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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, author of Can We Trust the Gospels? and C S Lewis vs the New Atheists.  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. Avatar
    mikezamjara  October 29, 2019

    wow, a too one-sided debate,
    .I have two questions…and a problem
    Why do you think christians are so interested in debating you? It seems counterproductive to them.
    When did inerramcy became a so important problem for chistianity?, I mean, Jesus and the gospels contradicted many times the jewish scrptures, early and medieval churches did too. I believe protestantism made the inerrancy so crucial that I had to be held so irrationally.

    my problem is that I tried to search other questions I made in the blog but when I research with my nickname in the search box I get only one result but Itshould be many. What could be happening?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 29, 2019

      1. Credibility; their followers can say they can stand up to doubting schlars; 2. At the end of the 19th century, the Niagara Conferences. 3. I’m not sure! Try searching for a key word you used?

      • Avatar
        mikezamjara  October 30, 2019

        Thank you, but didn’t work. With another word appear a lot of results but I need to dig into all of them to find my comment.

        • Spencer Black
          Spencer Black  November 1, 2019

          I have come across this issue as well. What I do is write down the title of any post I comment on, and then if I want to return to that thread of comments I just type in the title of the post and scroll through the comments.

  2. Avatar
    Jayredinger  October 29, 2019

    Do the gospels that never made it into the canon get their geography and other details correct. If they do, why are they not accepted as scripture by apologists?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2019

      Ha! Well, they certainly get some things wrong…

    • Spencer Black
      Spencer Black  November 1, 2019

      Jay, it seems the majority of modern-day Christians are completely ignorant of the fact that other literature was produced by early Christians other than what is in the New Testament. If they are aware, they probably don’t read any of those texts. If the Christian is aware of and reads any apocrypha, they are probably just extremely grateful they don’t have to defend the additional events, principles, or doctrines found therein; such as when Jesus haphazardly murders people in his childhood (Infancy Gospel of Thomas), or when a gigantic cross emerges from the tomb and speaks (Gospel of Peter). The list goes on. I presume they are quick to proclaim they are heretical texts and want nothing to do with most of them. (I know you want an answer from Dr. Ehrman, but there are my two cents!)

  3. Avatar
    Jbonk18  October 29, 2019

    A weird specific moment happened during the question of the theological claims of Jesus. You used the theologically weighted “I am” statements in John to contrast with Christ’s identity in the synoptics, but then discounted the “I am” statement in a theologically suggestive text in Mark on the basis that “I am” is just a way to say “yes,” citing an example in John that is playing on the theologically weighted “I am” in John! Can you explain this section of the video to me? I was confused.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2019

      Yes, you need to look carefully at the passages. “I am” can indeed be a reference to God’s own name (Exodus 3:14-16). But it doesn’t have to mean that: it can simply be an answer to a question: “Yes I am.” It gets used that way by the man born blind in John 9:9. In the passages in John, though, it is not an answer to a question, but an assertion of personal identity. Look up the passages and you’ll see. (E.g., John 8:58).

  4. Avatar
    joemccarron  October 30, 2019

    I enjoyed the debate but like most evangelicals he is trying to prove too much when he tries to argue not just that the Gospels are generally reliable but rather that they are inerrant. It seems many non-believers and evangelicals believe the line should be drawn such that the Gospels must be either inerrant or they must be unreliable. But most Christians I know just don’t really care if the gospels are completely correct in every particular about how Judas died.

    In a different debate I think google maps or siri came up for directions. And yes both can have glitches. Google maps was freaking out when I was in downtown New York and siri sent me to wrong locations at least twice that I specifically remember but they are nevertheless reliable.

    I certainly agree with your critique of his view of believing the victim. He seemed to want to fold on making a historical case for Christ way too quickly.

    He made a fair point about Luke knowing the ancient world. Certainly if Luke seemed unfamiliar with the ancient world that would count against him. You offer hypotheticals of how his criteria could be met but someone could still be wrong. But that is true for most historical criteria. Something could be reported against interest yet still false. Something could reported close in time but still false. etc.

    I think your overall point is that while Luke’s general knowledge is preferable to him being ignorant that alone is not going to outweigh the problems he has on the reliability front. They really didn’t allow you to go into why you thought Luke was unreliable.

    You concede that there may have been earlier accounts and perhaps even agree that there likely were earlier accounts used by the gospel authors. So why does it matter when the first known gospels were written? We would think that Matthew and Luke would have been about as accurate in transmitting the information from those earlier sources as they were in transmitting what Mark wrote. Whether you think they transmitted the contents of Mark accurately or not is really like asking is the glass half empty or half full.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2019

      I couldn’t say I “concede” that. That makes it sound like I’ve given into his argument! I’ve always thought this. (And said and taught it). The reason it matters when the first Gospels were written is that the Gospels we have are not simply replications of some earlier sources, but are their own accounts based largely on oral traditions tha thad been in circulation for decades. The earlier accounts they used may have been written 6 months earlier or 6 years earlier. We don’t know. But making them earlier doesn’t make them accurate. (Just watch two different TV news channels: who is giving the accurate reporting — 12 hours after the events???) In any event, we don’t have any reason to think these earlier sources were written many decades earlier. And since these would have been sources in Greek, they certainly were not written in Palestine near to the beginning of the Christian movement!

      • Avatar
        joemccarron  November 18, 2019

        I guess the reason I say you “concede” this is is because the existence of written sources that predate the gospels cuts against your argument that what we have in the Gospels is the result of the “telephone game.” The telephone game does not involve written material.

        I agree that making them earlier does not make them accurate, but earlier source material is a valid historical criteria is it not?

        “The reason it matters when the first Gospels were written is that the Gospels we have are not simply replications of some earlier sources, but are their own accounts based largely on oral traditions that had been in circulation for decades.”

        Why do you think Mark could not have had any written sources? And why do you think that Q and any other possible written sources must have only been written at least decades after the events?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 19, 2019

          My sense is that people try to press the analogy to far and then say “it’s too far.” But I’m not pressing it that far. I”m not saying — and have never meant to say — that *all* the accounts of Jesus before the Gospels were oral. There were certainly written accounts. Luke tells us so. But virtually of the stories about Jesus that Luke inherited were told orally before they were written. That is, the earlier written accounts were *themselves* based on oral reports that had been circulating for many years (one piece of evidence: they were told in Greek). It’s to *that* extent that it’s like telephone. Mark too may have had written sources; long ago it was widley thought that his passion narrative came from a written source. But note, I say that their accounts are based “largely” on oral traditions. And even if he used a written passion narrative, *it* was based on ealrier oral reports. I don’t see any way around this. I.e., I don’t think there’s any plausible way of imagining it any differently, since no one was videotaping it or recording it on the spot for posterity.

          • Avatar
            joemccarron  November 19, 2019

            Thank you for your response. I do appreciate that many scholars say these accounts were based on oral tradition. But I have not really ever heard any sort of full explanation as to why they hold that view.

            One reason I have heard is that few people could read, writing was expensive, and so writings were rare generally. And while I think that obviously supports the view that there may not have been any writings prior to Mark (or q) it seems the certainty of the view overstates the evidence. Would you agree that it is also true that if mark or the other gospel writers did incorporate other written accounts those earlier accounts would likely be lost? That is, if you take any given writing that was written back in say 33 AD chances are we would not have a copy of it today.

            It may be that Mathew and Luke were “largely” from written sources Mark and Q. But I agree my saying that is just moving the question back to Mark and Q(s) or L(s) or M(s). So lets focus on what we think may have been the earliest writings we have such as Mark and Paul.

            You say “one piece of evidence: they were told in Greek” Now here it may be that parts of Mark were told in Greek because they would not make sense otherwise. But does that exclude the possibility that other parts were not from Greek? Do we have reason to think all of Mark’s possible sources must have been oral and from people who only spoke Greek? If we have reason to think Mark only understood Greek ok. But it could have been people translating other documents or translating eyewitness accounts into Greek from other languages. Sure they told him in Greek but that wouldn’t necessarily equate to many years of oral tradition – certainly not decades.

            Paul apparently had the funds and inclination to write. He also writes about meeting with various apostles in the church and seems to identify some sort of institutional structure. I mean sure it is not the College of Cardinals but there does seem to exist some sort of institution. Are we to think that institution had nothing about Jesus’s life in writing?

          • Bart
            Bart  November 21, 2019

            Yes, if Mark and the others used earlier sources, those sources are certainly lost. Mark appears not to have known Aramaic; there’s nothing to indicate he had written sources (if he had them) in anything other than Greek.

  5. Avatar
    jogon  October 30, 2019

    Hi Bart I’ve heard some apologists claim that Judas falling “headlong” (prenes genomenos) Is a scribal error and was originally “ presthes genomenos“ (becoming swollen) and this is borne out in some manuscripts. Is there any truth to this?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 1, 2019

      I’ve never heard that. Are you sure you’re remembering correctly? There’s no manuscript evidence for it. I wonder if they were talking instead about the account in Papias, that Judas was punished for his sin by being made to bloat up to an incredible amount and kind of … burst?

      • Avatar
        jogon  November 1, 2019

        Apparently that reading is in later Syriac, Georgian and Armenian manuscripts – but I can’t find the source for that and I guess that could be due to translators trying to harmonise?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 3, 2019

          I’d be interested in knowing if the reading is in Syriac, Georgeian, or Armenian. It’s not, to my knowledge!

          • Avatar
            jogon  November 3, 2019

            Unfortunately the claim provides no source so I don’t know which manuscripts they mean. The NRSV also suggests “swelling up” in a footnote but doesn’t say why

  6. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  October 31, 2019

    Does luke say that judas physically paid for the field vs matthew who says that the priests physically paid for the field?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 1, 2019

      Acts says Judas bought the field; Matthew that hte priests did.

  7. Avatar
    RAhmed  October 31, 2019

    As far as the reliability of all of the Biblical scripture, which Peter seems to say is all inerrant, the OT part of it appears to be so much more problematic. Obvious differences of the same account all over the place. Chronicles vs Kings, the many doublet accounts, genealogies, historical and archaeological problems, and the list goes on. I just don’t see how anyone as educated as Peter can possibly see all of this as inerrant word of God. At the same time I admire him and people like him for continuing to maintain their faith even with all of these issues. I certainly struggle much more then them.

  8. Spencer Black
    Spencer Black  November 1, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, you should debate Frank Turek! It would be highly entertaining. Something simple like “Is the Bible Inerrant.”

  9. Avatar
    eminentlaw  November 4, 2019

    Bart,
    I’m a regular listener to “Unbelievable” and the “Big Conversation” subset thereof, so I listened to the debate on the podcast from one of those sources. I assume the verbal content was the same as in the UTube link you provided here.

    My question is this: During the debate, although you repeatedly said that you believe the gospels are unreliable, you never actually explained why you’ve reached the conclusion. I’m sure that one reason for that is that there was not enough time allowed during the debate for you to fully address the issue. Would you please tell me the title(s) of your books which you believe most directly address that issue? I have many of your books, but I’d like to go back and re-read those that are most directly on point.

    Thank you.

    P.S. Do you know if anything can be done to allow us to use the “Tab” key in order to indent a new paragraph? Every time I do that, my blog entry closes and the screen scrolls up to the top of the page. It is very frustrating.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2019

      I think there is certainly reliable information in the Gospels! But if, as a lawyer, you have four witnesses who contradict each other on a number of points, and say other things that are just implausible, and yet others that you know just aren’t true, even if over half of what they say is right, you probably wouldn’t label them as “reliable.” Probalby where I address the issue most directly is in Jesus Interrupted.

  10. Avatar
    jtaylor81284  November 5, 2019

    Hi Bart,

    First comment on your blog! I’m not sure if you go back and read comments on older posts, but here I go. Two quick Qs:

    1) in the debate you seem to concede the idea that the gospel writers had deep familiarity with local Palestinian geography and customs, but in “Jesus, Interrupted” you suggest that the opposite is true! I take it you were conceding for the sake of not getting too tangled in the weeds?

    2) what do you think of “inference to the best explanation” as a mode of reasoning? Debates with apologists seem to revolve around defending/attacking the idea that there is *some* wiggle room for inerrancy. Basically due to unavoidable epistemic constraints it’s going to be impossible to disprove inerrancy, as indeed with many other absurd positions, but I think we do a disservice to the perception of scholarship by allowing apologists to frame the debate this way. The question should always be, in my view, what account best explains the data we have? Well – leading question I guess, what do you think?

    Thanks
    Jordan from the UK

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2019

      1. Actually, I didn’t want to, mean to, or think I did concede the point. I just wanted to stress it was irrelevant. If we had a longer debate I wuld have pointed out the serious geographcial mistakes.
      2. Yes, I think I agree. Hisory is a matter of establishing greatest probability. And for historians, at least, that can’t be done by appealing, for example, to supernatural agency, as Peter does.

  11. Avatar
    markdeckard  November 9, 2019

    [Mar 2:7 KJV] Why doth this [man] thus speak blasphemies? who can forgive sins but God only?
    [Mar 2:10 KJV] But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (he saith to the sick of the palsy,)

    [Luk 5:21 KJV] And the scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, Who is this which speaketh blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?
    [Luk 5:24 KJV] But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power upon earth to forgive sins, (he said unto the sick of the palsy,) I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy couch, and go into thine house.

    Here is an instance in which Mark and Luke convey reasonably similar accounts which seem to leave the reader with two choices.
    A. Either the Pharisees were wrong and someone besides God could forgive sins
    or
    B. The authors saw significance in the hostile testimony of the Pharisees and the affirmative testimony of Jesus which conveyed a strong inference of Christs divinity through his right to proclaim sins forgiven.

    Which seems the more plausible explanation?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 10, 2019

      I think it’s highly significant that Jesus does not respond by saying, “I *am* God, and now I’ll prove it to you” but instead sais that “The Son of Man has power to forgive sins” (which I take to mean “The Son of Man ALSO has power….” — i.e., the power given by God. so it could be read both ways, and maybe it’s intentionally ambiguous. But it is not a clear claim to divinity at all, in my view (NOTE: priests in the Temple could also pronounce forgiveness of sins. That didn’t make them Gods. It may be that Jesus is saying he ahs the same authority as temple priests)

      • Avatar
        markdeckard  November 10, 2019

        Yet in both texts we have the Pharisees declaring God alone can forgive sins. Why would they say that if Jesus was merely attributing to himself a priestly capability. The Pharisees would have instead said, “This man is not a Levite, was He not born in of Judean parents? How can he claim to forgive sins.?” Instead their objection was that of encroaching upon Gods sole authority, thus calling it blasphemous.

        Now I would not claim that at that moment the disciples understood this as a inference to divinity, and I would concede Jesus kept his cards close to his chest, to the point of frustrating the Jewish elite who were chomping for an open confession as well. “If you are the Son of God tell us plainly“ Jesus was coy by design on several fronts, seeming to control the timing of his ultimate arrest. If you look at the things he said and did right around the passover in his third year it’s clear he was instigating the full wrath of the Jews almost as if he wanted to be crucified. Earlier than that he stopped short of giving them what they needed to trump up charges.

        Then consider these clues of Matthews partially veiled sentiment.
        “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matt 12:8)
        “Immanuel, God with us.” (Matt 1:23)

        My point would be to say that at least Matthew might very well have been affirmative of a divinity doctrine regarding Christ. However because his gospel was in part designed for evangelizing an unbelieving Jewish audience, he may have been careful to not upset their sensibilities with a blatant divinity claim like John did until after they saw Jesus as the Messiah according to prophecy. Then those with the “spirit” could be shown the full revelation. If John was in fact the last gospel (after 70 AD), then the Jews were already scattered and the power structure to put an open claim to divinity on trial was no longer a factor. Matthew left them a bread crumb trail, whereas John left a billboard.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 11, 2019

          The point would be that, as usual, Jesus is disagreeing with their assertion.

  12. Avatar
    Neurotheologian  November 26, 2019

    Dear Bart
    I thought your debate with Peter Williams was excellent and in good spirit. It made compelling and enjoyable listening and watching. Depite my evangelical leanings, I thought you came over as far more rational and reasonable and I thought that Peter’s belief in the inerrancy of scripture let him down. The central theme of the discussion about differences between John’s Gospel and the synoptics (especially Mark), reminded me of my post on the blog earlier in the year entitled The Markian Messianic Secret & The Johanine Messianic Revelation (which seemed to spark extensive debate), where I asked whether the two Gospels really did conflict as much as you suggest. I would be really interested in whether you think my suggestions hold any water. For ease of refference (and now slightly re-phrased), my amateur suggestion for reconcilling the apparent conflcit, was 2-fold:
    1. Over the approximately 3 years of Jesus’s ministry (or however long it was), Jesus may have, at different times and to different people, spoken differently about himself and the Kingdom (eg to the inner disciples vs more peripheral disciples vs Galillean crowds vs Jersusalem crowds vs pharisees/leaders etc). That is to say, different people were given different degrees of accesss to different aspects of his what he said about himelf. Certainly there is evidence in the symoptics for Jesus tellling his disciples stuff about himself that wasn’t for general consumption. Therefore perhaps the Markian Messianic secret ‘mofifs’ relate more to what said to ‘outsiders’ and the Johanine ‘I am’ proclamations relate more to what Jesus said to ‘insiders’.
    2. Over the time from the beginning of his ministry to the end, one could also possibly posit a kind of progressive revelation in that the Markian Messianic Secret ‘mofifs’ relate more to Jesus’s early ministry whereas the Johanine ‘I am’ proclamations relate more to what Jesus said toward the end of his ministry. I further speculated that maybe the length of Jesus’s ministry was long enough for even Jesus himself to learn who he really was and what his destiny really was. I fully accept that this way of attempting to reconcile the Markian Messianic Secret with the Johanine Messianic Revelation is likely to be an over-simplification, but I think it offers some ideas for how such differences could be reconciled. I suspect someone has suggested this sort of thing before. https://ehrmanblog.org/forum/the-historical-jesus/the-markian-messianic-secret-the-johanine-messianic-revelation/
    Many Thanks

  13. Avatar
    Rockwine  February 27, 2020

    Reasons to trust the Gospels

    Hi Bart,
    I found your debate with Peter Williams very interesting. As usual I find your

    arguments much more convincing and relevant.
    However it seems very clear that the Christian church or the Roman

    church are simply not interested in what Jesus said or did.. Or if they are interested

    they consider it totally irrelevant to the way they treat each other. For instance

    Jesus commandment: love your neighbour certainly cannot be applied to the way

    Christians treated each other. They had discussions they had disagreements about

    doctrine and the loser was lucky to come away with their life. So much for

    Christian love. In fact I’m not at all sure why the church which became the official

    Roman calls itself Christian. They do not seem to have followed the example of

    Jesus in any serious moral way. Warfare fostered by the Church was commonplace during Middle Ages.
    I was brought up in England in the Roman Catholic

    family. I was sent to a Catholic boarding school.. I would say that the most

    important thing that I learned is that sex is largely immoral unless you’re married

    and want to have children.. As long as you do not enjoy the experience.
    Fortunately I looked to therapy for emotional help. I came to realize that

    this approach to life is essentially insane. Since then I’ve started to enjoy my life. I’m

    no longer tortured by the fear of going to hell for eternity because of some

    insignificant peccadillo. I don’t see why God would put his energy into torturing

    people for eternity.

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