The Invisible Things

Articles in Apologetics

Brief Comments on the Recent Craig-Ehrman Debate

with 16 comments

On March 28, 2006, the College of the Holy Cross sponsored a debate between Dr. William Lane Craig and Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, titled "Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?" Since I was not able to actually attend this much-anticipated event, I have been able to review the transcript of the proceedings, which can be found here. Normally, I wouldn't endeavor to analyze or throw my 'two cents' in after the fact, but the debate raised several issues that are particularly germane to philosophical and historical apologetics and which I think merit some attention. I won't necessarily be defending the historical resurrection in this article as previous ones have made clear my position on this matter. However, I would like to examine some philosophical ideas related to the discussion that often cause damage to a debate such as this one.

Aside from a rather unfortunate and embarassing introduction from the moderator, which recounts a medieval debate between a Jewish Rabbi and a Christian Monk over whether Jesus was the messiah and seems to suggest that the resulting bedlam is characteristic of Christian 'sore losers,' both Craig and Ehrman seem to have conducted themselves in gentlemanly and scholarly fashion.

Dr. William Lane Craig, representing the affirmative position, is a Christian philosopher by profession, though it should be noted that he has advanced degrees in theology and philosophy and his apologetic work tends to focus on issues relevant to the cosmological argument for the existence of God and the historical resurrection of Jesus. Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, representing the negative position, is a Biblical historian and textual critic with a doctorate in theology who has been in the limelight recently after the publication of his latest book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, which discusses the transmission of the Biblical texts and how they were changed over time. In summary, Dr. Craig defended his position that there is, in fact, historical evidence in light of which the resurrection of Jesus is a probable event. He began with what is a classic approach of his, what I will call the 'Four Facts' argument, which propose that there are four facts which must be adequately explained: 1. the burial of Jesus, 2. the discovery of his empty tomb, 3. the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and 4. the origin of the disciples belief in the resurrection. On the basis of his argument, he concludes that the best explanation of the facts is that Jesus rose from the dead. On the other hand, Dr. Ehrman argued that history is methodologically limited to dealing with information that can be verified through reliable sources and suggests only natural events. It is on the basis of this assertion that Ehrman declares such an event as the resurrection of Jesus non-historical, and therefore not germane to any discussion he would conduct.

This particular methodology, which Ehrman claims carries no bias toward theological issues, does not allow for a historical presence of the supernatural. Thus, the logical conclusion is that supernatural actions of God in history, are by nature non-historical. However, this just seems somewhat difficult to defend. If one were to grant the existence of God, not even necessarily a personal one such as Christianity posits, the declaration that God would not act in history is completely arbitrary on the part of the human being. Without a direct communication from God affirming this point, one really has no basis to assume it. However, one does have, again assuming theism, a precedent upon which to expect God to act in history- namely the creation of the universe itself, which must be a historical event though no one was there to write it down or snap a photo as it was happening. Yet, since even the ‘natural’ was created at that point, the act itself must have been supernatural. In any case, suffice it to say that I believe Ehrman’s position on the matter to be a bit of a stretch of the credulity of any philosopher. He may be playing by the rules of historians, but that says nothing of whether a supernatural event actually occurred.

In response to the classic 'four facts' argument put forth by Craig, Ehrman suggests a couple of alternative explanations, which, while he does not subscribe to them personally, he argues are more probable explanations than that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. For example, one he suggested first was that after Jesus' death by crucifixion, He was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. However, His family, motive unknown but preferring to have the final say in where Jesus was buried, broke into the tomb at night and removed the body. While transporting it, they encountered some Roman guards who summarily put them to death and cast all the bodies in an unmarked mass grave. Later, the disciples would obviously find the original tomb empty and legend would flourish.

While this explanation is rife with problems, the more important issue at play is, again, the arbitrariness with which it is assembled. The issue here is to find an explanation which satisfactorily deals with all the information available. In other words, and often stated by Craig, such an explanation must have appropriate explanatory scope and power in order to be the most probable and suitable to settle upon. Ehrman's suggestion not only fails in this regard, but it is absurdly ad hoc and ends up not satisfying the actual evidence but creating a list of other points to ground it that are either entirely contrived or at best speculative. For instance, his explanation follows the Gospel narrative in general but inserts an event previously unknown to account for the empty tomb. Not only is this event completely contrived, but it presents a new problem that the explanation does not itself solve. Specifically, had the relatives of Jesus (presumably Mary, and/or his brothers) attempted to move the body and been killed in the process, surely there would be some mention of their absence or at least an explanation of their deaths. In fact, history shows that at least James and Jude could not have been involved in this plot (assuming the authorship of the epistles of James and Jude are not spurious).

Craig, of course, continually returns to his 'four facts' argument and reminds the attending audience that they have not been adequately refuted. Given Ehrman’s inability to diffuse the ‘four facts’ argument, it seems that the issue of the debate sadly came down to one of professional methodology. On the one hand, we have a philosopher, adhering to the laws of logic and the fundamental notion of following the evidence where it leads, while on the other a historian willing to play by rules that satisfy operating in a bubble but seem almost absurd when exposed to the scrutiny of common sense. Needless to say, I was disappointed by this debate. Had the format of the proceedings themselves allowed, the scholars might have had opportunity to unpack the issues of historical and philosophical methodology in a depth necessary for really coming to any worthwhile determinations on the matter. While I find the ‘four facts’ argument to be strongly persuasive, it is only because I am also persuaded that historical methodology must allow for any event, including the miraculous, to occur. What would make for an interesting sequel to this debate would be to have the scholars return to discuss this issue in particular and then perhaps readdress the conclusions in regard to Jesus.


16 Responses

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  1. I didn’t read all that, but, God’s not real. Sorry.


    June 22, 2006 at 12:11 am

  2. Hi Claire,

    Thanks for visiting. While this post wasn't specifically intended to defend theism, I would encourage you to finish reading it nonetheless, or even to read the debate itself. On what basis do you defend that God is not real? If you're interested in the topic of atheism vs. theism, try reading some of these posts:

    The Ontological Argument
    The Trancendental Argument
    Rousseau in Chains
    The Inescapability of Purpose
    Yearning for Eternal Purpose
    Atheism by Default?
    Science and Faith, Pt. 1: Is Science the Only Way to Truth?
    Science and Faith, Pt. 2: Are they Incompatible?
    Science and Faith, Pt. 3: What are the Limits?

    Or, check out a great debate between Dr. William Lane Craig (theist) and Dr. Austin Dacey (atheist) here.



    June 22, 2006 at 7:41 am

  3. Hi sir CB, im a beginner theologian from the Philippines and im looking for “brilliant” people like you who have blogs so i can connect them to mine and mine with them?

    can i add you to my blogroll? and me to yours?

    thanks a lot,
    rex b. reyes iii. aka joe_higashi

    my favorite sites just for your FYI and you have an idea on where iam coming from theologically. – im a moderator in their forum. – one of my resource and am an active member of the forums.

    Thanks again.


    June 22, 2006 at 5:35 pm

  4. Hi Joe,

    You sure can, and thanks for visiting!




    June 26, 2006 at 6:38 pm

  5. Ehrman’s historical methodology smacks of the methodological naturalism applied to the biological sciences. Brilliant move by the skeptics: define the issues out of bounds and you don’t even have to address the evidence. By this measure, if we found a 2000 year old DVD of Jesus rising from the dead, or “Made by God” stamped in our DNA, we couldn’t admit that as evidence because it would have supernatural implications.

    Scott Pruett

    July 13, 2006 at 11:05 am

  6. You misunderstand what Prof Ehrman said when you wrote, “If one were to grant the existence of God, not even necessarily a personal one such as Christianity posits, the declaration that God would not act in history is completely arbitrary on the part of the human being. ”

    Prof Ehrman doesn’t assert that God doesn’t act in history, merely that the historian cannot demonstrate the instances of God acting in history, if indeed there is a God, and if indeed that being is of such a nature that he acts in history.

    What Craig never addresses– what he runs away from as fast as he can– is whether on the basis of the sort of ‘evidence’ he accepts in the case of the resurrection he also accepts pagan miracles (of which hundreds if not thousands are documented), Jewish miracles, 19th century spiritualists ‘miracles’ etc. Because Craig in fact does not derive his beliefs AT ALL from the supposed ‘evidence’ of his “four facts.” His belief is based 100% on faith. He probably doesn’t even expect his argument to convince anyone. Certainly I am no more willing to believe in the Resurrection based on the thin gospel stories than to believe that Pythagoras had a golden thigh, or that Vespasian cured with a touch, or that the cures at Epidaurus by Asclepius were miraculous.

    Craig is defending the ruined castle of ‘a reasonable faith’ with his considerable skills as a public speaker. But as far marshalling rational and historical atguments in support of self-evident myths like the Resurrection, that day is done ; that battle has been lost; people just aren’t that credulous anymore. If they believe it, they’ll believe it on pure faith, not on the basis of Bill Craig’s “four facts.”

    With every advance of scholarship, with every discovery of a new manuscipt, the traditional Christian story unravels a little more. The thing that panics folks like Prof Craig and his colleagues at Biola University —which by the way just got its accreditation back!— is that the significance of archaeological discoveries like Nag Hammadi, and the writings of higher criticism, are becoming known to the general public. What seminarians once kept to themselves has escaped from the bowers of academe to shock and surprise the ordinary pew-sitter! Better to stick to extolling the delights of being Spirit-Filled.

    More atheists come out of seminary than ever went in.

    Skip Church

    August 2, 2006 at 3:17 am

  7. Hi ‘Skip Church,’

    Thanks for commenting. I disagree with you that I misunderstood Ehrman’s point about God acting in history. To the contrary, I understand it clearly and still argue that it is an arbitrary exclusion in terms of what is possible and, if God exists, how he might behave.

    Regarding the evidence for the Resurrection compared to the evidence for other miraculous claims, I agree that the point was not fully addressed. However, simply because other claims exist does not make the weighing of one contingent upon them all. For example, if the evidence for the resurrection is examined in context and found to be strong, this really has nothing to do with whether other claims of the miraculous are credible or not. From the perspective of the Christian worldview, it is highly likely that other ‘miraculous’ events have ocurred, as it is acknowledged that the spiritual realm has an effect upon the earthly one, whether for good or bad. However, the evidence for Pythagoras’ golden thigh is not at all comparable to the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus. This is probably obvious to you.

    Lastly, your conclusion that ‘every advance of scholarship’ and ‘every discovery of a new manuscript, the traditional Christian story unravels a little more’ is not at all accurate. In fact, as I have mentioned in previous posts, the more information we gather, the stronger the case becomes. Some specifics would be helpful to back up your claim. For instance, just what about Nag Hammadi was significantly ‘against’ orthodox Christianity? For someone who criticizes Craig for having more style than substance, I find the swaggarly end to your comment to be a disappointingly unsubstantial conclusion.




    August 2, 2006 at 4:27 am

  8. The point about God acting in history briefly is this: though there may be a God, and though he may indeed act in history, the historian has no access to data that may show when this is so. For instance, many believed that the Union victory in the American civil war was an example of God acting in history, that God supported the anti-slavery view, and turned the tide. Similar opinions, very sincerely expressed, were held about American successes in the Revolutionary War. No less a figure than George Washington saw the hand of Divine Providence in the victories at Trenton and Princeton. Indeed, some of these successes do have an air of the miraculous about them! But can the historian say, on the basis of remarkable military success, “here is an example of God acting in history?”

    I think not. For every instance of what we might identify as the “good guys” benefiting from some remarkable success, there will be an instance of the other sort of guy prevailing. Hitler’s miraculous survival of several attempts on his life comes to mind. So while God may act in history, so mysterious are his ways that we cannot possibly hope to show where this has happened.

    Craig’s thesis that the resurrection is a demonstably historical event must of course be judged on its own merits. I think it fails, and you perhaps do not, and that is okay. My point with the pagan miracles is that Craig doesn’t want to address them because his standards are such that he’d have to acknowledge their historicity as well. And this he cannot do. Actually there is much better evidence for the existence of fairies than for the resurrection of Jesus, including numerous first person accounts from fairly recent times. For a good selection, see Sir John Rhys “Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx” or “The Good People” (Peter Narvaez, ed.).

    As to advances of scholarship, the key thing I think is the understanding by the general public that early Christianity included all sorts of beliefs about Jesus and widely divergent Christologies. The recent upwelling of interest in gnosticism is just an example of this. It has also become better known that the Ebionites and probably the church of Jerusalem headed by James had a considerably less divine Jesus in mind than that which later prevailed among the orthodox. Greater familiarity by the general public with apocryphal material, well-larded as it is with ridiculous and legendary elements, has led I think to a bit more skepicism about the canonical gospels.

    Much of this material has long been available. M.R. James’ “The Apocryphal New Testament” was published in 1924.It is only recently though that some of the implications have begun to dawn on the ordinary pew-sitters. And the implication is this: the further the temporal distance from the actual events, the more fabulous the story became, with the account in Paul’s epistle being simpler than that in Mark, and that in Mark being simpler than that in Matthew and Luke, and so on until we come to the elaborate fictions of the late apocryphals, where crosses speak, baby Jesus makes clay figurines come to life, and so on.

    So it is not too great a stretch to “run the film backwards” and come to an unmiraculous historical probability, wherein a completely human Jesus conducted his ministry, inspired followers, but was untimately executed.

    This, I think, is where a calm and unprejudiced consideration of the evidence leads. Indeed, this is where even the believing Christian winds up when considering the claims of other religions.


    August 5, 2006 at 1:00 am

  9. In regards to the early church leader, James, whom had a considerably less divine Jesus in mind, was accused of law transgression and stoned to death because of his belief in Jesus. This was recorded by Josephus. Now why would James risked his life knowing that Jesus was not the Messiah. Did he had any other motivation or gains?


    August 6, 2006 at 12:29 pm

  10. You certainly don’t know your Josephus very well. There is no implication that James was killed “because of his belief in Jesus” or that he “risked his life knowing that Jesus was not the Messiah.”

    AJ 20.9.1

    But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees,33 who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrim without his consent.34 Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.


    August 9, 2006 at 1:06 am

  11. SkipChurch,

    Again, I think you are mischaracterizing the point about God acting in history. When you cite the lack of data, you seem to imply that only first person testimony available to all people at all times from God Himself will suffice to affirm what He has or has not done. Clearly, obtaining such ‘data’ is unlikely. However there is ample testimonial data regarding the events surrounding Jesus of Nazareth that is attested to among multiple independent sources. This is the type of data upon which we rely to construct much of what we know of the past, regardless of its supernatural implications. Additionally, in regards to Jesus, no one is claiming divine responsibility for commonly declared natural events (akin to claiming God secured a battle victory, as you mention). The claim is that God acted in history overtly and in a way particular to His purposes, not those of men.

    Regarding the claim of more evidence for fairies than evidence for the resurrection Jesus, one could hardly claim that quantity of cited claims amounts to qualitatively more.

    Lastly, the idea of an originally ‘plural’ or ‘diverse’ orthodoxy is something I have disputed in the past. Citing the apochryphal gospels is legitimate to show the diversity that resulted from the exposure of the Gospel to contemporary philosophies among the surrounding cultures, noteably Gnostic communities. However, because it has been shown to have come after the Gospel events and as a direct result of its spread among other cultures, the apocrypha cannot be used to argue for original diversity of doctrine.



    August 10, 2006 at 8:28 am

  12. To CB (in defense of Skip Church):
    First person testamony doesn’t translate to fact. Look at all the people who have been convicted of crimes by eyewitnesses to later be released based on more conclusive scientific facts!

    Our eyes can deceive us, play tricks on us. Ehrman gave a wonderful example in the Q&A portion of the debate saying that even if you saw someone walking on water, that doesn’t mean they really did. There could have been stones beneath the water that were not visible from where you were standing. I don’t doubt that Jesus was seen after his death, but it might not have been the physical Jesus!

    And how can you say that the people who saw Jesus are absolutely right about what they saw but the people who claim they see fairies are not? Are you letting your beliefs cloud your objectivity?

    I think where you’re missing the boat here is that you’re presupposing that God exists. Historians cannot do that. So without an assumtion that God exists, the resurrection cannot be the most probable conclusion! It’s possible…just not probable. Acts of God…or anything supernatural…by definition cannot be the MOST probable. We cannot say that something that occurs so infrequently (or never) as in supernatural occurances is the MOST probable. It’s probable, just not the most probable.


    January 9, 2007 at 6:57 am

  13. I do agree with skip church because believing in ones miracle will leads you in believing miracls of Muslims and Hindus and you will suerly find people defending their miracle- making man or son of G-d in the same way like Mr. Graig,But defending is not enough proveing is the problem.And i can not understand why G-d took all the necssaery measures to hide the evidnce in a very efficent way?


    January 25, 2007 at 5:55 pm

  14. I will commend on the following statement that someone else made:
    “If one were to grant the existence of God, not even necessarily a personal one such as Christianity posits, the declaration that God would not act in history is completely arbitrary on the part of the human being. ”

    To some degree we can guess how a personal god will behave because he (?) is like us. He becomes angry, he becomes happy, he becomes regretful, etc. Therefore, if God is a person, he will be tempted to “act in history” because he is chocked by the injustce among humans. Stop and think about this: God sees the injustice of humans but he does not see the injustice that goes on between animals in the jungles and fishes in the bottom of the ocean. Or rather, God has designed the animal and fish world with injustice as the main ingredient: the big fish eats the small one. (There is no space here to explain how the concept of a personal God is an impossibility.)
    But what would we know about a god who is not personal? A god who is not personal does not act like a person. It does not react to physchological stimuli. (Only persons are stimulated phychologically.) It does not have the sense of right and wrong. (Only in humans and animals have such sense.) So an impersonal god could not be an animal.
    What would an impersonal god be like and how would it act? The only things we know are persons, plant life and animal life, matter, and energy. What else could a non-personal god be? Matter or energy? If you say matter I will say energy, and if you say energy I will say matter. Anyway, we will both be right because energy turns into matter and matter turns into energy.
    You guess is as good as mine.
    I guess, God is the creative power of the universe. I am talking about a physical power, which includes, gravity (magnetism), elecriticty, light, and other physical powers, which scientists have not discovered yet.
    By the way energy “acts in history.” So we got that covered.
    Good luck!


    February 14, 2007 at 7:15 pm

  15. hello,

    I am an atheist, and I found your comments while looking for this debate with Craig and Ehrman.

    Most criticism of metaphysical naturalism centers on the insufficiency of past experience to justify conclusions about what can or can’t happen.

    So I’d like to know if any supernaturalists, who agree with that criticism, are defeating the purpose of their criticism, since they must make use of past experience in order to attack it’s viability. When you say “past experience isn’t always enough!”, you are yourself depending on your past experience in communication, ability to read, understanding of english, etc. Why is dependence on past experience only totally reliable when supernaturalists need to do this to make their case?

    Furthermore, I’d say that since the ultimate purpose of a debate is to convince the other girl that your position is more likely correct than herss, truth itself is irrelevent. I could easily convince you that I’m right, when in fact I’m wrong, since we are both imperfect. But if I can convince you that I’m right, when in fact I’m wrong, this seems to show that truth isn’t really the goal of debating, in spite of the fact that intuition suggests it is. This then would be an argument to show that Christians may think they are defending truth or helping others get near truth when discussing or debating with atheists, when in fact they are only giving the atheist THEIR interpretation of the bible, while there are plenty of other sincerely saved Christians who think the opposite doctrines are “clearly taught” in the bible. Are atheists getting nearer to Jesus when they discuss him with a Christian? Or are they getting nearer to the understanding of Jesus that particular Christian holds?



    April 11, 2008 at 2:45 pm

  16. CB wrote: “…because it has been shown to have come after the Gospel events and as a direct result of its spread among other cultures, the apocrypha cannot be used to argue for original diversity of doctrine.” LOL!!! The apocryphal gospels, apocryphal acts of the apostles, apocryphal epistles, couldn’t very well have come BEFORE the gospel events! CB better catch up on his reading–Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, now over 70 years old and still excellent.

    Alexis K.

    January 14, 2009 at 2:52 am

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