Monday, December 24, 2007

Apples and Aircraft Carriers

I do not think a week goes by in which I don't see some conservative Christian blogger talking about how the manuscript evidence for the New Testament is so much better than that for other ancient writings like the Illiad. I have never found this comparison particularly meaningful. It seems to me to be not just a case of comparing apples to oranges, but a case of comparing apples to aircraft carriers.

Suppose for an example that I was quite happy with my barber, but I were to find myself in need of an operation on my brain. In seeking out a brain surgeon, I would not be impressed by someone who recommended a particular surgeon on the grounds that he was just as reliable as my barber. I would simply not measure the reliability of a barber on the same scale as the reliability of a brain surgeon. By the same token I don't see the sense in comparing the reliability of a document that purports to be the inerrant and infallible message of God to humanity to the reliability of a document that purports to be nothing more than an ancient work of fiction.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Don't Know Much About History: The Sandy Rios Story

On Monday afternoon, evangelical radio gabber Sandy Rios interviewed Michael Newdow, an atheist who is suing to have the words "under God" removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. Throughout the interview, Rios demonstrated her ignorance of history, historical methods, and principles of government. Naturally, she believed that she understood all the relevant facts.

Given her belief that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, you might think that Rios might have some grasp of the concept that some documents and statements are more authoritative than others. She doesn't. When Rios quoted a prayer that George Washington offered for the United States that was directed to "almighty God," Newdow correctly pointed out that the prayer reflected Washington's personal beliefs rather than the position of the government. When Newdow noted that almighty God wasn't mentioned in the Constitution, Rios replied "That doesn't matter." To Rios, the personal beliefs of various notable Americans are more than adequate justification for ignoring the Establishment Clause.

Rios did not seem to have a very good command of what was in the Constitution. At one point, she challenged Newdow to explain why the Bill of Rights referred to being "endowed by their Creator." Of course, that is the Declaration of Independence, which unlike the Constitution, is not the supreme law of the land. Perhaps I am being unduly harsh on Rios since it is the kind of mistake that the vast majority of Americans would make. Still, if you are going to claim to understand the Framers position on religion, you need to know which ideas made it into the Constitution.

Rios did not even seem to have a very clear idea of when the Constitution was written. At one point she claimed that she "like[d] to read the things that go back closest to the actual events" when she considers historical questions like this. However, she then proceeded to cite something lauding Christianity that was written by the House Judiciary Committee in 1854, seven decades after the adoption of the Constitution. Of course there was also the question of why she considered the statement authoritative as she did not say why the Committee issued the statement, i.e., whether it was some sort of official report or just the bloviating of a committee member or a witness.

As I have noted before, in order to claim that their belief in the Bible is a matter of provable facts, evangelical Christians must embrace a very distorted notion of what constitutes evidence. The Culture Campaign routinely asserts that their position is conclusively proved when they can find anything that supports it. Campaign President Sandy Rios demonstrated that anything that contradicts their position can be routinely dismissed, even the Constitution of the United States.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Case for the Real Jesus (4): Craig A. Evans

Lee Strobel designates his first challenge "Scholars Are Unconvering a Radically Different Jesus in Ancient Documents Just as Credible as the Four Gospels." To answer this challenge, he claimed that he looked for someone "who would be respected by both conservatives and liberals" and came up with Craig A. Evans. (TCFTRJ p. 28) Of course, your average reader of The Case for the Real Jesus (including me) is not going to know what liberal scholars think of Strobel's experts, but I would think that someone who shows respect to other scholars is much more likely to be respected by them than someone who repeatedly resorts to sarcasm. "For crying out loud;" (TCFTRJ p. 34) "Come on;" ( p. 34) "Oh, that's absurd;"(p.36) and "Oh yeah, what a brilliant argument;" (p.38) are not the kind of comments that normally tend to endear one to one's peers.

Although I am not qualified to comment on many of Evans' assertions, there are a few points that seem obviously false. For example, Evans claims that many liberal scholars' ignorance of "the Semitic background of the New Testament" causes them to misconstrue Jesus' use of the phrase "Son of Man." "They didn't know how it was linked to the Son of Man figure in Daniel 7, where there are divine implications. Instead they pursued a bizarre Greco-Roman understanding, translating 'Son of Man' as 'Son of Adam,' which doesn't clarify anything." (TCFTRJ p. 35)

"For crying out loud," does Evans really mean to assert that it takes a doctorate in biblical languages to spot a connection that is footnoted in almost every Bible printed? I know for a fact that John Dominic Crossan and Geza Vermes understand the link because I have read books in which they discuss it and I know that Bart Ehrman understands it because I have heard him discuss it. Contrary to Evans, the liberal scholars seem to be sophisticated enough to consider the possibility that the phrase might be used differently at different times in different gospels. Geza Vermes notes that John seems to use "Son of Man" almost exclusively as a title referring to a "heavenly being temporarily exiled on earth," but concludes that [i]n contrast, the bulk of the 'son of Man' instances in the Synoptics can best be interpreted in a nontitular sense." (The Changing Faces of Jesus p.188) It is not through ignorance of the issues that he reaches a different conclusion than Evans.

Evans' claim about liberal ignorance concerning Jesus' use of the phrase "the kingdom of God" strikes me as an even bigger shovelful of manure. "It's not complicated if you have the Semetic context: Jesus was basically proclaiming the 'rule of God.'" (TCFTRJ p. 35) Oh really? Isn't the apostles' failure to understand what Jesus really meant by the "kingdom of God" a significant theme in the Gospels? Did the apostles lack the "Semetic context" that Evans' possesses? "Come on."

Another argument that strikes me as more than a little bizarre is Evan' assertion that the anonymity of the canonical gospels helps proves their authenticity. Commenting on the practice of second century writers attribuing their works to Mary Magdalene or Judas, Evans says "by the way, that's what Gnostics would do. In contrast, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke circulated anonymously. Their authority and truth were apparent. Everyone knew this was what Jesus taught, so there wasn't much concern over who wrote it down." (TCFTRJ p. 46) So not knowing the source of a document makes it more trustworthy rather than less? "Oh yeah, what a brilliant argument."

Coming back to whether Evans is respected by liberals, I did find a review by Stephen Patterson of Evans' 2006 book Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels.

My real difference with Evans is that I do not share his evangelical stipulations about the text. This is a divide that we must increasingly deal with in biblical studies. Competently trained scholars now operate on both sides of this great divide. How we handle that difference honestly and respectfully is our unique challenge. On that score this book fails miserably and can best serve as a counterexample of how not to engage one’s colleagues in discussion and debate.

Case for the Real Jesus (3): Is Strobel at It Again?

On the question of whether early Christians borrowed myths from other ancient religions, Lee Strobel has an article on the internet citing a Swedish scholar name T.N.D. Mettinger as concluding that "there were absolutely no parallels between them [i.e., other ancient resurrection myths] and Jesus because these myths dealt with such things as the vegetation cycle." (read, think, pray live) Now I have not read Mettinger and I am not planning on tracking his book down, but I would just like to note that Mettinger's own words as quoted by Strobel don't sound nearly as emphatic. "There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct, drawing on the myths and rites of the dying and rising Gods in the surrounding world." (TCFTRJ p.161) This quote certainly supports Strobel's apologetics, but I don't think it rises to the level of "absolutely no parallels."

I also think that Strobel's latest article makes Mettinger sound stupid. Is it really such an incredible leap to go from a dying and rising god in a vegetation cycle to a dying and rising messiah? Is this something that was completely beyond the imagination of first century Jews? I might just as well argue that there are "absolutely no parallels" between George Lucas' Star Wars movies and Norse mythology (or where ever it was he lifted his stuff) because Thor and Odin did not have spaceships.

Speaking of parallels, Strobel's embellishments provide a nice model of how the stories about Jesus may have grown over time. Mettinger being unaware of any prima facie evidence becomes "absolutely no parallels." Sherwin-White's brief and general reflections become a "meticulous" study. And just as early Christians may have been unconcerned about being contradicted by eyewitnesses, Strobel seems completely unfazed by the possibility that someone might go check the sources he is citing.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Does the Religious Right Root for our Government to Fail?

Sandy Rios frequently rants about liberals who root for the United States military to fail in Iraq, although I don't think recognizing failure is the same thing as rooting for it, nor do I think that continually redefining success lower and lower is the same thing as succeeding. On the other hand, it seems to me that Rios and many evangelical Christians root for the American government to fail at everything else it does in order to preserve their claims that their brand of religion is the only hope for America.

This comes to mind because I finally saw Michael Moore's Sicko last week. I don't recall Jesus ever saying anything about socialized medicine but it seems to be a basic tenet of evangelical Christians that universal health care would be a terrible tragedy. In the last two weeks, I have heard Rios, Pat Robertson, and James Scudder all tell their listeners that the last thing we want is what the rest of the civilized world has. Now I will acknowledge that I am skeptical about Sicko's portrayal of Cuba's healthcare system, but I suspect that the French, Canadians, and British really do prefer what they have.

One of the most striking things in Sicko was the way that different countries create incentives for doctors. In Britain, a doctor can be financially rewarded when his patients quit smoking or lower their blood pressure. In the United States, doctors working for insurance companies are financially rewarded for denying patients treatments that could save their lives. Is it any wonder that America spends more per capita on healthcare with poorer results than countries with socialized medicine?

Apologist N.T. Wright was recently quoted at the American Academy of Religion Conference as saying that "[t]he Church must get on with the works of justice, beauty, and healing that the systems [of the world] know they should do, but can't figure out how to do." Could it be that some of the systems of the world have figured out how to do some of these works? Could it be that evangelical Christians deny these successes rather than allow that good can be accomplished without them? Could it be that the Religous Right delights in the failures of the Bush administration because it confirms their belief in that good belongs exclusively to the(ir) Church?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Case for the Real Jesus (2): Defining Essentials

The main reason I got hold of The Case for the Real Jesus was to see what Strobel's expert on textual criticism, Daniel Wallace, would have to say about Bart Ehrman and his book, Misquoting Jesus, which I had read and enjoyed. Based on conservative reviews of the book, I suspected that Strobel had not accurately presented Ehrman's position, but I was not sure exactly how Wallace had responded. I had a very cordial conversation with an evangelical Christian who blogs as The Dawn Treader who focused primarily on the fact that inerrancy and inspiration are doctrines that apply only to the original autographs of scripture, not to their transmission. From this perspective, Ehrman's concern with errors made by scribes and copyists is a bit of a red herring.

I was rather surprised to find that Wallace did not seem to be at all concerned with the distinction between inerrancy in transmission and in the autographs. Rather, Wallace suggested that biblical inerrancy is not as important to evangelical Christianity as Ehrman had made it out to be.

Personally, I believe in inerrancy. However, I wouldn’t consider inerrancy to be a primary or essential doctrine for saving faith. It’s what I call a “protective shell” doctrine. Picture a concentric circle, with the essential doctrines of Christ and salvation at the core. A little bit further out are some other doctrines, until, finally, outside of everything is inerrancy (TCFTRJ p.76)

So when Ehrman asks "How does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact we we don't have the words that God inerrantly inspired," (MJ p.7)Wallace's answer seems to be that Christians do not need that much help from inerrancy anyway.

In my earlier discussion, Dawn Treader had argued that corruption in transmission was not a big concern because, as he quoted Wallace, "The fact is that scholars across the theological spectrum say that in all the essentials - not in every particular, but in all essentials - our New Testament manuscripts go back to the originals." (TCFTRJ p.71-72) I thought this smacked of comparing apples and oranges. A liberal scholar who agrees that it is possible to get back to the originals in all essentials might be saying something very different than a conservative scholar simply because a liberal scholar who does not affirm the resurrection, the virgin birth or the divinity of Jesus would not consider very many things to be essential. However, it turns out that Wallace (who I assumed to be a conservative) did not consider very many things to be essential either.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Case for the Real Jesus (1)

My local library finally called to tell me that I had gotten to the top of the waiting list for Lee Strobel's The Case for the Real Jesus. In a sense, the call was rather anti-climatic. I have been debating the merits of Strobel's work for quite a while already and I have read several passages at a nearby Borders. It is probably fair to say that I had some idea what my reaction to the book would be to before I started reading. I guess that can't be helped. As one of Strobel's experts, Daniel B. Wallace says, "You can't interpret the text without certain biases, but we should challenge our biases as much as possible." (TCFTRJ p.71)

In my defense, I would note that I am not pretending that I set out to prove that I was wrong about Strobel and that I was surprised when it turned out that I was right. Moreover, when I first read a book on apologetics, I did so as a professing born-again Christian who really wanted to believe that there was overwhelming powerful evidence for the view of Jesus and the Bible that Strobel argues for now. I was profoundly disappointed when I read Josh McDowell's Evidence that Demands a Verdict in my late teens because so many of his "proofs" of the literal accuracy of the Bible required the assumption that the details of the biblical accounts were literally accurate. I expected the same from Strobel and this time I was not disappointed.

I am not going to attempt a systematic review or refutation of The Case for the Real Jesus as there are many more knowledgeable individuals who have done so. However, I will comment on some of the inconsistencies that particularly struck me.

One of the most interesting inconsistencies is the relationship between the response to Challenge #4, "Christianity's Beliefs were Borrowed from Pagan Religions," and the response to Challenge #5, "Jesus Was an Impostor Who Failed to Fulfil the Messianic Prophecies." The response to #4 is that "[t]here are simply no examples of dying and rising gods that preceded Christianity and which have meaningful parallels to Jesus' resurrection." (TCFTRJ p.267) In short, the stories about Jesus could only have come from what Jesus said and did.

After having Edwin M. Yamauchi explain that the stories about Jesus could not have come from parallels in pagan religions, Strobel moves on to Michael L. Brown who explains that many of the stories about Jesus have parallels in the Old Testament.

For example, Israel in its infancy went into Egypt--Hosea 11:1 says when Israel was a child God loved him and called him out of Egypt. The Messiah as a child goes into Egypt and is called out of Egypt. As it happens to Israel, so it happens to him. David was betrayed by a close friend; the Messiah was betrayed by a close friend. As it happened to Moses, having to flee from his life from pharaoh, it happens to Messiah, having to flee for his life from Herod. (TCFTRJ p.201)

For some reason, the fact that the stories about Jesus cannot be traced to paganism proves that they must be true, but the fact that they can be traced to Judaism casts no doubt on their truth whatsoever.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Through the Looking Glass with Sandy Rios and John Bolton

Running some errands this afternoon, I happened to catch a few minutes of Sandy Rios interviewing former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. When I tuned in they were talking about Iran. I did not hear the whole conversation, but what I heard was plenty scary. I may have to listen to that when it gets posted on Rios' website in a day or two.

I did get to hear them discuss why Bolton doesn't approve of the job Condoleezza Rice is doing as Secretary of State. Bolton explained that the way things work best is when the Secretary of State acts as the President's representative in the State Department rather than acting as the State Department's representative in the White House. Bolton explained that James Baker III had been successful under George Bush's father because he had played this role and he had hoped that Rice would do the same for the younger Bush. Unfortunately, like Colin Powell before her, Rice acted as though she was the State Department's representative rather than the President's, which Rios agreed was most regrettable.

Not surprisingly, this pronouncement caused every synapse in my brain to misfire causing me to drive into a ditch. When I recovered my mental faculties, several things occurred to me.

  1. Bush 41 was incredibly knowledgable when it came to foreign affairs. He prided himself on the personal relationships he maintained with leaders throughout the world. There was much less need for Baker to communicate the State Department's knowledge and expertise to the administration. Bush 43, on the other hand, knew virtually nothing about foreign affairs when he came into office (and still does not if you ask me). Is is any surprise that Powell might think that part of his job was educating the President about what the State Department did?
  2. Does any one in his or her right mind not wish that Bush had listened to Powell about the problems posed by an invasion of Iraq? Does anyone in his or her right mind not wish that Bush had availed himself of the planning and expertise of the State Department regarding the occupation of Iraq rather than giving carte blanche to Paul O'Neill to disband the Iraqi Army and de-Baathify the Iraqi government?
  3. Does anyone not recall that the saddest moment in an otherwise distinguised career was when Powell did serve as Bush's representative by selling faulty intelligence at the United Nations? Is there anything more galling than to hear neocons complaining that an honorable public servant like Powell was not willing to further sully his own reputation by embracing and selling Bush's ignorance of foreign policy?

Is there any chance the United States can survive the last year of the Bush administration?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Insanity of Reason

On the op-ed page of yesterday's Wall Street Journal, there was a piece by Peter Berkowitz titled The Insanity of Bush Hatred. Berkowitz acknowledge that all Presidents are hated by some, but he argued that the hatred of Bush was different in part because the haters thought that their hatred was "a rational response to the president and his administration."

I happen to be one of those people who thinks there is good reason to believe that the Bush presidency has been a catastrophe for the United States. What I find fascinating is that Berkowitz thinks my "insanity" is established by my belief that the facts and evidence support my view. No doubt the more facts and evidence I might pile up to demonstrate how poorly Bush has performed, the more insane I would prove myself to be. It is bad enough to hate Bush irrationally, but hating him rationally is even worse.

I am reminded of the comment of another famous politician with a unique command of the English language, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley: "They have vilified me, they have crucified me; yes, they have even criticized me."

Ask a Silly Question

Last night on my car radio, I heard a preacher talking about John 21:15-17, where Jesus asks Peter whether he loves him and Peter responds that he does. The preacher noted that Jesus used the Greek work agapeo which means total and complete love while Peter used the Greek word phileo which means fondness or friendship.

"Why didn't Peter use the same Greek word that Jesus used?" queried the preacher.

I wanted to answer "Maybe it was because Peter didn't speak Greek."

Monday, November 12, 2007

William Lane Craig's Unbelievable Quotation Marks

In my first post on this topic, I noted William Lane Craig’s description of A.N. Sherwin-White’ position: “When Professor Sherwin-White turns to the gospels, he states that for the gospels to be legends, the rate of legendary accumulation would have to be ‘unbelievable.’ More generations would be needed.” What disturbs me most about this characterization is that Craig puts the word “unbelievable” in quotation marks. The fact is that Sherwin-White never used that word and it suggests a much more authoritative statement than he was making. That probably explains why so many apologists cite Craig’s version rather than the Oxford professor’s original.

In order to appreciate the nature of Craig’s distortion, it is necessary to take a little more detailed look at what Sherwin-White wrote and its context.
What is to an ancient historian the most surprising in the basic assumption of form-criticism of the extremer sort (i.e., those who maintain “that the historical Christ in unknowable and the history of his mission cannot be written”(RLRSNT p.187)), is the presumed tempo of the development of the didactic myths—if one may use that term to sum up the matter. We are not unacquainted with this type of writing in ancient historiography, as will shortly appear. The agnostic type of form-criticism would be much more credible if the compilation of the Gospels were much later in time, much more remote from the events themselves, than can be the case. Certainly a deal of distortion can affect a story that is given literary form a generation or two after the event, whether for national glorification or political spite, or for the didactic or symbolic exposition of ideas. But in the material of ancient history the historical content is not hopelessly lost. (RLRSNT p.189)
Sherwin-White is not saying that the extreme form-critics are demonstrably mistaken, he is saying that he, as a professor of Roman history, does not find their position persuasive.

It is important to remember that an authority in ancient Roman history is commenting on biblical form-criticism, an area of scholarship outside his field of expertise in which he considers himself “an amateur.” (RLRSNT p.187) However, he had just spent 185 pages discussing the extent to which the stories in the New Testament reflect what is known by scholars in his specialty. It is easy to imagine skeptics asserting that he was wasting his time because the Bible was just a bunch of myths. So Sherwin-White explained why he thought the biblical accounts were worthy of an historian’s attention, but he was not attempting a systematic refutation of the skeptics’ position because he was not an authority on biblical form-criticism.

I would liken Sherwin-White’s position to my own experience as a law school graduate who has not practiced law for almost fifteen years. When I hear someone express a bizarre opinion about constitutional law or contract law or criminal law, I might say something like, “Based on what I remember from law school, that doesn’t sound right to me.” However, I am not up to speed on the latest legal developments and I don’t consider myself qualified to make authoritative statements (especially since I no longer carry malpractice insurance). When it comes to the law, I consider myself an educated amateur and I am careful to express my opinion from that perspective. By the same token, Sherwin-White was offering an educated amateur’s take on form-criticism, not a thoroughly researched refutation.

Sherwin-White is certainly an extremely well-educated amateur and his opinion is worthy of great respect. In fact, however, his opinion was that the New Testament merited critical study in order to determine what could be known about the historical Christ. It is an opinion shared by many modern liberal scholars like those found in the Jesus Seminar. It is a position that I find persuasive as well (although my amateur status is beyond dispute).

I am very curious to know how Sherwin-White’s “[t]he agnostic type of form-criticism would be much more credible if the compilation of the Gospels were much later in time” became Craig’s” the rate of legendary accumulation would have to be ‘unbelievable’.” I would be particularly interested in hearing Craig’s justification for putting “unbelievable” in quotation marks when Sherwin-White never used the word and never purported to be making such a definitive statement. The failure to put quotation marks where they belong is known as plagiarism. The insertion of quotation marks where they don't belong seems equally dishonest.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Further Abuse of the Oxford Professor

There is another passage from A.N. Sherwin-White that is frequently cited by apologists. Arguing that historical information can be gleaned from the gospels despite the fact that the authors were not writing history, the Oxford professor wrote:

For Acts, the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming. Yet Acts is, in simple terms and judged externally, no less of a propaganda narrative than the Gospels, liable to similar distortions. But any attempt to reject its basic historicity, even in matters of detail, must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted. (RLRSNT p. 189)

This is used by the apologists to argue that everything in Acts can be considered historical just as everything in the gospels can be considered historical.

It is perhaps not surprising that the apologists almost universally omit the middle sentence which refers to "propaganda" and "distortion." The only evangelical Christian I found quoting the passage in full, who I cannot help but congratulate for his or her intellectual integrity, was at Among the host of apologists who edited the passage were David Guzik , Judah Etinger, Larry Chapman, Randy Thomas, Joseph P. Gudel, David A. Noebel, Richard Deem, Dale P. Kruse, and Jeffrey Grant. These writers at least deserve some credit for inserting ellipsis to indicate that they were dropping part of the original passage. William Lane Craig and John Ankerberg simply made Sherwin-White's original reservations undetectable by quoting him as writing "For Acts, the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming. Any attempt to reject its basic historicity, even in matters of detail, must now appear absurd."

However, the real prize has to go to Josh McDowell who not only omits the ellipsis, but also expands the canon. He quotes Sherwin-White as writing "For the New Testament of Acts, the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming." (emphasis added) Now I generally like to think that I am above jumping on typographical errors, but I find it hard to believe that McDowell couldn't catch this one. Surely he might suspect either that the quote was wrong or, if it wasn't, that this Sherwin-White guy might be someone not worth quoting. His consolation must be that many others adopted this misquotation without question.

According to several apologists, the late Professor Sherwin-White was not a Christian. This is no doubt pointed out to boost his credentials as an objective scholar. Of course, this would mean that he is currently suffering eternal damnation. I suspect that his punishment is being forced 24-7 to read the botched and misleading citations of his work by Craig, Strobel, Ankerberg, McDowell, and all the other apologists who could not be bothered reading what he actually wrote.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Apologists' Abuse of A.N. Sherwin-White

Author's Note (June 29, 2013):  This post deals with the manner in which Christian apologists have misrepresented the views of A.N. Sherwin-White.  Kris Komarnitsky has written an excellent substantive critique of the views themselves, Myth Growth Rates and the Gospels: A Close Look at A.N. Sherwin-White’s Two-Generation Rule.

I recently looked at the argument that the thirty year period between the death of Jesus and the composition of the Gospel of Mark was too short for the accounts of the resurrection and miracles to be legends. My curiosity had been piqued by some Christian bloggers who suggested that historians generally accept the principle that legends don’t grow that quickly. The argument seems to have been developed by William Lane Craig who relies on the work of an Oxford historian named A.N. Sherwin-White. Craig writes, "When Professor Sherwin-White turns to the gospels, he states that for the gospels to be legends, the rate of legendary accumulation would have to be "unbelievable." More generations would be needed." The Evidence for Jesus. However, the popularity of the argument seems to stem from Lee Strobel who interviewed Craig in The Case for Christ. In an effort to understand this argument better, I obtained the Oxford Professor’s book Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford 1963) and read the passages that Craig cites.

The first thing I noticed is that the book has nothing to do with the historical reliability of the resurrection accounts or any of the miracle stories. As the book’s title suggests, Sherwin-White’s interest was Roman law and society. The book addresses the procedural and jurisdictional issues that arise in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial and the issues of Paul's Roman citizenship that arise in the book of Acts. "[O]ne may show how the various historical and social and legal problems raised by the Gospels and Acts now look to a Roman historian. That, and only that, is the intention of these lectures." (emphasis added) (RSRLNT p. iv)

Sherwin-White’s analysis did not require him to reach any conclusions about the historical reliability of the New Testament stories. He simply offered his opinion on the extent to which the accounts reflected what historians knew about the legal system of ancient Rome. Much as a doctor might comment on the extent to which an episode of E.R. reflects real medical practice or a lawyer might comment on the courtroom scenes in Law and Order, the Oxford professor offered his opinions about the events reported in the gospels and Acts in light of contemporary scholarship (as of 1963) regarding ancient Rome. This does not mean that Sherwin-White either affirmed or denied that any particular story in the New Testament was factual or fictional. For his purposes, the question was not relevant.

Nevertheless, after discussing legal issues for 185 pages, Sherwin-White took 7 pages to “consider the whole topic of historicity briefly and very generally, and boldly state a case.” (RSRLNT p. 186) He declared himself an amateur in the field of biblical criticism, but he questioned those skeptics who declare that “the historical Christ is unknowable and the history of his mission cannot be written.” (RSRLNT p. 187) He admitted that "a deal of distortion can affect a story that is given literary form a generation or two after the events," (RSRLNT p. 187) but his response was that the gospels were no more obviously distorted than many of the sources that historians of ancient Rome must deal with on a regular basis. He did not assert that the gospels were historically factual. He asserted that they could be used to do history.

Professor Sherwin-White noted that even the “most deplorable” sources can be read critically by historians to yield a “basic layer of historical truth.” While he did not claim that the Bible was a deplorable source, he repeatedly compared it to writings that are replete with problems. Consider the following statements: "material has not been transformed out of all recognition;" "the falsification does not automatically and absolutely prevail;" and "the historical content is not hopelessly lost." (RSRLNT p. 189,190,191) Sherwin-White did not “suggest the literal accuracy of ancient sources, ecclesiastical or secular;” (RSRLNT p.192-193 n.2) he merely rejected the view “that the historical Christ is unknowable.”

The part of Sherwin-White’s essay that has attracted the most attention from Christian apologists is his comments on the length of time it takes for mythology to displace historical fact. However, contrary to Craig, Strobel, Geisler and a host of others, he did not attempt to calculate a rate of legendary accumulation that is universally applicable. Nor did he lay out a rule that enables an historian to identify a point before which an oral tradition can still be considered historical. Indeed, Sherwin-White acknowledged that various types of bias can be present both in the original source of the oral tradition and in the writer who finally records it. He merely asserted that “historical content is not hopelessly lost” to the critical historian even after a period of two generations. (RSRLNT p. 191)

The apologetic abuse of the Oxford professor starts with William Lane Craig. His claim that Sherwin-White “states that for the gospels to be legends, the rate of legendary accumulation would have to be ‘unbelievable’" is at least a gross distortion if not an outright falsehood. Sherwin-White never classified the gospels as either legend or fact. Nor did he ever use the word “unbelievable” despite Craig application of quotation marks. Throughout his essay, the Oxford professor acknowledged that all of his ancient sources contain both fact and fiction. What he did argue is that it would usually take more than two generations for the legendary elements to so completely displace the historical facts as to make the gospels useless to the critical historian. But he made no attempt to identify where such displacement occurred in the gospels or which parts could be considered historical.

Not surprisingly, Lee Strobel is even less circumspect in his use of Sherwin-White. In his summary in The Case for Christ, Strobel bloviates
What clinched it for me was the famous study by A. N. Sherwin-White, the great classical historian from Oxford University, which William Lane alluded to in our interview. Sherwin-White meticulously examined the rate at which legend accrued in the ancient world. His conclusion: not even two full generations was enough time for legend to develop and to wipe out a solid core of historical truth.  (The Case for Christ p. 264)
Contrary to Strobel’s imagination, the comments in Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament do not constitute a “study” and they do not reflect “meticulous” examination. No such study was required to support the rest of the book, which is why Sherwin-White described himself as considering the topic of historicity “briefly and very generally.” (RSRLNT p. 186) Most importantly, Strobel ignores the fact that it still takes critical historical methodology to identify that "solid core." Sherwin-White did not admit the possibility of accepting the gospels at face value.

Another interesting misuse of Sherwin-White comes from Gary Habermas who appears to simply alter words to meet his own purposes in Why I Believe the New Testament is Historically Reliable. According to Habermas, "The sort of thoroughgoing propaganda literature that some critics believe the Gospels to be was actually nonexistent in ancient times. Sherwin-White declares, 'We are not acquainted with this type of writing in ancient historiography.'" The only problem is that Sherwin-White did not declare that! He declared that "we are not unacquainted with this type of writing."(emphasis added)(RSRLNT p. 189) The point of Sherwin-White’s essay is that historians were familiar with this type of literature and were capable of using critical analysis to get at the historical content despite the difficulties posed by the genre.

Now to be perfectly fair to Dr. Habermas, it appears that he was working with a 1978 reprint of RLRSNT so it is possible that his version contained a typographical error. It is even possible that his edition corrected a typo in the original that I was using. I doubt it though because the alternate wording just does not make any sense. The original reads “We are not unacquainted with this type of writing in ancient historiography, as will shortly appear.” In the next paragraph, he discussed a history written by Herodotus and said “The parallel with the authors of the Gospels is by no means as far-fetched as it might seem.” (RSRLNT p. 190) Why would he claim that he was not familiar with that genre and that he was going to demonstrate that unfamiliarity, and then identify a historical work that parallels it? It looks like Habermas was engaged in some sloppy quote mining.

As Sherwin-White’s work gets taken up by the web’s amateur apologists, the distortions get more outrageous. Writing at, Ralph J. Asher attributes an express affirmation of the resurrection: “Prof. A.N. Sherwin-White writes in his book Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament that the appearance reports cannot be mainly legendary.” On, we find that “Sherwin-White, argued that the resurrection news spread too soon and too quickly for it to have been a legend.” This assertion cites an article by Craig in Jesus Under Fire, but I don’t have access to that particular book so I don’t know what Craig actually wrote there. I suspect that Townhall has exaggerated as Craig seems to be more careful than that. The references to Sherwin-White become exaggerated in the retelling just as the skeptics suspect the gospel stories did.

It is interesting the way apologists have seized upon Sherwin-White's work. The essence of his argument was not that the gospels were immune to legendary corruption. Rather, his argument was that the legendary corruption was not sufficient to render the gospels immune to critical historical analysis. It seems that he would applaud the efforts of modern scholars like Bart Ehrman, Dominic Crossan, Karen Armstrong, and John Shelby Spong who seek to identify that core of historical facts that the gospels contain.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Paul's Fact Checking

In an earlier post, I questioned whether Paul ever verified any facts about Jesus with the original apostles. My doubt arose from his insistence in the first chapter of Galatians that he got his revelation directly from Christ and from the fact that he preached successfully for three years before he met with any of them. I found it difficult to reconcile the passage in Galatians with Gary Habermas' description of Paul as an eyewitness and wondered what connection he saw. (I am new to all this stuff so I apologize for going through points that have probably been beaten to death.)

Imagine my surprise when I found a Habermas essay that links Paul to the original apostles using the very same passage that seemed to me to say so explicitly that Paul had not gotten anything from them. The essay titled "Why I Believe the Miracles of Jesus Actually Happened" is found in the book "Why I Am a Christian: Leading Thinkers Explain Why They Believe." According to Habermas, what the NIV translates as Paul "getting acquainted" with Peter in Galatians 1:18 really implied a more thorough factual investigation based on Paul's use of the word Greek word "historeo." According to Habermas, when Paul describes "receiving" his knowledge of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:3, he is referring to this meeting. However, didn't he say in Galatians 1:11 that he received it by revelation from Christ? In the entire Habermas article, he does not once refer to Paul's repeated denials that any man had anything to do with his message.

Now I freely admit that I have no qualifications whatsoever to comment on the translation of ancient Greek, but is it really too much to expect Habermas to deal with the apparent contradiction between what he sees as implicit in Galatians 1:18 and what Paul makes explicit in the rest of that chapter and the next? At one point, Habermas says that "[t]he topic in the immediate context both both before (Gal. 1:11-17) and after (2:1-10) Paul's first trip to Jerusalem is the nature of gospel," but Habermas conveniently overlooks the fact that Paul's point was that he did not get anything that he was teaching from any other man. Does that strike anyone other than me as more than a little disingenuous?

Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Culture Campaign's Idea of Truth

As noted in the last post, Sandy Rios thinks liberals are liars for holding the entirely reasonable opinion that war in Iraq has been a failure. The Culture Campaign appears to believes that anyone who does not believe a murderer who changes his story is indifferent to truth.

The context is once again the Laramie Project, a play based on the brutal 1998 murder of homosexual Matthew Shephard in Laramie, Wyoming. At trial, one of the defendants, Aaron McKinney, offered a "gay panic" defense, i.e., that he could not control his rage when the victim made a sexual advance. Since that time, McKinney has changed his story and claims that the murder resulted from a drug deal that went wrong. The Culture Campaign blog concludes that "truth doesn't seem to matter--even to out educators" because everyone does not prefer the convicted murderer's new story like they do.

Reasonable minds might differ about whether McKinney way lying at trial, whether he is lying now, or whether both stories are lies. What is not in doubt is what is in the play, that he offered the "gay panic" defense at trial. This is the truth regardless of Culture Campaign's attempts to mislead. Maybe he offered that defense because he thought he was justified in killing a gay man who made a sexual advance. That is bad. On the other hand, maybe he offered that defense because he and his lawyer thought that a jury composed of citizens of Laramie would think it was alright to kill a gay man who made a sexual advance. In its own way, that is much worse.

In an earlier diatribe about the Laramie Project, the Campaign claimed that the convicted murderer's new story "conclusively established" the falsehood of his earlier one. They were wrong then and they are wrong now. The changed story proves that he is a liar. It does not prove which time he lied.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Sandy Rios' Idea of Culture

The "Culture Campaign" blog that originally got me started writing this blog is part of an organization headed by Sandy Rios who hosts a talk show on a local Christian radio station. Sandy is regular contributor to Fox News and the former head of Concerned Women for America. Although I been writing about apologetics a lot lately, I would like respond to some comments I heard Sandy make today on her radio show which I found offensively dishonest.

Sandy accused Nancy Pelosi of lying because she described the war in Iraq as a "total failure." Sandy claimed that is was this kind of dishonesty that caused her to get upset with liberals and leftists, not policy differences. She was angry because liberals aren't proud that we are "winning the war" like she is. Along the way, she claimed that liberals delighted when American casualties rise in Iraq because they see it as an opportunity to gain power. As an aside, she also asserted that the Chicago Tribune is one of the most liberal leftists newspapers in the country despite the fact that it has never endorsed a Democrat for the Presidency.

It is Sandy that is lying about Iraq.

The war in Iraq is a failure. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Iraq is not a shining example of democracy. The Middle East is much less stable as a result of the war. Countless innocent Iraqi civilians have lost their lives. The United States is less secure. The United States is less respected. The United States wasted huge sums of money. The U.S. military has been strained to the breaking point and is no position to respond to other threats. The war in Iraq has resulted in the loss of gains that were made in Afghanistan. The war has increased the influence of Iran. Oil is pushing $100 per barrel.

The fact that the military and security situation in Iraq is slightly less horrible than it was before the surge does not make the war a success. It may mean that the situation there will be slightly less disastrous than it otherwise would have been when we leave. The war has been a failure in conception, execution and result.

Did Early Believers Need Evidence?

Did early Christians demand evidence that Jesus rose from the dead before they converted? Many apologists argue that they must have. They argue that there is no way that that early Christians would have believed such outrageous claims unless they saw real solid evidence to back up those claims. Is there anything in the New Testament that supports this argument? Is there any way to figure out just what kind of evidence a first century Jew or pagan needed to see before converting to Christianity?

The first place to look would have to be Paul. He was the most prolific soul-winner and writer of the early church. According to Liberty University Professor Gary Habermas: "On matters concerning the historical Jesus, Paul was an authoritative source, an eyewitness who was close to the data he records." If early Christians required evidence, there is no way that Paul could have been successful if he did not have the goods. He must have talked to all the eyewitnesses and checked out their stories, right?

Amazingly, Paul seems to say quite emphatically that he did not do any sort of investigation before he converted (certainly nothing as impressive as Lee Strobel's two year quest). Paul tells us in Galatians 1:11-18 that he got what he knew directly from Jesus Christ.

I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord's brother.

Of course, Paul's vision on the road to Damascus was probably pretty darn impressive, but it is not the kind of evidence that could have been verified by anyone who heard Paul's preaching.

If the only evidence Paul had when he began his preaching was this visionary experience, then the people who heard Paul must have relied upon that vision when they converted. They did not have the testimony of the original apostles who were eyewitnesses to Jesus' life and ministry because Paul did not have the testimony of the original apostles available to him. At least for the first three years, Paul's testimony to his own vision was more than sufficient to convert large numbers of pagans.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

More About Those Pesky Thirty Years

Apologists have always argued that the canonical gospels were written soon enough after Jesus' life that they can be considered historical rather than mythological or legendary. Recently, I have been running across more bloggers asserting that it took two or more generations in the ancient world for historical facts to be replaced by legend. Moreover, they seem to believe that this principle is widely accepted among historians with one going so far as to suggest that is "unassailable." Although I know this argument has been around for awhile, I have to suspect that guys like Strobel have been hammering it in their sermons with increased vigor lately.

My initial reaction to the argument was to wonder how someone could ever come up with such a principle in the first place. I would think you would have to have some sort of model of how a legend develops. In order to build such a model, you would need some very detailed information about how specific legends had developed in the ancient world under various circumstances. I think you would also need to have a lot of information about any particular story that you wanted to test for conformity to the principle.

It did not take much googling to find that the source of this principle is a book titled Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament by an Oxford scholar named A.N. Sherwin-White. However, I did not find anything that gave me much clue to how he derived this principle. I found some references to a study of the works of Herodotus but no details of what the study involved. Most apologists simply made an argument from authority.

I was also intrigued by the fact that I did not run across any skeptics who provided much detail about Sherwin-White's work. If there was some flaw in his methodology, I would have expected to come across some atheist who took delight in slicing and dicing his conclusions. On the other hand, if his study was really persuasive, I would have expected the apologists to go into a lot more detail about his findings. I am quite perplexed.

So I guess I am going to have to read Sherwin-White's book myself. I put in a request through inter-library loan so hopefully my local library will be able to get it for me from one of the local colleges that have it in their catalog. I will try to keep my biases in check while I read it.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Strobel's Imagination

In a sermon at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, Lee Strobel invited his audience to "imagine" 515 eyewitnesses each testifying for fifteen minutes of direct and cross-examination that they had witnessed the risen Christ. That is more that five full twenty-four hour days of testimony. Imagine, he said, listening to all that testimony and saying "I don't believe it."

Pretty impressive, isn't it? There is just one small problem.


We don't have the testimony of 515 eyewitnesses. We have two anonymous writings that are attributed to eyewitnesses, the Gospels of Matthew and John. These accounts were written thirty to sixty years after the event. We have Paul's letter to the Corinthians written some twenty years after he claimed that the risen Christ appeared to him.

That is a total of three accounts of appearances by the risen Christ that even purport to be attributable to eyewitnesses. The testimony is offered decades after the events and the witnesses are not subject to cross-examination.

There is a huge difference between testimony from eyewitnesses and testimony that there are eyewitnesses.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

How Stories Change or Those Pesky Thirty Years

Back during my time as an evangelical Christian in the mid 1970's, the most popular writer of apologetics was Josh McDowell with "Evidence that Demands a Verdict." McDowell is still active and, like Strobel, he tells a story about being an atheist who set out to disprove the claims of Christ, but wound up being overwhelmed by the evidence for biblical Christianity. His website contains the following account:

I too was a skeptic too until I took a good hard look at the claims of
Jesus Christ. In college I met several students who challenged me to take a closer look, to study and examine the Christian faith.

I took the challenge, feeling certain I could prove Christianity to be false, a religion built on nice stories that couldn't stand up to the test of truth.

But as I dug deeper and deeper into the claims of Christianity, I was shocked. I found facts, not fiction. I found so much evidence that I could only come to one conclusion Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He was crucified, He died, and He was resurrected on the third day.

Soon after this discovery, I accepted Jesus as my Savior and Lord. That was 39 years ago. My life has been completely changed because I have a personal relationship with Christ.

Are you a skeptic? by Josh McDowell

Apparently, however, McDowell has also given accounts of his conversion that suggest that he was intially drawn to the gospel by encounters with certain Christians on his college campus who seemed to seemed to have some unique source of peace and happiness. By these accounts, when McDowell investigated Christ's claims, he did so as person with no fixed beliefs who was emotionally drawn to Christianity rather than as a confirmed atheist who was determined to refute Christianity. For discussions of these accounts, see The Uniqueness of the Christian Experience by Ed Babinski and What I Know About Josh Mcdowell by Chris Hallquist.

When an atheist picks apart a prominent Christian apologist's story, it is reasonable to question motives, but apparently Josh has admitted to other Christians the holes in his story of an atheist overwhelmed by the evidence. Commenting on the Hallquist post, self-identified Christian apologist Kevin H said that he had spoken with McDowell about the matter:

He's the kind of guy who is amused at all that is said about him. I noticed
he was quick to correct falsehoods. For example, he told me that the evidence
for Christianity was a "foot in the door" that kept him from immediately closing
it. But it was the love of God that drew him. It seems he knows, whether his
fault or the fault of the swirling influence of his books and speaking tours,
that people have the conception that he was forced into faith by irresistable

His reading made him realize he could not initially write off Christianity from an intellectual standpoint. But it was a verse in Jeremiah that got to him: "I have loved you with an everlasting love". (Jer. 31:3).

So why would McDowell post statements like he does on his website? There is a big difference between "finding so much evidence you can only come to one conclusion" and "realizing you can't initially write off Christianity from an intellectual standpoint." My answer would be that McDowell knows what sells. McDowell knows that the story of an atheist overwhelmed by the evidence sells books and books speaking engagements, and probably most importantly to McDowell, it persuades unbelievers to accept Christ. The story of an atheist who merely gets his foot in the door is not nearly as dramatic. Story tellers tell their stories in the way that produces the desired effect.

The problem with the stories of what Jesus said and did is that they were told and retold many times in the thirty years between the time Jesus died and the time they were written down. Out of three years of public ministry, only a small percentage of things that Jesus said and did made it into the gospels. I cannot help but think that the stories that made it were the ones that had been found to be most effective in converting pagans and keeping them in the faith. I also cannot help but think that the contents of the stories evolved in a (dare I say it?) Darwinian fashion. Mutations occurred as a result of faulty memories or faulty translations, and the mutations that survived were the ones that worked best in propagating the faith, i.e., the fittest.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Further Thoughts on the Lack of Debunking

Suppose I went to a party and told the story that my dog could turn on the television. If my wife did not contradict my story you might conclude that she believed the story if several additional conditions were also met: (1) My wife had the same opportunity to observe the dog as I did. If my wife was at work at the times I claimed the dog did his trick, she would not be in a position to contradict me even if she thought the story unlikely. (2) My wife was at the party when I was telling the story. If she did not hear me tell the story, you could not conclude anything from her failure to contradict it. (3) Most obviously, you would have to know in fact that my wife did not contradict me. It would not be enough that you did not know whether she said anything at all.

With regard to the supposed eyewitnesses who could have refuted the miracle stories: (1) we don't know that there were any eyewitnesses who observed every day of Jesus' three year public ministry such that they would be in a position to state definitively that any particular event had never occurred; (2) we don’t know that any such witnesses were around at the time any of the gospels were being written; (3) we don’t in fact know that no eyewitnesses ever came forward to refute the stories, we simply don’t have any record of a contrary version of events.

Of course, this neither proves nor disproves the truth of the stories or the accuracy of their transmission. It simply means that we lack information about how people in Jesus day responded to the miracle stories. Hypothetical eyewitnesses who hypothetically never refuted the stories don’t provide corroboration.

Moreover, I think there may have been some eyewitnesses who denied the miracle stories. Mark 6:5 says of Jesus in his hometown, "He could work no miracle there, apart from curing a few who were sick by laying hands on them, so much did their lack of faith distress him." There must have been people from Nazareth who had known Jesus all his life and had never seen him work a miracle. Could it be that those Nazarenes were expressing their doubts. Could it be that Mark was responding to them by explaining why they had never seen a miracle?

There are also points in Mark where Jesus instructs the beneficiary of a miracle not to tell anyone about it like when he raises Jairus's daughter from the dead in ch. 5:35-43. Some did not obey his instructions like the leper in Mark 1:40-45, but I imagine some might have thought "If this guy doesn't want me to tell anyone, I am not going to tell anyone. After all, I don't want the disease to come back." So isn't it reasonable to think that there were people who knew Jesus during his public ministry but never heard about some of his miracles because the beneficiary had kept quiet? Wouldn't some of them have said publicly that they never heard of the miracles.

The "lack of debunking" argument seems incredibly thin to me, but it is extremely popular among apologists.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Does Lee Strobel Believe His Own Malarkey?

Driving home last night, I caught Lee Strobel touting his new DVD version of "The Case for a Creator." on the Bible Answer Man radio program with Hank Hanegraaff. Strobel was bragging about how he interviewed “credentialed scholars” and “cross-examined them with skeptical questions.” Not surprisingly, he found the evidence “overwhelmingly positive” to the existence of a creator for those who are honest enough to analyze it. Of course, virtually all of Strobel’s experts were supplied by an anti-evolution think tank called the Discovery Institute which has no standing whatsoever in the legitimate scientific community. No doubt they scripted the questions they wanted Strobel to ask.

To see how Strobel’s experts stand up when exposed to real scrutiny, I would recommend "Monkey Girl" by Edward Humes. This fascinating book recounts Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District where Judge John E. Jones (a Bush appointee) correctly identified the pseudo-science of intelligent design as a religious doctrine. Most of the Discovery Institute's scientists chickened out by withdrawing as expert witnesses rather than face real cross-examination in open court. The only one with the guts to appear was Michael Behe who was unable to explain why he has never done the research that he thought would convince the skeptical scientific community of the validity of his theory of “irreducible complexity.” The book also describes the persuasive and overwhelming testimony and evidence offered for the scientific theory of evolution by scientists who were not only credentialed, but tenured at leading research universities and published in peer reviewed journals as well.

I have been amusing myself recently by politely pointing out to evangelical bloggers that Strobel’s pretended skepticism is belied by the fact that he only interviews conservative Christian scholars (not counting eighty-three-year-old Alzheimer's sufferer Charles Templeton in "The Case for Faith"). At Confessions of a Recovering Pharisee, Kevin Bussey insisted that Strobel “does a good job of presenting both sides” of the debate about the historical reliability of the New Testament in his new book “The Case for the Real Jesus.” I was curious how he knew that Strobel had done a good job, so I asked him whether he had ever read any books by Bart Ehrman, Dominic Crossan or John Shelby Spong. He responded that he had “no reason to read them” because they “were not reputable.” Obviously, Kevin does not know whether Strobel has fairly presented positions other than his own.

I am not denying that I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to people whose opinions agree with my own, but I always like to check and see what criticisms their opponents might offer. After reading (and enjoying) "Misquoting Jesus" by Bart Ehrman, I searched conservative Christian web sites to find out what they thought of him as a scholar. Contrary to Kevin’s assertion, it turns out that his expertise in scriptural manuscript history and linguistics is acknowledged by many evangelicals although they disagree with the conclusions he draws from the historical record. The nice thing about checking sources like this is that it helps me avoid being made to look stupid in debates.

Evangelical Christians, on the other hand, never seem to feel any need to verify their sources. Before the "Culture Campaign" cut off commenting, I had several discussions about the current thinking of the scientific community on whether homosexuality is a choice. When I cited the American Psychiatric Association's rejection of reparative therapy, one of the bloggers challenged me to look at the work of Dr. Robert Spitzer whose findings, he claimed, were being ignored by the APA. It turned out that Spitzer had interviewed 200 self-proclaimed "ex-homosexuals" who had been referred to him by clinics that practiced reparative therapy. Spitzer concluded that some had successfully changed their sexual orientation. Since Spitzer did not interview anyone who stayed gay, his study had nothing to say about the likelihood of success or the potential harm when the therapy fails. It turned out that other researchers had done so and found that reparative therapy had a high failure rate and often caused harm to those who failed. So it turned out that Spitzer’s research did not give the APA any reason to change its position. The blogger confessed that he really did not remember much about Spitzer's researh (other than his belief that it proved the evangelical position).

When confronted with the fact that their position is not really supported by objective evidence, evangelicals often switch to a claim that both sides of the debate are really just matters of opinion or faith. The blogger who directed me to Dr. Spitzer insisted that he was sure the research that supported the APA was biased. A blogger with whom I was discussing “The Case for Christ” insisted that our whole economy is just a matter of faith. Of course, creationists always claim that scientists’ belief in the theory of evolution is just as much faith as their belief in the book of Genesis. Relativism is supposedly one of the greatest evils promoted by secularism, but evangelicals have no qualms about resorting to it when it suits their purposes.

I have much more respect for Christians like Billy Graham than I could ever have for the likes of Hennigraf and Strobel. When faced with the doubts that his friend and fellow evangelist Charles Templeton developed when studying modern scriptural scholarship, Graham decided to go with faith.

"Chuck, look, I haven't a good enough mind to settle these questions," Graham finally declared. "The finest minds in the world have looked and come down on both sides." Graham concluded that "I don't have the time, the inclination or the set of mind to pursue them. I found that if I say 'The Bible says' and 'God says,' I get results. I have decided I'm not going to wrestle with these questions any longer."
Maybe Graham did not have much intellectual curiosity, but at least he had the intellectual integrity to admit the basis for his beliefs.

Friday, September 14, 2007

On Certainty and Apologetics

I have occasionally been told that I am unreasonable in the amount of evidence I demand from apologetics. As I understand it, my accusers believe that I demand much greater certainty from the evidence for their claims about Jesus and the Bible than I would demand from the evidence for other propositions that I am willing accept as true. I don’t think that is quite right, but I do think there are valid reasons to scrutinize the claims of apologetics a little differently.

When an evangelical Christian asserts that the gospel accounts are “true,” he does not mean the same thing as a person who says Ulysses S. Grant’s biography is true in its depiction of the siege of Vicksburg. The Christian is asserting that every word of the gospels is true and inerrant. He is saying that everything Jesus said is accurately quoted. He is saying that God made sure that the Gospel writers got everything correct. He is saying that that I need not be concerned about anything Jesus said or did that was not recorded because God made sure that the gospel writers included everything the world needs to know about Jesus. In short, the evangelical Christian claims that the Gospel accounts are true in a way that no other historical accounts are considered to be true. Moreover, the evangelical Christian claims that this unique type of truth makes everything else in the Bible equally trustworthy and true. Given such an extraordinary claim, I think that it is reasonable to expect the evidence that supports the accuracy of the canonical gospels to be particularly impressive.

Not only does the evangelical Christian insist that the gospel accounts be understood as historically true in a special and unique way, he also asserts that our way of thinking about what is true and what is false in other fields must be adjusted as a result of this special sort of truth. For example, because the Bible is uniquely true, the scientific study of geology and biology become unreliable and need to be understood in theological terms. Conclusions based on empirical data must be understood as anti-religious expressions of faith. The conclusions of psychology and psychiatry as they apply to sexual orientation must also be rejected due to conflicts with this unique understanding of historical truth. Many evangelical Christians believe that foreign policy should be conducted on the basis of their understanding of God’s ancient land distribution schemes. Some reject findings of climatologists because they conflict with their understanding of how God orders nature. This special notion of truth is capable of trumping a wide variety of scholarly conclusions.

So concluding that the gospels provide a thorough and accurate picture of Jesus is not just a matter of deciding that this is the scenario that best fits the evidence in regards to the gospels. It would also require the conclusion that there is some inherent flaw in the way that scholars and thinkers generally apply reason to evidence to reach conclusions about the way things are. Unfortunately, this would call into question the conclusion that had just been reached.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

On the Lack of Debunking

One of the arguments I see frequently from Bible believers is that Jesus’ tomb must have really have been empty on that first Easter morning because there is no way the story could have gained traction if it wasn’t true. After all, if there were people around Jerusalem in 33 A.D. who could prove that Jesus was still in the tomb, they would have debunked the resurrection story and nipped Christianity in the bud. Therefore, we know that the empty tomb was accepted by the people of the day.

Assuming that the empty tomb story dates to the earliest days of Christianity (which many scholars do not), the fact that it was not successfully debunked does not seem to be in any way probative of the truth of the story. For example, there might have been a first century Lee Strobel who, when faced with hundreds of witnesses swearing on a stack of Torahs that Jesus’ body was still in the tomb, dug up (pardon the pun) five believers who claimed that had seen Jesus walking around. After all, when faced with the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion in favor of the theory of evolution, the modern Lee Strobel shamelessly asserts that “more and more” scientists are being persuaded by the theory of intelligent design. Why should we think that first century believers were any more willing to acknowledge contrary opinion than modern believers.

No doubt, the first century Strobel would reassure his followers: “Don’t worry, I have carefully examined both sides of the question and considered all the evidence.” Then, just like the modern Strobel did in “The Case for Christ,” he would talk to a handful of people who agreed with his position while ignoring everyone who didn’t. No doubt he also would have attacked the atheistic world view of anyone who challenged the resurrection as well, telling his followers that such skeptics were in league with the devil.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Angels in America

North suburban Deerfield High School has given Culture Campaign another play to target with homophobia.

"What Do a Black, Homosexual Drag Queen, a Gay Couple and an Angel with 8 V****as Have in Common?

Answer: They are all characters from a play studied by students at Deerfield High School last year...

From "Laurie Higgins Summarizes Kuschner's Debauched 'Angels in America'" by Laurie Higgins, posted 8/23/07 at Americans for Truth

Angels in America is filled with obscenity, primarily forms of f**k."

It is unfortunately true that angry alienated people sometimes don’t use nice language. In the Culture Campaign's vision of education, students only read literature in which the characters are polite and happy to be Americans. Perhaps they would prefer "Gone with the Wind" in which all the Blacks are happy to be slaves and wouldn't say shit if they had a mouthful.

Personally, I think it is important that young people learn about people who feel alienated from American society.

"And although it addresses forgiveness (albeit not in a Christian sense, but rather, interpersonal forgiveness),"

I was not aware that interpersonal forgiveness is some sort of pagan forgiveness. I guess the Christian sense is where an agonizing bloody sacrifice is required before forgiveness can be granted.

"compassion, community, and AIDS,"

That sounds suspicious.

"it is primarily a pro-'gay' treatise"

I love the use of the term "pro-gay" to describe a work that empathizes with the pain and sufferings of the victims of aids. I wonder whether the Campaign would describe "Schindler's List" as a "pro-Jew" movie or "To Kill a Mockingbird" as a "pro-Black" book.

"with heavy-handed leftist politicking (e.g., explicit criticism of the Reagan administration) and sacrilege."

Oh my God!!! They criticize Reagan!!! Angels in America clearly suggests that it was not "Morning in America" for everyone during the 1980's.

"The plot revolves around two couples: married Mormon couple Harper and Joe whose marriage is disintegrating in large measure due to Joe’s repressed homosexuality, which he eventually acts upon: and a homosexual couple, Louis and Prior, who has AIDS. Louis leaves Prior due to his AIDS and has a month-long affair with Harper’s husband Joe. Roy Cohn — the infamous, unscrupulous, foul-mouthed, closeted, Republican lawyer — is also a central character who dies of AIDS. "

I wonder how the Campaign would feel if one of the characters was a leading evangelical minister who preached against homosexuality while secretly frequenting gay prostitutes.

"Then there is the black, homosexual, drag queen nurse with the heart of gold, Belize, and the Angel with eight vaginae whose visits prompt sexual arousal and orgasm. Heaven is a dreary place that looks like San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and people sit around on crates playing cards. The Angels say that God has abandoned man."

If feeling abandoned by God is sacrilege, then Jesus was guilty on the cross.

"....Now isn’t that edifying for students?"

It could be. The Campaign certainly has not provided enough information for any thinking person to reach a conclusion about the value of studying the play as a work of literature.

I suppose I could summarize the Old Testament as a book about a violent vengeful desert god who periodically orders wholesale slaughter of people who have the temerity to live in the lands where he wants his followers to live, who demands that his followers be willing to slaughter their own children, whose misogyny leads one of his righteous followers to offers his young daughters to be gang-raped. However, I would still think it a work worth studying.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Believing Miracle Stories

My wife once met a woman who claimed that God had made her invisible. This happened at a women’s luncheon at an Assemblies of God church that my wife attended at the invitation of a friend. After the luncheon, women were invited to share what God had done in their lives during the past week.

It seems that this woman had gone to the hospital to visit a friend in the intensive care unit. According to hospital rules, only relatives were allowed in the ICU, but the woman was able to walk right past the nurse’s station without being challenged. While she sat and prayed with her friend, nurses came in and out of the room without taking notice of her. Therefore, the woman concluded that God must have made her invisible.

A common theme in apologetics is that anyone who is willing to keep an open mind to the possibility of miracles will come to the conclusion that the only reasonable explanation for the stories of Jesus’ miracles is that they really occurred as the authors of the gospels recorded them. If we can believe what ancient historians said about Alexander the Great or the Battle of Thermopylae, why shouldn’t we believe what Mark and Luke said about Jesus? The apologists say we should. They say that skeptics have a closed-minded world view that refuses to recognize the possibility of miracles and therefore reject what must otherwise be deemed trustworthy accounts.

But wouldn’t a person whose worldview allowed for the possibility of supernatural miracles still take the “invisible” woman’s story with a grain of salt? Isn’t it more likely that the nurses were busy or that they mistakenly thought she was a relative? The problem with miracle stories is not that some people are so closed-minded that they automatically reject them in all cases. The problem is that some people assume the supernatural intervention of God’s power whenever a natural explanation is not immediately obvious. Indeed, the prefer a supernatural explanation. I once attended a religious retreat where a man told me that God had miraculously repaired his vacuum cleaner. He could not give me any details about the malfunction, but he assured me that supernatural intervention was the only possible explanation. People like this see the slightest coincidence as the hand of God.

Another problem is that people who see God’s supernatural intervention in everyday events tend to believe others’ miracle tales without question and happily pass them along. Televangelists regularly pass on stories they get in the mail from viewers who claim to have been healed while watching the program. (Of course, there are also those preachers who stage healings for the benefit of the camera, but that is another story.) I have always found it interesting that the Catholic Church directs a healthy skepticism towards claims of miraculous healings at Lourdes or Fatima, and will not recognize them without an investigation. However, that is the exception rather than the rule among miracle believers.

Suppose for example, that Jesus addressed a crowd of people who became hungry. He asked if anyone had any food to share and one small boy volunteered some loaves and fishes. Jesus blessed the food and passes it around, whereupon, others who had brought food for themselves were shamed into sharing it. In the end, there was much food left over and the disciples were amazed that such disparate people with no natural sympathy towards one another—tax collectors, Roman soldiers, prostitutes, and priests—recognized the needs of their fellow man and shared what they had. They knew that Jesus had caused them to do this and they told others of the wondrous thing that Jesus had done.

As the story gets retold, some of the hearers may not be as impressed with the event as the original witnesses were. In order to communicate the meaning and significance of what Jesus did, the story gets condensed: the crowd was hungry; Jesus blessed a small amount of food; there were lots of leftovers. The details that survive are perfectly true, but now it is a story of Jesus conjuring food out of thin air rather than a miracle of sharing. Considering the possibility that Luke or Mark may have been inclined to accept miracle stories without question, and the possibility that the stories passed through several similarly unquestioning people before reaching them, it is impossible to be sure what actually happened.

This is not to say that the stories of Jesus' miracles can't be true, merely that we cannot claim the stories as historical evidence of the events.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Blaming the Media

One of Culture Campaign's favorite themes is that mainstream media is out to get Christians. The latest iteration of this theme is a post titled "The Truth About High Point Church and the Gay Gulf War Veteran." The story as reported by the Associated Press is that a church in Arlington, Texas offered to host a funeral service but withdrew the offer when it discovered that the mourning family wanted to display pictures of the deceased that according to the church included men "engaging in clear affection, kissing and embracing." The family said the pictures included "some with his partner, but said none showed men kissing or hugging."

What I find amusing is the Campaign's assertion that "Contrary to the mainstream media reports, High Point Church did not refuse to host the funeral of a gay man." The Campaign refers to an article at which goes on to say that "[i]t’s not surprising that the mainstream media would misrepresent the facts." What I cannot figure out is what facts were misrepresented. As far as I can tell, the Associated Press accurately reported the church's version of the events and the family's version of the events without taking sides.

The fact of the matter is that it is hard for a church to look good when it declines to hold the funeral of a gay man. I understand the hair that the church is splitting when it says that it declined because the service planned by the family would have made it look like the church approved of the homosexual lifestyle. I can even acknowledge that High Point's theological principles mandated its decision. However, it does not comport with my understanding of Christian charity and Townhall reported that some evangelical Christians felt that way as well.

It would be nice if fundamentalist Christians quit blaming the media when their attitudes and beliefs appear unloving and intolerant. Maybe they appear that way because they are.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Some Thoughts on Apologetics

I frequently run across fundamentalists who claim that anyone who takes an unbiased look at the evidence will be persuaded that Jesus really was who he claimed to be. They like to tell stories of confirmed atheists who set out to disprove the Bible and wind up being overwhelmed by the evidence in favor of the fundamentalist view. The most popular writer in this genre currently is Lee Strobel who describes his journey from skeptic to Christian in “The Case for Christ.” Rather than addressing the details of Mr. Strobel’s arguments, I would like to suggest an analogy based on my interest in Civil War history.

If I wanted to find out what happened at the battle of Gettysburg, I could look at reports, letters, and diaries written shortly after the battle by soldiers of every rank from private to general in both armies. I could also find contemporaneous reports in the pages of newspapers and magazines of various political perspectives. These documents can be compared with memoirs written after the war. Even with all this information, there are still debates among historians about what actually happened and why.

Now suppose that the only available accounts of the Battle of Gettysburg are four anonymous documents written twenty to fifty years after the battle by Confederate partisans. All of the documents are ascribed to officers who served on General Robert E. Lee’s staff who believed that he was the greatest military genius that history has ever known. There are no accounts from anyone on the Union side and there are no accounts from Confederates like General James Longstreet who questioned how General Lee handled the battle. Moreover, suppose that keepers of these documents made it their practice to destroy contrary accounts of the battle when they had the opportunity to do so.

It is difficult for me to imagine that any responsible historian would feel confident that he had a fair and unbiased picture of what went on the battle. The best that can be said of the accounts is that they represent the writers' understandings of the battle at the time they were written. It is possible that the writers of the accounts were eye-witnesses to the battle, that they had accurate and complete recall of the events years later, and that they were scrupulously honest in reporting those memories, but there is no evidence to establish this. The writers may simply have wanted to share their admiration for General Lee by writing down those stories that they had heard about the battle that reflected his importance. They may have had no way to verify any of the details of those stories.

This is the trouble with claiming that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John can be relied upon as historical documents. The most that can be said about the New Testament accounts of Jesus is that they reflect the writers’ understandings of the meaning of Jesus’ life some twenty-five to seventy-five years after he died. We can only speculate about the actual historical events that led to that understanding.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Culture Campaign's Position is Always Conclusive

One thing I love about fundamentalists of the Culture Campaign's ilk is their concept of proof. When there is the slightest evidence for their position, they trumpet it as conclusive proof of whatever they believe. While most people might be tempted to take a convicted murderer's statements with a grain of salt, the Culture Campaign is happy to embrace them as gospel when they provide some ammo for their right-wing homophobia.

The post titled "Gay Activist Bullies Get Their Way at New Jersey High School" concerned a controversy over a production of the Laramie Project, a play about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shephard in Laramie Wyoming. Shephard, a homosexual, was brutally beaten, tied to a fence, and left for dead. He was found after eighteen hours and died five days later. The play examines the reaction of the town to the crime and to the "gay panic" defense offered by Aaron McKinney who claimed that homosexual abuse as a child caused him to overreact to a sexual advance from Shephard. (For the record, my son appeared in a high school production of the play which I thought was terrific. Not surprisingly, the Culture Campaign opposed that production as well.)

Despite the fact that McKinney said that Shephard's homosexuality motivated him to commit the crime, the Culture Campaign now claims that "it has since been conclusively revealed that Shepard's murder was never about his homosexuality." (emphasis added) And what is the source of this irrefutable proof? The killer changed his story! McKinney now says that drugs and robbery were the only motives. The Culture Campaign is convinced that he lied at trial, but now there apparently can be no doubt that he is telling the truth. Among the law enforcement officers and the community at large, there are differences of opinion about which story is true, but the Campaign finds the current word of the convicted killer (and admitted liar) to be "conclusive."

In addition to blatantly disregarding any rational understanding of the word "conclusive," the Campaign has missed a major point in the play. The very fact that McKinney and his lawyer thought that the "gay panic" defense would buy them some sympathy with the jury was symptomatic of the bigotry and prejudice that somehow makes violence against homosexuals "understandable." They thought that McKinney could exploit the same kind of hatred and intolerance that assured the acquittal of Whites who lynched Blacks in the days of Jim Crow.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

How I Lost My Commenting Privileges

I believe that the comment function was turned off at Culture Campaign after I opined on a post titled Activists Criticize Blood Banks For Discriminating Against Gay Men. The post concerned an AP story describing the efforts of the Red Cross, the American Blood Centers and the American Ass'n of Blook Banks to rescind an FDA rule requiring the rejection of blood from any donor who ever acknowledge having engaged in male-to-male sexual conduct. Based on advances in blood screen techniques, the blood organizations favored a one year prohibition on blood donation.

The Culture Campaign's had the following take on the this story: "Gay activists seem to be willing to go to any lengths to eliminate all reminders that homosexual behavior is not equivalent to heterosexual behavior - even at the risk of people's lives. Thank God the FDA is standing strong against this insanity." Contrary to the Campaign's paranoia (and despite being posted at, the story did not contained the slightest suggestion that gay activists were in any way involved. According to the story, the blood services wanted the rules changed in order that they need not reject valuable blood donations.

Since the Culture Campaign had conjured the gay activists I asked a question along the lines of "Is it possible for you to read any story without seeing the bogeyman of the gay agenda.?" Although, I cannot say that this is the one that inspired the disabling of the comment function, I am sure that it is one of the last ones that I was allowed to post.

It seems to me that it would be very desirable for our culture if people could read a news item and limit the conclusions they draw from it to conclusions that are supported by the facts which are reported in it. I am not saying that anyone should accept a story uncritically and believe the facts as reported without question. Surely further research is in order if inaccuracies or bias are suspected. But, at the very least, someone who is seeking cultural improvement should avoid gratuitously inventing gay activist bogeymen with malevolent objectives and inserting them into stories about the Red Cross trying to maintain blood supplies.