Craig A. Evans debated Bart D. Ehrman a couple times earlier this year on the subject of the historicity of the Gospels. (Debate may be a strong word. It was more like an intense discussion!) People who have seen video recordings of the debates (e.g. this one) or who were present have had some follow-up questions. Evans sent me some of these questions and the responses that he has given so that I can share them here.
Q1. Does it matter that we may not know who authored the Gospels?
The Gospels were published anonymously, in that the authors did not include their names within the documents themselves (as Paul does, for example, in his letters). But when the Gospels were first written, circulated, and read, their first readers knew who wrote them. Very likely authorizing letters accompanied the Gospels when they first circulated. Our earliest sources that talk about the Gospels believe they do know who wrote them. This is where we get their names in the first place. It is only the fourth Gospel, known as the Gospel of John, where there is early confusion and uncertainty. In my opinion the traditional identifications of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are strong. Part of the argument is not only are the identifications early, they involve people who were not well known or famous, which is hardly what one expects in choosing fictitious authors. Of the three, only Matthew was an original apostle, but little is known of him. Mark and Luke were not apostles. These are not the names one would expect if the early Church simply decided to pick names out of a hat. Even though we have doubt about the fourth Gospel, chap. 20 concludes by identifying the source of the Gospel as an eyewitness. Some think John the son of Zebedee (which I think is doubtful), others think another person named John (which is possible), and still others wonder if it could be Lazarus (which is also possible; he could well have been the “beloved disciple”). In any case, the early Church knew who the authors of the Gospels were and knew they could trust. We today do not possess certain knowledge, but the quality of the contents of the Gospels (especially when compared to the second-century Gospels left out of the Bible) strongly suggests that the early Church was right.
Q2. In the debate(s) with Ehrman it seemed like you were arguing that the Gospel was not historical and that quotations of Jesus can’t be traced back to Jesus at all. If so, can we speak of the Gospels as trustworthy?
No, I did not and do not argue that the Gospels are not historical. What I argue and what comparison of Gospel parallels clearly shows is that the contents of the Gospels have been edited, from the time Jesus spoke and acted, to the time what he said and did was collected and written down. I warn against thinking of the Gospels as video tape. This means that sometimes the words of Jesus are summarized and selective, not always word-for-word (though sometimes it is word-for-word). Most scholars know this and have high regard for the historical value of the Gospels. Some very conservative, very naïve folk do not know this and are troubled when they are told that the Gospels do not present the story of Jesus in a way that approximates video-taping. History in late antiquity (in the time of Jesus) simply was not written that way.
Q3. If there are countless contradictions in the Gospels how can we trust them?
There are not countless contradictions, but there are several. Most contradictions are quite minor, involving no more than a choice of words. But some of them are far more significant and relate to what I said above, that is, to the way the stories and sayings of Jesus are edited and summarized. The question should always be: Does the edited version truthfully convey the teaching and activities of Jesus? Even if the edited version is not word-for-word? After studying the Gospels for more than 35 years, I believe the answer is “Yes, the Gospels do truthfully tell the story of Jesus and they do truthfully relate his teaching.”
Q4. According to Ehrman it is pretty well accepted that the authors of the Gospels were not eyewitnesses or disciples of Jesus. What do you make of this?
That’s Bart’s opinion, which a number of scholars agree with. I and many other scholars (see especially N.T. Wright and Richard Bauckham) believe that the New Testament Gospels rely on eyewitness testimony. Indeed, that is what our earliest source (Papias) says. Paul the apostle was acquainted with some of the original apostles of Jesus (e.g., Peter and John). (And Bart Ehrman does not dispute this.) In many places in his letters Paul alludes to the teaching of Jesus (including his words at the Last Supper). These allusions agree with the Gospels. In my view this shows that the Gospels are indeed dependent on eyewitness testimony.
Q5. In the debate(s) you seem to argue that we may know a lot about Jesus from the Gospels but not everything. Doesn’t this contradict the claim of some that the Bible is the inerrant word of God?
Not at all. The Gospels tell us that we need to know about Jesus’ teaching and activities. They certainly do not tell us everything that Jesus said or did (look at the end of John’s Gospel; it says this very thing). Inspiration guarantees that Scripture is sufficient for faith and living; not for omniscience.
Q6. What evidence do we have to support the trustworthy authorship, historical accuracy, and divine inspiration of the Gospels?
This answer could be very long, because there is a great deal of evidence that shows the Gospels are accurate and, therefore, that their authors were indeed trustworthy. What impresses me is that everywhere we can actually test the Gospels by comparing them to external sources (for example, archaeology and external written sources) we find that the Gospels are accurate histories, not mythological fictions. They speak of real people, real places, real customs, and real events. Archaeology has confirmed many things; other ancient writings have confirmed many things. This would not be the case, if the Gospels were unreliable and fictitious (like the second-century Gnostic Gospels). I urge you to read my new book,Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence (Westminster John Knox Press, 2012). It is easy to read, has about 40 pictures, mostly relating to archaeology, and is not every long. I think it will help you a lot.