Mike Licona vs. Bart Ehrman Debate

Tonight readers, we are going to break out of the regular Trinitarian studies routine and look at a recent event. This would be a debate that took place between Mike Licona and Bart Ehrman with the question being “Did Jesus Rise From The Dead?” Mike Licona has the website www.risenjesus.com and is the author of “Paul Meets Muhammad” and co-author of “The Case For The Resurrection of Jesus” along with Gary Habermas. I believe Licona is on his way to becoming the next great authority on the resurrection.  Ehrman is the James A. Gray distiniguished professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has written numerous books including most recently, “Misquoting Jesus” and “Jesus Interrupted.”

These two met to debate the question. I have chosen tonight to write on my thoughts on the debate.

I have no doubt that both of these men possess great knowledge in the area of history. Naturally, readers do know that I agree with the outcome that Licona was supporting. That’s part of what made this a problem. The case was there but these two men were talking past each other.

To begin with, let’s look at the question. The question was not a historical question. It was a question about the nature of history.  I ask that you keep this in mind as we go through the review of the debate.

Mike Licona made his argument from basic facts that are practically universal amongst New Testament Scholars. The first is that Jesus was crucified and thus, dead afterwards. The second was the appearances to the disciples. The third was the appearance to Paul. Licona argued that based on these and the problem of hallucination theories, the best case to be found is the resurrection. It’s not ad hoc, it explains all the evidence, and the only extra ingredient needed is that God exists. For a fuller explanation of this argument, see the book, “The Case For The Resurrection of Jesus.”

Ehrman did not dispute these and in fact, does not. However, he came with the arguments that the gospels contradict themselves, they’re anonymous, and they’re dated late. He also threw out as an argument that the disciples were fishermen and so they wouldn’t be educated to write the fine Greek of the New Testament. The first problem is that not all of them were fishermen. In fact, Peter, James, and John were the only ones who were writers that I can think of that we know were fishermen. Matthew was a tax collector. He would have known how to fill out records in the appropriate language. As for Mark, I do not know for sure what he did so we cannot assume he was a fisherman. Luke is believed to have been a doctor and would have been familiar with reading and writing. As for fishermen, John’s family owned a fishing business and as a result, he would have been trained in reading and writing as well.

Licona rightly pointed out that we can talk about contradictions all we want, but that won’t change the facts that were presented. Often, this turns into a debate on inerrancy. Now I believe in inerrancy, but that is not what is necessary to show the resurrection of Christ. You can have the gospels simply be historical documents with basic reliability. For information countering Ehrman’s claims, I recommend going to www.tektonics.org and looking under the E section for Bart Ehrman.

Ehrman also asked why is it that Mike Licona started off as a Christian and then investigated and remained a Christian. It’s amusing Ehrman asks is that any shock while at the same time he says that he started off as a Christian and left the fold. What’s that to teach us? I’d say it means that there are often other factors. Ehrman contributes a lot of doubt to the problem of evil, for instance. Keep in mind other writers started off skeptics and became believers, such as Simon Greenleaf, author of “The Testimony of the Evangelists”, which can be read online. 

Ehrman stated repeatedly that if you posit God to explain the resurrection, you’re not doing history then. You’re doing theology. Ehrman had a problem with the idea of miracles saying that they were automatically the least probable event.

Ehrman also said that Jesus was crucified didn’t matter. He could have been stoned instead. In fact, it did matter. This was seen as the most shameful death of the time which fit the Israelite idea of “Cursed is anyone who dies on a tree.” Since Jesus died that kind of death, he would have been seen as under God’s curse. Yet this was a benchmark of the Christian message. 

Ehrman also said the appearance were really one event, yet said Paul’s case was more difficult to explain than that of the disciples’. Seems to me like that’s two events. One kind of event was an appearance to believers. Another kind of event was an appearance to skeptics. One wonders also about Ehrman’s request of “How did Paul know it was Jesus?” and his desire to throw out the idea “Don’t tell me God told him.” What’s wrong with that is that that is what Acts 9 says. The voice answered and said “I am Jesus.” It’s like saying, “I want to know what really happened, but don’t suggest the explanation the text gives.”

While Licona had the good information, Ehrman was wanting to try to get Licona to not do theology or philosophy at all, which was the problem. The whole debate had to have a philosophical underpinning to it. I believe Licona should have said “Yes. I am doing theology as well, but my theology is based on the historical evidence.”

During Q&A, it was rightly pointed out to Ehrman that the writers could have used scribes which would have answered the question on the Greek. Kudos goes to Dr. Thomas Howe who spoke of how in one of his books, Ehrman said that when a reader reads a text, they change the text. If that’s the case, how could we know what Ehrman wrote. Ehrman replied saying “I’ll e-mail you” to which the reply was “I’ll be reading that text also.”

My personal part in this was after the debate going to Ehrman and asking about his claim that history can’t tell us about acts of God. I asked if he could historically prove that. The reply was that history can only tell you what humans can do. (In reality, that would be false even on naturalistic premises. History can tell us about non-human characters like comets, the bubonic plague, animals, etc.) I asked “Can you historically prove that?” The answer was “No.” To which I just said, “Okay.” I believed the point was established. Ehrman wasn’t doing purely history either. No one was and no one could and one wishes Licona had brought in the context of the resurrection. This would include reasons for believing God exists, the fulfillment of OT prophecy, the hope of a Messiah, the systematic theology built up around the atonement and the concept of resurrection, etc.

Overall, it was good of Ehrman to come to an environment where he was definitely in the minority, and it made me think that many who were uninitiated in apologetics would have left a presentation like Ehrman’s skeptical. In this case, I am thankful for him. I would like him to create more skeptics. I mean that in the sense of I want people who are asking hard questions about the resurrection instead of those who are not growing in their faith. I would rather have a small number committed to the facts and able to present them than a thousand with a simple idea faith that has no backing to it.

Maybe, just maybe then, we’ll see the revolution we need in the church.

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