Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A bump in the road

Let me get back to my central thesis here. I am trying to argue a couple of things. One I am simply assuming, which is that there is no good argument that everyone ought to have strongly naturalistic priors about miracles. That doesn't mean that there's something wrong if you do have strongly naturalistic priors, only that there is no good argument, a la Hume, to suppose that I ought to have strongly naturalistic priors.

My second central thesis is that there is something very puzzling about the founding of Christianity, which makes all naturalistic accounts of its founding unbelievable. This is centered around the Resurrection as the central miracle, but really it's the whole story that just doesn't fit together very well unless the miraculous character of the whole thing is presupposed. My claim is that if you try, in a serious way, to put the historical jigsaw puzzle together without a resurrection, the pieces don't fit. You end up having to strain the facts to make them fit the theory. Now if you have strongly naturalistic priors, I suppose that is what you must do, or you can even say "I don't know what happened, but whatever it was, it wasn't a resurrection." On the other hand, it seems absurd to say that there is something self-contradictory about the idea of an omnipotent being who can resurrect someone from the dead. But your priors are what they are.

C. S. Lewis, in his autobiographical Surprised by Joy, encountered an atheist who reached just such a conclusion, who, nevertheless, remained an atheist. He wrote:

“Then I read Chesterton’s Everlasting Man and for the first time saw the whole outline of Christian history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense. Somehow I contrived not to be too badly shaken. You will remember I already thought Chesterton the most sensible man alive “apart from his Christianity.” Now, I veritably believe, I thought-I didn’t of course say; words that would have revealed the nonsense-that Christianity itself was very sensible “apart from its Christianity.” But I hardly remember, for I had not long finished The Everlasting Man when something far more alarming happened to me. Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. “Rum thing,” he went on. “All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it really happened once. “… Was there no escape?”

by C. S. Lewis Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1942), pp. 223-224

For this atheist, this hardest boiled of all atheists, the evidence for the miraculous nature of the founding of Christianity was a bump in the road. For Lewis, it helped to push him toward conversion. What I have been trying to show, is that the bump is there.


Ken said...

Victor, don't you think there might be a qualitative difference, historically speaking, between localized incidents (however culturally significant they turn out to be in the future) and greater, grand scale geopolitical events, and that possibly the key difference is that a greater level of detailed evidence in necessary for the local incidents for us to have confidence in them than history can provide? The mantle of historicity that you constantly claim isn't equivalent to the substance of veracity, especially at smaller scales that require high resolution.

To confidently determine a murder mystery would require interactive witness interviews and collection of material evidence, along with a transparent process. To solve an empty tomb mystery would require the same. In either case, historical evidence is inadequate.

The Mars Face was a bump in the road for Mars ET skeptics for a time. You're seeing a face on Mars in low resolution.

Anonymous said...


What historical Jesus literature have you read in the last five years? Scholarly work, not popular work.

Victor Reppert said...

This is an area of inquiry that, I believe, is open to discussion without having to prove, in one way or another, one's "credentials" based on having read the "right stuff' (whatever that is). It's too easy to get caught up in appeals to authority here.

I did read a volume of essays on the Incarnation edited by Davis, O'Callaghan, and Kendall, and I did read an N. T. Wright book of late. And I have read the essays in Contending with Christianity's Critics. But I am not coming at this based on arguments from authority. I am trying to work, very slowly (and it is very slow) through pieces of evidence that I think put the bump there that I am talking about. One of them is the martyrdoms and martyrdom risk behavior. Another is the archaeological support for at least some portions of the New Testament. I have already seen, in some writings, an ignoring or an unjustified dismissal of the archaeological evidence.

In other words, the proper focus should be on arguments and evidence, not the authorities.

Walter said...

I have asked this before--what is the historical evidence for the martyrdom of the eleven remaining apostles? All I seem to find is wild stories like Paul getting beheaded and milk coming out of his neck, or the tale about an attempt to boil John in oil but he was miraculously unharmed by the scalding oil. These tales don't seem very believable.

Ken Pulliam said...


Why should it be surprising that the resurrection makes all the pieces fit together nicely? After all the puzzle was produced by Christians. First, we have very little historical information. Second, what we have comes almost exclusively from those who believed in the resurrection. Of course, everything makes better sense if you use the pieces of the puzzle provided by the early Christians.

Victor Reppert said...

The question is whether there are independent grounds for thinking the New Testament provides reliable information. Do the New Testament documents have what we might call reliability-making properties that differentiate them from, say, Philostratus' account of Appollonius of Tyana.

Victor Reppert said...

Further, any testimony to the Resurrection would perforce have to be coming from someone who believed that the resurrection actually did occur.

Well, I suppose that you could have a report from Caiaphas that says "Must be hallucinating. Could have sworn I saw Jesus, the guy I got crucified, walking around with nail-wounds in his hands. Better start laying off the wine." But how likely is that, if Jesus was really resurrected?

Bilbo said...

Hi Vic,

What I appreciate about Lewis's approach is the the historical evidence for the resurrection is not treated as central. First, there is Chesterton's Everlasting Man, which provides a framework for understanding human history in terms of Christianity. The historical evidence of the resurrection -- whether weak or strong -- is then just one more clue that Christianity is true.

Walter said...

Well, I suppose that you could have a report from Caiaphas that says "Must be hallucinating. Could have sworn I saw Jesus, the guy I got crucified, walking around with nail-wounds in his hands. Better start laying off the wine." But how likely is that, if Jesus was really resurrected?

The fact that (in the gospels at least) the resurrected Jesus does not appear to anybody that is not already a believer and follower of him raises my skeptical hackles.

And before someone mentions Paul, I have to say that Paul did not seem to have the same experience as the disciples. The disciples saw Jesus version 2.0 in the "flesh", while Paul got a light and sound show from heaven.

Paul (assuming it is not an interpolation) passes on a creedal formula about five hundred people seeing the post-easter Jesus. Who were these people and why do the gospel narrators not seem to know about them?

Victor Reppert said...

Paul testifies that Jesus appeared to James, who was his brother but not a follower or a believer during his earthly ministry. I Cor. 15:7.

As Bill Craig asks, what would convince you that your brother was the Lord?

Walter said...

Are we positive that the creedal formula in I Corinthians is not a later interpolation? Bob Price has claimed that there was a later apocryphal gospel story that had Pilate assigning 500 soldiers to guard the tomb of Jesus, and these soldiers saw Jesus come out of the tomb after the angel rolled the stone away. He has asserted the possibility that this later, legendary expansion of Matthew's tale was interpolated into Paul's epistle as the 500 witnesses to Christ resurrection.

Also, I read another book by an author whose name I can't remember at the moment, who presented the case that James may not have been all that skeptical of Jesus status as a prophet even before Jesus' death.

8 said...

Reppert misreads Hume again and overlooks the point on the "uniformity of experience" (and...nature, actually). However quaint ugly or trite Hume's argument against miracles seems to many believers, it's ...cogent, as cogent as the dogmatists' assumption that miracles occur.

The great majority of humans have not witnessed supernatural events--so they are not likely to accept reports of such events (notwithstanding dogmatists' attempts to convince them otherwise). That could probably be established empirically. The few who claim to have seen ghosts, demons,chupacabras, etc--perhaps they might be more likely to claim miracles happen. But the uniformity of experience (certainly among...modern citizens) is that...ghosts don't exist. Nor do resurrections. Nor do Jezebels ride on the back of 7 headed beasts (per Book of Rev.). So, comparing one's normal experience against the ancient dogma..one decides the dogma doesn't hold, can explained away, or ...is a metaphor of a type.

The believer who says..that's not necessary... is hardly different than the hysteria case who insists Lourdes water actually works, with no proof. (Besides, if ...G*d could do miracles...why didn't He use them during saying WWII).

THere's more to it...but Hume's point contra-miracles rates as one of the few highlights of modern philosophy

Victor Reppert said...

Walter: So long as it remains open for you to play the interpolation card every time someone presents a counter-example to one of your pet theories, your claims remain unfalsifiable. You ask for a counterexample to the claim that Jesus appeared in a fleshly form only to his followers, I respond with James, and then you say either he was a follower all along, (in spite of the fact that Scripture says Jesus's brothers didn't follow him), or maybe the statement about appearing to James was interpolated. Heads, I win, tails, you lose.

Walter said...


My pet theory of possible interpolation belongs to Robert Price. It is just a theory as we have no early manuscript evidence at all--so who knows?

The book about James not being the converted skeptic that apologists claim him to be is this one:

"The Brother of Jesus and the lost teachings of Christianity" by Jeffery J. Butz

Butz is a Lutheran Minister, BTW.