Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Keith Parsons responds to Jason Pratt

Jason Pratt responded, copiously, to my posting in response to Patrick Holding. Responses, replies, and counter-replies on these issues obviously can extend ad nauseam, and I shall not try readers’ patience with an equally voluminous riposte. Though he does so without the asperity that characterized Mr. Holding’s piece, Mr. Pratt nevertheless misunderstands my position and does my arguments less than justice. So, I would like to clarify just what I am arguing and respond to some of Mr. Pratt’s particular points.

First of all, I proffer no theory at all about the events that led to the early Christians’ beliefs about the resurrection. I do not claim to be able to solve the “Easter enigma.” The object of my essay in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, the piece that Mr. Holding attempted to critique, was not to articulate a hallucination theory or any other theory or hypothesis about Christianity’s beginnings. My aim was to debunk Kreeft and Tacelli’s effort to show that visions or hallucinations could not have accounted, at least in part, for the earliest Christians’ conviction that Jesus had been raised from the dead. My aim, in short, was not to propose and defend a hallucination theory, but to show that Kreeft and Tacelli’s objections did not rule out such an account.

I do not think that any theory (including the traditional Christian one) about the beginnings of Christianity is or can be terribly well supported. Our best sources are the four canonical gospels, and, as generations of biblical scholars have shown, these sources are hardly pristine. The canonical gospels are not simple, unvarnished eyewitness reports by detached observers who lived contemporaneously with the events they describe. They are re-worked composites of earlier materials that had circulated for decades in oral or written form. Each is a carefully and elaborately constructed and redacted narrative written for apologetic purposes and with a distinct theological agenda. They were written by persons unknown, with the exception of Luke who admits he was not an eyewitness, and composed from forty to seventy years or more after the events they purport to describe. Neither are they independent sources, not the synoptic gospels, at least, since Matthew and Luke contain verbatim extracts of large parts of Mark, and besides share an un-Markan source (“Q”). My reason for mentioning these well-known facts—which I presume are familiar to most readers—is simply to emphasize how hard a job it is for historians to piece together a detailed account out of such late, fragmented, biased, and often contradictory accounts.

Historians disagree, often vehemently, about the details of occurrences in World War Two, and these events are prodigiously documented and occurred within the living memories of millions of people. A fortiori we would expect it to be very difficult to give a consistent, coherent, and persuasive account of what happened in obscure circumstances nearly 2000 years ago. Mr. Pratt often takes me to task for allegedly offering insufficient support for some hypothesis or claim. But, again, my aim is not to support any hypothesis about what did happen. My aim is the much more modest one of establishing what, given the little that is indisputably known, can be reasonably surmised or conjectured by persons, like myself, who begin from a position of rather deep skepticism about Christian claims. The burden of proof that I take on, therefore, is not to provide a compelling account of Christian origins, but only to show that I, and like-minded persons, can reasonably resist the aggressive form of Christian apologetic that has grown up around the resurrection narratives. My aim, in short, is not to debunk the Christian story, but merely to show that dissent is eminently reasonable.

Having, I hope, clarified my aims, I turn now to Mr. Pratt’s arguments and objections. One final qualification: Mr. Pratt’s comments seem to have been written rather hurriedly and are not always clear to me. I am not always sure, therefore, exactly what point he is making. Contrary to the way that Mr. Holding treated me, I shall take Mr. Pratt’s points in the most charitable way I can, and beg pardon if I have missed the point.

As far as I can tell, Mr. Pratt attributes the following claims to me: Jesus’s teachings created in the minds of his disciples a strong expectation that he would rise again after his death. It was this strong expectation that was the psychological impetus for the hallucinations that vindicated that expectation. Mr. Pratt argues, however, that this hypothesis is incompatible with the theme, reiterated frequently in the gospels, that the disciples did not understand Jesus’s claim that he would rise again. It is also hard to square with the gospel reports that the disciples were initially very skeptical of the reports of the women who said that the tomb was empty on Easter morning.

My actual argument is this: Apologists such as William Lane Craig have often argued that the disciples would have interpreted any post-mortem hallucinations of Jesus in terms that were familiar to them. Yet the idea of the resurrection of a single individual in history, rather than a general resurrection at the end of time, was an idea allegedly utterly alien to the disciples’ worldview, and, so, only a real resurrection could have effected so total a conceptual change as they must have undergone. My response is that, according to gospels such as Mark, Jesus’s entire ministry was at odds with many of the accepted beliefs of his contemporaries (By the way, I am not here endorsing the historical reliability of Mark’s reports, but only engaging in the standard argumentative practice of arguing from one’s opponent’s premises or assumptions). Jesus’s enemies often castigated him for making, what by their lights they surely were, heretical and blasphemous utterances. For a man to claim that he had the authority to forgive sins or suspend dietary restrictions, or to proclaim that he was master of the Sabbath, was surely an outrage to the “scribes and Pharisees.” Further, according to Mark, on at least two occasions, as recorded in verses 8:31 and 10:34, Jesus explicitly stated that the Son of Man would die and be raised three days later.

The upshot is that, if the gospel accounts are to be trusted, Jesus’s teaching contained much that was considered heretical, and even predicted his own resurrection. Even if the disciples had trouble understanding or believing that teaching at the time it was delivered (and Mark depicts them as obtuse to a degree that is difficult to credit), those ideas certainly could have shaped their interpretations of any vivid hallucinations or visions that they might have experienced after Jesus’s crucifixion. Indeed, intense hallucinatory or visionary experiences are psychologically very compelling and have often been life changing occurrences (e.g., Joan of Arc). Therefore, Craig’s assertion that only a real, bodily resurrection could have jolted the disciples into belief in the resurrection simply runs against the testimony of the gospels and common sense.

Therefore, I am not arguing that Jesus’s teaching created an expectation in the disciples’ minds that prompted hallucinatory experiences as a vindication of that expectation. Rather, I am arguing, contra Craig, that vivid hallucinatory or visionary experiences, interpreted in the light of Jesus’s often heretical teachings, might well have led to the incubation of radically new ideas in the disciples’ minds (and I don’t really see those ideas as all that radical). I don’t see that Mr. Pratt has said anything to undermine this argument. He says that I rely on the authenticity of the gospel reports of the heretical nature of Jesus’s teaching, but inconsistently or arbitrarily dismiss the reports that the disciples misunderstood or disbelieved much of it. But, though I do not see why the disciples would not have expected Jesus’s resurrection, given what they had allegedly been taught and the prodigies they had supposedly witnessed (see the next paragraph), my argument does not at all depend on the disciples’ anticipating or expecting the resurrection. A powerful vision or hallucination occurring to one or more disciples could have overcome initial skepticism about the resurrection.

But there is something very fishy about the gospel reports of the disciples’ skepticism. If I may quote myself (from Why I am not a Christian):

…the disciples had supposedly seen Jesus raise others from the dead, walk on water, turn water into wine, cast out demons, cure the sick, the lame, and the blind, feed thousands with a few loaves and fishes, and appear in glistening raiment with Moses and Elijah while a divine voice boomed "This is my beloved son..." By this time it should have been clear even to the slowest disciple that Jesus was a supernatural being possessed of awesome miraculous powers. After all that it would surely be a pretty simple trick to come back from the dead. So, something is out of place here. Either the disciples, dumb as they were, could not have been so skeptical of the resurrection, or they had not witnessed the miracles they allegedly did. Either way, the credibility of the gospels is undermined.

So, there is plenty of evidence of inconsistency here, but not, as Mr. Pratt thinks, on my part.

Mr. Pratt devotes a very considerable amount of space to criticizing my arguments against the old apologetic chestnut that asks why the Sanhedrin didn’t stop Christianity cold by producing the body, given that it did not rise. He dismisses my objection that the body would have quickly turned into an unrecognizable mass of putrefaction (and with no CSI Jerusalem to do forensic analysis). He argues that the Sanhedrin could have produced the same effect by producing any body and claiming it was Jesus’s. The gullible faithful would have taken the Sanhedrin’s word, branded the apostles as crackpots, and the gospel message would have had no hearers. So, he challenges me to say why the Sanhedrin, opportunists that the were, would not have pulled the rug out from under the apostles by displaying some crucified body and claiming it was Jesus’s.

This is a very odd objection. If any old crucified body would have done just as well as the genuine article, the question to ask apologists is “Well, why (so far as we know) didn’t they parade some crucified body and claim it was Jesus’s?” Proponents of the apologetic chestnut must accept the following argument:

Premise: If,

(a) the Sanhedrin had sufficient motivation to attempt to stymie the nascent Christian movement, and
(b) they believed it likely that if they displayed a body that people would accept as Jesus’s the Christian movement would crumble,
(c) nothing (e.g., Roman interdiction) prevented them from performing such a stunt, and
(d) they could produce a body people would accept as Jesus’s,

then, they would have displayed a body and claimed it was Jesus’s.

Premise: Conditions a, b, c, and d hold true.

Conclusion: The Sanhedrin would have displayed a body and claimed it was Jesus’s.

But again, so far as we know, no such display was made. Mr. Pratt says that condition d is true, so it must be the case that conditions a, or b, or c is false. And this is just what I have argued.

Actually, I find quite implausible Mr. Pratt’s suggestion that the Sanhedrin had much credibility with the majority of the Jewish populace. Surely most Jews regarded the members of the Sanhedrin as Romanizing toadies and collaborators, much as your average Sunni Iraqi views the current “government” of Iraq. If so, this provides further insight into why the Sanhedrin would not have tried to sway public opinion against the earliest Christian. Instead of playing to the galleys, they probably would have just arrested the evangelists once they got sufficiently annoying, as, indeed, the fourth chapter of Acts says they did.

I think that the apologetic chestnut about the Sanhedrin displaying the body can be laid to rest without further discussion. The only other of Mr. Pratt’s points I want to address are his remarks about the lack of an empty tomb tradition before the gospels. Mr. Pratt complains that he finds increasingly “tedious” the insistence that there is no evidence of such a tradition prior to the gospels. In that case, I would expect to provide such evidence, but I see none. Only wishful thinking can turn Paul’s comment about Jesus’s burial in I Corinthians 15 into evidence that he was aware of any empty tomb stories of the sort later elaborated in the gospels. Again, there is no evidence that, prior to Mark, there were any stories about the discovery of an empty tomb by one or more women on Easter morning. To say that Paul knew such stories but did not elaborate on them because his readers were already aware of them would simply be an argumentum ad ignorantiam. The simple fact of the matter is that the writings of Paul, which were the NT documents composed closest in time to the actual events, tell us maddeningly few biographical details about Jesus. All we can really say with complete assurance is that the earliest Christians preached that Jesus had risen. It seems to me that vivid hallucinatory or visionary experiences by one or more disciples after Jesus’s crucifixion could have been at least the partial cause of that conviction. Nothing said by Kreeft, Tacelli, Craig, Holding, or Mr. Pratt has given me the least reason to doubt this.


Steven Carr said...

' To say that Paul knew such stories but did not elaborate on them because his readers were already aware of them would simply be an argumentum ad ignorantiam.'

Quite right. And it is stupid to claim that Paul knew the Gospel stories.

The churches in Thessalonica and Corinth denied the general resurrection. They believed that Jesus rose, but thought that the dead , in general, were lost, and that dead corpse would not rise.

Was Paul's heart burning with the words of his Lord and Saviour in Matthew 22

31 But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, 32'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not the God of the dead but of the living."

33When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.

Crowds of people heard this astonishing teaching, yet neither Paul nor the churches in Thessalonica nor in Corinth used it to settle the issue of whether the dead were lost.

So Paul and the early Christian churches could not have been aware of this Gospel story, which means you need evidence before you can assume that Paul was aware of any particular Gospel story.

Steven Carr said...

'the disciples had supposedly seen Jesus raise others from the dead,'

Indeed Matthew 10 makes clear that the disciples themselves supposedly had the power to raise people from the dead.

So why they should be baffled by a claim that somebody had risen from the dead is beyond me, and beyond reason.

Jason said...

Initial notes are now complete; running about 55K text file size. (For comparison, Keith Parsons' letter runs about 13K.)

Trimming down commencing.

Steven: it would of course be stupid to claim that Paul was familiar with Gospels that had not yet been written.

I will remind you, however (in case it needs mentioning, which it seems it might), that nothing in what I wrote concerning Keith Parsons' letter, made any such claim at all. In fact, I don't even recall grounding a point on Paul _having to be_ (in principle) familiar with Christian tradition! (Beyond the virtually tautological claim that Paul might at least possibly be familiar with tradition he says he is familiar with.)

I _did_ make a point, later in my letter, that would seem to be simply common sense: if there was an empty tomb, then Paul (as prosecutor for the Sanhedrin) would have known about _that_. In which case, as I put it, any attempt at trying to tease out some kind of alternate meaning to the dead body itself being raised in 1 Cor 15 (and elsewhere) becomes simply moonshine.

I also specifically said, however, that I would _NOT_ go to Paul to establish the empty tomb as a historical fact. I would go somewhere else.

It's important to remember this in order to fairly evalutate what I wrote; and also to keep from implying (as Dr. Parsons seems to have accidentally done) that I was trying to argue something along the lines of 'Paul's audience would have already known about the stories, therefore Paul would have not had to elaborate on them, _THEREFORE_ Paul knew about the stories.' Which I agree would be a ridiculous argument. (Gosh, I wonder why I haven't tried using _that_ one before, duhhhh.....)

The proper (and very limited) inference is: _if_ Paul's audience already knew about the stories, _then_ Paul would not necessarily have had to do more than tangentially refer to them. This has absolutely nothing to do (_my_ emphasis) with establishing that either Paul _or_ his audience knew any such stories.

As to whether Paul knew traditional material which echoes material eventually found in the Gospels: that's a whole other kettle of fish, which could be gone into at booklength. (Meaning I'm not going to do it here.) Personally, I find the divergences to be far more striking and interesting than the convergences (especially in working toward developing a coherent largescale historical theory); but the convergences also significantly outnumber the divergences.

Jason Pratt