The Gospels and Critical History

I follow with interest some of the debates posted on SO concerning the historical reliability of the Gospel narratives. Christian apologists often accuse skeptics of approaching those narratives with an unwarranted degree of skepticism that assumes the falsehood of those narratives until and unless they meet unreasonable standards of proof not imposed on other ancient testimonies. For instance, they say that skeptics raise no quibbles about the general historicity of the accounts of Thucydides, Suetonius, or Tacitus, but impose a much stricter standard on Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In particular, skeptics are accused of adopting a “post-Enlightenment” bias that automatically rejects miraculous accounts, such as the resurrection narratives, without due consideration of their actual historical support.

In my earlier post, “Hume’s Beautiful Argument,” I defended the Humean conclusion that skeptics are abundantly justified in imposing an especially heavy burden of proof on miracle reports. Robert J. Fogelin’s excellent A Defense of Hume on Miracles (Princeton, 2003) provides more detailed support of Hume and rebuts his two most notable recent critics, John Earman and David Johnson.

The broader claim that skeptics employ an invidious double standard in evaluating Gospel accounts is false in many instances. For instance, my attitude towards the Gospel narratives is precisely the same as my attitude towards those of Herodotus. Though I think that Herodotus is very broadly accurate (e.g. there was a Battle of Marathon; a Spartan king named Leonidas did lead the defense at Thermopylae; a citizen named Themistocles did lead the Athenian defense) I do not hesitate to doubt many of his stories when the evidence seems against them (e.g. modern military historians, such as Richard A. Gabriel, question Herodotus’ account of Athenian tactics at Marathon). Other of Herodotus’ tales, like the one about the king who was so proud of his queen’s beauty that he showed her off naked to his servant, seem just a bit (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) too good to be true. Likewise, with the Gospels, I see no reason to doubt that there was a wandering rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth who did and said some of the things attributed to him and who was executed by the Roman authorities sometime around 30 C.E. On the other hand, as with Herodotus, when a Gospel tale seems unlikely to me, I doubt it. No double standard.

The claim that skeptics employ a double standard is also hypocritical. It is apologists themselves who set the reliability bar much higher for the Biblical stories. Conservative Christian apologists do not merely claim that the Gospel accounts are broadly reliable or true in outline. Again, skeptics could easily concede that much. Conservative apologists, even when they are not strict infallibilists, maintain that the Gospels are true in detail, not merely in outline. Precisely how much of the detail is taken as literally true differs from writer to writer, but if an apologist doubts too much he risks repudiation (or worse) from his colleagues (SO recently carried the story of professional apologist Mike Licona who was fired for casting doubt on passages in Matthew). Hence, apologists themselves hold the Gospel narratives to a much higher standard of historical reliability than we expect from, say, Herodotus. Skeptical scholars can hardly be blamed if they do hold Biblical texts to the same high standards of historical accuracy as the apologists.

In fact, the shoe is on the other foot. It is the Christian apologists who routinely make unwarrantable assumptions about the composition of the Gospels. Apologists frequently attribute to the Gospel writers aims, methods, and resources more characteristic of modern critical historians than of First Century writers of apologetic and confessional literature. The Gospels are vehicles of proclamation (the “Good News”) written in narrative form and with an undisguised apologetic and evangelistic agenda (e.g. John 20:31). The differences between such writings and any specimen of modern critical history are vast and obvious. Yet we are told that the Gospel writers were in frequent consultation with the eyewitnesses, who would not have allowed fabrications or alterations to enter the text. We are told that these authors were fact-checkers, critical evaluators, and sticklers for accuracy, as a modern historian would be expected to be.

Really? Let’s try a thought experiment: What would a contemporary account of Jesus have looked like had it been written by a historian with the resources, aims, and methods of a modern critical historian? Let’s imagine then that around C.E. 60, when Peter and other eyewitnesses would still have been alive and vigorous, a skeptical but sympathetic historian decided to get to the bottom of this Jesus business and write the definitive account. Let’s make the anachronistic supposition that he would have had the objectives and resources and would have employed the methods of a well-supported modern critical historian. For instance, let’s imagine that he had a generous travel budget, research assistants, access to documents and public records, and ease of travel and communication similar to what a modern historian might enjoy. How would he have proceeded?

He would have begun by trying to find as many eyewitnesses as possible to interview. He would have carefully recorded these accounts verbatim, insisting that his interviewees report only what they personally witnessed and not allowing them to pass along hearsay, surmise, or inference as fact. He would have tried to interview any of the surviving former disciples, as well as Mary Magdalene and any other of Jesus’s followers or associates that could be found. He would be especially interested in interviewing James, the brother of Jesus, and any other siblings or relatives he could locate. If possible, he would track down some of the “500” who supposedly saw the risen Jesus at once and try to get a clear account of the exact circumstances (Was Jesus on a stage or a hilltop so that everyone could get a good look at him? Did you all know Jesus personally so that you could be sure to identify him correctly? And so forth). Particular efforts would have been made to interview non-Christians such as Roman or Jewish officials from the prefecture of Pontius Pilate or the Sanhedrin at the time of Jesus’ trial.

After collecting several dozen interviews, these accounts would have to be judiciously compared, their discrepancies noted (and there are ALWAYS discrepancies between eyewitness accounts), and their points of independent agreement highlighted. Naturally, he would have to consider the trustworthiness of the individual witnesses, such as their state of mind or mental health and whether they had axes to grind or personal agendas. For instance, Jesus was said to have driven seven devils from Mary Magdalene, perhaps indicating that she was not a person of stable personality, and this would influence our evaluation of her testimony. The eyewitness testimony would then be compared to public records and any available writings, such as official documents, the “Q” compilations, the letters of Paul, and any other accounts or memoirs.

Our critical historian would be particularly careful to inquire into the exact circumstances of miracle claims, particularly those relating to the resurrection. Who, precisely, were the witnesses? What exactly did those who claimed to encounter the risen Jesus see? What were the precise details of time, place, and circumstance? Did the supposed witnesses really see Jesus as they saw him in life, or were the appearances of a visionary or hallucinatory nature? Do the witnesses substantially agree, or do their accounts diverge in major ways? Were the witnesses independent or did they influence one another or both fall under the influence of a third party?

Once all of the data had been compiled, organized, and evaluated, and the work composed, what would he finished product be like? The sources would be front and center and abundantly documented in the form of extensive footnotes. The standards used to evaluate those sources would be made clear. Conclusions would be cautious and qualified carefully vis-à-vis the evidence. Stringent efforts would be made to sort fact from the fictitious accretions that inevitably creep in due to the fallibility and creativity of memory and the universal tendency of eyewitnesses to “see” what they want or expect to see. Good historians recognize that eyewitnesses, far from being a guarantee of accuracy, often are sources of bias or error. Further, the times and places of all key events would be specified so far as possible. Discrepancies and inadequacies in the evidence would be carefully noted, and alternative interpretations recognized.

Now, of course we do not know what our imaginary historian would have concluded, but it should be abundantly clear that his product would be very different from the Gospel records. Unlike our critical historian, the writers of the Synoptic Gospels cite no specific sources or eyewitnesses at all (John is an apparent exception). Luke, in his opening address to Theophilus, assures his reader (1:2-3) that he has carefully gone over “..the traditions handed down to us by the original eyewitnesses and servants of the Gospel.” Yet we are told nothing about who these original eyewitnesses were or what they said. Indeed, Luke refers not to the original eyewitnesses themselves, but to the “traditions” handed down from them. It is not clear at all whether Luke has interviewed any of the eyewitnesses himself or whether he has gotten second-hand or third-hand reports of what they said. He tantalizingly mentions (1:1) “many” other writers who have drawn up accounts of these events, but he neither quotes nor cites any of these. Basically, Luke is just saying “trust me” to his reader. The difference between Luke’s and a modern critical historian’s treatment of sources could not be plainer, and Luke is the most “scholarly” of the Synoptics. The authors of Matthew and Mark cite no sources at all, and certainly offer no clear indication that they themselves were eyewitnesses (As we have noted, Luke admits that he was not an eyewitness. Apologist P.B. Ewen in her book Faith on Trial, Boardman & Holdman, 1999, argues that each Gospel is an original and independent witness. I offer an extended rebuttal in chapter 3 of Why I am not a Christian, available on the Secular Web).

The Gospel of John, on the other hand, refers to an eyewitness in two verses, 19:35 and 21:24. And just who was this alleged eyewitness? Well, we are not told exactly but he is referred to obliquely as “the disciple whom Jesus loved (21:20).” Tradition came to identify this beloved disciple as John the son of Zebedee. OK, so does one Gospel at least record the testimony of an eyewitness?
There are some very odd things about the two passages of John that cite an eyewitness. The Gospel appears to draw to a solemn conclusion at the end of chapter 20. Chapter 21 looks like a later addendum and 21:24 sounds like the strained effort of a latter-day author who is trying just a bit too hard to make a case for the apostolic authorship of the Gospel. Verse 24 makes a very strong claim:

It is this same disciple [i.e. the “disciple whom Jesus loved”] who attests what has here been written. It was in fact he who wrote it, and we know that his testimony is true.

Again, the author here is protesting just a bit too much, and he thereby betrays anxiety over the question of the book’s apostolic authenticity.

Verse 19:35, on the other hand, is part of a larger pericope, verses 31-37, that tells the story of the soldier who pierced Jesus’ side and recounts the (highly symbolic) flow of both blood and water from his side. As the commentators of the New English Bible note (p. 135):
In the blood and water Jn. perceives a deep theological significance see (7:38-39; 1 Jn. 5. 6,8); he intends this as a symbol of the gift of the Spirit, or, possibly, of baptism.

The point of the invocation of the eyewitness here appears to be to authenticate the occurrence of this highly theologically significant (though medically impossible) event. What we have here then does not look so much like an authentic original witness, but a post hoc attempt to validate a prior theological commitment.

Still, some reputable biblical scholars, and not just fundamentalist “scholars,” have regarded the Gospel of John as containing material originally transmitted orally by the apostle John to his followers, who at some point wrote down this testimony (or their memories of it). For the sake of argument, let’s accept this claim. Nevertheless, the book bears clear evidence of having been composed in several edited stages (see Smalley, pp. 374-375, The Oxford Companion to the Bible) before being published in final form by the Johannine community at Ephesus (around 90-100 C.E. according to the editors of The New Oxford Study Bible). Hence, whatever nuggets of authentic and reliable information John imparted had to pass through several hands and it is just not clear how much of the final product rests on that testimony. Further, the recollections of a single eyewitness are highly fallible and subject to numerous biases and distortions. This is why critical historians compare and contrast the testimony of multiple eyewitnesses to compensate so far as possible for the fallibility of individual memory.

Even conceding the apostolic origins and broad reliability of the Gospel of John, there are many reasons for doubting the details of its account. For one thing, in the Synopitcs, Jesus’ speech is terse, pithy, and given to the employment of parables and striking similes. In John, Jesus speaks in verbose dialogues and disquisitions. While John may have recorded the gist of these discourses, it is highly unlikely that he has gotten them verbatim. Memory just does not work that way (see John Dominic Crossan’s brilliant discussion of oral traditions and the foibles of memory in chapters 3 and 4 of his The Birth of Christianity, Harper, 1998).

Worse, some of the most important events recorded in the Gospel cannot have been witnessed by John for the simple reason that he was not present when these allegedly occurred. Verse 19:38 begins the story of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus and how they acquired Jesus’ body and prepared it for burial by wrapping it in linen and applying spices. John could not possibly have witnessed any of this, and there is no indication of how this information was obtained. Also, John did not witness the alleged encounter between the resurrected Jesus and Mary Magdalene recorded in 20:11-17. He was not there. Verse 10 tells us that the disciples went home after viewing the empty tomb, leaving Mary there.

Here is what the Gospel says happened next: Mary was standing there weeping when she looks into the tomb and sees two angels. They ask her why she is weeping and Mary, who seems not the least fazed or surprised at having a conversation with two angelic beings, says “they have taken my Lord away, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Mary then turns around and sees Jesus, but for some unstated reason does not recognize him and thinks that he is the gardener. Not mentioning the two angels she has just talked to, she asks the “gardener” where Jesus’ body might be. Jesus calls her by name and she recognizes him. Jesus then tells her not to touch him but to go his “brothers” and tell them that he is ascending to the Father. Thus, the only basis for this bizarre story is what John, maybe many years later, recalled as having been said to him by a possibly deranged woman in circumstances that were, to say the very least, highly unusual.

But what about the other appearance stories that John records? The most detailed of these is recounted in chapter 21, but, as we noted, this chapter appears to have been a later addendum. Whether it is or not, we really have no idea whether any of the appearance stories go back to John’s original testimony or whether they are later accretions. The latter is more likely. The original text of the Gospel of Mark, the earliest gospel, promises a post-mortem appearance but contains no such accounts. But if the author of the earliest Gospel knows of no such appearance stories, this makes highly suspect the detailed accounts found in the later Gospels. By the time the Gospels were set down in final form Christians were involved in fierce controversy with orthodox Jews, who dismissed their tales of a resurrected rabbi. The detailed appearance stories likely arose to deploy against such critics. The most famous of the appearance stories in John, the appearance to the doubting Thomas, seems to have been composed both to assure believers of the post-apostolic age that Jesus was indeed physically resurrected, and to condone such believers for having faith though, unlike Thomas and the other apostles, they have not seen the risen Jesus.

It is abundantly clear, then, that none of the Gospel accounts is at all like what a modern critical historian would write. A critical historian would try to make it plain just where the eyewitness testimony ends and where surmise, conjecture, or hearsay begins. With the Gospels we just cannot say. The Gospel writers all have big theological and apologetic axes to grind, and the ideological tail consistently wags the evidential dog. Of course, critical historians also can have ideological agendas, but the evidence has to be front and center or their colleagues will not listen to them. Critical historians try to draw a coherent account from the heterogeneous and often discrepant sources. The gospels narratives do not agree on some of the most vital information. For instance, the details of the resurrection accounts differ widely from Gospel to Gospel.

Now it could well be that, as apologists have often asserted, the discrepancies about what happened on Easter morning are inconsistent only to the extent that you would expect from eyewitnesses who had experienced very unusual events and who were in highly emotional states. OK, but a critical historian would interview as many of the supposed eyewitnesses as possible, compare contrast and evaluate, and try to piece together a consistent and coherent account. As the Gospel accounts stand, all we can really say is that Mary Magdalene, and possibly some other women whose identities are not clear, went on Easter morning to a tomb that they thought was Jesus’ and found it empty. Did they go to the right tomb? How did they know where Jesus was buried? (The Gospels, anticipating this objection, insist that they did see where Jesus was buried. Sounds to me like they were engaging in after-the-fact CYA.) Was Jesus buried in a tomb at all? The vast majority of crucified criminals were tossed into mass graves. How do we know that the stories about Joseph of Arimathea are reliable? How do we know that these stories are not pious legends invented by later Christians ashamed at the actual, dishonorable treatment of Jesus’ body? If Jesus’ body were placed in an honorable tomb, how do we know whether someone might have removed the body overnight? A modern critical historian would try to give us solid, well-evidenced answers to these questions, but with the Gospels we can only surmise.

What really happened after Jesus’ execution is one of history’s enduring mysteries. The best accounts we have, the canonical gospels, were put in their final forms long after the events they describe, and even if they do contain information going back to eyewitnesses, the final authors and editors were of a later generation and thoroughly mixed that original witness with later tradition and interpretation. The Gospel authors do not tell us what sources they draw upon and make no effort to compare and evaluate those sources. Matthew and Luke freely plagiarize Mark, which shows that their use of other source materials must have been similarly uncritical. The Gospels have undisguised apologetic, theological, and evangelistic agendas, and these agendas clearly shape the narrative. Much material of an undeniably legendary or fictitious nature has worked its way into the accounts (see Randall Helms, Gospel Fictions, Prometheus Books, 1988), once more indicating an uncritical approach to sources. The Gospels are inconsistent with each other; indeed, the best evidence against the reliability of the Gospel of John is the testimony of the Synoptics. In short, for anyone who wants a clear picture of what happened, especially concerning the resurrection and the postmortem appearances, the Gospels are a mess. Consequently, many of the things we would most like to know will remain forever elusive.

About Keith Parsons
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11030669424412573308 Chris

    Not only are the gospels not remotely like anything a modern critical historian would write, they're not much like anything an ancient historian would write. Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian War, written some 500 years earlier, is much more 'modern' in character than the gospels, which are written in a portentous and figurative language and often describe highly symbolic/numerological actions. What critical historian, ancient or modern, would produce this:

    "And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many." (Matthew 27:51-53)

    (It's noteworthy that Thucydides did not credit beliefs in divine intervention, another similarity with modern historians.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12030785676230758243 Dan Gillson

    Goddammit Keith. You wrote something that I'm genuinely interested in, but it requires more attention than I'm willing to give to the internet.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00053915240281421992 Mike Gantt

    Keith,

    Your thesis seems to be that while there was probably an itinerant rabbi named Jesus who was crucified by the Romans in the third decade of the first century, the accounts we have of His life and teaching are largely embellishments of one sort or another. This raises the question of how such historical corruptions resulted in a life story that 1) has been admired for centuries by millions who've studied it, and 2) that meets the requirements of hundreds of Old Testament prophecies.

    To believe that such a false written narrative was perpetrated by a variety of writers and editors working at various times in various places with limited ability to conspire, requires more faith than to believe that the original authors were telling the truth. It's like saying the Brink's Robbery was pulled off by members of a gang who didn't work together.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05034037930336299849 Mike Gage

    Mike Gantt,

    I could write a story right now that meets every alleged prophecy in the Hebrew Bible and it would be completely embellished. As for whether it becomes admired for centuries, well, that depends on a lot of things. None of those things, however, would necessarily indicate historicity.

    Additionally, I think your comments are a perfect example of the double standard Keith mentioned. the same argument could be employed in a large number of situations and you would reject it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00053915240281421992 Mike Gantt

    Mike Gage,

    I don't think Keith was suggesting that Jesus wasn't historical, but only that the historical facts had been embellished (and perhaps distorted).

    Moreover, I think Keith was proposing that the records were corrupted over time by a variety of people in variety of ways – working independently. This is the part that stretches credulity. You, by contrast, are suggesting that a single author could have designed the story – which would make it hard to explain the variegated provenance of the documents (i.e. they were found all over the ancient Mediterranean world, and did not arise from a single location).

    Nonetheless, I am willing to read the story you say you could write to see if it passes the test you say it can.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05034037930336299849 Mike Gage

    I wasn't suggesting that Jesus wasn't historical either. Let me be clearer.

    My point is that your claim is highly dubious considering they were written after the Hebrew Bible and the authors obviously had access to said Bible.

    Two known phenomena come to mind. First, people tend to read things into earlier stories (see Harold Camping and Christians of every generation making similar claims). So, something that may not even be a prophecy is claimed to be one. It's really working in reverse order, though. Second, people will embellish stories to meet something they view as a prophecy.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11030669424412573308 Chris

    Ironically, it is trying to square the Gospels with Old Testament prophecy that leads to historical inaccuracy – the ahistorical Massacre of the Innocents, for example, as the 'reason' Jesus is born in Bethlehem (with its additional parallel to the life of Moses).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10779283712050744835 PDH

    "To believe that such a false written narrative was perpetrated by a variety of writers and editors working at various times in various places with limited ability to conspire, requires more faith than to believe that the original authors were telling the truth."

    I have to disagree with this. It's a common tactic with apologists to say, 'look at how implausible alternative explanation Y is, therefore hypothesis X must be true,' when, implausible though Y may be, it (a) does not exhaust the possibilities and (b) still pales in comparison to the implausibility of X. They'll take an unlikely non-Christian excuse like 'maybe Jesus had an identical twin,' or something and then they'll say, 'come on, get serious, that's ridiculous' with which nearly everyone will agree. However, it's also ridiculous that God would sacrifice himself to himself to appease himself and then subsequently resurrect himself. Next to that even the twin theory starts to look reasonable (which is not to say that it is reasonable).

    I don't deny that many of the alternative explanations are implausible. What I deny – and what I think every sensible person must deny – is that they are more implausible than the hypothesis that the son of God was resurrected from the grave.

    Suppose a detective was working on a case in which a victim was found shot dead inside a room locked from the inside and one of his colleagues suggested that a Goblin did it. The detective might reply that it's more likely that the victim was killed by a professional using some new kind of weapon that can shoot through walls. 'That's preposterous!' his colleague would be correct to respond but, we can add, that doesn't mean that a Goblin did it.

    I think the detective's explanation is slightly better but I think that, on the whole, they're both terrible explanations. The correct response in such situations is to say, 'they're both probably wrong but I don't know what the correct answer is.'

    As for prophecies, I don't think any non-Christians are seriously worried by them given the extraordinary opportunities for reinterpretation they present.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00053915240281421992 Mike Gantt

    Mike Gage,

    The reason Harold Camping and others keep predicting a return of Jesus and keep being wrong about it is that Jesus Christ already came again (and a long time ago at that).

    As for people embellishing stories to meet prophecy, that would only be the case for dishonest and foolish people.  Dishonest because it would be a lie, and foolish because it would defeat the purpose of the prophecy.

    As to your challenging my view that the writers of the New Testament documents were telling the truth, when, where, and how did they come up with the idea of Jesus being resurrected if it didn't actually happen?  Everyone had the Hebrew Bible.  If it was all that easy to see His resurrection coming, how come no one saw it coming?

     

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00053915240281421992 Mike Gantt

    Chris,

    Since "the massacre of the innocents" is part of Matthew's gospel, the most you can say against it is that it is uncorroborated (which may or may not be true). You can hardly call it ahistorical since the way you know about it is by reading a document handing down to us from antiquity.

    And why do you suppose Matthew would risk tainting his gospel with a fabrication that would undermine the whole account? Especially when his audience would likely have included people who would have known much better that we do whether or not it actually took place.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05034037930336299849 Mike Gage

    Mike Gantt,

    I'm sorry but you haven't said anything compelling. The problem seems to be that (A) you apparently aren't quite getting my points as clearly shown by your responses and (B) you apparently are a bit nuts – first suspected by your terrible arguments and later confirmed by that link you provided. This will be my last comment to you because anything further would be an obvious waste of my time.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00053915240281421992 Mike Gantt

    Mike Gage,

    I get your points, I just don't agree with them. More precisely, they don't address the issue of the post and my response to it – a point to which I returned with the question in my closing paragraph to you.

    By the way, I'm curious about what qualifies me as "a little nuts" in your view?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00053915240281421992 Mike Gantt

    PDH,

    I agree that the implausibility of Y does not in and of itself make X true.

    I also agree that neither goblins nor a sci fi weapon are plausible explanations to your detective scenario.

    Where I think you err is in the very assumptions you bring to this issue. You seem to say that resurrection from the dead is so implausible as to render it an unacceptable answer to the question of what happened to Jesus. In doing this, you are locking yourself into your conclusion with circular reasoning. What I suggest would be a better way of reasoning this issue is to say, "If there is no God, then resurrection is an unacceptable answer; but if there is a God who created us all, resurrection would be entirely plausible." That would free you to follow where the evidence leads.

    As for your last statement, you should read (or re-read) the book of Acts. The story of Jesus' resurrection was not enough to create believers – it was the fact that it happended "according to the Scriptures." The apostles were constantly having to show their fellow Jews how the Scriptures were fulfilled in the case of Jesus. If the Scriptures gave "extraordinary opportunities for reinterpretation" as you posit, such a test would have been meaningless.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10779283712050744835 PDH

    Mike,

    I don't reject outright the possibility of resurrection, I simply say that it is less probable than even fairly unlikely alternatives.

    I would go further and say that even on Christianity, this would be true. The Resurrection (of Jesus) is a unique event on Christianity. Miraculous and rare by its very nature. Even if we assume, for the sake of argument that Christianity is true (and note the circularity of that position) the alternative explanations, infrequent though they may be, are still more frequent than the Resurrection!

    For example, I don't think for a second that the witnesses were all hallucinating but mass hallucinations still occur more frequently than the resurrection of Jesus. They occur more frequently than the resurrection of Jesus even on the assumption that Christianity is true.

    In other words, I think that even Christians should assume that resurrection accounts are likely false until, to echo Hume, it is demonstrated that the possibility of their truth is more probable than the possibility of their falsehood.

    But obviously, as an atheist I think there are good reasons to think that resurrection is improbable, ceteris paribus, so that in itself is a good reason to reject the hypothesis. It is not a bias as it is based on the best available scientific knowledge.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11030669424412573308 Chris

    Mike,

    Perhaps you're right that it's too strong to call it ahistorical; the fact that it isn't mentioned by any contemporary historians leads me to believe (with many Christian scholars as well) that it is legendary and written to harmonize with Old Testament prophecy. Josephus, for example, recounts Herod's murder of his sons, but makes no mention of this would-be massacre. The massacre also isn't mentioned in Mark, generally considered to be the earliest gospel, nor in any other gospel. So I see no reason to believe it occurred – but that, of course, doesn't mean it didn't.

    (And I'm foggy on this, but isn't there an issue as to whether Herod was even alive at this point?)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00053915240281421992 Mike Gantt

    PDH,

    You and I agree that resurrection is, all other things being equal, improbable (for more on this, see The Resurrection of Jesus Christ Is Improbable).  If it were probable, the resurrection of Christ wouldn't be as noteworthy.  Thus there is an irony for those who say that they if only resurrections were more commonplace, they'd have an easier time believing that Jesus was raised – but by such a reality, the distinction of Jesus' resurrection from the dead would be lost.  And His distinction is crucial to His identity, and to His work on our behalf.

    You are equating plausibility with frequency (as in your "mass hallucination" scenario), but if an event is claimed to be unique – as is the case with the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ – requirements of frequency are beside the point.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00053915240281421992 Mike Gantt

    Chris,

    Thanks for the fair-minded response.

    It is no doubt an obscure event. Bethlehem was a small town, and one estimate I read was that as few as 10-30 children could have died – not that this makes the act any less reprehensible. I see no reason that this event should have made the national news, or be chronicled in the history of a brutal dictator, because while consistent with his behavior, it would not have rivaled other cruelties for a scribe's attention. Its effect would have largely been parochial to that small village. Thus I would expect the only witnesses to have been Jesus' mother and siblings, along with perhaps some family friends or neighbors who had become Jesus' followers and therefore known to Matthew – and, who knows, perhaps a member of Herod's entourage who ultimately came to faith in Christ. Such conversions were rare, but not unheard of. (I'm thinking of, say, Saul of Tarsus as an example of a member of the ruling class who came around.)

    If Matthew wanted to make the point that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, he could easily have done so without bringing up the massacre. And this was Luke's approach. A simple reference to Bethlehem as the birthplace and the quotation from Micah would have been sufficient for Matthew to make his point about lineage to David. However, he tells this story of the massacre, and then quotes a much more obscure passage from Jeremiah as relevant to it. I can fathom no reason for Matthew including the massacre other than 1) it happened, and 2) it was relevant to the way Matthew felt his account should be laid out.

    Each gospel writer, of course, laid out his account in slightly different fashion (save John whose account was more than slightly different, though the same in essentials). That the others did not include it testifies to its not being considered an essential element of the Jesus narrative. Again, if conditions 1) and 2) above do not apply then Matthew was throwing a red herring into a document he obviously intended to be logical – which would be completely absurd. I'm open to another explanation of why it's in there, but, for the life of me, I can't think of one more plausible.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01786844757672182664 K-Dog

    1) WHO ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT HERE? The ‘conservative’ members of the Third Quest for Jesus don’t think this as you allege: (Assessing Progress in the Third Quest of the Historical Jesus1
    Craig A. Evans)

    2) The Gospels are of the genre of ancient biography: http://www.amazon.com/What-Are-Gospels-Comparison-Graeco-Roman/dp/0802809715 /
    John 20:31 I agree that John is evangelistic (THE PURPOSE OF THE FOURTH GOSPEL: JOHN 20:31 RECONSIDERED D. A. CARSON), but that doesn’t mean that John is necessarily unreliable, or even incapable of being mined for some historical kernels of truth using the criteria of authenticity. In fact, just the opposite is the case with respect to Holocaust victims and probably John as well, “It would require reliable information to strengthen the faith of Christians or to enlighten the understanding of unbelievers. D. A. Carson
    states his understanding in these words: “John’s purpose is not academic. He writes in order that men and women may believe certain propositional truth, the truth that the Christ, the Son of God, is Jesus, the Jesus whose portrait is drawn in this Gospel.” John selected events from the life ofJesus that would lead the readers to such faith in Jesus. Reliable historical reporting lay at the foundation of this faith. (The “Criteria” for Authenticity by Robert H. Stein; THE RELIABILITY OF HISTORY IN JOHN’S GOSPEL by THOMAS D. LEA*) Moreover, if you accept John’s intent up front then you also have to accept Luke’s intention up front if you are going to be consistent. Luke, who was not an eye-witness of Jesus' ministry, wrote his gospel after gathering the best sources of information within his reach (Luke 1:1-4).

    3) The bit about Jesus driving 9 demons out of Mary is nice legerdemain; that occurs in Mark 16:9 which you don’t think was part of the original, and neither do I, or many other NT scholars.

    4) PLEASE READ, OR IF YOU ALREADY HAVE, INTERACT WITH RICHARD BAUCKHAM’S MAGNUM OPUS Jesus and the Eyewitnesses

    5) FAR FROM BEING MEDICALLY IMPOSSIBLE, THIS ACTUALLY PROVIDES STRONG EVIDENCE THAT JOHN IS BASED ON EYEWITNESS TESTIMONY: “Death by crucifixion occurred due to two primary causes: hypovolemic shock and exhaustion asphyxia (asphyxiation). One consequence of the person going into hypovolemic shock and also being asphyxiated (unable to draw in breath) was that water would collect around the pericardium, the sac surrounding the heart. Thus when the Roman soldier stabbed Jesus’ side with the spear (which was not common procedure for crucifixions) the wall of the pericardium was pierced, resulting in a flow of both blood from the heart itself and water from the surrounding sac.” William D. Edwards, Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association, vol 255, No. 11, 21 March 1986, 1461-1463.

    6) PLEASE READ: THE EYEWITNESSES AND THE GOSPEL TRADITION BY RICAHRD BAUCKHAM; The Purpose and Preservation of the Jesus Tradition: Moderate Evidence for a Conserving Force in Its Transmission

    7) I think we should regard the author of the Fourth Gospel as doing what was a frequent practice in his time: based on the words of his master, the author created discourses in which he presented what he considers that his master would have said in response to certain new situations which have arisen since his death. One may usefully compare John's presentation of Jesus with Plato's presentation of Socrates' trial, where it is generally assumed that Plato did not present an account of what Socrates said on that occasion, but primarily what he felt that he would have said had he been given the opportunity to answer his accusers at such length.

    8) BOO! If someone couldn’t write history unless they saw all the events they are writing about with their own two eyes, I dare say that you would eliminate a vast vast amount of history. It’s all about sources sir, it’s all about sources.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01786844757672182664 K-Dog

    11) Yes, exactly; you are committing the very error that you allege ‘conservatives’ of committing whose names are anonymous, who also haven’t been cited, and I seriously doubt have been ‘intensely’ researched.

    A critical historian would try to make it plain just where the eyewitness testimony ends and where surmise, conjecture, or hearsay begins. With the Gospels we just cannot say.

    AGAIN, READ RICHARDK BAUCKHAM

    12) I HAVE ALREADY ADDRESSED THE INFLUENCE THAT AN IDEOLOGICAL AGENDA CAN HAVE. But the problem with this line of argument is that it assumes three things: (i) that the inconsistencies are irresolvable rather than merely apparent; (ii) that the inconsistencies lie at the heart of the narrative rather
    than just in the secondary, peripheral details; and (iii) that all of the accounts have an equal claim to historical reliability, since the presence of inconsistencies in a later, less reliable source does nothing to undermine the credibility of an earlier, more credible source. In fact, when you look at the supposed inconsistencies, what you find is that most of them—like the names and number of the women who visited the tomb—are merely apparent, not real. Moreover, the alleged inconsistencies are found in the secondary, circumstantial details of the story and have no effect at all on the four facts as I’ve stated them.

    In fact, when you look at them, the Gospels all agree that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified in Jerusalem by Roman authority during the Passover feast, having been arrested and convicted on charges of blasphemy by the Jewish Sanhedrin and then slandered before the Roman Governor Pilate on charges of treason. He died within several hours and was buried Friday afternoon by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb, which was sealed with a stone. Certain women followers of Jesus, including Mary Magdalene, who is always named, having observed his interment, visited his tomb early Sunday morning, only to find it empty. Thereafter, Jesus appeared alive from the dead to his disciples, including Peter, who then became proclaimers of the message of his resurrection. All four Gospels attest to all of those facts. More details could be added simply by including facts mentioned in three of the Gospels, three out of the four (WLC).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01786844757672182664 K-Dog

    Not when you look at that four line formula in I Corinthians 15! It is like an outline of the events of the death of Jesus, the burial by Joseph of Arimathea, the empty tomb, and then the appearance narratives. Compared to
    the Acts of the Apostles on the one hand and the Gospels on the other hand, this summary in I Corinthians 15 is like an outline, which includes as the second line Joseph’s burial of Jesus in the tomb (WLC).

    The only case where women witnesses did serve as witnesses in Jewish courts of law comes 200 years after the events in the Gospel in the Mishna. However, in the Mishna, it clearly states that women can only serve as witnesses for two things: 1) To testify to their own virginity, and 2: To testify that her husband is dead.

    A second case that is sometimes mentioned is found in Josephus, where he relies on the testimony of two women with respect to the slaughter of Gamala and Misada. However, this only goes to underscore the point that women being reported as discoverer's of the empty tomb because the only reason Josephus used these two women in his historical work is that thewere the only remaining survivers of the slaughter.
    WLC:1. The earliest Jewish polemic presupposes the empty tomb. The Jewish charge that the disciples stole the body presupposes that the body was missing (Matt 28:11-15). Allison disputes this argument because of the uncertainty of the age of the Jewish polemic. But in confessing that it escapes him why this passage “bears ‘the mark of a fairly protracted controversy’” (p. 312), Allison overlooks the developing pattern of assertion and counter-assertion in the tradition history that lay behind Matthew’s guard story:
    Christian: “The Lord is risen!”
    Jew: “No, his disciples stole away his body.”
    Christian: “The guard at the tomb would have prevented any such theft.”
    Jew: “No, the guard fell asleep.”
    Christian: “The chief priests bribed the guard to say this.”

    In response to the Christian proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection, the Jewish reaction was simply to assert that the disciples had stolen the body. The idea of a guard could only have been a Christian, not a Jewish development. At the next stage there is no need for Christians to invent the bribing of the guard; it was sufficient to claim that the tomb was guarded. The bribe arises only in response to the second stage of the polemic, the Jewish allegation that the guard fell asleep. This part of the story could only have been a Jewish development, since it serves no purpose in the Christian polemic. At the final stage, the time of Matthew’s writing, the Christian answer that the guard were bribed is given. Given the early date of the pre-Markan Passion story, there is no need to quarrel with Allison’s surmise that the controversy arose between Mark and Matthew, so long as by “Mark” we mean Mark’s tradition.

    2. There was an absence of the veneration of Jesus’ tomb. This is best explained by the fact that Jesus’ bones no longer lay there. Allison rejects this argument because the location of the tomb was, in fact, preserved in Christian memory (p. 313). But Allison’s response misses the point. The point is that there was no place where Jesus’ remains were remembered to lie, where they might be preserved and honored. That is not in doubt historically. Allison’s claim that the place may have been an unwholesome criminals’ gravesite and therefore not venerated contradicts his later claim in discussing the burial that people capable of redeeming so shameful an event as the cross could easily have redeemed burial in a trench (p. 354), e.g., the presence of Jesus’ bones sanctified the site. (This is just one of the many internal tensions in Allison’s treatment of the evidence.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01786844757672182664 K-Dog

    3. The formula cited by Paul in I Cor. 15. 3-5 presupposes an empty grave. Allison thinks that while this consideration shows that Paul may have believed in the empty tomb on theological grounds, it doesn’t show that he had actual historical knowledge of it (p. 316). The weakness of this response is that a comparison of the four-line formula passed on by Paul with the Gospel narratives on the one hand and the sermons in the Acts of the Apostles on the other reveals that the formula summarizes in its second and third lines the burial and empty tomb stories. Curiously, Allison himself recognizes that “1 Cor. 15:3-8 must be a summary of traditional narratives that were told in fuller forms elsewhere” (ibid., p. 235; cf. his footnote 133). This is
    another example of the many internal tensions in Allison’s treatment.
    4. The disciples could not have preached the resurrection in Jerusalem in the face of an occupied tomb. Here we find Allison’s scepticism becoming desperate. He says that perhaps the disciples were so convinced of Jesus’ resurrection that they neverbothered to visit the gravesite. This suggestion is, frankly, rather silly when you think about it (they never went back, if not to verify, even to see where the Lord lay?) and contradicts Allison’s own point that the site of the tomb was preserved in Christian memory. Just as silly is Allison’s suggestion that the Jerusalem authorities never inspected the tomb because they “just did not care because they did not take the business very seriously or regarded it as nothing more than a minor, transient nuisance” (319) —this despite their engaging Saul of Tarsus to ravage the early Jesus movement!
    5. The empty tomb story lacks theological and legendary embellishment. Allison agrees; this is also one of the reasons he accepts the historicity of the burial account.
    6. Post-mortem visions alone are insufficient to account for early belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Although Allison, as you note, makes very heavy weather of visions of recently deceased persons by the bereaved, in the end he admits, “If there was no reason to believe that his solid body had returned to life, no one would have thought him, against expectation, resurrected from the dead. Certainly visions of or perceived encounters with a postmortem Jesus would not by themselves, have supplied such reason” (pp. 324-5). So the tomb was probably found empty.
    7. The tomb was discovered empty by women. Probably no other factor has proved so persuasive to scholars of the empty tomb’s historicity as the role of the female witnesses. Allison is no exception.
    Allison concludes that that “a decent case” can be made for the empty tomb (p. 331). We’ve seen that this is an understatement. The case for the empty tomb is every bit as, if not more powerful than, the case for Jesus’ burial.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01786844757672182664 K-Dog

    13) I BEG TO DIFFER, THE RESURRECTION EXPLAINS THE FACTS THE BEST (empty tomb, appearances, and origin of the disciples belief). I have already dealt with the rest of your summary here.
    However, even if I am wrong, all your discussion shows it that we should approach the Gospels with a hermeneutic of suspicion. When you do that, the broad contours of the Gospels can be shown to be historically reliable anyway! (See Stein’s and Evan’s article above) Now, being the uncharitable, patronizing, hand-waiver that you are, you will no doubt guffaw with smugness and insolence. However, you are good practice, and reinforcing in my own worldview. Thanks for that at least.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01786844757672182664 K-Dog

    9) MARY WASN’T DERANGED (are you referring back to Mark 16:9?); there are many plausible explanations for what happened here:
    H.C.G. Moule suggested that Jesus is merely reassuring Mary that he is firmly on Earth and she need carry out no investigation, and others have suggested that Jesus is merely concerned with staying on-topic, essentially instructing Mary "don't waste time touching me, go and tell the disciples". Barrett has suggested that as Jesus prohibits Mary by arguing that he "has not ascended to [his] father", he could have ascended to heaven before meeting Thomas (and after meeting Mary), returning for the meeting with Thomas, though this view implies that the meeting with Thomas is some form of second visit to Earth, hence raising several theological issues, including that of a second coming, and is consequently unfavourably viewed by most Christians. John Calvin argued that Mary Magdalene (and the other Mary) had started to cling to Jesus, as if trying to hold him down on Earth, and so Jesus told her to give up.[20] Some say Jesus was willing to provide Thomas with sufficient evidence to overcome his unbelief, whereas this was not a problem for Mary. In the case of Mary, she had evidently loved Jesus deeply, not surprising in view of her deliverance,[Mk 16:9] and was reluctant for Jesus to leave her now that he had returned. This shows Jesus' ability to penetrate beneath the surface and understand each individual's deepest motivations. Wikipedia

    10) The appearances pre-date Mark in 1 Cor., and the sermons in Acts. Richard Burridge has argued that Mark’s ending is in line with his picture of discipleship,
    “Mark's story of Jesus becomes the story of his followers, and their story becomes the story of the readers. Whether they will follow or desert, believe or misunderstand, see him in Galilee or remain staring blindly into an empty tomb, depends on us.” Richard A. Burridge, Four Gospels, One Jesus? A Symbolic Reading (2nd ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 64.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01786844757672182664 K-Dog

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01786844757672182664 K-Dog

    As for Hume's beautiful argument; it is demonstrably fallacious. Hume had an excuse because probability calculus hadn't been fully developed in his day, but we now know that what Hume forgot to factor was the probability that if a miraculous event didn't happen, then we should have the evidence that we do. For example, the report of the winning lottery pick is an extraordinarliy improbable event, but the improbability that we should hear that number reported if it weren't really the winning lotto pick is even higher. So, in terms of the resurrection, what is the probability that we would have the evidence of the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples belief if the resurrection actually didn't happen? Well, if that improbability is high enough, it outweighs any initial improbability. Why think there is any initial improbability to begin with? If there aren't any conclusive arguments for atheism (which there aren't), then an agnostic wouldn't believe that miracles have a high intrinsic improbability. As for Fogelin's book, I think he fell very short of refuting Earman's argument. For example, Fogelin doesn't interact with at least three fundamental arguments Earman raises: the epistemic significance of multiple witnesses, for example, or Hume’s neglect of the voluminous literature from the deist controversy, or the notorious passage on the Indian prince.

    The first of these in particular is of the utmost importance. John DePoe has shown how just 10 witnesses can have the effect of overcoming a prior improbability of a million to one, with a posterior confidence of .9999!

    Hume's argument is still far from 'beautiful.' Didn't you write your dissertation on a this topic?!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    I think that what is important in the Gospels is the teaching of Jesus. After all most space in the Gospels is dedicated to that teaching. Given that the Gospels were written in a haphazard manner and later edited by many hands, and given that Jesus’ words in them reveal a clearly identifiable psychological unity and also express a coherent and sophisticated ethical theory, I tend to believe that the Gospels preserve quite well Jesus’ actual teaching. I understand it was common at that place and time to carefully memorize and also write down the sayings of wise people, which would explain how that precision in the records came about.

    Further, I find it quite plausible that at some time not too long after Jesus’ crucifixion (a few decades at most), the need arose within the quickly growing religious movement for a more complete written account of Jesus’ life, and that the rather accurate sayings were interwoven into a story based both on remembrance and on legend. I think that the broad outlines of the account are probably historical, because the Gospels started to circulate within living memory of Jesus’ life, and it would be easy for the enemies of the fledging religion to point out obvious errors using actual eyewitnesses. Thus, for example, I think it is probable that the corpse of Jesus was at first placed in the tomb that belonged to Joseph of Arimathea, who was a sympathetic member of the Sanhedrin, and so on.

    I personally do not understand the fuss about the miracle stories. If naturalism is true then the miracle stories are simply embellishments, designed to impress the newcomers, and also sometimes to symbolically to illustrate a spiritual point. If Christianity is true then the miracle stories are irrelevant. If Jesus was God incarnate what relevance does it have whether He really transformed water into wine at the wedding at Cana? Or what is lost from Christianity if the miracle stories are only embellishments? I personally find the miracle stories unlikely on theological grounds. And also on psychological grounds: if the disciples did experience such a plethora of miracles then their reported doubts and fears strike me as incoherent. Anyway I may be mistaken in my judgment about miracles, but in my list of things worthwhile to investigate further this is close to last.

    As for the resurrection story. I find it plausible that the bereaved inner circle of the disciples did undergo some powerful and life-changing experience a few days after the crucifixion. Whether that experience was of the bodily and touchable presence of Jesus, or whether it was a more difficult to describe mystical experience, is difficult to say. Indeed the Gospel stories point towards both possibilities. As for the means: Did Jesus’ corpse actually physically rise albeit transformed into some new kind of matter, or did the disciples only suffer some kind of group hallucination? Well, who knows? As far as I am concerned both means are consistent with Christianity. After all let us not forget that on theism the natural order is continuously upheld by God’s general providence. (To put it simply when an apple falls according to the natural law of gravity, it’s God’s will that causes it to thus fall.) So, whether God chose to cause the disciples to undergo their life-changing experience within the natural order, or else chose to cause some literal miracle – is not particularly relevant. I personally tend to believe that a miracle took place, but, again, I believe this on theological grounds, grounds which a non-Christian (never mind a non-theist) does not share with me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Keith Parsons said…

    Let’s try a thought experiment: What would a contemporary account of Jesus have looked like had it been written by a historian with the resources, aims, and methods of a modern critical historian? Let’s imagine then that around C.E. 60, when Peter and other eyewitnesses would still have been alive and vigorous, a skeptical but sympathetic historian decided to get to the bottom of this Jesus business and write the definitive account. Let’s make the anachronistic supposition that he would have had the objectives and resources and would have employed the methods of a well-supported modern critical historian.
    =============
    Comment:
    Yes. A bit of reflection on this thought experiment makes it obvious that the Gospels are nothing like modern history.

    It is also important to note that even among evangelical NT scholars, the naive view that the Gospels should be read as straight history (i.e. accurate in all details) is often rejected. It is not the case that only a small segment of very liberal/skeptical NT scholars recognize that the Gospels cannot meet the standards of accuracy and reliability that we expect of modern historical writing. The reverse is the case; only a small segment of very conservative NT scholars view the Gospels as meeting modern standars of accuracy and reliability. Many conservative NT scholars have rejected this viewpoint.

    For example, I was just skimming Scot McKnight's book on Jesus (The Story of the Christ) last night, and he emphasizes in the opening chapter that the Gospels are (1) based on oral traditions (that allow for addition and alteration of details), that (2)were translated from Aramaic into Greek (involving some interpretation in the process), and that the translated oral traditions were then re-shaped by the Gospel authors in accordance with their theological and dramatic purposes (thus allowing for more added or altered details).

    McKnight, a conservative NT scholar, makes it clear that the Gospels should not be held to the same high standards of accuracy and reliability that we use for modern historical writings.

    Another conservative NT scholar, Craig A Evans, is not as clear on this point as McKnight, but his book on Jesus (Fabricating Jesus) strongly suggests a rejection of the naive view that the Gospels are to be read in terms of modern standards of accuracy and reliability.

    My general impression is that Evangelical Christian apologists are disconnected from the thinking of Evangelical NT scholars. NT scholars, even of the Evangelical Christian variety, are more rational and objective in their views of the Gospels than Christian Apologists. Apologists are like the Sales & Marketing Dept. and NT scholars are like the Engineers. The Sales people will happily make unreasonable claims that no Engineer would dream of making or defending.

    Thus the issue between Geisler (Sales) and Licona (Engineering).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Keith Parsons said…

    Now, of course we do not know what our imaginary historian would have concluded, but it should be abundantly clear that his product would be very different from the Gospel records. Unlike our critical historian, the writers of the Synoptic Gospels cite no specific sources or eyewitnesses at all (John is an apparent exception).
    ==============
    Comment:
    This is a very basic and significant problem with the Gospel accounts which should lead any objective evaluator of the Gospels to be skeptical about the accuracy and reliability of (at least) the details contained in those accounts.

    Alhough the Fourth Gospel specifically refers to an eyewitness called 'the beloved disciple', it does not name this person, or provide any significant information about this alleged eyewitness, nor does the Gospel indicate which stories and which details in the Gospel come from 'the beloved disciple'. So, even if we grant the assumption that there was an eyewitness who contributed some of the material in the Fourth Gospel, we don't know anything about the honesty and reliabiilty of this eyewitness and we don't know which stories and details come from this eyewitness. Thus, the credibility of the Fourth Gospel is not established (or even significantly improved) by this assumption.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Keith Parsons said…

    In short, for anyone who wants a clear picture of what happened, especially concerning the resurrection and the postmortem appearances, the Gospels are a mess. Consequently, many of the things we would most like to know will remain forever elusive.
    ===============
    Comment:

    For similar reasons, we also cannot know the details of the trial(s), crucifixion, and burial of Jesus, meaning that we have (at best) probabilities (e.g., .3, .4, .5, .6, .7, and only rarely .8 and .9).

    Thus, when we suppose it to be true that Jesus was alive and walking around (without assistance) on the first Easter Sunday (as in my dilemma argument), this supposition undermines the already less-than-certain claims about what happened on Good Friday.

    If the Gospels claim or imply that Jesus was stabbed in the heart on Good Friday, then in view of the questionable realiability and accuracy of the Gospel accounts (esp. the Fourth Gospel), we can only give that detail a modest probability (e.g. .6 or .7), and then when you add into the mix the supposition that Jesus was alive and walking around (without assistance) on the first Easter, that probability is dramatically decreased. People who are alive and well on Sunday are not people who have been stabbed in the heart two days before.

    The same sort of empirically-based assumption about the 'deadliness' of heart wounds (used by apologists to try to establish the death of Jesus), leads to significant doubt about the occurrence of the alleged heart wound, if one supposes Jesus to have been alive and well on Easter Sunday.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00053915240281421992 Mike Gantt

    Bradley Bowen,

    Is it earthshaking news that ancient documents were not written according to modern stands?

    Are moderns so narrow-minded that they cannot adjust to reading ancient documents according to the standards by which they were written?

    Do the differing writing standards between ancient and modern times mean that modern documents are accurate and reliable while ancient documents are inaccurate and unreliable?

    Does punctiliousness in what's minor equate to faithfulness in what's major?

    Did the ancients regard truth as less important than moderns do?

    Shall we moderns throw up our hands and declare we can known nothing of ancient history because the ancients didn't have our tools and methods?

    Your goal seems to be to cast doubt on the accuracy and reliability of the Hebrew Bible including its appendix (the New Testament). You can only do so by ignoring the enormous care that went into preserving documents considered sacrosanct.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Mike Gantt said…

    What I suggest would be a better way of reasoning this issue is to say, "If there is no God, then resurrection is an unacceptable answer; but if there is a God who created us all, resurrection would be entirely plausible." That would free you to follow where the evidence leads.

    ============

    Comment:

    The issue of the existence of God is clearly relevant to the issue of whether miracles occur. However, it is not obvious that God, if there is one, would perform miracles, nor is it obvious that God would be likely to perform the specific miracle of raising Jesus from the dead.

    One needs to, like Richard Swinburne, provide reasons and arguments in support of the assumption that God would be likely to perform miracles and that God would be likely to raise Jesus from the dead.

    Since Jesus held and promoted false and morally repugnant beliefs about God, it seems unlikely to me that God would raise Jesus from the dead and thus provide a divine stamp of approval on those false and morally repugnant beliefs.

    On the more general question of whether God would be likely to perform miracles, God's failure to prevent the murder of millions of Jews by the Nazis, and millions of others by the Nazis and their allies, it appears to me that any omnipotent and omniscient being that might exist either does not care about the lives of human beings or else has some sort of difficult-to-discern reason for adopting a non-interventionist policy towards human beings.

    In either case (an uncaring deity or a caring but non-interventionist deity) the use of miracles by a deity seems unlikely.

    Furthermore, the alleged primary purpose for miracles is revelation – teaching human beings about God. But if God is a perfectly good person, then he is not an egotistical, self-obsessed person who feels compelled to make others people worship him or know him or love him. So, although revelation might provides some positive impact on human lives, it is not something that God, if there were a God, would have a strong or compelling motivation towards.

    In short, if a perfectly good God can stand by and do nothing while hundreds of thousands of innocent Jewish children are brutalized, starved, and murdered, then God can certainly stand by and do nothing when some Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim adopts a mistaken theological belief about the nature of God.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    To K-Dog…

    I appreciate your enthusiastic participation here, and the content of your comments/objections. However, it would be helpful to me, and probably to others, if you could provide a brief quote from Keith's post, or from whoever it is that you are commenting on, in relation to each point you make.

    In some cases, it is not clear to me what you are responding to in Keith Parson's post, and a brief quote would provide the needed context to better understand your point.

    If you have the time, since you have numbered all your points, you could copy and paste the relevant quotes from Keith's post and associate those quotes to the appropriate number of the point you made.

    If you don't have the time, I will probably request quotes for some of your specific points that are of particular interest to me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Mike Gant said…

    Is it earthshaking news that ancient documents were not written according to modern stands?

    Are moderns so narrow-minded that they cannot adjust to reading ancient documents according to the standards by which they were written?
    ==================
    Response:

    It is earthshaking news to some people, especially when they realize what this implies about the accuracy and reliability of the Gospel accounts of the ministry and teachings of Jesus, and of the 'final' days of Jesus' life.

    It is not earthshaking news to NT scholars, including mainstream and conservative NT scholars, and including most evangelical NT scholars. But you would not know this from reading books of Christian Apologetics.

    Many have made the adjustment and no longer assume that the Gospels provide accurate and reliable accounts of the details of the life and teachings of Jesus.

    But the people in the pews of Evangelical Christian churches are largely and blissfully ignorant of how modern NT scholars read and interpret the Gospels, and the same is true of people in the pews of Catholic churches, and mainline Protestant churches as well. Most books on Apologetics rely upon this ignorance and even promote this sort of ignorance.

    Richard Swinburne built his case for God in large part because he looked out upon Christian believers, ministers and theologians and saw appalling ignorance of modern science and a complete failure to address the question of whether Christianity was still a viable intellectual position in view of the apparent threat to religious belief posed by science.

    The same sort of ignorance and failure to address NT and Historical Jesus scholarship exists among Christian believers, ministers, theologians, and apologists today, with a few notable exceptions.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Bradley,

    Right. As I noted in my piece, only some conservative Christians are strict infallibilists. There is quite a bit of variation between one and another in the degree of literalism each espouses. Still, I would like a clearer, more definite picture of just how far the skepticism extends. I wonder sometimes if, when pressed about the dubiousness of the details, they do not give lip service to a degree of skepticism, only to slip back into a comfortable literalism in other contexts.

    One thing that makes me suspicious of the depth or genuineness of the non-literalism is that when they defend scripture, they so often appeal to the details of other scripture. A case in point is the critique of the hallucination theory given by Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli (conservative Catholics, not evangelicals) in their Handbook of Christian Apologetics. BTW, I critique their critique both in Why I am not a Christian (Secular Web) and The Empty Tomb, edited by Lowder and Price, Prometheus Books.

    Kreeft and Tacelli attack the hallucination theory by saying that it cannot account for all of the details of the appearance stories. In other words, the hallucination theory is wrong because the details of the appearance stories are right and the hallucination theory cannot account for these. But if it did not happen, there is nothing to account for. Kreeft and Tacelli repeatedly beg the question against the skeptic by assuming the 100% truth of the appearance stories. Further, this is a common pattern. If you question the empty tomb narratives, William Lane Craig replies (in part) that the Gospel burial stories support the empty tomb account. But the burial stories have to be true if they are to support the empty tomb story. So, the very task of apologetics seems to require that very many of the details be taken as literally true.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    K-Dog said…

    I agree that John is evangelistic (THE PURPOSE OF THE FOURTH GOSPEL: JOHN 20:31 RECONSIDERED D. A. CARSON), but that doesn’t mean that John is necessarily unreliable, or even incapable of being mined for some historical kernels of truth using the criteria of authenticity.

    7) I think we should regard the author of the Fourth Gospel as doing what was a frequent practice in his time: based on the words of his master, the author created discourses in which he presented what he considers that his master would have said in response to certain new situations which have arisen since his death.
    ================

    Comment:

    Your view of the nature of the Fourth Gospel is obviously infomed by the conclusions of NT scholars, and is radically different from the views of most conservative evangelical Christian believers, and of most Christian Apologists.

    I don't think that Keith or Chris or I would claim that the Fourth Gospel is 'incapable of being mined for some historical kernels of truth using the criteria of authenticity.'

    However, if one needs to 'mine' the Fourth Gospel for 'kernels of truth' this implies that there are many details in the Fourth Gospel that are either fictional or are dubious.

    It also implies that the 'kernels of truth' that are arrived at through the use of 'criteria of authenticity' will rarely, if ever, be certain, but will instead be only probable to one degree or another, being the product of complex and subtle interpretation and inference.

    It is my contention that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to make a strong case for the death and resurrection of Jesus, based on such uncertain premises. Proving a miracle requires much better evidence than what the Gospels have to offer.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    K-Dog said…

    8) BOO! If someone couldn’t write history unless they saw all the events they are writing about with their own two eyes, I dare say that you would eliminate a vast vast amount of history. It’s all about sources sir, it’s all about sources.

    ============
    Response:

    We who are skeptical about the resurrection claim do not hold the view that history can only be written by eyewitnesses of the alleged historical events.

    Obviously, an historian should make use of the best information available at the time he/she is writing the account. You play the hand you are dealt. But in some cases, this means one must make use of information or sources that are questionable, biased, and/or have significant gaps. The overall principle is this:

    1. Use the best data you can find, but be honest with yourself by recognizing and acknowledging the weaknesses, problems, and gaps in the data you are using.

    Furthermore, I would advocate a few other principles:

    2. Eyewitness testimony is more accurate and more reliable than hearsay testimony.

    3. Third or fourth-hand hearsay testimony (as in oral traditions that are passed on for decades) is less accurate and less reliable than hearsay testimony that reports the assertions/stories of an eyewitness.

    4. The testimony of an unidentified eyewitness should be treated as less reliable than the testimony of an identified eyewitness, other things being equal.

    5. Bias introduces significant issues of reliability, so if an eyewitness has a significant bias or interest in the issues at hand, such eyewitness testimony is less reliable than an eyewitness who does not have a significant interest or bias in the issues at hand (The same goes for people who provide hearsay testimony or oral traditions).

    The authors of the Gospels may have used the best information that was available to them at the time. But in my view, none of the Gospels was written by an eyewitness, and most of the material comes from written and oral traditions that may well have roots in eyewitness accounts, but contain significant additions and alterations to the original verbal accounts.

    The original eyewitnesses and those who passed on and shaped the oral traditions with roots in the eyewitness accounts, as well as the authors of the four Gospels, have significant biases on the questions about which we are concerned: Was Jesus a wise and perfectly good person? Did Jesus perform miracles? Did Jesus claim to be divine? Did Jesus die on the cross? Was Jesus buried in a stone tomb? Was Jesus alive and well a few days after being crucified?

    Finally, in the 21st century we have come to learn that eyewitness testimony and human memory are fairly unreliable. I am a skeptic because I am a cynic, and I am a cynic in large part because the empirical data on human behavior supports cynicism.

    People are not very good at remembering events accurately, and people are often dishonest and fail to tell the truth accurately and reliably, even when they do remember events correctly.

    So, one more principle to keep in mind:

    6. Eyewitness testimony is somewhat unreliable, so the testimony of one or two eyewitnesses should only be taken to make the assertions in the testimony somewhat probable, not certain.

    Here in the USA about 10% of people convicted of capital crimes and sent to death row are later discovered to be innocent.
    I suspect that as high as 20% of people condemned to death in the USA are innocent. We humans are not very good at remembering the truth, telling the truth, or figuring out the truth, even when someone's life is on the line.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    …and even when we have sworn eyewitness testimony that is written down verbatum by a court stenographer, and when the eyewitnesses are cross-examined by a professional lawyer who is representing the defendant.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    K-Dog said…

    A critical historian would try to make it plain just where the eyewitness testimony ends and where surmise, conjecture, or hearsay begins. With the Gospels we just cannot say. [a quote from Keith Parson's post]

    AGAIN, READ RICHARDK BAUCKHAM

    ==============
    Response:

    Just pointing to a book is not a reasonable way to argue a point. I assume that you have read Baucham's book, and that you believe some reasons or arguments in that book are compelling or at least plausible. If you have read the book, and if you did find some reason or argument in the book to be compelling or plausible, then you should be able to at least summarize the reason(s) arguments here, even if there are too many details to fully cover in a brief comment.

    It is obvious that Keith's point applies to the Gospels; they do not give any clear indication of the source for any specific teachings of Jesus or any specific events in the life of Jesus, including the trials, crucifixion, burial, and alleged post-crucifixion appearances. Certainly Bauckham does not dispute this obvious point.

    So, unless you can give some sort of clue about what points or claims Bauckham makes that would be relevant here, it is hard for me to imagine a significant objection to Keith's point.

    Given that there are no footnotes and no end notes in the original Gospels, and no explicit attribution of any specific facts or information to a specific eyewitness (or to a specific person's hearsay testimony), I don't see how one can place more than a fairly modest level of confidence in the details of the Gospel accounts.

    Most of the details are probably derived from oral and written traditions that have been shaped and altered by non-eyewitnesses over a period of decades, and then shaped and altered again when translated from Aramaic to Greek, and then shaped and altered again when used by the unknown authors of the Gospels, and in the case of some Gospels (e.g. the Fourth), shaped and altered yet again by editors who revised the original version of the Gospel.

    Even granting the assumption that the oral and written traditions used by the authors of the Gospels derive from eyewitnesses of the life and ministry of Jesus, we still cannot rationally place much confidence in the accuracy and reliability of specific details which (for all we know) might well be little more than gossip among superstitious Christian believers that was written down decades after the events in question.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Bradley,

    Ha Ha! It was a pleasure reading your expert dismantling of "K-dog." I don't have the time or the inclination to make a point-by-point response to every blowhard that blows up (often at great length) over something I post. However, I am glad to see that you did. You remained polite and scholarly while effectively rebutting every point. Good job!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00053915240281421992 Mike Gantt

    Bradley Bowen,

    You said, "Given that there are no footnotes and no end notes in the original Gospels, and no explicit attribution of any specific facts or information to a specific eyewitness (or to a specific person's hearsay testimony), I don't see how one can place more than a fairly modest level of confidence in the details of the Gospel accounts."

    Do you seriously suggest that because the apostles did not follow the MLA Stylebook we cannot trust their accounts of Jesus?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Craig A Evans and Robert Gundry are two leading Evangelical Christian NT scholars. They are not liberal NT scholars, nor are they at all sympathetic with the skepticism of the Jesus Seminar scholars.

    However, they do recognize that there are problems with the historical reliability of the Fourth Gospel (at least).

    Here is an example of how they view the details of the Fourth Gospel(Evans commenting on Mark 15:25):

    ===============
    "But it was the third hour, and they crucified him." The third hour was 9:00 A.M. According to John 19:14, "it was about the sixth hour," that is, noon. John may have delayed the time in order to have Jesus crucified at approximately the same time that the people began to slaughter the Passover lambs, which Cranfield (455-56) regards as the most probable explanation….Gundry thinks that the Fourth Evangelist deliberately pushed Jesus' crucifixion deeper into the day, so that Jesus' death would take place at the same time the Paschal lambs were being killed. He is probably correct, which makes harmonizing theories unnecessary…. Mark's time accords better with the notice that Jesus had been presented to Pilate…"early in the morning" (v 1).

    (Craig Evans, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 34B, Mark 8:27-16:20, p.503)

    ============

    Although one can try to reconcile the apparent contradiction between the Gospel of Mark and the Fourth Gospel, Gundry and Evans, two leading Evangelical NT scholars, believe it is more likely that the Fourth Gospel deliberately altered the time of day that Jesus was crucified, for the sake of a theological point.

    But if the author (or editor)of the Fourth Gospel deliberately changed the time of the crucifixion of Jesus for the sake of a theological point, then other details about the crucifixion might also have been altered for the sake of a theological point.

    For example, the only Gospel that mentions anything about a spear wound to Jesus' side is the Fourth Gospel. Perhaps that detail was invented for the sake of some theological point. In fact, the Fourth Gospel emphasizes how the use of the spear on Jesus, as opposed to the practice of breaking the legs of the crucified person, fulfills a prophecy:

    "These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, 'None of his bones shall be broken.' And again another passage of scripture says, 'They will look upon the one whom they have pierced.'" (John 19:36 & 37, RSV)

    So there is a clear and obvious theological motivation for the invention of the spear wound.

    Furthermore, this theological motivation is very similar to the motivation that apparently generated the fictional detail that the crucifixion started at noon. In both cases, there is a theological point: showing Jesus to be analogous to the Paschal lambs that were sacrificed for Passover. (Exodus 12:46 and Numbers 9:12 specify that no bone of the Passover lamb may be broken).

    Thus, the single most powerful bit of evidence for the death of Jesus on the cross is the spear wound to his side (along with an argument that the spear pierced Jesus' heart), but this claim is based on only one Gospel, the Fourth Gospel, which two leading Evangelical NT scholars view as somewhat unreliable on the details of the crucifixion, at least when there is a clear theological motivation that would explain the generation of a fictional detail.

    So, if I express some degree of doubt about the claim that Jesus' side was pierced with a spear, I'm not taking the position of an extreme skeptic or liberal. I'm merely thinking in a way that is consistent with the skepticism of leading Evangelical NT scholars concerning the historical reliability of the details of the crucifixion found in the Fourth Gospel.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Mike Gantt said…

    Do you seriously suggest that because the apostles did not follow the MLA Stylebook we cannot trust their accounts of Jesus?
    ============
    Response:

    1. The apostles did not write the Gospels.

    2. Whoever it was who did write them failed to identify who they interviewed or what sources they used for specific stories/sayings/details.

    3. Obviously, one can identify a person who was the source of information for a specific story/saying/detail or describe the process of how one obtained that information without the use of footnotes, endnotes, etc. The problem is that no such identification of sources for specific stories/sayings/details occurs in the Gospels.

    This means that even if the authors of one or more of the Gospels had contact with an eyewitness (such as an apostle), we have no way of determining which stories/sayings/details are based on such eyewitness testimony and which are not.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00053915240281421992 Mike Gantt

    Bradley Bowen,

    You said, "So, if I express some degree of doubt about the claim that Jesus' side was pierced with a spear, I'm not taking the position of an extreme skeptic or liberal. I'm merely thinking in a way that is consistent with the skepticism of leading Evangelical NT scholars concerning the historical reliability of the details of the crucifixion found in the Fourth Gospel."

    The Evans quote was not his best moment. In any case, you are "straining out gnats and swallowing camels" as Jesus would put it. That is, you are ignoring the corroborated testimony that this descendant of David, through whom God had worked, was crucified unfairly according to the Scriptures in order to focus on details of that crucifixion that even Evans acknowledges in his quote can be reconciled by theories other than his own.

    You thus remind me of Johnnie Cochran when he boldly called for OJ's jury to be skeptical about the evidence, proclaiming to them, "If the gloves don't fit, you must acquit!" (with Prof. Evans like some glove expert in the background, chagrined that you'd use his work to get a murderer off the hook).

    The New Testament documents are clear and emphatic on the point that Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled the expectations created by the Old Testament documents. Let us major on the majors and minor on the minors.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00053915240281421992 Mike Gantt

    Bradley Bowen,

    Regarding your 1, 2, 3 to me:

    1. The New Testament was assembled by folks much closer to the time and scene than us, with the primary criterion for inclusion being apostolic origin. On what basis do you reject the judgment of antiquity, as well as the claims of the documents themselves?

    2. You are expecting ancient writers to write as modern ones. The gospels are obviously collective memoirs, transcribed from oral tradition. They are ipso facto multiply attested.

    3. Again, your chief accusation against these ancient writings seems to be that they are not modern. Technically, you are correct…but it's an absurb point to be making.

    Jesus is our Lord.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00053915240281421992 Mike Gantt

    Keith Parsons,

    You wrote, "So, the very task of apologetics seems to require that very many of the details be taken as literally true."

    The vast majority of the New Testament documents were written for purposes other than apologetics.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00053915240281421992 Mike Gantt

    Bradley Bowen,

    You wrote, "It is my contention that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to make a strong case for the death and resurrection of Jesus, based on such uncertain premises."

    Then perhaps you should reexamine your premises.

    You wrote, "Proving a miracle requires much better evidence than what the Gospels have to offer."

    Do not forget that it is not just the gospels, but the entire collection of New Testament documents that should be brought to bear on this question. Recognize also that skepticism is not an invention of modernity. A significant social movement arose in the 1st Century AD, in the fact of enormous skepticism, and it was driven by the acceptance of eyewitness testimony that Jesus of Nazareth had risen from the dead, and that this happened according to the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures. To single out the gospels and focus on them as if they existed in a vacuum independent of the other NT documents and the movement which spawned them all is to address the question myopically.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00053915240281421992 Mike Gantt

    Bradley Bowen,

    You wrote, "But the people in the pews of Evangelical Christian churches are largely and blissfully ignorant of how modern NT scholars read and interpret the Gospels, and the same is true of people in the pews of Catholic churches, and mainline Protestant churches as well."

    The people in the pews that you describe are indeed in darkness, but it is not the darkness of an absence of NT scholarship. Rather it is a darkness that shrouds NT scholars and you as well. That is, it is the darkness of not reading the words of the NT documents and seeking to practice them. There is no significant debate about the words of the Bible – book stores are full of them, all saying essentially the same sentences. It is their meaning we are missing, and that is only gained by obeying the parts of the Bible that are easy to understand, e.g. love God with all your heard and your neighbor as yourself.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00053915240281421992 Mike Gantt

    Bradley Bowen,

    Sometimes you sound reasonable, but other times you say something like this: "Since Jesus held and promoted false and morally repugnant beliefs about God…"

    Do you take an equally dim view of Ghandi, who extolled Jesus?


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