Some reflection on my Nativity debate with Randal Rauser

Some reflection on my Nativity debate with Randal Rauser February 25, 2013

It’s been a few months since my radio debate with Randal Rauser on the subject of the reliability of the nativity accounts in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. You can listen to the debate by following the link from here. If you have not listened to it, please let me know what you think.

It is my opinion that I could have done things better, for sure. My closing statement included a vital piece which, in hindsight, I should have mentioned earlier. I thought I would share with you some comments made on Randal’s blog, which I think sum up some salient points. The back and forth is between a chap called Jeff and Randal:

Might be water under the bridge at this point, but I just remembered to check out the debate and had a few thoughts:

First, I enjoyed it! I thought you did well, Jonathan. And Randal, I’m impressed that you took on this topic–not an easy position to defend, it seems to me!

About Jonathan’s principles of historiography: Ideally I’d replay the debate to listen a little more carefully here, but it seemed to me Randal that your responses, generally, were either inadvertently off the mark or else aimed mainly at scoring rhetorical points. In most cases, all one has to do to understand Jonathan’s point is to preface it with, “All other things being equal.” And so your elaborate refutations and counterexamples didn’t do much to address Jonathan’s content, it seems to me. Your repeated claim that Jonathan was constructing desperate, ad hoc principles to undermine the gospels struck me as an incorrect and uncharitable claim.

To your main contention, Randal, about independent double attestation: I’ll certainly grant you that the Matthean and Lukan accounts were written independently of one another (since they differ so severely), but beyond that, your argument and your responses to Jonathan’s related criticisms struck me as positively ludicrous. (I mean that in the kindest possible way, of course!) So when Jonathan demonstrated at length that the two accounts differ radically from one another, he was inadvertently (poor sucker that he is) making your own case for you? What he demonstrated is that the two accounts differ so fundamentally that they simply cannot plausibly both trace back to eyewitness testimony. Furthermore, that each account is by itself so implausible if taken as literal history (even apart from the virginal conception) that neither one can plausibly trace back to eyewitness testimony. But none of that is even worth addressing, because both agree on Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, and virginity?

Let’s focus on the issue of virginity for a moment. What could explain the double attestation? Twin eyewitness testimony? Jonathan refuted that possibility pretty well, and you did nothing to challenge him there. Could it be that there was a late-developed, not-anchored-in-literal-history, bare-bones tradition about virginity that Matthew and Luke both drew upon and created narratives around? Of course, neither Paul nor Mark mentions a virgin birth, so we have no evidence whatsoever that there was an early virgin birth tradition. If it was a late, fabricated, bare-bones tradition, what motive would there have been for such a thing? Well, if indeed Joseph was not Jesus’ father, and that fact was known, or at least rumored (could the reference to “illegitimate children” in John 8:41 hint at this?), Jesus’ birth would have been associated with scandal. Could it really be that Jesus, the ostensible Messiah and Son of God, was a bastard? Surely this would have been embarrassing to early Christians, and it’s no wonder that a virgin birth tradition was finally introduced. And there are several other reasons a virgin birth might have been ideologically appealing to early Christians.

Furthermore, the debate didn’t really touch on this, but there are other narrative details that must be grappled with as well. Here’s one notable such detail: Mark 3:21 reads (NIV): “When [Jesus’] family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.'” Several verses later in Mark 3:31, we read that Mary herself was among Jesus’ family members who thought he was “out of his mind” and who came to “take charge of him.” This episode, near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, illustrates that Jesus’ own family didn’t perceive his Messianic role, at least initially. Not even Mary his mother, who purportedly had conceived him as a virgin, and who purportedly had been visited by the angel Gabriel and told by Gabriel that Jesus would be “the Son of the Most High” and conceived by the “power of the Most High.”

All of this is to say that there’s a very good reason that–as you mentioned–Brown, Pannenberg, and other orthodox theologians have taken the positions on this issue that they have.

Randal replied:

“it seemed to me Randal that your responses, generally, were either inadvertently off the mark or else aimed mainly at scoring rhetorical points.”

Perhaps you should listen to the debate again. I stand by my observation that Jonathan stated his histioriographical principles as he did with the intent of marginalizing the gospel accounts. The proper phrasing of his historiographical principles would have rendered them rhetorically useless to him. I assume that’s why he opted for the tendentious phrasing.

‘In most cases, all one has to do to understand Jonathan’s point is to preface it with, “All other things being equal.””

All other things being equal, a wife that is 5’10” is better than a wife that is 5’5”. That’s about where most of Jonathan’s principles are.

“So when Jonathan demonstrated at length that the two accounts differ radically from one another, he was inadvertently (poor sucker that he is) making your own case for you?”

Yup. Since he was suggesting that M and L might have the same source. Did you miss that he argued that?

“What he demonstrated is that the two accounts differ so fundamentally that they simply cannot plausibly both trace back to eyewitness testimony.”

Perhaps on the points where they would disagree. As I noted, those points could have midrashic force. But for the points where they agree? That does provide solid historical evidence for particular historical claims.

“This episode, near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, illustrates that Jesus’ own family didn’t perceive his Messianic role, at least initially.”

So when you have a miraculous experience you are disallowed from having any subsequent doubts, questions or confusions? Come on man.

Anyway, thanks for listening to the debate and offering some criticisms. I appreciate it.

 Jeff continued:

The proper phrasing of his historiographical principles would have rendered them rhetorically useless to him.

Not at all. Let’s take two of the examples:

1) [All else being equal] We will prefer an earlier to a later document. Seems pretty reasonable. Why do you think conservative Christians and apologists try to push the dating of the New Testament materials as early as they possibly can?

2) [All else being equal] We will prefer an account from a writer who does not display obvious, direct biases as regards the subject in question. Again, seems pretty reasonable. Why do you think apologists consider extra-biblical evidence for Jesus (from Josephus, etc.)–as scant and shaky as most of it is–to be so valuable? And you even conceded this point by saying that you wouldn’t give the time of day to a Nazi historian.

Yup. Since he was suggesting that M and L might have the same source. Did you miss that he argued that?

 Well, maybe I should listen again, but I got the impression that his suggestion was similar to mine: Namely, that the common “source” doesn’t appear to trace back to any eyewitness testimony but rather appears to have been a late, fabricated, bare-bones tradition about virginity.

 But for the points where they agree? That does provide solid historical evidence for particular historical claims.

 No, because the accounts are rather obviously fictional accounts, certainly not directly or even indirectly related to eyewitness testimony. They simply aren’t good evidence for anything, other than that there was some sort of bare-bones virgin birth tradition by that time.

 So when you have a miraculous experience you are disallowed from having any subsequent doubts, questions or confusions? Come on man.

A few points: First, it’s one thing to have some doubts, whereas it’s another thing altogether for Mary to have thought Jesus was crazy and in need of forcible restraint. Second, remember that Mary herself is purported to have, not long before, pushed Jesus into his ministry at the wedding in Cana. So she herself instigates his ministry and then soon thereafter thinks he’s crazy and in need of forcible restraint? Which leads to my next point. Is this rather bizarre turn of events re: Mary possible? Perhaps, I suppose. But remember that the position you’re arguing for here is that the virgin birth provides the best (ie, most probable) explanation of the data. Or at least I think that’s what you’re arguing. If not, perhaps you should side with Raymond Brown after all, that the virgin birth is to be accepted primarily on faith, apart from the findings of historical inquiry.

Anyway, thanks for listening to the debate and offering some criticisms. I appreciate it.

 Any time!

 I think some really important points are being raised here, because my historiographical points clearly imply a ceteris paraibus approach. I later said:

Thanks Jeff. I think you have nailed lots of the issues with the case constructed by Randal. I DID assume ceteris paribus as stated above. I think that is patently obvious, otherwise any criteria are utterly useless.

Eg If I said, as a principle, “It is dangerous to drive at more than 50 miles an hour on a 30mph road” this would be a ceteris paribus statement. i should not need to qualify this in a generalised context. You cannot come along and attack me for that simply because, in a situation where you were being chased by a crazed psychopathic murderer driving a car which could only do 50 max, it would actually be safer to do more than 50. Well, yes, but you are introducing a whole host of further variables which render any generalised statement pointless.

Anyway, to return to Randal:

So let me deal with Jeff’s two principles which are different from Jonathan’s. Not only have you added a ceteris paribus clause, but you have also narrowed your focus to “documents” which I take to mean first-order evidence that historians use to construct their historical narratives. Fine, I don’t have any problem with this principle. What you have to do now in a debate is show that M and L fall below a critical threshold of reasonable belief relative to that principle. You haven’t. As I pointed out, it is reasonable to date Luke to the early 60s. And that obviously places the L source earlier.

As I argued, people don’t start by assenting to the virgin conception based on the documentary evidence. Rather, for those who already have reasonable grounds to accept other claims about Jesus, there are no defeaters to the reasonable belief in the virginal conception. Consequently, whether the documentary evidence that constitutes the narratives of M and L is sufficient for Jeff or Jonathan to attain belief in the virginal conception is quite different from whether it is sufficient for Randal to retain that belief. That’s where this debate lies. And neither you nor Jonathan have said anything that provides a defeater to the core claims, whatever one might say of other secondary claims particular to M and L.

Jeff retorted:

So let me deal with Jeff’s two principles which are different from Jonathan’s.

 Your responses in the debate appeared to assume that Jonathan outlined such principles as “We should always and under all circumstances prefer an earlier document to a later one.” I don’t recall that he said anything of the sort, and so I’m not sure what the substantive difference is between “my” principle here and “his.”

What you have to do now in a debate is show that M and L fall below a critical threshold of reasonable belief relative to that principle.

 Well I’m not trying to demonstrate that, and I don’t think Jonathan was either. I took him to be commenting rather generally on the types of evidence that the gospels are, and saying that the gospels are certainly not ideal pieces of evidence. But that’s not at all to say that we should therefore ignore or discard this evidence. By all means, let’s dig into the texts and see what we find, and that’s exactly what Jonathan proceeded to do (and you almost totally refused to do).

Rather, for those who already have reasonable grounds to accept other claims about Jesus, there are no defeaters to the reasonable belief in the virginal conception.

 So your position in the debate was merely to protect the virgin birth from defeaters? Well then what was the point of the debate? You could have spared yourself a lot of time and work and simply stated that the virgin birth can’t be definitively disproved. Of course it can’t be–I don’t know that anyone would dispute that. But I thought you were trying to argue for the high probability of the virgin birth on historical grounds. And so now I’m not at all clear about how your position differs from Raymond Brown’s.

Randal countered:

“I don’t recall that he said anything of the sort,”

This is Jonathan’s verbatim third principle: “The closer a source is to the event which it purports to describe, the more one can trust it to give an accurate historical description of what actually happened.”

This is false. And I pointed out that Jonathan doesn’t even follow it because he discounts miracle accounts at Lourdes which are eyewitness testimony contemporaneous with the events allegedly described.

My responses in the debate assume that in a formal debate one should say what one means. Despite your protests, that’s not a particularly unreasonable standard.

“Well I’m not trying to demonstrate that, and I don’t think Jonathan was either.”

He was trying to show that. He clearly believes based on the historical evidence that it is unreasonable to believe the virginal conception.

“So your position in the debate was merely to protect the virgin birth from defeaters? Well then what was the point of the debate?”

These two sentences fit rather strangely together. “Your point was defending p? Well then what was your point?”

If you think that removing a defeater to rational belief in the virginal conception of Jesus isn’t a significant accomplishment in the so-called skeptic community then you’re not familiar with the skeptics.

Jeff’s last reply still remains unanswered after several months:

My responses in the debate assume that in a formal debate one should say what one means. Despite your protests, that’s not a particularly unreasonable standard.

 Well, ideally Jonathan would have explicitly said, “All else being equal,” but I think that was clearly implied. And so you could certainly have pointed that out in the debate, but to carry on as you did (and to accuse Jonathan of concocting bogus ad hoc principles) just ends up being a waste of time, I think. Maybe scores some rhetorical points, but doesn’t add anything of value to the discussion.

He was trying to show that. He clearly believes based on the historical evidence that it is unreasonable to believe the virginal conception.

 I was responding to your suggestion that, “What you have to do now in a debate is show that M and L fall below a critical threshold of reasonable belief relative to that principle.” But I don’t think Jonathan was trying to draw that conclusion about the gospels directly from his historiographical principles. He was simply making the first few steps in a cumulative case. But speculations about Jonathan’s intentions aside, it seems to me that by far the better use of time in a debate like this is simply to dig into the texts themselves. And that’s just what he proceeded to do. I’m still not sure why you chose to almost completely ignore the textual data, because that’s by far the most important item of debate.

If you think that removing a defeater to rational belief in the virginal conception of Jesus isn’t a significant accomplishment in the so-called skeptic community then you’re not familiar with the skeptics.

 The debate synopsis at Reasonable Doubts says this: “Check out this debate between Jonathan Pearce and Randal Rauser on the historical reliability of the Nativity narratives.”

To me that suggests that your task in the debate was to argue, on historical grounds, that the events in question most probably happened as described. But now you’re saying that your task, rather, was the much more modest task of defending the virgin birth from defeaters. Looks like some crossed wires here. Let me ask you this: Are you of the position that, if one is suitably able to suspend one’s metaphysical commitments [you can rephrase that a bit if you want], then one will conclude that the virgin birth best explains the historical data? For clarity’s sake, would you say that about the physical resurrection of Jesus?

Obviously I am biased, but I think Jeff nailed some really important issues. I did not think Randal had a leg to stand on in attacking what are well-established criteria. He could only criticise them if he changed the variables with regard to the historiographical method he was critiquing.

My final point reiterated my last one:

My points assumed ceteris paribus. That much should be pretty obvious, otherwise they are useless points. If there are a multitude of other variables, then there is no way of knowing the effect of these criteria. It is how scientific experiments are controlled. I should not have had to have mentioend this (and so I didn’t) but I DID have to say this in the Reasonable Doubts thread.

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