Friday, June 11, 2010

Good Evidence?

The more one studies the New Testament documents and early church history, it seems the less precise statements we can make; the less certainty we have. I like to put up blog entries in manageable sizes, while giving credence to various countering positions. Yet many times I find if I gave voice to every possible position, my footnotes would have footnotes! I would be forced to write, “but consider this…but consider that…but consider this other thing as well.”

For one minor example: my entry on Peter’s death mentioned 1 Clement being written in 95 C.E. I let it go at that…yet if I was more precise I would note the date is uncertain. We utilize 95 C.E. because the book starts off referring to certain calamities happening in Rome, and some scholars presume this refers to the Domitian (Roman Emperor from 81 – 96 CE) persecution of Christians.

However, there are problems with this dating. First, 1 Clement does not indicate what the calamities are, let alone a persecution initiated by the Emperor. Second, we have no contemporary evidence regarding any such persecution by Domitian; primarily relying up Eusebius 200 years later. Third, even Eusebius’ account does not necessarily indicate a persecution against Christianity.

Now (here is where one’s footnotes get footnotes) it should be mentioned Tertullian (writing around 200 CE, or about 100 years later) also refers to a persecution by Domitian, yet indicates it was brief, and the Emperor restored those he had banished. In order to get 1 Clement written during the appropriate time, we would need to place it within this short, undetermined period.

BUT…(see where one gets footnotes on footnotes on footnotes?) Tertullian also mentions that Peter ordained 1 Clement, meaning we would need to determine the date when this occurred to accurately date both Peter’s death and when 1 Clement could have been written.

Unfortunately, it is unclear whether Clement is the second or third Bishop of Rome, after Peter, let alone what date he could have been ordained by Peter, leaving us in yet another debate over when this occurred. (And, might I add, completely destroying the original idea that Peter died under Nero’s reign in 62 – 62 CE!)

Oh, did I mention 1 Clement doesn’t self-identify its own authorship? This is all presuming Clement wrote this book, and now we would need to go off on yet another rabbit trail, explaining when this book traditionally was attributed to Clement! (And dare I mention the Greek word for whether Peter was martyred or not is also in contention? Gasp—another rabbit trail.)

All that (and more) to merely support one line in one blog entry. Dr. Carrier admirably goes through a much longer and similar exercise on the minor issue regarding the last possible date Matthew’s Gospel was written. I recommend the read to demonstrate how broad the possibilities are on even the trivial details.

If you begin any study—be it authorship, or dating, or contents—within this field, you will quickly discover books and books and articles supporting about any position possible. Matthew the disciple was the author of the Gospel. We don’t know who the author was. It was another disciple. It was a Christian. A Jewish Christian. A Hellenized Christian. A Greek. A forgery. It was the first gospel written, the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth. It was written in Greek. No Aramaic and then translated into Greek. Written as early as the 30’s CE. As late as the 300’s. Yes, I realize some theories are less probable than others—yet the claims are out there to be explored!

I bring this all out to demonstrate how malleable and indistinct the evidence we have for what events transpired in First Century Palestine. As non-Christians we are often asked, “Well what evidence would you need to believe Jesus was raised from the dead?” (Often in a dismissive tone as if we have placed a standard so high we would only accept it if recorded in video. High-Definition Video. With Danish subtitles.)

The answer is simple: Better evidence than what we have now.

Why must every claim be permeated with possibilities? Even Christians argue amongst themselves as to who wrote what when. As to what the ending of Mark should/could/would be. As to whether this section, paragraph or word was in the original writing. As to what is historical and what is legendary.

How about Matthew starting off, “A Gospel of Matthew, Disciple of Jesus, written in the second year of Nero’s reign”? See how simple that would be to eliminate confusion? How about Paul dating his letters? Or identifying when he was using a secretary?

Yes, I am sure there may still be problems. But at least some could be reduced! Or having the early church fathers indicate when they are quoting from a Gospel. (And the gospels indicate when they are copying from each other.)

What I often see occur, in these discussions, is the Christian apologist having a conclusion and then looking for evidence to support that conclusion. Want 1 Clement to be written in 95 C.E.? Indicate Eusebius and Tertullian wrote on a Domitian persecution, claim 1 Clement is referring to this event and voila—you have a 95 CE date. But if you look at the evidence first--without a pre-ordained conclusion--such dating disintegrates into a range of possibilities.

This is why the exchange breaks down. The Christian apologist thinks the evidence is clear 1 Clement was written 95 C.E. and only a dunderhead could think otherwise; the skeptic reviews all the evidence and remains unconvinced.

What would have been the problem with including authors & dates in these documents? Why is asking what would be normal and standard in any other historical document too much to ask in the supposed greatest historical documents of them all? What is so surprising we skeptics question the viability when we would do so in any other documents with the same lack of precision?

At what point does it become obvious this is a botched human creation?


  1. Even for an historical science, ancient human history is pretty dodgy. We are far more confident about events in the first fractions of a second after the Big Bang than we are about first century Palestine.

  2. Of course the apologists turn the uncertainty to their advantage. With the evidence so sparse, they can argue that 95 A.D. is more probable than any other year. It may only be a 5% probability verses a maximum of 3% for any other specific year, but it's still the most probable.

  3. I see this all the time when I engage people in discussions about the Bible.

    I have come to the conclusion the the Bible can be made to say anything. If you can believe it, it can be found in the Bible, complete with historical proof.

    Jesus prayed for the unity of his disciples. That's one prayer that certainly has NOT be answered.

  4. I loved this post. Now I only need to figure out how to compact it into a statement that takes less than one minute to say and doesn't sound at all dodgy to a Christian, and which can work as an appropriate response to any historical argument.

    This is why I think making the case that everyone should have an anti-supernatural bias is the key.

  5. Incidentally googling 'anti supernatural bias' is how I ended up on your blog.

  6. Timothy,

    The Christian apologist wants you to consider the evidence for the resurrection as if you personally had never in your life heard of anyone claiming that a supernatural event had taken place AND that there was no record in history of anyone ever claiming that a supernatural event had taken place.

    As for me, I once had a man tell me that God fixed his vacuum cleaner. My wife once met a woman who said that God had made her invisible. Just a week or so ago, a Christian blogger I follow credited God's intervention for the fact that he not vomited while driving even though he felt nauseous.

    If no one in history had ever made a dubious miracle claim, I suppose that I would have to give the gospel accounts more credit. However, I have ample reason to think, based on personal experience and historical investigation, that the most likely explanation for any given miracle claim is gullibility, fantasy, wishful thinking, etc.

    My skepticism about supernatural stories is not a presupposition. It is an empirical conclusion based on five decades of observation and investigation.

  7. I guess one Christian response to your very interesting thesis would be that if we can't trust the New Testament's historicity, then how can we believe what we're taught as history in school?

    My answer to that would be that secular history doesn't involve folks walking on water or making wine or healing anyone of leprosy.

    Normal history doesn't threaten anyone with eternal hell either or claims that invisible beings can speak with us.

    The ginormous claims of Christianity definitely require much better evidence.

  8. Timothy,

    Probably the easiest way to introduce the concept in one minute is to compare to other historical events. For example, if one wanted to study the errors in the Battle of Gettysburg, we can see quickly it is a mistake to only read Gen. Longstreet’s position, as it could be tainted to blame Lee. We understand the importance of reading about Longstreet and Lee, and of course the North’s commanders as well, Buford, Chamberlain, Hooker.

    Plus we need to review the impact of Stuart “missing” prior to the battle, Ewell’s attack, Meade replacing Hooker…

    In other words, one can’t give a quick one-minute summation of one three-day battle in one war in all of history, why should we assume we can regarding the rise of Christianity within a different culture, time and language over a period of 150 years?

  9. Ex-fundy,

    I need to write a blog entry exploding the problem you address…this ludicrous claim, “If we can’t trust the New Testament as history, we can’t know that Abraham Lincoln ever lived.” (or similar nonsense.)

  10. No amount of written documentation from 2,000 years ago would convince me that Jesus was raised from the dead.

    Nobody who wasn't raised and brainwashed in the Xian religion would consider it even slightly plausible.