The following transcript is from an Apologetics 315 interview with Craig Evans. Original audio here. Transcript index here. If you enjoy transcripts, please consider supporting, which makes this possible.
BA: Hello, this is Brian Auten with Apologetics315. Today’s interview is with biblical scholar Professor Craig Evans. He is Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College, Acadia University, Nova Scotia. Professor Evans is author or editor of more than sixty books, and author of hundreds of articles and reviews. His area of expertise is Jesus and the Gospels, as well as New Testament manuscripts. Along with countless interviews on radio networks across Canada and the US, Evans has been seen on Dateline, NBC, CBC, CTV, Day of Discovery, and many documentaries aired on the BBC, the Discovery Channel, History Channel, History Television, and others. He’s also served as a consultant for the National Geographic Society. The purpose of this interview is to gain some insight from Professor Evans on the historical Jesus and the reliability of the Gospels. Well, thank you for joining me today Professor Evans.
CE: Oh, my pleasure, glad to be with you.
BA: Now Professor Evans, you have a resume that is quite extensive in the area of biblical scholarship. And looking at the historical Jesus, the Gospels, and the New Testament manuscripts. So you’ve done countless interviews and it’s certainly impressive work for which the Christian community is thankful for, so I want to thank you for your work in this area.
CE: You’re very welcome. I appreciate that Brian because I have done a lot of this and it does take a lot of time. But, I thinks it’s worth doing it, and I’m really happy to be with you.
BA: Well, thanks. My first question is really, what drives you into this area of biblical scholarship? That is, what got you interested, and can you tell our listeners a bit about this path that you’ve taken in your work and your studies?
CE: Well, I was in university as a history major, and a philosophy minor. My attention was to prepare for law school. And when I was going into my senior year, I felt very strongly impressed upon me, it was a very spiritual thing, to go in a different direction, to go into Christian ministry full time, and to prepare accordingly. And so, instead of going to law school when I graduated from university, I went to seminary and thoroughly enjoyed it. Seminary was a great experience, the theology, biblical studies, church history, questions of pastoral duties and ministry prep of one sort or another. But along the way, I was just fascinated with Gospel study, with languages – Greek and Hebrew, and all of that, and the world of Jesus and the Early Church. And so I began to go in a very academic direction too, but I always retained that sense that this is a call to ministry too. In fact, I went on to be ordained, and I have served on various church staffs, even though for the last thirty years or more, it’s really been more of an academic life.
BA: Well, certainly the service that it’s done to the church is extremely valuable. Now, I know many of us have heard statistics, if you will, about the bible, for instance, the number of manuscripts that we have and the quality of the manuscripts – their early dating, their reliability, and so forth. But, from someone who’s been like yourself, deep into this subject, and for as long as you have, what, I wonder, impresses you about the bible?
CE: Well, since you referred to the number and quality of the manuscripts, their reliability and so on, I think that right there is something that impresses me. As a history major, of course, I was aware of documents that we have from the past. Without those documents we could hardly be in a position today to write history. And so, we look at other historians, the writings of others from antiquity, and we have four or five manuscripts for this great author, we have ten or twelve for someone else. And yet with the biblical writings, we have a huge number, with the New Testament alone, prior to the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, we have today about five thousand eight hundred manuscripts. Now that’s an unparalleled record, now that’s just in Greek. We’ve got about ten thousand Latin translations of the New Testament, again, before Gutenberg, and before the invention of the printing press. We have another five thousand copies of the New Testament that are in other languages, well this is unprecedented. So one of the things that impresses me about the biblical manuscripts is just how many there are, and about two hundred of them predate the year 300. And so, in some of them, two, or three, or four, some of them get right back into the second century itself, and so we get within a hundred or so years of when the originals were written, and that compared to the other manuscripts that historians use, is a phenomenal record of preservations, and that impresses me a lot.
BA: In your studies and in your looking at these manuscripts, I wonder how many of these fragments or full manuscripts you’ve actually handled, and I’m wondering how interesting that part of it might be for you.
CE: Oh, it’s a lot of fun, because in fact, it’s a new area in some ways, is thinking about biblical text, not simply as hypothetical text that we reconstruct by looking at all these old fragments, but actually looking at the individual documents themselves, because each one tells the story. It says a little bit about the scribe that handled it, how it was read, how it was studied, and gives us some insights into the way scripture functioned for the early community. And so, it’s like you’re touching the past. In other words, the biblical text has become an archeological artifact as well, and I have found that fascinating. So this is an area that’s burgeoning, we have tens of thousands of papyri yet to be studied and published. Some of them will turn out to be Christian, stacks of them from ancient Egypt. A lot of them now are in these large plastic containers at the Sackler, which is part of the Bodleian Library complex at Oxford. So this is fun, because it isn’t just a text in an abstract sense, a bunch of words, but actual artifacts that you can handle. And compare that to Mormonism and the gold tablets — they aren’t there, nobody can handle them. We actually have texts that are in museums. You can go to Dublin and you can see the Chester Beatty manuscripts. You can go to Manchester and see the oldest fragment of a New Testament manuscript, a fragment of John Chapter 18, dating as far back as 130 or 140 AD. You can go to Geneva, you can go to London, you can go to Oxford, and you can see the actual ancient manuscripts. So there’s a tangibleness you might say, something that you can actually hold, and it isn’t just airy fairy hypothesis and theory, but actual artifacts that reach back to antiquity, and reach back within a pretty close proximity of the actual events that unfolded, that the New Testament documents talk about. And I find that encouraging, and exciting.
BA: Well, it just really is interesting for me, thinking about the transmission of the documents and everything that is involved in this area of study. But, for the sake of our interview, what I want to talk about today, are kind of two subjects overall. One, historical Jesus, and then two, the reliability of the Gospels. Obviously, Jesus, being the central figure of Christianity, with the Gospels as our primary accounts of his life and ministry, scholars have been looking at the person of Jesus, asking who is he, can we know the real Jesus as he walked two thousand years ago, these sorts of questions. So I’m wondering Professor Evans, can you talk a little about this quest for a historical Jesus? What is it, and can you describe the sort of time line of this quest?
CE: Well, the quest for the historical Jesus is usually dated back to the 1700’s. It’s a century where I guess you could say, modern biblical scholarship began to take shape where scholars started reading both the Old Testament and the New, asking significant literary questions like, what kind of literature is this anyway? How accurate is the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, the Greek text of the New Testament? Do we have any external corroboration of other manuscripts? Remember, back in the 1700’s, archeology hasn’t begun yet. Nobody really knows anything about archeology, so all we have are literary texts that survived from antiquity. So this is where it all begins, and archeology just barely gets underway at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, and it’s in this setting that scholars began asking questions like who was Paul who wrote these letters? What do we know about Him? Who was Jesus? What was His world like? What about these Gospels that we have? Church Fathers talk about other gospels that were in circulation, how do the New Testament Gospels compare? So this was the beginning. So we usually go back to the 1760’s, 1770’s, especially a book that was published after the author had died, a fellow named Reimarus, and so it was published in the 1770’s in installments, and that’s what kicked off you might say officially the quest of the historical Jesus. And it raged on for over a hundred years, and sometime in the twentieth century, that old quest ran out of gas, but a lot of progress was made. Archeology was underway, the study of manuscripts underway, manuscripts were being discovered that were much older than what we had before, and so after a pause, a period of no real quest for the historical Jesus, it was reborn in the 1950’s, Rudolf Bultmann and his pupils were very influential. This phase of the quest I think had problems with it, theologically, and critically, and so on, but it got it going again. And then in my own scholarly career, in the 1980’s and ‘90’s, we went into yet a third phase of the quest for the historical Jesus, which I think rediscovered the Jewishness of Jesus, it brought archeology to new levels, amazing discoveries, the Dead Sea Scrolls finally were completely published, they shed a lot of light on Jesus and his world, so it’s been a very exciting time, especially in the last three decades or so.
BA: Well, Professor Evans, you may need to forgive me for asking this next question, but I think it lines up with what we’re talking about and looking at the historical person of Jesus, but it’s also one which those dealing with objections to Christianity might sometimes encounter regarding this claim that say Jesus never existed. Now, when scholars look at Jesus, does it ever occur to them to suggest that perhaps Jesus didn’t exist?
CE: No. That’s the sort answer, never. I know a lot of scholars, I’m a member of several scholarly organizations. One of them is The Society of Biblical Literature, it has several thousand members, and we gather every year at a large North American city, every November, and this year it’ll be San Francisco, and there’s a historical Jesus section that draws hundreds of people to it. There are people who participate every year, read papers, there’s scholarly discussion. There are sections devoted to the Synoptic Gospels, and also to them individually, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. Never in the history of The Society of Biblical Literature has there been a section devoted to the question of whether or not Jesus existed. There is no Jesus as myth section, program unit within the SBL, The Society of Biblical Literature. I belong to the very elite group called The Society of New Testament Studies, SNTS, it’s headquartered in the UK, it has about five hundred members, many of them, most of them in fact, are European, and there has never been anybody in that membership who seriously entertains the idea that Jesus is a myth, never existed. When you hear that kind of stuff, you know you’re dealing with quackery. There’s the Canadian guy, Tom Harper, who says Jesus didn’t exist. That’s just a lot of baloney. Now unfortunately, popular culture in Canada takes him seriously, but no scholar does, no historian does. There are a couple of Americans, one of them’s Robert Price, and I mention him by name only because he wants the notoriety and publishes books. And he claims that, oh it’s doubtful, maybe Jesus existed, by you know, the evidence is so so poor. Well, that’s baloney. The evidence for the existence of Jesus is overwhelming, and if we say Jesus didn’t exist on the basis of the evidence that we have, then we just as well forget about everybody else. We just as well forget about all of history, we may as well forget about Julius Caesar, Alexander, everybody else. Because the evidence for Jesus is extensive, it’s very close to his own time, we have first hand eye witness evidence, and if you cast that all aside, and still insist that Jesus didn’t exist, then you’re not an open inquiring mind, you’re not really interested in giving the evidence a fair shake, you’re just being dogmatic. And so, history at that point just simply comes to a stop. But, if you’re dealing with real scholars, historians that teach at the best universities in the world, they don’t have any doubt that there was a real person in the first century known as Jesus of Nazareth.
BA: I do agree, yes this is quackery. If you hear this in whatever circle you may encounter, what would be your brief one liner response to that sort of a claim then?
CE: I get asked that from lay people where I speak, and I tell ‘em look, just say if somebody says there’s no Jesus or he never existed, to say, you know what, the real scholars, the real trained historians with proper credentials don’t doubt for a second that Jesus existed.
BA: Well, very good. Alright, so Jesus exists of course, but the question I want to ask is, how would you describe the say, overall consensus of scholarship in this area presently? And as a piggy back sort of to that question, why does it matter what scholarship is saying?
CE: Well, scholarship is important. And even though there’s some scholarship that’s in the mix that’s a little bit odd, and it tends to be minority views, it isn’t like the overwhelming majority of scholars have something all wrong. You do have some eccentricity, I mean after all, worldwide you’re talking about a few thousand people, and so you are going to get some eccentric and some curious theories thrown in the mix. But scholarship is very important. For one thing, it keeps us honest. You just can’t be fideist, you can’t just say, well this is what I believe, or the Gospel says this and I believe it and that settles it. There is a necessity to understand. And so, other disciplines come into play. History, archeology, geography, topography, and a lot of these disciplines now are reinforced and supported by some pretty sophisticated science as well. And if we ignore all that and say, look, I’ve got the bible, I have Gospels here, I trust them, I read them, and that’s all I need to do, there’s the danger of having no context, having a minimum of understanding, there’s the danger of being doctrinaire. And I think the danger of just really becoming intellectually unconvincing, and just becoming so inward focused that one loses credibility and one really is no longer engaging the intelligent reading inquiring public. And I think Christians have to be careful of that, and so eschewing scholarship and saying, look, I see it as corrosive or harmful, and so I’m going to stay away from it. That is not the correct response.
BA: How would you describe then the consensus of scholarship in the area of the historical Jesus, and where do you see it going?
CE: Well, it think after the third quest has pretty well simmered down, and I think most would say the third quest has pretty well run it’s course. It got underway in the ‘80’s, ‘90’s, and there’s a bit of a pause right now, and so the consensus is, look, Jesus existed, he was Jewish, he wasn’t out to break the law. He was out to fulfill it. Jesus understood himself as the Lord’s anointed, that is as the Messiah. He was proclaiming the rule of God, the fulfillment of scripture, the redemption of Israel. I know some of the Jesus Seminar have questions about that, but I think that’s a marginal group. But mainstream scholarship, and I have in mind primarily The Society of New Testament Scholars, but some of the best known and recognized Society of Biblical Literature people as well. They would say, yup, that’s who Jesus was, and they would say the Gospels are reliable, and one can understand what Jesus was all about and what His message was all about from these Gospels. And by Gospels, I mean the first century ones Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and not Gospels that were written in the second or third centuries. So that seems to be where scholarship is right now, there are some of course open questions that continue to be debated, interpretive issues, there always will be. But, I do see a landscape that’s pretty settled on some of the most important features, and we will be building on that in the years to come.
BA: Well, one of the books that you’ve written is called, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. And here I think our questions start to overlap between the subjects of the historical Jesus and the Gospels and their reliability. So, could you first describe what you see in our culture today and it’s presentation of the culture’s presentation of Jesus? In other words, what sort of picture is being presented presently?
CE: Well, this is where some of the difficulty comes into play, and that is, there is always the temptation to be contemporary, to be current, to be politically correct, to be in fashion, to be in vogue, and so you really see this with the popular writers. And so, in some of the worst examples of it, stuff from Michael Baigent, conspiracy theories, the naïve novel written by Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code based on Michael Baigent’s bogus research. And so, there’s always this on the fringe and on the popular level. And so we have to guard ourselves because scholars are human beings too, scholars are people, and we can be very much influenced by whatever happens to be in vogue, and whatever’s politically correct. I think it can be very insidious actually, those kinds of influences in the academic setting in the university. So we need to guard ourselves against arguing for something simply because it’s in fashion and it’s politically correct. And so you have that, you have people arguing sort of a gay Jesus, or a Jesus the feminist, or Jesus the vegetarian, or the green Jesus who’s all about environment. These are all efforts to co-opt Jesus. It’s funny too by the way, how people want Jesus’s endorsement. I find that interesting. I think that’s a testimony to His power and to the compellingness of His person, that no matter what stripe you come from, and even world religions will do this, everybody wants Jesus’s endorsement. I find that all by itself an interesting little tidbit. Isn’t that interesting? And so I might come up with a real wacky theory, but I don’t really feel good about it until I somehow know I have Jesus on board supporting it. And that’s what some of this stuff is that’s going on today, and my book Fabricating Jesus talks about that, and talks about how, and of course I’m using examples where scholars distort the Gospels. Fortunately, there are lots of scholars who don’t, but in my book I point these things out ranging from scholars or from popular writers like Dan Brown, how they take ideas, run with them, these are ideas not well supported, or not supported at all, by evidence, and so you end up with a quirky portrait of Jesus that might reflect society’s contemporary interests, but really doesn’t reflect the evidence, and the history, and the data that we have.
BA: Well, some people might be looking at different stories that are presented from the culture or from the books that they read. Maybe they’re not reading Dan Brown, maybe they’re reading the likes of Bart Ehrman, or others, who are going to paint a different picture than what maybe you’re going to find in the Gospels as they are. So, I’m wondering, at that point, they may think, well, boy it’s just one scholar against another scholar, how do I know which scholar I should believe? So, I’m wondering, are there demonstrable flaws that are typical to the reasoning made by these scholars who are painting a different picture than the one we find in the Gospels, are there flaws in their thinking that can be shown that we can kind of identify where they’re going off the rails?
CE: Yes, I think so in a lot of cases. Now, of course I’m very sympathetic for the lay reader, I mean I’m not a medical doctor, and so if the doctors are quarreling among themselves about the best treatment for this condition or that condition, as a layman I don’t know who’s right. And it would be very difficult for me to investigate something like that, to try to sort it out and come up with what I feel assured is the right thing. And so, I can see lots of lay people, lay people in the church, seekers wondering if they should become Christians, and then they hear this back and forth, they read stuff produced by Bart Ehrman or the Jesus Seminar, or other people who don’t have any academic credentials at all, and then they wonder, well, oh dear me, what is the truth here? And that’s again, part of the reason I wrote Fabricating Jesus to help the non-expert navigate these very choppy, uncertain waters. But here’s from an academic point of view, here’s what I would say, the demonstrable flaws you referred to in your question typically surface as an neglect of key areas. So when I talked about the Jesus Seminar for example, yeah, it was a group of scholars, yes, they can read Greek and they have PhDs, and they talk about the historical Jesus and what they think is authentic in the Gospels, and on what basis come up with the portrait of Jesus. But the problem was, almost no one in the Jesus Seminar had expertise in archeology, almost no one had expertise with the Jewish or Judaic background of the Gospels and the world of Jesus, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, or early Rabbinic literature, or the Aramaic paraphrase of scripture called the Targum. And so, when you see a group with expertise in Greek, and interest in the Hellenistic or Greek backdrop of Jesus’s world, but little or no expertise in two, three, four other areas that are essential, invariably, you’re going to get some distortion. And that’s what I point out in my book, and I’m hoping that the average reader, the lay reader, can appreciate that and say, oh wait, oh so that’s the problem, and so I need to access scholarly works that talk about the historical Jesus and the Gospels where those other things are taken into account, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Jewish world of Jesus, and the results in recent years of archeology and so on. And that really helps because you don’t hear and perhaps as our conversation continues, this will come up again, but you don’t hear the archaeologists and the scholars with proper Jewish background training, you don’t hear the quirky theories coming from them. And see, that’s the interesting thing, it’s somebody who knows a little bit about one thing, and so he puts all of his eggs, all of his theories, into that basket and comes up with a Jesus that doesn’t really reflect the whole picture of evidence. And that’s where you end up with the distortion.
BA: Well, you’re talking about different areas of neglect, they’re basically painting an incomplete or distorted picture and they’re making a distorted assessment of the evidence there. So my next question is along the lines of maybe presuppositions that are brought in from the other side that would skew the Gospel picture. And I wonder what kind of presuppositions that you might see in that sort of scholarship that is obviously playing a role of influence.
CE: Well, that’s a very good question, and it’s a good one to ask as a follow-up to what you had just raised a moment ago. Because what happens is, if the study is incomplete and distorted, that in turn feeds faulty presuppositions. The faulty presuppositions of course keep the scholar moving away from a complete and full picture. And so, each reinforces the other. So if I presuppose that, well, the Gospel’s written in Greek, and Greek is part of the Hellenistic world, then I guess Jesus of the Gospels should be interpreted in the Hellenistic point of view. And so what you end up doing is your distortion confirms a faulty presupposition. And so, you see no reason to change your presupposition, and each reinforces the other. And so, what do we end up with if I can go back to the notorious Jesus Seminar and their colored beads and their decisions about what Jesus really said? If He said it it’s red, if it’s close it’s pink, if it’s in doubt it’s grey, if He didn’t say it’s black. And so, they go through the Gospels evaluating statement after statement as to its authenticity and wind up with only 18% as red or pink, which means 82% they either have doubts about or don’t think Jesus said it. Now how do they end up that way? Well, they presuppose that Jesus has no interest in scripture. They presuppose that Jesus was illiterate. Why? Well, only about 5% of males in the Mediterranean world at that time could read, so odds are, you see, 19 chances out of 20, Jesus would be illiterate. Very flawed reasoning. Well, if Jesus can’t read, if Jesus has no interest in scripture, then every time we have scripture quoted in the Gospels, we know, well, that didn’t come from Jesus, it must have come from the Gospel writer later. And so, that reinforces the decision that, well, that must be inauthentic, that couldn’t really have been Jesus. And so, a highly suspect presupposition leads to some very strange critical conclusions which in turn reinforce the presupposition. So, you wind up the with a Jesus who has no interest in scripture, no interest in prophesy, no interest in fulfillment, no interest in restoration of Israel, a Jesus who, well, isn’t very much like the Gospels portray Him. And so you end up really with what I would consider a reducing to an absurd position, and so it’s like, well, everyone knows what Jesus is about expect the first century Gospel writers. And so, they end up saying, well, maybe the Gospel of Thomas is a better source, written in the second century. Maybe the Gnostics have it better, maybe somebody else. And so, you end up a very odd way of thinking, and a very odd portrait. And I would say, look, just stop and think through that, use common sense, does that really makes sense? That the first generation, the people who in history knew Jesus best really could make those many mistakes and not understand the essence of His message and so grossly distort it? That just doesn’t make sense. And so, this is the way they can get themselves into a quagmire — faulty conclusions, faulty presuppositions, each reinforcing the other ‘til you end up with a picture of Jesus that only faintly resembles the true portraits of Jesus in the Gospels.
BA: Well, a lot of great points there. Now Professor Evans, from the view of a Christian scholar, to what extent should Christian presuppositions guide or influence or inform your scholarship? How do you approach the subject that way?
CE: Well, Christian presuppositions step in and clarify the significance of it all. Otherwise, it’s just an academic exercise. And so, after all, I mean a secular person, an agnostic, could do a very skillful job interpreting the historical Jesus, the Gospels, could be a very good historian and conclude rightly on many many many things. But, how exactly that impacts one’s life, how you move from a scholarly historical assessment of the Gospels to the question of, well now how I live in light of this, how does it apply to my life? Well, that’s another question, and so that’s where Christian faith comes in. Otherwise, it’s a dry exercise, it’s just a piece of historical research, much as we might investigate the historical Alexander, or the historical Julius Caesar. And so, Christian faith is very important and does presuppose. But, the Christian faith also says, God is a god of truth, and as Christians we’re committed to truth, which means we’re not afraid of scholarship, we’re not afraid of investigating the facts. We want to know the evidence, we don’t want to hide the evidence, we don’t want to bury it and pretend it isn’t there, we want to know what’s there. And that was the stance of the Church from the very beginning. Many Church Fathers give eloquent testimony to that conviction. Clement of Alexandria makes a great statement around that about the year 200 or so. Now that is, hey, listen, as Christians, we’re not committed to dogmas, we’re committed to the truth, we’re committed to evidence, we want to know what’s happened, and we assess our own narrative, our own proclamation, our claims, our theology, in the light of truth. And I think that’s the way Christians ought to be all the time. And that will guard us, I think, from falling into these contemporary traps, these politically correct fads, the things that are in vogue, here today and gone tomorrow, and instead, emphasize the eternality of truth. Truth is truth, and we want to pursue it, and always keep that in mind when we study the Gospels, and ask questions about who was Jesus, what did He teach, and in that light, how do we live?
BA: Well, that’s good. Alright, we’ve talked about some of the different errors that scholars make and end up at a distorted picture of the Jesus in the Gospels. Well, I want to ask a question about why we should trust the Gospels as accurate portrayals of the true historical Jesus. What would be your case?
CE: Well, I would argue on just two or three simple points in defense of the Gospels. And that is, number one, we have multiple sources. So, we don’t have just one Gospel. So, you might say, the eggs aren’t just in one basket. So, we don’t have a single account, but we have four. And then these four accounts are also supported here and there by other writings, like as Paul’s letters, where some of the same stories and teachings are recounted. And letters that might have in fact been written even earlier than when the Gospels were written. So, first of all, multiple sources — that’s good, not one, not two, but actually four. Secondly, they’re early sources. Again, I go back to what I was saying earlier at the very beginning of our interview, about classical histories and texts that scholars and historians of classical history study. The Gospels were written — Matthew, Mark, and Luke, particularly those three, the Synoptics, were written within a generation. So, they were written when many eye witnesses, the people who knew Jesus, and people who knew Apostles, who had been trained by Jesus, I think were still living. And so, the Gospels are not written a hundred years later, or two hundred years later, as it is the case with classical history, at least some of it, but the Gospels are written, three writings, written within a generation, and then a fourth, John, just outside of the original generation. So, that’s very encouraging. And then third, and here’s where we put it all to the test, third is what is called “verisimilitude.” That is, likeness to the way things really are. And the Gospels exhibit verisimilitude, that is they talk about real people, real places, real events, which we can corroborate through archeology, and comparative study, with other documents and historical records. I would be very troubled if the Gospels kept talking about villages that didn’t exist, or roads, or mountains, or lakes that didn’t exist. I would be very worried if the Gospels talked about historical figures for whom we can find no confirmation. Just imagine, instead of referring to Pontius Pilate as Governor of Judea, they refer to Joe Blow and there’s no evidence that Joe Blow ever existed. What if they talked about a Roman emperor who never lived? And on it goes, I think you get my point. And where the Gospels can be tested, we find they’re always right. There were Pharisees, there were Sadducees, there really is a Jerusalem, there really is a Mount Tabor, and a mount this, and a mount that, there really is a Galilee, there was a Roman governor named Pontius Pilate and a guy named Herod Antipas, and Agrippa the First, and the second, and governors, other governors too, there was a high priest named Caiaphas. He did have a father-in-law named Annas. These are real people. There are real events that are mentioned. The book of Acts also. And so, it’s three things; we have multiple sources, early sources, and where they can be tested, they are accurate. And an early source at the beginning of the second century, fragments of a guy named Patheos, he says these Gospels are linked with eyewitness testimony. Well you know, they’re so accurate I think Patheos was right. Because eye witnesses usually do know those kinds of things — who the high priest was, who the governor was, what the custom of the Jews was at that time, those kinds of things. And so, the Gospels smack of realism and accuracy. Well, that should give any fair minded inquiring reader a confidence that they’re looking at stuff that’s accurate and reliable.
BA: Alright. Well, some people might come along and they’ll say something like, well, those aren’t the only Gospels we have, so we’ve got these other pictures of Jesus that are real different than from what we find in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; perhaps the Gospel of Thomas, or the secret Gospel of Mark, or the Gospel of Mary. What do you say about these other Gospels, and their comparative historicity or not?
CE: I’m glad you raised them. I often will mention them when I’m talking about verisimilitude, and how the New Testament Gospels talk about real people, real places, and real events. These other gospels you refer to, they stand alone, very very noticeably, they don’t measure up to the first century Gospels of the Early Church wisely chose to include in the canon of scripture. One scholar put it this way, if all we had was the Gospel of Thomas, would we even know that Jesus was Jewish? Isn’t that interesting? And it’s even worse when we start talking about the Gospel of Mary, or The Secret Book of John, or of course, I think Secret Mark is very likely a hoax, and it’s probably not any earlier than the twentieth or nineteenth centuries. I really don’t think it gives us the true glimpse into what the Gospel of Mark was originally all about. But the Gospel of Peter is another one that some people talk about. And if you look at these Gospels critically, they lack verisimilitude. They are just giving us unrealistic pictures. They name people that didn’t exist, they give Greek names to Jesus’s Apostles, who were Jewish, they make other mistakes, the author of the Gospel of Peter describes a fantastic narrative of a walking, talking cross that exits the tomb with Jesus when He’s resurrected. The author of this gospel isn’t really sure who rules and administers Judea and Jerusalem, he’s not sure if it’s Pilate or Herod. There are other mistakes in this writing. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is merely a talking head. This gospel reflects second century Syrian-Christian ideas of mysticism. So, when these writings are critically assessed, and they usually are, by competent scholars, they are found to be, well, second century, very unrealistic, they’re not giving a picture of the historical Jesus, they’re giving us a different idea, a different theory that various groups in the second century or later entertain. What they really are, are attempts to supplement the Canonical gospels because they want to hold to ideas about Jesus that Jesus never taught, and that the Apostles never taught, but what do they do? They want to believe something else, so they write their own gospels so that Jesus ends up endorsing their new and novel ideas.
BA: Very good. Well, back to the gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Now, a question on the claims within the gospels. Maybe someone would acknowledge their overall historicity as reliable, but, when it comes to the miracle claims, obviously we’re dealing with something that can’t be touched historically, is that right?
CE: Well, in a certain sense, that’s true. I mean, history, it’s in the past, right? We can’t jump in a time machine and run back and see it. And so, what we have from the past are vestiges, remnants, traces, in writing, usually, that’s the most helpful part, and archaeological artifacts, remains of material culture, that help encourage us to accept and believe the records. But, we can do a little better than that. All four Gospels say Jesus performed works of power. The book of Acts says this too. It’s alluded to, or presupposed, in several of the letters. So again, we have multiple testimony, we have lots of writings describing Jesus performing miracles, or at least presupposing that He did so. Now, right away, I don’t think it’s too likely that everybody’s got it wrong. Jesus was a public figure, so He didn’t just carry on in private in some inside, enclosed room, with only two or three people noticing. He’s a public person. He is observed by hundreds of people, maybe thousands. Here’s where it gets interesting. Jesus of course does have critics, there are people who don’t believe in Him. There are people who oppose Him. There are people who want Him dead. But, not one of these opponents ever suggested that He really didn’t do a miracle. It’s acknowledged, what they do is say, well, okay, yes, He performed amazing feats, He performed miracles, deeds, wondrous deeds, but He had the devil’s help, He had the help of magic, black magic, or something like that. But, no critic, I know of no one from antiquity close to the time, close to the events, who ever suggested that Jesus really didn’t do those things. The antagonists and opponents simply say, He did it because He had the help of evil spirits, or help of magic, or help of the Devil himself. And I find that fascinating. But, even more than that, what is really interesting is that we have evidence that people who were not Christians — Jews and pagans, invoke the name of Jesus for healing. Now, why would they do that if everybody knew that Jesus really didn’t do anything, He was a teacher, and all the stories about the miracles are bogus, well then how is it Jesus has such a wide-spread reputation as a healer? Why is it that professional exorcists and healers invoke the name of Jesus even if they’re not Christian? Now you might say, oh well, that’s because the rumors got started, the Gospels were published, and people uncritically and naively believed that He had performed miracles when in fact He had not. Oh no, that won’t work either. We actually have a story in the Gospels where the Disciples complain about a man who is not a follower, not one of the Jesus movement members, who is casting out evil spirits using the name of Jesus. Now, I have no idea whether he was successful or not, but the point is, during Jesus’s own public ministry, long before any gospel is written, long before the announcement of the resurrection, here we have at least one professional exorcist making use of Jesus’s name. Now, you might say that story is made up. I don’t think so, because Jesus’s response is a very surprising, leave the guy alone, don’t forbid him, he who is not opposed to us is for us. And you know, frankly, the Early Church was not comfortable with that kind of ecumenical attitude. And you can see that in the book of Acts and elsewhere. You’re not supposed to use the name of Jesus unless you really are His follower. So, most scholars rightly regard that passage, you’ll find it in Mark chapter 9 and parallels, they regard that chapter as authentic, that story. And once you acknowledge, yeah it’s an authentic story, and as I said, most do, that’s very powerful. So, here we have, I think, very compelling evidence that early on, not after Easter, not later when the Gospels are written, not when a bunch of legends supposedly arose, but right during the time of Jesus’s public ministry, there are people who see in Him great power; some accuse Him of being involved with the devil, others say, hey I don’t know, maybe He’s powerful, I’m going to use His name. And I think that is very compelling evidence that Jesus was indeed a worker of miracles and very powerful deeds.
BA: Very very good answer there. Now, some might then counter that if they’re unhappy with that answer, they might say something along the lines of, well, Jesus prophesied a lot of things that He said would come to pass in the generation that He was actually speaking to, but they say they didn’t happen, they didn’t come to pass, therefore, He’s now who He said He was. So Professor Evans, how do you respond to this sort of brand of failed apocalyptic prophet kind of objection?
CA: Well, first of all, I think there probably were Christians in the first century, that because Jesus foretold the persecution that was coming, foretold the destruction of the temple; and then of course, these things happened, there was persecution, there were wars, rumors of wars, a war took place, the Jewish rebellion that ended in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, Jesus had foretold that. I wouldn’t be surprised, in fact I’m sure, that among the Christians there was the assumption that all of these things, every single thing that Jesus foretold, including His own return, that all of these things were about to take place. And so, I think that has unfortunately had the effect of making it sound like Jesus foretold the end of the world, or judgment day, or something like that, that would take place in His own generation. In other words, from about somewhere between the year 30 and 70, in that forty year generation, everything would be fulfilled. But, that’s not what the Gospels say, and people aren’t listening carefully to warnings like, as far as that day and hour is concerned, no one knows. And so Jesus, He does not claim to know that this is when it’s all going to happen. And so, there’s this caution, rightly so, that when the end comes we don’t know. But Jesus did make a series of specific prophecies that have been foretold; such as, the persecution of the Church, He foretold the destruction of the temple, He foretold the spread of the Gospel around the world. Now how could He possibly know that if He didn’t know what He was talking about? He even says, you know, when you think about it, the woman anoints His head, and He says, what this woman has done will be told in remembrance of her. Now think about that. He says that to a dozen frightened Disciples, a handful of women, His head is anointed, and this is the evening that He will be arrested, the day before that He will be put to death, and He foretells that the Gospel will be announced and will spread around the world, and that when it’s told around the world, what that woman did will be told in her memory. Well, Brian, this is two thousand years later, that has happened. There are two billion people, Christians of one stripe or another, on this planet. This story is told of her. There’s not a place in the world where this story is not known, where the Gospel is not told. How did He know that? That’s a pretty good prophecy. And so, it’s things like that, Jesus clearly knew what He was talking about. The problem though, back then, and today, is that there are people who think they know better than Jesus when He says, look, nobody knows the day or the hour, and they think they do. This fiasco in May, just the past May, May 21st or whatever day it was, this group saying, oh yeah, this is it. And, you know, people have been making predictions, cults make predictions all the time and they get it wrong, and they shouldn’t do that. Unfortunately, it has the side effect, I think, of bringing discredit, and people think, oh yeah, see, Jesus predicted this and predicted that, and it didn’t happen. But what He predicted has happened, and there are things of course that pertain to the end and they will be fulfilled in their own turn, when they happen. But, I think we ought to be careful to heed His own words, and not become false prophets ourselves by making all sorts of prophecies that we should not do.
BA: Well, thank you for that answer. Now, let’s talk a little bit about Bart Ehrman, who’s as many people may know, he’s a very popular writer and textual critic who’s become sort of famous or notorious for his writings against the reliability of the New Testament, as well as the truth of Christianity. Books such as, Misquoting Jesus, or God’s Problem, Jesus Interrupted, and the like. Dr. Evans, you’re very familiar with Ehrman’s work and subject area of course, you’ve debated him on this sort of topic, so again, here we’re looking at an expert, if you will, but what are the faults in Ehrman’s reasoning when it comes to the conclusions he reaches regarding the New Testament in general?
CE: Well, I do know Bart Ehrman, and I met him at Princeton Seminary. I was there myself over twenty years ago as just a visiting Fellow, I was on sabbatical leave. I didn’t get to know him very well, but I knew who he was, and we spoke to each other briefly once or twice. And so, I was really surprised, I knew he was a student of Bruce Metzger, and so had trained specifically in the area of textual criticism, wrote a very fine dissertation, and has made many valuable contributions to biblical scholarship, and particularly the Church Fathers, the Apostolic Fathers as they’re called, who wrote mostly in the second century, and also some very valuable contributions to the whole field of the study of manuscripts and textual criticism. And although some of his writings in the 1990’s have a little bit of an edge, like his book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, had a little bit of an edge to it, but again, reviewers would say, hey, it’s competent work, it’s pretty good work, he’s right in maintaining the view that some scribes tinkered with the text for theological reasons. He’s right, the text critics know that. And where scribes have done that those places have been identified and have been eliminated or put down in what’s called the textual apparatus. So, when you read in the Greek New Testament, you know, you’re told some scribes added this or changed that, and for theological reasons. So, most of Bart’s work, I don’t have any problem with it in the 1980’s, 1990’s, and even into the beginning of the current century. But it was Misquoting Jesus and Jesus Interrupted and of course now, Forged, I do have some problems because it isn’t so much his statement of the facts, one can quibble here and there, but it’s the inferences, and some of the conclusions that are drawn from the statements. And some of it, I’m a little uneasy with it because we all get excited, we’re talking, we’re giving interviews, we say things, but you have to be careful not to mislead the public — people who can’t really figure out, contextualize, what’s really being stated. And one of these, for example, Bart will say, well, there are tens of thousands of errors, maybe as many as two hundred or three hundred thousand scribal errors in the manuscripts, and in fact he says (this is the rhetorical flurry) there are more errors than there are words in the New Testament. Well, at that point he’s comparing apples and oranges, what he’s comparing are the scribal errors found in five thousand eight hundred manuscripts. Dan Wallace calculates it to be about 2.6 million pages of text. Well, three, four hundred thousand errors, you’re only talking about one scribal error every six, seven, or eight pages. That actually compares rather well with other handwritten manuscripts from antiquity. And so, that’s troubling to me because that’s misleading. And some have jokingly responded by saying that in the first printing of Misquoting Jesus, hardback printing about a hundred thousand copies or so, there were twelve typographical errors, and of course those twelve errors get repeated a hundred thousand times, and so there are 1.2 million errors in Misquoting Jesus, there are more errors than words. Okay, very good, but that doesn’t prove anything. And Bart knows this, and later on when Misquoting Jesus came out in paperback, he added an appendix at the back of the book where he acknowledges that his view of the results of textual criticism, his view really isn’t much different from his teacher and Evangelical scholar, the late Bruce Metzger. So well, okay, well then, what was the point, what were you trying to say earlier if it turns out your understanding of textual criticism really isn’t much different from your doctor father who was a Christian, a very devout believer? I don’t get it, so it bothers me. So, some have pointed out, and I think they’re right in pointing this out that there are two Bart Ehrmans. There’s Bart Ehrman the scholar, who wouldn’t make these kinds of daring, and extravagant, and extreme claims, and then there’s the Bart Ehrman who does, who appears on The Daily Show or is interviewed at night with Anderson Cooper, or somebody like that, the popular writer, the writer of Misquoting Jesus, who says things that he knows must be very startling and very disconcerting for anybody who takes scriptures seriously. I think he knows that he’s doing that, and that bothers me a little bit. So, when you’re talking about Bart Ehrman, I’m going to be debating him up here in Halifax in January, and we’ve debated several other times, but what I want to talk about is, look, unless we’re real brittle fundamentalists who have a very narrow, very brittle understanding of what scripture is supposed to be, an understanding that doesn’t square very well with the actual evidence, then we really have nothing to fear from what Professor Ehrman is saying. If we understand what the Gospels really are, we understand what Jesus taught, how His Disciples learned, how the stories were written down and told, and quit interpreting the Gospels from a modern point of view, as if they’re tape recordings, or video tape, or something like that, there is no reason to be troubled by the Gospels and their somewhat differing portraits of Jesus, that is not a reason to be troubled at all. And so, unless you want to take advantage of the naïve reader, who doesn’t understand these nuances, I mean, I could do the same thing, if we’re going to be fair about it, and fully contextualize, and explain what’s going on, then this kind of data, this kind of information about the Gospels shouldn’t be troubling or disturbing at all.
BA: Well, that’s good stuff. Now Professor Evans, we’ve covered a lot of ground today, and for the sake of time, I’d like to transition quickly to another topic before we go. And that is that many of our listeners are going to be passionate about offering a solid rational defense of Christianity, and the trustworthiness of the scriptures. So, advice…what advice do you have for them in their studies, that is, what are some keys that will help them to master key material?
CE: Well, that’s a very good question, and it’s a very difficult one because to answer it I think the way it should be answered, people will think, oh my goodness, how can I do that? And what I’m going to say is, you need to do serious study, you need to read good books, I mean it might even mean learning to read Greek. I mean, if you’re really going to get into the know, if you asked me how can I decide between two medical doctors and come to grips, how can I do that unless I go to med school? See what I mean? How do I really know how to adjudicate between differing views in a given discipline; whether it’s medicine, or law, or theology, or bible, or whatever it is, unless I get into it at least knee deep and study it. I could just say, read a book by Darrell Bock, or read Craig Blomberg’s book on the reliability of the Gospels, or read my book, Fabricating Jesus, or something like that. But then, the rebuttal that somebody could offer is, well, you’re just telling people to read your books, and read books written by people who agree with you and hold to essentially the same thing. And so, someone else, Bart Ehrman might say, oh, read these other books and give a completely different list. And so, the only way out of this is to take some courses, read some good books, and get into the field more deeply. And so, my challenge really is addressed more to the Church, and more to the pastoral leadership of the Church. And my concern is that churches aren’t educating their people. Oh, they try to motivate them, they try to encourage them in various projects, maybe they’re trying to entertain them too, and keep them coming Sunday’s, but how well are they educating their people? And that’s a concern to me. And so, I think the leadership of churches, that leadership needs to take some leadership, and your question, and help people provide the books and say, look, here’s our library, we have some good books. Here’s a list of books we recommend, like Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, or the books I’ve already mentioned by Darrell Bock, and Craig Blomberg, and others. And of course there’s some great books on apologetics written by other people that wouldn’t necessarily have to do with biblical studies. And so, there’s an educational task that needs to be undertaken. And until that’s done, I fear the Church will remain academically weak, and it’s membership will remain vulnerable to people who will come along and say, you know what, you shouldn’t believe anything, scripture is not credible, scholarship shows that it’s very weak and unattested or unreliable. And the layman doesn’t know how to respond to that. So, I just don’t see any way of getting around this question, any way to answer this question, apart from saying, serious reading, serious education is part of it, and perhaps it’s the pastoral staffs that churches need to give some leadership here.
BA: Well, I really like your answer, and basically all about reclaiming the Christian mind. Another word of advice I’d like to ask is, when Christians are making a case for the reliability of the bible, are there things you would want them to focus on, and are there any particular errors you think that they should avoid, or some do’s and don’ts when they’re making this sort of case?
CE: Well, thank you for asking those questions, it’s very very important, because I believe that conservative Christians often are their worst enemies. They themselves. They paint themselves into corners. Let me be more specific. They often hold to, whether they consciously think it through or not, hold to very brittle, very strict theories of inspiration and inerrancy. So, what they end up defending, really, we’re not defending scripture, we’re not really defending the Gospels, they’re defending their definitions. They’re defending their curious doctrines, doctrines that can’t really be traced back in time more than the last hundred and fifty years. So called improvements on historic Christian teaching about the reliability of scripture, where in reaction to say Darwin, or in reaction to modern biblical criticism, or whatever, in reaction to philosophical skepticism of the nineteenth century on into the twentieth, Christians think they have come up with ways of defending scripture which really aren’t very effective. And so, skeptics like Bart Ehrman, and many others, can just poke holes in some of these brittle theories. And so, people become distraught.. and I’ve heard of course stories where people lose their faith and think, oh well, I guess the scriptures have problems. But, they’re not really defending the scripture, they’re defending a very narrow, brittle, rigid understanding of scripture that doesn’t square with the facts, views that don’t square with what the Gospels really are. And I’ve alluded to some of that earlier, and that is the idea that the Gospels give us almost like tape recordings or video taping of Jesus. Strict chronological sequence, word for word, what Jesus said. And so, Bart Ehrman has a field day when he deals with people who think that way because he can say look, compare the stories, Matthew says this, but Mark says that, Luke says something else, these are discrepancies, they can’t all be right. And so, what he’s playing off of is this naïve fundamentalist. And of course what we’re really doing is we’re taking our understanding of what history ought to be, namely verbatim quotation, video tape, strict chronological sequence, and we’re foisting this modern understanding on the Gospels written two thousand years ago. And then we’re alarmed when we see that those Gospels seem to be following different principles. And some bury their heads deep in the sand and somehow think they can harmonize it by saying Jesus said everything three times, four times, and so on, and you get these silly harmonistic approaches which of course people like Bart Ehrman have no trouble blowing to pieces. And so, people think, well, if I can’t defend scripture on those terms, scripture cannot be defended. And that is a pity. And so, that’s why I talk about reading serious books, getting educated, and avoiding these traps that are supposedly designed to defend scripture, to prove its inerrancy, or its inspiration, or whatever. Please, do your homework and understand what the Gospels are, how Jesus taught, how Jesus taught His disciples to take His teaching and adapt it; how that was the way teaching was done in antiquity; how it’s not wrong to take the words of a teacher, one’s master, and expand them; or to contract them, or to adapt them. A strict chronological sequence is not required, but whatever you do, you’re faithful to the original point, and then your duty, your obligation, is to apply it in new settings as if there’s Jesus teaching it all over again. I’ve seen this as a professor, myself, where a student will come up to me after a lecture and say, Professor Evans, if I understood you correctly, this is what you are saying, and they give me a one minute synopsis of my one hour lecture. And I might not hear three words in a row that I actually spoke, but their synopsis captures the essence of what I said, hits the nail right on the head, and it tell ‘em, that’s right, you clearly understand me. And there is some of that going on in the Gospels. But these brittle, rigid understandings of what scripture is don’t allow for that. And that makes it so easy for skeptics to poke holes in the Gospels, or in scripture in general, and say, look at that, look at the discrepancies, look at the contradictions, this can’t be true, it can’t be reliable. And so, that’s my concern, those are the do’s and don’ts, and that’s why I think careful reading, serious education is so important.
BA: Well, that’s a lot of great advice there. And finally Professor Evans, before we go, would you mind telling our listeners about any projects that you’re currently working on, another book perhaps?
CE: Well, thanks for asking. I’ve got a couple of books, in fact today I’ve been working on the proofs for one of them. I have a commentary on Matthew. It will be coming out next year in the New Cambridge Bible Commentary Series. And of course I do wrestle with questions of history, Matthew says this, Matthew says that, did that really happen? Matthew says it this way, where it might be said a little differently in one of the other Gospels, what does this mean? And then another book also coming out, I think in February of 2012, is entitled, Jesus and His World: The Archeological Evidence. And in fact, I even talk about in the introductory chapter, the whole notion, that some handful of people hold to, and that is that Jesus, did He really exist, and that kind of thing. But, I talk about the most important archeology that relates to Jesus and His teaching and His world. So these two books, Matthew, and Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence should be coming out sometime in the early months of 2012.
BA: Well great, now where would you want to point people online to find more of your resources?
CE: Well, anybody is welcome to visit my website www.craigaevans.com and books that are coming out are listed there. My speaking schedule is listed there, favorite links related to biblical studies, archeology, texts, papyri, and so on are provided there as well, and so there are some resources. Also, my various links for Facebook, and Vimeo, and a few things like that.
BA: Well, very good. Professor Evans, it’s been a real pleasure speaking with you today, and thanks for taking the time to do the interview.
CE: Well, you’re welcome Brian, very happy to do it, and glad to do it some other time.