On Williams and Ehrman

Peter J Williams and Bart Ehrman recently conducted an exceptional discussion of the historicity of the gospels on the Unbelievable show. This article includes criticisms of either side.

Against the Christian side:

  1. I think Peter was overly reluctant against granting the possibility of contradictions or errors in the gospel. In the case of the death of Judas, for example, Peter states that the multiple accounts could both be correct and the he doesn’t feel much of a need to harmonize the interpretations.
    1. I agree with him that it’s possible the interpretations could be harmonized, but I also agree with Ehrman that particular harmonizations seem a bit implausible. Possible harmonizations:
      1. Judas hung himself near a cliff, the rope snapped, and he fell over the cliff headlong, tearing ripping his abdomen on the way.
      2. Judas hung himself and his dead body began decomposing. Natural decomposition or animals tore his abdomen over time and he fell headlong onto the ground at some point after he died.
    2. Peter could have taken a stronger, more intellectually honest stance by allowing that one or both versions might be incorrect. As J Warner Wallace points out, variation in the gospels confirms they are genuine testimonies from different eyewitnesses. In addition, the death of Judas is not essential scripture. Because there are no contradictions in essential theology, much of Ehrman’s argument would have rolled off of Peter like teflon with strategy.
    3. Peter was also weak because he stuck only with the four gospels when other scripture has early, authoritative authorship.
      1. Paul is an eyewitness and therefore arguably more authoritative than the author of Luke, and even secular scholars agree that Galatians was written before 55 CE and perhaps before 50 CE. 1 Corinthians is dated to 50 or 51 CE. These epistles are clear about man’s salvation through Christ’s divinity, in contrast to Ehrman’s indication that this in an innovation peculiar to the Gospel of John.
      2. Similarly, 1 and 2 Peter claim to be the work of an eyewitness, and they are generally considered to be written before 68 CE.

Against the secular side:

  1. Ehrman incorrectly argues that the gospels being correct in archaeological details fails to support them being correct in bigger claims.
    1. Clearly, if the gospels were incorrect in the details then we would not trust their larger claims.
    2. A pure agnostic would give the gospels equal chances of being true or false. Given that details are true strictly improves the bayesian probability of gospel truth.
    3. Many oral traditions have incorrect details, so that the gospel has an even stronger bayesian move towards expected truth because a pure agnostic who expects the gospels to comply with the oral tradition average would give it less than even odds.
  2. Ehrman incorrectly argues that that the New Testament fits the archetype of oral tradition.
    1. By Ehrman’s own estimation, Mark was written within 40 years of the crucifixion. J Warner Wallace dates Mark within 20 years of the crucifixion and I think it could be even less. I tweeted Ehrman to ask for specific arguments disputing these earlier dates. Oral traditions in general are much older than any of these dates suggest.
    2. Eyewitness testimony is not oral tradition. The idea of an oral tradition is that stories are communicated across generations. John is the oldest gospel, but it still purports to be an eyewitness testimony. It isn’t an oral tradition. Matthew, John, Paul, James, and Peter all claim to be eyewitnesses. The author of Revelation claims to be an eyewitness of his own vision, so again, intergenerational transfer doesn’t occur.
    3. Luke and Acts are perhaps the only works which are not direct eyewitness testimony. This gospel also does not count as oral tradition. It is written as a researched, orderly, and accurate report by a greek physician, based on eyewitness testimony, and intended for consumption as a literal, historical work.
      1. In Luke 1:3, Luke says that he “carefully investigated everything.” This is much closer to a research report than an oral transmission, even if Luke’s investigation involved speaking to people. Today, researchers conduct user interviews and a number of ethnographic techniques. These are categorically different than the oral tradition of, say, Homer’s poetry.
      2. Interestingly, Ehrman doesn’t want to grant that Luke actually interviewed people. If Luke was carefully investigating things without speaking to people then oral tradition applies even less. He would seem to be conducting observational research or reading extant manuscripts.
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