In yesterday’s episode of Unbelievable? the radio program hosted by Justin Brierley in the historic city of London, England, the topic of the show was on the historicity of the Gospel of John. Normally Brierley pits a Christian vs. a non-Christian on some topic, but yesterday’s program saw two Christians, New Testament scholar Craig A. Evans against philosopher Lydia McGrew.
The background to this debate pertains to Evans’s remarks during a cross-examination and audience Q&A sessions in a 2012 debate against Bart Ehrman.
In this clip we see that Evans says, “I think most of these things [i.e., the “I am” statements of Jesus] were not uttered as we find them by the historical Jesus. So I suspect we don’t have too much difference on John. My view is the gospel of John is a horse of another color altogether.” Here he states his position that Jesus did not actually say most of the I am statements. This is the difference between the very words of Jesus (ipsissima verba) vs. the very voice of Jesus (ipsissima vox). In the cross-examination, Evans twice objects to Ehrman saying John is not historically reliable. While Evans believes that John’s Gospel is “something that only incidentally has historical material in it” (i.e., it’s not written primarily as a historical account, but rather is primarily a thematic one) that doesn’t mean it is historically unreliable.
L. McGrew (or someone for her) transcribed various segments of the cross-examiniation and Q&A session, including the exact hesitations of the speakers such as “um” and “ah.” The pedantic nature of the transcription, I believe, indicates, first, her desire to have the absolute truth of some matter (which can sometimes be admirable). Second, regrettably in this context, it is also an example of an on-going trend in her interpretive methodology: her uncharitable, unforgiving lens with contemporary speakers. In this post I’d like to show how her interpretive methodology has clouded her judgment in her recent debate against Evans.
In the radio debate, one of Lydia’s first pointed questions (@ 22:27) to Evans was regarding the historicity of Jesus’s comments in John 8:58 (“before Abraham was, I am”) and John 10:30 (“I and the Father are one”). Evans’s position is that those instances are recognizably historical. Evans is mistaken when he recalls inaccurately that Ehrman was asking only about the discourse I am’s (@ 22:59). As we can see above, Ehrman did include the John 8:58 and John 10:30 quotations; Lydia rightly correct Evans on this. But aside from the proper correction, what makes McGrew think that she should accuse Evans of a “recreation of history” (@ 25:37), as if he had ill intent? This is not the first time McGrew has accused someone of bad motive when an alternative explanation makes better sense. Thus, this serves as another example of an exaggeration that McGrew makes, one of many in her on-going criticisms of evangelical New Testament scholarship.
Now, she goes on to say that it’s not such a big deal that Evans misrecollects. Rather, the bigger issue is the intent of John. She believed that Evans thought something like, the distinctive Johannine sayings, “with few exceptions,” are the ones that look like a different genre altogether. Here Lydia hypothesizes that maybe Evans has “changed his mind about that” (@ 26:39) since that debate. This is a perplexing remark because as I read and hear Evans from 2012, he qualifies his statement at the beginning by saying “I think most of these things …” (emphasis mine). “Most” does not mean “all,” nor does “most” even necessarily mean “almost all.” But even on McGrew’s prior construction of Evans’s position, why not think that those two I am instances were part of those “few exceptions”? Why does McGrew wait until a public radio debate in order to understand Evans’s position on those two I am statements, instead of messaging him asking for clarity? It is evident that she tries to make Evans look inconsistent from his prior 2012 statements, e.g. “So now it appears …” (@ 37:21), “I kind of pinned Craig down a little bit” (@ 1:06:30), and most explicitly, “At that time he said yes, that he thought it did, which was very different than what he appeared to be saying in 2012. Now here toward the end … he seems to be coming back” (@ 1:06:43). McGrew says that in the past Evans has not drawn a sharp distinction between different types of I am statements and she is skeptical that he means to do so in their own debate.
Unfortunately for McGrew, Evans’s 2018 remarks are consistent with his 2012 remarks. Nowhere in the 2012 debate did he say he believes all of the I am sayings were ahistorical, or more specifically that John 8:58 and John 10:30 were ahistorical. McGrew just asserts that there is an inconsistency, without showing where the inconsistency is explicit (and yet she also accuses Evans of ambiguity; I’m not sure how the two accusations are supposed to be reconciled). I don’t think she has proven that nor can she do it successfully.
None of this is to say who I believe is correct on his or her interpretation of John! Rather, it’s to point out that McGrew’s attempt to “pin down” Evans was wanting. Evans illustrated his overall command over the field of New Testament studies. McGrew did herself a disservice when she cited an early 20th century Unitarian scholar James Drummond and 19th century scholar Stanley Leathes as authorities on NT criticism. Put simply, she is both out of her depth and her perspective is out of date in New Testament studies. This is not chronological snobbery; there are good, strong reasons why 19th century evangelical views of the Gospels are rejected by evangelical scholars today. Her continued march against contemporary evangelical New Testament scholarship stems from an inaccurate view of both the genre of the Gospels and the intentions of their authors.
Theology is meant to be done in community, and when one forms his or her own view of the text without studying and learning from what others understood of the text (including the text’s historical background and context such as προγυμνάσματα), that person is bound to bring in one’s own hermeneutical assumptions. McGrew’s position is outside the consensus of today’s evangelical New Testament scholars, scholars who know far more about 1st century Palestinian Judaism and the Greco-Roman world than the majority of Christian theologians and commentators from our collective history.