Thursday, December 12, 2013

Are you glad atheism is true?

In my wanderings, I happened across this question:

Are you glad that atheism is the truth?

I am ambivalent. Truth just….is. Am I glad for the amount of gravity earth has? Well, it would be neat if it was less, because we could jump farther. (Basketball would be different.) But I am not particularly glad or sad or feel any real emotion toward gravity. We work with what is there.

Are there things about a god existing that would make me glad? I have no idea—it would certainly depend on the god, wouldn’t it? What if it was Calvin? “From utter nothingness comes swirling form! Life begins where once was void. But Calvin is no kind and loving god! He’s one of the old gods! He demands sacrifice!”

What if it was a benevolent god who gave us whatever we wanted? Or a god who demanded we perform or believe a certain way to please him enough to grant reward? What exactly is this “god” wherein I am to be glad, sad, or mad regarding its existence?

Of course this question can be easily turned around. Are you glad your particular form of theism is true? (And it is always their particular form—they certainly don’t want another form wherein their god doesn’t exist, right?) And if so, how is it you develop a methodology to determine truth to avoid the inherent bias of your desire? How do you know your theistic view of heaven isn’t something you desire and therefore believe, rather than actual truth?

But whenever I get on the topic of methodology, the conversation takes a sharp right turn.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Debate Thoughts

On September 9th, I listened to this debate [mp3 file download] between Matthew Ferguson and Nick Peters. The topic: “Based on the historical evidence, is it more reasonable to believe or doubt Jesus’ resurrection?”

First some general notes. These two gentlemen are not professional debaters. What a relief! Personally, I am tired of listening to the same Craig or Ehrman repetitions. I have heard Habermas and Carrier and Licona and Hitchens and Turek…enough. I enjoyed the slightly rougher presentations--the not-quite-perfectly-memorized speeches. They were still well-prepared and eloquent…just more man-on-the-street, if you get my meaning.

Also, it is too easy to “Monday morning quarterback” these types of debates. To critically analyze every nuance and statement after-the-fact, with “You should have said…” or “The correct response was…” After all, the participants are now doing it themselves! [After every significant trial, we look back wishing we said something different, or asked a different question. It still haunts Christopher Darden regarding asking O.J. to try on that glove!] Of course that won’t stop me from Monday morning quarterbacking. *grin*

I am writing this from my memory and notes taken during the debate. I have not re-listened to it on the mp3 yet. All quotes are therefore paraphrased, and if I incorrectly state something, please attribute my faulty memory.

The Mechanics.

This debate was established as a conference call, with a limited number of participants. I had a slightly harder time understanding Mr. Peters. Mr. Ferguson sounded as if he was in-studio, whereas Mr. Peters sounded like a person calling into a radio station. Additionally, Mr. Peters has a slight (southern?) accent—there were times I struggled a bit to recognize the word he was saying, and if I didn’t know the topic as well, or the persons he was referring to, I wouldn’t have known what he was saying.

The Format.

There were things I really, really liked about this format, and a few modifications I would make. (Again, this is just personal preference.) The format was as follows:

1) Ferguson Introduction (2 min.)
2) Peters Introduction (2 min)

3) Ferguson Opening Statement (15 min.)
4) Peters Opening Statement (15 min.)

5) Ferguson First Rebuttal (10 min.)
6) Peters First Rebuttal (10 min.)
7) Ferguson Second Rebuttal (10 min.)
8) Peters Second Rebuttal (10 min.)

9) Ferguson questions Peters (10 min)
10) Peters questions Ferguson (10 min.)

11) Ferguson Closing Statement (10 min.)
12) Peters Closing Statement (10 min.)

I liked the initial introduction and think it should be incorporated in more debates. The second rebuttal was unnecessary. They more than adequately covered the necessary material in the first rebuttal. I also felt a bit…rushed…in the opening statement (especially by Mr. Ferguson.) But I greatly enjoyed the questioning back and forth. I think they could have done an opening statement and filled the remainder with questioning and I would have been perfectly pleased in every way.

So the modifications for next time: 1) Extend the opening statement to 20 minutes. 2) Eliminate the second rebuttal. 3) Reduce the closing statement to 5 – 7 minutes. 4) Extend the questioning period.

The Debate.


Mr. Ferguson emphasized he would be approaching this historically—a critical method limited in its ability to make determinations. The best historical method can do is determine what is more probable. Mr. Peters indicated the resurrection can be established “beyond a reasonable doubt,” that the evidence should be approached with an open mind and the resurrection hypothesis was the “most plausible.”

Opening Statements.

Mr. Ferguson indicated the historical method consisted of three items:

1) Theoretical—history can never be 100% re-duplicated.
2) Limited evidence .
3) Probabilistic. We must weigh the theories as to which is more probable (not merely plausible) with the expected evidence.

He used the example of whether Julius Caesar shaved the day he was assassinated. As Roman officials shaved regularly, and this was not something generally recorded, it was more probable he did shave than he did not. With no evidence to the contrary, in using the historical method, we would conclude it more reasonable to believe he did.

Resurrections are extremely improbable, and our initial prior-probability should be they do not occur. The only evidence we have to modify our prior-probability is anonymous records written decades after the event by biased individuals. Mr. Ferguson extrapolated the ever-increasing physical nature of Jesus’ post-mortem body from 1 Cor. 15 to Mark to Matthew to Luke to John.

Mr. Ferguson provided four (4) alternative hypotheses to explain the Resurrection:

1) The doctrine was initially a spiritual resurrection.
2) Jesus was buried in either an unknown tomb or a mass grave.
3) The Body was stolen
4) Re-burial by Joseph to another tomb.

[DagoodS Note: Not sure I would go with Body stolen as much as moved. Notice in Johannine community, it was unremarkable that Jesus’ body was not there. Mary Magdalene asked the gardener where “they” have taken the body. She didn’t start screaming for the guards, or thinking Jesus was resurrected—she took it as matter-of-course the body was moved. Additionally Jesus’ family was likely to bury Jesus in a family tomb in Galilee either by transporting the body itself or after one year and using an ossuary.]

Mr. Peters follows in Mike Licona’s footsteps, so I anticipated he would approach the topic the same way. He did. There are certain facts conceded by a consensus of scholars—credentialed scholars with Ph.D’s who “don’t have an axe to grind”—regarding Jesus. [DagoodS note: This is the first time I have seen any qualification of Dr. Habermas’ list. I am genuinely curious whether they all have Ph.D’s.]

Mr. Peters proceeded through the regular minimal facts approach. Jesus was crucified, 1 Cor. 15 was a creed generated within 5 years of the event, James was not a believer, Paul was a skeptic, and the disciples had appearances of a physical Jesus. Mr. Peters cites Ludemann, Ehrman, Licona and Keener. Cites Craig Keener as saying it is miracles preventing people from believing resurrection. States mass hallucinations are not recorded in studies. Jews did not believe in a physical resurrection

The strongest argument (in my opinion) was the question “Why did Paul do a 180?”

First Rebuttal.

Mr. Ferguson questioned why a physiological impossible event (Resurrection of body to immortal body) would be considered “more probable” than what the apologist considered a psychologically impossible event (mass hallucination.) In other words, how can we pick one impossible event as “more probable” than another impossible event?

Additionally Mr. Ferguson stated Paul’s conversion requires more facts than just resurrection, then opining Paul was unsatisfied with his current belief, had a hallucination, and converted to the belief he was persecuting. He used an example of finding a room devoid of a person and then seeing the person skydiving three years later. I kinda think I understand the analogy, but it was not very clear.

As for Keener, Mr. Ferguson points out Dr. Keener may record a number of miracles, but never records an instance of a person coming back from the dead, and obtaining an immortal body. Anyone coming back from the dead is only postponing death—not eliminating it.

Mr. Ferguson noted Josephus indicated Essenes did believe in a spiritual resurrection, leaving behind their current physical bodies. That Jews were not limited to just “physical resurrection” belief. Mr. Ferguson cautioned (more than once) to not treat the First century communities as homogenous. There were multiple beliefs and doctrines. I found this response very damning and wished Mr. Peters would reply and explain how no Jews believed in the physical resurrection in light of this evidence. Alas, Mr. Peters did not.

Mr. Peters rebutted that resurrection was not resuscitation. (I was not clear why this was important—I thought both participants agreed on this point.) Mr. Peters states the attempts to explain Paul’s conversion as “psycho-history” or performing psychology on historical persons without adequate evidence.

Further, while Mr. Peters has cited numerous credentialed scholars, Mr. Ferguson hasn’t cited anyone. Mr. Peters contacted Tim McGrew who reviewed Mr. Ferguson’s approach on Bayes’ Theorem and called it “thoroughly confused.”

Second Rebuttal

Mr. Ferguson provides a list of scholars he utilized regarding Bayes’ Theorem, as well as other items.

[DagoodS Note: Initially I found this to be a losing approach. Why play your opponent’s game? However, Mr. Ferguson listed enough scholars; I guess it ended up a dead-lock.

[Look, I’ve been in a number of trials with experts on both sides. You know we can hire any body with: a) plenty of credentials and b) who will render an opinion in favor of our client. Amazingly the other side can find someone of equal caliber, who astoundingly will opine in favor of their client! We even have a term for it—“Battle of the Experts.” So I have my expert with their charts, graphs, CV, pictures and opinion; the other side has theirs. Unless one side has an outstandingly eloquent expert, jurors ignore both of them. And then do what their common sense and reasonableness wants to do anyway.

[There is a tendency in Christian apologetics to be enamored with “experts.” “Dr. So-And-So—a non-Christian—concludes this.” “Dr. This-And-That disagrees with you and she has been published in more journals.” “We have this list of names.” There is a tendency in the skeptical community to be more self-reliant (are we more egotistical?). We don’t care if Dr. BigName has 52 letters behind his name—we want to see the underlying data, evidence and arguments.

[This was a debate on evidence. I (being skeptical) want evidence. Not names…heck, I already know the names. You mention Bayes’ Theorem, a Christian apologist is sure to mention McGrew. Minimal facts—Habermas & Licona. Textual Critcism—Wallace. Guess what? The skeptical community has their Bayes’ Theorem expert—Carrier; their textual critic—Ehrman; their minimal fact expert—pick one. Names do not impress people going through deconversion. We have read them. We want to see how ordinary people—jurors—grapple with the facts themselves. This is where this debate had possibility of strength.

[I don’t want to compare names—I want to hear the evidences explored! To quote a crude but apt phrase from the movie Taken: “Now is not the time for dick measuring, Stuart!”]

Mr. Peters second rebuttal was his strongest statement in the debate. He stated Mr. Ferguson’s translation of Greek in 1 Cor. 15 would be flunked by Dr. Licona. (I found this statement petty. Unfortunately such statements have traction in many Christian circles, for the reasons stated above.) He mentioned Craig Keener demonstrating miracles in his book and recommended listeners get the book and do the study themselves.

He then hit upon the social-sciences commentary [DagoodS Note: see Dr. Bruce Malina*] stating crucifixion was shameful, being a Christian was shameful and there would be no reason, in this society, to become a Christian unless it was true. That the Jews would be cut off from Yahweh.

*Sigh. After that long diatribe, I’m now citing names. Just call me “Hypocrite.”


I have fewer notes here; I sat back and enjoyed the conversation. The key points (remember, I have already heard much of this stuff before, so I was looking for something new and interesting) were in this questioning time.

Mr. Ferguson: If God turned me into a cucumber, would it be a miracle?
Mr. Peters: Yes.
Mr. Ferguson: Did Dr. Keener record a resurrection in his book on miracles?
Mr. Peters: Not to an immortal body, but there was an instance where rigor mortis set in, the person’s fingers were black, and they tried zapping him one more time, and the person came back.

Mr. Ferguson: So does the miracle of bringing back a person after rigor mortis make it more probable that God will perform the miracle of turning me into a cucumber?
Mr. Peters: No.

Mr. Peters questioned what would cause Paul to convert to Christianity unless the resurrection was true. Mr. Ferguson replied Paul was one person, and perhaps Paul was crazy.

[DagoodS Note: Christian apologists…stay away from Paul’s conversion. It does not help you.

[People convert for a variety of reasons to a variety of bizarre beliefs. People go from Protestant to Catholic. Christian to Jew. Atheist to Buddhist. And in looking at the beliefs throughout history, there are some very off-beat beliefs that somehow manage to obtain followers. Heaven’s gate, anyone? If 50 years ago someone explained Scientology would be taken seriously, we would have laughed. Yet here we are. The “why” Paul converted is unknown. The “how” is problematic.

[First, Paul had the minimal facts. And they did not convince him. He knew Jesus was crucified and buried. Heck, he is closer to the evidence than we are—he could see the empty tomb! He could talk to the soldiers who were guarding it, who felt the earthquake, who were bribed to say they fell asleep. He could talk to people who saw the resurrected saints. He could talk to the priests from the trials; see where the temple veil was repaired. He knew the disciples were proclaiming they had seen Jesus. He knew they were willing to be persecuted for it. He knew every single minimal fact plus a great deal more.

[And Paul was not convinced by them. If Paul—who was far more intimately familiar with the evidence than we could ever hope to be—was not convinced…why should we be convinced today? The only way to convince Paul was for him to receive direct revelation (in Pauls’ words) or a vision (in Luke’s words.) But this was a vision—NOT an encounter with a physically resurrected Jesus.

[As those who argue with the “wouldn’t die for a lie” approach know—people are willing to die for belief all the time. The strength in the argument is to claim the persons encountered a physically resurrected Jesus. That does not include Paul—he saw Jesus in a vision. While Paul is much closer in time than many Christian martyrs, he is no different in encountering a physically resurrected Jesus than anyone today. Whether Paul saw Jesus in a vision 2 months after Jesus died, or Mary down the street saw Jesus in a vision 1,980 years after he died—BOTH have the same evidentiary value!

[Further, we often hear that naturalistic presupposition hinders our weighing the evidence. No problem with Paul—he was a theist, immersed in a culture readily believing God interacted through miracles.

[Paul’s conversion and willingness to suffer persecution has no more evidentiary value than a person converted today and equally willing. Worse, Paul had all the minimal facts (plus more) and was not convinced by the evidence. I do not see how Paul’s conversion helps the Christian apologist.]

Concluding remarks.

Each wrapped up their positions. No new information here.

I felt Mr. Fergusons strongest point was on the cucumber, effectively removing Keener’s miracles as having evidentiary value, with a secondary point regarding the Essenes. Mr. Peter’s strongest point was on Paul’s conversion, with a secondary question regarding why people would convert to Christianity.

I look forward to these gentlemen discussing again.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Dating of Mark

I’ve discussed various positions regarding when Mark’s Gospel was written. The traditional dating method (absent any internal indication or external reference) would be to presume it was written after the last recorded incident. As Mark 13 refers to the sacking of Jerusalem, we date it after 70 CE—the year Jerusalem was besieged and fell.

In any other instance this is so obvious as to be unnecessary to point out. But we are talking a canonical book from the New Testament…and to many Christian apologists, 70 CE seems too removed from Jesus’ lifetime. Especially as it is the earliest book, making Matthew, Luke and John even later.

So they claim Mark 13 is a supernatural event, wherein Jesus was accurately predicting Jerusalem’s fall and we are simply predisposed against such a proposition by our philosophical naturalism. I happened across this outstanding blog, (sadly gone MIA) generating some thoughts. The blog author states, “[T]he historians Tacitus (Ann. 6.20), Suetonius (Gal. 4), and Cassius Dio (64.1) all agree that the emperor Tiberius used his knowledge of astrology to predict the future emperor Galba’s reign.”

[For a very brief background, Tiberius was Caesar during Jesus’ time period, Galba became emperor later in the Year of the Four Emperors (June 68 CE – December 69 CE)]

We have three (3) independent sources all agreeing Galba’s reign was prophesied.

Tacitus Annals 6.20 states, “I must not pass over a prognostication of Tiberius respecting Servius Galba, then consul. Having sent for him and sounded him on various topics, he at last addressed him in Greek to this effect: ‘You too, Galba, will some day have a taste of empire.’ He thus hinted at a brief span of power late in life, on the strength of his acquaintance with the art of astrologers…”

Suetonius in Life of Galba 4 indicates, “It is well known that when he was still a boy and called to pay his respects to Augustus with others of his age, the emperor pinched his cheek and said in Greek: ‘Thou too, child, wilt have a nibble at this power of mine. Tiberius too, when he heard that Galba was destined to be emperor, but in his old age, said: ‘Well, let him live then, since that does not concern me.’”

Cassius Dio in Roman History: 64.1 “Thus Galba was declared emperor, just as Tiberius had foretold when he said to him that he also should have a taste of the sovereignty.”

Of course, no one is claiming Tacitus, Suetonius or Cassius Dio wrote before Galba’s reign—the point I am making is such claimed prophetic predictions written long after the predicted events occurred were part and parcel of the genre. If a Christian says I am predisposed against Christian prophesying, are they equally predisposed against astrological prophesying? Or do they think Tiberius really did predict Galba’s reign?

The next time I am having a discussion about the dating of Mark, and whether it is my naturalistic predisposition not seeing Mark 13 as a “true” prophecy—I will ask the Christian what their horoscope said today.

They dare not scoff at astrology, because that would equally be naturalistic predisposition toward skepticism on predictions.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Answering a Question

DoOrDoNot asked, “I'm interested in what you would do with this in light of the "die for a lie" argument. Even if Christians weren't systematically persecuted, but had legitimate reason to fear prosecution, wouldn't that still lend some support to the argument?”

The problem regarding “Die for a Lie” is:

1) We don’t have enough information;
2) The information we do have tends toward bias; and
3) We fail to understand people’s motivations.

Remember, this argument is ONLY useful regarding those claiming to see a physically resurrected Jesus, or perhaps those involved in an initial fabrication and/or conspiracy. Everyone agrees people willingly face persecution, torture and martyrdom for something incorrect—a “lie.” Even Christians agree Muslims will blow themselves—dying for “a lie.” Imagine a few scenarios—all very plausible.

1) Peter (and Paul) have an altered state of consciousness, believe they see Jesus post-mortem and convince others Jesus is still alive. They spread Christianity, are persecuted, and eventually suffer martyrdom. “Die for a Lie” doesn’t work, because they didn’t think it a lie—just like Muslims dying for an incorrect claim, these individuals were dying for what they thought was true (even though it wasn’t.)

2) Peter and Paul initially teach and believe Jesus was resurrected spiritually in heaven, and it is only later-developed Christianity, after Mark’s Gospel, that the idea of a physically resurrected Jesus is claimed. Again, taught, persecuted and martyrdom. Again, “Die for a Lie” doesn’t work, because they were dying for what they thought was true—even if it wasn’t.

Let’s try something allowing “die for a lie” to have more force:

3) Peter (and/or other Disciples) completely make-up the concept of physically resurrected Jesus. They obtain wealth, honor and status as leaders in the church. There is sporadic persecution in certain localized areas against the Church. Unless one can demonstrate the conspirators themselves were in actual danger, “die for a lie” still doesn’t hold sway, because the persons involved didn’t think it would happen to them until too late.

We should pause at this point and note Paul certain was persecuted and actively pursued. But Paul is a later convert who (even under the best Christian scenario) saw a vision and was converted. He wasn’t part of any initial conspiracy.

And finally, the best possible chance for “die for a lie”:

4) Peter (and/or other Disciples) completely make-up the concept of physically resurrected Jesus. They obtain wealth, honor and status as leaders in the church. Active persecution directly against the conspirators putting them in imminent danger. Now they would certainly not “die for a lie,” right? ‘Cause we certainly would not. But are we projecting our 21st Century motivations on 1st Century individuals?

Dr. Moss raises the interesting example of Achilles. Remember, for these individuals, unless one was a great person of importance, there would be no record of your ever having been alive. No obituaries, no High School yearbooks, no scrapbooks, no pictures, no videos, no Facebook. Nothing. Once dead, you disappeared like your ancestors did, and your descendants would likely do. The only way to be known was to have your reputation remembered.

Dr. Moss pointed out Achilles had two (2) contradictory prophecies about his life. Either he would live a very, very long time but he would be an unknown person, eventually long forgotten. Or he would gloriously die at a young age, and his reputation would be remembered forever. Achilles chose fame as his means of living forever.

If given the same choice—what would Peter do? Or the other Disciples? If they believed they would be remembered for a long time….would they willingly die for a lie?

Instead of creating possible scenarios, look at the facts we have:

1. At some point in the First Century, individuals began claiming Jesus was resurrected either physically or spiritually post-mortem from crucifixion death.
2. This group—Christians—fought amongst themselves regarding whether to continue Jewish practices. Some did, some claimed they did not.
3. There is no Jewish or secular record of Jewish persecution against Christians.
4. The only record of organized Jewish persecution against Christians is from Christian sources, almost exclusively one (1) book—Acts of the Apostles. A book demonstrating an anti-Jewish bias.
5. The Jewish authorities had their hands full with a variety of competing Jewish claims—Christianity would be one amongst dozens. Not to mention governmental shifts, Roman oppression, and rebellion.
6. Within the first 10 years of its existence, Christianity shifted its focus from converting Jews to converting Gentiles.

[From this, I would argue there was no organized Jewish persecution, but the readers can draw their own conclusion.]

7. The Christian leaders (by their own accounts) gained wealth, honor and status within their community.
8. The first Roman persecution—Tacitus’ account of Nero—the Christians were scapegoats. No opportunity to recant, or avoid persecution. Plus this was Rome, not necessarily near the disciples.
9. The second recorded account regarding organized Roman government pursuit of Christians was Pliny the Younger where Christianity is reviewed as a puzzlement. This is too late for “die for a lie” to work.

So where does “die for lie” even come in? One would have to create a scenario similar to number 4 above that speculatively draws from Christian documents, and ignore the culture, Jewish situation, leaders’ status and complete absence in other historical documents of the times.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Review “The Myth of Persecution”

History is replete with certain well-known images—George Washington crossing the Delaware, Crusades for a Holy Grail, cities of gold, etc.—and included in our iconography is the concept of Persecuted Christians in Rome. Christians thrown to the lions by cruel Roman governors; Christians secretly meeting in catacombs with symbolic fish markings on walls. Many people envision Christianity constantly, persistently and universally hounded from its very inception until Emperor Constantine sanctioned Christianity in 313 CE.

Dr. Candida Moss wrote The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians invented the story of Martyrdom to counter this conception, arguing while Christians were persecuted for short periods (12 total years within this 300 year period), most persecution was localized (not universal) and sporadic (not constant.) Her ambition is clearly stated in the introduction:

What if Christians weren’t continually persecuted by the Romans? If there had never been an Age of Martyrs, would Christians automatically see themselves as engaged in a war with critics?...The history of Christianity is steeped in the blood of martyrs and set as a battle against good and evil. How would we think about ourselves if that history were not true? The language of martyrdom and persecution is often the language of war. It forces a rupture between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and perpetuates and legitimizes an aggressive posture toward the ‘the other’ and ‘our enemies’ so that we can ‘defend the faith.’ Without this posture and the polarized view of the world upon which it relies, we might—without compromising our religious or political convictions—be able to reach common ground and engage in productive government, and we might focus on real examples of actual suffering and actual oppression.

Dr. Moss has the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell of modifying Christianity by intellectual discussion—martyrdom is the tool Christians liberal engage to legitimize their belief. Jesus—the leader of the faith—was wrongfully pursued, beaten and executed for saying the right thing; how much more the poor Christian’s view must be right when the world is seen as howling against it.

Think I am outrageous?

Recently one (1) Army reserve officer prepared a presentation regarding discrimination. In a poorly (i.e. internet google search) researched powerpoint slide, she referred to Catholicism and Evangelical Christianity as “Religious Extremism.” Let me emphasize—this was one (1) person with their own presentation. Not Army Reserve documents. Not General Army documents. One person. Yet what does the headline read? Defense Department Classifies Catholics, Evangelicals as Extremists. That’s right—the entire Defense Department (including Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard) is encompassed in this one (1) person’s single powerpoint slide. A slide immediately removed upon new information.

And how does the Christian community respond? This Christian’s comment referencing the article states, “Reading about the Christians in the first 300 years in the Roman Empire, the Romans had a problem. They hated the Christians (called them ‘atheists’), but had difficulty getting rid of them because they were renowned for being well-mannered, obedient, model citizens (except, of course, when it came to idolatry.”

Yep. One person with a powerpoint? Next thing will be Christians thrown to the lions on the White House Lawn!

But this shan’t distract us from pressing forward. Dr. Moss essentially tackles the issue from two fronts:

1) Demonstrates the Martyrdom stories were later myths, developed for particular purpose; and
2) The Romans were “prosecuting,” not “persecuting.”

I have dealt with the first point extensively and will not address it much more here. Dr. Moss did present some martyr tales later than I normally discuss (I don’t go much beyond Second Century) and pointed out interesting facets. Probably the most important point (unfortunately not presented until the end) was how significant Eusebius is on our understanding of Church History in the first three Centuries. Eusebius, in extolling martyrdom, essentially created the imagery of constant persecution by his own emphasis.

Almost our entire knowledge regarding the first three centuries of Christianity comes through Eusebius’ writing. Those documents he chose to emphasize—he included. Others he downplayed and even failed to mention entirely. Therefore, we are left with his perception of how Christianity developed through doctrinal bias—not historical accuracy.

It is the second point—“persecution” vs “prosecution” I want to address at more length. Dr. Moss points out the Christians were not necessarily being persecuted as a group to quash a belief, but instead were primarily being prosecuted under laws that would have been applicable to any group—including Christians—under the Roman Justice system. At the time I read it, I found this a very valid point, and one worth pointing out; I looked forward to doing so in my eventual review.

However, between reading the book and this writing, I read other reviews (on Amazon and elsewhere) to see how others reacted. I was stunned at how many people bellowed against this notion and were particularly upset. The general response was, “If Rome made Christianity illegal, and then punished it—what is the difference between such a ‘prosecution’ and ‘persecution.’ Isn’t this mincing words? A difference without a distinction?” Perhaps it is my familiarity with the legal system; perhaps my familiarity with certain situations—either way, I understood the difference, and why it is significant.

Let me start with a modern example before turning to the ancient illustration. In America, we are concerned with discriminating against minorities. As such, we have entered laws (even amended our Constitution), and established departments to handle claimed discrimination. If I open a restaurant and indicate, “White’s Only!”—we have laws to prohibit such behavior. Or only renting to married couples, or refusing Muslims from entering a store, or numerous other examples you can think for yourselves. We are so accustomed to this culture that if we saw a “Whites Only” sign, it would be immediately offensive, even though not long ago such a practice was accepted and even legitimatized.

Right now, in America, same-sex marriage is entering our culture. And the question being debated is whether sexual orientation is entitled to the same protection as race, religion and marital status. And if it is—can businesses discriminate against sexual orientation? This is a growing concern especially in jurisdictions allowing same-sex marriage. See, for example, this article on a bakery refusing to provide a wedding cake to a same-sex couple. (with other examples cited within.)

What is happening here, is that Christians are being prosecuted for violating discrimination laws, not persecuted for being Christian. The law enforcement agency doesn’t care if a store owner has a Christian or non-Christian belief regarding homosexuality—sexual orientation is a protected class under the law and discrimination under the law is a legal violation. Period.

I understand Christians want to claim they are being “persecuted” under the law—they are claiming their religious beliefs are being infringed upon. But the law itself is not making such a distinction—the law is saying, “The same way you can’t prohibit African-Americans from using your establishment--regardless of your reasons, religious or otherwise--you can’t prohibit homosexuals from using your establishment.” Both are protected classes; both are entitled to freedom from discrimination; both require legal response if discrimination occurs.

Now, if the US Government passed a law saying, “All Christians must pay a $100 tax for being Christian”—that would be persecution. But saying, “You cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation” and a Christian claims because of their religious beliefs they will not serve homosexuals—that would be prosecution.

I hope that sufficiently explains the difference. Again, because I am familiar with the legal system, this distinction was obvious to me, and I was surprised certain reviewers did not recognize the differentiation.

Turning to our ancient Roman culture. Dr. Moss touched on the fact this was a polytheistic culture. Again, we have become a monotheistic culture (in America) and many people do not understand the vast difference between the two. Because theism is now considered monotheistic, there is one and ONLY one God. Either the Catholic depiction of God is correct or the Protestant—not two differing gods. Either God is Yahweh or Allah or Jehovah—but not all three are gods. One person’s god-belief necessarily excludes ALL other god-beliefs.

However, first century Mediterranean culture embraced polytheism—there were multiple gods or multiple possibilities of gods. This does not mean every god was accepted—but upon being confronted with a new god, it was inspected and determined whether it was simply a description of some god already in existence, or some new god to embrace. Equally, emperors were commonly deified and considered part of the god pantheon.

Society’s forturnes were attached to gods, whereby cities would have celebrations combined with sacrifices to their chosen god. If a city worshiped Zeus (for example) on a particular day, or in celebration of games (like the Olympiad), the leaders would kill a cow, sacrifice a portion to Zeus, and the remainder of cow would be a feast for the citizenry. Remember, this was a time of sustenance living—for the poor this was one of the very few times meat would be available as a meal. An emperor giving a feast in his honor, whereby the citizenry would be anticipated to sacrifice to the emperor and then partake in the feast was integrated in the society. As normal as we expect Secret Service around the US President. Part of the culture.

Further, Roman governments often returned to traditional worship of the gods in order to stabilize the society. If it looked like society was getting out of control, or the wars were not going well, a return to traditions was embraced. (Sidenote—are we so different? After 9/11 how many people bought flags & flagpoles?) Worship of gods was included in this return to tradition.

The Christians refused to sacrifice to the emperors. This was inexplicable in the Society. “For the Romans, participation in the imperial cult was something that bound the empire together. Much like the pledge of allegiance, it was a communal ritual that solidified social ties between individuals on a local level and disparate regions and groups on an imperial level. In times of political or social instability, the imperial cult became particularly important as a form of steadying the ebb and flow of potential unrest.” (pg. 175)

Dr. Moss goes on to note even when being tried, the Christian’s response were baffling to the Roman judges, and appeared to lean toward sedition. Not only couldn’t the judge figure out why the Christians wouldn’t participate in normal cultural routines—their answers gave no information and tended toward rebellion. “We ought to obey God, rather than man.” Can you see why a Judge would be concerned?

This resonated with me on a personal level, because it has been my misfortune to…on occasion…deal with the Michigan Militia in a courtroom. They only adhere to the United States Constitution. Since the Constitution says nothing about having a driver’s license, they don’t need one. Therefore, charging them with “driving without a license” is not a legitimate crime. (And they argue the Prosecutor [absent authority from the Constitution] has no jurisdiction. Not to mention the judge, etc.)

I once was representing a Michigan Militia fellow and the Judge called the case. Imagine your typical courtroom layout. I started walking through the gate separating the audience from the counsel’s table, holding the gate for my client. (It is called a “bar” and what was originally meant by “passing the bar.” Attorneys once could cross over, non-attorneys could not. Get it?) He stopped.

Me: C’mon, the judge called the case.
Him: No. I won’t go pass the bar.
Me: Huh?
Him: I know this court does not have any jurisdiction over me, but once I pass the bar, I have agreed to their jurisdiction. I won’t do it. Until I cross that point, there is nothing they can do to me.

I was baffled. I explained it to the judge. The Judge told my client he could stand behind the bar, sentenced him and the deputy demonstrated exactly how much jurisdiction the court really did have!

I imagine a similar situation with Roman Judges and Christians. They were refusing to abide by the societal norms (like my client not going before the judge) and the reasons given made no sense to those questioning them (like saying the court would not have jurisdiction until he went pass the bar.)

Dr. Moss gives numerous examples-- from history and the martyr accounts-- of Christian interactions in trials and why Christians would be prosecuted—not persecuted—under the Roman judicial system. And yes…Christians were killed. Sedition was punishable by death.

Pliny the Younger’s
112 CE letter to the emperor Trajan admirably demonstrates the Roman governor’s puzzlement at Christians and what to do with them:

I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.

Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished.

Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

Pliny (as typical Roman) attempts to ascertain the matter, has them offer sacrifices to the Emperor, and if they did—they were seen as not a problem. If, however, they refused and continued to refuse after numerous attempts, they were executed for “stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy.” This was prosecution under Roman Law.

As for the remainder of the book, much of the material (Jewish Persecution, Death of Apostles) I have done quite a bit of study and this was more of a brief review. Obviously for Dr. Moss to keep it at a level people will actually read, she would not include the in-depth information that would put most to sleep.

I think Dr. Moss has good intention. I think she will ultimately fail—those Christians who want their religion to have birthed in persecution, ripened on Roman crosses and advanced despite Roman lions will (as I saw in other reviews) reject her premises with little thought. For me, the value was in reviewing the Christians from the Roman perspective, while reminiscing of my own history with people unwilling to abide under society’s expected norms.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Thought for the Day

Inexplicably, I have been recently been fascinated with
J. Warner Wallace , bringing me to converse on Stand to Reason’s blog ). I was particularly struck by the comments in that blog entry referring to an Argument from Silence (if a historical document would be expected to record an event but does not, the event probably didn’t occur. Think of it this way—because our newspapers record momentous events, and there is no record the Statute of Liberty blew up yesterday, we can reasonably determine the Statute of Liberty did not blow up yesterday.)

The concern being an argument from silence would be utilized to state, “The canonical gospels do not record their authorship; therefore they were not authored by the claimed individuals.”

The first comment starts off with, “To make a case from silence on a particular issue, such as they never said they were eye witnesses, seems flimsy at best.” O.K. Not sure I agree we can broadly say all arguments from silence are flimsy, but I understand what this person’s position is. He goes on to say, “We know the book of acts was from 62 A.D 2 years before the martyrdom of Paul and 3 before Peter placing it within the life of eye witnesses.”

What?! Does he understand this dating of Acts of Apostles is explicitly based upon the Argument of Silence? Namely Acts is silent as to Peter and Paul’s death, so it must be prior to 64 CE? The irony is strong in this one—in the first sentence to claim arguments from silence are flimsy, and in the second, utilize an argument from silence!

However, we see he indicates he is a novice at apologetics, so perhaps we give it a pass. On a brighter note, another Christian apologist recognized this inherently inconsistent approach:
One of the primary methods by which the Gospels are dated is based on the lack of mention of the deaths of Peter and Paul in Acts, along with the lack of any mention of the destruction of Jerusalem.

On one hand, I agree with this reasoning. It makes sense. But on the other hand, isn't this a classical "argument from silence"? We (as apologists) frequently reject arguments from silence when they are presented by critics of the New Testament. But here we are MAKING an argument from silence in our dating methods!

Aha! A bright light of intelligent question! Alas, the next response immediately quashes our hope: “Nathan, I don't think this argument from silence, but a logical inference.”

Eh….right….a “logical inference” from what? The…uh…silence…maybe?

I asked, “What is the difference between a ‘logical inference’ from an author’s silence and the Argument from Silence?” but unfortunately, my question was deleted by moderation for being off-topic.

What hope for Christian apologetics when they don’t even understand or deal with their own rationalizations?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Allusions in Culture

Allusions in Culture

Roger Ebert died. Famously (as you know) reviewing movies with his friend, Gene Siskel wherein each would give a movie a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down” A good movie would be “two thumbs up.” “Two thumbs up” became part of our vernacular.

Now, if you asked my opinion of a restaurant, and I said, “two thumbs up!” you understand the meaning—not only do I approve, it was particularly good.

Imagine most of Siskel & Ebert’s reviews were lost. But we still had numerous copies of Happy Days and the Fonz giving his famous two thumbs up. Arguably, later generations could be persuaded “two thumbs up” came from the Fonz. Or Siskel & Ebert stole it from the Fonz. Or they both borrowed it from another source.

The point being, allusions in culture are difficult to track with precision. Even more so when discussing a culture 1000’s of years in the past, with a different language, society, religion, economic make-up and government.

I am currently reading The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians invented the story of Martyrdom and will eventually write a review. Vinny and Bruce Gerencser already wrote reviews. The author—Dr. Moss—argues some Christian Martyr myths were derived from allusions to Socrates death, specifically the Martyrdom of Polycarp. She states:

There’s no doubt that the author of this account [Martyrdom of Polycarp] wants to portray Polycarp as being just like Jesus or, to use religious terminology, an “imitator of Christ.” At the same time, however, there are parallels with other important ancient literary traditions. Both Polycarp and Socrates are described as “noble” and charged with atheism. Neither was willing to persuade others in order to save his life. Socrates took control of this death by requesting the hemlock rather than waiting for it to be administered to him. Polycarp took control of this death by removing his own clothes and standing on the pyre without being nailed to a stake. Both Socrates and Polycarp prayed before dying, and the accounts of their deaths explicitly interpret their deaths as sacrifices. Socrates refers to Asclepius and pours out the hemlock as a libation offering, and Polycarp is described as being like a ram bound for sacrifice. With regard to the image conjured up in the minds of the audience, both men are elderly….Finally, their deaths are described as models for others.

I initially thought this a bit too much stretching to make her case. Too speculative.

Socrates was condemned by his fellow citizens of Athens, Greece, for failing to worship Athenian Gods and for persuading others to follow his philosophy. He was sentenced to death by poison in 399 BCE. Plato gives an account regarding the death of Socrates wherein Socrates takes a bath, dismisses the women, and prepares for death. The jailer apologizes for doing his duty, provides the poison, Socrates drinks (making speeches along the way, of course) and then dies in noble fashion amongst his wailing friends.

Polycarp (according to the Martyrdom of Polycarp ) was killed around 150 CE. [It is unclear when the Martyrdom of Polycarp was written. Dr. Moss argues for early 3rd Century, whereas I tend toward middle 2nd. *shrug*] When taken, the soldiers (like Socrates) repented and were regretful for doing their duty. Polycarp also made speeches throughout. However, there are many differences. Polycarp predicted his own death by fire. Miracles surrounded the event such as he was not being consumed by the fire, so a soldier stabbed him in the side and a bird flew out, along with so much blood, the fire was put out!

There are numerous differences causing one to wonder whether the few similarities were really an allusion to Socrates.


We have another story from the same time period--Lucian of Samosata wrote The Passing of Peregrinus around 165 – 175 CE. Peregrinus was a cynic philosopher (who embraced Christianity for a time) and decided to establish his own immortal reputation by killing himself at the conclusion of the Olympic Games. Lucian writes a sarcastic tale regarding the entire incident.

What is interesting, though, is Lucian’s direct reference to Socrates’ death. For example, Lucian noted when imprisoned for Christianity, Peregrinus was called (by Christians), “the new Socrates.” After he died, Peregrinus’ companions stood around the fire—Lucian mocks them, asking if they are waiting for a painter to paint them like the companions of Socrates.

Clearly Socrates’ death, 500 years previously, still held significance upon the society as a familiar point of reference.

Upon returning to the city from Peregrinus’ pyre Lucian notes he informed intelligent people what precisely happened, but to “dullards” he made up whatever would suit his recipient’s fancy. Lucian even made up a tale about a vulture flying out of the fire and an earthquake. Humorously, Lucian chances upon a gray-haired fellow who tells Lucian he (the gray-haired man) saw the vulture flying from the fire—Lucian is astounded because the tale had just been made up by Lucian himself!

Interesting Polycarp had a bird fly up at the time of death, and Lucian did as well. Did the Passing of Peregrinus impact the Martyrdom of Polycarp? Or vice versa? Or were both using symbols lost to us? Or is it a coincidence?

(Christians may also take note Lucian added an earthquake to the event. One can’t help but wonder about Matthew doing likewise at Jesus’ death. Matt. 27:51)

As I read the Passing of Peregrinus, I am more firmly convinced the story of Socrates’ death continued to have cultural significance. Too often we treat these tales as black and white—it happened exactly as recorded or it didn’t happen at all. We may not be realizing how many additional details are introduced that would provide substantial insight to the people of that time and culture, and are lost to us now.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

“Wouldn’t Die for a Lie”…won’t die

I recently learned of J. Warner Wallace author of Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels As he ostensibly utilizes methodology akin to the legal system…well…you can see why I was intrigued. Alas, it is nothing more than Christian apologetics.
But recently, he offered a video blog entry: How do we know the Apostles Died as Martyrs. Of course I could not resist. Mr. Wallace indicates he is convinced the Apostles died as martyrs because there is no counter-evidence to the contrary. He points out how defense lawyers offer counter arguments, and opposing factual with differing evidence, yet we have none of that here. On the one hand we have tradition they died as martyrs, but we have no First Century documents (Mr. Wallace points out) saying they lived long lives or were not martyred.

Curious, I asked a question. “What documents would include such information?” Was there some Jerusalem Journal or Galilean Gazette I did not know about keeping obituaries? Was there some First Century High Priest diary listing out each of the 12 disciple’s deaths as they passed on? Yet what really intrigued me was Mr. Wallace’s insistence on First Century documents.

See the first writing we have regarding even a possible martyrdom is 1 Clement, traditionally dated to the early 90’s CE. The second writing would be Josephus’ account regarding James, the brother of Jesus, dating to the later 90’s CE. The third possible writing would be Acts of the Apostles, dated after Josephus (in my opinion), making it very late 90’s CE at best. (And in case one wanted to date it earlier, I am including it within the First Century.)

As you can immediately see—the stories themselves did not circulate amongst Christians in writing prior to the very end of the First Century! It seems slightly…unreasonable…to anticipate anyone disputing these tales MUST be within the few years left within the First Century.

Further, 1 Clement does not explicitly indicate Peter and Paul died martyrs, Josephus does not indicate James’ death had anything to do with Christianity, and Acts only utilizes James, son of Zebedee’s death like a Star Trek Red shirt (as I previously pointed out.) Indeed it was not until the Second Century the martyrdom tales gained their legendary legs and took off with Acts of Peter, Acts of Paul, and Second Apocalypse of James. It wasn’t until the very end of the Second Century, perhaps the beginning of the Third, that Hippolytus gave us the deaths of the other disciples.

So…we don’t really have obituaries in the First Century. And no one is even saying the disciples died martyrs to provide anyone with the notion of countering the tales.

What possible documents could Mr. Wallace be referring to?

We will never know.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Looking for Intelligent Design

I finally took the time to watch Expelled the Movie (thank goodness for Netflix.) I made it halfway through and found myself too bored to continue. Seems like such old news after the initial controversy.

Supposedly Intelligent Design is a scientific means to explain species development. Now I have a question—if it is, are there college courses giving scientific biological explanations within intelligent design parameters? And what kind of lab experiments are being offered.

I found a college course at Biola that seemed to be “How to argue for Intelligent Design”—I am looking for an actual, biological course—not a philosophic one.

One would think, if it was so scientific, the religious colleges would be teaming with such courses by now…right?

Friday, February 22, 2013

Winds of Change?

Is scholarly Evangelical Christianity abandoning strict inerrancy? Like the young-earth creationists of old, upon the earth’s age being conclusively determined, are scholars relegating the classic strict confines of inerrancy to a minority position?

Michigan winters add time to my commute; terrestrial radio does not quite satisfy the entire period. From boredom, I have been downloading various podcasts, debates, lectures, etc. to fill the time. I happened across Frank Turek’s November 30, 2012 Podcast whereby Turek interviews Dr. Mike Licona regarding alleged contradictions within the canonical gospel accounts. My particular sense of humor appreciated Frank Turek—whose sole claim to fame is co-authoring I Don’t have enough faith to be an Atheist with Dr. Norman Geisler—was interviewing Dr. Licona regarding inerrancy when Dr. Licona’s most strident critic in this area is Dr. Geisler. I covered this contention before. I was hoping Turek or Dr. Licona would mention the confrontation, but alas…they did not.

Dr. Licona already has stirred controversy by claiming Matthew’s Zombies (Matt. 27:52) were a poetic device and not precisely historical…it would seem he is coming out with a paper and eventually a book taking it one step further. Dr. Licona is indicating the gospel authors utilized literary devices common at the time in writing Jesus’ biography, and were never intending to write strictly, specifically historical and inerrant works as current inerrantists claim.

Dr. Licona reviewed the works of another First Century biographer--Plutarch. Because we have numerous works of Plutarch (he was a popular author; many copies were made), we have quite a representative catalog. As Plutarch wrote biographies of different people living at the same time, we can observe his writing about the same event, but from differing perspectives. Plutarch would modify the stories, dependent on the biography. For example, Dr. Licona notes in one Plutarch account regarding the Catiline conspiracy, Plutarch indicates the conspirators were arrested on one day, convicted the next and executed on the third. But in another account, Plutarch states the conspirators were arrested, convicted and executed on the same day. This is termed “condensing”--where an author condenses the account for literary reasons.

Dr. Licona claims a similar condensing when Matthew (Matt. 21:18-22) “condenses” the fig tree cursing into a single day as compared to Mark’s (Mark 11:12-20) two-day period. This isn’t exactly ground-breaking material to me or many other biblical scholars—we have said all along trying to fit the Gospels into a 21st century strictly factual genre as compared to reviewing the documents in the genre of their time is fitting a square peg in a round hole. Problems arise.

The more interesting discussion (to me) regarded the day Jesus died. According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus died on Passover day, after the Passover meal. According to John, Jesus died the day before Passover, before the Passover meal. Some may remember I discussed this previously.

Dr. Licona indicated Plutarch—in his Julius Caesar biography—modified an event to claim it occurred 8 years after it actually did in order to fit Plutarch’s literary scheme. In the same way (according to Dr. Licona), John “moved” the day of Jesus’ death to coincide with the day of preparation before the Passover. Dr. Licona emphasized if we went back in time with a video camera, we would record Jesus died on Passover just like Matthew, Mark & Luke say. That John was utilizing a literary device--common and accepted at the time--to write Jesus was killed the day before.

(Further, Dr. Licona goes on to indicate John moved the actual time of Jesus’ death from early morning to mid-day equally for a literary reason to coincide with the timing of the burnt offering. Interesting.)

Needless to say, Dr. Geisler is unhappy with this approach to the canonical Gospels.

I can’t help wonder if cracks are starting to appear in the fa├žade. I am seeing Christianity’s fear it is becoming outdated with the former doctrines, and attempting to bolster its position to one not ridiculed by the academics. No longer is biblical creationism espoused—now it is the more scientific sounding, “Intelligent Design.” Not musty books and black ties, but lab coats, and cool videos and thick books filled with scientific data.

No longer “KJV is good enough for me” but a scholarly world of textual criticism, where passages are debated and discarded based upon scholarly research. Is strict inerrancy the next to fall? Are younger biblical scholars no longer satisfied with “here is some nonsensical, but logically possible explanation” having Jesus do the same thing three or four times? Dr. Licona…it would seem…says, “yes.”

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

True Christian Test

Stumbled upon another, “Why is the church losing the young people?” article and came across this comment:

Church is boring to the average adult too. It’s not supposed to be exciting or entertaining; it’s supposed to teach and preach the gospel, so that it can then be shared with the world. If that simple mission doesn’t motivate(excite) someone, then that person’s salvation is suspect. The church is not supposed to motivate; the Holy Spirit does that when He truly indwells.

I like this for a “True Christian” test. Simple, effective and easily implemented. Have you ever found Church boring? If so, you are not a true Christian.

I wonder if there would be any true Christians left?