Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Why the founding of Christianity is far more difficult to explain than Mormonism or Islam

I talked about this in an earlier thread. With Islam, you have to take Muhammad's word for it that he was touched by an angel. Same with Mormonism and Joseph Smith. With Christianity, you have a pre-crucifixion story where Jesus is supposed to have performed miracles in public. Did these miracles happen?  The disciples, at least, are convinced by them, and that's why we find them dropping their nets and following. You also have Jesus making remarkable claims about himself. Trilemma considerations come into play here. Even if there are possible alternatives to liar, lunatic, or Lord, are the plausible ones? Then, you have the death and resurrection events, again, a public execution, and a resurrection claimed to have been seen by lots of people. Hallucination? Theft? Swoon? Wrong tomb? Evil twin? What happened?  And then you have such things as the preaching of Peter and the missionary journeys of Paul. With the missionary journeys you have a story of a series of encounters with government officials in those localities, and at least the facts about local government have been verified by archaeology. So what was Paul doing that got him hauled up before government officials on a regular basis? Just preaching peace and love, brother? The Book of Acts says that there were miracles at this stage, too.  And then he appeals to Caesar, when failure to do so would have gotten him released?

If you can understand the psychology of Muhammad or Joseph Smith, and that seems easy to do, more so for Smith than for Muhammad, then you can see how those religions started. With the founding of Christianity you have a long public history involving lots of kinds of people. There are no far-fetched theories designed to avoid the conclusion that Smith and Muhammad were true prophets.

In Islam and in Mormonism, you have those religions forming a government around their leaders. Muhammad goes military, and the Mormons move out to Utah and set up territorial government run their way. Christianity expands with no help from the government until 313 and Constantine.
So I think the founding of Christianity is far more difficult to explain than Mormonism or Islam.


Mark said...

The Three Witnesses all testified to having an angel reveal the golden plates to them while they were out praying in the woods. How do you explain this?

Victor Reppert said...

Which first-vision story are you going with on this? The one from the beginning, or the one after all the changes were made?

SteveK said...

I agree with what you have written here. I would like to add one more thing to your list of things that require expaining away.

Have you seen the Star of Bethlehem DVD? If not, get a copy. The attention to detail and accuracy portrayed in the Bible is further evidenced here. Dates, times and locations of events reported fit nicely with what the people saw happening in the sky.

Again, it's not proof that Christianity is true. It just more of the story that was available for the public to see - and conversely for the public to see as false if it was actually false.

Steven Carr said...

'Christianity, you have a pre-crucifixion story where Jesus is supposed to have performed miracles in public. Did these miracles happen?'

No, and the evidence against is identical to the evidence against Miracles and the Book of Mormon

Photographic documented evidence.

But Victor refuses to believe hard evidence , and thinks his god came down to earth to tell Peter how to get free money by looking in the mouth of a fish.

There is nothing that will convince some people, not even evidence that they would use to fail their students if their students plagiarised the way the New Testament authors did.

Steven Carr said...

'So what was Paul doing that got him hauled up before government officials on a regular basis?'

Well, let us look at the official answer.

'Claudius Lysias, To His Excellency, Governor Felix: Greetings. This man was seized by the Jews and they were about to kill him, but I came with my troops and rescued him, for I had learned that he is a Roman citizen. I wanted to know why they were accusing him, so I brought him to their Sanhedrin. I found that the accusation had to do with questions about their law, but there was no charge against him that deserved death or imprisonment.'

Paul had disputes about the law, but had done nothing wrong in the eyes of the Romans, like being a follower of a recently crucified criminal, claimed to be still at large by his followers....

Blue Devil Knight said...

It's not merely a matter of explaining the psychology of Smith and Muhammad. They both performed miracles that others claimed they observed, right?

Also, even if there is a lack of consensus about what really happened after Jesus was crucified, that doesn't count as strong evidence that one of those stories is the right one (especially since it is the one that violates much of what we know about how the world works, transmitted by generations of extremely superstitious folks that had powerful institutional backing).

What this suggests to me is that the historical evidence so radically underdetermines the actual facts of the matter that we end up with an intellectual Rorschach test.

Ken Pulliam said...


I would agree that it is harder to explain the origin of Christianity than it is Islam or Mormonism. However, I still think a naturalistic explanation is more plausible than a supernatural one. As for the miracles in the gospels, all we have are second or third hand reports decades after the events happened. It is common knowledge how embellishments take place. The fact that some disciples gathered around Jesus is not dependent on the miracles being veridical. Disciples gathered around other rabbis as well. I think Paul and perhaps Peter had some sort of vision or hallucination in which they thought they saw Jesus alive but as for the reports of appearances to groups of people, I am dubious.

Apparently, the timing was just right in the Eastern Roman empire at this point in history for a new religion to flourish. There were many religions and for some reason this one had an appeal which the others did not have, at least to the same degree.

I find no reason, though, to believe that Christianity could have only gotten started and spread the way it did due to its divine origin. Strange things happen in the world and people will believe strange things.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Ken, what book would you recommend for someone wanting to learn more about this from a skeptical type perspective?

Bilbo said...

I can thin
k of a at least one problem with believing that all the miracle stories about Jesus were made up long afterwards by the authors of the Gospels. based on Old Testament miracles:

Why would they believe that Jesus had to do miracles like Elijah or Elisha?

Because they believed Jesus was the Messiah?

Why would they believe that?

Because he rose from the dead?

Why would they believe that?

Because it was reported that he did miracles?


Blue Devil Knight said...

And to Christians, is there a book you would recommend for someone who wants the best foot forward evidence for the literal resurrection? And please not ten books, there is no way I will read more than one right now.

Edward T. Babinski said...

"Jesus is supposed to have performed miracles in public."

But stories of miraculous healings and exorcisms were not unique to Jesus, nor to Judaism, nor to the Hellenistic world, nor to today's TV evangelists. However, note that the miracles of the multiplication of loaves and fishes is implied, based on the number of baskets left over. No one claims to have seen or felt fish and loaves multiplying in their own hands. The miracle of the raising of a young girl varies in the telling from one Gospel to the next, one says she had just fallen asleep. The miracle of the raising of a rich man, Lazarus, is only noted in the last most Gospel written, while an earlier Gospel features the same name but that "Lazarus" is a poor beggar whom Dives ASKS to be resurrected in order to warn others. The opening of many graves and raising of the many saints in Matthew is a story found only in Matthew and in the middle of verses identical to those in Mark that lack such a story altogether. The story of Jesus walking on the water is attributed to only a few of the apostles in a boat. The story of the transfiguration on the mountain is attributed to only a few apostles who went up the mountain with Jesus. The story of the physical bodily ascension in Luke-Acts is later than most all else and even then it is stated only the apostles saw it, not a lot of people. Jesus left Jerusalem far quieter than when he arrived.

Paul, the earliest NT writer, compares his sighting of the raised Jesus with all previous appearances. He calls them all "appearances," that is all, appearances to apostles and lastly he appeared to "me" (Paul.) Paul's list of appearances contradicts the Gospels in many respects, no mention of appearances to women, and mentions separate appearances to Peter and to James prior to appearing to the remaining apostles, and Paul adds and appearance to "over 500," which contradicts Acts that says a number far smaller was the number of brethren in Jerusalem after Jesus' death. Secondly, Mark and Matthew say that Jesus first appeared in Galilee, "For he has gone before you to Galilee, there ye shall see him," Luke has Jesus say to remain in Jerusalem. Apparently the apostles changed stories at will when telling about miracles. And both Matthew and Luke diverge the most from each other in their openings and closings, where the earliest Gospel, Mark, was silent (lacking birth/childhood stories, and lacking post-resurrection appearance stories).

Edward T. Babinski said...

I suggest Dr. Price's two books, written decades apart, addressing apologetic arguments old and new, Beyond Born Again, and, The Case Against the Case for Christ. He discusses popular apologists by name along with their arguments and explains why biblical scholarship has raised more questions than they have answered.

Edward T. Babinski said...

I should add that the earliest Gospel ends with "and the women told no one." Paul likewise does not mention that Jesus first appeared to any women. But by the time the Gospel of Mark was composed it may be that continued womens funeral rite observances (done in remembrance over several years, and not necessarily at a tomb), which were common back then, may have led to the development of the "women" and the "tomb" story, which first appears in the Gospel of Mark and was later embellished by later Gospel writers who picked it up after wards. Paul mentions neither women nor tomb.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Vic, I saw a video advertised in the Fortean Times that discussed some modern day miracles. A devout Muslim it said in the ad, was interviewed and was certain that he had seen the Prophet himself standing nor far from him at a pilgrimage site. During the war in Iraq reports were spread by devout Muslims that the bodies of martyrs were glowing and angels had been spotted. Times of upheaval and death and rebellion seem to inspire such stories.

A Tibetan Buddhist has an NDE in which he speaks to a turtle deity. It's on the web.

A fundamentalist, Dr. Eby, falls, has an NDE in which he goes to heaven and meets a huge talking King James Bible. He wrote a book about it and was a popular guest on Christian TV about 25 years ago.

A modern day minister popular on Pentecostal TV is a guy who goes to the street and prays for people's sore shoulders, and asks them if the have one leg shorter than the other and tells them to sit down straight and he prays, they relax and their slightly short leg "grows" longer. (Though he doesn't go back to see if their legs remain equal after that.)

Derren Brown and his Mind Control TV program feature many amazing experiments in human consciousness, suggestibility, hypnotism.

Oh, and there's a case going round the web of a Christian physician who "raised the dead," a guy who had a heart attack while in the hospital, collapsed and was worked on for over half an hour, heart jolted, drugs applied. They were about to give up, but the physician said a prayer and jolted the guy again and they finally got a steady beat that didn't die out. The guy later said he had an NDE. He met a nice guy named "Bob" on the other side.

All of these miracles prove Christianity?

Edward T. Babinski said...

The Dead Sea Scrolls contain plenty of evidence that they believed in resurrections and that they were living in the end times. That was before Jesus' day. One scoll mention a heavenly figure that God appoints to judge the world, "Melchizadek." Another scroll mentions a final battle within a generation, centering round Jerusalem, between the sons of light (Jews) and sons of darkness, and God's direct intervention and apocalyptic end time finis. These are expectations before Jesus's day. Directly before Jesus's day.

Josephus mentions an Egyptian who had over ten thousand followers who told them to camp outside Jerusalem and expect the city's walls to miraculously crumble.

Josephus mentions another fellow who predicted the fall of Jerusalem as well, years before it happened.

Jesus lived during days of apocalyptic fervor, some prophets, some warriors, all hoping God would soon intervene on their side.

That's the millieu of Christianity, during an era of Jewish revolt against Rome that lasted over 100 years. Two major revolts. Even a period of Jewish kingship right after the second revolt that lasted a little while.

Steven Carr said...

Why would they believe that Jesus had to do miracles like Elijah or Elisha?

Because they were religious fanatics whose grip on reality was as high as Benny Hinn's?

Christians thought the number of Abraham's servants was a prophecy about the cross, and that Jesus flew off into the sky on his way to Heaven.

All I can do is report the frauds, and leave it to the psychistrists to come up with a rational explanation of the irrational.

Victor wants a rational explanation of the actions of irrational people, who thought they had gone to the third Heaven,and who thought angels appeared in dreams.

He will go to his grave never getting a rational explanation of his religion.

For nobody can explain the actions of irrational people.

Bilbo said...

Hi Steven,

The link you gave argued that the authors of the gospels were supposed to have made up the stories of miracles by Jesus, and used stories from the Old Testament as their inspiration. But as far as I can tell, the authors already had the belief that Jesus was the Messiah. Why would they believe that? Presumably because they already believed that he was a miracle worker who had risen from the dead. If so, then at least some of the miracle stories were not made up by the authors of the gospels.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Isn't Carrier's Not the Impossible Faith' a book-length treatment of this very topic? Has anyone read it, and is it any good?

Victor Reppert said...

My claim is, I think, somewhat weaker than the one that Carrier is attacking. Because there is the factor of the antecedent improbability of the miraculous, and how you asses that, I don't actually say that, relative to everybody's credence function, they ought to believe that Christianity is too improbable to be false. What I do say is that there are impediments to the development of Christianity that do make it surprising that it could have emerged and become the dominant religion that it has since become. It is easier to see how Islam, who picked up the sword to spread Islam under its founder, could have spread to rapidly, with so much military force behind it. It is harder to see how Christianity, which nearly 3 centuries after its inception, was facing the persecution of Diocletian, managed to survive and be as strong as it became.

It's been awhile since I've looked at the exchanges between Carrier and, I think, Holding, so I am not sure how effective Carrier is in dispelling the sense of improbability that I have about the rise of Christianity. To me, there's lots of stuff happening in Christianity that you shouldn't expect unless it were true. But Carrier and I have been known to disagree on a thing or two, you know?

Ken Pulliam said...

Blue Knight,

I would recommend The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond The Grave eds., Robert Price and Jeff Lowder.

3g.nursing said...

I take no pleasure in web trolling. I am going to post only one comment, and this is in response to yours on John Loftus's.
So...you were a curious person when you were young. To the extent that you pursued philosophy, to have your questions answered.
Nice anecdote. You know were I have heard it before? From Islamic clerics. To a T. They even give the same reason for studying Islamic jurisprudence.
Sorry, but your blog post amounted to absolutely nothing. You don't even have a single first hand account of the Jesus story. All you have is accounts put down by anonymous scripts, decades after the "fact".
I am amazed that you claim "[in christianity] there are no far-fetched theories designed to avoid the conclusion that Smith and Muhammad were true prophets." Far fetched? You mean virgin birth, rising from the dead, and bodily ascent are not far fetched? And the claim of someone being god is less far fetched than someone being a prophet?
And you give this much to debunking Islam: "With Islam, you have to take Muhammad's word for it that he was touched by an angel." I will limit myself to saying, you don't even have a clue what Islamic claims about prophet's miracles are. You know, you are an educated person, and this is a disgrace. If you take it on yourself to debunk something you should have a clue what you are talking about. Incidentally, aren't you taking Mary's word that her son was divinely "begotten"? Did you do a paternity test?
But most amusing is your closing paragraph: "Christianity expands with no help from the government until 313 and Constantine." So, it remained a relatively obscure and marginalized sect, until it was champion by a fratricidal war lord, who added quite a few details to it, not least Christmas. And just so you know, one of the biggest miracles of the prophet was his unprecedented ability to unify a society as fractured and vindictive as the ancient Arab world under Allah. So may be god was on his side, don't you think? He didn't leave the faithful to their own devices for 300 years, as he did with christianity.

Victor Reppert said...

What I was pointing to were far-fetched theories about how Christianity could have come into existence without any miraculous element.

So far as I have been able to tell, the central miracle of Islam is the giving of the Qu'ran, which, according to the most orthodox understanding, existed eternally in heaven. In fact, Islamic thinkers actually sometimes gave arguments against belief in miracles in general, which they saw as a weakness of Christianity. There was a "splitting the moon" miracle attributed to Muhammad, though its significance is debated within Islam. But in general you don't find this ongoing stream of miracles that starts with Jesus and goes throughout Acts in the Islamic tradition.

kumikata said...

Steve Hays has responded to Price and Lowder with "This Joyful Eastertide"


Gandolf said...

Ken Pulliam said..."Apparently, the timing was just right in the Eastern Roman empire at this point in history for a new religion to flourish. There were many religions and for some reason this one had an appeal which the others did not have, at least to the same degree."

Yes and today the timing has also been right for the Taliban too .So happens there are also many others in governments etc, who for what ever reason have found reason enough to be quietly backing the Taliban,even if at present they have reason to need to be doing it on the quiet.

Strong faithful beliefs have ways of existing on their own terms, things come into play such as faith/patriotism etc.

Efforts made to dispose of a movement, can sometimes work in a negative way, and soon push the persecution button helping the movement be more resiliant and survive on its own steam.

It then only takes another great power to see some great potential benefit in being involved in making this persecuted movement its own allie,that then soon makes it something most very likely to happen.

Victor, i really do fail to see good reasons why you would find it difficult to naturally explain the existence of Christianity.

Steven Carr said...

If so, then at least some of the miracle stories were not made up by the authors of the gospels.

What a ringing endorsement of Christianity!

People writing at least 30 years after the events did not make up everything.

Not everything in the Gospels is a lie.....

Perhaps if somebody could produce some evidence for Judas, Thomas, Joseph of Arimathea, Joanna, Salome, an empty tomb, Martha, Lazarus, Nicodemus, Barabbas, Simon of Cyrene, Bartimaeus, Jairus etc etc.

Just produce ONE CHRISTIAN from the first century who was prepared to put his name to ever having heard of those people.

That would at least be a start.

Gosh, I can produce lots of people who claim to have seen a grassy knoll in Dallas.

Christians can't even get as far as that in terms of evidence.