Does the Bible present an accurate view of the historical Jesus? Craig Evans is one of the leading New Testament scholars today, and he answers this question with a resounding "yes." In this interview, Sean and Scott ask him about his latest book, which highlights Dr. Evans's latest debate with Bart Ehrman. They discuss the historical evidence for the New Testament, both from within and outside the Bible, and respond to common criticisms.
About our Guest
New Testament scholar, prolific author, and popular teacher/speaker, Craig A. Evans is well-known for his contribution to work on the Gospels, the Historical Jesus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and archaeology of the New Testament. He regularly appears in documentaries, TV, and radio interviews. He lectures extensively and participates in archaeological digs and Holy Land tours.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: And I'm your cohost, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics, also at Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University.
Sean McDowell: We're here today with one of the leading scholars on Jesus in the world, it's no exaggeration to say that Dr. Craig Evans who teaches at Houston Baptist University is one of the most respected, well-known and influential scholars on historical Jesus, to talk about a book that he's recently written based on a debate that he had with Bart Ehrman. It's a fascinating book, but first let me just welcome you to the show Dr. Evans.
Craig Evans: Thank you very much. Good to be with you.
Sean McDowell: In case somebody is not aware of Bart Ehrman, who is he and why did you choose to debate him? Now I know, five times, but this book is based on one debate with him. So who is he and why choose to debate him so many times on the historical Jesus?
Craig Evans: Well, Bart Ehrman at one time regarded himself as an evangelical Christian. He did degrees at Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. He then also studied and did his PhD at Princeton under the great textual critic, Bruce Metzger. And so Bart ended up on the faculty where he still is, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but through a variety of circumstances, and he explains them in some of his publications and various talks he's given, he also has a blog page, he talked about how he eventually lost confidence in Scripture, and he also then theologically lost confidence in God, and now regards himself as somewhere teetering between agnosticism and atheism. His story continues to change. So it's hard for me to recount it. He lost his faith. He used to say in 2001 ... I've noticed the more recent publications he's backdating his has apostasy into the early '90s, so I'm not sure what is correct on that.
But anyway, that's what he has said. And what's got a lot of attention are his popular books. The first one came out, called Misquoting Jesus, in 2005, where he gave a very extreme, and most would regard misleading, assessment of the textual variants in the New Testament manuscripts. Anyway, he's published a few books beyond that, and taking rather extreme views. Skepticism, Gospels can't be harmonized, reconciled. The discrepancies are severe, so they're not reliable. We don't know what the historical Jesus really said and taught. He's talked the theology questions like theodicy, is God really just? Well, the Bible does not supply satisfying answers to that question. That is what he says. And so on. Actually one book that he did, that's a pretty good book, he did Jesus Exists a few years ago and he concluded well, he certainly did, and he makes a very good case against mythicism.
And the humanists and atheists were very disappointed with him, having recognized him previously and given him [inaudible 00:03:33]. So he's a little bit over the map. He's been debated before where a debater will say, "I'd like to know which Bart Ehrman is here tonight. Is it the Bart Ehrman, the scholar or Bart Ehrman, the popular writer? Bart laughs when he hears that. He knows they've got him dead to rights on that because the scholarly bar isn't nearly as extreme as the popular bar. So that's some of his background. I actually knew him when he was a Christian at Princeton Seminary in 1987. I was there as a visiting fellow. That's where I got to know him. I saw him every month at the monthly New Testament seminar. The faculty and PhD students gathered together. He was going through difficult times at that time, illness with his father who died not long after that. His marriage was in trouble.
I didn't know any of that. He was always quiet. He didn't talk much. I congratulated him when it was reported that he was going to UNC Chapel Hill. He thanked me for that. We see each other at SPL almost every year. We're on friendly terms. I've heard him tell others, it gets back to me, he says, "I like Craig Evans. I don't see him as an enemy. I think he cares about me. I appreciate him for that." I'm really glad to hear that because I don't want to think of him as an enemy or as somebody that needs to be destroyed. I'm just troubled by some of the arguments he makes. And so that's the backdrop. So there's a little bit of a personal thing there, but it's mostly a long history of scholarly interaction.
Sean McDowell: I'm really grateful you've been able to debate him and interact with them and build a relationship with him, because in my experience he's had more influence in kind of a voice against Christianity than anybody alive. I hear his arguments from Muslims. I hear them from Mormons. I hear them from atheists. So your willingness to take him on respectfully, his ideas, is really commendable. And that comes through in this book. Can we trust the Bible on the historical Jesus? So let me just ask to lay out what is his basic methodological approach to saying we can't trust the Bible?
Craig Evans: Well, basically it's fundamentalism in reverse, and he is criticized that way. You'll see it in the blogosphere, perhaps in writing here or there, that his epistemology is that of a fundamentalist. It's very brittle. Of course, he bristles when he hears that. He says, no, "I abandoned fundamentalism back in the '80s and adopted a more liberal Christian understanding in the '90s," and so on. But I'm not sure he quite gets the point. And let me make that clear. It's a very, very important point, because I think ultimately it swings around to what we need to do in Christian universities and seminaries, and we need to do it better. But one time I was debating him. I think it was the second debate, something like that. Anyway, it was many years ago. And somebody asked him, "What would it take for you to have confidence in the text of the New Testament?"
And this was not from me, it was from the audience. We had already debated. Now we were taking Q and A. And he says, "Well, unless you can show that every single word is correct, is confirmed-
Scott Rae: Wow. That's quite a high bar.
Craig Evans: ...then you don't know if you have the word of God anywhere. You don't know if you have any of it right. And it was one of those all or nothing kind of things that you will hear in fundamentalist circles. You know, "Show me one mistake in the Bible, and I'll throw it the trash." That kind of thing. It was a jaw-dropping moment. I looked at him. I was simply astounded. And I can give you other examples of that, where he just let slip not thinking or something. But it's a very, what I would consider a very naive and simplistic fundamentalist viewpoint.
Now, of course he would go on to say that he thinks their are a number of a doubtful readings in the New Testament, and therefore he doesn't have much confidence. But the real scholarly Bart Ehrman, at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting or something like that, when he's with other textual critics and scholars, he doesn't play that game. He would say, "Oh sure, that's probably correct. Yeah, that's what Paul said here in Romans, or that's what Jesus says here in Matthew."
So he doesn't jump up and down every time somebody says, "Well, this is how the text originally read." He just nods. "Yeah, sure." But in the popular setting, it's really funny how that comes out. So what is his method? Well, it seems to be, he creates what I would call a straw man. I'm not sure he thinks of it as a straw man, but it's this naive fundamentalist understanding of Scripture. And that would include history, how to harmonize the Gospels and all the rest of that. And then he blows it apart.
Well, so would I. I would just take a different approach. I'd be pastoral. He wrecks this thing that clearly is wrong, but yes, there are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Christians around the world who actually hold. It's similar to what a conservative Muslims think about the Quran. And so there really is no textual criticism. There are no textual variants. There really are no discrepancies or uncertainties in that world. Everything is sure. Everything is certain because it's inspired. It's inerrant. And if it turns out that's not true and you find one mistake, it all blows up. So basically that's what he does. And so that's the argument then that Jesus has been misquoted, the text can't be trusted. That's the argument that lies behind Jesus, Interrupted, where he shows that there are discrepancies among the Gospels.
So his mantra will be, "Well, Matthew says Jesus said it this way. Luke says he said it this other way." Or, "Matthew says he was in such and such a place when he said or did it. Mark says though, he was somewhere else. They can't both be true." So it's like a syllogism of some kind. It's like, "Oh my gosh, you're right. They can't both be true." And so it's the fallacy of excluded middle. It's a failure to understand both the pedagogy of Jesus, how he taught his disciples, namely to take his teaching and adapt it and apply it in different circumstances. And it's a failure to understand the historiography, how the Gospels are written. So anyway, that's what he does. He creates what I would call a naive fundamentalist straw man on these various issues and then proceeds to blow them apart.
Scott Rae: So Craig, you had mentioned that there are a number of what Ehrman would call discrepancies in the Gospels or differences in the Gospel accounts. How would you respond to Ehrman's overall charge that these discrepancies undermine the reliability of the text?
Craig Evans: Well, my response is to flat out disagree with it. No they don't. To say that, reflects this naive view that the text, to be believable, has to be word for word and one way only, and originally that was it and it never has changed and so on. And so it immediately flies in the face of what we know about pedagogy, that is, how people were taught. And we're not guessing here. We actually have the handbooks from antiquity. We're not speculating or trying to infer anything. It's flat outright stated. And then we noticed that the Gospels fit that pattern and second century church fathers who discussed the Gospels reflect it also. So there's no mystery here.
Now, what I'm referring to, just to ... I don't want to get too technical and too involved. But what I'm talking about is that if you were properly discipled and trained by a master teacher, a philosopher or something like that, or a rabbi, and the Jewish views were indistinguishable from the Greek views, and the evidence for that is overwhelming. It's not even in dispute. So that's thanks to Alexander and 300-plus BC, the Greek presence in Palestine. And so the book culture, the scribal culture, very similar, the Jewish on the one hand, the Greek on the other. And so if you really know your master's teaching, you have to show that you can do more than merely repeat his words. Anybody, a trained parrot, can learn to repeat word for word the master's words.
That's not the point. It isn't about your memory. It's about your understanding. So can you take the master's teaching and paraphrasing it? Can you expand it? Can you contract it? Can you adjust it to fit new contexts, string together teachings and deeds in a coherent way so that you honor your teacher, you're true to his meaning? Jesus could be listening to his disciples paraphrase his own teaching and then smile and say, "Matthew, you hit the nail right on the head. Thatta boy. That's exactly the way ... Very good. That's perfect. Couldn't have done it better myself." That's the goal. And Jesus himself alludes to that after his seven parables about the kingdom in Matthew 13, where he asks his disciples, "Have you understood this?" They said, "Yes, good." He says, "The scribe who's been discipled or trained for the kingdom of heaven is like that householder," who pops open his thesaurus, his treasure box, and pulls out old stuff and new stuff.
And commentators pick up on this. And I'm thinking particularly of that great commentary on Matthew in the ICC series, by Dale Allison and W.D. Davies. And they say what this means is the disciple who's trained knows how to take Jesus's teaching and adapt it. That's exactly right. And that's what the pedagogy handbooks from antiquity say. It's called a [inaudible 00:14:01]. It's a useful anecdote. That's where the teaching of a student begins. Can you recite something a famous teacher said, or a story that he did something, and sometimes it's a combination of both deed and saying, and paraphrase it? Can you expand it? Can you shrink it? Can you tie several together, which is what the Gospels are, in a way that retains the meaning, applies it in a new situation, perhaps in a new language, without losing sight of the original point? If you can do that, you're truly discipled.
And that's what Jesus is saying. And that's what the Gospels are. We see that here's Jesus's teaching presented somewhat differently in Matthew, somewhat differently in Mark, Luke, John, and so on, adapting it and applying it, and obviously very successfully, which is why these four Gospels were chosen and retained, and why they had such a huge impact in Christian theology and for the nourishment of the church. So they obviously did a good job, captured it very, very well. So that's what we know when it comes to teaching, and the Gospel writers do that. And that explains almost all of the so-called discrepancies once that's understood.
Sean McDowell: That's really interesting, because it seems like at its core there's a methodological difference based on your expectation of the kind of writings that the Gospels are. He expects a wooden word for word literalism. And you're saying, given the context, given the audience, given that he probably repeated himself in certain stories, we'd expect there to be the kind of differences that we see. In the class I teach on the Resurrection, I really try to emphasize to my students, like, "Look at someone's methodology. That'll explain the conclusions that they come to."
Now, kind of back to the book specifically, your methodology is different. You lay out four questions about how we assess whether or not we can trust the Bible on the historical Jesus. And the first one is how does the evidence for Jesus compare with other ancient historical figures? So maybe lay out kind of a 30,000-foot view quick response. If we just look at historical Jesus based on the evidence we have, how does that compare with other historical figures, many of them whom people don't question the basic details of their lives?
Craig Evans: Well, you're absolutely right. I had a skeptic who teaches history at UCLA email me a number of years ago. He was saying, "The evidence for Jesus is so weak. I doubt if he even existed." And of course, the points he made were naive. And I wrote back and said, "Do you think the evidence for the existence of Alexander the Great is sufficient?" And I pointed out the evidence for Jesus is actually stronger. You have more witnesses that are earlier to his life. And of course it was embarrassing for him, and he conceded, "Oh, well, yeah, it was just a thought experiment." But anyway, the interesting thing is, is that some mythicists, and I think those are the people I have in mind, at least the back of my head when I was talking about that, they'll say things like, "If Jesus were so famous, why weren't more people talking about him in the first century?"
And of course behind that objection's anachronism, the fame of Jesus of the fourth century being read back into the first century. And so anyway, what I point out is, "Well, how many Roman emperors have four biographies written about them within a generation, generation and a half?" You're pretty hard pressed to find very many like that. And you go back to the classic, the first 12 emperors, and Jesus compares rather favorably. And you think about it, wait a minute, this was a rabbi, a Jewish teacher from Galilee with a small following in a relatively powerless country, an ethnic minority whose theology is mocked by the majority of the Roman empire. They're not taken seriously at all. And we have more first century evidence, or let's put it this way, more direct testimony relating to him within 50, 60 years of his lifetime than we do for most of the first 12 Roman emperors. So exactly how is the comparison so weak?
That's a very important point. And then if you want to look at the individual sources themselves, you have multiple copies, fragments, very early fragmentary copies of these four sources. Again, a much better record than you have for the emperors. So here we are comparing Jesus to the emperors, for crying out loud, the most important people in the Roman empire from a worldly point of view, by far the most important people. Their the only ones that actually compare. You start moving away from Roman emperors and talk about other significant people, philosophers, learned people, spokesmen and so on, and it drops very quickly. So Jesus actually looms quite large, much larger really then we should expect from a historical point of view.
Scott Rae: That's really helpful, Craig. The second question you raise in responding to Ehrman has to do with the copying and in gathering and dissemination of ancient manuscripts. Ehrman is very critical of the the way in which the scribes copied manuscripts over the centuries, and sort of makes them out to be these careless amateurs. But what do we know about how the Gospel accounts were copied and what the manuscript history of them is?
Craig Evans: Well, we know a lot, and we've been learning tons in the last hundred years, partly because of the recovery of lots of papyri from Egypt. So we're getting back further in time, and so we have a greater sense of how stable the text was in the passage of time, other discoveries that indirectly relate to book culture as well. I don't mean to disparage Bart Ehrman's education. I'm sure it was excellent with Bruce Metzger at Princeton Seminary. But he's actually very out of date. I hope he's trying to keep up with it. But one of the ideas is that the autographs and first copies of the New Testament writings probably only lasted a few years, circulated 10 years, 20 years then disappeared.
Well, there's no evidence of rapid disappearance whatsoever. We actually have written statements by church fathers that the autographs existed anywhere from 150 to 200 years. I don't think that was taken very seriously back in the day, even among Christian scholars, because nobody had any idea how durable papyrus was. Not until well into the 19th century, when we started making lots of discoveries of papyri, did we realize how long these things last. And so comments made by Tertullian and other church fathers to the effect that the autographs existed for 150, 200 years and other copies of writings lasted a long time too, now it's taken more seriously. And secular writers say the same thing. Galen talks about having autographs that are 250 years old, autographs of the great Aristotle were 250 to 300 years old. People were talking about them that much later in time after his death. And so archeological discoveries help confirm that.
[inaudible 00:22:06] for example, four libraries ... I'm not talking about archives, by the way, collections of business papers. I'm talking about literature. And so libraries have been found lumped together that were thrown out in the third or fourth century, and then through paleography, the texts themselves were dated to the first century. So we realized, "My gosh, these things were 200, 300 years old before they're thrown out." Then we start thinking about it, "Wait a minute. Same thing's true with Qumran. The library's destroyed by the Romans either in '68 or '73 AD. So the libraries came to a sudden end. The books were still being read, still being studied and so on. And some of those scrolls were 350 years old when that library came to a sudden and dramatic end. Most of the scrolls were 150 to 200 years old, which by the way, is the average that studies show.
Take Herculaneum, for example, because some people say, "Oh, well, you're talking about Egypt, which is dry, arid. You're talking about the Dead Sea region, which is dry and arid. How about Italy, which gets a bit warm and muggy every summer, damp in the winter time? That's different." Well, okay. What did we learn from Herculaneum? It's buried under volcanic heat and ash in '79 by Vesuvius. At Herculaneum, we have this mansion, this villa that's called the Villa of Papyri. We've recovered from it 1,200 book rolls and counting because the entire house is not yet excavated. And there are book rolls, again, thanks to MRI and x-ray and so on, we can see the handwriting. Computer enhancement is amazing. And it turns out these book rolls, many of them are anywhere from 100 to 300 years old. They were still in use. They weren't in the dry desert of Egypt or the Dead Sea, they're in Rome, or near Rome. They're at Herculaneum. They're in Italy, and they're 200, 300 years old and still being read.
So the idea that the autographs just vanished and now nobody knows how the text read is silly. And so the autographs are around a long time. Well, because we find these writings ... Just 2005, we found three lost writings by Galen, the medical inquirer of the second century. He talks about how he writes what's done with it, how he takes notes. All of that makes sense in what's Papias talks about, quoted by Eusebius when it came to the writing of the Gospel Mark. So we understand all that better how drafts are prepared, comparisons made, copies are made and so on and so forth. It shows us that the four Gospels did not circulate anonymously. There's always a preface. There's always a letter that accompanies it when it begins to circulate, explaining who wrote it and why and so on.
So that's why all four Gospels were always known as Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, without exception. There never was a time when we didn't know that Matthew was Matthew thought that maybe it was written by Philip or somebody else. There's no evidence of that. All four were always known by those names. What else we've learned though, and this is a real killer for those who say Christian scribes with theological agendas changed things and that's why we really don't know if we have the original text, that is wrong on different levels. Number one, the copies were made too quickly, too soon and got spread out too fast. How in the world would any scribe say at the beginning of the second century, who wanted to change something Jesus said, how in the world would he be able to change enough manuscripts in enough regions, and by now already moving into other languages like Latin? How would he manage to pull that off and not leave any wrinkles or ripples in the textual tradition?
Sean McDowell: It's a great point.
Craig Evans: Impossible. Here's another thing. There's anachronism at work again in that kind of objection. How would a scribe say, in the year 110, and he's aware of the four Gospels that are circulating, how does he know those four Gospels are going to become part of the New Testament canon? How does he know that? The other thing is, how does he know how to change it, theologically? Has he channeled somebody and knows what's going to be decided at Nicea in 325? So he doesn't know which direction to take the theology, if we're talking Christology, for example. He doesn't know which way to go. He can't possibly contaminate and alter enough manuscripts to make it stick.
And then here's the third one, the killer. We now believe most of these scribes were professional scribes. There's no reason to think that most of them were even Christians. They had no dog in the fight. A professional scribe is paid to copy the text accurately. He's paid accordingly. How in the world is he going to say, "Oh, I'm going to change this. I'm going to add a verse or I'm going to take something out or I'm going to alter this." Why would he do it? He has no motivation to do it. He wouldn't know how to do it anyway. And so these are the factors that we've learned. And this is relatively new stuff that's been learned in recent years. And so the whole idea that lies behind Bart Ehrman's book, Orthodox Corruption of Scripture in the early 1990s, the whole thing has been eviscerated. So the discussion has moved on, and so the idea of Christian scribes with theological axes to grind is just a fantasy. And I think it's just going to disappear completely.
Sean McDowell: We often see on the Discovery Channel, Scientific Channel, History Channel, these new gospels that are found, these new challenges as if the further we get away from the events, the less confidence we have in the Bible itself. You're saying the opposite, if I heard you correctly. The more we find in all these different areas, it's confirming the reliability of the case. Is that really true?
Craig Evans: Well, what happens is ... Yeah, I see what you mean. Here we are today. I mean, my goodness, you go back 200 years. Just think about that. You go back 200 years, so we don't have Codex Vaticanus. I mean, it's in the Vatican, but nobody knows that. We don't have Alexandrinus. We don't have Codex Sinaiticus, hasn't been found yet. It's just several things. We have Bezae. That's about it, Codex Bezae. And for the people listening, they don't know what I'm talking about, I'm talking about our oldest and best complete copies of the New Testament. They don't even exist yet, that we know of. And the papyri haven't been found yet. So the idea of going all the way back to the third century, or maybe few fragments toward the end of the second century, that's just a dream. That hasn't happened yet. And this stuff has been found.
Oxyrhynchus yielded up close to a half million pages of text. Only 10% of that's been published to date. We've been working on it for over a hundred years. And so that's why there's a lot of work yet to be done. And that's why, as you say, the further we move away, the closer we're getting back to it. And yes, ironically, that is true. And even this fragment of Mark that was much talked about a couple of years ago, we were mostly settled on a second century date. But before it was recognized as Mark, the first papyrologist [inaudible 00:29:29] looked at it, and then a second one too who looked at it said this is probably late first century. So who knows how much further back we go?
But for me, the thing that's really important, we have enough of a second century, early third century sample that it's clear the text was stable. Because guys, it would not be possible for there to be major disruptions of the text in the first hundred years of the existence of the text without leaving ripples. We would know that there are things that are wrong in the text. If somebody fooled around and subtracted a chapter or half a chapter from Matthew, or somebody fooling around added half a chapter to Luke or something like that, it would leave huge ripples in the textual stream of tradition. It would be very noticeable.
Sean McDowell: Craig Evans, this is so, so helpful. I just want to emphasize personally how much I appreciate your scholarship. And from more popular books you've done, like Fabricating Jesus to some of more of your scholarly texts, like Jesus and the Manuscripts, be encouraged to know that what you're doing is making a huge difference for the Body of Christ. And I especially want to commend to our listeners the new book that you did, which is based on a debate with Bart Ehrman and edited by Robert Stewart called Can We Trust the Bible on the Historical Jesus? So if listeners just want a sense of where's the debate, where's the discussion, where's research on historical Jesus, this is a book I think they would really, really enjoy. So thanks so much for writing it, and thanks for joining us today on the podcast.
Craig Evans: My pleasure.
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Craig Evans, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and please consider sharing it with a friend. Thanks for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.