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My Debate with Richard Bauckham – Round 2

Here is round two (two out of two) of my debate with Richard J. Bauckham join on the radio show “Unbelievable,” a weekly program aired on UK Premier Christian Radio and hosted by Justin Brierley.  Richard was in the station’s London studio, I was on the phone.   Here we pursue other issues related to whether the Gospels of the NT represent distorted memories or if, for the most part, they can be trusted to be reliable because they are based on eyewitness testimony.  Richard and I disagree about the matter, as about oh so many other things!

Richard J. Bauckham is a prominent New Testament scholar and professor emeritus of New Testament studies at St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews, Scotland. He retired from teaching in 2007 to pursue his research and writing.

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  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 2, 2016

    I am about midway with my goal to view all 56 of your youtube debates and lectures. They could form the foundation of a good class.

    I am also working on a diet stimulated by your diet success. So far, there is some steady progress: oatmeal and berries in the morning, sushi at lunch (raw tuna and salmon), and carrots and bell peppers with hummus at night. Result: 10 pounds off the first month. So far, the golf swing has been unaffected.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 2, 2016

      Wow, that’s a lot of weight. Better pump some iron to keep long off the tee!

  2. Avatar
    rivercrowman  May 2, 2016

    Thanks Bart for sharing this radio interview this weekend. I’m sure these informal outreach efforts are a convenience to you, as you can do them from home or office. … I’m on my third year now as a blog member.

  3. Avatar
    Boltonian  May 2, 2016

    Enjoyed the debate. I think you scored a success in that Baukham seemed to change his position, which is very rare in these sort of adversarial debates. I am not sure he intended to but if he listens back I think he will be astonished at how much of your argument he concurs with – at the expense of his original thesis. Would you agree?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 3, 2016

      Yes, I was a bit surprised that he agreed so much about what is not actually historical in the Gospels.

  4. Avatar
    cchen326  May 3, 2016

    You had mentioned to him that the sources he noted in his book had 2 or more references from the same book or author. How looked down upon is that when a scholar does that and is it better if a different book is quoted from the same author? For example if I mentioned *well in Ehrmans book Misquoting Jesus he says this* and then in another reference say * well in Ehrmans book God’s problem he says this”. I basically quoted the same author, but from 2 different sources.

    I was surprised to hear him agree that the sermon on the mount was not a historical event, but more of a pieced together sermon from different sayings of Jesus orally passed on.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 4, 2016

      Ah, maybe I didn’t phrase my objection very clearly. I was objecting to his claim to have read widely in legal and psychological scholarship on eyewitnesses. In his book he relies on just a couple of authors, and doesn’t show he’s actually read much about it.

  5. cheito
    cheito  May 3, 2016

    DR Ehrman:

    The Gospel of John is not based on oral traditions. According to the Gospel itself, It was the disciple whom Jesus loved who testified and wrote down the accounts recorded in this chronicle.

    The disciple whom Jesus loved was not merely a passerby nor a bystander who happened to witness Jesus perform one miracle…
    He spent three years with Jesus.

    I don’t think a man like the disciple whom Jesus loved should be compared to a witness who sees an event once and later gives an account of it.

    According to the disciple whom Jesus Loved, Jesus APPEARED to Him and six other disciples at the Sea of Tiberius and cooked breakfast for them after His resurrection. A memory like this is either true or a lie…
    It certainly was not a vision. A Vision of a man who died by crucifixion could not cook breakfast for you and break bread for you.


    John 21:12-14

    12-Jesus said to them, “Come have breakfast.” None of the disciples ventured to question Him, “Who are You?” knowing that it was the Lord.

    13-Jesus came and took the bread and gave [it] to them, and the fish likewise.

    14-This is now the third time that Jesus was manifested to the disciples, after He was raised from the dead.

    John 21:24-This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 4, 2016

      v. 24 shows that the author is *NOT* claiming to be the author of the Gospel. Note “he…we”

      • cheito
        cheito  May 4, 2016

        v 24 states, “we know that his testimony is true”.
        Question: How do they know that ‘his’ testimony is true?

        v.24 categorically states that the disciple whom Jesus loved is the one ‘TESTIFYING’ (present tense) to the events recorded in John and this disciple also ‘WROTE’ them…

        How does it read in the Greek manuscripts?

        v. 24 seems to imply that these persons (we) who claim to know that the testimony of the disciple whom Jesus loved is ‘TRUE’ were eyewitnesses of this disciple’s declaration, i.e., they knew the disciple whom Jesus loved personally.

        This disciple was testifying in their presence.
        This disciple also wrote the testimony down for them and that’s how they know.

        That’s why I say that the Gospel of John was not a collection of oral traditions, but an account written down by an eyewitness himself, and not a just an eyewitness but also a disciple of Jesus who spent some years with Jesus and was loved by Jesus.

      • Avatar
        dragonfly  May 5, 2016

        The author is not claiming to be the author? Is that a Freudian slip? The author does appear to be claiming that the beloved disciple actually wrote down some sort of account that the author has used as a source? Do you think the author did have a written source he believed to have been written by one of the disciples?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 6, 2016

          He certainly seems to *claim* to have some such source. Whether it was a source that was *actually* written by one of Jesus’ disciples is anyone’s guess. But my guess is no.

  6. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  May 3, 2016

    This part was very engaging, and he seemed to agree with you on a lot of things. What I surmised from Bauckham was that when the gospel authors wrote about a miracle story, the miracle itself was the accurate memory. The distortion was everything surrounding the event…who was there, what was said, when it happened, etc… And we may not have the exact words of Jesus, but we got the meaning of what he was about and that’s the point.

    I think this topic is complicated. It’s not as concrete as showing the discrepancies among the various manuscripts. You can physically demonstrate that. Scientific research about the faulty memories of the Challenger explosion doesn’t necessarily equate to the gospels being inaccurate. Then there’s the issue of trusting ourselves and our own memories versus trusting what the research says.

    I have a hard time conceiving that a miracle story was a distorted memory. If it wasn’t true, then it’s just a lie.

    And I can’t get out of my head what you said about ancient people believing women were males who haven’t *matured* yet and sex being about dominance. The ancient world sounds psychotic…and forgetful…but mainly psychotic.

  7. Avatar
    fred  May 4, 2016

    I bet there are some things Baukham said that you wish you could have responded to, had time permitted. Here’s three I’m interested in:

    Bauckham pointed out that Matthew and Luke tended to make fewer changes to the sayings of Jesus (from both Mark and Q) than they did to the narratives. He appears to infer that this means the sayings were more likely to have been reliably preserved. Do you agree there were fewer changes to the sayings of Jesus than to the narrative? If so, do you agree with his inference that they are relatively more reliable?

    Baukham raised a general issue with the reliability of ancient history: if we treat the Gospels so skeptically, shouldn’t we treat other ancient historical sources the same – and if we do, what does this leave us with? What’s your take on this? In your view, what really is the status of our knowledge about ancient history? Do scholars of ancient history treat it with too little skepticism? It sometimes seems to me that scholars are so enamored with figuring things out about the past that they lose sight of just how weakly supported ANY theory will be – because of the paucity of reliable data.

    One other question has been bugging me from the first round with Bauckham: he believes Mark received his information directly from Peter. I know you disagree, and with excellent reason, but hypothetically if that is true – doesn’t that negate the possibility of there being a pre-Markan Passion narrative? If they are indeed mutually exclusive theories, then the arguments in favor of there having been such a narrative are arguments against Bauckham’s theory.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 4, 2016

      Sayings. Well, cf. the Lord’s Prayer in matthew and Luke; or the Beatitudes. Or note that none of the I Am sayings in John are found in the Synoptics. And note all the sayings in Thomas not found in other sources. Etc…

      Reliability of history. Yes, of course, we have to subject *all* of our historical sources for all historical events to rigorous criticsm. That’s what historians *do*.

      Peter and Mark: yup, it would negate it.

  8. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  May 4, 2016

    I just listened to Part II of your debate with Richard Bauckham. What surprised me most was near the end when Prof. Bauckham said that, if we question the reliability of the sources behind the gospels as history, then we must apply the same degree of skepticism to all our history of all times — and where would that leave us? Do you think that fear of the common people realizing how little our authority figures really know is at the root of the apologetic school of textual criticism?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 4, 2016

      Yes, I have to admit that I don’t understand the objection. Of *COURSE* we have to subject all of our historical sources to rigorous criticism. That’s simply what historians *do*.

  9. TracyCramer
    TracyCramer  May 4, 2016

    Bauckham had way too much air time compared to you Bart! tracy

  10. Avatar
    marcrm68  May 4, 2016

    Mark is the memoirs of Peter?! Does this have any basis? If that’s the theory, then Peter may have made this all up!! Peter may be bringing us John Frum…

    • Bart
      Bart  May 6, 2016

      It’s an ancient view, but one that it lacking much support, in my view.

    • Avatar
      marcrm68  May 7, 2016

      Just curious Dr. Ehrman, In your opinion, is there more or less evidence for Peter’s existence, than for Jesus’s ? It seems to me an interesting question. Paul mentions Peter as a rival, and not a friend, but definitely as a human being. Yet does not seem to view Jesus as a human ( debatable )… It does all seem to go back to Cephas…. Who was this man?

      • Bart
        Bart  May 9, 2016

        No, I’d say there is more evidence for Jesus: four biographies about him, e.g., from within 65 years of his life!

        • Avatar
          marcrm68  May 9, 2016

          Isn’t the genre of the gospels debatable? Isn’t it at least possible that Jesus was a mythological character who was historized in a work of fiction( Mark ), much the same way Romulus and Aesop were? Isn’t it possible that not a single word in the gospels can be trusted to contain any truth? Paul attests to Peter as knowing of him, but claims his knowledge of Christ came from divine revelations, and scripture…

          • Bart
            Bart  May 10, 2016

            Yes, these are options that certainly need to be considered. But almost everyone who has considered them seriously thinks that there are better reasons for thinking that the gospels are more like the biographies of Suetonius than the legends of Livy’s early books.

          • Avatar
            marcrm68  May 10, 2016

            I suppose that the question of Jesus’s existence is really secondary to the fact that Christianity did grow into the religion it did… I’m looking forward to your next book… Of course, I know that you are an atheist, and don’t believe in any of the supernatural claims about Jesus, but the throngs of Christians who are informed enough to know about you, simply think that if Bart thinks Jesus existed, then he’s just wrong about the rest of it ! … In my view, Christianity, and all other religions are severely retarding the human race… I will leave you in peace now, and just read for awhile. Thank you for answering my posts!!

  11. Avatar
    dragonfly  May 5, 2016

    Bauckham pointed out that Vansina found oral cultures have two types of stories, one that’s expected change every time it’s told, and one that they try to preserve accurately as best they can. This makes sense to me. Why do you think this is not relevant to the gospel stories?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 6, 2016

      In no small measure because that’s not what Vansina says. (!)

    • Avatar
      gsillars  May 7, 2016

      And even if Vansina did say that, why would we assume that the Gospels, one of whose main purposes was to propagate the Christian faith, would fall into the category of accounts that were carefully maintained in their original form? Persuasion and strict adherence to accuracy rarely go together.

  12. Avatar
    john76  May 12, 2016

    I recall what Socrates said about how the written word destroys memory. Socrates’ reproach in The Phaedrus is that the written word is the enemy of memory. In the dialogue, Socrates recounts the story of the god Theuth, or Ammon, who offers the king Thamus the gift of letters:

    “This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

  13. Avatar
    Marko071291  March 27, 2019

    Hi Bart,
    unfortunately, you didn’t get the chance to respond to Bauckham’s claim that Jesus’ disciples memorized his teachings. He is not going along with Gerhardsson thesis and he agrees here with you that rabbinic sources are to late and to complicated to be relevant. Nevertheless, Bauckham defines memorization as: deliberately commiting something to memory which doesn’t necessarily mean “remembering word for word” (this is the point where Bauckham’s thesis sets apart from Gerhardsson’s). Bauckham seems to think that Jesus’ disciples memorized (they deliberately committed themselves to memory) his core teachings because that’s what everybody would do in the ancient world when it comes to the relationship teacher-student. I would really like to hear your thoughts on that matter?
    Also, he points out that Jesus’ teachings are typically formed in a memorable form (aphorisms, parables etc) which would point towards his theory about Jesus’ disciples who memorized his teachings, not in a word-for-word sense, but with a clear general picture of his teachings. Hope you can respond to that as well.
    Kind regards!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2019

      I deal with it in my book, Jesus Before the Gospels. I think there is zero evidence for it. Where is a there a *word* of that in the Gospels? What evidence do we have from the first century that this *ever* happened? Why should we think that uneducated peasants would have such capacious memories? Why would they memorize Jesus’ teachings, when the point of the teachings was that the history of the human races was going to be radically turned upside down very soon when the kingdom of God arrived and Jesus would be made king? For whom would they feel compelled to memorize teachings, when they thought Jesus was still going to be with them forever? My own view is that the whole idea is full of holes. (Not to put too fine a point on it!)

      • Avatar
        Marko071291  March 29, 2019

        Honestly, I don’t know how you manage to do all that you have to do in your professional life, and still find time to answer questions on blog etc. Maybe your day last 36h, who knows!
        Anyways, it seems to me that what you are saying is that the fact that Jesus’ teachings are typically formed in a memorable form doesn’t mean anything at all. If one wants to argue that his students and followers memorized his teachings, one has to provide other arguments. And those kind of arguments we don’t see in our primary sources.
        Thank’s again. Kind regards from Croatia!

        • Bart
          Bart  March 31, 2019

          Oh boy I wish I had 36-hour days. And 8-day weeks. So long as it didn’t shorten my life…

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