Release date: September 22, 2020
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ (8/10)
BRIEF OVERVIEW OF THE BOOK, THE AUTHORS & THEIR CREDENTIALS: Can We Trust the Bible on the Historical Jesus? is a collaboration between Bart D. Ehrman, Craig Evans, and Robert Stewart. The content of the book is mostly a transcript of a debate between Ehrman and Evans at the seventh Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum in 2012, regarding whether or not we can consider the biblical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John) to be accurate historical representations of the physical Jesus.
Both Ehrman and Evans are highly acclaimed Biblical scholars, professors, and authors with two very different responses to their studies: Ehrman is a confessed agnostic, which happened in the middle of his career, after he researched and finished his New York Times bestselling book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer. Evans, however, is an evangelical Christian speaker and theologian who travels and speaks at colleges and churches internationally; he is, however, quick to state that he’s not a conservative Christian in this debate.
As Stewart points out in his intro, history is subjective and interpretive; what passes as historical one century will be debunked and replaced generations later.”
Both men have written and edited many books, and both have extensively studied language and the historical origins of Christianity, specifically focusing on the history of how the Bible was written and the accuracy of the gospels themselves. (And that is just a VERY small fraction of their studies and works, but it’s what pertains to this book; feel free to look them up to get a more in-depth idea of their other areas of expertise.)
Robert Stewart is a professor of Philosophy and Theology at New Orleans Baptist Seminary, and – more importantly to this specific debate – he’s the Greer-Heard Chair of Faith and Culture. He writes an informative (but definitely academic and slightly dry) introduction and ending essay to bookend the debate itself; the number of footnotes in this book, especially in Stewart’s sections, is alarming and indicates the vast amounts of material – somewhat contradictory in nature – that exists regarding this hot-button topic.
MY THOUGHTS: I am a recovering English major (ha), and a nerd for the history of language, religion, and Christianity in particular, so I was incredibly excited to get my hands on a copy of this book in Netgalley.
Full disclosure: I own six other books by Ehrman already, and none by Evans (merely because I’d never heard of him), so I FULLY expected to walk away from this debate on Ehrman’s side before I even started this book. However, I was committed to going in with an open mind, and I found myself more fascinated than I’d imagined I would be by the opposing side that was presented by Evans. In short (truer words were never spoken): Ehrman does not believe we can trust the picture painted of Jesus by the gospels as a historically accurate one; Evans does.
Let’s unpack why: Ehrman has made his career pointing out the many troubling parts of the Bible that contradict one another (see Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible, and Why We Don’t Know About Them), and diving deeply into the meanings behind these contradictions. He’s very clear to point out that each gospel writer – not ACTUALLY disciples of Christ, but educated Greeks writing decades after the death of Jesus – has their own agenda and their own targeted audience, which I won’t go into because it’s a moot point in this specific book. Because of these clear agendas – and because of the very nature of these sometimes uncomfortably irrefutable and irreconcilable differences (including whether Jesus was born in Bethlehem or Nazareth, whether it was a virgin birth, and whether he was horrified or accepting of his crucifixion) – Ehrman does not believe the gospels themselves can provide us with a reliably historical picture of who Jesus was as a person. He also points out how some of the historical “facts” provided in the gospels actually CANNOT be true, like Herod’s census, and were thus only included to further the author’s own narrative.
Evans, on the other hand, takes a slightly more accepting view of what qualifies as historical documentation. To him, the gospels meet several of the tests of historical authenticity (explained in detail in Stewart’s introduction), and to help his argument, he uses the fact that many biblical scholars from the past few centuries are willing to accept the gospels as historical documents. As Stewart points out in his intro, history is subjective and interpretive; what passes as historical one century will be debunked and replaced generations later. Evans points out that the gospels are written within an acceptably close timeframe to the life of Jesus and thus can be considered fairly historically accurate; there are multiple stories and events corroborated among them, and the differences can be chalked up to the cultural practices of teaching at the time. He introduces us to a concept called chreiai, where Greek students “in late antiquity” would memorize certain sayings by well-known teachers, writers, or philosophers. They were then encouraged to take that phrase, use the knowledge they gained regarding the subject, and make it their own – even changing and modifying it to prove their own point. To Evans, this explains why certain parables and stories are different among the synoptic gospels. (Although even Evans agrees to leave the gospel of John out of most of this debate, as it’s so out of left field.)
…Each gospel writer had a specific audience in mind and a specific argument they wanted to make with their own portrayal of Jesus. And doesn’t this knowledge – combined with the knowledge that the authors of the synoptic gospels shared the same sources, including copying each other – affect how literally we can consider their versions of events?”
I won’t go into detail regarding the depths of their debate, or all of the ways in which they actually seem to agree – even though Evans may not necessarily see it that way, Ehrman does. However, I will say that your takeaway from this book will depend on your overall approach to the Bible, and how you view it. Are you looking for a historically accurate (dare I say, even factually infallible, you westernized evangelical Christians, you???), educational book about supposedly true-to-life people and events? Or do you view it more as a comprehensive collection of stories and experiences meant to teach and provide guidelines for a more fulfilling, spiritually-rich life? Neither Evans nor Ehrman may change your views completely, but you’ll walk away with more of an appreciation for both sides of this argument.
And to be fair, there are some validities that can be found within both arguments. Evans gives us a good overview of what historians actually look for when verifying reliable, hopefully accurate sources; logically speaking, it’s true that multiple accounts corroborating certain events lend credence to the probability that those events actually happened. As he points out, we don’t have videotapes from the time of Jesus, or Caesar, or Napoleon; all we have are multiple accounts that we can parse and examine closely, and use to construct a reasonably reliable narrative – especially when combined with our established archaeological and anthropological knowledge of the cultural, societal, and religious norms of the day.
However, you cannot discount Ehrman’s point that these accounts are gospels, not textbooks or biographies (just like the New Testament letters were correspondence sent directly to certain communities with unique challenges, and not general guidelines for Christian living for everyone – but that’s another story for another day). There is a purpose for these, and that purpose is to tell a carefully crafted set of stories to spread the “good news” of Jesus. Not only that, but each gospel writer had a specific audience in mind and a specific argument they wanted to make with their own portrayal of Jesus. And doesn’t this knowledge – combined with the knowledge that the authors of the synoptic gospels shared the same sources, including copying each other – affect how literally we can consider their versions of events?
While this book can be a bit dry and academic in its explanations of historicity and what scholars really think, the actual debate between Ehrman and Evans was a fascinating one. I’m very glad that it’s captured in writing for students of the historical Jesus to read and examine. It’s not often that we get to read a point-counterpoint argument where one biblical scholar is directly answering the questions posed by their “opponent,” and I fully appreciated both this cyclical back-and-forth discussion, and their ongoing arguments and answers to the difficult questions posed.