Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Do you think like an outlier?

I’ve been having a discussion with Ten Minas Ministries regarding the martyrdom of James, the brother of Jesus. The ol’ Die for a Lie routine I’ve addressed before.

It’s long. Long-winded. And fairly predictable. Summed up in:

“Did not.”
“Did too.”

But one item of interest arose. Ten Minas Ministries was concerned about me:

DagoodS, I really believe this comment illustrates your true problem with Christianity. It isn’t intellectual, although I am sure you firmly believe it is. You cannot bring yourself to believe that a Christian could be being genuine with you. If it is Christian in any way shape or form, you do not trust it. You do not trust my intentions. You do not trust any writings written by Christian authors to be giving you reliable information.

I was a bit perplexed at this claim, considering how many Christian authors I have utilized in my arguments with Ten Minas Ministries. In the very first comment on this blog entry, I recommend a book written by Christian authors. I’ve quoted items by Udo Schnelle—a Christian. In the past I had quoted from Bruce Metzger, another Christian. When discussing the Synoptic Problem I always refer people to Dr. Daniel Wallace’s writings—a Christian. I mostly do this because I fear Christians will ONLY read Christians, and if I dare recommend a writing by…say…Richard Carrier—it will be rejected out of hand simply because they are not a Christian.

I pointed out how I utilized Christian authors. It wasn’t just the far, far left fringe of unscrupulous liberal, hedonistic scholars who were making these bizarre claims [note the sarcasm here]—these are Christian scholars who understand the depth of difficulty in dating the gospels, determining authorship, determining audiences, determining motivations, correctly deciphering the Greek, etc.

And obviously the grandest question of all—historically what actually happened. Ten Minas Ministries replied:

Simply because an author claims to be a Christian, of course, doesn't mean their views represent the majority of Christianity. There are always "outliers." So simply quoting Christian authors is not necessarily going to garner acceptance by Christian apologists.

I could arguably point out the “conservative Christian view” has become the outlier. Although I do not have any statistics: Inerrancy is probably not the majority position amongst Biblical scholars. [Anyone know?] Literalism (with the advent of Old Earth Creationists and theistic evolutionists) is certainly an outlier at this point.

100 Years ago, if I said the ending of Mark should not be included, I would be the outlier. Now, to include the ending is the outlier position.

What I wish is this: rather than worry about dismissing a claim, simply because it is “outlier”--Prove Your Claim! Treat it as if it was the outlier! Treat it as if no one on the face of the earth would believe your assertion, and start backing it up with proof.

(Does anyone see the irony of a Biblical scholar who dismisses any position the Gospels are not 100% historical for the sole reason it is claimed to be an “outlier” position, yet embraces the belief evolution is not true—a belief held by only 0.1% of the life scientists in the world? Talk about outlier position!)

Let me use an example: the death of the apostle Paul. Ask most Christians in the pew and you would eventually scrounge up the answer he was killed in 62 – 68 CE by beheading in Rome. That is the traditional position. The conservative position. The “non-outlier” position.

Now if I claimed, “I think Paul was killed in a shipwreck off the coast of Spain” I would be faced with skepticism. Sneers of “that is an outlier position.” I would be called upon (correctly) for justification and demonstration of my position. I would be told: “Prove it.”

But what if we placed the shoe on the other foot? What if we told the conservative position: “YOU prove it! You demonstrate Paul was killed by beheading in Rome.” I would think they might discover how weak the evidence is for such a claim. How it is passed on as tradition on tradition, with no support.

Let’s look at the evidence for how Paul dies.

Acts of the Apostles, written around 100 CE, ends with Paul under house arrest for two years in Rome. It is argued (by Christians) that the author of Acts knows Paul is dead at the time of the writing, as he writes Paul’s farewell speech at Miletus, saying he will never see the people again. (Acts 20:25-38. If Paul was still alive at the time of the writing, he wouldn’t have known he would never see these particular people again. The author knows Paul is dead, and inserts this somber farewell, “I will never see you again,” because the author knows it is true.)

Regardless, whether Acts was written before, after or during Paul’s death—it doesn’t tell us how he died.

We then look at 1 Clement written about 95 CE by the bishop of Rome. He is writing to the Corinthian Church about certain problems. In the first chapters the author is writing about people who preserved in their faith. He writes on Abel and Jacob and Joseph and Moses and David. Then he turns to more modern examples.

This is important—the author has opportunity, he is from Rome. The author has motive—he has a desire to list important martyrs in the church, what they suffered for and how they suffered. He mentions four: Peter, Paul, Danaides and Dircae. [Curious, if the disciples all were busy not “dying for a lie” how the author could only list one (1) disciple to use as of 95 CE! But I digress…]

Here is what the author writes: “…seven times was he [Paul] cast into chains; he was banished; he was stoned; having become a herald, both in the East and in the West, he obtained the noble renown due to his faith;” 1 Clement 5:6.

Again, the author does not list how Paul died! (Or possibly by stoning.) But he does list specific punishments, and has a strong motive to indicate he was beheaded for his faith. Yet there is nothing. (And yes, I know this is an argument from silence; such arguments are compelling when the author has motive, opportunity and desire to list the stated event, and fails to do so.)

Now look at The Martyrdom of Polycarp. Polycarp was a disciple of John (son of Zebedee), and was killed in approximately 150 CE. Following his death, this story was written, giving an effusive tale of his great Christianity, and the martyrdom he suffered.

According to the tale, Polycarp was being pursued by a Roman authority. Polycarp predicts he will die by fire. When the soldiers arrested him, they marveled over his physical condition at his age, and allowed him to preach for two hours. Some of those who were in the arresting party repented.

He was brought before the Roman procounsel, and confessed three times to being a Christian. They wanted to throw him to a lion, but the time for wild beasts had already passed. So they decided to burn him alive. He was allowed to pray once more, went willingly to the stake and then the fire started.

A miracle occurred--the fire didn’t burn him. Instead a sweet smell of incense floated through the air. As the fire wasn’t working, a soldier stabbed Polycarp with a sword, causing a dove to come out, and so much blood, it put out the fire! Then the body finally burned.

What does this have to do with Paul? Because in the mid-Second Century, a tale of how martyrdom really is supposed to occur began to circulate with the Martyrdom of Polycarp. A glorious hero, so pure they convert even the oppressors. A miraculous ending to their life.

Where were the stories of Peter dying like that? Or Paul? Or the other Great Heroes of the first generation of Christians?
And sometime in the late Second Century, The Acts of Paul is written. The portions we have left include Paul’s interactions with the female Thelca and the ending section is Paul’s martyrdom. Before we skip ahead to Paul, the portion on Thelca is illustrative.

Thelca was a virgin convert of Paul. She was condemned to be burned. However the fire did not burn her. (Sound familiar?) She was then condemned to be ripped apart by beasts, however a lioness protected her from a bear and a lion. She jumped into a pool of seals, and rather them killing her, a flash of light killed the seals, and she was covered in fire. Not burning her.

They tied her to bulls, but flames appeared and burned the ropes. At this, the governor let her go, and Thelca stayed in the governor’s house, preaching to his wife.

We then get a variety of stories about Paul, including a tale in Ephesus where wild beasts were sent against him, but a lion protected him against the other beasts, similar to Thelca.

Finally, we get to the martyrdom of Paul. The cup-bearer to Nero was listening to Paul from a high window, but fell and died. Paul brings him back to life. (See Acts. 20:9) Nero, having heard his cup-bearer died, is surprised to see him alive again. When questioned as to how it could be, the cup-bearer says it is because of “Christ the King” and so Nero rounds up all the Christians.

Nero proclaims all the Christians will be burned, but Paul will be beheaded. Paul tells Nero, that if he is beheaded, Paul will come back to life and show himself to Nero. Paul was allowed to pray for a long time, and then willingly placed his head on the chopping block. When his head was chopped off, milk spurted out.

Paul appears to Nero, post-mortem, as promised. Nero, afraid, releases all the Christians, including Luke and Titus. The soldiers in charge of Paul’s execution become Christians.

The similarities between the Martyrdom of Polycarp and Acts of Paul:

1. Both have predictions that come true. (Polycarp: dying by fire. Paul: appearing to Nero)
2. Both allowed to preach and/or pray
3. Both willingly go to be martyred.
4. Both have miracles at the moment of execution.
5. Both have some of the soldiers convert.

Further, the tale borrows from Acts (the fall from the window) as well as incorporating other tales about other martyrs similar to occurrences to Paul. Humorously, realizing the skepticism “new tales” of Paul may bring, it defends the fact these were not listed by Luke by claiming, “Hey, the gospel of John includes things not in the other gospels; certainly other things happened to Paul not included by Luke.”

What happens if we treat the beheading story of Paul like an outlier? We note the earliest stories surrounding Paul either do not have a death (Acts) or fail to list it amongst his sufferings as a Christian (1 Clement). We see the earliest account of this beheading is in a work written over 100 years after it was claimed to have occurred, and includes similar fantastic happenings from another book about a martyr.

In short, it shows all the signs of a developing mythical legend.

See, if those claiming to know what happened bothered to research their own claims with as much scrutiny as what they think are “outliers”—they may find their own claims not nearly as well-founded as they thought.


  1. "But what if we placed the shoe on the other foot? What if we told the conservative position: “YOU prove it! You demonstrate Paul was killed by beheading in Rome.” I would think they might discover how weak the evidence is for such a claim."

    They might, but I think the conversation would at that point quickly shift to a different angle of apologetics. "What do you think it is in your heart which causes you to reject the story?" Or something like that. *Anything* to avoid cognitive disonance. The category of "outlier" at that point could almost be interpreted to mean, "that which I don't believe." Maybe they should just say, "Your belief is an outlier to my personal belief." It might not seem to them to carry as much weight though...

  2. Or they might give the well-worn response "Why would the early church lie about how the apostles died? They couldn't have thought they could get away with it."

    To which I would reply "Why did the U.S. Army lie about how Pat Tillman died? They must have thought they could get away with it."

    In both cases, the stories were invented for propaganda purposes. I don't even think the inventors of the stories saw them as lies since they communicated the essential truths about the character of those who had died.

  3. "DagoodS, I really believe this comment illustrates your true problem with Christianity. It isn’t intellectual, although I am sure you firmly believe it is. You cannot bring yourself to believe that a Christian could be being genuine with you. If it is Christian in any way shape or form, you do not trust it. You do not trust my intentions. You do not trust any writings written by Christian authors to be giving you reliable information."

    I think this guy is sort of close to the truth, but he has the characters reversed. What he/she has identified is the crux of why he/she does not "prove" the claim. To his/her way of thinking his/her belief is not a question of proof, but a question of being genuine. I.e., if you really, really want to know this belief is true, you will know it. You only have to be "genuine." You don't have to think critically to ascertain the truth.

    If all that is necessary to know the truth is the belief that someone is genuine, then all religions can make the same claim. For that matter, anyone with a belief could say the same.

    The purpose for examining and scrutinizing claims is to determine if they are "genuine."

  4. Thank you for the awesome post, quite enjoyable and educational.

    As for the believer who says you don't trust Christians, he is partly right, I think, showing at the same time that many Christians see a bi-colour world: black and white.

    He wants you to believe his hearsay, and you can't 'cause he has no proof, then he transfers your distrust to all-things Christian.

    Then there is the issue of self-righteousness (of which I may write soon). Because they're speaking on behalf of their God, in a weird sort of way they feel they should be listened to, respected, and believed, as if they were God in the flesh.

    They have a hard time believing that such higher authority--themselves--isn't believed. I dare to call that attitude "The God complex."

  5. I tried commenting with the Wordpress icon and it didn't use my nickname (it posted ex-fundy).


    Any chance you could enable the name-plus-URL commenting option? That way I can enter my name and URL no problem, without using the blogger profile.

  6. Testing again -- it has ignored my 4 last comments

  7. I think TMM might not understand that we don't trust *anyone*, not just Christians. It's just that scientists and other types know they're not trusted, they're cool with it and not defensive, and they offer good arguments to overcome our skepticism.