Historicity: Testing the Claims of Christianity

Historicity: Testing the Claims of Christianity February 2, 2019

Hi! For the next few posts, we’ll be looking at how authoritarian Christians support their beliefs. We’ll lay out a basic definition of claims and defenses of claims. To start with, we’ll start looking at one major claim within the religion: that it is based on real history. We’ll see how persuasive this claim really is–and see if the evidence stacks up behind it. And then we’ll examine some big problems with the idea of historicity as a support for Christianity. Whew! Big one ahead here!

Thai marketplace
Rot Fai Train Night Market, Thailand (Geoff Greenwood.)

Hop in, gang! We’re going SHOPPING in the marketplace of ideas!

The “Wide-Eyed, Perplexed Blink of Mild Curiosity” Routine.

Oh man! I am SO OVER this particular example of Christian salesmanship! It just about always runs the same, too:

Christian: (makes some wild guess about why people deconvert that has no bearing on reality)
Me: I deconverted because I tested Christianity’s claims and they weren’t true.
Christian: (slow blink and an assumed air of concerned paternalism) Why my goodness! Pray tell, what claims could you possibly mean by that bizarre utterance?

I’m. OVER. IT!

Multi-level marketing (MLM) shills do much the same thing when people tell them they don’t want to support MLMs:

Click to embiggen. The MLM shill immediately asks what “MLM companies” are.

Notice, in the above example, that the shill actually knows exactly what the term means. She just wants to put her prey on the defensive with this pretense of ignorance.

In similar fashion, I’ve lost count of the Christians who respond to my assertions about Christian claims by coming back with questions about what claims I’m talking about. I always respond the same way:

Pick a claim. Any claim. It doesn’t matter what claim it is. Either it can be tested or it can’t. And if it can, and we do test it, then we discover it simply doesn’t hold up to the cold light of reality.

The Christians in question tend to take a vow of silence at that point.

But we won’t let the matter rest there.

Quick Definitions of Terms.

To begin, let’s lay some groundwork.

Claims. Assertions about reality that can be tested. The assertions tally with reality if the claim is true. Reality contradicts the claim–or fails to offer support for it–if the claim is false. If the claim can’t be tested at all, then nobody is under any obligation to accept it. Examples of common Christian claims:

  • The Bible represents an accurate history of its time.
  • Christians are better people than non-Christians are.
  • Premarital sex hurts those who engage in it.

Identifying a claim’s defense. Take any belief that you, yourself, hold. Ask yourself: Self, what objective reasons do I have for believing this? Whatever comes out of your mind-mouth next is probably going to be a defense of that claim. And chances are very good that that statement will be testable against reality.

Testing a claim’s defense. Devise a way to find objective support for the claim. Also devise a way to demonstrate that the claim is false. Falsification represents one of the most important steps in the scientific method for a reason. Throw reality at the claim–that’s what it’s there for. Set up parameters and if-then statements. Find objective ways to test it. At the end, does the claim still stand?

In Christianity, believers tend to offer up, as defenses for their claims about their religion, stuff that they think they can defend. Many of them land on the religion’s supposed historical roots as a reason to believe in it.

And that’s where we begin.

Claim #1: ZOMG IT REALLY HAPPENED, Y’ALL!

There is nothing within Christian teachings that denies the facts of history. . . Other belief systems are unverifiable or irrational.

Matt Slick, “How do we know Christianity is true and we are not deceived?”

Christians asserting historicity claim that people can trust that their religion is true because the Bible is a trustworthy historical source that describes actual events to at least some extent.

Past that bare-bones assertion, the offered-up supports for the claim take many forms. Almost all Christians believe that at least some of the stuff described in the Bible really happened. They just can’t agree on exactly what really happened and what is, instead, metaphorical, exaggerated–or flat-out erroneous.

Authoritarian Christians tend to cling to complete and literal historicity. Most Christians don’t go that far. Instead, they think that at least some stuff in their holy book literally happened. The line in the sand for almost all of them is a literally-existing Jesus Christ Supahstah. Everything else can be allegorical poetry, but this part right here absolutely must be literally true.

For now, we focus only on historicity being the claim, and not on exactly what the historicity concerns.

Historicity is one of the points of uniqueness that many Christians believe exists in their religion. They think that no other gods ever incarnated like they think theirs did, or took special interest in human beings like they think theirs did. I’ve heard many Christians claim that the Bible, unlike every other book of mythology, represents more real history than any other holy books do. And I firmly believed this idea myself when I was Christian.

Lafayette Gourmet, Paris, France. (Serge Le Strat.)

Historicity in the Wild.

In fact, this exact claim takes up much of this blog post from apologist J.P. Moreland. Moreland offers up three listicle supports for his claim of following a historically TRUE YES TRUE religion. Here are the supports he offers:

  1. He thinks archaeology supports the Bible’s retelling of history, particularly with regard to place names.
  2. He believes that “Jewish oral tradition” carefully guarded against untrue details creeping into accounts.
  3. And he believes that the dating of the New Testament books, being so close to events described, leaves little room for incorrect details to creep in.

Of course, Moreland punts to mystery at the very end of his post. Yes yes, look at all this PROOF YES PROOF we have, he gloats throughout his post. “But at some point,” he finishes, “you have to step in and follow Christ as your personal savior.” It reads very much as a concession that not even Moreland himself considers this supposed slam-dunk of historicity as being terribly persuasive.

And well, it isn’t.

All the same, apologetics considers historicity, as a claim, to be absolutely compelling. I wrote about something similar years ago with William Lane Craig. He asserted–and still asserts, for that matter–that the Gospels’ Crucifixion narratives relate real history. According to him, these narratives compelled belief in the religion as a whole. And Creationism, as a cottage industry, exists to push exactly that line of thinking.

Why the Claim is False.

Some problems immediately present themselves here.

First, actually no, archaeology doesn’t support much of the Bible’s version of history. The Exodus never happened, period. Scientists–real ones, not fake fundagelical ones–have done a very good job of addressing the smoke-and-mirrors chicanery of Creationists, with one group even maintaining a master index of Creationist claims and debunks. Linguistic evidence demolishes the myth of the Tower of Babel. And so on. A few place names come out sounding the same, but even then, the Bible falls short. It gets some drastically wrong and sets others in the wrong areas or times.

Second, “Jewish oral tradition” wasn’t a literal retelling of literally-true historical events. Only a tiny number of Jews today take the Torah as literal history. I ain’t an expert in Judaism, but it seems to me that Christians who go there assign qualities to Jewish tradition that do not exist in reality.

And third, we know that gullible people mythologize historical events almost immediately after those events occur. A sizeable number of people didn’t believe Elvis died–or even that his coffin was open at his funeral. Conspiracy theories around the assassination of John F. Kennedy began circulating almost immediately after his death. But we also work in the opposite direction: we turn mythology into history just as easily and just as quickly. The Shroud of Turin, known to be a fake almost from its first “discovery” in 1354, had become a point of veneration for Christians by 1389.

Ultimately, the Bible gets so incredibly much wrong about real history that I’m hard-pressed to accept the line in the sand of a literal Jesus who was also divine and still arbitrarily meddles in believers’ lives today. It seems so weird that their sourcebook would be so incredibly wrong about so much else, but this, THIS, it got spot-on right.

The Problem of Historicity.

In the end, the Bible gets a few historical place-names correct. It correctly names a few foreign people–mostly rulers, though it gets some of the dates of their rule incorrect. Exactly two of the Jewish names given might exist in the historical record–King David, and possibly King Solomon. However, their combined kingdom was nowhere near as glorious, powerful, feared, or influential as the Bible claims it was.

With that in mind, here is a list of fairly modern fictional works that correctly name some accurate place-names and real people. (Many do better than the Bible did within their respective settings.) Thus, by Christian rules, they could well be considered as historical:

Sgt. Rock, incidentally, began its long run in 1959–which is only 12 years after the end of the war depicted in the long-running, beloved comic book series. Forrest Gump, similarly, was published in 1986–and depicts events that occurred in similarly recent history. (The movie version, released in 1994, depicts events occurring all the way up to the 1980s.)

So no, the Bible doesn’t represent accurate history, and we shouldn’t consider its few sparse hits as an indication that any of its other assertions are literally true.

The Other Problem: It Doesn’t Follow.

If the Bible’s histories could be trusted as historically accurate, that would have NOTHING to do with the religion’s supernatural claims.

A lot of Christians go for absolute broke on one or a few Christian myths. They try to PROVE YES PROVE their favorite myths are historical facts, hoping that people will infer that all the rest of the myths must be true as well.

So let’s say that they could succeed. Let’s say that they manage to demonstrate that some overwhelming–even complete–number of its stories literally happened. Every person named existed at the time the Bible’s writers assert. Every event really happened in the fashion and at the time asserted. From a historical perspective, let’s say the Bible got literally everything correct.

What then?

At that point, we’re still left with a lot of supernatural claims that can’t be supported by reality. Christians would still need to demonstrate those as true before someone could buy into the religion.

As J.P. Moreland so potently let slip, moreover, historicity doesn’t compel belief. Typically, the belief comes first, and then believers read the pseudoscience and junk history created by apologists to back-fill in some support for their beliefs.

And then these believers buy and press that same nonsense material about historicity into skeptics’ hands to convince us that their supernatural claims must also be true.

The Big Kahuna Problem: Superfluity.

For every Christian who believes that belief hinges completely on a literally true Bible, I can likely find three more who think that focus is downright silly. Plenty of fervent Christians don’t buy into a literally-true Bible, and they manage to believe anyway.

For example, this young woman’s testimony doesn’t include much about those myths at all. She still thinks that Jesus literally existed in the form described in the New Testament, sure, but she barely even mentions the other myths contained in the Bible. She jumps straight past historicity to offer other claims that she feels more importantly demonstrate the veracity of her beliefs, which we’ll come back to later. In fact, she downright marvels at those poor Christians who don’t understand the religion as well as she does.

At first, the Bible’s lack of historicity bothered me quite a lot. Nowadays, I’ve moved that fact down the list of reasons why I reject Christianity. To me, it’s not the biggest dealbreaker in the religion. And I don’t think it is for most Christians, either.

To one group, though, historicity is not only the hill they’ll die on, but also the imagined source of their entire worldview and social system. And we’ll take up there next.

 

NEXT UP: Monday, Lord Snow Presides! (If SSJ is ready, the next installment of Godsmacked!) Then, we look at why authoritarian Christians like historicity so much as a claim. See you soon!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. You can read more about the author here.
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