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About this episode:
Arguably, no individual has influenced the course of history more than Jesus of Nazareth. Today, over 2000 years since he lived, his story still influences the lives of millions of people.
Yet, in recent decades many have questioned whether the Gospel stories are a true reflection of the central figure of Christianity. So can we trust the accounts of his life, death and alleged resurrection?
Leading New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman is well known for his critique of the historicity of the Gospels. He engages with leading Cambridge University Bible scholar Peter J Williams who defends the reliability of the accounts.
Peter J Williams is Principal of Tyndale House, Cambridge and member of the Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge University. His latest book is ‘Can We Trust The Gospels?’.
Bart Ehrman is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and the author of over 30 books including ‘Misquoting Jesus’.
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More from this season:
- Episode 1 | Part 1: Religion: Useful fiction or ultimate truth?
- Episode 1 | Part 2: Religion: Useful fiction or ultimate truth?
- Episode 2: The Universe: Where did it come from and why are we part of it?
- Episode 4 | Part 1: Is God Dead? A conversation on faith, culture and the modern world
- Episode 4 | Part 2: Is God Dead? A conversation on faith, culture and the modern world
- Episode 5: Did Christianity give us our human values?
- Episode 6: Morality: Can atheism deliver a better world?
Justin Brierley (JB) Bart Ehrman (BE) and Peter J Williams (PJW)
JB: And today our conversation topic is: ‘Can We Trust the Story of Jesus?’ – we’re looking at the historical reliability of the Gospels. And the Big Conversation partners I’m sitting down with today are Bart Ehrman and Peter J Williams. Bart Ehrman is a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He’s the author of bestselling books on the New Testament, such as Misquoting Jesus, and his most recent title, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World. Now while Bart has vigorously defended the existence of Jesus, he has nevertheless been a significant voice casting doubt on whether the Gospels’ portrayal of him is a historically accurate one. Peter J Williams is principle of Tyndale House, Cambridge, and a scholar of both the Old and the New Testament. His most recent book Can We Trust the Gospels?, makes the case for the historical reliability of the gospel accounts of Jesus, and that they reflect the eyewitness testimony of those who knew Jesus and followed him. Now there is no doubt that the person of Christ has influenced history perhaps more than any other individual. But in today’s sceptical age, can we trust that those who first told it gave us the true story of Jesus?
Bart and Peter, welcome along to the show, it’s great to have you both with me. Now believe it or not it was over 10 years ago that you were both with me in person to discuss the Gospels, talking on that occasion about the textual criticism and transmission of the Gospels. Today we’re really looking at their historical reliability, and for those who aren’t familiar with you both, let’s have some quick introductions. Bart, welcome back to the show. You’ve been engaged with the Bible since you were a Christian and since you haven’t been a Christian as well, because your story of faith, as it were, goes side by side with your academic journey, doesn’t it.
BE: That’s right. I got interested in the Bible as teenager, when I had a born-again experience in high school. And went off to Moody Bible Institute to study the Bible and continue my education, and went off to Princeton Theological Seminary eventually to study Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. And while I was there I took all sorts of courses, and started studying the Bible intensely in Greek and the Old Testament in Hebrew, and started realising that my earlier belief that the Bible was without any mistakes in it was just wrong; there are mistakes. And it took me a long time to get to that point; I went reluctantly, but it finally got to a point where I just said, “the evidence is here; this is a contraction of that, and they both can’t be true”, and so it changed my understanding of the Bible. I remained a Christian for many years after that, but one who with not as high of a view of Scripture. And it wasn’t until maybe 25 years ago or so that I ended up leaving Christianity altogether, for reasons unrelated to my scholarship.
JB: And we’ve actually talked to you about that as well on a different show back in the archives of Unbelievable? But we’re coming back again today to the story of the reliability of the gospels… I mean, you’re so interesting Bart, because on the one hand you obviously are a critic at some level of some Evangelical views of Scripture. But at the same time, you’ve got your critics on the so-called Jesus-Mythicist side, because you fully endorse obviously that Jesus existed, and you’ve written books obviously in defence of that as well.
BE: Yes, I get it from both sides, and I suppose that’s a good thing.
JB: If you’re criticised on both sides in equal measure!
BE: Yes! But no that’s right, but you know the thing is I don’t believe in toting a party line one way or the other. It’s not that, ok if you’re an atheist you have to believe this, or if you’re a Christian you have to believe that. I think you have to decide what appears to be right, based on whatever evidence you’re looking at.
JB: And why does the person of Jesus continue to inspire such interest on both sides in that sense; by people who are both dogmatically against, as it were, his existence, and those who obviously want to affirm his existence down to the smallest detail?
BE: Yes, it’s an interesting phenomenon, and it’s more interesting depending which country you happen to live in. I mean, in the United States, most people are interested in Jesus on one level, and a lot of places in Europe they’re not. But those who recognise the importance of Jesus historically – whether they’re Christian or not – they have to realise… I mean, as you said, he’s the most important figure in the history of our civilisation. And so of course people should be interested, it’s just that some are firm believers and think that Jesus is the only way to salvation and you have to believe in him – along with believing everything in the Bible – or you won’t be saved. And other people don’t look at it like that at all, they think that Jesus is just this amazing cultural figure that we need to know more about.
JB: Well I’m looking forward to getting into the historical aspects of the Gospels, which obviously you’ve written extensively on, and Peter J Williams has as well. Peter, welcome back to the show – it’s round two isn’t it, with Bart opposite you! But you’ve in a sense been engaged with Scripture in a similar way as Bart; you’re aware of all the arguments and the issues that he’s come across, yet you as a Christian have retained your faith and indeed have quite a strong faith. So what’s been different would you say about your journey?
PJW: Well I mean we’ve had very different experiences growing up, different countries and so on. I grew up in a Christian family and was able to go to a high school where you could learn Greek and Latin. I think – I’m not sure of this – but I think I’d read the entire Greek New Testament before going to university. And then I went to university, because I wanted to be a Bible translator, and studied Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek and Latin as my undergraduate degree. And when I was there I encountered a lot of the same scholarship that we’re going to be talking about today; many people who knew the Bible very well, but did not believe it to be authoritative, and that sent me through a lot of internal questioning and doubt.
And looking through that over time, what I’d say is my journey in scholarship has been a firming up in my faith, because I also would say that through my experience I now believe I have arguments for the truthfulness of Scripture, which are not generally known by lay people. So on one side you can say that there can be problems with scholarship that aren’t known by lay people, but I think there can also be arguments for truthfulness that aren’t generally known by lay people. So I think it has been a very positive experience for me.
JB: To what extent, as a scholar, does what you know of the Scripture impact the way you approach it as a Christian, you know in a devotional kind of way?
PJW: Well I mean I think that Scripture is God’s word; one of the things about that is it makes me want to study it harder. But of course, what that does do – I think everyone’s got bias and so I’m going to be quite open about my bias – but it does mean that I’ve got to test myself and think: how is someone else from another perspective going to see this? I want to make sure that any argument I use in public is something that’s able to be looked at from a number of different angles, and make sense. But you know, I do think we all have ways of trying to make sense of the world, and so for me Christianity makes the most sense of the world, and obviously by that I mean a Christianity which fully embraces the Bible as from God. So that to me makes more sense than any other system, we can talk about that…
JB: I mean, it might be interesting to touch in some point in our discussion on the intersection of those who are treating the Bible both as a historical document and obviously a document from which they draw their faith. But we’re going to really talk about the historical aspect to the Gospels; we’re going to be looking at them as historians, in that sense – well I won’t be, but you guys will be, as people who have dug into this.
PJW: Well I might question that a little bit…
JB: Go ahead…
PJW: Because we’re going to have to sometime talk about miracles and the relationship between miracles and history and the discipline of history…
JB: That may well come into it…
BE: It may, but it doesn’t need to as far as I’m concerned, because the miracles are not the reason I think the Bible’s not reliable…
PJW: Yes. We can talk about other things…
JB: Sure. Well look, we’re going to try and cover things like: how did we get these accounts in the first place? When do we think they were written down? By whom? What are some of the things within them that give us pause for thought, casting doubt upon their veracity or maybe give us tell-tale clues that they are historically reliable? So let’s first of all just simply ask that opening question: how did we get these accounts – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – that we typically have in our New Testament. Where do you think these essentially came from Bart, and was it a case of ‘the winners write history’, as it were, because that’s often the point that’s often put across, that these are the accounts we have; perhaps these weren’t the only accounts that were circulated?
BE: Well they certainly weren’t the only accounts, so there’s no controversy about that. The Gospel of Luke begins… the author says there were many people who before him had written an account of the things Jesus said and did, and I think he’s probably right. And he says that these accounts came down from eyewitnesses and ministers of the word. And so in other words, they were accounts based on stories that people had passed along orally to somebody who wrote them down, and Luke at least is acknowledging that there were people before him, and presumably before the others as well. So the ultimate answer is that the stories go back to something that happened in the life of Jesus; people told the stories for a number of years – there’s nothing controversial about that. In the book of Acts people are telling stories the whole time without writing them down; they’re just telling the stories.
And so my view is a fairly standard view, which is that the stories were in circulation for many years before the gospel writers produced their accounts. Jesus and his disciples of course were Aramaic speakers in Galilee – were all part of Galilee – and the Gospels are written in Greek. And so these are accounts that were originally passed around probably in the native language of Palestine, but then they are later written some decades later by Greek-speaking Christians. And so ultimately, they go back to oral traditions, and before the oral traditions there were events that happened that these traditions are based on.
JB: Ok. And when it comes to the four that we typically have in our New Testaments, which would you say is the first – how long after the events of Jesus’ life would you estimate it was written? And what do we make of…
BE: Well I don’t have an unusual dating of this. I mean, I basically follow the mainstream scholarly line, which is that Mark was probably the first Gospel written, probably around the year 70 or so, probably.
JB: Which would put it about 40 years or so after the life of Jesus.
BE: And it’s our first account that we have. There were probably ones earlier, but we don’t have them. Matthew and Luke both appear to have used Mark as one of their sources – I can’t remember if Peter actually agrees with that or not – but there are word for word agreements in Greek that are sustained over a long period of time; it’s hard to explain that unless somebody is copying somebody else, or copying a common source. So Matthew and Luke have those similarities between each other and with Mark, and so it’s usually thought that Matthew and Luke came later than Mark, and they’re normally dated to the 80s, 80-85, something like that, so 50-55 years after Jesus’ death. And John is almost always seen as the last Gospel, and usually dated towards the end of the 1st century – say 90 or 95, so maybe 60-65 years after Jesus’ death. So the time gap between Jesus’ death and the first accounts of his life are between 40-65 years.
JB: Ok. We’ll come to talking about the actual authorship of those Gospels in a moment, but where do you stand on the dating of the Gospels? I know this is a big area in New Testament scholarship that we’re talking about here.
PJW: Well I’m deliberately non-committal on the subject of dating. Because the way I put it, is the Gospels don’t come with dates on, but they do come with names on. So if we just start with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – and there aren’t early manuscripts without those names on. And I don’t think it’s likely that four Gospels were each composed anonymously and then got these names on – we can have some discussion about that, because I think we’re going to differ. So then you ask yourself the question, say with Mark and Luke, if it weren’t for the Gospels of Mark and Luke, the names Mark and Luke would be sort of nobodies. So I can’t see a reason for people to stick those names on unless those are authentic.
And then the timescale for the Gospels has to be the timescale of people who can do the things that Mark and Luke did. Luke is portrayed as a companion of Paul, so I’m not going to be putting it late in the 1st century; I’m going to be putting it somewhat earlier. With Matthew and John, again, we can’t say the dates, but if these are people who were disciples of Jesus, then it’s going to have to be plausibly within the lifetime of people who could be disciples of Jesus around year 30. Those are the way I would look at it. But then I’d also say let’s look at the internal signs within the Gospels. And you start saying: what’s the level of familiarity that these people have with the time and place they’re writing about? Do they know the geography? When they write about Valley of Kidron say in the Gospel of John, you say ok, check, you know – they know certain amounts about where things are. When they’re starting to use Aramaic words or specialist terms – so the way Luke will use dry measures and liquid measures, which are very Palestinian: the Se’ah, the Kor and the Bath, you know, which he uses in chapters 13 and 16. What sort of knowledge does that presuppose? And I think from that you build up a sense of these people either came from the land, therefore they knew this sort of stuff, or they had had very detailed conversations with people who were in the land, or they had followed details sources that had been in the land – that’s the sort of way I’d look at it.
So in other words, I’ve got a different story from the way Bart puts it, where I think Bart has rural, peasant, Aramaic-speakers – big sort of gap through some time of transmission – to Greek-speaking writers. And I would want to explore the very stages of that, because although I would say rural in one sense, I would say well if they’re hanging around Capernaum, it’s one of the most densely populated areas; Josephus says – he may be exaggerating – that every village had at least 15,000 people and so on.
BE: You know the archaeological reports on Capernaum. So what does the archaeology tell us about the population?
PJW: Well one of the things is people do tend to ignore…
BE: What does the archaeology actually tell us?
PJW: I’m answering that. It tells you there were 40×40 blocks that people have found, but it doesn’t tell you how far things go when you’ve had two massive Roman wars, the second one in the 2nd century which wipes out 900+ settlements. I mean, every stone is going to be reused as people are trying to fortify things. I think there’s a lot – I mean we could talk about this more…
BE: You do know that the stones that are pre-used in another place can be located to the original place. I mean, this happens all the time in archaeology. So is there any evidence that Capernaum was larger than the archaeologists say it was?
PJW: Well I would say that Josephus is the evidence. Josephus says…
BE: And how reliable is Josephus when it comes to population statistics?
PJW: Well this is the really interesting thing, because Josephus, I would say, is a written source who gives quite good numbers. Now people doubt this, but I’d say there is a major tension between archaeological numbers generally, and literary numbers. The literary numbers as you’d know, are generally far higher, aren’t they. As in when you have people who are writing, who say they were there at the time, you get different numbers from what you get when you ask material archaeologists today. Now isn’t that fair?
BE: So in terms of population size, if you want to evaluate that, all you have to do is look at newspapers that report events that happen in our own day, where you have photographs of the crowds. Trump for example during his inauguration, claimed that there were ‘x’ number of people – millions of people – and the photographs showed it wasn’t true. Now he was there. So the fact that he was there doesn’t show that he is right. And ancient authors are notorious for getting the population statistics… So if anybody is really interested in looking this up – don’t take any of my words for it – just read the archaeological… and the easiest place to do it is simply the book by Jonathan Reed and John Dominic Crossan, where they talk about the archaeology of Palestine and they lay out the information at a very simple level – it’s based on scholars, it’s not for scholars – and you can see how populated these places were.
PJW: But you’ve just said it – ancient authors are notorious for getting it wrong. In other words…
BE: They’re basing this on archaeology, they’re not basing it on what authors say.
PJW: So it’s a question of methods. So in other words, they tend to set aside what the literary authors of the time say about their land. They then in the 20th and 21st century develop material methods which they say are more reliable than the ancient authors.
BE: May I just say one thing about… The reason they do that is because different authors give different estimates that are off by unbelievable amounts in the antiquity. If you simply look at, for example, what Tertullian says about the population of Christians in the Roman Empire – he claims that if the Romans wipe out the Christians, there would be nobody left to rule; that there are more Christians than pagans. This is in the year 200.
PJW: That’s hyperbole.
BE: There’s no way!
PJW: But we’re going to have some discussion about this later on I think, about the number of Christians that there were. Because I think Bart goes for lower numbers in the 1st century than I would.
BE: I go for pretty standard numbers actually.
JB: Anyway, what I’m establishing is that obviously you have got later dating for these accounts of Jesus’ life, the Gospels. You would go for a more optimistic earlier dating…
PJW: Yes, so I would say within the lifetimes of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and it doesn’t have to be towards the end. And I have no problem with Jesus predicting the fall of Jerusalem before…
JB: I was going to ask about this. So the fall of Jerusalem AD 70 – this is a major event in the life of Jerusalem; the destruction of the temple. And of course, the Gospels appear to have Jesus talking about the destruction of Jerusalem. Now as I understand it, that leads many scholars to think: well, it must have been afterwards – and this is sort of retroactively placing the destruction of Jerusalem on the lips of Jesus. But you actually believe there is evidence that the Gospels were written prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
PJW: It depends how you’re coming at it. I’m coming at it from it trying to make coherent sense of everything. And so in that I think there is evidence that Jesus was the Son of God, based on that, I have no problem with saying he predicted things. Of course I don’t have copies of the Gospels from before the year 70, so you know, I’m coming at it from the point of view of we have these documents which have all these other signs or reliability that I find, in that they portray Jesus as predicting the fall of Jerusalem, it seems to me to make sense that he predicted the fall of Jerusalem. But that’s where I do think one’s belief in the supernatural or not, is a factor…
JB: But this is probably a key point of difference between you when it comes to…
BE: No, I agree, I’ve always said that I thought Jesus predicted the fall of Jerusalem.
JB: As in, before it happened?
PJW: You can have a naturalistic prediction as well.
BE: And naturally, people make predictions.
JB: So in that sense do you think it’s quite possible that that was written down before the fall of Jerusalem, in that sense.
JB: Well there you go! I’m glad we’ve got some agreement.
BE: But that isn’t the only reason for dating the Gospels after 70.
BE: You don’t have to be like a secular humanist who is an atheist, to think that the Gospels were written after 70 – it’s got nothing to do with whether you believe in miracles or not. I believed that John was written in the 90s when I was a fundamentalist Christian.
JB: I mean, what’s at stake here? Is it simply that obviously the earlier we have these Gospels, the more likely it is that they are historically reliable?
PJW: We may well agree on the dating on the Gospel of John, as in the thought that he wrote this late on in a long life, you know, is perfectly fine for me. But I would be interested on the subject of Luke, because Luke and Acts are by the same author. The author of Acts clearly knows his way around the Mediterranean pretty well – has done a lot of research on the localities there. And wouldn’t you need almost to have that pair of writings – you need to have someone, if they’re writing in the 90s, replicate the journey that Luke is supposed to have made in the 60s to do the research, in order to write the book. I mean, isn’t there a problem?
JB: Well let’s just spell this out then. So what we know is that Luke and Acts appear to be sort of a part one and part two of the story of Jesus and then the early church, and appear to have the same author, essentially writing it. Now obviously we attribute that to Luke traditionally, who is mentioned in the book of Acts and so on. Just as a starting point, do you have any idea yourself Bart, in your view, who wrote Luke and Acts?
BE: I don’t think we know; he doesn’t give us his name. In four places in Acts, he moves into the first-person narrative, where he says, “we did this”; “we did that”, as somebody on Paul’s journeys. And so most readers have thought that this was a companion of Paul, because of that. There are disputes about that; the disputes are very technical and complicated. I spend many pages talking about it in a couple of my books, and we probably don’t want to go there now. My view is that if it was a companion of Paul, that would be somebody who was not one of the companions of Jesus; Paul himself was not a companion of Jesus. And so the issue is where does Luke get his information from? He doesn’t say that he got his information from the disciples or from anyone else. He says that people before him had written accounts, and he’s done research, and now this is an accurate account.
JB: Ok. So what’s your take on what Bart has just described…?
PJW: So I think we agree that the writer of Luke’s Gospel is not an eyewitness himself. And I’m very glad to hear that Bart is open to it being a companion of Pauls – sounds like you’re open to it being by Luke.
BE: Oh I don’t think it is, no. I’m just saying, even if it is, it’s not going to change any of my views about… My view of the historicity of the Gospel of Luke has no bearing on whether it was written by a companion of Paul. Because I have other reasons for thinking that it’s problematic, not related to who the author was.
PJW: But in terms of the… I would want to say from the authorship, clearly the person who’s done it has done a lot of research, both round the Mediterranean, and they happen to know everything from there being Sycamore trees in Jericho to the dry measures, and they know about parable themes in Palestine; they’ve got this sort of knowledge.
BE: That’s right.
PJW: And so we have to credit this author with a massive amount of research. And given that, I would say given the consistency with which we – across the book of Luke – gets high levels of knowledge about the land, then this works very well if you have someone like let’s say a doctor who happens to have visited Palestine and interviewed people, you know, that explains what we have most easily.
BE: No, ‘the most easily’ is the problem; it would explain it, and there are lots of other things that would explain it. The reason for suspecting that Luke isn’t accurate is nothing to do with whether he knows about Sycamore trees or about names of people who lived in Palestine, so those are not arguments that people use to say that Luke isn’t accurate. The arguments about him being accurate have to do with other things we haven’t gotten to yet.
JB: Well why don’t we aim to get to some of those in a very short moments time. We’re talking on the show today about the story of Jesus: the historical reliability of the Gospels. My guests today on the Big Conversation are Bart Ehrman and Peter J Williams. Having a great conversation here on the Big Conversation between Peter J Williams and Bart Ehrman today; I’m Justin Brierley, bringing you this conversation on: ‘Can We Trust the Story of Jesus?’, looking at the historical reliability of the Gospels. Let’s talk about Luke and Acts first of all Peter, because obviously Bart feels that there are reasons why we shouldn’t necessarily trust the credibility and historicity of this. Just give us a little more detail first of all on some of the factors that you think authenticate this as being someone who knew the area, knew the people, and so on.
PJW: Yes, so when you look at the text, I’d say either the person has lived in the land, or they spent detailed conversations talking to people who lived in the land. And I’d say that about all four Gospels – that they know where the land goes up and down; between them they mention 26 town names; they know travelling times and so on. When I look at Luke, I find that there are certain features – I can think of four verses in a row in Luke 16, where you get a dry measure and a wet measure, and then we get “the sons of light” as a phrase, which is a Palestinian religious phrase, and then “unrighteous mammon” in the next verse. And those are four bits of language which I would expect really reflects the land of Palestine. And so if we’ve got them in a row, it’s because we actually have the wording somehow preserved.
I look at a story like the story of the Prodigal Son, and I don’t think it’s a story that’s made by a committee. I think it’s a story which represents someone’s thought who’s been really very, very deeply into the Old Testament; they’ve rearranged bits from the Laban-Jacob narrative, from the Jacob-Esau narrative, they’re putting out phrases here, there and everywhere from the Old Testament, and it comes together. And so I would say, well which genius comes up with this? Am I going to have a later literary genius who comes up with a great story like this, or am I going to say no Jesus is the genius, and somehow that story has basically been preserved.
I think look at say Luke 19 – he knows that there is toll collection in Jericho, he knows there is a Sycamore tree in Jericho, and then straight after that you have this story about a noble man going off to receive the kingdom and people revolting while that’s happening; and of course, that’s based on the story of Archelaus who went off many years earlier to Rome to get his kingdom confirmed. But the geographical setting implied by the context would be that you’re just coming out of Jericho and guess what, there’s Archelaus – the palace that Archelaus tried to build, right nearby. So I want to say all of these things come together.
Now I know there are problems – we might want to talk about the chronology in the beginning of Luke as well. Underlying this, I say, someone has done a huge amount of research, to get this together. And I think the most obvious interpretation is that we have a lot of tradition of Jesus coming through.
JB: Ok, so for you it just strikes you, looking at the detail that’s there – the local knowledge, the language and everything else – that this is someone writing close to the time of the events, who knew the place, knew the people, was able to muster quite a lot of information that wouldn’t have been available to someone writing in a more distant or different place, location, at a hazier time. And in that sense, as far as you’re concerned from what I’m hearing, you believe the Gospel accounts should be taken as authoritative in the way that we might say almost beyond other historical accounts. I mean, people often compare and contrast different types of documents from the ancient world. These, as far as you can see, are very reliable, when you put them side by side with others.
PJW: Yes, I think I want to distinguish two sorts of argumentation. One is a sort of, this is what I can show on a first pass historically, and the other is what I might believe, because I embrace an entire Christian system. And I want to distinguish those two.
JB: Yes. Bart, so quite a lot of detail there about times, places, events, language, that Peter feels tie the Gospel of Luke and Acts to someone who knew his stuff; close to the events in that way. And you say none of this really actually impacts the way in which you see actually there are the problems that exist with the narrative.
BE: That’s right. So we will have some differences on whether everything’s accurate in Luke and Acts in terms of geography and such, and we could argue those out – those tend to be kind of technical little arguments. I should say that Peter’s not arguing that necessarily it’s early, as you summarised. He’s saying he’s not committing to a date. Luke/Acts might be after 70, might be 40-50 years later; he’s acknowledging that. But he’s saying that the author has done a lot of research to come up with this information. I personally don’t think he did a lot of research. I mean, I think that we can get to my views about how it happened, but I’ll say that I think that the entire argument that he’s making doesn’t really relate to the issue we’ll want to discuss. The reason is because if Luke is accurate in terms of what trees were in Palestine or what customs were followed, what measurements were used – if he knows what cities were there and what the distances were between them – that has no bearing on the question of whether the stories he tells about Jesus are historically right. You can read an article on tomorrow’s Guardian, which talks about something that happened in London. And the author can get everything right in terms of the geography and the measurements and the trees, and get everything right about that. But he might be completely wrong about the story he told. We’re not talking about whether he is accurate about the customs – we want to know is the article right.
Just as an example – I’ll come up with a hypothetical example here. So suppose in 2000 years there is a scholar who’s heard that there is this story about a debate that took place on this radio show Unbelievable? in Westminster. And there was this American scholar – happens to be in England – and his name is Ehrman. And he was in Wimbledon, and he took an overground train to Vauxhall, and then he walked across the Vauxhall Bridge, and he was going to have this debate with somebody named Peter Williams, who actually came from Cambridge. And he’d heard this story, and he wants to verify it. So he goes on an archaeological dig, and he finds there was a place called London, and it was a big place. And there was a place south-west of it – Wimbledon – and there was a trainline that went to a place called Vauxhall. And he finds that there is somebody named Ehrman who actually had a place in Wimbledon. And he digs further and he digs in Cambridge, finds a Peter Williams. But the story – the way the story continued – was that before Ehrman got to the interview, there was big explosion in Westminster that blew up the entire neighbourhood; thousands of casualties because of a gas leak. And he wants to see if that’s true. And what he finds is that every geographical marking is right. There is a Wimbledon; there is a Vauxhall; there is a Westminster; there is an Ehrman – he can find all the facts. Is he therefore right that there was a gas leak that led to an explosion that levelled Westminster?
JB: I’m glad to say he’s wrong about that, because we’re all here! But yes, ok…
BE: What I’m interested in… What Peter is arguing for, is that the author knew about the geography of Palestine. And we could have that argument, but it’s not the one that really matters to people, because people don’t really care that much whether they had Sycamore trees there. What they really want to know is if the New Testament says that Jesus did ‘x, y and z’ – did he do it, or not? If the New Testament says that Jesus said ‘this’ – did he say it or not? The fact that the author happens to know about the geography has no bearing.
JB: Let’s come back to these questions…
PJW: I would want to reply on that, because I think there are two points I’d want to make. One is, there is more connection, because the sort of things they know are non-trivial. You can’t get them through reading Pliny the Elder or reading Strabo or any book, you know. So if they’re from outside the land they have to have gone to lengths to know – I mean, Jericho’s got a different climate, you get different trees; they need to know that sort of thing. And then the other issue is in order to get the story of Jesus wrong, you’d have to have a different mechanism of information. So it’s like they’ve gone to the efforts of doing this research to get all the context right, and then you’re going to say but they were casual about the stories. And for that I think you’d need to have some sort of system of selective corruption of information, that corrupts the most important stuff and leaves all the trivial stuff in place. And I’d want to know how do you do that?
BE: Ok good, I’d like to respond on that. For one thing, I don’t think you have to do a lot of research if you’re living in the year 70, to report about what happened in Palestine 40 years earlier – in terms of geography and such. The reason is because, as you yourself are saying, these authors are basing their accounts on things that they’ve heard. Everybody agrees the stories go back to Palestine – not all of the stories probably, but let’s just say that they all do, let’s say that all of the stories go back to Palestine – that means you’ve got an oral tradition about what happened, which include details within the stories. This is what happens in oral traditions; it’s not just the New Testament, every oral tradition is like this – you get these little details. The fact you get the details doesn’t mean that the tradition itself is right.
And when you say that somebody had to do a lot of research and if they got all the trivial stuff they also got the big stuff, that’s ignoring what we know about oral tradition. We know what happens in oral traditions, and what happens is you save the little details that you get right, but you can get the entire story wrong. And so the question is, what is the evidence that the story is right? We haven’t got to this a bit yet: what is the evidence that in fact, there are problems with these stories? I think I enjoyed Peter’s book very much, Can We Trust the Gospels – it’s well thought out, very smart, intelligent, with a lot of information in it. The problem I have with it is that it doesn’t actually deal with the issues that scholars are pointing to as problems in the Gospels, to show that they’re not reliable.
JB: Ok. Let’s talk about this. I mean, so Bart’s overall criticism here is: ok, lots of details can come through in an oral tradition – the question is, is the story that’s being told true in itself, or has it obviously changed over time and that sort of thing. What gives you confidence that we are not only getting the details right, but the main thrust of the story correct?
PJW: So I’d want to say… I mean one thing Bart himself has written helpfully about is quoting F C Bartlett, and one of the quotations you’ve got is how names usually get corrupted within one or two repetitions of an oral tradition. So if we got all of the geographical names plausible, all of the personal – I mean, we haven’t even talked about that – are right for the time and place, that suggests that we’ve not gone through many stages of tradition.
JB: Just before we come to that, can you just explain the personal names side – because this is another significant area, and it’s worth just spelling it out…
PJW: So the basic argument is that when you look at the four Gospels as a whole and you look at the proportions of names that they have – the sort of different persons, you know – Simon is the most popular name for Jewish men in Palestine at the time, as shown from bone boxes and other things; it’s also the popular in the Gospels. Mary is the most popular female name; it’s also the most popular in the Gospels. And then what you get with all of the most popular names is you tend to get to disambiguate, so something added like Simon Peter or Mary Magdalene – and that’s happening with the most popular names and not with the less popular names.
So it’s all of these things together that I think add up to something of more substance about the nature of the tradition that we’ve got, that it’s not come through lots of steps. Or the telephone analogy/game analogy is sometimes used, you know; I don’t think that analogy is compatible with what we get.
JB: So essentially, because you feel like you’ve got these names which accord very well with historically what we’d expect in that time and place, it feels like it’s all coming to this point where everything seems right about it – why wouldn’t they get the words and the story right as well?
PJW: I’d maybe add one more thing, which is I’m not trying to prove – I don’t think I can prove that the things go back to Jesus. Rather I am saying, the simplest hypothesis – the thing that explains the data – is positing that Jesus said these things, and that they’ve come through. That will beautifully and simply explain things. Obviously often we’ve only got the single witness on these things, so by some history department criteria, I haven’t proven it; you know, it’s not historical. I’m asking a question rather about is it rational and rationally responsible to trust something – which is sometimes slightly different from history department criteria, if that makes sense.
JB: Well that’s the question we’re asking: Can We Trust the Story of Jesus? And in that sense, we ultimately come to this significant question: do we have the words of Jesus? Do we have the story as it happened, or are we getting a sort of interpreted, changed version of the story, even if we have historical details and settings?
BE: And my view is that names have nothing to do with the question. I mean, you can have a Donald Trump talking about Bill and Hilary Clinton, and about Joe Biden, members of the administration – he can name all the names.
JB: But he can tell a very false story.
BE: Yes. And so the fact that he’s got the names has no bearing on the question.
JB: Do you agree at least in principle that there is good archaeological, historical evidence for the accuracy of, for instance, the names matching up and that kind of…
JB: So on that you guys have a broad amount of agreement, but the question is, is it true?
BE: He’s using a counter-argument to an argument that doesn’t exist. So Peter is saying, “yes, but they’re wrong because of this”, but nobody is saying that – that isn’t why anybody thinks the Gospels are inaccurate.
JB: All right. Tell us why you think they are then?
BE: Well ok. So first I’ll say… I’ll do it first in general terms, then I’ll really hit… But, in general terms, I mean Peter mentioned the scholar of oral traditioning – Bartlett. So there is massive research done on oral traditions and how they work, by people who are interested in antiquity; people who are interested in the modern world – very famous names, British scholars, American scholars: Milman Perry, Albert Lord, Walter Ong, Jack Goody, Jan Vansina. All of these people have written big books on them, and they all agree that when traditions get passed along orally – even in oral cultures where you would think they’d keep everything right, because there’s no way to check it because there’s no writing, so you think well they must memorize everything, they don’t change it – and all of these studies showed that that’s wrong; they do change the stories, often quite significantly. So if the Gospels are written 40, 50 years later, at least – I mean, Peter’s agreeing that Luke and Mark are not eyewitnesses, they’ve heard these stories – what happens to the stories?
So the question is, that’s what happens in every oral culture that’s ever been studied, so is it true with the early Christians? And there is only one way to find out, which is to compare their stories with each other. When two authors tell us the same story, do they tell the same story or not? Or are there contradictions? Are there discrepancies? Now Peter deals with this in his book, he has a chapter on contradictions. But I didn’t quite understand it, because he’d listed – I forget what it was – six or seven possible contradictions, and then showed they weren’t contradictions. But they weren’t six or seven things that everybody points out to as contradictions. And so the ones that people do point out as contradictions, he didn’t deal with. So I’d like to…
JB: Well I mean, I know you’re well known in debates and talks for rattling off, for instance, differences and discrepancies between the resurrection accounts and those sorts of things. And you’ll say: was it two women or was it one woman, or was there an angel or wasn’t there an angel, and so on. And so for you, does simply the fact that the different accounts have different details in them about the same general story, if you like, is that if you like enough to say it didn’t happen?
JB: What’s going on then?
BE: No, the question is: if somebody tells a story, is the story right or not? And if two people tell stories that are at odds with each other – not just different, I mean of course everybody tells a story differently, but it doesn’t mean they’re both wrong. You know, four people can tell the same story – tell it very differently – and they’re just… one person’s telling one part of it, another’s emphasising one thing – and so of course, that kind of thing happens all the time, and that doesn’t mean… But if you’ve got stories that have differences that cannot be reconciled with one another – one says one thing, one says the other thing; not whether there’s two women or one woman – if two women go to the tomb, and one woman goes to the tomb in another, you say, well ok this person’s only mentioning the one, but there were two – so there are ways to reconcile… there are other things that simply can’t be reconciled.
JB: Ok, give us a couple of examples and we’ll see what Peter has to say…
BE: Well what I would suggest that people listening to this do is not take my word for it or Peter’s word for it, because what people are going to do is people on my side are going to agree with me, people on Peter’s side are going to agree with him. And so I’m going to suggest, don’t just to that – just do it for yourself. Get two stories in the Gospels and go through them word for word, line for line – write down everything that happens and compare your lists. And it doesn’t matter: do it with the birth stories, do it with the crucifixion stories, do it with the resurrection – just do it yourself and find out, are there differences there or not?
Just one example, one example: it involves Luke – the death of Judas Iscariot. So Judas – in Mark, Luke and John – nothing happens to him afterwards, he just disappears. In Matthew’s Gospel, Judas hangs himself. And what happens is he feels remorse about what he’s done; he’s betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, he tries to return the 30 pieces, the high priest won’t take it, so he throws them down in the temple and goes off and hangs himself. And the priests then say: ah, we’ve got these 30 pieces of silver, we can’t put them back in the treasury because it’s blood money – it was used to betray blood. So they go off and they buy a field, and it’s called The Field of Blood, because it’s purchased with blood money after Judas has hanged himself.
Luke also wrote the book of Acts, as we were saying, and in chapter 1 there is a second account of Judas’ death. In this account what happens is, there’s nothing about Judas hanging himself, nothing about the priests buying the field. In this account, Judas goes and buys the field before he dies, and he doesn’t hang himself, he somehow falls headfirst and his intestines break open and bleed all over the ground. And so the people in Jerusalem start calling this The Field of Blood, because Judas bled all over it. Those two accounts cannot be reconciled.
JB: Ok, so before we hear Peter’s response to that, is the issue then that we don’t know what happened to Judas at all because these accounts are as far as you can see…
BE: I think that we can know something. I think there really was a Judas, I think that he really did betray Jesus to the authorities and I think he probably came to some kind of untimely death that was somehow connected with the field in Jerusalem.
JB: But as to reconciling these two stories, they’re just different as far as you see.
BE: But if you want to read Matthew and say: yes, that’s really happened; or if you want to read Acts: that’s what really happened…?
JB: It’s helpful to drill done on a specific example sometimes. So how do you read these two accounts of Judas’ death?
PJW: Sure, I’d like to come to that first, but I hope also to come back on the whole question of oral tradition at some stage. So I think it’s really interesting that we’ve got these two accounts, and Bart mentioned two things as he went through the account in Acts. One is he used the word “somehow” – that Judas somehow – and the phrase is “became headlong”. Well that to me is just crying out for some more details. We need to explain, we need some sort of like vertical elevation – oh, Matthew has vertical elevation, because he has to hang himself. So I’d want to say that the account in Acts is crying out for a bit more. And the other issue we’ve got is his intestines – how on earth do his intestines start bursting forth? I mean, that wouldn’t normally happen if you just fall. So in other words, I’d want to say that makes a lot of sense.
BE: So how did it happen?
PJW: So how did it happen? I’d want to say I think you can put the two together, probably the data are underdetermined, as in there would be multiple scenarios that would fit those…
BE: Give me one…
PJW: Let’s say someone hangs and then the rope snaps after their dead, and their entrails burst out – I’m not a medic on that, but you know…
BE: Yes, ok. So let me ask this: if somebody’s hanging and the rope snaps – that’s happened before – how do they fall?
BE: Do they fall head first?
PJW: Well it depends what their feet hit.
BE: Does it depend?
PJW: Yes it does, it depends what they’re hanging over.
BE: What do you mean?
PJW: Well I mean if you’re hanging over something and there’s a rock ford and you’re going to trip on it and go head forward – these things happen, I don’t know.
JB: It sounds like we’re doing CSI here – crime scene investigation!
PJW: I just think the data’s underdetermined.
BE: Let me just say this. Yes, it’s underdetermined. So to reconcile it, you have to come up with a completely implausible scenario to reconcile it. You can reconcile anything. Let me give you an example of how you can reconcile anything. Right now in America they’re celebrating the moon landing. One out of six Americans don’t think there was a moon landing. So you have people say there was not a moon landing and people say there was a moon landing – so how do those two… and most human beings would say, you know, it either is this or it’s not that. If you really want to, you could say: oh no, you can reconcile that, because actually they first didn’t get there and so they didn’t land, but then they circled around the earth again and went back and they landed the second time; so there wasn’t and there was. Now you could do that, but like is it really the best explanation?
JB: But I mean firstly, I’d want to ask: a) how important is it that we know the exact way in which Judas met his fate? And secondly, are you essentially trying to come up with some theory that matches two impossible matching stories?
PJW: I’m not trying to say we know exactly how things happened, I think there are multiple ways; I’m trying to use charity. And the same charity I’d want to use on Bart. You see, Bart a few minutes ago said that some things cannot be reconciled, then a few minutes later said you can reconcile anything. And I’d want to say I have the charity to say that there’s a coherence behind Bart’s thinking; he’d want to qualify one in the light of the other. And the way we should deal with these things is we should do the same with ancient sources, as I would do with Bart.
BE: It’s fairly easy to reconcile what I said. I would like to know a single case in history where somebody was hanged and he died by going headfirst and his guts opened up.
PJW: I don’t have one.
BE: Of course you don’t, nobody does! So either they are irreconcilable, or they’re not.
JB: I mean, you obviously feel that there’s… you say that it’s underdetermined. So we’ve got two accounts, both of which involve a field, both of which involve Judas killing himself because he feels… But essentially, I suppose a lot of people might sort of sit back and say: well look guys, we know he died, we know that he betrayed Jesus, does it matter exactly that the mode…
BE: I’m not arguing that the Gospels are completely unreliable. I’m not saying that – the Gospels have historical information in them. Can you trust that what they say about what happened in the life of Jesus actually happened or not? I’m saying, in many cases, no you cannot trust that. If Peter wants to say that in every case they are trustworthy, that would be worth talking about – do you think that there are any mistakes?
PJW: I don’t.
BE: Can you explain how your view would be different from a fundamentalist view?
PJW: Well I think that’s not a very helpful analytical term.
BE: No, I just want to know where you stand – do you think it’s completely inerrant?
PJW: I think that the traditional Christian view is that all Scripture is true; that does not mean that the copy that somehow has in front of them – the copy of the manuscript is necessarily valid…
BE: No I’m not talking about copies…
PJW: But do I follow the belief that when God speaks words of Scripture they are his own character of truthfulness – yes.
BE: So you think everything in the Bible is true – there are no mistakes of any kind.
PJW: The word Bible has multiple values – a physical value – and I prefer the word Scripture: do I believe all Scripture is true? Yes.
BE: With no mistakes of any kind anywhere?
PJW: Yes, I believe that God didn’t make any mistakes of any kind.
BE: I don’t think God makes mistakes either. But I’m not talking about God – I’m talking about…
JB: But you don’t believe in God…
PJW: But I do need to be able to express what I do believe, and not have words put in my mouth. So I believe that all Scripture is true, yes.
JB: I mean, from that point of view you’re willing to look for ways in which there can be a reconciling of what Bart obviously believes are irreconcilable stories?
PJW: Yes. Not that I’m necessarily that interested in following them up because again, there are multiple alternatives. I mean, you could look at the word “he hanged himself” in Matthew – is just one word in Greek – so you ask yourself how much detail is that actually telling you about what actually went on.
BE: Yes ok, but you should explain to people how lexicography works, I mean, how do we know what it means?
PJW: Well we’d need to look at surrounding contexts and so on, but often things are underdetermined.
BE: Is that word underdetermined?
PJW: Ah, I’d need to have a greater look at it! But you can visualise something from that, and we need to ask ourselves the question: is this really a defeater? And I don’t think it is.
BE: I just wonder what it would take… I mean, if you are already committed to the idea that there can’t be any mistakes, then how would you be open to the idea that there might be a mistake?
PJW: So I think the way I’d look at it is like this: it’s to do with having a coherent world-view. So I think you’d be pretty sceptical if I proposed a miracle to you, because it would be inconsistent with your world-view. In the same way, I would say I’ve got lots of positive reasons for thinking that Scripture is miraculous and it all builds up to this climax with Jesus, and there’s prophesy beforehand and he seems to do lots of remarkable things. And so I’m trying to make sense of things together, as I think you would do.
BE: I have no problem with that. But what I’d like is it to be acknowledged that’s doing theology; it’s not doing history. History is not done by coming at it with a theological presupposition about what had to happen. You look at the evidence, and then you see does the evidence move me that way or not. You don’t approach it by saying: this has to be right, because God said it.
JB: Are you saying that no-one that holds to a theological view let’s say of the authority of Scripture can therefore do proper history?
BE: I’m saying that if you’re going to do proper history, you cannot allow your presuppositions about God to affect the outcome.
PJW: And I would say I’ve never tried to claim that I am ‘doing history’; I often would like to make a distinction between the sorts of things that go on in history departments, and what I believe rationally you should trust. I mean, all sorts of male-on-female violence that happened, for which there is only one witness, and you probably can’t prove it to a history department, but you should jolly well believe the victim when she says this has happened. There are all sorts of things in life that we believe on the basis on one testimony, but which won’t rise to the criteria – the fairly artificial criteria – of a history department, which is also going to take on the overall world-view that tends to be around in academia at the time.
BE: What Peter is saying though is that Christian history isn’t the same as history. In other words, if you go to a history department, there are criteria – just as if there’s a crime committed. If there is a crime committed, the way you solve the crime is not by asking the victim what happened; you have a trial and you look at evidence, and you want to go where the evidence goes. You don’t want to go with what your gut tells you: “this has to be right because I’m just going to trust this person”.
JB: Is there a sense though in which for you Peter the… if you like, the secular standards, if you like, of history, are enough to affirm and confirm, if you like, the theological stance that you take regarding the Bible and history?
PJW: I think you’ve got several different things going on here. One is, a history department will never lose out… well, it tends to be weighted towards not believing something. So when Sir Godfrey Driver – a great Hebrew professor – first heard the dead sea scrolls had been discovered, he said: “probably not genuine”, and it turned out to be genuine – but his reputation didn’t suffer damage. When Hugh Trevor Roper said the Hitler Diaries are probably genuine and they turned out not to be, his reputation really took a hit. There is a way in which I think it’s a bit like hedge fund managing, you know – that history departments can stack things so that scepticism is more favoured. That again is different from what you do as a jury when you’re looking at someone; that’s also different from what you do as a friend if someone comes to you and says that they’re a victim and you say: “I trust you”. So I think these are all different thing. My argument is not about whether I can prove something to a history department; my argument is about whether I can show that this is rationally able to be trusted.
BE: But the problem is when you get down to the details, because when you start looking at detailed contradictions – of which there are hundreds – the only way to reconcile them is to come up with implausible scenarios that never happened. And so do you really want to go that route and say that in fact, it’s like this is so implausible, but it’s got to be right because the Scripture cannot be wrong.
PJW: So I don’t feel a burden to come up with particular reconciliations and harmonies and answers – you know, the sort of Christian-answer-man-style thing – because I don’t think that’s really necessary. Because I think that life is full of things that have, on their own, 1% probability or 2% – whatever it is – and often what I’m looking at is the overall pattern. And I recognise that I have some difficulties on my view, in terms of how I take Scripture, but I think others who are more sceptical have far more difficulties on their view. Because you know, they have to come to implausible views about – maybe we’ll talk about this some time – about the resurrection or something like that, and I’d find them less plausible, you know.
JB: We’re going to go to a quick break, and fascinating – I’m sorry to interrupt what is a great dialogue at this point. But we will talk about oral tradition as well, because I think this is significant, and the words of Jesus, because if you like, if there is anything that Christians need to rely on, it’s whether Jesus really said the things that he’s ascribed to have been said in the Gospels. So we’ll continue this conversation in a very short moments time.
So continuing our conversation on: Can We Trust the Story of Jesus?, we’re looking at the historical reliability of the Gospels. Bart Ehrman and Peter Williams with me, it’s been a fantastic discussion so far, and we’re into part three now. And why don’t we talk about the words of Jesus, because that’s what it often comes down to in the end. Just in that last segment Bart, you were saying that: “hey Peter, are you doing theology or are you doing history?” And many people who are critical let’s say of the historical reliability of the Gospels, would say: well this is more someone doing theology; someone kind of wanting to give Jesus a certain supernatural Son of God look, and we can’t trust that this was actually the words of Jesus that have been put in his mouth and so on. Is that your view, that the Gospels in that sense are more a work of theology than history?
BE: So, I don’t think I’d put it that way. Because I know that there are critics who say it’s all just made up and it’s just putting people’s own theological beliefs onto Jesus, and I don’t think that. I mean, I think that there is a lot of material in the Gospels that absolutely goes back to a historical Jesus; I think some of the sayings in the Gospels actually go back to the historical Jesus. So I don’t think that they are just theology; I also don’t think that they are just history. I think it’s quite clear that the authors of the New Testament have shifted their stories in line with their theological views, and that the storytellers before them did the same thing. These stories have been passed along for 30, 40, 50 years, and one person tells it to the next, to the next – everybody’s telling it in their own way, just as we all tell stories in our own way. And when you tell it in your own way, you put your own framing on it. And these are people who are believers in Jesus, so of course they’ve got certain ideas about Jesus and so they’re framing it.
And so the task of the historian is to decide which of these sayings of Jesus and which of these activities of Jesus – which of these experiences of Jesus – probably actually happened, and which ones have been either modified or made up in the process of the retelling. And so I think that it isn’t a simple matter of are they theology or are they history; I think they’re both. And anybody who thinks that they’re pure history I think would have to bear the burden of proof.
JB: I mean, you wrote a book called How Jesus Became God, and of course one of the key claims of the Gospels is Jesus claiming divinity – claiming to be God – and that takes different manifestations in different Gospels. But what is your view – is your view that anything that looks like Jesus claiming some kind of divine status is more likely an amendment of the Jesus story, than an original part?
BE: So I wouldn’t put it quite that simply. I mean, there are people today who claim to be God, and so I don’t say they didn’t say that because you know, somebody wouldn’t say that – people do say that. And so the issue is always how do you know what Jesus said. When it comes to the New Testament Gospels, we of course have Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and as I was saying earlier, it looks like Matthew and Luke have both used Mark; Mark is probably our earliest account. Matthew and Luke are later, and Matthew and Luke appear to have used some other source that we don’t have any more for a number of their sayings of Jesus. And scholars have called the source ‘Q’, and it doesn’t matter to my argument whether you think Q existed or not. But Luke does say he had earlier sources, so it’s not implausible they had a source that was some of Jesus’ sayings.
And so what scholars do when trying to figure out what Jesus really said, once they acknowledge that maybe he didn’t say everything – because we know Jesus didn’t say everything that’s attributed to him in the early church, because we have other gospels that everybody agrees Jesus didn’t say these things. So somebody’s making up stories, and people are changing stories, and so we have absolute evidence of this – no question about it. And so the question is whether that happens in the four Gospels or not, or whether somehow they were protected from ever recording anything that Jesus actually didn’t ever say – were they protected from that?
And what is striking to most scholars, is that when you lay out the sources chronologically, over time Jesus starts changing the sorts of things that he says. And so, for example, in Mark and in Q – which would be the sayings in Matthew and Luke not found in Mark; those would probably be our earliest sources – Jesus principally talks about the kingdom of God that’s coming: there is a kingdom of God that’s coming; you need to prepare and repent for it, because if you don’t you’re going to be destroyed. If you are on the side of God you’ll enter into this kingdom and there will be a glorious existence – and so Jesus is preaching about the coming kingdom of God, in Mark and Q. When you get to the Gospel of John, Jesus no longer preaches about the kingdom of God. He doesn’t tell people to repent in preparation for the coming kingdom of God; he doesn’t say that you will be destroyed when the kingdom of God comes. The way he talks is different now, and rather than talking principally about God and the coming kingdom, he talks about himself – who he is. And so you get some of the most famous sayings of Jesus…
JB: “I am the way, the truth and the life:…
EB: “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me”; “I am the light of the world”; “I am the bread of life”; “before Abraham was, I am”; “I and the Father are one” – you get all of these claims, many of which have a component of divine identity connected with him. He is claiming to be a divine being – that’s crystal clear in the narrative of John – Jesus will say, “I and the Father are one”, and the Jews will pick up stones to stone him to death for committing blasphemy. You don’t have those stories in the earliest Gospels.
And it’s striking, and you have to explain: if Jesus did go around calling himself a divine being – if that really happened, as John says it happened, and it’s the major teaching of Jesus in John – if that’s what happened, why isn’t it in Mark or Q” Is it that they didn’t think it was important to report that part of Jesus’ teachings? Or – a more plausible explanation for more people, for most critical scholars – a more plausible explanation is that over time, the Christians understanding of Jesus changed, and they started seeing him as less of just a human messiah and more as some kind of divine being, over time. And as they saw him that way, they recorded his words in those ways. And so the later sayings of John are later representations of what later Christians said about Jesus, rather than what the earliest… and if you think the earliest Christians thought this about Jesus, why don’t they record him as saying so?
JB: So the developmental idea in the Gospels and the early Christian later traditions around Jesus are developing the idea in the words?
PJW: Yes. I mean I think this is a great example of showing how so much scholarship, while claiming to be historically neutral, is basically very philosophically driven. Because I think even as you tease out your chronology in your development, I mean it’s really interesting how it’s all stacking up towards a system in which you don’t get Jesus claiming as much early on. And I think that it’s been developing for a couple of hundred years within scholarship, and it’s so intertwined – the historical argumentation and the sort of slight philosophical nudges here and there – that it’s really really hard to unpick.
But I would just say let’s take Mark’s Gospel, for example. Mark begins with this opening: “I’m going to send my messenger before your face”, and it’s all about quoting the Old Testament, but with John the Baptist going before the face of Jesus, when you know, it’s about in Malachi, that it’s from the messenger going before the face of God. And so it’s presenting Jesus as in that place of God. Next chapter he’s forgiving sins. Couple of chapters later he’s stilling the storm, like only God does – and it’s calling on themes from Jonah. Couple of chapters later, chapter 6, he’s walking on the water like only God does in Job chapter 9, and then he gets to the boat and he says, “be of courage, I am” – it’s a pretty dramatic “I am” there in Mark 6:50. So it’s not just John’s “I am” sayings, slightly different, but there is precedent for them.
And I’d want to say a lot of people see this as a systematic presentation of Jesus’ very very exalted status, such that people are wondering: who is this? They’re asking this question, and the fact that it’s doing it through a sort of more Socratic method of getting you to think who this is, it’s not… I mean, God is the only one who opens the eyes of the blind, and that is something Jesus does uniquely in the Gospels. So I’d want to say that all of these things come together to give you a very exalted portrait of Jesus.
JB: So there is a consistency as far as you’re concerned between those earlier, if you like, accounts in Mark…
PJW: The whole question of development, you know, you’ve got to say when we lay out sources and we see: “this comes before this and this” – what actually are we basing that on? How much is historically verifiable, how much of it is philosophical system, how much of it is literary system, and what’s fed into that? And I think all of those things have to be laid on the table, so that you can be very clear about when you’re saying: “this is a fact”, you know. What is it actually based on?
BE: Yes, so I’d love to respond to that. I mean, Peter, when you start out by saying that the development is based on a chronologically that’s driven by scepticism…
PJW: I didn’t say driven by scepticism, but yes, ok.
BE: What did you say?
PJW: I think it’s got an input of that.
BE: Because I was just going on your chronology. I mean, you said earlier that you think Mark was the first Gospel.
PJW: I haven’t said that.
BE: Oh, ok. You said that John was the last Gospel.
PJW: Yes, I have said that.
BE: Which one do you think is first?
PJW: I don’t have a view.
BE: Would you agree that John is later than the others?
BE: Ok, that’s the only development I need. I don’t see why scepticism has anything to do with that, I mean, I believed this when I was an Evangelical Christian. But then you want to say that it’s wrong to say that Jesus isn’t portrayed as divine in Mark, because of all these other things.
JB: And I know you can go through them one by one.
BE: No, no, I mean, there are things you say that aren’t true. I mean, it’s not true that only God can heal the blind – prophets do it all the time; faith healers do it, with the power of God.
JB: In the Old Testament?
BE: Yes. So well, and in the New Testament.
PJW: Where in the Old Testament do people heal the blind?
BE: Well in Jewish tradition it’s all over the place.
PJW: Yes but not in the Old Testament?
BE: Yes. But why would you say that only God can heal the blind, I mean, I know people who say they were blind that have been healed.
PJW: I’m trying to think, in the Old Testament, where are there people who healed the blind?
BE: I don’t know that.
PJW: There aren’t any.
BE: But I didn’t say anything about…
PJW: So I was saying, sorry.
JB: Go ahead…
PJW: I’m just saying in the Old Testament portrayal only God heals the blind, and then Jesus comes along and does it.
BE: Yes but so do other Jewish healers.
PJW: I think it’s significant the way Jesus is portrayed. If you think about the classic…
BE: It doesn’t make somebody divine to be able to heal somebody; you have healers throughout history, they aren’t God – they’re empowered by God.
PJW: But I think that the signs in the message to John the Baptist, is one of the reasons we know…
BE: That’s just a side point, I still don’t think it’s true, but it doesn’t really matter. You’re saying that Mark portrays Jesus as divine, and that has no bearing on what I was saying; I didn’t deny that, I think that Mark does see Jesus as divine. What I’m asking is: what did Jesus himself say about himself? Now, you pointed out things like John the Baptist looking to Jesus, Jesus walking on the water, Jesus healing the blind – I mean, we could talk about each of all those. But I’m agreeing that Mark portrays Jesus as divine.
My question is, did Jesus go around Palestine, Galilee and then Judea, saying: “I and the Father are one”; “before Abraham was, I am”; “I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me”. These are sayings found in the Gospel of John, which you agree is the last of the Gospels; those sayings are not found in Mark, which you agree is an earlier Gospel. And they’re not only found not in Mark, they’re not found in Luke; they’re not found in Matthew; they’re not from Q – they’re not in any of the early sources, where Jesus says these things. When you pointed out that in Mark’s Gospel people continually are asking: “who is this?” – the answer is never: “he is God”. And Jesus himself never says: “I am God”, in Matthew, Mark, Luke or in other sources.
PJW: I totally agree on that, and there could be all sorts of reasons not to say that. But what I want to say is there is precedent for all of the “I am” sayings. So for instance – “I am the bread of life”, he says in the synoptics: “this is my body, take this bread”. He says: “I am the Good Shepherd” in John, and then he’s portraying himself in stories as basically fulfilling the role of the shepherd. He says: “I am the light of the world” in John; in Matthew he says: “you are the light of the world” – to his disciples; if he is prepared to accept that they are the light of the world, I don’t see why he can’t say that he is as well. So I think all of these things, we can make connections, and I don’t think… Yes, the Gospels are about nine hours long, when you read them in English. So in this two hour section of John, there are things which aren’t in the others. But don’t build a massive castle out of that – I mean, it seems to me of course there are going to be some things that are in one that aren’t in the others.
BE: No, I agree with that. And I’m not trying to build a castle out of it, I’m just responding to Justin’s question; this wouldn’t be a point that I would have raised. I mean, this is not why I think the Gospels are unreliable, so for me this isn’t even the point. But I will say the whole idea of development is that there are things earlier that get developed later, and so the fact that you see things earlier that could lead to John’s proclamations, that’s what the developmental view is. What you don’t get is in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, is Jesus saying that he is God. And my point is if the historical Jesus really did go around saying those things, it is inconceivable to me that our earliest sources fail to mention it. They didn’t think that part was important? This would be the most significant thing to say, and yet none of them – not just Mark – but Matthew and their sources by the way, I mean – I don’t know what you think, but virtually every scholar I know thinks that you’ve got Mark and you’ve got Q and you’ve got M and you’ve got L and then you’ve got Matthew and you’ve got Luke themselves. You’ve got six sources before John – none of them has these sayings. And so are we supposed to think: “well, yes, yes, that was just a minor detail they decided not to get into” – I just find it completely implausible.
PJW: But I think, you know, John doesn’t have Jesus going around saying, “I am God”, either.
BE: “I and the Father are one”; “before Abraham was, I am”.
PJW: Yes, these are big things. But you know, I mean ok you may not believe it happened, but when it’s portrayed as someone walking up to people on the water and then saying, “I am”, you know, it’s a pretty dramatic thing, isn’t it.
BE: In the Gospel of John, the man born blind is asked, “were you the one who was born blind?”, and he replies, “ego eimi” – “I am”; saying, “I am”, is just a way of saying, “yes”.
PJW: Yes, but it’s not just that; when you’ve just walked across the water it’s something different; it’s something more.
BE: Well Peter walked on the water too. Did that make him God?
PJW: No, again there is a difference.
JB: He was the one who fell down of course!
BE: Exactly, within the story. But Peter doesn’t go around saying: “I am”.
PJW: But what do you think Mark 6 is about when Jesus walks on the water. I mean, isn’t this portraying…
BE: I think Mark understands Jesus as a divine being.
JB: If we drill down a little bit on the synoptics, because obviously in a way there are lots of detailed arguments about exactly what John represents in terms of the Jesus story. But I suppose your argument is that there is an oral tradition before you get to these synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke especially. And already in that process we’re getting a different story of Jesus; different sayings of Jesus and things changing before they get written down in that way Bart.
BE: It’s just not a hypothetical based on what we know about oral tradition; it’s based on the fact that you can compare what the Gospels say to each other and see that there are differences.
JB: Why for you Peter are you satisfied that we’ve got, if you like, a historically reliable set of sayings and stories and words of Jesus, that haven’t really changed a great deal from what he would have actually said to people?
PJW: So I think it’s really the simplest hypothesis. So if we look at things that are only in Matthew or only in Luke, for this sake, and what you find is these things fit very well with their early context. I mean, whoever comes up with the story of The Good Samaritan, The Rich Man and Lazarus, The Prodigal Son – I mean, there’s some genius at an early stage. And it makes far more sense to me to say this is Jesus. These stories also have huge integrity, they have very deep Old Testament references, they fit Palestinian Judaism; so the simplest hypothesis is to say they come with integrity.
Now one of the things which you hear about oral tradition is, I think sometimes what Bart is talking about it is more like actuaries, you know. Actuaries study how long people tend to live, and gravestones tell you how long a particular person actually lived. And I think you can have this actuarial approach to the Gospels where you say: well how likely is it stuff got through? And I’d want to say well look at the actual text of the Gospels, to see whether stuff got through – not start with this sort Apriori system of how much can get through based on oral tradition. And I think I’d also want to say – and I’d love Bart to answer – does he really believe that when people are doing history of Jesus in universities, that there is no input from naturalistic world-views, as they work in mainstream universities. I think there is, as I know obviously I know there are Christians working in universities, but I think it does affect things.
JB: So for instance that would mean well any story or saying that involves the miraculous is automatically going to be assumed to have been invented?
PJW: Not automatically; it’s a question of subtle bias that will actually show up cumulatively within an academic sociology.
JB: So a couple of issues there then. Firstly, the oral tradition itself, is it really as flawed potentially in Jesus’ case as you think it would be?
BE: Yes, no that’s great, that’s great. So what I would say is that I do not approach the Gospels with an Apriori view of how oral tradition works. I didn’t start studying oral tradition until about five or six years ago, and I knew years before that that there were problems in the Gospels, because when you compare two accounts with each other, they’re at odds in ways that can’t be reconciled. And so the only reason to look at oral tradition for me was to see well why is that. And so I didn’t approach it with any kind of Apriori sense of it, I just started reading the scholarship.
And if anyone thinks that the stories about Jesus were preserved in tact – without change – over 40-50 years, then I would say two things. One is, how do you demonstrate that from the fact that you’ve got Gospels that have differences in them that are irreconcilable? Secondly, what do you say about all the scholarship? I mean, I listed a bunch of names earlier, of scholars who are not interested in showing whether Jesus existed or whether… they’re just trying to figure out how oral tradition works, and every one of them comes to the same conclusion. So if you don’t agree with that scholarship, I would like to know what are the flaws in that scholarship, because it’s not just one methodology – it’s literary scholars and anthropologists – and they all come to the same conclusion. But I don’t know about the other bit, because the other bit was even more important! The question of the naturalistic side.
JB: Well let’s come to that, but maybe respond first…
PJW: I’m not saying that the studies of oral tradition are not correct; I’m just saying they may not be very germane. We have the four Gospels, and you start with the text and say, you know, we don’t know that this comes through a long line of oral tradition – we simply don’t know that. You have the texts of the Gospels; the Gospels don’t come with dates on. The question is, when we look at the text itself, are there signs of reliability? And what I’d want to say is because of the consistent pattern of getting Palestinian culture, geography, culture, religion and so on right, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to say that what we have in these Gospels is coming through a very long chain of tradition.
JB: So are you saying then that you don’t think there’s a sort of, as you say, ‘telephone game’ here, where it’s changing over time?
PJW: That’s what I’m saying. So it’s not a question particularly about time – I’m agnostic on the question of time; it’s about the quality of the actual text, when you look at it.
BE: Are you saying that Luke is not correct, that he got these things from orals sources?
PJW: It depends what you mean by oral source. Of course, yes, he spoke to people.
BE: That’s what an oral source is.
PJW: Yes, exactly. But then you can’t apply a whole load of scholarship about oral traditions to a question of when Luke has gone around and potentially interviewed several people about the same event. You know, what quality of information…
BE: Does Luke say he did that?
PJW: No, but he doesn’t say he doesn’t. And again, I’m saying start with the material within the text.
BE: I completely agree, you start with the text – that’s why I start with the text. You look at these two texts and you compare them to one another. And you don’t seem to be wanting to do that, because…
PJW: Well go on, give me an example…
BE: The death of Judas, we already did.
PJW: Yes, but I’m saying I don’t see any reason why these can’t have come from people having detailed conversations.
BE: But in terms of oral tradition, let me just say, if these Gospels are written 40 or 50 years later, and Luke tells you not only that he’s basing this on things that he’s heard and read and that this is how it happens in the book of Acts, then it’s not a stretch to think that people are telling stories for 40 or 50 years – this is what we know.
PJW: But it’s not what you know, because the Gospels don’t come with dates saying “written 40 or 50 years after”.
BE: Right, when do you think Luke was written.
PJW: I don’t have a… during Luke’s life time.
JB: Is it your view that Luke did interview people who were eyewitnesses of the events?
PJW: Yes, yes.
JB: So in that sense, you don’t see that there’s this 40 or 50 year gap; you see him talking to people who obviously are sometime after the events, but they’re still a first-hand witness…
PJW: It has to be during the lifetime of someone who can be a companion of Paul in the 50s and 60s.
BE: Ok, so when would it be written.
PJW: Sometime in the lifetime of someone who can be a companion of Paul in the 50s and 60s.
BE: The 60s at the earliest.
PJW: Let’s say, ok, 60s at the earliest.
BE: Ok, so 30-35 years later.
PJW: But then when’s he doing the interviews; he’s talking to people and you know…
BE: Where did you get this idea that he interviewed people?
PJW: No, I’m saying he says that he has talked to those who are…
BE: No, it doesn’t say that.
JB: What does he say? Give us the introduction to Luke and Acts?
PJW: As we received them, from those who were eyewitnesses of the word.
BE: He said that many before him wrote an account of these things, and they have come down to us by eyewitnesses and ministers of the word. In other words, the other people are basing it on… and so he may have interviewed people; he doesn’t say he did. But even if he did interview people, how does that make him accurate, because the only way we know if he’s accurate…
PJW: Well he’s followed everything closely, he says; that’s a phrase.
BE: So if he says he followed closely, then he must be getting it right? Why don’t you see whether he contradicts another source or not? Why don’t you do that?
PJW: Sure, I’m very happy to do that. But I mean, as you know…
BE: But then you just reconcile them by saying that…
PJW: I’m just saying the burden of proof is on you to show that they can’t be correct.
BE: That’s exactly why I used the Judas example, and as you know I could come up with a hundred other examples.
PJW: You can come up with other examples.
BE: But you never deal with these in your book.
PJW: Well it’s a short book.
BE: Well you have a whole chapter on contradictions, but you don’t deal with any of the contradictions; you don’t deal with a single contradiction.
PJW: What I do show is that Jesus deliberately used formal contradictions as part of his teaching device.
BE: Yes, but nobody denies that.
PJW: And I think somehow people think that because they find this text and this text and they are in tension with each other, somehow they falsify the view that the texts are trustworthy.
BE: But that’s not my view at all. Nobody argues that Jesus couldn’t argue paradox, so I don’t know who you’re arguing against.
JB: But I mean what’s interesting to me is, going back to the Judas example, you’re not saying Judas didn’t kill himself potentially, you’re not saying he didn’t betray Jesus…
BE: Look, I’m arguing against a fundamentalist view of the Bible that there are no mistakes of any kind. I’m not arguing against Christianity; I’m not arguing against believers; I’m not arguing against people who want to think the Bible has a lot of historical information in it. I’m saying that if you have a fundamentalist view of the Bible – there can be no mistakes – I just think you’re wrong on that.
JB: Do you have a fundamentalist view of the Bible, Peter? That seems to be the accusation?
PJW: That’s not a term/self-designation I’d want to use, because I’d want to say I’m doing the sort of thing that Augustine would talk about and others with a long tradition and cultural knowledge – Jerome would do the same. And so I see myself as in a tradition of catholic (with a small ‘c’) scholarship down the ages.
BE: So I wouldn’t call Peter a fundamentalist. But the reality is, a fundamentalist is always the guy that’s at the right of you. Even people who are hardcore fundamentalists very rarely admit that they’re fundamentalists, because it’s become a bad word.
JB: Of course, it’s a loaded term now.
BE: It used to be a positive word. When I was in college in the 1970s, we saw it as a positive word – we were fundamentalists – because it meant we subscribed to the fundamentals, one of which was: the Bible has no mistakes of any kind whatsoever.
JB: Obviously you came to shed that view and indeed your faith altogether. Obviously Peter feels that there is enough there at, if you like, a secular historical standard, that gives him cause to trust that the faith beliefs are to be taken seriously.
BE: Yes, can I just say about that, I mean the point he keeps coming back to is the one we talked about earlier and people need to pay attention to that, is if somebody gets the geography right, does that mean the stories are true? But the second thing I’ll say is that – I don’t know if we’re finishing up –
JB: We are finishing up now. Why not use this as your final thoughts, as we start to wrap this up.
BE: All right. So I think there are different reasons that people engage in this kind of scholarship on the Bible. Most very firm believers are interested in this subject because they want to be confirmed in their beliefs. They think something, they’re convinced it’s true, and they want to hear somebody who gives them some reason to think that…
JB: Well they may have run into a Bart Ehrman who’s caused them to doubt some of these things…
BE: They might. But they want to know why he’s wrong and why they’re right. So it’s called confirmation-bias, and we all have it. We agree with the people that agree with us – we don’t care whether it’s a plausible argument, we just want to agree with someone who’s smart and he says this and, “that guy’s smart, I’m going to believe it too!” So that’s how I was for my early life – absolutely I studied apologetics, I studied the Bible – the reason I went in the first place was to confirm what I believed so I could convince other people and convert them to faith in Jesus; that’s why I was doing it.
The other reason to do this kind of study is to decide what you think is right, rather than simply confirm that you’re already right, and that means having an open mind to possibly changing. It is very difficult and emotionally stressful to change what you believe about something as fundamental as who Jesus is and what the Bible is; it is highly traumatic. Most people who approach scholarship of the Bible simply aren’t willing to do it, because they don’t want to be proved wrong. And they aren’t going to believe someone else, but they might believe themselves, when they find out actually I was wrong about this.
When I went through this at one point in my life, I finally just said: look I’m just going to go wherever I think the truth leads me. Because Augustine said – I paraphrase – all truth is God’s truth. If it’s true, it comes from God, and so you shouldn’t be afraid of it. It may cause emotional trouble, but you shouldn’t be afraid of the truth. And I was willing to change my mind if it went that way. And I just think people ought to do that. I think it’s better to see what the evidence is, rather than simply find things that confirm what you’ve thought since you were 14 years old.
JB: Ok. Final thoughts, Peter…
PJW: Well, enjoyed our conversation. I suppose what I would say is in my own experience, you know, working in scholarship – not as long as Bart, but still for a few decades…
PJW: Is that I have found that I’m at a stage where perhaps I’m just very, very guilty of confirmation-bias, but I think I’m finding more and more reasons to believe. And I see a convergence of things on the person of Jesus – we haven’t talked a lot about the miraculous – but you know, this guy who just happens to die by the capital of this remarkable people group the Jews, in ways that seem to fit with books that have been written beforehand in prophesy, and that happens to die around Passover time – all these sorts of things come together, plus happens to be the first guy credited with the golden rule, plus happens to…
BE: In your book you said he’s not.
PJW: The positive golden rule, sorry…
BE: No, no, in your footnote you said he’s not; you pointed to a Chinese scholar, 200 hundred years earlier…
PJW: I think that’s negative…
BE: No it’s positive…
PJW: Ok well I’ll look at my book again! You know, there are all these things that are just remarkable in terms of the stories credited to Jesus. And so I think there is a pattern of convergence of things that tell you: yes, this is a person who can be trusted, and books about him that can be trusted. So I’m very positive, but very delighted to have this engagement.
JB: Thank you both, it’s been great to have you both. Shall we shake hands!
BE: Let’s shake hands, why not!
JB: Great! Thank you both, Bart and Peter, for being with me on the show today.