Sometimes, when I see a debate on a Facebook board, I feel obliged to jump in a little – if for no other reason than to refine my arguments and the presentation of those arguments, and because even armchair apologists like myself require some “street” or “internet cred.” It never hurts to get some ideas for articles, either.
Last year, I noticed the interesting question, would Christians abandon belief in God, if it could be proven that He does not exist. My response was in my usual vein, “Find the body.” Since this article was originally published, I’ve refined my arguments – I’m never satisfied with the completeness of my past work.
The question for me is not that of proving theism – I’m not merely a generic theist, I’m a Christian. As such, the real question is (or should be), “Would I change my beliefs if someone could disprove Christianity?” This question, naturally leads to the follow up, “if so, how could someone disprove Christianity?” The only means to do so is to prove that the Resurrection did not occur, or at the least present me with an argument on the resurrection that I find more convincing.
Here is my organization of the minimum facts that must be disproved. These are ultimately not original with me, but this is the way I organize them:
1 Jesus died when crucified.
2 His followers claimed to have seen Him after His death. These men and women were profoundly changed by what they saw, and most were tortured and killed for their faith; none recanted.
3 Paul and James were skeptics about Jesus at one point in their lives, who later claimed to have seen Jesus after His death. Both became followers after these experiences and both died martyrs’ deaths.
4 The tomb was guarded by soldiers who were answerable to Pilate, yet the tomb was found to be empty.
Any theory about Christian origins must be able to account for all of the above minimum facts. Additionally, to be credible, there are some limits to the way in which a competing theory can be constructed.
- It cannot invent evidence, or cherrypick the evidence. One cannot argue that the tomb had a backdoor (due to a lack of evidence) or simply pick elements of the New Testament that fit ones theory and reject the rest without some demonstrated criteria external to one’s arguments, if such a criteria is invented for working through the evidence, it must be one that is demonstrated to either be true, or with arguments that I consider convincing.
- One cannot simply dismiss the source material without a solid argument that is not based solely on speculation. All of the external evidence supports the traditional authorship (and the patristic evidence on this point is rather impressive), there is nothing in the internal evidence that requires someone to reject that external evidence – a highly speculative case can be made that the documents were written by other people – but as noted, the key phrase is that the case cannot be based “solely” on speculation, since another word for speculation would be “Imagination.”
- It must be able to account for the growth of the Church in the first century at Jerusalem, since many early converts to Christianity were present at the time of the events.
- It must yield to Ockham’s razor, which is a warning about the multiplication of causes. If an argument requires us to assume one thing caused the empty tomb, and requires a separate, unrelated cause to account for the conversion of Paul, and a third separate, unrelated cause to account for the conversion of James, then that theory should be dismissed on grounds of being “ad hoc.”
To date, no explanation other than the Resurrection is successful at dealing with these facts in the manner I’ve noted.
Perhaps someone may come up with an alternate theory that adequately explains the minimal facts in the manner I have described. Similarly, perhaps someone will come up with a way of proving that the moon really is made of green cheese.
I take issue with your “facts”. First of all, James (Yacob) was the brother of Jesus, and took over the movement when Jesus was executed, even as Jesus took over John’s movement when the baptizer was executed. Two, the resurrection accounts are wildly contradictory. Some have Jesus staying in Jerusalem until his ascension, others have him going to Galilee first. They are not trustworthy on that basis alone. Third, the gospels were written some fifty years after the events by people who did not witness them. At a minimum, it would need to be demonstrated that the Gospel of John was authored by the actual Apostle John and not a Johanine school in Ephesus. As for using the growth of a movement to attest to its veracity, review this history of Mormonism in America.
Actually, the facts I listed are accepted by most historians, even if they don’t put the pieces together towards the resurrection.
1. The denial of James (I will use the common English since this is a lay level site, and pretensions to such a point are not in my keeping). First the argument that James “took over the movement” is highly hypothetical, built on the type of speculation that is better described as imagination. Paul indicates Peter, James and John were all considered pillars (Gal 1). The reason why James disbelief is accepted is the historical criteria of embarrassment – no one is going to make up a story that Jesus’ brothers grew up in the same house as he did, and disbelieved, especially since no gospel account states James’ conversion. He is presented as presiding over the Church at Jerusalem in Acts, with no explanation of his previous disbelief. Paul notes this in discussing the appearance of Christ to James in 1 Cor 15.
2. As to the locations, a little more study here might be warranted, after all, in a forty day period movement is not an impossibility. Most of the alleged discrepencies here are wildly overblown. But lets assume the gospels are not inerrant or inspired for the sake of the argument. Paul’s discussion of the eyewitnesses was recorded in the fifties, but its something he states in Rabbinic language of having “received it.” This was probably received in his meeting with Peter around AD 36 (Galatians speaks of it in terms of a consultation).
3. Actually, I would say the theory of a school of St John over John has the burden of proof, which is the point of my constructional criteria concerning traditional authorship. The book is universally accepted as written by John by the early Church, including Papias, who was a student of John’s. One would need to demonstrate (not assume) that the patristic evidence is inaccurate. This is an example of the type of imagination I note should be avoided. The dating of the gospels is also, of course, highly speculative. I date the gospels to within 30 years of the crucifixion (based on the fact that Acts does not record the death of James, the decision of Paul’s first trial, and his choice of material in Acts) giving Luke a date of around 59-60 during Paul’s incarceration. I date Mark and Matthew to the late 40’s, early fifties, theories to the contrary are similarly speculative, except they ignore the external evidence, I don’t.
I can sum up point three by saying your statements on the gospels, the burden of proof is yours, both since this is a negative case (ie what is necessary to disprove Christianity) and because the external evidence does not support the positions you raise. The same is true of the assumptions that the gospels were not written by eyewitnesses, particularly with John who claims the contrary.
4. As to the growth of the movement, I did not use this as an “Evidence” this was a statement on the requirements of interpretation, but the argument is a bit of apples and oranges. We have three (I would argue four) streams of transmissions. If Q existed (another example of imagination based in this case on the Hegelian Dialectic), its quite early since Paul quotes it (personally, I think he is probably quoting Matthew’s gospel, but if Q exists, Papias testimony would indicate Matthew wrote it). On the other hand, the book of Mormon has one stream, no one claims to have seen anything in the seeing stone except Joseph Smith, and several of Mormonism’s early “apostles” apostatized.
5. Again, as this is a negative case, the burden of proof on this case would still be yours, and you won’t meet it by mere speculation.
What I mean by “facts” are things which are so undeniable that it isn’t a matter of claiming that “most historians” accept them, which amounts to an opinion poll anyway, like saying “most scientists attribute global warming to human activity”. One fact would be that the earliest fragment of the Gospel of John that we have dates to roughly 125 CE. Another fact would be that in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus first met the Eleven in Jerusalem, where he commanded them to stay until the coming of the Holy Spirit, while in Matthew Jesus first met them on a mountain in Galilee. From 1 Cor. 15:7-8 we can conclude that there must have been a significant gap between the appearance of Jesus to James and the appearance of Jesus to Paul, such that Paul would characterize himself as “one born out of due time”. In other words, James saw Christ in the pre-ascension appearance just before “all the apostles” while Paul’s apparition was clearly post-ascension, so James didn’t have time to become a skeptic much beyond what might have transpired with Thomas. That leaves Paul. To ask skeptics to “account” for Paul and his conversion experience veers outside of historical analysis into pop psychology. One has to evaluate the probability of a miracle against the possibility of a simple psychotic break triggered by extreme zeal for the Law.
As to the point of historians, (see Habermas, Wright etc on the establishment of the separate points), that is a note, but again this is a negative case, that is what it means to disprove Christianity, which means the burden of proof in this forum is yours. I do have a positive case version (available on Kindle) but the structure of that discussion is significantly different, I start with a positive case on the source material.
As to the order of events, not really an issue, particularly given the meaning of Meno (translated remain), and when this is stated (probably near the ascension, the first listing of a discussion is not the same as saying something happened first, and the gospels are not always sequential).
As to James septicism, actually the gospels state he was a skeptic during the ministry of Christ before the crucifixion, your argument seems to be based on the highly speculative underlying the various Ebonite theories, but there is little to actually commend theorists.
As to Paul, actually that isn’t the point he is making, the Greek text implies an after birth or someone stillborn, and is probably a reference to the personal unworthiness he expresses in other places. We can reliably date Paul’s conversion to AD 33 to AD 35 based on the timeline given in Galatians and the ability to pinpoint Galieo’s tenure of office in Corinth, I go with the early part of that range due to the dating of Galatians (see FF Bruce commentary on the same). All other things being equal, Christ was also crucified in AD 33, since the threat made to Pilate suggests the politically purge (and a large number of executions) after the execution of Sejanus by Tiberius.
As to the “psychotic break,” theory this is usually based on assumptions that Paul felt guilty (since hallucinations tend to be confirmatory to one’s current worldview, which is not the case of Paul). But there are no indications of such in his writings, and people so easily motivated by such an experience are easily turned aside again later, but of course, Paul doesn’t change his course over 30 years despite massive suffering. Additionally Paul places his experience as being essentially the same as those of others, which means it is a fact that must be accounted for. Post ascencion, sure, but that then isn’t really an issue.
Incidentally, you are using Hume’s discussion of miracles, which reasonable people reject since based, like his discussion of the problem from induction, science would be impossible to study. The moment one discovers something new, one should, on that basis, automatically reject it because it is counter to one’s experience. Similarly, Hume’s argument from general applying to universal is a species of begging the question, which of course make sense since the structure of the argument is an example of that same logical error.
Another way of explaining this (or simplifying the point) because here I am arguing the negative position, in this context it is your responsibility to establish the falseness of the facts, and your view on Paul would only explain part of one, and thus does not explain the entirety of the matter.
We’re I arguing the positive, my answer would be the source material cannot be dismissed as ahistorical unless one is willing to dismiss Tacitus and Josephus on the same grounds (since both wrote histories with an agenda, as did some of our secondary writers such as Gibbons). The arguments raised to state that the gospels are theology and not history are artificial dichotomies themselves, a writing can be both, and Paul corroborate the essentials, his purpose cannot be construed as a propaganda since he cites theze points as commonly held, and much material, such as 1 Corinthians 15 predates Paul (He claims to have received it and the section following is poetry, indicating he is quoting a formulation in regular use).
Most of the liberal theories on the gospel, as I note are ultimately opinions that do not work from the evidence, but are means to work around the facts surrounding the text, and do nothing valid with the external evidence, particularly in line with Lightfoot’s work. Even in a positive case,then, there is a prima facia case for the gospels as written by eyewitnesses, and one would not be able to cavalier dismiss it without something more substantive than speculation. And beyond this the minimal facts case make more sense on several of the canons of historical interpretation, and the non-canonical references further substantiate the gospel accounts (Tacitus, San he drinks 43a, et al).
I’m at work and posting during lunch and work-breaks, and I intend to dig deeper when I get home, but I would like to address an earlier point you make dating the gospels within thirty years of the resurrection based on the fact that Acts does not record the death of James and leaves off immediately after Paul reaches Rome. Certainly this cannot be puzzling when James only appears in two places in Acts, at the Council of Jerusalem to render his decision (largely in favor of Paul), and later when James suggested Paul perform a rite of purification to set aside the controversy that he was teaching Jews to set aside the Law (again, making Paul look good). In both passages, the Book of Acts has moved from an account of the doings of the eleven and has become basically All Paul All The Time, so it is no wonder that James does not figure prominently, and there is a view that the author of the book of Luke-Acts (or the school that wrote it) was deliberately trying to obscure the existence of James except where he was absolutely necessary to the narrative, due to the profound disagreement between Paul and James with respect to the Law. James, and in fact Jesus himself, did not make the clean break from the Law that Paul asserted. That the work breaks off at that time (say 62 CE, before the fall of Jerusalem) is a deliberate device to obscure its late date (90s CE), which in turn was determined by its well-attested use of passages from three writings of Josephus with known date of authorship. I understand that textual criticism such as finding historical anachronisms in the text is considered “liberal” but that does not nullify the points it raises.
Luke certainly is not using Josephus, there is the possibility that they have a source in common. The differences between Luke’s discussion of the death of Agrippa I for example is too different from Josephus to assume Luke is dependent on Josephus.
Additionally, to assume a conspiracy, (and what you have is basically a conspiracy theory, make no mistake about it), are the various points where Luke has been demonstrated to be an excellent historian (Hemer notes 84 points where Historians have demonstrated that Luke is an excellent historian, Sherwin-White and Ramsey have noted similar points). ONe is forced on this ground to assume that Luke is careful with the incidental details, but enormously careless when it comes to his main point, which makes no sense given first century standards for propaganda.
The difference here, as I noted earlier, is that both are speculative, but your view does not fit the external evidence of the fathers, or in Acts with the we passages. The problem with operating solely from the internal evidence is that there is no check to the imagination, and the external evidence must be accounted for.
By the way, on the same basic grounds (the focus on Paul), one might posit, as I do, that the purpose of Acts was preparatory foe Paul’s trial, no conspiracy theory is necessary here.
As to the alleged conflict with James, the problem with this is that it is a conspiracy theory, in a sense to reminiscent of the Bauer hypothesis. Some today seem insistent on connecting James with the Ebonite movement, the problem is that the main source for this theory, Galatians 2, doesn’t provide any support for this view, it actually somewhat disproves it.
In Galatians 2, Paul notes there was no basic conflict between himself and the apostles before him. When he discusses the incident at Antioch, what is very clear is that he is not accusing Peter of disagreeing with Paul’s theology (that is the charge is not that Peter has committed heresy), he is accusing Peter instead of misrepresenting his own viewpoint, (that is that Peter was hypocritical). He will later note Peter in First Corinthians in a generally favorable light. If there was a pauline-petrine or a pauline-James conflict he would have of necessity had to address this point in Galatians, but he doesn’t.
One other point, your welcome to repost, though I am soon leaving for work, but one of the qualifying rules I note for a successful theory to disprove Christianity is that it can’t rely solely on speculation. So far everything you have offered is speculation, and fails on the interpretational principles I have noted.
You state that EVERYTHING I have offered is speculation. I will restate everything I have offered and provide evidence.
1) James was the brother of Jesus (Gal 1:19 But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother.)
2) Jesus took over John’s ministry (John 1) [Two of John’s disciples listen to John say “Behold the lamb of God” and begin to follow Jesus, including Andrew, who is named.]
3) The late dating of the gospels and Acts (I will concede this is speculation, but so is the conservative view of dating them early, so the two claims cancel out)
4) The conflicting resurrection accounts (I constructed an easy-to-read matrix here: http://www.cleanposts.com/index.php/Resurrection)
5) The gap between the resurrection and the Conversion of Paul, at least seven years. The resurrection was in April 7, 30 AD (to get the plural Sabbaths of Matthew 28, further illuminated in John), and the Conversion of Paul was at least in 37 because King Aretas of Damascus, who hunted for Paul, was not in possession of the city before that time, from secular history)
6) The dating of the John fragment is just science.
So I am rather disappointed that you painted everything I claimed as speculation, when it was merely the claims about the dating of the works in question, which is a perennial issue.
Actually, its a combination of speculation and outright errors.
1. Yes, James was the brother of Jesus, but again, the gospels state that he did not believe in Jesus as Messiah during the early ministry. This is accepted by most historians on the criteria of embarrassment.
2. It is a common modern misconception to assume that the 12 and Paul were the only ones referred to as apostles, Barnabus and Silas are also referred to as apostles in first Corinthians.
3. Actually, no the early date isn’t speculative, since it is supported by the external evidence; the external evidence cannot simply be dismissed because it is inconvenient to one’s theory. There is a prima facia case for traditional authorship, and so the burden of proof is on those denying traditional authorship.
4. Again, I won’t comment on the errancy of the accounts, but the conflicts are over stated, I believe they can be reconciled wholly, but whether or not one finds a small error in a detail is not germaine to this discussion. Discussions of inspiration are logically posterior to faith, so discussing it with an atheist is akin to discussing Calvinism/arminianism with an atheist and asking them to come to an opinion.
5. The gap cannot be 7 years, there is a long running disagreement on the dating of the crucifixion (AD 30, 33 and in a few cases 32 on the Thursday theory). As noted, Sejanus provides evidence that AD 33 is a better date for the crucifixion than AD 30, every argument for 30 when it comes to the timeline would also be true of 33. Additionally, though, Aretas is not in possession of the city in the discussion in Acts, his representatives are waiting for Paul at the gates, and Galatians indicates that Paul did not spend his entire time in Damascus.
6. I haven’t noted anything on the dating of the John Ryland’s papyri, though patristics would move this up to a terminal date at latest of AD 114 possibly earlier depending on what one does with Clement’s reference to the ongoing sacrifices in the temple, since the present tense is dissimilar to most other uses of the historic present. Again, though, this is to ignore the patristic discussions of the dating – the fathers had better information available (Papias, for example is something we only know through quotations from Eusebius) Irenaeus was a student of John, and the finds of the Nag Hammadi literature and gnostic gospels have demonstrated only one fact – that Irenaeus accurately works with the sources available to him). Tertullian demonstrates that the early Church did not accept pseudonymity (On Baptism), which is a central claim to the “school of saint John.” Again, your theory works only by ignoring the external evidence.
As to the claim this is speculation, that is called “analysis” and yes, that is essentially all that liberal theology is, imagination based in the Hegelian dialectic, Hume’s argument against miracles and a few other speculative epistemic principles.
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Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t see any evidence in this blog; I only see accounts. Accounts that were written many years after the events they claim to describe. They are hearsay. Here is a parallel example:
Before he died, in 1973, my grandfather told me that he drove Queen Victoria in one of the first ‘horseless carriages’ to her holiday home on the Isle of Wight.
I have written that memory down this year for the first time.
Do you consider it to be indisputably true?
Are you familiar with the motto of The Royal Society?
Nullius in verba
First your retraction, ad hom against Evangelical thinkers is something I take rather seriously.
But if time alone is a standard in establishing a historical fact, we have a problem, sinc most ancient historians are writing about their subjects with a greater distsnce than either the synoptic gospel writers or Paul, on this criteria we would have to dismiss Tacitus, Suetonius, and most of Josephus.
Most of these facts, as Habermas, Livonia and N T Wright attest are widely accepted by most ancient historians, point 1, that Christmas died on the cross is also supported by the AMA.
Sure we can dismiss Tacitus and Josephus. They weren’t even born before Jesus allegedly died. They were not even embryos so not eye witnesses. I’ll have to check out Suetonius…
My allegation was that your ‘evidence’ is actually hearsay. It is a valid criticism.
Actually no, it’s question begging, I’ve always argued that early father’s indicates strongly that the authors of Matthew, Mark and John were eyewitnesses, and Luke like Tacitus, wrote as a historian.
But when I say throwing out Tacitus, I do not mean throwing out just his reference to Christ, likely corroborated by Romance records considering his thoroghness, but his writings and Suetonius’s writings on the ceases and Rome, the same would go for Live and other historians. The gospel writers are closed in time to their subject than any other Romance era historian with the exception of part of the Jewish war by Jospehus.
Bracketing ‘most ancient historians’ with biblical accounts is not providing evidence for your proposition. It is an example of the tu quoque fallacy.
Actually no, it’s a principle of history, we work and weigh written accounts; my point is ultimately that consistency of technique means we cannot simply dismiss the gospels on the basis of question begging Hegelian thinkers in the nineteenth century.
Last chance to retract, or you will be blocked here as well.
Clever, but no, blocking isn’t an admission of anything, it’s requiring a rule of decorum, that you broke at our first meeting. The difference, of course between this account and the gospels is Matthew, Mark and John were eyewitnesses, and the evidence raised that someone else wrote these books doesn’t meet a reasonable burden of proof to counter the external accounts of their writings, and even if we accept the prevailing views of the theological left dating the synoptic around AD 80 (an assumption I grant here only to make the point, I date all the synoptic before AD 6p, and either Matthew or UR Matthew by at latest Ad 45) Paul proves the source their theory relies on (Q) is far older, since he quotes it by this point. This means they are working from records written by eyewitnesses themselves.
As to the scenery, you prove you either do not understand the point or distort it, if you have ever read the sources on the point. What Ramsey and others demonstrate is that Luke takes great care to write as a historian, that is he takes some oral and some written accounts, weighs them carefully and works to verify what can be verifjed. One would be rather daft to assume he takes such care in the scenery as you describe, and was somewhat less careful with his central subject matter, or that he somehow though to include trivial details to write a fraud.
Now your retraction, or you are not welcome here, I am not a fan of trolls.
For those who missed the fun, John started on my Facebook page this morning, accusing Christians of essentially purposefully distorting Scripture to make it what they want to say, ad hominem is something that I don’t tolerate, one cannot have a reasoned conversation with such rhetoricians.
While the site has changed, I believe he is now banned. I hate to take that step, but I’ve given him well more than three strikes.