My Debate on the Nativity with Randal Rauser

My Debate on the Nativity with Randal Rauser January 2, 2017

Some time ago, I had my first public debate, hosted by the Reasonable Doubts podcast and radio show. Check out my book on the subject The Nativity: A ‘critical ExaminationAs I posted a couple of years back:

My pre-recorded debate with Randal Rauser, a Christian apologist from Canada, is available for your listening pleasure.

Let me know what you think. It was my first debate, and hopefully not my last! The format was a 20 minute opening, 15 minute rebuttal, 7 minute second rebuttal, another 5 minuter and then a 2 minute closing statement. Here is the amusing picture that Justin Schieber did, at Reasonable Doubts, who hosted it:

why_does_mary_look_like_a_dude

I think Mary is very good-looking. Didn’t know they had glasses in those days, though. The link to the debate is here!

Here are a collection of quotes about the debate. I have tried to be objective and give a balance, though I can only find one which praises Randal, though not many praise me, but criticise Randal. It seems to be not so much that I did well, but Randal was defending the indefensible…

“The truth of Christianity is not at stake in this debate.”

And yet Randal cites the off-topic resurrection scenes and the attributed teachings to support his position, name-dropping authors and taking their unstated arguments as a given. Then he criticises his opponent for not first debating the truth of Christianity, in order to argue against any details relevant to the nativity narratives and minor doctrines.

I expected less from Jonathan as the historicity of the nativity has been debated previously and very few irrefutable facts can be used to justify disbelief, I was satisfied in his rebuttals and counter points. Very well done.

Randal couldn’t rebut Jonathan without using irrelevant analogies that missed the point entirely while throwing in smugness and ignorance by attempting to utilize a counter point in his favor. I was both unimpressed and unmoved by his statements.

It was a good format actually. Very meaty. So meaty that I cant do chores at the same time and keep having to scroll back….will give up and make notes and stop multi tasking. hehe These two would be great on the show [Unbelievable on Premier Christian Radio] I think!

 I enjoyed this debate, particularly liking the format. I will also need to listen again but on the first pass I got the impression that many of JP’s points were either brushed aside or not addressed at all.

Randal: Just listened to your debate and I must say you did an excellent job! You argued your position so well. I have been reading your blog for quite some time and I commend you for taking the time to write so many interesting articles that challenge and stimulate thinking. We need more people like you who are honestly pursuing truth.

Wow, very disappointed with [Randal’s] performance here. Your tortured analogies were literally painful for me to listen to. :(

I tried to put myself back into the mindset I had when I was a believer, to see if Randal’s arguments would have been fulfilling or persuasive. I failed, I guess, because I could not convince myself that Randal successfully shouldered the burden which was his to carry. He is an experienced debater and apologist, it would seem, but he also resorts to well-worn fallacies…. naked assertions, false analogies, and strawmen, oh my!

Well, I tried to listen to both sides with equal skepticism and criticism, but Randal’s continued twisting of each of Jonathan’s points just kept kneecapping me there. Randal is obviously no historian, and has no idea of how historians evaluate possible sources. I hate to break it to you, Randal, but Jonathan’s list is NOT “ad hoc”, nor is it unique or specially created just to cast doubt on the gospels. Rather, that list (the original, not your twisted, warped version of each point) is indeed a well-used, valuable, and insightful framework for such evaluations.

Jonathan, my only critique of your rebuttals is that I wish you had gone into a bit more depth to show how Randal did twist and exaggerate every point in that list in order to either discount it or make it seem as if it supported his argument. None of them did. Other than that, good job! I’m impressed that this was your first debate!

Finally, to Randal again: your express and careful wording of the point that (paraphrasing, obviously) Christianswould find your three selected points quite easy to believe, because they already start from a belief in God, is the classic example of begging the question, in the classic sense, not the modern mangled one. If one must start from such a belief to find the arguments for historical reliability of these three tidbits (let alone the rest of the gospels) convincing, then you haven’t proven the historical reliability one whit. Further, throwing all the rest of the gospels out and only concentrating on these three bits, which Jonathan rightly points out are unprovable by any means possible OTHER than prior belief in God and the supernatural, why then, to any impartial observer, you’ve conceded the debate before you’ve started.

To all those involved – thank you, especially Randall and Jonathan.

Randall, one thing that really jumped out at me was your comparison regarding the impact that the length of time between events and the writing has on it’s accuracy. You stated that it can actually improve the veracity of a historical account and compared books about WW II to the writing of M & L. I am wondering if you think that is really fair, given that there were still plenty of people to interview, probably millions of documents to be analyzed, photos, films, thousands of other assessments regarding the war that could only add to our understanding. Whereas with M & L there are only speculative common sources and it probably grew out of an oral passing of stories. Personally, I found this comparison so absurd that I had a hard time focusing on the rest of your arguments.

Randal says:

“Really? I’ve been teaching graduate level history classes for ten years. If you listened to the debate you would have heard that I carefully went through Jonathan’s stated criteria and pointed out how and why they fail.”

Really? Then I must wonder what criteria you have been teaching your students for evaluating historical sources, since this seems to be the first time you’ve encountered this list.

I did listen to the entire thing, and I heard you call it an “ad hoc” list several times, meaning “made up by Jonathan”, and indicating strongly that you’d not encountered them before. This impression was reinforced by the way you twisted several of them into strawmen in order to make them fail.

For instance, more than once you pretended that the evaluation was an all-or-nothing switch, and to be taken all by itself, rather than a shading of grey to add to the rest of the list (or addition of numbers to the probability equation, if you prefer). A measurement – an artifact opposed to a testimony, for instance – which makes a source “more credible” doesn’t mean that’s it, all you have to know is that it’s an artifact, and therefore is 100% reliable – or that testimony is 100% discountable with no other considerations necessary. It means take a raisin and put it on that (whichever) side of the scale, then move on down the rest of the list of evaluatory considerations.

Likewise, you twisted the measure of time, as mentioned by the previous commenter. All else being equal, a document written soon after the events in question would carry greater gravitas than one written several decades later. But in your two examples, all else was NOT equal. The two writers had different levels of access to a different breadth of documentation, different primary sources, had come from different backgrounds, etc etc ad nauseum. And it is all those other measures, amply (but not exhaustively) covered by Jonathan’s enumerated list, which would cause the evaluator of those two books to place a much lower weight to this particular measurement (that of time), or perhaps none at all. If Jonathan erred at all in his presentation, it was in not stressing the cumulative and variable weights given to each item of the list, and that the entire list – and more besides – are available to evaluate source reliability.

So again, I would dearly like to know: what are you teaching your students about how to evaluate sources?

I may return to your other point of intended audience and subsequent scope of argument later.

Why is it necessary for Jonathan to point out the obvious distinctions in post #20 above? [on the RD blog for the debate]

History is fascinating in part because there are so many mysteries, new discoveries and analysis can shed light on these from time to time and offer varying degrees of certainty for one or other series of events.

I enjoy rigorous debate about the bible’s authorship, history and relation to other contemporary writings.

Why debate an apologist? Almost invariably the lack of serious argument from the apologist leads to the audience cringing in horror at the sheer lack of intellectual credibility.

Randal was no exception. I had to stop listening several times. That Christians believe in the historicity of the story in which the god they believe in plays the staring roll is not an argument for historicity. Two documents agree on some, arguably theologically important elements of the story. Randal’s only evidence for historicity is these same two documents which both include other elements that are clearly unlikely to be historically accurate, were borrowed from other stories and/or seem to be constructed for theological rather than historical narrative purposes.

Surely there are better arguments for historicity of the nativity. From this debate it seems we have no grounds for assigning any positive value to the likelihood of any aspect of the story, other than say babies were born in Palestine in the first century.

TheNativity

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