Bart Ehrman begins his book “Misquoting Jesus” by misleading readers about the information we have concerning the New Testament. He begins by building an implicit case against the Gospels and Paul’s letters by (1) stretching the dates between Paul’s writings, Jesus’ crucifixion, and those of the Gospel writers; (2) suggesting there were “many” Gospels written in addition to those attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and (3) claiming we only have a “fraction” of the letters written by early church members or Paul. This article will demonstrate why these three misleading assertions should be considered dubious as they’re lacking necessary information.
Was Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians written “some twenty years” before the Gospels and “some twenty years” after Jesus’ crucifixion?
On page 22, Ehrman claims that Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians was written “some twenty years after Jesus’ death” and “some twenty years before any of the Gospel accounts of his life” in “49.” It appears Ehrman is intentionally stretching the dating.
We have substantial historical and geological evidence indicating Jesus’ crucifixion occurred sixteen years prior – on April 3, 33. Please click here for further details: https://christian-apologist.com/2019/01/05/geological-and-historical-evidence-for-jesus-crucifixion-account/
The book of Daniel also supports the date in 33: https://christian-apologist.com/2018/11/18/did-daniel-the-prophet-accurately-predict-the-timing-of-jesus-death/
We have further evidence that Paul referenced the Gospels in his letters, which dates them prior to 69 since Paul was beheaded by Nero in either 62 or 64. In 1 Timothy 18, Paul writes “For Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain’ (cf., 18 Deuteronomy 25:4) and ‘The worker deserves his wages.’” (cf., Luke 10:7). Paul also says in 2 Timothy 3:14-16 “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
Additionally, the book of Acts documents the martyrdom of Stephen and James, yet excludes the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, though both apostles were discussed extensively throughout the book and both were martyred in the early 60s. None of the New Testament books discuss the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the second Jewish Temple, which was a monumental historical event in 70. Accordingly, making an assumption of earlier dating is reasonable.
In summary, Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians was not “some twenty years” after the crucifixion and was likely not “some twenty years” before any of the Gospels were written. While we cannot be certain of the dating of the Gospels, we have some evidence to suggest earlier dating than Ehrman suggests.
Were many Gospels written – and only Matthew, Mark, Luke and John “widely used?”
On page 24, Ehrman makes the claim that “many others” were written, citing Luke 1:1 and his reference to “many” “predecessors.” His examples of many others on page 24 are three Gnostic gospels: Philip, Judas Thomas, and Mary Magdalene.
It is important to note the dating of the three Gnostic gospels that are cited by Ehrman, a point he curiously excluded: Philip was written in the third century, Judas Thomas was written in the second century, and Mary Magdalene was written in the late second century. He does acknowledge that these three were not the earliest written, but he does not list those in his sample. The Gospel of (Didymos Judas) Thomas is arguably the most hotly contested as Jesus Seminar folks elevated it to a fifth Gospel status (c.f., McDowell & McDowell, 2017). Yet numerous scholars have determined the Gospel of Judas Thomas is a completely separate and parallel stream of the Jesus tradition. See McDowell and McDowell (2017, p. 124-139 for an extensive discussion).
One of the canonical requirements from the church for inclusion in the New Testament was the authenticity of God’s word. Such authenticity led to the preference for books with early dating so authors were either eyewitnesses or present during the lives of the eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. The apostles were considered divinely inspired prophets of God who could speak on his behalf (McDowell and McDowell, 2017). In contrast, the Gnostic gospels, most of which were dated much later, were considered heresies by early church fathers.
On page 25, Ehrman states “One such account, the Acts of the Apostles, eventually made it into the New Testament. But many other accounts were written, mainly about individual apostles, such as those found in the Acts of Paul, the Acts of Peter, and the Acts of Thomas. Other Acts have survived only in fragments or have been lost altogether.”
Note that the Acts of Paul, Acts of Peter, and Acts of Thomas were written in the second century, unlike the Acts of the Apostles, which was written by Luke in the first century. As Geisler and Nix (1986) have pointed out, books considered pseudepigrapha (e.g., the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of the Ebionites, the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Gospel of Peter, The Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Judas) or apocryphal (e.g., the “real” first Corinthians, the Apocalypse of Peter, Epistle to the Laodiceans, Ancient Homily/Second Epistle of Clement, the Gospel according to the Hebrews, and the Acts of Paul and Thecla) are not canonical. They represent the heretical teachings of the gnostic, docetic, and ascetic groups (Geisler and Nix, 1986). The apocryphal books never even enjoyed temporary status or local recognition as having canonical status (Geisler and Nix, 1986).
The first authoritative grouping of the books of the New Testament is the Muratonian Canon, which was written between 170 and 180 AD. Its fragments named Luke as the third book (thus including Matthew and Mark) and listed Acts (along with John, thirteen Pauline letters, Jude and Revelation). Acts was also referenced by Justin Martyr (~ 145 – 163) and Marcion (~ 130 – 140) prior to the Muratonian Canon.
To suggest the presence of “many” other Gospels, Ehrman notes that Luke said he “consulted ‘many’ predecessors” (p. 24). Luke 1:1-4 does indicate the presence of many others. He says “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus.”
Within this group of “many” could be the Q source. Ehrman notes that some scholars have indicated a Q source may have been used as a reference by Luke and Matthew. Scholars have also dated Matthew and Mark prior to Luke – and Luke referenced himself in the first person when he traveled with Paul (starting in Acts 16).
The existence of any other currently non-existent Gospel manuscripts does not suggest the four we use are any less valid. The fact we cannot find any evidence of Q does not lessen the value of the four Gospels we have. Yet note we do not even have a suggestion from early church fathers that we are missing any relevant Gospels that should have been included in the New Testament canon. The fact Luke stated that “many have undertaken to draw up an account” does not mean many were successful in completing their undertakings. It may mean that many started and only a few – or two – finished.
Do we only have a fraction of early church letters – and does it matter if we do?
On page 24, Ehrman claims we only have a “fraction” of early church letters, citing references to “lost” letters between Paul and people in the early churches. Note he does not cite his specific fraction, whether it be 99/100 or 1/100 or something other. The word “fraction” leads people to think the number is small… Note that he only gives us evidence of four such letters. He cites a letter to the Laodiceans (Colossians 4:16), an earlier letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 5:9), a letter the Corinthians sent to Paul (1 Corinthians 7:1) and letters his “opponents” had (2 Corinthians 3:1).
In Colossians 4:16, Paul says “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read to the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.”
1 Corinthians 5:9 says “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.”
1 Corinthians 7:1 says “Now for the matters you wrote about: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman. But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and likewise the wife to her husband.’”
2 Corinthians 3:1 says “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you?”
Based on these four passages, I would argue that the letter to Laodicea likely contained information specific to their particular way of living and the issues relevant in their churches. The two letters in 1 Corinthians discuss Christian ways of living, which are discussed throughout all of Paul’s letters. Paul further states his message in 1 Corinthians 5:9 is superior to his previous message. In the final reference, Paul does not indicate the presence of any particular “letters of recommendation.” He rather asks whether such letters are needed.
The fact we do not have those or other early letters does not discount the validity of the letters we do have. We have no evidence that any substantive letters are missing – or that early church fathers lamented particular missing letters. One can reasonably conclude no substantive information is missing.
Furthermore, a variety of events could have caused some of the early Christian writings (such as the “Q” Gospel or the letter to the Laodiceans) to be destroyed. Examples include the sporadic persecution of Christians (until Christianity was legalized in 313 by Constantine), the fall of Jerusalem in 70, and the edict of Diocletian in 303. The edict of Diocletian in 303 called for the destruction of the Christian sacred books, so Christians at that point tried to salvage as much of their sacred literature as they could, turning over less sacred materials (McDowell and McDowell, 2017). It is reasonable to assume we may have lost some of the less important sacred materials at that point.
In conclusion, the assertions Bart Ehrman made on pages 22 – 25 of “Misquoting Jesus” are misleading for readers. This blog is one of many I will write as I respond to other examples throughout his book.
Thank you for your time.
Ehrman, B. (2005). Misquoting Jesus. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.
Geisler, N.L. and Nix, W.E. (1986). A general introduction to the Bible. USA: Moody Publishers.
McDowell, J. and McDowell, S. (2017). Evidence that demands a verdict: Life-changing truth for a skeptical world. USA: HarperCollins.