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Video Debate with Peter Williams: Can We Trust the Gospels

This was a video debate I did last summer in London with British Biblical scholar Peter Williams.  Peter has been a friend for a long time, and is a real expert on the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.   He is also a committed evangelical Christian who does not believe there are mistakes in the Gospels.  I so disagree with that.  We had a debate about it on the Christian Radio program “Unbelievable” under their new series “The Big Conversation” Season 2-Episode 3, hosted by Justin Brierley.

It was a long and interesting debate.  Peter has written a book called “Can We Trust the Gospels?”  My contention throughout the debate is that he has not answered the question adequately, that in fact virtually everything he says in the book is irrelevant to the question.  It’s a very interesting and unusual attempt that he makes.  But most of the book completely misses the point.

It’s the kind of book that anyone who wants very much to trust the Gospels will come away from saying “See, we CAN trust them.”  But anyone who actually looks at what he’s saying, and who knows about the actual reasons people have for NOT thinking the Gospels are historically reliable, will say, “Wait a second!  He’s simply countering arguments that no one makes, and is not addressing the arguments they do!  That’s just building a straw man an knocking it down.  That ain’t gonna work!”

Watch it and see what you yourself think.   You can find it here:

 


What Is the New Testament? A Broad Overview
The Quest for the Historical … Judas Iscariot

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Comments

  1. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  October 26, 2019

    Excellent debate. Hmmm…am I biased because I agreed with you? 🙂 Back many years go when I began my higher educational journey it was pointed out to me, when studying religion from an historical perspective, that we cannot jump from one discipline (historical scholarship) to another (theology) to form and defend our evidence and position. So I do find it amazing to how many people you debate that do that very thing.

    Isn’t trying to portray Jesus as he is depicted in John, as if there is no discrepancy between how he is portrayed in the Synoptics, basically an attempt to write a 5th Gospel that systematically erases any discrepancies?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2019

      Yup, I think so. But try convincing someone else of that!

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    Judith  October 26, 2019

    What a special treat on Saturday morning, no less!

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    RonaldTaska  October 27, 2019

    Thanks!

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    tadmania  October 27, 2019

    Truly, and with as much charity and compassion as I can gather, I am about to stop listening to Christian apologists. Mr Williams seems earnest enough (though he appears to yearn for affirmation) but he wants to put his theology on a shelf with history and have it suffice for evidence. If he stands among the best the ‘academic’ faith community can offer, they are lost.

    Thankfully, I understand a bit more about your insistence that the gospel narratives do contain some factual accounts of events and persons now. Listening, reading, watching, and learning. Thank you.

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    brenmcg  October 27, 2019

    Do you think matthew and luke if they were writing 10 to 15 years after mark knew who wrote it?
    And if they did shouldnt the name of the author be thought of as public knowledge?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 29, 2019

      No, I very much doubt they had any idea.

      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  October 29, 2019

        Dr Ehrman –

        To your point above: If (the authors of) Matthew and Luke knew anything approaching the tradition Papias puts forward on the source of Mark (Mark writing down what Peter said; putting aside the twists and holes scholars have identified, including Dr Carlson here on the blog), could they reasonably have felt empowered to edit it? The very fact that they changed Mark feels nearly dispositive that they either didn’t know (or fully respect) who wrote it. Wouldn’t changing Peter’s words as written by his translator seem a pretty high editorial bar to clear?

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        brenmcg  October 29, 2019

        But the writer of Luke-Acts must be a competent creative writer in his own right.
        If he truly believes he’s writing an account of the son of god’s visitation to earth how could he copy, sometimes word from word, from some anonymous text – the provenance of which he’s completely oblivious to?
        Especially if he’s claiming to have investigated carefully everything from the beginning.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 30, 2019

          Presumably because in those places he thought his source was accurate. (That’s why he was using sources!)

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  October 31, 2019

            But why would he think it was accurate if he had no idea who wrote it?

            One possibility is that he had many other sources which backed it up – but then why follow one particular source word for word when Luke is himself a competent creative writer – unless he felt Mark had some authority behind it.

            Another possibility he thought it was accurate is that the gospel was widely read. But then to know this Luke would need to be in communication with lots of churches, which lessens the possibility of the author of Mark being forgotten -and more so when we have a second competent writer in Matthew making the same use of Mark.

          • Bart
            Bart  November 1, 2019

            I’m not sure what you’re asking. Every day I have people quote me articles from Wikipedia to prove a point or another, and they have no idea who actually wrote them.

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            brenmcg  November 3, 2019

            But the accuracy of wikipedia has reached a certain level of acceptance based on its availability and wide use.
            There must be some reason luke thought mark was accurate – he cant have simply found an anonymous gospel sitting on a park bench and decided to base his gospel on it.

          • Bart
            Bart  November 3, 2019

            Well, I’d say Luke 1:1-4 shows that Luke was NOT satisfied with how Mark told his account…

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  November 3, 2019

            Yes he doesn’t think its perfect but his copying of it word for word indicates, i think, that he believes it has some authority behind it.

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    Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  October 27, 2019

    I think that looking for historical reliability in the concordance or not of the thousands of manuscripts of the Bible that are known today, is a smoke screen to hide the real issues, such as:
    – Is there documented evidence of the existence of an oral tradition that can be traced to the alleged eyewitnesses? Theories of sources such as M, L and Q are nothing more than guesses, hypotheses and opinions, without any possibility of verifying their truth in a documented way, because they are supposed oral sources.
    – Are many of the narratives of the Evangelists credible? Of course not. There are many stories that are clearly invented, pure fiction literature.
    – Is there agreement between what is said in the Gospels and the few independent and contemporary writings of reliable and non-Christian historical sources? Very little.
    – How did the authors of the Gospels find out about episodes of the life of Jesus in which they themselves affirm that there were no witnesses? For information of the protagonist himself? What is the value of a self-testimony?
    – How are scientific, historical and geographical errors explained in an incontrovertible way and by means of the necessary evidence, without twisting the texts? It will be argued that in the original manuscripts, those errors did not appear and were introduced by copyists. So for what purpose? Those arguments make no sense.
    The crux of the matter is not how faithfully the original manuscripts were transmitted and copied, but whether those original manuscripts tell a true story in each and every detail.
    Because despite what the apologists say overwhelmed by the errors, inconsistencies, disagreements between one and the other Gospels and each one with itself, the details are, in many cases, the heart of the matter and therefore, terribly important.
    And other questions that cast doubts that are very difficult to overcome, such as: if Jesus could write, why didn’t he write a single word?
    After all, if the purpose of his incarnation was not only to die to redeem the past, present and future sins of all mankind, but also to clearly explain and teach what the Kingdom of God consists of, what is salvation and all the other doctrine that would later be called Christianity, why didn’t he take parchment and feather and began to write day and night? I do not get it. I must be very short of understanding Christianity.

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    Judith  October 27, 2019

    My comment about the special treat on Saturday morning was written Saturday morning when the video was temporarily available. 🙂

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    dominchowles@gmail.com  October 27, 2019

    When Peter says ” I have never tried to claim that I am doing history ” ,53.11, I think the game is up, although it probably was before , It’s fine to do Theology but whether sometime or other actually happened does matter ,otherwise we might as well start reading Lord of the Rings so we can create a religion out of that. I can’t believe good theologains don’t have an eye to the historicity of the text they are studing but in this case maybe I am wrong.

    • Avatar
      dominchowles@gmail.com  October 27, 2019

      sorry I mean whether something or other actually happened does matter .

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    Hngerhman  October 27, 2019

    Coherence and accuracy are two distinct animals. A coherentist reconciliation of the gospels is surely possible at a certain level. But, to your point in the video, that’s not doing history. His “can rationally trust” vs “what some in history departments do” distinction was an interesting rhetorical device. He’s absolutely correct – trusting an account because it has accurate place and people names is not what most history departments do! And, even on place and people names, Mark’s account seems to not even do that all that well!

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    ellispm35  October 27, 2019

    Why do you think Peter’s book totally glosses over the issue of contradictions in the NT? In a book entitled “Can We Trust the Gospels,” you would think this issue should take center stage. But he spends a mere six pages on the subject, and doesn’t address a single contradiction of merit. Instead, he summarily concludes: “For all the many contradictions that have been alleged in the Gospels . . . I do not know of any that cannot possibly be resolved.” We’re interested, of course, in “plausibility” – not “possibility.” Unfortunately, his book provides no guidance.

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    John  October 28, 2019

    Not a very satisfying discussion. It seemed to be all over the place.

  12. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  October 28, 2019

    Williams said that there are no early manuscripts of the gospels without the attributing authors’ names. That’s quite a blue chip of a thing to say. I literally stopped the video and watched it again to make sure I heard him correctly.

  13. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  October 28, 2019

    He replied to a message I sent asking about this very thing.

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    AstaKask  October 28, 2019

    What do you think of the Spider-Man argument? The comic Spider-Man gets lots of details about New York – places, people, events, etc. right, but this doesn’t mean we can infer that Peter Parker was swinging around Manhattan in the 1970’s.

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    AstaKask  October 28, 2019

    Judas hangs himself and the corpse hangs there for a time, getting ripe. The rope snaps and when the body falls to the ground the entrails burst forth – the reason being that the belly skin is rotted through and fragile. This still leaves the reason for why the field is called the Field of Blood unclear, of course.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 29, 2019

      Yeah, that’s a common view. Doesn’t work, though, since he would not fall head-first.

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    thebookguy  October 28, 2019

    Distinguished Sir,

    I was thrilled to see this uploaded on YouTube Saturday morning and on Sunday, the defenders of the faith conference discussion panel too was uploaded, these lively discussions really did make my weekend! In both exchanges you floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee! Quite a few times in your discussion with Peter you said, “This is not an argument anybody makes.” At the outset around 11:50, Peter says he believes the gospels were actually written by the disciples and that he can’t imagine a good reason why anyone would attach Mark, Matthew, Mark and John to the gospels if they weren’t written by them? On many occasions, you’ve addressed this by pointing out a few reasons why this is implausible, one example you say is in the gospels themselves the authors never claim to be disciples of Jesus. What percentage of scholars believe as Peter does on this issue? 1% or .01%?
    In light of these fresh and invigorating debates, I’ve looked over a few of your books which in there entirety occupy at least 3 meters in my personal library, particularly Judas Iscariot, Forgery & counter forgery and Jesus before the Gospels to review your pointed and scholarly rebuttals to arguments presented by Peter and the apologists at the defenders conference. Furthermore, I’ve purchased The birth of the Messiah by Raymond Brown, Excavating Jesus by John Crossan, Who wrote the Bible by Richard Friedman, A textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament & A text of the New Testament (4th Edition) by Bruce Metzger.
    Cheers!

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    veritas  October 28, 2019

    This was an interesting debate in which, Peter Williams clearly stated that Scriptures are,as he said,inerrant.You Bart,showed him inerrancy are mistakes.There are mistakes in Scripture,I think he knows that but will not admit.My view and takeaway from this debate is believers base their conviction primarily on faith and an existence of a God.Others like you Bart have traversed both sides of the of the path and are looking for truth wherever it leads you.Either way ,this religion without a doubt has revolutionized the world over and continues to do so.This book (Bible) has stirred up interests on both sides for many years.. Prof. Ehrman I totally see where you are a thorn in their heart. Innately they probably think you are a genius though. How well you construct your questions that are not familiar to what they are used to hearing and so you pose a threat to their belief.Even with Mike Licona at the Defender’s conference,you used the word skeptical as to how historians approach history.He wanted to use neutral,and so you both nodded in agreement (well sort of).Sometimes I wonder how much hubris contributes to men’s thinking.My question is,what is at stake here between belief and non belief?I am also a skeptic and the veracity of a God existence is sketchy for various reasons.I must admit,there is a transcendent goodness that seems to prevail when the mind is engaged with in the Bible and that result is manifested outwardly( not always,but frequently). For me I believe,the Bible was instituted to teach a common dialogue for the world to follow and in return find harmony and peace among all cultures.That is extremely difficult to accomplish and do not believe we can.

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    RICHWEN90  October 28, 2019

    Well, you tied him in knots. He clearly has no interest in history. His mind is made up and he’ll jump through any hoop and engage in any variety of intellectual contortion in order to reconcile his preconceptions with the evidence. He’s a true believer. His entire world view is contaminated by his belief system, and it’s kind of impossible to reason with him because he’s in a different world. “Christian history isn’t normal history.” Another way of saying that the believing Christian is going to play by different rules. Hopeless. Nice guy, though, Very earnest. Just not credible.

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    rivercrowman  October 28, 2019

    Took me a day to get to it, but thanks for sharing this video debate!

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    Jerry  October 28, 2019

    Hello Bart,
    Around 19 minutes, or so, into the video, you agreed with Peter that Jesus predicted the fall of Jerusalem before the Romans came in and destroyed the temple. You have other reasons for dating all the gospels after that and that is fine with me. However, could you mention a reason or two why Jesus predicted the fall of Jerusalem before it happened?
    Thanks,
    Jerry

    • Bart
      Bart  October 29, 2019

      Same reason people predict things that happen all the time. Election of Trump; fall of the Soviet Union; Allied victory in WWII; etc. etc… People have views about what’s oging to happen and sometimes they are right! (Other Jews also predicted the destruction of Jerusalem, e.g.)

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