Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The historical case for Christianity

1) The skeptic is not committed to viewing the NT authors as being stupid or ignorant at all. Indeed, I think Luke especially was a very impressive historian. Thus, the skeptic would expect his natural facts to be largely correct.

VR: Most skeptics historically, before the accurate detail was discovered, thought that Acts was a late document, perhaps even from the second century.

JG: I simply see no reason why the skeptic cannot allow that something unusual, but completely natural happened which later got exaggerated into supernatural claims. Under such a view, one would expect the "historical" transition between natural and supernatural to be fairly fluid.

VR: We're talking about, among other things, a resurrection from the dead. What "natural" event could have happened that could have morphed into a resurrection claim?

JG: 2. The testaments are clearly NOT cases of multiple and independent attestation. First of all, because the author did not witness anything at all themselves. Second, and more importantly, they are shared sources amongst themselves.

VR: Luke in several places speaks in the first person plural, and these passages are amongst those where the historical accuracy kicks in. I think the evidence that Luke was present as a companion of Paul is quite strong here. As for sharing, these people were leaders in the same Church, so this shouldn't be too surprising.

Sometimes I get the feeling from skeptics that it's heads I win tails you lose. If they say the same thing, they are colluding. If they say different things, they contradict each other.

JG: An unbiased report would be a report which the reporter gains nothing it the report turns out to be true. When the reporter reports something which actually goes against their own interests, that is good historical evidence that some claim is reliable.

VR: Peter, for example put his life at risk by getting out in front of the gate and telling the people who had crucified Jesus that he had been resurrected and vindicated. After all, the people who got rid of Jesus had the power to get rid of him as well. That was why he had been sneaking out the back door making denials before the cock crowed.

JG: What I'm looking for is some person who saw Jesus perform any of his miracles, didn't believe him and then testified of it himself. Considering how many purported accounts of miracles which we have in the NT, this shouldn't be asking too much. Or we could ask to Paul or James' record which they wrote before their conversion.

VR: You expect all sorts of people having their reflections recorded? I mean we could expect to have some letter from C. S. Lewis saying rejecting God and Christianity, but Paul and James?

In any event, I think that the evidence for Christ's resurrection, for various reasons, is substantial. However, other factors decide whether or not it is sufficient, such as the antecedent plausibility of theism and the antecedent plausibility of Christianity. I also maintain that nothing like this historical case can be found on behalf of either Islam or Mormonism, which was the point I was making. I find it sufficient myself, but probably would not find it sufficient if my background beliefs were different.


Clark Goble said...

I fear I'm still a tad confused. By "historical case" I assume you mean the historical claims of the Book of Mormon otherwise it would seem to me that the historical claims for Mormonism are stronger. After all there are historical figures who's providence we can investigate much better than Paul or Peter claiming the visitation of God and angels and the resurrected Jesus.

I'm really at a loss to see how you're arguing for evidence for the historicity of the resurrection. At best you have a few figures claiming to have seen him without us having any information on these figures. It just cries out for skepticism unless we have additional evidence.

From this and your prior post you seem to place great evidence on "prior plausibility" of Christianity and Theism. Upon what basis do you make this? i.e. what constitutes plausibility? After all in terms of our regular day to day experiences (as opposed to social traditions) it seems like there is no plausibility for either theism or Christianity outside of religious experience. It seems to me that the skeptic is on massively more prominent ground here than the believer. So I suspect by "plausible" you mean something more than "plausible in terms of regular occurrences."

Jeff G said...

I would like to see what Vic considers to be the single supernatural event which is best supported historically speaking. This will provide a very concrete test case for what kind of case can really be built for Christianity from historical evidence.

Anonymous said...

Now who's using a double standard?

I guess it's all too common even among Christians, but it's kind of disingenuous the way Mormons 'pass the buck' whenever their own religious claims are challenged, especially onto Christians. Might I point out that when you do this you are sawing off the branch you yourself are standing on, because Mormons need the Bible for their claims about Jesus and their claim to be Christian.

I suspect your aim is to try to argue that there is no less reason to accept the claims of Mormonism than of Christianity. As apologetic strategies go it's very poor, especially if you make the point with reference to skepticism. If you use skepticism to bring the Bible down to the same playing field as BoM, that doesn't leave BoM in a very good position either!

If Mormons can show that the book they hold to be Scripture can be reliably dated to the 6th Century B.C. and later (as can the NT for the 1st Century A.D.), reinforced by convincing archeological and geographical detail (which the Gospels and Acts can), then you can argue that Mormonism deserves to be treated with respect as a religious tradition. As the evidence now stands, there is every reason to think that the BoM is an imaginative adaptation of the Bible and popular religious ideas of the time of Joseph Smith.

Maybe I'm wrong about this, and there is good evidence for the authenticity of BoM. In any case, when defending the BoM, LEAVE THE BIBLE OUT OF IT. After all, Christians don't try to discredit BoM when they're arguing for the Bible's reliability (it would be strange indeed to argue for the Bible's reliability by claiming that its situation is no better (or worse) than BoM!). Defend the BoM on its own terms.

Jeff G said...

Just for the record, I don't think that the supernatural claims of Mormonism are at all well supported either by the historical record. However, there are a few instances which do seem to be much better supported than NT claims are. This, I imagine, is primarily due to the wide spread literacy of the 19th century and the fact that such events were comparatively recent.

Jason Pratt said...

{{First of all, because the author did not witness anything at all themselves.}}

Let me begin by clarifying that I understand you to have been talking about _the events in the Gospel accounts_, not about the events in Acts. (Which is the example Victor replied with; and to which I expect you would further reply that the 'we' passages in Acts are far from exhaustive of the content even of _that_ document.)

That being said: even if none of the canonical accounts, as they have survived, can be considered eyewitness testimony by the writers themselves (although one of them claims to have been some kind of eyewitness testimony to at least some of the most crucial events, so to speak; and I think there is strong implicit evidence that another text is making the same claim, too), this does not rule them out from being _in effect_ independent multiple attestation, at least in cases.

Granted, where two authors are presenting the same scene in virtually the same language, we may be sure we aren't looking at multiple attestation there. (Though even those cases can turn out to be different enough in presentation as to suggest the use of different strands of received tradition concerning the same anecdote.) It hardly needs to be added (since it is frequently a sceptical complaint about harmonization difficulty!) that from the trial scene onward in each document we have almost no such single-source convergence evidence--_especially_ in the Res accounts.

_However_: the secondary use of source material does not even remotely rule out independent (in the sense of an author's use of another known author) multiple attestation.

Now, it may on the other hand demonstrate the limits to which independently used multiple attestation can be called upon for historical judgment. I can imagine a case with prima facie plausibility, where Luke (or the Scholar, if you prefer) is reporting Incident A from the perspective of Tradition 1, and John Mark (or Mr. Nobody, or the Follower if you prefer {g}) is reporting Incident A from the perspective of Tradition 2; with _neither_ tradition going back ultimately (one way or another) to a first-hand experience of Incident A. Technically, though, their usage would still count as independent (from each other) and as multiple attestation.

The fact is that, at least on the face of it, we do have material that would feasibly count (even if at secondhand) as independent multiple attestation in ancient sources, and would in any other case be graded that way by scholars of ancient sources (even if with qualifications about the limitations involved), with practically no contention worth mentioning outside highly specialized internal debates: _EXCEPT_ that in this case, we're talking about ostensibly supernatural events being testified to. (And moreover, events which, if true, are clearly not the sort of thing that a person ought to just treat as being merely interesting historical knowledge.)

Which points back, as various people (on all sides of the aisle) have said, to the importance of philosophical contraints as to what is impossible, possible, plausible and certain. Which, in turn, I am not mentioning now in order to call coup against particular constraints: I fully respect the difficulties involved in working against those, and I think (indeed I insist) that it would be personally irresponsible to work against one's philosophical constraints at a level subordinate to those constraints.

This is why I don't blame sceptics for having problems with reaching what would otherwise be (I think) reasonably good historical conclusions in favor of the validity (to whatever degree) of this set of data. I think there is a _very_ large amount of material in the canonical Gospels (and Acts) that even the firmest atheist could honestly agree is reasonable to accept as being historically accurate (keeping in mind various harmonizations involved that would be normally applied to sets of this sort in other non-contentious cases.) But I sympathize with the... let us say _reluctance_... to grant what would in any other case be only fair and reasonable to grant. Because this _isn't_ any other case. It is a very special-case situation; and agreeing to historical accuracy always involves (at least tacitly) agreeing to accept certain implications following from the reality of the events, which contribute to the understanding of other events, etc. etc., in what _can_ be a cascading interlocking manner.

Sooner or later, along that route, there's going to be a crash. And it's very tempting to try to head that crash off at the pass (so to speak) or otherwise pre-empt it. (This was the point to my main crit of Keith Parsons several months ago, in the discussion between us which Victor kindly hosted. Counter-Res theories have to have large-scale interlinking with the existence of extant data characteristics, too; just as much as counter-apologists insist pro-apologists need to be providing.)

Jason Pratt

Anonymous said...

I don't think that historical apologetics, as in you can rely on history alone as a case for Christianity works.

Antony Flew pretty much made a telling case against historical apologetics as as sole reason for accepting a religion to be true. If I remember the basic argument it went something like this:

Ancient people saw something they couldn't explain with the tools at hand and so they attributed it to the supernatural. It may have been supernatural, but we can never know this to be true because they didn't have modern tools and knowledge.

Of course this works today as well. Even if there was an event unexplained by all modern scientific explanations it doesn't mean that it was supernatural, only unexplained at this time. The event may have been supernatural, may be explained naturally, may never be explained naturally, but a skeptic is never beholden to say something is supernatural. In the "worst case" the skeptic can be agnostic.

I don't think that any amount of historical evidence can persuade an atheist to accept Christianity. A person must first accept the idea of a God that is capable of working out the miracles in the NT.

I like to use the moon landings as an example. Thousands if not millions don't believe that people actually went to the moon. If one doesn't believe it is possible for a person to survive the rigors of the radiation of space then the moon landing is just a myth. If it is a myth, the photos, video tapes and even the living people who participated are all part of either a conspiracy or duped into believing the conspiracy.

Which is more likely: A desperate, Cold War era, American government that is known to lie about major events including much of the landings on the moon, or we sent living people 238,857 miles through space?

Victor Reppert said...

If you read my essay on miracles on Internet Infidels, you will find that I don't think a historical argument can show that all atheists ought to be Christians.

I do think that the evidence for the New Testament miracle claims found in the NT are more defensible than those in the book of Mormon. The best test for the fact that most people who reject Christianity still think that Jesus, and Peter, and Paul, etc. were historical personages. In the case of Mormonism, I don't know of anyone who thinks that there was a Lehi and a Nephi, but deny that they did what the BoM says they did.

There is, in addition, considerable evidence against the veracity of Joseph Smith. Maybe the skeptic can and should reject the Christian miracle claims. Maybe they depend upon prior probabilities, and with respect to these I am not a frequentist, I am more what would be called a personalist. I don't believe in objective antecedent probabilities.

I did say that Christianity has a historical case for it that the Book of Mormon lacks. This claim can be perfectly true even if it proves to be inadequate. I would like to see a book come out entitled "The Case for Mormonism" that parallels Lee Strobel's "The Case for Christ." Who is the N. T. Wright of Book of Mormon scholarship? The Joachim Jeremias of Mormon scholarship? Where is the welter of conflicting theories about how the Book of Mormon could have been written if Smith didn't get the gold plates?

If I wanted present-day miracle reports, the claim of finding the gold plates would not come anywhere near the top of my list. I'm not a Catholic, but from what I understand the case for the miracle at Fatima is far better than the caae for the book of Mormon.

Mike Darus said...

When considering an historical "argument", the argument to prove Christianity seems weaker than the argument to disprove it could be. Even if Quirinius were proven to be Governor of Syria in 4 BC, it would not prove the miraculous birth of Christ, but the doubt that he was has serious implications about the reliability of Luke's account. Both Christianity and Mormonism claim an historical context for events that define core beliefs. The degree to which the historical context can be independently confirmed or questioned may have a greater impact on Christians than Mormons since Christian epistomology has been rooted in history rather more than personal experience in the past. Mormons may be a little ahead of the postmodern curve in transforming truth claims from objective history to subjective experience.

Steven Carr said...

Presumably Victor would say that if the Parable of the Good Samaritan contained references to real places and people (Pharisees, Samaritans, Damascus etc), then that speaks in favour of the historictity of the event.

While I would say that many authors of fiction do take care to get the historical details correct, even if they don't always succeed.

But who would be right?

If an episode contains historically accurate information, should we even consider doubting its historicity?

Jason Pratt said...

Both of you would be right, Steven. There is no dichotomy here. (And trying to force one only looks desperate on your part.)