    By the way, how on earth did he ever get a job teaching philosophy? Do you know? I’ve had incoming first-year students — most of them, in fact — who know better than to think that their religious conversion experiences count for bugger all in rational discussion, and that there is an important difference between doing philosophy and saying that we shouldn’t bother doing philosophy. Why didn’t he?

    P.S. I meant to say ‘easily’, of course! Sorry.

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