July 8, 2015

Let’s wrap up our critique of the Naysayer Hypothesis.

Recap: this argument says that the gospels were written at a time when many disciples—the eyewitnesses—were still alive. If they heard an inaccurate story about Jesus, they’d correct it. No false story elements would have survived. Said another way, that our gospel story did survive means that it avoided the gauntlet of naysayers and must be true.

We’re exploring this alternate history, where the gospel story was false, and those in the inner circle successfully snuffed it out. It quickly falls apart under examination. Part 1 has the first eight points.

9. Jesus himself couldn’t rein in rumors. He repeatedly tells those around him to not tell anyone about his miracles, and yet we read about both the miracles and Jesus’s fruitless plea. If he can’t stop rumors, why imagine that mortals can?

Jesus asked who people thought he was, and he was told, “[some say] John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets” (Mark 8:28). The gospels themselves say that legendary accretion happened within months. And was Jesus able to play the good naysayer and stamp out the false teaching? Apparently not, if these stories had gone unchecked.

Look at Scientology, cults, or any of the divisions of Christianity, both major (Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses) and minor (thousands of nondenominational churches and sects). Apparently, new religions start quite easily. The incredulous, “But what else could explain the New Testament but that the writers were telling the truth?!” doesn’t hold up when we see how easy it is for a new idea to take hold.

10. One way to stop the gospel story would be naysayers, but a far better way would be to show the gospel story to be false. The gospels themselves document that it was, and even that didn’t stop the story from spreading.

Jesus said that the end would come within the lifetime of many within his hearing. It didn’t (indeed, that this was going to be a longer process than initially thought was a reason that the oral history was finally written down, decades after the events). With the central prediction wrong, what more proof do you need that this religion was false? And yet the religion kept on going.

Or consider Joseph Smith. Here was a man charged with the very occult practices that he then warns about in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is full of anachronisms. This religion should’ve just collapsed under its own weight, but it’s still here. Logical failings won’t necessarily take down a religion.

These examples make clear that religion can grow in the face of evidence showing that it’s false. It is ridiculous to imagine that naysayers could’ve stopped Christianity when internal falsifying evidence didn’t.

11. Christian apologists say that there were no naysayers correcting a false Jesus story, but how do we know that there weren’t naysayers? For us to know about them, naysayers would need to have written their story and have some mechanism to recopy the true account over and over until the present day. Just like Christian documents, their originals would have crumbled with time. What would motivate anyone to preserve copies of documents that argued against a religion? Perhaps only another religion! And it’s not surprising that the Jesus-isn’t-divine religion didn’t catch on.

We see this problem with noncanonical writings. Take the Gospel of Peter, for example. Our primary copy is from the 8th or 9th century. Why aren’t there older copies as with the four canonical gospels? Because very few copies were made, and no one took pains to preserve them.

12. What success will a naysayer have when he’s fighting a belief that’s taken on faith?

Consider another community that had plenty of evidence that they were on the wrong track. The Millerites made themselves right with God by giving away all their possessions and awaited the end of the world on October 22, 1844. Didn’t happen. What better evidence could one want that William Miller’s Bible-based predictions about the End were false?

Did everyone who’d been duped by this Great Disappointment leave poorer but wiser? Of course not. Many Millerite sects adapted to the new information and carried on, one of which eventually became the Seventh-Day Adventist church.

In our own time, Harold Camping predicted May 21, 2011 for the Rapture, with the end coming five months later. Wrong again. And yet his Family Radio adapted and continues even after its own Great Disappointment.

Here are a few more examples of negative evidence dismissed by true believers:

  • Anti-gay pastor Ted Haggard paid for gay sex and meth and was removed as pastor. He’s now back in the saddle. Ditto Jimmy Swaggart (whose weakness was prostitutes). And Jim Bakker (sexual and financial shenanigans). And Peter Popoff (magic tricks masquerading as prophecy). If clear evidence doesn’t sink these preachers for good, why imagine that it would sink the Jesus story?
  • An Indian skeptic debunked “tears” from a Catholic crucifix as leaky plumbing. He faces blasphemy charges in India and now lives in Finland.
  • Half a million people visited in the first two weeks after the report of an iridescent “Mary” on the window of a bank in Clearwater, Florida. James Randi showed that it was just mineral deposits from sprinklers.
  • 9/11 Truthers aren’t convinced by expert testimony.
  • Does the appearance of the skeptical correction of a sensational but flawed story on snopes.com, urbanlegends.about.com, James Randi’s Swift, or quackwatch.org quickly shut it down? Of course not.

Believers won’t let rebuttals sink a good story. And when a firmly held conviction is so rarely changed by argument today, why imagine it any more common 2000 years ago?

As an additional humiliation to the Naysayer Hypothesis, consider the Shroud of Turin, a fake burial shroud of Jesus. It came to light in the 14th century, during a time of great interest in Christian relics. History documents dozens of claimed shrouds of Jesus. Though there is still debate on the authenticity of the Turin shroud, our earliest mention of the shroud is a 1390 letter from a bishop to a pope stating not only that it was a forgery but that the artist was known and had confessed.

Apparently the Naysayer Hypothesis is cited only when convenient.

13. The gospel story is just a story. Suppose I pass along the gossip that I heard, “40 years ago, Theodore Mertz rose up from the dead.” Where are the naysayers who will rebut that? There aren’t any. So why be surprised that they don’t leap out of the woodwork to attack my false story with firsthand evidence?

The Naysayer hypothesis has it backwards: it assumes the miracle story, which implies eyewitnesses, and then imagines these eyewitnesses wagging their fingers at anyone who gets the Jesus story wrong. But what if the whole thing is legend? Then we see in history just what we’d expect to see: no eyewitnesses curtailing the Jesus story.

This argument is popular but empty. Don’t use it.

Thanking God for sparing you in a natural disaster
is like sending a thank-you note to a serial killer
for stabbing the family next door.
— Mrs. Betty Bowers,
America’s Best Christian

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 10/26/12.)

Image credit: Rob Shenk, flickr, CC

July 6, 2015

Apologists tell us that the gospels were written at a time when many disciples—the eyewitnesses—were still alive. If they heard an inaccurate story, they’d say, “I was there, and that’s not the way it happened!” They’d shut it down. An incorrect version of the story would not have survived. Said another way, that our gospel story did survive means that it avoided the gauntlet of naysayers and must be true.

Let’s consider this alternate history, where the gospel story was false, and those in the inner circle successfully snuffed it out. It quickly falls apart under examination. Here are 13 reasons why I say nay to this Naysayer Hypothesis.

naysayer hypothesis

1. There would have been few potential naysayers. The gospel story does report thousands witnessing the miracle of the loaves and fishes, but these wouldn’t be naysayers. A naysayer must have been a close companion of Jesus to witness him not doing every miracle recorded in the Gospels. He would need to know that Jesus didn’t walk on water and didn’t raise Lazarus. A proper naysayer must have been one of Jesus’s close companions during his entire ministry, and there would likely have been just a few dozen.

2. We imagine a handful of naysayers who know that the Jesus story is only a legend, but that was in the year 30. Now the first gospel is written and it’s roughly forty years later—how many are still alive? Conditions were harsh at that time, and people died young.

And consider that the gospels were written after siege of Jerusalem in 70, which Josephus says killed 1.1 million people. More were scattered or enslaved. Few naysayers would’ve remained to critique gospel accounts.

3. A naysayer must be in the right location to complain. Suppose he lived in Jerusalem, and say that the gospel of Mark was written in Alexandria, Egypt, which historians say is one possibility. How will our naysayer correct its errors? Sure, Mark will be copied and spread, but there’s little time before our 60- or 70-year-old witnesses die. Even if we imagine our tiny band dedicating their lives to stamping out this false story, believers are starting brush fires of Christian belief all over the Eastern Mediterranean, from Alexandria to Damascus to Corinth to Rome. How can we expect our naysayers to snuff them all out?

4. The naysayers had no motivation for dedicating their lives to stopping the false Jesus story. So there’s yet another nut who thinks he has it all figured out—who cares? Your Judaism isn’t under threat from this tiny cult (and it was a tiny cult in the early years).

Consider a modern equivalent. Many atheists today spend much time responding to claims of Christianity, but that’s because Christianity is society’s bull in the china shop. It causes harm. In contrast, imagine a Christian who also believes in reincarnation. That’s a weird set of beliefs, but who really cares? No one would devote their life to stamping out that belief.

5. The naysayers wouldn’t know about the problem. Two thousand years ago, you couldn’t walk down to the corner bookstore to find the latest Jesus gospel. How were our naysayers to learn of the story? Written documents at that time were scarce and precious things. And the naysayers would be Jews who didn’t convert to Christianity. They wouldn’t have associated much with the new Christians and so would have been unlikely to come across the Jesus story.

6. There was another gulf between the naysayers and the early Christians: the early church was a Greek institution. The epistles and gospels were written in Greek, not the local language of Aramaic spoken by Jesus and the naysayers. To even learn of the Jesus story in this community, our naysayers must speak Greek, which is hard to imagine among the typical peasant followers of Jesus. How many could have done this? And to influence the Greek-speaking readers of the gospels for us to learn of the problem, a rebuttal would have to have been written in Greek—not a common skill in Palestine.

7. Imagine a naysayer knew the actual Jesus and knew that he was merely a charismatic teacher. Nothing supernatural. Now he hears the story of Jesus the Son of Man, the man of miracles, the healer of lepers and raiser of the dead. Why connect “Son of Man” Jesus with your childhood buddy Jesus? “Jesus” was a common name (actually, Joshua or Yeshua), and supernatural claims were common at the time. His friend Jesus didn’t do anything like this, so the story he heard must be of a different person. So even when confronted with the false teaching, he wouldn’t know to raise an alarm.

8. Consider how hard is it today for a politician, celebrity, or business leader to stop a false rumor, even with the many ways to get the word out. Think about how hard it would have been in first-century Palestine. How many thousands of Christians were out there spreading the word for every naysayer with his finger in the dike? Given the sensational story (“Jesus was a miracle worker who can save you from your sins!”) and the mundane one (“Nah—he’s just a regular guy that I hung around with when I was growing up”), which has more traction?

The Jews of the time of Jesus had far better evidence of his divinity than we could ever hope to have. A tiny handful found it compelling and became his followers, but the vast majority didn’t. If eyewitness testimony is relevant, as today’s Christian apologists claim, we should follow that majority.

Concluded in part 2.

If 50 million people say a foolish thing, 

it’s still a foolish thing.
— Anatole France

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 10/26/12.)

Image credit: erokism, flickr, CC

October 26, 2012

Apologists tell us that the gospels were written at a time when many disciples—the eyewitnesses—were still alive. If they heard an inaccurate story, they’d say, “I was there, and that’s not the way it happened!” They’d shut it down. An incorrect version of the story would not have survived.

Let’s consider this alternative world, where those in the inner circle tried to snuff out any false statements about Jesus. It quickly falls apart under examination.

Here are ten reasons why I say nay to this Naysayer Hypothesis.

1. There would have been few potential naysayers. True, the gospel story reports thousands witnessing the miracle of the loaves and fishes, but these wouldn’t be naysayers. A naysayer must have been a close companion of Jesus to witness him not doing every miracle recorded in the Gospels. He would need to know that Jesus didn’t walk on water and didn’t raise Lazarus. A proper naysayer must have been one of Jesus’s close companions during his entire ministry, and there would likely have been just a few dozen.

2. We imagine a handful of naysayers who know that the Jesus story is only a legend, but that was in the year 30. Now the first gospel is written and it’s roughly forty years later—how many are still alive? Conditions were harsh at that time, and people died young. Many from our little band of naysayers have died or been imprisoned by this point.

3. A naysayer must be in the right location to complain. Suppose he lived in Jerusalem, and say that the book of Mark was written in Alexandria, Egypt, which historians say is one possibility. How will our naysayer correct its errors? Sure, Mark will be copied and spread, but there’s little time before our 60- or 70-year-old witnesses die. Even if we imagine our tiny band dedicating their lives to stamping out this false story—and why would they?—believers are starting brush fires of Christian belief all over the Eastern Mediterranean, from Alexandria to Damascus to Corinth to Rome. How can we expect our naysayers to snuff them all out?

4. They wouldn’t know about it. Two thousand years ago you couldn’t walk down to the corner bookstore to find the latest Jesus gospel. How were our naysayers to learn of the story? Written documents at that time were scarce and precious things. The naysayers would be Jews who didn’t convert to Christianity. They wouldn’t have associated much with the new Christians and so would have been unlikely to come across the Jesus story.

5. There was another gulf between the naysayers and the early Christians: the Gospels were written in Greek, not the local language of Aramaic spoken by Jesus and the naysayers. To even learn of the Jesus story in this community, our naysayers must speak Greek, which is hard to imagine among the typical peasant followers of Jesus. How many could have done this? And to influence the Greek-speaking readers of the Gospels, a rebuttal would have to have been written in Greek—not a common skill in Palestine.

6. Imagine a naysayer knew the actual Jesus and knew that he was merely a charismatic rabbi. Nothing supernatural. Now he hears the story of Jesus the Son of Man, the man of miracles, the healer of lepers and raiser of the dead. Why connect the two? “Jesus” was a common name (or Joshua or Yeshua or whatever his name really was), and supernatural claims were common at the time. His friend Jesus didn’t do anything like this, so the story he heard must be of a different person. So even when confronted with the false teaching, he wouldn’t know to raise an alarm.

7. Consider how hard is it today for a politician, celebrity, or business leader to stop a false rumor, even with the many ways to get the word out. Think about how hard it would have been in first-century Palestine. How many thousands of Christians were out there spreading the word for every naysayer with his finger in the dike? Given the sensational story (“Jesus was a miracle worker who can save you from your sins!”) and the mundane one (“Nah—he’s just a guy that I hung around with when I was growing up”), which has more traction?

8. Jesus himself couldn’t rein in rumors. He repeatedly tells those around him to not tell anyone about his miracles, and yet we read about both the miracles and Jesus’s fruitless plea. If he can’t stop rumors, why imagine that mortals can?

Or consider Joseph Smith. Here was a man convicted of the very occult practices that he then tells about in the Book of Mormon. Should’ve been easy to pull aside the curtain on this “religion,” right? Nope.

Look at Scientologists, cults, or any of the divisions of Christianity, both major (Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses) and minor (thousands of nondenominational churches and sects). Apparently, new religions start quite easily. The incredulous, “But what else could explain the New Testament but that the writers were telling the truth?!” doesn’t hold up when we see how easy it is.

9. One way to stop the gospel story would be naysayers, but a far better way would be to show the story as false. And the gospels themselves document that it was.

Jesus said that the end would come within the lifetime of many within his hearing. It didn’t (indeed, that this was going to be a longer process than initially thought was a reason that the oral history was finally written down, decades after the events). With the central prediction crumbling, what more proof do you need that this religion was false? And yet the religion kept on going. Obviously, religion can grow in the face of evidence to the contrary.

10. Christian apologists say that there were no naysayers, but how do we know that there weren’t? For us to know about them, naysayers would need to have written their story and have some mechanism to recopy the true account over and over until the present day. Just like Christian documents, their originals would have crumbled with time. What would motivate anyone to preserve copies of documents that argued against a religion? Perhaps only another religion! And it’s not surprising that the Jesus-isn’t-divine religion didn’t catch on.

This argument is popular but empty. Don’t use it.

If a million people say a foolish thing,

it’s still a foolish thing.

(This post is a modification of one originally posted 11/2/11.)

Photo credit: Military Videos

November 2, 2011

Biological hazard symbolApologists tell us that the gospels were written at a time when many disciples—the eyewitnesses—were still alive.  If they heard an inaccurate story, they’d say, “I was there, and that’s not the way it happened!”  They’d shut it down.  An incorrect version of the story would not have survived.

But does this make sense?  Let’s consider this alternative world, where those in the inner circle tried to snuff out any false statements about Jesus.  Here are ten reasons why I say nay to this Naysayer Hypothesis.

1. There would have been few potential naysayers, perhaps a few dozen.  True, the gospel story has thousands witnessing the miracle of the loaves and fishes, but these wouldn’t be naysayers.  A naysayer must have been a close companion of Jesus to witness him not doing all the miracles recorded in the Gospels.  He would need to know that Jesus didn’t walk on water and didn’t raise Lazarus.  A proper naysayer must have been one of Jesus’s close companions during his entire ministry, and there’s no reason to imagine there being more than a few dozen.

2. We imagine a handful of naysayers who know that the Jesus story is only a legend, but that was in the year 30.  Now the first gospel is written and it’s roughly forty years later—how many are still alive?  Conditions were harsh at that time, and people died young.  Many from our little band of naysayers have died or been imprisoned by this point.

3. A naysayer must be in the right location to complain.  Suppose he lived in Jerusalem, and say that the book of Mark was written in Alexandria, Egypt, which historians say is one possibility.  How will our naysayer correct its errors?  (more…)

February 13, 2018

Let me share with you an article that I enjoyed. And when I say “enjoyed,” I mean, “was baffled by.”

The article is “The Bible and Miracles: Fact or Fantasy?” and it proposes rules for separating history from myth and legend. It concludes that the Bible’s miracles are history.

Four simple rules

The author proposes four rules for identifying historical accounts.

1. Unlike myths, biblical miracles are presented in a historical context, that is, in conjunction with actual historical events, many of which can be verified by archaeology.

Yes, myths are often unconnected with human history, but that’s a quibble for this conversation (more on the distinctions between myths and legends here). Let’s consider legends instead, which typically are presented in a historical context. For example, the legend of King Arthur and Merlin the shape-shifting wizard was set in England around 600. The legend of William Tell was set in Switzerland around 1300. The legend of Jesus the miracle worker could be set in Palestine around 30.

Archeology supports biblical miracles no more than it does the supernatural stories in the Iliad. Yes, there was a Jericho and yes, there was a Troy, but archeology gives no support to the supernatural.

2. Miracles are presented in a simple, matter-of-fact style. No fanfare, sometimes not even a comment.

I don’t think that Jesus’s miracles are treated any more matter-of-factly than Merlin’s magic, the gods’ supernatural actions in the Iliad, or Paul Bunyan’s overlarge feats.

Fiction can also be presented in a matter-of-fact style. Witches and wizards can do magic (Harry Potter), and vampires and werewolves fight (Twilight).

3. Miracles occur in a framework of reason and logic. There are no miracles just for the sake of miracles. They are not performed for show; they are not “magic tricks” designed to entertain the reader.

The Bible’s miracles are not entertainment, but they are done as demonstrations. Jesus performed his miracles “so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matthew 9:6).

4. Miracles are performed in the presence of hundreds, sometimes thousands of witnesses; and many of the witnesses are still alive at the time the events are written down.

No, the stories claim that miracles were performed in the presence of many eyewitnesses. There is no independent historical documentation of a single miracle. I discuss the weakness of Paul’s claim of 500 eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus here.

Let’s test drive these rules

To illustrate a false claim, the author gives this example:

Even now, over 200 years after the fact, would anyone believe someone today who wrote that George Washington calmed the Delaware River and walked across it while his soldiers rowed?

We have the author’s own foolproof 4-part method to separate miracle from legend. Let’s try it out on this example.

1. “Washington walked across the Delaware River” is in a historical context. No one doubts that the Continental Army crossed that river the night of December 25, 1776 to attack enemy forces in Trenton.

2. Matter of fact style? Check. It’s easy to imagine the story told in this style.

3. Not performed as a trick or entertainment? Check. Washington had to get across somehow, and he could’ve walked across the water as a morale booster for the troops.

4. Performed in the presence of hundreds of witnesses? Check. History records 2400 soldiers in the group that crossed with Washington.

You might argue that Washington walking on water is nonsense, and those soldiers would rebut the claim. But if that’s the case, show me the letters from these men saying, “There’s a crazy rumor going around that General Washington walked on water. Let me make clear: I was there, I saw Washington, and it didn’t happen like that.” You can’t provide those letters? Then you begin to understand the weakness in the Naysayer Hypothesis, the idea that a claim that lasted until today must not have been defeated by any contemporary naysayers and so must be true (more here).

According to the author’s own checklist, he would be obliged to accept this account of Washington walking on water as an actual miracle. Since this account about Washington would be written in Modern English, it would be more reliable and accessible than gospel stories written in 2000-year-old Greek from an ancient culture (more here).

Parallel the gospel story with a modern analogy

The author bristles at the concern that the gospel story is unreliable history because it was initially passed on as oral history and written long after the events. He proposes a parallel. Compare Jesus known only through gospels written decades after his death with Mahatma Gandhi known only through the film Gandhi (1982), which was produced decades after his death.

To understand the early readers of the gospels, consider ourselves learning about Gandhi only through the film. But the author wants us to imagine a very different Gandhi. This Gandhi does the things that Jesus did: he proclaims himself divine, heals the sick, and multiplies loaves and fishes. Would you believe it?

Now go further. Would you believe that this Gandhi died and resurrected? That He died for your sins? Would you drop everything to accept this Gandhi’s call to follow Him?

Of course not. That’s a helpful parallel, and this Christian author has nicely demonstrated that the gospel claim is ridiculous. If you wouldn’t believe an account of Gandhi doing miracles, produced decades after his death, why believe the same thing for Jesus?

[SFX: record scratch]

Nope, that’s not the conclusion of this author. He tries to salvage his situation, not by running from, but actually embracing his ridiculous situation:

No one could have fabricated a story as that told in the gospels with the expectation that people would believe it. Yet believe it they did. Why? Because it happened, that’s why! And the apostles that preached the gospel must have demonstrated its truth by performing the same miracles. It’s the only answer that makes sense. No one in their right mind would have concocted those stories,* because no one in their right mind would believe them without reason.

* I argue that the gospel story is legend, not that it was deliberately invented.

Wow—you can’t make this stuff up! This author admits that the gospel story is crazy but tries to salvage his position by spinning this as a good thing. It’s so crazy it has to be true. It’s like early church father Tertullian who is quoted as writing, “I believe because it is absurd.”

Yeah, seek out the absurdity. That’s a good way to find truth. Or maybe not.

This reminds me of Sathya Sai Baba, an Indian spiritual leader who died in 2011 with millions of followers. He is claimed to have performed almost all of Jesus’ miracles, including raising from the dead. That the absurd stories are true is the only answer that makes sense, right?

The Son of God died:
it is wholly believable because it is absurd;
he was buried and rose again,
which is certain because it is impossible.
— Tertullian, early church father

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 6/25/14.)

Image via See-ming Lee, CC license

 

October 27, 2017

Case for Christ, 5 Es of Evidence

Lee Strobel has a story. No, it’s not the Greatest Story Ever Told (though he gets to that). The story is his conversion from unpleasant atheist to humble Christian servant, using his tough legal mind and journalistic experience to verify the facts of the Jesus story. (This story has been turned into a movie, The Case for Christ, which I critique here.)

He offers five reasons to accept the gospel story, each starting with the letter E. Let’s examine them and see if we can apply the eight lessons we developed from wading through Gary Habermas’s “minimal facts” argument for the resurrection.

E #1: Jesus was Executed. We can be sure that Jesus was dead. The Romans were very good at killing people. Don’t imagine that Jesus survived and then revived in the tomb. In addition, non-Christian historians like Tacitus and Josephus confirm the death. [I’ll show Strobel’s argument in italics.]

I’m always startled when Christians wallow in the agony Jesus went through. Strobel takes us on a gory journey through the details of the beating, how crucifixion worked, and so on. That apparently makes his sacrifice more impressive (though I’m unimpressed).

Strobel’s Executed claim violates our Lesson 1: it’s just a story. Yes, the story says that Jesus was executed, but so what? That’s not history. I’ll grant that someone dying is a fairly easy claim to accept. There’s nothing supernatural there, but we must emphasize the difference between a story and history. Is the gospel more than a story? That must be shown.

As for the historians, they give us little more than “there are people called Christians” (more on Josephus here).

E #2: There were Early accounts of the Jesus tale. Not only do we have four gospels, but 1 Corinthians 15 gives a creed stating that Jesus died for our sins and was resurrected on the third day. This creed has been dated by scholars to just a few years after the death of Jesus.

A creed is a statement of belief; it isn’t history. (I’ve written more about the 1 Corinthians passage here.)

As for the accounts being early, if you read the story of a three-days-dead man resurrecting from the tomb in yesterday’s newspaper, you wouldn’t believe it. Why believe it in a 2000-year-old document? Does making it harder to verify somehow make the claim more plausible?

The Early Accounts claim violates Lesson 8: just because the consensus of New Testament scholars says so doesn’t make it true. To those who demand that Christian scholars get a seat at the table, I wonder if they’d like to have Muslim scholars at the table. They have no supernatural bias, and they even accept much of the story of Jesus. Oddly, they universally reject the resurrection part. Are they biased by their religion? Perhaps, but if Muslim scholars are biased, what does that say about Christian scholars? Let’s not forget their bias.

Don’t imagine legend crept in to the gospel story. Historian A.N. Sherwin-White argues that “the passage of two generations of time was not enough for legend to wipe out a solid core of historical truth.”

I’ve written in detail about Sherwin-White’s work here. In short, Sherwin-White wasn’t making an immutable rule about the growth of legend. Note also that his claim is that the truth isn’t erased, not that there’s a reliable way of retrieving it.

E #3: The tomb was found Empty. “Nobody in the first century was claiming it was anything but empty.” The authorities said that disciples stole the body, but the disciples had no motive to, and that story simply confirms that the tomb was empty! The skeptics had to invent a story to explain away this embarrassing fact.

Apologists are drawn to weak skeptical arguments like sharks to chum. “Disciples stole the body” or “Jesus wasn’t dead and revived in the tomb” are fun to knock over, but this process is just misdirection. Apologists hope we won’t notice how weak the primary argument is.

Disciples are said to have stolen the body? Lesson 1: it’s just a story. Strobel says that skeptics invented the story, but of course that story comes from Matthew, not from skeptics.

75% of critical scholars accept the empty tomb as historical.

Lesson 8: the consensus of New Testament scholars doesn’t count for much, especially when this “75%” isn’t a valid poll.

Remember that the gospel accounts of the empty tomb come decades after the supposed event. Why would anyone expect there to still be naysayers (people who knew the truth who could rebut a false tale) to challenge the gospel story? Though the Naysayer Hypothesis is popular, it crumbles with a little investigation.

E #4: We have Eyewitness evidence. In 1 Cor. 15, Paul mentions individuals who saw the risen Jesus by name and makes clear that there were 500 more. And the icing on the cake is when Paul challenges the reader to look them up to verify the claim! “No way would he have said that if it wasn’t true.”

500 eyewitnesses? That’s no evidence. And you know who agrees with me? The author of each of the gospels! None of the gospels repeat this claim. Perhaps the authors hadn’t heard of this rumor or knew it to be false; either way, Paul’s claim looks pretty weak.

“You’ll back me up on this, right guys? Guys . . . ?” Sorry, Paul, but you’re alone on this one.

(I write more about the claim of 500 eyewitnesses here.)

“I’ve seen people sent to the death chamber on a fraction of this kind of evidence.”

And now Strobel really jumps the shark. He’s seen people convicted by a single sentence written by a stranger? I doubt it. The Sixth Amendment demands that the accused be able to cross-examine a witness. Not only is Paul long dead, but we know very little about him. Strobel compounds this problem because he probably takes the conservative line by insisting that the thirteen Pauline epistles were indeed all written by Paul, though most scholars only acknowledge seven. In other words, Strobel doesn’t even accept the scholarly consensus about this “witness.”

E #5: The Emergence of the early church. The Christian church emerged in the very city where Jesus had just been crucified. “Now, how do you sell [a false story] to people if they are there and they know better?”

No, the people weren’t there! The New Testament wasn’t written in Jerusalem just days after the events it claims to document; the many books of the New Testament were written in cities all around the Mediterranean decades later. Skeptics couldn’t read it and then step out their doors to do man-on-the-street interviews to verify the facts.

Weeks after the resurrection, Peter stood up publicly and proclaimed the gospel story. People didn’t say that it was nonsense. “History shows that on that day 3000 people” proclaimed the truth and joined the church.

No, it was a story. The “people” are just characters on a page that can be made to do whatever suited the author’s purpose. The claim of history must be shown.

The 8 lessons

Some of the other lessons are relevant to dismantling Strobel’s simple argument.

  • 2. The natural trumps the supernatural. The God hypothesis might be right, but we need big evidence.
  • 4. “Given the story to this point . . .” Strobel often wants to assume part of the story as history as he evaluates what comes next.
  • 7. Evaluate similar claims with a similar bar of evidence. If you’re unimpressed with a particular claim from another religion, don’t expect us to be any more convinced by an analogous claim from Christianity.

Strobel said that he had rejected Christianity because he refused to be held accountable for his worthless life and because he was too proud to bend his knee to Jesus. The bigger issue is that he had no good reason to accept it.

[Heaven is like] when you hear someone
talk about Hawaii like they’ve been there 
but they only read about it in a brochure. 
— Kodie (commenter)

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 4/11/14.)

 

August 5, 2017

Gary Habermas claims that the resurrection is well evidenced because most scholars accept it. That claim crumbles for many reasons (more here), but let’s move on to consider his larger argument, the minimal facts approach to the resurrection as documented in The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary Habermas and Mike Licona (2004).

I like the idea. Habermas wants to minimize the number of facts necessary to build his foundation and use only claims granted by “virtually all scholars on the subject, even the skeptical ones.” He thinks four such “facts” are sufficient to show that the resurrection actually happened. (Going forward, I’ll use Habermas as a stand-in for the two authors.)

Let’s see if the argument holds up.

Fact 1: Jesus died by crucifixion. Habermas points to the gospels, which are first-century writings that all report a crucifixion. From outside the Bible, he gives Lucian, Mara Bar Serapion, and the Talmud, but these all appear to be second-century writings and don’t add a lot. An earlier non-Christian source is Josephus, but Josephus’s two references to Jesus appear to have been added or modified by later scribes (more here).

Habermas concludes, prematurely, “Clearly, Jesus’ death by crucifixion is a historical fact supported by considerable evidence.” The story does gradually became widespread, though this was long after the time of Jesus. That doesn’t make it “historical fact.”

Fact 2: The disciples believed that Jesus rose and appeared to them. The disciples went from cowards hiding from the authorities to bold proclaimers of the gospels, even to the point of martyrdom.

Yes, that’s what the story says, but let’s be skeptical about stories. We don’t take at face value the story about Merlin being a shape-shifting wizard. We don’t even unskeptically take the very un-supernatural claim that Arthur was king of England. Why then take elements of the supernatural Jesus story as history, even the natural ones?

In the second place, the “Who would die for a lie?” argument (that the disciples’ deaths is strong evidence) also fails. In brief, the historical evidence for apostles’ martyrdom is weak (more here).

Finally, the claim that the gospels document eyewitness history is also suspect when we don’t even know who wrote them (more here).

The gospel mentions emboldened disciples, but until we have good evidence otherwise, this is a story rather than history. Both “But they were eyewitnesses!” and “But they died for their faith!” are poorly evidenced claims.

The sources

Habermas gives Paul as one important source. It is rather incredible that Christianity was so strongly shaped by Paul, someone who wasn’t even a disciple of Jesus. Paul claimed to have known Peter, James, and John and claimed apostolic authority, but some random dude is just going to step in and declare that he’s got it all figured out, and he becomes part of the canon? Paul is authoritative just because he was influential, not because of any irrefutable sign from heaven.

Habermas argues that 1 Corinthians 15:3–5 is an early creed and so is very close to the events it claims to document. But a creed is simply a statement that is taken on faith, not evidence or an argument. His argument that these verses look distinct from the rest of Paul’s epistle could just as easily argue that they were added later. Note also that Paul’s Jesus story reads as mythology and is not grounded in history (more here).

Other authorities are church fathers Clement and Polycarp. Habermas argues that they were taught by the apostles, but his evidence comes from 150 years after the death of Jesus.

The innocence of a child

The credulity of Habermas is a little hard to believe. He says:

[The disciples] denied and abandoned [Jesus], then they hid in fear. Afterward, they willingly endangered themselves by publicly proclaiming the risen Christ (p. 56).

It’s just a story, and an untrustworthy one at that since we have a poor view of the original events (more here). Is this history? Show us.

Habermas again:

The apostles died for holding to their own testimony that they had personally seen the risen Jesus. Contemporary martyrs die for what they believe to be true. The disciples of Jesus died for what they knew to be either true or false (p. 59).

Habermas says that what we read is consistent with apostles seeing a risen Jesus, but of course that’s begging the question. Habermas assumes what he’s trying to prove. The honest interpretation is that we just have a story about Jesus and his apostles, and the stories of martyrdom developed decades later. Neither is history.

Naysayers

Here’s a common error that Habermas repeats several times.

If the news spread that several of the original disciples had recanted, we would expect that Christianity would have been dealt a severe blow (p. 60).

This is the Naysayer Hypothesis—the idea that a false story would have crumbled after the corrections of naysayers, those people who knew the truth. Here again, Habermas starts with the assumption that the Jesus story is correct and then wonders what would happen in various situations. This is backwards. Instead, start with the documents that we know exist and see where the evidence points.

I list 10 reasons why the Naysayer Hypothesis is flawed. To give just one, ask yourself why anyone who knew that Jesus was not divine would spend his life stamping out the brush fires of Christian belief throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.

And one final quibble: notice the word “recant” above. The only people I’ve heard who suggest that the disciples deliberately invented the story (and had something to recant) are apologists. I presume that the Paul and the gospel authors honestly believed, just like Christians today.

Since the original disciples were making the claim that Jesus rose from the dead, his resurrection was not the result of myth making. His life story was not embellished over time if the facts can be traced to the original witnesses (p. 60).

And again Habermas starts with an assumption, this time that the gospels come from the disciples’ eyewitness accounts. Habermas acts as if he can’t tell a story from history.

Continue with the remaining two “facts” here.

Our objective is to arrive at 
the most plausible explanation of the data.
— Habermas and Licona,
The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, p. 83

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 02/19/14.)

Image credit: British American

 

March 31, 2017

The Christian world has plenty of people eager to predict the future. Hal Lindsey published several predictions of the End. Harold Camping hilariously predicted the end of the world in 2011 (I wrote about that herehere, and here).

These are just a few in the long line of end-of-the-world predictors, and they all make two mistakes. First, they delude themselves that they can predict the future. Second, they’re too specific! That’s why Nostradamus’s nonsense is still popular but Hal Lindsay’s breathlessly titled books The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon or Planet Earth: The Final Chapter aren’t. Nostradamus is ambiguous, so it can be interpreted (always in hindsight!) to mean something profound. Specific, short-term predictions tend to explode in your face when they don’t happen.

The importance of that lesson will be apparent shortly.

Mormonism beats Christianity

I wrote a post with this thought experiment: imagine the most convincing historical record of a religion. What could it possibly say to convince you to sign up?

Mormonism almost has the perfect historical record of that imaginary situation. It certainly beats conventional Christianity.

  • Number of documents. The Christian apologist may say that the New Testament story is supported by the writings of Josephus, Tacitus, and other outsiders. But Mormons point to newspaper articles, diaries, letters, and even court records documenting the early fathers of the church, a far broader record than that of the New Testament. Some of these accounts of the events in the early Mormon church were written days or even hours after the events.
  • Quality of copies. The apologist will talk about the tens of thousands of New Testament manuscript copies and the antiquity of some of the oldest manuscripts, the most voluminous record of any book, but the Mormon record beats this again. The books of Mormonism were written after the modern printing press, and we have many early, identical copies. There is no centuries-long dark period separating originals from our earliest copies and no worry that scribes “improved” manuscripts as they copied them.
  • Cultural gap. The Jesus story is from a culture long ago and far away, and the gospels document the Christian tradition within Greek culture, already one culture removed from the Aramaic Jewish culture of Jesus. In Mormonism, we can read the accounts of the participants in our own language.
  • Oral history gap. The apologist will talk about how little time elapsed between the events and the documentation of those events—perhaps 40 to 70 years for the gospels. Not bad, but Mormonism spent basically no time in the limbo of oral tradition. Its holy books were committed to paper immediately.
  • Provenance. The New Testament books were written by ordinary people, not by God himself or even angels. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was told by an angel about the golden plates, from which the Book of Mormon was written. Yes, Smith’s translation process was fallible, but he wasn’t writing from memory. That his source document was vetted by an angel says a lot about the quality of what he started with.
  • Eyewitness accounts. The four gospels don’t claim to be eyewitness accounts. We don’t even know who wrote them. Within Mormonism, 12 men saw the golden plates. Testimony from those men is at the beginning of the Book of Mormon.
  • Who would die for a lie? Christian apologists ask this question and then point to the martyred disciples of Jesus. In the first place, this argument crumbles on investigation. In the second, Mormonism matches it. The Mormon inner circle put themselves through much hardship, including death in at least the case of founder Joseph Smith. If Christian apologists claim that this is strong evidence for Christianity, must it be for Mormonism as well?
  • Naysayer hypothesis. Christian apologists say that if the Jesus story were false, naysayers of the time would’ve snuffed it out. A false story wouldn’t have survived to be popular today. In the first place, this argument is ridiculous. In the second, Mormonism matches it. If the story were false, those in the inner circle would’ve shut it down, right?

But there’s another side to the story: part 2.

If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed; 
if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed. 
— Mark Twain

 (This is an update of a post that originally appeared 11/14/13.)

Image credit: Michael Whiffen, flickr, CC

 

June 8, 2016

Strange Notions is a web site that aims to be “the central place of dialogue between Catholics and atheists.” Shortly after it was created, I was invited to submit one of my posts, which I understand was the first atheist contribution. I applaud that goal, and I was honored to have been be asked.

I offered my “10 Reasons to Just Say Nay to the Naysayer Hypothesis.” A day later, Father Dwight Longenecker, author of the Patheos blog “Standing on my Head,” wrote a reply. Here’s my response.

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 (for example, 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 fair. For simplicity, I wrote about just naysayers responding to the gospels, but yes, the fuller hypothesis imagines naysayers at the beginning of the ministry. (There would be less for these supposed naysayers to work with if they were responding not to the gospels but only to the oral version.) 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. However, this isn’t the scholarly consensus. (I write more about the dating of the gospels here.)

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, that is 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.

Conclusion

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

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 5/23/13.)

April 11, 2014

Case for ChristLee Strobel has a story. No, it’s not the Greatest Story Ever Told (though he gets to that). His story is his conversion from unpleasant atheist to humble Christian servant, using his tough legal mind and journalistic experience to verify the facts of the Jesus story.

He offers five reasons to accept the gospel story, each starting with the letter E. Let’s examine them and see if we can apply the eight lessons we developed from wading through Gary Habermas’s “minimal facts” argument for the resurrection.

E #1: Jesus was executed. We can be sure that Jesus was dead. The Romans were very good at killing people. Don’t imagine that Jesus survived and then revived in the tomb. In addition, non-Christian historians like Tacitus and Josephus confirm the death. [I’ll show Strobel’s argument in italics.]

I’m always startled when Christians wallow in the agony Jesus went through. Strobel takes us on a gory journey through the details of the beating, how crucifixion worked, and so on. That apparently makes his sacrifice more impressive (though I’m unimpressed).

Strobel’s Executed claim violates our Lesson 1: it’s just a story. Yes, the story says that Jesus was executed, but so what? That’s not history. I’ll grant that someone dying is a fairly easy claim to accept. There’s nothing supernatural there, but we must emphasize the difference between a story and history. Is the gospel more than a story? That must be shown.

As for the historians, they give us little more than “there are people called Christians” (more about Josephus here).

E #2: There were early accounts of the Jesus tale. Not only do we have four gospels, but 1 Corinthians 15 gives a creed stating that Jesus died for our sins and was resurrected on the third day. This creed has been dated by scholars to just a few years after the death of Jesus.

A creed is a statement of belief; it isn’t history. (I’ve written more about 1 Cor. here.)

As for the accounts being early, if you read in the paper the story of a three-days-dead man resurrecting from the tomb yesterday, you wouldn’t believe it. Why believe it in a 2000-year-old document? Does making it harder to verify somehow make the claim more plausible?

The Early Accounts claim violates Lesson 8: just because the consensus of New Testament scholars says so doesn’t make it true. Christian scholars are entitled to weigh in, of course, but let’s not forget their bias.

Don’t imagine legend crept in to the gospel story. Historian A.N. Sherwin-White argues that “the passage of two generations of time was not enough for legend to wipe out a solid core of historical truth.”

I’ve written in detail about Sherwin-White’s work here. In short, Sherwin-White wasn’t making an immutable rule about the growth of legend. Note also that his claim is that the truth isn’t erased, not that there’s a reliable way of retrieving it.

E #3: The tomb was found empty. “Nobody in the first century was claiming it was anything but empty.” The authorities said that disciples stole the body, but the disciples had no motive to, and that story simply confirms that the tomb was empty! The skeptics had to invent a story to explain away this embarrassing fact.

Apologists are drawn to weak skeptical arguments like sharks to chum. “Disciples stole the body” or “Jesus wasn’t dead and revived in the tomb” are fun to knock over, but this process is just misdirection. Apologists hope we won’t notice how weak the primary argument is.

Disciples are said to have stolen the body? Lesson 1: it’s just a story. Strobel says that skeptics invented the story, but of course that story comes from Matthew, not from skeptics.

75% of critical scholars accept the empty tomb as historical.

Lesson 8: the consensus of New Testament scholars doesn’t count for much, especially when this “75%” isn’t a valid poll.

Remember that the gospel accounts of the empty tomb come decades after the supposed event. Why would anyone expect there to still be naysayers (people who knew the truth who could rebut a false tale) to challenge the gospel story? Though the Naysayer Hypothesis is popular, it crumbles with a little investigation.

E #4: We have eyewitness evidence. In 1 Cor. 15, Paul mentions individuals who saw the risen Jesus by name and makes clear that there were 500 more. And the icing on the cake is when Paul challenges the reader to look them up to verify the claim! “No way would he have said that if it wasn’t true.”

500 eyewitnesses? That’s no evidence. And you know who agrees with me? The author of each of the gospels! None of the gospels repeat this claim. Perhaps the authors hadn’t heard of this rumor or knew it to be false; either way, Paul’s claim looks pretty weak.

“You’ll back me up on this, right guys? Guys … ?” Sorry, Paul, but you’re alone on this one.

(I write more about the claim of 500 eyewitnesses here.)

“I’ve seen people sent to the death chamber on a fraction of this kind of evidence.”

And now Strobel really jumps the shark. He’s seen people convicted by a single sentence written by a stranger? I doubt it. The Sixth Amendment demands that the accused be able to cross-examine a witness. Not only is Paul long dead, but we know very little about him. Strobel compounds this problem because he probably takes the conservative line by insisting that the thirteen Pauline epistles were indeed all written by Paul, though most scholars only acknowledge seven. In other words, Strobel doesn’t even accept the scholarly consensus about this “witness.”

E #5: The emergence of the early church. The Christian church emerged in the very city where Jesus had just been crucified. “Now, how do you sell [a false story] to people if they are there and they know better?”

No, the people weren’t there! The New Testament wasn’t written in Jerusalem just days after the events it claims to document; the many books of the New Testament were written in cities all around the Mediterranean decades later. Skeptics couldn’t read it and then step out their doors to do man-on-the-street interviews to verify the facts.

Weeks after the resurrection, Peter stood up publicly and proclaimed the gospel story. People didn’t say that it was nonsense. “History shows that on that day 3000 people” proclaimed the truth and joined the church.

No, it was a story. The “people” are just characters on a page that can be made to do whatever suited the author’s purpose. If this is history, that must be shown.

The 8 lessons

Some of the other lessons are relevant to dismantling Strobel’s simple argument.

  • 2. The natural trumps the supernatural. The God hypothesis might be right, but we need big evidence.
  • 4. “Given the story to this point …” Strobel often wants to assume part of the story as history as he evaluates what comes next.
  • 7. Evaluate similar claims with a similar bar of evidence. If you’re unimpressed with a particular claim from another religion, don’t expect us to be any more convinced by an analogous claim from Christianity.

Strobel said that he had rejected Christianity because he refused to be held accountable for his worthless life and because he was too proud to bend his knee to Jesus. The bigger issue is that he had no good reason to accept it.

[Heaven is like] when you hear someone talk about Hawaii like they’ve been there
but they only read about it in a brochure.
Kodie (commenter)

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