How Reliable is the New Testament?

In 2010, Bible critic Dr. Bart Ehrman (author of Misquoting Jesus) debated New Testament scholar Craig Evans (author of Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence) on the reliability of the New Testament.

The full debate is here, but reader Brian Wilson compiled some of Ehrman’s best points against Biblical literalism in the video below:

What did you think? Convincing?

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://leavingfundamentalism.wordpress.com/ JonnyScaramanga

    I’ll definitely watch the full debate. I’ve seen another, more recent, debate between these two, and the thing that strikes me is that even Evans’ position is a mile away from the Biblical literalism I was taught. He said essentially that probably none of the words in John’s Gospel were ever said by Jesus – it’s a literary device where the writer described his theological beliefs by putting the words in Jesus’ mouth.

    This is the most powerfully I’ve seen Ehrman put it. In the past it’s always seemed like most of the discrepancies were the Dark Ages equivalent of typos. I can see how liberal Christians might not be shaken, but if I’d heard this as a fundy teenager I wouldn’t have slept for a week.

    • scinquiry

       I was thinking the same thing.  I imagine this video will crush some people.

  • http://www.respectfulatheist.blogspot.in/ Respectful Atheist

    I watched this (first) debate several months back.  Ehrman absolutely eviscerated Evans.  Evans did a little better, the second time around, but Ehrman still got the better of him by a fair margin.

  • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

    I just finished reading “Misquoting Jesus” and I recommend the book highly.

  • Bruce_wright

    I wonder if Dr. Erhman has an idea what that thing is hanging from his ear.  He seems to be unfamiliar with it.  It’s called a microphone.

    Other than his tone, I thought it was interesting.  Hard to listen to, as it sounded like pulpit-pounding.

    • rich h

       I’ve seen other debates where Ehrman gets buried. He states facts, and the preacher shouts, and he seems cowed.

      This time he has passion.  I liked it.

  • http://www.respectfulatheist.blogspot.in/ Respectful Atheist

    Totally shameless plug, but my analysis (of their 2nd debate) is here, http://respectfulatheist.blogspot.ca/2012/01/new-ehrman-vs-evans-debate.html

  • SpontOrder

    Interesting.   Particularly damning was Ehrman’s citing of major doctrines that hinge on areas of the Bible known to be either surrounded by changes or known to have been changed.
     

  • scinquiry

    Blessed are the cheesemakers

    • TheAnalogKid

      All manufacturers of dairy products are equally blessed, right?

    • http://www.summerseale.com/ Summer Seale

      It’s not to be taken *literally* of course, it merely refers to all manufacturers of dairy products.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=628665833 Bill Santagata

    You would think that the all-knowing, all-powerful Creator of the Universe, in requiring acceptance of his son (also him) as one’s lord and savior to be a requisite in avoiding eternal suffering and damnation, would beam this critical information into everybody’s mind, rather than the minds of a few scribes who then had to write it down in a time when few could read, in dying languages that fewer could understand, that would then have to be copied and translated hundreds of times over allowing much opportunity for error as Dr. Erhman describes.

    Also, imagine if you lived in China in the year 200AD. You would have no clue who the hell Jesus was nor would you have any reason to. But apparently you’d go to hell anyway.

    • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

      You miss the fundamental point. The system is set up so that only a tiny number can make it to heaven. By design, nearly every human being who has ever existed is screwed. From the get-go, by a deeply malicious entity.

      The good news? If it turns out that the Universe really is set up this way, who in their right mind would want to spend eternity in heaven? Stuck up there with all the self-righteous religious folks… forever? Lorded over by a sadistic, egotistic god who demands eternal worship? Not my idea of “heaven”!

    • Billoyd Garrison

      The Bible says it will be written in your hearts.

  • dgriffey

    Like so many scholars today, Ehrman rests much on the hopes that his audience has little to no knowledge of the subject at hand.  I’ve often chuckled at his interviews on TV.  He used to love to bring up the point that the beginning of the 8th chapter of the gospel of John was – gasp! – added later (wait for silence from the stunned interviewer).  That’s especially troubling for anyone other than those who buy Bibles that aren’t KJV, since most of the rest of the translations will have notes all about such things, like the fact that most ancient manuscripts don’t contain the first section of the 8th chapter of John. 

    Don’t get me wrong, I like Erhman and enjoy his interviews.  Some of his later work seems more careful, and more geared to a broader understanding of the faith and less exploitive of common ignorance.  Like most former fundamentalists turned skeptic, he makes the mistake of thinking that the entire 2000 year history of the Christian faith is equal to that particular fundamentalist evangelical Protestant tradition he practiced.  Against those, yeah, his books might be devastating.  For skeptics and non-believers who also believe that this one expression is the sum total of all expressions of the Christian faith, it will provide grist for the mill, at least in their minds.  But for the rest who understand that this particular approach to the Bible represents a statistically negligible number compared to the combined history of the faith, it’s not nearly as devastating as some might think.

    • Pseudonym

      To be fair, he assumes that people haven’t heard this stuff because most people haven’t heard this stuff. Nothing he says is news to any serious theologian, whether fundamentalist, moderate or liberal. But it is news to some people in the congregation.

      Ehrman’s great strength is that he can make textual criticism, a dry and technical subject at the best of times, engaging and interesting for a lay audience. That is one impressive talent.

      Oh, and if anyone is going to finally kill the ridiculous meme that there was no historical Jesus, it’s going to be Ehrman.

      • Reginald Selkirk

        Oh, and if anyone is going to finally kill the ridiculous meme that there was no historical Jesus, it’s going to be Ehrman.

        I submit the above video as exhibit A against historicity. Ehrman makes the case clearly that there are no secular sources on a historical Jesus: no historians, no birth records, no poets, etc. “Zero. Zip.”  The only sources we have are early Christian sources, and Ehrman just spent 15 minutes shredding those as a historically reliable record.

        • DG

          And yet, Erhman rejects the idea that we can dismiss the historical existence of Jesus outright.   Citing the rather flimsy rebuttals against some of those non-Christian sources (Trajan was just a forgery! – we have no proof, just take our word), most scholars continue to avoid dismissing Jesus altogether.  After all, 2000 years from now, could it be argued that Obama never existed?  If you wish to do so because you wish to do so, most things can be argued.    That doesn’t make it good scholarship.  At best, it makes it post-modern scholarship, which is something to which the word best can hardly ever apply.

        • http://www.facebook.com/jimmo42 James Mohr

           Dr. Ehrman did not say there are no other sources outside the Gospel that attest to the historicity of Jesus, but rather there are no other sources that give us details about the life of Jesus. That a person existed is one thing, and that is attested to by extrabiblical sources. However, the details of his life are another thing. While he does say that the Gospels are “not reliable either”, he certainly was not talking in any absolutes sense that they are completely unreliable and many of his other works indicate. Plus he is refering to the life of Jesus and not merely his existance.

          Note that there are some extrabiblical sources such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Infancy Gospel of James, and the Gospel of Peter, just to name a few. I don’t see it as a problem that he does not mention them in this debate since the argument is the reliability of the NT and not the historicity of Jesus. Further, Dr. Ehrman was talking specifically about the books in the new testament and not “early Christian sources”, in general. There are dozens of non-cannonical sources which are independant of the gospels.

          I think you are incorrect in your claim that “Ehrman just spent 15 minutes shredding those as a historically reliable record.” You are making the fallacious jump from “not inerrant” to “unreliable”. Dr. Ehrman is simply pointing out that we cannot know for certain what was in the original autographs. This is most certainly not a claim that they are not reliable at all, only that we cannot know for certain what the original words were.

          You also make the fallicious jump from “no Greek or Roman historians” to “no secular sources on a historical Jesus”. Ehrman specifically mentions Josephus, who wrote just 60 years after Jesus’ death. There are many case of historical persons who were first mentioned much longer after their deaths than this. He does specifically say “If you want to know about Jesus, you have to turn to Christians sources”. This is NOT the same thing as saying, “if you want to know if Jesus existed”.

          Your apparent assumption that we cannot rely on the gospels at all for anything simply because they are religious text is also fallacious. If historians were to toss out all of the documents that are of religious nature, we would likely have to toss out at least half of what we know of the middle ages. During that time, the clergy were the only ones who could write and most of what they wrote about dealt with the church in one way or another. Further, few institutions outside of the church had the means or desire to preserve texts for long periods of time. Even when there are other sources, simply ignoring a text because it was a religious bias is historiographically irresponsible.

          • Reginald Selkirk

            That a person existed is one thing, and that is attested to by extrabiblical sources.

            Name one. Just one, from a secular source written during Jesus’ alleged lifetime.

            Note that there are some extrabiblical sources such as the Infancy
            Gospel of Thomas, the Infancy Gospel of James, and the Gospel of Peter,
            just to name a few… There are dozens of non-canonical sources which are independant of the gospels.

            FAIL. These are not secular sources, these are religious documents which didn’t get picked to be in the Bible. Thus they are representative of the “Texas sharpshooter” fallacy.  Also, they were not written during Jesus’ alleged lifetime; none of those you mentioned is thought to be earlier than the second century.

            This is most certainly not a claim that they are not reliable at all,
            only that we cannot know for certain what the original words were.

            Apparently you do not understand the definition of “unreliable.”

            You also make the fallicious jump from “no Greek or Roman historians” to
            “no secular sources on a historical Jesus”. Ehrman specifically
            mentions Josephus, who wrote just 60 years after Jesus’ death.

            If that’s what you got, then you got nothin’. You reek of desperation.

            • Pseudonym

              Name one. Just one, from a secular source written during Jesus’ alleged lifetime.

              Sorry, but that’s not how history works.

              How much written evidence from a source during Jesus’ lifetime would you expect to see? Pretty much every document we have about a historical figure, which is contemporary with that figure, concerns a monarch, noble, politician, military leader or writer of some kind. Jesus was none of those.

              There was no shortage of itinerant preachers in first century Palestine. In each case, there are no contemporary writings. Clearly, asking for such a thing is an unreasonable standard.

              There is a simple question here which can help you understand why pretty much every serious historian of the Ancient Near East agrees that Jesus existed: What is the burden of proof that must be overcome?

              Let’s just look at the gospels for a moment, and ignore everything else.

              The claim that the gospels are 100% historically accurate is a claim about all of the evidence. If there is even a single error in it, the claim is false. This carries a high burden of proof.

              The claim that the gospels are 100% historically inaccurate is also a claim
              about all of the evidence. If there is even a single part which is even partly accurate, the claim is false. This also carries a high burden of proof.

              The claim that the gospels are legend and mythology based on a historical figure is a claim about some of the evidence. Non-existent people don’t say things or do things, so all you need is a single saying or deed which is better explained as having come from a historical figure than not having come from a historical figure, and the claim is proven on balance of probabilities. This carries a comparatively low burden of proof.

              Now the first two hypothetical positions are, of course, extreme simplifications for the purpose of explanation. Over the last few centuries, historians developed a set of remarkably good (and related) theories about how we got from nothing to having the New Testament, none of which require Jesus to have been capable of supernatural powers.

              If it helps, think of it this way: Mythicists are to history as creationists are to science. Creationists don’t have a comprehensive theory which explains even a large minority of the evidence that we observe in the natural world. All they have is a few minor quibbles around the edges and a big dose of conspiracy theory.

              That’s pretty much all that mythicists have, too. This is one of the many reasons why it’s hard for anyone who understands any history at all to take them seriously.

    • cipher

      Like most former fundamentalists turned skeptic, he makes the mistake of thinking that the entire 2000 year history of the Christian faith is
      equal to that particular fundamentalist evangelical Protestant tradition
      he practiced. 

      He doesn’t, but it really doesn’t matter. Fundamentalism as a movement may be only about a century old, but it’s core beliefs – substitutionary atonement, salvific exlusivism, eternal damnation for everyone outside of the fold – reflect what most Christians have deceived most of the past 2,000 years.

      The endings of the scenarios of all but the most liberal varieties of Christianity are the same – we all wind up in hell.

      • B_R_Deadite99

        Because god created us to go there. But hey, his love is deeper than the sea, bigger than the sky, greater than the Rock of Gibraltar, older than time, beyond imagination, longer than Ron Jeremy’s–

        Well, you get the idea; cognitive dissonance 101.

      • Pseudonym

        Fundamentalism as a movement may be only about a century old, but its
        core beliefs – substitutionary atonement, salvific exclusivism, eternal
        damnation for everyone outside of the fold – reflect what most
        Christians have believed for most of the past 2,000 years.

        Depending on how you interpret it, this is partly true and partly untrue.

        For example, Eastern Orthodox churches have essentially never believed in substitutionary atonement in any form. So it’s strictly untrue to say that all major Christian churches have taught that for a majority of their history.

        I will give you eternal damnation, but only because 1,300 years is “most of the past 2,000 years”.

        • cipher

          Eh, so what they belive isn’t purely Augustinian or Anselmian. It’s close enough. The end result is the same.

          1300 years? How do you understand Revelation?

          You’re seeing what you want to see.

  • Tincho5530

    Very interesting, I’ll look for more infromation about him.

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    His points were reasonable, but IMO he spent way to much time making them, and there was too much drama. I prefer scholars to sound a little more… scholarly. He sounds like a preacher.

    • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

      I’m not sure who the audience was for this.  If he was at a venue where most of the audience was fundamentalist, then it might have served him well to sound like a preacher.  They are used to agreeing automatically with preachers but might be suspicious of those who sound like scholars.

      I’ve listened to his lectures on CD, and they sound much more scholarly with much less drama.

  • Ronlawhouston

    If you have any friends that you feel are on the fence, send this to them.  I literally lost my belief in a Bible study.  Once I heard the ugly theology of certain people, I started researching about the Bible that they used to source their ugliness.  Ehrman lays out his case with factual evidence.  Yes, he acknowledges he “lost his faith” (he now considers himself agnostic), but that doesn’t change the facts that he presents.  

  • Kkwong7272

    On the Synoptic Gospels, in the eye of an analyst, these are infantile, absurd, stupid, discordant pious fictions. The Synoptics are laden with blatant lies BUT scholars still take them seriously. Also there are TWO Jesuses, two gospels and two cruciFICTIONS. Its 2000 years, but orthodox scholars are still blind to obfuscations of narrators and editors! Jesus told at least ten lies but 150 scholars from Jesus Seminar still don’t see. See you at GOSPEL LIES AND THE CHRIST DELUSION.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      See you at GOSPEL LIES AND THE CHRIST DELUSION.

      Maybe after you get your CAPS LOCK key fixed.

  • Littleboybrew

    The danger of posting this edited clip is that you do not hear the comments of the apologist Ehrman is debating. It is useful to listen to his arguments to gain insight into why, faced with insurmountable evidence that the bible is not infallible, they continue to believe.

  • Kkwong7272

    These debaters have not add in comment from xtra biblical sources. there is nothing special about Jesus. there are at least 16 crucified world saviors- Odin Attis Adonis Osiris Mithras et al. st  Paul sucked the best essence of Pagan gods, and through RO reversed osmosis deposited on revolutionary -messianist seditionist Jesus Crucified ala The Passover Plot- a re-Incarnation Plot. Jesus was a Pagan dying-rising Vegetation cum Solar God. 

    Jesus was a pagan god resurrected in spring by goddess Isis aka Easter. So plain to see. Have these theologians not read The Golden Bough? Massey, Higgins, Freke n Gandy, Tom Harpur et al? correlate this with 1 Corin 15 n u see the vegetation n season/un connection, n the paganism in Paul. 

  • Kkwong7272

    Sorry to be insulting n paternalistic, but only dudes n people blinded by faith believe in inerrant n inspiration of bible in enlightened times. i am shocked. As a generous standard set by Jesus Seminar of 150 top scholars,the 4 gospels can be safely called pious fiction. The Jesus Seminar had not even taken the critical work of Massey n Higgins into consideration and blatant appropriation from Egyptian Book of the Dead, just to quote one. Gospels original n reliable. this is a joke! 
     
    To me an xSDA, n now atheist, gospels MARK MATT LUKE are just plain ridiculous. just 8 verses n xtra ten in last chap MARK is deemed enough 2 establish RESURRECTION! How ridiculous! Mark had no decency to write 1 chapter on a central doctrine of Christianity. And the learned professors not only believe tale but endorse as inerrant WORD OF GOD. Don’t make this into a joke n disgrace scholarship. MARK was half asleep when he wrote last chapter, no knowing how to close a fiction.

    Part of gospel materials are culled from Egypt n other sources – see THE PAGAN CHRIST, Tom Harpur, THE JESUS MYSTERIES by Gandy & Freke. Psychological aspects, biblical archeology not mentioned in assessment. see my coming Another Jesus, Another, Gospel, Another CruciFICTION.

  • Franco

    I like how Evans’ whole argument is :
    “Yes, the New Testament is an error-ridden hodge-podge full of forgeries, but that doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate.”

  • Cmaldona

    I think his tone was spectacular. Most atheists that are good at debate don’t show emotion and tend to have the same feel to them. This was a good for an audience who hasn’t been persuaded yet and need to hear the message in a different way.


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