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Bart Ehrman vs Richard Bauckham – Round 1

This is a debate I had on April 9, 2016  with Richard J. Bauckham, a well-known and influential British scholar who has written extensively on many of the areas of my own interest, the New Testament, the historical Jesus, and the non-canonical literature.   He is a fine scholar, and a conservative Christian, and I disagree with him on, well, so many things!

This was the first of a two-part debate that was hosted by Justin Brierley on his weekly radio show “Unbelievable,”  aired on UK Premier Christian Radio from the London studio. Our topic was “Are the Gospels Based on Eyewitness Testimony?”  My new book, Jesus Before the Gospels, argues that the stories about Jesus would have changed and evolved before they were written down in the Gospels(and that the authors of the Gospels were not eyewitnesses and had no access to the eyewitnesses). Bauckham’s earlier book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, claims that the view that the Gospels were written by those with access to eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ first followers (and that therefore we can trust their historical reliability).   Our discussion was, at times, lively…


Please adjust gear icon for 1080p High-Definition:

Roman Religion as the Context for Christianity
The Fear of Hell, Good Debaters, and the Name of God: Mailbag April 22, 2016



  1. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  April 24, 2016

    I just listened to this part today. So many people have went on and on about how great Bauckham’s book is, so I was expecting to be blown away. I’m still not entirely convinced that some of the miracles didn’t happen, but I don’t think he provided enough evidence either. I am also wondering if ancient people would have at least had some basic literacy even though they may not have had sophisticated literacy. Literacy isn’t that difficult, but it does require repeated exposure. And if Aramaic speaking people were continually around Greek speaking people, many of them would have naturally picked up both languages I would think.

  2. Avatar
    John  April 24, 2016

    “Please adjust gear icon for 1080p High-Definition:”


    • Bart
      Bart  April 25, 2016

      Yeah, Steven likes us to add that, but I never have known what the blazes it means (!)

      • Avatar
        Adam0685  April 25, 2016

        Generally speaking, the higher the pixels the clearer the image/video…but it does not make audio better.

      • Avatar
        turbopro  April 25, 2016

        Simply put: in the bottom right hand corner of the youtube video, just to the left of where we see the “youtube” logo, the little six-pointed “gear” is used to adjust the settings of your video. This is the “gear icon.” If you click on it, it will bring up a pop-up menu, which will allow you to adjust, among other things, the video quality to the high definition, “1080p” setting.

        “1080p” refers to quality of the video.

      • Avatar
        John  April 26, 2016

        Especially on a podcast.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  April 24, 2016

    This debate over eyewitnesses has always left me scratching my head because it begins with the tacit assumption that eyewitness accounts are automatically reliable. I can’t say that I’m terribly impressed by eyewitness accounts, because we have countless examples of supposed eyewitness accounts about which, for some reason, plenty of Christians have no problem being skeptical.

    For instance, at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917 — less than 100 years ago! — thousands of “eyewitnesses” reported seeing the sun dim and zig-zag across the sky. This has since been accepted as a bona fide miracle by the Catholic Church, but I’m quite certain Protestant Evangelical Christians such as Bauckham are skeptical none-the-less. Or how about the purported eyewitnesses to Joseph Smith’s Golden Tablets. Those eyewitnesses’ signatures are immortalized within the actual printed Book of Mormon, as if to say “I dare you to question this eyewitness testimony.” (We’ll set aside for the moment the fact that many of those signatories were eventually excommunicated from the LDS church.) And yet non-Mormon Christians have no problem questioning it.

    And this is just the tip of the “eyewitness” iceberg! Consequently, I have to say that I find conservative Christians’ attempts at establishing the “eyewitness” character of the Gospels to be — pardon my French — self-serving and disingenuous. In other words, they’ll pretend that proving that the Gospels are eyewitness accounts somehow proves that they are true, while at the same time they will readily dismiss actual eyewitness accounts based on a criterion that they, themselves, refuse to apply to the Gospels! It’s hypocritical. It’s intellectually dishonest. And I have no time or trunk for such quote-unquote “scholarship”.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 25, 2016

      A good part of my book is precisely on this point! And I fault Bauckham for not taking the problem seriously.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  April 29, 2016

        But of course Bauckham can’t take the problem “seriously,” it would destroy his credibility and the basis of his reputation. I also think he is a “believer.” Frankly, I thought his arguments were embarrassing, and you hadn’t even gotten to the question of eyewitness reliability.
        I tend to believe that the assertions of 97% illiteracy in Palestine are exaggerated considerably. No one really knows, although to my knowledge most historians agree with you. I believe, and I don’t think you personally are guilty of this, many writers attempt to denigrate the Jews–of any period for that matter. Calling the Jews illiterate supports the idea that Jesus came to the Jews and they, in their stiff-necked ignorance, rejected him.
        I also think that that underlying current plays into the Gospel stories that Peter and the others ran away when Jesus was arrested (except for the invention of the severed ear). Jesus realized that he was going to suffer, and he certainly explained that to the others. Another fabricated element of the Gethsemane story is the “Judas kiss.” The Temple guards and the Romans were well aware of Jesus and may have followed him as a dangerous fellow. The idea that Judas had to kiss Jesus so they would know who he was is absurd, I have my own understanding of Judas and how he may have betrayed Jesus but it has nothing to do with an identifying kiss.
        I do think you underestimate the number of Jews and their dispersion to every major and some not so major cities of the ancient world. I once read in the Jewish Encyclopedia that 10% of the population of the Roman Empire was Jewish in Second Temple times. I don’t credit that, but Jews were a “significant” and thriving minority at that time.

      • Avatar
        scissors  August 15, 2019

        Dr Ehrman:

        I know this is three years later and you probably don’t have the time to respond, but I happened to listen to part 1 the other day. Something struck me as rather odd in one of Bauckham’s response to you. I do not have a transcript so I’m relying on my unreliable memory for this. He had asked you about how the churches would have distinguished between multiple gospels, as in Today we’re going to read from….. A bit later, in response to something you said, he said something like Jews didn’t say things like this came from Genesis, but said Moses said this or that. I may have heard this wrong, but that sounds like it supported your contention that the gospels went un named till the late second century.

  4. Avatar
    smackemyackem  April 24, 2016

    I believe someone from Patheos posted this the other day. I listened to it there. Good discussion so far.

  5. Avatar
    chupacabra  April 24, 2016

    Whether or not Papias’ referred to the Gospel of Matthew that made the canon or a different one that is lost to history seems to be beside the point of contention. If I understand correctly, you were trying to make the argument that for the first two centuries the Gospels were not identified by a specific name in christian communities. Wouldn’t the fact that Papias refers to a couple of gospels by name be sufficient evidence that the tradition of naming gospels predated Irenaeus?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 25, 2016

      Ah, right! No, I was actually arguing that our Gospel of Matthew was not known to be called the Gospel of Matthew until the end of the second century. I’m interested in knowing if we know who specifically wrote these particular books.

      • Avatar
        chupacabra  April 25, 2016

        Ok, but from the debate it seems that you weren’t prepared to admit that the now canonical Gospels even had a name before Irenaeus. That seems unlikely, if nothing else, for its impracticality. I think that’s not the point Bauckham was attempting to make at first, but it’s the one he was hoping to find common ground on.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 26, 2016

          My sense is that it seems unlikely to us just because it seems kind-a weird (since we have never had such a thing in our experience)

        • Avatar
          jeremymwest  May 5, 2016

          Yes, but Bart’s point is that there’s really no evidence to support a view that they were named early in the 2nd century, except those references by Papias (which even those references have a litany of issues). Just because we think they HAD to be named at that time, doesn’t mean they were. It’s just conjecture based on our presuppositions of how things “ought to be”. Frankly, even if Papias was referring to the Gospels of Mark and Matthew that we know of, how can we be sure his information was given to him accurately? You would need to believe that Papias got proper information and that it was correctly preserved, in spite of the fact he was dead wrong on several issues, passed on fallacious stories, was considered unintelligent by later church leaders, and admitted that he basically got his info 4th or 5th hand.

  6. Greg Matthews
    Greg Matthews  April 24, 2016

    I found this on the web on another site a couple weeks ago. Bauckham seemed like the least prepared (or perhaps least capable?) “opponent” I’ve ever heard you go up against.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 25, 2016

      I don’t know about that. But he’s one of the most eminent scholars I’ve debated.

      • Avatar
        John  September 9, 2020

        Accepting he is a scholar, would you consider Bauckham to be primarily a historian or an apologist or something else?

        Therefore, is JatE a work of history?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 10, 2020

          He’s a bit of both; the main problem I have is when he claims he’s doing history when he appears to have an apologetic agenda. I would say Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is indeed a historical study and that a large part of it is indeed driven by an apologetic agenda. He is best in his work on early Christian apocrypha (the later apocalpyses), where he does not have a theological stake in the matter. His scholarship gets very different there, and is spot on.

  7. Greg Matthews
    Greg Matthews  April 24, 2016

    Per Galations 5:11 Paul wrote that he once “preached circumcision”. From that can we take it to mean that he was a Pharisaic intellectual actively involved in spreading Judaism? I know Jews don’t proselytize like Christians, but I don’t know how else to put my question. Some Gentiles in Hellenistic communities had an attraction for Judaism in Paul’s time so I presume that someone was spreading the word for Jews.

    My point is that I’m wondering if Paul learned how to speak to crowds from his “previous life” so to speak.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 25, 2016

      Yes, it’s a complicated verse (Galatians has lots and lots of those). It *is* interesting that the word “still” (ετι) is missing from a major stream of the textual tradition…..

      • Greg Matthews
        Greg Matthews  April 26, 2016

        Between the Galatians commentaries from Anchor Yale Bible (J. Louis Martin) and Hermeneia (Hans Dieter Betz) can you recommend one over the other? The Hermeneia edition is almost 30 years old so I was wondering if it was still current….

        • Bart
          Bart  April 26, 2016

          They are both good. But Martin’s is especially good. He spent much of his career working on it, and was the outstanding expert (he died, sadly, just this past year).

  8. Avatar
    Boltonian  April 25, 2016

    Excellent debate. I am looking forward to Part 2 – is there more on Papias because both your arguments seemed to me to hinge on how you interpret this early source?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 25, 2016

      Good question! I don’t remember! But I think we moved on to other things….

      • Avatar
        turbopro  April 25, 2016

        Well, one thing we know: it wouldn’t be eye witnesses like you that told the gospel authors what they remembered. Two weeks ago and, “I don’t remember!”

  9. Avatar
    davidblasko  April 25, 2016

    I thought of a real-life scenario where a type of “supernatural” legend can occur, without having to appeal to someone lying or hallucinating..

    This past summer(2015)the Grateful Dead gave a series of “farewell” concerts in California. -It was billed as the last time the full remaining band would play together and also it would commemorate their 50th anniversary. -Jerry Garcia led the band in their heyday and was kind of considered a cult-like figure among the band’s followers. “Dead heads” as they were called would follow the band from city to city to watch them play..-He died 20 years ago in 1995….-Anyway, this past summer on the night of the first show during the farewell concert, a huge rainbow appeared over the stage, (actually it didn’t appear right over the stage. It was more to the side…) See, I’m already altering the story. -But this event really happened, I’ll post a video from You Tube. -The crowd went absolutely crazy, people were hugging and crying, -everyone pointing to the rainbow making comments like “That’s Jerry!!”, “Jerry’s here!!!” -People in the audience really believed it was Jerry making his appearance during the band’s first show of their farewell tour..People were really overwhelmed by this event..This was last summer, in a time when we know how rainbows form. The weather conditions were right.

    Now, imagine if this type of event had happened in a time when people didn’t understand what rainbows were and how they formed…Imagine if this happened before cameras were able to film events… -What you conceivably could have is people leaving the concert and going home to tell their friends and family about how during the concert a big rainbow formed over the stage and how everyone there thought it was Jerry, the band’s deceased cult leader making his appearance..-Soon the story may spread, after a few years, people may begin hearing bits and pieces of the story, maybe it would come up in a conversation and someone would say, “Hey did you hear about that one night with Jerry and the rainbow that formed..?” -And the friend says, “Yeah, Wasn’t that when Jerry appeared under a big rainbow above the stage??” Before you know it, people would be spreading around tales of how “Jerry appeared in the sky above the stage..smiling on the crowds..” (I didn’t attend the concert, but my friends are convinced it was Jerry making his appearance.. There are even videos on You Tube that photo shopped Jerry under the rainbow.) -If people really loved their music and message and may not have an understanding of the world, people would really believe these stories. -I imagine some people might even write them down.

    This is a scenario where nobody is lying or hallucinating…O.k. I take that back. It was a Grateful Dead concert, a lot of people were hallucinating..(but that’s not necessarily relevant.)


  10. Avatar
    Kazibwe Edris  April 25, 2016

    27 “You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written:

    “‘I will strike the shepherd,
    and the sheep will be scattered.’[d]

    28 But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”

    29 Peter declared, “Even if all fall away, I will not.”

    why is mark writing as if peter did not hear verse 28? could this be an indication that mark ended his gospel at verse 16:8 because he wanted them to remain in their ignorance about the resurrection?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 25, 2016

      Maybe he thinks that Peter didn’t “get” it (as he suggests elsewhere as well…)

      • Avatar
        Kazibwe Edris  April 30, 2016

        if they don’t “get it” then would they even “get” a physical resurrection?
        is that what mark was trying to get through to his readers?

  11. Avatar
    Samuel Riad  April 25, 2016

    Alright, I have one more question and I hope I get an honest answer:
    Did you read Burton Mack’s Who wrote the new testament? I am currently reading it but I don’t like it one bit. I think it’s not reliable at all.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 25, 2016

      Yup. I think he is a terrifically creative and intelligent scholar. But I disagree with him on *so* many things….

  12. Avatar
    Stephen  April 25, 2016

    Prof Ehrman

    It does not please me to say it but I can’t shake the impression that fine scholar or not Prof Bauckham’s views simply serve to validate a previously held religious opinion. Do you think this is a valid criticism?

    By identifying someone as a “conservative” scholar (or for that matter a “liberal” scholar) aren’t we tacitly admitting that at least for ancient texts deemed to be sacred scripture, “objective” scholarship is not possible? Do you see this as a problem?


    • Bart
      Bart  April 25, 2016

      Yes, I’m not sure he’s ever changed his mind about what he ultimately thinks about these things. But I don’t know his biography well.

  13. Avatar
    Radar  April 25, 2016

    I have listened to both episodes on the show’s podcast. I thought the second episode made the most progress! Although Baukham is conservative, he can’t be described as an inerrantist, and the second episode made that point obvious. There was a little more common ground between the two of you than what a listener may have initially supposed. An enjoyable conversation.

  14. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 25, 2016

    I get a kick out of the first thing mentioned being “discussed” for almost the full hour. Will Round 2 be more of the same?

  15. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 25, 2016

    This is a much better discussion than I expected. The main issue is the authorship of the Gospels, especially the Gospel of Mark. Was Mark written by a colleague of Peter who, thus, had access to an eyewitness or was it written by someone who used stories passed down and revised by many others over several decades? A secondary question is when were the four Gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? The answers to these two questions obviously influence how reliable we consider the Gospels to be. One of Dr. Ehrman’s main arguments is that Jews in first century Palestine were unlikely to be able to have written in Koine New Testament Greek making it unlikely that the author of Mark was a companion of Peter. The discussion is friendly and scholarly. I am somewhat familiar with the discussion about Papias, but not being an academic scholar in the field, I found this to be the only part of the discussion that was over my head.

    I look forward to round 2 which I assume will discuss how reliable any eyewitness testimony is likely to be.

  16. Avatar
    gavriel  April 25, 2016

    One question. Is it completely unlikely that early 2. century communities possessed and regularly used say two (later canonical) gospels and still did not try to “name” them when reading from them in social settings? I find it difficult to imagine that the communities would not wonder about who wrote them and when. After all, Papias at least attests the early interest in the origin of the gospels, even if he was wrong.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 25, 2016

      I wish we knew! The early 2nd c. authors who quote multiple Gospel texts *don’t* differentiate between them or name them! That’s precisely the problem. Seems weird, but there it is….

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  May 3, 2016

        Something just clicked for me. If an early 2nd century church had 2 or all 3 synoptics in their collection, might they have considered them the same gospel, much as the story tellers you cite in your latest book insist that all renditions of a story are alike, though to our ears they are radically different? Might they even have considered John “the same?” Modern Bible believers have no trouble treating them as such.

  17. Epicurus13
    Epicurus13  April 25, 2016

    Why does it consistently seem that Prof. Ehrman’s Christian counterpart gets more air time with answering questions and putting forth their views on this show ? I felt that also in the Tim McGrew debate. Especially when he gets them on the robes. Justin Brierley seems to run a bit of interference for them. Bauckham would ramble on and on and then when Ehrman countered you could hear Bauckham huffing and puffing to break in on his argument which he did many times, Maybe its me or maybe you’re to nice Prof. Ehrman. Either way I enjoyed listening and thought you nailed another one. P.s. Two thumps up on a possible future book idea on the history of hell !!!

  18. Avatar
    Colin P  April 25, 2016

    Hi Bart. Just picking up on one of the threads of your discussion, isn’t it a bit coincidental that Papias wrote about the writings of Mark & Matthew and later 2 of the gospels were ascribed to these authors? I think in one of your books you suggested that it was precisely because of Papias’ comments that this was done I.e. Of the 4 gospels, the ones that could most easily be argued were by Mark & Matthew were said to be by these authors. However, presumably Papias was drawing on some tradition which perhaps he misunderstood and distorted. If so, might the final naming of the gospels, prompted by the need to distinguish the “true gospels” from the false ones, hark back to an earlier tradition? I’m not arguing that the gospels were written by these authors, just trying to explain the coincidence.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 25, 2016

      I don’t think it’s coincidental. I think it’s because the later namers of the Gospels “knew” that Matthew and Mark had (allegedly) written Gospels, so they assigned two Gospels precisely to them.

  19. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  April 25, 2016

    I didn’t hear you challenge the reliability of the gospel accounts whether or not they come from eywitnesses. Is that because that was not the subject of the debate or does it come up in Part II? Also, do you you have any explanaton, other than a stubborn attachment to tradition, for why Bauckham is unwilling to allow that, whatever the churches of the late 1st and early 2nd centuries CE called our NT gospels — I find his contention that they must have called them something, where they had more than one, plausible — we don’t know what they called them? Finally, is it not true that the only one of the Twelve Paul mentions by name is Peter, which means that Christians before the writing of Mark may not have known that two of the Twelve were named Matthew and John?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 25, 2016

      Yes, the question had to do with something other, but related! And yes, he does seem to be fairly traditional up and down the line.

  20. Avatar
    JUMA  April 25, 2016

    Listened to both debates and I was a bit turned off, the host “Justin” allowed Bauckham to much time to explain his meandering points of view. I’m glad you said you studied this for two years and backed it with hard evidence. The problem with these types of debates “are” is the faith issue. While they say they agree on said point of view, they twist themselves otherwise trying to defend the bible…Continue the good work.

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