I continue here with my string of guest posts written by scholars in honor of the blog’s tenth anniversary.  Here is a post from Kurt Jaros, an evangelical Christian theologian and apologist, in which he explains how apologetics — the intellectual defense of the claims of the Christian faith — has grown and changed over the years, to represent something different today from, well, when I was involved with it in my younger days.

I imagine the post will elicit a response!  Kurt will be happy to address your comments.


The Growing Landscape of Christian Apologetics


When did Jesus cleanse the Temple? In the Synoptics, this event occurs toward the end of his ministry (Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19: 45-46), and serves as a catalyst for his enemies to have him arrested (Matthew 21:15, 23, & 45, Mark 11:18, Luke 19:47-48). In the Gospel of John, the event occurs early on in Jesus’s ministry (John 2:14). One common approach to answering the question is to harmonize the two descriptions into a fuller, unified narrative: Jesus cleansed the Temple twice, one time early in his ministry and another time later. There are many differences in the Gospels, and sometimes the explanations that Christians have offered to these variety of differences, from the simple to the complex, have been wanting. Some explanations present strained interpretations that strike many of us as implausible to have occurred in such a way. And yet, we may be left asking ourselves: Did John, a disciple of Jesus, really get his chronology wrong?

In 2019, I hosted a Christian apologetics conference in Chicago that pitted four views on differences in the Gospels. The representatives for those positions were Mike Licona, Craig Keener, Rob Bowman, and … Bart Ehrman. The event was purposed to help evangelical Christians become aware of competing views on a challenging subject. The year prior we held the same format on the alleged genocide commands found in the Old Testament! While many Christians shy away from challenging issues, some of us Christians are not afraid to tackle and wrestle with truly difficult questions in a truly open and honest manner.


After that event, Ehrman wrote a reflective report of the event. He observed,


What I was most interested in was how Christian apologetics – the intelligent “defense” of the claims of the faith – has changed in the many years since I was involved in the movement, shifted in ways I never would have imagined, very much away from our old fundamentalist assumptions and assertions into a far more reasonable and intellectually sustainable form of discourse that requires actual research and knowledge rather than hard-core theological assertion based on completely dubious premises.[1]


With the space permitting, I would like to explain how Ehrman’s observation is astute with regard to three areas of Christians apologetics: The problem of evil and suffering, the relationship between science and religion, and Gospel differences.

First, regarding the problem of evil, Christian philosophical literature has overcome modern objections to Christianity that pit the existence of evil against the existence of God as if they were logically contradictory. This category of objections from the problem(s) of evil, is called the logical problem of evil. One of the catalysts for the Christian philosophical resurgence of the late 20th century was Alvin Plantinga, who notably defeated this problem. Plantinga’s proposed solution included positing the existence of free will to demonstrate compatibility between the existence of God and the existence of evil. Atheists from the field of philosophy of religion admitted defeat to that type of objection. J. L. Mackie wrote, “Since this defence is formally possible … we can concede that the problem of evil does not, after all, show that the central doctrines of theism are logically inconsistent with one another.”[2] William Rowe wrote, “granted incompatibilism, there is a fairly compelling argument for the view that the existence of evil is logically consistent with the existence of the theistic God. (For a lucid statement of this argument see Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (New York, 1974), 29-59).”[3] To be sure, some concerns pertaining to evil and suffering remain (e.g. the evidential problem of evil), but those are more modest and not as hard-hitting against Christian theism as the logical problem of evil.


Second, discussions about the nature and relationship of science and religion have also developed beyond shallow approaches encompassed by phrases like, “The Bible says it, so I believe it.” Numerous books have argued 1) that certain biblical passages do not require a literal interpretation (vis-à-vis ancient Hebrew poetry), 2) that church leaders from the past 2,000 years also believed in an old Earth, 3) that the conflict hypothesis of science and faith originating in the 19th century is false, and 4) that there is a need to correct popular level myths about the medieval church’s approach to science. Consider just the following academic publications: The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder by William Brown (Oxford University Press, 2010), Belief in God in an Age of Science by John Polkinghorne (Yale University Press, 1998), Practical Mystic: Religion, Science, and A.S. Eddington by Matthew Stanley (University of Chicago Press, 2007), Mathematicians and Their Gods edited by Snezana Lawrence and Mark McCartney (Oxford University Press, 2015), Of Popes and Unicorns: Science, Christianity, and How the Conflict Thesis Fooled the World by David Hutchings and James C. Ungureanu (Oxford University Press, 2021), Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion edited by Ronald Numbers (Harvard University Press, 2010), and Science & Religion edited by Gary Ferngren (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002). These works indicate, generally speaking, how both non-believers and many Christians have been mistaken in the history of the philosophy of science and biblical interpretation. The discussions scholars are having about religion are far deeper than those conversations one may have had with their parents as a teenager, and it is worth exploring those academic discussions.

Thirdly, among the reasons why people have doubted the historical reliability of the Gospels perhaps the most popular objection is the number of differences between the Gospels themselves when they report the same story. Some of these are simply raised, such as the number of angels at the tomb, and yet simply answered: Just because I say there were 2 people at an event does not mean there were not 3 or more people at the event. However, there are more complex and difficult differences between the Gospel accounts. An example of this can be seen when comparing the story of Jesus healing a paralytic in Mark 2:4 and Luke 5:19. In Mark’s Gospel, the friends of the paralytic man dig through “a typical Galilean roof of mud and branches,”[4] but in Luke’s version of the story, the friends removed the κεράμων, a tiled roof. How could Luke, well-known for his historical prowess, seemingly get such a detail about the roofs in Capernaum wrong? Keener holds that Luke took justifiable liberties in “adapting the image to be more relevant for a northern Aegean audience.”[5] If we were to recognize that ancient authors were allowed a certain extent of literary liberty, the concern over historical inaccuracies due to differences decreases. Luke likely knew that the roof of a Capernaum home was made of wood and thatch, but adapted the story to be more convenient for his audience to understand it. This was no party foul in classical antiquity, and in some cases today we do the same sort of thing. Sometimes adapting details of a story efficiently communicates the point of the historical event, as when one might say, “Kroger” (an American grocery store) instead of “Morrisons” (a UK grocery store). Using the latter in front of an American audience might cause for confusion or clarifying the referent would interrupt the story, so adaptation is preferred. Luke presents a translation of an event in one culture to another culture, and for this he should not be pedantically held to a standard he did not intend to write toward. Ehrman seems to embrace this approach when he wrote,


Just as scribes modified the words of the tradition, by sometimes putting these words ‘in other words,’ so too had the authors of the New Testament itself, telling their stories, giving their instructions, and recording their recollections by using their own words (not just the words they had heard), words that they came up with to pass along their message in ways that seemed most appropriate for the audience and the time and place for which they were writing.[6]


This understanding, that the Gospel authors had an acceptable use of literary license, helps to understand why there are as many differences in the Gospels as there are and it lends itself to the conclusion that these authors did not collude with each other.


So what should we make of the Temple cleansing(s)? What for the Synoptic authors is a climactic event in the Jewish leaders’ plot to have Jesus arrested and killed is for John the first public confrontation between Jesus and the Jewish leaders, which includes a foretelling of his physical resurrection (a note observed by the author, himself, in John 2:22). John should not be evaluated as if he were writing a rigid history, like a chronicler, because he was not trying to write a chronicle of the actions, miracles, and teachings of Jesus.


The world of Christian apologetics is, indeed, far from the concept many have of the type of Christian who interprets the Bible in a rigid, decontextualized manner (i.e., shallow theological beliefs about evil and suffering, science & religion, and Gospel differences). The landscape of this field continues to grow and reclaim countryside it once held, but which was lost over unfortunate, variegated factors. The case for Christian belief is intellectually stronger than what many people have experienced.


[1] Bart Ehrman, “Modern Evangelical Christian Apologetics,” The Bart Ehrman Blog, October 20, 2019, https://ehrmanblog.org/modern-evangelical-christian-apologetics/ , emphasis mine.

[2] J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), pg 154.

[3] William L. Rowe, “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” in The Problem of Evil, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pg 126, footnote 1.

[4] Craig Keener, Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019), pg 123, cf. footnote 15.

[5] Keener, Christobiography, 123.

[6] Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), pg 212, emphasis his.