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.