Licona's Final Reply: The Gospels are “historically reliable” accounts of Jesus

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I want to thank Bart for a dialogue that has been both collegial and enjoyable. I'm genuinely grateful for his challenges and don't know of any scholar, skeptical or believer, who can combine content and rhetoric as well as Bart in order to articulate their views. And he has not disappointed here.

Throughout this dialogue, I have contended that an ancient primary source may be regarded as "historically reliable" when the following four criteria are met:

  1. We can verify numerous elements reported by an ancient author to be true in their essence though not necessarily in every detail.
  2. We have reason to believe the author was neither overly indiscriminate in his use of sources nor credulous.
  3. We have reason to believe the author intended to write an accurate account of what occurred notwithstanding his use of compositional devices appropriate for the historical/biographical genre and the occasional appearance of errors and legend.
  4. We have no good reasons to believe more than a very small percentage of stories reported by an ancient author are false.

Space limitations in this Final Reply do not allow me to assess Bart’s replies in view of these criteria. Notwithstanding, I will address the eight main items on which Bart touched in his Detailed Response.

Reliable Sources & Majority Opinion

FIRST, Bart asserts that the majority of scholars outside of a purely Christian context do not regard the Gospels as being “historically reliable.” I agree. However, I'm happy to challenge the reigning view. Bart should have no problem with that, since only a very few scholars agree with his view of Jesus as presented in How Jesus Became God (HarperOne, 2014). More importantly, Bart’s appeal to what a majority thinks does not address the arguments I provided.

Moreover, it’s interesting to observe that Bart’s appeal to a majority of scholars in an attempt to generate the reader’s confidence in his views contradicts what he said in my first debate with him in 2008. In that debate, I quoted a number of prominent philosophers of history in order to correct him on some assertions he had made about the rules followed by historians. He replied,[1]

Mike has cited a number of experts on history to support his various points of view. This is a very common way of proceeding when talking about one’s perspective. I want to just kind of stress a subsidiary point, which is that I hope that you all, as we say where I live — “you all” —I hope you all realize that expert opinion is opinion. Mike’s opinions are his opinions. My opinions are my opinions. The people he quoted [it’s] their opinions. Opinions are not evidence. Expert opinions are not evidence. Two thousand years ago if you would have asked the scientific experts about the solar system you would have gotten a particular point of view. The fact that it was an expert opinion has nothing to do with the reality of the case. You yourself have intelligence. And you should use your intelligence to weigh the pluses and minuses of what we've been talking about.

When someone reveals that Bart’s view is not in alignment with what is held by the majority of scholars, Bart says the majority opinion is unimportant. However, the majority opinion is important when it agrees with his view. Well, which one is it? I suppose it depends which Bart you read! This isn't the only time he has been guilty of contradicting himself.[2]

Why the contradictions in Bart’s statements? They certainly do not result from the sort of the compositional devices responsible for most of the differences in the Gospels. Perhaps it’s because Bart found himself cornered in that debate and said what he needed to wiggle out of a tight spot. In that case, we could wonder how much of what he has written in his Detailed Response might be more of the same. In any sense, it’s a contradiction. Ironically, according to Bart’s own criteria, he is now disqualified from being a reliable source, since he contradicts not only others, but also himself. I know it can be frustrating, but you can't saw off the branch on which you're sitting without negative consequences.

Compositional Difference & Similarity

SECOND, Bart says most (lay)people want to know whether what is reported is a precisely accurate reflection of what occurred rather than “whether the Gospels stack up nicely in comparison with ancient biographers.” I agree. However, that’s irrelevant, because laypeople should be interested in the latter in order to avoid having misguided ideas pertaining to how to understand the Gospels. And Bart agrees, since elsewhere he says people usually read the Gospels vertically, as individual works in their entirety, whereas they should read them horizontally, as in parallel columns in a synopsis and comparing them line-by-line.

In fact, Bart urges readers “in the strongest terms!” to compare Gospel stories in this manner and observe the differences.[3] Amen! Having become acquainted with Plutarch’s Lives these past several years, I can say what has struck me more than the differences in the Gospels are the similarities. Even when Plutarch retells the same story he has told in other Lives, he never copies and pastes. In Plutarch's Lives, there is nothing even close to the verbal correspondences we observe in the Gospels. In many instances, they are nearly word-for-word. In fact, if one were to observe how Plutarch reports the same events on multiple occasions or how multiple ancient historians report the same events and take notice of the differences and then compare how the Gospels report the same stories about Jesus, they would observe that the similarities between the Gospels are nothing short of remarkable when compared to how other ancient historians report the same events.

If you want to see this for yourself, just compare how Cicero, Nicolaus of Damascus, Livy, Velleius Paterculus, Plutarch, Suetonius, Appian, and Cassius Dio report the secret placing of diadems on statues of Caesar in early 44 B.C. In fact, compare how Plutarch alone describes the event(s) in four different accounts (Caesar 64.1–68.1; Cicero 39.5b–6; 42.3; Antony 13.2–15.1; Brutus 11.1–21.1)![4]

Historical reliability in antiquity requires that an author provides readers with an accurate gist of what occurred. Bart wants the accounts to be void of any compositional devices that involve altering details. But I reiterate that this requirement excludes not only the Gospels but all ancient historical literature and renders the term “historically reliable” in a manner that’s meaningless. Bart never addressed this problem.

Historical Anachronism & Chronological Displacement

THIRD, Bart addresses my statements that the Gospels contain no historical anachronisms and describe events with historical verisimilitude. He rightly corrects me by noting that chronological displacement is an anachronism, technically speaking. Of course, the chronological displacement I have in mind is a compositional device ancient authors intentionally employed. Bart cites Quirinius in Luke’s infancy narrative as an anachronism. Admittedly, reconciling the governing of Quirinius during Herod’s reign has its challenges. Nevertheless, even if we were to say that Luke is mistaken, a text need not be without error in order to be historically reliable. After all, literature written by the finest modern scholars contains errors, even after using the wonderful tools they now have at their disposal that were barely wishful thinking only 40 years ago.

Bart did not grasp the point I made pertaining to Bauckham’s work on names in the Gospels. Bauckham’s work demonstrates the Gospel authors were well acquainted with the peoples and locations on which they wrote. While accounts with low verisimilitude may be regarded as historically unreliable, Bauckham’s work demonstrates the verisimilitude in the Gospels is quite high where we are able to test them. This favors the ability of the Gospels to fulfill my first criterion.

Memory & Oral Tradition

FOURTH, Bart accuses me of being unfamiliar with the scholarship on memory and that what scholars are saying “is just the opposite of what Mike is claiming.” There are three major problems with Bart’s view of memory.

First, if scholarship on memory is saying the opposite of what I claimed about memory in my Major Statement, there are going to be a whole lot of scholars who are wrong along with me. And I'm referring to scholarship on the matter of oral tradition, which is germane to the preservation of the early traditions about Jesus found in the Gospels. Birger Gerhaarddson, Samuel Byrskog, Kenneth Bailey, James D. G. Dunn, Werner Kelber, Eric Eve, and several others are the major scholars in the field of oral tradition. Yet, they will not agree with Bart’s conclusions in his new book, or with his unsupported claim that what we have in the Gospels are stories that were passed around from one person to another in an uncontrolled manner.

Kenneth Bailey has done more than anyone in learning the mechanics of oral tradition. Bart disagrees with him, citing Theodore Weeden’s criticisms of Bailey. But as my son-in-law, Nick Peters, writes in his review of Bart’s book Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne, 2016),[5]

Weeden did critique Bailey. In turn, James Dunn critiqued Weeden. Dunn’s critique is awfully biting showing the numerous flaws in Weeden’s critique even saying on page 60 that “So, when he sets up a KB [i.e., Kenneth Bailey] story in contrast to or even opposition to the 'uncorrupted original account' of the event being narrated, TW [i.e., Theodore Weeden] is operating in cloud cuckoo land at considerable remove from the realities which KB narrates.”

Second, Bart’s examples are not relevant. He may claim that the eyewitnesses themselves had faulty recollections of Jesus, just as many people did not have accurate recollections pertaining to the Challenger disaster. However, that event occurred only once and, as I stated in my Detailed Response,

As [Jesus’s] disciples traveled with him, they would have heard his teachings over and over and over and over and over and over and over. Then they would have discussed them with Jesus. Then Jesus sent them out, two-by-two, to spread those teachings throughout more villages and towns. While they were out, they could correct one another. Then they returned to Jesus and debriefed him on their activities. As disciples of other religious or philosophical teachers would do, they probably ran what they had taught by Jesus to ensure it was an accurate representation of what he had taught them. Then they traveled with him again and heard him teach the same things. You can see quite easily that this process would facilitate the ability of Jesus’s disciples to recall what Jesus had taught and to do so even decades later.

So, Bart’s example of remembering the Challenger is not germane.

Third, if Bart is correct about the unreliability of memory, the discipline of history and our court systems should be abandoned, since we wouldn't be able to trust eyewitness testimonies. Moreover, neither we nor Bart could trust his recollections of his father catching him smoking, since it allegedly occurred around 40 years ago.[6] Nor could we or Bart trust his memory of asking Harald Riesenfeld about Jairus’s daughter while Bart was a graduate student at Princeton from 1979–81. After all, that event allegedly occurred around 35 years ago.[7] Bart has once again disqualified his own work from being regarded as “historically reliable.”

Historians & Miracle Claims

FIFTH, Bart argues that historians are incapable of investigating a miracle claim. He asks me to provide the names of four or five historians who appeal to a miracle as the cause, “reputable historians — not conservative evangelical Christians who are personally committed to a belief in the resurrection [as is the main figure that he cites, Gary Habermas]. But just regular ole academic historians.”

Well, here are some historians who say what I'm saying — that historians are acting within their profession to investigate miracle claims: Jon Butler (Yale), Mark Cladis (Brown University), Sarah Coakley (Cambridge), Brad Gregory (Notre Dame), Gerd Lüdemann, George Marsden (Notre Dame), Robert J. Miller (Juniata College), David Gary Shaw (Wesleyan University), Aviezer Tucker (Harvard).[8] There are others. I encourage Bart to read the 2006 Theme Issue of History and Theory in which the matter of historians and miracles is debated. It’s an ongoing debate among historians.

More importantly, however, is the “regular ole academic historians” [read: “neutral and unbiased historians unlike those naïve conservative Christian scholars if one should even call them scholars!”] do not exist. The prominent philosopher of history Richard Evans writes,[9]

Through the sources we use, and the methods with which we handle them, we can, if we are very careful and thorough, approach to a reconstruction of past reality that may be partial and provisional, and certainly will not be totally neutral, but is nevertheless true. We know of course that we will be guided in selecting materials for the stories we tell, and in the way we put these materials together and interpret them, by literary methods, by social science theories, by moral and political beliefs, by an aesthetic sense, even by our own unconscious assumptions and desires. It is an illusion to believe otherwise.

Georg Iggers, another prominent philosopher of history, writes,[10]

Historical scholarship is never value-free and historians not only hold political ideas that color their writing, but also work within the framework of institutions that affect the ways in which they write history.

Ironically, Ehrman agrees. For in the panel discussion portion of a debate he had with Craig Evans, he states that objectivity is impossible:[11]

In every discipline of every kind, there is no such thing as objectivity. It doesn't exist. So, there’s no way to achieve it. So, my answer is that you can't be objective. It’s not that I'm saying that I'm not objective and you can be. I'm saying that you can't be, either. It’s impossible.

So, once again, Bart has disqualified his own words from being regarded as historically reliable.

Moreover, if being biased prohibits one from being a reliable source, as Bart suggests, wouldn't this mean an African-American historian would be unqualified to write a reliable history of slavery in the U.S.? Wouldn't this likewise disqualify a Jewish historian from writing a reliable history of the Holocaust? Yet, the biases of such historians could actually drive them to write histories of superior quality to those who don't have a horse in the race.

As for Gary Habermas, for nearly half a century he has studied what scholars of all philosophical and theological stripes have written related to Jesus’s resurrection and has encyclopedic knowledge of the matter. Sadly, Bart dismisses Habermas’s summary of scholarly opinions merely on the grounds that he’s a committed Christian. In so doing, Bart handicaps himself by ignoring academic work that may challenge and even refute his views. Many evangelicals are guilty of a similar practice. However, many of us are not and happily avail ourselves of the best scholarship, regardless of whether it agrees with our views. Isn't this what scholars who genuinely seek truth should do?

Nearly halfway through my Major Statement, I provided a hypothetical example of being beheaded on stage by a terrorist then returning to life and relaying messages to onlookers from their relatives in heaven that contain accurate information I could not have otherwise known. There is no question that such an event would be a miracle and would probably require an act of God. But if we were to adopt Bart’s principle, a physician could not affirm I was alive after I had relayed the messages, since only theologians have access to God! That’s nonsense, of course, since the physician could certainly affirm I was alive. However, she could not use to tools of medicine to affirm God was the cause of my miraculous return to life. Bart’s reply was “I'm sorry, but this is too strange.” He then charges me with providing an example that has never happened in the history of the human race and “that never, ever could occur.” But that’s arguing in a circle, since he assumes the very conclusion he needs to prove: the conclusion that it could never occur.

Now, replace my beheading with Jesus’s resurrection. Suppose we had incontrovertible proof that Jesus had risen from the dead. We saw him successfully executed, then afterward saw him in perfect health. According to Bart’s principle, a physician could not say he’s alive, since that would involve a miracle. But, of course, she could determine Jesus was alive. However, her diagnostic tools could not determine it was God who had raised him. Bart could cry “I'm sorry, but this is too strange, since it never, ever could occur.” That’s arguing in a circle, since it assumes the conclusion he needs to prove and places Bart in a dangerous position where he allows his philosophical bias to guide his historical work. The danger of this practice is clear: Bad philosophy corrupts good history.

The Resurrection of Jesus Cannot Be Confirmed

SIXTH, Bart says in his Major Statement that the resurrection of Jesus cannot be confirmed historically, because

[H]istorians, when acting like historians, cannot discuss a miracle of God as the most probable explanation for what happened in the past. I know that Mike really wants historians to be able to do that. But the fact remains that they can't. And they don't. They just don't. And for very good reasons, some of which I've already pointed out.

The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, by Mike LiconaRestating faulty arguments doesn't make them stronger. A poor argument is still a poor argument, even after stating it a hundred times. Granted, Bart cannot here give his full case against historians investigating miracle claims. Nor can I provide a full answer to his case here. But I have, elsewhere. Those interested should read pages 171–82 in The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP Academic, 2010).

Bart then accuses me of being “a bit disingenuous” when I said one could in theory think that Jesus was raised without concluding God had raised him. Unfortunately, he did not read carefully what I said. What I said is if the Resurrection Hypothesis does a better job of explaining the data than competing hypotheses, the historian could affirm that Jesus rose from the dead while being unable to affirm that God was the cause of Jesus’s miraculous return to life, although he could suggest God is the best candidate for the cause. One need not believe God exists beforehand in order to arrive at this conclusion. But one at least needs to be open to the possibility and not a priori exclude it, as Bart’s method conveniently does.[12]

I mentioned several lines of evidence that strongly suggest the existence of a supernatural element to reality: nearly a hundred cases of well-evidenced near-death experiences (NDEs) in which a person obtained accurate information while clinically dead, veridical apparitions, and extreme answered prayers. Bart’s only reply was “neurologists have given various completely natural explanations for why [NDEs] happen.” While it’s true that some researchers in the relevant field have provided natural explanations for why the dead see a light and go through a tunnel, they have not provided any plausible natural explanations for any of the nearly one hundred cases where the dead obtained accurate data that were impossible for them to know otherwise. Nor does Bart’s reply address the other evidences I provided that so strongly suggest a supernatural component to reality that one can hardly deny it and still be a realist.

Mass Hallucinations

SEVENTH, Bart appears to suggest the resurrection appearances of Jesus could have been mass hallucinations. In my Major Statement, I argued that research on hallucinations during the past century strongly suggests mass hallucinations are extremely rare, if not impossible. Bart’s only reply was an appeal to “extremely well-documented instances of the Blessed Virgin Mary appearing to large groups of her followers — within the past few decades!” His response is interesting, because it shows how Bart’s worldview has enslaved his historical method, forcing him to be rash in his dismissal of the very events that challenge his worldview. How does Bart know these were hallucinations when the possibility of group hallucinations has been virtually refuted by the results of mental health research during the past century? Perhaps we should instead ask whether the groups may have seen Mary or perhaps mistaken her for a spiritual being such as an angel or demon.

Historians & Shared Assumptions

EIGHTH, Bart concludes his Detailed Response by saying,

The historical disciplines are forced by the very nature of things to build their case about what happened in the past on shared assumptions — shared by everyone engaged in the investigation. There are certain assumptions that everyone in the field can be expected to have: for example, that there is a past, that things really did happen before now, that evidence survives that can demonstrate what happened before now. Historians share those views. . . . But belief in the Christian God is not one of the assumptions that historians share, and so when doing history, it cannot be part of the equation.

Contrary to Bart’s claim, shared assumptions are not, in fact, a requirement of historians. Dale Allison, one of the most esteemed historians of Jesus, writes,[13]

Certainly the current search [for the historical Jesus] is not a thing easily fenced off from its predecessors; it has no characteristic method; and it has no body of shared conclusions — differences in opinion being now almost as common and ineradicable as differences in tastes. Contemporary work also has no common set of historiographical or theological presuppositions.

Allison’s statement is only one of many similar statements uttered by biblical scholars and professional historians who research non-religious matters.[14]

Conclusion

You the reader may assess the arguments provided by both Bart and myself and render your own opinion pertaining to whether the Gospels are historically reliable accounts of Jesus. In my opinion, your answer will largely depend on how you decide to define “historically reliable.” I've provided four criteria with which you may or may not agree. But it is something to which you should give serious consideration.

I think one observation readers can take away from this Dialogue is that by defining “historical reliability” so narrowly, Bart has not only excluded the Gospels from making the cut, he also has excluded all ancient historical literature and everything he himself has written. In my opinion, to say that an account is “historically reliable” is to assert that it provides readers an accurate gist of what occurred and that the overall account is “true enough.” This was the objective of the finest authors of historical literature in antiquity. And we must judge those authors by the standard literary conventions for historical writing in play during their lifetimes, rather than imposing our ideas of modern precision upon them. We would want future historians to extend us the same courtesy.

By understanding “historically reliable” in the sense I've proposed, we can speak of all ancient historical literature in meaningful terms. And in this sense, the Gospels can be said to be “historically reliable” accounts of Jesus.

Join the Dialogue!

Share your thoughts in the comments section below …while the comments are still open!


Notes

1Listen for 90 seconds.

2.  See Dan Wallace’s comments in Robert B. Stewart, ed., The Reliability of the New Testament: Bart D. Ehrman and Daniel B. Wallace in Dialogue (Fortress Press, 2011); pp. 31–32.

3.  See Bart’s Detailed Response (about halfway through) and our 2008 debate (start at 37:49 and go through 39:27).

4.  For a detailed assessment of this and other stories reported by Plutarch, see my book Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? (forthcoming from Oxford University Press in the fall of 2016).

5.  James D.G. Dunn, “Kenneth Bailey’s Theory of Oral Tradition: Critiquing Theodore Weeden’s Critique,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 2009, 7: 44–62. For a full review of Jesus Before the Gospels, see Nick Peters, “Book Plunge: Jesus Before the Gospels” (Deep Waters, accessed April 2, 2016).

6.  Bart D. Ehrman, Forged: Writing in the Name of God — Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (HarperOne, 2011); p. 2.

7.  Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (HarperOne, 2016); pp. 53–54.

8.  For references, see Chapter Two in my book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP Academic, 2010).

9.  Richard J. Evans, In Defense of History (W.W. Norton, 1999); p. 217.

10. Georg G. Iggers, “Historiography in the Twentieth Century,” History and Theory, 2005, 44: 469–76 (see, especially, p. 475). See also Keith Jenkins, “Introduction,” in The Postmodern History Reader, Keith Jenkins, ed. (Routledge, 1997); p. 6: “For the attempt to pass off the study of history in the form of the ostensibly disinterested scholarship of academics studying the past objectively and ‘for its own sake' as ‘proper' history, is now unsustainable.”

11. The question debated was “Can We Trust the Bible for the Historical Jesus?” Transcripts of that debate with follow-up papers are being published by Robert B. Stewart, ed. (Fortress Press, forthcoming). See, also, where Bart himself admits to being biased at “Unbelievable? 16 Apr 2011 - Biblical evidence for the Resurrection - Bart Ehrman & Mike Licona” (Premier Christian Radio, 2011), beginning at 1:00:55 and ending at 1:01:41.

12. For my critique of methodological naturalism, see my article “Historians and Miracle Claims,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 2014, 12: 106–29.

13. Dale C. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters (T&T Clark International, 2005); p. 15.

14. Interested readers can find many similar citations in my book, The Resurrection of Jesus, on pages 100–102, with accompanying footnotes.

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