Thursday, June 17, 2010

Claims in History

We often see the claim, ”If the New Testament is not reliable history that we can trust, then no ancient history can be trusted.” Understand when the apologist makes the claim, it is a dichotomous hyperbole where either every single fact within the New Testament (including the miracles) must be accepted as fully historical OR not a single fact is true, and therefore all histories of any sort must likewise be false.

There is no consideration for the possible alternative that some facts are historical (Pilate, Herod, even a traveling Rabbi named Jesus) and some are mythological (walking on water, clearing the temple, Slaughter of the Innocents).

There is a simple response to this claim.

Remember this joke?

A man walks up to a beautiful woman and asks, “Would you have sex with me for One million dollars?”
“Yes!” she exclaims.
“How about for $5?” the man replies.
“No way! What kind of woman do you think I am?”
“Ma’am, we’ve already established that. All we’re doing now is negotiating price.”

I feel the same way with this claim. The Christian apologist equally agrees certain documents are not historical regarding Jesus’ sayings and life—all we really are doing is haggling over method.

The Infancy Gospel of James claims Mary, Mother of Jesus, was born out of Immaculate Conception. (No male involved.) Was this historical?

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas records an incident when Jesus, as a child, was bumped by another child. Jesus, of course, miraculously struck the child dead. The parents, understandably vexed, complained to Joseph, whereupon Jesus blinded them. Is this historical?

Josephus records a star in the shape of a sword over Jerusalem before it fell. A comet that lasted a whole year. Mysterious light, a cow giving birth to a lamb, doors opening on their own, strange voices and earthquakes. Were these historical?

Joseph Smith saw Jesus; the Gospel of Philip implies Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ paramour. Historical?

See, at some point every historian—every person—reaches a point of exclaiming, “That is not true. Didn’t happen.” Like the joke…we’ve established some stories (including stories about Jesus) are not historical. All we’re doing now is haggling over method—over how to determine which stories are historical and which are myth.

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?

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

1st Corinthians 15 is not a fact

I recently listened to the debate with Dr. Mike Licona and Dr. Richard Carrier on Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? This followed what I call the “Habermas” approach, regarding the Minimal facts position.

Dr. Licona’s reliance solely on 1 Cor. 15:3-8 in his opening statement was slightly surprising. Indeed, he indicated he was deliberately not relying upon any of the Gospels. The only “facts” he used was this small passage. (I put “facts” in quotes for a reason to be revealed shortly.) He then demanded Dr. Carrier provide a counter-factual to explain these “facts” that is more historically plausible than Jesus being resurrected.

A little background, in case the reader is not familiar with this use of 1 Cor. 15. Around 50 C.E., Paul was writing to the church in Corinth regarding certain problems in the church. How to effectively coordinate speaking in tongues, (1 Cor. 14:5-39), what to do with women in the church (1 Cor. 14:34-35), etc. An issue confronted was congregants saying there was no resurrection of the dead. Paul uses Jesus’ resurrection as an example and in doing so, cites a creed Paul had previously personally provided to the Corinthians:

For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures,
and that He was seen by Cephas,
then by the twelve.
After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep.
After that He was seen by James,
then by all the apostles.
Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. (1 Cor. 15:3-8)

Dr. Licona followed the formulaic Christian apologetic by claiming Jesus died in 30 CE, “most scholars” believe Paul was converted within 3 years and “it is likely” Paul received this information from Peter and James upon visiting Jerusalem after the conversion approximately 3 years later, or 36 CE at the latest. (Acts 9:26-29; Gal. 1:18-19) This formula is designed to make the creed seem very early indeed.

A minor tangent regarding the dating. First, we don’t know when Jesus died, (there is controversy regarding whether he died on a Friday before the Passover, or a Friday that was a Passover, meaning it would be a different year.) Second, we don’t know when Paul was converted. Thirdly, we don’t know who Paul obtained this creed from. Even granting Dr. Licona’s “most scholars” and “it is likely” it is a matter of speculation regarding when Paul received this. And, the earliest Paul could have received it was 40 C.E.; to conform to the chronology required by 2 Cor. 11:32, Gal. 1:17-18 and Acts 9:23-29.

So what is the “fact” we are dealing with? An example for clarification…imagine a criminal trial. The prosecution has presented evidence showing the defendant’s fingerprints on the gun, eyewitness testimony placing the defendant at the scene, and a written confession by the defendant. Now the prosecution puts up their first witness: the Defendant’s mother. She testifies, “My son was with me watching Jeopardy at the time.”

Is the presented “fact” that defendant was watching Jeopardy at the time of the crime? No—a thousand times, No! The fact is: “Defendant’s mother testified defendant was watching Jeopardy at the time.” See the difference?

“Defendant was watching Jeopardy at the time.”
“Defendant’s mother testified defendant was watching Jeopardy at the time.”

If the jury, in our example, convicted the Defendant, we would not demand they come up with an explanation for how the Defendant could possibly be watching Jeopardy at the same time the crime was committed, and demand they come up with a plausible explanation for him crossing town at a commercial break or some other such nonsense. No, what we understand is that the jury sees a plausible explanation for why the Defendant’s mother testified to an alibi defense. She believes her son is innocent (because she is a mother) and has probably confused a day when they did watch television together. This is very plausible.

What bothered me about this debate was how Dr. Licona referred to these appearances in 1 Cor. 15 as “facts” where actuality, the fact is Paul is reporting he heard about these appearances. (Amusingly, this is worse than our situation with the Defendant’s mother. To more closely align it, we would have to state, “The Defendant’s mother heard from unknown persons that the defendant was watching Jeopardy at the time.” I hope you can see how this is even more tenuous a fact.)

Except the last claim--Jesus appearing to Paul (where every indication we have is that was a vision)—the other accounts are hearsay. The easiest and most plausible explanation is that these accounts were made up and passed on to Paul. No resurrection—no miracle—is necessary.

Think about it—creedal Christians are not scratching their heads trying to explain how Joseph Smith chanced upon golden plates buried for centuries. They don’t believe there were any plates in the first place! In a debate with a Mormon, a creedal Christian would not grant the “fact” of the Golden plates’ existence, simply because witnesses claimed to have seen them—they demand proof of the plates themselves.

In the same way, why should we (and why did Dr. Carrier) grant these appearances as having happened (albeit Dr. Carrier gives a possible explanation of group hallucination), simply because Dr. Licona calls them “facts”?

At the debate’s beginning, Dr. Licona gave an example of how a proposed explanation has “explanatory scope” by explaining all the facts at one’s disposal. He relayed an incident in his neighborhood where he heard sirens and emergency vehicles and made one postulation. Upon learning more facts (and learning his first guess was wrong) he made another guess. He went on about learning more facts, making more guesses and each time learning his previous speculation was incorrect.

I am bothered that this was not applied to the present situation. Shouldn’t we look to the other facts? What about the conflicting accounts? Matthew, Luke and John have different orders of appearance. They have females not included in this creed. [Some apologists claim Paul didn’t include females due to their lack of credibility…but I thought he was quoting a creed. Did he modify a creed or did the creed’s authors have something against females?]

The Gospels do not record any appearance to 500. The Gospels do not record an appearance to James—no other canonical book does. And who are the “apostles”? Are they different than the 500 and different than the Twelve?

What about the other accounts not mentioned that conflict with each other? The appearances to Mary Magdalene, the soldiers, whether it was in Galilee or Jerusalem, how long Jesus stayed on earth? In any other historical context we would look at the various accounts and question which (if any) were accurate. Why must we assume 1 Cor. 15 is, and the others are not?

It is also interesting that 1 Cor. 15 indicates Jesus died, was buried and rose again on the third day, “according to the scriptures.” Nothing about Jesus predicting his own resurrection in this—the earliest of creeds! Further, Jesus statements regarding a post-resurrection body (Matthew 25:31-46, Luke 23:43, Matt. 22:30, Mark 12:25, John 11:24-25) were apparently unknown to the Corinthians. How is it possible, a religion founded on the physical resurrection of its leader, could reach a point within 20 years where some followers did not believe in a physical resurrection?

I have no idea why anyone is conceding these appearances are “facts.” As if we have to explain how 500 people saw a physically resurrected Jesus. No…all we have to do is explain how someone claims 500 people saw a physically resurrected Jesus. And the naturalistic explanation (they made it up) is far more plausible and probable than that Jesus DID actually rise from the dead.

Unless the creedal Christian is busy explaining away the amazing coincidence of how Joseph Smith just happened to stumble on those ancient Golden Plates and then manage to lose them…