Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Parsons replies to J. P. Holding


by Keith Parsons

Those who raise skeptical doubts about Christian claims quickly confront the limitations of “Christian charity.” It seldom extends to the treatment of doubters with generosity or even with civility. James Patrick Holding’s on-line response to my critique of Kreeft and Tacelli in my essay from The Empty Tomb is a case in point (“Do You See What I See;” Tektonics Apologetics Ministries). He concludes a series of animadversions with the claim “…Parsons merely waves off the data of the rolled-off stone, the empty tomb, and so on with a vague comparison to UFO phenomena (not any sort of actual case study) and an assertion of his right as a Skeptic to dismiss whatever he pleases, which is a convenience I imagine we’d all appreciate being able to take advantage of…”

Apparently, attacking a straw man whenever he pleases is a convenience that Mr. Holding likes to take advantage of. I never make any assertion of that nature. Here is what I really said:

…Kreeft and Tacelli try to saddle the skeptic with the burden of explaining every detail of every appearance story (the stone rolled away, etc.,) in terms of hallucinations. There is no reason the skeptic should accept such a burden for the simple reason that skeptics do not have to accept the appearance stories as 100 percent accurate. Apologists are constantly assuming as “data” what skeptics rightly regard as hearsay (p. 448).

I think even the practitioner of the most recherché postmodernist lit-crit analyses would be hard pressed to find in this statement a blanket claim of carte blanche authority to dismiss whatever one pleases.

I think that my meaning in the passage was plain, but, one of Murphy’s Laws states, “Whenever you speak so clearly that no one can misunderstand you, then someone [willfully or not] will misunderstand you.” Let me try again: Kreeft and Tacelli charge that the hallucination hypothesis is wrong because it fails to explain every aspect of every appearance story. But if it didn’t happen, there is nothing there to explain, and so no burden to explain it. It simply begs the question to assume what skeptics deny, namely, that every detail of every appearance story is established historical fact.

I hope my meaning is now clear. I’m not asserting that skeptics have the right to dismiss whatever they please. I’m denying that apologists have the right to beg whatever questions they please.

Holding complains that I vaguely invoke UFO phenomena to dismiss the purported evidence for the resurrection. From what he says, you would never guess the point I was really making. Here it is: Kreeft and Tacelli contend that only a genuine resurrection could account for all the purported data, such as the rolled-away stone, the empty tomb, the post-resurrection appearances, etc. They offer this argument as their final point; clearly, they consider it their “clincher.” I satirize their argument by pointing out that ufologists could make exactly the same claim. Only real E.T.’s in real extraterrestrial spacecraft could account for all the weird phenomena associated with the UFO myth—vivid abduction experiences, “close encounters,” crashed saucer stories, lights in the sky, cattle mutilations, etc.

Interestingly enough, Holding does not even challenge the vast majority of my points against Kreeft and Tacelli. He apparently does not regard their case with much more respect than I do, since he says that he would not use most of their arguments and that they do not even use the one that he thinks is best. Holding says that one argument shows that the hallucination theory is “totally untenable”:

“…expectation plays the coordinating role in collective hallucinations.” The critical problem here is that the disciples were not expecting a resurrection; any hallucination of Jesus would be interpreted as, if anything, his “guardian angel” (an exact twin), but not as a ghost of Jesus himself, not especially as Jesus resurrected.”

In other words, even if the Disciples had experienced a hallucination of Jesus after his death, they would not have interpreted it as a resurrection, but as something entirely different. So, the belief in the resurrection cannot have been due to hallucinations experienced by the Disciples.

Holding says that I do not reply adequately to this argument. Since he says that Kreeft and Tacelli do not even use this argument, and since my essay was a response to the arguments of Kreeft and Tacelli, this is a rather odd objection.

Actually, I have replied to an argument of this sort, one used by William Lane Craig. My critique of that argument is published in my Why I am not a Christian, which has a link from this site. For the sake of convenience, I shall quote myself here:

Professor Craig's third main piece of evidence for the Resurrection is the origin of the Christian faith itself. He argues that the Christian faith in a resurrected Jesus has no precedent in Jewish thought. The Jewish conception of resurrection is a general raising of the dead at the end of time, not the raising to glory of a single individual as an event in history. Further, the Christian idea that the resurrection of the righteous will somehow hinge on the Messiah's resurrection, was wholly unknown. Professor Craig concludes that these new Christian ideas were so radical that only the actual Resurrection of Jesus can account for so extreme a conceptual shift.

But according to the gospels, Jesus's ministry contained many heretical elements. In Mark chapter 2 Jesus claims authority for the forgiveness of sins, which elicits a charge of blasphemy from the scribes. In Mark 7, he sets aside the traditional dietary distinctions between clean and unclean foods. In Mark 2:28 he even claims to be sovereign over the Sabbath. Further, Jesus's preaching was full of apocalyptic content. He famously said "Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power."--Mark 9:1. In Mark 8:31 and 10:34 he predicts that the Son of Man will die and rise three days afterward.

Given the heretical and apocalyptic nature of their master's teachings, and the experiences, whatever they were, that convinced them that Jesus had risen, the emergence of radically new concepts in the disciples' minds hardly seems to require supernatural explanation. For the early Christians, the Resurrection of Jesus was the first eschatological event, an event that ushered in the New Age, the coming of the Kingdom. They believed that they were in the end times. As a standard textbook puts it:

[Christianity]...shared with much of Judaism the hopes for the New Age that God had promised through the prophets and seers. But it differed from the rest of Judaism in one crucial point: It was convinced that the New Age had already begun to dawn. More specifically, it believed that God had acted in Jesus of Nazareth to inaugurate the New Age, and that the community itself was the nucleus of the People of the New Age. The basis for this conviction was the belief that God had raised Jesus from the dead (Kee, Young, and Froelich, pp. 52-53).

In other words, early Christians believed that they were in the end times and that the Resurrection of Jesus was the eschatological event that ushered in the New Age, the coming of the Kingdom. Further, Jesus's Resurrection was not conceived as an event separate from the general resurrection, but only as the first resurrection, soon to be followed by the others at the time of Christ's Second Coming. Thus Paul calls Jesus as the "firstfruits of the harvest of the dead (I Corinthians 15:20)." Paul continues: "As in Adam all men die, so in Christ all will be brought to life; but each in his own proper place: Christ the firstfruits, and afterwards, at his coming, those who belong to Christ (I Corinthians 15: 22-3)."

In all honesty, I simply do not see a gaping, unbridgeable conceptual chasm between belief in a general resurrection at the end of time and the belief that Jesus's Resurrection was the first event of the coming of the end times. In the presently fashionable lingo, paradigm shifts do occur. If Professor Craig insists that, nonetheless, such a conceptual shift requires supernatural intervention, I simply have to ask: What are his criteria? At what point are concepts so alien that it would require a miracle for someone to shift from one to the other? We need some such guidelines before the discussion can proceed.

Holding’s only other criticism is directed at my treatment of Kreeft and Tacelli’s argument that the Jewish authorities could have stopped Christianity in its tracks simply by producing the body of Jesus and so confounding the Disciples’ claim that he had been raised. I objected that nobody knows how long a period passed before the Disciples’ preaching had succeeding in irritating the Jewish authorities sufficiently to motivate them to produce the body if they could get it. Even if only a few months had passed, the body would have been in such a state of decay that it would have been unidentifiable and the Disciples could simply have denied that the body was Jesus’s. Holding objects that the body would indeed still be identifiable:

And what of the identification problems? 50 days, or even two thousand years later (as we know from finding the remains of another crucifixion victim from the same era), there were plenty of ways to identify the remains as those of Jesus. Who needs modern forensics? If the skeleton taken out of Joe’s [sic: Joseph of Arimathea’s] tomb showed evidence of crucifixion that even an amateur could discern (i.e., nails still in their places; scratched and scraped bones, or bones stretched out of their sockets—but NO breaking of the legs!)…

Still identifiable 2000 years later? Hmmmm. This suggests a thought experiment: What if we found the body today? What if, as Holding imagines, we found a body in an authentic first century tomb just outside of Jerusalem with all the identifying characteristics Holding mentions? Would the world’s 2 billion Christians immediately abandon their faith? Of course not. Naturally, such a find would give people like Mr. Holding a hotfoot, and they would scramble to debunk it, adamantly denying that the body was Jesus’s despite all the “identifying” features. The vast majority of believers would simply ignore it. (As the old hymn said: “You ask me how I know He lives: He lives within my heart!”). If producing the body wouldn’t stop (or even slow down) Christianity today, why should it have done so 2000 years ago?

Thought experiments aside, the whole “Well, why didn’t they just produce the body?” objection is based on a number of very dubious assumptions: (1) It assumes that the Sanhedrin had the authority to exhume and display the body. Jesus’s execution was an official act of the Roman authority. Joseph of Arimathea had to ask for Pilate’s permission to take down and bury the body (Matthew 27:58). Wouldn’t the Jewish authorities have had to ask permission to dig it up again and display it? What would the Romans have thought of such a bizarre request? (2) The argument assumes that the authorities could have gotten hold of the body, but, even if we assume that they knew the site of Jesus’s tomb, the body could have been missing for non-supernatural reasons. (3) The argument assumes that the Jewish authorities would have been sufficiently impressed by the first Christians even to bother refuting them. To the Jewish authorities, if they even noticed the Apostles’ preaching, yet another ragtag band of loudmouthed preachers (and Jerusalem had plenty of those) would hardly create an intellectual problem, one that would have needed confutation with argument and empirical evidence. Did any authorities of our government bother trying to refute the Branch Davidians? Why give publicity to some tiny, nutty group (as the authorities would have perceived them), when in all likelihood they would just go away if ignored?

Holding is far too quick in asserting that Jesus’s decayed body would have been identifiable. Who knows how many crucified bodies, roughly similar to Jesus’s, would have been available at that time? Remember, by the way, that breaking of the legs of the victims of crucifixion was unusual; it was done only to speed up death, and the Romans generally preferred it slow and agonizing. Most crucified bodies would have had unbroken legs. So, again, the Apostles could easily have dismissed any purported corpus delicti as a fake. Further, exhuming and displaying the decayed body of a victim of crucifixion would have been an intensely shameful and repellent task for a first century Jew, an act far beneath the dignity of the distinguished members of the Sanhedrin. Such an act would have so scandalized the Jewish community (most of whom no doubt pitied Jews executed by the Romans) that it would probably have backfired and created a popular wave of sympathy for the Christians. The upshot is that the Jewish authorities very likely either could not or would not have displayed the body of Jesus in an attempt, most likely futile, to shut up the first Christians.

The above two paragraphs assume for the sake of argument that Jesus’s resurrection would have required an empty tomb. But there is no evidence that the empty tomb story was even a part of the earliest Christian preaching. Paul never mentions it. Further, Richard Carrier argues at length in his contribution to The Empty Tomb that the earliest Christians, including Paul, held a view of resurrection that was compatible with the earthly body having been left behind in the tomb. If Carrier’s claim is correct, any display of Jesus’s body by the authorities would have been entirely futile and simply dismissed as irrelevant by the Apostles. Now, I’m sure that Richard’s argument has been viciously attacked by sites like Tektonics. But if his critics did no better job on his arguments than Mr. Holding did on mine, he has nothing to worry about.


Edwardtbabinski said...

Thank you Dr. Parsons for your insightful post and thank you Vic for sharing it.

I agree with Parsons concerning all three of the following matters:

1) We have no firm evidence of when the resurrection of Jesus began being preached. According to Acts, a partisan document to say the least (also an anonymously written one) such preaching began 49 days (=seven weeks) later. But who can say for sure?

Speaking of questions regarding "when" something took place, the anonymous author of Luke-Acts appears to disagree even with himself on how long the resurrected Jesus remained on earth. Did Jesus ascend into heaven right after showing himself to the disciples on Sunday night, or stick around longer(Acts), imparting wisdom to them for 40 days--and of course, Acts forgets to share much else except the duration of time such wisdom was being imparted. I guess no one thought that collecting and preserving all of Jesus's post-resurrection words/teachings was as important as say, repeating the pre-resurrection stories. In fact, very few words appear to have survived of the so-called post-resurrected Jesus, though later Gospels contain increasingly more post-rez words than the earliest sources such as Paul or even the two earliest Gospels do (Mark and Matthew). See: Literary Criticism and Historical Accuracy of the Gospels, Including a Discussion of the Alleged Words Spoken by the Resurrected Jesus That Grew In Number With Each New Gospel, Or That Were Simply Added Later As in Mark's Three Additional Late Endings).

Another interesting matter concerning the ability of the anonymous author of Luke-Acts to "keep time" is the difference between Acts and Paul concerning how long it took Paul after his conversion to visit Jerusalem. Did Paul journey straightaway to Jerusalem (Acts) or only after three years (Paul)?


2) Parsons also asked whether fresh converts to the earliest preachments of the Jesus sect required as much hard evidence as modern day Christian apologists presuppose.

If the N.T. is correct, some people were asking in Jesus's own day whether or not John the Baptist had been "raised from the dead." So how much hard evidence did it take to start a miraculous story I wonder?

And how much evidence does it take people even today to join a cult that makes them send money each month to faith healers whose claims have been thoroughly debunked by hard evidence?

Or how much hard evidence does it take to convince some people even today to join a cult that ends up with them drinking poison Kool-Aide (Jonestown & Heaven's Gate)?

Indeed how well would Christianity have fared had been in business back then, or if first century Jerusalem had had an insane asylum for wild eyed apocalyptists? (Keep in mind that is not doing very well at keeping down wild rumors and tall tails from spreading like wildfire via emails even TODAY. And Jerusalem still has some wild eyed apocalyptists roaming its streets (including dispensationalist Christians who believe they are going to miraculously be rocketed off to heaven any minute during a rapture) even though there are Jewish psychiatrists and mental health clinics in that holy city now.

"Local psychiatrists now speak of a Jerusalem syndrome. A hundred-odd pilgrims and tourists are treated each year at Kfar Shaul Hospital, the government mental-health center serving the Jerusalem area, for breakdowns related to this syndrome, which involves messianic fantasies and delusions of being Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist, or other Biblical characters. They are mostly Americans and almost all are Protestant. Many have a strong grounding in the Bible. In Jerusalem, they suddenly take off their clothes or shout prophecies on street corners, only to revert to normal after a few days’ treatment."

SOURCE: Amos Elon, Jerusalem: City of Mirrors

And isn't it’s amazing all the goofy if not downright destructive things some people feel inspired to do after reading the Bible. Folks who would never take a road sign out of context (“Oh look, ‘Speed Zone Ahead.’ Guess I’d better punch it.”) read Luke 10:19 (“Behold I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions…and nothing shall… hurt you”) and they join a church that passes not only a collection plate but a box of copperheads. Funny, they don’t seem too keen on scorpions. Maybe “scorpion treader” doesn’t sound as cool as “serpent handler?”

SOURCE: David Windhorst, “God May Kill You For Reading This… And I’m A Little Nervous Myself”

The North American Securities Administrators Association report, Preying on the Faithful: The False Prophets of the Investment World, described scams and cons by “religious” entrepreneurs. One outfit cited the blessing of the tribe of Asher by Moses in Deuteronomy that “the feet of the people will be bathed in oil” as the basis for drilling for oil. More than 15,000 Americans were swindled out of $450 million between 1984 and 1989 due to religious-affinity fraud. And at least 80,000 people lost $2 billion between 1998 and 2001 in religious scams. Religious scams are among the most common and Christians are easy targets. Investors are often following the advice of trusted leaders. Barry Minkow says that in just one year he has personally uncovered more than $1 billion in church-based scams and other fraud targeting Christians. Some schemes don’t target Christians but spread quickly once introduced in a church. Others go unreported, or regulators can’t shut them down because victims refuse to testify. In one case, Joe Borg (director of the Alabama Securities Commission) said church members “were told that if they spoke to us, they would be excommunicated and their souls damned to hell. We had a lot of folks who said, ‘Look, I may have lost everything I own, but I’m not going to take a chance.’” Borg says they play on victims’ greed (promising huge returns) while easing their conscience by saying that the investment comes from God or that the money is being invested in ministry.

SOURCE: Walter Hoops, “At Random,” The American Rationalist, Jan./Feb. 1991; Ted Olsen, “Bilking the Brethren,” and, Rob Moll, “The Fraud Buster: The Faithful Are Being Defrauded of Billions,” Christianity Today, Vol. 49, No. 1, Jan. 2005

3) I also agree with Parsons's assessment of the situation when the first followers of Jesus began preaching and seeking converts. They probably went to Jerusalem during one of the large festivals--along with many other sectarian street preachers--because all preachers are attracted to potential converts and large audience. Vast crowds were winding their way through the holy city, and festivals were an especially busy and crowded time. Thus any preacher ensured themself listeners, including people of all levels of education and/or gullibility, while others were quite literally fearful of God, guilty, and/or seeking assurance of personal salvation, and others were driven by curiosity, desiring the latest new revelations or signs of apocalyptic times, and others still simply attracted to tales/stories, because preaching and/or repeating tales was a major form of entertainment, not like they had radios, TVs, movies, or even plays (except in Greece and the Hellenized world). People would talk about stuff. Talk it to death, and perhaps even talk it to life.

exapologist said...

The best thing about this exchange, I think, is that it shows for all to see, via Parsons' demonstration, how hacky Holding-style apologists are. I am so grateful to Parsons for taking the time to point out specific instances of Holding's tortured, Fox-News style of reasoning.

I've endured that sort of exchange from other hacky apologists, but I never had the patience to actually take the time to point out in detail the kinds of horrible reasoning that such apologists routinely make (and I mean *routinely* -- their writings consist of little else than long chains of reasoning like the one's for which Parsons rightly chides Holding). I tend to just lose all motivation to continue such discussions once I see that this is the sort of thing I'm dealing with (why bother, if the next reply I get is going to be a long string of jibberish like this, in which case the bulk of my time must then be spent on re-stating and clarifying the position I just presented, after it's been systematically distorted by my interlocutor?).

It always amazes me that apologists of this sort -- the Triablogue and the Holding sort -- actually have large groups of faithful readers. The only explanation I can think of is that their readers can't tell the difference between good and bad reasoning.

Thanks for your patience in replying to Holding, Keith!

Victor, please don't let your blog descend to the level of a Triablogue- or a Tektonics-style blog. You have something precious here.

Anonymous said...

While I think it's important to debate the merits of the historical evidence, I make a larger claim. I claim that if God chose to reveal himself in history and to verify his revelation in history, then he chose a poor medium to do so. Follow the links.

Victor Reppert said...

Exapologist: How do I go about being invited to post on your blog?

As an instructor (as opposed to being an apologist) It's my primary job to get both sides as represented as best I can. And as an apologist, it's my conviction that we do our best work when we come to terms with our own and other people's questions honestly rather than trying to say whatever we think will make the Gospel look the best.

Victor Reppert said...

Exapologist: How do I go about being invited to post on your blog?

As an instructor (as opposed to being an apologist) It's my primary job to get both sides as represented as best I can. And as an apologist, it's my conviction that we do our best work when we come to terms with our own and other people's questions honestly rather than trying to say whatever we think will make the Gospel look the best.

exapologist said...

Hi Victor,

If you send me your email address to mine (, I can then invite you over.

The best? How about James Dunn vs. E.P. Sanders for the historical stuff re: the central claims of Christianity? Or how about Dale Allison vs. N.T. Wright on the nature of Jesus' apocalyptic claims? Now *that* would be a discussion that would really get to root of things regarding the merits, or otherwise, of the claims of the historic Christian faith. Or so it seems to me.



Jason Pratt said...

Well, seeing as how I bent over backwards numerous times to give Keith credit everywhere I could, and even added a comment where I summarized why I judge him to have won by a solid edge in the 1996 WLC debate, I hope _I_ don't count as "hacky tortured Fox-news style" reasoning. {g}

("Long strings of gibberish," maybe... {lol!})


exapologist said...

Hi Jason,

No, you certainly do not! You're a sharp guy, and intellectually honest. I certainly respect you, as well as Victor. I think both of you hold your beliefs in intellectually responsible ways.



Jason Pratt said...

'kay, good! Just thought I'd better check! {g}

Thanks, Ex,


Darek Barefoot said...

The following is very general comment on the whole course of the discussion. I hope that I won't be misunderstood when I say that, although I disagree with Keith Parsons's conclusions, I sympathize quite a bit with his arguments. I find in my own case that the gospel message, including the resurrection, is credible more because it makes sense spiritually than because its historical credentials are impeccable. That is not to say that I would believe it in the face of a mountain of contrary historical evidence. But making the kind of sense that the gospel does--its own kind of sense which can't really be compared precisely with that of any other class of information--I find it easy to grant it a very large benefit of the doubt that I would otherwise withold.

For example, say for the sake of argument we grant that there is a personal, creative intelligence behind the universe. Suppose also that human suffering is the tangled result of misuse of moral freedom that has introduced a barrier between this intelligence and his creation. That's a lot to grant, I know. But If we do so, does it make sense that this creator would have to actually enter into, not just his creation, but the suffering of his creation in order to remedy the situation? I find this astonishingly credible, even inevitable. Unbelievers disagree, naturally. Nevertheless, as I say, if it does makes sense it does so in its own unique way and to reject it is not to reject a historical reconstruction alone. Perhaps there are believers who have been able to separate the spiritual dimension of the gospel from a detached historical point of view and come to belief as the result of a calculated judgment, but I suspect that this is rarely the case. I also doubt that unbelievers can entirely separate the spiritual and historical aspects when they make their own judgments.