Riverside Panel Debate about the Historical Reliability of the Bible

Alright, the recording of my panel debate in Riverside last month is now available online. Since there were some issues that arose with the video recording, I’ve decided to only upload the audio recording onto the blog. You can listen to it below:

I prepared PowerPoint slides for the debate, a few of which came up during the discussion (all of the slides, including those not brought up in the debate, can be accessed here). I was the only speaker to use PP slides during the debate, so no other material is being missed, if I include the relevant slides (with time markers) below.

At 18:55 during the recording, slide 101 was posted:

Slide 101

At 21:35 and 1:04:38, slide 113 was posted:

Slide 113

At 22:14, slide 106 was posted:

Slide 106

At 1:18:19, slide 108 was posted:

Slide 108

At 1:27:35, slide 109 was posted:

Slide 109

At 1:34:10, slide 104 was posted:

Slide 104

At 1:39:15, slide 118 was posted:

Slide 118

At 1:51:43, slide 119 was posted:

Slide 119

Overall, I think that the debate went well, and I was for the most part pleased with the performance on the skeptical side of the panel.

On the believer side of the panel, you may notice that the two speakers defended the historical reliability of the Old Testament, as literarily interpreted, in asserting things like the existence of a worldwide flood. They also defended a YEC creationist cosmology. I normally debate apologists who shy away from such claims, and instead focus on the New Testament, in defending things like the historicity Jesus’ resurrection. So this is the first debate I’ve had with the more creationist type.

There are two points during the debate, where I was speaking impromptu, that I would like to add clarification to:

The first is that at around 1:06:45 in the discussion, I made a small quibble regarding the end of the Gospel of John. NT scholars often consider chapter 21 of the gospel to be a later appendix to the text, on the grounds that John 20:30-31 seems to show signs of an original ending. During the debate, however, I said that the last “couple chapters” of John may be a later addition. This is incorrect. Rather, the last couple chapters show signs of two different endings, which suggests that the final chapter (21) is a later appendix. I had included discussion of this correctly on my blog in this previous essay (footnote 31), but I jumbled the description a bit during my oral presentation.

The second issue pertains to a point of comparison I made with the textual criticism of the New Testament and the Athenian orator Demosthenes, at a couple points during the debate:

What I was trying to emphasize is that the manuscripts of the New Testament often reveal interpolations (or variant readings between manuscripts) that are atypical of Classical texts. These can include things like titles added to the names of individuals, such as a variation of Mark 1:1 in which the title “son of God” is added to Jesus’ name, but is not included in all manuscripts.

Also noteworthy are variant readings that seem to have theological significance. For example, Hebrews 2:9 may have original read that Jesus died “apart from God” (χωρίς), as opposed to “by the grace of God” (χάρις). Although a difference only between two letters–omega and alpha–such a variant may have significant theological implications. Stating that Jesus died “apart from God” may be an echo of Jesus’ last words in Mark (15:34) and Matthew (27:46). To what degree the variant affects one’s views of Christian theology, I think, is just that: a matter of theology. But what I was emphasizing is that such a variant can have “theological significance,” regardless of how theologians choose to interpret it.

Finally, there are variations between the NT manuscripts that have historical-critical implications. For example, the longer ending in Mark 16:9-20 is not found in all manuscripts, which is historically significant, because if this passage is excluded there are no descriptions of Jesus’ post-mortem appearances in the Gospel of Mark. That means that such details are only found in the later gospels, which could reflect growing legendary development.

That said, I think that Demosthenes was a problematic point of comparison here (and I wish that I had used another Classical author as an example). Part of the problem is that scholars dispute whether the actual speeches spoken by Demosthenes during oration were the same as those later written down in text. Another issue is that, although Demosthenes’ speeches don’t usually have things akin to the theological variants, which I discussed in the NT manuscripts above, we often have more dispute over his exact wording. This is in part due to the fact that the language of Demosthenes is more complex than the NT, and also because we only have later manuscripts of his speeches available. When it comes to the matter of interpolation, also, there are certain passages in Demosthenes that may be later additions, added for rhetorical purpose, which undermine the notion that his speeches were transmitted as static texts.

I regret using Demosthenes as a point of comparison, therefore, since comparing the textual criticism of his speeches to those of the NT may be a matter of apples and oranges. Another issue when considering NT manuscripts in comparison to Classical manuscripts is that, although there are a lot of variant readings between the NT manuscripts, we often have a better chance at getting back to the original, since the multiplicity of manuscripts can expose where verses/passages were tampered with. When we lack the same multiplicity of Classical manuscripts, scholars often have to be more conjectural at approximating the original reading. But that being said, the point remains that the NT was hardly a case of static transmission, since scribes seem to have changed it at several points of transmission, which are significant for theological and historical criticism.

Other than those two points, however, I was overall pleased with my performance, and hope that readers of the blog enjoy the debate.

-Matthew Ferguson

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2 Responses to Riverside Panel Debate about the Historical Reliability of the Bible

  1. David Austin says:

    Hi Matthew,
    Listened to the debate which I feel led down too many “rabbit-holes”, by the other side with all the nonsense about Noah’s Ark.
    It made me “roll my eyes” when they tried to justify the whole Noah’s Ark story “naturalistically” eg A scale model worked OK (of course it would, it is only when you make it full size you will have problems) and later when you query something about removing all the poo they say “god sorted that out”.

    This makes no sense, if god was looking after the whole enterprise, why bother with a boat, flood, animals 2 by 2 etc. Why couldn’t god just destroy everyone but Noah and deposit the family somewhere with all the animals intact ready to continue breeding. If god lamented that his creation (ie humans) became wicked and needed to be destroyed, then he failed again since humans continued to be wicked and needed Jesus to save them. If they turned out wicked then god must have made them flawed in the first place – what an incompetent god !!

    It’s a shame you didn’t really manage to get to the resurrection story and cover in more detail, as this really puts the contradictions in the text out in the open.

    You did the best you could do in challenging circumstances with YEC involved. If they do not accept science & logic there is little that can be done to make headway with them.

    Just my 2c worth.
    David Austin

    • Celsus says:

      Yeah, I agree that the absurd defenses of the Noah’s ark story and YEC cosmology sucked up a lot of time. They made a lot of assertions, that us on the skeptical side could only partially address. On the other hand, even in the absence of direct rebuttal, their claims just reeked of the smell test for being absurd, so it’s not like they were persuasive with all of the shotgunning.

      I tried to steer the debate in the direction of discussing central issues–how the “prophecies” in the NT could have been invented by its authors, the implications of textual criticism, the criteria of historical reliability, and epistemology of the resurrection. But we really didn’t have as much time in the second half of the debate, after all the YEC tangents, to delve into those issues in fuller detail.

      It would have especially been nice to say more in response to the “forensic” case for the resurrection that Joseph spouted off at the end. But that’s when the debate was brought to a close. He wasn’t persuasive in what he said, but I would have liked to address the nuance of the issues more.

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