Poisoning the Well and other Liberal Strategies

Who’s Really Telling the Lies, Dr. Ehrman?

By Joel McDurmon

Mama always used to say that if you tell a lie, you’ll have to tell another lie to cover that one up. Then another, and another, and so on. Soon you’ll be trapped in a web of lies and, worse, living a life of lies.

There is another maxim to consider: when accusing someone of telling lies, be sure you’re not telling bigger lies in the process. Someone may come along and point out how big a lie you’ve told in order to demean someone else’s reputation. Beware, for, as Solomon put it, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Prov. 18:17).

I say these things as a preface to comments on a pot-boiler article [1] by Dr. Bart Ehrman posted at Huffington Post aiming to advertise his latest hit-and-run on the integrity of the Bible. The post is moderately entitled, “Who Wrote the Bible and Why It Matters,” but the content is nowhere near as innocuous or contemplative as that title may suggest. Here is a sampling:

But good Christian scholars of the Bible, including the top Protestant and Catholic scholars of America, will tell you that the Bible is full of lies, even if they refuse to use the term. Many of the books of the New Testament were written by people who lied about their identity, claiming to be a famous apostle — Peter, Paul or James — knowing full well they were someone else.

This is the major theme throughout the article: the authorship of some New Testament books, he alleges, are fraudulent. He concludes on this note:

It appears that some of the New Testament writers, such as the authors of 2 Peter, 1 Timothy and Ephesians, felt they were perfectly justified to lie in order to tell the truth. But we today can at least evaluate their claims and realize just how human, and fallible, they were. They were creatures of their time and place. And so too were their teachings, lies and all.

A quick count within this brief article of a mere ten paragraphs reveals that variations of the word “lie” appear at least 16 times. This is 1.6 times per paragraph, and indeed, the words show up at least once in every paragraph. The message he is trying to send is clear: “the Bible is full of lies.” Lies, lies, lies.

Unfortunately for Ehrman, however, in order to make this case against the Bible, he has had to tell a series of big lies of his own. As I have discussed in Biblical Logic, every logical fallacy one employs is an instance of false witness, a lie. Here in the space of less than a thousand words (a brief article by most standards), Ehrman has certainly borne his share. Let us consider:

Ehrman’s Errors

Let us review these fallacies in serial form throughout the article: first, Ehrman begins with the fallacy of poisoning the well:

Apart from the most rabid fundamentalists among us, nearly everyone admits that the Bible might contain errors — a faulty creation story here, a historical mistake there, a contradiction or two in some other place. But is it possible that the problem is worse than that — that the Bible actually contains lies?

Wait a minute. Back up. Only “the most rabid fundamentalists among us” refuse to “admit” this?

First of all, what makes any given fundamentalist “rabid.” On what grounds are they to be legitimately described this way? We may assume that the Huffington Post crowd will gladly swallow this camel, but shouldn’t anyone cheering (or even accepting) this rhetoric uncritically themselves be suspected of being the contrary—a “rabid liberal.” And why should this label not fit the author of that type of careless rhetoric as well? You can see why this type of name-calling fallacy—the fallacy of Epithet—is worthless, dangerous in fact, for scholarly discussion (or even plain journalism). It does no work and actually cuts easily both ways.

Secondly, is it even true that only “the most rabid fundamentalists” refuse to admit so many errors in the Bible? No, because the category of those who hold to inerrancy in some shape or form would actually include all fundamentalists (by definition) and many, many evangelicals as well, and perhaps some others. So this is where the poisoning of the well fits: Ehrman is essentially trying to say that if you disagree with the claims in his article, then you are by definition a rabid fundamentalist, and nobody wants to bear that label with all of the social stigmata that comes with it, do they? He has thereby tried to immunize himself from criticism by poisoning the reputation of any would-be opponent.

Third, as I discussed with a similar circumstance in his debate with James White, this same type of claim commits another fallacy—a “circumstantial ad hominem.” This fallacy (lie) is the assertion that someone only holds a certain viewpoint only because of other circumstances that force them to. Here’s what I wrote in regard to his fallacy in that debate:

James White argued that God has preserved His word in the multiplicity of fragmented manuscripts (5000+ to date), even though many of those manuscripts contain differences. Though in many pieces, the “tenacity” of the word remains. . . . Amidst his rebuttals of this claim, Dr. Ehrman complained that only Evangelical Christian scholars continue to make this “tenacity” argument (against the vast weight of international scholarly opinion), and Evangelicals do so because they must defend their underlying doctrine of inspiration.

You can see how Dr. Ehrman’s rebuttal at this point commits the classic Circumstantial Ad Hominem: he dismisses Dr. White’s “tenacity” argument essentially by saying [I paraphrase], “You only believe that because you have a vested interest in doing so: your evangelical religious tenets require you to do so at the expense of truth.” But this dismissal only attacks Dr. White and does not address the issue itself. Even if Dr. Ehrman’s claim were true, it would not disprove, or even weaken, the “tenacity of the text” argument. (Biblical Logic, 319)

The same holds true in this opening paragraph: the implication is that only people with a vested interest in defending inerrancy of Scripture will refuse to agree with Bart Ehrman’s criticisms of it. Even if this were true, however, it would have nothing at all to say about the actual issue. It may explain some people’s motives for addressing the issue, but it says nothing at all about the issue itself one way or the other. So this is a fallacious statement, a lie.

Fourth, the word “admit” is a conspiratorial assumption that commits the mother of all fallacies—begging the question. People “admit” things that are factual, proven true, entered into the record as true. People “admit” things which they had previously denied or tried to hide but which the evidence eventually forces them to confess. In other words, by choosing the word “admit,” Ehrman is assuming that his contention about errors throughout the Bible is indeed, in fact, true. But this is the very issue under discussion: “Are there, in fact, lies in the Bible?” So to assume it is the case up front is to commit the basic fallacy of assuming to be true that which you are supposed to be proving—in other words, begging the question. Amazing how so big a lie can be hidden in a single word!

So, therefore, there are at least four lies of Ehrman’s manufacturing hidden in just his opening paragraph.

“Good” Christians and Their Lies?

And yet he is nowhere near finished spinning the web. He says that,

good Christian scholars of the Bible, including the top Protestant and Catholic scholars of America, will tell you that the Bible is full of lies, even if they refuse to use the term.

This is, first, the fallacy of appealing to authority. Even if this statement were true (it is not), it would not prove the case that “the Bible is full of lies.” Just because people are authority figures in any way shape or form does not mean their opinions are correct. Even if every New Testament scholar in the world agreed on this topic, there are many reasons yet why they could all be wrong.

Yet Ehrman, not content with a mere appeal to authority, does a double-appeal: not only do “scholars” believe what he alleges, but “the top” scholars do. So stand up against that authority, will you? I double dog dare you!

Secondly, the statement also is loaded with epithet and exaggeration. Most Christians—both Protestant and Catholic—in America can see the obvious here: how can someone be considered a “good Christian” while simultaneously condemning the central text of that religion as “full of lies.” Since most Christian traditions in the world venerate Scripture (even the liberal denominations still pay it lip service on paper) as inspired of God, it would be nonsensical to think that any Christian could still consider themselves a “good” Christian—if a Christian at all—while condemning the only source we have of Christ’s teachings as “full of lies.” If the Bible is full of lies, then there is no such thing as a “good Christian.” And no “good Christian” would condemn something as a lie and then still uphold that things as the basis of their way of life.

Ehrman knows that in the world of biblical scholarship, the vast majority of scholars who would agree to anything close to the statement “the Bible is full of lies” are in fact not Christians—in fact, many, like himself, are atheists. But Ehrman desperately wants to spread his skepticism into the mainstream of American culture, and in order to do this he must present wolfish skepticism in sheep’s clothing. Thus the lie that “good Christian scholars” agree with Ehrman.

And here is Ehrman’s main argument for why the Bible is “full of lies”:

And here is the truth: Many of the books of the New Testament were written by people who lied about their identity, claiming to be a famous apostle — Peter, Paul or James — knowing full well they were someone else. In modern parlance, that is a lie, and a book written by someone who lies about his identity is a forgery.

Again, this begs the question: “here is the truth.” I’m sorry, but extreme assertions like these require extreme evidence as proof that they are true. Yet Ehrman does not even try to offer any evidence let alone conclusive evidence. He simply states his position as “the truth.” Again, you cannot assume to be true the thing which you need to prove first. Fallacy. Lie.

Second, Ehrman expects us believe he has gotten inside the minds of the New Testament authors. He says they were conscious frauds, “knowing full well” what they did. But how in the world does Ehrman (or anyone else for that matter) have any idea what the New Testament authors knew in their minds? Again this is begging the question—and in a big way. It is a big lie.

The Truth about 2 Peter

Is it even the case that any New Testament authors forged their identities? How would we know for certain? Ehrman assures us with more fallacies:

Whoever wrote the New Testament book of 2 Peter claimed to be Peter. But scholars everywhere — except for our friends among the fundamentalists — will tell you that there is no way on God’s green earth that Peter wrote the book. Someone else wrote it claiming to be Peter. . . . 2 Peter was finally accepted into the New Testament because the church fathers, centuries later, were convinced that Peter wrote it. But he didn’t. Someone else did. And that someone else lied about his identity.

“Scholars everywhere,” he says. This time a massive appeal to authority alone is not enough; now I suppose we are expected to believe that somehow geographical distribution—“everywhere”—adds to the truth of an opinion. Oh how I wish it were just “scholars all huddled in one place”—I would feel so much more secure against their skepticism!

(If fact, they do gather in one place, many times every year, at Society of Biblical Literature conventions and the like. Do they lose authority or truthfulness, at this point, I wonder?)

Is it even a fact that these many scholars claim “there is no way on God’s green earth that Peter wrote” 2 Peter? No, it is not. (By the way—is it not interesting that the atheist Ehrman thinks the green earth is “God’s”?)

While it is certainly true that most New Testament scholars do in fact deny Peter’s authorship of 2 Peter, hardly any—if any, besides Ehrman—would be so bold as to claim “there is no way.” That is, no self-respecting historian would go so far as to deny the possibility that Peter wrote the book—not without being dismissed as disingenuous, or as an idiot, by most of the rest of the guild.

Since the academic discipline of history is supposed to operate only on grounds of historical evidence, this “no way” claim would require evidence that is radically conclusive—that would conclusively disprove Peter’s authorship. But the state of the evidence is nowhere near this level. In fact, the state of the evidence is only enough to leave the discussion inconclusive when considered by itself. This is why some scholars based on the evidence think Peter didn’t write it, but others just as validly argue that he did.

And there are many that argue he did: the classic New Testament introduction written by Donald Guthrie, and another by Carson, Moo, and Morris—two standard evangelical texts—present cogent, strong, and well-documented arguments in favor. Many commentaries and works like Michael Green’s 2 Peter and Jude, and “2 Peter Reconsidered [2],” make the case as well. But this is where Ehrman’s poisoning of the well is important to his agenda: these guys are all evangelicals, and so he will try to smear them as “the fundamentalists.” As we have seen, such a tactic is fallacious in multiple ways. And in support of this “no way on God’s green earth” argument, it is certainly one more lie used to cover up another lie.

For example, perhaps the strongest case used against 2 Peter is based on the fact that the style and usage of the Greek language is so radically different from 1 Peter—therefore, it is argued, the same author could not have written both. This argument is parroted by skeptics quite often. In fairness, the style of Greek is quite different between the two, but this simply gives rise to an historical inquiry into the difference; it in no way necessitates we jump to the conclusion of separate authors. Commenting on this problem, here is a flavor of the pro-Peter argument by Michael Green:

Of course, something of the force of these objections can be met by supposing, with Jerome, that Peter used a different secretary, and that he allowed him a large say in the form of the composition. This appears to have been the case with 1 Peter, where the stylistic polish may well be due to Silvanus [the author of 1 Peter specifically states that he wrote “by Silvanus” (dia Silouanou)—1 Pet. 5:12]. We are specifically told [by early church fathers] that not only Mark but also one Glaucias were among Peter’s other secretarial assistants, so there is nothing improper in arguing that much of the stylistic difference may well be due to a change in scribe. This view is strengthened by several stylistic resemblances between the Epistles which, in their way, are as remarkable as the differences. There are strong Hebraisms and the striking habit of verbal repetition in both, and these are features likely to have survived through the employment of different secretaries. Peculiar striking words are a feature of both letters.[1 [3]]

Green goes on to show how even the scholars who disagree with Peter’s authorship nevertheless see the weight of arguments in favor:

It is hardly surprising, therefore, to find even an opponent of Petrine authorship like Mayor confessing, ‘there is not that chasm between 1 and 2 Peter which some would like to try to make out’. B. Weiss’s judgment that ‘the Second Epistle of Peter is allied to no New Testament writing more closely than the First’ is justified on purely linguistic analysis. But we can go further. Holzmeister showed that 1 and 2 Peter are as close linguistically as 1 and 2 Corinthians, while in a fascinating article in the Expositor A. E. Simms has shown that 1 and 2 Peter stand as close on the score of words used as 1 Timothy and Titus, where nobody is inclined to doubt the unity of authorship. Finally, A. Q. Morton has shown from cumulative sum analysis on the computer, that 1 and 2 Peter are indistinguishable linguistically![2 [4]]

So the conclusion is certainly warranted, and the surprise should only come in response to the anti-Peter view:

And yet the conclusion of a common authorship for the Petrines is most commonly resisted on linguistic grounds![3 [5]]

And yet, even more, Ehrman expects us to believe that except for rabid fundamentalists, “scholars everywhere” not only find Petrine authorship unlikely, but impossible—“there is no way.” It is clear, however, that this is one more big lie on Ehrman’s part.

It is all the more to be considered a shameful lie when you remember that Ehrman is a New Testament scholar—a Ph.D. and Professor at a major university. Now, Professor Green’s simple book (and many like it) has been out since 1967, and was revised in 1987. There is no way Ehrman cannot be familiar with books like this, and with the true nature of the scholarship contained in them. And yet he has chosen—against what we can only assume is his knowledge to the contrary—to represent the situation as starkly in the opposite situation as it could be stated. Such deliberate negligence is worth considering as not just a shameful, but a purposefully malicious lie.

Paul’s Epistles no Better?

2 Peter is without question the toughest case in the New Testament where a named Epistle can be challenged as to its authorship. There are others that are challenged, no doubt, but 2 Peter is traditionally considered the toughest. And yet we have seen that even here Petrine authorship is likely, and certainly not considered impossible as Ehrman states (let alone universally considered impossible).

But Ehrman extends his stark assertion against the authorship of other New Testament texts, namely, the epistles of Paul to Timothy and to the Ephesians. Since I have already shown the nature of the case in the tougher case of 2 Peter (and am now dragging this article out too long already), I will leave the interested parties to look up Guthrie, or Carson, Moo, and Morris on these other New Testament books. They will find that the instances are quite the same, but in an even greater degree more clear based on the historical evidence. The case, even if there is room for doubt (there is always room for doubt with historical evidence unless you were there personally to witness—and even then you could have been deluded!), will clearly falsify Ehrman’s definitive-sounding assertion that Paul in fact did not write these letters.

Just consider the true nature of the case when you read Ehrman make his unwarranted assumption (that is, again beg the question), and then use it as leverage against the teachings of the book:

It may be one of the greatest ironies of the Christian scriptures that some of them insist on truth, while telling a lie. For no author is truth more important than for the “Paul” of Ephesians. He refers to the gospel as “the word of truth” (1:13); he indicates that the “truth is in Jesus”; he tells his readers to “speak the truth” to their neighbors (4:24-25); and he instructs his readers to “fasten the belt of truth around your waist” (6:14). And yet he himself lied about who he was. He was not really Paul.

This is a fallacy on top of a fallacy: a lie on top of a lie. It is a web of lies, in fact; all spun with one goal in mind to slander the writers of the New Testament, to strip them of their inspired status, and by that poisoning of even the apostolic well, denigrate their teachings as the fallible ramblings of mere self-interested liars like Ehrman himself:

It appears that some of the New Testament writers, such as the authors of 2 Peter, 1 Timothy and Ephesians, felt they were perfectly justified to lie in order to tell the truth. But we today can at least evaluate their claims and realize just how human, and fallible, they were. They were creatures of their time and place. And so too were their teachings, lies and all.

There is nothing special about “we today.” The same arguments over 2 Peter and other books were hashed out in the early church. They evaluated the claims then, too. They criticized, debated, and considered the evidence; and in the end, they accepted these books as Scripture.


In order to tell his story, however—to make his accusation about New Testament lies—we have seen Dr. Ehrman compile fallacy upon fallacy. He has poisoned the well, hurled epithets, argued ad hominem, used fallacious appeals to authority, begged the question, misrepresented facts (badly), suppressed relevant evidence that falsifies his case, and stated contradictions—and in many cases done some of these things more than once.

Now all of these fallacies are, in “modern parlance,” lies. In order to press his agenda, Ehrman has had to spin a web of lies. And while there are always many legitimate historical questions to ask about the New Testament documents, it can hardly be said to be “full of lies” without doing as Ehrman has done—telling a bunch of lies.

And from the list of Ehrman’s fallacies we have seen in the space of just one short article, we all know who the real liar is.


  1. Michael Green, The Second Epistle General of Peter and the General Epistle of Jude: An Introduction and Commentary, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. Leon Morris (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, and Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 17–18. [ [6]]
  2. Green, 18. [ [7]]
  3. Green, 18. [ [8]]

Article printed from American Vision: http://americanvision.org

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