Yesterday on the DL I played a portion of Bart Ehrman’s comments in a “debate” that took place at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary on April 1, 2010. He was debating NT scholar Craig Evans. From the introductions, folks came from all over to hear this encounter, even from the UK. As I rode along one of my familiar routes in the gorgeous Arizona Spring weather (heavy headwind on the way out, almost fell asleep at 22 mph on the way back), my mood soured considerably, for numerous reasons.
Jim Elliff was right, Bart Ehrman dominated this encounter. But it wasn’t because of the depth of his arguments. Not by a long shot. His arguments remain just as surface-level as they have ever been, fully refutable if his opponents would simply have the temerity, or the time, to do so. But that’s the problem. This “debate” was doomed from the moment Craig Evans agreed to the single worst format I have ever seen for a debate in an academic setting.
When I downloaded the audio file I was more than a little surprised to see that it was less than ninety minutes long. Ninety minutes? Why fly anywhere, let alone across the Atlantic (as some evidently did) for a ninety minute encounter? What can meaningfully be accomplished in a time frame like that? So the brevity of the encounter robbed it of any chance of usefulness right at that start.
But, it was far worse than that. This wasn’t a debate. There was no interaction, no cross-examination, no rebuttal. I have no idea who came up with this format, but please, please, never, ever, ever suggest it again. Whoever came up with it could not possibly be a debater himself. Seven questions, each asked to Ehrman and Evans, with a short time span to respond (I didn’t time it, but it seemed like 5 to 7 minutes or so—I could be wrong, as I was listening to it at increased speed). That’s it. No interaction, hence, no debate.
You could not have designed a better format for Ehrman, or a worse one for Evans. I have never heard Bart more riled up. I thought he was pretty excited in our debate, but that was nothing compared to this. He was on rapid-fire preaching mode to an extent I have never heard before. Sure, it’s the same old stuff, and it is getting quite exasperating to hear Ehrman repeat it over and over again, never once even acknowledging the devastating rebuttals that have been offered to each of his points (even claiming he has never heard a good response to some of them). He even repeated the slander of Dan Wallace and the folks at CSNTM that he enunciated in our debate in Florida, saying that it is a “waste” of hundreds of thousands of dollars to photograph and catalog manuscripts if we don’t believe the variants matter. (Ehrman has been corrected on this repeatedly: it is simple dishonesty on his part to keep repeating it). But it truly seemed to me that Ehrman has become louder and louder, more and more shrill, as he has moved deeper and deeper into his role as “leading anti-Christian apostate author.” He was not nearly as careful with his language as he was with me, which leads me to think he is becoming ever more bold in his anti-Christian denunciations (a trend reflected in his published books as well).
Both men had been provided the questions ahead of time, clearly. Evans read his responses. Ehrman did not. Ehrman flew through his standard repertoire knowing full well that any meaningful rebuttal of even 1/4 of his texts would exhaust Evans’ time. But he didn’t even have to worry about that, since Evans wasn’t given any time to rebut anyway! The absurdity of the format boggles the mind. It gave Ehrman exactly what he wanted, and left Evans sounding hesitant and uncertain. Part of this was due to the nature of the speakers, but part of it was also due to Ehrman being right about an important point: Evans was, in fact, using very careful language, and the two were speaking past each other at that point. Ehrman was directing his blasts directly to the believing Christian in the pew; Evans was using “scholar speak.” Ehrman was making the wild accusation that if there is any question at all about anything in the Bible, either as to the original writings themselves (whether the Gospels contain expansions, traditions, anything beyond strict Western style journalism) or the transmission of the text (his wildly untenable theory that if God inspired it, God would make everyone who ever copied it infallible, hence, no textual variations), then you cannot trust any of the Bible at all. Evans was talking about “general reliability” and the “core of Jesus’ teachings.” Ehrman directly challenged him to speak plainly: does he believe in a perfect Bible, or a generally reliable Bible (as the two are not the same, especially in the mind of the audience Ehrman was aiming at). Evans failed to give a compelling reply, and Ehrman took advantage of it.
So having heard the encounter for myself, I can see why Jim Elliff found it so problematic. Possibly, had it been formatted in some meaningful fashion, with a limitation of scope (seven questions, each on a topic wide enough for a full debate, made it hopelessly surface level, again playing into the hands of the critic and making the job of the apologist impossible), the results could have been somewhat different. But Evans was put in an absolutely impossible position by the utterly untenable format (to which he must have agreed, so I am not completely exonerating him in the matter), a format designed for the scatter-gun approach of a critic like Bart Ehrman. While I am sure many of Ehrman’s points were addressed in the conference that followed, the real question is, how many people will hear only this debate, but never hear any of the conference that came afterward?
Lessons to be learned? For goodness sake, think about format and topic! If you do not allow for meaningful cross-examination, why bother with the pretense of a “debate” to begin with? Do not ham-string your own defender with a short format that lends itself completely to the authoritarian argumentation of a Bart Ehrman (who truly believes his own press when it comes to these topics). And keep in mind that many modern evangelical scholars do not hold to as high a view of Scripture as the folks in the pews, and hence will seem to be “dodging” if they are not open about this from the start. Better yet, have folks debate Bart Ehrman who can go toe-to-toe with him on these points and give them the chance to interact and rebut! Of course, those folks are few and far between, mainly because of the implied belief amongst scholastics that they should be above getting “down and dirty” in the details. Ehrman has completely abandoned that concept, obviously, and hence it takes someone willing to step outside of the genteel “box” of the academy to respond to him. If these basic guidelines are not followed, you are paying good money to drop an anti-Christian weapon of mass deception right in the center of your own campus!