In the comments that were posted below a recent blog I wrote I was challenged to consider a debate between Dr. William Lane Craig and Dr. Bart Ehrman regarding whether or not the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation of the relevant historical data. You’d have to read all the comments to get caught up on the context of the challenge, but it all boiled down the claim that the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus was not very compelling, and Ehrman proved as much against Craig in this particular debate. Well, I got around to listening to the debate (the audio I listened to can be found here) and what follows are a few comments about debates in general, and that debate in particular.
An important context for this entire discussion, as alluded to in the title of this post, is that we are all biased; Craig, Ehrman, me and… yes… even you.
When I first started into Apologetics I was not familiar with the use of debates to explore divergent opinions. My impression was that debates felt like useless exercises to keep scholars busy. They just argue with each other and nobody changes their minds. If this is your thinking, please read on. If you are already familiar with what debates are all about, and understand their merits, you can skip this section.
I’ll get to the purpose of debates in a minute but first I want to discuss a more practical question, how is a formal debate different from the kinds of dialogues we might find ourselves in over coffee and across our neighbours’ fence? First and foremost, a debate is publicized. There is an audience. When you share the big questions of life with your co-worker there probably aren’t a bunch of other co-workers sitting around the corner listening in. There should be less pressure than a formal debate, and rather importantly, there isn’t a clock telling you that your time is up.
Second, debates are not intended to be disinterested investigations into the truth, but rather they are intended to give both participants the opportunity to present the best possible case they can for their perspective, and to point out perceived holes in the perspective of their opponent. When you dialogue with people, if you take the approach I describe in Arguing with Friends, you will be primarily focused on searching for truth, and secondarily concerned with defending your views and finding fault in your friend’s views. For debaters they need to represent their side of the debate to the best of their ability. For the rest of us, we need to focus on truth, and be willing to acknowledge if we need to reconsider our perspective. We need to be as unbiased as possible (though nobody is completely so) whereas debaters are expected to defend their biases.
There are downsides to live debates. One downside I often see (and I saw it in this debate) is that there are so many concepts flying around that both sides usually end up misrepresenting the other – quite accidentally I am sure – on certain minor points. I paid attention and I believe in this debate there was at least one obvious misunderstanding on both sides. One speaker then ends up arguing against a position the other side does not hold simply because they misunderstood what was said. This is a downside, but I feel the benefits still outweigh the drawbacks and debates are still very useful tools.
So what are debates useful for? If done well (and there are a lot of really crumby debates out there) you get to hear two very highly educated scholars explore one narrow subject, both working hard to make the best possible case for their perspective. Debates can be a wonderful way to really see the heart and soul of the fundamental disagreements that the best minds on the planet have on certain subjects. I have found debates to be an invaluable tool to getting a very good overview of the core points of discussion on any particular topic; it helps you learn which avenues of discussion are probably the really important ones. However, like I said, they can be done very poorly, but isn’t that the case with everything in life?
Craig – Ehrman debate notes
I am not going to do a play-by-play summary of the Craig-Ehrman debate because I provided the link above so anybody can go and listen to it themselves. I am also not going to declare a winner because such declarations are often simply a reflection of the biases of the judge. I do feel that Craig did a fine, though imperfect, job of representing his views. I also feel that Ehrman brought up some legitimate points that Craig did not sufficiently address (as well as some red herrings). Many of Ehrman’s views that were not sufficiently responded to by Craig are more-than-adequately addressed at the Ehrman Project website. Although there was enough material there to fill a book (or several) I will only address a few points that I think might be most helpful for seeing how a “surface level” reflection might lead to one conclusion, but deeper reflection and research might lead to another conclusion. I will also point out how these views are a product of the biases of the one who holds them.
- Ehrman made a deliberate point of highlighting the biases of the New Testament authors. The idea being that these authorities could not be trusted simply because they loved the guy they were following and were therefore more likely to embellish. One cannot dispute the fact that the followers of Jesus were enamoured with him (heck, they were tortured and killed for him – consider Stephen in Acts 7) but the question is whether their bias makes them unreliable as sources. This is actually tied to another point that Ehrman brought up, but was not thoroughly discussed: errors in the Biblical record. Ehrman suggested that if the New Testament contained errors then it could not be considered a reliable record. Both of these “problems” are not as significant as Ehrman makes them out to be because virtually every ancient record we have is both biased and contains errors. Consider, just as one example, the works of Josephus. He was a Jewish author writing a history of the Jewish people. Biased? Of course! His works are also recognized as containing at least a few errors in them, and possibly some embellishments. Do historians throw out the works of Josephus as useless? Of course not! In fact his records provide a much clearer and more thorough picture of life in Palestine at that time than pretty much any other ancient record does. Historians find his writings invaluable in giving us a good picture of history, despite his biases, errors and embellishments. Why would the same not hold for the New Testament. This is probably an indirect example of what is called the “special pleading” fallacy; an example of Ehrman’s bias.
- Ehrman also claims that the authors were not eyewitnesses to the events described. If I remember correctly he also claims that we don’t know who the authors were. First off, we do actually have good reason from Church history to associate the Gospels with the claimed authors that have been passed down through history, but even if the authors are, actually unknown that raises another problem. How do we know they were not eyewitnesses? If the authors are unknown then on what grounds can we rule out the possibility that they were eyewitnesses? But there’s another question that needs to be asked; do we have other good reasons to believe that the Gospels – even if they were not written by eyewitnesses – are at least based on eyewitness testimony? The answer to that question would seem to be a resounding yes, if you ask Dr. Peter Williams (it’s a long video but VERY worthwhile to watch!). The fact of the matter is that the evidence is far from conclusive that the Gospel authors are unknown and not eyewitnesses, as Ehrman claims, so to present the data as such is another example of bias.
- Then there are the alleged contradictions. Ehrman advised us to not only read the Gospels vertially (from the top to the bottom of one then move to the next) but also read them horizontally. In other words, compare the details in the Gospel of Matthew to the details in the Gospel of Mark to the other two as well. Compare the details. Contrast them. You will find alleged contradictions. If Craig is right then most of the discrepancies are of the inconsequential variety that could just as easily be attributed to literary devices as they could be attributed to flat out errors. But when you compare the Gospels horizontally, if you look around for more than just what Ehrman asks us to look for, you find something else – undesigned coincidences. Ironically, comparing the Gospels side-by-side gives us insights into the big picture precisely because the collective picture of the four Gospels is fuller than the individual picture of any one Gospel. These confirmatory details that overlap between the Gospels is considered highly improbable if the stories they are describing are purely legendary. In other words, they testify to the probability that the Gospels contain accurate history. Here’s a video describing this precise phenomenon and there are several others by Dr. Timothy McGrew on Youtube going into this at much greater depth. That Ehrman would only see the discrepancies and not the undesigned coincidence is another evidence of bias.
- Ehrman spends a lot of time pointing out that historians can only tell us the facts of history, but cannot tell us whether a miracle occured or not. I will ignore his flawed treatment of miracles themselves and focus on another aspect of this claim. It would seem to me that historians regularly draw on other disciplines. If an historian finds ancient literature that claims 1,000 soldiers went in to some battle and only 750 soldiers returned, I have a hunch that historians will step outside the domain of history for a moment, step into the domain of mathematics, and figure out how many soldiers died on the battlefield. Or, perhaps historians might read about some fantastically bizarre behavior of an ancient figure. They might consult with a psychologist to see if that reported behavior is indicative of any particular mental illness. If the ancient figure is said to have some bizarre physical feature or illness they might step outside the domain of history and seek medical consultation. The point is simply this (and Craig specifically addressed this too), the study of history is but one avenue to truth. Even historians step outside their domain. Other disciplines – science, medicine, philosophy and others – are reasonable to draw upon to try and understand the full picture. But if Ehrman is correct then the discipline of theology must, strictly, be kept from making any contributions. He may not be officially an Atheist, but his bias on this subject clearly makes him a functional Atheist by excluding any “god talk.”
- Lastly, Ehrman ends his final comments by pointing out that Craig is really just an evangelist that wants to persuade you to accept his beliefs; and he is using the forum of the debate to that end. This is, of course,to completely different from Ehrman who is simply using the forum of the debate to… well… persuade you to accept his beliefs. The fact of the matter is, like I said earlier, the point of the debate is for both parties to make the best case possible in order to persuade the audience. That Ehrman feels Craig’s efforts are fundamentally different from his is a sign of, you guessed it, more bias.
So what about bias?
I have spent a lot of time pointing out several examples of bias I found in Ehrman’s take on various matters. Does this prove he is wrong? Does this prove that he has not been completely forthright in his presentation of the evidence? Is he a liar? Of course not! None of the above at all. He, like Craig, like everybody, is biased. The fact that he is biased has absolutely no impact on his credibility at all, nor does it make his perspective any more or less likely to be correct. Our job is not to find an authority who is unbiased (we’ll be looking for a long time), but rather to examine the evidence as best we can, recognizing that everybody – ourselves included – comes to the data with preconceived ideas about the way the world is. We may have to reconsider our biases, and we always need to be open to that possibility.
But surely Ehrman’s blatant biases in the debate, and his unwillingness to consider Craig’s perspective, are evidence that he is just too stubborn to see anything but what he believes! Again, no. As I described at the beginning, the point of a debate is for both sides to make the best possible case for their perspectives. That would not work well if they were both wishy-washy and conceding all kinds of points to their opponent. I should hope that even debaters would be open-minded enough to go home after the debate and give it some serious thought, but during the debate to see such waffling would defeat the purpose of the debate. Like I shared earlier, the purpose of debates is very different from the purpose of you and your friend going for coffee. We still hold debaters to the high standard of civility toward each other, just as we would expect the same from two friends chatting, but there are clearly differences in the purpose of debates compared to friendly dialogues.
Craig and Ehrman both stood by their biases, presented the evidence as best they could, made the best possible case they could for the audience, and produced an all-round excellent debate to edify the rest of us.
Thoughts for the rest of us
The Craig-Ehrman debate has a number of lessons that we can take away for our conversations over the coffee table.
- If you have been reading my other blog posts (like here and others) you should know by now that I place a high emphasis on being prepared. Both parties had obviously done their homework – in fact they both hold PhD’s in their respective fields – but even the non-PhD folks among us (like myself) can spend enough time hitting the books to familiarize ourself with enough content to do a reasonably good job carrying on a conversation. Craig has even written about his observation that the more prepared you are the less likely you are to get hot tempered; a mistake we would all be wise to avoid.
- The facts do not speak for themselves. If you find somebody telling you that your beliefs are wrong because some fact says otherwise, ask yourself if there is a context that might paint a different picture of the facts. In Arguing with Friends I give an example that Ehrman is fond of pointing out; there are hundreds of thousands of variants in the extant manuscripts of the New Testament so it is clearly corrupted beyond belief. This may seem catastrophic to any faith we have that the text has been reliably transmitted but, as I describe in my book, there are other facts that shed a different contextual light on that fact and completely change the conclusion. Similarly, as I mentioned above, Ehrman tells us to read the Gospels horizontally to see the contradictions, seeming to discredit the reliability of the text. Well, if we read enough of the gospels horizontally we also find undesigned coincidences which appear to confirm the reliability of the text. The additional facts change the context. Think deeper than single facts!
- Always be respectful. Even though Craig and Ehrman disagreed, and even though the entire purpose of the debate is to make the best possible case for their perspective and poke as many holes as possible into the other, they were very respectful with each other, and even sung the praises of each other on occasion. Remember, we’re battling ideas, not people. In fact, I have a forthcoming post on precisely that subject.
So, what did I think of the Craig-Ehrman debate? I enjoyed it, though I still think Craig did far better than my commenter friend felt he did. Our difference of opinion is likely partly explained by the biases we both hold.