Esther Dhanraj & Bart Ehrman: Attacks on Jesus answered

    Welcome to Defender’s Voice. This is Dr.Paul. Thank you for joining us today. Send your questions to info@doctorpaul.org. Visit our website www.doctorpaul.org to subscribe to our podcast. Today’s question is, What is your response to Bart Ehrman’s and Esther Dhanraj’s arguments against the trustworthiness of the New Testament? 

Both Esther Dhanraj and Bart Ehrman made many arguments against Christian faith. It would take a whole day to answer all his arguments. I am responding in the next few episodes because there is so much to say. So, follow this lecture series and you will learn a lot. 

   Bart Ehrman is currently Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As a teenager, he became a born-again Evangelical. He attended Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College and Princeton Theological Seminary as part of his education. His scholarship focuses on textual criticism of the New Testament. After extensively studying the New Testament and the development of early Christianity, he lost his faith in Jesus and became an agnostic atheist. He is not alone. We have Esther Dhanraj doing similar work in India. He represents many a Christian young men or young women who start with believing in the Bible but later give up their faith and turn against the Bible. He is a white male version of Esther Dhanraj. 

Introduction

     First of all, we should not be threatened by Bart Ehrman or any other critic of the Bible or the Christian faith. Bart Ehrman’s presence among us speaks of the greatness of Christian faith. Compared to Islam and Hinduism, Christians show more toletance towards their critics. Let us say, a Muslim scholar critically examined Quran and now traveling the world giving lectures on how Quran is not from God, that it transformed a lot over the centuries and Muhammad cannot be trusted as a prophet from God. How long that Muslim scholar would be alive especially in a country like Saudi Arabia or Egypt or Pakistan? Let us say, a Hindu scholar critically examined Vedas and is now traveling the world giving lectures on how Bhagavad Gita is not from God, it transformed a lot over the centuries and Krishna is not divine. How long would that Hindu scholar be alive in a country like India? Babu Gogineni questioned the authenticity of Hindu scriptures and immediately his life was threatened. He had to leave India and run to Australia. Salman Rushdie questioned the authenticity of Quran and he had to go underground because his life was threatened by Muslim fanatics. People like Bart Ehrman do not have to fear for their life from Christians. We welcome them to criticize our faith. Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’. If you claim to be the incarnation of truth, you should be able to stand up for scrutiny. Carl Sagan used to say, ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. Jesus made extraordinary claims. His apostles made extraordinary claims. His book, the New Testament, makes extraordinary claims. So, they should present extraordinary evidence. They should be willing to face the cross-examination by critics like Bart Ehrman. Don’t hide below the desk. Come out and face the scrutiny and the cross examination. 

   Professor Ehrman has many things to say against Christianity. Let us see them one by one. 

Arguments against Jesus’ birth

       When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a star appeared above his birthplace. In fact, this star led the wisemen from the East to baby Jesus over a long journey. A miraculous star leads the wisemen to the exact location of Jesus’ birth? Professor Ehrman questions this story. How can a star lead a group of men? Each star is millions of times larger than our planet. 

     That’s a reasonable question. The star here does not mean the gigantic stars in the outer galaxy. I have a truck. One day I asked my son Samuel, ‘Samuel, what do you want for your birthday?’ My son Samuel once asked me, ‘Daddy, I want to have your truck’. I told my son, ‘Samuel, you are too young to play with my truck. I will buy you a toy truck’. So, I got my son a toy truck to play at home. That is what God did for His son’s birthday. God made a toy star and made it shine over the path of the wisemen. That’s not a big deal for God. God made a light to lead the people of Israel during their journey in the wilderness. Christ appeared in a great light to Saul of Tarsus during his journey to Damascus. God can make such supernatural lights for special events He plans in history. 

    Professor Ehrman complains that there are major discrepancies in Luke’s and Matthew’s versions of the birth of Jesus. Matthew gave us a paternal genealogy of Jesus, through Joseph and his ancestors. Luke gave us a maternal genealogy of Jesus, through Mary and her ancestors. That is why they look different. 

  Professor Ehrman says  ‘Luke records a census around the birth of Jesus. It involved the entire Roman empire. There is no account of such a huge census anywhere except in Luke’. 

    Recently I interviewed a great archeologist from Israel. Professor Jodi Magness. She works at the same university Mr.Ehrman works, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is one of the best archeologists on the Holy Land. I asked her about the reliability of New Testament authors. You can watch the video. I gave the link below. She told me about Pilate Stone. It was discovered in Caesarea, Israel in 1961. It has 1st-century Roman inscription mentioning the name ‘Pontius Pilate’. Before 1961, many critics said that the New Testament authors made up the character of Pilate. He did not really exist in real history. But the discovery of the Pilate Stone established the historicity of Pontius Pilate. 

    For so long critics claimed that the Bible authors made up the character of David. David was not a historical person. Then in 1993 Tel Dan Stele was discovered in Tel-Dan in northern Israel. This stele has the inscription, ‘the house of David’. Archeological discoveries have been proving the accuracy of information in the Bible. As Donald Rumsfeld used to say, ‘Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’. 

Just because there is no evidence from extra-biblical sources, we should not discard Luke’s account of census in his gospel. He was a great historian who employed meticulous skills in his writing. 

Arguments against Jesus’s Divinity 

Professor Ehrman says, Christians borrowed the ‘Son of God’ idea from Greek myths. 

That is not true. Psalm 2 is a Messianic Psalm. 

‘The Lord hath said unto me, 

Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee

Kiss the Son, lest he be angry’ 

          Psalm 2 

    Here God says, ‘this is my Son, whom I begotten’. The future Messiah would be the Son of God. Isaiah 9:6 

‘For unto us a child is born, 

unto us a Son is given, 

and the government shall be upon his shoulder: 

and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, 

the mighty God, the everlasting Father, 

The Prince of Peace’

                Isaiah 9:6 

Unto us a Son is given

He is the mighty God. 

  Messiah as the Son of God has been clearly established in Jewish scriptures. Also see Daniel chapter 7. Daniel says, 

‘I saw one like the Son of man who came

with the clouds of heaven….he was given

dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, 

that all people, nations, and languages, 

should serve him’ (Daniel 7:13 – 14)

     It clearly shows that the Son of Man in Daniel 7 is a divine being. During his trial, Jesus quoted this passage from Daniel 7 and referred to himself as the ‘son of man’. On hearing those words, the high priest rent his clothes and shouted, ‘this is blasphemy, this blasphemy’. He got it right. Calling yourself the ‘Son of Man’ is blasphemous because you are claiming to be divine. ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of Man’ are from the Jewish scriptures which affirm the divinity of the coming Messiah. They are not borrowed from Greek mythology. 

   Professor Ehrman says that Christians adopted stories from Greek mythology and applied them to Jesus. That is also not true. What matters is historicity. Suppose you are walking down the street. You met a stranger. He introduced himself to you and said, ‘Hello, my name is Neil Armstrong. I am the first human being ever to set foot on the moon’. How would you respond? ‘Are you the first human being to visit the moon? Wow, give me a break. I heard many such stories. In Greek mythology, people visit the moon, they visit the planets, stars and galaxies. You need help, Mr.Armstrong. You need to see a psychiatrist’, or do you say, ‘Mr.Armstrong, it’s an honor to meet you and shake your hand’. 

    Yes, there are many stories of human beings visiting the moon in Greek mythology. What was only a ‘myth’ in ancient Greek stories became a historical reality in the person of Neil Armstrong. In the same way, yes, there are many stories of human beings born to virgins, performing miracles, opening graves, dying for the sins of others, raising from the dead. But only in Jesus, mythology became a historical reality. Only in Jesus, fiction became fact. 

   We should not belittle the Greek stories. They show the anguish of the human heart. They show what we have been longing for as human beings. In Jesus, God gave us the solution for those longings. The writers of Greek mythology never considered their stories to be more than fiction. But the New Testament was written as serious non-fiction in koine Greek. The authors of the New Testament were put to death in their witness for the veracity of the gospels.

    Professor Ehrman says that Jesus considered himself only an apocalyptic preacher. He never considered himself ‘God’. He is mistaken. Jesus was unmistakable in his declarations of divinity. For example, in the sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, ‘Your law says so and so…..but I say unto you’. Your law says so and so, but I say this….Your law says so and so, but I say this. How dare Jesus supersede the commandments of God given unto Moses?. When he said, ‘I say unto you’, Jesus elevated himself to the level of God. Jesus talked about his eternal pre-existence. ‘Before Abraham was, I am’. What did his listeners do? They took stones to kill him. Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. His listeners knew exactly what he was claiming. He was claiming to be God. Jesus calls himself ‘I am’, the name of God used in Exodus 3:14, when Moses saw God in the burning Bush. 

No apocalyptic teacher ever equated his word to the law of God

No apocalyptic teacher ever performed miracles at his own will 

No apocalyptic teacher ever forgiven the sins of human beings 

No apocalyptic teacher ever claimed that he is the Lord of the Sabbath 

No apocalyptic teacher ever claimed his pre-existence before Abraham 

    So, Pro.Bart’s charge that Jesus never considered himself to be anything but an apocalyptic preacher flies in the face of Jesus’ claims in the New Testament. 

 Then Prof.Bart says human beings bowed before kings and queens and they also bowed before Jesus. So, Jesus is not God. That is true that people bow down before kings; but in Jewish context, people never bow down before kings as gods;Here, Prof.Ehrman ignored the exclusivity of Jewish culture. Jews were the only people in the ancient world who refused to bow down before Cesar. They did not even allow Cesar’s image on their coins. They did not allow Cesar’s statutes into Jerusalem. It is the city of God. No human statue was allowed. In many cultures, people do worship their kings and queens as gods and goddesses. But not in the Jewish culture. Worship belongs only to God. The wisemen from the East worshiped Jesus (Matthew 2:10-12). People worshiped Jesus when he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The disciples worshiped Jesus when he calmed the storm. The women worshiped him at the empty tomb (Matthew 28:8-10). The disciples worshiped him at the Ascension (Matthew 28:16-17) 

     The New Testament clearly teaches the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because Professor Ehrman gave himself to atheism, he does not want to recognize this obvious fact of the scriptures. 

Arguments against Jesus’ teachings/activitis 

 A message of the Jewish Kingdom & the Salvation of the World. 

   Ehrman argues that Jesus and his disciples preached two different and even contradictory messages. Jesus preached about the coming Jewish kingdom under his kingship while the disciples preached about Jesus being the Savior of the whole world. He points out that the disciples of Jesus preached a message that has no relationship with what Jesus preached. Let us see this contention. 

       Professor Ehrman argues, “It is important to stress that all our early records are agreed: Jesus was not executed for teaching the Jewish law, or for urging his followers to love one another, or for declaring that he was the virgin-born incarnate son of God. He was executed for calling himself the king of the Jews”. 

      So, Professor Ehrman says, ‘Jesus preached apocalypticism. He presented himself to the Jews as their next king. He talked about the coming kingdom of God on earth. He was executed for calling himself the king of the Jews. End of the story. Then the disciples created the Christianity giving a distinct meaning to the crucifixion of Jesus.’ 

    That’s interesting. According Professor Ehrman, Jesus himself did not establish Christian faith. His preaching was about apocalypticism and establishing a Jewish kingdom with himself as their king. But the disciples hijacked Jesus into their own invented religion called Christianity. 

     We hear similar arguments from Muslims. They say, ‘Jesus preached the law of God and the kingdom of God. It was Paul who invented Christianity’. 

     It is true that Jesus preached apocalypticism. He preached about the judgment of God for Israel’s rebellion. It came. It was fulfilled in 70 AD. 

    It is true that he presented himself as the king of the Jews. On Palm Sunday, Lord Jesus Christ entered Jerusalem riding a donkey. He fulfilled the prophecy given in 

Rejoice greatly, Daughter of Zion!

Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!

See, your king comes to you, 

righteous and victorious, 

lowly and riding on a donkey 

                          Zechariah 9:9 

See, your king comes to you. Jesus went to Jerusalem in the final week of his earthly life as its king. Had Israel embraced him as its king, he would have liberated her from all her enemies. He would have crushed the Romans. He would have destroyed the power of Herod and of Pilate and of Cesar. But Israel rejected her king. That is why the kingdom agenda was not fulfilled during the first coming of Christ. The Jewish authorities wanted Jesus crucified. 

Think about it, what were the reasons for the execution of Jesus? 

Legally speaking, Jesus was executed for crimes against the State. The Jewish accusers said, ‘Jesus told us not to pay taxes to Cesar’. 

First of all, Jesus actually told them to pay taxes to Cesar. 

Secondly, Jews would not hate a Jewish rabbi who would rouse them against the Romans. They were crushed under the burden of Roman oppression, and any one who would defy Rome would be celebrated, not ridiculed and rejected. The real reason was they hated Jesus for not sharing their corruption. They hated Jesus for criticizing their sins. They hated Jesus for not honoring them as good leaders. 

   Pilate asked Jesus, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’. Jesus replied, ‘Yes, I am’. Bart Ehrman got it right that Jesus thought of himself as the king of the Jews. But, shockingly, the Roman governor was not threatened by the claims of Jesus. Why? Because Jesus was there standing by himself. He was so unusual. That is not how an insurrectionist or terrorist behaves. A terrorist would hurt you if he has any power to do so. If you take away his power, he will at least curse you on your face. But look at Jesus. 

    He was not cursing Pilate. He was not cursing the Romans. He was not cursing the Cesar. He was not cursing the Jews. He was silently standing. An abandoned silence around him. Pilate questioned Jesus, ‘If you are a king, where are your soldiers?’. Jesus replied, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’. Any doubts concerning Jesus evaporated from the mind of Pilate. He is no threat to Rome. He is a king of a spiritual kingdom. He does not have any soldiers in this world. He does not have to worry about Jesus. 

  Pilate clearly understood the situation. He knew well that the Jews hated him and his Roman empire. Why would they hand over someone who clearly challenged Roman authority? Pilate looked through their deviousness and clearly identified the problem: Jealousy. Still Pilate sentenced Jesus to crucifixion, because he wanted to appease the crows. He wanted to appease the Jewish leaders. 

  Legally speaking, Jesus was executed for crimes against the State for declaring himself as the king and challenging the authority of Cesar. But in practical terms, he was killed because he was hated and despised. 

  The disciples did not contradict Jesus. They said, ‘This Jesus was really the king of the Jews sent by God. But he was killed out of jealousy and hatred. Now, God brought something wonderful out of his death. The salvation of the world. Jesus died for the sins of the world. He resurrected from the grave to us the hope of eternal life.’ The disciples would not have to preach about the earthly kingdom of the Messiah, who had just been rejected by the Jewish nation. Jesus would not have to preach about the Gentile salvation because it was not the time. Still, he gave us hints about the global nature of his message. When he said, ‘For God so loved the world’, it was about a God who wants to show his love for all the people of the world. 

   Jesus’s message of Jewish kingdom and his disciples’ message of global salvation are not mutually exclusive. Christianity presents God’s plan for the Jews and also God’s plan for the Gentiles. Jesus Christ our Lord emphasized God’s plan for the Jews because his audience were mostly Jewish. The disciples emphasized God’s plan for the Gentiles because their audiences were mostly Gentiles. Jesus and his disciples did not have two separate messages. They only differed in the emphasis. They are not mutually contradictory. They are not mutually exclusive. They do not cancel other. Many Christians believed that one canceled the other and that became the basis for so much antisemitism down the centuries. But we shall remember that they are both God’s plan for the world. In Christ, God wants to give a king to the Jewish people and a Savior to the Gentiles. 

    Therefore, Bart Ehrman misunderstood this basic plan of God when he asserts that Jesus and his disciples had two different messages. 

To summarize, both Esther Dhanraj and Bart Ehrman failed to level any intelligent arguments against the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen

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