This is excerpt from my book, Cross Examined: An Unconventional Spiritual Journey. These excerpts are a little longer than the usual post, but I think the fiction format is an interesting way to explore apologetics arguments.
Background: Jim is a wealthy, housebound, and somewhat obnoxious atheist, and Paul is the young acolyte of Rev. Samuel Hargrove, a famous pastor, doing his best to evangelize. It’s 1906 in Los Angeles, and they’re in Jim’s study.
Paul remembered that Jim was simply a lost sheep. Jim had understood the truth of the Bible, and he could be reminded of that again. Paul felt confident and enthusiastic as he began. “You argued yesterday that oral tradition is unreliable and that we can’t trust the Gospel story of Jesus.”
“I argued that the evidence the Gospels provide is paltry compared to what is necessary to justify such amazing claims.”
“Yes. I’d like to challenge that—”
Jim held up a hand. “Before you begin, let’s try an experiment. You think that oral tradition is reliable. Let’s simulate a step in that process. I’ll tell you a story, and then we’ll see how well you remember it.”
Paul didn’t expect a quiz. “I suppose, but remember that I’m just an ordinary person. I’m not trained in memorizing stories.”
“And neither would have been an ordinary citizen in Palestine who heard the story of Jesus and passed it along. From Jesus’s death to the first Gospel was thirty or forty years. The story wasn’t confined to scholars—it was passed through ordinary people.”
“I suppose so,” Paul said. Samuel had talked about trained scholars memorizing the story, but the story passing through common people made sense.
“Do you know the story of Circe from the Odyssey?”
“No—I’ve only read the Iliad.”
“Then you know the context.” Jim got up and walked to the bookcase on his left. The bookcase was densely packed with no apparent order. He ran his fingers across the spines of the books on one shelf, muttering titles to himself. After a few moments, he pulled off a book and leafed through it as he returned to the sofa. “The Iliad is about the Trojan War, and the Odyssey is the story of the Greek hero Odysseus and his ten-year trip home.
“Here’s the story—pay attention.” Jim looked down at the book as he spoke. “Odysseus and his men were lost and they landed on the coast of a strange land. After a few days of rest, Odysseus sent Eurylochus, a trusted friend, with a party of twenty-two men to explore. They found a house in a clearing guarded by lions, wolves, and other animals but were surprised to find the animals tame. They approached the house, and a woman named Circe invited them in. The men were delighted to find so beautiful a hostess and accepted the offer—except for Eurylochus, who suspected a trap. Circe showed the men a banquet and they ate enthusiastically, but she was a witch and the food was drugged. She turned the men into pigs and locked them in pens. The wild animals were men from other expeditions that Circe had also transformed.”
Jim looked up at Paul and then continued. “Eurylochus saw all this and hurried back to tell Odysseus. Odysseus was determined to rescue his men and went alone to Circe’s house. On the way, he met the god Hermes, who wanted to help. He gave Odysseus an herb that would protect him from Circe’s magic, and he told Odysseus that the threat of his sword would beat the threat of her wand. The encounter went as Hermes had predicted—Circe was no match for Odysseus, and she returned the men to human form. Odysseus and his men enjoyed Circe’s hospitality for a year, and she and Odysseus became lovers.”
Jim looked up and set the open book on the sofa. “That’s long enough. The Jesus story is far longer, of course, but let’s see how you do with that. Make sure you got it right—are you unclear on anything?”
Aside from Hermes and Odysseus, the names in the story were new to Paul, and he asked to have them repeated. He checked on the number of men, the kinds of animals in the clearing, and other details.
“Okay,” Jim said after Paul was satisfied, “let’s sit on that for a bit and return to what you were saying about oral tradition.”
“My point is that if the Gospel story was wrong, there would have been people who said, ‘Hold on, now—I was there, and that didn’t happen’ or ‘I knew that fellow, and he didn’t do that.’ A false story wouldn’t have survived.”
“Have you thought this through?”
“Sure,” Paul said.
“I doubt it.”
Paul again felt the punch in the stomach.
Jim frowned. “Think critically about claims like this. You’re smart enough to demand the truth, not just a pleasing answer. First, let’s get an idea of how few potential naysayers there could have been. I’m guessing a few dozen.”
“But there were thousands who saw the miracle of the loaves and fishes. And that’s just one miracle—there were many.”
“That doesn’t help us. A naysayer must have been a close companion of Jesus to witness him not doing all the miracles recorded in the Gospels. He would need to know that Jesus didn’t walk on water and didn’t raise Lazarus. Seems to me that a naysayer must have been one of Jesus’s close companions during his entire ministry. No, there’s no reason to imagine more than a few dozen.”
Odysseus, Eurylochus, Circe, Hermes, Paul thought to himself.
Jim looked up at the ceiling and counted off numbers with his fingers. “Two: the naysayer must be in the right location to complain. Suppose he were in Jerusalem, and say that the book of Mark was written in Alexandria, Egypt. How will our naysayer correct its errors? Sure, Mark will be copied and spread, but there’s not much time before our 60- or 70-year-old witnesses die. Even if we imagine our tiny band of men dedicating their lives to stamping out this false story—and why would they?—believers are starting brush fires of Christian belief all over the Eastern Mediterranean, from Alexandria to Damascus to Rome. How can we expect our naysayers to snuff them all out?
“Three: remember that two thousand years ago, you couldn’t walk down to the corner newsstand to find the latest Jesus Gospel. How were our naysayers to learn of the story? Written documents at that time were scarce and precious things. The naysayers would be Jews who didn’t convert to Christianity, and they wouldn’t have associated much with the new Christians and so would have been unlikely to come across the Jesus story.
Twenty-two men, the food was a drug, the men became pigs, Paul thought.
“Four: there was another gulf between the naysayers and the early Christians. The Gospels were written in Greek, not the local language of Aramaic spoken by Jesus and the naysayers. To even learn of the Jesus story in this community, our naysayers must speak Greek. How many could have done this? And to influence the Greek-speaking readers of the Gospels, a rebuttal would have to have been written in Greek—not a common skill in Palestine.
“Six: consider how hard is it today for a politician or business leader to stop a false rumor, even with the press to get the word out. Think about how hard it would have been in first-century Palestine. How many thousands of Christians were out there spreading the word for every naysayer with his finger in the dike?”
Magic plant for protection, sword beats wand, Paul thought.
“Seven: you say that there were no naysayers, but how do we know that there weren’t? For us to know about them, they would need to have written their story and have some mechanism to recopy the truth over and over until the present day. Just like Christian documents, their originals would have crumbled with time. What would motivate anyone to preserve copies of documents that argued against a religion? Perhaps only another religion! And it’s not surprising that the Jesus-isn’t-divine religion didn’t catch on.”
Jim let out a sigh. “That’s a longer list than I expected. I hope you can see that naysayers could hardly be expected to stop Christianity.”
“A lot to consider,” Paul admitted. “But I still think the oral tradition preserves the truth.”
“That’s a poor rebuttal!” Paul looked away as Jim glowered at him and continued. “Think about it—you’re smarter than this. I hold you to a higher standard, one that doesn’t abide by sloppy thinking. Does God exist? If so, he gave you that mind to use. Your mind is an engine to be harnessed, not a vessel to be filled. You must be a truth seeker; don’t blindly follow someone else’s thinking.”
A soft metallic clap came from the hallway. Paul appreciated the break in the scolding as Jim walked to the door. He returned holding a postcard, dropped it in a trash can, and stood over the chessboard.
“You must read awful fast,” Paul said.
“It was a short message: ‘Knight to king’s bishop three.’ I’m playing chess through the mail with an old friend from college. He still lives in Boston, so this will be a long game.” He moved one of the white pieces. “Do you play chess?”
“I know the rules for how the pieces move, that’s it,” Paul said. “Do you know how you’ll respond?”
“Yes. The early moves in a game are rather predictable, but still interesting. They’re the foundation on which your position rests.”
Jim gazed at the board a few moments, then slowly walked back to the sofa and sat. “Do you eat nuts every day?” He pushed a bowl of shelled almonds across the table toward Paul with a bare foot.
“Uh … no, not often.”
“You should. Your body is a machine, and it needs lubrication. Nuts provide oils that are essential to good health.”
“Well, thank you. I didn’t realize that.”
“And I suppose you eat meat.”
“I’m a vegetarian—I follow the Battle Creek Sanitarium diet. Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. And lots of nuts. Nature provides all that we need to be healthy—no need to kill animals for us to live.”
Paul said nothing as he wondered how to get this derailed train back on track.
“And do you enema?” Jim asked.
Paul assured him that he did not.
“You should, every day. And drink lots of water.” Jim described in unnecessary detail how the colon works and the benefits of daily cleansing. “You’d be shocked at what comes out,” he said.
Paul felt vaguely ill as he agreed.
Jim moved on to how to avoid mucus and the need to chew food so thoroughly that it slithered down the esophagus by itself, but this was mercifully interrupted by a knock on the door. “This should only take a moment,” Jim said.
“Groceries,” he said as he walked into the kitchen carrying a small wooden box. “I get a delivery every day.”
Home delivery seemed to be an extravagance when there was a grocery store two blocks away. Paul mused that the rich lived quite differently than ordinary folk.
When he returned, Jim picked up his copy of the Odyssey as he sat and thankfully dropped the topic of healthy living. “Now, pretend that I’m someone who hasn’t heard the amazing story of Odysseus and Circe and that you’re eager to pass it along.”
Paul said a little prayer as he slid to the edge of his chair. He gestured as he spoke. “Odysseus and his men walked into a strange land. Odysseus stayed behind and Eurylochus took the remaining twenty-two men to investigate. They found a witch named Circe in a house in a clearing, surrounded by wild animals that were actually tame. She invited them in for a banquet. All entered, but Eurylochus refused. One of the foods was a drug, and the men turned into pigs after they ate it.”
“Go on,” Jim said, his left index finger tracing the story in the open book.
“Eurylochus went back to Odysseus and reported what happened. Odysseus went to the house to free his men, and on the way he met Hermes, who gave him a magic drug to protect him. When he met the witch, they fought, Odysseus using his sword and Circe her wand. Odysseus won, and he forced her to release his men. She became nice—though I’m not sure why—and they stayed with her for a year.”
“Not bad,” Jim said. “The basic story is correct, but you changed a lot of details. First off, Odysseus and his men were sailors—they didn’t come marching in overland.”
“I didn’t hear ‘sailors.’ ”
“I said that they landed on the coast,” Jim said, looking down at the book. “These are minor changes, but multiplied with the retelling, they soon turn into big changes. You forgot that they rested first … the party of men who went to the house was just part of Odysseus’s crew, not all of it … you forgot the kinds of wild animals—lions and wolves … Eurylochus stayed outside, he didn’t refuse to enter … you said one food was a drug, but I said ‘the food was drugged’ … the food didn’t turn the crew into pigs, Circe did … the wild animals were also men … Odysseus and Circe didn’t fight.” Jim looked up. “Well, how do you think you did?”
“Okay, I guess. That’s a lot to remember in a short time. But the early church was a web of interconnections. If one person is telling the story to a group, another person in the group may well have heard it before. He could correct any errors.”
“Based on what?” Jim asked. “When I corrected your story just now, I was reading from a book—that’s our authority. There was no book when the Jesus story was oral tradition. When two people’s memories conflicted, whose was right?”
“There were scholars who memorized whole books of the Bible. They would have been an authority.”
“Are you saying that the Jesus story went from scholar to scholar, with a student sworn to secrecy until he could flawlessly repeat the story? That’s not how it was told.” Jim gestured impatiently as if unable to contain his amazement at Paul’s stupidity. “It was a dramatic and exciting yarn that went from fallible person to fallible person, just as stories do today. Society has changed since then, but the basics of storytelling haven’t. When you see two women gossiping over the back fence, you’re seeing something that hasn’t changed in thousands of years.”
Jim leaned back into the sofa, and his voice softened. “You did pretty well, but now imagine that the story was far longer, and you waited days instead of minutes to retell it. Such a story can change dramatically after decades of retelling over and over. What better explains the supernatural elements of the Jesus story—that they actually happened that way or that the story is legendary? Sure, the supernatural claims could be accurate, but why think that? You’ve got a long way to go to show that that’s the best explanation.” Jim grabbed a handful of nuts and ate them one by one. “I’d as soon believe that you could turn me into a pig with magic.”
Paul felt emotionally drained. Empty. His intellectual arsenal was spent as well. He could only pray that Samuel had more ammunition.