Thursday, April 2, 2009

Ehrman vs. Licona in Matthews, NC

Bart Ehrman and Mike Licona, both prominent Biblical scholars and historians, debated the resurrection of Jesus at Southern Evangelical Seminary in North Carolina (video, audio). As in their first debate, evangelical scholar Mike Licona has home field advantage and a very friendly crowd.

After a surprising amount of autobiography, Licona leads with three allegedly well-established facts from Biblical scholarship:

  1. Jesus was crucified and died

  2. Some disciples claimed to have seen Jesus afterward

  3. Paul also claimed to have seen Jesus afterward

He goes on to claim that the best way to explain these facts is to conclude that the gospels are reliable in their claims of a literal bodily resurrection. His argument is that if you accept the New Testament accounts on these key details, you should go on to accept the gospels at face value, no matter how mythical the accounts might seem, because there is no point in ruling anything out as inherently unlikely, however miraculous it might be. Essentially, it is as if he lifted a resurrection-shaped hole out of the gospel accounts, and went on to note how perfectly he could plug that hole by reinserting the resurrection into the accounts from whence it was lifted. Of course, he manages to make it sound a good deal more reasonable than that, by going on at some length about historical methodology.

Ehrman's opening is a fairly strong condensation of his general case against the reliability of the gospels as historical sources, in which He uses the phrase "it depends on which gospel you read" at least two dozen times in reply to various historical questions he poses. He also provides a different account of historical methodology than that given by Licona. Ehrman seems to think that ancient written accounts are never going to be strong enough evidence to demonstrate the truth of a miraculous claim, given the very low apriori probability of such claims relative to other possibilities, e.g. mythmaking, hallucinations, dreams, visions, false memories.

On rebuttal, both speakers do a fine job of addressing their opponent's case head-on, which is surprisingly rare in these kinds of debates. I found Ehrman's rebuttal more effective, but then it seems to me that he had most of the relevant facts on his side. No doubt the audience saw it in a different light.

It should be noted that a major point of difference between the speakers lies in their treatment of probability, and neither one provides a full enough account of what probability theory really does in order to dispel his opponent's intuitions about how probability works. They would do well to go back to fundamentals on this issue. Mike even seems to posit that the relevant probability is the likelihood that an event takes place given that the most powerful being in the universe wants it to happen, which I'm pretty sure is a theological premise neither covered in his original three points nor established by independent argument.

Overall, though, this debate featured strong openings and vigorous give and take between two of the top scholars in the relevant field. Definitely worth seeing.

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