I’ve been reading a little bit of Bart Ehrman’s work, and a little bit about him. I’ve tried to boil down his arguments against the validity, historicity, and relevance of the New Testament. I think they can be summed up in these statements, found mostly in his book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, but he repeats these same arguments through most of his book:
- The NT gospels were written too long after the events they describe, and therefore are susceptible to the frailties of human memory and distortion.
- The gospels are tainted with post-Easter doctrine, which could not have been considered before the death of Jesus.
- The gospels record supernatural activity, which is unverifiable and therefore not historical.
- The NT manuscripts contain so many variants, and this undermines its credibility.
I’ve only read (and read about) a small number of his books, so perhaps he has more arguments than these. Still, I can start by examining his arguments — not by trying to disprove them, but by trying to figure out just what kind of religious documents would actually meet his criteria.
This post will only address his first point: The NT gospels were written too long after the events they describe.
Bart’s point here is that since the gospels were written anywhere from 30 to 60 years after the time of Jesus, they are undoubtedly the product of oral tradition which changed over time, rather than the accurate recollection of eyewitnesses.
Bart uses the analogy of the party game of “telephone”. In this game, one participant whispers a phrase into the ear of another. The second participant whispers into the ear of a third, and so on throughout the room. The last person repeats the phrase as he or she heard it, and everyone laughs at how the phrase has changed.
Bart says that the stories about Jesus were changed over time, just as the phrase in this game. However, there are so many problems with this analogy! In the game, the phrase is whispered, one time only. It’s not repeated clearly, and there is no room to ask questions. And the phrase is supposed to change — the game wouldn’t be any fun if the phrase was repeated perfectly from beginning to end! And besides, there is one person who knows the truth — the person who started the phrase. Part of the game involves going back to this person and comparing the “truth” with the “distortion”.
The stories of Jesus were not at all like this. I’m sure that some people changed the stories to suit particular needs, but — just as in the game — there is someone (or often, multiple someones) who knew the truth. And Bart apparently assumes that the person writing the gospels (Matthew, Mark, etc) is at the end of the telephone line, not at the beginning. Also, he assumes that the people telling the story — or writing it down — are not interested in reporting what actually happened.
So what are we left with? What should we find in a two thousand year old document, in order for Bart to stamp it as historically accurate?
Well, I guess it should be signed, as in: “I, Matthew, wrote this down.” This probably wouldn’t cut it for Bart. We all know that some of the letters attributed to Paul in the NT are not accepted as being authored by him. So even as Bart bemoans the anonymity of the gospel authors, I doubt he would accept as authentic any self-attribution in them.
Bart has also said that a record of an event should have been written within a very short time of the actual event, so that the eyewitnesses would be able to accurately remember. Just how short a time are we talking about? We know that the testimony of courtroom witnesses can be unreliable just a few weeks or months after the incidents they are describing, and the testimony is often colored by the biases of those witnesses. Bart complains that 30 years is too long a time. What about three years? Three months? Even if the document claimed to be on-the-spot reporting, would Bart accept it as historically accurate?
My point is this: Bart (and others) choose not to accept the historical reliability of the NT gospels. They set up criteria which the documents are guaranteed to fail, and then proclaim the inevitable conclusion as the only one which could be reached.