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Brief Comments on the Recent Craig-Ehrman Debate

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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.