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Judging the Debate!

Now that my debate with Matthew Firth over the contradictions in the Gospels has ended, I would like to know your reactions.   Any reactions are fine.   There is the obvious question of which side you found more convincing, but also the less obvious question of why that is.  What about the argument, or counter-argument, was compelling or not compelling?

Part of the problem, of course, is that virtually everyone listening in on the debate already had a pretty firm idea of what they think about the issues.   And because of “confirmation bias” we tend to agree with what we already think, and anyone who says it is obviously right!  (Hence the problem with most viewers of both FOX and MSNBC.)   But for my money, the most interesting responses come from people who have changed their minds.  Still, in all the public debates I’ve had, in front of many thousands of people, I almost never have heard of anyone changing their mind.

So what’s the point?   I often ask myself that!   And often I ask it while I’m smack in the middle of a debate.    My opponent will be arguing something that I think is both obviously and demonstrably false, or misleading, or hopelessly slanted beyond all recognition, and I will see people nodding their heads in agreement (the same people who are shooting darts at me with my eyes when I’m doing the talking) and I start writing notes to myself on my legal pad: “Why am I doing this to myself????”

BUT.   There sometimes are people sitting on the fence.  People who are open to either view, and want to know what to think.

And sometimes there are even people with one view willing to consider carefully the other – not in order to debunk it, but genuinely to consider changing their minds because they think that’s where the evidence leads.

And sometimes you can plant a seed in rather unwilling soil, and over a period of time, it can grow into a beautiful bush and blossom.

I resonate with people who are willing to change their minds that’s what I did and it changed my life.  When I was in college, I would have completely agreed with everything Matthew said in our debate.  But a little later, in graduate school, I opened up to the possibility that I might be wrong.  I decided to look at the evidence without prejudging the issue.  Are there inconsistencies in the Bible or not?  I looked and looked and thought and thought and agonized and agonized and….  Well, you pretty much know the rest.

I suppose I do these debates with conservative evangelicals because I hope there is someone else out there like me, willing to change her or his mind.

But I never do them thinking I’ll change my opponent’s mind.  In my experience, there is NOTHING, absolutely nothing, you can do to change the opponent’s mind.  If what matters is defending the “truth,” then any alternative view has to be rejected, destroyed, and even mocked.  The debaters I like very much the least are the ones who mock.  I could, obviously, name names.  But there are a couple of people I simply won’t debate.  I don’t think mockery is a form of intellectual inquiry or exchange.

Apart from all that – what did you think of the idea of a blog debate and the way it was set up?   Was it worth doing in your view?   Should there be others?

The event was put on as a kind of fund-raiser, and I’m happy to say that we brought in some significant funds.  The two fellows behind (different aspects) of the whole endeavor were Timothy Cottingham and   Nathan Gordon.   From their end they raised around $1200 in outside money; internally, the blog received something like $1500-2000 in direct contributions (it’s hard to tell because some of the donations received at the time were not earmarked).  So we’re talking about several thousand dollars, all told.  That seems to make the effort worth it!

In short: in a comment on this post let me know what you think t – what you thought of the idea of the debate, the way it was set up, the way it went, the arguments you found convincing or not, your general take on the whole thing, and whether it might be worth doing again on some other topic.

Do My Biases Mean I *Have* to Find Contradictions?
Early Christian Liars



  1. Avatar
    Adam0685  May 15, 2019

    Civil debate is important. I think the written debate format is good because it gives time for each side to formulate their best response. Also, the 1000-1500 word limit is good for forcing each side to give their best arguments only in a concise way. I hope you do another debate like this with someone else on a different topic in the future!

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    robgrayson  May 15, 2019

    Hi Bart,

    Newish member here. I think the blog debate format has value, though it can get a bit too adversarial (by which I guess I really mean not dispassionate enough) in nature.

    FWIW, after 30+ years I moved away from a fairly rigid biblical literalist view to seeing the Bible as a rich literary debate full of contradiction and complexity. Believe it or not, this has actually strengthened my faith rather than weakened it.

    I appreciate the work you do here. Keep digging 🙂


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    Phil  May 15, 2019

    Thanks for doing the debate, it was worth it.
    My thought on the debate – Rev Firth did not really face up to the obvious contradictions, and you politely restrained your frustration. He either resorted to a complicated Greek argument which was technical and unconvincing, or simply allowed himself to assume that Luke left out passages which would have eliminated the apparent contradiction.

    In terms of format I liked the back and forth, with your comments side by side in the test. There was a bit of a gap sometimes between posts, but as I guess you both have day jobs that is to be expected.

    With regard to the bigger rationale for your work, it is very, very much appreciated.
    You said “When I was in college, I would have completely agreed with everything Matthew said in our debate. But a little later, in graduate school, I opened up to the possibility that I might be wrong. I decided to look at the evidence without prejudging the issue. Are there inconsistencies in the Bible or not? I looked and looked and thought and thought and agonized and agonized and…. Well, you pretty much know the rest.”

    I, and probably many of us, made the same journey and are most grateful for your guidance. I particularly appreciate the fact that you are not an anti-Christian polemicist in the Dawkins way (although some christians mistakenly think of you like this) but instead are keen that everyone knows what, historically, we do and do not know, and can separate that from any faith based assumptions,

    I find that your work and the questions you debate help me to understand and internalise these issues, and to share them with others. It would be nice to see some response from some of those you debate with. It is a shame to watch other YouTube clips of some of your famous debaters – successfully challenged by you – who in their natural environment revert to type and talk or preach stuff as if they had never heard any reason to think twice about any of it.

    • Avatar
      Bewilderbeast  May 15, 2019

      Agree with much of what you say. Only differ in one aspect: I in fact admire Dawkins’ courage. The Bart approach is good, but if at least SOMEONE doesn’t stand up to the churches we will never end the abuse – individual, of women and children; and legislative, where churches often retard progress for human rights. See the latest expose of the Catholic church in Poland (youtube) and (I think) admire the courage of those who have stood up and said NO MORE!

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    ZeroSheFlies  May 15, 2019

    Enjoyed the debate. Glad you raised money for a good cause. Was open to having my mind changed, but was disappointed by Matthew Firth. The closest he came was with Jairus’ daughter, because he argued it depends how you read the Greek – which I don`t know enough about.
    A possible debate topic might be the `minimal facts` argument for the Resurrection, because apologists restrict themselves to 4-5 `facts to make their case. They would have to present their case first.

  5. Robert
    Robert  May 15, 2019

    Just one person’s opinion, but I hate these kinds of debates. They are a waste of time and intellect. I hope your right that these debates can plant seeds in others. While it’s true that you abandoned your fundamentalist beliefs, that was part of an extended course of graduate studies.

    At least they raised some money for suffering people, ‘though; I can’t argue with that.

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    rivercrowman  May 15, 2019

    As an agriculturist, I love your comment in today’s post: “And sometimes you can plant a seed in rather unwilling soil, and over a period of time, it can grow into a beautiful bush and blossom.” … I also sport a bumper sticker on my pickup “NATURE is my Church.” … My preference is to watch you give solo (video) presentations like one you presented to a friendly audience in Berkeley several years ago. Evidently, I don’t have time to carefully read debates on the blog. I’m still poking around through the blog’s archives to read posts you made in 2014!

  7. Lev
    Lev  May 15, 2019

    I found the debate interesting, useful and engaging. I totally thought it was worth it – especially as the funds raised go to charity.

    I tend to follow the evidence and the best arguments, so within my lifetime I’ve changed my mind over contradictions. When I first started out in my faith I was taught the bible was inerrant and that for every contradiction there was a complicated yet plausible answer. I was only 16 at the time, so I took them at their word. I also accepted the scholarly consensus over the dating of the gospels.

    As I grew older and wiser, I started investigating the evidence and the arguments more closely and making my own mind up over these matters. Now I accept contradictions but reject the late dating of the gospels – not because I belong to any ideological wing of the Church, just that’s where the best evidence and arguments have led me.

    Your arguments (Bart) were more convincing, and whilst they affirmed my pre-existing position, I still found them valuable and useful to read. Matthew’s arguments were less convincing, but they were argued well and thoroughly researched. I still found them useful and interesting to read – even though they didn’t take me over the line.

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    gbsinkers  May 15, 2019

    I did not enjoy the blog debate. I applaud Rev. Firth’s willingness to participate, especially on your turf, but I found his arguments too faith based rather than fact based. (Yes my bias is showing.) It appeared to me he went to extraordinary lengths to explain away what appear to non-believers as contradictions. Thus the debate seemed more about faith versus unbelief, an un-winnable argument. A debate with another textual critic who may have a differing view than yourself about particular passages might be more interesting, especially if there is no faith involved, but I doubt it. I much prefer yesterday’s post titled “When did Jesus become sinless?” and look forward to the next couple of those. Kudos for giving it a try though. I know you are always looking for ways to keep the blog interesting in order to keep and draw more subscribers in order to raise more funds for charity.

    • Avatar
      Bewilderbeast  May 15, 2019

      ” I found his arguments too faith based rather than fact based” – agree – and then he accused Bart of that kind of blindness!!! Grrr! That was weird and – I must say – unexpected! Firth lost me there for sure.

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      Miles  May 23, 2019

      I agree in a sense but where do you find an objective scholar who believes that there are no contradictions — or even one who might convincingly step into the role by advocating a plausible theory that there are no contradictions? I mean we might as well ask Bart to put forth the best rebuttals to his affirmation that there are contradictions; where would or could he even start?

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    jrauch  May 15, 2019

    I really enjoyed the blog debate. The winner Bart Ehrman, not even close. It was interesting to see how someone who needs to have a perfect Bible will do whatever it takes to keep it perfect. My donation was extremely well spent. I would very much like to see more of these types of debates; very educational!

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    Nexus  May 15, 2019

    I was unimpressed with Matt Firth’s responses, so my interest waned. I think it was because the debate is lopsided. Bart really has the facts on his side.

    Matt would’ve been more successful if he came back with the evidence about the grammar usage or about the lineage.

    I think a future debate with Bart vs. a scholar would be more interesting.

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    Bewilderbeast  May 15, 2019

    Firstly, thank you both;
    Secondly, I’m afraid I personally don’t find these debates helpful. I don’t want to get mad at what I perceive to be dishonesty, but I do at least get irritated;
    Thirdly, I read too much research which tells me people simply do not change their minds (but I admire Bart’s hope that at least some will – and I remind myself that I did!);
    Fourthly, maybe future debates with people who are not invested in (paid by) a dogma their salary depends on?
    Fifthly, the money raised is good, and it’s for a genuine cause (too many ’causes’ are bogus! In Africa we especially have many shady characters ‘saving the rhino’ and too much of that money does not actually reach effective conservation;
    Thanks again. But mainly for the blog as it usually is.

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    cestmarrant  May 15, 2019

    Would it be possible for you and Mark Goodacre to do a blog discussion on the case for and against Q?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 17, 2019

      Interesting idea.

    • Avatar
      Rthompsonmdog  May 17, 2019

      Terrific idea. I appreciate that Dr. Goodacre is in the minority, but he makes some good points against Q.

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    fishician  May 15, 2019

    I think you are right that debates rarely changes minds, but might at least plant some seeds. I am reminded of reading of a Christian apologist claiming to have won a debate because an exit poll showed that a majority (like 70%) agreed with his position. But I would point out that if 90% started out on his side and only 70% afterwards that he actually lost the debate! So, the “results” of debates are (ha) debatable, but they can be an exercise in thinking and hopefully have some value in opening minds.

  14. JulieGraff
    JulieGraff  May 15, 2019

    The Rav from wish I am studying the Torah often says: “If a teaching in the Torah can’t help you in this lifetime, in your day to day, right now, it’s worthless”.

    That’s why I brought up the “Spirit of the text” in my initial comment, before the debate…

    Since the Spirit of the text was not addressed, only the letter… it felt like a debate about “is this gravesite contradicting this other gravesite”.

    When you dive into the spirit of the letter, you know if something is contradicting the other, because it is alive, the teaching is speaking to you, in this lifetime …

    In a text that is alive, two things can contradict themselves and still both can be true, that is called a paradox, and that is a powerful place of learning… Jews know this profoundly… “the word of God is more cutting than a double-edged sword”.

    In this debate, I have not felt that life, it felt like wish corps pissed farther than the other!

    The extra point I give you Mr. Ehrman, compared to Rev. Firth, is for your tone…

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    turbopro  May 15, 2019

    “The purpose of this event is to provide intellectual engagement by exploring long debated theological subjects while raising funds for charitable giving.”

    To the purpose then, this was a success. We were engaged intellectually, and, it raised funds for charitable causes.

    Let’s do more. Thanks.

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    RonaldTaska  May 15, 2019

    I love to read biographies of people who have changed their minds about Christianity. C.S. Lewis, John Loftus, and Dan Barker have written good ones. I am sill waiting for Dr. Ehrman’s biography. My trouble with this debate is that I just could not understand Rev. Firth’s arguments. One key to a good argument is making it clear. Dr. Ehrman has a gift for writing clearly. My second problem is this: If the Bible is the Word of God, then why didn’t the “Divine Editor” or the authors of the Gospels just make these issues a lot clearer by just describing what they were doing in a given genealogy, etc.? In other words, if Rev. Firth is correct about this and that why didn’t the Bible just say this and that? It would have made life a lot simpler. My third issue is a little trickier to express. Does Dr. Firth think that the counter-arguments also make good sense or that the literal, inerrant interpretation is the only reasonable interpretation? This is an important question for me because I grew up in a church tradition where those who did not agree with an inerrant view of the Bible got shunned and ostracized or literally kicked out for corrupting others..

    • Bart
      Bart  May 17, 2019

      Yup, I get the problems! But one thing I’ll add is that I don’t think Firth does believe in a literal interpretation; he thinks that the meaning of the words in their grammatical context do not actually show what the author *meant*.

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    Hon Wai  May 15, 2019

    I haven’t read the debate with Matthew Firth yet. I’ll comment on your many recorded debates over the decade. The religious disposition of people in the live audience of debates may be unrepresentative of the much wider global audience who listen/watch the recording shortly afterwards and in the years to come. It is unsurprising very few minds are changed by a 2-3 hour debate. Indeed, one’s beliefs and worldview would prove to be very flimsy and poorly informed if one can readily change position just by listening to a single debate. The success of a debate should be judged by the impact on wider audience, and whether the listeners felt challenged by arguments by the other side, whether they learnt something new, whether they feel a bit more inclined to revisit the justification of their beliefs – even if they are far from being persuaded to change their overall position. It is no different in scholarship and academia – most scholars won’t change their overall position just by one well-argued journal article, or one book, concerning topics with well-established competing camps. The debates you do could encourage the listeners to read your books, join your blog – benefitting everyone.

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    Pattylt  May 15, 2019

    I enjoyed the debate and got my money’s worth. I know my biases and knew that the Reverend wouldn’t change them but I am very interested in how apologists construct their defense of inerrancy. In that regard, he did not disappoint! Without evidence, all he can do is construct possibilities of which they were pretty much beyond reason. They aren’t beyond his faith and, to me, that is really sad. How would his faith suffer if he admitted contradictions? What would he have to leave behind? Is he really so fearful of becoming atheist? Well never know because he just won’t admit them…even though he has to have Levirite marriages all over the place.

    I got what I wanted…an apologist trying to rationalize the irrational with a creative imagination and the convictions of his faith!

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    CFSmith  May 15, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman believes that if the balance of evidence, historical and textual, shows that there is a contradiction, then there is a contradiction. Rev. Firth believes that if there is any possible interpretation that could resolve the contradiction, then there is no contradiction. Each debater won by his own standard. Rev Firth’s standard is proof beyond any possible doubt, which, for a man of faith, is surely special pleading.

    I enjoyed the debate, though, and hope to see more.

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    JohnKesler  May 15, 2019

    I’ve been discussing Bible contradictions on the internet for over two decades, so I appreciated this debate, even though none of the alleged contradictions or their purported rebuttals was new to me, at least for the most part. I suggest having future debates on your forum rather than in a series of blog posts. That way, the whole debate would be in one thread, and each participant could use the quote function to show just the part to which he is replying. I also think that a new ground rule should be established: “intentional” contradictions are still contradictions. Rev. Firth committed two logical fallacies when discussing Luke. First, he begged the question by asserting that Luke must have known about a 40-day post-resurrection time period when he concluded his Gospel. Then, he committed the fallacy of hasty generalization by assuming that since this was true, Luke must have known about, but chose to omit, the Matthew-28 appearance, which Firth arbitrarily asserted is between Luke 24:43 and 44. He does the same thing when he asserts that Luke intentionally omitted Matthew’s account of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt between Luke 2:38 and 39. The bar to clear for many Christian apologists seems to be that if he/she can posit any how-it-could-have-been scenario, then the burden has been shifted to the one claiming contradiction. That might satisfy those who adhere to Bible inerrancy, but I don’t find it particularly convincing.

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