The Discrepancies of Bart Ehrman Examined
by J. R. Fraser
In his debate against William Lane Craig on “Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?” Bart Ehrman gives a laundry list of alleged discrepancies in the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection (transcript here). Ehrman argues that the Gospels are not reliable as history because of these discrepancies. Detailed examination, however, will show that Ehrman’s alleged discrepancies are all very minor, concerning secondary details of the events. None are clear contradictions, and in no similar case would such minor differences be taken to disqualify historical sources that agree in all of the major details. This post will examine the first set of discrepancies given by Ehrman with more to come in future posts.
According to Ehrman,
The way to see differences in the Gospels is to read them horizontally. Read one story in Matthew, then the same story in Mark, and compare your two stories and see what you come up with. You come up with major differences. Just take the death of Jesus. What day did Jesus die on and what time of day? Did he die on the day before the Passover meal was eaten, as John explicitly says, or did he die after it was eaten, as Mark explicitly says? Did he die at noon, as in John, or at 9 a.m., as in Mark?
Here Ehrman alleges that John and Mark disagree on 1) the day and 2) the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and death. According to Ehrman, John explicitly says Jesus died on the day before the Passover meal was eaten, while Mark explicitly says it was the day after. He also says John puts the time of death as noon, while Mark gives the time of death as 9 a.m.
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Two issues come to the forefront here. The first is whether there really is a contradiction between John and Mark as Ehrman claims, while the second is the purely historical question of whether these kinds of discrepancies would be a disqualifying issue in any other two historical sources. What we will see is that in fact there is no explicit contradiction, and it is actually an interpretation which pits John against the Gospels. It’s one possible interpretation, but not the only one. Second, a difference of one day and three hours between two different historical sources would never be sufficient reason to disqualify sources. Even if one of the Gospels was off by one day and three hours with respect to when Jesus died, they all agree that he died by crucifixion under Roman orders, prompted by Jewish leaders. The central facts are the same, the alleged discrepancy is with regard to secondary details.
While Ehrman claims to be arguing as an historian, in fact it appears that he is making an implied attack on the doctrine of inerrancy. But inerrancy does not have to be true for the Gospel accounts to be generally reliable history. Would Ehrman argue that no historical source which is not inerrant is therefore unreliable as history? Obviously he can’t say that as a historian, because he (presumably) should believe that there is no such thing as an inerrant work of history…
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