28 votes, average: 4.89 out of 528 votes, average: 4.89 out of 528 votes, average: 4.89 out of 528 votes, average: 4.89 out of 528 votes, average: 4.89 out of 5 (28 votes, average: 4.89 out of 5)
You need to be a registered member to rate this post.

Modern Evangelical Christian Apologetics

This particular post is open-access.  Anyone can read it.  I post five times a week on all sorts of topics related to the New Testament and early Christianity.  To read these posts, simply join the blog.  It doesn’t cost much, and every thin dime goes to charities helping those in need.  No one loses, everyone wins, so join!!


I spent yesterday at a conservative evangelical apologetics conference outside of Chicago and, as you might imagine, I was the odd person out.   But I was very well received, people were overwhelmingly gracious and receptive and openly grateful that I had come.  There were jokes about being thrown into the lions’ den, but it didn’t really feel like it.  It felt like I was speaking to a crowd that wanted to hear, respected what I said, and simply fundamentally disagreed.  In particular there was a group of current Moody Bible Institute students there; really interesting, interested, and good humored, and we had a great time together.

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.

I’ll say something about that in a minute.  The other speakers you can look up: one I didn’t know before, Rob Bowman, whose life has been devoted to exposing Christian “cults” (as he calls them: Mormons; Jehovah’s Witnesses; and so on, and who co-authored Faith Has Its Reasons); another has become a leading voice in Christian apologetics, Mike Licona (the author of Why Are There Differences in the Gospels and The Resurrection of Jesus), whom I’ve publicly debated a number of times and consider a friend; the other is a very learned professor of NT at Asbury Seminary, Craig Keener (the author of Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels), whom I’ve also known for years and whom I refer people to when they want to accuse me of being a workaholic:  “Me???  Look at *Keener*!!!”

I heartily disagree with all three, of course, on fundamental issues.  But it’s on very friendly terms.   The issue at the conference were the “Contradictions” in the New Testament.  How does one deal with apparent or real contradictions and still remain committed to an evangelical view of Scripture as inspired by God and in some sense “inerrant”?  I stress “in some sense” because, as it turns out, it is not at all clear what “inerrant” means, and the three of them actually have different nuanced understandings of it.

And they have internal disputes among themselves about both what the term should mean and, most interesting for me, how one is to deal with what looks like a contradiction.   The discussions yesterday (well, most of them) were at a much, much higher academic/intellectual level than ones I’ve had, say, during a recent debate on the blog.   I think some of the positions staked out yesterday were utterly, demonstrably, mind-bogglingly simply WRONG.  But they were advanced with the kind of learning and historical knowledge that we simply didn’t see back in my apologetics days in the mid-1970s.

Roughly speaking I was hearing two positions, neither of them ones we were taught and advanced in the day (in my circles).   One of the two strikes me as completely tenable, though again, only in a sense.

Our old position, back then, was that any contradiction in the New Testament Gospels (or the Bible, for that matter; but yesterday we were talking only about the Gospels) can in fact be reconciled if you look closely and deeply enough at the matter.  ANY contradiction.  To be sure, there may be places where you aren’t sure HOW to reconcile them, but in principle they are all reconcilable in one way or another.

And, as a corollary, everything the Bible says is literally true.  There are no mistakes, of any kind, whatsoever, in the Bible.

That was our view, and that’s what we called inerrancy.  It still strikes me as, well, the “common sense” understanding of what the term means:  “no errors.”  Any error of any kind is an error.  And so if there are any errors, the book is not inerrant.

None of the three speakers yesterday has that view, even though they call the Bible inerrant and affirm that it is completely reliable.   Their views strike me as odd – that they can admit there are, technically speaking, incorrect statements in the Bible but that it is still without error.  But they consider my old view (no mistakes of any kind whatsoever) as a dated kind of fundamentalism that is simply not held by thinking Christians any more, and, even more interesting, that my objections to their views are rooted in fundamentalist views that I myself don’t accept but that I’m assuming in order to attack their alternative views.  In other words, they think I’m kicking a dead horse.


They do know that fundamentalist Christians do continue to hold to these views.  But they are heartily opposed to them and do not think they advance the Christian cause.  At least as I understand what they’re saying.

Roughly speaking – at least as I’m getting this as an outsider to their internal discussions, disagreements – as I said, there appear to be two approaches to texts that appear to be contradictions:

One is indeed to “reconcile” them as best as possible; or, the term they appear to prefer, “harmonize” them: that is take the two texts that appear to contradict each other and show how they actually fit together, possibly in a complicated way, into a harmonized whole so that they round out and complement each other, rather than stand at odds with one another.

OK, we used to do that.  But the current view seems to be much more open to the possibility that there are places that we simply can’t figure it out, places that do appear to be contradictory.  And here is the KICKER.   When they (the evangelicals who take this view) admit there are apparent contradictions, then they say that the details are not important.  What matters is the major message.  The ultimate point.  The big picture.  The gist.   The gist of what a passage is trying to teach is what is inspired and inerrant.  Not the picayune details.

That is to say – a phrase you hear a lot in these circles – “the Bible is inerrant in what it affirms.”  That is, it makes no mistakes in what what it is trying to teach.

So you might have a story in which Jesus heals someone, found, say, in both Matthew and Luke.  There may be small contradictory details: in one he heals the person before he does this other thing, in the other he heals the person after he does the other thing.  Small discrepancy.  But the story is not trying to teach *when* Jesus did the miracle.  It’s trying to teach that he did the miracle.  And it is inerrant about that.  He *did* do the miracle.

We never ever would have allowed that back in my days at Moody Bible Institute.  But it’s becoming a thinking-person’s view among evangelicals who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, apparently.

But the other change – the second position – strikes me as even more significant, a real step toward traditional scholarship, which tries to explain WHY there are contradictions, and then goes on to say that since we know why they are there, they are not really contradictions.

It will take a bit to explain this view.  It’s the one really catching on.  I think it is completely right that we can explain why there are contradictions.  My problem is that just because you know why you have a problem does not mean you don’t have a problem.  I’ll explain more about that in my next post.

A New Way of Explaining Contradictions in an “Inerrant” Bible
But the Women Who Did *NOT* Doubt the Resurrection



  1. Avatar
    mathieu  October 20, 2019

    This is extremely interesting. I’ve been hoping you would do a series on this topic for a long time. Will you (or someone) be posting some YouTube videos of the conference/talks/debate? I sure hope so.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 21, 2019

      In a few months we’ll be allowed to post my talk on Youtube.

  2. Avatar
    anthonygale  October 20, 2019

    Although I don’t think this principle explains all the discrepancies in the Bible, I think it is a reasonable point of view (relatively reasonable at least) that can potentially explain many of them.

    Hypothetically speaking, let’s just say Jesus did perform a miracle witnessed by several people. It wouldn’t be surprising that different people might mix up some of the details. Add decades of retelling before the tale is written down, and it would be a miracle if there weren’t differing versions of the story.

    If someone wants to say the big picture is what’s important, that seems fair enough. But what about discrepancies that can affect the big picture?

  3. Avatar
    Leckey Harrison  October 20, 2019

    It would seem to me that if the gist creates the confusion, contradiction and error, then the idea of taking the bird’s eye view is a cop out, because why else would the gist be there? That tends to lean more towards human authorship than divine inerrancy.

  4. Avatar
    robsaxe  October 20, 2019

    I’m looking forward to your next post on this topic. Thank you!

  5. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  October 20, 2019

    Do you think they could ever reach the point of NOT taking Genesis literally, or the Noah’s Ark story literally, and maybe saying, “Well, the gist of these Genesis stories is that God created the universe, and we won’t quibble about the details, and yes, there might have been a time when God was very displeased with his creation– but the flood story is just a kind of allegory. There never was such a flood and we really don’t understand this very well.” That would be a HUGE step forward.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 21, 2019

      Yup, that would be a natural progression, and a positive one!

  6. Avatar
    Marco Stacey  October 20, 2019

    Thanks for the post Dr.Ehrman

    Question: If the Gospels were the interpretation of the one who wrote it, contradictions would make sense. If Mark is interpreting Peter, surely that is the gospel with the most credibility? Luke claims to be a historian ( I can too for that matter) and John is simply too different yet the most popular today. Upon composing the Bible, what were the church fathers thinking in regards to the issue that the stories clearly don’t match up

    • Bart
      Bart  October 21, 2019

      I don’t think Mark had access to Peter, but even if he did, it wouldn’t make his account accurate. (Watch the evening news, where reporters have access to those they are reporting on!). The church fathers saw the differences as ones of emphasis rather than fact.

  7. Avatar
    Gary  October 20, 2019

    I have found that evangelical apologists such as Mike Licona can admit that some stories in the Gospels such as the dead saints being shaken out of their graves by an earthquake MAY be non-historical (fictional) but they absolutely will not consider the possibility that the detailed resurrection appearance stories are also literary/theological fiction. To do so would shoot the horse they are riding on.

    It may be majority scholarly opinion that some early Christians believed that Jesus had appeared to them in some fashion, but there is no consensus that the earliest Christians claimed that Jesus appeared to them in a walking, talking, broiled fish eating body, as the non-eyewitness Evangelists wrote in their anonymous books many decades later.

    Without the Gospel’s detailed appearance stories, it is very plausible that all the appearance claims listed in the Early Creed were based on vivid dreams, false sightings, and illusions, no different than Virgin Mary sightings today.

  8. epicurus
    epicurus  October 20, 2019

    I think one could defend any religious book with this attitude. Problems with the The Book of Mormon or the Koran? Well, it’s just what the author was trying to say. The big point. It’s frustrating to read apologists like Licona point out problems with other religions but he can’t seem to apply that same level of scepticism to his own.

    • Avatar
      Robby  October 21, 2019

      Yup, they will apply the outsiders test of faith (OTF) to reject other religions but don’t apply the same tests to their own.

  9. Avatar
    Mark57  October 20, 2019

    Religion is a little like politics in that it, to some, it never matters nearly so much what the facts are. It matters far more that their side wins at all costs!

  10. Avatar
    rdrstarbase@gmail.com  October 20, 2019

    I’m a huge fan of Bart—read most of his books and regularly read his blog and access its resources. I believe what started his tremendous success and propelled it was his use of fundamentalist Christianity as his foil. In short, it was easy to go up against the folks with the obviously (to most thinking people) wrong ideas.

    Today the landscape has changed–although there have always been Christian thinkers (e.g, N.T. Wright, Luke Timothy Johnson) who have had more academically defensible ideas. Today, there is a new breed of Christian thinkers, as this blog indicates, who will be more challenging for Bart to refute.

    Indeed, I wish Bart would engage much more often with these folks as I believe it will make his blog more interesting to Christians and others who are tired of the old, now easy arguments against fundamentalist positions.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 21, 2019

      Thanks very much. Yes, maybe I should. I think the reality remains that these newer evangelical thinkers don’t have the views that lots of people I write for do. And frankly, I don’t find their views harder to dispute, just different. See, e.g., today’s post. But I do appreciate the sentiment!

      • Lev
        Lev  October 21, 2019

        I’d like to second rdrstarbase@gmail.com‘s comment. You (Bart) have successfully rebutted inerrancy with intelligent scholarship and accessibility to regular Joes like me – and it seems to have paid off! Even though I remain a devout Christian, I’m really grateful for this development because scriptural inerrancy is the sort of thing that turns any religion sour over time.

        It now seems you (and the many others who have been banging this drum) have won a partial (but crucial) victory! I’m still flabbergasted with this huge shift within American Evangelical scholarship. I find it difficult to overexaggerate the potential for significant reform in doctrine as a result. It’s the thin end of the wedge – a proper breakthrough.

        I would like to add my vote for further discussion on this. I think it would be most fruitful and well received.

    • Avatar
      Gary  October 21, 2019

      The overwhelming majority of Bible scholars (including a significant percentage of scholars who believe in the supernatural and miracles—Roman Catholic scholars) doubt the eyewitness/associate of eyewitness authorship of the Gospels. That fact alone is enough to defeat any new defense for the bodily resurrection of Jesus that modern evangelical apologists choose to create.

      The claims that people saw a walking, talking, broiled fish eating back-from-the-dead corpse come from non-eyewitness sources writing in a literary genre that allowed extensive embellishments (fiction). The evidence for a literal resurrection in the first century is pathetically weak even if one abandons inerrancy.

  11. Avatar
    Hon Wai  October 20, 2019

    Did you manage to pin down the apologists at the conference to give examples of what would undermine biblical inerrancy if they were to be found in the Bible?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 21, 2019

      They appear to think that if the gist of a story could be shown to be wrong, that would be a error. But it’s not clear how they define “gist.” Very loosely I should think!

      • Avatar
        Hon Wai  October 21, 2019

        Do you plan to post something on Peter J Williams’ recent book on the gospels? He is an inerrantist, though I am not sure where to locate him on spectrum of contemporary evangelical defence of inerrancy.
        Does Licona acknowledge GJohn as a whole is not meant to be a straightforward historical account of the life and ministry of Jesus? I think if he takes this view and is fairly mainstream in contemporary evangelicalism, it is a major change in evangelical perspective on doctrines of scripture.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 22, 2019

          I thought I did! WE had a radio debate in London in the summer, and I think it’s on Youtube — or going up soon? But maybe I haven’t posted on it. I probably should: I thought it was a highly problematic books. On Licona on John: I’m not sure.

          • Avatar
            Hon Wai  October 22, 2019

            You had one post on your debate with Peter Williams, general remarks but not detailed criticism of his book (https://ehrmanblog.org/is-history-a-four-letter-word/). A follow-up post would be helpful. The chapter in the book of particular interest to me is the one concerning “undesigned coincidences” championed by apologist Lydia McGrew. If you are planning on a guest post by Licona, it would be helpful to ask him to comment on the nature of the “gist” of GJohn, whether this gist is intended by the author to be a historically accurate portrait of Jesus.

          • Bart
            Bart  October 24, 2019

            Yes, I saw that. I was surprised: thought I’d posted on it. Well, maybe I will!

  12. Avatar
    Matt2239  October 20, 2019

    What most people fail to see is that inerrancy isn’t about the Bible being wrong. It’s about accepting and respecting others. There are a lot of things that people can disagree about, and if you can’t disagree without being disagreeable about the most, um, fundamental things, then other differences aren’t going to go any better.

  13. Avatar
    doug  October 20, 2019

    Redefining what “inerrant” means follows modern liberal Christian theology. “God”, “miracles”, “resurrection”, etc. have been redefined by theologians to mean something that might currently be plausible. But that can be misleading.

  14. Avatar
    Pattylt  October 20, 2019

    So, what you seem to be saying is that they are finally abandoning the ridiculously, barely possible explanations into somewhat more reasonable possible explanations…even if they aren’t at all probable? Well, it’s a step in the right direction I guess.

  15. Avatar
    Silver  October 20, 2019

    Before the conference were you, in fact, aware of this change to a more reasoned perspective re inerrancy among some Christian apologists or was this a complete eye opener for you during the Chicago sessions?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 21, 2019

      Oh yes, I definitely knew that there was a large *range* of views among evangelicals — there always have been. What I was surprised by was the fact that the more moderate views are so mainstream now *and*, in particular, they are being held while *still* using older terminology like “inerrancy,” simply by redefining what the term means. Keeping the term but changing its meaning seems a somewhat odd and possibly not entirely ingenuous move.

  16. Avatar
    godspell  October 20, 2019

    We’re communicating through computers here. Digital devices, all of which have operating systems, and all those systems are flawed (I’m working on my Mac here at home now, and it’s a better OS than my work PC, but still–flawed, and Windows has some advantages, most would admit). They all have bugs, errors in programming, and hard as endless armies of coders work to fix them, the errors proliferate–as do viruses, planted by malicious avaricious hackers (demons of the internet).

    But we keep using them, right? They have become necessary to us, and none of us want to give them up, just because they’re not perfect. We dream of ‘The One True Operating System’ (which was supposed to be Linux, but that’s so much work, and I’m never going to know enough about software, not being any kind of techie).

    Belief systems (not always theistic) are themselves operating systems–but for human beings, not machines. And therefore, even buggier and more imperfect.

    But without them, we crash.

    I don’t know any other way to put it.

    I am glad to know there are people out there trying to fix the bugs in evangelical Protestantism, as there are in all religions everywhere, and I know there have always been such people. And Jesus was one of them. But if I say that, they’ll have to say “No, he was God.” Okay, I guess that bug is also a feature. 😉

  17. Avatar
    Brand3000  October 20, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    You do a great job at guiding scholarship in a direction of critical thinking and making it clear that some sources are better than others. I’ve listened to many of these types of debates, and I’ve actually found that the better apologists are the ones who go for a “less-is-more” approach, and don’t try to “prove too much.” Do you agree with me that the best argument would be to argue for the resurrection based on 1 Cor. 15:3-8 because it is from an undisputed letter from Paul, and then contend that the 3 different group appearances make the sightings objective? I’m not saying you agree with the conclusion, but do you think that’s the best case that could be made?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 21, 2019

      I don’t know what you mean by “argue for the resurrection.” Whether a resurrection happened or not is not dependent on which verses of the Bible you cite. In other words, people who don’t believe in the resurrection don’t base their views on whether they’ve heard the correct verses.

  18. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 20, 2019

    I am glad that you got out in one piece and that things went well. I think the conclusion that the Gospel contradictions are only about incidental, insignificant details is the main approach taken in Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ.”

    • Bart
      Bart  October 21, 2019

      Yeah, wouldn’t be surprised. The issue, of course, is always how we determine what is “insignificant” and “who gets to decide.” When I was a Christian, for years, I thought it was “insignificant” if Jesus walked on the water or was born of a virgin. Somehow I don’t think Lee Stroble would agree with me.

  19. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  October 20, 2019

    With my background in psychology I often view the debate on Christian Apologetics and the belief in the inerrancy of scripture though that lens. When an individual has a belief in the inerrancy of scripture despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I see many defense mechanisms such as denial, rationalization and justification at play. In those cases attempts to challenge those beliefs will meet with people raising and strengthening these defense mechanisms.

    I’ve also seen what you’ve alluded to in online debates. For example, many Christians don’t seem to be bothered by the fact that in the Gospels there are discrepancies in the accounts of who were at the empty tomb first, they just care that the tomb was empty.

    My question is, aren’t some scholars you’ve debated such as William Lane Craig, who are also apologists, so how do you address the evidence with them, about contradictions in scripture, without raising their defenses…if you can at all?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 21, 2019

      They simply insist on the validity of their views, usually with some vehemence.

  20. Avatar
    RAhmed  October 20, 2019

    Sadly I wasn’t able to catch any of the other speakers. I would’ve really liked to have heard Rob Bowman’s talk to hear the conservative view on Mormonism and Jehova’s Witness.

    I did attend your talk though and it was great. I applaud the conservative Christian community for being so open minded to actually invite you to give such a talk during a Gospel apologetic conference of all things. Also, thank you for taking the time to answer questions and sign books afterward!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 21, 2019

      He actually talked about Bible contradictions without mentioning these other gropus.

You must be logged in to post a comment.