Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Ehrman/Licona Debate

In my view Mike Licona did not perform well in his last debate with Bart Ehrman. I'm somewhat surprised by the poor quality of his rebuttals. From what I had heard from him in the past I expected a strong performance. But consider some of the exchanges.

Licona opens with anecdotes about the depth to which he examines things before making decisions. He spends a lot of time on this during the debate, so it's a major part of his own presentation. The implication is that his conclusions are quite trustworthy given his character.

Ehrman's first rebuttal responds to this first point from Licona. He wonders if we should really have such high confidence in Licona's ability to draw this type of conclusion. He started with Christianity, evaluated the evidence, and confirmed his conclusion. Is that just a coincidence, or in fact was Mike driving toward his desired conclusion? Ehrman on the other hand started with Christianity and upon examination came to a different conclusion. If his incentives point him to one conclusion but he draws another one this would suggest that he's reached the conclusion honestly. If anything he is more trustworthy.

In reply to this point Licona says this is a red herring. The arguments are what matter. He says he really did agonize over this decision, but it doesn't matter if people believe him or not. He says "This doesn't matter to anyone else here. It does matter to me." Well then why are you bringing it up as your very first point in the debate and spending so much time on it? We're talking about it because it is a major part of your presentation regarding why the resurrection is provable historically. To pretend that Ehrman is off track as he responds to your off-track point doesn't make sense to me.

Licona's argument is that there are 3 facts that must be explained by any adequate hypothesis. These are 1-Jesus died by crucifixion, 2-the disciples had experiences of appearances that they thought were of a resurrected Jesus, and 3-Paul likewise had experiences wherein he believed the resurrected Jesus had appeared to him. I already talked about how Licona's discussion of the plausibility of the resurrection hypothesis as compared to a hallucination hypothesis was nothing but a blatant double standard. Ehrman also pointed out that in fact 1 of the 3 facts was irrelevant to the question of resurrection and the other 2 were really saying the same thing.

Ehrman says that what matters with regards to the resurrection is that Jesus died in some manner. He doesn't need to be crucified. Everybody dies in some manner, so who cares that he was crucified? With regards to the appearances all Licona is saying is that some people had experiences where they thought they had seen a resurrected Jesus. You can divide them up and say 1-there were appearances to the disciples and 2-Paul had an appearance, but at the end of the day all we have is appearances to multiple people. So really there is one fact that needs to be explained.

In response Licona says that Ehrman is confusing necessary and sufficient conditions. For Jesus to be resurrected it is necessary that he die. But this is irrelevant and Ehrman pounced on Licona for this. There are a number of things that are necessary. Jesus would need to have existed. Jesus would need to have eaten food at some point in his life. Otherwise he wouldn't have lived to the necessary age. He would need to have lived in Palestine. So what? None of these necessary conditions really point us to resurrection, so what's the point in bringing them up? And it just is not necessary that Jesus be crucified. He just needs to die in some way. Why couldn't he have been stoned? Licona is just dead wrong here. There is only one thing that needs to be explained. Some people thought they saw Jesus after he died. Do we really need to look for miracles here? Licona's thesis is completely undermined on this point since this single fact is just not very difficult to understand naturally. Licona never recovered from this.

Keeping the above point in mind Ehrman asked a couple of questions that just were not answered in a serious way by Licona. He asks, given that Paul had never seen Jesus during his earthly ministry how was Paul able to know that it was Jesus he was seeing? He doesn't even know what Jesus looks like. And invoking a miracle is not how the historian operates. How do you know it from a historical perspective? Licona had no answer.

Ehrman offered a single fact of his own. People had appearances where they thought they had seen Moses after he had died. Does this Moses was resurrected? Licona in response talked about the nature of hallucinations generally, never bothering to answer the question.

I do have a couple of problems with Ehrman. He says that "by definition" a miracle is the least probable occurrence. I don't see how that's true. A miracle by definition is simply a supernatural suspension of the natural order. It's an intervention by God. So if the stars started moving in violation of our known laws of gravitation and they spelled out "Jesus lives, so repent of your sins" are we supposed to say that can't be divine intervention because "by definition" a miraculous explanation is ruled out? It must automatically be less plausible than any bizarre naturalistic explanation offered? I don't see that.

Also his point about Paul being wrong in saying that Jesus appeared to "the twelve" is mistaken since Judas is missing seems possibly true to me, but likewise it's possible that "the twelve" is kind of a group name that can be used when not all members are present. I don't think the point is strong enough that it's worth bringing up.

But let me review what we saw from Licona. An admission that the first point of his opening statement is irrelevant. Transparent double standards regarding plausibility. Critical errors corrected by Ehrman. Ignoring of critical questions. Dodging of others. Ehrman is pouncing on every point, letting nothing get by. Heck, even his joke delivery is way better. A solid win for Ehrman.

As usual all indications are that Licona was good enough in Jason Engwer's mind. I like the title of Jason's review of the earlier Licona/Ehrman debate. Why Bart Ehrman Keeps Losing Debates. Probably because Jason Engwer is the one doing the evaluating.


Anonymous said...

I haven't heard the debate and don't intend to but thank you for the synopsis of it.

In this debate, and others like it, it seems that these facts are asserted and not adequately backed up. If at all.

I understand the bible says these are facts but (AFAIK) there is no corroborating evidence to these facts. It is single sourced.

Should not these debates first start by establishing (or not) the reliability of the bible. Or is part of these debates an agreement between the parties that the bible is reliable?

Perhaps the one giving the counter argument thinks he/she can show even if the premise in generously given that the conclusion doesn't necessarily follow from them.

Going on a bit of a tangent. Jesus died to atone for our sin. Presumably this sin happened when metaphorical Adam and metaphorical Eve disobeyed God by having eaten from the tree of knowledge. Let me also say that Adam and Eve have free will. But to have a will means (or implies, I think) that there need to be some knowledge to begin with. So I ask what is the real sin - that God would deny humanity knowledge or that we would defy God in seeking knowledge. Actually the whole concept is silly.

I would love to read a substantive defense of original sin. Do you know of any.


Jon said...

Hey Paul,

The thing with these supposed facts is there are some biblical critics that grant them. For instance Ehrman grants that people thought they had seen Jesus after Jesus was killed. I wouldn't grant that point. It could be true, but I don't think the evidence we have justifies it. Ehrman though does think the evidence justifies it. So obviously it wouldn't be a point of debate in his case.

Ehrman's tack is obviously that even if you grant the point, how does that prove anything? He did a pretty good job I think in showing that it doesn't even matter.

As far as original sin, I'm not sure I know of a good dissection and defense of it from a Christian. When I was a Christian though I sort of appealed to the murky nature of the stories. I'd say, maybe we don't exactly know what is happening. I thought there was a real first human Adam and second human Eve, but as far as exactly what happened and what "eating the fruit" meant, if it was a matter of eating real fruit from a literal tree (it might have been) I don't really know what's going on, but at the end of the day a free Adam chose to disobey God, probably for selfish reasons, and there you go. Was it specifically that God didn't want us to have certain knowledge, as if he didn't want us to read a book? I'd appeal to the vagaries and the fact that some of it might be lost in translation. Who really knows what's going on? It would make sense if it were more clear, but it isn't, so we just accept it because we know Jesus rose from the dead, and he regarded it as true, so we will too.

Jonathon von Tischner said...

I saw your comment, and thought you might be interested in this, you're of course free to delete it or ignore it as you see fit:
Physical evidence of the Resurrection
Yeshua ha Mashiach, died on the cross for your sins as according to the Scriptures, on the 3rd day He raised again And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom are fallen asleep.After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of Paul also, as of one born out of due time. (Like when I saw Him) If you repent and trust him, you will have eternal life and reign w Him in His Kingdom.