Strange Notions is a new web site that aims to be “the central place of dialogue between Catholics and atheists.” I was invited to submit one of my posts, the first atheist contribution, I hear. I applaud that goal, and I am honored to have been be asked.
I offered my “10 Reasons to Just Say Nay to the Naysayer Hypothesis.” A day later, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, author of the Patheos blog Standing on my Head, wrote a reply. Strange Notions is a Catholic site where the Catholic gets the last word, so I will respond to Dwight here.
You’re welcome to read my post about the naysayer hypothesis for full details, but let me summarize it here.
The Christian argument
Many apologists say that Christianity surviving its early years is a testament to its truth. If the gospel story (written or oral) circulating in the years after the death of Jesus wasn’t true, there would’ve been people who would’ve objected. They would’ve said, “Hold on—I was there, and that’s not what happened.” These eyewitnesses would’ve been able to shut down a false story. An eyewitness account would’ve been much more credible than that of someone who simply passed on a story.
Rejection of the naysayer hypothesis
Let’s imagine that. Let’s imagine that Jesus was an ordinary rabbi and that there were eyewitnesses of him not being a miracle worker. The apologist claims that Christianity would’ve been squashed. And let’s be clear here, they can’t be content with a lukewarm, “Well, naysayers might have shut down Christianity.” That’s hardly a foundation on which to build the remarkable claim that God created everything and that Jesus was his emissary on earth who was raised from the dead.
I argue that this naysayer hypothesis is false. That is, we can easily imagine naysayers in the early years of Christianity and the religion surviving just fine. There’s much more in that post, but briefly: the handful of people who followed Jesus closely enough to know that he didn’t do any miracles would’ve been unable to spend their lives stamping out the brush fires of Christianity popping up throughout the eastern Mediterranean. They wouldn’t have even been a part of the Greek-speaking Christian community to know about the error. And why imagine that they would’ve cared enough to devote any meaningful time to eradicating Christianity?
Since rumors take on a life of their own today (it took over two years for the fraction of Americans who believed that Saddam Hussein had something to do with the 9/11 attacks to drop below 50 percent), why imagine that the poorer communication of the ancient world would’ve stopped false rumors any better?
My response to a response
One more bit of housekeeping before we get to the response. Here are the facts that I think Dwight and I share.
1. The gospels and epistles exist. We can agree on what each English translation says.
2. These books were written in the first century, and Christianity is a first-century movement.
Dwight seems to have additional starting assumptions, but I can’t think of any that I’d share with him. In particular, I don’t take as fact that anything in these writings is true. And that’s only prudent—we accept that the epic of Gilgamesh exists, but we don’t immediately take its claims as history. You want to claim that Gilgamesh is actual history? Or the Iliad? Or the Bible? I’ll listen to your argument, but remember our starting point: that these books exist and their age, nothing more.
Dwight makes clear that my problem is
basic false assumptions, rooted in some very elementary ignorance of the facts of New Testament scholarship, historical scholarship, and what actually happened. Of course, if false, these assumptions make [Bob’s] conclusions irrelevant.
With that scolding ringing in our ears, let’s soldier on.
We don’t ask if there were any naysayers around to disprove the gospels from 70 AD onward. We ask whether there were any naysayers around when the gospel was hot and fresh when the apostles were preaching—first in Jerusalem and then around the Empire.
That’s a good point. For simplicity, I imagined just naysayers and the gospels, but yes, the fuller hypothesis imagines naysayers right at the beginning. This touches on points 2 and 3 in my argument, but it does nothing to refute the overall argument.
Next, he spends a surprising amount of time arguing about the date of the gospels.
He repeats the tired old idea that they must date from after 70 AD. The only reason for this dating is the modernist scholar’s assumption that Jesus could not have prophesied the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, which happened in 70 AD. Why? Simply because prophecies of the future are impossible. Why? Because they say so.
I’ve heard this argument many times from conservative scholars. He sees Acts written before 65 AD, and Luke before that, and Mark before that. As far as I can tell, however, this isn’t the scholarly consensus.
But this is a red herring. I don’t much care when you date the gospels. My concerns still stand: you have decades of oral history before the gospels were written, then centuries of turmoil within the Christian community before our earliest full copies in the fourth century. That’s not much firm ground on which to build Christianity’s incredible claims.
Dwight then argues that there were naysayers, but that they were ineffective.
Let’s look at the facts: when the gospel was hot and fresh in Jerusalem in the days after the Resurrection there were plenty of people there who knew Jesus, knew what had happened, and were ready to dispute with the disciples.
Yes, it’s a fact that that’s what the story says. No, that doesn’t make it history.
Dwight talks about the bit in Matthew where the Jewish leaders say that disciples must have stolen the body, but why imagine that that story circulated days after the death of Jesus? All we know is that it appeared in a gospel decades after the death of Jesus. And I’m still scratching my head trying to understand Dwight’s point. Why imagine that the naysayers would be motivated to stamp out this false teaching? Why imagine that “That’s nonsense!” would stamp out a religion? Has it ever?
Let me propose an alternative explanation that explains the facts nicely without having to conjure up a supernatural claim. Jesus was a charismatic rabbi. Maybe supernatural stories were told about him during his lifetime, maybe not. Paul writes his epistles two decades after the death of Jesus, within which the gospel story is very minimal (I’ve written about the gospel of Paul here). Like a transplanted species that thrives, Christianity adapts and takes on elements of its new Greek environment, a culture full of supernatural stories. The Jesus stories grow with the retelling, and the gospels are snapshots at different places and times within the eastern Mediterranean.
Our point is not that there were no naysayers but that there were plenty and that they still couldn’t disprove what the apostles were saying.
(It’s not that Dorothy had no obstacles to returning to Kansas but that she had plenty and that she and her friends still overcame them.)
It’s a story. Both the Wizard of Oz and the gospel are stories. Yes, the gospel trots out naysayers and then says that the church withstood the attack. Show that the gospel is actually history, and then that argument will be compelling. Until then, not so much.
Let me try to summarize Dwight’s rebuttal:
1. The action started right after the crucifixion, not at the writing of the gospel. You’re right, but that doesn’t affect the argument.
2. You dated the gospels wrong. I doubt it, but let’s use your dates.
3. The gospel story documents that naysayers existed who, despite their best efforts, could do nothing to defeat Christianity. So what? This means nothing until you show that the gospel story is history.
Dwight concludes by comparing me to someone explaining why there are no lunar landing deniers in NASA.
You may come up with ten astounding reasons why there are no lunar landing deniers at NASA, but it might just be because there was a lunar landing and the people at NASA—along with most other people—accept the simple facts of what really happened.
Yeah. We should accept the simple fact that Jesus was raised from the dead by the omnipotent creator of the universe (an Iron Age polytheistic deity) who demanded a human sacrifice to assuage his sense of injustice that humans are imperfect, like he made them to be.
Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run
by smart people who are putting us on
or by imbeciles who really mean it.
— Mark Twain