Tag Archives: Ehrman

More on the Transmission of the Gospels

This week I will continue my complaints against the arguments Bart Ehrman provided in his discussion with Richard Bauckham on the Unbelievable? radio program of Premier Christianity. In case you are unfamiliar with the subject matter, Ehrman was arguing for the notion that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses, while Bauckham argued that they were. In particular, Ehrman hammered away at the possibility of people being able to recall facts from decades earlier. Last week, I addressed a number of objections I had to his arguments. This week, I will address two more issues that Ehrman raised.

Let’s consider first the literacy rate in Judea at the time of Christ. Ehrman makes mention of the idea that the literacy rate in first century Palestine (a.k.a. Judea) was only around 2 or 3%. He points to research done by other scholars in this field to support his claim, and I have no doubt that many scholars endorse this view. However, I think we need to state the obvious: we have no real way to verify the literacy rate of Jews in first-century Palestine. Unless there was some sort of survey done during that time frame addressing the ability of people to read and write, we must admit that we are making educated guesses when we speak of the literacy rate. The idea behind much of this is that only the upper crust were educated enough to read and write. I recognize that acquiring an education in the ancient world was not something that just everyone could afford, but it does not necessarily follow that everyone was dumb as a box of rocks.

Now, interestingly, Ehrman makes part of his case for the bulk of Jews being illiterate based on the fact that we have found very little Jewish written material from that area and time frame. But, let’s be honest about something: we have not found too much written material in that area and during that time frame regardless of language or ethnicity. However, it should be noted that the Essenes had quite a bit of literature in their possession (the Dead Sea Scrolls), and it is entirely possible that the Jewish population in first-century Palestine wrote primarily, if not entirely, religious material. Furthermore, I want to argue that Ehrman is simply arguing from silence, which is not necessarily a very sound way to argue. As the old saying goes, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

But, let’s think this literacy thing through one more step. Let us suppose for a moment that it is absolutely true that only 2 or 3% of people could read and write. Is this the only way of transmitting information? I can think of at least two methods: oral tradition and art. I spoke a little about oral tradition last week, so I will not touch on that today. Instead, I will simply and quickly point out that art is an effective method of communicating messages, especially if there is a story that goes along with it. Take, for example, stained glass windows in churches. When they are done well, a person can share with another the entire life story of Jesus from birth to ascension.

But, let’s carry on with the idea that only 2-3% could read or write and this small number was made up primarily of the wealthy and professional scribes. Does this count Jesus and His disciples out? Hmm… I think not, and that leads naturally to my second gripe against Ehrman in his dialogue with Bauckham.

So, I will now turn my attention to the ability of Jesus and His disciples to have produced written documents. Taking Ehrman’s position on the literacy rate in first-century Palestine at face value, is it possible that Jesus and His followers could have produced written documents? I think it is entirely possible. Consider the fact that not all of Jesus’ followers were penniless – or perhaps, miteless : ) According to John 3:1-21, Nicodemus seems to have had some interest in Jesus’ teachings, and he was a member of the Jewish ruling council (see also Jn. 19:39). Joseph of Arimathea was also personally invested in Jesus enough to have His body removed from the cross and buried in his own tomb (Matt. 27:57-60; Mk. 15:43-46; Lk. 23:50-53; Jn. 19:38-42).

In addition to Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, there were others who were seemingly financially well to do. Matthew (a.k.a. Levi) was a tax collector (Lk. 5:27-32), as was Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). Zacchaeus, by the way, is also described as being rich (Lk. 19:2). John Mark seems to have come from a family with some degree of wealth. After all, his mother had a house big enough to entertain multiple guests and included at least one servant (Acts 12:12-17). Jesus also had women that followed Him who were wealthy enough to travel with and minister to Him (Mk. 15:40-41).

These are just names found in the New Testament. There may be plenty more in the early church. After all, it is not unreasonable to think that a wealthy person converted. Furthermore, the use of an amanuensis (a professional writer who takes dictation) was not unheard of, and Paul made use of such workers.

This is good enough for today. Next week, I will turn to some other worthwhile topic.

On Memory and Transmission

For two weeks in row, the Unbelievable? radio program of Premier Christianity featured a debate between Richard Bauckham and Bart Ehrman. Both men are world renowned scholars and the debate was very informative. Central to the discussion was whether or not the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses. Bauckham argued in favor of the idea that they were, in fact, written by eyewitnesses while Ehrman, unsurprisingly, argued that they were not. What I found most interesting in these two debates was the emphasis on human memory.

Ehrman holds the position that the primitive church in the region of Judea would have been largely, if not entirely, illiterate. He also believes that the human memory cannot be relied upon to convey information accurately. Now, I should make it clear that Ehrman is no knucklehead, and he comes to debates with a wealth of information. He mentions scores of psychological studies, and references scholars regarding the literacy rate in first-century Jerusalem.

Bauckham is no slouch in these matters either, and he also speaks of psychological studies and various scholars that support his conclusions. Still, I wish he would have done a better job of arguing with Ehrman. So, let me throw in my two cents from the cheap seats several days after the actual radio broadcast.

1. Can human memory be trusted? This is a good question, and there is a lot of evidence that shows the human memory is definitely fallible. However, researchers often focus on things that I would say are removed from the individuals being studied. So, one of the studies spoke of a person seeing the space shuttle exploding on television, and another of various silly tasks given to college students on a campus.

These are interesting studies, but do they really prove the point? I say they don’t. To begin, the person on the street will have a very different emotional investment in the memory of the space shuttle disaster than someone who worked on the project. And, there is seemingly no emotional investment in being asked to do oddball tasks on a college campus. The apostles saw a close personal acquaintance die a horrifying death and then return to life three days later. This is a far different emotional experience than what is found in the research mentioned in the radio show.

2. Does memory have to be perfect to be trustworthy? Nope. Since people love to point out the fallibility of eyewitness testimony in a court of law, we can talk about this for a moment. Let us say that three eyewitnesses are called to the stand in a murder trial. The first witness says that he saw a man get shot by an assailant in a blue sports car, and that after the shooting took place the paramedics arrived within ten minutes. The second witness says that he saw a man get shot by an assailant driving a blue pick-up truck, and that the paramedics showed up within five minutes. The third witness says that he saw a man get shot by an assailant in a green SUV, and that the paramedics arrived within fifteen minutes of the shooting.

Now, are any of these witnesses trustworthy, and can we learn anything at all from their testimony? I think the answer is a qualified yes to both questions. We must ask what our expectations are for their memories, and if those expectations are reasonable. Do we expect people to accurately remember the make, model, and color of cars that they see throughout the day? I think not. Their inability to recall minute details only means that they are not trustworthy regarding those particular items. However, they can still be reliable on larger details. Now, turning to the question of whether or not we can learn something from the testimony of these three witnesses, I think it is clear that we can. In this case, we learn that a man was shot by an assailant in a vehicle, and that paramedics arrived within fifteen minutes.

3. We do not need to abandon God when we argue with skeptics. I have never understood the tendency of believers to toss aside God when engaging those who are hostile to our faith. I have immense respect for rational argumentation, but if that is all you have when engaging in dialogue with a skeptic, then the discussion is no different than if two atheists were debating the merits of religion. The Bible teaches us that God was at work in the inspiration, transmission, and preservation of the Scriptures (John 14:26; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:20-21).

Some may argue that this is cheating somehow, or intellectually lazy, but I do not see that as being the case. If I claim that there is a God in heaven that has the capability to act in this world, then I am under no obligation to argue for that God apart from that God. In other words, when we make arguments for God, there is no reason to leave Him out of the discussion.

Whew… This has gone on for quite some time now, and I think it is time to stop. So long for now : )