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Is the Bible Inerrant? Guest Post by Mike Licona

This now is the second of three posts by Mike Licona, Associate Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University.  Mike has a PhD in New Testament studies and is a committed evangelical apologist, who has written a recent book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels (Oxford University Press, 2016), and is also the author of Evidence for God. He does indeed admit there are differences in the Gospels, which some people would claim are actually contradictions; but he continues to believe the Bible is “inerrant.”  What does he mean then?  In this clear and lucid post, he explains his views.

NOTE: Mike’s first post generated lots of comments, and it was a bit overwhelming.   He will be willing to answer questions/comments over the next four days, but not afterward.  That in itself is amazingly generous.  Please don’t ask tons of questions in one comment — that (I can say from experience) is hard to deal with!   Moreover, he and I both know that many people on the blog have a different perspective from his.  But please be respectful and courteous, even in your disagreements. .

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Is the Bible Inerrant?

Just as the term “divine inspiration” needs clarification, so does the term “inerrant.” “Inerrant” means without error. So, a simple way of explaining what it means to say the Bible is inerrant is to assert that it contains no errors of any kind. One can imagine a preacher holding up his Bible during his Sunday morning sermon and saying, “This is God’s inerrant Word. Every word in it’s true!” For that, the argument is given, “If the Bible is divinely inspired, it must be inerrant, since God cannot err.” However, as I noted in my previous post, that argument only works if either (a) God dictated the words to the biblical writers who acted merely as scribes or (b) God, in a manner unknown to us, used their personalities and various writing styles to pen every word as He desired. As we observed, neither are likely, given the Bible that we have.

If by divine inspiration we mean that God actuated circumstances whereby the authors of the biblical literature wrote what they did using their own words, arguments, and logic, and that God ultimately approved what they wrote, despite the presence of human imperfections, then the doctrine of biblical inerrancy may be understood in a number of ways.

For example, Vatican II views inerrancy as follows: “the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation [emphasis mine]” (Dei Verbum 11). In other words, the Bible is inerrant in everything it teaches pertaining to salvation.

Perhaps the definition most commonly accepted by evangelicals around the world is …

This is an intriguing post with a view that will strike many of you as unusual.  If you want to read the rest, you will need to belong to the blog.  So why not join?  It doesn’t cost much, and every nickel goes to those in need.

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Final Tribute To Larry Hurtado
Setting Dates for the Gospels

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    mjoniak  December 2, 2019

    Dr Licona,

    I’m not sure I understand your view correctly. As far as I understand, you say that inerrancy only applies to essential teaching of the Bible. But still there are contradictions and problems in non-essential stories (for example: it’s said that Samuel won’t see Saul again in 1 Sm 15:35, and he sees him again in 1 Sm 19:24 – that’s a clear contradiction!) or even in prophecies (famous prophecy against Tyre in Ezek 26:21 claims the city won’t ever be found, but we all know the ruins were found and are explored by archeologists).

    Would you say those kinds of errors matter for your understanding of inerrancy or not? If not, then could you quote any verses in the Bible, that, if they were demonstrated to be in factual error, would cause you to reject inerrancy?

    I don’t mean to start an argument, I’m just really curious about your view.

    • Mike Licona
      Mike Licona  December 2, 2019

      mjoniak: I’d have to spend some time consulting some commentaries to give you an informed answer. What I can offer at present is that some English translations render 1 Sam 15:35 to mean that Saul did not go to see Samuel again until the day he died. Ezek 26:21 is much more difficult. I’d have to give it much thought. It certainly appears to be a failed prophecy, unless it’s some sort of hyperbolic language being used and which we find in apocalyptic language.

      If the 1 Samuel passage was an error, it would not matter for my understanding of inerrancy. I think my understanding could also accommodate the Ezekiel text if it were an error. But I would feel somewhat uncomfortable with it being an error.

      • Avatar
        Kunalians23  December 2, 2019

        Dr. Licona – can u explain more fully how u can embrace inerrancy even though u admit there are some errors? Thanks

        • Mike Licona
          Mike Licona  December 2, 2019

          Kunalians23: I think my post speaks for itself.

          • Avatar
            Kunalians23  December 2, 2019

            Sorry, I might be slow and dense bc I don’t quite understand ur position ( I only read ur big resurrection book but I just finished keener’s christobiography book). Are u saying that ur view of inerrancy can accommodate errors bc those errors are in accordance with the ancient standards of getting the gist but not the details right or some kind of “compositional device”? Thanks for ur patiences

          • Mike Licona
            Mike Licona  December 3, 2019

            Thanks for the clarification, kunalians23. I’m impressed that you read my large resurrection book and have already finished Keener’s “Christobiography,” which is also a long read.

            When an ancient author altered minor details via a compositional device, I don’t consider that to be an error. For example, when Matthew changes the account of Jesus raising Jairus’s daughter in Mark by narrating Jairus to say she was already dead when he approached Jesus with his request and Matthew also omitted the servants from Jairus’s house that later inform him that his daughter has died, I regard that as a streamlining of the story by Matthew rather than an error. We regularly do similar things in our ordinary conversations and don’t consider ourselves to be lying, deceiving, or misleading others. I hope this provides some clarity pertaining to my view. Thanks for YOUR patience!

      • Avatar
        mjoniak  December 2, 2019

        Thank you for your answer. I have another question: are there any specific passages that you could not accomodate if they were in error? I’m trying to understand what exactly are the limits of inerrancy as you define it.

        • Mike Licona
          Mike Licona  December 3, 2019

          mjoniak: I would have to look at each on a case-by-case basis. An example of what I consider to be a reasonable candidate for an error in the Gospels is Augustus’s census when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Another example is the manner in which Judas died in Matthew. If they are indeed errors, they would negate a strict view of inerrancy. But they wouldn’t necessarily negate my more flexible view. Now, if John reported that Jesus was didn’t die but was rescued by God and healed (similar to what the Quran teaches), then that would certainly be an error in a sense that would negate my view of inerrancy.

          So, what are the limits? I don’t know. I’d have to go through a lot of instances in order to determine a limit. And it would be a somewhat of a subjective answer. This is why “inerrancy” may not be the best term.

          • Avatar
            mjoniak  December 3, 2019

            Ok, I think I understand your position now: what actually matters is the basic tenets of the faith. The rest of the Bible may contain some mistakes e.g. in historical details, or even some contradictions.

            That’s a more nuanced view, but I think we can agree that it’s not what Evangelical believers usually mean by “inerrancy” – at least not those that I’ve met! On the other hand, your view seems quite similar to the Catholic teaching, which also admits some errors in the Bible, but not in the most important truths of faith.

            I think that if I was still a Christian, I would believe something along those lines too. This seems like the only logical option if you want to honestly admit the problems in the Bible, but don’t want to give up on faith entirely. On the other hand, if you reject the strict view of inerrancy, you become a heretic in the eyes of many Evangelicals, even if you don’t actually reject the faith.

            Thank you for the discussion, it was pretty enlightening for me.

          • Mike Licona
            Mike Licona  December 3, 2019

            mjoniak: Correct. Most evangelicals who embrace the term “inerrancy” don’t think of it in the same sense that I do, although I think there are more that think that way than is recognized. And you’re correct that many evangelicals who embrace inerrancy think someone like myself is going off the deep end into liberalism. However, I’d like to add that, in October, I had a debate on how to understand inerrancy properly at a conference sponsored by Southern Evangelical Seminary, which was started by the late Norman Geisler. You may already know that Geisler had me in his cross hairs for several years and was relentless in his criticisms. Two friends who attended that debate told me afterward that they asked several others there what they thought. Almost all of them answered that they came to the debate regarding me as having abandoned conservatism but now agreed with my view of inerrancy. It’s those like Geisler who promote a rigid view of inerrancy and demonize those in disagreement. But when they actually hear what I regard as a more reasonable view, they change their view. If you’re interested in viewing that debate, it’s at https://youtu.be/rLwnjx6-5dc.

            However, my view of inerrancy goes further than the Catholic view, which, in my understanding, only applies to matters related to salvation.

  2. Avatar
    Apocryphile  December 2, 2019

    “Hermeneutical waterboarding” – I have to admit, that’s the first time I’ve seen those two words strung together – lol! Did you pick this term up from somewhere, or is it your own creation? Either way, very inventive! 🙂

    In my opinion, this whole issue of inerrancy is built on a very shaky foundation – i.e. that the Bible is in some way, shape or form the Word of God. If one doesn’t accept the premise, the entire edifice crumbles. It also betrays our (very modern) penchant for seeing things in dualistic terms – yes or no, black or white, right or wrong.

    I do, however, tend toward a more generous approach to the issue. I accept that the Bible, or parts thereof, can contain inspired thoughts and words in the same way that a poet, writer, or musician can receive inspiration from her “muses”. Whether this source exists deep in our brain, psyche or soul, or exists outside of our individual selves (or perhaps both), I think we can indeed occasionally tap into this deep wellspring of wisdom and creativity, and produce something truly extraordinary. If we want to call this source God, then yes, I think we can indeed call portions of the Bible the word of God. However, making the leap to then saying the entire Bible is the inerrant (however we want to define that) word of God seems to me too generous a concession to make.

    • Mike Licona
      Mike Licona  December 2, 2019

      Apocryphile: “Hermeneutical waterboarding.” 🙂 I’m glad you liked the term. In Dale Allison’s wonderful book “Resurrection Jesus,” he mentions how “if we want, we can torture the data until they confess what we want to hear” (343). I thought that was a great statement. When I read that book years ago, it was when the discussion on the ethics of waterboarding was front and center. I was teaching some military chaplains in South Korea in 2011 when the thought came to mind. I used it. The chaplains all laughed. And I have since used it often!

  3. Avatar
    veritas  December 2, 2019

    Dr. Licona, your view is well presented but I still fail to see how mistakes are accounted as inerrant. You mention two statements; The Lausanne Covenant and The Chicago Statement on Biblical Errancy. I have not read the former, but the latter, I have in front of me as I respond to your post. When reading the preface, it sounds like a warning to believers in professing faith and obedience. I have no problem with that. The last paragraph, of preface, invites further response from any who see reason to amend. It seems like admission to errors. After the preface, is a ‘ A Short Statement’. Paragraph 2 & 4 are striking. Number 2 ) starts off with,” Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit…..4 ) states; ” Being wholly and verbally God – given, Scripture is without error or fault in all it’s teaching”….. That does not sound like God allowed men to write Scripture with all it’s errors. God’s own word, wholly and verbally God-given? Furthermore, assuming I go along with your explanations, when I read in Mark and Luke, the crucifixion story and want to know how Jesus went to the cross, which one do I believe? Was he quiet, feeble and almost sounding scared as in Mark or was He talking and affirmative knowing what was about to happen He foreseen? I get a mixed view of Him, yet it is God’s Son. Does God get it wrong or doesn’t want us to know? The statements you speak of, come from believing people who collaborate in a general consensus and nothing more. It does not make the Bible inerrant because they said so. Prof. Ehrman and others have shown there are plenty of mistakes, as well as you have said, so it is a play on words ( philosophy) to articulate it well enough for those who raise the question. Churches, to your defense, do not explain it like you have presented here. I would suggest corroborating with them so you are unified in your thesis. Thanks for your post.

    • Mike Licona
      Mike Licona  December 2, 2019

      Thanks, veritas. You’re correct about the Chicago Statement. The way they see it, the originals are inerrant because God directed every word to be exactly as it is. Errors have crept in during the transmission process. But most can be identified and the remainder are minor. But, as you saw, I have reservations with the Chicago Statement.

      You write, “Furthermore, assuming I go along with your explanations, when I read in Mark and Luke, the crucifixion story and want to know how Jesus went to the cross, which one do I believe? Was he quiet, feeble and almost sounding scared as in Mark or was He talking and affirmative knowing what was about to happen He foreseen? I get a mixed view of Him, yet it is God’s Son. Does God get it wrong or doesn’t want us to know?”

      It’s an oversimplification to say that each Gospel author had different aspects of Jesus they wished to emphasize. But that’s the main idea behind some of the differences and may very well be what you’re observing in Jesus going to the cross in Mark and Luke.

      • Avatar
        veritas  December 2, 2019

        As I read some of your responses, I appreciate your candid responses to all the posts. You seem to apply personal and professional scholarship research in a balanced approach while keeping your beliefs and still admitting that some answers are difficult/ knowable to answer. On a side note, I would like to know your view on how old the earth is? Most conservative apologist/evangelicals claim it is less than 10,000 years old. Thanks !

        • Mike Licona
          Mike Licona  December 3, 2019

          Thanks much, veritas! My view on the age of the earth is that it’s probably 4.5 billion years old while the universe is around 13.5 billion years old. Things have changed among Christian apologists in the past several decades. Today, I’d say a very large majority do not hold a young earth view of creation. In fact, I’d guess that only a few hold that view.

  4. Avatar
    mtavares  December 2, 2019

    Just wanted to chime in on the Vatican II Dei Verbum line about inerrancy. What’s extremely frustrating about that line is that it footnotes a reference to another Catholic document Providentissimus Deus, which takes a much more strict stance on inerrancy. Some Catholics will point to that footnote, saying the view on inerrancy hasn’t changed since the earlier document. Others will take a position closer to your stance. As an anecdotal personal story, when I was having trouble with OT genocide, NT discrepencies, and inerrancy in seminary I expressed this stuff to a friend there. He ended up writing his MA thesis on it, claiming the Catholic church believes in plenary inerrancy. At the thesis defense it was fascinating to see different faculty members question which view the Catholic church did in fact hold. Granted this was a seminary (not a research institution or a council), but it just goes to show the range of opinions even within one church.

    • Mike Licona
      Mike Licona  December 2, 2019

      mtavares: That’s pretty interesting. On the matter of canonicity, I have received different answers from prominent Catholic scholars on how the Catholic Church views the OT Apocrypha.

  5. Avatar
    D-men  December 2, 2019

    Thanks for taking the time to set out your views!

    In Point 2, you mention “We know that our present Biblecontains some errors. Yet, we do not despair over trusting it, because theerrors are trivial and we trust that God in His sovereignty has ensured thatour present Bible is sufficiently accurate to accomplish all that He intends. ifwe allow for errors in the autographs, we would take the same approach withthem as we take with our present Bible.” Could you explain this a bit more? Do you say in short we trust God in this matter? 

    In Point 5 you mention “if Jesus rose from the dead Christianity is true, period”. Could you explain this as well? Because for me there are still questions if that may be true.  Because what with all the other miracles whom be claimed to be divine with the same(or more) amount of evidence? But related to this topic, how do you come to the conclusion that if Jesus rose from the dead, that the Bible is true as well?(most important question)

    • Mike Licona
      Mike Licona  December 2, 2019

      D-men: In short, yes. The longer argument: If Jesus rose, we have a good reason for listening to him. Through historical inquiry, we can ascertain quite a lot of what Jesus taught. Because he rose from the dead, I believe his claims about himself and his teachings. And I would anticipate that he who claimed to proclaim the kingdom of God would see to it that his message would be preserved. Some of his teachings pertain to God’s character. Based on this, I trust that God ensured that we have what we need in Scripture to please him and do his will. Of course, this is by no means an air-tight argument. But it’s why I have chosen to believe what I do about Scripture.

  6. Avatar
    cristianp  December 2, 2019

    Mike Thanks again for your time dedicated to this forum.
    I am really interested in your opinion about the following:
    So how can we really know if a text was written by divine inspiration? Earlier you answered that YES we may sometimes have a confirmation bias of our “beliefs.” So since only one of the two parties involved in the writing is the one that tells us that a text is inspired by God, since the other part (GOD) has not directly confirmed that what was written He inspired it, I can think that “divine inspiration is nothing more than a biased belief. In this way I can say (and believe) that other (very recent) texts are also inspired by God, such as” A Course in Miracles “and” Conversations with God “?

    • Mike Licona
      Mike Licona  December 3, 2019

      Thanks, cristianp. In my opinion, there are historical truths and theological truths. The former can be established via historical investigation. The latter cannot. The case for the divine inspiration of Scripture falls in the latter category. All I can attempt to do is explain my reasons for thinking Scripture is divinely inspired. Faith is absolutely involved. But I think it’s reasonable to believe Scripture is divinely inspired, given the reasons I provided in my first post, if Jesus rose from the dead.

  7. Avatar
    tskorick  December 2, 2019

    “Hermeneutical waterboarding” — that killed me 😀

    You emphasize, as many believers do, the resurrection of Jesus as the foundation upon which the truth of the remainder of the gospel assertions stand. If I am reading you right (from this post but also from your speeches and debates), the events and actions accidental to the crucifixion and resurrection that differ from gospel to gospel don’t matter in themselves, but they betray a central truth that Jesus was crucified and was then raised from the dead.

    So assuming the above is mostly right (please tell me if it’s not), I have a couple questions: 1) Do you differ the long-distance recounting of the gospels in your mind from the voluminous similar stories from antiquity regarding popular figures who died and were later seen alive in some fashion? 2) What in the gospels themselves speaks with greater authority than these other tales, such that the gospel accounts of the resurrection can hold the weight of all of Christian theology?

    Thanks Mike! Great post as always.

    • Mike Licona
      Mike Licona  December 3, 2019

      Thanks much, tskorick. If one reads the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion, one will note a number of differences. These differences can be troubling if one comes to the text expecting reports to be of the same nature as transcripts of a legal deposition. However, if one comes to the text having read the reports of other major events, such as Caesar’s assassination in Appian, Cicero, Dio, Livy, Nicholaus, Plutarch, Suetonius, and Velleius, one will not be so troubled, because the sort of variations in details in the reports of Caesar’s assassination are even greater than what we observe in the multiple reports of Jesus’s crucifixion.

      Regarding parallels to Jesus in pagan literature, here’s a lecture I did 2 or 3 years ago in which I provide some answers to the question you ask: https://youtu.be/GOCHludb7X4

  8. Avatar
    jrblack  December 2, 2019

    Dr. Licona, your focus on the Resurrection as the linchpin of faith does a good job of shifting the focus from insignificant details about crowing roosters to much larger issues such as the content of the resurrection narratives. But there, too, I think there are significant problems for biblical inerrancy.

    A while back there was a discussion here on the blog about whether the disciples returned to Galilee to meet the risen Christ. Mark explicitly tells us they were instructed to do so; but because of the abrupt ending of that gospel, we aren’t told whether they actually did or not. Matthew’s account tells us that they did indeed go to Galilee as instructed, and that they did see Jesus there as promised, so he and Mark do not significantly disagree on this point. So far, so good.

    But Luke stands all this on its head. Despite his claims to deep historical research, and his obvious dependence on Mark for a lot of his material, he never mentions either the instruction to go to Galilee or any appearance of Jesus there; on the contrary, he depicts the risen Christ as telling the disciples not to leave Jerusalem at all until the coming of the Holy Spirit, which did not take place until after the Ascension. And then of course there are the resurrection narratives in the gospel of John, which have problems of their own.

    It seems impossible to construct a reasonable chronology that reconciles all these different accounts, which would seem to cast serious doubt on the accuracy and integrity of at least some of them.

    So my question is: Given the apparently irreconcilable differences among the gospel authors on something as basic and essential as the location, content, and sequencing of the resurrection narratives, how can one still claim any kind of “inerrancy” for these highly important stories?

    • Mike Licona
      Mike Licona  December 3, 2019

      jrblack: Good question. With most critical NT scholars, I understand Luke to be compressing his resurrection narrative, intentionally narrating Jesus’s resurrection, all of the appearances, and his ascension to have occurred on Easter Sunday. However, Luke is aware these events occurred over a longer period of time. For in Acts 1:3, he says Jesus appeared to them over a period of 40 days after his resurrection. Compression is a compositional device commonly employed by ancient historians. In fact, we often employ it even today in our ordinary conversations. Since Luke is compressing events in his narrative, he will have to alter some details. So, if you’re trying to reconcile every detail in a wooden sense and without literary sensitivity, you’re not going to be able to do so. But I don’t regard such a practice – a practice in which even many Christians engage – to be legitimate.

      Notwithstanding, the matter of whether Jesus first appeared to the group of his male disciples in Galilee (a la Matthew and implied in Mark) or Jerusalem (Luke, John) still remains. Bracketing Luke, this is a very difficult difference for which I don’t know the answer. I’m inclined to think it occurred in Jerusalem and that Mark, followed by Matthew, deliberately relocated it in Galilee for some reason that eludes me. I discuss at length the differences in the resurrection narratives in my recent book “Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn From Ancient Biography” (New York: OUP, 2017). Virtually all of them are quite easily explained by the use of compositional devices. These will be discussed in my third post here.

      • Avatar
        jrblack  December 3, 2019

        With regard to the relocation of the resurrection appearances, I think it makes more sense that Luke is the one who has done the relocating, while Mark and Matthew have preserved the original tradition. Jesus was clearly a Galilean, as were most if not all of his closest disciples; and according to the oldest layers of the tradition he seems to have conducted most of his public ministry in or near there as well. It is only after his Transfiguration on a Galilean mountain (most likely Hermon, the highest and most sacred peak in the region) that he decides to go to Jerusalem, probably for the first time. Given all that, it is only natural that he would have instructed his disciples to return to their native Galilee after the coming ordeal in Jerusalem, and to meet him on that same holy mountain–known for centuries as the gateway to heaven–to receive their final commission before his ascension.

        The problem from Luke’s perspective would have been that Galilee was notoriously infested with Gentiles and heretics, and so got little respect from religious Jews, whereas Jerusalem was the ancient center of Jewish religion and an internationally renowned “holy city”. Hence there would have been a natural tendency over time for the early tradition to be reworked to situate more and more of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem, whether it actually occurred there or not. (According to Luke, even Jesus himself–responding to a warning about Herod’s murderous intentions–says “it cannot be that a prophet should perish apart from Jerusalem”.) If important religious events were to occur, they were supposed to happen in the holy city itself, not in some Galilean backwater.

        So if any of the gospel writers were likely to re-situate the resurrection narratives away from their actual location, it would not be to move them from Jerusalem to Galilee, but rather to move them from Galilee to Jerusalem–which is precisely what Luke does.

        • Mike Licona
          Mike Licona  December 4, 2019

          jrblack: You make a good case. What keeps me from going there is John’s account. John is not compressing the resurrection narratives. He narrates appearances in Jerusalem and in Galilee. Moreover, if the majority of Johannine specialists are correct, John’s author uses the eyewitness testimony of one of Jesus’s apostles, i.e., the Beloved Disciple. Whether that was John the son of Zebedee or one of Jesus’s minor disciples also named John is irrelevant here. It’s still eyewitness testimony. Now, I think the same regarding Mark basing his Gospel largely on the eyewitness testimony of Peter. But I prefer John’s chronology because he provide more details and more appearances. That said, the matter of the location of the first appearance to the group of male disciples is a perplexing one! I do not hold a firm opinion on where I presently lean.

          • Avatar
            jrblack  December 5, 2019

            The fact that John places at least one appearance in Galilee suggests that Matthew and Mark weren’t blowing hot air when they pointed in that same direction, so we can’t just ignore their testimony on this point.

            I think the only way out is to accept that all the canonical narratives have some basis in reality, but also that the authors (or editors) have overemphasized some aspects and downplayed or eliminated others. If we do this, we get a surprisingly consistent sequence of events: (1) The disciples are hiding in Jerusalem when the women return with a message from the risen Christ–which the disciples disbelieve. (2) Jesus appears, proves his identity, etc.–at which point we would expect him to repeat his instruction to go to Galilee. (3) The disciples go to Galilee, where Jesus appears again. (It takes about a week to walk from Jerusalem to Galilee–hence John’s “after eight days”. Most people assume this appearance happened in Jerusalem, but it could just as easily have been at Peter’s house in Capernaum.)

            Now we’re in Galilee, where John’s third resurrection story takes place. And after that? At least part of the motivation for returning to Galilee must have been to gather the Galilean believers for the Great Commission and Ascension. (Note that the angels who appear at this point address the disciples as “men of Galilee”, which could refer to a much larger group than just the Eleven.)

            Next we turn to Acts, where Jesus tells the disciples to stay in the City until the coming of the Spirit. In order to stay there, they have to be there–and so we get a week-long trek back to Judea, presumably with a bunch of Galilean believers in tow–hence the claim in Acts that “the company of persons was about 120”.

            This approach is consistent with almost everything in all the resurrection narratives, without requiring anything that is intrinsically improbable. The only real problem is that Acts explicitly says that after the Ascension they “returned from the mountain called Olivet”. But given how Luke entirely edited out the command to go to Galilee, I don’t think we can give him absolute credence on this point. And in any case, the textual tradition for the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts is so muddled that it’s impossible now to know exactly what Luke actually wrote, much less what he intended.

          • Mike Licona
            Mike Licona  December 5, 2019

            jrblack: You wrote, “I think the only way out is to accept that all the canonical narratives have some basis in reality, but also that the authors (or editors) have overemphasized some aspects and downplayed or eliminated others.” I agree entirely.

  9. Avatar
    Hon Wai  December 2, 2019

    Hello Dr. Licona. Thanks for doing this blog series. Great to hear you have built up a cordial friendship with Bart (unlike some of Bart’s debate opponents), and learned to agree to disagree on your respective diametrical religious worldviews. I would like to pick your thoughts on some points made in this and previous post.

    “why think the Bible is divinely inspired?…I’ll provide 3 key reasons. #1 Jesus rose from the dead.”

    Surely, it is not Jesus’ purported resurrection per se which confers authority on his teachings, but the theological claim – if true – that he ascended to the right hand of God to be judge over all? (In words of Paul, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name”). Lazarus and the saints referred in Gospel of Matthew, were also raised from the dead. This tells us nothing about the veracity of what they believed. According to Christian theology, everybody – believers and non-believers alike – will eventually be physically raised from the dead by God. Yet this says nothing about the veracity of their beliefs or authority. Even if we grant that the actuality of resurrection is amenable to historical evaluation, the claim that Jesus rose to the right hand of God is surely beyond historical or empirical investigation of any sort. Hence the historicity of the resurrection seems to have at best peripheral relevance to the doctrine of biblical inspiration.

    “a growing number of historians hold that Jesus claimed to be divine in some sense”

    In Bart’s “How Jesus became God”, he argued that the NT authors including the gospel evangelists believed Jesus to be “divine in some sense” and that the Greco-Roman world entertained different degrees of divinity. However, neither Bart nor Larry Hurtado (whose early high christology thesis is largely accepted by Bart) hold that Jesus himself claimed to be divine in any sense. Surely it remains a marginal position in critical scholarship that Jesus himself claimed to be divine?

  10. Avatar
    Hon Wai  December 2, 2019

    “Paul believed he had received authority from Jesus to teach…And his essential teachings were confirmed by the apostolic leadership…if Jesus is divine, his teachings are authoritative and we would expect for him to have commissioned his disciples to pass them along…That commissioning would bestow authority on them.”

    This line of argument seems highly attenuated – multiple leaps of arguments are required. You had a debate with Dale Martin in 2012, when he sharply rebutted that Paul was just one ancient writer out of many, and he did not receive universal recognition in the early church. Even if we grant Paul’s writings were authoritative on grounds of apostolic leadership, it is hard to see how this argument can be extended to anonymous works like the Epistle to the Hebrews, which according to evangelical doctrine of biblical inspiration is equally authoritative and inspired as Paul’s works.

    Does your conception of biblical inerrancy allow for the possibility that GJohn as a whole is not meant to be a straightforward historical account of the life and ministry of Jesus? I think in North America, a lot of evangelicals in the pews and many evangelical scholars, would think such a conception does not deserve the label of biblical inerrancy at all. Your relatively “liberal” version of inerrancy would be vigorously contested by authors like G.K. Beale 2008 (“The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism: Responding to New Challenges to Biblical Authority”).
    It would be interesting to know which view presented in “Five views on biblical inerrancy (Zondervan, 2013)” is closest to yours. Albert Mohler, presenting the “classic” doctrine of inerrancy would clearly be on your theological Right, while Peter Enns holding that “inerrancy however defined does not describe what the Bible does” would be on your theological Left. Perhaps Kevin Vanhoozer’s view framed as “Augustinian inerrancy” is close to your view.

    I look forward to reading your third post.

    • Mike Licona
      Mike Licona  December 3, 2019

      Hon Wai: John’s Gospel is a perplexing matter. N T Wright once said, “I think about John like I think about my wife: I love her very much but don’t claim to understand her.” 🙂 All Johannine scholars acknowledge Johannine adaptation of the Jesus tradition.

      you’re correct that GK Beale would disagree with my view. I align myself closer to Mike Bird’s view in the 5 views book.

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    darren  December 2, 2019

    Thanks for the post! You are one of my favourites to watch when Dr. Ehrman debates scholars who are Christian. Early Christians disagreed about so much (was Jesus fully human or partly God when he was on Earth, the trinity, gnosticism, the exact definition of Jesus’s divinity, for examples), just as Jews at that time disagreed amongst themselves, and later Christians have done since forever. There were arguments about which books should be in the cannon, and even when that was decided, splits emerged. The OT and NT also seem to have few issues with slavery, or the domination of women. Which is to say, when you look at church history and records, it looks very human. And the NT even has forged letters that contradict genuine writings of Paul and the teachings of Jesus. While I’m amazed at how much truth and wisdom is in the Bible, I don’t understand how anyone could argue that it is in any sense inerrant when the seams become more visible as we study it closer.

    • Mike Licona
      Mike Licona  December 3, 2019

      Thanks, Darren. You’re correct that the early Christians disagreed on whether Jesus was divine. However, it seems to me that the apostles were all in agreement that he is. Paul certainly believed Jesus is divine. And he said the Jerusalem leadership (i.e., Peter, James, John) had certified his gospel message to be aligned with their own. Certainly, something as fundamental as Jesus’s divinity would have been part of that message. So, although some early Christians disagreed and did not view Jesus as fully divine, it’s what the apostles thought that matters most.

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    Damian King  December 2, 2019

    Mike, as a Roman Catholic, I think you are one of the best in the field these days. You are an amazingly talented scholar. Keep up the great work you do

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    pianoman  December 2, 2019

    Dr. Licona, this is going to be the hardest question you have been asked here! As my screen name (piano man) suggest, I play the piano (and organ) professionally. I also tune and repair instruments. I hear you have a college degree in Saxophone? Next time you debate Dr. Ehrman, why don’t you end the debate by playing a hymn or something on your Saxophone? I think we would all enjoy hearing you play!

    • Mike Licona
      Mike Licona  December 3, 2019

      pianoman: Ha! Yes, I have a BA in Applied Music (saxophone performance). However, my horn has been laying around for years. Although I enjoyed playing, I don’t want to take time away from my research in order to practice. So, as a professional yourself, I don’t think you’d “enjoy” hearing me play these days! 🙂

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    JoeWallack  December 2, 2019

    [Must resist snarky attitude]. Professor Ehrman, this question is for you since Mr. Licona’s argument is not logical, professional or historical oriented. [/Not..resisting..well]. Everything is backwards. Licona sets a condition that you have to start the argument by being officially neutral regarding impossible claims. This is like trying to predict who will win the World Series but having an assumption that pitching doesn’t count. Licona then tries to use the possible to prove an Impossible conclusion (resurrection). But he started with the assumption of being officially neutral regarding all impossible claims.

    The Apologetics is trying to claim that because the possible claims are (supposedly) historical this is evidence that the impossible claims are historical. In the real world though the relationship would be the opposite. Impossible claims are evidence that the possible claims are not historical. Interestingly, as this argument is backwards, if you just have to accept the possibility of Divine Creatures, this would be better evidence of The Other Guy since the only thing everyone agrees on is The Other Guy is famously Backwards.

    So, the one possible question for you here. Would you agree that no amount of possible claims in the Christian Bible is going to make the resurrection historical since resurrections are impossible (or, to borrow your phrase, “almost certainly” not historical because as the King said in Braveheart when editing his reward conditions for William Wallace, “Alive, or dead. Just as good.” “Impossible or almost certainly impossible”. Just as good).

    http://skepticaltextualcriticism.blogspot.com/

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    Omar6741  December 2, 2019

    Hi Dr. Licona,

    You wrote: “Many years ago I came to the understanding that, if Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity is true, period.”
    Doesn’t this reasoning depend on the assumption that Jesus affirmed the truth of Christianity in his public career, prior to being crucified? (For if, hypothetically, he actually affirmed something subtly different from standard Christian doctrines, and Christians have misunderstood him all this time, then the resurrection would at best confirm the truth of the doctrines he actually asserted, and *not* Christianity.)

    • Mike Licona
      Mike Licona  December 3, 2019

      Omar6741: Although there are many different doctrinal beliefs in Christianity, most agree on the fundamental doctrines. And these are fairly well attested in the NT. So, while I agree with your statement that “the resurrection would at best confirm the truth of the doctrines he actually asserted, and *not* Christianity,” I’m inclined to think the most important doctrines can be established as things Jesus taught.

      • Avatar
        Omar6741  December 3, 2019

        Thank you for that clear, balanced answer!
        As a follow up question, I am now very curious as to whether you think the most important doctrines of Christianity include these (a) the virginal conception of Jesus;
        (b) Christ’s descent into Hell, just before the Resurrection, to rescue souls being punished there;
        I mentioned (a) because it doesn’t seem that Jesus taught it about himself; it now occurs to me that this is a good test case for understanding your notion of biblical inerrancy: does your inerrancy belief imply that the virginal conception of Jesus is true? If so, what would it imply about the other details in the canonical infancy narratives?
        Warm Regards,
        Omar

        • Mike Licona
          Mike Licona  December 4, 2019

          Omar6741: There is disagreement among theologians pertaining to the non-negotiable essentials of the Christian Faith. That said, I think most would agree on the incarnation, deity, atoning death, and resurrection of Jesus.

          I believe Jesus was born of a virgin. However, if it turns out that his incarnation occurred otherwise and that the virgin birth turned out being false, I have no problems thinking Christianity would still be true. Jesus’s virgin birth does not appear in any of what we might call “gospel formulas” in the epistles.

          • Avatar
            Omar6741  December 6, 2019

            Dr. Licona,
            I just want to make sure I have understood your definition of inerrancy. Let me share a hypothetical example.
            Imagine that, by December 2020, all archaeologists with any interest in Israel have reached a firm, unanimous agreement that Bethlehem, and the immediately surrounding area, were completely uninhabited between 30BCE and 30CE. All of them agree with the detailed arguments for this conclusion, and not one of them sees the conclusion as in any way doubtful.
            With such an impressive consensus of experts, one would have to believe that Jesus was *not* born in Bethlehem . And then how could one affirm that the Bible is true and trustworthy in everything it teaches, as inerrancy requires?
            But there is one final clause in your inerrancy definition, and I am not sure how to understand it; this clause says “to the extent God intended”. My problem is that this seems otiose: can’t one see the extent to which God intended the Bible to be true just by noticing what He actually put in it? If so, why add anything about His intentions? If not, then this is a clause that will allow the Christian to dismiss just about anything that might show the Bible to be incorrect in what it teaches, by allowing him to conclude “Oh, obviously this error was not part o f the ‘extent’ to which god wanted the Bible to be true and reliable.”

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    Jonny_the_Nerd  December 3, 2019

    Romans 5 ties explains why we need the crucifixion of Jesus, and that explanation assumes the J-Source creation story. So while a Christian can dodge the 6-day creation of a 6 thousand year old Earth in the P-source creation story, the error of the J-source creation story defeats Christianity at it’s foundation. An inheritor of Adam’s sin needs the resurrection; a chimpanzee’s cousin does not. So what is Jesus’s resurrection worth if the first 11 chapters of Genesis aren’t real?

    • Mike Licona
      Mike Licona  December 3, 2019

      If Genesis 1-11 is mytho-history as many theologians contend, I don’t see how that would negate the truth of Christianity, given Jesus’s resurrection.

      • Avatar
        Jonny_the_Nerd  December 3, 2019

        …for the reason explained in my original post.

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        Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  December 6, 2019

        [M. L.] “If Genesis 1-11 is mytho-history as many theologians contend, I don’t see how that would deny the truth of Christianity, given Jesus’s resurrection”.
        ———————————
        Very simple, Mr. Licona. If Genesis 1-11 is a myth, a legend, Adam and Eve are also a myth (which, by the way, is true with 99,99% of probability, according to empirical studies and mathematical modeling of modern science of population genetics) . The original Sin and the consequent Fall (with capital S and F, as the Lutherans and Calvinists like to write it) of humanity, is a legend, a literary fantasy. If the Fall of man is a myth, it was a completely unnecessary cruelty for God the Father to send Jesus his Son to be fiercely slaughtered and killed by humans to forgive a Sin of disobedience that never existed, which is only mythological. And therefore, being God infinitely just and merciful, he could not do such a cosmic evil. Therefore, it is logical that God the Father never sent his poor son Jesus to the Earth to be tortured without cause. The death of Jesus and his resurrection, the Atonement that is a fundamental belief for Christianity to be true, was unnecessary and therefore, never happened.
        Consequently, Christianity, as defined orthodoxly, is false.
        Or God the father is a moral monster, a celestial dictator capable of sacrificing his son because a mythological narrative.

        • Avatar
          Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  December 6, 2019

          A little help for you Mr. Licona to keep your faith in Christianity more or less afloat: even if the real existence of Adam and Eve and their Sin of disobedience is pure mythology, it may be thought that God knowing that in the future all humans (as Paul says in Romans) we would sin, he decided to anticipate to the facts and choose a time in the history of humanity (without explaining why that moment of history and no other) and proceed to the sacrifice of his son, to the Atonement so he, the God, could forgive as many sins as humanity would commit.

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    jscheller  December 3, 2019

    I agree with your points, particularly point five. Thank you.

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    johnmaxx  December 3, 2019

    Dear Dr. Licona, I won’t take up any more of your time with provocative questions, most of which have already been asked and answered in any event. I do want to compliment you on your cogent and well-expressed arguments. I appreciate and value well-constructed and intelligent arguments, even (especially) when I disagree with the assertions being made. It causes me to honestly reevaluate my own beliefs and worldviews. It encourages me to reflect on my biases and less than rational conclusions. Thanks for taking the time to contribute. As a writer, I know the time involved, followed by more time thoughtfully addressing all these questions. BTW, I especially love, “We should look for another solution instead of subjecting the Gospel texts to hermeneutical waterboarding until they tell us what we want to hear! Such a solution I will offer in my next post.” Beautifully said—and I can’t wait to read what’s next.

    • Mike Licona
      Mike Licona  December 3, 2019

      Thanks so much for your gracious reply johnmaxx. I have enjoyed the interactions with you all. By far, most of you have been very kind and gracious to me. And I am thankful. The questions and pushback I have received have been thoughtful. It’s a good testing ground for my views! I don’t expect that all of my views are correct. And I’m certainly open to changing those that are not. So, thanks for your kindness.

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    rivercrowman  December 3, 2019

    Hello Mike, isn’t the absence of the longer or shorter ending of Mark’s Gospel an error on someone’s part? Is that longer ending, for example, fully inspired? Thanks!

    • Mike Licona
      Mike Licona  December 3, 2019

      Hi, rivercrowman. I’d say the inclusion of the longer and shorter endings of Mark were errors. Mark ended at 16:8, unless the ending was either lost or Mark was unable to complete it.

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    rburos  December 3, 2019

    Dr Licona

    Excellent post and thanks again for wading into our little Lion’s Den.

    Your first post interested me and I think you might have affected me a little with this one. I have always argued that the term “atheist” means so many different things as to make it meaningless, and evangelicals should just give up on criticizing it. I’m ashamed to say I never took that same approach to the term “inerrant” and am now going to give up criticizing it, and will replace it with a term such as “reliable”.

    So thanks for helping realize a bit more fairness in my outlook.

    • Mike Licona
      Mike Licona  December 3, 2019

      Glad to have helped, rburos. But be aware that “reliable” can also be a difficult term to define! Bart and I define it differently.

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