[Editor’s note: This is a long question with an even longer answer. The questioner makes some rather personal comments, so my response is more personal that I normally would use. Feel free to give me feedback. J. O.]
Bart Ehrman claims the Bible was changed and is unreliable in his book “Misquoting Jesus–The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible.” Can you comment on his claims? Why did you say that Bart Ehrman misrepresented what scholars say about the New Testament dating of the gospels? It is generally accepted within scholarship that all the gospels, except perhaps Mark, were after 70 AD (this was established long before Ehrman said it – and that is what he was referring to as being after 70 AD). Also, scholars for many years have doubted that the gospels were written, as tradition maintained by eye witnesses (again, this also was long before Ehrman wrote about it popularly). I have read this research and those who advocate for eye witnesses. Those that doubt tradition, definitely have a much stronger case – this is evident to any ordinary person who isn’t committed to a certain position for non-evidential reasons. There is no evidence that any of the attributed eye witnesses whose names are associated with the gospels wrote them. As well, there are no copies completely in Aramaic, only a few phrases in Aramaic, and none of the disciples of Jesus (Matthew or John) or associates of disciples (such as Mark or Luke) demonstrated any knowledge of Greek writing ability (or of Aramaic either). The level of Greek knowledge to write something as sophisticated as the gospels is also far beyond the ability of ordinary people who could write – which most people couldn’t. So even if Mark, Matthew, Luke and John could have a rudimentary ability to write and somehow learned to write in Greek, it would still have to be shown that they had mastered the ability to write exceptionally in a second non-native language and THEN have other corroborating evidence to the same. The John Rylands Papyrus is only a very small fragment (couple of verses of John) so it proves nothing. There are many letters written early on by Christians. However, they are a poor choice to appeal to. The writers often had very different views of what all the material circulating around meant, what was important and what wasn’t. None of this was decided for hundreds of years – so books that we call Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were only some of the many possible gospel narratives and materials to choose from. The Christian church has never fully agreed on what should and should not be accepted as canonical. Probably the closest would be the Nicea and Chalcedon councils but even here there were Christians who disagreed. Often Christians who disagreed were considered heretical because they favored other writings over what eventually made it into the Bible. Also, scholars have shown that the early copying is far more inferior to that which occurred by 350 AD. However, even if every copy was perfect from the original autographs (first editions) it still would not prove the material written was accurate. In order to prove this, one would have to show accuracy for the 35 or 40 years of transmission from when the incidents happened, that the material was originally understood and interpreted correctly and all the people who relayed the information were honest. Given the incredible claims in the Gospels – miracles, authority of Jesus, etc. a very high standard of validation would be required. This is simply not possible from several accounts alone (especially when Matthew and Luke appear to have gotten much of their material from Mark). Today we would never accept such broad claims even from first hand accounts of eye witnesses written and published the next day, no matter what kind of reputation the writers and speakers had.
For someone with a PhD you seem to have somewhat muddled thinking and I question if you have read Ehrman closely. Ehrman’s writings, which we are referring to, are not scholarly but popular and so he does take some liberties not to spell everything out in the technical jargon of theology/history like anyone writing popularly would do (such as what W. L. Craig has done on his popular treatment of say Free Will etc.). Also, I thought you showed very poor taste in how you levelled personal attacks at Ehrman and demonizing him. I know this is a well worn Christian technique to discredit someone from ancient times but to me it indicates you can’t stick with demolishing his arguments with known evidence and scholarship. Having seen the lack of substantive arguments and clear evidence you present to answer the person’s question, I wonder if you have any good rebuttals to what Ehrman has written.
Wow, you are a little tough on me here, but that is OK. I am willing to have what I write challenged. If I put stuff out there, I had better be able to take some well-intentioned criticism, and I sense from what you write that your criticism is well intentioned!
So, let me reply. First of all, in every article I have ever written in which I talk about Bart Ehrman, I always am careful to say that I believe Ehrman is a very solid and reliable scholar. His research is impeccable and, when he limits himself to reporting his findings, he is highly reliable. However, as I have said repeatedly, and I am convinced it is true, Ehrman has an ax to grind–a philosophical bias, and his quite consistent in applying that bias to his interpretations of the data he discovers. Honestly, I strongly trust Ehrman as a scholar, but I do not trust him when he interprets his data. Ehrman suffers from using a presupposition which I believe is not correct. He assumes that God does not exist and that the entire Bible is the work of humans only. When we begin with an incorrect presupposition, and when we apply that presupposition to the data in our interpretation, then our interpretations are quite unreliable.
Let me be specific. I believe that the data strongly points to the three synoptic gospels having been written by the mid-60s AD. I also believe that atheistic or non-believing scholars reach the conclusion of post-AD 70, not from the data, but from the presupposition that Jesus is not a prophet and that the New Testament is not inspired. In other words, because Jesus predicts the fall of Jerusalem in great detail in both Matthew and Luke, the unbelieving scholars begin with the assumption that Matthew and Luke were written after the events prophesied in these two books. I am convinced, and the evidence supports my conclusion, that the ONLY reason they have post AD 70 for Matthew and Luke is the theological presupposition, not the evidence. Ehrman is fully in on this presupposition, and therefore his conclusions are not only suspect, they are almost certainly wrong.
About the authors. I have said repeatedly and consistently that I do not know for sure the authors of Matthew and Mark. I do believe that the identity of the author of Luke is quite well established, and I believe (and I know many doubt this, but I can defend my position) that John, the apostle is most likely the author of John. As for Mark and Matthew, I would not be willing to make any strong statements about who wrote these books. However, the consensus of the church in the second century is the strongest evidence we have one way or another. People such as Polycarp and Ignatius actually met the apostle John. They would probably know who wrote Mark and Matthew, and they said that the apostle Matthew wrote Matthew and that Mark, the friend of Peter, wrote Mark. To me, this is a reasonable conclusion, but I would not make super strong statements about this.
But, bear in mind, that there is this very strong presupposition coming from the unbelievers which predisposes them to not be able to weigh the evidence in a fair manner. The evidence, like I said, strongly, indeed, very strongly supports the conclusion that all three of the synoptics were written in the 50s (Mark) or the 60s (Matthew, Luke). If we deny this before we even look at the data, due to a presupposition, then we are not likely to reach a reliable conclusion. I believe that this is the case, especially with Mark and Matthew.
So, I have a question for you. What is this supposedly “stronger evidence” that the gospels were not written by eye-witnesses? I do not know what you are talking about, to be honest. I do believe that it is difficult to prove positively that the author of Matthew was an eye-witness, but the evidence is good, and, as far as I know, there is little if any evidence that it was NOT written by an eye-witness. This is a problem in the arguments by skeptics. They show that there is a reasonable uncertainty that Matthew wrote Matthew. OK. Fine. But what is this supposed evidence that it was NOT an eye-witness? I have not yet seen any to disprove the eye-witness hypothesis. It is my opinion that you are overstating the case for the negative.
Then you make some statements that I must respond to:
There is no evidence that any of the attributed eye witnesses whose names are associated with the gospels wrote them. As well, their are no copies completely in Aramaic, only a few phrases in Aramaic, and none of the disciples of Jesus (Matthew or John) or associates of disciples (such as Mark or Luke) demonstrated any knowledge of Greek writing ability (or of Aramaic either). The level of Greek knowledge to write something as sophisticated as the gospels is also far beyond the ability of ordinary people who could write – which most people couldn’t. So even if Mark, Matthew, Luke and John could have a rudimentary ability to write and somehow learned to write in Greek, it would still have to be shown that they had mastered the ability to write exceptionally in a second non-native language and THEN have other corroborating evidence to the same.
First of all, there is some evidence. The evidence is that people who lived in the second century, some of whom were converted in the first century (Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement) believed this and they should know. Honestly, what kind of evidence could conceivably prove that Matthew wrote Matthew other than the testimony of people in the late first or early second century? Would we hope for a signature? Is the evidence overwhelming? Absolutely not, but to say there is zero evidence is simply not true. Second, there is no Aramaic copies because, as far as we know, the originals of the four gospels were in Greek. You say that none of the apostle demonstrated any knowledge of Greek. I have a question for you, have I presented to you any evidence that I know Spanish? Do you have any material written by me in Spanish? No. So, you have proved that I do not know Spanish. This is simply a bogus argument. (By the way, I do speak Spanish and I can write rudimentary Spanish on a level similar to the Greek of Mark) We know that Mark evangelized in the Greek world, as early as the 40s AD. We can assume, with virtually no possibility of being wrong, that he learned to speak and possibly to write Greek. The same for Matthew and without any possible exception for John, who lived in the province of Asia for at least 20 years!!! There is evidence that Mark spoke Greek. It is called the book of Mark. Is this strong evidence? No, in fact, it is weak evidence, but this is not a crazy idea. By the late 50s AD Mark had been moving in a Greek-speaking culture for probably 15 years or more. By the way, the gospel of Mark is written in very simplistic Greek–showing strong evidence that it was NOT written by a native Greek speaker. In fact, what we know about Mark is highly consistent with the kind of Greek in which Mark is written. Does this prove Mark wrote Mark? Absolutely not. But you imply that he did not know Greek, when you are almost certainly not correct. Matthew and John are also written in relatively simplistic Greek, but not as much as Mark. They are a sort of medium level of Greek, but also scholars agree that the authors of Matthew for sure, and John quite likely are also not native Greek speakers. Again, this is consistent with what we know of John (but we know much less of Matthew, and his authorship is quite a bit less certain, to be honest). Luke was Greek, and his gospel is quite sophisticated Greek. You had better check your claim that Luke could not speak Greek, as this was his first language. So, I ask you to reconsider the statements you make that I am quoting above.
About those 35 years between the events and the writing down. You imply that it is very unlikely that there would be accurate memory after so great a time. I want to challenge this notion. I am 65 years old. I can tell you what college I went to, the names of many of my friends, what dorm I lived in, the names of many of my professors, what I did during the summer vacations, who was president, and all kinds of things from my days in college, and this was 45+ years ago. I really doubt that John forgot the details of Jesus turning water to wine, and he was at the marriage feast. I believe it is entirely believable that Mark or Matthew would be able to remember that Jesus gave a really memorable speech or that he spoke against the Pharisees in Jerusalem. Besides, there was an oral tradition about the sayings and acts of Jesus which stretched back right to the beginning of the church. This idea that the New Testament is unreliable because it records events from 35 years previously, or that there were no eye-witnesses to cross-check the accuracy of what was written is completely out of step with what we know about human ability to remember what happened 35 years ago. Again, I have to challenge your opinion on this.
I say that I went to the University of Connecticut from 1973-1977. Are you willing to challenge the accuracy of my memory of this? I say that my roommate my first year was Tom Casola, and that I took Organic Chemistry, Physics 1, Calculus 1 and German 1 my first semester, 47 years ago. Do you think my memory of this is unreliable? Do you think that John’s memory of what Jesus said in the Garden of Gethsemane is unreliable? I am sorry, but I disagree. This is not consistent with what I know about people I have met, including myself, to be honest.
So, what is my “muddied thinking?” This a pretty strong statement. Do you have a specific example where you see evidence that my thinking was muddied? Please be specific. I have read Ehrman very carefully and in much detail and, to be honest, I am tempted just a little bit to be offended to have you imply that I have not read Ehrman carefully, since you do not know me. But that is OK. Let me assure you that I like Ehrman as a scholar, that I read him avidly and carefully, but also note that I believe he has a very strong bias which makes his interpretations (not his evidence!!) unreliable in my opinion. He is a brilliant and clear thinker, in my opinion, but he is an unreliable interpreter (also, in my opinion)
I am sorry, but I totally reject your claim that I have leveled personal attacks on Ehrman. This is a false and hurtful accusation. Please, if you say this, present a quote which supports your claim that I have personally attacked him. This is simply false. Do you have an example–a quote–to substantiate your claim that I have launched personal attacks on Ehrman or have undermined his motives? I have not. I have said that I believe he makes incorrect presuppositions, but I have explained and supported this claim, and it is not a personal attack. I have listened to podcasts by Ehrman and, to tell you the truth, I find myself liking him.
I have not taken the time to respond to your comments about the canon. I believe you somewhat significantly misrepresent how early a consensus was arrived at for the canon. You can read about that in my book Reasons for Belief (www.ipibooks.com).
Anyway, I hope this is the beginning of a useful discussion.