Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A question for biblical skeptics

Suppose, surviving from ancient times, we found four manuscripts about the life and teachings of Rabbi Hillel. These works were all written within, oh, say, 70 years of the main events of Hillel's life. They are similar in a number of ways, although each written from a somewhat different perspective, with some differences of detail. They are all written by people who were clearly from the School of Hillel, by people who wanted others to accept the teachings of Hillel. However, they claim no miracles at all. Manuscript evidence shows goes back into antiquity and assures us that what we have today is very close to the original autographs.

Would we say "Gosh, we really do know a lot about Hillel here. There are a lot of things we can be reasonably sure of about him, especially where the accounts coincide." Or would we say "Just propaganda. We need some independent sources, from people who weren't from the School of Hillel. Then we'd have some real information."

It's hard to imagine the Bart Ehrmans and Rudlof Bultmanns of the world being so skeptical if the Gospels were about a non-miracle-working Hillel, rather than a miracle-working Jesus.


guy said...

i realize this is totally an ad hominem comment and proves nothing. But if i remember correctly Bart was a former believer turned agnostic. i can't help but wonder if there are psychological forces at work in some people--the more you admit of the trustworthiness of those texts, the more you have to deal with in terms of your personal beliefs and what the trustworthiness of those texts mean about your beliefs and your life. i'm not at all claiming this is necessarily the case with every skeptical scholar. i just can't help but wonder sometimes if people have personal aversions to certain scholarly conclusions (concessions really).


Steven Carr said...

I see Christians still claim this is all ancient history, and that we should accept miracle stories based on evidence that is very bad, but the best we can expect from 2000 years ago.

Extraordinary events demand evidence that is better than 'Well, what do you expect from such a long time ago?'

And do these hypothetical manuscripts do not mention a vast cast of characters that members of the Hillel fan club never talked about?

Suppose we suddenly discover manuscripts about the tap dancing ability of Elvis Presley.

Should we ignore the writings of people in the Elvis Presley Fan Club up to know who wrote letters to each other about their idol, but never mentioned his tap dancing?

We have writings about Jesus from people who were alive at the time.

Paul claims Jews could not be expected to believe in Jesus until Christians had been sent to preach about him.

Why should Paul be discounted, just because he never mentions the amazing miracles that his Lord and Saviour allegedly did, or because he wrote entire books of theology, and never once thought anything his Lord had said was relevant to Paul's teaching?

Steven Carr said...

'They are similar in a number of ways, although each written from a somewhat different perspective, with some differences of detail. '

In other words, they were anonymous, unprovenance works which plagiarised each other and the Old Testament, and never give any named source.

The first one not even giving any dates, sources, reason for writing - none of the markers which people of the time used to indicate that what they were writing was meant to be factual, rather than an improving Novel.

Steven Carr said...

'"Gosh, we really do know a lot about Hillel here. There are a lot of things we can be reasonably sure of about him, especially where the accounts coincide." '

Ah, the old 'If 4 Scientologists say something, it must be true' line....

Ken Pulliam said...


But the miracles are the problem. As Gresham Machen said in Christianity or Liberalism: the NT would be easier to believe without the miracles but it wouldn't be worth believing. Its the claims made by the Gospels and later Christians that Jesus is divine that creates the issue. I don't think Ehrman or even Bultmann are saying that there is zero truth in the Gospels. They are just very skeptical (and rightly so) of the supernatural claims.

As far as Luke and others getting some historical details right, that proves nothing regarding the accuracy of the supernatural claims. For example, much of the historical detail surrounding the Roswell UFO incident in 1947 is accurate but does that mean then that the interpretation of the events made by the "true believers" in UFO's is accurate?

Victor Reppert said...

Steven, you never seem to have answered Bob Prokop's comment, which he has made over and over, that the novel genre didn't exist in the first century.

Second, your use of the word plagiarism is highly anachronistic. At the present time, we are concerned about intellectual property rights, and so we have copyright laws and plagiarism regulations. But in that time, there was no such thing. If I have to grade someone's paper, then I need to know what in the paper is the writer's own idea, and what came from sources. But Luke, for example, isn't writing his gospel for a grade, and he's not trying to take royalties away from Mark. And although some people have made claims on his behalf as a historian, he's not trying to compete with Thucydides. He's trying to get the story out that he believes to be true.

In our century, we are accustomed to reading books in which the writer learns a lot of factual details so as to provide a realistic setting for the work, but the work itself is a work of fiction. So, if you were going to write a novel about someone who was going around, say, the Far East committing crimes, getting arrested, and escaping, then you might, to make the story realistic, go to the various places in the Far East, and visit the police headquarters and court buildings to find out what their police procedures might have been, to put in your story. You would find out how they do things in Bangkok, in Rangoon, in Hanoi, and in Ho Chi Minh City, in New Delhi, in Mumbai in Singapore, and in Lhasa. Of course, if you were doing this today, you'd have the benefits of planes, trains, and automobiles, none of which existed for poor old Luke.

So, if the Gospel of Luke and Acts were both novels, how did he research his novel? In the words of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.

Anonymous said...

Bob Prokop writing:
Victor, good point about plagiarism. It is a very modern concept. In fact, until just a few centuries ago, "originality" in writing was considered to be a negative!

Take Shakespeare - the plots for all but one of his plays (The Tempest) are borrowed ("plagiarized") from an earlier source. The same goes for Chaucer. There is not a single original plot in the whole of The Canterbury Tales. Every last one is a re-telling of a story long familiar to his audience. And this practice was universal in literature all the way back to Homer (and probably long before him).

So to accuse the Evangelists of "plagiarizing" the Old Testament is an anachronism. Try to say such a thing in the 1st Century, and folks would be scratching their heads wondering what kind of a nut you were.

Blue Devil Knight said...

With these posts I always feel like I have stepped into a blog where the standards have dropped.

1. Of course folks would be less skeptical if there were no miracles. Same with the Jesus story: if it were just the Jefferson Bible people would be a lot less skeptical up front. Why would anyone rational be any different?

2. Victor is using a strangely anemic notion of epistemic coherence, where getting something right lends credence to incredible claims?

If I get the description of Mall of America right, and add, "Oh and I raised someoen from the dead" the latter is more credible because of the other truthful geographic details in my story? Of course not, epistemic coherence requires some relevance or evidentiary relation among claims, not just random pick-up-stix of facts.

A high school friend who was generally truthful told me he was abducted by aliens: I didn't believe him just because he was generally truthful. Because his claim was so kooky I assumed something was fishy until I had further evidence (I am not kidding, he really did believe this).

3. Victor listed plausible alternate theories, but never addressed them. A list is not a rebuttal. That list made me less likely to believe Jesus was resurrected. It suggested reasonable alternate possibilities to the one that violates everything we know about how the world works.

As Victor might like to point out, in a Bayesian sense: by raising the likelihood of ten alternatives to his one theory, he ipso facto has lowered the likelihood of his one theory.

So that's "what's with all the swoon theories" etc.. It isn't clear how the fact that there are lots of plausible theories increases the probability of the story involving a grand miracle.

DL said...

Blue Devil Knight: ...getting something right lends credence to incredible claims?

I don't think Victor is claiming that, though. It's more that getting something right lends credence to credible claims; or rather, that getting something wrong lessens credibility — but that isn't the case here. You can't say, well, the ordinary stuff in the Bible is wrong, therefore we shouldn't believe the miraculous stuff either; you can say, the miracles are wrong therefore we shouldn't believe the ordinary stuff, but only if you already somehow know that the miracles must be wrong. And if you're certain of that, then any other suggestion will become a "plausible" option. You can propose that the whole thing must have been filmed on a stage in Area 51 and then taken back in time to the first century if the alternative is flat-out impossible.

The catch is that most people do not consider miracles to be impossible. There may be evidence for or against any particular miracle, but that evidence itself may consist of ordinary stuff. Then it becomes relevant whether the Biblical authors intended to present history, or whether they were writing parables or myths or refered to fictional places. Maybe they invented the novel a thousand years before its time... or maybe the miracles happened the way they said. You might "know" that that violates the way the world works, but it's awfully hard to prove that to the vast majority of people to whom the miracle-version is one of the plausible theories.

Blue Devil Knight said...

DL thanks that makes more sense.

Steven Carr said...

So if Luke was so incredibly accurate in the second half of Acts, why does Paul never refer to any evidence for the resurrection and why do the Romans have no idea that these Christians were following a crucified criminal?

If Acts is so incredibly accurate, why are the Jews worried that news of a healing miracle might become general knowledge - when an allegedly even greater miracle was supposed to be being preached?

If Acts is so incredibly accurate, why are the Jews adopting a policy of waiting to see if this movement came from God when everybody allegedly knew it was supposed to have been founded by a crucified criminal?