On March 28, 2006 William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman debated the question, “Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?” The debate transcript can be found Here.
For his opening statement, Craig used his usual approach of defending four relatively uncontroversial historical facts and constructing a case for the resurrection. The evidence he uses to establish each fact is fairly persuasive, although the debate format prevents him from delving into a detailed defense of the four facts. Craig used his remaining time to argue that supposed inconsistencies in the Gospel accounts do not undermine the case for the resurrection.
Craig’s opening statement was very impressive and highly persuasive, but could have been improved in one way. Craig should have briefly discussed the nature of the New Testament books as historical documents and the role of oral transmission in the first century. For example, he could have pointed out that the Gospels are written closer to the events they describe than many other ancient texts that historians use to confidently rebuild the past. And he could have pointed out that the early Christians lived in an oral culture with a high premium on memorization and accuracy. Throughout the debate, Ehrman tries to establish skepticism about the value of the New Testament books as historical sources. When a lay audience hears that these books were written 30-60 years after the events they describe, it is likely to have a big impact. Most lay people are simply unaware that this time span is perfectly acceptable for ancient historical sources. Moreover, the audience is likely to be troubled by the fact that much of Christian teaching in the beginning was transmitted orally. They are not aware of the fact that the culture in which Christianity arose was one in which memorization of teachings and facts would not be overly difficult, and in which those who were spreading the message would have been very concerned with accuracy and truth. But since Craig does not discuss oral transmission or the historical value of the New Testament, Ehrman is able to instill skepticism in the lay audience.
Ehrman begins his presentation by instilling doubt about the Gospels as historical sources. He claims that they are late, anonymous, inconsistent, and biased. However, even if he is correct about all of these points, the Gospels are still relatively good historical documents. Although they are written after the event, they are written closer than many other ancient documents. Many ancient writings were written anonymously, like Tacitus’ highly regarded Annals, and this is not a problem for establishing historical fact. Inconsistencies are practically inevitable in independent accounts, and all ancient writers were biased because nobody ever wrote without some big reason to do so. Despite this, Ehrman’s strategy here is very good and is likely to be very persuasive.
Next, Ehrman attempts to show that there cannot be historical evidence for Christ’s resurrection, as Craig predicted. Unfortunately, Ehrman is unaware, both here and apparently throughout the debate, that he is using the Humean argument against the possibility of establishing a miracle. He incorrectly believes that Hume argued against the possibility of miracles, whereas Hume actually argued against the possibility of establishing miracles, for the same reasons that Ehrman provides. In any case, Ehrman’s argument against the possibility of establishing miracles is unpersuasive for the same reason that Hume’s argument is unpersuasive, and as Craig shows in his first rebuttal.
This is especially crucial since Ehrman’s case rests almost entirely upon his argument here. In his opening speech, he offers a potential alternate account of early Christianity, but he admits himself that the account is very unlikely. Therefore, his account cannot really be taken seriously unless his argument against miracles goes through.
Craig, recognizing the importance of the argument against miracles to Ehrman’s case, spends almost the entire first rebuttal showing why his reasoning is fallacious. Craig points out that Ehrman fails to consider factors other than the intrinsic probability of the resurrection. Moreover, Craig contends that the intrinsic probability of the resurrection may not be low anyways, unless the probability of God’s existence is low. Since Ehrman himself argued that historians cannot say anything about God, Ehrman cannot show that God’s existence is improbable. Here, Craig perhaps could have mentioned that the religio-historical context in which Christ’s resurrection took place increases the probability that God would raise Christ from the dead. Obviously, it may seem inexplicable why God would randomly raise some person from the dead- but Christ was not a random person. In light of Christ’s radical self-claims and extraordinary ministry, it is more likely that God might raise Jesus from the dead in order to vindicate him and his teachings.
Craig raps up his first rebuttal by arguing that Ehrman’s skepticism about the historical value of the Gospels is unfounded, since no ancient document lives up to the expectations Ehrman mentions. Craig also argues that there is a solid core story of Jesus which is agreed upon by all four Gospels. His refutation here would have been much easier had he mentioned the reliability of the Gospels in his first speech.
Ehrman really drops the ball in his first rebuttal. He demonstrates his complete ignorance of Craig’s refutation, by claiming that he will not be persuaded by “mathematical proof for the existence of God.” Of course, Craig hadn’t even discussed evidence for the existence of God- Ehrman was just completely dumbfounded by Craig’s explication of probability theory.
Since Ehrman has no way of responding to Craig’s main point, he raises a number of peripheral issues instead. First, he claims that Craig makes dubious use of authorities. However, Craig backed up most of his authority citations with evidence. Amazingly, Ehrman objects that some of the authorities he cites don’t agree with his position! However, it is obvious that this is actually a strength rather than a weakness. It is a common strategy to cite as authorities those who disagree with your overall position. Thus, Craig cites Gerd Ludemann, an atheist, for his belief in the appearances of Jesus Christ. Since Gerd is an atheist, he is more likely to have a natural disposition to be skeptical of Christ’s appearances. Therefore, one is likely to give a citation from Gerd more credibility than from an evangelical believer in the resurrection like Gary Habermas. Additionally, Ehrman fails to realize that Craig never attempted to demonstrate that his position was a majority position, only that belief in the four facts he presents is a majority position.
Ehrman objects to Craig’s use of Paul to establish a burial by Joseph of Arimathea. He claims that Paul was writing 25 years after Christ’s death, but this claim is either deceptive or reveals Ehrman’s ignorance, since Craig is obviously referring to the creed of 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 which virtually all scholars date within 8 years of Christ’s death, many dating it within a year. He makes a valid point that Paul does not mention Joseph and could have been referring to a communal burial, although Craig was probably unable to explain the connection between Paul’s mention of a burial and Joseph’s role due to the time constraints of the debate format.
“In his own writings [Craig] indicates that Mark has a sparse narrative of Jesus’ being buried and since it’s an unembellished narrative, as he calls it, it’s more likely then to be historical. Because if that is true, then I want him to tell us whether he thinks that Matthew’s more embellished tradition is unhistorical.”
Ehrman makes a fairly big deal of this supposed problem throughout the debate. However, this is an obvious case of black and white thinking. Craig’s point is that an unembellished tradition is more likely to be historical than an embellished one, but of course it is still possible for an embellished tradition to be historical as well.
Ehrman makes a good point that Mark may have invented a story of women discovering the tomb because Mark wanted to point out that it was the marginalized who really understood Jesus. This is actually one of the better skirmishes in the debate, as Craig and Ehrman both go back and forth on the issue and both raise good points.
Ehrman claims that Craig wrongly equates appearances of Jesus with a physical appearance. However, Craig’s position is that a resurrection entails a physical body, as he mentions in his second rebuttal.
At the end of his first rebuttal, Ehrman asks three questions which have, in my opinion, very little relevance to the debate. He first asks whether or not Craig holds to Biblical inerrancy. He implies that if Craig believes in inerrancy, then it undermines his credibility as an objective historian. However, Craig’s status as an objective historian is simply irrelevant to the debate; even if Craig were an awful historian, the arguments he offers may well be good ones. However, belief in inerrancy does not necessarily make one a bad historian- they may believe in the Bible’s accuracy based on philosophical, theological, or other reasons. Or, historical analysis may lead one to accept the absolute accuracy of the New Testament.
Second, Ehrman asks Craig whether he is willing to discuss the evidence for miracles from people other than Christ. But he offers no actual evidence for these miracle claims, let alone evidence comparable to that which Craig provides for the resurrection.
Third, Ehrman asks, “How is it that the faith that [Craig] adopted as a teenager happens to be the only one that is historically credible? Is it just circumstance that he was born into a religious family or a religious culture that can historically be shown to be the only true religion?”
I don’t see how this question is relevant to the debate. It seems that Ehrman is implying that Craig simply looked for historical evidence to support his belief in Jesus Christ. But this is simply an example of the genetic fallacy- it does not matter what Craig’s motivation is for looking into the historical evidence- it only matters whether or not the evidence is good.
Craig defends himself against the charge of a dubious use of authorities, pointing out that he provides evidence for all of his points. He also points out Ehrman’s mistake with regards to 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. Against Ehrman’s claim that Mark may have invented women followers due to a literary motif, Craig counters that the women were followers of Jesus, particularly Mary Magdalene who is one of his disciples. He also claims that multiple attestation increases the likelihood of the women’s discovery.
Against Ehrman’s argument that Paul’s exclamation of Jesus’ appearance may not imply an empty tomb, Craig claims that first century Jews would have inevitably understood Christ’s resurrection to be physical. Furthermore, Craig points out that Paul distinguished between resurrection appearance and mere visions of Jesus. Here Craig makes a strong point- other than distinguishing between intra-mental and extra-mental appearances, Paul’s differentiation is inexplicable.
Craig offers three further refutations of Ehrman’s claim that historians cannot have access to God as an explanatory entity. First, you do not need direct access to explanatory entities in your hypothesis- such as in contemporary physics were scientists postulate things to which we have no direct access. Second, historians do not have direct access to any objects of their study, since the past is already gone. His third and best point is that a person can rationally believe in the resurrection on the basis of the evidence even if the historian is blocked by a methodological restriction from postulating the existence of God. Therefore, even if Ehrman is right about the limits of the historian, it is of no bearing to the truth nor to rational belief.
This brings up an interesting point, because even if Ehrman is right and the resurrection is extremely improbable due to its miraculous nature, the resurrection is clearly much more likely if God’s existence is more likely. If the theist can develop a strong natural theology and demonstrate the likelihood of God’s existence, then the initial implausibility of the resurrection is reduced greatly. Unfortunately, Craig didn’t have to time to argue for the existence of God, nor was it relevant to the debate. However, if Craig were able to establish a high likelihood of God’s existence, then almost all of the force of Ehrman’s case would be drained.
Craig wisely decided to delay answering Ehrman’s irrelevant questions until the Q&A period.
To start off his rebuttal, Ehrman criticized Craig’s failure to deal with his historical alternative to the resurrection. This strikes me as odd- Ehrman already admitted that his explanation was unlikely and that he didn’t believe it. The only reason Ehrman even mentioned the scenario was because he claimed it was more plausible than a miraculous story. That’s why Craig spent the majority of his time undermining Ehrman’s arguments for the supposed improbability of miracles. It doesn’t seem that Craig should feel the need to rebut hypotheses that Ehrman himself admits are unlikely.
Ehrman once again believes that David Hume argued against the possibility of miracles- but this is just an embarrassing mistake. In fact, Hume’s argument was almost identical to Ehrman’s and it is fallacious for reasons that Craig has already mentioned.
Ehrman offers an even more unlikely and implausible scenario for the beginning of Christianity- the twin of Jesus hypothesis. One has to wonder exactly why Ehrman is spouting off historical “possibilities” that he himself knows to be highly unlikely. If his point is that he can reconstruct a natural origin of the Christian faith, then so what? Of course it is possible to construct a naturalistic scenario. The point is, he must construct one that is somewhat plausible, or at least not wildly implausible.
As it is, there are many problems with the twin Jesus scenario. Although he points out that there are Syriac Christian traditions in which Jesus has a twin brother, these are in the second and third centuries, and we really have no good evidence whatsoever that Jesus actually had a twin. Moreover, even if Jesus did have a twin, it is exceedingly unlikely that he could fool people, intentionally or unintentionally, to think that he was the risen Christ. According to Ehrman’s tale, some of Jesus’ followers saw his twin brother “at a distance” and thought it was Christ. But wouldn’t some of these followers know that Jesus had a twin brother, and avoid jumping to an absurd conclusion on the basis of a distant sighting? And wouldn’t Jesus’ brother mention something when people began preaching that Jesus had risen, or did he conveniently die before he got the chance? Ehrman’s account also shows no respect for oral transmission- he seems to think that the stories could evolve from a distant sighting to what we have today in the Gospels, including the story of the empty tomb. But the ancients weren’t participating in a game of telephone when they spread sacred teachings and beliefs, they were meticulous and dedicated to preserving truth. Moreover, Ehrman’s hypothesis must dismiss the evidence for the discovery of the empty tomb that Craig mentioned in the debate and has defended elsewhere- including independent multiple attestation and the criterion of embarrassment. Finally, a distant sighting is unlikely to reverse the lack of Jewish expectation for a dying and rising Messiah. Additionally, Craig pointed out that Jewish beliefs precluded anyone’s rising from the dead to immortality before the general resurrection at the end of the world. Are we really to believe that a distant sighting could inspire the followers of Jesus to jump to the extremely counterintuitive notion that Christ had raised bodily from the dead?
In short, Ehrman’s scenario is so fanciful that it barely deserves refutation, even if we could prove that Jesus actually had an identical twin brother.
Next, Ehrman claims that Craig failed to deal with the inconsistencies. Craig did try to deal with them, but he was under a tough time constraint. His main point was that the core story is remarkably consistent throughout all four Gospels, a point which Ehrman fails to take into account. Ehrman once again raises the issue of unembellished verses embellished accounts. As I pointed out earlier, he is guilty of black-and-white thinking- unembellished accounts are more likely to be historical, embellished accounts are not as likely to be but still may be historical or largely historical.
Ehrman points out that he did refute Craig’s point that Mark would not mention women discovering the tomb, again asserting that Mark’s Gospel has a theme of the marginalized understanding Jesus. This is a solid response and I actually think this may be one of Ehrman’s victories throughout the debate, although he does not deal with the fact of multiple attestation which vindicates the discovery of the tomb by women followers.
Ehrman also claims that first century Jewish sources demonstrate that a Jew could feasibly believe in an appearance of Jesus without a physical body. However, I don’t believe this directly addresses Craig’s point, for Craig has elsewhere admitted that Jews could readily believe in a phantasmal body appearance- in fact he points out that Paul distinguished between extra-mental (bodily) and intra-mental (phantasmal) appearances. Craig’s point, rather, is that no Jew would hear Paul say “he was buried and then was raised” and still wonder if the tomb were empty. It is a resurrection which was necessarily physical in the minds of first century Jews, not appearances which could be intra or extra-mental.
In the conclusion, Craig offers some objections to the original alternative historical scenario offered by Ehrman. He points out that Ehrman’s tale lacks motive, overlooks details of the account, and fails to explain the appearances and the origin of the Christian faith. Next, Craig simply reiterates some of his points about the improbability of miracles.
Finally, Craig wraps up his conclusion by discussing the experiential avenue to knowledge of Christ, and giving his own account of how he came to faith. As far as the debate goes, this is a questionable strategy, because it is not really germane to the issue of the historical evidence for Christ’s resurrection. Furthermore, it may cause some audience members to question Craig’s objectivity- a point which Ehrman fallaciously tries to exploit. Finally, it takes up a good deal of time and does not allow him to really seal the deal against Ehrman. However, since Craig’s ultimate goal is to convince others to come to faith in Christ, this may be a good way to end his debate. Thus, I don’t have a problem with this strategy.
Ehrman opens up his conclusion by questioning Craig’s goal:
“Well, I appreciate very much the personal testimony, Bill. I do think, though, that what we’ve seen is that Bill is, at heart, an evangelist who wants people to come to share his belief in Jesus and that he’s trying to disguise himself as a historian as a means to that end.”
Apparently, many people were quite impressed by this point- one internet commentator claimed that this sealed the win for Ehrman. In fact, I think that this is Ehrman’s biggest mistake, technically, since this is a textbook example of the genetic fallacy. It matters not what Craig’s motives are nor what strategies he uses- it only matters whether or not the historical evidence supports the resurrection of Christ. Personally, I think Craig is at heart an evangelist, and I think that this is a good thing. As a sincere believer in Jesus Christ, he should be passionate about bringing others to faith. But even if this damages his credibility as a historian, Ehrman still has to deal with the evidence that Craig provided for his position. So, while Ehrman’s charge here may be very persuasive, it is in fact a fallacious ad hominem attack.
Ehrman tries to defend his first historical alternative against Craig’s criticisms. Ehrman’s hypothesis must reject a guard at the tomb and the grave clothes without any particular reason. Ehrman says that his family may have wanted Jesus buried in the family tomb- which is implausible because his family members were not believers during Jesus’ lifetime; moreover, as a condemned criminal Jesus’ family would not want to put his body in a family tomb for fear of disgracing the bodies that were there. Ehrman contends that his hypothesis explains the visions of Jesus since people have visions “all the time.” Perhaps so, but hallucinations require a special psychological state that the followers of Christ simply would not have, and since a resurrection was so counterintuitive given first century Jewish beliefs (as mentioned earlier), they likely would not have come to believe in Christ’s bodily resurrection even if they had hallucinated.
Ehrman concludes the debate by discussing what he “really does think about Jesus’ resurrection.” I have to wonder- why is it we are now, for the first time, hearing what Ehrman actually thinks about Jesus and the rise of Christianity? This should have been a contentious issue in the debate, not something that is mentioned in the conclusion. This may be a good strategy, since Craig is not given an opportunity to refute Ehrman’s actual position, but it seems borderline deceptive. There is no excuse for Ehrman to raise a couple of fanciful tales throughout the debate, and then end with, purportedly, the most plausible alternative to the resurrection hypothesis.
In any case, Ehrman’s opinion that Jesus’ followers turned to the scriptures after his death and found scriptures which told of the Messiah’s suffering is inadequate to account for the belief in Christ’s resurrection. As Craig points out later in the Q&A session, the Old Testament passages are too obscure and ambiguous to allow the disciples to come to a belief in the resurrection, particularly since the idea was so foreign in the mind of a first century Jew. Furthermore, Ehrman’s hypothesis is undermined by the solid historical evidence for the four facts that Craig defends. We have good historical evidence for an actual burial and an actual empty tomb, Ehrman’s theory notwithstanding. But these very facts show that Ehrman’s view is untenable, since he must deny the actual discovery of the empty tomb by women followers. Furthermore, Ehrman’s account still fails to give any realistic account of oral transmission. Once again, the Jews in the first century were an oral culture with a high premium on memorization and accuracy. Since these beliefs were so important, they would not simply pass stories on in a carefree manner, changing them in significant ways to serve their purposes. These were people that literally memorized the Old Testament, and they were very serious about religious doctrine and belief. Ehrman’s account is simply too anachronistic.
The Debate: An Analysis
It seems pretty clear that Dr. Craig won the debate, at least technically. Unfortunately, it seems that Ehrman was able to establish unrealistic skepticism about the New Testament documents and illegitimately attack Craig as an evangelist rather than a historian. However, Craig completely smashed Ehrman’s argument against the identification of miracles, and it was pretty clear that Ehrman didn’t even understand what Craig was talking about, let alone offer any good points of refutation. He attempted to dismiss Craig’s explication of probability theory but never offered any arguments against it, incorrectly asserted that his argument was distinct from Hume’s, and merely repeated ad nauseam his claim that the historian cannot identify miracles. Almost the entire debate hinged on Ehrman’s argument against the probability of miracles, since he never offered a likely alternative naturalistic explanation (until the conclusion, which in any case is not actually plausible.) Ehrman did make some good points against Craig’s argument for the women’s discovery of the tomb, but many of Craig’s other points remained unaddressed. With the lack of a convincing alternative, and a lack of refutation of the four facts Craig explicated, Ehrman failed to support his case.