Bart Ehrman has been a thorn in the side of US evangelical Christians ever since he burst onto the scene in 2006 with his popular book Misquoting Jesus (HarperOne). Somehow, the hitherto unknown Bible scholar had managed to turn a dry academic subject (the textual reliability of scripture) into a New York Times best-seller. As miraculous as that may sound, the problem was that Ehrman wasn’t a Christian. In fact, as a former Bible-believing evangelical, he took every opportunity to tell his story of losing faith in Scripture, and eventually in God altogether. The atheist community welcomed him as a brother-in-arms. Evangelicals saw him as a talented communicator with an axe to grind.
At some point in his deconversion process, Ehrman decided that the historical claim that Jesus rose from the dead was false. So why did he change his mind? The New Testament scholar explained how, in his evangelical youth, he spent a number of years trying to prove to people that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Eventually, however, his studies led him to question the reliability of the stories altogether.
‘It was my biblical scholarship that showed me that there are in fact mistakes in the Bible,’ he says. ‘There are contradictions between the different accounts about how Jesus was raised from the dead. This eventually led me to become a more liberal Christian who didn’t hold to the inerrancy of the Bible.’
SPOT THE DIFFERENCE
The remnants of Ehrman’s faith were eventually swept away altogether when he later struggled to reconcile the idea of a loving God with the suffering he saw in the world. ‘I came to a point where I simply didn’t believe there was a God who was active in the world, and that necessarily had implications, because there can’t be a miraculous resurrection of Jesus if there’s nobody who is performing miracles.’
It was Ehrman’s concerns over biblical contradictions that set the ball of doubt rolling. So, what were the apparent inconsistencies in the resurrection accounts that cast doubt on their central claim – that Jesus rose? It wasn’t hard to tell that he’d been asked this before, as he rattled off a list of discrepancies between the different accounts:
‘Who actually goes to the tomb that morning, is it Mary Magdalene by herself or with other women, and with how many, and what were their names? It depends which Gospel you read. Was the stone rolled away before or after they got there? It depends which Gospel you read. What did they see when they got there? Was it one man, or two, or an angel? It depends which Gospel you read. Did they tell anyone? Mark says they didn’t tell anyone, Matthew says they ran and told the disciples, so which is it? It depends which Gospel you read.’
It’s a challenging list, but Ehrman was only pointing out the obvious. You don’t need a PhD to line up the Gospel accounts side by side and spot the differences. Conflicts over numbers, names and comings and goings quickly become apparent. So what’s the solution?
It’s not a new problem. Many have pointed out the danger of trying to read the Gospels as if they were a modern-day newspaper report. Ancient biography was more elastic in the way it reported events, without casting the historicity of the event into doubt. Some scholars have even undertaken a complete harmonisation of the different passages, showing that there are no irresolvable contradictions between them.
ARE MIRACLES ALLOWED?
In recent years many scholars who affirm the resurrection have adopted a ‘minimal facts’ approach to the evidence. They contend that regardless of whether the accounts are ‘inerrant’, the historical evidence for the empty tomb stands firm all the same. Certain key historical facts are well established: the death by crucifixion and burial of Jesus, reports that his tomb had been found empty, and that some of Jesus’ followers had experiences (they believed) of the risen Jesus.
Now we came to the crux of the issue. What conclusion was Ehrman willing to draw from these established facts? For evangelical scholars, the best explanation is the one given in all four Gospels – that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead. Other theories (Jesus swooned, they stole the body, mass hallucinations) simply don’t have the same explanatory power. But this poses a dilemma for the historian... can you infer a miracle to explain historical events?
“WHAT YOU ARE DOING IS NO LONGER HISTORY – IT’S FAITH”
As far as Ehrman is concerned, evangelicals are committing a methodological howler. ‘You’ve moved from history to faith,’ he objects. ‘You can show historically that people claimed they saw Jesus alive afterwards, you can draw the conclusion that they probably believed it. But if you yourself agree that Jesus was raised from the dead, you are saying that was an act of God in history. What you are doing is no longer history – it’s faith.’
FOLLOWING THE EVIDENCE
There’s the rub. For some people, no explanation (including ones with supernatural implications) should be off limits, while a sceptic such as Ehrman will always insist that the standard rules of historical enquiry can’t be suspended for believers.
Christians are often accused of believing things on ‘blind faith’. In reality however, faith is about trusting in something that we have good reasons for (1 Peter 3:15). Whether we are believers or atheists, don’t we all bring our biases to the evidence, ruling out (or ruling in) certain explanations in the process? In this new series we’ll be aiming to hear the best objections to faith from Christianity’s leading critics, and find out what reasons we can give for the hope within us.
For many of those who are open to the possibility of God, the resurrection will remain the best explanation for the historical facts. I don’t think that makes them bad historians but normal people who are willing to follow where the evidence leads. In this case, to an empty tomb.
Whether they are Christians or not, the majority of New Testament scholars agree that:
Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers. Since female testimony had less value than male this aspect of the story wouldn’t have been invented.
Different individuals and groups had experiences they believed were of Jesus alive after his death.
The original disciples suddenly came to believe in the resurrection, despite it contradicting their Jewish expectations.