Errancy of Bart Ehrman (Part Two)

***This has been reposted from a previous blog with a few minor edits.

First and foremost, as a Christian, I believe that the Holy Scriptures (from Genesis to Revelation) are inspired by God and they are His very Word. “…and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” (Paul to Timothy, 2 Timothy 3:15-16, NIV) Furthermore, 2 Peter 1:21 says, “For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (NIV)

These passages clearly communicate the status of “Scripture” as being “God-breathed” by the Holy Spirit. The interesting fact regarding these two passages, as they were written by Paul and Peter, is that the New Testament canon was not formed when these letters were written. The earliest listing of the New Testament books being recognized as Scripture (altogether) is by Athanasius in 367 AD with one of his festival letters. He records all of the books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament in regards to them being Scripture. When Paul and Peter wrote their respective letters, what did they regard as Scripture when they wrote? They may not have realized that they were writing God’s Word, which would be canonized over time, but they set forth the precedent that Scripture (what would become Scripture) is given by God as inspired and truthful.

Of course, Bart Ehrman challenges the very ideas of inspiration and inerrancy (as I commented about in my first post on this topic). He claims that what he perceives as discrepancies or Biblical difficulties call into question this doctrine. While he certainly raises some fascinating points that should be wrestled with by anyone, I will argue that the points that he brings up do not really change any essential doctrine of Christianity. I will bring up some of the challenges that he makes to the New Testament (no space to bring up all of them) and then will comment on them myself:

JESUS’ BIRTH

Ehrman accuses the Bible of historical inaccuracy in the accounts of Jesus’ birth (which are only in Matthew and Luke). He claims that in the historical record, there is no evidence or another ancient source mentioning that King Herod was slaughtering children in or around Bethlehem at this time. In fact, this is only mentioned in Matthew’s gospel. Not in any others.

Furthermore, he challenges Luke’s records of Caesar Augustus, “For one thing, we have relatively good records from the reign of Caesar Augustus, and there is no mention anywhere in any of them of an empire-wide census for which everyone had to register by returning to their ancestral home.” (pg. 32)

He also cites what he thinks are discrepancies between the two gospels. “Virtually everything said in Matthew is missing from Luke, and all the stories of Luke are missing from Matthew. Matthew mentions dreams that came to Joseph that are absent in Luke; Luke mentions angelic visitations to Elizabeth and Mary that are absent in Matthew. Matthew has the wise men, the slaughter of children by Herod, the flight to Egypt, the Holy Family bypassing Judea to return to Nazareth- all missing from Luke. Luke has the birth of John the Baptist, the census of Caesar, the trip to Bethlehem, the manger and the inn, the shepherds, the circumcision, the presentation in the Temple, and the return home immediately afterward- all of them missing from Matthew.” (pg. 33)

These arguments by Ehrman are not particularly strong, in my opinion. Just because archeologists have not uncovered evidence of a census or Herod slaughtering children does not mean that these respective events did not happen. People have ridiculed Biblical accounts through the centuries about there being no evidence for Sodom and Gomorrah existing or that the city of Tyre did not exist. This past century, we now have evidence that both of these cities did in fact exist in ancient times. I know I’m making an argument from silence but perhaps, we may find other evidence one day besides the Biblical account.

Furthermore, differing accounts in Matthew and Luke should surprise no one. All scholars agree that Matthew and Luke wrote independently of one another and used Mark (the earliest gospel) as a common source. Just because these two books emphasize accounts that differ (and I might add, do not necessarily contradict) does not mean that there are discrepancies between the two gospels.

MATTHEW’S GOSPEL QUOTES THE WRONG PROPHET

A minor but interesting issue:

“When Matthew indicates that Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, he notes (as by now we expect of him) that this was in fulfillment of Scripture: ‘Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, ‘And they took the thirty pieces of silver…and they gave them for the potter’s field.” (Matthew 27:9-10). The problem is that this prophecy is not found in Jeremiah. It appears to be a loose quotation of Zechariah 11:3″ (Ehrman, pg. 51)

Matthew apparently whiffed at quoting the right Old Testament book. What is ironic is Ehrman actually quoted the wrong verse as well! The passage is actually Zechariah 11:12,13 (I guess Ehrman was close enough). His point still stands, however, that the prophecy that Matthew quotes is not in Jeremiah- it is found in a loose paraphrase in Zechariah.

Zechariah 11:12-13 reads, “Then I said to them, ‘If it is agreeable to you, give me my wages; and if not, refrain.’ So they weighed out for my wages thirty pieces of silver. And the Lord said to me: ‘Throw it to the ‘potter’- that princely price they set on me. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the Lord for the potter.” (NKJV)

John MacArthur’s study Bible has an interesting note on this issue: “…the Hebrew canon was divided into 3 sections. Law, Writings and Prophets. Jeremiah came first in the order of prophetic books, so the Prophets were sometimes collectively referred to by his name.” (MacArthur Study Bible, pg. 1447)

The problem with MacArthur’s perspective is that I can’t think of any Jewish source that referred to the “Prophets” as Jeremiah collectively. Is there a source out there? I’m unaware of it.

WHEN DID JESUS DIE?

Ehrman discusses next what he alleges is a discrepancy about the exact day that Christ died. He says this discrepancy occurs between Mark and John. The alleged discrepancy is between Mark 15:25 when Christ was crucified in this gospel and John 19:14 which has the account that Jesus was on trial during the same time that He was crucified in Mark’s account.

Ehrman writes: “After the meal they go out. Jesus is betrayed by Judas, appears before the Jewish authorities, spends the night in jail, and is put on trial before Pontius Pilate, who finds him guilty and condemns him to be crucified. And we are told exactly when Pilate pronounces the sentence: ‘It was the Day of Preparation for the Passover, and it was about noon.’ (John 19:14)

Noon? On the Day of Preparation for the Passover? The day the lambs are slaughtered? How can that be? In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus lived through that day, had his disciples prepare the Passover meal, and ate it with them before being arrested, taken to jail for the night, tried the next morning, and executed at nine o’clock A.M on the Passover day. But not in John. In John, Jesus dies a day earlier, on the Day of Preparation for the Passover, sometime after noon. I do not think this is a difference that can be reconciled.” (pg. 26-27)

This is an interesting challenge by Ehrman. I consulted the book, “When Critics Ask”, by Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe who respond to this challenge with a rebuttal that Ehrman does not acknowledge in his book: “Both Gospel writers are correct in their assertions. The difficulty is answered when we realize that each Gospel writer used a different time system. John follows the Roman time system while Mark follows the Jewish time system. According to Roman time, the day ran from midnight to midnight. The Jewish 24 hour period began in the evening at 6pm and the morning of that day began at 6am. Therefore, when Mark asserts that at the third hour Christ was crucified, this was about 9am. John stated that Christ’s trial was about the sixth hour. This would place the trial before the crucifixion and this would not negate any testimony of the Gospel writers.” (pg. 376)

I would add that this point by Geisler and Howe makes perfect sense. Mark was the first gospel and may have been written when the early Christian church was largely Jewish. The gospel of John is universally accepted as being written later (possibly in the 80s or 90s) when there would have been more Gentile converts.

JESUS’ RESURRECTION

“Who actually went to the tomb? Was it Mary alone (John 20:1)? Mary and another Mary (Matthew 28:1)? Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome (Mark 16:1)? Or women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem- possibly Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and ‘other women’ (Luke 24:1; see 23:55)? Had the stone already been rolled away from the tomb (as in Mark 16:4) or was it rolled away by an angel while the women were there (Matthew 28:2)? Whom or what did they see there? An angel (Matthew 28:5)? A young man (Mark 16:5)? Two men (Luke 24:4)? Or nothing and no one (John)? And what were they told? To tell the disciples to ‘go to Galilee’, where Jesus will meet them (Mark 16:7)? Or to remember what Jesus had told them ‘while He was in Galilee’, that he had to die and rise again (Luke 24:7)? Then, do the women tell the disciples what they saw and heard (Matthew 28:8), or do they not tell anyone (Mark 16:8)? If they tell someone, whom do they tell? The eleven disciples (Matthew 28:8)? The eleven disciples and other people (Luke 24:8)? Simon Peter and another unnamed disciple (John 20:2)? What do the disciples do in response? Do they have no response because Jesus himself immediately appeared to them (Matthew 20:9)? Do they not believe the women because it seems to be ‘an idle tale’ (Luke 24:11)? Or do they go to the tomb to see for themselves (John 20:3)?” (Ehrman, pg 48-49)

Again, while these are some interesting issues that Ehrman raises, there are certainly ways that they can be addressed. There could have been multiple trips to the tomb by women or there could have been different groups of women going to the tomb who were there at different times and left at different times.

Furthermore, even if a critic wants to see these issues as “discrepancies”, the fact remains that all four gospels speak that Jesus was crucified and rose again. Those major elements of Christianity are accounted for in each gospel account (and they are even accounted for in extra Biblical materials).

CONCLUSION

Finally, I think it is important for believers to be aware of these issues in the Scripture. These issues are a part of having a comprehensive knowledge of the Bible, which I don’t possess, but hope to continue striving to learn more. These issues are now appearing in popular books, on the history channel and even on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”. Christians need to be aware of Biblical scholarship and the current issues that scholars wrestle with.

Throughout his book, Ehrman simply encourages people to study the Bible more…and how can I disagree with him on this point. His book, “Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the hidden contradictions in the Bible and why we don’t know about them” has caused me to recently study the gospels intensely yet again.

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About dangeroushope

Striving to follow Christ, love people and learn more about the world.
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