Saturday, July 25, 2015

Notes on the Ehrman-McGrew debate

Recently, Bart Ehrman and Tim McGrew debated over two hours on the Unbelievable Radio Program in London, moderated by Justin Brierley.  (I've been asked to appear there for a third time, next month, by the way.)  This is the second hour.  Here are some observations:

* As usual, Justin does a wonderful job of summarizing, keeping focus, and keeping the conversation moving along.

* I do think Tim won the debate.  

* Tim seems to be operating under the erroneous impression that Bart Erhman is referring to the canonical Acts of the Apostles when he says the early Christian message was not preached on street corners. Tim appears to have overlooked Thomas Jefferson's fine editing of Acts, which can fit conveniently behind one's ear, with room left over for a pencil and and big fat eraser.  (I hope you all caught the sarcasm there.) 

* I like the vaudeville-like progression in Bart's argumentation at times. "Who says biblical scholars have a screw loose?" "These classicists, here. Quote quote quote." "Oh, you can always find someone to say anything. Take mythicists, for example." "Uh . . . "

* Ehrman is appeals in this debate, and also in a recent blog post, to forms of the Outsider Test for Faith. I believe I destroyed the basis for such appeals, in my last book.  Sometimes scholarship just takes time to catch up. :- )

* In any case, what would be wrong with simply asking, "So if the evidence, on your account, is so good for the good Medieval rabbi whom you say is also recorded as doing many miracles, why don't you believe those accounts?" And take it from there. These claims about some other guy really have nothing at all to do with the gospels. Maybe they occurred, maybe they didn't: either way, they in no way affect our reasons for believing Jesus worked miracles. 

* Bart anachronistically brings in "gospels" of Peter and, as I recall, Philip.

* I think a transcript would show Bart's circumlocutions and red herrings more clearly, since his soft, reasonable voice seems to cover a multiple of intellectual sins. Also Tim's dialectical precision, which may be harder to follow orally than it would be on a screen.

* Bart appeals to Dickens as a partial parallel to the gospels. As a Dickens fan, I find that absurd.

* I'm getting a better feel for the undesigned coincidences argument, and think I will include some reference in my next book.  (Apparently Tim's wife Lydia is now writing a book on the subject, also.)  More detailed study of fictional parallels would be useful -- could such coincidences be found, if you looked for them in fiction? I suspect Tim is right that it would not be so easy, but I would also like to see the attempt made before dismissing it.

*In any case, it will, I think, nicely complement a fuller "fingerprints" argument for the gospels (under R & D), which I think demonstrates the folly of most the parallels Ehrman and others cite thoroughly. I think we've just touched the edge of the historical evidences for the gospels, so far. 


Jason Engwer said...

Another good way to approach the issue of non-Christian miracles is to mention that the Bible affirms such miracles rather than denying them (the miracles of Pharaoh's magicians, the miracles of demons, the miracles of the Antichrist, etc.). Similarly, Irenaeus, Origen, and other Christians writing shortly after the Biblical era affirm the existence of non-Christian miracles. What Christianity does is place miracles in a hierarchy. Christianity outperforms its competitors. Since Ehrman brought up Jewish miracles, a Christian could accept the historicity of those miracles, yet argue that Christianity's system of miracles is superior in various ways (demonstrating more power, occurring more often, more closely aligning with what we'd expect God to do, etc.). Christians could then appeal to Jesus' prophecy fulfillments, the degree of miraculous power Jesus displayed during his life on earth, miracles done in the name of Christianity since Biblical times (e.g., what Craig Keener presents in his work on the subject), etc.

By contrast, what reason does Ehrman have for dismissing both the Christian miracles and the Jewish ones? If the evidence for the Jewish miracles is comparable to or better than the Christian evidence, then Ehrman is doubling his own problem while doing nothing to refute Christianity. It's not enough for people like Ehrman to take their illegitimate means of dismissing Christian miracles, apply it to other belief systems, like Judaism, then tell us that we can dismiss non-Christian miracles by adopting the method of Ehrman, et al. It's an illegitimate method, and we have no need to dismiss all non-Christian miracles or the ones Ehrman has cited. He's not offering us anything significant. He has a fake solution to a fake problem.

Why should Christians even study the Jewish miracles Ehrman cites? Judging by his description of them, they don't even come close to making Judaism's network of miracles parallel or surpass Christianity's. Taking the time and other resources to study those Jewish miracles would be sort of like researching your neighbor's claim that his uncle levitated for a few minutes thirty years ago. Even if it happened, what's the significance of it? Maybe it would make sense for some people to research it for various reasons, but it's not high on the list of priorities.

Jason Engwer said...

David wrote:

"I like the vaudeville-like progression in Bart's argumentation at times."

The example that stood out most to me was the discussion of external evidence for the gospels' authorship in the first part of the debate. Ehrman asked for sources predating Irenaeus, never justified that framing of the argument, ignored most of the sources who corroborate the traditional authorship attributions before Irenaeus (the elder cited by Papias, Papias, the elders cited by Clement of Alexandria, Ptolemy, etc.), acted as if it wasn't a significant problem when McGrew pointed out that he had ignored Papias, and repeatedly misrepresented McGrew's position. Anybody who wants to see Ehrman's dismissal of the external sources demolished should read C.E. Hill's Who Chose The Gospels? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). And Hill leaves out some significant evidence that could be added to his case. But what he includes is enough to demonstrate the absurdity of Ehrman's focus on Irenaeus and his contemporaries. Hill also demonstrates that the evidence we have from Irenaeus' generation can't be dismissed the way people like Ehrman think they can dismiss it.

David B Marshall said...

I agree that citing miracles in other traditions does nothing at all to disprove them in the Christian tradition. I also agree with your description of what really does differ. But one has to do with historical research first. Here's what I wrote earlier today, elsewhere:

"I spent an hour and a half this afternoon reading the first account of Tov in Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington. Not likely. I particularly liked the story of the conversation with the 500 year old reincarnated frog. Nice try, Bart Ehrman -- or is it Bart Simpson? If 18th Century Poland won't work, where will NT scholarship go for the next "parallel" to the life of Jesus?"

More on this later, as time allows.