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Bart Ehrman and the case against the resurrection

April 4, 2014

Someone recently shared this video with me about Bart Ehrman’s case against the resurrection. It appears to be a part of a debate with Mike Licona (I’d recommend listening to Mike Licona’s work).

To summarise Ehrman’s argument he first asks, ‘What sort of evidence do historians look for?’ He proposes evidence that is:

– contemporary accounts, close to the time of the events. Within this contemporary eyewitnesses are ‘brilliant’.

– lots of sources

– independent of one another

– consistent with one another – evidence that corroborate one another without collaborating with one another.

– not biased toward the subject

Ehrman goes on to clam that the Gospels are our sources about the resurrection. He then claims several things:

  • The Gospels are not contemporary accounts of the resurrection. The earliest account of Jesus resurrection according to the Gospels is 40 years after the event. He does comment (but not expand on Paul) who writes about 20 years after the event.
  • None of Gospel writers were eyewitnesses. He claims that the Gospels were all anonymous. The disciples were all Aramaic speaking peasants in an illiterate society.
  • The stories all emerged in an oral environment where the stories were told and retold. The stories were told to convert people and they improved, changed, modified the stories before anyone wrote them down.
  • Oral reports are changed and the best example of this are the changes from Mark to John.

Ehrman then outlines some of the differences between the Gospels and concludes that these are not reliable historical accounts because there are too many discrepancies.

He concludes that the accounts were based on oral traditions in circulation for decades which were trying to convert people and hence they changed the story. He claims that there was nobody taking notes and many of the stories were invented. These people were not disinterested

Ehrman concludes with what he describes as the real problem, which is the ‘problem’ of miracles. Historians try to establish what probably happened, yet he claims that miracles ‘by definition’ are the least probable. This creates a dilemma, that the least probable occurrence cannot be the most probable. He suggests that ‘Even if it happened, it defies imagination and cannot be accepted as an historically proven event.’

He proposes that the resurrection is only a theological claim, not an historical one – it’s an assertion about what God did to Jesus, nothing about history.

It’s an interesting and stimulating presentation and I have a number of responses.

1. The earliest sources of the resurrection are not the Gospels. The crucial weakness in Ehrman’s proposal is that the Gospels are not the earliest source of the resurrection. Ehrman appears to claim that the resurrection was the end result of a period of embellishment and development. Yet the data contradicts this claim. The earliest historical evidence we have for the resurrection pre-dates Paul and can be dated to only a couple of years after the events they purport to record. The earliest explicit reference to the resurrection (in fact the earliest New Testament reference we have at all) is a creed quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. This explicit reference (and the many references to the resurrection throughout the Pauline corpus) completely overturns the thesis that the resurrection was a story creatively invented many years after the fact. This unfortunately renders much of Ehrman’s polemic against the Gospels irrelevant.

2. Ehrman’s method fails to demonstrate conclusively that the Gospels are unhistorical. Ehrman has shown that there are disagreements over details between the Gospel accounts, but it is unclear how these disagreements make the resurrection claim unhistorical. All four Gospels agree on certain key facts – that Jesus died, was buried, and rose again. Furthermore the Gospels do contain important accurate intersections with known history e.g. Luke 3:1 accurately outlines all the correct rulers and dates and names. The Gospels name historical figures correctly and geography and customs are also accurate. Hence Ehrman has failed to demonstrate how the Gospels are completely untrustworthy. Interestingly Ehrman’s method implicitly suggests that if we had only one Gospel of Jesus, then we’d believe the history contained in it!

3. Ehrman claims a number of things without any evidence. This was a disturbing trend in Ehrman’s presentation. For example he claims that none of Gospel writers were eyewitnesses. It’s unclear how he can make this claim (particularly as John writes as someone who claims to know Jesus personally i.e. the disciple Jesus loved). He also claims that the Gospels were all anonymous, though the scholarship of Martin Hengel questions this as the Gospels always circulated with those names attached as the authors. Furthermore Ehrman claims that the disciples were all Aramaic speaking peasants in an illiterate society – again, how can he know this for certain? Ehrman also claims that the stories in the Gospels were all modified before anyone wrote them down. This is a completely unprovable assertion – how can he possibly know this? It is untestable and made without any evidence (particularly given that Ehrman’s scholarly work in Misquoting Jesus deals with textual changes we are aware of). Similarly he claims that there was nobody there taking notes – again, how can he know that? Most staggeringly he proposes that many of the stories were invented – unless he was actually there, there is no way historically he can claim to know for certain that the stories were invented. Many of the claims of Ehrman in this video are made without any evidence. An historian can only make claims as far as the evidence pushes him, unfortunately Ehrman oversteps the mark here significantly.

3. Some comments on the ‘contradictions’. Many of the contradictions cited are not really ‘contradictions’ at all – for example the women who went to the tomb. It is clear that a group of women went to the tomb that day. Ehrman suggests that only Mary Magdalene went to the tomb in John (‘contradicting’ the other Gospels which suggest a group went)- yet in John 20:2, only a couple of lines later Mary runs to Simon Peter and says, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him’. This implies that a group went but John has chosen to highlight Mary Magdalene.

Further, Contradictions don’t automatically render documents unreliable. I’ve done more work on this and you can read more in a section in my book ‘Disbelieving Disbelief’. Essentially there are many contradictions in historical accounts, yet the documents aren’t automatically disqualified as ‘unreliable’ and fabricated. For example Livy and Polybius disagree on the route taken by Hannibal to cross the Alps, yet no scholar doubts that Hannibal ever crossed the Alps!

4. Ehrmans thesis creates historical problems of origins, i.e. what convinced the believers in the first place? As I watched Ehrman’s presentation, he claimed several times that the disciples shared these stories to convince others. But this begged the question in my mind – what first convinced the disciples? What started the chain reaction? Most notably, what convinced the disciples that Jesus was raised in the first place (in a manner contrary to Jewish expectations). It is possible to deny the reality of the resurrection, but one must demonstrate a plausible alternative explanation to explain why the disciples believed that he was raised from the dead – and wanted to tell others.

5. Ehrman’s argument against miracles is an a priori argument. Ehrman assumes that miracles can’t happen and cannot be proved historically, and concludes as such. The key problem with this suggestion is, ‘what if God is real, and he can act in history through Jesus and raise him from the dead’ – wouldn’t this leave an impression on history? The testimony of the early church and the Gospels are evidence of this. To assume that miracles are improbable fail to help us determine what actually happened! Of course they’re improbable, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen, nor that history could record it for us if it did.

Overall, I felt that Ehrman’s presentation failed to engage the best arguments for the resurrection and he made too many assertions which overreached the data.

I hope I’ve been fair to Ehrman’s presentation and I look forward to some comments and reflections.


From → Bible, History

  1. Ed Atkinson permalink

    Hi Rob. When browsing about, I was surprised this blog has no comments. So here goes with a response:

    Your point 1) 1 Cor15:3-4 is indeed likely to be much earlier than the gospels and the verses are largely in keeping with Bart’s account. There is no empty tomb in 1 Cor 15, there is not even a tomb, it could equally be read as an unmarked communal grave. An early belief in a resurrection that fitted with Jewish beliefs at that time is in 1 Cor 15 and it is based on visions/appearances. Nothing remarkable there to me. Even John the Baptist was thought to be resurrected by some.

    Your 2) Your key facts are all in 1 Cor 15 and are covered above. That Mark and John knew of Palestine, or had help from someone who did, is a weak point. Just because I know a bit about Iraq does not mean I have been there or can vouch for obscure events that are said to have happened there in the 1970’s. Regarding “completely untrustworthy”: all Bart needs to show is a mere “untrustworthy”, and the disagreements do just that. The onus is on the resurrection proponents to make a clear watertight case. Your last claim here is incorrect, if we just had one Gospel then that would have failed Bart’s requirement that you give: “lots of sources”.

    Your 3) So you concede that some contradictions really are contradictions. That’s enough for us. It shows that these are distant re-tellings at best (like Livy and Polybius I presume) and not the eyewitness-based accounts where only minor details would differ.

    Your 4) A plausible alternative explanation to explain why the disciples believed that he was raised from the dead – and wanted to tell others – is the visions. I.e. Normal religious experiences that we see frequently. My guess is that the spark was a powerful experience that Peter had in his grief, his guilt and his general mixed-up-ness. The flames spread from there. “Plausible” is all that is needed, as you said.

    Your 5) Here I am broadly in agreement with you and the problem is largely the meaning of ‘history’ vs ‘theology’. Your theology requires that God really does intervene in actual events, and I agree with that (in that I find it a helpful way to understand the idea of God), and so I agree we do have to carefully consider the resurrection with the idea it might have happened in a historical way. However this point of yours is rather scrambled: “To assume that miracles are improbable fail to help us determine what actually happened! Of course they’re improbable, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen, nor that history could record it for us if it did.” My understanding is that Bart is just saying the old line “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” in a more rigorous way.

    I hope you think that I have indeed engaged with the best resurrection arguments. I hope this generates a discussion.

    Cheers, Ed

  2. John permalink

    1) 1 Corinthians 15:4 says “that he was buried”, and in that time and place people were buried in tombs. How could he have been buried if “there was not even a tomb”?

    2) Mark and John grew up and lived in 1st century Palestine. This is significantly different from someone who claims to “know a bit about Iraq”.

    3) Minor contradictions happen in eye-witness testimony all the time. If you tried to dismiss an eye-witness in a court of law because of a contradiction on the scale of what’s being talked about here, it would be laughed out of court. Most historians see minor contradictions such as these as evidence of multiple attestation, not fabrication.

    4) Seriously? The resurrection appearances were “normal experiences that we see frequently”? How frequently do you see dead people?

    5) Theology is based on history (what’s considered to be historical revelation) not the other way around. Theology doesn’t require anything. You have to approach the evidence without assuming God’s existence or his non-existence. Let your conclusions be shaped by the evidence, and try not to dismiss evidence that contradicts your assumptions about God (or how he intervenes).

  3. Ed Atkinson permalink

    Hi John. Good to chat.

    1) At that time crucifiction victims were left for the vultures or if buried, put in communal graves. A case where the victim was released to friends or the family for burial when there was no close personal connection with the authorities would be truly remarkable. To answer your question – a communal grave.

    2) We don’t know who Mark and John were, much later Christian tradition suggests Mark wrote down Peter’s preaching and that the author of John’s gospel is the disciple. Most scolars dispute these. My claim was that the evidence given was weak if it is supposed to show that the authors were good eye witnesses.

    3) I agree with your point. Whether the contradictions are minor or major is the issue here and actually neither I nor Rob has tackled that issue.

    4) I’ve never had an experience like those described in the gospels and I don’t think they happened as described. Individual visions in circumstances of guilt and grief is what I had in mind. That sparked off further experiences and so the stories started developing. That’s all just guessing, of course. We’ll never know.

    5) Yes, we have broad agreement here.

  4. James Garth permalink

    You might be interested in the distinguished scholar Professor Craig A. Evans’ examination of Ehrman in this short article:

    Evans writes, and I concur, that;
    “At work in Ehrman’s books is an unrelenting attack directed against the fundamentalist understanding of the Bible. Ehrman is not attacking a straw man, for the object of his attacks does indeed exist. But his books address fundamentalist readings, not mainstream understandings of the Bible and the stories it tells. Christian scholars of every stripe believe that the biblical text, especially the Greek text of the New Testament, is well preserved, that the Gospels are accurate and tell us what Jesus really taught and did, and that the conviction that Jesus was in some sense divine is rooted in Jesus himself, in what he taught, and in the extraordinary things he did.”

  5. Belief not historical fact in fundamentalist agnotology. Also, post hoc fallacies ‘in Resurrection’ apologies!

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