Monday, 22 August 2011

Christian Apologists, Part 2

If you haven't read part 1, please do so now.  That said, we have a lot to cover, so let's jump right back into it...

The Gospel authors only disagree on "minor details"

Really?  Is the genealogy of Jesus a "minor" thing?  The Gospels even disagree on the identity of His paternal grandfather.

Some other examples of discrepancies in the Gospels...what was Jesus' prediction re: Peter's denial?  How many times did the cock crow?  What was the color of the robe placed on Jesus during His trial?  What day did Jesus die on?  What did He say on the cross?  (And are we to also assume that someone was close enough to hear what was actually said?)  What did they give Him to drink?  How long was He in the tomb?  How many people discovered the empty tomb, and what were their identities?  What time did they go to the tomb?  Whom did they see there?  Where did Jesus tell his disciples to go after his resurrection?  What were Jesus' last words?  The Gospels disagree on all of these points, and many, many more.

But even if it could be established that each of these details is "minor", I would still not find this to be an especially convincing argument.  Let's suppose that a number of people claim to have seen an alien spaceship, but they disagree as to the day they saw it, the color of the spaceship, and many other "minor details"...are we to find it remarkable that they all agree there was a spaceship?  How is this any different than saying the Gospels disagree on "minor details", but they all agree that Jesus died and rose again? 

A fantastic story is still a fantastic story, and a mere agreement on the "core" of the story is unimpressive.

Legend can't develop quickly

Where is the evidence for this assertion?  It would seem that all it should take, to debunk it, is one single example of a "legend" that has sprouted up rather quickly (say, a few decades or so).  Sam Harris likes to talk about Sathya Sai Baba.  There was a tremendous amount of legend, surrounding this man, even while he was still alive.  Elvis sightings also come to mind, since they cropped up very quickly after his death. 

But I think the best evidence, for legendary development, comes from the Gospels themselves.  Why is it that Mark (the first Gospel written) often seems to tell the simplest version of the story?  For example, in Mark the women see a man at Jesus' tomb, but in Matthew that same man becomes an angel.  Is this not an obvious legendary development?  If not, how else would you explain it?  And by the time we get to the Gospel of John (the last Gospel written) Jesus "was God" and He was "with God" at the very creation of the universe!

The resurrection story was never dis-proven (therefore it's true)

At first blush this seems like a really strong argument, or at least it felt that way to me when I first encountered it.  After all, if Jesus' body had still been in the tomb, how easy might it have been to drag it out and make complete fools of His disciples.

Upon further investigation though, there are numerous problems here.  For example, it assumes that everyone knew where Jesus was buried.  It assumes that His body wasn't moved.  It assumes that Jesus' very earliest followers believed in a bodily (rather than a spiritual) resurrection.  (And there is much evidence to suggest the latter)  It assumes there was widespread interest in debunking the story (in a culture where such crazy stories were commonplace) etc. etc.

Having said that, again, there is an even larger problem...a problem so significant that, I believe, it should suffice to put this argument to bed forever.  Ancient history records numerous wild (and supposedly supernatural) stories that were never "dis-proven", in the historical record, yet no one believes them today

Listen to this example, from Richard Carrier's essay "Why I Don't Buy the Resurrection Story"...

"In 520 A.D. an anonymous monk recorded the life of Saint Genevieve, who had died only ten years before that. In his account of her life, he describes how, when she ordered a cursed tree cut down, monsters sprang from it and breathed a fatal stench on many men for two hours; while she was sailing, eleven ships capsized, but at her prayers they were righted again spontaneously; she cast out demons, calmed storms, miraculously created water and oil from nothing before astonished crowds, healed the blind and lame, and several people who stole things from her actually went blind instead. No one wrote anything to contradict or challenge these claims, and they were written very near the time the events supposedly happened--by a religious man whom we suppose regarded lying to be a sin. Yet do we believe any of it? Not really. And we shouldn't.

As David Hume once said, why do such things not happen now?  Is it a coincidence that the very time when these things no longer happen is the same time that we have the means and methods to check them in the light of science and careful investigation? I've never seen monsters spring from a tree, and I don't know anyone who has, and there are no women touring the country transmuting matter or levitating ships. These events look like tall tales, sound like tall tales, and smell like tall tales. Odds are, they're tall tales.

But we should try to be more specific in our reasons, and not rely solely on common sense impressions. And there are specific reasons to disbelieve the story of Genevieve, and they are the same reasons we have to doubt the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection of Jesus. For the parallel is clear: the Gospels were written no sooner to the death of their main character--and more likely many decades later--than was the case for the account of Genevieve; and like that account, the Gospels were also originally anonymous--the names now attached to them were added by speculation and oral tradition half a century after they were actually written. Both contain fabulous miracles supposedly witnessed by numerous people. Both belong to the same genre of literature: what we call a "hagiography," a sacred account of a holy person regarded as representing a moral and divine ideal. Such a genre had as its principal aim the glorification of the religion itself and of the example set by the perfect holy person represented as its central focus. Such literature was also a tool of propaganda, used to promote certain moral or religious views, and to oppose different points of view." (The first bolding is mine, the 2nd is Carrier's)

This puts the Christian believer in an awkward position, since he or she either has to: a) acknowledge they are holding to a clear double standard, b) find some (arbitrary) reason for rejecting the miracles of Saint Genevieve (but not the miracle stories in the Gospels), or c) accept the miracles of Saint Genvieve as real and legitimate (along with all the other equivalent miracles stories from ancient times).

So, to review, my contention is that Jesus' early followers were simply mistaken in thinking that He rose from the dead (even assuming that oral tradition preserved the story with 100% accuracy, before it was written down, which is doubtful).  The Gospel authors do contradict each other on significant details but, even if they didn't, their mere agreement on the "core" of the story would not add credibility to the more fantastic elements.  Legend can and does develop rather quickly, in many cases, and the Bible itself shows clear signs of such legendary embellishments.  Further to that, we should not believe in the resurrection story since we do not believe in other comparable stories with very similar evidence


  1. RA - I've enjoyed your past couple of posts. This is the part of my research I'm looking forward to the most, but also the part I'm the most anxious about. I have several thoughts and questions I'm already struggling with, and if you also dealt with some of these, perhaps you can address them in a future post?

    - What does it mean to say that the Bible is "inspired" or "God breathed"? Does this mean it must be perfect without any error?
    - If it is ok for the Bible to have "minor" errors or contradictions, what qualifies as "minor" and who determines that?
    - How "mainstream" are Bart Ehrman's points of view and arguments? Is there wide consensus for his contentions?
    - Should I judge the Bible with the same rigidity as the fundamentalist version of Christianity I was raised in? (i.e. only the KJV version is correct) Or should I hold it to the standards of mainstream Christianity which accepts multiple translations/versions and focuses more on the message and not the technicalities of the translation?

    I probably have many others that aren't coming to mind at this time, but did you struggle with these or similar questions?

  2. Thanks Dave. Yes, I dealt with all of those issues too, except for the last one. Let me give you a few really quick thoughts on each one...

    --the whole "inspired" vs. "inerrant" thing is something I struggled to work out, especially after I lost my belief in "innerancy" (but was still a Christian). It's hard to know for sure if a book could really be "inspired" by a perfect God, and yet still contain factual errors. The Christians, of course, would prefer to say that there is no contradiction in those two things. But how many "errors" would such a book need to have, before the evidence demonstrates that it is in fact not a supernaturally inspired book? 10? 100? 1000? Or more? This is a difficult question.

    --There doesn't seem to be any widespread agreement on what is "minor", but some Christian apologists seem to define an "error" (although they bristle at even using that word) as "minor" if no significant point of Christian theology is impacted (their words, not mine). I'll be touching a little on this issue in my next post.

    --Ehrman's views are pretty mainstream, in the sense that they are taught at every major University, save the "fundamentalist" ones (ie. Moody Bible Institute etc.). It seems to frustrate Bart, in fact, that his views are so widely accepted among the academia...and yet the average Christian "in the pew" is still completely oblivious to what scholars now understand about the true nature (and origins) of the Bible. Bart's most controversial book is "Misquoting Jesus" and his least controversial is "Jesus Interrupted". If you were only going to read one of Ehrman's books I'd recommend "Jesus Interrupted", since it's essentially an overall summary of his views on the Bible. Bart became a "liberal" Christian, as a result of what he learned about the Bible, but it was the problem of suffering that later on led him to his current position of agnosticism (he talks about this in the book "God's Problem").

    --Well I guess, on this point, I would say "no"...but I was never part of the "KJV only" crowd, even when I was a Christian. This view has always seemed bizarre to me actually (the original NT was written in Greek...not English!). Bart Ehrman makes the point that the KJV is not even the most accurage English version we have, since it is not based on the oldest available manuscripts. For what it's worth, I wouldn't worry too much about translation issues.

    I definitely plan to talk more, in my posts, about the first three issues...but probably not the last (since it was a "non-issue" for me personally).

    If you have any other thoughts and/or questions I'd love to hear them.

  3. Sorry, I meant to say "not even the most accurate..." (not accurage, which is clearly not a real word :))

  4. I know I'm late to the party here, but I just wanted to say how much I've enjoyed these last two posts. You articulated your points very well.

  5. Respectful,

    Looks like you've given this tons of good thought. I did graduate from a very progressive seminary. It seems to me that no argument can ever be completely foolproof either from an Christian apologist's perspective, or coming from a non-theist's skeptical position. These various discussions can run in circles, and could go on forever.

    I certainly think the Roman authorities knew where Jesus was buried, and would have had a very strong vested interest in discouraging Jewish folks from feeling that He was somehow alive in any sense, and truly the Messiah that was anticipated to come. Jesus was a threat to the political establishment of the time.

    At some point, there is a choice to be made, concerning the identity and lordship of Christ for all of us.

    That being said, have you read anything by the former Anglican bishop, NT Wright? He's debated with folks like Marcus Borg, and has some interesting things to say concerning the resurrection of Christ, in particular. Check him out, if you get a chance.

    Best wishes, Respectful. :)


  6. I agree that no argument, on either side, can ever be completely foolproof (this would be an entirely unreasonable standard to hold). What we're all talking about here is probabilities.

    Yes, I'm familiar with NT Wright but (as you might have guessed by now) I don't find his arguments to be especially convincing.

    I've written in a few other posts about my conclusions re: the identity of Jesus (especially the ones called "Was Jesus Wrong?", "Was Jesus Wrong?, Part 2", and "A Man Of His Time"). Not sure if you've gotten that far yet, but I'd love to hear your thoughts once you check them out.

    And you haven't really attempted to take on any of my arguments, above, so I guess we're done on this post :).

    Thanks for reading.