The Invisible Things

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Archive for the ‘Atheism’ Category

The Tomb and The Question

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Consider this perhaps familiar scenario: A controversial theory is made that challenges the core beliefs of a faith rooted in history, embedded in an attractive, popular and entertainment-oriented format which masquerades as scholarship…

Like the cultural fallout of the The DaVinci Code, James Cameron’s documentary, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” makes strident claims about the central figure of Christianity, Jesus himself, yet takes them even further than even Dan Brown. The substance of the claims of the documentary is that an opulent tomb containing 10 ossuaries, 6 of which are inscribed with Biblically familiar names, actually contains the remains of Jesus of Nazareth and his family- including his wife, Mary Magdalene (or in this case, “Mary, the Master”) and their child, Judah! No doubt the discussion will be passionate, and perhaps last as long as the post-DaVinci Code activity did. However, central to any discussion will likely be the same question: Who was Jesus?

I have already seen numerous opinions written in the last several days that in response to the discovery of the so-called “Jesus Tomb,” Christians should do the reasonable thing and accept the facts, “Jesus’ bones have been found. He was not bodily resurrected. He is dead. You’ve been duped! But, I suppose you can still be a Christian. After all, Jesus is more powerful as an idea rather than a person. Ideas change people. That’s all we have!” I must strongly disagree. If it were to be proven somehow that these remains are in fact those of Jesus and his family, and that he was not resurrected, the reasonable response would not be to adapt the Christian faith and reconstruct its theology to fit the predicament and worship a symbol. The reasonable response would be to abandon the Christian faith altogether (what this would mean for theism is another argument). The apostle Paul spoke to this idea when he wrote in his first letter to the church of Corinth, “and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.”

Ultimately, faith cannot be in a symbol. Symbols are interpreted in light of many things, often subjective in nature. They can mean vastly different things to different people. Yet, the Christian faith and its understanding of who Jesus was has always been based upon specific events in history and the people involved in those events. The primary meaning of these events is not subjective, but the foundation upon which Christian theology is understood. The meaning and power of these events and people have no value if they are not true! There are many beautiful stories that were never intended to be anything other than fiction, and though their ideas and symbols have persevered through the generations, placing faith in them in the way Christians do in Jesus Christ, would be absurd.

In the same way, no man, no matter how wise a teacher or influential a revolutionary, aught to be the object of faith or worship; for so long as he is a man, he can reach no further or do no more than those who may mistakenly place their faith in him. The man who accepts worship and acts as if he were God without having a shred of divinity is, as famously put by C.S. Lewis, either a lunatic or a liar, neither of which is worthy of worship. But, if He truly is Lord, then worship Him we must!

While we have little reason to think that this particular find bears any threat to the truths of the Christian faith, we must not entertain any notion of diluting it simply to avoid the challenges we are sure to face. We must consider it yet another opportunity to respond to the question that Jesus asked of His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”

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Are Science and Faith Compatible?

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Lately it seems as if some of the most volatile and debated issues of philosophy, religion, politics, and science have become even more polarized then they have ever been. I do recognize my own limited point of view in this regard and accept that such a statement is likely hyperbolic to the extreme. Yet, in recent history, our culture has certainly tended toward partisanship, especially in matters of faith and culture. This may be a small and fleeting moment in the grand scheme of things, but it is one that we are in and must discuss rather than allow the continued fragmentation of society based upon misunderstanding and mischaracterization of so many issues. As the title of this post suggests, my purpose in writing is primarily to discuss the compatibility of science and faith, though I do want to stress that I believe that this issue is only symptomatic of a larger trend of radical polarization of ideas in our culture.

So, again to the question: are the realms of science and faith compatible? Can one be a faithful adherent of religion, acknowledging the supernatural, and still understand or even practice science? The short answer should be an absolute “yes!” However, many do not agree. Some claim that the very basis of faith, that there is what cannot be proven empirically, flies in the face of science. Or, in other words, that what cannot be proven empirically cannot be said to exist! Such a notion is obviously false. One need only question the reality of abstract ideas, numbers, metaphysics, or aesthetics to recognize that many things that our culture (and even science itself) depends upon to be true are not empirically verifiable. (See my series, Science and Faith, for more elaboration on this point.) What is really the problem here is that science, by nature of what it is and how it operates, illegitimately excludes that which cannot be proven empirically from truth as a whole.

Perhaps, then, the realm of science is being inappropriately misunderstood as a comprehensive epistemology rather than a method? Science is not a category of knowledge, nor its primary source. It is a method by which some knowledge is apprehended. Religion, on the other hand, is also not the primary source of knowledge. Religion is a practice which generally attributes its method to the influence of the supernatural (Though a case can be made for non-supernatural or secular religions, my point here is to focus on the relationship between religion of the supernatural kind and science). While the supernatural catalyst of religion, especially in the theistic sense, may have the properties of omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, etc., no one (that I know of) claims that religion can lead to the apprehension of the same qualities.

However, both science and religion allow for conclusions to be made about reality. This is where the conflict occurs, since the conclusions tend to be characterized as contradictory. D.J. Grothe, in a recent interview with Dr. Michael Shermer on the program ‘Point of Inquiry,’ said:

“Science and religion are incompatible if religion makes any claims about the universe inconsistent with science…but not…if you’re a religionist who’s willing to give up all of the supernatural claims.”

This statement may require some time to register as the falsehood that it actually is. Grothe claims that science and religion only conflict when religion disagrees with science! In other words, science is always correct. But can science always be correct? Surely a look at many incorrect theories should prove otherwise. Yet, what I am more interested in questioning is the characterization of science as something that can even be characterized as “correct” or “incorrect.” Science is a method that should lead to a correct determination provided that steps are taken without error, similar to the mathematic process of addition. However, can it be said that “addition is always correct?” Of course not! The process of addition provides the correct sum when it has been conducted without error. What Grothe is doing, perhaps unwittingly, is establishing science as an inerrant and comprehensive teleological source, rather than using it as a method through which to apprehend knowledge. Moreover, Grothe, most likely wittingly in this case, neuters religion to only that which is non-supernatural. Clearly, this undercuts the very purpose of the religions which he claims contradict science. Again, he has stacked the deck in his favor.

Grothe’s guest, Dr. Michael Shermer, responded by saying:

“There’s no evidence through science [for the effects of faith]. Wherever there have been attempts to prove it, those attempts have failed- most recently with the prayer and healing studies with the 1800 cardiac bypass patients with which there was no effect at all. This is a big mistake that religious people make…trying to use science to prove something. They’re going to fail. They always do.”

What Shermer says may be true, if not for the time being, possibly forever. Perhaps science will never prove the effects of faith, or the existence of the supernatural. However, this is really not the issue at hand. In fact, it seems to be a red herring meant to categorize the faithful as misusing science to somehow prove faith. Surely this is not true of all people of faith, nor is it germane to the compatibility of science and faith. Incidentally, I recall reading an article in the New York Times about the study mentioned by Shermer and wondering just what exactly the parameters were for tracking the relationship between prayer and health. Were the people praying all accounted for? Were they all praying for the same thing or to the same god? Were the patients themselves praying? Was there any relationship at all between the faith or skepticism of the patients and those who prayed for them? It seemed to me that the conclusion was: not enough people got better, therefore prayer doesn’t work. I would ask whether prayer is, in this case, being limited to the act of supplication rather than being understood for the rich, nuanced and multifaceted practice that most who pray believe it to be. Regardless, even the perceived failure of such a study has little to do with the compatibility of faith and science.

Decades ago, when presumably the polarization of science and faith was less severe, atheist George Wald spoke on the relationship between the two in an address to the John XXIII Institute Conference on Theology and Ecology. He said:

“I think the struggle to know is epitomized in science. One could add a word and say an unending struggle to know God. I think the big question is, if one added that word, would one have changed the meaning of the sentence? For me, no.”

While I may disagree with his atheistic position, I do agree with his statement. Wald sees both science and religion as in pursuit of knowledge, yet he has chosen to pursue one over the other. It seems he is content to make that choice, yet in speaking this way he makes no claim that his decision was compelled by a valid restriction of religion by science. In fact, he went on to characterize his own secular scientific position as religious.

Is it possible then, that the question itself of whether science and religion are compatible is actually contributing to the false dichotomy of “science or religion, but not both?” The very birth of scientific practice is rooted in the belief in a teleological universe which should be ordered in such a way as to be studied systematically. Without such a philosophical grounding, one has no basis to believe that the systematic approach of science would be at all effective. In other words, science began with faith. So long as the faithful in this world practice science, in whatever capacity, the notion that one can either be faithful or scientific but not both is a false dichotomy.

Written by Christopher Butler

September 28, 2006 at 7:06 am

Scriptural Skepticism

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It is fairly likely that much of the criticism put forth by skeptics in regard to the scriptures is due not to some evidence which exists that proves the scripture to be false, but actually a misunderstanding of the nature of the scripture itself. Indeed, the Bible is a throroughly unique book, both in subject and authorship, yet if both attributes are not properly understood, skepticism is likely to follow.

In one sense, the Bible is a quite human book. It was written by many authors and recalls many accounts that underscore the humanity of its characters. Nowhere does it claim to have been written by anyone other than a human being. Yet, the combined narrative of the many authors is a remarkably singular and cohesive account. On the other hand, it is also a quite spiritual work. It contains the law delivered to Moses from God. It contains prayers and prophesy; sometimes the very words of God. Its writers also claim such spiritual power on behalf of scripture. Consider the author of Hebrews 4:12, who writes, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” However, it has always been and always will be considered a testament of God. In other words, scripture is an account by many witnesses of the work of God in history. It is not an account written by God’s physical hand and dropped on Earth from Heaven, nor should anyone expect such an account to exist.

This distinction is important to make given much of the nature of skepticism toward scripture. It is often said by skeptics that the Bible is untrustworthy because it was written by men and used to promote their worldly agendas. Or, that God, if He really existed, would make Himself known in some other fashion, preferably one which all people at all times could interact with and would be beyond dispute. Often, I wonder if what skeptics really want is for God to dictate scripture to them personally- only then could they trust its contents! However, one of the key points of scripture is that God acts in history. Unfortunately for us living in the twenty-first century, time progresses and leaves history in the unreachable past and accessible only by that which remains. The Bible, then, is precisely what we would expect to find: a collection of accounts of God working in history intentionally preserved by those who believe in Him for posterity.

Yet, skepticism persists. Incidentally, as I was considering this topic I ran across a quote from Mortimer Adler, in his book “How to Read a Book,” which provide good examples of how skeptics receive the scriptures. He writes:

“Dogmatic theology differs from Philosophy in that its first principles are articles of faith adhered to by the communicants of some religion. A work of dogmatic theology always depends upon dogmas and the authority of a church that proclaims them. If you are not of the faith, if you do not belong to the church, you can nevertheless read such a theological book well by treating its dogmas with the same respect you treat the assumptions of a mathematician. But you must always keep in mind that an article of faith is not something that the faithful ‘assume.’ Faith, for those who have it, is the most certain form of knowledge, not a tentative opinion. Understanding this seems to be difficult for many readers today. Typically, they make either or both of two mistakes in dealing with dogmatic theology. The first mistake is to refuse to accept, even temporarily, the articles of faith that are the first principles of the author. As a result, the reader continues to struggle with these first principles, never really paying attention to the book itself. The second mistake is to assume that because the first principles are dogmatic, the arguments based upon them, the reasoning they support, and the conclusions to which they lead are all dogmatic in the same way. (Adler, Mortimer: How to Read a Book, pg. 292)”

At first glance, Adler seems to offer a sound and logically consistent defense of theology. In fact, he suggests, in a way, that the core theological tenets of a certain religion be thought of much like premises in a logical or mathematic syllogism. Therefore, as he writes, modern readers (or perhaps better said secular readers) err in rejecting such tenets as they read theology. Indeed, theology would be quite useless and irrelevant without at some point acknowledging some core premises or doctrines. In other words, Adler encourages even skeptical readers to patiently allow the theological point to be developed, rather than prematurely rejecting it before it has been fully articulated. While I heartily agree, it should be pointed out that Adler’s advice seems to assume that a theologian can do such a thing with clarity and intellectual honesty. Again, I would concur. However, Adler proceeds to write what can only be received as a blunt contradiction of this point:

“Consider any institution- a church, a political party, a society- that among other things (1) is a teaching institution, (2) has a body of doctrine to teach, and (3) has a faithful and obedient membership. The members of any such organization read reverentially. They do not- even cannot- question the authorized or right reading of the books that to them are canonical. The faithful are debarred by their faith from finding error in the ‘sacred’ text, to say nothing of finding nonsense there. (Adler, Mortimer: How to Read a Book, pg. 293)”

If the faithful are, as Adler argues, intellectually impotent in regard to the study of theology, one must conclude at least two staggering possibilities. The first, though logically tied to both of Adler’s statements, is hardly likely: That the theologians who teach the faithful through preaching, teaching and writing are themselves not among the faithful. In other words, Adler’s first statement assumes that theology is worth studying. Yet, in his second statement, he claims that the faithful are so intellectually “debarred” that they cannot discern truth from “nonsense.” If both ideas are true, then the theologians must themselves not be believers. Frankly, theologians who do not believe what they teach are no more than liars, or at best, concoctors of fairy tales. Perhaps, then, Adler is confused. The second, and possibly more troubling conclusion one could make from Adler’s statements, is that only religious skeptics, or unbelievers, are in the position to accurately develop theology. Clearly, this is absurd. Theology is the study of God. Without an interactive belief in God, theology could not be received by Him and taught. That is, of course, unless the theology amounted to a belief that God does not exist.

To be fair, I think that these thoughts are somewhat misplaced in “How to Read a Book,” if not definitely undeveloped for publication. Indeed, Adler redeemed himself intellectually, specifically in regard to philosophy of religion, since in his book “Truth in Religion,” which he demonstrates that the three religions “of the book” (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are the only world religions which do not dismantle themselves through logical contradictions. However, this type of faulty thinking is quite prevalent among intellectual skeptics, many of whom take the position that the Bible was not simply written by men, but its contents were completely invented by men as well. It is almost as if they believed that if God truly existed, he would appear before them individually, on their terms, explain Himself (and everything else, for that matter) leaving them compelled to belief. Yet, this would mean that God would have to do such a thing to every single person in history, probably simultaneously, however impossible, to satisfy those who do not believe in Him. Otherwise, at some point, one would have to rely upon the testimony of another who was present to witness what God did, which is precisely what we have in the testimony of the Bible.

I don’t expect that my brief treatment here will dismantle every type of skepticism that exists toward the scriptures, so perhaps my title is a bit broad. However, the misunderstandings and illogical claims that I have mentioned are often at the root of most skeptical criticism that I have encountered in my study of the scriptures. When the character of the Bible is properly understood, in terms of its content and also its historical context, it seems to be exactly what one might expect to have at the root of a religion which affirms the existence of God and His activity in history.

Written by Christopher Butler

August 28, 2006 at 5:38 am

Brief Comments on the Recent Craig-Ehrman Debate

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On March 28, 2006, the College of the Holy Cross sponsored a debate between Dr. William Lane Craig and Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, titled "Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?" Since I was not able to actually attend this much-anticipated event, I have been able to review the transcript of the proceedings, which can be found here. Normally, I wouldn't endeavor to analyze or throw my 'two cents' in after the fact, but the debate raised several issues that are particularly germane to philosophical and historical apologetics and which I think merit some attention. I won't necessarily be defending the historical resurrection in this article as previous ones have made clear my position on this matter. However, I would like to examine some philosophical ideas related to the discussion that often cause damage to a debate such as this one.

Aside from a rather unfortunate and embarassing introduction from the moderator, which recounts a medieval debate between a Jewish Rabbi and a Christian Monk over whether Jesus was the messiah and seems to suggest that the resulting bedlam is characteristic of Christian 'sore losers,' both Craig and Ehrman seem to have conducted themselves in gentlemanly and scholarly fashion.

Dr. William Lane Craig, representing the affirmative position, is a Christian philosopher by profession, though it should be noted that he has advanced degrees in theology and philosophy and his apologetic work tends to focus on issues relevant to the cosmological argument for the existence of God and the historical resurrection of Jesus. Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, representing the negative position, is a Biblical historian and textual critic with a doctorate in theology who has been in the limelight recently after the publication of his latest book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, which discusses the transmission of the Biblical texts and how they were changed over time. In summary, Dr. Craig defended his position that there is, in fact, historical evidence in light of which the resurrection of Jesus is a probable event. He began with what is a classic approach of his, what I will call the 'Four Facts' argument, which propose that there are four facts which must be adequately explained: 1. the burial of Jesus, 2. the discovery of his empty tomb, 3. the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and 4. the origin of the disciples belief in the resurrection. On the basis of his argument, he concludes that the best explanation of the facts is that Jesus rose from the dead. On the other hand, Dr. Ehrman argued that history is methodologically limited to dealing with information that can be verified through reliable sources and suggests only natural events. It is on the basis of this assertion that Ehrman declares such an event as the resurrection of Jesus non-historical, and therefore not germane to any discussion he would conduct.

This particular methodology, which Ehrman claims carries no bias toward theological issues, does not allow for a historical presence of the supernatural. Thus, the logical conclusion is that supernatural actions of God in history, are by nature non-historical. However, this just seems somewhat difficult to defend. If one were to grant the existence of God, not even necessarily a personal one such as Christianity posits, the declaration that God would not act in history is completely arbitrary on the part of the human being. Without a direct communication from God affirming this point, one really has no basis to assume it. However, one does have, again assuming theism, a precedent upon which to expect God to act in history- namely the creation of the universe itself, which must be a historical event though no one was there to write it down or snap a photo as it was happening. Yet, since even the ‘natural’ was created at that point, the act itself must have been supernatural. In any case, suffice it to say that I believe Ehrman’s position on the matter to be a bit of a stretch of the credulity of any philosopher. He may be playing by the rules of historians, but that says nothing of whether a supernatural event actually occurred.

In response to the classic 'four facts' argument put forth by Craig, Ehrman suggests a couple of alternative explanations, which, while he does not subscribe to them personally, he argues are more probable explanations than that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. For example, one he suggested first was that after Jesus' death by crucifixion, He was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. However, His family, motive unknown but preferring to have the final say in where Jesus was buried, broke into the tomb at night and removed the body. While transporting it, they encountered some Roman guards who summarily put them to death and cast all the bodies in an unmarked mass grave. Later, the disciples would obviously find the original tomb empty and legend would flourish.

While this explanation is rife with problems, the more important issue at play is, again, the arbitrariness with which it is assembled. The issue here is to find an explanation which satisfactorily deals with all the information available. In other words, and often stated by Craig, such an explanation must have appropriate explanatory scope and power in order to be the most probable and suitable to settle upon. Ehrman's suggestion not only fails in this regard, but it is absurdly ad hoc and ends up not satisfying the actual evidence but creating a list of other points to ground it that are either entirely contrived or at best speculative. For instance, his explanation follows the Gospel narrative in general but inserts an event previously unknown to account for the empty tomb. Not only is this event completely contrived, but it presents a new problem that the explanation does not itself solve. Specifically, had the relatives of Jesus (presumably Mary, and/or his brothers) attempted to move the body and been killed in the process, surely there would be some mention of their absence or at least an explanation of their deaths. In fact, history shows that at least James and Jude could not have been involved in this plot (assuming the authorship of the epistles of James and Jude are not spurious).

Craig, of course, continually returns to his 'four facts' argument and reminds the attending audience that they have not been adequately refuted. Given Ehrman’s inability to diffuse the ‘four facts’ argument, it seems that the issue of the debate sadly came down to one of professional methodology. On the one hand, we have a philosopher, adhering to the laws of logic and the fundamental notion of following the evidence where it leads, while on the other a historian willing to play by rules that satisfy operating in a bubble but seem almost absurd when exposed to the scrutiny of common sense. Needless to say, I was disappointed by this debate. Had the format of the proceedings themselves allowed, the scholars might have had opportunity to unpack the issues of historical and philosophical methodology in a depth necessary for really coming to any worthwhile determinations on the matter. While I find the ‘four facts’ argument to be strongly persuasive, it is only because I am also persuaded that historical methodology must allow for any event, including the miraculous, to occur. What would make for an interesting sequel to this debate would be to have the scholars return to discuss this issue in particular and then perhaps readdress the conclusions in regard to Jesus.

The God Who Wasn’t There, Part 2

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In The God Who Wasn’t There, filmmaker Brian Flemming attempts to cast doubt upon the reliability of the New Testament, something which is affirmed by the majority of contemporary Biblical scholars. While many may dispute the interpretation of these scriptures, or the ways in which we aught to apply their message to our lives, the historical value of them is not quite up for debate. However, Flemming makes some rather specific comments, which I would like to examine.

"Why is it that Christians can be so specific about the life of Christ but they’re vague about what happened after he left? Aren’t Christian leaders telling them the story? [Regarding the Gospels], the other three are clearly derived from Mark. Mark mentions the destruction of the Jewish Temple which happened in the year 70. So, the Gospels all came later than that; probably much later. There’s a gap of four decades or more. Most of what we know about this period comes from a man who says he saw Jesus Christ come to him in a vision. He was the apostle Paul, formally known as Saul of Tarsus. (The God Who Wasn’t There)"

The allegation that modern Christians know little to nothing about the early Christian church is quite unfounded. There is actually a wealth of information about this time in history that not only allows for a relatively tight chronology, but also verifies the reliability of the New Testament books themselves. The early Christians left such a significant “paper trail” that the entire New Testament can be reconstructed simply from quotes and citations found in the letters and writings of the leaders of the church in the first and second century! While these non-Biblical documents aid in our understanding of the Bible itself, they also provide a great deal of information regarding the practices of the early Christians, the growth of the church, and even the details of heresies as they were discovered and how they were addressed. But Flemming seems more interested in challenging the reliability of the Gospels, specifically on the basis that they were too far removed from the events they describe to be trusted.

First, Flemming alleges that the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John are derived from Mark. Do all the Gospels derive from Mark? This is hardly the consensus. In fact, while similarities between Matthew and Luke suggest Markan priority, there is plenty of additional information in each that is not found in Mark, possibly suggesting other sources- unless of course the writers were actually just faithful to the message they received from Jesus. Whether these 'other sources' can be accounted for on the basis that the authors of these Gospels were actually who tradition suggests (Mark, a close disciple of Peter, and Matthew the disciple of Jesus himself) is a separate question, but clearly there is too much information within both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke that cannot be accounted for only by the content of The Gospel of Mark. In fact, Luke explicitly states that he embarked to gather information from many sources, and implies that the Christian tradition, then being put into writing, was first established and spread orally:

“Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having understanding of all things from the very first, to write you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed (Luke 1:1-4)”

Some scholars infer, on the basis of similarities among the synoptic Gospels, a prior source, called 'Q,' that preceded the writing of any of the canonical Gospels and for some reason was not preserved but would have had to have been established quite soon after Jesus' crucifixion (I have written on the ‘Q’ hypothesis in a previous post titled What About Other Gospels, Part 3). Note, however, that if such a document were to be discovered and did represent the earliest teaching about Jesus, the difficulty which many critics have with the span of time between the death of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels would be even more unfounded. ‘Q,’ then is a hypothesis which would only strengthen Biblical reliability.

Flemming then hones in on a particular target and claims that the Gospel of Mark could not have been written until after AD 70, followed by the other three. He interviews another scholar, by the name of Doherty, to corroborate this:

"The earliest possible date for Mark was used on this timeline [AD 70]. In fact, the 40-year gap is probably much wider. Scholarship shows that Mark could have been written as late as 85-90 A.D. (Flemming)"

"The first Gospel wasn’t written until almost the end of the first century…The others follow over the next several decades (Doherty)."

I happen to think that we have very good reasons to disagree with this scheme of dating, but for the sake of argument, let's give Flemming and Doherty the benefit of the doubt regarding the supposed 40-year gap. To suggest that a 40-year gap between an ancient event and its documentation disqualifies it from being historically reliable is contrary to the process and standards of historical verification. In fact, most of our current data on ancient events relies on documents far more removed from the events they describe than the Gospels. Flemming and Doherty’s suggestion otherwise is intentionally misleading. However, current Biblical scholarship is not in agreement with the dates for the Gospels given by Flemming and Doherty, which I will address later.

Regarding the span of time between the writing of the New Testament documents and the events they describe, Biblical scholar Frederic Kenyon writes,

"This may sound a considerable interval, but it is nothing to that which parts most of the great classical authors from their earliest manuscripts. We believe that we have in all essentials an accurate text of the seven extant plays of Sophocles; yet the earliest substantial manuscript upon which it is based was written more than 1400 years after the poet's death. (Frederic Kenyon, Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament)."

If Kenyon's statement isn't robust enough for an argument, renowned Biblical scholar F.F. Bruce provides a bit more of a detailed comparison:

"Perhaps we can appreciate how wealthy the New Testament is in manuscript attestation if we compare the textual material for other ancient historical works. For Caesar's Gallic War (composed between 58 and 50 B.C.) there are several extant MSS, but only nine or ten are good, and the oldest is some 900 years later than Caesar's day. Of the 142 books of the Roman history of Livy (59 B.C. – A.D. 17), only 35 survive; of the 16 books of his Annals, 10 survive in full and two in part. The text of these extant portions of his two great historical works depends entirely on two MSS, one of the ninth centruy and one of the eleventh. The extant MSS of his minor works (Dialogus de Oratoribus, Agricola, Germania) all descend from a codex of the tenth century. The History of Thucydides (c. 460 – 400 B.C.) is known to us from eight MSS, the earliest belonging to c. A.D. 900, and a few papyrus scraps, belonging to about the beginning of the Christian era. The same is true of the History of Herodotus (B.C. 488 – 428). Yet, no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest MSS of their works which are of any use to us are over 1,300 years later than the originals (The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?)."

So assuming that there is such a 40-year gap, as Flemming asserts, this seems to be a fact still in favor of the reliability of the scriptures, especially within the context of other ancient sources and how they are treated historically.

Incidentally, however, Flemming's dates for the Gospels are significantly off from those that many Biblical scholars affirm. While evangelical and skeptical Biblical scholars tend to vary by a factor of ten years in their dating of the New Testament books, one method of pinpointing a date is to start from a suggested dating of the book of Acts and work backward. The final accounts of Acts detail Paul's imprisonment in Rome, but say nothing about his subsequent death, nor the deaths of Peter or James (believed to have occurred sometime between AD 60 – 70). This is remarkable given the final passages of Acts’ primary focus on Paul. Nor does Acts account for the Roman war (AD 66) or the fall of Jerusalem (AD 70), both major events which would have been especially germane to the subject of the book and surely of interest to the apostles. The omission of these relevant facts lead to a likely conclusion that the book itself was completed prior to any of these events, sometime prior to the early 60's AD. Since most scholars affirm that the Gospel of Luke was written prior to Acts and after the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, one can conclude on the basis of historically positioning the book of Acts that all of these books can all be dated before AD 70.

Flemming also notes that the Gospel of Mark mentions the fall of the temple in Jerusalem, which happened in AD 70, therefore Mark could not have been written prior to AD 70. Actually, the passage he is referring to does not explicitly mention the destruction of the temple in AD 70, but contains a cryptic prophesy from Jesus which has subsequently been interpreted to refer to the temple. It reads:

“Then as He went out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, 'Teacher, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!' And Jesus answered and said to him, 'Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another, that shall not be thrown down (Mark 13: 1-3).”

Though this has come to be known as a prophecy confirmed by the fall of the temple in AD 70, it is not a specific mention of the event itself. One would have no reason to date this text after the event unless the possibility of prophetic accuracy was rejected prima facie. However, if one were to reject the prophetic, it is certainly plausible that Jesus was simply stating that no building will remain after His second coming, making the fall of the temple decades later a significant coincidence. While exegetical stances may vary in regard to this passage, Mark 13: 1-3 is not helpful in discerning the date of the writing of the Gospel, and certainly should not bar it from having been written prior to AD 70.

Besides the Gospel accounts, the details of Jesus' life are also found in reliable secular historical sources. These include Tacitus, Suetonius, Thallus, Pliny the Younger, Trajan, Hadrian, Lucian, Mara Bar-Serapian, and the Jewish historian Josephus. All of these writers cited information related to Jesus or Christianity within 20 to 150 years of the death of Jesus. For secondary affirmations in history, these are very early and valuable to refuting the claim that we know little of that portion of history. Jewish historian Josephus, for example, provides a detailed account of the rule of Pontius Pilate, and even includes an account of Jesus:

"Now, there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of the Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day (Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, Chapter III)."

As a disclaimer, I am well aware that portions of this passage which seem to agree with the most supernatural claims about Jesus are likely to be spurious. My point in quoting from Josephus is not to prove that Josephus believed in the deity or even messianic identity of Jesus, but simply to show that Jesus was important enough to have been mentioned by him.

Skeptics might at this point suggest that using the same method of historiography to evaluate the New Testament documents as one might use to evaluate the documents of Herodotus is invalid, given that the Biblical accounts include supernatural and miraculous events, while the ancient histories do not. This is, however, false. In fact, ancient historical accounts do include numerous reports of omens, prophesies, miracles, as well as divine and demonic encounters and activity.

One often cited example comes from Plutarch's account of Alexander the Great, in which he notes that Alexander came from a Herculean genealogical line, as well as other supernatural details such as how the Greek pantheon favored and assisted him in battle, how he had encounters with a priest claiming to be the son of the god Ammon, and how he relied constantly upon oracles for decision making. Tacitus, too, mentions the divinity of the Caesars, the worship of them, and the divine influence upon the crop cycle. Suetonius includes in his writings numerous examples of divine encounters, interactions with the spirits of the dead, worship and prophesies, and many additional citations of omens found in heavenly observation, dreams and visions. While many of the ancient historians not only reported things of a supernatural nature, suggesting that people of that time actually believed in them, it seems that the historians themselves also believed in these phenomena. Why then are these writers forgiven their supernatural inclinations and trusted in their reporting, yet the New Testament writers are not given the same benefit? It seems, then, that this discrepancy is the result of historically retrospective discrimination.

Flemming plays fast and loose with claims of the illegitimacy of the New Testament and infers on such basis that secrets were kept and knowledge suppressed by church leaders for the purpose of misleading people and assuming control over them. Such a conspiracy and manipulation theory is often too easily assumed today without considering the cumulative weight of the evidence to the contrary, especially when the motivation to do so is first established by an emotional appeal to skepticism. I have previously written on the reliability of the New Testament, and am strongly in favor of the position that regardless of what one chooses to believe about the scriptures, their position and authority in history is clear (see my previous post on the reliability of the New Testament).

The God Who Wasn’t There, Part 1

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Beneath the popular current of The DaVinci Code controversy (which I have addressed in several articles) is another attack on the Christian faith, this one more of a grassroots effort, not sheltered by the guise of fiction, but overtly labeling itself as a factual documentary which exposes the “truth” about the Christian faith. This “documentary” is called The God Who Wasn’t There, and was produced by Brian Flemming and distributed through a network of “guerilla-style” operatives who attempt to plant the DVD and other literature on church grounds and other Christian gathering places (I mentioned this project briefly in an earlier post called ‘The War on Easter’).

The basic premise of The God Who Wasn’t There is that Jesus never existed, and that fact, among many others pertaining to the traditional Christian faith, is a fabrication without any historical basis. Now, I must initially state that such a claim is so fantastic and on the extreme fringe of scholarship in theology, religion, history, and other fields as to be simply incredible and not worthy of discussion. However, and as I think the DaVinci phenomenon illustrates, we seem to be at a point at which we are more likely to extract truth from incredible sources, especially fictional ones, rather than those which exist to provide it. In other words, entertainment seems to have a more authoritative voice in our society such that outrageous claims and simply erroneous statements slip by and are taken as reliable while they cleverly hide within a seductive narrative context. To be fair, this is not exactly the sort of context in which The God Who Wasn’t There is presented; as I said before, it clearly intends to be a documentary. However, it is one with a particular agenda which provides a substantially skewed portrayal of just about every known fact pertaining to Christianity, yet its growing popularity suggests that many are convinced by its claims. In my next few posts, I will be examining some of the major issues related to this documentary and its distorted portrayal of the Christian faith.

The first portion of The God Who Wasn’t There is essentially a barrage of ad hominem (or "against the man") attacks against the Christian faith, mentioning the Galileo controversy (which I addressed in an earlier post called Valid and Invalid Conclusions from the Galileo Controversy), and several notorious individuals who have associated themselves with Christianity. In particular, Flemming mentions Charles Manson, Pat Robertson, Dena Schlosser, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, David Koresh, and then concludes, "So, I guess it’s kind of a mixed bag." I assume that at this point, the intention is for the viewer to have developed a distaste for Christianity based upon the provided roster of Christian “spokespersons” known for being insane, homicidal, publicly outrageous, and controversial. Yet, attacking individuals for various reasons says nothing about the veracity or the value of the Christian faith.

Augustine of Hippo is known to have said ‘One must not judge a philosophy by its abuse.’ Flemming’s use of Charles Manson as an example of Christianity is an obvious distortion of what Christianity actually is. It would be obviously ridiculous to say that, regardless of whether it is true, Christianity teaches white supremacy and homicide. Additionally, it would be incorrect to conclude that if Charles Manson, an admitted killer, claims to be a Christian, Christianity must be a lie or a failure. What Augustine means to show is that a proposition, or in this case a systematic faith, can be true regardless of how people respond to it or whether people even believe it. Needless to say, we cannot know how sincere any of these people are in their claim to be Christians. What Flemming is doing is establishing a distorted version of Christianity by intentionally selecting a list of notorious figures to represent it, likely hoping to build a strong foundation of resentment and anger upon which to build his weak historical case.

Ironically, while Christianity does not logically establish a basis upon which to behave as someone like Charles Manson has, Atheism cannot logically support the derivation of objective morality and thus can lead to such behavior. In fact, the most notorious crimes against humanity in the 20th century have been committed under the auspices of atheistic regimes like those of Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Mau and Pol Pot. I am not saying, of course, that an atheist cannot live a moral life. Many atheists do live a moral life, yet they do so by adopting a system of morality from some external source which does not fit within the scheme of atheism. Thus, what I am saying is that atheism as a philosophy cannot account for a moral law and thus opens the door to such atrocities. If there is no God, then there is no moral law objective enough to which we must be accountable. If there is no objective moral law, then there is no logical reason why Stalin, Hitler, et al should have acted differently. On the other hand, Manson, though he may claim to be a Christian, committed acts which represent a clear rejection or diversion from the teachings of Christ, and thus cannot be a credible representative of the teachings of Christ.

The first portion of The God Who Wasn’t There, while trying to establish an atmosphere conducive to belittling and debunking Christianity actually backfires and reveals the subjectivity and personal angst of the filmmaker himself. Sadly, this is very common in the church and should serve as a convicting reminder that our works should be indicative of our faith, and will be how the faith is represented to those who are on the outside looking in. While this issue is obviously a logically flawed and illegitimate means of building an argument against the Christian faith, it does show the profound cost of poor stewardship of the church throughout history. We must be compelled to look to the example of Christ and act accordingly!

Bertrand Russell and the Castration of Knowledge

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Rather than simply being in pace with trends, I have been discussing the relationship between religion and science in several recent posts because I feel that this discussion deals with some critical philosophical ideas that strongly influence our society. In this particular article, I would like to examine the argument of philosopher Bertrand Russell that science has allowed for the dominance of ‘technical’ truth over ‘absolute truth,’ which I believe is flawed on the basis of a particular misunderstanding of the role of religion in society and of an arbitrary limiting of science.

In his “Religion and Science,” published in 1935, Russell attempts to compare and contrast religion with science:

Science is the attempt to discover, by means of observation, and reasoning based upon it, first, particular facts about the world, and then laws connecting facts with one another and (in fortunate cases) making it possible to predict future occurrences…Religion, considered socially, is a more complex phenomenon than science. Each of the great historical religions has three aspects: 1) a church, 2) a creed, and 3) a code of personal morals…Creeds are the intellectual source of the conflict between religion and science, but the bitterness of the opposition has been due to the connection of creeds with churches, and with moral codes. (All quotes in this post will be from ‘Religion and Science, by Bertrand Russell.’)

Russell defines science as having relevance to the pursuit of knowledge dealing with the origins and destiny of the physical world, as well as the process by which it is sustained. This is, at face value, as it should be as far as scientific methods are concerned. However, as later quotes will show, this particular scheme of science is governed by the presupposition which excludes supernatural phenomena from explanations. To assume that all of reality can be explained outside of the realm of supernatural phenomena is quite unwarranted given the likelihood that we do not have full knowledge by which to justify it. Russell’s religious source, which he cites as the creed, is also unlikely. The creed is a statement of belief; for it to be both the source of the belief and the statement of the belief certainly begs the question. However, the assumption that the creed is the intellectual source of religious belief is also governed by an unwritten assumption excluding supernatural phenomena, for if religions are manmade, then the creed would certainly become the source of religion, but if God does exist and has spoken, than God is the source of religious belief and the creed is merely an affirmation of the belief.

Russell continues,

Sometimes there happens to be a text in the Bible making some assertion as to a matter of fact…Such assertions, when they are refuted by scientific observation, cause difficulties for those who believe, as most Christians did, until science forced them to think otherwise, that every word of the Bible is divinely inspired.

It would be helpful to have particular passages which illustrate the point Russell is trying to make here, but unfortunately he leaves the idea undeveloped. To use my previous post as a valid example, science provided observational evidence that seemed to contradict with the current interpretation of certain Biblical texts dealing with the Earth’s relationship to the Sun. However, as Galileo rightly pointed out, and many theologians and scientists later concurred, the truth of the scriptures was never at risk, but the truth of the interpretation of men of its meaning. The authority of the scriptures, then, is not subservient to the findings of science. One cannot solve issues of seeming discrepancy by simply limiting scriptural authority to meaning and morality, either. It is out of a comprehensive scheme that conclusions in regard to meaning and morality are made, which depend on a specific expository process from beginning (the origin of creation) to end (its destiny).

Back to Russell:

Men of science did not ask that propositions should be believed because of some important authority had said they were true; on the contrary, they appealed to the evidence of the senses, and maintained only such doctrines as they believed to be upon facts which were patent to all who chose to make the necessary observations. The new method achieved such immense successes, both theoretical and practical, that theology was gradually forced to accommodate itself to science.”

Many scientific conclusions have adhered to such a scheme and have made obvious improvements upon society. This is quite clear to all, I am sure. However, this statement is subversive if it is meant to assert that all theories and conclusions of science adhere to it strictly, especially those which pertain to origins and destiny, the understanding of which continues to be in flux as new interpretations of evidence come in and out of repute. In the cases of making inference in regards to such distant events (both future and past), it is necessary to view the observational data in light of an ideological framework. Again, in reference to the Galileo controversy, the proper interpretation of phenomenological language in scripture is by no means an accommodation to the higher authority of science. Rather, it is the uncovering of an already existing truth by the collaboration of piety and observation.

In anticipation of what many may dispute about the notion of science operating with presuppositions, I will first include what Russell himself had to say about it:

Experience has shown that it is dangerous to start from general principles and proceed deductively, both because principles may be untrue and because the reasoning based upon them may be fallacious. Science starts, not from large assumptions, but from particular facts discovered by observation or experiment.”

This is obviously false. Most scientists would agree that their methods begin with the assumption that supernatural phenomena do not exist. While I think this is a fair limitation of methods, I do not think that it is a fair limitation of conclusions given that we could not possibly affirm through observation or experiment the non-existence of supernatural phenomena. It is a brute assumption that cannot be validated by Russell’s method as stated above. In fact, presuppositions govern the crucial points of science; they provide an initial scheme from which to formulate questions and hypothesis, as well as provide a framework from which to interpret evidence and make conclusions.

Russell continues,

A religious creed differs from a scientific theory in claiming to embody eternal and absolutely certain truth, whereas science is always tentative, expecting that modifications in its present theories will sooner or later be found necessary, and aware that its method is one which is logically incapable of arriving at complete and final demonstration…Science thus encourages the abandonment of the search for absolute truth, and the substitution of what may be called ‘technical’ truth, which belongs to any theory that can be successfully employed in inventions or in predicting the future…’Knowledge’ ceases to be a mental mirror of the universe, and becomes merely a practical tool in the manipulation of matter.”

Russell admits the limitation of science to the pragmatic, yet his conclusion that therefore objective truth does not exist does not logically follow. If science is simply a means to knowledge, and is successful in providing a portion of that knowledge, it does not mean that the remaining knowledge that is not reachable through science simply is invalid or does not exist! The notion that truth is that which ‘works’ has been demonstrated time and again to be unnecessarily narrow and observably false. Russell’s own statement, that ‘science is always tentative,’ relies upon a larger ‘set’ of truth which cannot be empirically verified but the objectivity of which is invoked in order to make the claim. So, while the judicious scientist is aware of and accepts the tentativeness of his discoveries, and rightly so, it would be incoherent to claim that it is objectively true that ‘science is always tentative.’

What Russell really does, out of his assumptions about religious philosophy and his rejection of it as epistemologically valid, is make knowledge impotent in really providing any answers to the ‘big’ questions of man. By limiting the source of knowledge to “technical truth” derived by science alone, he has, in a sense, castrated knowledge! His “technical truth” will by nature be unable to answer questions of meaning or morality (questions most likely to be of higher priority to mankind), nor will it honestly lead to a comprehensive understanding of origins and destiny.

Written by Christopher Butler

April 18, 2006 at 4:36 pm