The Craig-Ehrman resurrection debate

I know that some atheists are impressed with William Lane Craig – not for his actual argumentation, but for his deft use of rhetoric in debates. The result is that in most debates I've seen with Craig, nothing really gets accomplished. Craig usually abides by a five-argument format, and when time constraints prevent his opponent from addressing all five in detail, Craig will make some inane non sequitur like, "we haven't heard any evidence that atheism is true."

But when the debates get more specific (as opposed to "Does God Exist?"), Craig usually gets a beatdown, and there is perhaps no finer example than his debate with Bart Ehrman on the historicity of the resurrection. In his debate with John Spong, Craig presented what he called "four facts" about the resurrection, which he used again in his debate with Ehrman:

  1. That Jesus of Nazareth was crucified in Jerusalem by Roman authority at the time of the Passover Feast, having been arrested and convicted on charges of blasphemy by the Jewish Sanhedrin and slandered before the Roman governor Pilate on charges of treason.
  2. He died within a few hours and was buried Friday afternoon and was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb which was then sealed with a stone.
  3. Certain women followers of Jesus, including Mary Magdalene, having observed his interment, visited him tomb early on Sunday morning only to find it empty.
  4. Thereafter, Jesus appeared alive from the dead to the disciples including Peter who then became proclaimers of the message of his resurrection.
But Ehrman wasn't about to take that bait, because he's a historian. He's not concerned with minutiae in the storylines – he's concerned with whether the document, as a whole, is historically reliable. In other words, whether Craig's "four facts" are actually "facts" is contingent on whether the gospels can be demonstrated to be reliable historical documents. Otherwise, the claims can simply be dismissed as myth.

There are a few things we have to take into account when examining the Bible as a historical document. Firstly, it does not make merely mundane historical claims, like Jesus being born, being a teacher, having followers, being executed, etc. Those claims are fairly unremarkable and if that's all the Bible claimed, we wouldn't have much reason to be skeptical of them. But the Bible goes further and makes many claims of the supernatural, and that is in fact what is supposed to make the stories in the Bible so remarkable. The problem – one so obvious it shouldn't even need mentioning – is that in humanity's roughly 200,000 years on Earth right up to and including our modern era, virtually every culture has made claims about gods, spirits, miracles, and the like. We have to ask why the remarkable claims of the Bible ought to be regarded as historically accurate events when we generally dismiss the supernatural stories of other cultures as mere mythology and superstition. As Carl Sagan said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

The central claims of the historical reliability of the Bible can generally be summed up as follows:
  1. The New Testament is based on eye witness accounts
  2. These accounts were passed on through a meticulous oral tradition before being committed to text some forty years following the actual events
  3. Subsequent manuscripts were again meticulously copied, culminating in the accurate historical information we have in the Bible
Ehrman subverts Craig's "four facts" by demonstrating that we have absolutely no reason to regard them as facts at all. He discusses what are now well-established facts about the notorious unreliability of eye-witness accounts, which more or less devolve to mere hearsay. He follows with a discussion about oral traditions, demonstrating that all oral cultures we've studied in fact lose a great deal of specificity and detail, and the stories are prone to exaggeration and outright distortion. Now, it's possible that early Christians possessed some never-before-or-since-seen super-accurate oral tradition, but without direct evidence, it's merely a case of special pleading.

Next, Ehrman dissects the accuracy of the manuscripts themselves, pointing out countless observable discrepancies – scriptures are either mistakenly or intentionally omitted, new material is indiscriminately added, and copies are riddled with errors and contradictions. Worse, these "copies of copies" are all we have – the original manuscripts do not exist.

Craig's response to Ehrman's argument was a trite appeal to authority – he argued that New Testament scholars agree on his "four facts". Ehrman, though, had already addressed Craig's argument by pointing out that of course New Testament scholars, who tend to be overwhelmingly Christian, implicitly assume the accuracy of the documents.

What ought not to be lost in discussions like these is that because the Bible is making remarkable historical claims, the burden of evidence is quite a bit greater than it is for historical sources making merely mundane claims – e.g., saying Jesus was merely born (mundane) is not on par with saying he was a god in human form born to a virgin (remarkable). Because even the mundane claims of the Bible can be disregarded as dubious, the entire New Testament – with its litany of remarkable claims – can be utterly disregarded as a valid historical document. Craig notably dodged Ehrman's discussion of pagan mythology, because for Craig to entertain the discussion would require him to admit that he believes in the Bible not because the evidence bears it out as a reliable document, but solely as a matter of faith.

And hey, you may ask, what's so bad about faith? Well, nothing – just as long as you don't attempt to convince anyone else that your faith is founded on reason and evidence, and therefor should be equally accepted as true by all people. While Ehrman did not (and cannot) disprove that the events in the Bible took place, he did one better – he demonstrated that there is no particular reason to regard them as true, particularly if one dismisses supernatural claims of other cultures as myth. As far as the non-believer is concerned, Craig failed to present extraordinary evidence for the Bible's extraordinary claims.

The debate:

More discussion from a fellow skeptic:


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