A typical debate between an evangelical and a secular historian is exemplified in a recent Debate between Bart Ehrman and Justin Bass. In this post I want to discuss the idea that both debaters are playing by the same rules and are purely looking at the issue as Historians. The second issue I want to press is the significance given by Justin Bass to the Son of Man claims in the Synoptics (and elsewhere), but that will have to come in a later post.
In this debate both Justin Bass and Bart Ehrman are claiming to play by the rules of the critical historical approach to the New Testament, in other words they are treating the new testament documents the same way they would treat any other document of that type from that time period. From Bart Ehrman’s standpoint, as an Agnostic, this is absolutely fine; however, from Justin Bass’ standpoint it’s quite strange. Justin Bass (like myself) believes that the New Testament is part of the Canon of scripture inspired of God, and as such he will always have certain presuppositions when approaching the New Testament. For some reason certain apologists like to pretend they do not have this prejudice when approaching the historical Jesus debates, but the fact is they do. It’s not to say that Bart Ehrman doesn’t have prejudices as well, he most certainly does. For example in his writings on the historical Jesus, when it comes to the resurrection, he basically appeals to Hume’s arguments against miracles in order to say the resurrection cannot be established, if one accepts Hume’s argument one is assuming naturalism as a starting point. This leads Bart Ehrman to say that any explanation is better than a miraculous one, this is not an argument based in the Historical Method, it’s a philosophical one. (My main sources for Bart Ehrman’s arguments are his Books Jesus Interrupted, How Jesus Became God and Did Jesus Exist? All good books and recommended.)
There is no disinterested way of approaching the New Testament documents in the modern western world. Christianity is imbedded in the western psyche, as is a naturalistic worldview, it’s almost impossible to not have a prejudice one way or the other. If you approach the text as inerrant, you’re going to attempt to make the evidence you find, after you accept inerrancy, such that it fits your view of inerrancy, the same goes if you are a naturalist. So for example if we compare the historical Jesus work done by N.T. Wright With the work of Robert Eisenman or John Dominic Crossan you’re going to get wildly different Pictures. I don’t think N.T Wright’s picture of Jesus conflicts with anything in the New Testament at all, or any Orthodox Christians teachings. Whereas Robert Eisenman works with the idea that the New Testament documents cannot be trusted and are Pauline propaganda. I believe N.T. Wright is a great historian, one of the best New Testament historians alive, but that does not mean that both him and Robert Eisenman, or John Dominic Crossan, are simply starting from the same point and developing different historical theories. They have the same data, but different starting points.
Bart Ehrman, in this debate and others, readily makes this point Clear when he asks his opponent which sayings attributed to Jesus do they think are not historical. When that question is asked the apologist generally goes to some passage in John, where even an evangelical exegete might say that these words were not intended to be taken as what Jesus said. But the point is that most evangelical apologists believe that almost all the words attributed to Jesus were said by Jesus (more or less, as Justin Bass says there is a historical basis behind everything attributed to what Jesus said), not primarily based on the historical critical Method, but rather primarily based on theological convictions. These convictions may be partially based on historical realities that can be shown by the historical Method, they may be (and I believe they are) completely valid, but the inerrancy simply derived from the historical method itself.
When we get to the argumentation of apologists, supposedly based in the historical critical method, we find that the data is explained almost always in a way that is compatible with Orthodox evangelical thought. Generally, they simply will pick and choose where they dig from depending on what the historical critical method will allow them in order to bring the Method to defend Orthodoxy. To give an example of this, Justin Bass attempts to go back to the Q source and Mark to defend the highest Christology, why does he do so? Is it because he doesn’t believe that Jesus historically said the words that Justin claims defend the highest Christology in John? No, it’s because he’s pretending to play the historical critical game. So he goes to those early sources, and attempts to play the game in a way that would satisfy an atheist historical scholar, who denies the existence of God much less the inspiration of scripture, and in a way that would allow him to affirm evangelical orthodoxy.
The problem with playing that game is that ultimately you’re going to play it bad. The fact is there are many things that evangelicals believe, due to the inerrancy of scripture, which cannot be believed outside of that context, and if you try to defend those things without inerrancy, it won’t work, you’ll end up looking foolish. At a point you will have to simply admit it, the scriptures are God’s Words, and the Historical Critical Method is not enough.
What I wish more apologists would do when debating the historical Jesus is admit their starting points honestly. If Justin Bass started out saying that he believed in the inerrancy of scripture, then he wouldn’t be forced to insist that the critical method would, by itself, bring you to his position, even if it didn’t (it doesn’t) it wouldn’t really matter to Justin Bass because he doesn’t hold his position on the basis of the critical method. He could then argue why Bart Ehrman’s presuppositions cloud his judgement, or perhaps how even given the historical method Bart’s position is wrong. When Bart challenges his on certain things he should just be honest and say he believes the scripture is inspired, and then he can proceed to give an argument without any false premises. At the same time Bart Ehrman should stop pretending that his agnosticism has no effect on his scholarship, his argument against the resurrection, which is philosophical, not historical (at least prior to his argument that Jesus was not buried in a tomb in the Book “How Jesus became God” was presented), exposes that fact.
Bart Ehrman asks Justin Bass how the gospel writers knew what went on in Jesus’ Sanhedrin trial Justin appeals to Joseph of Arimathea. Now from a purely historical critical method what is more likely, that Joseph of Arimathea was at the trial, recorded what Jesus said, and that this was transmitted to the gospel tradition and recorded for us at Mark 14? Or that theological embellishment went into the text. Using the historical method you can go both ways, there are arguments for both positions. Which way you will go partially depends on your presuppositions.
There’s more thing I have to point out. During the Debate Bart Ehrman accused Justin Bass of being a Sabellian because he said that Jesus is Jehovah. It’s been said by others, but it bares repeating, if Bart Ehrman is going to make theological claims (he says he doesn’t, but it you look at his writings he most certainly does), he should at least know enough theology to not make silly mistakes like this. Sabellianism is the claim that Jesus and the Father are the same person, Jehovah is the name of God, the God which, according to Trinitarian orthodoxy, includes the 3 persons of the trinity, Father Son and Holy Spirit. So Jesus is Jehovah, the Father is Jehovah, the Holy Spirit is Jehovah according to Trinitarian orthodoxy, Jehovah is the name of the Trinity, and the members of the Trinity. Claiming Jesus is Jehovah is only Sabellianism if by Jehovah you mean only the Father, you mean Jehovah is the name of a single person and both the father and son are that person. It’s a silly mistake, and not one that should be made by someone who engages in these debates, if you’re going to debate over textual critical issues it’s fine, once you enter theology you need to know these things.
The point I want to emphasis here is primarily the fact that Scholarship, especially biblical scholarship is never blind. We can never pretend that we are simply approaching the facts “as they are” because everyone has presuppositions, and the act of an individual, who already believes things about the world, reading the scriptures is already interpretation. Apologists (and Secularists) are never approaching the text from a purely scholarly viewpoint, because there is no such thing, theology effects everything else, whether we like it or not.