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Ehrman & Licona: Are the Gospels Historically Reliable? Part 1

A month ago, on February 21 I had a public debate with Mike Licona at the Bailey Performance Center at Kennesaw State University on the topic: Are the Gospels Historically Reliable? Ratio Christi and KSU History Club hosted the event. Moderator was Dr. Brian Swain, a historian of Mediterranean antiquity on the faculty there.

You can probably guess the two sides we took in the debate.  The crowd was largely on his side, which made for a very interesting evening.  As I think you’ll see, even though Mike and I disagree on most things, we have a good, friendly relationship.

It was a long evening — lots of back and forth, with a Q & A with the audience to follow.  At times it got, well, animated.  Here is part 1.  I’ll post the second part next week.

Mike Licona is the author of Why Are There Differences in the Gospels and The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.

Part 1: Please adjust gear icon for 720p High-Definition:

Fresh Air Interview Tuesday March 20
My Upcoming Writing Plans: The Afterlife and the Afterlife



  1. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  March 18, 2018

    licona said that jesus would have repeated himself. My question is, would his followers be bothered with repeating jesus’ words?

    in the gospel of mark,jesus tells people to repent . he does not say to use him as an intermediary

    In john,he says that no one come to the father but through the son.

    it seems that in johns time , christianity was becoming an intermediary worshipping religion, but in jesus’ time, jesus thought that one should ask the father directly.

    Can you tell me what you think dr ehrman.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 19, 2018

      I don’t think Jesus saw himself as the intermediary between God and all humans, but he did think that his understanding of God was the one others should have as well.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  March 19, 2018

        It’s impossible to say what Jesus himself believed about himself, but if I were a betting man, I would bet that what Jesus told others about himself was that he was a prophet of the imminent Messianic Age. Whether others considered Jesus anything more or less than that — Messiah? King? Angelic being? God incarnate? — that would depend on their own interpretation of Jesus’ “prophesies”.

        And what kind of prophet could we say Jesus considered himself? Well, I would venture Jesus compared himself to John the Baptist, who many contempories also considered a prophet. And we see some of those comparisons still embedded within the gospel accounts.

        ~ John stayed relatively put, within the Jordan river valley and Judean desert. Jesus was an itinerant, rarely spending more than a day in the same place
        ~ John baptised with water. Jesus “baptised” with the holy spirit.
        ~ John preached that the Messianic Age was coming. Jesus preached the Messianic Age has come (with signs such as the Holy Spirit overtaking people, the working of wonders and miraculous healings, etc.)
        ~ John preached an austere repentence (fasting, severe abnegation, etc.). Jesus preached a celebratory welcoming, like a wedding feast. (cf. Matt. 11:16-19)

        They both publicly portrayed themselves as prophets, but different kinds of prophets for different stages in the process. Most namely, John was pre-Holy Spirit. Jesus was post-Holy Spirit. Hence the differences in their styles.

  2. Avatar
    cmt4442ed  March 18, 2018

    The first compilation of the New Testament is the Codex Sinaiticus in which is 330 – 360 ce. We also have 150 papyrus fragments of the New Testament that range from 175 ce and later.

    The original documents were written in the first century. There was no printing press to crank out identical copies of each original document of the New Testament for distribution. Without printing press technology, we have to rely on at least 200 years of manually recopying these documents — during a time when what Jesus’s resurrection and life was all about was debated passionately.

    My question is, given the above limitations of manual writing and the temptation to change the documents to suit a doctrine, how do we even know we even have what was originally written in the first place.?

    PS. This would be true of any ancient text, religious or not.

  3. Avatar
    Stephen  March 18, 2018

    Can you clarify your point about the difference between the dates of Jesus’ death in Mark and John? Is your thinking that John knew the Synoptic tradition and changed it for theological reasons? Isn’t it more likely that both Mark and John shared an early tradition that Jesus died sometime during the Passover and both independently placed his death on different days, each for his own theological reasons?


    • Bart
      Bart  March 19, 2018

      I think John knew the tradition that is recorded in the Synoptics, but not that he had read the Synoptics themselves.

      • Avatar
        Stephen  March 19, 2018

        Sorry I realize this is basic stuff for you and if you’ve discussed it in your writings please just point the way and I’ll take it from there. But I’m mystified how we can know John knew the synoptic tradition and changed it rather than that he had his own independent tradition and is interpreting that.


  4. Avatar
    Carlflygt  March 19, 2018

    Part of Mike’s position says the author of Matthew 27:52 was writing in good faith in the idiom of the day.

    Bart seems to be saying Matthew 27:52 was written in bad faith.

    Mike Is saying this writer shouldn’t be held to standards of today, and somehow can be relied on.

    Bart is saying the writer can’t be relied on because he’s flouting good faith standards of rationality.

  5. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  March 19, 2018

    I am on your side Dr. Ehrman!

  6. Avatar
    Sleeplife77  March 19, 2018

    Bart, I liked the way you pressed Licona for evidence to substantiate his position. I have listened to your lectures and read your books but on one point i can’t seem to see evidence. Can you point me to the evidence within the text that the Gospels are based on oral traditions. They seem to be in large part the product of a literary process at times based on the OT and literary sources. Goodacres work on Editorial Fatigue surely shows that the process was a literary one….what evidence is there that an additional oral process was at play?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 21, 2018

      Goodacre too thinks that ultimately it’s all based on oral tradition. The reason for thinking so is that the Gospels are written decades later and had to get their information from *somewhere*. Even if there were earlier written sources, where did *they* get their stories from? Moreover, how was Xty spreading throughout the world if no one was telling stories? These are the main reasons. You may be interested in my book Jesus Before the Gospels.

      • Avatar
        Sleeplife77  March 23, 2018

        Bart, I have read Jesus Before the Gospel twice trying to find evidence for the contention that oral tradition was the source for the gospels. But all I find is an assumption rather than arguments. In the debate when Licona asserted that the NT authors used secretaries who translated for the “authors” you requested evidence. Can you direct me to the pages in JBG that contains the evidence that oral traditions are the source for the gospels?
        You argue that the gospel material came “from somewhere”. Given the nature of many of the stories in the gospels I would propose that plausibly a substantial portion of the material arose out of the imaginations of the authors. For example, in the GMatthew the M material contains apparent apologetic fictions such as the guard at the tomb and apocalyptic fiction such the zombies. I propose that nothing other than Matthew’s imagination is needed for these stories. So why couldn’t it explain the totality of the original material in this gospel? What is the evidence against imagination as the “somewhere”?
        If J.K.Rawlings can create the character of Harry Potter based on a real person along with her fertile imagination why couldn’t the unknown gospel authors have done the same? Why does Mark need oral traditions when he could have relied on his imagination, the OT, Homer, Pauline writings and contemporary Jewish and Pagan sources now lost to us (as you know we only have a tiny percentage of the sources that Mark may have had access too) to create the Jesus character of his gospel? Mark’s ending where the women are told “to tell no one” suggests to me that new material concerning the empty tomb is entering the tradition with GMark (rather than a continuance of an oral history). Mark appears to be anticipating the question of why his story hasn’t been heard by his audience.
        When we can see the compositional techniques of Matthew for example he copies most of Mark redacting for theological effect, minimising embarrassment, making OT references explicit and improving grammar. Can redactional changes be linked to oral traditions in preference to these other proposals (along with Matthew’s creativity)?
        I would be pleased to learn what is the evidence that informs the scholarly opinion of yourself and Goodacre concerning oral traditions?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 24, 2018

          One reason for thinking that the authors were not simply making up stories is that often the *same* story (with some variation) is found *independently* in different Gospels. That is, one didn’t get it from the other (since neither one had read the other), so neither one of them could have invented it.

          • Avatar
            Sleeplife77  March 24, 2018

            Bart, Is there a publication that lists these pericopes and shows how the stories are independent and based on oral sources? I had thought that repeated stories in Mt and Lk where derived from either Mark or Q and that the ones that differed a lot just reflect more redactional activity. I would love to read more so please direct me to the articles or books. Thanks.

          • Bart
            Bart  March 25, 2018

            There are Mark / Q overlaps; and lots of stories found independently in, say, Mark and John. On the former, you might look at Mark Goodacre’s book on the Synoptic Problem

  7. Avatar
    Sleeplife77  March 19, 2018

    Bart, obviously you had limited time in the debate but it would have been great to have pressed Licona more on the zombies passage. Surely according to some of Licona’s criteria the event has the hallmarks of being as “real” as any other in the gospel (presuppositions aside): (1) the event is meshed into the surrounding narrative i.e. the tombs open presumably in response to the earthquake; (2) a named group is involved in the incident i.e the holy ones (presumably their identity was clearer to the original readers/hearers);(3) the incident has a specified chronology in that the holy ones after their resuscitations wait in their graves to enter the city only after Jesus is resurrected; (4) the geography is specific and consistent with the narrative in that the holy ones appear in the holy city (Jerusalem);(5) the author is clear that there were witnesses (presumably real people in Jerusalem)and they were many in number. It is almost as if the author of GMathew is inviting the reader to go and check out the story.
    In my non-scholarly opinion this illustrates that the author of the GMatthew is an adept writer of historical fiction. Indeed the author is a master at dressing up a legend and possibly imagination as real events.

  8. Avatar
    RAhmed  March 19, 2018

    It’s always interesting hearing how devout Christians view and respond to the scholarly evidence and discussion of the historical Jesus. Mike did a great job but in the end he basically skirted the issue of historical reliability of the NT text.

    • Avatar
      dagrote  March 25, 2018

      It depends on which devout Christians you’re dealing with. For the past year, I’ve been leading a Sunday School class for adults in a progressive reading of the Synoptics, assuming the priority of Mark. They bring in different translations and I have the Greek. Some of the participants dropped out, but those who are staying on, are coming to the conclusion that the Christian faith isn’t a text-dominated religion, as other religions are or can be. How COULD it be? The first several generations of Christians surely knew that the gospels differed and didn’t take seriously the efforts to harmonize them into one consistent narrative. They merely packaged up what they had and passed it down.

  9. Avatar
    Mark57  March 19, 2018

    It appears that Licona is basing his opinion on his faith rather than the facts. I suppose that is why ‘faith’ (belief in spite of the facts) is so critical to perpetuating the religion.

  10. Avatar
    nbraith1975  March 20, 2018

    Bart – There were many things that brought about my eventual rejection of Christianity, but the one that pretty much sealed the deal for me was the Bible. Particularly, that the Bible exhibits the same characteristics as all other books and writings of antiquity that came down through history; written within the confines of the culture and limitations of the era and corrupted in various ways over time by scribes and translators.

    One would expect that a book written under the tutelage of an omniscient and omnipotent God would in fact be preserved in such a way that would be considered miraculous by historians of every background and generation – especially when the book is about that God. And if, as its apologist’s claim, the Bible is the “word of God” written by men “inspired” by that same God, there would be no need to debate one single word of it. There would be no historian on the planet who could ever challenge the Bible with regard to its author or content; including dates, times, places, people, names, events and much more.

    If in fact the Bible was written by God, it should have been the greatest miracle he ever performed. After all, the only way to distinguish the God of the Bible from all other gods is through “true” miracles. There is no debate that the God of the Bible was in the miracle business. From the creation of all things to the resurrection of Jesus, God is the ultimate miracle worker; and the Bible is the only document that records those miracles. In which case, if the Bible was written by God it should be perfect in every way and perfectly preserved to this very day. That would be the greatest miracle of all!

    • Avatar
      dagrote  April 16, 2018

      I would suggest the original assumption was faulty : “the Bible is the “word of God” written by men “inspired” by that same God . . . ” There are many ways to be “inspired,” but paradoxically fundamentalists use the verb in a sense that’s never meant. You can be inspired by a sunset or by listening to someone’s lecture, but no one in his right mind would say that a secretary taking dictation is being inspired.

  11. Avatar
    jogon  March 20, 2018

    Hi Bart, what’s your opinion on the historical usefulness of the quotes of Phlegon in Contra Celsus by Origen. I guess not particularly useful as Phlegon is believed to be 2nd century but I keep seeing apologists using it!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 21, 2018

      I haven’t really looked into it, I’m sorry to say.

      • Avatar
        jogon  March 21, 2018

        The main quote I’ve seen is this one:

        “Now Phlegon, in the thirteenth or fourteenth book, I think, of his Chronicles, not only ascribed to Jesus a knowledge of future events (although falling into confusion about some things which refer to Peter, as if they referred to Jesus), but also testified that the result corresponded to His predictions. So that, he also, by these very admissions regarding foreknowledge, as if against his will, expressed his opinion that the doctrines taught by the fathers of our system were not devoid of divine power.“

        I’m not sure when Phlegon is supposed to have written this though, any thoughts?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 22, 2018

          Sorry — I still haven’t looked into it!

          • Avatar
            jogon  March 22, 2018

            No worries! Maybe you could consider a blog post on Phlegon/Origen at some point as it would be useful to have a good response to apologists!

  12. Avatar
    JoeRoark  March 20, 2018

    Your illustration about the bomb on campus was perfect.
    I listen to your debates hoping someone can measure up to you and hold his own, but so far, at least in the few debates I have heard, it baffles me why people want to debate you, given how the results show your views to be upheld,, but theirs not to be.
    I admire how you stay on track with the issue at hand.

  13. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 20, 2018

    Super-enjoyable! Of course, I agreed with everything you said.

    It got me to wondering…what do you think would have happened if *no* Gospel had survived? Or none in more than fragments, like the Gospel of Peter?

    Would Christianity have died out, if its spread depended entirely on the efforts of Paul and other missionaries? Or might there have been more different forms of it?

    An afterthought: How can there be a second part of this debate? It seemed complete.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 21, 2018

      Good question. I’m not sure! And yes, part 2 is coming later this week.

  14. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 20, 2018

    Something I’ve been thinking about… I seem to remember your saying that at one time, you thought some of Jesus’s contemporaries believed – *during his lifetime* – that he’d performed miracles in rural Galilee. But later, you changed your mind. If I’m right about that, what caused you to change your mind?

    As I see it, most “miracle” claims in the ancient world must have involved cities, whose large populations would make fakery possible. No one could fake “healings” or “casting out of demons” in rural hamlets where everyone knew everyone else! So even if no one doubted the reality of “miracles,” they simply *never would have thought of* their taking place in semi-rural areas. It just didn’t happen.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 21, 2018

      Yes, I suppose some of his contemporaries may have believed that, but htere’s really no way to know.

  15. Avatar
    Jayredinger  March 21, 2018

    Excellent debate. I agree with you that Mike was actually agreeing with you, it is only his theological views that keep him from abandoning his position.

  16. Avatar
    sstein02  March 21, 2018

    This may be off-topic, but I heard your Fresh Air interview. I don’t find the “New Testament” to be very loving. As a Jew, it seems hateful. There are large parts that make me sick to my stomach to read. One of its purposes is to prove Christianity’s spiritual superiority to Judaism by distorting Judaism and the Pharisees. Even you seem to believe that old anti-Jewish idea that Christianity is the religion of love and Judaism if the religion of law.

    You talked about the relationship between Rome and Christianity, but not the relationship between Judaism and Christianity.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2018

      I did not at all mean to say that I love all parts of the NT equally — quite the contrary. For a long time I’ve had a plan to write about the anti-jewish element in ealry Christainity — specifically how it became an anti-Jewish religion.

      • Avatar
        sstein02  March 22, 2018

        I think that you’re right and I see it in the “New Testament itself. One of the hardest things to explain to Christians is who the Pharisees really were. Someone who I don’t for a second think is antisemitic compared a member of the Trump administration to the “villainous Pharisees.” One of the issues of historical accuracy in the “New Testament is the way it distorts the Pharisees. They were not evil. They were not even petty-fogging hypocrites. How many Christians know that saving a life supersedes Sabbath observance?

        • Avatar
          jjgarlandjr  April 25, 2018

          Agreed. When I was working on a phd in religion at Baylor, one of my “Old Testament” professors, Bruce Cresson, said that there was evidence indicating that pharisees in first century Palestine were actually admired by many for their devotion to God.

    • Avatar
      dagrote  April 16, 2018

      “There are large parts that make me sick to my stomach to read.” Could you cite a few?

  17. Avatar
    JoshuaJ  March 21, 2018

    While watching the exchange between you and Licona regarding the location where Jesus first appeared to his male disciples (the “Galilee or Jerusalem” dilemma), something else occurred to me. The missing piece that Licona doesn’t seem to think about in the heat of the debate is the fact that John also places Jesus’ first appearance to his male disciples in Jerusalem. So Licona’s hypothesis that Luke has compressed the first appearance in Galilee (as in Mark/Matthew) into his Jerusalem account doesn’t really work, because one would have to argue that John also compressed the story similarly (which would be a baseless argument, of course). Clearly, there were multiple traditions floating around regarding the location of Jesus’ first appearance to his male disciples.

    What is interesting is that Licona actually acknowledges this difficulty in his book on p. 181, writing: “[the discrepancy] can be resolved quite easily if John’s gospel were removed from our consideration. Should John’s gospel be excluded from our analysis of the resurrection narratives?… If John wrote independent of the Synoptic traditions, as most scholars think, these multiple points of contact with unique Synoptic traditions caution us against dismissing John. Therefore, the tensions remain.”

    He also writes on p. 180: “In any sense, it seems clear that Matthew narrates the first appearance of Jesus to his male disciples to have been in Galilee. And Mark implies such. But why do Mark and Matthew do so while Luke and John locate it in Jerusalem? It is difficult to determine. Perhaps Mark and Matthew either preferred or knew only sources that located the appearance in Galilee, whereas the source(s) preferred by Luke and John put the appearance in Jerusalem.”

    So here he’s not talking about literary devices (such as “compression”) at all. He’s talking about conflicting sources–one found and adopted by Matthew, another found and preferred by Luke and John, both of which disagree with one another–which obviously does not in any sense resolve the conflict in the gospel accounts.

    He finally concludes on p. 184 that the discrepancy “cannot be plausibly understood in light of the specific compositional devices we are considering.” Yet, in the debate he says, “Look, I’m willing to admit there are some potential errors in the New Testament, I just don’t think that’s one of them. It’s easily accounted for by compositional devices.”

    So I’m really not sure why he has now shifted his position since writing Why are There Differences in the Gospel. Do you think he just had a mental lapse, or could it be that he feels as though he must toe the “party line” so to speak, when publicly debating the evil Bart Ehrman?

    Also, saw your interview with Seth Andrews… you’re looking slim these days! Keep up the good work!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2018

      Yes I think it’s hard for someone in his position to say what he really thinks. In the heat of a debate, it’s hard…

  18. Avatar
    qaelith2112  March 23, 2018

    I attended this debate and quite enjoyed it. There were other people from the organizations I’m a part of locally, but from conversations I had with others in the audience around me, it was clear how we were so outnumbered. I’ve lived in Atlanta for 25 years but until that night had no idea that Mike Licona also lives here. All along I thought he was a resident of Dallas, given his academic association there. So in the audience, it appeared that a sizeable portion of his local church members were in attendance. Nearly everyone immediately around me were members of the same church as Mike. I had been to other “conservative scholar vs. critical mainstream scholar” debates there and never saw this kind of audience ratio. The other debates we’re closer to even. You were faced with Mike’s home field advantage combined with a large fan following on his part.

  19. Avatar
    SergioRW  March 25, 2018

    What a treat listening to you, as always, professor, couldn’t agree more.

  20. Avatar
    ftbond  May 28, 2018

    Dr Ehrman –

    One of the things you mention, pointedly, in the debate is in regard to whether Jesus shared a Passover meal with his disciples (as in the synoptics), or whether he was crucified on the day when the lambs were sacrificed – and, you say “they can’t both be right”.

    Actually, they can.

    The Passover was originally instituted as a (more or less) “home celebration”. On the 13th, in the twilight between the 13th and the 14th, the lamb was to be slaughtered and the blood put on the doorposts. Then, as darkness fell, the lamb was to be roasted and eaten. This, of course, is the “dark hours” of the 14th. The rest of the 14th – meaning – the daylight hours that followed, until the twilight leading into the 14th, were all “the Passover”. Starting at that next nightfall – the beginning of the 15th – was the First Day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

    Our English translations have it wrong. In the synoptics, some of the English translations say that Jesus gathered with the disciples on the First Day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread – as we see in Matthew, in the KJV: “Now the first day of the feast of unleavened bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying unto him, Where wilt thou that we prepare for thee to eat the passover?””

    But, that’s not what it says in the Greek. In the Greek, it says “at the ‘protos’ of the ‘unfermenteds’ (unleaveneds)…”. At the *start*, the *beginning* of “the unleaveneds”… What is that? That is the daylight hours of the 13th, when all leaven was to be removed from the house. It was NOT one of the days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. That Feast didn’t begin until *after* the Passover. And, it is exactly correct that all leaven was to be removed from the house *before* the Passover. The Jews still do that till this day.

    So, the disciples came to Jesus on the day when the leaven was to be removed – which is, in fact, the day (at twilight) – when the lamb would be slaughtered. This is the 13th, leading into the 14th, with the lamb slaughtered in the twilight “between the two evenings”.

    This, then, is Jesus sharing a Passover “seder” (as it came to be known) with his disciples.

    But, what about John???

    John says “Now it was the day of preparation for the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. And he *said to the Jews, “Behold, your King!”

    Wait… This looks like John is saying that Jesus was going to be killed at about the same time the lambs were being slaughtered – the “day of preparation for the Passover”.

    And, yes, it *does* say that.

    But – it is well-documented (and, even mentioned in the Jewish Encyclopedia, so one doesn’t have to dig too far to find it) that the Passover celebration had changed by the first century. Clearly, at the Temple, they could not expect to slaughter 10K lambs “at the twilight” between the 13th and the 14th – SO – they re-interpreted “between the two evenings” to mean “between nightfall going into the 14th, and nightfall going into the 15th”, thus, giving all the daylight hours on the 14th to do lamb-slaughtering. And then – yep – that meant the Passover meal was (according to “Temple Reckoning”, as I call it) eaten on the 15th. And, that is basically how the Jews do it these days.

    So, John is simply going by “Temple Reckoning” here. Jesus did indeed share a Passover meal with his disciples – the lamb having been slaughtered in the twilight between the 13th and the 14th. AND – in the TEMPLE – during the daylight hours of the 14th, when Jesus was crucified – that’s when the TEMPLE sacrifices were happening.

    Bottom line, both the Synoptics and John are correct.

    If you wish, I can dump all kinds of supporting documentation out here.. 🙂

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