Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Blue Devil Knight on the historical argument debate

A lot of the discussion of historical apologetics has gotten off-track. I prefer not to ban people, but this means that you have to learn what to ignore. I am familiar with Steven Carr's methods of argumentation, and I don't happen to take his comments very seriously. The presence of people in the Gospels who are not mentioned elsewhere in history doesn't strike me as particularly a problem, since Jesus's life didn't primarily revolve around the big history-makers of the time. The disanalogy between these un-accounted for people, and the Angel Moroni or the final battle at the Hill of Cumorah, should be obvious. So I am happy to ignore him in favor of other commenters who make more serious points. But if in failing to give serious consideration to his argument I have somehow overlooked a strong case against Christianity, so be it.

Blue Devil Knight, on the other hand, has given some arguments that I think do deserve some serious attention. His comments are in blue, mine in black.

Back to the martyr arguments.

Giordano Bruno's weird philosophy isn't confirmed by his martyrdom, but as Victor points out the fact that he believed in something strongly is probably established (I say 'probably' because he could have been suicidal or had a mental disorder). 

Yes. Of course, Bruno is not claiming to be a witness to anything. That's Jenkin's point.

I agree that this consideration might block a small subset of skeptical views of the origins of Christianity that say they didn't truly believe the consequences of believing what they were saying were important. I say 'consequences of believing', rather than 'believing' because it is possible to martyr oneself for a cause even while saying things you are not sure are factually true, but the consequences are worth dying for (e.g., I would gladly lie, and (frankly not gladly) die if it meant preventing another 9/11).
I think we have to remember the context of my discussion here. Hallquist's book brings in UFOs and paranormal claims in order to help his case against the resurrection. However, the cases he talks about in his chapter on the history of debunking have to do with exposing deliberate fraud. My point was that the martyrdom risk behavior on the part of apostles like Peter undercuts deliberate fraud hypotheses. Peter goes from denying Christ before the crucifixion to declaring to the very people who crucified Jesus that God had raised him (thus vindicating Jesus and un-vindicating Caiaphas and company in the strongest possible terms). Now, either this transformation never happened, or it certainly needs explaining, and the explanation has to be different from the explanation that can be given in most of the UFO/paranormal cases, since those involve deliberate fraud. 

At any rate, clearly martyrdom implies strong belief in something. Jim Jones' followers believed something strongly. Not sure what, but many were willing to die for it. They also witnessed miracles that he putatively performed and I'm sure they really believed it. The followers of Benny Hinn have witnessed his miracles, healing the blind, the crippled, etc.. I bet if he wanted, he could convince many of his followers to die.

The Benny Hinn case is a little bit different, because while I suppose conceivably you could get people to die for the claim that they saw people come up to the stage with health problems they appeared to lack when they went back, it's not the facts, but the explanation of these events that is at issue between supporters and critics of Hinn. In the case of a resurrection, if you thought you saw someone on Sunday whom you had seen die on Friday, it doesn't seem open to the skeptic to say, "Yes, Jesus was dead on Friday, but you saw him walking around on Sunday. But there's a good naturalistic explanation for this." Opponents of the Resurrection either say he didn't die on Friday or say he was still dead on Sunday.

The Robert Jenkin quote Tim offers is fun historically, but doesn't actually offer anything new to the discussion. He points out that the existence of false zealots doesn't imply all those with zeal are wrong. Fine. But that puts the burden back on resources independent of the existence of zealots. The existence of strong believers establishes nothing, as it is orthogonal to truth. It is not evidence for anything except strong belief.

However, a sharp belief and behavior change, such as Peter appears to have experienced, still needs to be explained  unless, of course, you want to deny that it happened.

In sum I take it that the existence of martyrs blocks a very small subset of stories of the origins of Christianity: those in which people actively tried to deceive others, didn't believe any of it, and also importantly didn't believe strongly in the consequences of having people believe. 

You'd have to believe in the consequences strongly enough to want to die for it. Paul, at least seems to be betting everything on Christ's resurrection, and this attitude seems to be reflected in the actions of people like Peter as well. 

12But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.  

It's hard for me to read passages like this, written by someone whose martyrdom risk behavior is off the charts, and take seriously the possibility that he didn't really believe that Christ was raised from the dead.  

Does that describe any real skeptic? Does it describe Hallq or Carrier? Has anyone argued that the early founders were making a casual lie with little to nothing to gain from people accepting the lie? 

Hallquist, interestingly enough, accepts the hallucination theory, and Carrier thinks Jesus never existed. My point in relation to Hallquist, which was the main point of the original post, was that Hallquist brought in UFO cases and paranormal cases which have been debunked by people like James Randi today and by Houdini in a previous era. However, those cases were deliberate fraud cases, which means that they are largely irrelevant to the Resurrection, unless it is supposed that belief in the Resurrection arose as a result of deliberate fraud. However, martyrdom arguments, which are not direct proofs of the resurrection, are nevertheless undercutting defeaters for deliberate fraud theories. Interestingly enough, I think UFO-type cases are irrelevant to Hallquist's own theory, which is a form of the hallucination/legend theory.

Finally, priors play such a huge role here, it is clear that these arguments from the apologists are for those with nonnegligible priors about miracles and gods. For instance, Tim calls the 'twin brother' theory of Jesus 'bizarre' (p 32 of the cited bit). Which is more bizarre, someone coming back from the dead or someone having a twin?

I know that Tim would say that the twin theory is bizarre because of the complete lack of evidence, but it does betray a lack of appreciation of just how incredible and unbelievable it is for people with the naturalist's priors that someone was resurrected. They need really good evidence. 

I don't think Tim is arguing that anybody with strongly naturalistic priors ought to be convinced by the case for the Resurrection. I know Tim does believe in objective priors, but all either of us have claimed is that there is no normative argument proving, a la Hume, that every reasonable person must begin from strong naturalistic priors. My claims are as follows: 

1) There is no normative argument based on probability theory showing that we must begin from strong naturalistic priors. Instead, people will consult their own credence functions and ask themselves how much evidence is sufficient. I think this is the overall upshot of Earman's critique of Hume in Hume's Abject Failurem and it is certainly the upshot of my papers on the subject, the one in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion (Feb. 1989), and the one that appears online. The evidence will at best confirm theism and Christianity, but all we will get out of it is a cumulative case role-player. I am arguing that some reasonable persons can believe in the Resurrection, not that all reasonable persons must believe in it.

2) The evidence for the Resurrection is going to prove surprisingly strong when we start exploring, in detail, the alternative naturalistic hypotheses. What sounds good at first ends up looking severely problematic when we get done. Different pieces of the historical jigsaw puzzle will undercut different counter-hypotheses.

3) The case supporting the resurrection is cumulative, with several important elements. Martyrdoms are one piece of the puzzle. Archaeological confirmations are another. The claims of Christ and the moral character of Christ are still other pieces. The miracle stories in Acts are other pieces of the puzzle.

Basically, I'll need to see it with my own eyes. More than once. The person will need to live for a week or so, we'll do the DNA test, I'll get others to confirm that I am not hallucinating. I'd need a whole lot of evidence to believe it now, much less as recorded from sources almost 2000 years old with much weaker standards for belief.

Maybe that is what you would require. If I just show that there is something naturalistically mysterious about the history surrounding the founding of Christianity, that's all I could hope for in an argument on the subject.

There is an insurmountable wall here that logic will not cross. That is a weakness of the Christian view, as if logic could cross it, I would cross. I would be a Christian. If the evidence compelled it, I would be a Christian.

I don't believe that there's a slam dunk. 

Clearly there is more to becoming a Christian than logic and evidence. I'm not sure what that implies about trying to use the available evidence and logic to convert people. I think it implies that such things are only part of the equation. My hunch is, they are a rather trivial part of most people's conversion experience, that conversion is much more a matter of inspiration, an opening of the heart to the light and glory of God, an undeniable experience of His presence and Goodness, than to picayune historical and logical points.

Of course there's more to it than argumentation. But faith can't prosper if a person thinks he or she is believing against their best intellectual judgment. And Christian converts do testify to the fact that reason and evidence DID play a significant role in their conversions, even if the conversion was not exclusively intellectual.One makes a judgment call doing the best one can with the evidence. But a Christian who really thinks that the evidence looks like what Dawkins or Loftus says it is is going to have a hard time being a Christian. The historical and logical points are not trivial, even if they are a very incomplete cause for conversion.
Finally, it is strange that people act as if a 'hallucination' theory is the only plausible explanation of people incorrectly believing they observed something. We know there are many ways to acquire a false belief that you observed something in the past. Eyewitnesses are often earnestly wrong, but rarely is the explanation that they hallucinated. Much more likely is retroactive memory distortion.

This is an extremely important point for my strategy, which is to push the naturalist (about the resurrection) into relying on hallucination theory, and then showing the problems with that. I really do think the hallucination argument, allowing for a significant amount of legendary accretions in the story, is the best shot the skeptics have in explaining the founding of Christianity. While I can see memory distortion being the cause of thinking a cab was blue when it was really green, I have trouble with the idea of retroactive memory distortion accounting for someone thinking they saw someone whom they had seen executed two days earlier, if they didn't hallucinate and there was no resurrection. 

Let me take a personal example. Bob Prokop, a frequent commentator here, was a friend of mine my days as an undergraduate at ASU in 1973-1974. We both had a close friend by the name of Joe Sheffer, who, tragically, passed away in 1989 at the age of 36. Now, I can imagine, in a crowd, seeing someone at a distance whom I thought looked just like Joe. But no amount of memory distortion could possible convince me that I had lunch with Joe in 2006, getting his take on the argument from reason, the state of contemporary Thomist philosophy, Thomist models of artificial intelligence, modern physics, the flaws of the Bush administration, and the latest debates on Dangerous Idea. No, if I really thought I had lunch with Joe in 2006, I would have to have been "appeared to Joe-ly," I would have to have had some Joe-experience, which, on the assumption that Joe didn't come back to life in 2006, would have to be a hallucination.  

Note this assumes that putative eyewitnesses did actually martyr themselves, that this is a historical fact. I'm not a historian of Christianity, so am willing to play along with such assumptions.

What is required isn't strictly speaking martyrdom, but martyrdom risk behavior. Peter wasn't killed as a result of what he said outside the gate in Jerusalem, but what he said was inflammatory enough to the people who were responsible for the death of Jesus to expose him to the likelihood that he would be killed, and Peter knew it. 

135 comments:

Steven Carr said...

'The presence of people in the Gospels who are not mentioned elsewhere in history doesn't strike me as particularly a problem, since Jesus's life didn't primarily revolve around the big history-makers of the time.'

So Victor concedes that he has no evidence for the existence of Judas, Thomas, Lazarus, Joseph of Arimathea.

He has no evidence for their existence, yet believes anyway, telling himself that it would be madness to expect to find evidence for his beliefs.

Victor concedes that not one Christian in the first century ever named himself as having heard of these people.

Of course, Victor is totally unfazed by the fact that almost all of the cast of Gospel characters consist of people who Christians never mention for decades when writing to each other.


He has an out.

He just tells himself that nobody in their right mind would expect their to be evidence for the existence of ,say, Lazarus, somebody the Gospels describe as 'famous'.

As Victor has an out, explaining to himself why there is no evidence for his beliefs, he is baffled by the existence of people who point out that there is no evidence for his beliefs.

Steven Carr said...

And, of course, Victor has not one piece of testimony from Peter, or Cephas, saying he had seen an empty tomb, heard of any women at the tomb, or seen a flesh and blood Jesus.

Not one single word of testimony from this Cephas about any of those things.

All Victor has is second-hand anonymous claims that Peter said those things, and not one single named person who claimed to have met Peter and heard him say any of those things.

And not one word from Cephas himself saying anything about a resurrection.

This is what I don't understand.

Victor has literally nothing.

Not one word of testimony from somebody who Victor holds up as his prize witness.

Not one sceptic can prove that what Peter claimed was false, because we have not one single claim from Peter in existence.

There is literally nothing for sceptics to disprove.

Anonymous said...

SC: Its hardly the case that there is no evidence for the existence of Judas et. al. Surely the gospels constitute some evidence (we can dispute how good or bad that evidence is).

But I want to play Devil's Advocate. Its been a while, but from what I have read there are honest people, not frauds, who honestly think they have been kidnapped by aliens. I don't mean to suggest that this is impossible--maybe they were. But if we assume they were not, then it seems honest people can have beliefs about their experiences that (1) are very important to their lives and (2) are nevertheless unreliable.

Maybe there is some innate need for the supernatural that in the modern age is supplanted by UFOology.

I guess the response might be this sort of aberation would explain one person having a mystic vision of Christ, but not the apparently large number of belivers who seem to have been present (and in some cases Martyred) in the early church.

Tim said...

BDK writes:

The Robert Jenkin quote Tim offers is fun historically, but doesn't actually offer anything new to the discussion. He points out that the existence of false zealots doesn't imply all those with zeal are wrong. Fine. But that puts the burden back on resources independent of the existence of zealots. The existence of strong believers establishes nothing, as it is orthogonal to truth. It is not evidence for anything except strong belief.

On the contrary: Jenkin's argument illuminates the evidence for the truth of the account, and that in a fairly precisely definable way.

Let R be the claim that Jesus rose from the dead; let E be the claim that multiple people, professing to be witnesses of the risen Jesus, engaged in what Vic has called martyr-risk behavior; let B be the claim that these people sincerely believed that they had seen the risen Jesus. Now, by the theorem on total probability:

P(E|~R) = P(B|~R) P(E|B&~R) + P(~B|~R) P(E|~B&~R)

Everyone knows, from his own experience and his experience of others, that P(~B|~R) >> P(B|~R). But Jenkin's argument shows that P(E|~B&~R) ≈ 0, so P(~B|~R) P(E|~B&~R) ≈ 0. This means that the value of the likelihood is heavily dependent on their sincerely believing that they had seen Jesus, which is vastly less likely than its negation, if the resurrection did not occur. Now P(E|~R) is the factor that has to be put in ratio with P(E|R) to create the Bayes factor. So Jenkin's argument succeeds in showing one reason that the Bayes factor P(E|R)/P(E|~R) is so top heavy. And a top-heavy Bayes factor is the most widely used definition of evidence in probabilistic epistemology.

Tim said...

Anon,

Are there people who sincerely believe they've been abducted? I don't know. But in at least one key respect, we have far better evidence for the sincerity of the apostles than we do for the sincerity of the abduction reporters: the civil and religious authorities today aren't trying to exterminate the people who tell abduction stories. And those people know it.

It's one thing for people to act a little weird in order to get some attention and maybe some sympathy in one of those online abductee support groups. It's quite another to brave regular arrests, beatings, and stonings for the sake of proclaiming your message.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Thanks Victor for taking the time to respond to me, and thanks to Tim as well. You both have thought about this more than me and I feel lucky to have the internet to engage with those more educated on these matters.

I will have to wait to tomorrow to read, think, and respond as it is late, my girl is crying, and wife wants company (three weeks ago, first child born, priorities shuffling...pic at my chess blog...)

normajean said...

Congrats on the baby, BDK!

Anonymous said...

BLUE
"I feel lucky to have the internet to engage with those more educated on these matters."

ANONYMOUS
Don't forget to thank Steven Carr too. He tries to open up the closed eyes of theists. He keeps doing this even though there is as he puts it literally nothing for him to disprove.
We are so extremely lucky to have Steven Carr.

Tim said...

BDK,

Hearty congratulations!! Daughters are wonderful.

Walter said...

For me this type of argument hinges on the gospel narratives--and Acts--being historically accurate to a pretty high degree. If those particular accounts are more fiction than history, then we have no real insight into what happened to spark "Jesus belief" in first-century Palestine.

Paul's writings, which are mostly accepted as predating the gospels, show a conversion experience that suggests a possible hallucination. Perhaps the original disciples had a similar experience after suffering the tragic loss of one whom they thought would be the Messiah that ushered in the Kingdom of God within their lifetimes. My theory is that visions of a spiritually resurrected Christ eventually morphed into tales of a bodily resurrected Christ because early Christian faith was splintering into competing factions. Some believed in a phantom Jesus that only looked human. Some believed in a fully human Jesus who was adopted by the Spirit of Yahweh at his baptism. I believe the gospel narratives were written as polemical responses to other factions of Christianity that the author considered to be heretical.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Tim: I personally have known two people that sincerely believed they were abducted by aliens. I didn't believe them, but it isn't as rare as you might think. They were very hurt that I didn't believe them, but the best I could muster was that I believed that they believed.

Also, for reasons I outline a little more below, I am just not as impressed as you by risky behavior, whether by putative witnesses or not. History is filled with dead witnesses of miracles (Jonestown, Branch Davidians, etc).

There is very little difference between a live witness of a miracle and a martyr, except what they decide (or are told) do with their putative knowledge of the miracle!

Blue Devil Knight said...

One key question was: 'Has anyone argued that the early founders were making a casual lie with little to nothing to gain from people accepting the lie?'

It seems the martyr-type arguments would work for such "casual fraud" theories. I don't think any such theory exists, unfortunately.

I frankly have trouble understanding why someone would say that the resurrection story seems more plausible than stories involving
1) those advocating that he was literally resurrected were are simply wrong
2) they got caught up in a religious fervor
3) their views caught on because of the local political, religious, and other institutional-psychological factors at play.

The argument here is about number 1, obviously. Sometimes Victor acts as if having too many naturalistic theories of how 1 could be the case is a problem fo skeptics. That is, people could have been deceivers, deceived, hallucinated, accidentally or purposefully embellished stories (or heard such stories), Jesus wasn't really dead, had a twin or someone existed that looked like him, or perhaps people believed followers thought Jesus was resurrected into a different body that didn’t look like him).

There are many theories of how people could have been wrong in their belief in the resurrection, so many ways that 1 can be the case but they all seem more plausible to me than the claim that he was literally resurrected from the dead. Yes, the martyr theory suggests that Christianity wasn’t born of casual and intentional fraud. But I have never seen such a theory.

Said too much, the above is my core claim against Christianity (that 1-3 is much more reasonable than the claim that there were literally miracles).

Finish in next post.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Incidentally, which specific books of the NT are accepted by historians as being written by people that claimed to directly observe Jesus after the resurrection?

Bilbo said...

Congratulations and best wishes, BDK.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Thanks Bilbo...Finishing post now....edited version of post I just deleted…

We can all agree that risky behavior in the advocacy of belief X establishes someone strongly believes that others should believe X. But such strong beliefs also jack up the probability of biased perception, memory, embellishment of accounts of what happened, all in the service of getting others to believe in X.

Someone who becomes a "witness" for something (in the Christian sense of that term as used nowadays) is typically less reliable than an impartial person. The "witness" will say whatever they can that will convince others to believe X. Some of them are incredibly charismatic and effective in their persuasive skills. 2000 years ago such personalities likely had greater influence than they do now (we can easily insulate ourselves from subcultures and beliefs we wish to avoid).

Victor and others seem to consistently overestimate people's abilities (even as eyewitnesses) to be objective. If someone "sees" Benny Hinn heal someone's blindness, and converts to his brand of Christianity, does that make her a more reliable witness for Hinn than if she were a mere dispassionate reporter of things?

While it is effective in courts, it is clear that eyewitness testimony can be extremely unreliable. It is not a video camera, but a statement of what someone believes happened in the past. 60 Minutes reported that 75% of death penalty cases that have been overturned on DNA evidence involved faulty eyewitness testimony. The problem of eyewitness testimony being unreliable is discussed here and here. This is not some "gotcha" gimmick type of argument, but a serious source of bias and error that is much more complicated than simple hallucination claims (more on this below).

The hallucination theory is only one hypothesis of how early Christians could have been in error, but it seems just as reasonable to say the seed was other, perhaps even borderline hallucinations akin to seeing Mother Mary in the clouds (this happens all the time!).

After the seed was planted that Jesus was walking about for 40 days (perhaps multiple sightings by many people, just as we have with Mary or Elvis) a more detailed story was built with each telling. Some from lies, some with truth, perhaps some misperceptions: it is impossible to tell for any individual claim. By the time the stories are written down they have filtered through multiple cycles of retelling that amplify the biases of the zealots, the stories become more groomed.

In the Bible there do seem to be descriptions of post-resurrection experiences with Jesus with some detail, similar to what Victor describes with Sheffer. It seems just as likely that such stories were generated by complex falsehood-generating mechanisms as described above (just as the stories about alien abductees could be embellished and build up over time).

I would agree that a lot of crazy crap had to go right for this misguided cabal of zealots to end up influencing the evolution of the most powerful institutional forces on the planet. I guess where you see evidence of miracles of God, I see evidence of luck.

Let me be the first to call Christianity history's Forest Gump.

While Carrier does question whether Jesus really existed, he has theories of how the resurrection story could have been generated assuming Jesus did exist. For instance, this page and references there. I think he prefers a hallucination-based ("vision"-based) story, which I don’t for reasons above.

Blue Devil Knight said...

I may not respond much more in this thread. My view should be fairly clear that I believe 1)-3) happened, and that there are a ton of different ways that 1) could be true, and I hinted at how. I hope Hallq chimes in. I have taken too much time now already, and really have a ton to do at work and can't stay late screwing around like I used to :)

Don't take lack of response a lack of interest, or a concession. :)

As a final kind of summary, I realize my list of alternate naturalistic explanations for 1) was grammatically messed up, so let me repeat possible causes of folks being wrong in their belief that Jesus was literally resurrected:
a) People lied about seeing him
b) Hallucination or screwey pattern completion (e.g., Mary in the clouds)
c) False memories and embellishments (addition of details or even people to events)
d) Jesus didn't die (swoon theory)
e) Jesus had a twin or someone that looked like him
f) People think he was actually resurrected to a body that looked nothing like the original, and reported on interacting with this non lookalike "Jesus".

When people repeat stories based on a-f they become more embellished, details are added and removed, more of the biases of memory are added with each telling, etc...

This seems so plausible to me that I'm not sure why anyone would believe. :) Of course, some of a-f are less plausible than others.

Also, I agree that the "intentional and casual fraud" theory is refuted by martyr-esque behavior.

But come on, you truly believe based on 2000 year old zealot texts, that some dude was literally raised from the dead? How can that not sound simply incredible?

At any rate, I know there are answers to my question, but for people like me with really low priors when it comes to gods and miracles? Put yourself in my shoes, take the Outsider Test, at least for a minute. :)

R O'Brien said...

"While Carrier does question whether Jesus really existed..."

I wonder if the (self-crowned) prince of philosophers and Robert Price (whom I once debated--he's a friendly crackpot, but a crackpot nonetheless) doubt the existence of Socrates and Siddhārtha Gautama.

Bilbo said...

Hi BDK,

I agree that for someone with low priors, the resurrection of Jesus would have low probability. Would you agree that for someone with higher priors, the probability that Jesus rose from the dead increases?

Have you read C.S. Lewis's Miracles? Especially the the chapter, "The Grand Miracle"?

Blue Devil Knight said...

Bilbo: I'm not sure, since a Hasidic Jew or Hindu would likely agree with my 1-3 but still believe in God(s) and miracles. 1-3 just don't seem that incredible, even if I do put myself in the miracle-believer mindset (which frankly I am not all that great at doing, though I do try sometimes).

A specific version of the Forest Gump theory of Christianity's origins should be grounds for Muslimis, Jews, etc. to reject the resurrection story as literal truth. Heck, my understanding is that most NT scholars reject it as literal truth and they usually started out as believers (I would say they are still Christian, but with a more broad sense of what is important in the Bible).

So, while my first reaction Bilbo was that you are right (my first response was a simple 'Yes, that seems reasonable'), once I think about it I can't be sure frankly.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Bilbo I haven't read that, if it is online I will take a look.

Ken said...

Disclaimer for fellow skeptics:

Ancient history is insufficiently precise to determine precisely what happened in localized, obscure or remote incidents of the distant past. Any single, simple proposed hypothesis as to what exactly happened amounts to speculation on a par with conspiracy theories, naturally caused or otherwise. Obviously, we cannot investigate or interrogate any witnesses such as we would with a modern account with living witnesses. Most physical traces have long vanished. Even the original language or tone of the accounts can be misleading as a past dead culture is largely inaccessible for reference.

To discuss gospels as "historical evidence" grossly over-dignifies what amounts to ancient printed gossip.

Bilbo said...

BDK, the problem with followers of other religions is that they have already assigned a low probability to yours. A better example would be someone who has become a theist and is now trying to decide which if any of the religions is most likely to be true. Lewis was such an example, and the latter part of the book probably mirrors his own journey.

natamllc said...

It is interesting Victor, that some commentors frame their thought soundly on the frailty of human reason.

When I read what you write and think through your written words I see another framework.

It is closely similar to these verses:

Act 20:32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

and

Php 4:9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me--practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

The obvious misstep here from where I am walking is the understanding of just what it is God gives us when He gives us "eternal Life" instead of the wages of sin?

Here's the gift's definition from one Biblical writer's point of view:

Joh 17:3 And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

and

1Jn 1:1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life--
1Jn 1:2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us--
1Jn 1:3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
1Jn 1:4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.


When God is the central and total focus of all that we now do, for His Glory, the Life and the Resurrection comes in a variety of ways. Martyrdom is one way. When True Believers die, we never die alone even when we physically are alone when we die!

To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord clothed in our right body!

Crude said...

I would agree with Bilbo, namely that part of the question here is investigating the question as someone merely theistic. And really, I think "swoon theory" even making the list just illustrates the problematic situation a naturalist is in. It's not that naturalistic possibilities can't be thought up as explanations - it's how credible they are given what we know ("Luck" is just "miracle" by another name in many ways. You can explain out and out solipsism by it). And then it all comes back to priors, etc.

Though I'd add, I think the case is getting more and more weird for naturalists. Someone can come back from the dead on naturalism, after all. It would be A) Quantum-tunneling or a similar phenomenon (cue Carl Sagan's example of waking up one day and finding your car has teleported out of the garage) or B) Technology-related, up to and including something like a simulated universe theory (Which seems more and more popular - I just saw another book by a physicist claiming the fundamental constituent of reality is information, not matter).

I somehow suspect that in 100-200 years, the atheist apologetic of choice is going to be "Sure, Christ was resurrected. But it was just some powerful being. Not God necessarily." Maybe even sooner than that.

Mark said...


Also, I agree that the "intentional and casual fraud" theory is refuted by martyr-esque behavior.


Partially. But consider this fraud theory: after the crucifixion, the disciples had some sort of intense religious experience that convinced them of Jesus' divine vindication, but which did not involve any miraculous sightings (sort of like the group in Festinger's When Prophecy Fails). However, in order to convince others to follow Jesus, they stole the body and claimed to have witnessed Jesus physically resurrected. This theory is compatible with martyrdom (assuming they really were martyred, etc.), since they really would have believed Jesus was risen in at least a spiritual sense.

steve said...

Anonymous said...

"But I want to play Devil's Advocate. Its been a while, but from what I have read there are honest people, not frauds, who honestly think they have been kidnapped by aliens. I don't mean to suggest that this is impossible--maybe they were. But if we assume they were not, then it seems honest people can have beliefs about their experiences that (1) are very important to their lives and (2) are nevertheless unreliable."

From what I've read, there's a connection between "alien abductions" and old-hag syndrome.

This raises the possibility that allegedly sincere "alien abductees" have had a genuine experience of *something*, but their "encounter" is not in fact with aliens. Rather, they are reinterpreting their experience through the cultural filter of science fiction.

If so, then we can't write that off as a sheer hallucination. It would have a basis in fact, but involve a misperception of reality.

So the attempt to use "alien abductions" as a counterexample is fraught with ambiguities. One would have to study this phenomenon in far more detail, and distinguish different types of claimants.

Shackleman said...

"A better example would be someone who has become a theist and is now trying to decide which if any of the religions is most likely to be true."

That describes me.

For me, first came God, then came Jesus (to put it in as few words as possible), but in between was at least a cursory study of most major world religions, and an in-depth study of some.

The Problem of Evil, ironically, was what lead me ultimately to Christ. But, that said, I think a LOT of religions get a LOT right about the nature of reality. (As an aside, this is why I'm immune to the "You're an atheist about Zeus" line of argumentation. I'm *not* an atheist about Zeus. I think Zeus *was* the God of Abraham, just the understanding of Him for the Greeks was not quite as refined as it is today. Just like science, we grow to learn and know more about God the longer we're here in study, reflection, and communion with Him.----but I digress).

So, to put it in few words (for really, how could I possibly accurately summarize a decades long journey on a blog post?), many arguments lead me to come to believe in the necessary existence of God. It was a cumulative case, starting with the Big Bang, running through the Argument from Morality, and ending with the AfR. But then, I could not reconcile a God whom I had grown to believe in, with the continued existence of evil, both natural and man-made, in the world.

God, if he exists as we say He does (all the "omnis"), MUST have created a sort of escape from the Problem of Evil, lest he really be a demonic god.

Christ *is* the answer to the Problem of Evil.

But, more on topic here....once you believe in God, it's not so hard to believe in His resurrecting people. After all, he *surrects* them (ha!) all the time, so it's just not all that big a deal to do it twice for one person. Well, not a big deal for God anyway.

So, while the historical evidence is important (and yes, whether or not it's *convincing* evidence is a different question), it's not of paramount importance. First one must come to believe in God. If one doesn't, then *no* amount of evidence would ever be persuasive for the atheist. The atheist can always explain away evidence if his priors rule out the existence of miracle-creating Gods.

So, I agree with BDK. It's quite simple, really. If one rules out, a priori, the possibility of miracles, no amount of historical evidence will be persuasive. Some people just need their own burning bush before they will come to believe. But, if one is quite rigid in their priors against miracles, they won't believe even then!

Shackleman said...

Eeek! Sorry for all the deletions. I kept getting an error when trying to post. Seems that they all posted regardless of the error.

terri said...

(As an aside, this is why I'm immune to the "You're an atheist about Zeus" line of argumentation. I'm *not* an atheist about Zeus. I think Zeus *was* the God of Abraham, just the understanding of Him for the Greeks was not quite as refined as it is today. Just like science, we grow to learn and know more about God the longer we're here in study, reflection, and communion with Him.----but I digress).

I don't know if I would put it that way...but this prompted me to ask:

Assuming this were true...then what assurance do we have that our understanding of God has reached it's ultimate destination?

In other words, if Zeus was a temporary, Greek proxy for God....how do we know that Jesus isn't also?

The problem with literal, historical claims is that at some point the literalness of the narrative turns in on itself and takes people to the brink of ridiculousness, making bold statements about things they couldn't possibly know.

So we have Christians demanding that complete assent to physical resurrection is the only way to go. However, if pressed on the issue, what can we really say about physical resurrection?

Why didn't the people who encountered Jesus in the resurrection accounts not recognize him? If his exact body was resurrected, why did he look different? If he was physically resurrected why could he appear and disappear out of/into thin air?

We could answer those questions by saying that the new body is not like the old body....but then what are we fighting about?

What's the difference between a "spiritual" resurrection and a resurrection that places Jesus in class that is completely different from the common understanding of what it means to have a "body"?

Shackleman said...

".then what assurance do we have that our understanding of God has reached it's ultimate destination?"

None. We won't know our "ultimate destination" until we get there, wherever and whatever "there" is.

"In other words, if Zeus was a temporary, Greek proxy for God....how do we know that Jesus isn't also? "

We don't (or at least I don't). Just like Newtonian Physics was replaced by a better explanation from Einstein. Newton wasn't "wrong" per se. He just wasn't as "right" as Einstein. That's cool. Newton was still pretty close to being right on many things and in many applications his physics are still used today because they're close enough. I think there's a parallel here with religion(s).

Perhaps my previously being a (true) atheist, allows me some comfort with not feeling like I must be 100 percent right in what I believe in order to still believe. I could be wrong. Completely or in part. Yet, I truly believe. If an "Einstein" comes around to paint a more accurate view of my current "Newtonian" understanding of God, then so be it. If I'm convinced, I'll convert to that new understanding.

***JUST LIKE*** people who study science do.

As we read the Bible, it is clear, at least to me, that the human understanding of God grew and evolved throughout the texts. God didn't change. But our understanding of Him did. The same can be true today, or in the future. That's okay. It is, after all, a LIVING God I believe in. The story He's telling isn't complete yet. It won't be done 'till it's done, brother. What's more, we get to play a part in how that story is written. Which is, I believe, the greatest gift to us. We get to participate, actively, in the writing of God's story! I am awestruck at the beauty and the immensity that is that gift.

The truth, whatever it may be, is the truth, regardless if I believe it or not. What I do is try to get as close to an understanding of that truth as I can. I believe that truth includes the triune God, and the true history of His interactions with His creations are *approximately* recorded in Scripture (and other texts, too, btw!), and *continues* today.

Shackleman said...

Sorry Terri,

I referred to you as my "brother", before clicking on your profile.

I meant no offense. While "Terry" is oftentimes a short name for "Terrance", "Terri" usually isn't {smile}.

Please accept my apologies, sister :-)

terri said...

Shackleman,

Honestly, I don't disagree with most of what you write. I am somewhat surprised because some of your other comments that I've read on this site wouldn't have led me to the conclusion that you seemed so "open" about these issues.

Maybe I misinterpreted your previous comments, or I couldn't see through all the bluff and bluster that takes place in some of these comment threads.

The only problem that I see with your stance, which isn't too far off from my own, is that it is impossible to hold onto it and simultaneously uphold a strict historical, literal reading of Scripture. In order to be open to a living God, then there must be the possibility that former beliefs/rules/ doctrines are up for re-examination and re-interpretation.

This post and many recent, related ones are all about affirming a very specific, literal, historical interpretation of the gospels as some sort of documentary process. If we assume that that's what the gospel authors intended then there is no more room for open searching for new understandings of God, Jesus, and Christianity.

We wind up working inside of a very limited boundary beyond which we are not permitted to cross.

That is no longer my own personal response to Christianity. I think that if Christianity is going to survive it will be through the active appropriation of metaphor and new understandings of what the core of Christian beliefs are representing.....not through planting our flags on a historical/literal position that we have no way to prove.

terri said...

Shacleman,

No offense...these comment threads are almost exclusively testosterone-powered!

;-)

Blue Devil Knight said...

Bilbo: I agree that once we get to, "I'm a theist, now what?" things look better for Christianity. I'd say it would be more plausible-looking than Greek Mythology, Mormonism, and even Islam (Victor has convinced me of these points). I'd frankly likely go for Judaism because I think my arguments here are compelling, and prefer to minimize miracles and I'd likely to go a fairly liberal reformed Temple. But I would surely have to reconsider Christianity, maybe find a nice Presbyterian group like the one I was baptized in. :)

(For that matter, there are plenty of Christians who don't believe in the literal resurrection of Christ, but treat it like they do Johah or the Creation story: I'd consider that as well, because philosophically I prefer Christ's revisions of Hebrew morality).

Ken: right on, very well put!

Crude: a-f all seem more plausible than the claim that someone literally was resurrected from the dead, so I'm not sure why things are getting any more strange for the naturalist. It seems as scholarship progresses it only gets easier for the naturalist. But I do admit, not all of a-f are equally plausible!

Mark: my claim wasn't that martyr-risk behavior excludes all fraud theories, but casual fraud theories, by which I mean they didn't care about the outcome. E.g., they cared about as much as when you play a practical joke on a friend. I wouldn't call the situation you describe a casual fraud.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Funny thing is when I finally told my mom I didn't think Christ was literally resurrected, her response was, "Your dad and I don't either. Maybe we're Jewish."

:) True story.

Shackleman said...

"...I am somewhat surprised because some of your other comments that I've read on this site wouldn't have led me to the conclusion that you seemed so "open" about these issues."

Well, I'm "open" to the idea of being wrong, certainly. I was before, and I leave room for the possibility that I will be again. In fact, I *frequently* find that I'm wrong.

But that's not to say that I believe there *isn't* an ultimate truth. I'm no relativist. So what I believe, I really, truly, believe is true, and I sometimes defend it vigorously (especially against the "mob" of atheists around here. Get them aligned against you and it can get downright rude and bloody.) But to defend what you *believe*, isn't the same as being *certain*.

I am not *certain* of much of anything. I am not even always certain that I am me. (Whacky, I know, but really----if I'm not me, I could be just a bag of chemical goo who *thinks* I'm me).

But "belief" isn't the same as "certainty".

I think "certainty" is a manifestation of pride. Pride being, in my opinion, the number one barrier to faith and belief in God. I try not to be prideful. But, sinner that I am, I fail at my efforts not infrequently.

But again, I believe what I believe is true, and I'm darn sure going to share why and how I believe it. I am called, after all, to be a witness to what I believe is the truth of Christianity.

"The only problem that I see with your stance, which isn't too far off from my own, is that it is impossible to hold onto it and simultaneously uphold a strict historical, literal reading of Scripture. In order to be open to a living God, then there must be the possibility that former beliefs/rules/ doctrines are up for re-examination and re-interpretation."

I agree. I do not uhold a *strict* historical, literal reading of Scripture. Which is why I was sure to put asterisks around the word "approximation" in my earlier post.

God is bigger than any book. Some books come closer to accurately describing him than others. I believe that ***taken as a whole*** the Bible is an accurate *enough* description of God's interraction with His people throughout their history. Some of those descriptions are true, in the same sense that metephaors truly point to an objective truth, without being *literal*. Other parts are truly historical, in the sense that they really happened just as they're described. Other parts are true in the sense that they truly describe a witnesses's *interpretations* of real events.

But, it's **NOT** true like an encyclopedia is true. It's not just a list of *facts*.

I think sometimes both the athiest and the fundamentalist try to make it so. A boring list of dry facts. It's not that. It's the story of a living history. The history is true, for sure. But the story, well, people tell stories in a myriad of ways. Factually, descriptively, historically, metaphorically, etc. But they all describe a real history.

"This post and many recent, related ones are all about affirming a very specific, literal, historical interpretation of the gospels as some sort of documentary process. If we assume that that's what the gospel authors intended then there is no more room for open searching for new understandings of God, Jesus, and Christianity."

I think the history is true, but I agree with you, that how we understand it is a *process* that can and has been refined. It's not just a list of facts. But that's not to say there aren't any facts within the Gospels.

If I were to boil it down, I'd say of my own faith:

"When I point to the moon, stop staring at my hand".

The Bible is the hand pointing to God. But it's not God. God is God. And He's the truth. *Everything* else which describes Him is an approximation. Some better than others.

Bilbo said...

Hi Terri,

I think the bodily resurrection of Jesus has great importance doctrinally. The idea is that God is redeeming all of physical creation and transforming it. "It is sown a physical body and raised a spiritual body."

And if you think we are testerone dominated, imagine first century Jewish culture, where I believe a woman's testimony was not allowed in court. To have the first witnesses to an empty tomb be women is significant. If one wanted to convince an audience, one would make it men
finding an empty tomb.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Oh, add deism to the list of things that I'd take very seriously if I were a theist. Or more likely a strong agnosticism about God's properties and what he/she/it has ever done in the natural world.

Shackleman said...

Bilbo,

Well played :-)

Bilbo said...

Deism noted, BDK. ;)

Shackleman said...

What, exactly is a "strong" agnosticism as opposed to a "weak" one?

Is that like someone who will look at a baby being born and still refuse to see *anything* miraculous about it? Is that someone who demands growing limbs from amputees, and will take NOTHING less before they consider it *evidence*?

I think agnostics aren't looking for *evidence*, they're looking for *proof*. The only form of which they'd find convincing is sheer and utter magic.

terri said...

And if you think we are testerone dominated, imagine first century Jewish culture, where I believe a woman's testimony was not allowed in court. To have the first witnesses to an empty tomb be women is significant. If one wanted to convince an audience, one would make it men
finding an empty tomb.


Regardless of any debate on the resurrection and its nature, I really don't like this line of argumentation. It assumes too much uniformity in the way that cultures worked, especially cultures which were influenced by Roman and Greek connections.

Just because a religion/organization/government has a typical way of doing things, or an official stance on an issue, doesn't mean that the general population is as dogmatic or faithful in its adherence to that issue/attitude.

Christianity was already becoming something new when the gospels and epistles were being written. The role of women, as depicted in Acts and through Paul's letters, and the wider acceptance of their role in the spiritual life of Christianity can be used as evidence that people may be overstating the case for the low regard for women in the 1st century.

Not that I would want to live in 1st Century Palestine!

Christianity is not Judaism. It started off as a branch of Judaism but departed from it in many key ideas. It isn't a stretch to imagine that one of those distinctive differences can be found in the way that Christianity viewed Gentiles and women.

Patmos Pete said...

Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Shacklemen, I just meant that if we assume I were theist, what kind? I would take seriously being an agnostic not about God's existence (which by assumption I am granting), but about God's properties. E.g., all good, omnipotent, etc.. Just remove the word 'strong' from what I said.

Speaking of kids, when Ella was born three weeks ago, she was sitting there crying while being weighed. I hadn't held her yet. The doctor handed her to me, a crying screaming ball of fury, and she immediately stopped crying immediately, looked into my eyes, her eyes widening. That experience was one of the most uplifting and beautiful I've ever had in my life, it still brings a tear to my eye.

However, it wasn't literally a miracle. Perhaps figuratively it was a miracle, but literally speaking there was no miracle involved, but an amazing biological process, a transformative psychological event, perhaps the most significant event of my life.

While I would not see that as evidence of God's existence, I can certainly understand why a theist might see it that way. It points to fundamental differences in our interpretation of events in the world. Mine is thoroughly and spontaneously secular, while others probably have more theistic interpretations that spontaneously emerge during such significant events.

Shackleman said...

BDK,

Congratulations on parenthood. Enjoy the ride, man.

Bilbo said...

I agree with you, Terri, that there is an elevation of the status of women in Christianity. I think that can be historically traced to the way Jesus viewed and interacted with women as depicted in the Gospels. We aren't sure in what environment the Gospels were written. I believe there are strong traces of Aramaic in at least some of them. I wouldn't know whether or not that applies to the accounts of the women at the tomb. But it is just like women to take care of the practical matters, while the men were hiding in fear. If you want to dismiss the accounts of their testimony, I can't stop you. But it isn't the sort of story a man would be likely to make up.

terri said...

I'm not dismissing the accounts of their testimony.

I am dismissing the argument that you state here:

"But it isn't the sort of story a man would be likely to make up."

There is no way to prove that statement. We don't know what kind of storya man might make up....as if all men acted and thought exactly the same then.

Beneath this argument is the idea that the gospel writers wouldn't have included the story because it would discredit the validity of the Christian movement if women were the key witnesses. Yet, the gospels contain all kinds of parables and sayings of Jesus that would have been at odds with other conservative, 1st century Jews. The writers didn't seem to be too concerned with worrying that some Jews might take issue with the way they were portrayed on the gospels, or the way in which Jesus turned certain Mosaic laws on their head....something that many Jews used then and still use today to discredit the beginnings of Christianity.

My point is that, culturally, there was a shift....and we can't rely on the "this never would have happened in that day and age" argument. Unlikely things happen all the time, especially when we are talking about human relationships and attitudes.

Shackleman said...

equivocate: to use ambiguous or unclear expressions, usually to avoid commitment or in order to mislead; prevaricate or hedge: When asked directly for his position on disarmament, the candidate only equivocated.

Victor Reppert said...

Let me also congratulate BDK on parenthood.

Bilbo said...

Terri, I agree that the actions and sayings of Jesus were often at odds with the culture of his day. It's difficult for me to imagine that so infecting the Christian community that a man would make up the story of the women at the tomb, while the men did nothing to help. Unlikely things happen. But it seems to be much more likely that the story was included because it actually happened.

In fact, I wonder if that event was part of the process that lead to viewing women differently. It's difficult to not take seriously people who were the first to witness the empty tomb.

Tim said...

Walter

For me this type of argument hinges on the gospel narratives--and Acts--being historically accurate to a pretty high degree. If those particular accounts are more fiction than history, then we have no real insight into what happened to spark "Jesus belief" in first-century Palestine.

In large measure, I agree. But I am persuaded by abundant evidence, both internal and external, that they are in very large measure historically accurate accounts, comparing in this respect quite favorably with much of the material that Roman historians use all the time. (Suetonius, for example.)

Paul's writings, which are mostly accepted as predating the gospels, show a conversion experience that suggests a possible hallucination.

I’m not sure what you mean by “suggests” here. At any level beyond a very vague resemblance, it seems to me that this is not a plausible hypothesis to cover Paul’s description of his conversion.

Perhaps the original disciples had a similar experience after suffering the tragic loss of one whom they thought would be the Messiah that ushered in the Kingdom of God within their lifetimes.

Very implausible, given what we know on the empirical side of the causes of hallucinations.

My theory is that visions of a spiritually resurrected Christ eventually morphed into tales of a bodily resurrected Christ because early Christian faith was splintering into competing factions. Some believed in a phantom Jesus that only looked human. Some believed in a fully human Jesus who was adopted by the Spirit of Yahweh at his baptism.

What evidence do you have for the existence of these factions, as you describe them, in the first two or three decades after the crucifixion?

I believe the gospel narratives were written as polemical responses to other factions of Christianity that the author considered to be heretical.

Walter Bauer tried to promote this hypothesis in the 1930s or so, but it never made much headway with the scholarly community. Bart Ehrman is recycling it two generations later. It doesn’t look much better when warmed over. The gnostic “gospels” are simply too late to give us any insight into the origins of Christianity in the second quarter of the first century.

Tim said...

Mark

Also, I agree that the "intentional and casual fraud" theory is refuted by martyr-esque behavior.

Partially. But consider this fraud theory: after the crucifixion, the disciples had some sort of intense religious experience that convinced them of Jesus' divine vindication, but which did not involve any miraculous sightings (sort of like the group in Festinger's When Prophecy Fails). However, in order to convince others to follow Jesus, they stole the body and claimed to have witnessed Jesus physically resurrected.

One of the many problems with this theory is that it makes the original testifiers liars. Under this hypothesis, then, we must understand them as deliberately violating what they presented as the high ethical standard to which they (ostensibly) held both themselves and others.

Another is that there isn’t the slightest trace of an attempt to convince others of a vindicated but non-resurrected Jesus, whereas we have a very straightforward explanation of what they actually did say in the months immediately following the crucifixion.

This theory is compatible with martyrdom (assuming they really were martyred, etc.), since they really would have believed Jesus was risen in at least a spiritual sense.

Can you point to any other religious movement that is founded on the willingness of its first practitioners to endure great hardships, without any prospect of earthly gain, for the sake of what they knew was an outright lie?

Tim said...

Ken

Ancient history is insufficiently precise to determine precisely what happened in localized, obscure or remote incidents of the distant past. Any single, simple proposed hypothesis as to what exactly happened amounts to speculation on a par with conspiracy theories, naturally caused or otherwise.

Have you arrived at this conclusion through a serious study of localized or remote incidents of the distant past? (I omit the alternative “obscure,” since that one rather builds the conclusion into the premises.)

Obviously, we cannot investigate or interrogate any witnesses such as we would with a modern account with living witnesses. Most physical traces have long vanished. Even the original language or tone of the accounts can be misleading as a past dead culture is largely inaccessible for reference.

All of this might be said of the documents of Roman history. The question is not how much evidence has vanished -- that is great in all cases of ancient history -- but the adequacy of the evidence that remains.

To discuss gospels as "historical evidence" grossly over-dignifies what amounts to ancient printed gossip.

I do understand this assertion, but it does not seem to be the outcome of any compelling line of argument. Is there something you have read that leads you to think that this is the proper genre for the Gospels?

Tim said...

BDK

Tim: I personally have known two people that sincerely believed they were abducted by aliens. I didn't believe them, but it isn't as rare as you might think. They were very hurt that I didn't believe them, but the best I could muster was that I believed that they believed.

You obviously rub shoulders with more interesting people than I do. ;)

Also, for reasons I outline a little more below, I am just not as impressed as you by risky behavior, whether by putative witnesses or not. History is filled with dead witnesses of miracles (Jonestown, Branch Davidians, etc).

I don’t think either of these is a good parallel. I can go into this matter in detail, if you like.

There is very little difference between a live witness of a miracle and a martyr, except what they decide (or are told) do with their putative knowledge of the miracle!

I’m not sure that I understand this sentence. One of them has not yet given decisive proof of his sincerity; the other has.

One key question was: 'Has anyone argued that the early founders were making a casual lie with little to nothing to gain from people accepting the lie?'

It seems the martyr-type arguments would work for such "casual fraud" theories. I don't think any such theory exists, unfortunately.


People have made this sort of claim and continue to make it (Penn and Teller, for example, in their reference to “the old switcheroo”). But for reasons that I will lay out below, I do not think it is the key question.

I frankly have trouble understanding why someone would say that the resurrection story seems more plausible than stories involving

1) those advocating that he was literally resurrected were are simply wrong
2) they got caught up in a religious fervor
3) their views caught on because of the local political, religious, and other institutional-psychological factors at play.


I should say, in response, that 1) is the question at issue, and both 2) and 3) are implausible given what we actually know both about the local political, religious, and psychological situation and the behavior of the first people who claimed to be witnesses of the resurrected Jesus.

The argument here is about number 1, obviously. Sometimes Victor acts as if having too many naturalistic theories of how 1 could be the case is a problem [for] skeptics. That is, people could have been deceivers, deceived, hallucinated, accidentally or purposefully embellished stories (or heard such stories), Jesus wasn't really dead, had a twin or someone existed that looked like him, or perhaps people believed followers thought Jesus was resurrected into a different body that didn’t look like him).

You lost me a little in that last sentence. But yes, these are some of the alternative explanations that have been proposed.

There are many theories of how people could have been wrong in their belief in the resurrection, so many ways that 1 can be the case but they all seem more plausible to me than the claim that he was literally resurrected from the dead.

Yes, that’s the question one needs to discuss in comparing competing explanations like this. Have a look at the paper in the Blackwell anthology to see why someone who did not approach the issue with a staggering presumption against the existence of the supernatural might think that, on the balance of the evidence, not even the disjunction of these alternatives is more plausible than the claim of resurrection.

[to be continued]

Tim said...

BDK

... I have never seen such a theory.

The point of Jenkin’s critique is that “other religions have martyrs too” is a lousy challenge to the evidence for Christianity. Those religions aren’t founded on testimony to an empirical fact. Let S be the claim “X is swell,” let BS be the claim “various devotees of X believe that X is swell,” and let D be the claim “various devotees of X have been willing to die for the claim that X is swell.” (You can fill in X with either a religious or a political ideology.) The problem is that, for an ideology, P(BS|S) and P(BS|~S) are about on a par. And this is not the case with P(E|R) and P(E|~R), from above.

So the whole attempt to make an analogy between witnesses to a fact and devotees of an ideology breaks down here. The sincerity of the former is, ceteris paribus, serious evidence that the factual claim is true; the sincerity of the latter is not, as such, serious evidence that the ideology is swell.

We can all agree that risky behavior in the advocacy of belief X establishes someone strongly believes that others should believe X.

That is an odd way to describe it. I should say that risky behavior in advocacy of belief X, in the absence of alternative motives, establishes that someone in fact himself strongly believes that X.

But such strong beliefs also jack up the probability of biased perception, memory, embellishment of accounts of what happened, all in the service of getting others to believe in X.

Why think a thing like that? By this line of reasoning, I should start worrying about whether my kids exist, since I have a very strong belief that they do. Confidence and accuracy are, after all, generally correlated; we need some specific evidence to show that this correlation breaks down in some particular instance.

Someone who becomes a "witness" for something (in the Christian sense of that term as used nowadays) is typically less reliable than an impartial person. The "witness" will say whatever they can that will convince others to believe X. Some of them are incredibly charismatic and effective in their persuasive skills. 2000 years ago such personalities likely had greater influence than they do now (we can easily insulate ourselves from subcultures and beliefs we wish to avoid).

This line of argument introduces a change in the meaning of the term “witness” from “observer” to something like “propagandist.” Why should anyone think that the original observers were wildly charismatic propagandists?

Victor and others seem to consistently overestimate people's abilities (even as eyewitnesses) to be objective. If someone "sees" Benny Hinn heal someone's blindness, and converts to his brand of Christianity, does that make her a more reliable witness for Hinn than if she were a mere dispassionate reporter of things?

If anyone had maintained that this was a fair parallel to a description of the apostles, then this argument would seriously undermine that position. But I don’t think anyone involved in this conversation takes that line.

[to be continued]

Tim said...

BDK

While it is effective in courts, it is clear that eyewitness testimony can be extremely unreliable. . . .

I find this line of criticism unpersuasive for multiple reasons:

(1) The statistic cited is compatible with any finite degree of reliability of eyewitness testimony whatsoever. Taking the statistic at face value for the sake of the argument, if there were 8 overturnings on DNA evidence out of 4,000 cases, all that is shown is that eyewitness testimony has been found to be 0.2% of such cases. What about the other 99.8%? This statistic doesn’t say anything one way or the other. Note this line from the second of the two articles you linked: “[M]ost laboratory studies and real world data indicate that eyewitnesses are most often correct in their identifications” -- not always, of course, but most often.

(2) The first of the sources for which you provided links (and thanks very much for that, by the way, since it allows us to get a view of the data from which you are working) is a mixed bag. The data to which Tversky and Fisher allude does show (what I think few people ever doubted) that changes of detail can be introduced by framing of questions and other well-understood factors. I am surprised that this known effect is not more frequently taken up as an argument on the Christian side against the complaint about various minor discrepancies in the gospels. Unfortunately, Tversky and Fisher go pretty far overboard when they plunge into speculative skepticism: “Indeed, since the very act of forming a memory creates distortion, how can anyone uncover the ‘truth’ behind a person’s statements?” Universal acids, anyone? Give me back my Blackstone, Starkie, and Greenleaf ...

(3) The second link provides some interesting information that helps to put some limits on the skepticism of Tversky and Fisher. Factors listed as correlating with inaccurate testimony include darkness, brevity of the event, and weapon focus; a common error in reporting is the overestimation of the duration of short events and the underestimation of the duration of long ones. One of the major studies cited involved the recollection of faces and mug shots – all, presumably, of people the subjects had never seen before. Jack Lipton’s 1977 study also involved total strangers and a brief, unexpected scuffle.

It is useful to read these studies in the context of some of the other work on eyewitness testimony. Sanders and Warnick, “Some conditions maximizing eyewitness accuracy: a learning/memory analogy,” Journal of Legal Studies 8 (1980): 395-403, find that the ordinary conditions that affect memory affect the accuracy of testimony just as one would expect. Clifford and Scott, “Individual and situational factors in eyewitness testimony,” Journal of Applied Psychology 63 (1978): 352-59, find that violent incidents are more likely to be inaccurately remembered than non-violent incidents.

There is no evidence that any of these factors was involved in the experience of the first witnesses. The evidence we actually do have from the Gospels tells against it. The women went to the tomb about daybreak, but the sun had risen by the time they got there. Mary’s encounter with Jesus came after she had run back to tell Peter and Mark what they had found. The men on the road to Emmaus encountered Jesus in broad daylight; by the time they rushed back to Jerusalem, Peter had also seen the Lord. None of the scenes as described contains violence of any kind. Hallucinations also will not explain the report of the empty tomb, or why it was that in the middle of the 2nd century the Jews were still sending men from city to city to spread the story that the disciples stole the body.

In fine, virtually all of the first century evidence will have to be explained away for a theory of this sort to work. And I think that is what Vic and I and some others find so curious: alternatives to the resurrection always have to explain things away.

[to be continued]

Tim said...

BDK

The hallucination theory is only one hypothesis of how early Christians could have been in error, but it seems just as reasonable to say the seed was other, perhaps even borderline hallucinations akin to seeing Mother Mary in the clouds (this happens all the time!).

After the seed was planted that Jesus was walking about for 40 days (perhaps multiple sightings by many people, just as we have with Mary or Elvis) a more detailed story was built with each telling. Some from lies, some with truth, perhaps some misperceptions: it is impossible to tell for any individual claim. By the time the stories are written down they have filtered through multiple cycles of retelling that amplify the biases of the zealots, the stories become more groomed.

It seems just as likely that such stories were generated by complex falsehood-generating mechanisms as described above (just as the stories about alien abductees could be embellished and build up over time).

I would agree that a lot of crazy crap had to go right for this misguided cabal of zealots to end up influencing the evolution of the most powerful institutional forces on the planet. I guess where you see evidence of miracles of God, I see evidence of luck.


If I am understanding your proposal, it runs something like this:

1. Someone, perhaps several people, mistakenly thought that they saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion; they just misidentified someone else as Jesus, like witnesses making a mistake in a police lineup.

2. They spread their stories; this is the “seed.”

3. More people got worked up and claimed that they, also, saw Jesus.

4. Over time, some confabulation and elaboration of the stories brought about the accounts that we have today in the Gospels.

If that’s it, I have multiple serious objections. But I won’t level them until you have a chance to correct any misapprehension I may be under here.

Don't take lack of response a lack of interest, or a concession. :)

I never do. And I think I can trust you to return the favor.

But come on, you truly believe based on 2000 year old zealot texts, that some dude was literally raised from the dead? How can that not sound simply incredible?

(1) I do not think that they were, in the relevant sense of the term, zealots.

(2) The texts give a detailed picture of events that hangs together remarkably well in ways that forgeries do not. And we do have forgeries from the 2nd century, when the original witnesses were dead, so we can get a baseline here.

(3) The only legitimate meaning I can see in the so-called “outsider test” comes down to this: “Be fair in your evaluation of evidence. Try to be objective.” Okay. But this is not exactly a novel proposal, nor is it something that the best Christian scholars on the subject have been unwilling to do.

Walter said...

For me this type of argument hinges on the gospel narratives--and Acts--being historically accurate to a pretty high degree. If those particular accounts are more fiction than history, then we have no real insight into what happened to spark "Jesus belief" in first-century Palestine.

Tim Says:In large measure, I agree. But I am persuaded by abundant evidence, both internal and external, that they are in very large measure historically accurate accounts, comparing in this respect quite favorably with much of the material that Roman historians use all the time. (Suetonius, for example.)


I guess this is the main point where we differ. I am persuaded that the gospels are largely fictional tales spun for a specific purpose by authors that were most likely not the original disciples of the historical Jesus. I believe that the gospel narratives were crafted by quote mining the Septuagint for any passage that looked like it could be applied "prophetically" to Jesus. I believe the documents are not historically accurate, but of course I have no way of proving that to your satisfaction.

Disclaimer: I am not a NT scholar, just a blue-collar worker that reads too much. I know that I am out of my league attempting to go head-to-head with someone like Tim. My ideas about the gospels come from a wide range of liberal Christian and skeptical scholars, and I find the evidence against gospel historicity to be very compelling. I actually lean more towards Deism than atheism so I am not completely against the idea of miracles; I am just not sold on the Resurrection accounts.

Blue Devil Knight said...

I said:
*We can all agree that risky behavior in the advocacy of belief X establishes someone strongly believes that others should believe X.

Tim responded:
**That is an odd way to describe it. I should say that risky behavior in advocacy of belief X, in the absence of alternative motives, establishes that someone in fact himself strongly believes that X.

But in the context of arguing about whether martyr-like behavior conclusively shows that they believed X, these are operationally very hard to tell apart.

Also, of course you are right that strong belief is not sufficient for unreliability. But add to that strong belief that others should believe, in things that violate common sense, fly in the face of everything we know about how the world works, and you have a recipe for a biased interlocutor. Otherwise you end up buying real estate on UFOs if you aren't careful.

At any rate, strong belief is certainly not evidence of credibility or the target belief being true. It is evidence that either they believe X, or want others to believe X (my 9-11 analogy was important in this regard).

Tim summarized my view as:
1. Someone, perhaps several people, mistakenly thought that they saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion

Yes.

As for details:
[t]hey just misidentified someone else as Jesus, like witnesses making a mistake in a police lineup.

Not necessarily. That probably happened for some of the putative witnesses (e.g., Elvis and Jim Morrison sightings). I think it is also likely that some had visions that were based on faulty pattern recognition (Mary in the Cloud type phenomena, this seems a more reasonable explanation of the possible tomb sighting). I think it reasonable that a group were extremely distraught, and just like the Morrison and Elvis followers, start to "see" him places. And people believe it.

And I don't even need to be so vanilla. For all we know there even could have been some mischevious people people dressing like Jesus to play a practical joke on what they considered to be this blaspheming group of nutballs. Or even spreading lies that they had seen him, planting seeds in these poor gullible distraught Christians.

Some have brought up facts from history as parallels, e.g., people asking if I believe Julius Caesar existed. Sure, that's not an incredible claim! I don't believe kooky claims without really good evidence. Especially when they come from True Believers that want to convert me to their incredible system of thought.

When Tim talks he tries to make it sound reasonable and matter-of-fact. But buried in there is this off-the-charts incredible claim that a man literally was brought back from the dead. If that was part of Julius Caesar's story, I wouldn't buy it either without great evidence. As I've said, it would take a lot to get me to believe it now with my own eyes, much less transmitted through the distoring medium of a religion's advocates. Claims about religion are just not as innocuous as those about having a kid, or a kidney. Ya'll have to see that right? It's not 'history as usual'.

Blue Devil Knight said...

What Walter said seems right to me.

Mark said...

One of the many problems with this theory is that it makes the original testifiers liars. Under this hypothesis, then, we must understand them as deliberately violating what they presented as the high ethical standard to which they (ostensibly) held both themselves and others.

I don't think we have a clear sense if their ethical standards would have permitted lying about evidence in order to convince others of some extremely important truth.

Another is that there isn’t the slightest trace of an attempt to convince others of a vindicated but non-resurrected Jesus, whereas we have a very straightforward explanation of what they actually did say in the months immediately following the crucifixion.

Keep in mind that I wasn't suggesting there's any particular evidence behind the theory I mentioned (let's call it "WIF", or "Well-Intentioned Fraud"); I only haphazardly threw it out there to highlight the fact that martyrdom wouldn't decisively refute fraud (although I misunderstood BDK, and agree with him that it'd probably decisively refute "casual fraud"). However, if you really want to press the hypothetical proponent of WIF, he could reply that the disciples might've decided very quickly - say, over the course of a couple days - that the only way to keep the embryonic Christian community from falling apart was to conduct the fraud. Would that be very unlikely?

Can you point to any other religious movement that is founded on the willingness of its first practitioners to endure great hardships, without any prospect of earthly gain, for the sake of what they knew was an outright lie?

What do you mean "for the sake of what they knew was an outright lie?" The WIF theory doesn't entail that the disciples endured hardships for known lies; it entails that they endured hardships for earnest beliefs which they falsified evidence about in order to spread.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Yes, I think Tim glossing over the distinction between riskiness in the service of believe X versus riskiness in the service of advocating others believe X is important for reasons Mark gets at.

Also, Tim keeps focusing on the big difference between a religion founded on witnesses versus others. I don't think Christianity was founded with the putative resurrection of Christ. He had many followers before that, many people with strong motives to continue his legacy after his death. That resurrection was just one of many putative miracles in the long line they had been advocating as his followers and advocates.

So the analogy with Benny Hinn is fine. It's as if he were to die, and people were to see him after his death. His followers, for the most part. Not auspicious epistemically.

It's not as if with the putative resurrection Christianity was founded. That's a really important distinction too, and tends to make even less important this supposed importance of having eyewitnesses willing to die for their belief in this miracle. Well, most of them had pre-existing strong beliefs about Jesus, so things are a lot more complicated.

The evidence about the resurrection so radically underdetermines the truth, we end up with a rorschach test that reveals our priors, not the truth. If logic/evidence were sufficient, I'd be a Christian.

However, Tim, I will read your manuscript which I only briefly looked over so far. It would be a service for the skeptics if Loftus et al who have been steeped in these kinds of historical details did a detailed analysis. Ken Pullian would be perfect actually he seems sane and reasonable.

Gregory said...

About people seeing the Virgin Mary in Guadalupe.....I'm not sure that they didn't see her. And I haven't heard of any "scientific" evidence that has refuted this claim.

What's a "mass hallucination"? It is an instance where a "mass" of people hallucinate.....like at a Grateful Dead concert. It is not strange or peculiar that a group of people are having hallucinations at the same time. And the key word here is the plural "hallucinations"....which suggests a multiplicity and diversity of experiences. And the type of experience each person has is going to depend on things like: climate, mood/temperament, social setting, spatial position, time of day (i.e. relative circadian rhythms), body chemistry, physical build/size, individual fortitude, diet, upbringing, education, etc. Therefore, it is highly unlikely, perhaps physically impossible, that even 2 people could/would have the same hallucinatory experiences.

But in a case where a "mass" of people claim to have seen and heard the same thing at the same time.....it is far more likely, and more plausible, to say that they objectively observed the same event, rather than commending an explanatory hypothesis as superstitious and incredible as "the fortuitous arrangement of atoms"; whatever that's supposed to mean.

But if somebody is willing to believe that a universe can mysteriously appear, some 15-20 billion years ago, and morph itself into the universe we enjoy and observe today--"...with no prevision of the ends to which it was achieving..."--, then I suppose such a person is willing to believe in anything. So why not believe the Gospel?

Crude said...

BDK,

a-f all seem more plausible than the claim that someone literally was resurrected from the dead, so I'm not sure why things are getting any more strange for the naturalist. It seems as scholarship progresses it only gets easier for the naturalist. But I do admit, not all of a-f are equally plausible!

Yes, a-f aren't all equally plausible - but what little plausibility they do have leans heavily on a presumption of naturalism to begin with. Once that presumption goes away (or worse, a mere theistic belief is brought to the table), it becomes a vastly harder sell. And even with a commitment to naturalism brought in as a prior, the best that's offered up is "Well I can imagine something like this happening with a whole lot of exceptional luck taking place." I think the reliance on "luck" - traditional naturalism's "miracle" - shows what a tight spot the person taking that line is coming from. And it also shows just how loose a set of rules naturalists are playing with.

As for why things are getting weirder for the naturalist, it's in part because the view of the "natural" world has been revised such that what anyone would call resurrections or miracles are no longer strictly impossible events on naturalism. Again, cue Carl Sagan's quantum tunneling example with the car, among other modern examples.

You yourself are putting a whole lot of stress on the resurrection being incredible to believe because it violates common sense, flies in the face of how we know the world works, etc. I'm pointing out what some/many/a growing number of naturalists consider strictly possible or even likely given what we now know or think about "how the world works", and pointing out how that affects the stance towards "miracles". As I said, the whole argument is getting more and more weird for the naturalist.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Finally, yes Tim you are right I used a different sense of witness purposefully and put it in scare quotes. The problem is that the supposed witnesses were also "witnesses" (in the modern sense of the term as used by Christians). Where are the Roman and Jewish accounts of sightings of Jesus after his death? He supposedly walked around for 40 days, where are the indepenent (i.e., not by advocates) sources?

Blue Devil Knight said...

Crude: tunneling is silly, Sagan was being a dork when he said that. Think it through, it isn't a plausible naturalistic mechanism for resurrection. For this naturalist, I would believe it if someone I was close to came back preaching the gospel of Christ.

If there were good evidence of miracles I would believe, and my standards are not that crazy. There are tons of things I would count as a miracle, that would instantly change my worldview. THe world is filled with people like me, who just need some evidence. God is failing by not doing more to show he is real.

Gregory said...

Lastly, all "martyrdom's" are not created equally. Scripture says:

"...though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profits me nothing."

and

"For this is commendable, if because of conscience towards God one endures grief, suffering wrongly. For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God."

---1 Cor. 13:3 and 1 Peter 2:19,20

Therefore, it is possible to be a "martyr" but not receive any "crown".

Looking at it from another angle: if you believe that you are guaranteed to have sex with a grip load of Arab honey's at Allah's "Strip and Dip" Dude Ranch in the sky...if you suicide bomb a bus load of people...then your "martyrdom" doesn't mean a whole lot. It is 0% risk with 100% benefit. What's more, it is believed that Allah's sovereign will and power is the thing guiding and determining all human action anyway. How could you lose?

For the Prophets, Apostles, Christian Martyrs and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, there were definite opinions they faced, especially among Jews, about the dire repercussions facing those who "fall away" (i.e. apostasy) from the faith of historic Judaism. In other words, there was significant "risk" involved.

In the case of the death of the Lord Jesus, his disciples had a strong reason to doubt whether Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah, because of His untimely crucifixion. It was widely understood and believed, among ancient Israeli's, that anyone who had been hung from a tree was--and by that fact alone--"cursed/damned" by God. In order for them to acquiesce the authenticity of the Savior's claims, and to further demonstrate the grace and mercy of God toward the unbelieving, God even raised Jesus from among the dead as a testimony to those who had still doubted...in order to dispel all doubt!!!

That is why the Apostles, Saints and Martyrs were not only willing---in many cases, some would say that they were too "willing"---but joyful about the prospects of shedding their own blood, peacefully and graciously, for the sake of Christ. I know many men who accept that they must die. But I have met very few who are willing and joyful about it....let alone, are willing and joyful about submitting themselves to humiliating, and painful, torture and execution---even facing the possibility of eternal damnation!!!

That is not even remotely analogous to Jim Jones, Joseph Smith, Jihadist suicide bombers, fringe Cults, "radicals" like the so-called "Sovereign Citizens" and "Black Panthers", etc. In fact, those are cases of homicide, not "martyrdom". In fact, Christianity, alone, has unambiguous and overwhelming historic testimony of authentic martyrdom....even up to the present.

What atheist has ever been willing to die for atheism? And if religion is such a blight to their conscience, then why not opt for non-existence? Hey..the pain might last a few moments, but then it's all over. Forever.

I'm speaking rhetorically, of course. I wouldn't wish or hope suicide on even my worst enemies. I'd rather endure endless rants and tirades against God than endure even the thought of someone taking their own life.

Tim said...

Walter,

I understand where you're coming from, and I think it's admirable that you read a lot. Would you be interested in seeing a serious (not overwhelmingly technical, but not canned-for-Sunday-school-consumption) presentation of the case for the other side?

Gregory said...

"The gallows in my garden, people say,
Is new and neat and adequately tall;
I tie the noose on in a knowing way
As one that knots his necktie for a ball;

But just as all the neighbours--on the wall--
Are drawing a long breath to shout "Hurray!"
The strangest whim has seized me--After all, I think I will not hang myself to-day.

To-morrow is the time I get my pay--
My uncle's sword is hanging in the hall--
I see a little cloud all pink and grey--Perhaps the rector's mother will not call

I fancy that I heard from Mr. Gall
That mushrooms could be cooked another way--
I never read the works of Juvenal--
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

The world will have another washing-day;
The decadents decay; the pedants pall;
And H.G. Wells has found that children play and Bernard Shaw discovered that they squall,
Rationalists are growing rational--

And through thick woods one finds a stream astray
So secret that the very sky seems small--
I think I will not hang myself to-day.

ENVOI

Prince, I can hear the trumpet of Germinal,
The tumbrils toiling up the terrible way;
Even to-day your royal head may fall,
I think I will not hang myself to-day."

- G.K. Chesterton

Crude said...

BDK,

Crude: tunneling is silly, Sagan was being a dork when he said that. Think it through, it isn't a plausible naturalistic mechanism for resurrection. For this naturalist, I would believe it if someone I was close to came back preaching the gospel of Christ.

I didn't say it was a "plausible naturalistic mechanism", whatever you mean by that. I was pointing out that something which would be considered strictly impossible once upon a time is now not so. And I think there is a considerable difference between "this is impossible, given what we know about how the world works" and "this is possible". Even if it's qualified with "this is possible, but tremendously unlikely to happen by chance".

Sagan was just one example. The naturalist's world just keeps getting weirder, and that weirdness circles back to the arguments about "miracles".

If there were good evidence of miracles I would believe, and my standards are not that crazy. There are tons of things I would count as a miracle, that would instantly change my worldview. THe world is filled with people like me, who just need some evidence. God is failing by not doing more to show he is real.

Christ's resurrection wasn't meant to prove that God existed. In fact, if you're looking to the Bible for proof that God exists, I think you've got your steps out of order. Even St Paul never said "We know God exists because of this miracle" or words to that effect - quite the opposite in fact. (Yes, there are arguments from miracles to God, but again, that just was never the point of the resurrection, even by the Bible's own standards.)

Tim said...

BDK:

But in the context of arguing about whether martyr-like behavior conclusively shows that they believed X, these are operationally very hard to tell apart.

I’m trying to reconstruct your argument here. Is it this?

1. If someone is prepared to endure martyrdom rather than renounce his beliefs, then he is likely, on that account, either (a) to be willing to falsify the evidence or (b) to be subconsciously prone to radical distortion in his presentation of that evidence to other people.

Therefore,

2. If the members of the core group of the earliest Christians were prepared to endure martyrdom rather than renounce their beliefs, then they are likely, on that account, either (a) to be willing to falsify the evidence or (b) to be subconsciously prone to radical distortion in their presentation of that evidence to other people.

Also, of course you are right that strong belief is not sufficient for unreliability. But add to that strong belief that others should believe, in things that violate common sense, fly in the face of everything we know about how the world works, and you have a recipe for a biased interlocutor.

I don’t think this is obvious, at least not without the introduction of further premises that you haven’t specified. Perhaps part of the difficulty is that it is not clear to me what you mean by “things that violate common sense.” Do you mean “types of things that are not seen in the course of daily life by the vast majority of the people who have ever lived”?

At any rate, strong belief is certainly not evidence of credibility or the target belief being true. It is evidence that either they believe X, or want others to believe X (my 9-11 analogy was important in this regard).

I think you continue to miss Jenkin’s point here, which is really quite straightforward. I gave you a Bayesian analysis, but perhaps that was too technical. So here’s a boiled-down version: if the target belief is one that it is very difficult to be mistaken about, then all else being equal, sincere belief does count as evidence of truth.

Tim summarized my view as:
...
[t]hey just misidentified someone else as Jesus, like witnesses making a mistake in a police lineup.

Not necessarily. That probably happened for some of the putative witnesses (e.g., Elvis and Jim Morrison sightings). I think it is also likely that some had visions that were based on faulty pattern recognition (Mary in the Cloud type phenomena, this seems a more reasonable explanation of the possible tomb sighting).

So you’re saying that some of them saw a Jesus-shaped cloud and mistook it for ... ? I’m sorry, I’m honestly not trying to misrepresent what you’re saying here, but I just can’t figure out where this one is going.

I think it reasonable that a group were extremely distraught, and just like the Morrison and Elvis followers, start to "see" him places. And people believe it.

Why didn’t this happen with Bar Kochba?

And I don't even need to be so vanilla. For all we know there even could have been some mischevious people people dressing like Jesus to play a practical joke on what they considered to be this blaspheming group of nutballs. Or even spreading lies that they had seen him, planting seeds in these poor gullible distraught Christians.

So you’re suggesting that -- perhaps -- there were very early Jewish Jesus impersonators, kind of like Elvis impersonators, who went out pretending to be Jesus in order to tweak the noses of his disciples.

I have to say, taking the Jewish context seriously, I think that is even less plausible than the claim that Richard Carrier owns an interstellar space ship.

[to be continued]

Tim said...

BDK

Some have brought up facts from history as parallels, e.g., people asking if I believe Julius Caesar existed. Sure, that's not an incredible claim! I don't believe kooky claims without really good evidence. Especially when they come from True Believers that want to convert me to their incredible system of thought.

When Tim talks he tries to make it sound reasonable and matter-of-fact. But buried in there is this off-the-charts incredible claim that a man literally was brought back from the dead. If that was part of Julius Caesar's story, I wouldn't buy it either without great evidence. As I've said, it would take a lot to get me to believe it now with my own eyes, much less transmitted through the distoring medium of a religion's advocates. Claims about religion are just not as innocuous as those about having a kid, or a kidney. Ya'll have to see that right? It's not 'history as usual'.


The question we’re discussing right now is not whether the claim to the resurrection is believable, but what the nature and force of the evidence for that claim is. I agree with Thomas Sherlock when he writes:

I do allow that this case, and others of like nature, require more evidence to give them credit than ordinary cases do; you may therefore require more evidence in these than in other cases; but it is absurd to say, that such cases admit no evidence, when the things in question are manifestly objects of sense.

And apparently you agree too. The questions, therefore, are (a) how much more? and (b) do we in fact have it?

Also, Tim keeps focusing on the big difference between a religion founded on witnesses versus others. I don't think Christianity was founded with the putative resurrection of Christ. ... It's not as if with the putative resurrection Christianity was founded.

Here I have to disagree in the strongest possible terms. Before the resurrection, Jesus was viewed as a profound teacher and a worker of wonders, even (by his inner circle) as the promised Messiah; but all of this was embedded firmly in the context of Judaism. The pre-existing beliefs of the disciples could not plausibly have given rise to the notion of Jesus’ resurrection. Every single scrap of evidence from the earliest sources of the New Testament -- the creeds embedded in Acts and the epistles -- indicates that the resurrection of Jesus was the initial and central message of the first Christians.

He had many followers before that, many people with strong motives to continue his legacy after his death.

It isn’t clear to me why you would think this given the way that he died.

That resurrection was just one of many putative miracles in the long line they had been advocating as his followers and advocates.

From the perspective of a first-century Jew, if he had been crushed by the might of Rome at the instigation of the malicious Jewish leaders, then he was not the Messiah. Nothing could be further from this than the Benny Hinn analogy.

[to be continued]

Tim said...

BDK

The evidence about the resurrection so radically underdetermines the truth, we end up with a rorschach test that reveals our priors, not the truth. If logic/evidence were sufficient, I'd be a Christian.

I accept that you sincerely believe this. But for obvious reasons, your estimate of your own rationality cannot function as a datum in the argument over the question of fact.

However, Tim, I will read your manuscript which I only briefly looked over so far. It would be a service for the skeptics if Loftus et al who have been steeped in these kinds of historical details did a detailed analysis. Ken Pullian would be perfect actually he seems sane and reasonable.

As time permits, I would welcome a serious engagement on these topics with anyone who is consistently sane, reasonable, and polite.

Where are the Roman and Jewish accounts of sightings of Jesus after his death? He supposedly walked around for 40 days, where are the indepenent (i.e., not by advocates) sources?

Four points in response to this argument from silence:

(1) Rome took little notice of eccentric itinerant religious teachers on the eastern rim of the empire.

(2) Very little written work has come down to us from antiquity during the decades when most of the New Testament was being written, and what we have is not the sort of literature in which one would expect to see any accounts of sightings of Jesus. Jewish records, if any were in fact made, were probably lost when Titus destroyed Jerusalem.

(3) Anyone who did see the resurrected Jesus would almost inevitably become a Christian. As that point, however, if I am understanding you correctly, he would become an advocate and would therefore no longer count as an independent source. So under that interpretation, this is more or less a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose request.

(4) If that interpretation is too stringent -- if you merely want someone who was not one of Jesus’ disciples or followers prior to his crucifixion but was a witness to his having appeared alive after the crucifixion -- then, according to one of the earliest creeds, you can count his brother, James.

Walter said...

So you’re saying that some of them saw a Jesus-shaped cloud and mistook it for ... ? I’m sorry, I’m honestly not trying to misrepresent what you’re saying here, but I just can’t figure out where this one is going.

Religious Pareidolia is what BDK is referring to, I believe.

Walter said...

I understand where you're coming from, and I think it's admirable that you read a lot. Would you be interested in seeing a serious (not overwhelmingly technical, but not canned-for-Sunday-school-consumption) presentation of the case for the other side?

I do not mind reading the best arguments from both sides. I just have doubts that you will produce anything that I have not already seen or read before. I was raised as an independent fundamental baptist and went to a private Christians school from first grade through the twelfth. I had daily bible study five days a week for over ten years. Of course, our studies were devotional and not focused on apologetics. I am not ignorant of the Christian evidence. As Joe Average all I can do is read the arguments put forth by the experts, then make up my own mind as to which side has the best case. At present, the pendulum has swung to the skeptical side.

Tim said...

Walter,

Right: I'm just not at all sure how BDK thinks he can get from pareidolia to the sincere belief that Jesus had actually been physically raised from the dead. Do we have a track record of this?

As far as the arguments for the historicity of the Gospels are concerned, I think it is possible, notwithstanding your personal history, that I may have some things you haven't seen. In my experience, most pastors and a frightening percentage of seminary professors are almost wholly ignorant of the evidence for the historicity of the gospels. If you're interested in pursuing this, drop me a line. (If you can't find my email address, ask Vic for it.)

Walter said...

What I find a little too convenient is the "fact" that in the gospel stories the risen Jesus never physically appears to anyone but his closest followers. How much more convincing would it have been had Jesus appeared to his enemies such as Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, etc., with signed documentation from these people? Or perhaps he could have ascended in front of all of Jerusalem, with multiple reports coming in from the literate people in the area of a guy flying up through the clouds.

Second, if the culmination of God's revelation to man is the work of Jesus on the cross, then why would God not have miraculously preserved the original documents written by these supposed eyewitnesses? Why does our manuscript evidence mostly come from the third-century and later, where the texts have probably been heavily edited and filled with interpolations? Why would Jesus not have bothered to leave us any writings of his own, but instead relied on fallible human authors to chronicle his grand tale decades after his death? If the most pivotal event in the history of the humankind is Jesus' resurrection, then it seems odd that God was so utterly inefficient in the methods he employed in spreading this most important message across the globe. Unless the Calvinists are right and God really does not wish all mankind to believe?

TheCharles said...

I am a newcomer to the blog, but a long time lurker.

One thing that I think it is useful to keep in mind is that oral traditions in middle eastern culture are much more controlled than they are in western culture. I met Kenneth Bailey once. He did a study of oral tradition in the middle east. (Bailey, Kenneth. “Informal, Controlled, Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels.” Asia Journal of Theology. 5.1 (1991) 34-54.) I looked for a summary online, one of the first that popped up is here

http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/article_tradition_bailey.html

He lived in the middle east for 40 years and understands the culture that grew out of the ancient middle east in a way that is largely unparalleled among biblical scholars. He is an Episcopalian priest, IIRC.

An interesting anecdote from his article, from a web site that I can no longer find, is below

"Bailey relates a tradition of the founder of the Egyptian Evangelical community, John Hogg. Hogg found the community in the 1850s and 1860s and there were many traditions of what he did. 50 years later, his daughter wrote the material based purely on oral stories told to her. Then 50 years later, Bailey separately and independently dipped into the same tradition in 1955-1965. Bailey found the same stories told with almost identical wording (Bailey 46-47). Neither exaggeration or embellishment occurred."

What is interesting is that the process by which history becomes legend and legend becomes myth takes a very different path in cultures where important knowledge is passed down orally, as is the case that we are talking about here, ancient reports of a miracle.


Also, BDK, I work at Duke in ECE. Congratulations on the family addition, daughters are a special joy. We are expecting our second daughter (and third child) in early September.

Walter said...

Is There a Place for Historical Criticism? by Robert M. Price

I found this article very interesting concerning the historical accuracy of the gospels.

Ken said...

Ken said: Ancient history is insufficiently precise to determine precisely what happened in localized, obscure or remote incidents of the distant past. Any single, simple proposed hypothesis as to what exactly happened amounts to speculation on a par with conspiracy theories, naturally caused or otherwise.

Tim asks: Have you arrived at this conclusion through a serious study of localized or remote incidents of the distant past?

I've seriously thought about history involving long-dead people and alleged incidents and have concluded it has inherent limitations.

I'm pointing out that a distinction should be made between major historical events and individual incidents occurring in a historical context.

Tim said: All of this might be said of the documents of Roman history. The question is not how much evidence has vanished -- that is great in all cases of ancient history -- but the adequacy of the evidence that remains.

Please don't confuse something like the battle of Teutoburg Forest with the alleged incidents involving a local religious leader. This is exactly what I mean about Christians equating major historic events with lesser incidents (at the time) that merely occur in a historical context. We can accept that big public and political events occurred more or less as written, but for fringe incidents involving few people, there's lots of room for doubt about the accuracy.

Ken said: To discuss gospels as "historical evidence" grossly over-dignifies what amounts to ancient printed gossip.

Tim asks: I do understand this assertion, but it does not seem to be the outcome of any compelling line of argument. Is there something you have read that leads you to think that this is the proper genre for the Gospels?

I've read that the gospels are transcribed from orally transmitted stories at least 30-35 years after Jesus' death. I also read that factual stories -could possibly- be transmitted orally (speech or traditional song) more accurately than what would normally occur today, but that pesky thirty-year gap still leaves lots of time for redactions and omissions. I've read that the gospels provide a comparatively detailed historical record of a religious movement. But I've also read that the gospels do differ enough in style and content to say that they will never be even close to par with modern word for word transcriptions of witness testimony, with knowing about witness backgrounds and the state of their mental health, transparency of methods of investigation or a standard transcription process. But it's mostly my own common sense that has led me to think that way.

I can idly say that the gospels are little more than gossip just as you can say that they may reflect incidents clearly and accurately, but the fact that we both don't know favors my skeptical view. It's like potato and egg salad that's been left out of the fridge too long. If we knew with certainty it was contaminated with botulinum bacteria, of course we'd throw it out. If we're not sure one way or the other, we'd throw it out just the same. We might even throw it out if we have the slightest doubt. For gospel stories out in the elements for over thirty years, and then refrigerated for another 1950 years, common sense tells us to throw it out.

Victor Reppert said...

Walter: He did appear to one of his enemies. Fellow from Tarsus.

Tim said...

TheCharles,

Thanks for the reference to Kenneth Bailey's work, which is important and has been extended in some recent studies. I have a copy of the article from which you are quoting; if you need a copy, drop me a note and I'll email it to you.

Tim said...

Walter,

I'm quite familiar with Robert Price's work. Among many other problems with this particular article, Price misrepresents the argument being made by Smith, Bruce, and others. The claim is not that legendary stories cannot arise within a window of 30 years: it is that they will not, in that span of time, attain the status of gospel truth, unchallenged by any remnant of the actual story, within a community such as the early church. So the entire Sabbatai Sevi "parallel" is a red herring.

Price's interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15 is, in my judgment, demonstrably false. The Jewish conception of resurrection was without exception physical. Price is torturing the text and trading on an ambiguity in the English word "spiritual" here. I can go into detail on this point if you want to take up this issue.

Price's penchant for parallelomania comes out in his claims regarding Apollonius of Tyana. He carefully refrains from mentioning that Philostratus's Life of Apollonius of Tyana was written over a hundred years after the decease of the protagonist and was, in various rather obvious ways, a deliberate rip-off of the Gospels.

You should be aware that Price's position on the historical Jesus is so far out of the main stream of secular scholarship that he is not considered to be a serious historian even by Bart Ehrman. (Bart can hardly be accused of fundamentalist bias!) I strongly suggest that you spend your time reading the work of more serious scholars.

Walter said...

Walter: He did appear to one of his enemies. Fellow from Tarsus.

A relative nobody that comes out of nowhere. The dramatic conversion of Pilate or Caiaphas would have been a little more convincing. Plus, Paul's experience definitely seems to be visionary. I am going off of Paul's undisputed letters and not the fanciful story found in Acts.

Why would Jesus not have stayed on earth as a living witness to God? Why rush off after a few weeks? Why would Jesus come to earth and start a ministry with 12 handpicked followers only to give his most detailed plan of salvation to some dude who was not even one of his chosen disciples? Why did Jesus waste time spending 40 days giving insider training to the disciples only to spread his message mostly through Paul? The story just does not wash for me.

Walter said...

You should be aware that Price's position on the historical Jesus is so far out of the main stream of secular scholarship that he is not considered to be a serious historian even by Bart Ehrman. (Bart can hardly be accused of fundamentalist bias!) I strongly suggest that you spend your time reading the work of more serious scholars.

It always reduces to dueling scholars, doesn't it? I knew that you were going to disparage Price just as you have done with Ehrman and any others that you feel do not draw the same conservative conclusions that you do. And frankly, Price is quite fed up with conservative apologists as well, and it shows in his latest book.

I just finished his latest book: The Case Against The Case for Christ. Loved the book; hated the title.

Steven Carr said...

VICTOR
He did appear to one of his enemies. Fellow from Tarsus.

CARR
And not even Paul could dredge up a single piece of eyewitness data as to what a resurrected body was supposed to be like.

Not even when trying to explain to scoffing Christian converts what a resurrected body was supposed to be like.

Even Acts was written knowing that no Christian would have believed that Paul had had anything more than hearing voices.

Tim said...

Walter,

Your objection is really theological rather than historical:

1. If Jesus rose again, God should have had the purpose of providing stronger evidence than the testimony of those who actually claimed to have seen Jesus.

2. For that purpose, He should have had Jesus appear to Caiaphas and Pilate.

3. That didn't happen.

Therefore,

4. Jesus didn't rise again.

But why should anyone find either premise 1 or premise 2 compelling?

As far as "dueling scholars" are concerned, I mention Ehrman's dismissal of Price only to show you that you are aligning yourself with the lunatic fringe as judged by the center-left. Price is occasionally an entertaining writer, and I am told that in person he can be quite charming. But as a scholar, he consistently exhibits spectacularly bad judgment.

And it isn't just "dueling scholars." I have illustrated this in three specific ways in my previous comment:

(a) Price misrepresents the views of his opponents and then attacks a straw man with the Sabbatai Sevi example,

(b) Price's interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15 is inconsistent with the Jewish conception of resurrection, and

(c) Price's use of "parallels" to Apollonius of Tyana is deceptive.

If I had time, I could point out many more such problems with Price's scholarship, even in that one essay. This is not a matter of subjective preference. You may like his writing; you may be entertained by his wit; you may want his conclusions to be true. But none of that will change the fact that his representations of his opponents are unfair and his conclusions are not supported by the actual facts.

Blue Devil Knight said...

TheCharles: that's an interesting study. I wonder what has been done on the formation of the final narrative that is subsequently passed along with such apparently high fidelity.

Walter said...

The claim is not that legendary stories cannot arise within a window of 30 years: it is that they will not, in that span of time, attain the status of gospel truth, unchallenged by any remnant of the actual story, within a community such as the early church. So the entire Sabbatai Sevi "parallel" is a red herring.

First off, the purpose of this thread is to convince us that the gospel stories ARE "gospel truth." To say that legends cannot become gospel truth within thirty years time seems to beg the question a little since this is exactly what we have not reached a conclusion on.

Price also responds on the apologetic argument that the early apostles were going around squelching heretical views everywhere as they popped up. If the written gospels were penned after the first Jewish-Roman war, then how many of Jesus' contemporaries would be around to correct misinformation that made it into our canonical gospels?

Let me add this as well: even if Price holds to a Mythicist view that I do not share, it does not mean that his scholarship is not spot-on in MANY areas. I would imagine that you yourself hold some views that a majority of NT scholars might consider to be fringe.

Bilbo said...

Hi BDK,

I just re-read your first expeerience of hilding Ella. She exhibited a sense of knowing you were someone she could instinctively trust.

That is the sense that many of us have of Jesus. And our eyes open wider as we get to know him.

Bilbo said...

oops..."holding"

Walter said...

Your objection is really theological rather than historical:

Yes, because the story is claimed to have theological significance.

1. If Jesus rose again, God should have had the purpose of providing stronger evidence than the testimony of those who actually claimed to have seen Jesus.

If God truly wished more people to believe the story, then what good reason would there be for him to withhold better evidence? Unless the Universalists or Calvinists are correct and it is either not necessary, or it does not suit God's purpose to give better evidence.

Bilbo said...

BTW, I don't know where else to write this, so since it is about trusting Jesus, I thought I would put it here.

I went back and re-read the story in Matthew 17 about Jesus telling Peter to catch a fish with the shekel. But this time I read a little earler. Jesus had just told the disciples again that he will "'be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.' And they were greatly distressed."

Then we get the story of people asking Peter if his master pays the half-shekel tax. I think Peter was worried about what Jesus had just told them about his being killed and wanted to protect Jesus however he could. So, "Yes, of course he pays the tax! What a silly question!" Then later he is confronted by Jesus about it.

I think the shekel in the fish was Jesus's way of telling Peter, don't worry, I'm in control. But I've got us both covered."

There may be even a deeper meaning. Jesus had said previously that the only sign that would be given would be the sign of Jonah, who had been swallowed by a fish, who chucked him up three days later. It could be that Jesus was saying to Peter, "Like it or not, I'm going in the fish. And since the shekel pays for both of us, you're going in there, too."

Tim said...

Walter,

First off, the purpose of this thread is to convince us that the gospel stories ARE "gospel truth." To say that legends cannot become gospel truth within thirty years time seems to beg the question a little since this is exactly what we have not reached a conclusion on.

The point is not that the stories are true; to assert that baldly in the context of our discussion would indeed be question begging. Rather, it is that the gospel accounts had a certain status in a community that was intensely interested in the history of its founder. If they were fabrications, then they would have had to fight their way into the belief structure of the early Christian community to supplant whatever had actually happened.

Note the disanalogies (none of which Price mentions to his readers) in the case of Sabbatai Sevi. Since Sevi quickly apostasized and became a Muslim to save his own life, there was not the same communal incentive to keep alive an authentic record of his actual works. Since his pretensions were entirely channeled through a single mouthpiece, Nathan, there was not a community containing other, equally authoritative witnesses to correct misinformation. This is a poor parallel all around.

Price also responds on the apologetic argument that the early apostles were going around squelching heretical views everywhere as they popped up.

The early church did correct errors as they arose. For example: Paul’s confrontation of Peter on the issue of associating with Gentile Christians (Galatians 2); the correction of the Thessalonians on the question of the parousia (2 Thessalonians 2); the instruction of the disciples of John the Baptist at Ephesus regarding the Holy Spirit (Acts 19); the instruction of Apollos by Priscilla and Aquila, who explained the way of God to him more adequately (Acts 18).

If the written gospels were penned after the first Jewish-Roman war, then how many of Jesus' contemporaries would be around to correct misinformation that made it into our canonical gospels?

Since I find Harnack’s argument that the Synoptics were all written before the mid 60s to be compelling, this is a moot question for me. But for the sake of the argument, let’s assume they were written around A.D. 80. Jesus was crucified about A.D. 30. To be able to give credible testimony regarding the events immediately following the crucifixion, a contemporary should have been at least a teenager in A.D. 30: let’s pick the age of 15. In the year 80, such people would have been 65 years old. Average life expectancy was no doubt somewhat shorter in the first century than it is today, but that number would be in no small part dragged down by infant mortality and the death of women in childbirth. A substantial number of people who could give firsthand testimony should still have been alive ten years after the destruction of Jerusalem. And the number of people who could give testimony to what those of the previous generation had said -- as my teenage daughter can give testimony to what the WWII vet living next door has told her about his experiences during the war -- would be very great.

Let me add this as well: even if Price holds to a Mythicist view that I do not share, it does not mean that his scholarship is not spot-on in MANY areas. I would imagine that you yourself hold some views that a majority of NT scholars might consider to be fringe.

You are the one who keeps complaining about “dueling scholars,” so I am not sure why you think this argument is important. But since you have brought it up: to the best of my knowledge, I do not hold any views about the New Testament that are not shared by hundreds, and in most cases thousands, of credentialed scholars. By contrast, not only Price’s mythicist views but also a number of his other views, such as his bizarre claim that 1 Corinthians 15:3-6 is an interpolation, have essentially no support in the entire community of New Testament scholarship.

Bilbo said...

Hi Walter,

I hope the Univeralists are right, but I worry. Why oh why do you keep screaming and crying? Why don't your eyes open wider? Is it because your sense of Jesus has been skewed by all that "Christian" upbringing? Or is it because you have chosen to be your own lord? I hope it's the latter, but fear it's the former.

Bilbo said...

oops..."hope it's the former, but fear it's the latter."

Bilbo said...

Should change my name to "Malapropism" OR "Dyslexic."

Bilbo said...

Better yet, "Malapoopism" or "Dyxlesic."

8 said...

well, what's the difference between a mormon claiming the Angel Moroni actually appeared to Joe Smith, and the baptist fundamentalist who claims..the reports of angelic visitations in the New Testament (ie Gabriel, etc) actually occurred?

Similarly is there a substantive difference between demanding proof of...the Resurrection, or demanding proof of Moroni, the golden plates, etc? If anything, given historical proximity, we are in a better position to attempt to prove Smith's visions...Moroni's. Or rather, disprove it,er debunk it, and the entire LDS scam. :|

Unlike the Book of Mormon, however, the Bible's a great story. And some of it probably even happened! But demanding it be taken literally seems about like demanding Tolkien--or Homer-- be taken literally.

Tim said...

Walter,

Your objection is really theological rather than historical:

Yes, because the story is claimed to have theological significance.

Since I think that speculative theology (“What would/should God have done under circumstances X?”) is on much shakier ground that historical investigation, I do not take such challenges very seriously.

If God truly wished more people to believe the story, then what good reason would there be for him to withhold better evidence?

There is a very substantial literature devoted to discussing this question and the assumptions lying behind it. The principal responses in English come from neither the Calvinists nor the Unitarians, but rather from the Anglicans. See, for example, the Anglican lawyer and theologian Joseph Butler, The Analogy of Religion (1736), Part II, chapter 6. Butler identifies the key assumptions behind this line of criticism:

Now the weakness of these opinions may be shewn by observing the suppositions on which they are founded: which are really such as these; that it cannot be thought God would have bestowed any favour at all upon us, unless in the degree, which, we think, He might, and which, we imagine, would be most to our particular advantage; and also that it cannot be thought He would bestow a favour upon any, unless He bestowed the same upon all: ...

For Butler’s response, see the whole chapter, but particularly paragraph 8.

See also William Paley, A View of the Evidences of Christianity (1794), Part III, chapter 6:

The question, therefore, is not, whether Christianity possesses the highest possible degree of evidence, but whether the not having more evidence be a sufficient reason for rejecting that which we have.

8 said...

Do we have absolute proof which would establish the accuracy of the reports of Tacitus, or Suetonius, or many other roman scribes--beyond a reasonable doubt? No.

Really, in evidentialist terms, any ancient history's suspect. A fortiori, the historical accuracy of an ancient religious text from a backwater of the republic cannot be assumed to be accurate, whatsoever--as both Gibbon and Hume realized. When Tacitus or others report of supernatural events--say the omens preceding Caesar's death--how does that differ from New Testament miracles? It doesn't.


Also scripture's not corroborated by...the official roman scribes, such as Tacitus. Wouldn't a resurrection be mentioned, at least somewhere in official records? And it should be remembered that historians, jurists, scholars swore to the gods to tell the truth--there was a sort of ritual for historians, jurists, etc, and ...libel or falsehoods were punishable, often by death. Also in Gibbon.

The believer who demands absolute historical accuracy ..is a philistine

Walter said...

I hope the Univeralists are right, but I worry. Why oh why do you keep screaming and crying? Why don't your eyes open wider? Is it because your sense of Jesus has been skewed by all that "Christian" upbringing? Or is it because you have chosen to be your own lord? I hope it's the latter, but fear it's the former.

Are you saying that my belonging to a false sect of Christianity is what has caused my current doubts? May I ask which sect of Christianity is the correct sect?

Walter said...

The question, therefore, is not, whether Christianity possesses the highest possible degree of evidence, but whether the not having more evidence be a sufficient reason for rejecting that which we have.

I can give plenty of reasons for rejecting what we do have. Stories that we cannot confirm as being from eyewitnesses telling of incredible things that most of us simply would not believe if these same stories were somehow transplanted into a contemporary setting instead of the ancient past.

And let's be totally honest. If there were no theological baggage hanging on to these stories, far more people would consider them to be malarky due to insufficient evidence. Mainstream Christianity believes in salvation by gnosis; you have to know, and believe, the right story before you deserve forgiveness.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Bilbo: that must be nice to have something to trust like that.

Anonymous said...

If I had time, I could point out many more such problems with Price's scholarship, even in that one essay. This is not a matter of subjective preference. You may like his writing; you may be entertained by his wit; you may want his conclusions to be true. But none of that will change the fact that his representations of his opponents are unfair and his conclusions are not supported by the actual facts.

Nice smear and well-poisoning. The same goes for every single historical Jesus apologist I've ever read.

Tim said...

Anon,

When I've already pointed out three distinct errors of just the sort I'm talking about, it's not poisoning the well to assert that there are more. Not every criticism is a fallacy. Get over it.

Tim said...

Walter,

I can give plenty of reasons for rejecting what we do have.

A return to consideration of the actual evidence is a definite improvement on bellyaching over the evidence you might wish you had.

Stories that we cannot confirm as being from eyewitnesses ...

We have really quite strong evidence that many of the stories in question come from eyewitnesses. Let’s discuss this.

... telling of incredible things ...

Whether they are strictly “incredible” -- that is, not believable -- is the point at issue.

... that most of us simply would not believe if these same stories were somehow transplanted into a contemporary setting instead of the ancient past.

That would depend entirely on the evidence supporting them. So this last bit is also beside the point.

And let's be totally honest. If there were no theological baggage hanging on to these stories, far more people would consider them to be malarky due to insufficient evidence.

Phrase this differently, and I might even agree: if the resurrection was claimed to have occurred in a context where there was no putative revelation to certify, or one manifestly unworthy of a deity who is to be worshiped, then that would be an inferior epistemic position to be in. Nec Deus intersit nisi dignus vindice nodus.

Mainstream Christianity believes in salvation by gnosis; you have to know, and believe, the right story before you deserve forgiveness.

Er, no. Nobody deserves forgiveness. But let's get back to a discussion of the evidence, shall we?

Anonymous said...

For a critique of the type of historical argument for Christianity Tim defends, see Christian philosopher Thomas Crisp's paper, here.

Walter said...

Tim, I think that we are at an impasse. Even if the events narrated in the gospels happened exactly as written, I cannot convince myself to believe them simply because they are too implausible to me.

Luke Muehlhauser of Common Sense Atheism sums it up nicely:

Indeed, it’s not clear that beliefs are a matter of choice at all. Think about it. Can you choose, right now, to clap your hands? Yup. Can someone who wants to be a vegetarian train her desires away from wanting to eat meat by watching videos of animals being tortured in food processing plants every day? Yup.

But can you choose, right now, to believe you have a third hand? Nope.

We believe something according to how plausible it seems to us. We can’t choose to believe things that don’t seem plausible to us.

Bilbo said...

Walter, there is something wrong with any Christian sect that stops you from trusting Jesus.

Bilbo said...

Yes it is nice, BDK.

Walter said...

Walter, there is something wrong with any Christian sect that stops you from trusting Jesus.

Maybe just the fact that I do not believe that Jesus was a god?

I suppose I might could join a Unitarian Church. Not too many of those around here in the Deep South, though.

Tim said...

Anon,

Crisp actually wrote that paper without having read the piece in the Blackwell anthology. There is no engagement in it with the actual historical arguments.

Tim said...

Walter,

Even if the events narrated in the gospels happened exactly as written, I cannot convince myself to believe them simply because they are too implausible to me.

No one is asking you to do this by a sheer effort of your will. That would indeed be a perverse and pointless demand. But you can choose to examine the matter more deeply -- or not to. That much, at least, is up to you.

Anonymous said...

Tim,

Have you since recanted the stuff in your Phil. Christi paper? If not, what is your reply to Crisp's in-princple criticism to the sort of argument you advance there?

Walter said...

No one is asking you to do this by a sheer effort of your will. That would indeed be a perverse and pointless demand. But you can choose to examine the matter more deeply -- or not to. That much, at least, is up to you.

I have read many arguments by William Lane Craig, Lee Strobel, Gary Habermas, et al., and am still not convinced. How much 'due diligence' should I persist in before declaring that I simply cannot believe? I once did believe when I was younger and heavily indoctrinated, but now I find the events narrated in the bible to be...unlikely. What bothers me now is how easily I dismiss all other world religions with nary a second thought. Perhaps I should take a look at the claims made by other world religions?

Tim said...

Anon,

Have you since recanted the stuff in your Phil. Christi paper?

No, though Plantinga did (rather ungraciously) retreat from his claims regarding the PDP in our 2006 exchange in Phil Christi.

If not, what is your reply to Crisp's in-princple criticism to the sort of argument you advance there?

To be honest, I have a hard time taking the question seriously. After grinding through some of the math, Crisp comes to the central point of contention -- the evaluation of the key likelihood ratio -- and says (pp. 17-18):

So is it top heavy? Hard to say. Minimal theism says there is some god or other, some powerful non-physical person, but tells us almost nothing about this being. Hard to see then why minimal theism should generate any expectation that we’d see something like R, something we’d expect not to see given the denial of minimal theism. I’d think the above ratio either inscrutable (who knows what P(R/T-&K-) is) or not too far above 1. [Emphasis original]

How does this qualify as an "in-principle argument"? It is simply a declaration of his unargued intuition. Insofar as he believes that there is a basis for that intuition, I fear that it may be the misapprehension (which perhaps slips out in his italicization of the term "expectation") that a top-heavy likelihood ratio requires that the numerator exceed 0.5. But if this is what Crisp is urging, then his assumption is simply false. For any finite value of the numerator, a sufficiently small denominator will push the likelihood ratio over any assignable value.

On p. 19, Crisp considers the possibility that he has overlooked something:

Perhaps you’ll reply that our above ratio is considerably higher than 2, and that P(C/R&K-) is, accordingly, considerably greater than .66. I’d wonder, though, what grounds you could have for thinking the ratio that high. I can’t see what they’d be.

Once again: "I can't see" is not an in-principle argument. And this is, quite literally, all Crisp offers in this paper -- over and over and over again.

I noted with some amusement a few months back when Ex-apologist characterized Crisp's paper as a "Refutation of Historical Apologetics," a

rigorous and apparently fatal critiques of the prominent contemporary models for rational belief in biblical reliability and inspiration: those of Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga, and Timothy McGrew.

It's hard for me to believe, reading this, that ExAp actually read Crisp's paper before writing his description.

Since I've been answering your questions, perhaps you'd be good enough to answer a couple of mine.

(1) Has the fact that Crisp, out of filial piety, tried to defend Plantinga's critique of the historical argument really been that much of a morale booster in freethinking circles? Is this link "making the rounds"? And if so,

(2) Have any of the people whom you have seen citing this paper actually attempted to engage with the details of it at all, or is it just being passed around as a feel-good citation for atheists?

Anonymous said...

Once again: "I can't see" is not an in-principle argument. And this is, quite literally, all Crisp offers in this paper -- over and over and over again.

That strikes me as a pretty awful reply. To address Crisp's undermining defeater, you'll need to actually offer a persuasive reason to replace Crisp's "I can't see." I'd be interested to here what you can cook up

Tim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim said...

Walter,

I have read many arguments by William Lane Craig, Lee Strobel, Gary Habermas, et al., and am still not convinced. How much 'due diligence' should I persist in before declaring that I simply cannot believe?

I guess that depends on what’s in the “et al.” there. Strobel is not (and does not pretend to be) a scholar; Craig and Habermas, because of their choice of a “minimal facts” strategy, do not address the question of the authenticity and genuineness of the Gospels. Have you read any of the serious scholarship of the past two centuries defending the broadly traditional dating and eyewitness provenence of the Gospels? Norton? Blunt? Lightfoot? Westcott? Guthrie? Robinson? Blomberg? Bauckham?

Tim said...

Anon,

Okay so:

1. You described Crisp's paper as "a critique of the type of historical argument for Christianity Tim defends." I pointed out that it doesn't (and given the date of publication, couldn't) address the sort of historical argument I defend.

2. So you shifted the subject and asked whether I had either recanted the Phil Christi critique of Plantinga or responded to Crisp's "in-principle argument." I answered that I stand by the Phil Christi pieces, noted that Plantinga himself was the one to back away from his bolder claims in WCB, and pointed out that there is no in-principle argument in Crisp's paper.

3. So now you're calling Crisp's "I can't see" an "undermining defeater" for my view and asking me to provide a "persuasive reason" to replace his denial.

To borrow your terminology, this strikes me as a pretty awful response. Crisp's statement is not an undermining defeater: that isn't how the term is used in epistemology. An undermining defeater is a proposition X that, if true, would undermine the status of another propsition Y as a reason for Z. But here the only candidate for proposition X is:

"Tom Crisp can't see why the likelihood ratio P(R|T-&K-)/P(R|~T-&K-) should be much greater than 1."

I believe that X is (or was, at the time Tom wrote that paper) true. But so what?

But I went further: I offered a possible diagnosis of Crisp's error. He appears (though I am not certain of this interpretation) to be persuaded that the ratio cannot be significantly top-heavy unless there was a significant expectation of R given (T-&K-). As I pointed out, this is false.

So I really don't see that you have anything to complain about here.

By the way, are you going to answer my two questions?

Anonymous said...

As to your two questions, my answer to both is "I have no idea".

Regarding this bit, though:

An undermining defeater is a proposition X that, if true, would undermine the status of another propsition Y as a reason for Z. But here the only candidate for proposition X is:

"Tom Crisp can't see why the likelihood ratio P(R|T-&K)/P(R|~T-&K) should be much greater than 1."

I believe that Q is (or was, at the time Tom wrote that paper) true. But so what?


Ugh: More awfulness. Look. If the argument is supposed to persuade the unpersuaded, you'll need a bloody reason to offer the unpersuaded. Surely many unpersuaded are in precisely Crisp's boat. Just plug in "the unpersuaded" for "Tom Crisp". Why do *you* believe it's high, and why should *the unpersuaded* agree with you?

Tim said...

Anon,

Thanks for the answer. Even though it was just "I have no idea," I do actually appreciate your saying so and not leaving me hanging.

This is still an abuse of the language of "undermining defeaters," but let the semantic issue go. You want a reason that the resurrection is much, much more strongly to be expected if theism is true, and given the pertinent background evidence we have independent of the specific evidence for the resurrection, than if theism is false.

I am tempted, perversely, to say that it's just obvious -- which, in fact, it is. But since you'd like it spelled out, try this:

Christianity, though it is certainly not the only version of theism, is one of the versions: the truth of Christianity is one way for theism to be true. It need not be antecedently all that probable: let's be pretty pessimistic and say for the sake of the argument that, if theism is true, there's one chance in a billion that Christianity is true, so P(C|T-&K-) = 0.00000001. Now if Christianity is true, the resurrection happened; moreover, C screens off T- from R. So:

P(R|T-&K-) ≥ P(C|T-&K-)P(R|C&T-&K-)

and therefore

P(R|T-&K-) ≥ P(C|T-&K-)

whence we get

P(R|T-&K-) ≥ 0.00000001

But the sheer physical odds against naturalistic resurrection, by any known processes -- quantum events, thermodynamic reversals -- are surreally worse than this, hundreds of orders of magnitude lower. If you want to punt to an as-yet-undiscovered law of nature that makes some people, just occasionally, spontaneously rise from the dead, then I submit that the shoe is on the other foot: it's up to you to give an argument that the probability that this is true, given what we know about the biology of death, is anywhere near the level of P(C|T-&K-). If it isn't within two orders of magnitude of the latter, then the ratio

P(R|T-&K-)/P(R|~T-&K-)

will exceed 100; and if it isn't within ten, it will exceed 10,000,000,000.

Or, to put it more simply, the resurrection is much, much more likely if there is a god than if there isn't one because the probability that Christianity is true, given merely that there is some god or other, is way, way higher than the probability that the resurrection occurred, if there is no god at all.

Anonymous said...

Christianity, though it is certainly not the only version of theism, is one of the versions: the truth of Christianity is one way for theism to be true. It need not be antecedently all that probable: let's be pretty pessimistic and say for the sake of the argument that, if theism is true, there's one chance in a billion that Christianity is true

I'm not sure where you're getting this number -- or how one could justify any number here. Is there some finite range of possibilities here?

Tim said...

Anon,

I'm not sure where you're getting this number -- or how one could justify any number here. Is there some finite range of possibilities here?

This is a decent question. But I note for the record that it is not Crisp's objection in the paper you linked.

As for your question: We could create one, but not (so far as I know) in a way that would intuitively support an equiprobability distribution. That's just life, not only in philosophy of religion but also in philosophy of science.

But the exact number doesn't matter much: what matters is the ratio it makes with the probability of a spontaneous resurrection given the non-existence of any deity. If the latter is much, much worse -- which surely it is -- then we're in business. Even if there is fairly wide uncertainty (or disagreement) about the numerator, so long as the denominator is much lower, the Bayes factor is large.

We do in fact make such ratio estimates constantly in everyday reasoning in contexts where the absolute values of the separate constituents are quite uncertain; it seems to be an activity that lies near the heart of Inference to the Best Explanation. See the paper "Confirmation, Heuristics, and Explanatory Reasoning," British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 54 (2003): 553-67.

Finally, we should not forget that even K- contains information about the historical evidence for Judaism sufficient to raise Christianity well above the average level of theisms-in-general.

Anonymous said...

But the exact number doesn't matter much: what matters is the ratio it makes with the probability of a spontaneous resurrection given the non-existence of any deity. If the latter is much, much worse -- which surely it is -- then we're in business.

I guess I don't see how one might justify the part I marked in bold. If I had at least an inkling of the likelihood of specifically Christian theism on the hypothesis that theism is true, then I might. But I don't Here (and unlike probabilistic reasoning in daily life, with lots and lots of experience-based background knowledge), I just have no idea what the odds are.

Finally, we should not forget that even K- contains information about the historical evidence for Judaism sufficient to raise Christianity well above the average level of theisms-in-general.

Given the prima facie morally godawful things Yahweh is said to have done, condoned, and commanded in the OT, I have a hard time seeing how historical evidence wrt Judaism could raise the likelihood of Christian theism over other theisms.

TheCharles said...

BDK,

TheCharles: that's an interesting study. I wonder what has been done on the formation of the final narrative that is subsequently passed along with such apparently high fidelity.

That is really the question. I think one of the motivations for this kind of work is to narrow the number of possible lines of attack against the NT writings. Consider if the chain is (1) composition (oral) --> (2) composition (written) --> (3) transmission of manuscripts from then to now. This kind of argument would support the generally conservative idea that the chain from 1 to 3 was complete without changing its central story and thus focuses the attention on 1, namely, do we believe the sources in the NT writings, which is what this topic is about.

Having spoken to Bailey at some length, maybe 10 years ago, I can never get too worked up at the idea that there was a 30 year gap from the time of the events to when the events were written down.

I should say, regarding my background, that I am a Christian, but I go through stretches where the whole thing looks really improbable. And I am probably not cut out for commenting on this blog, as things move fast and I don't have the reflexes of a hyperactive 8 year old.

Tim said...

Anon,

Have a look at the BJPS paper. We can, and do, make comparative judgments of probability all the time in the absence of any very firm grip on the absolute probabilities. If you're going to balk there, you can more or less kiss all probabilistic reasoning goodbye.

On the particular question of this comparative judgment, I think we've probably reached the sort of impasse that arises in philosophy when one party demands an algorithm before acquiescing in what seems to others to be common sense. If you don't think the resurrection is more likely given the existence of a deity than without one, you can maintain that position without formally contradicting yourself. But I daresay that if you consistently applied that level of probabilistic skepticism in other areas of thought and belief, you would notice some dramatic effects very quickly indeed.

As for the point about Judaism: the key question here is not whether Yaweh is nice (though I think you might learn something from reading some of Matt Flannagan's work on the subject) or whether every single thing reported about him or ascribed to him in the OT is true, but whether there is some evidence -- it needn't be anywhere nearly probative in and of itself -- that indicates that this being, identified in this religious tradition, exists. If so, that will do the job.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I'm being overly skeptical here in the least. Probabilistic reasoning in the familiar contexts of ordinary life, and even in the extended inferences of the sciences, is one thing. We'd all agree that we can make reasonable inferences in such contexts. However, how many people would say they felt confident about the probabilities you raise? I bet even many Christian philosophers would be a lot more hesitant than you seem to be here. I ask myself, "what's the probability that Christian theism is true given the truth of mere theism?" I have no idea how to answer this question. Am I really alone on this? I find that hard to believe.

Anonymous said...

Also, regarding the stuff about Judaism and the OT: my point was that the documents there, if they are to be believed, seem to decrease the probability of Abrahamic theisms, at least for someone not already leaning toward such a view. I suppose one could start cutting out the parts that do the probability-lowering, but then how could one do this in a non-ad hoc way?

Tim said...

Anon,

I ask myself, "what's the probability that Christian theism is true given the truth of mere theism?" I have no idea how to answer this question.

But that's the wrong question to ask, as I've pointed out several times here. The simplest way to put the question is, "Whatever the probability of the resurrection may be given that there is a god, can it possibly be anywhere near as low as the probability given that there isn't one?" The detour through Christianity is just one way to get at it; if that doesn't work for you, take the question directly as stated above. I don't think you'll find many Christian philosophers who will hesitate to give you an answer. Even a fair number of atheists and agnostics will also find this pretty straightforward.

Also, regarding the stuff about Judaism and the OT: my point was that the documents there, if they are to be believed, seem to decrease the probability of Abrahamic theisms, ...

I'm not sure why you would think that. I can underestand your saying that, taking all of the texts together and reading them in a certain way, the violent parts might lower the attractiveness of Abrahamic theism. But the testimony to miraculous interventions, even if you judge it woefully inadequate to support serious belief, does at least point in the direction of their being true. The institution of Passover, in particular, has to be explained somehow. Charles Leslie has some interesting reflections on this point in his Short and Easy Method with the Deists (1697).

Anonymous said...

It's not about attractiveness. It's about whether the god depicted in the OT is the sort of being we'd call "perfectly good". I take it we're talking about theisms of the sort that involve, at a minimum, the three attributes of being all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good. If that's right, then since the god of the OT is, prima facie, not perfectly good (not even close), I'd say that this decreases the probability of Abrahamic theisms.

Tim said...

Anon,

Thanks -- that does clarify your objection. I was not including omnibenevolence, which does not seem to be so easy to support by the arguments of natural theology alone. If you think that God as portrayed in the OT is morally horrific and that this portrayal is not just an aspect of some jumbling together of fact and non-fact (so that the parts you find objectionable are plausibly not authentic), then obviously you will have a problem with omnibenevolence.

Let me again suggest that you have a look at some of Matt Flannagan's work on the topic of the moral aspects of the OT over at his website.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Tim. I'll take a look at your paper you mentioned earlier, as well as Flannagan's stuff.

Bilbo said...

Walter,

You live in the deep South? Don't they still lynch atheists down there? Or at least burn crosses on their front lawns? This is a horse of a different color. You might have to remain an atheist just on religious principles. You should pray something like this:

"Jesus, I thought you were a great guy. I don't believe you were God, but even if I'm wrong, this is the deep South, and even you might not believe in you if you lived here. If you want me to believe in you, I'm willing to be changed, but I might be showing more honor to you by not believing in you."

I think He'll understand.