Admittedly I will be veering a little off track, with my next two posts, so please bear with me. My intention when I launched this blog, just last month, was to begin at the onset of my doubts and tell my de-conversion story chronologically. My challenges, in that respect, have been: a) remembering, as precisely as possible, the order in which things happened (and what I was thinking at the time), and b) keeping my current thoughts on these issues to a strict minimum throughout (there will be time enough to write about those later, once I have "caught up" to present day).
Anyway, all that to say these next couple of posts will be more representative of my current thoughts. After that I will get back to my de-conversion story, and pick up right where I left off (promise :)).
As a follow up to a few of my recent posts (most specifically "Assessing The Evidence" & "Liar, Lunatic, or Lord") I'd like to discuss/critique how Christian apologists tend to respond when the veracity of the Gospels is attacked. To set things up, allow me to play the Christian apologist for a moment...
Yes, the Gospels were written decades after the resurrection, but what you need to understand is that oral tradition in those days was highly reliable. As a result, we can trust what the Gospels tell us! Besides, doesn't the fact that the authors disagree on "minor details", but agree completely on the rest, prove they weren't colluding together to make the story up?! This is precisely what you would expect, if what they were saying was true (for example there is no dispute whatsoever, in the Gospel accounts, over whether or not Jesus was crucified or that He rose from the dead!). Additionally, it's impossible for legend to even develop this quickly, so that suggestion is not viable or defensible. If Jesus really had been alive, and still rotting in the tomb, why didn't the critics simply grab his body and drag it through the streets. The fact that no one did this proves his body wasn't there!
Now, obviously, this is my own (rather crude) re-phrasing, but I have in fact heard each of these arguments from Christian apologists many times over (although not usually crammed all together like this). What I mean to say is I am trying my best not to set-up a strawman, but rather to represent very fairly some of the key pieces of their case for the accuracy of the Gospels (if you feel I haven't done so, please let me know and I will make the necessary corrections). I am sure there are numerous additional arguments, that I haven't covered here, but perhaps I can write about some of those in another post. Having said that, in so far as I can tell, there are four key claims made, in the paragraph above, a) oral tradition was reliable, b) the Gospel authors only disagree on "minor details", c) legend can't develop quickly, and d) the resurrection story was never dis-proven (therefore it's true).
Since I've taken up so much of your time already, with this setup/introduction, I will deal with only the first argument this time, and then hit on the other three in my next post ("part two")...
Oral tradition was reliable
I'll freely admit that, of the four pieces, this is the one I feel most uncomfortable writing about. I am no expert on how "oral tradition" worked, in the days of the New Testament, and I want to show respect (and deference) to those who are more qualified than I to speak on the matter. At the same time, I have decided to include this argument because it is also one that I have very little quarrel with.
Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that oral tradition was rock solid, and that everything in the New Testament was passed down as a precise record of what actually happened. So what? For the life of me I have never been able to figure out why Christian apologists spend so much time hammering this point (and they do). This would only prove that the New Testament is a precise record of what some people believed about Jesus. But most modern day critics don't dispute this point, do they? Not many that I can find. What most critics say, instead, is that the early disciples were simply mistaken in those beliefs. This is also where the whole "people don't die for a lie" argument often comes in. Setting aside, for a moment, the disputes over whether or not this claim is even accurate, it still misses the point. Even if people won't willingly die for something they know to be false, they will certainly die for something that IS false but they believe to be true (just think 9/11 hijackers). So, in short, I don't spend a lot of time worrying about how reliable "oral tradition" was or was not in the days of Jesus. It just doesn't matter much to me.
What I have come to believe is that the early followers of Jesus were probably wrong about the fact that He rose from the dead. But I have every confidence that they believed it to be true.
OK, this post is getting kind of long, and I still have three more points to cover. I'll wrap it up, for now, and stay tuned for "Christian Apologists, Part 2". If you have any thoughts on oral tradition, in the interim, I'd love to hear them.