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Bart Ehrman vs Tim McGrew – Round 1

On Saturday 18th July 2015 I held a kind of radio debate with Timothy J. McGrew, a conservative Christian apologist and professor of Philosophy at Western Michigan University.  He’s also the author of The Foundations of Knowledge and Internalism and Epistemology. It was a two-part back-and-forth on “Unbelievable,” a weekly program hosted by Justin Brierley, which airs on UK Premier Christian Radio.  I taped the interview from the station’s London studio.

The debate was on the topic: Can We Trust the Gospels?” Here Part One.

Please adjust gear icon for 1080p High-Definition:

Bart Ehrman vs Tim McGrew – Round 2
The Value (or Not) of Debates



  1. talmoore
    talmoore  March 19, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I have already watched your debate with Ned Flanders. I was immediately put off by the fact that Mr. Flanders refused to own up to the fact of his confirmation bias. It’s pretty obvious that he presumes that the Gospels are accurate historical accounts (“prima facie”), and he is primarily concerned with dismissing any and all evidence to the contrary. Moreover, his accusation that you have an agenda is clearly a projection considering that his agenda is rather blatant.

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    Wilusa  March 19, 2016

    Very enjoyable, though it didn’t get far in terms of specifics being discussed!

    First: I think “In Memory of the Messiah” would have been a great title for your book. Much better than “Jesus Before the Gospels.”

    About the importance of establishing whether someone believes in “inerrancy”… I was reminded of something else: how conservative scholars responded (or didn’t really respond) to “How Jesus Became God.” As I’ve said before, I think a person who believes Jesus really *was* God *couldn’t help* thinking some of his disciples must have seen it while he was alive.

    About trusting the Gospels… I’m sorry the discussion didn’t get to the *major* inconsistencies: the irreconcilable birth narratives, and the exalted role Jesus claims for himself in John (and only in John).

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    Adam0685  March 19, 2016

    This guy should stick to philosophy…or first take a couple of courses in historiography.

  4. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  March 19, 2016

    Off topic Bart. Just want to say it a beautiful morning here in Colorado. Beautiful day here in the USA ! Haven’t forgot about you Mr!! You work hard and let this be a sign to you.. I support this blog, and you !! the foot prints of my mind and heart are at work. Please someone Google ” thunder ” perfect mind.. I am Zeus”s heart! I am Zeus”s love ! That is who I pray to Mr. Erhman.. Jesus and his mystery is a mystery!
    Have a wonderful weekend ! Will keep following your blog !! Will keep support you!!

  5. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  March 19, 2016

    Haven’t forgot about you Bart !!! Again it is a gorgeous day here in Colorado! In the USA !!! Just want to say, the footprints of my mind and heart are at work! Jesus’s secret sayings and mysteries will be uncovered! The footprints of my mind and heart will be as righteous as yours ! You are a teacher to me and don’t even know it ! I have seen your undergraduate and graduate syllabus. Would love to attend your class one day ! But I have logical reasoning and common sense! What’s the acceptance rate there around 30%? With that being said I will preach my house steps. ( line 33 gospel of Thomas) With righteous heart and mind ! Zeus is who I pray to. I am Zeus’s heart! I am Zeus’s love ! I am Zeus’s memory! Don’t give up ! Because I am not ! Nor should you ! And by the way did you add a new feature to correct your paragraph structure and punctuation etc ? I always post in hurry. Sorry about that ! Again, have a wonderful weekend ! Will keep supporting your blog ! Will keep supporting you!!

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    swede  March 19, 2016

    Bart – you were the most convincing. Looking forward to part 2.

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    John  March 20, 2016

    What a bizarre discussion.

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    john76  March 20, 2016

    Thanks for posting the debate.

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    turbopro  March 20, 2016

    Thanks Bart for the post. And, thanks for being so patient throughout the discussion. I have just one or two observations if you will: 1) this sounds somewhat like a philosopher of science debating a Cosmologist on the details of Cosmology. As you remarked during the discussion, sometimes it sounded like you talked past each other–too often the case with these types of debates.

    @11:33 “… that’s really; it’s a kind of a non-issue for me …” (McGrew): I believe this sets the tone for the issue betwixt the discussants, and perhaps, where the sometimes talking past each other occurs.

    Now, I agree that from the outset you were right to hold his hand to the fire on this. In spite of his refusal to address it directly–though it becomes obvious later what is his stance–this is the main issue. If one holds the Bible to be inerrant–whatever that means–then one needs to understand what one’s interlocutor understands by that term. Claiming it’s a non-issue perhaps does not make sense, if we hold that this is a pivotal issue.

    2) Why do we continue to compare the need to confirm the authorship of Plato or Thucydides or Herodotus, to that of the names accredited as authors to the Gospels? Whether or not Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian Wars was true or not perhaps has little or no bearing on the destiny of my supposed immortal soul. However, if John claimed that Jesus said “Ye are of your father the devil…,” I believe we need to know if this was the case or not.

    Lastly, well said: @32:53 “… I’m not sure how well read you are in ancient history…”

    I look forward to part 2. Cheers.

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    Wilusa  March 20, 2016

    OT: There may not be anyone here who’d be interested in this – that’s fine with me! Just thought I’d mention it, during, um, “Holy Week”…

    I have a work of fiction posted online, titled “The Sword and the Cross,” with this Summary: “An involuntary time traveler finds himself destined to play a role in the origin of Christianity.” It’s novella-length – 32,000 words, including the Introduction and Afterword.

    There’s no charge for reading and/or downloading it. And for anyone who doesn’t have some form of Ad Block, the website is commercial-free.

    Here’s the link: http://archiveofourown.org/works/5463728/chapters/12630371

    And here’s the explanation. My hobby, when I feel the urge, is writing fan fiction. Between 1999 and 2003, I wrote more than thirty fics based on “Highlander: The Series.” I had a series of my own, with plans for several more stories – including this one, in which hero Duncan MacLeod’s time travel would be part of a larger story arc.

    I drifted away from it – partly because I became involved with another fandom, but also because I knew the still-planned “Highlander” fics would be more ambitious than anything I’d previously attempted.

    I resumed writing them in 2013, and eventually completed the arc. I was glad I’d waited, because what I’ve learned from Bart was a big help in writing my “origin of Christianity” fic (titled, in my series, “The Third Day”). Back in 2003, I’d thought Jesus had only one brother, James! Nevertheless, my story is pure fiction.

    I recently decided to post the “origin of Christianity” fic – just that one, still featuring Duncan MacLeod – in a category for stories involving real historical personages. This version has a new title because I made changes so it would work better as a standalone.

    The story isn’t humorous (far from it!), but readers might be amused by the contrast with those pious “protagonist encounters Jesus” yarns that have given us films like “Ben-Hur” and “The Robe.” I’m not making any claims for the quality of my writing; but the approach is…different.

    And here’s one “spoiler.” I’d gotten a kick out of Bart’s saying he prefers Salvador Dali’s “Last Supper” to Leonardo da Vinci’s, because I’ve always felt the same way. So I had MacLeod reflect that he’d preferred Dali’s version to Leonardo’s…while he was at the actual Last Supper!

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    llamensdor  March 20, 2016

    I listened to your debate with McGrew, and it’s fairly clear to me that he believes the Bible is inerrant, and his definition of inerrancy includes errors, which only appear to errors but are really reconcilable or so trivial as to be unworthy of criticism. I wince at the thought of him justifying the John Gospel, and explaining how Jesus came to speak like a Greek philosopher. Would it be like the illiterate Mohammed speaking classic Arabic poetry provided by Allah via the Angel Gabriel? Does McGrew really believe that Jesus could walk around Galilee, stating, “I am the resurrection and the life. He that….etc” without being clobbered by the early peasant version of a Donald Trump follower?

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    DeanMorrison  March 20, 2016

    Just listened to both of those Bart.

    McGrew seems like an incredibly frustrating chap, his main tactics seem to be evasion and flat-out denial. The worst Christian apologists in my opinion are the ones that are trained in philosophy. They seem to think it’s nothing more than a handy playbook for rhetorical tricks in order to impress an undiscerning audience.

    The thing that saves these programmes in my opinion is Justin Brierley, who seems to be highly intelligent and charming. He seems able to immediately grasp the point you are making and to be helpful in giving you the opportunity to extemporise on it, despite the fact that he presumably disagrees with you.

    Hope you manage to do another of these if you manage to make it to the UK this year. Any prospect of you fitting in a speaking engagement while you’re here, or are your visits strictly for pleasure? 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  March 21, 2016

      I”ve occasionally given lectures at Kings College, but have nothing else planned. I’ll be doing Unbelievable in a couple of weeks.

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    Stephen  March 20, 2016

    Prof Ehrman

    Excellent performance on your part although I have to say very frustrating to listen to. I don’t know Tim McGrew’s work and I hesitate to accuse anyone of bad faith but his performance strikes me as fundamentally dishonest. He claims he wants to treat the gospels like other ancient sources and yet he obviously privileges them as scripture. He wants to come off as objective somehow but his whole approach is clearly motivated by a prior faith position. A couple times he ascribed positions to you that are the opposite of your clearly stated views. I thought your opening question about inerrancy was spot on. Why is it so hard to get a straight answer out of these apologists?


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    sashko123  March 21, 2016

    What is clear from the debate is that even where you agree with McGrew, he does not want appear to agree with you. How do you feel about the debate? I felt stressed and frustrated just listening to it. I don’t know if his “apparent dishonesty” is intentional or only a subconscious compulsion. It seemed to me he honestly thought his argument that the Gospels are not anonymous was valid because he re-defined “anonymity” to mean “not formal anonymity.” So, he seems to be arguing against his own definition of “anonymous” instead of arguing against the usual definition and the way you used it. Likewise, with “extensive evidence.” Why not just say “evidence”? He seems fine with representing the evidence as extensive, because he has given “extensive” his own idiosyncratic meaning of “calibrated with” in order to artificially bolster his argument. Shees! “Strawman.” He won’t even state his point of view to argue against, and then when you address a point of view that Evangelicals and Fundamentalists actually DO HAVE, he moves the goalposts, and calls it a strawman argument. And then with his example of other people quoting passages without naming an author. What does that have to do with the issue of attribution?? We know these other authors are quoting a book without naming the author, because we can compare the quote to the passage in the book, right? But with the Gospels, the attribution by Papias to Matthew and Mark includes passages which do not correspond to passages in these Gospels, as I understand it from your books. You’ve covered this ground many times in your books. Argh! 🙂 Are you as frustrated as me? You have a lot of patience, Professor Ehrman.

    BTW, I am enjoying your book on memory. Looking forward to more posts about it.

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    toejam  March 21, 2016

    Speaking of debates with Inerrantists, I have a quick technical question. I’ve been discussing with an Inerrantist the issue of whether Jairus’ daughter was dead and whether Jairus was aware of it when he first approached Jesus to request a healing. In Mark and Luke, the girl is described as “dying” / “at the point of death”, and seemingly Jairus is not aware that she has died until his friends come to inform him later. In Matthew, there is no narration of the friends coming to inform Jairus, and when Jairus first speaks to Jesus, it seems as though he already knows she *is* dead (ἁρτι ἑτελεθτησεν). My inerrantist friend is appealing to the greek in Matthew being somewhat ambiguous. Is this just a case of my friend running words down to oblivion to render any meaning suspect? Would you say it’s clear enough in Koine that Matthew has portrayed the girl as already dead and Jairus being aware of it?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 21, 2016

      No, the Greek is unambiguous. The girl had already died. Aorist tense, strengthened by the αρτι. Not an ambiguous statement.

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    ffg  March 21, 2016

    Infuriating debate partner. Not sure how you remain calm. He kept on accusing you of a straw man argument. Not sure that there is much point in debating with evangelical Christians.

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    holdco  March 21, 2016

    Hello, Dr. Ehrman

    I was wondering what your thoughts were on 3 points that Tim raised in this debate (parts 1 and 2).

    1. That you can’t infer that just because there is no affirmative statement that no one was in the room with Pilate and Jesus, no one was actually in the room with them, and that instead guards were likely there and heard what was going on and so constituted eyewitnesses for later gospel writings.

    2. That Jesus’s followers were servants (e.g., Joanna) in high Roman society and further adduced eyewitness testimony (i.e., reconciling the trial story in John with Matthew and Luke).

    3. That John is historically reliable because Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp who in turn was a disciple of John the Evangelist.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2016

      1. Zero evidence for that. 2. Zero evidence 3. Easily shown to be problematic (NB: if Polycarp were a disciple of John, why in Polycarp’s sole surviving writing does he quote the books of the NT extensively, but *never* the Gospel of John???)

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    Wilusa  March 21, 2016

    Still thinking about book titles… “In Memory of the Messiah” would have been great, because it was a play on words, *and* didn’t indicate (wrongly) that everything you were writing about took place “before the Gospels.”

    But other titles… I still think “How Jesus Became God” should have had the word “God” in quotes. If someone were to write, say, an article about my city, and title it “How Kathy Sheehan Became Mayor,” a reader unfamiliar with the city would surely understand it as meaning a person by that name actually is – or at some point, was – Mayor!

    But what I’m really puzzling over is the title of the rebuttal book, “How God Became Jesus.” Turning your title around may have seemed like a neat idea. But if one really thinks about it, their title doesn’t imply that they intended to reject your explanation of how early Christians came to regard Jesus as divine, and present an alternative. It implies that they intended to offer “evidence” that he was a preexisting divine Being who incarnated in Jesus – a completely different goal!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2016

      But the book *is* about what took place before the Gospels. That’s its central focus.

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    silvertime  March 21, 2016

    I t seems to be essentially impossible to debate someone on an issue point when they cannot allow themselves to freely address the exact issue because of deeply held philosophical or religious views.

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    Monarch  March 22, 2016

    All I kept thinking was, “Bart must really, really like his charities.”

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2016

      Yeah, I kept thinking that too….

      • John4
        John4  March 25, 2016

        Hey Bart 🙂

        Yeah, listening to dodgy McGrew made me think that you must really love your charities, too, lol.

        I’ve listened to three of your debates now: this one with McGrew, your debate with Justin Bass (a debate I attended), and your debate with Kyle Butt. I liked Butt a lot more than the other two. I can’t imagine he would have any trouble giving a straightforward answer to a question as to his view of inerrancy.

        Who has *your* favorite fundamentalist interlocutor been, Bart?

        Many thanks! 🙂

        • Bart
          Bart  March 26, 2016

          I think Justin Bass is a good guy.

          • John4
            John4  March 26, 2016

            Oh sure, Bass seemed nice enough and all. And, I *did* get a kick out of his labeling Matthew 27:52-53 as the “zombie apocalypse”, lol. But, I thought Butt gave you more of a run for your money.

            I also very much enjoyed *your* argument in favor of the historicity of Acts. I don’t agree with that argument any more than you do. But, it *is* helpful to see the other guy’s case made so well. I hope you will share more of these devil’s advocate arguments with us! 🙂

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