If skeptical Jesus studies is a Good Cop, Bad Cop routine, then someone like Richard Carrier may appear in the role of Bad Cop, while Bart Ehrman is cast as his opposite number. Personally, I think Marcus Borg or John Crossan played the part more convincingly. But one can't deny that Erhman often comes across as soft-spoken and reasonable, or that he has piled up a mount of original books in Jesus scholarship, that have made him something of a star in this field.
Or, perhaps, puffed up like a balloon. A balloon that has been huffed and puffed beyond its tensile capacity, and is ready to burst.
A couple months ago, Ehrman debated the philosopher Tim McGrew on the Unbelievable radio program in London. Tim heads the Department of Philosophy at Western Michigan University. (I asked Tim recently if running a department full of philosophers was like herding cats. He replied along the lines of, "Cats talk about herding philosophers.")
I am presently writing a book defending the historicity of the gospels. Since I just roughed in a chapter on an argument for the gospels from what Tim calls "Undesigned Coincidences," yesterday I listened for a second time to the second half of that debate, most of which was on that topic. What I wanted to hear were some serious criticisms of the Argument from Undesigned Coincidences from Dr. Bart Ehrman.
I did not hear any.
That is not, I think, because such criticisms need be impossible, or that the argument, as given to date, need be impregnable. It is because even though he knew he would be debating this subject, and the debate would be heard by thousands of listeners, Dr. Ehrman was too lazy, or perhaps too preoccupied writing his next best-seller, to bother looking up McGrew's arguments and finding out what they are all about. So listeners were subjected to a lot of low-level, patronizing scoffing, a lot of hand-waving, and some out-and-out errors, but not much in the way of "peer review" in the sense of informed criticism of a fresh idea.
So I can't offer you the best of Ehrman's objections. Here, instead, are the eight worst. (I will give rein to my satirical itch occasionally in what follows, so quote marks will not always denote an exact quote. When they do, I'll put them in dark blue.)
#8. "Undesigned Coincidences? That's SO 19th Century." If we want a calendar, we'll shop at Hallmark. You're here to provide arguments, Dr. Ehrman.
#7 People who think like Tim McGrew "just haven't read enough books." I think this accusation will shock everyone who knows Dr. McGrew.
#6 To support his objection to the idea that the gospels might be telling history as it actually happened, and that the "undesigned coincidences" McGrew cites are evidence of that, Erhman throws out David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens, and Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. Why? Are the Christian gospels supposed to belong to the category of 19th Century novels? Or even of ancient Greek novels? We know Ehrman doesn't believe that, from what he has said supporting the historicity of Jesus in his book on Christ mythicism. (And in fact, the gospels don't look anything like Greek novels, as I begin to show here.)
Or is Ehrman claiming he has found Undesigned Coincidences between Moby Dick and David Copperfield? He doesn't claim that, either. In fact, he doesn't offer any real explanation for why he mentioned these two books, except that, in common with the gospels, "They are telling stories." Yes, Bart, but stories fall roughly into two categories: true, and false. And the issue before us, which should not be begged, is into which of these categories the gospels fall. Naming books at random does nothing to answer that question, or rebut McGrew's arguments. Given no explanation for why Ehrman brought these two books up, one is tempted to speculate. Are these random literary citations thrown out, perhaps, to distract from the fact that Dr. Ehrman came to the debate unprepared to discuss the announced topic?
#5 Why, McGrew asks, did Pilate try to acquit Jesus just after Jesus claimed to be king? He argues that pieces from various gospels fit together to make better sense of all the sources. They reflect, he believes, a real series of events, fitting together like a puzzle.
Again, in Matthew 14 we have the story of the death of John the Baptist. Hearing in an apparently garbled fashion about Jesus' ministry, Herod Antipas asks his servants, "What's going on? I thought I had killed John? Has he risen from the dead?" How does Matthew know what Herod is telling his servants? McGrew points out that Luke 8 gives a list of women including Joanna, wife of Herod's steward, who were supporting Jesus and his band. So off-hand, we learn that Jesus' following seems to have had sources that could have reported the story from John.
In response to this coincidence, Erhman talks about how all the Gospel stories circulated for a long time, so it's no wonder that they agree on various details. And what about John's account of the conversation between Pilate and Jesus? According to John, no one else was in the room!
"That's a problem we have with a lot of the gospels. Just to pick an example of the same thing, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is put on trial before Pontius Pilate. Nobody else is in the room . . . The Jewish authorities don't want to go into the Praetorium because they don't want to be defiled, and they stay outside. Pilate is inside . . . So he has these extensive conversations with Jesus, but there's nobody is in the room, except for him and Jesus. So people have asked, how does John know what Pilate said? . . . People who ask that question about John just haven't read enough books. People who write books say things all the time they have no way of knowing."
First (as mentioned above) Ehrman brings up Dickens and Melville as purported parallels. Then he seems to think better of that, and mentions a respected Greek historian:
"We know from ancient historians themselves, including Thucydides, that when historians wrote an account of what people said they usually made it up. admit that they just made up conversations."
Why do they always have to name Thucydides to make this point? Did any other historian say that? If so, why is none ever named?
McGrew's response bites harder, however: "It doesn't actually say that."
No, John does not, in fact, say that no one else was in the room. Ehrman seems to have just imagined that he said that. For all we know from the text, a hundred people were with Pilate and Jesus.
So blatant a textual error is embarrassing, from the Bible Answer Man of liberal scholarship.
#4 Trying to explain why Pilate wants to let Jesus free in the Gospel of John, Ehrman argues that early Christian literature shows a trajectory of increasing anti-Semitism. He then describes a progression from Mark to Matthew to Luke to John, (never mind that many scholars think Luke came before Matthew.), then to the "Gospel of Peter," the "Middle of the Second Century," and on to late in the Second Century. "And that can explain the changes in the gospels."
McGrew points out that "we wandered off into the Second Century, there," and asks to stick to the 1st Century. He argues that such trajectories are "largely the function of cherry-picking." McGrew shows that at least one of the trajectories Ehrman argues for could just as easily be argued the other way.
Indeed. One cannot explain John by citing 2nd Century literature. I suspect Ehrman added the "Gospel" of Peter and later literature simply because he didn't have enough data points to support his claim that John can be explained by an increasingly anti-Semitic trajectory. But one cannot explain something written in 90 AD by something written in 170 AD.
At another point in the debate, Ehrman rightly points out that Philip is "actually pretty prominent" in the Gospel of John. (By my quick count, only Peter is named more often, though the "disciple Jesus loved" is referred to a bit more, and Thomas and Judas Iscariot no doubt play more prominent roles.) But then he has to pad that coup by pointing, again, to very late texts like the "Gospel" of Philip, again as if one could explain 1st Century texts by 2nd or 3rd Century texts.
The idea that the future can explain the past, seems a common conceit among liberal New Testament scholars: I described how John Crossan fell into this trap in my 2005 book, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus. "Crossan's discussion of sources often looks like time travel, as well as simple bad logic." (33) His nemesis Richard Carrier commits the same error, as I plan to show in the upcoming.
So that leaves us with three prior data points, and the order of the second two not so clear as Ehrman seems to assume.
#3 McGrew complains that "conjecture on a trifling investment of fact"often gives "certain branches of New Testament scholarship a bad name."
Ehrman: "I wasn't aware that New Testament literary critics had a bad name. So I'd be interested in knowing who said that."
McGrew then quotes two eminent Classics scholars, EM Blaiklock and John Rist, who say just that, in detail.
At this point, I suppose it would be too much to expect Ehrman to say, "Thanks for asking my question! I was wondering who you were talking about, and now I know." But it would at least be nice if he remembered he had asked the question.
Nope! Rather, he responds as if McGrew's citations were irrelevant to any issue he had raised:
"It's possible to quote various people who are opposed to anything. That doesn't mean there's generally a bad name associated with it. There are mythicists who will say that historians have a bad name. Well, you have to consider the source . . . And the people that Tim is quoting, they have a right to their opinion. The question isn't whether someone has that opinion or not. The question is whether it's justified."
Actually, Bart, the question you asked was whether or not anyone really offered that opinion, and who they were. Did you forget your own question? And why start yammering about fringe scholarship? McGrew didn't name any fringe scholars, he named two highly eminent classicists.
Conflating fringe scholars who have no academic position or, in most cases, credentials, with a former Regius Professor of Classics at the University of Aberdeen, acclaimed for his contributions to the field, or a Chair of Classics at Auckland University, helps explicate McGrew's point about why many folks have doubts about the sort of biblical scholarship Ehrman represents.
Next time, if Ehrman doesn't wish to know something, he would do better not to claim to be interested in hearing about it.
#2 Ehrman argues, "You should not use one author to explain what another is trying to say." But that's not what McGrew was doing. He was using one author to help explain what happened.
And that is how history usually works. Herodotus takes accounts of conflicts from three or five conflicting Greek or Persian parties who offer different versions of the same event. He assumes that where those stories intersect, they are probably right about what happened, while where they disagree, one has to chose which version is more credible. Steve Ambrose interviewed numerous participants among the 101st Airborne in D-Day for his book Band of Brothers, weaving their stories together to make a coherent whole. He notes:
"The veterans had frequently contradicted each other on small points, and very occasionally on big ones . . . I felt it was my task to make my best judgment on what was true, what had been misremembed, what had been exagerated by the old soldiers telling their war stories, what acts of heroism had been played down by a man too modest to brag on himself."
But then he got more feedback later for the final version of Band of Brothers.
Of course you should use one source to explain events described by another. Our question is not psychological -- "What was this author thinking?" it is historical -- "What really happened?"
#1 After they have exhausted Ehrman's thin responses to Undesigned Coincidences, Justin Brierley asks him what he thinks of miracles. (Again, what follows is a paraphrase)
Ehrman: "As historians, we cannot affirm miracles, even if we believe in them in private."
McGrew (rhetorically, asked the same question by Brierley): "Why not?"
Ehrman: "Would you believe any miracle stories? Or just ones about Jesus?"
McGrew: "What, you mean like from Livy?"
McGrew: "The evidence has to be equally good."
Ehrman: "Oh, what I've got is good -- better than those Jesus stories you think are so impressive in the gospels."
Bart Ehrman then plays the usual card -- trotting out a totally bogus Jesus analogy, that only sounds convincing because he knows no one has read it, and because he twists and pulls and reshapes the evidence to meet his need. The link is to my rebuttal of that analogy, which I believe is as complete as a rebuttal of so lame a literary or historical analogy needs to be.
So thanks, Bart. I've analyzed that phony "Jesus analogy," and plan to include it in the upcoming book -- along with several other failed attempts to find a parallel Jesus, somewhere in the world. Let me give Dr. Ehrman credit for innovatingly proffering the first faux-Jesus narrative from Medieval Poland to this already storied genre. It's a bit like Ye Olde Curiosity Shop on the Seattle waterfront, this sort of liberal New Testament scholarship -- artifacts of skeletons, mummies, and other arcane and disfigured objects, mostly dead and embalmed, from around the world, along with fresh trinkets for sale -- in Bart Ehrman's case, books.