The other day, while searching for something entirely different, I happened to stumble into a new Bart Ehrman/Craig Evans debate. It appears this exchange took place just a week and a half ago, January 19th, 2012, to be exact. The topic was, "Does the New Testament present a reliable portrait of the Historical Jesus?".
I won't bother taking the time to tell you who Ehrman and Evans are, in case you don't know, since both receive rather substantial introductions during the video itself.
I had previously watched this 2011 debate, between the two of them, so I was extremely curious to see the follow up.
A few thoughts...
I couldn't help but notice, generally speaking, that Evans conceded a lot more ground this time around. A lot more. I'm betting this was a deliberate approach, on his part, since he came right out (in his opening statement) and said things that he hadn't been willing to say during his entire debate with Ehrman last year.
Let's take it piece by piece...
Evans' Opening Statement:
I was surprised by Evans' comments that the gospel of John is more "metaphorical", in nature, since this assertion would be very controversial in evangelical circles. He seemed fully aware of this though and, on numerous occasions, he openly challenged his more conservative colleagues to "re-think" the Gospel of John. Wow. Frankly, I'm a little impressed that he had the guts to do this. The shift may be a reaction, on Evans' part, to the widespread perception that he was too timid during his 2011 debate with Ehrman.
Evans also admits, right off the bat, that the New Testament has discrepancies. This, too, is a big change from last time. His strategy seems to be to give as much ground as he possibly can, right from the get go, perhaps in the hopes of taking the wind out of Ehrman's sails.
Evans does a lot of name dropping in his opening speech. He tries to make it sound as if most scholars agree with his positions, but later in the debate this technique backfires (big time) when Ehrman challenges him, rather forcefully, on this very point.
The first prong, of Evans' opening argument, is that the Greek texts we have are very close to the originals. (I suspect Ehrman would agree totally with this.) The second prong, is what Evans refers to as "verisimilitude". This is a pretty big word, and I suppose it sounds impressive enough; that is, until you realize what it is that Evans actually means by it. His contention is simply that the New Testament speaks of real people, places, and customs. Uhhh...yeah...and your point would be? He also seems to think that Ehrman believes we can't know what Jesus said and did. But this is a total red herring since, as Bart points out later, he doesn't believe any such thing. (In fact, Ehrman wrote a book about Jesus.)
Unfortunately, there is an audio problem, during Evans' opening speech, which understandably distracts him a little (I had to feel for the guy), but it eases up just after the 27 minute mark.
Ehrman's Opening Statement:
Ehrman begins with his usual thing of asking how many in the crowd are Bible believing Christians, and came to see him get "thumped". In analyzing past debates, I've seen some Christian reviewers heavily criticize the fact that Ehrman frequently does this (I guess they think he's playing the sympathy card?). On the contrary, I suspect that he does it for the benefit of the audience (and not for his own benefit at all). Most people aren't consciously aware of the fact that they come into an event like this with preconceived biases and emotions. So, when Ehrman points this out (the elephant in the room) it has a way of bringing that dynamic to the forefront of people's minds. In other words, it gets them thinking, "yeah, you're right, I already disagree with you and I am hoping you get slaughtered tonight!". Maybe, just maybe, if everyone were a little more honest about this than minds (and ears) would be opened to actually hear what is being said.
Anyway, Ehrman uses the birth of Jesus to make his point that the Gospels are "completely at odds" with one another. I really liked his investigator analogy. When an investigator comes on to a dead body, and then proceeds to focus on the "details" (the hair, the fingerprints etc.) one might be tempted to cry, "you're ignoring the dead body!". But the key to solving the crime is in the details. In other words, the key to understanding what Jesus actually said and did lies in the "details" of the various gospel accounts. Instead of just ignoring the differences, or trying to harmonize them, scholars ask why there are differences in the first place.
After completely destroying the idea that Luke's census ever took place, Bart says the following, "...why does Luke have this census? Because he has to get Jesus born in Bethlehem even though he knows that he came from Nazareth".
Ehrman goes on to talk about other types of differences, such as differences in emphasis, that are important even though they may or may not be discrepancies per se. This further underscores the point he was making with his investigator analogy.
He also uses a court room analogy...when four different accounts are given, of a crime, you don't assume that they're all correct; you try instead to determine which one (if any) is accurate.
Ehrman then asks the audience to imagine that several people today were asked to write biographies of Jimmy Carter, based on oral reports only. Ehrman is later challenged on this example, during the q&a period, and he clarifies the point quite nicely (I don't think the questioner even understood it to begin with).
Evans again makes the argument that, simply because there are problems with the Gospel accounts, we don't "give up" and say that we "just don't know"...but Ehrman doesn't do this (quite the opposite, in fact) so Evans completely misses the point here.
I'm sorry to say it so bluntly, but his rebuttal was woefully inadequate.
Ehrman accuses Evans of using a "sleight of hand". When Evans insists that we can know something about Jesus, from the Gospel accounts, this is not the same thing as having a historically accurate portrait (this theme was to come up again in the discussion/q&a section).
Evans, still missing the point, asks Bart if he believes that we can derive a picture of who Jesus was using the Gospels.
Evans once again agrees to the fact that there are discrepancies and inaccuracies in the Gospels.
Ehrman re-emphasizes the difference between getting historically accurate information out of the Gospels vs. them being historically accurate. The Gospel of Peter, for example, has numerous things in it that are historically accurate (verisimilitude)...does this mean that Evans thinks it's a reliable account?
Evans AGAIN asks if Ehrman thinks the quest for the historical Jesus is worth pursuing? Is he not listening??
In the q&a section Ehrman is posed a great question about why he bothers to study the New Testament. He rightly says that the Gospels are "the most important pieces of literature in the history of western civilization". Why wouldn't we want to study them? (Incidentally, this is very similar to the point that I was trying to make in my post about Dinesh D'Souza.)
Those are some really quick, off the cuff, thoughts from yours truly. Here's the debate...