In my previous article, I attempted to disabuse my readers of the intimidation that many Christians feel when confronted by critics of the faith holding PhDs and teaching positions at major Universities. I gave a critique of several examples of Bart Ehrman’s alleged contradictions and errors in the gospel accounts from his book Jesus, Interrupted . With Bart Ehrman I regrettably have learned never to trust him to accurately represent his sources since, from past experience, I know him to be misquoting or misrepresenting his sources far more often than he accurately represents them. In case you thought I was picking on low hanging fruit and that his other examples are robust, in this article I want to examine some more instances from his book to further disabuse you of any intimidation you might have when it comes to someone as qualified and well known as Bart Ehrman.
You may recall that, in my previous article, I discussed Ehrman’s claim in Jesus, Interrupted that there is a trajectory from Mark, the earliest gospel written, through to John, the last gospel to be written, towards becoming increasingly pro-Roman and anti-Jewish. We dispatched of that claim by noting how Ehrman conveniently cherry-picked his data from the gospel sources. Ehrman, however, presents a second claim about an alleged gospel development, and that is the presentation of Jesus’ attitude towards his impending death. On pages 65-66, Ehrman writes of Mark’s presentation of Jesus’ passion narrative,
Jesus is silent the entire time, as if in shock, until his cry at the end, echoing Psalm 22 … Mark is trying to say something by this portrayal. He doesn’t want his readers to take solace in the fact that God was really there providing Jesus with physical comfort. He dies in agony, unsure of the reason he must die.
In regards to the parallel accounts in the gospel of Luke, Ehrman writes,
In this account, Jesus is not at all confused about what is happening to him or why. He is completely calm and in control of the situation; he knows what is about to occur, and he knows what will happen afterward: … This is a far cry from the Jesus of Mark, who felt forsaken to the end.
But is that what Mark was doing? To find out, we can list out some of the other texts found in Mark’s gospel where Jesus talks about his impending death:
- Mark 8:31 – “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
- Mark 9:31 – “…for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.”
- Mark 10:32-34 – “And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.””
- Mark 10:45 – “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
- Mark 12:6-11 – Parable of the tenants who kill the son of the vineyard owner, offending the Jewish rulers, who knew (verse 12) “that he had told the parable against them.”
- In Mark (as in all of the Synoptics), Jesus answers the high priest’s question – “Are you the Messiah?” in bold, unequivocal terms – “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:61). But this claim is completely absent from John, the last gospel to be written!
- Of all of the gospels, only John, the last of them to be written, records the most human admission of physical pain and weakness in the words from the cross: “I thirst” (John 19:28).
These many references in Mark’s gospel do not fit very well with Ehrman’s thesis that Mark portrays Jesus as one who is “unsure of the reason he must die” and uncertain of “what will happen afterward.” Indeed, Jesus’ cry in Mark 15:34, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is, as Ehrman himself notes, an echo of Psalm 22:1, probably intended to convey to the hearers that Psalm 22 was now being fulfilled in their presence. This Psalm, however, Ehrman omits to tell his reader, ends in the vindication of the Psalmist.
Ehrman’s habitual misreading of his sources, however, is not limited to the gospels alone, but also extends to extrabiblical material. For example, on page 287, Bart Ehrman writes,
Mark 7:3 indicates that the Pharisees ‘and all the Jews’ washed their hands before eating, so as to observe ‘the tradition of the elders.’ This is not true: most Jews did not engage in this ritual.
Ehrman has in mind here Exodus 30:18-21; 40:30-32 and Leviticus 20:1-16, in which the priests are called to observe hand washing practices, but the people in general are not. However, did the Jews of Jesus’ time, who were heavily influenced by the practices of the Pharisees, engage in this ritual, even though it was not required of them in the written Law? To find out, we can look at some Jewish evidence. According to a letter addressed from an Alexandrian Jew by the name of Aristeas of Marmora (who lived in the second or third century B.C.) to his brother Philocrates, “And as is the custom of all the Jews, they washed their hands in the sea and prayed to God…”
Another source is the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (20-50 A.D.), who writes that the law “does not look upon those who have even touched a dead body, which has met with a natural death, as pure and clean, until they have washed and purified themselves with sprinklings and ablutions” (The Special Laws 3.205).
Let’s consider some modern scholarly opinion. Susan Haber writes ,
“The Centrality of impurity to Jewish life in the Second Temple period is supported by archaeological evidence. The discovery of mikvaot in such diverse places as Gamla, Sepphoris, Herodium and Massada suggests that in Palestine the removal of impurity was not a rite reserved only for approaching the sacred precincts of the Temple, but was common practice for Jews of all walks of life. The textual evidence suggests that the Jews of the Diaspora also purified themselves, if not through immersion, then by sprinkling, splashing or hand washing.”
To Ehrman’s credit, Ehrman has since corrected himself on this particular issue. I am not aware, however, of any other of the issues I am raising having been publicly acknowledged by Ehrman, and indeed Ehrman himself indicates that the retraction of his false claim about the ceremonial washings was “the first time in recorded history” (and that was as recently as the 28th of January 2019). Furthermore, most people who read Jesus, Interrupted will not see Ehrman’s blog article retracting this claim and so, given that the book is still in print, I felt compelled to call out Ehrman’s mistake here.
On page 40 and 41, Bart Ehrman asks where was Jesus the day after he was baptized? He writes,
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke – the so-called Synoptic Gospels – Jesus, after his baptism, goes off into the wilderness where he will be tempted by the Devil. Mark especially is quite clear about the matter, for he states, after telling of the baptism, that Jesus left “immediately” for the wilderness. What about John? In John there is no account of Jesus being tempted by the Devil in the wilderness. The day after John the Baptist has borne witness to the Spirit descending on Jesus as a dove at baptism (John 1:29-34), he sees Jesus again and declares him to be the Lamb of God (John is explicit, stating that this occurred “the next day”). Jesus then starts gathering his disciples around him (1:35-52) and launches into his public ministry by performing his miracle of turning water into wine. So where was Jesus the next day? It depends on which Gospel you read.
The only problem is that John does not narrate the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan. Rather, it merely says,
And John bore witness, “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.
This, then, is not the baptism narrative itself but rather John giving testimony to what had happened on an earlier occasion. Bart Ehrman once again has simply misread the text.
Let’s take an example from the book of Acts. Ehrman quotes Galatians 1:16-20:
I did not immediately consult with anyone; 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. 18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. 19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. 20 (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!)
Ehrman writes (p. 55),
This emphatic statement that Paul is not lying should give us pause. He is completely clear. He did not consult with others after his conversion, did not see any of the apostles for three years, and even then he did not see any except Cephas (Peter) and Jesus’ brother James.
This makes the account found in the book of Acts very interesting indeed. For according to Acts 9, immediately after Paul converted he spent some time in Damascus “with the disciples”, and when he left the city, he headed directly to Jerusalem, where he met with he apostles of Jesus (Acts 9:19-30). On all counts Acts seems to be at odds with Paul. Did he spend time with other Christians immediately (Acts) or not (Paul)? Did he go straight to Jerusalem (Acts) or not (Paul)? Did he meet with the group of apostles (Acts) or just with Peter and James (Paul)?
Indeed, this example also came up in my debate with Dr. Richard Carrier two years ago.
Let us read Acts 9:23-25 more carefully:
When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.
Now, how long a period of time is denoted by “…many days…”? Take a look at 1 Kings 2:38-39, where “many days” in Hebrew is immediately glossed as three years:
38 And Shimei said to the king, “What you say is good; as my lord the king has said, so will your servant do.” So Shimei lived in Jerusalem many days. 39 But it happened at the end of three years that two of Shimei’s servants ran away to Achish, son of Maacah, king of Gath. And when it was told Shimei, “Behold, your servants are in Gath,”
But what about the trip to Arabia? Luke is silent on it, but does Luke contradict Paul’s claim that he went to Arabia? I would place Paul’s trip to Arabia within the “many days” of Acts 9:23. Paul also informs us in Galatians 1:17 that he “returned again to Damascus”, so it isn’t surprising then that his subsequent trip to Jerusalem is from Damascus.
I will take one final example to close, and I would consider this to be one of Ehrman’s best examples that he offers – on what day was Jesus crucified? Ehrman’s discussion is lengthy so I will not quote it here. You can find his discussion for yourself on pages 23-28. However, here are the relevant Biblical texts Ehrman references:
- Mark 14:12 – “And on the first day of Unleavened bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” [The Last Supper follows]
- John 19:14 – [Describing the scene where Jesus is condemned to be crucified] Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover.
Now, here is the apparent contradiction. In Mark, the Last Supper occurs on the first day of Passover. Jesus’ arrest takes place that same night and his crucifixion on the following day, i.e. the first day of Passover. According to Ehrman, John tells us that the crucifixion took place on the day of preparation for Passover — that is, the day before the Passover.
However, John does not say that it was the day of preparation for the Passover. Rather, he says that it was the day of preparation of Passover. Mark 15:42 uses the same term, and also indicates what it means:
And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath.
In other words, “preparation” means preparation for the Sabbath.
Now, let’s read John more closely. In John 19:31, we read,
Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away.
John agrees with Mark that it was the day before the Sabbath. This is what he means by “preparation.” However, there are four more questions we have to address to fully resolve all of Ehrman’s points.
First, what does John mean when he says, “for that Sabbath was a high day?” I would argue that he means that it was a particularly special feast day, not just any Sabbath day, but Sabbath in Passover week.
Second, what about John 18:28? Here is the text:
Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they could not be defiled but could eat the Passover.
Doesn’t this contradict the claim that Passover had already taken place? The short answer is ‘no’. Passover is not just one day; rather, it is a week-long festival. Indeed, throughout the gospel of John, the word “Passover” occurs eight other times and always refers to the whole festival, not only to the opening meal. The Passover seder, or supper, that marks the commence of the Passover celebration is in fact not the only ritual meal that is eaten during Passover; in fact, there is another ritual meal, the chagigah (meaning “festival offering”), eaten at mid-day the following day. This is known as the feast of unleavened bread, but Josephus indicates that it was also known as the Passover meal. He writes (Antiquities 14.2.1), “As this happened at the time when the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which we call Passover,…”
If the chief priests had entered Pilate’s dwelling and consequently become ceremonial unclean, the defilement would expire at sundown. All that would be required of them would be to wash and they would be made ceremonially clean for the evening meal. Therefore, the chief priests have to have been concerned about some meal other than the evening meal. That is to say, their concern cannot have had to do with the initial Passover seder meal.
Thus, John’s account fits perfectly with Mark’s. The concern of the chief priests cannot have been about the initial Passover seder. The seder was already over, having been eaten the previous evening. Rather, the chief priests were concerned about another meal in Passover, probably the feast of unleavened bread known as the chagigah.
Thirdly, isn’t the meal in John 13 a different meal from the last supper in the synoptic gospels? Bart Ehrman writes,
They do eat a final supper together, but in John, Jesus says nothing about the bread being his body, or the cup representing his blood. Instead, he washes the disciples’ feet, a story found in none of the other gospels.”
Here, however, we have two undesigned coincidences that reveal that the meal described in Luke and John is the same one and also corroborating the historicity of both accounts . Here are the relevant texts from Luke and John:
- Luke 22:27 – “For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.”
- John 13:4-5 – “[Jesus] laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet…”
A reader of Luke’s gospel might ask what Jesus is referring to when he says “I am among you as the one who serves.” John’s account, however, illuminates the broader context. Jesus gave the disciples an object lesson in servanthood by washing the disciples’ feet, an event not recorded in Luke’s account of the same occasion. A reader of John’s gospel might ask, why does Jesus wash their feet? What prompted this object lesson in servanthood? The answer is given in Luke 22:24 – “A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” In other words, John reports the object lesson in servanthood, whereas Luke reports the occasion that gave rise to it — namely, the dispute among the disciples over who was the greatest. Thus, Luke explains John, and John explains Luke. These two undesigned coincidences corroborate the historicity of the event and show that, contrary to Ehrman’s assumption, the two accounts reflect one and the same event.
Finally, what about John 13:1?
“Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
Doesn’t this contradict the claim that the Last Supper was the Passover meal? In Greek, however, the text does not say that the supper was before the feast: rather, all it says is that before the feast, Jesus loved his disciples to the end. There is thus no great problem here either.
Given that Ehrman has written a book subtitled “revealing the hidden contradictions in the Bible (and why we don’t know about them), I think it is a fair assumption that Ehrman has offered us his best examples of objections to the gospel accounts. Since those objections fail, this ought to give us renewed confidence in the historical reliability of the accounts in the gospels and Acts.
In conclusion, there are only three things required for refuting claims by Bart Ehrman when it comes to the reliability of the Biblical text: an open Bible, a pencil, and some common sense. In future articles, I will continue to review additional examples both from Jesus, Interrupted as well as other works by Bart Ehrman.
 Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them). (New York: HarperCollins, 2009).
 Susan Haber, “They Shall Purify Themselves”: Essays on Purity in Early Judaism (Society of Biblical Literature, 2008), 130-131.
 Lydia McGrew, Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts. (Chillicothe, OH: DeWard Publishing Company, 2017).