Bart Ehrman: Categorical Storytelling Error

In one passage, Ehrman writes:

The same can be said of Peter’s denials of Jesus. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells Peter that he will deny him three times “before the cock crows twice.” In Matthew’s Gospel he tells him that it will be “before the cock crows.” Well, which is it—before the cock crows once or twice? [Jesus Interrupted, 7]

A few things must be remembered. Mark and Matthew were both written well after the events that they describe. Not only must these retellings transcend space and time, but also languages. Both authors must translate from Aramaic to Greek. A final point on the wording is that in the New Testament, the Greek was originally written without punctuation, spaces, or verse numbers. Any representation of a direct quote, might, in fact, be a paraphrase. There is no iron law that quotes must be verbatim; irrationally assuming translated quotes can be verbatim.

These rules of history are all English cultural biases that modern readers project onto past peoples that did not adhere to these concepts. We cannot hold the ancient to modern standards of “accurately” recording history. We must hold them to their own standards, providing they are reasonable. The Gospels are a reasonable recording of history.

I am reminded of my own personal storytelling techniques. I have one story I repeat about the time I was backpacking across Europe. On New Year’s 2006 I scaled a Romanian mountain to Dracula’s castle, dodging Romanian guards, guard dogs, and narrowly escaping capture. These events I tell time and time again. Naturally, the story differs after each telling. Sometime the events will be given in different chronological order. Sometimes the quotes of the supporting characters will vary. Does this make me a liar because I do not reproduce the same events and dialogue each time I tell this story? Does this make the events untrue or untrustworthy? Does the fact that my stated quotes are really not verbatim make my quotes wrong?

Human communication is not a computer program that must be precise in all instances or else end up crashing. Human communication is all about concepts. Even the understanding of meaning of words is not constant from person to person. This does not mean no truth can be known ever. This does not mean that concepts must be communicated in exact minute detail before accurate knowledge is conveyed. Human beings, and thus history, communicate in imprecise concepts.

Not even the most astute historian expounds on every single word such that no imprecision is present. History, when being reported, is not false because the telling differs slightly from the actual events. The concepts are what matters, the ideas contained in the words. Human communication works that way.

Did Jesus say “before the cock crows twice” or “before the cock crows.” His direct quote was most definitely neither; he spoke in Aramaic and not English. Which is the better translation, and would a third translation be more accurate? It would be assumed the more detailed of the two would be closer to what was actually quoted.

Even if the first was closer to what was stated, this would not invalidate the historicity of the gospels. For example, even a high school student knows to be in their seat “before the bell rings”. Even if there are two bells, the natural conception if that the final bell before the start of the class is what is meant. If some future translator or transcriber were to write “before the second bell” in place of “before the bell” this would not be a violation of truth. Likewise, if a parent tells one child to tell another child “to come upstairs for dinner”, the first child might accurately report the parent as saying “stop playing your video game and come eat”.

In order to show a real contradiction in the history of the gospels, the alleged statements must contradict in concept. Many, but not all, of Ehrman’s alleged contradictions fall under this categorical storytelling fallacy.

About christopher fisher

The blog is meant for educational/entertainment purposes. All material can be used and reproduced in any length for any purpose as long as I am cited as the source.
This entry was posted in Bible, Bible Critics, Ehrman, Figures of Speech, History, People. Bookmark the permalink.

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