Friday, March 21, 2014

I Reject Christianity Because It’s Not True, Part III

This is the third of four installments that I am posting in response to comments made by James Anderson’s reactions in response to “four common objections” to Christianity that can be found in the Gospel Coalition’s article I Reject Christianity Because _______________. (The two previous installments can be found here: Part I and Part II.)

The third common objection to Christianity found in that article has to do with the resurrection of Jesus and is presented in the form of a question:
On what basis do you believe Jesus actually—physically—rose from the dead (besides blind faith, of course)?
Anderson responds:
I have faith that Jesus rose from the dead, but it isn't a blind faith, because there's good reason to believe he did.
At least Anderson does not say “on the basis of assuming that Jesus really did rise physically from the dead.” But what he does offer is not much better than this. Rather, the impression seems to be that Anderson (like so many Christians) accepts the gospel story first and then seeks for some way to rationalize that acceptance by coming up with “reasons” which are typically not at all persuasive, but which people who have already accepted the belief claim in question would already find acceptable.

What is curious here is how Anderson’s own response to the question does not match what we find in presuppositional apologetic literature about why one would have faith in the Christian worldview. Typically we find in that literature appeals to the “activity” of the “Holy Spirit” working on a person’s “heart” to compel him to believe whatever Christianity affirms. As Greg Bahnsen puts it in his book Always Ready (p. 88):
Faith is the precondition of a proper understanding… faith precedes knowledgeable understanding.
Bahnsen makes these statements in a chapter titled “One Must Believe In Order To Understand,” which begins on the previous page. This can only mean that, accordingly, one must accept “faith” before he understands what it is he accepting or why, for faith comes before understanding, and understanding, on this view, is not possible until one has accepted the faith in question. To say that one’s faith is based on “reasons,” as Anderson appears to be saying (he certainly does not affirm that faith comes first, for he insists that his faith is not “blind faith” – which is a redundancy), is to imply that one understands those reasons before he accepts the faith to which those reasons supposedly point. In this way Bahnsen and Anderson appear to be affirming diametrically opposite viewpoints.

Meanwhile, in the previous chapter, titled “God Must Sovereignly Grant Understanding,” Bahnsen writes (p. 85):
The understanding which the unbeliever lacks can only be provided when his mind has been opened (e.g., Luke 24:45) and he has been convicted by the Spirit of Truth (John 16:8).
I can only interpret this to mean that some invisible “spirit” – a being which we can only imagine - must force the human mind “open” and “convict” it, whatever that means. Thus we have an appeal to an invisible, imaginary, magic force which somehow alters the human mind in some way and provides the “understanding which the unbeliever lacks.” One could make this kind of claim about any nonsense he’s accepted. When people point out that what he’s accepted is in fact nonsensical, he can easily say “well, you don’t understand because the understanding you lack can only be provided by this invisible magic being which must force your mind open and 'convict' it. Then you’ll understand what you need to understand to see things from my perspective.” Such rationalizations have curious parallels to what a drug addict might say about his abusive habits. As street evangelists in 1980s California used to put it, “Get high on Jesus.”

Faith is not a means of epistemology; it is not a method of discovering and identifying facts; it is not an alternative to reason as a faculty of knowledge. To say that one “has faith” that something is true essentially means that he accepts it as true even though he cannot establish it by means of reason; essentially, he’s accepting it because he wants it to be true. Faith, then, is closer to wishing that something were true than simply believing that it is true. Consider Mike Licona’s words regarding the resurrection of Jesus when he declares: “I want it to be true.” If only more believers were so frank about the role that their own wants, wishing and preferences play in their faith!

Anderson continues:
I believe Jesus rose from the dead primarily because of the eyewitness testimony of people who knew him and claimed to have spoken and eaten with him days after he was publicly executed—testimony that was written down and has been faithfully preserved over the centuries in the books and letters of the New Testament.
So Anderson accepts the standard Christian line that everything we read in the New Testament is not only true, but that its authors were actually eyewitnesses of the events recorded there, or at any rate close to those who supposedly did witness them.

What’s important to note on this point is that no New Testament document has any individual being an eyewitness to Jesus’ resurrection. One point that all the canonical gospels seem to agree on is that Jesus rose from the dead in a sealed tomb, which means no ordinary human being could have observed this alleged event, the most important event in all of Christianity! The danger of statements like Anderson’s is the potential that this often-ignored fact will continue to be casually overlooked: even the biblical record itself does not support the claim that anyone was an eyewitness to the resurrection.

Moreover, I have not read in the New Testament any claim from an author of one its documents “to have spoken and eaten with [Jesus] days after he was publicly executed.” There are stories to this effect about characters figuring in the overall storyline, but at no point in the NT have I seen firsthand testimony to the effect, “I saw Jesus after he was risen; I ate with him; I fellowshipped with him; I touched his wounds.” On the contrary, we have anonymous authors saying that this happened to someone, always using the third person in such cases.

The way that our modern bibles are printed today, the New Testament begins with the four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, in that order – followed by the Acts of the Apostles. After these come 21 letters or “epistles” written to various churches, persons, or to the church at large. Last we have the Book of Revelation. Consequently, unsuspecting readers might suppose that the books are arranged in the New Testament in the order in which they were written, which mirrors the way in which Christianity actually conceives of the events represented by these various stages: Jesus’ incarnation, ministry and passion, followed by the Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s missionary travels – followed by his letter-writing campaign, other letter-writers, and finally Revelation.

But in fact, this does not represent the order in which the New Testament documents were actually written. NT scholars are in wide if not unanimous agreement that certain of the epistles – including those actually written by Paul (which do not include the so-called Pastorals – i.e., I & II Timothy and Titus) – were penned long before the gospels and Acts, which are typically agreed to have been written between AD 70-100. Among the gospels, Mark is generally agreed to be the earliest extant gospel narrative; the gospels of Matthew and Luke were modeled on Mark as though their authors sought to improve on its prototype; John seems to have been written in reaction to much of the theology contained in the other three, given its profound variance against them (and even where John’s narrative shows overlap with any of the others, “in every case the time or location is changed and the whole scene is differently imagined” [B. Lindars, The Gospel of John, p. 27]).

Now it is not only the order in which the NT documents were written that is so remarkably different from what the layout of our printed bibles suggest. What we find when we examine the documents in the order in which they were written (as opposed to the order in which they appear in our printed bibles) is an unfolding development of several traditions which grow with each retelling. For example, in the earliest epistolary layer, we are told of a Jesus who was “made of a woman, made under the law” (Gal. 4:4) and “made of the seed of David according to the flesh” (Rom. 1:3). No other details are given in this layer: no place of birth, no identification of who his earthly parents might have been, no indication of when he was born, etc. When we get to the gospels, we find that a variety of traditions about Jesus had developed by the time they were written, some decades after Paul was writing. In Mark, Jesus starts out as an adult, with no indication of the place, date or circumstances of his birth. Matthew and Luke famously have Jesus born miraculously from a virgin (miraculous births were a common motif in the hero myths and religions of the day – e.g., Horus, Mithras, Ion, Romulus, Asclepius, Helen of Troy, etc.; they are even featured in the Old Testament). What’s noteworthy is that the details of this miraculous birth of Jesus vary between Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts; they cannot even agree on genealogy! Meanwhile, John makes no mention of a virgin birth and has Jesus existing eternally and being “made flesh,” without any details given as to what exactly this was understood by its author to mean.

Other developments – beginning with threadbare hints contained in the early epistolary layer to full-blown depictions in later layers – parallel what clearly appears to be the legendary elaboration of an artificially compiled storyline. This is evident when comparing the early epistolary layer with the increasingly detailed narrative layer (the gospels and Acts), and then with the later layer (later epistles, Revelation, extra-canonical writings, apocryphal narratives, etc.). The pattern of development here is unmistakable.

Importantly, not only does the early epistolary layer fail to confirm what we read about Jesus in the gospel stories, but the portrait of Jesus found in the earlier layer actually conflicts in certain respects with that of the gospels. In fact, consider the following list of details which we find in the gospel accounts but which are completely lacking in the early epistles (from my blog Reckless Apologetic Presumptuousness):  

- Bethlehem (Jesus' supposed birthplace)
- a place called 'Nazareth' (as in "Jesus of Nazareth")
- a Roman census
- parents named Mary and Joseph
- angelic visitations to both Mary and Joseph
- the Virgin Birth
- the Slaughter of the Innocents
- the Magi (they were magically summoned to meet the baby Jesus)
- John the Baptist
- Jesus' baptism
- Jesus' career as a carpenter
- Galilee
- Jesus' itinerant preaching ministry in Judea (didn't the apostle know about this?!)
- that Jesus was a teacher of morals
- that Jesus taught in parables
- Jesus' prayers
- Jesus' many miracles (Paul nowhere has his Jesus turn water into wine, stilling storms, feeding 5,000 or walking on lakes)
- Jesus' healings and cures (no mention of the blind receiving their sight, for example, after Jesus spits into dysfunctional eyes)
- Jesus' exorcisms
- Jesus' temptation in the wilderness
- Mary Magdalene
- Nicodemus (mentioned only in the gospel of John)
- Judas Iscariot (a key player in the lead-up to the passion story)
- Gethsemane (and Jesus' hesitation there)
- a trial before Pilate
- Peter's repeated denials
- Jesus' flogging
- Jesus' crucifixion outside the walls of Jerusalem
- a place called "Calvary" (mentioned only in Luke 23:33)
- the two malefactors condemned with Jesus
- Jesus' words from the cross
- the spear thrust in Jesus' side
- the darkness over the earth
- the earthquake
- the rising of the saints mentioned only in Matthew 27:52-53
- Joseph of Arimathaea
- Golgotha
- female witnesses
- an empty tomb (Paul never even mentions an empty tomb!)
- Doubting Thomas
The early epistles nowhere speak of a virgin birth, a birth in Bethlehem, the family business of carpentry, a baptism by John the Baptist, a ministry with 12 disciples, teachings, miracle-performing, parables, disputes with the chief priests, healings, exorcisms, etc. They nowhere mention a trial before Pilate, Jerusalem as the place of crucifixion, burial in a tomb, the visit by the women, etc. All these details appear later, after the legends about Jesus had developed.

The complete absence of details about the time, place and circumstances of Jesus’ crucifixion in the early epistles is inexplicable. G.A. Wells points out (The Jesus Myth, p. 57):
Paul’s silence about the time, place and circumstances of Jesus’s death is sometimes explained by supposing that, since Jesus was ‘the risen Lord’, such historical data were of very subordinate interest. But from Paul’s premiss of the supreme importance of knowing “Christ crucified” (I Cor. 1:23 and 2:2) one would expect him to be explicit about the Passion and at least specify the when and the where. He is so imprecise about it that he may well have thought that it occurred one or two centuries before his time of writing. We know from Josephus that at these earlier dates holy men had been crucified alive in Palestine and not, as was the usual Jewish custom, only after they had been executed by other means.
In a footnote to this passage, Wells cites Josephus’ accounts of Antiochus Epiphanes (a king of Syria during the 2nd century BC) and Alexander Jannaeus (a Hasmonean ruler in the 1st century), both of whom are said there to have crucified rebellious Jews. The Wikipedia article on Alexander Jannaeus states:
Josephus reports that Jannaeus brought 800 rebels to Jerusalem and had them crucified. Even worse, Jannaeus had the throats of the rebel’s wives and children cut before their eyes as Jannaeus ate with his concubines.
In his Jewish War, Book I, Josephus himself writes of the aftermath:
Upon which so deep a surprise seized on the people, that eight thousand of his opposers fled away the very next night, out of all Judaea, whose flight was only terminated by Alexander's death.
No doubt these accounts left a scarring impression in the Jewish lore of the day, which very well may have played a role in the development of Jesus-worship.

We do learn that, according to I Cor. 15, the resurrection supposedly took place three days after the crucifixion, but this does not put the crucifixion itself circa 30-33 AD. In that passage Paul (assuming he really wrote it) says that “above five hundred brethren” witnessed the risen Jesus. There are definite problems with using this as “testimony” of five hundred persons (see for example my blog Five Hundred Anonymous Witnesses). Christians today are in the habit of reading I Cor. 15 and indiscriminately supposing it’s all true on its own say so. Many even make the howling error of supposing that what they read in I Cor. 15 constitutes the testimony of some 500 witnesses, when in fact it could be nothing better than the written account of one man. But that is what faith is for: to believe what you want to believe, even though you have no objective basis for doing so. Besides, as Wells points out (The Jesus Myth, p. 125):
People who claim to see a ghost do not necessarily suppose it to be the wraith of someone recently deceased.
It may be contended that since Paul lists Peter, James and “the twelve” amongst the witnesses of the risen Jesus in this same passage, this confirms the timeline indicated in the gospels. But this of course involves reading the gospel details back into what Paul says here, and thus begs the question (since it’s assuming precisely what’s in question). Specifically, it assumes the tradition – found only in the gospels and later accounts – that these individuals were close companions of the earthly Jesus, something Paul never even implies.

Often apologists will object to citation of this inexplicable situation by retorting that Paul, for example, was not writing a biography of Jesus, and therefore that we should not expect to find such details in his letters. But this is an odd retort, suggesting limited awareness of what else we find in the NT epistles. For in the later epistolary layer – written after the traditions found in the gospels had become more widely known throughout the early Christian communities – some of these details are in fact mentioned in writings which are likewise not supposed to be biographies. For example, in I John we find reference to Jesus being baptized (cf. I John 5:6).

Moreover, when it comes to actual teachings, the early epistolary layer’s conspicuous ignorance of gospel traditions is encountered yet again. Wells gives a few examples of this in his book The Historical Evidence for Jesus (p. 33):
Paul gives it as his own view (Rom. 13:8-10) that the law can be summed up in the one Old Testament injunction "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." According to Lk. 10:25-8, Jesus himself taught that love of neighbor (together with love of God) ensures salvation; but one could never gather from Paul that Jesus had expressed himself on the matter. In 1 Thess. 4:9 it is not Jesus but God who is said to have taught Christians to love one another. And the injunction not to repay evil for evil but always to do good to all is given in the same epistle (5:15) without any suggestion that Jesus had taught it (as according to the gospels he did in the Sermon on the Mount). In his letter to Christians at Rome Paul says "bless those that persecute you" (12:14 and 17) and "judge not" (14:13). Surely in such instances he might reasonably be expected to have invoked the authority of Jesus, had he known that Jesus had taught the very same doctrines. (The former doctrine is ascribed to him at Mt. 5:44 and Lk. 6:28, and the latter at Mt. 7:1 and Lk. 6:37.) In the same epistle he urges Christians to "pay taxes" (13:6), but does not suggest that Jesus had given such a ruling (Mk. 12:17). It is much more likely that certain precepts concerning forgiveness and civil obedience were originally were originally urged independently of Jesus, and only later put into his mouth and thereby stamped with supreme authority, than that he gave such rulings and was not credited with having done so by Paul and… by other early Christian writers.
These are just a small sample. But this should be sufficient to show that it is not only biographical details of Jesus’ life on earth which the early epistolary layer fails to confirm in the gospels. Rather, in addition to a biographical portrait, the early letters fail even to cite the earthly Jesus as the source of the teachings they affirm.

Naturally I cannot do justice to the enormity of the problems of this nature which we find when comparing the NT documents with one another in the space of a single blog entry (it's long enough as it is!). But this should be sufficient indication of the general reasons why an informed understanding of the NT can only point to clear legendary development.

Anderson writes:
These eyewitness accounts have what C. S. Lewis called "the ring of truth."
That’s odd. If by “eyewitness accounts” Anderson has the gospel narratives in mind, they clearly have the ring of fantasy and fiction: spirits visiting people in dreams, stars pointing the way for nocturnal travelers, a virgin birth, the slaughter of the innocents (that “God who cares” thing again), miracle healings, miraculous feedings, restoration of eyesight to the blind, miscellaneous wonder-workings, evil spirits dialoguing with the story’s main protagonist, groomed speeches and story-telling (parables), resurrection of dead people, earthquakes and darkness over the earth that happen right at climactic moments, an ascension to the clouds, etc. None of this strikes me as having “the ring of truth,” for, as I explained in the previous installment, truth – on my worldview anyway – is based on facts; but there’s nothing “factual” about these stories so far as I can tell (and yes, I’ve looked).

Anderson asserts:
They come from multiple independent sources,
Some of the points above already speak to this common, yet misleading assumption about the gospels. If Matthew and Luke are modeled on Mark, then Matthew and Luke cannot feasibly be considered “independent sources”; they’re simply repeating the same story found in Mark’s prototype, albeit with various modifications to the story (which do not agree with each other to boot). And if John was written similarly, and yet as a reaction against some of the aspects in one or more of these other three, then it too cannot be said to be independent.

Anderson continues:
and they're too early and unembellished to be legends that developed decades after Jesus' life.
This begs the question outright, for by saying that the stories we find in the gospels are “too early… to be legends” assumes the timeline suggested in the gospels themselves – i.e., that Jesus was crucified ca. AD 30-33. Yet as we saw above, we do not learn of such a timeline for the crucifixion in the early epistolary layer. Thus Anderson's statement here assumes the truth of exactly what’s disputed by the legend theory. As Earl Doherty rightly points out, “reading the gospels into 1 Corinthians is simply circular reasoning” (Challenging the Verdict: A Cross-Examination of Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ”, p. 214). And even supposing a guy named Jesus was crucified around AD 30, I’ve never seen a good argument showing that by, say AD 70, certain legends could not have arisen around this figure given that such a date would be “too early” for them to develop. Living here in Thailand, I’ve observed several post-mortem stories of individuals who committed suicide arising within weeks after they took their own lives, stories of the deceased being seen in public places for example, and some of those stories will several years later be recalled and affirmed as truthful. In a culture where mysticism plays a significant role in the prevailing worldview, this should not surprise us.

As for embellishments, a comparison of Paul’s portrait of Jesus to those found in the gospel narratives on the one hand, and among those within the gospel traditions themselves, will reveal a marked increase in unparalleled detail. For example, it is commonly supposed that the list of post-resurrection appearances of Jesus given in I Cor. 15:3-7 is an “early creed” (though this seems to conflict with Paul’s own claim, in Gal. 1:11-12, that the gospel he preached was “not after man,” that he “neither received it of man, neither was [he] taught it, but by revelation of Jesus Christ”). If it is an early creed, or even if it is just something that Paul had formulated as part of his own standard preaching, the content of I Cor. 15:3-7 is the same: it gives no details about the time, place or circumstances of what is reported therein. But when we get to the gospel narratives, we suddenly have a wealth of detail on time, place and circumstances about Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and post-resurrection appearances. How can we be certain that none of these details found in the gospels is the result of embellishments arising in the intervening decades?

In the case of the stories about Jesus’ passion and resurrection, for example, there’s no way to tell how much the stories we find in the gospels had already been embellished, if at all, from their original form (supposedly originating as oral traditions) by the time they found their way into the gospels' written pages. With intervening decades between Paul’s own missionary campaign and the writing of the first gospel narrative (Mark) ca. 70 AD, there was more than sufficient opportunity for embellishments to reshape oral traditions.

When we get to the different gospel narratives themselves, now we have different versions which we can compare with one another. A comparison of certain scenes reported in more than one gospel – such as the Easter passion – shows that authors were willing to make considerable revision of Mark’s prototype. (If they had considered Mark to be genuinely historical, why would these later writers alter what is given there?) Consider for example just the Easter scenes between Mark and Matthew. In Mark, when Jesus dies on the cross, he “cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost” and after this “the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom” (Mk. 15:37-38). Then the body is given to Joseph of Arimathaea for burial. Even in Mark (given its original ending at 16:8), there are no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus – pretty strange, isn’t it? When we get to Matthew, however, the following occurs when Jesus “gives up the ghost” (Mt. 27:50-53):
Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
In Mark, Jesus dies and “the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom.” But when Jesus dies in Matthew, not only is the veil in the temple rent, but there was also an earthquake, “the rocks rent,” and graves of dead people opened up and the bodies of those “saints which slept arose” and went about and “appeared to many.” How exactly is this not an embellishment on the part of the author of Matthew?

One final point needs to be made here. At several points in his letters, Paul warns his audience not to succumb to “false Christs” or to be taken by “another Christ” or “another gospel.” For example, in II Cor. 11:4, Paul writes:
For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him.
This can only suggest that, back in Paul’s time (that is, before the gospel narratives we find in our printed bibles today were written), there were competing stories of who Jesus was and what his message entailed. Paul does not elaborate on what these scorned versions of Jesus contained. But given the stark contrasts between what we learn about Jesus from Paul’s own letters, and what we read in the gospel narratives, it’s quite possible that the gospel narratives arose from traditions which Paul was rebuking in his letters. Since what we read in Paul’s letters indicates that competing versions of the gospel were in fact circulating during his day, and since the Jesus he describes in his letters is so markedly different from what we read in the gospel narratives, the possibility that the gospel traditions sprang from what Paul warned his churches not to follow cannot easily be dismissed. For example, Paul believed that Jesus “emptied himself” when he took on the form of man, humbling himself and thus living in obscurity (cf. Phil. 2:6-8). Paul nowhere speaks of a Jesus who traveled about the countryside giving sermons, attracting followers, performing miracles, healing the lame and the blind, performing exorcisms, and making a famous name for himself. But such a portrait is what we find in the gospels. How can believers today reliably rule out the possibility that the traditions found in the gospel narratives are in fact what Paul was condemning in his letters to his churches?

Anderson states:
God would certainly have the power to raise Jesus from the dead.
I confess that I can, with Anderson, imagine that a supernatural being would have such power; in fact, I can imagine any supernatural being having such power. If it is a product of my imagination, it can have any power that I imagine it has. But if Anderson’s god is merely imaginary, then all the apologetic firepower that he can bring to bear will not make it real.

Also, it’s important to note that imagination plays a central role in Christian god-belief. It is particularly active when reading stories such as Jesus’ resurrection. In his blog Playing Jesus, Steve Hays of Triablogue makes the point that imagination is already involved in merely reading the gospels when he asks rhetorically:
when we read the Gospels, isn't there a sense in which all of us sit in the director's chair? Isn't there a sense in which we play all the parts? By that I mean, isn't it natural for reader's to visualize narrative descriptions? When you read about Jesus cleansing the temple or feeding the multitudes, do you never imagine that scene?
My view is that, because Christian god-belief is so dependent on imagination, theologians and apologists have an excruciatingly difficult time trying to spell out the “epistemology” of their worldview. (Cf. John Frame’s admission “We know without knowing how we know”.) Since in the case of things that are merely imaginary, we are not talking about things that are real, that exist independently of the mind. Thus there is no actual epistemology to this since what we imagine is not something we discover and validate by means of an objective method. We access our imagination by looking inward and inventing at will, either from our own whims or according to inputs selected from a chosen source (such as a gospel narrative). I have observed before that, even if one presents an argument supposedly proving that a god exists, such a proof is unhelpful in making its god real since at the end of the day we still have no alternative but to imagine the god whose existence is said to have been so established.

The “appearances” of the post-resurrection Jesus in the early epistolary layer (cf. I Cor. 15) read as though all parties were secretly aware that these were actually exercises of fantasy on the part of the beholders. The apostle Paul, for instance, in his letters, does not point to physical evidence of the risen Christ, such as an empty tomb; Paul nowhere speaks of any “empty tomb” to begin with. He does not speak of people eating with the risen Jesus or touching his wounds. Had Paul supposed that there was such evidence and that it fit with his own Christological views, no doubt he would have referred to it repeatedly just as he repeatedly emphasizes the importance of belief in the resurrection. But there are good reasons to suppose that this would in fact not fit Paul’s Christology (for Paul, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” – I Cor. 15:50). Also, since Paul is silent about the details of the time, place and circumstances of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, the record as we find it in the NT only supports the supposition that Paul knew of no evidence to begin with.

Paul was writing to people in distant places; and the people he was writing to were already converted Christians – churches that he had established or was at any rate encouraging to grow beyond the doctrinal conflicts that they were experiencing (which is noteworthy in itself!). He was not writing to teams of fact-checkers who were readying to dispatch teams of investigators to whatever place Paul located events; if they were, they’d have been quite disappointed with Paul, for he never names any places where Jesus was crucified or followers saw him afterwards. Rather, one gets the impression from Paul’s letters that he expected what he says in them to be accepted without question or dispute, purely on his say so, as though he were simply a mouthpiece for the divine. (Indeed, apologists today seem to become incensed when non-Christians do not adopt the same attitude toward their pronouncements.)

Anderson adds:
And the resurrection wasn't a random, freak event; it fits perfectly into a storyline that began thousands of years before Jesus' birth.
This should only raise the suspicion, even further, that what we have in the NT portraits of Jesus is actually a concoction produced by reworking certain themes and motifs taken from the Old Testament, the so-called Wisdom literature, and perhaps even some pagan sources. The gospel of Matthew is notorious for its deliberate incorporation of OT references in order to make its Jesus appear to have “fulfilled” expectations that were in play all along. Of course, this would not be hard to achieve if what we have is ultimately a fictitious narrative produced in part by reworking OT themes. Indeed, what we have in the New Testament seems to fit perfectly exactly what we should expect if in fact this is how the earliest Christians conceived of Jesus – by taking that which was already known and revered and reshaping it to provide relevance for new generations. As Doherty notes (Challenging the Verdict, p. 207):
[The author of] Mark was essentially writing an allegory, a symbolic story, one based on Old Testament precedents and midrashic use of scriptural verses. He didn’t provide resurrection appearances not only because he didn’t know of any, but because he wasn’t purporting to tell history. It was sufficient in his mind to say that Jesus had risen and that he would appear to his followers. The women run off and don’t tell anyone because they don’t need to. In fiction, the writer tells the readers, and Mark has told us. The problem is, that wasn’t good enough for the later redactors of Mark.
Hence “the later redactors of Mark” saw to it to reshape Mark’s prototype to suit their theological leanings.

Anderson continues:
When I consider the broader historical context, I find the alternative explanations (e.g., the witnesses were lying, hallucinating, or simply mistaken) far less credible than the idea that Jesus really did rise from the dead, just as he himself predicted.
This coming from an adherent of a worldview which condemns all human beings as “totally depraved” and riddled with “sin,” a worldview which affirms outright, “let God be true, but every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4). So here we have a scenario where the alleged “witnesses were lying,” and Anderson dismisses this as “far less credible than the idea that Jesus really did rise from the dead.” Statements such as this, particularly when they are made against the relief of a worldview which has already judged all human beings as “sinners,” only confirms that those making them are simply governed by their own desire to find any way to vindicate Christianity in their own minds. On what basis would one argue that a man-god being resurrected after lying dead in a tomb for three days is “more credible” than people concocting a story that has no actual historical basis? We know that people have been creating myths and legends from time immemorial. Using Anderson’s reasoning here, a fan of the 1960’s sitcom Bewitched could argue that it is “more credible” that Samantha Stevens really did exist and have supernatural powers than that the show’s creators and writers were just inventing stories.

Of course, notice also that Anderson’s “alternative explanations” only allow for what he calls “the witnesses,” which in itself implies that what is described in the gospel stories was witnessed by those who penned the accounts (or at least were close to those who penned them). I see no reason to suppose that this is what we have in the case of the gospels. I suspect that the gospels grew out of a curiosity spurred on among the early faithful by traditions such as those found in the Pauline letters, which – as we saw – gave no details about the earthly Jesus.

Consider the matter from the perspective of the congregants at one of the Asian churches, for instance at Ephesus, Colosse, Corinth, etc. The church’s teachings are contained in the form of oral traditions issued by missionaries like Paul (if not Paul himself) and copies of a letter or two, all about this wondrous person “Jesus.” All that is told to the parishioners at this stage of Christianity is that Jesus was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, that he was crucified, that he rose three days later, and that somehow this spelled salvation from sin and the curse of death. As we saw with Paul’s letters, no details about the time, place or circumstances of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are given. In fact, nothing about his life on earth is given. The early epistolary layer does not even indicate how old Jesus was when he was crucified. All these congregants would have known is what little they’ve been told: that Jesus was the “suffering servant” described in the Wisdom literature, with which they may or may not have even been familiar (especially if they were Gentiles).

A person finding himself in such a situation could readily be forgiven for wanting to know more about this Jesus character he’s told to glorify. The question “Who was Jesus?” must have been a common dinner table conversation topic. Thus within the church itself demand for more information about Jesus would have naturally developed. And the gospels would have been an attempt to meet that demand. Their authors need not have been thought by their contemporaries to be “making up” their narratives (the writers need not have started with a clean slate in order for their product ultimately to be fictional in nature), but rather piecing together little bits of traditions that had by that time been established by repeated circulation among congregants. And indeed, that’s precisely what we have in Mark – a series of unrelated episodes and pericopes strung together, with no discernible necessity to the order in which they appear in many of the cases.

As Anderson himself would likely agree, what one considers “more likely” or “more credible” will be influenced by his worldview’s fundamentals. If the fundamentals of one’s worldview are themselves premised on the supposition that the contents of the bible are true, then clearly the conclusion about what is “more credible” given the limited alternatives Anderson is willing to consider, has already been decided before any argument has even been formulated for it. But this is one of the hazards of basing one’s philosophy on alleged historical events: the assumption that those alleged events are in fact historical becomes a non-negotiable primary on which everything else hinges, which means everything else will have to be subordinated to protecting this assumption, which itself is accepted on faith.

If we begin with objective facts, however, as articulated by Objectivism, then we are not committed to stories handed down from ages past, come hell or high water. Moreover, if we are willing to attend to the vast context that we find in the New Testament, noting the various layers we discover in it and the clues contained therein as to how the Jesus story developed and transformed over the course of Christianity’s early formative decades, the conclusion that what we have here is a legend that grows with each retelling is inescapable.

by Dawson Bethrick

Labels: , ,

7 Comments:

Blogger Robert Bumbalough said...

When Bahnsen wrote : "The understanding which the unbeliever lacks can only be provided when his mind has been opened" he didn't get the wink and nudge in the ribs to the reader found in John 16:12-13

"I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.

“But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come."

John was composed in the second century possibly by the gnostic Christian leader Cerinthus, this passage inidcated the Gospel was "revealed" to the author by channeling (fantasizing) of the "spirit of Jesus".

March 23, 2014 6:57 AM  
Blogger Robert Bumbalough said...

Dawson wrote: "What’s important to note on this point is that no New Testament document has any individual being an eyewitness to Jesus’ resurrection. One point that all the canonical gospels seem to agree on is that Jesus rose from the dead in a sealed tomb, which means no ordinary human being could have observed this alleged event, the most important event in all of Christianity!"

It's entirely gratuitous to grant that any parts of the Gospel stories are actually based on facts. Readers are referred to the works of G.A. Wells, Robert M Price, Richard Carrier, Herman Deterring.

March 23, 2014 7:05 AM  
Blogger Robert Bumbalough said...

Dawson's over all point here is excellent.

What’s important to note on this point is that no New Testament document has any individual being an eyewitness to Jesus’ resurrection. One point that all the canonical gospels seem to agree on is that Jesus rose from the dead in a sealed tomb, which means no ordinary human being could have observed this alleged event, the most important event in all of Christianity! The danger of statements like Anderson’s is the potential that this often-ignored fact is typically overlooked: even the biblical record itself does not support the claim that anyone was an eyewitness to the resurrection. Moreover, I have not read in the New Testament any claim from an author of one its documents “to have spoken and eaten with [Jesus] days after he was publicly executed.” There are stories to this effect about characters figuring in the overall storyline, but at no point in the NT have I seen firsthand testimony to the effect, “I saw Jesus after he was risen; I ate with him; I fellowshipped with him; I touched his wounds.” On the contrary, we have anonymous authors saying that this happened to someone, always using the third person in such cases.

March 23, 2014 7:16 AM  
Blogger Robert Bumbalough said...

Dawson observed: Among the gospels, Mark is generally agreed to be the earliest extant gospel narrative; the gospels of Matthew and Luke were modeled on these as though their authors sought to improve on Mark’s prototype; John seems to have been written in reaction to much of the theology contained in the other three, given its profound variance against them (and even where John’s narrative shows overlap with any of the others, “in every case the time or location is changed and the whole scene is differently imagined” [B. Lindars, The Gospel of John, p. 27]).

That the Gospel evangelists were changing the story to suit their own theological agendas is the current evidence informing our assessment of the consequent probability of the evidence on the hypothesis that early Christianity was a schizophrenic diversity of sects each with their own set of doctrines. Because the evangelists were changing the story to suit their desires and in light of the high prior probability that the sects involved in any oral tradition were making Jesus stories up as they went along, then the Bayesian probability the Gospels are based upon made up stories is high enough to be a probabilistically rational belief.

March 23, 2014 7:28 AM  
Blogger Robert Bumbalough said...

For example, in the earliest epistolary layer, we are told of a Jesus who was “made of a woman, made under the law” (Gal. 4:4) and “made of the seed of David according to the flesh” (Rom. 1:3).

Since I learned to think for myself, this has consistently impressed me as strange. If someone is discussing some other person with others, why would it be useful to the expositor to inform her interlocutors that the subject she was discussing was and actual person who had a mother. That Paul or the New Testament's Ecclesiastical Editor(s) or interpolater(s) felt it necessary to insert this reference means their audience did not understand Jesus to have been a historical person.

March 23, 2014 10:04 AM  
Blogger Robert Bumbalough said...

Anderson continues:

and they're too early and unembellished to be legends that developed decades after Jesus' life.

Robert M. Price often speaks of Sabbati Zevi

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabbatai_Zevi

A Jewish messianic figure who lived in the 17th century and had a large following who expected him to restore a Jewish kingdom. While he was alive stories of his miracle deeds proliferated in short order time. The Wiki article reports:

"Sabbatai's imprisonment discouraged neither him nor his followers at this stage. He was treated well in prison, perhaps because of bribes paid. This seems to have strengthened belief within his immediate circle of followers. Fabulous reports concerning the miraculous deeds "the Messiah" was performing in the Turkish capital were spread by Ghazzati, Abraham Yachini, and Primo among the Jews of Smyrna and in many other communities, and the messianic expectations in the Jewish diasporas continued to rise."

Charles Mansion followers described him having done miracles. Elvis Presley's fried chicken recipe was listed differently in more than a few supposedly authoritative accounts of Elvis' life. The former figure is sinister and later trivial, the examples depict that ardent followers tend to exaggerate according to their whimsical desires as did Sabbatai Zevi's followers. From the Wiki article. >>

"In some parts of Europe, Jews began to unroof their houses and prepare for a new "exodus". In almost every synagogue, Sabbatai's initials were posted, and prayers for him were inserted in the following form: "Bless our Lord and King, the holy and righteous Sabbatai Zevi, the Messiah of the God of Jacob." In Hamburg, the council introduced the custom of praying for Sabbatai not only on Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath), but also on Monday and Thursday. Unbelievers were compelled to remain in the synagogue and join in the prayer with a loud Amen. Sabbatai's picture was printed together with that of King David in most of the prayer-books, along with his kabbalistic formulas and penances."

Christian apologist not only beg the question regarding the time for legends to develop, they ignore the many cases that give the lie to their fairy tale.

March 23, 2014 11:11 AM  
Blogger Bahnsen Burner said...

I have made a number of edits and corrections to the blog entry above. Most of them fairly minor typos, but also at a few places I reworked a sentence or added a new clause or two.

Hopefully it is now clearer and, of course, stronger in what it says.

Regards,
Dawson

April 22, 2014 10:20 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home