Stand to Reason Interview with Michael Kruger about Bart Ehrman’s Article:
Transcription from the podcast 4/1/2016
Greg: Bart Ehrman has written a new article “Are the Stories in the Bible about the Last Days and Hours of Jesus True?” Many of you know of his popular work Misquoting Jesus. I have with me as a guest for this hour, one of my favorite people to talk with about Bart Ehrman, Dr. Michael Kruger. Mike it seems like every year or so we have you on to answer another Bart Ehrman article.
Michael Kruger: I think when Easter comes around you and I talk again about our friend Bart Ehrman.
Greg: You’ve written The Heresy of Orthodoxy, which we talked at length about in the past and you cover a lot of these bases. The Question of the Canon is another book you authored. It visits similar information from other directions. I recommend both of these books highly as critical books to deal with these issues because they are so well dealt with. Mike, tell us a little bit about who Bart Ehrman is, just to bring some of our listeners up to speed on this and then let’s go from there.
Michael Kruger: Most people probably heard his name in some capacity, Ehrman is now recognized as one of the leading authorities in the country. He is a religious studies professor at UNC Chapel Hill, which happens to be my alma mater. In fact, as undergraduate I had Bart Ehrman as a professor.
Greg: No kidding.
Michael Kruger: I have a personal, intimate knowledge of Bart as being a student of his in the past. Ehrman has written a number of books over the years attacking the integrity of the Bible. Most of this is borne out of his own stories. If you know the story of Bart Ehrman, he started out according to his own testimony as an evangelical Christian. Went to Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College, and then went to Princeton seminary for his seminary degree. He began to rethink everything and eventually ended up abandoning the faith. Ever since, he’s been writing books attacking and challenging the integrity of the Bible. He is now one of the bestselling authors in that subject.
Greg: Of course, we don’t want to dismiss him because of his bad experiences at Princeton and his own personal convictions. I think that does play a role later in our conversation. We’ve talked about this in the past but his credentials are clearly well deserved as I understand it. He’s earned his credentials.
Michael Kruger: In academic circles, he is an excellent scholar, he is a critical thinker, he studied with Bruce Metzger at Princeton. No one certainly doubts his academic ability in terms of training. It’s second to none.
Greg: Generally, it seems to me his interpretation of the facts is the problem and what gets him at cross purposes with other biblical scholars.
Michael Kruger: That’s right. In fact, I think the same can be said about the discipline as a whole, which is that most scholars don’t disagree about what’s out there in terms of data. Everyone has the same data. Most of it is determined by what you do with that data, how you frame it, how you situate it, how you interpret it and understand it. You can have the same exact facts as Bart Ehrman and reach radically different conclusions. It tells you something very important that I think all our listeners already know, which is that one’s broad view that they bring to the table when they interpret facts is really critical. It’s not just the debate over what the New Testament is or what it’s like. It’s the debate over what you think is true in general as you come to study it. There is a larger, bigger philosophical issue that needs to be discussed.
Greg: So we have Bart Ehrman who has weighed in against biblical reliability from a lot of different perspectives. He says the biblical manuscripts were changed on purpose; they were changed with theological intent. These are things that we’ve talked about in the past. This trades on memory and oral traditions. The question that was asked to me in the last segment of the broadcast had to do with Bart Ehrman’s observation that the earliest manuscripts show the greatest amount of variation, compared to the later manuscripts that show less variation.
The caller thought that was a compelling point against biblical reliability. I said to him, “You are looking at the wrong thing. What really matters is the nature of the variations. Whether they are meaningful, whether they are theologically significant.” It really comes down to the nature of the variations and whether, even with those variations early on, are we capable of recovering the original text with a high degree of confidence? That was my general approach to that question, how would you have approached that question, if it were asked of you, Mike?
Michael Kruger: I’m in general agreement. I don’t necessarily disagree with Bart’s assessment of the earliest stages of the text. In my book with Charles Hill called The Early Text of the New Testament with Oxford University Press we tackled that question. I think most people would agree that the earliest stages of the text that we have access to, which should be second century and later. Maybe third and fourth centuries are going to be the ones that exhibit the most variants. However, even if you acknowledge that, that doesn’t mean somehow the stories of the New Testament are now suddenly in doubt because, even though it exhibits more variety and more differences in later stages, they are so narrowly within a range of the kind of differences you are talking about that they don’t really threaten the integrity of New Testament.
We can see those changes. We can see how they compare to one another and note that they are there, but they don’t really challenge our ability to recover the original by comparing the large volume of manuscripts we have. One of the things that scholars pointed out over the years is what’s called the tenacity of the text. What that means is that the text really resists change. Even when a scribe changes it, actually even that change is maintained over time. There is rarely an opportunity for you to find a text that has been so changed that you can never see that it’s been changed. That’s a really key point that means that there is very little chance that the text has been changed in a monumental way and us not know it. That’s a really critical point.
Greg: When I wrote my piece for Solid Ground called “Misquoting Jesus,” this was the point that I made that, here are like ten verses that you thought were in the Bible that aren’t. He is really intending to put the last nail on the coffin. It struck me and I pointed this out, that if he is able to identify the verses that are not supposed to be in the Bible, that means that it’s possible to identify the original text.
Michael Kruger: That’s exactly right.
Greg: It struck me that undermined his entire case.
Michael Kruger: His book, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, actually presumes that you could know what the corruptions are and what the original is. It really defeats his whole point, which is that that it doesn’t change the integrity of the text if you can know what the changes are.
Greg: I also was troubled when I looked at the list of changes. First of all, he had the woman caught in adultery from John and the long ending of Mark. These are no surprise to anybody who’s looked at these things closely. Most scholars do not consider these to be textually sound. Most Bibles will have those notes in the margin to show that. It isn’t like this is a big secret.
There were other places where I noticed that he would have a verse from one Gospel that was a questionable variant. One of the other Gospels had exactly the same account and it wasn’t a questionable variant. His claim was, these are the verses that aren’t in the Bible that you thought were in the Bible. It turns out that at least two of them, as I recall were in the Bible but they were just in a different Gospels than he’s pointed out. I thought that’s kind of cheating a little bit.
Michael Kruger: Yeah, you get the impression at times he is working really hard to try to get the readers to doubt. He is pulling everything out and reaching for every possible example he can, and the fact of the matter is, these are not new problems. These are things we’ve known about for generations and not at all something that should surprise anybody who’s studied the text. He presents them as if they are new, and he knows for most of his readers they are probably all new. The average Joe out there reading his book never heard of this before. When you start looking at the facts as a whole you realize there is not the danger that he presents.
Greg: He studied under Bruce Metzger you mentioned who, at the time (he’s gone now), was the number one scholar in New Testament.
Michael Kruger: Yes, absolutely.
Greg: He did not agree with Bart Ehrman’s assessment, given the same set of facts.
Michael Kruger: No, and what’s a little tricky here is that Ehrman doesn’t agree with himself. This is one of the things that scholars have pointed out. Which Bart Ehrman are we talking to? When you talk to the Bart Ehrman who is talking to scholarly friends in the world of textual criticism, he sounds very normal and very standard in terms of his views. Then when he gets into the popular level books, he becomes this hyper-skeptic. No doubt Metzger would probably agree with Ehrman when he writes for the more normal type of book of about textual criticism. But when he starts to attack the New Testament in his popular level books, he starts becoming more hyper-skeptical than the evidence allows. At that point we have to think that Metzger wouldn’t agree with him. I think Ehrman is a little in disagreement with himself. I think that as far as the challenges, you kind of wonder, Which Ehrman am I going to meet here?
Greg: What’s going on here?
Michael Kruger: If you read his work, it’s clear that his views aren’t always the same depending on which one you are reading.
Greg: I also noted and this was ironic, I think Misquoting Jesus came out in 2005. The same year that the updated issue of The Text of the New Testament that he coauthored with Bruce Metzger, originally under Bruce Metzger’s authorship.
Michael Kruger: That right.
Greg: Then the updated version was with Bart Ehrman.
Michael Kruger: Yes.
Greg: He’s got his name on two texts and maybe it would be charitable to say that maybe the text of the New Testament text reflected really more of Bruce Metzger’s views than Bart Ehrman’s, but the fact is both of their names are on it. There were statements in The Text of the New Testament that contradict, statements in Misquoting Jesus and both are released in the same year.
Michael Kruger: Yeah, that’s actually a pretty good example of the kind of problem we are facing is that when he is writing sort of academic book that’s designed just to explain the facts, he sounds pretty tame about most of things he is saying, but it’s when he is talking about the popular level books he tends to stray off course. We wish we still had the original version of Metzger’s early Text of the New Testament, but for the most part, there are few parts showing that Ehrman’s views hold sway more than Metzger’s. But it does not reflect his views in Misquoting Jesus.
Greg: How does he stack up to the cross section of New Testament scholars in this particular field? How does he match up with other scholars in his same field with regard to these opinions?
Michael Kruger: It’s a little bit of a mixed bag. Historically, textual criticism has been much more in general about the recovery of the text. No one is naïve enough to think that we could recover every textual variant down to the minutest detail. Everyone knows there is some challenge there. As a whole, people have been fairly confident in the recovery of the text. The perfect example of this is Kurt and Barbra Aland in Germany who have been heading the Institute for New Testament Text there for years.
They had a fairly, what you might call, conservative view of the text. Yes, there are some challenges, but for the most part we think the original has been preserved. You’ve got that on one side, and then you’ve got Ehrman now apparently on the other. The field is rather split. There are still a number of folks that are sort of with Kurt and Barbara Aland. Then there are a number of folks, including David Parker, who sound a lot more like Bart Ehrman these days. It’s a bit of a mixed bag. In the past, it was almost always on the Metzger side of things.
Greg: I remember.
Michael Kruger: The more hyper-skeptical stages of textual criticism has been really in the last twenty years.
Greg: I have given talks on this for a long, long time. I would give talks in defense of the text, the reliability of the text, the transmission of the text. I’d close by saying, “By the way, this isn’t even discussed anymore amongst scholars. It’s pretty much a done deal. They are on to other things.” Until Bart Ehrman shows up on the scene and then stirs the pot again. This has stimulated all kinds of additional responses that may not have been necessary in the past.
These are the same kinds of principles of recovering ancient text that we use to recover any text of antiquity. It isn’t something that is theologically fretted. It’s an academic exercise. It’s just a lot of mechanics of textual criticism to try to recover the original, regardless of whether the original is a biblical text or whether it’s some kind of classical work of antiquity, or even Shakespeare for that matter.
Michael Kruger: Yeah, all kinds of historical text we do textual criticism for, not just the Bible. A lot of people don’t realize that. It’s a standard practice for any historian when you have multiple manuscripts that disagree. It’s pretty standard fair. In the New Testament, I think what you said is generally the case, which is that, for a long time, New Testament textual critics figured it was pretty much a done deal. Not that you never had any sort of residual issues, but that as a whole, there was general agreement about what the text was. But that has changed in the last twenty years.
Greg: Bart Ehrman says that there is something like four hundred thousand variants in the New Testament of three hundred thousand words. It almost sounds like you can’t trust anything. The vast majority of those are spelling mistakes. How would you define a variant for the purpose of counting?
Michael Kruger: What you have when you start talking about variants is, simply put, the disagreement amongst copies of the text you are looking at. Let’s imagine for example you have two copies of the Gospel of Mark, and in one particular verse, you notice that one copy has one word and another copy has a different word in that very spot. That’s what we would call a textual variant. There are other ways to get a variance. For example, word order changes can be considered a variant. Certain names that were used can be variants. Spelling changes can be variants.
Any difference in the text of any kind for the most part, except for punctuation, really would count as a textual variant. Ehrman suggests somewhere between two hundred thousand and four hundred thousand of textual variants. I actually don’t disagree with that. I don’t think there is any way to know how many variants there are, but even if Bart would be right, that’s not the whole story. There is more to it than that.
Greg: Yeah, it’s the nature of the variation that let’s us know whether we are going to have trouble recovering the original text. How do you get more variants than you have words in the New Testament? Because variants are counted multiple times because we have multiple manuscripts that have these variants in them.
Michael Kruger: Yeah, you are going to have a verse with a certain number of words in it. But if you have so many different copies of that same verse, your potential for variants is endless. This is one of the things that Ehrman doesn’t explain. It isn’t just the nature of them all. Although that’s very important, the vast majority of variants are going to be things like misspelling mistakes and other inconsequential changes. The larger part of the story is how we know about these variants, in other words, why are there so many?
The answer is because they are so many copies available to us. The more copies you get, the more potential there is for a scribe to goof up. You can do it a bunch of ways. You can misspell different words, you can add different words, change things, leave things out. In any given sentence, you can have many more potential variants than there are words in the sentence. That’s not hard to come up with. One reason you know about them, again, is they are so many copies of early New Testament manuscripts.
Greg: Thanks for that clarification. Now let’s talk about transmission. That speaks of the gap of time between the events in question. In this case, the Passion of Jesus, which in the Gospel of John is one third of the book. We know what John thinks is important. The events of the Passion and the time when they were recorded down is the issue of transmission. Sometimes when Christians read an article like this by Bart Ehrman they read through it and get the sweats, like, “Oh my gosh.” They are all shaken up. I understand that, but what I would encourage them to do is just to go step by step and look at the specific claims that are made, and then deal with the claims one by one.
I thought maybe we’d do that with the article. The first question he raises is, he talks about these stories of Jesus’ last days, triumphal entry, cleansing of the Temple, last supper, betrayal of Judas, arrest trial, Pontius Pilate, crucifixion. He says, “For Christians they have always been theologically true. Does it really matter though if these memories of events from two thousand years ago are historically accurate?” He closes his article by answering his question at the beginning, No, it doesn’t really matter because, what matters is the meaning they give to the life of the religious community. That’s the first thing, does it matter whether these events happened or not? Does it matter to us as Christians? Can they just be theologically true without being historically true?
Michael Kruger: Yeah, for Christians the answer, historically and biblically is that it does very much matter whether it happened. What Ehrman is feeding his audience in the article is a very particular historical view of the way religion works. You might call it postmodern or an existential view of religion, which is religion is just defined as some sort of personal, internal experience you have. It’s not rooted to anything outside yourself. It’s rooted within your own internal experiences. If something gives you that experience, then great. It doesn’t matter if the thing that gives it to you is true of false, or right or wrong. All that matters is the experience itself. Most people in the world have that view of religion.
Religion is this private, internal, personal affair. In fact, that’s why in our culture today, we see everyone sort of misunderstanding Christians. Like why do you guys get so upset about things, can’t you just keep your religion private? They don’t understand it. We don’t have a view of religion that way. That’s the way Bart Ehrman is trying to convince his audience, “Look, you can still be encouraged by these stories even though they never happened.” That’s an existential approach to religion. The problem, of course, is that it’s a very non-Christian approach to religion. Biblically and historically, Christians have never held that idea of what religion means. For Christians religion actually doesn’t even really mean what most people think it means.
What Christians are talking about is the way God has intervened in history, in time and space. The acts of God and the person of Jesus Christ, did those acts take place and what significance do they have for us? It really does matter for a Christian whether they took place. It’s not just about an experience. It’s about objective, factual reality that’s been changed by the work of Christ. If Christ didn’t really live and didn’t really do those things, then our salvation is just a myth.
Greg: I think of Paul’s own comment in 1st Corinthians 15, which when I first read it was stunning to me. This is one reason I try to repeat it as much as possible because it shows how strongly the biblical writers felt about this question. What Paul said is essentially if Jesus has not been risen from the grave, if we believe in the resurrection counter to fact, then we are of most people to be pitied. People should feel sorry for us rather than saying, You have your theologically true doctrine that is meaningful for you but it has no relationship to history. Paul didn’t seem to think that was the case.
Michael Kruger: That’s right. That’s an example and a very good one of what I mean when I say that the Bible itself doesn’t support that view of religion. There are other texts too, the way the biblical writers referred to the acts, when they referred to the floods, when they referred to creation, and then referred to other acts of God in the nation of Israel. These are all deemed to be not existential experiences; these are designed to be historical facts.
Greg: They are not mythological themes that speak to us about something greater, but they tell what actually took place. Adam and Eve would be another example of that, also under attack even from within Christianity nowadays. Anyway, just as a point of information, the book I mentioned that I’m working on right now for Zondervan, almost done is titled The Story of Reality.
Michael Kruger: Very good.
Greg: The subtitle is, How the World Began, How it Ends, and Everything Important that Happened in Between.
Michael Kruger: You have a long subtitle, too.
Greg: We disagree with Ehrman—it does matter. It doesn’t matter to Bart Ehrman and a whole bunch of other people, but it matters to us and it’s our story, is kind of my point. Maybe Bart Ehrman doesn’t think these things have to be true because he doesn’t believe they are true and so it doesn’t matter to him. But this is our story and, if it doesn’t speak of reality, what really happened, then it means nothing to us, nothing whatsoever. That’s our call not his call. I guess is what I’m saying.
Michael Kruger: In other words, he can’t just recast Christianity in his own mold. Christianity is what it is, and it’s historically been a religion about history.
Greg: Right. Next paragraph he says, for over a century, biblical scholars have been obsessed with this question about the historical accuracy. Widely challenged today is the age old view that the Gospels are accurate reports written by the disciples Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, or companions of the apostles Mark and Luke the travelling companion of Paul. Two other claims here, one of them is the age old conservative view that the Gospels were accurate reports is now being widely challenged today.
I actually thought it was just the opposite in terms of the quest for the historical Jesus. The late 19th century and much of the 20th century is dominated by people who were looking for the Jesus behind the story. Liberal scholarship by and large saw these as not historical accounts, but rather embellishments over the years of a Jesus who had grown more deified over time. The core was this itinerate preacher of some sort that had religious bromides and euphemisms that he spotted.
The last fifty years, my understanding, has been things have taken quite a turn with a deeper understanding of first century Judaism. The Dead Sea Scrolls indirectly given us history about that time that the scholars in general have a much higher feel for the historical veracity of the New Testament document than they used to. Is that your take?
Michael Kruger: Yeah, there is no truth the Gospels are widely challenged today. One of the things that’s unclear based on Ehrman’s comments is he doesn’t really tell you about the history of Gospel criticism. As you’ve noted, the challenge to the reliability of the Gospels and maybe even more particular the authorship of the Gospels is not a new challenge, it’s an old challenge. You could argue in addition to that, as you just did, that there are new developments that suggest that we have various reasons to think that the authors attached to these Gospels are the ones who really wrote them. I think what Ehrman is probably trying to say there, and he did it a little clumsily I think, is that there is a consensus in modern scholarship, at least he thinks there is, that the Gospels were not written by the people whose names are attached. Of course, anytime you coin a consensus, that’s a tricky term because what Ehrman really means is the scholars he want to count agree with him.
Michael Kruger: To put another way, all the scholars that agree with me form a consensus around this view. He doesn’t bother to mention the fact that there are many, many scholars in the evangelical world who profoundly disagree, but apparently they don’t count. That type of sleight of hand is a really unfortunate misleading of the readers. They tend to say, Then everyone agrees on this.
Greg: Not too long ago, William Lane Craig and, I think, Garry Habermas made statements to this effect regarding the resurrection. That on the main now, scholarships across New Testament scholarship, Jesus history scholarship, on the main acknowledge particular facts regarding the resurrection, like that Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross, that He was buried in a tomb, the tomb was empty, and the disciples had experiences they thought was the risen Christ, which gave rise to the early church. This is kind of the bare historical facts approached to arguing in favor of the resurrection. This characterization is that there are fairly commonly held details that are historically reliable from the text, regardless of one’s kind of individual theological commitments.
Michael Kruger: I would generally agree with that. There are going to be exceptions of course, again, it’s very hard to characterize modern scholarship because it’s such a diverse community. Whenever you say most agree or many agree or there is a consensus, it’s really tricky, but I think of the list of events you gave, certainly there are many modern scholars who’d be perfectly comfortable with that list. Even those who deny the resurrection would acknowledge the empty tomb, the early Christian beliefs in the resurrection, and the conviction that Jesus has risen from the dead as widely among early Christians.
Greg: Or that the disciples had an experience that they believed was Christ.
Michael Kruger: Sure.
Greg: Now, how you best explain that is where people go in different directions, but those are core facts. It does seem that in this first claim that nowadays things are being challenged that were just accepted in that past. That just isn’t a fair assessment. Maybe what he is challenging here it is a little unclear, but his claim is the accuracy of the reports. I’m not sure how, in your mind, how critical is the classical authorship Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to our case?
Michael Kruger: It depends on which case we are making. We are claiming that the contents of the Gospels are reliable. Certainly it has helped our case tremendously to be able to argue that we know who the authors were and they would have had access to this information in a reliable way. In fact, Ehrman banked his case, if the readers out there end up getting his books. The one that just came out...
Greg: Jesus Before the Gospels?
Michael Kruger: Yes, Jesus Before the Gospels, which I’m in the middle of writing a review on right now. If people end up getting that book what they’ll realize is that, this is the critical question for Ehrman. He wants to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the Gospels were not written by these men. That’s his main claim. Therefore, they must have gotten their material from somewhere else and could they have ever gotten reliable material from someone else, somewhere else? The answer is no, overtime the story would have changed so much that by the time they wrote the Gospels that they can be trusted.
Greg: This brings me to the next point that he makes. That is, the reasons why he doubts the classical authorship is that these Gospels are written by unusually well-educated authors from outside of Palestine, I’m quoting him now, “who composed their works in relatively high level Greek. Jesus’ own followers were illiterate, Aramaic speaking persons from rural Galilee.” There is a lot going on here, just because you are Aramaic speaking persons from rural Galilee doesn’t mean you were illiterate, but it’s all thrown in there. How would you respond to that picture that he is showing?
Michael Kruger: There are multiple layers of this. Let me just try to break it down. First is the question of literacy and writing in the ancient world. Generally speaking, Ehrman is right about this. Literacy rates were extraordinarily low in the ancient world, probably around 10% of the whole, but it could vary depending on the region. Let’s just imagine for the moment that we grant him that the disciples couldn’t read or write. I think there is reason to doubt that, especially when it comes to Matthew because he was a tax collector and may have had some level of education. Jesus read from the scrolls in the synagogue, but despite that He doesn’t seem to have any special education. Yet He obviously had learned to read. We just don’t know the literacy facts.
Greg: Luke is a physician. That doesn’t mean medical school like we think of it, but it seems to be somebody who...
Michael Kruger: Luke would be particularly well educated, you can tell. What you have is, the fact that even though literacy rates are probably low, we just don’t know enough to be certain that they didn’t have the ability to read or write. Let’s just grant it for the sake of argument. The fact is, even if you couldn’t read or write, this doesn’t mean that you can’t speak multiple languages. In the ancient world, particularly in Palestine, a multilingual environment was quite normal. It won’t be unusual at all to find someone who could speak both Aramaic and Greek, and speak it rather well. If that was the case, when you wrote a book, you didn’t have to necessarily have to hold the pen. It was common again the in ancient world for people to use scribes or secretaries to write down the words. They could speak the words and have someone write down the words.
Greg: That means also...
Michael Kruger: There are all kinds of mix of options here that get us beyond this sort of overly basic claims that these guys were illiterate peasants. That is just sort of a misleading way of framing it.
Greg: It also trades on the fact that we are Americans, and Americans are, I don’t want to say illiterate peasants, but we tend not to be multilingual. There is this joke I heard, a person who speaks three languages is called trilingual, two languages is bilingual, one language is American. We are not good at languages.
Michael Kruger: We think it’s impossible for people to do that, particularly in the ancient world. That’s right, we would see it as a challenge.
Greg: Four or five languages, they can’t read it or write it, but they can speak it because they have exposure to it in their multicultural envirionment.
Michael Kruger: This is another flaw on Ehrman’s argument that we haven’t really gotten to yet. Ehrman makes a mistake that early Christianity was what we would call an oral culture. I think he is profoundly mistaken about this. There is no doubt that early Christians transmitted stories of Jesus orally. That’s not the same thing as saying that’s an oral culture. You can actually have a textual culture, and by that I mean a culture that’s concerned about the text of the document or the text of a book and basing their life on the text of a book and be completely illiterate. Scholars are showing that being illiterate, and not being able to read or write, doesn’t mean you live in an oral culture. This means that you may not be able to read or write, but you could still be very textually oriented and have access to that text in numerous other ways, public readings, and so on.
You’ll find that in his book, Jesus Before the Gospels, the assumption running throughout is that early Christianity was an oral culture. I profoundly disagree with that. I’ve actually covered this in my book, The Question of Canon. I devoted a whole chapter to the illiteracy or orality and textuality of early Christianity.
Greg: What Ehrman wants to argue is that the New Testament culture was an oral culture, which means things are just passed on orally and there are all kinds of problems as he cites in his article with oral transmission and memory.
Michael Kruger: Mmm-hmm (affirmative).
Greg: You are pushing back at that by saying, it was a textual culture not an oral culture, even though it may be the case that 90% of the people were illiterate. Not able to read or write.
Michael Kruger: That’s right.
Greg: It makes me think of when this book, you’re probably familiar with, How the Irish Saved Civilization and how, when European culture was kind of disintegrating, how the Irish in the monasteries kept all the texts and all the learning alive so that even though the people, and this is probably true in other ways too during that time. Even though the people were illiterate, still all the knowledge was preserved in written form, but those who kept watch over the libraries could eventually teach from that textual material that represented the core of the learning of classical western civilization. It strikes me, maybe there is a parallel here.
Michael Kruger: Yeah, I think there are to some extent, some parallels. I think what people misunderstand about early Christianity when they are told it’s an oral culture is they get this impression that no one cared about texts, no one cared about books, and no one cared about how you worded things. They get this impression that an oral culture is happy to sort of just tell stories and that they are happy to even change the stories, and no one is concerned about the preservation in a tight way of the story. The problem with that, though, is historically it hasn’t borne itself out, particularly in first century Judaism. You can’t use literacy as the sole determiner of whether a culture is textually oriented or orally oriented. It just doesn’t work that way.
You can have low literacy rates and still have a textually-oriented culture, particularly when you are looking at first century Judaism, and they are very textually oriented on the Old Testament, that was recited to them and they would memorize it. There is a sense in which they would have been a culture already used to books, already used to the way the book is read and worded. They would have had a high priority on the authority of text as a result of their high view of the Old Testament.
When you add all that in, then suddenly things change when you think about the way things were transmitted for early Christians. It wasn’t this oral free-for-all. No, you have a culture already understanding the value of text. Even though they couldn’t read them, they still understood the value of them and that makes a big difference when you understand how things are transmitted.
Greg: What he says here is that the stories were passed by word of mouth, not just for days or months, but for years and decades. Maybe we’ll come back to that in a minute because he wants to, I think, excessively late date the written Gospels.
Michael Kruger: That’s right.
Greg: He says, does a person who hears a story remember it accurately down to its minute details and retell it exactly in the same way? There seems to be a little bit of a strawman going on there because our view of the Gospel isn’t that its Memorex, that somebody was recording the precise words of Jesus all the time. In fact, Jesus probably gave the same sermon many times to different groups and said it in different ways, and what we have is accurate rendering of His ideas in these sermons even if we don’t have precisely the same words. Indeed, like now we have parallel accounts in different Gospels that don’t have exactly the same words.
Michael Kruger: That’s right.
Greg: I don’t see how that’s a problem.
Michael Kruger: He listed another example, I think, of where Ehrman tried to approach inspiration almost like from a fundamentalist perspective.
Michael Kruger: To some effect it’s dictation theory of inspiration, whereas historically people who believe in inspiration have never insisted that we have the exact words Jesus said. A lot of times we have summaries of them or paraphrases of them or rewordings of them. We have them condensed. This is a common way you did history in the ancient world. It’s told and the fact that someone told the story of Jesus and rewords it in their wording isn’t a problem. The question is, does it accurately represent what Jesus said? Of course, the Christian contention is yes, it has exactly represented what Jesus said. It doesn’t matter if they changed the wording in a way that makes it more understandable to the audience because it represents accurately what He taught.
Greg: To go back to our own doctrine of inspiration, inspiration goes to the words of the text so that whatever summarization was made by the authors, it is the summarization itself that we claim as the inspired thing.
Michael Kruger: That’s exactly right. We believe that the Holy Spirit presided over the process of summarization when the authors wrote. The other fact is that, if Jesus spoke in Aramaic, which He probably did, and the Gospels are written in Greek, then of course we don’t have the exact words. We don’t have them in Aramaic. You already are dealing with a translation of Jesus’ words. When people say, I’ve got to have the exact words I always say, “What do you mean by that?” Because if I know what you are getting at and you want to have an accurate sense of what Jesus taught, then I 100% agree with that. But when you say, “I want to have the exact words,” now you are asking for something that we don’t have access to because we don’t have Aramaic content, only Greek.
Greg: Let me ask you this then, what is it, if you were to characterize your best understanding of the process in the early years of how the account of Jesus’ life got recorded, and what Ehrman is speaking of specifically, of say the details of passion week. How do you think that took place? I understand, it’s kind of hard to reconstruct with any certainty, but he tries to reconstruct it in a way that is meant to create a tremendous amount of doubt of any reliability of the details. At least people told stories over and over for many, many years, and then somebody wrote them down. Then what they wrote down was what they remembered and then the writing got changed. That is Misquoting Jesus stuff. How would you best explain how this got passed down?
Michael Kruger: The first thing I would tell people is that, look, it doesn’t work like the telephone game you played when you were kids. Where you whisper into someone’s ear and then they whisper in another person’s ear, and it goes around in a circle, and it comes out entirely different.
Greg: I actually don’t think kids play that game anymore but I know it, I played it when I was a kid. I don’t know if you did yourself, Mike.
Michael Kruger: Sure, we all know that game, it is a funny game and the reason is because it’s set up for you to change the story. You can only say it once, you can’t repeat it back to the person telling you, and so on. In the early church, no doubt, the earliest stories of Jesus were transmitted orally. I’m going to come back to that in a moment. They were transmitted orally, no one denies that. The question isn’t whether they were, the question is how they were? You have the eye witnesses of Jesus’ life, the people who’ve been with Him, learned His stories, and memorized His teaching, and were authoritative teachers, if you will, of the story and they had disciples themselves whom they taught.
Those are the reliable sources that people would go back to again and again to make sure they get the story right. In other words, no one doubts the fact there were false stories of Jesus circulating. Of course there were. There were probably people that made up stories in the earliest stages. The question wasn’t whether that happened, the question is, when it came the time for the church to bank on the stories and ask, “Which ones could be trusted?” To whom did they turn?
We have a lot of reasons to think they would have turned to the eye witnesses who established the truth of what Jesus said. In conjunction with that, I would add the fact that we have reasons to think the stories were probably written down very, very early. I can’t rehearse the historical evidence for early notebooks and note taking in the ancient world, and even if the disciples were illiterate, they could have had scribes do this sort of thing. We have reasons to think that not only would they transmit it orally, but also have written in parallel with one another. This is another mistake I think Ehrman makes in his book. He says that the most oral traditions date to 70A.D. and I think that’s a misunderstanding of the way it took place.
Greg: As far as the dating of when we have reliable Gospels, he starts at 70 A.D. I’ve just seen a host of arguments that give us reason to believe that the Gospels themselves are written down much earlier. Look, in 64 A.D. you have the book of Acts ending, because here is Paul, he is still alive. He dies mid the 60s sometime. He’s still alive in his first imprisonment, they are in Rome. The story in Acts ends abruptly. It looks like he ends abruptly because there is nothing more for Luke to write at the time, he is at the end. He is at the present moment when he ends it.
Michael Kruger: That’s right, I think Acts is certainly early 60s which puts Luke late 50s which will theoretically put Mark early 50s. If you were to assume what scholars assume about the use of acute documents, which has its own bunch of complexity that I won’t get into here, but even if you were to grant it, now you are looking at something like Matthew into the 40s. Certainly the gap of time that he’s described is quickly disappearing.
Greg: These are people that when you, given the nature of the material and what price they were willing to pay to protect it, that it seems it’s reasonable to expect they are going to be very, very careful about how that information is transmitted and kept and guarded.
Michael Kruger: That’s right. We would believe the eye witnesses, the disciples and even other eye witnesses that weren’t disciples who would have worked very hard to make sure that the stories of Jesus were accurately maintained. That doesn’t mean they could have prevented false stories from circulating, no one thinks that. Of course you can’t prevent that entirely. You can be in one sense a trident of the correct stories, which means that you are the source that people would look to for making sure they get the stories right. That would have been a big part of preserving that accurately.
We believe, of course, that the eye witness testimony that was preserved over that period of time was eventually deposited in a written form in the Gospels. We believe that the stream of tradition of Jesus that was reliable ended up in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There were other streams less reliable but they didn’t end up in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They ended up in the gospel of Thomas, or the gospel of Peter, and things like that.
Greg: That brings up my last point. I’m thinking, Mike, the core historical material that a lot of people agree on that we mentioned earlier from which one can properly infer the resurrection of Christ as the best explanation for the empty tomb. The appearances or what the Apostles took to be appearances to them. These aren’t hallucinations. None of those other explanations seem to work. The best explanation for the way things came down was that Jesus actually did rise from the dead.
Now, if we can infer that from these basic historical details, forget about all the other details that Bart Ehrman may raise questions about. If we can infer that from the very core historical details, then that means that Christ did in fact rise from the dead, as Paul says earlier in Romans and in Galatians, both early books. You have a high Christology right out of the gate, but you also have a Jesus who is the resurrected Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God. It seems to me, in light of what Jesus told the disciples in the upper room about how they are going to have the Spirit and they are going to be able to draw from their memories all the things they told him. That adds a supernatural element that is a huge player in the preserving of the original text.
Michael Kruger: I think you’re right, there is sort of an apologetic strategy which is look, if you get tired of getting tangled up in the Bart Ehrman’s discussions about the reliability of all the details of the Gospels, all you’ve got to do is go back to the place like 1 Corinthians 15 and realize the evidence of the resurrection predates that and is quite reliable. And if Jesus rose from the dead, then everything else follows from that.
Greg: That’s right.
Michael Kruger: I think that’s a good argument to make. I think you can help people see that, Look, let’s just focus on the resurrection here. Plausible.
Greg: Thanks, Mike, once again for giving us your expertise on this. Dr. Michael Kruger, author of the Question of Canon and The Heresy of Orthodoxy, both I recommend. Why don’t you give us the title of your new book you are working on since the subtitle of it is really long?
Michael Kruger: The book I’m working on now is called Christianity in the Second Century. Thankfully at this point it has no subtitle, but I’m exploring Christianity during the second century and I cover a lot of material we discussed here.
Greg: Thank you so much, Mike, for your time. I really appreciate it. We’ll talk again.
Michael Kruger: Thanks, Greg, great to be with you.