Debunking a debunker
Updated: Sep 6
Dr. Bart D. Ehrman took a path down liberal Christianity through Wheaton College, Princeton, "textual criticism", and Bruce Metzger that led him to agnostic atheism. He then became an author and debater against Christianity. A short example of his work is a video posted on Youtube entitled, "Dr. Bart Ehrman Destroys The Crucifixion and The Resurrection History". As an exercise in apologetics, let us examine this video because it represents some common attacks on the Bible.
Dr. Ehrman starts with the dates the four gospels were written. While he is correct that there is some debate about exactly when they were written, most scholars agree that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written around 20-30 years after the events with John probably being written some time later, probably 10-20 years. While this is an interesting line of study, it is not essential. The most important issue is the truthfulness of the contents of the gospels. The fact that they were not written while the events were taking place is not particularly relevant. This is the case with many other historical accounts, but people do not reject them for this reason. In fact, the gospels were written far closer to the events and have far more copies proving their accuracy than any other ancient document. For example, Homer's Iliad has 643 copies 500 years removed from the originals. Caesar's Gaelic Wars has 10 copies 900 years removed. Herodotus has 8 copies 1,300 years removed. Plato has 7 copies 1,200 years removed. Tacitus has 20 copies 1,000 years removed. Pliny has 7 copies 750 years removed. Aristotle has 49 copies 1,400 years removed. As with the Bible, the originals of these documents no longer exist due to the materials they were written on and the lack of means of preservation. Yet nobody questions these manuscripts. When the King James Version was translated, there were about 5,000 manuscripts that harmonized. Since then, thousands more have been discovered as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and some New Testament manuscripts are dated to within 100 years of the originals.
Dr. Ehrman then makes the claim that none of the gospel authors were eyewitnesses to what they wrote about. To the contrary, all four of them claim to be and give detailed, historically accurate, corroborated accounts of what occurred. There are many other contemporary eyewitness corroborators who could have contradicted what the gospel writers wrote (1Cor 15:1-4). He also denies that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote the four gospels and gives no reason for this even though this was accepted by the early church and throughout the centuries. There is no real reason to dismiss their authorship now other than an excuse to dismiss the Bible as a whole and thus God Himself.
He then repeats the insult of the proud, hypocritical priests in Acts 4 who had arrested Peter and John the day before for preaching the gospel, and because a man born lame had been healed in the name of Jesus. These were the same people who had just recently murdered Jesus Christ and were trying to use lies to disprove His resurrection (Mt 28:12-15). Does that sound familiar? These were also the same proud deniers and rejecters who insulted the man who was born blind whom Jesus had healed (Jn 9). It is true that the common language of the day was Aramaic, but Dr. Ehrman has no proof the apostles were illiterate and could not have written the gospels. Dr. Ehrman assumes that because 4 of the apostles were fishermen, that this means that all 12 were illiterate. The same men that insulted the apostles and the man born blind also said that Jesus was illiterate (Jn 7:15). Apparently, this was their way around dealing with their sins when confronted with the truth and the power of God. Dr. Ehrman would be wise to consider this. Others such as Bill Nye are guilty of this same tactic. The internal evidence shows the disciples were literate. They were literate in Antioch (Acts 15:30), Corinth (2Cor 1:13), Ephesus (Eph 3:4), Colossae and Laodicea (Col 4:16), and Thessalonica (1Thes 5:27). Jesus made a general admonition to read and understand the book of Daniel (Mt 24:15), and John did so of the book of Revelation (Rev 1:3). If the disciples were all illiterate, then what was the point of writing the gospels and the epistles? Also, isn't it interesting that the only proof Dr. Ehrman offers is that recorded by Luke about the apostles themselves? Why would they discredit their own account if it was false? He uses their own recorded history of what the perception of the enemies of the gospel was as evidence when it suits his denial and then dismisses the very same evidence when it doesn't. Although he does not not go into creation vs. evolution issues in this video, it would be reasonably safe to assume that he rejects the creation account of Genesis chapter 1 and therefore accepts macroevolution or the belief that the universe is randomly self-generated out of nothing without any design or laws. Just as Dr. Ehrman borrows from Biblical evidence when it suits him, evolutionists must also borrow from the Christian worldview when it comes to laws and order.
Another illustration that this could be nothing more than an ad hominem attack is the the misconception of literacy rates in colonial and early America compared to today. An ad hominem attack is the logical fallacy employed when the attacker does not have a solid argument against the position of his opponent, so he resorts to character assassination of the person instead in an attempt to discredit them. This is a common tactic of leftists and deniers of God and the Bible. Many historians believe the literacy rates in colonial and early America were 70-90 percent, at least equal to if not higher than today. This is credited to what could be called homeschooling and private schooling, just as both far outperform secular government-run education today. For just one example, look at the New England Primer, a basic educational tool for young children used at the time and up until the early 20th century. I challenge the average public school teenager and even many adults to master its contents. We are not generally better educated today, but far worse. There is no real basis to assume the apostles were mentally incapable of writing the four gospels.
If it were true that the apostles were illiterate and therefore did not write the gospels, then it would follow that they did not the epistles as well, and also either Luke did not write the book of Acts or made false representations of the apostles in that book. Right from when Peter spoke in Acts 1 which was just days after the ascension of Jesus, the apostles demonstrated a familiarity with the scriptures and an ability to quote them (Acts 1:16-20, Act 2:16-36, Acts 3:22-25, Acts 4:11 & 25-26 - the very passage Dr. Ehrman cites, Stephen in Acts 7, Philip in Acts 8:35, Acts 10:14 & 43). Even if the apostles were illiterate when Jesus was on earth, Dr. Ehrman admits the gospels were written at least 20 years later. Is that not enough time for someone to learn to read and write? Also, although Dr. Ehrman does not include God in the equation, Christians do. Moses was trained in Egypt before his ministry but he was also given wisdom by God (Acts 7:10 & v22), Daniel was trained by Babylon but was also given wisdom by God (Dan 1), and Paul was trained by Gamaliel but was also given wisdom by God (Acts 22).
He states the writers of the gospels don't claim to be disciples. This is absurd. Just because they are mostly written in the third person is not proof that they were not written by the disciples. Moses wrote in the third person, but there are 21 scriptures that affirm his authorship. This device is used in secular literature and is not proof of anything. Authors of secular literature even use pen names. Nobody questions Ben Franklin's authorship of the Silence Dogood letters or Poor Richard's Almanac just because his name is not on them. Luke 1:1-4 and Acts 1:1 shows us that both books have the same author, and the use of the word "we" shows that the author was a companion of Paul (Acts 16:10-16, Acts 20:6-15, Acts 21:1-17, Acts 27:1-28:16). Luke was Paul's companion in Rome (Col 4:14, 1Tim 4:11). Paul had a physical ailment (Gal 4:13), and Luke was a physician, so it is thought that he accompanied Paul on his journeys as his doctor and that is why he was able to give first-hand accounts of what occurred. Also, the author of John identified himself as an eyewitness of what he wrote (Jn 21:24). Since there is no historical evidence it was not John, there is historical evidence it was John (the Bible is historical evidence and there is also external evidence), and since John states 5 times in Revelation that he is the author of that book (Rev 1:1, Rev 1:4, Rev 1:9, Rev 21:2, Rev 22:8), we have evidence the apostles were indeed literate. Also, Dr. Ehrman is not only discrediting the apostles, but God Himself.
Dr. Ehrman then asserts that the non-disciples passed on the non-account verbally at least 4 times and continually changed it over the course of 40 years before they wrote it down. Again, he fails to account for the fact that even if his assertions were true which they are not, there were hundreds of eyewitnesses that would have contradicted them. He presumes things that are not in evidence. His arguments would be thrown out in a courtroom. He submits hearsay evidence and jumps to conclusions. He then conflates differing details with conflicting details. Again, referring to courtroom evidence, if four people took the stand and gave the exact same verbatim testimony, it would be highly suspected that their testimony was either coached by the attorney or that they collaborated beforehand. Varying details are to be expected as long as they don't contradict in important substance. The four gospels do not contradict in substance although they do vary in detail. For example, Matthew 20:30 says there were two blind men begging while Mark 10:46 says it was Bartimaeus, and Luke 18:35 says it was a certain blind man. None of these is a lie. Mt 8:28 says there were two men coming out of the tombs while Mark 5:2 only mentions one. Just because one passage mentions a second man doesn't mean the other passage is wrong about the one that was there. I currently live in the Chicago area. If someone asks me where I live, I can answer Chicago, the Chicago area, northeastern Illinois, suburban Chicago, the western suburbs, Illinois, the Midwest, America, the United States, the U.S.A., North America, etc. They are all true, yet none of them are my specific home address. It is interesting the scrutiny deniers apply to the Bible but not to other literature. I must ask if they are sincerely pursuing truth or going out of their way to reject it.
One example given in the video is the day of the death of Jesus. This is an attempt to confuse differences in details. There is some debate among scholars about the exact timeline of the death and resurrection of Jesus, but the differing details are reconcilable by the sincere. It can get a little complex factoring all the different Jewish laws and customs, but when we understand that Jews did not and still do not count time as others do, most of the difficulties are resolved. Their days start and end at sunset and they use a solar/lunar calendar. Dr. Ehrman says Mark says Jesus died at 9:00am. which contradicts John 19:14 which says He wasn't even condemned until 12:00 noon. Mark says Jesus was crucified at 9:00am, not that he died at 9:00am. Victims of crucifixion often lived two or three days. That is why the Romans broke the legs of the other two victims (Jn 19:32). Pilate marveled that Jesus was already dead after only six hours (Mk 15:44). The question of John's reference to the sixth hour in John 19:14 has two main possible answers. One is that John was referring to the Roman sixth hour which would have been 6:00am as it is today. Another is that he was referring to the sixth hour since the arrest which occurred during the night. Note he does not say the sixth hour of the day.
Dr. Ehrman tries to confuse the details of the resurrection in the same way. Once again, there are differences in details, not contradictions. He distorts the fact that angels often appear in the visible form of men in the Bible. He is purposefully misrepresenting the Bible as a whole in order to discredit it. This is not uncommon among deniers. He says some of the stories were invented but doesn't say which ones or how he knows which ones. He claims to speak for all historians but there are many historians, even many who are not professing believers, who acknowledge the historical validity of the gospels.
It is probably safe to say that Dr. Ehrman is an evolutionist. Yet he states that historians cannot prove the past. They can only state what most probably happened in the past based on the evidence. He also states that a miracle would defy the way nature works. He said scientists today don't talk about natural laws, but they talk about predictable ways this world works. He said you can't prove what happened in the past because you can't repeat the experiment. He makes a clear distinction between trying to scientifically prove what happened in the past and doing that in the present. He tries to extrapolate this onto the resurrection of Jesus and say that historians therefore cannot prove it happened. This is a logical fallacy. First, he is making up his own parameters for history and science. Second, he is undermining his own worldview which I would assume is based on random, unguided evolution. Third, there is much historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. He says the resurrection defies imagination and therefore cannot be accepted. The mathematical odds that evolution happened are essentially zero. It defies logic and many laws of nature which Dr. Ehrman states don't exist. Yet it is impossible to do science without laws of nature. If all that exist are laws of probability, then we can only make guesses. So that means Dr. Ehrman is also only making guesses and could also be wrong about Jesus and the Bible.
Again, the Bible is an historical record whether Dr. Ehrman likes it or not. There is not one historical fact in the Bible that has ever been proven false. Many have been alleged to be false by the deniers only to be later proven true. The archeologist's shovel has discovered thousands and thousands of artifacts that confirm the historical accuracy of the Bible. Now that more and more of Israel has been opened up to digging, many more artifacts have been found.