Response to Attack on My Naysayer Argument

Response to Attack on My Naysayer Argument May 23, 2013

The Sistene Chapel image without God looks betterStrange Notions is a new web site that aims to be “the central place of dialogue between Catholics and atheists.” I was invited to submit one of my posts, the first atheist contribution, I hear. I applaud that goal, and I am honored to have been be asked.

I offered my “10 Reasons to Just Say Nay to the Naysayer Hypothesis.” A day later, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, author of the Patheos blog Standing on my Head, wrote a reply. Strange Notions is a Catholic site where the Catholic gets the last word, so I will respond to Dwight here.

You’re welcome to read my post about the naysayer hypothesis for full details, but let me summarize it here.

The Christian argument

Many apologists say that Christianity surviving its early years is a testament to its truth. If the gospel story (written or oral) circulating in the years after the death of Jesus wasn’t true, there would’ve been people who would’ve objected. They would’ve said, “Hold on—I was there, and that’s not what happened.” These eyewitnesses would’ve been able to shut down a false story. An eyewitness account would’ve been much more credible than that of someone who simply passed on a story.

Rejection of the naysayer hypothesis

Let’s imagine that. Let’s imagine that Jesus was an ordinary rabbi and that there were eyewitnesses of him not being a miracle worker. The apologist claims that Christianity would’ve been squashed. And let’s be clear here, they can’t be content with a lukewarm, “Well, naysayers might have shut down Christianity.” That’s hardly a foundation on which to build the remarkable claim that God created everything and that Jesus was his emissary on earth who was raised from the dead.

I argue that this naysayer hypothesis is false. That is, we can easily imagine naysayers in the early years of Christianity and the religion surviving just fine. There’s much more in that post, but briefly: the handful of people who followed Jesus closely enough to know that he didn’t do any miracles would’ve been unable to spend their lives stamping out the brush fires of Christianity popping up throughout the eastern Mediterranean. They wouldn’t have even been a part of the Greek-speaking Christian community to know about the error. And why imagine that they would’ve cared enough to devote any meaningful time to eradicating Christianity?

Since rumors take on a life of their own today (it took over two years for the fraction of Americans who believed that Saddam Hussein had something to do with the 9/11 attacks to drop below 50 percent), why imagine that the poorer communication of the ancient world would’ve stopped false rumors any better?

My response to a response

One more bit of housekeeping before we get to the response. Here are the facts that I think Dwight and I share.

1. The gospels and epistles exist. We can agree on what each English translation says.

2. These books were written in the first century, and Christianity is a first-century movement.

Dwight seems to have additional starting assumptions, but I can’t think of any that I’d share with him. In particular, I don’t take as fact that anything in these writings is true. And that’s only prudent—we accept that the epic of Gilgamesh exists, but we don’t immediately take its claims as history. You want to claim that Gilgamesh is actual history? Or the Iliad? Or the Bible? I’ll listen to your argument, but remember our starting point: that these books exist and their age, nothing more.

Dwight makes clear that my problem is

basic false assumptions, rooted in some very elementary ignorance of the facts of New Testament scholarship, historical scholarship, and what actually happened. Of course, if false, these assumptions make [Bob’s] conclusions irrelevant.

With that scolding ringing in our ears, let’s soldier on.

We don’t ask if there were any naysayers around to disprove the gospels from 70 AD onward. We ask whether there were any naysayers around when the gospel was hot and fresh when the apostles were preaching—first in Jerusalem and then around the Empire.

That’s a good point. For simplicity, I imagined just naysayers and the gospels, but yes, the fuller hypothesis imagines naysayers right at the beginning. This touches on points 2 and 3 in my argument, but it does nothing to refute the overall argument.

Next, he spends a surprising amount of time arguing about the date of the gospels.

He repeats the tired old idea that they must date from after 70 AD. The only reason for this dating is the modernist scholar’s assumption that Jesus could not have prophesied the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, which happened in 70 AD. Why? Simply because prophecies of the future are impossible. Why? Because they say so.

I’ve heard this argument many times from conservative scholars. He sees Acts written before 65 AD, and Luke before that, and Mark before that. As far as I can tell, however, this isn’t the scholarly consensus.

But this is a red herring. I don’t much care when you date the gospels. My concerns still stand: you have decades of oral history before the gospels were written, then centuries of turmoil within the Christian community before our earliest full copies in the fourth century. That’s not much firm ground on which to build Christianity’s incredible claims.

Dwight then argues that there were naysayers, but that they were ineffective.

Let’s look at the facts: when the gospel was hot and fresh in Jerusalem in the days after the Resurrection there were plenty of people there who knew Jesus, knew what had happened, and were ready to dispute with the disciples.

Yes, it’s a fact that that’s what the story says. No, that doesn’t make it history.

Dwight talks about the bit in Matthew where the Jewish leaders say that disciples must have stolen the body, but why imagine that that story circulated days after the death of Jesus? All we know is that it appeared in a gospel decades after the death of Jesus. And I’m still scratching my head trying to understand Dwight’s point. Why imagine that the naysayers would be motivated to stamp out this false teaching? Why imagine that “That’s nonsense!” would stamp out a religion? Has it ever?

Let me propose an alternative explanation that explains the facts nicely without having to conjure up a supernatural claim. Jesus was a charismatic rabbi. Maybe supernatural stories were told about him during his lifetime, maybe not. Paul writes his epistles two decades after the death of Jesus, within which the gospel story is very minimal (I’ve written about the gospel of Paul here). Like a transplanted species that thrives, Christianity adapts and takes on elements of its new Greek environment, a culture full of supernatural stories. The Jesus stories grow with the retelling, and the gospels are snapshots at different places and times within the eastern Mediterranean.

Our point is not that there were no naysayers but that there were plenty and that they still couldn’t disprove what the apostles were saying.

(It’s not that Dorothy had no obstacles to returning to Kansas but that she had plenty and that she and her friends still overcame them.)

It’s a story. Both the Wizard of Oz and the gospel are stories. Yes, the gospel trots out naysayers and then says that the church withstood the attack. Show that the gospel is actually history, and then that argument will be compelling. Until then, not so much.


Let me try to summarize Dwight’s rebuttal:

1. The action started right after the crucifixion, not at the writing of the gospel. You’re right, but that doesn’t affect the argument.

2. You dated the gospels wrong. I doubt it, but let’s use your dates.

3. The gospel story documents that naysayers existed who, despite their best efforts, could do nothing to defeat Christianity. So what? This means nothing until you show that the gospel story is history.

Dwight concludes by comparing me to someone explaining why there are no lunar landing deniers in NASA.

You may come up with ten astounding reasons why there are no lunar landing deniers at NASA, but it might just be because there was a lunar landing and the people at NASA—along with most other people—accept the simple facts of what really happened.

Yeah. We should accept the simple fact that Jesus was raised from the dead by the omnipotent creator of the universe (an Iron Age polytheistic deity) who demanded a human sacrifice to assuage his sense of injustice that humans are imperfect, like he made them to be.

Or not.

Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run
by smart people who are putting us on
or by imbeciles who really mean it.
— Mark Twain

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  • Very good reply, Bob. I like to remind folks that even when the date of the Gospels can be somewhat fixed in the later first century, we don’t know exactly what those said. As you mentioned, we don’t have any complete copies before the fourth century, so we have to go, at best, on fragments of commentary about them from bishops and presbyters back to the second century. In fact, we have no idea what the early preachers were saying in the first decade after Jesus, so we have no idea what there actually *was* to naysay at that time.

    Presenting the Jewish authorities as naysayers is, in effect, a strawman setup because the whole Gospel story is about how Jesus was (purportedly) exposing false witness among those authorities. Nowhere do the Gospels present an opposing view from a fair source.

    Finally, think about who would be a naysayer outside of the authorities. Who else would care? The early followers of Jesus (after his death) in Jerusalem were a small group preaching something like the sayings attributed to Jesus, among a number of groups of Jews who were plotting revolt against the Romans. It is hard to imagine how anyone would bother to document why the Jesus followers were involved in a baseless cult when it mattered, not much, at the time. By the time we get to the second century, it may very well have mattered, but then it would have been past the time of eyewitness naysayers, even if they had once existed.

    • severalspeciesof

      “It is hard to imagine how anyone would bother to document why the Jesus
      followers were involved in a baseless cult when it mattered, not much,
      at the time” One cult among several, even regarding Jesus no less…

      • primenumbers

        And at the time, involving a handful of people at best. There was no reason to debunk it any more than we have to debunk religion followed by a small group of people that we’ve never heard of. Christianity only became large enough to bother debunking long after all the original characters were long dead. Another nail in the naysayer argument.

        • Greg G.

          Paul mentions that there were 500 early on. Who they were is a puzzle.

        • primenumbers

          It’s a suspiciously round number and I don’t think we have to take anyone’s word that it was in any way accurate.

        • Greg G.

          Hi prime

          It might have been a large group that Cephas preached to and he assumed they all agreed with him. The number may have grown with each telling.

          I have a different take. I think the early Christians believed that the Messiah of the clear prophecies had come in the mythical past and they were reading out of context verses as history, pretty much the same verses that modern Christians tout as fulfilled prophecy, per 2 of the last 3 verses of Romans.

          Reading Paul’s description of his conversion while leaving out the Acts dramatization leads me to believe his Jesus was seen in the texts like an insight. His description of the others’ revelations are in the same terms as his own, so he didn’t think theirs were any different.

          There’s nothing in the epistles about Jesus that could not have come from the OT – No ministry, teachings, or anecdotes. The gospels follow Mark and nearly every passage has been traced to the Jewish and Greek literature of the day. There isn’t much left for oral tradition.

          So the 500 might have been some early followers

        • primenumbers

          Could have been 500, 50 or 5. We’ll never know. What we do know is that people will exaggerate and are pretty darn poor at guessing numbers of things. Even 500 is a handful compared to the entire population of Jerusalem that came out to great Jesus (and then magically forgot him and later called for his death).

        • I respond to Paul’s claim of 500 eyewitnesses here. FYI, in case any haven’t seen it.

    • Q:

      Yes, it’s quite hard to imagine a non-Christian having much motivation to care. This is perhaps the most damning fact against the naysayer hypothesis.

  • Greg G.

    If we compare Mark 7:1-19 with the argument between Paul and Peter in Galatians 2, we can see an implicit naysayer argument against what we read in both Galatians and Mark. Peter and James were supposed to have been there when Jesus abolished the food laws. From the actions of Peter, it appears that Jesus did no such thing.

    So the naysayer argument works against the Christian position. It would be better to place Mark and Luke beyond the lifetimes of Peter, Paul, and Mary (not the folk singers).

    (Slightly edited to make pronouns agree.)

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Mormonism and Scientology both had naysayers, and they’re still around.

    • busterggi

      As is the Reverend Moon and the Urantians and the Raelians and there are even a few followers of David Koresh still kicking.

      • The Millerites awaited the End on October 22, 1844. Didn’t happen. And yet some still stayed loyal to the faith.

        We see the same thing with Harold Camping. Yes, his radio network is failing, but wouldn’t logic dictate that donations should’ve dropped to zero when their central tenet–that the rapture would come 5/21/11–clearly didn’t happen?

        • Reginald Selkirk

          The Millerites awaited the End on October 22, 1844. Didn’t happen. And yet some still stayed loyal to the faith.

          The Millerites as a distinct entity is no longer around, but remnants of it bloomed into the Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

      • Reginald Selkirk

        As is the Reverend Moon and the Urantians and the Raelians and there are even a few followers of David Koresh still kicking.

        All true, but the Rev. Moon passed away just last year, and the others are tiny tiny sects, so they are not great examples. Check back in 100 years to see who’s still kicking. Scientology survived the death of L. Ron Hubbard in 1986. The number of adherents is disputed, but it is certainly bigger than the Urantians, Raelians and Koreshites. Mormonism is pretty huge and seems destined to last a while, so is perhaps the best example.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    No naysayers? So we’re just writing Jews that stayed Jewish out of history altogether? I guess I should disappear in a puff of logic!

    • primenumbers

      The Jews were in the right place and the right time to judge the gospel events for themselves, and by a vast margin did so, and remained Jewish. We cannot (without a time machine) have evidence of a fraction of the quality and quantity all those Jews had at their fingertips, yet Christians expect us to believe the handful who saw and followed Jesus rather than the vast proportion of people who didn’t.

  • Joe

    I don’t see why naysayers would have stopped the religion forming. When Joseph Smith was preaching Mormonism there were plenty of people who disagreed with him and yet we still have Mormons now. There were people who didn’t believe Muhammed was a prophet too, some of them are mentioned in the Qu’ran and hadiths. There was a poetess who wrote some satirical verses about him and ended up ‘mysteriously’ disappearing. Yet there are still Muslims now.

    Fact is, tell a crazy story to enough people and some of them will believe it, even if someone else comes along and says ‘this never happened. I was there.’ Especially if the story promises them eternal life and makes them feel special. Look at global warming ‘skeptics’, 9/11 ‘truthers’ and holocaust deniers- mountains of evidence against them, plenty of people trying hard to convince them they’re wrong and still they cling to their fringe beliefs.

    Who could have been the naysayer anyway? None of the named characters in the gospels is there for every single miracle, except Jesus. The most any naysayer could have said was ‘he didn’t perform any miracles while I was there’. Same for the resurrection- our hypothetical naysayer couldn’t say that the risen Jesus never appeared to anyone, only that they themselves never saw them. In many of his comeback tour appearances, Jesus was seen only by one or two people at a time. There’s no naysayer who could say the entire story was false, which would leave room for belief to grow.

    And most of Jesus’ alleged followers were poor. They were busy living hand-to-mouth, it’s not like they had the time or resources to wander around after the disciplines saying ‘this is wrong!’

    • Joe:

      Good points. The Millerites awaited the End on October 22, 1844. Didn’t happen. This is far more compelling than naysayer evidence, and yet some still stayed loyal to the faith.

      We see the same thing with Harold Camping today. Yes, his radio network is failing, but wouldn’t logic dictate that donations should’ve dropped to zero when their central tenet–that the rapture would come 5/21/11–clearly didn’t happen?

  • MNb

    As I always think it a good idea for believers and atheists to meet on a blog or a forum I tried to read two articles. On is about the Big Bang and the cosmological argument. Boy, is it shallow.
    A minor point, but representative: Georges LeMaitre did not discover the Big Bang. The name was coined by Fred Hoyle and the first one to stipulate a beginning was the Soviet-commie Alexander Friedmann some 15 years earlier. Sure GLM did some important work, but it is a false witness to credit everything to him
    While the author is right on some problems he misses the most important one. Sure there are a lot of things we don’t know about the BB. One thing we can be very sure of though: quantummechanics is involved. And that means very likely the BB was not a causal but a probabilistic event.
    This info is very easy to obtain. Start at Wikipedia eg.
    Sorry, I leave Strange Notions to other Don Quichots who like to correct all the mistakes. There is only so much I can handle.
    As for Longenecker: try Testis Unus Testis Nullus.

    • MNb:

      I assume you’re referring to the Strange Notions article “Why We Should Be Cautious Using the Big Bang Argument”?

      I didn’t know that about LeMaitre. Having his role exaggerated is par for the course, I guess. But that article does give an interesting caveat for Christians: in Genesis, stuff already existed. God was just terraforming it, like the Genesis Device on Star Trek.

  • Rain

    You may come up with ten astounding reasons why there are no lunar landing deniers at NASA, but it might just be because there was a lunar landing and the people at NASA—along with most other people—accept the simple facts of what really happened.

    Poor Dwight has to grasp at straws like that. It’s like a sophomore debating exercise where they put people on the obviously lost side of a question purely for the purposes of having a debate exercise–not for the purpose of actually getting anywhere. He’s just going through the motions, doing the best he can with what he has.

  • avalon

    Fr. Dwight said:

    “Our point is not that there were no naysayers but that there were plenty and that they still couldn’t disprove what the apostles were saying.”

    He’s assuming the apostles were historians rather than men of faith. When a historian gets things wrong and you know it you’re likely to correct him. But when someone stops having faith in a certain religion they convert to another or start their won. Ask yourself, if Fr. Dwight stopped believing the Pope was right would he spend his time telling everyone or would he simply join another religion?

    On this premiss, there were lots of naysayers to the gospels (as faith statements). There’s all the Jews who never converted, Christians who wrote other gospels that eventually were labeled heretics and had their books burned, etc… .

    I have one question that no Christian has ever provided an answer for: if the gospels were a true history and Jesus did everything they say, then why didn’t John the baptist and all his followers become followers of Jesus immediately at his baptism? Even the bible indicates there’s a difference between the facts about Jesus and the faith about Christianity:

    “Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, arrived in Ephesus. He was an eloquent speaker, well-versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and with great enthusiasm he spoke and taught accurately the facts about Jesus, although he knew only the baptism of John.” (Acts 18:24-25)

    Get that? He accurately knew the facts about Jesus but was still a follower of John.

    When a new religion starts today it usually does so because someone has a new interpretation of the bible. I suspect the same is true of the sect of Jews who broke away to form Christianity. The New Testament verses that endorses a new interpretation of the Jewish scriptures. If you didn’t agree you didn’t join. You could remain a Jew, join some pagan religion, or write your own Jesus story as the Gnostics did.


  • primenumbers

    It was a poor response to your reasoned argument, that ignores the basics of human psychology of belief. I’ll post my response from the other forum here below:

    Um, you go against scholarship here when you suggest: “The only reason for this dating is the modernist scholar’s assumption that Jesus could not have prophesied the destruction of the Jerusalem temple” – yet you attempt to use scholarship when it suits your argument here: “The Acts of the Apostles is acknowledged by most scholars as a reliable historical record.” – which is it? Is scholarship accepted or rejected?

    Fact is, we really don’t know when the Gospels were written. What we have are arguments that attempt to narrow down the possible dates somewhat. When arguing historicity, you cannot just assume historicity for Acts as you do. When arguing for historicity you cannot argue prophecy, because that pre-supposes the truth of your religious claims that you’re basing on a historical argument.

    “Furthermore, we’re saying that there were naysayers, but that their arguments didn’t hold up” – naysayers arguments wouldn’t be listened to by believers any more than any rational argument today would be listened to by a believer. I don’t know if you try to discus religious topics with believers much, but presenting facts and evidence just doesn’t work very well. Try talking to a different believer than your own religion – a Mormon for example and see how far you get explaining how Joseph Smith was a fraudster and con-man, and that those gold tablets were made up.

    What you need to address is the psychology of belief, and how cognitive biases work. Go read “Mistakes were made (but not by me)” which explains these cognitive biases quite thoroughly and with some very good examples, and then you should understand why naysayer would be ignored even if what they were saying were objectively verifiable fact, and that the existence of naysayers would probably strengthen early Christian belief rather than diminish it.

    • Greg G.

      When arguing historicity, you cannot just assume historicity for Acts as you do.

      I have seen many claim that Luke was an excellent historian. How do they determine that? If they are comparing his historical claims with Josephus’ historical claims, it seems circular as it appears that Luke used Josephus as a source. The shipwreck accounts in Acts and Josephus and when Paul was confused with the Egyptian are smoking guns. In Luke, there’s Josephus’ account of talking with scholars at age 14 vs Jesus at age 12 plus Luke and Josephus giving the same wrong distance between Jerusalem and Emmaus.
      That would place Luke and Acts at the very end of the first century at the earliest. If Luke was basing the Paul story in Acts on correspondence a generation after it was written (plus Josephus and Greek literature), he wouldn’t have information after the correspondence stopped. The legend of Paul’s death may not have arisen by the early second century.

    • prime:

      The webmaster at Strange Notions encouraged me to participate in the comments, and I did so. Sometimes I learn quite a bit. Sometimes I discover that I made a mistake.

      I wonder why the author of the response (Dwight Longenecker) didn’t participate in the comments to his.

      I hadn’t seen the connection between this topic and the biases presented in Mistakes Were Made…. Thanks for that.

      • primenumbers

        Mistakes Were Made is just such an excellent book. It doesn’t use religion as an example too much, but it does get a couple of examples.

        But we can see how religious people act today – evidence against their religious beliefs is like water off a duck’s back, and will be rejected out of hand. It’s unbelievable to think that religious people 2000yrs ago would act any differently to being confronted with facts, and hence basic psychology makes a mockery of the “naysayer argument”, and indeed any defence of the “naysayer argument” becomes self-refuting.

  • natsera

    Just a small quibble: at the time of Jesus, the religion of the Jews was monotheistic. However, it was surely polytheistic a thousand or two thousand years earlier, and probably slowly evolved into monotheism.