Dr. Bart Ehrman and the Agnostic Argument against Christianity: Part I

By Robin Schumacher

A June 3rd article that appeared on Christianpost contained an interview with Dr. Bart Ehrman who is a noted author and professor of religion. Ehrman is most famous for his criticisms of the New Testament's reliability, with various books he's produced on the topic reaching the top of certain best seller lists.

The Christianpost interview focused on his skepticism of the New Testament, with very predictable results occurring in the reader comments that followed. Atheists and skeptics high-fived each other, reveling in the fact that they had a credible champion who fuels their hope that the Bible cannot be trusted, while some believers cast disparaging remarks at Ehrman saying he's not worth listening to.

Both sides need to step back from their rhetoric.

Atheists who believe Bart fully sides with them may be surprised to learn what he does support on the topic of Jesus (and what that foundation points to). And Christians who call into question Ehrman's intelligence or skill should understand that he is indeed a very smart and well-trained scholar who deserves respect.

While I have a Ph.D. in New Testament like Ehrman (albeit not from Princeton), I certainly don't pretend to be on the same scholastic playing field as him. However, my educational background has provided me with exposure to the same evidence and arguments on the Bible's trustworthiness as Ehrman's. The fact is the vast majority of his objections to Scripture are not novel and are known to those who pursue advanced theological degrees.

My training leads me to thank Bart for some of the work he's done, while at the same time cross swords with him over the strong skepticism he has on the New Testament's reliability.

Things for Which We Should Thank Bart

It may sound odd for a Christian to thank Ehrman for some of the things he says, but in fact, Ehrman does deserve credit in a number of places.

First, Bart's advice on examining evidence regarding truth claims is a good one. Even though he is somewhat selective with which cats he decides to let out of the truth bag for readers to consider in his books[1], his admonition to put belief systems to the test is spot on.

Next, I appreciate his defense of the historicity of Jesus. In his recent book, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, Ehrman takes to task the extreme fringe skeptics (the "mythicists") who say Jesus never existed. While mythicist talk may grace the forums of various internet atheist haunts, you won't find a credible historian or university who backs such assertions – something Bart demonstrates quite well. Of Jesus, Ehrman says, "One of the most certain facts of history is that Jesus was crucified on orders of the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate."[2]

Moreover, Bart also validates the historical lives of the disciples, Paul, and their claims about seeing Jesus alive. Of course, he denies Christ actually rose from the dead, and offers a variety of explanations for what Paul and the other apostles experienced, but he doesn't deny that something happened to change each of them into defenders of Christianity.

We also need to thank Bart for openly calling out and educating the Church on passages in the Bible that the vast majority of theologians recognize as not being part of the original canon. The longer ending of Mark (16:9-19), the section of the woman caught in adultery in John (7:73-8:11), and the 1 John 5:7-8 Trinitarian formula still found in a few Bible translations are all considered inauthentic by most Biblical scholars. Ehrman is right to remind believers of this fact.

Of course, nearly all Bibles clearly omit or mark these passages as suspect in some way, and skeptics should understand that it is through the science of Biblical criticism that such verses are classified as not being known by the early Church nor inspired by God. Bart is certainly not the first to bring these passages to light.

Lastly, I appreciate Bart's honesty in the interview where he admits that it is the logical problem of evil that has turned him from belief in God – not any supposed errors in the Bible. Many unbelievers cover the true source of their disbelief with various smokescreens, but I am impressed that Ehrman does not do this.

Where Bart and Christianity Part Company

Although we should thank Bart for a number of things, we must also respectfully part company with him where his core assault on Biblical reliability begins. While I could cite a number of examples where I believe Ehrman to be incorrect, let me take aim at just two.[3]

First, Bart tells his audience that the number of differences ("variants") in the existing New Testament manuscripts can be pegged at about 400,000[4] which equates to there being "more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament."[5] Ehrman's claim shows how a partial truth – one left without full explanation – can lead to people walking away with the wrong conclusion.

While an uninformed Christian lay audience may gasp at the statistics Bart relays, anyone who has studied Biblical textual criticism yawns at Ehrman's statements. First, keep in mind that one variant of one letter of one word in one verse in 2,000 manuscripts counts as 2,000 variants (and there are nearly 6,000 manuscripts to compare).

Second, the fact is that the overwhelming majority of variants are completely inconsequential, consisting of spelling and numerical differences that can't be translated in certain manuscripts, sentence word order changes, etc. The bottom line? Scholars have concluded that the New Testament text is 99% pure leaving only 1% of the text that contains any meaningful variants.[6]

"Aha!" cries the skeptic, "even if 1% of the New Testament has 'meaningful' differences that can still greatly affect things!" I'm sorry to disappoint them, but that simply isn't the case.

To understand why I say this, let's look at an example of a 'meaningful variant'. In 1 Thessalonians 2:7, Paul describes himself either as 'gentle' or as 'little children.' In the Greek, there is a one-letter discrepancy (epioi vs. nepioi). Does such a thing affect any Biblical doctrine or call into question something about Paul that could change our view of him? Not at all.

Examples like this, and the real story behind the other 399,999 variants, is why I believe Ehrman to be shooting blanks in his attempt to call into question the New Testament's transmission reliability.

Does it Really Depend on Which Gospel You Read?

A second example of Ehrman blowing Gospel differences out of proportion is his somewhat famous "It depends on which Gospel you read…" speech that he gives on various occasions such as the debates he's had with a friend of mine, Dr. Mike Licona, who defends the authenticity of the New Testament and the resurrection of Jesus. How many women were at Christ's tomb on that first Easter morning – 1, 2, 3, or 5? Were there two angels or only one that announced His resurrection? Were they angels or men? Did Jesus appear to His followers at Galilee or Jerusalem? These are the types of questions Bart raises in an attempt to have his listeners question the veracity of the New Testament accounts.

While one might expect your standard internet atheist who blindly cuts-and-pastes arguments from his/her favorite skeptical wiki sites to bring up such things, it's hard to believe that someone as educated as Ehrman would do so. He certainly knows that mountains of material exist that more than adequately explain such things.

Being a schooled historian, he also knows historical analytic rules of thumb like a partial report is not a false report and a divergent account is not a false account. The writers of the New Testament used techniques and methods that literally all ancient historians employed in arranging their material – techniques that do not produce actual contradictions at all, but instead end up highlighting various points/individuals or summarizing accounts for their readership.

When Bart or others try to call into question the reliability of the New Testament by stressing these types of differences in the Gospels – ones that were produced via accepted historical writing methods – the end result can be likened to a BB bouncing off a tank. There's just no real impact.

The Bad New According to Bart

So what is the gospel according to Bart Ehrman? Simply put, Jesus is just another dead religious teacher, the Bible is a lie, evil has no governor, and God most likely doesn't exist. While tough for Christians to swallow, if this is the bona-fide truth about these things, we should accept them and look elsewhere for our worldview.

But the evidence doesn't lead me to those conclusions. There's quite strong evidence to the contrary that speaks to Jesus truly being raised from the dead, the Bible being accurate in what it states, and a transcendent Creator having brought everything we know into existence.

As to the problem of evil that serves as Ehrman's chief defeater of God, this is also an area with which I am (unfortunately) well acquainted, having watched my first wife die very young leaving me alone with our baby daughter. While the emotional problem of evil is one thing, the logical problem of evil (reconciling an all-good/powerful God with the presence of evil) is something that many scholars admit isn't a good argument any longer.

For example, Peter Van Inwagen says, "It used to be widely held that evil was incompatible with the existence of God: that no possible world contained both God and evil. So far as I am able tell, this thesis is no longer defended."[7] William Alston, another noted philosopher, agrees: "It is now acknowledged on (almost) all sides that the logical argument [of evil] is bankrupt."[8]

Philosophic defenses aside, the Bible itself also stands as a witness to both God and evil being present in the world. If every account in Scripture ended like Elijah who was whisked to Heaven in a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2), then I would relegate the Bible to the genre of fairy tales as it would not represent what we experience in our lives.

But the Bible is not like this. Scripture does not conceal the heartache, pain, suffering and the seeming victory evil has at times – strange things for writers to include who want to gather as many adherents as possible unless they were reporting the truth.

With God, sometimes it takes only three days for an unspeakable act of evil like the crucifixion of a good and innocent man to be understood, whereas other events will apparently wait until eternity for an explanation.

I hope Bart Ehrman looks more deeply into this key barrier that keeps him from God, and I would ask that all Christians pray for God to enlighten his heart and mind so that he ceases to be the stumbling block that he currently is, and instead uses his considerable intellectual prowess for the glory of the One who created him.

1 For examples, see: http://tinyurl.com/yfaue7q.
2 Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: An Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Oxford University Press: 2011), pp. 261-2. My emphasis.
3 Given the brevity normally required by blog posts, I won't tackle the somewhat lengthy subject of Ehrman's claims of whether the New Testament contains forgeries. Instead, please see Ben Witherington's response to Ehrman on this topic here: http://tinyurl.com/lxneuqe.
4 Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), pg. 89
5 Ibid, 90.
6 Dr. Maurice A. Robinson, Senior Professor of Greek and New Testament at Southeastern did an exhaustive manuscript study and concluded that there was 92.2% stability in the text during the time Bart Ehrman asserts the highest number of variants was introduced. Of the 7.8% in dispute, only 1% of the text has variants considered meaningful.
7 Peter Van Inwagen, "The Problem of Evil, the Problem of Air, and the Problem of Silence, Philosophical Perspectives, vol. 5: Philosophy of Religion, ed. James E. Tomberlin (Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview Publishing, 1991),pg. 135.
8 William Alston, "The Inductive Argument from Evil and the Human Cognitive Condition," in Philosophical Perspectives, vol. 5: Philosophy of Religion, ed. James E. Tomberlin (Atascadero, CA.: Ridgeview Publishing, 1991),pg. 29.

Published 6-10-13