Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Shipwreck and the Amityville Horror

One element of the biblical record that I have paid some attention to is the accuracy of, in particular, the Book of Acts. Let me review the claim I want to defend on behalf of the Gospels, which I would certainly also want to defend on behalf of Acts of the Apostles:

Well, I would argue that in the Gospels we have four books written by people who at worst were in a position to talk to those who had seen and known Jesus, and who claimed to have seen him resurrected. They may have had theological aims, but they did their work with a concern to correctly preserve the facts  concerning the life, death and resurrection of Christ. There are, of course, four such records, and as such if they agree with one another that something happened, that is at least some evidence that it indeed did happen. Evidence, mind you, that we might end up having to reject, but evidence nonetheless. Of course, the idea that the Gospels represented an attempt to get things right, as opposed to being a record of some out-of-control legends, will have to be argued for, but it is a conclusion I think is supported by the evidence.  

In short, I am interested in what I would call general reliability, as opposed to inerrancy. Let's look at the evidence first, and let those who are concerned about inerrancy sort it out later.

Now, what relevance is it that aspects of Bible can be shown to be factual. That which can be shown to be reliable in the New Testament is not typically the supernatural element. Luke, for instance, seems to know the titles of various officials in the cities where Paul is supposed to have gone on his missionary journeys. In this book, which was featured in the Library of  Historical Apologetics site, James Smith shows that, indeed, the Maltese Shipwreck story in Acts had to have been factual, based on real a real experience of sailing and being shipwrecked.

But should these facts impress us? Chris Hallquist thinks not.

He writes:

The "amazing accuracy"line of apologetics involves compiliing long lists of details of the gospels confirmed in outside sources: John the Baptist existed, the book of Acts uses terminology correctly, et cetera, finding as many examples as they can (a recent Norman Geisler book boasts 140 allegedly confirmed details). Now, there's an obvious (well, not to the apologists) point that needs to be made here: just because some details of an account are correct does not mean that the entire thing is correct. Case in point: when I read The Amityville Horror I had not trouble identifying some somewhat obscure factual points: there really was a parapsychologist named J. B. Rhine, there really are a pair of ghost hunters named Ed and Lorraine Warren. Further reading revealed that the hoax was built around a real murder case in a real house which a family named the Lutzes really moved into, only to leave a month later. The Warrens really participated in a seance at the house, and the character of Father Mancuso was based on a real priest in the Rockville Center Diocese (the name was not real, though he was one of those people whose name was "changed to protect their privacyas per a statement in the original book). The fact that some of the details in The Amityville Horror are true did not keep its fantastic supernatural claims from being false. 

Chris Hallquist, UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God, (Reasonable Press, 2008). p. 34,

But there are some problems with using this parallel. First, this is was a hoax, as Hallquist indicates on p. 28 of his book. His theory of how Christianity arose doesn't involve a hoax, it involves hallucinations and legend. So while the creators of the hoax could have put the fact and the fiction together, it has to happen rather differently through hallucination and legend.

Second, it is easy to understand how the people who wrote The Amityville Horror came by their information. Someone familiar with the world of the paranormal would know the factual information necessary to put the hoax together. And if not, a trip to the library would have given the hoaxters all the information they needed. On the other hand, I see no way that Luke could possibly have known what he knew without actually having been a companion of Paul. When we take a close look at what Luke had to know to write his book, I don't see how he could have gotten that knowledge third hand. It's not as if he could have found all the information he needed to know by going to the local library and reading the Encyclopedia Romanica. It seems evident to me that he had access to people involved in the founding of Christianity, that he was there for the missionary journeys, (and by the way those stories do include miracles). It simply boggles my mind that people like Richard Carrier and Robert Price keep putting the date of Acts into the second century. And, if you can't date Acts late, you can't date the Synoptics late, either.


Walter said...


Have you read Richard I. Pervo's book, "Dating Acts?"

Here is the product description from Amazon:

In Dating Acts, Richard Pervo subjects the scholarly consensus that Acts was written about 80-85 C.E. to a rigorous scholarly examination. Analyzing the author s sources, methods, theology, familiarity with ecclesiastical developments and vocabulary, Pervo discovers that the author of Acts is familiar with the later writings of Josephus (c. 100 C.E.) and that the theological perspectives of Acts have much in common with elements found in the Pastoral Epistles and Polycarp (c. 125-130). He also situates the book of Acts in terms of its place in the development of early Christianity and its social and ideological context, and shows how a second-century date helps to interpret it.

Mike Erich the Mad Theologian said...

But how do we know how the theological ideas developed if we re date the sources. Any idea of theological development unless it is based on sources whose dates have been established by other objective means is just speculation.

Victor Reppert said...

That's precisely the sort of insane position that ignores the archaeological evidence. Does Pervo explain how Luke knew the first-century titles for magistrates from Jerusalem to Malta if he was writing in the second century?

Steven Carr said...

If Acts gets Paul's journey to Rome correctly, then the fetus John the Baptist must have leapt for joy in the womb when the fetus Jesus entered the room.

Once again Victor uses reasoning that shows that , if Mormons described their journey to Utah accurately, then the Book of Mormon must be true.

Does Pervo explain how Luke knew the first-century titles for magistrates from Jerusalem to Malta if he was writing in the second century?

The trouble with ignoring me is that it makes Victor look as if he is incapable of absorbing facts.

How does Victor know 'Luke' got things right, if Victor is writing in the 21st century?

How does he know.....

If Victor knows these things, this is proof, by Victor's logic, that he is 2000 year old.

If Victor was not alive in the first century , he would not know these things.

It should be pointed out that 'Luke' naturally stole from Homer when writing his shipwreck scene.

Steven Carr said...

' But he does much more than that. He shows, by a minute analysis of the text of Acts, by a very careful comparison with other descriptions of Mediterranean shipwrecks by Josephus and Lucian, and by a wide range of nautical information about prevailing winds, soundings, and coastlines, that Luke’s account of the voyage and the shipwreck bears numerous marks of authenticity.'

So Josephus had shipwrecks in....

I guess Luke must have been written before Josephus....

FF Bruce could easily spot where Luke used Homer.

I quote from Neil Godfrey :-

Commenting on EPEKEILAN (“beached”) the Lake and Cadbury commentary on Acts says: “According to Blass this is an Homeric form not found in prose-writers, who used OKELLW and EPOKELLW, . . . . He compares Odyssey IX 148 . . . and 546. . . . It is also remarkable that the word NAUN is used only here in Acts, which always has the ordinary Hellenistic word PLOION. Blass’ suggestion that there is a conscious reminisence of Homer in this collocation of two unusual words is very attractive. If Luke was acquainted with Aratus and Epimenides, his knowledge of Homer is easily credible.” (p.339)

“F. F. Bruce calls it one of Acts’ ‘unmistakable Homeric reminiscences‘.

Even Bruce knew where these things came from.

Steven Carr said...

Josephus was shipwrecked, and passed through Puteoli

Paul was shipwrecked and passed through Puteoli

Gosh! What a coincidence!

How could Luke have known about Puteoli when he was writing before Josephus did?

Gregory said...

"The fact that some of the details in The Amityville Horror are true did not keep its fantastic supernatural claims from being false.


Are the "Amityville Horror" claims "false" because they were "supernatural"; or are those claims "false" because there weren't any "facts" to substantiate them?

Steven Carr:

"It should be pointed out that 'Luke' naturally stole from Homer when writing his shipwreck scene.

How do you know that Luke was even familiar with Homer, let alone that he plagiarized him? And if Luke can't get the "facts" right concerning his own milieu, why would you believe he would have an accurate knowledge and understanding of Homer?

Furthermore, if the New Testament is unworthy of consideration because of the paucity and lateness of manuscript copies, then you ought to be a hundredfold skeptical about anything reputed to have been penned by Homer!!!

This argument is so ludicrous and hypocritical that....well, I'll sleep soundly tonight, I think.

Steven Carr said...

'How do you know that Luke was even familiar with Homer, let alone that he plagiarized him?'

Ask FF Bruce.

Are you claiming that educated literary people in the first century were not familiar with Homer?

Do you really want to claim that? Really?

Anonymous said...

Chris Hallquist is not a scholar, and as John Loftus teaches us, if you are not an expert in field your writing on that subject has no credibility.

Steven Carr is not either.

unkleE said...

If a book (say John's gospel) was believed to be generally historically accurate, and then some archaeological facts were found that contradicted it, we would thereby have less confidence in the truth of John

If later we discovered new archaeological facts that showed the previous ones to have been interpreted wrongly, our assessment of John would be restored to where it was before, surely.

So then, archaeological support has given us greater confidence in John, contrary to Hallquist.

Anonymous said...

Don't worry, Walter. Victor will read a review of the book by a Christian apologist, and then he'll know what to think about Pervo's book.

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


I have looked at Pervo’s book, though I have not read it all the way through. I was not impressed with his arguments for the dependence of Luke on Josephus, with his case for the literary dependence of Acts on the Pauline epistles, or with his attempt to overturn the argument from undesigned coincidences, which he manifestly does not understand and to the criticism of which he devotes a single footnote. His case is built on a number of arguments from silence; withdraw that weapon from his hands, and his position collapses.

If I were persuaded that you would accept a critical examination of a few of his arguments as evidence for the general feebleness of Pervo’s reasoning, I would be willing to illustrate these charges. But if the only result is going to be that a third of the skeptics reading the comment will dismiss me for not having a credential in New Testament studies, another third will discount my analysis simply because I am not an atheist or at least a tame liberal, and the final third will throw up their hands and cry “dueling scholars” -- well, then the game isn’t worth the candle.

Anonymous said...

Bob Prokop writing:

I have been partly amused, but mostly appalled, by the recent spats over “credentials”. What should matter in discussions like these is how a person approaches evidence and source materials, not what letters he or she has after their names, or what specific books they’ve read (there will always be libraries full of others they haven’t gotten around to yet).

But for John Loftus’s benefit, I will imitate St. Paul here for a bit, and “boast” of my own credentials. I don’t want him to get the impression that I am an “anonymous hack”. Here goes:

I am a graduate of Arizona State University with a BA in Russian, which means I have had a thorough exposure to Russian literature and philosophy, as well as the Orthodox Church’s theology and Marxist-Leninist history/philosophy/whatever, and have demonstrated the discipline necessary to become fluent in another language.

I have a Master’s in Business Administration from Boston University, which gave me a grounding in statistics, linear programming, and all kinds of esoteric mathematical ways of thinking.

I am also a graduate of the NATO School of Information Operations in Oberammergau, Germany, which means I have practical, professional expertise in distinguishing between propaganda and factual reporting.

I am a published (amateur) historian (author of Goalpost, The Battle for Port Lyautey 1942). This was the result of a decade of painstaking research with eyewitness interviews, first hand source materials (after action reports, gunnery reports, ship’s logs, etc.) and secondary sources (references to the events in previously published works). I have learned the hard, slogging way how to separate the wheat from the chaff in accounts of historical events.

I am sure that everyone on this website could come up with a similar list. So how about we all dispense with the credentials war?

R O'Brien said...

Mythicist Spambot wrote:

"Once again Victor uses reasoning that shows that , if Mormons described their journey to Utah accurately, then the Book of Mormon must be true."

Yet another failed appeal to analogy by the Mythicist Spambot.

"It should be pointed out that 'Luke' naturally stole from Homer when writing his shipwreck scene."

As is the case with all internet bots, the Mythicist Spambot naturally lacks cognitive ability, so it does not perceive that using a word or phrase from Homer does not mean Paul's shipwreck was fabricated.

R O'Brien said...

Mythicist Spambot wrote:

"How could Luke have known about Puteoli when he was writing before Josephus did?"

Puteoli existed long before Josephus mentioned it. Cicero had a home there and wrote letters while he was there (e.g., XXIX addressed to Atticus in Rome). Seneca also mentioned it. The latter wrote:

"Suddenly there came into our view to-day the 'Alexandrian' ships, - I mean those which are usually sent ahead to announce the coming of the fleet; they are called 'mail-boats.' The Campanians are glad to see them; all the rabble of Puteoli/a stand on the docks, and can recognize the "Alexandrian" boats, no matter how great the crowd of vessels, by the very trim of their sails...Accordingly, when they have made Capreae and the headland whence

Tall Pallas watches on the stormy peak,/b

all other vessels are bidden to be content with the mainsail, and the topsail stands out conspicuously on the 'Alexandrian' mail- boats."
(Seneca Epistle LXXVII)

Puteoli was no obscure hamlet. Grain supplies for Rome passed through there.

Incidentally, shipwrecks were fairly common in Antiquity, so there is nothing improbable about Paul and Josephus both being shipwrecked.

Blue Devil Knight said...

A few disanalogies does not kill the analogy. I think his analogy works quite well, given its narrow scope.

Anonymous said...

Bob, an excellent point about credentials; after all, it is the argument that counts.

But don't overlook that the Loftus Team, Avalos most notably, have frequently asserted that if you do not have credentials who have no right to speak on a subject.

No sense denying it, they have claimed it repeatedly.

Legal Eagle

Tim said...


Do you mean the analogy between Acts and The Amityville Horror? If so, then I don't understand why you think it works well. As Vic points out, the latter is a deliberate and carefully-researched hoax. There simply wasn't any such thing as the modern historical novel in the first century; moreover, the hoaxes of the second century are obvious frauds, easily detected by various anachronisms. The wide scope of Acts just underscores the point that it would not be possible to create the work in the way that a modern novelist can create plausible detailed fictions.

Bilbo said...

The importance of dating Acts is not to substantiate the miraculous, but to substantiate that the people who claimed that Jesus rose from the dead were engaging in martyr-risk behavior. So if Acts gets details about the first half of the first century correct, then it increases trhe likelihood that Luke was familiar with the people who claimed to be witnesses to the resurrection. Or at least with people who knew them.

Bilbo said...

What do scholars think of Pervo's book?

Blue Devil Knight said...

Hallq's point was simply that just because it got some details right, that doesn't mean such details are evidence that the other parts are right. Just like the Amityville Horror story. It's a narrow, obvious point I think everyone accepts, and he uses a nice analogy to drive it home.

Tim said...


I haven't made a study of scholarly reactions to Pervo's work; in fact, I have seen only one (very brief) review of the book Walter mentions. Reactions to his earlier work on the genre of Acts were mixed but (from what I have seen) on balance rather critical. Everyone agrees that he is an entertaining writer who knows a lot about the ancient novel. But a repeated complaint is that Pervo overstates his case and ignores contrary evidence.

[T]he chief flaw in this work: the author's irrepressible tendency to overstate his case at almost every turn. (David E. Aune, The Journal of Religion, Vol. 69, No. 3 (Jul., 1989), pp. 399-400.)

The novels win by default, of course, for even when there are parallels in various historians, they are not cited. The comparison is one-sided. One problem is that the novels and histories that are preserved are on two different cultural levels; the works cranked out by the hack historians criticized by Lucian of Samosata have not been preserved. We are assured, however, that Acts "did not even meet the standards of the works he [Lucian] despised" (p. 8). One interesting instance of one-sided comparison is Pervo's claim that "like ancient novelists, Luke frequently resorted to having speeches interrupted, a dramatic device" (p. 76). Although Pervo admits that this technique was also used by historians, he tucks this admission away in a footnote (absent from the dissertation) and fails to provide specific examples, of which there are many (p. 166, n. 108). . . .

The major weakness of this study, however, is the degree of overstatement in which Pervo engages in order to make his case. . . . The real questions to pose are (1) whether one must move to the ancient novel in order to account for many (most? all?) the characteristics he identifies in Acts; (2) whether Pervo has accounted for (or ignored!) the presence of elements and style in Acts that make it more comparable to ancient historiography than to ancient novels; and (3) whether Pervo has accounted for (or ignored!) the absence of elements and style from Acts that make it more comparable to ancient historiography than to ancient novels.
(Marion L. Soards, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 58, No. 2 (Summer, 1990), pp. 307-310.)

Victor Reppert said...

BDK: If Hallq's point is simply that accuracy about certain things doesn't deductively entail accuracy about other things, then his point is rather pedestrian. However, if the accuracy about those matters has to be explained in terms of a combination of the serious attempt to get one's facts straight, and direct acquaintance with the people and places involved, which indeed it seems to imply, then it seems to me we've got some significant inductive evidence in favor of the supernatural attestations as well. This combination of pursuit of accuracy and close acquaintance with the events in question is typically combined with a high degree of accuracy with respect to the content. People didn't write realistic novels back then, and the myths and legends of the time were certainly not filled with accurate references to times and places. And if Luke's a hoaxter, he's certainly a strange bird of a hoaxter, because following Paul around the ancient Mediterranean world doesn't strike me as something you'd want to do for fun or profit (see II Cor 11 if you doubt me).

Tim said...


That's a bit like saying that footprints on a beach aren't evidence that a human being has passed that way, since a cow wearing foot-shaped boots would have left similar marks. We rightly discount such claims because we have ample evidence that the proposed alternative cause was not, in fact, available. And we rightly discount them here, for the same reason.

Walter said...

Here is a quote concerning the accuracy of Acts from Robert Price's latest book:

For what can it profit a man if he gets all the local titles and offices right, if what he is trying to prove is that people in these locations healed the sick with their snot rags, survived the bites of poisonous serpents, brushed themselves off unhurt following fatal stonings, resurrected teenagers their sermons had bored to death, blinded some and killed others merely by a word of power?

I'm afraid that getting an 'A' on an ancient civics test is of no real help in vindicating these wonder stories.

Bilbo said...


Hallq's conclusion is that because some facts are right, it does not mean that the fantastic supernatural accounts are right. So his conclusion is ambiguous. Is he making the argument that Acts misrepresented the apostles' behavior? Or misrepresented the miracles?

Now getting back to Acts, the argument is that it was written in the second century, therefore it does not likely give us an accurate account of the apostles' behavior.

Establishing that Acts was written earlier would raise the likelihood that it did record their behavior accurately.

Then one needs to argue that Acts misrepresented the behavior of the apostles. Let's assume for the sake of argument that it does. Then we need to explain the rise of Christianity. Did Paul invent it? No. Paul persecuted it. Why? Most likely because he thought its followers were guilty of blasphemy. Well why would he think that? Most likely because Jewish Christians viewed Jesus as being divine. Well why would they think that? Most likely because they believed he rose from the dead. Well why would they believe that? Most likely because there were people who claimed to be witnesses to that event.

Now could one claim to be a witness to such an event without engaging in martyr-risk behavior? I doubt it. At least, not in Jerusalem. Aside from Acts, is there evidence that people were doing this in Jerusalem? Yes. Paul tells us the leaders of the church were in Jerusalem. Josephus tells us James the brother of Jesus was executed there by the religious authorities.

This is fairly strong corroboration of Acts as to the location and the martyr-risk behavior as portrayed in Acts.

If Hallq wants to challenge Acts on this point, then the burden of proof is on him.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Victor: exactly it is an obvious, pedestrian point.

Tim: that doesn't make any sense. It's like saying that because someone said they went to Mall of America, and Mall of America exists, that is evidence for the truth of their claim that they are Superman.

The point is simple, trivial, and Amytiville case makes it well. People are missing his point.

Blue Devil Knight said...

This is the point of the Amityville case, which so many of the apologists seem to be missing for some reason. IN Hallq's words:
Now, there's an obvious (well, not to the apologists) point that needs to be made here: just because some details of an account are correct does not mean that the entire thing is correct.

That's it. Full stop. What he does with that obvious, pedestrian, trival point, is beside the matter.


Bilbo said...

I think I've shown that if Hallq thinks Acts didn't get the facts right about the martyr-risk behavior of the apostles, the burden of proof is on him.

Tim said...


If the point is simply that Luke's historical accuracy doesn't entail that the miraculous events took place, then it wasn't worth making. It doesn't engage with any claim that any sensible Christian has ever made.

But you've gone further and claimed that Luke's accuracy is not even evidence that the other parts are right:

...that doesn't mean such details are evidence that the other parts are right ...

Now, as Vic and I and most philosophers use the term, X is evidence for Y just in case P(Y|X) > P(Y|~X) -- that is, if X were true, Y would be more likely to be true than if X were false. So

(1) Your comment that Hallq's point is just obvious cannot be applied to your own earlier restatement of the point, quoted above;

(2) Your restatement articulates the only interesting claim that is actually relevant in the discussion; and

(3) That more interesting claim is false.

That's all.

Blue Devil Knight said...

OK, so me getting facts about Durham right provide evidence that I performed a miracle.

If I state ten random propositions, and eight of them are true, that is not evidence that the other two are true. You'd need a lot more in your apparatus to establish that. A plausible evidentiary connection must exist between the eight and the two, something that would make you think the conditionals would work out a certain way (and those conditionals depend on the priors obviously).

So even if I tentatively agree with the Bayesian analysis of confirming evidence, to evaluate the conditionals requires more information. There are cases where true statements in a jumble of claims are evidentially irrelevant to the other claims. Sometimes relevant and confer higher (sometimes lower) probability, depending on priors.

To just state, without qualification, that in a set of propositions, getting some right increases the likelihood of the other things being right, is an overstatement. It's not how evidence works, there needs to be a plausible evidential relationship established.

Blue Devil Knight said...

I also think that people think Hallq is refuting a sophisticated argument. No. His argument is of the appropriate obviousness that it refutes other silly arguments. And they do exist. To act as if no Christian makes ridiculous arguments for their view hasn't spent time arguing with people at the booths at the NC State Fair.

His point seems too obvious to need stating, but unfortunately it isn't. We are talking past each other to some degree I think.

Tim said...


Certainly there is a distinction between saying that X is evidence for Y and saying that X is strong evidence for Y. For the latter, we do generally and reasonably want something more specific than a track record of some unrelated true statements, some better connection between the track record and the truth of the specific claims in question.

But Vic has already explained the connection in this case. Accuracy of the sort that Luke exhibits is a habit of mind. And in the case of Acts, the demonstrable, detailed historical accuracy is thoroughly intertwined with the records of miraculous events. They are not unrelated; again and again they appear in the same contexts.

No, of course Luke's habitual historical accuracy and attention to detail don't by themselves prove that the miracles Luke reports took place. But they do limit our naturalistic explanatory options by essentially ruling out both late mythmaking and contemporary freewheeling fiction without increasing the probability of any of the remaining naturalistic options.

The argument is cumulative. This is only one piece of the puzzle. It is designed to address some naturalistic options, not to rule out all. It is overwhelmingly obvious that Luke was a companion of Paul and was writing within the genre of history as it was known at that time. You can call him a liar, but in that case, you will have to admit that he must have known that he was lying. And then you have to ask why he would do that.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Tim : I get it, I think you are being largely reasonable, and I think were were talking past each other in our first exchange.