Russell XVI: Evidence has Left the Building


Before getting into some complaints about Christ’s teachings, Russell pauses to question the reliability of the New Testament documents themselves:

Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about him

In fairness to Russell, this was cutting-edge (if biased) scholarship in his day. But, if that (somewhat) excuses him, it does not excuse those who, almost a century later, seem completely unaware of what has happened in scholarship since.

This is probably the place at which the New Atheists most blatantly refuse to submit to their own demand that we “follow the evidence where it leads”. I’ve encountered many people who, in the name of reason, quickly accept demonstrably false deconstruction theories about the Bible (such as references to Mithras) while rejecting the good scholarship in defense of it.

The fact that these kinds of conspiracy theories are still being presented on the internet (and television) as powerful evidence against Christianity, when even atheist historians agree that the basic facts of Christ’s life are historically reliable, shows that many are refusing to “follow the evidence where it leads”.

Less obviously false, but no less a contradiction of the aforementioned maxim, is the position that, in reaction to the fact that every non-Christian explanation of the New Testament has been thoroughly discredited, we should simply avoid answering the question “what explanation of the data is most reasonable?”. It is hard not to wonder whether this has anything to do with the fact that the answer would lead one to accept Christianity as true.

There are, in fact, some formidable arguments for Christianity based on the accepted facts of scholarship. These have yet to be answered, even by much more thoughtful people than the New Atheist writers; it is not at all likely that their position would be able to deal with being open-minded here.

The complexities of historical research are far too great for a single post, and there is no absolute proof of anything in this life. Still, as things stand with regard to New Testament scholarship, evidence has definitely left the atheist building where it was once assumed to dwell. Following the evidence where it leads means accepting that the resurrection of Christ is the most coherent explanation of the known facts.

29 responses to “Russell XVI: Evidence has Left the Building

  • William E. Beers

    Excellent post. I have been aware of the blatant disregard for current scholarship on the New Testament and the constant use of discredited canards by media channels purported to be historical but are really hatchet jobs by, dare I say, atheists.

    Not only is good evidence blacklisted, but the “spokespersons” such media recruits as representing Christianity always seem to be fringe wackos. Rarely, if ever, does one see an Alvin Plantinga or J.P. Moreland or a Gary Habermas. Instead one is more likely to get a Benny Hinn or a Kenneth Copeland. Certainly no one able to address historical subject matter.

    • Debilis

      That would be exciting, to see the media start turning to people like Plantinga and Moreland.

      Not that I’m holding my breath, but, until they do, I’m intent on spreading their ideas (as well as I can, and as well as I understand them) myself.

  • makagutu

    The fact that these kinds of conspiracy theories are still being presented on the internet (and television) as powerful evidence against Christianity, when even atheist historians agree that the basic facts of Christ’s life are historically reliable, shows that many are refusing to “follow the evidence where it leads”.

    I have read some of the new scholarship on the NT and nowhere have \i found this conclusion you have arrived at. I would be more than open to revise my position if you could be kind to show me the evidence. It is false however to make a blanket statement like this without offering supporting evidence.

    The complexities of historical research are far too great for a single post, and there is no absolute proof of anything in this life. Still, as things stand with regard to New Testament scholarship, evidence has definitely left the atheist building where it was once assumed to dwell. Following the evidence where it leads means accepting that the resurrection of Christ is the most coherent explanation of the known facts.
    I agree with you on the point of complexity of historical research beyond that we disagree. The Atheist position is still as sound as when it was first conceived. So as there is no evidence to support the resurrection, there really is no basis for christianity since I know that is the central tenet.

  • Debilis

    The quickest reference I could give would be Bart Ehrman, who both accepts the historicity of Jesus as a figure, and claims that no one he knows seriously doubts this.
    Here’s the interview where he makes these comments:

    If you know of a particular theory which, in your view, establishes the non-existence of Jesus of Nazareth, I’d definitely be interested to hear about it.

    Obviously, I expected you’d disagree with my position, which is fine.

    I will say, however, that I don’t know any reasonable way to conclude that there is no evidence for the resurrection. That the evidence is insufficient is one thing, but simply to deny that there is any at all would require a very odd definition of “evidence”.

    But, as you say, the matter is complex, and I appreciate anyone who is willing to research the subject, regardless of whether or not we come to agree.

  • Chris

    I tend to agree that Jesus was a real person, especially in light of the way he is made to fulfill prophecy…if he was, in fact, made from whole cloth, one would think these ideas would be tidier than they are.

  • Arkenaten

    Following the evidence where it leads means accepting that the resurrection of Christ is the most coherent explanation of the known facts.

    Which facts?

    • Debilis

      Hey! You finally found a place where your standard schtick is on topic! I’m kind of excited; maybe we’ll stay on topic this time.

      The facts to which I was referring are:
      1. The crucifixion
      2. The post-mortem reports of appearances
      3. The origin of the disciples’ belief in resurrection

      • Arkenaten

        1. There are no facts re the crucifixion, only hearsay. The bible cannot be used to justify the bible.
        2.The post mortem reports are once again, hearsay.
        *and when one takes into consideration the nature of the reports ( that nonsense about the 500 etc…well, really)

        3. There are no independent records concerning the disciples. They too could just as easily be narrative constructs,(certainly, no disciple was the author of any of the gospels) and personally, I suspect they are.
        Please do not come back with Caesar comparisons or EP Saunders quotes.

        So, once more which facts do you refer to?

        • Debilis

          The Bible isn’t being used to justify the Bible. It is being used the way any ancient text would be. For many points relevant to the situation (but not all) it is a primary source. In that you said that you accept archeology as a source of evidence, this is perfectly acceptable.

          However, if you’d like to go against academia and claim that the New Testament books are not primary sources, you are free to do so, but need to make a case. Simply making accusations of hearsay does not undercut the work of historians.

          But I’m not sure what you mean by “independent records”. The books themselves are from different sources. What historical argument has convinced you that these books are simply narrative constructs? I’m not aware of any such argument.

          If you have a good case against the historicity of the texts, that would be very interesting. If, however, your case relies on simply denying the conclusions reached by historians, all the content will be on one side of the debate.

          So, these are simply hearsay? Make the case. Offer a theory about the origin of the texts that is more plausible than an account of history. I’d be genuinely interested.

        • Arkenaten

          Historians, like archaeologists change their position from time to time. This is what science is about.
          Primary Sources?
          Really? Primary in the sense of Only, yes.But let’s be clear, the Gospels are NOT original documents. So how do know how much has not been altered?
          Even a scholar such as Bart Ehrman does not find them trustworthy.

          So, yes, much of what they contain is hearsay, and I am not going to bother going into it, as biblical scholars far more versed than would consider them as such.

          [Off-topic personal comments removed]

        • Debilis

          Yes, historians change their position at times. But I have no idea how that supports your claims.

          If you claim that the New Testament books are not primary sources (by the definition that I quoted), you need to present some evidence for that.

          How do we know how much has been altered, there are many ways. Historians have been able to perform many checks on them.

          And even Bart Ehrman takes these texts to be more reliable than you seem to think:

          But why aren’t you going to “bother going into it”? This is the topic you’ve wanted to drop everything else to discuss! I’ve been criticized, hounded, and called a coward for not discussing this topic everywhere else.

          Now that it is the topic, let’s actually “get into it”. Do you have any reason to think that the particular things I mentioned are less likely to be true than not? Are those particular claims “hearsay”? How do you know? What scholarship or argument is the basis of this opinion?

          Even Bart Ehrman doesn’t dispute the facts I’ve listed. So, while you’re free to disagree with scholars, you need to offer a good reason why scholars are wrong.

          Else, that claim is simply a belief without evidence.

        • Arkenaten

          The issue pertains to facts.
          There are no facts regarding the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
          This is why it is rather pointless having a drawn out debate over such issues as ultimately what you believe in is based on faith.

          I can state over and over what faih is, but again you will deny this.

          I will,state this.
          There is a tendency among the religious to rather focus on the issues that are directly related to their particular faith, rather look at the whole picture, and apologetics have grown out of the need to defend this.

          Christians site scholarly consensus when defending the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, even though the evidence is speculative at best.
          Yet, sadly, they generally reject archaeological consensus where it relates to Moses the Exodus.
          and the rest of the Pentateuch, for without Yahweh, there is no born into sin, no Sinai Revelation and no Jesus of Nazareth (Messiah).

        • Debilis

          I’m aware that you claim that there are no facts, but I don’t see any reason to think this. I’ve pointed out that documents are often used by historians, and that even Bart Ehrman agrees that there are facts regarding the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

          To respond to that by simply declaring that it is wrong seems a bit like a faith-statement to me. I really need a reason.

          We can discuss the issue of the Exodus when that becomes the topic. I’m not personally decided on that point, and would love to read more on it.

          But that’s hardly the point. It’s entirely possible to be Christian without believing in a literal Exodus. As such, it has no bearing on the argument I actually gave.

        • Arkenaten

          It is important to distinguish between Jesus of Nazareth ( the creator god) in whom you believe and Jesus of Nazareth the biblical character who Ehrman considers was a real historical figure.

          The only evidence we have for his historicity (and please, be careful if you feel the urge to trot out the “usual suspects”) is the bible, and naturally you consider it to be truthful.
          The list of criteria as used by EP Saunders, for instance, again, uses no external evidence for Jesus of Nazareth. – (as either a creator god or simple historical figure)
          But no one is denying the existence of Christians
          I wish to make that point clear.

          But this is moot, as the only criteria for a Christian is that Jesus rose from the dead.

          No resurrection…no Christianity. Am I correct?

          And for this, once again, we only have the bible to turn to and the ensuing convoluted philosophical argument of probability/plausibility.

          Is the evidence reasonable?
          Only for a Christian, and likely most of those don’t really question this belief as it is part of our Western Heritage (almost)
          It sort of sits in our subconscious just below that nagging feeling that the lawn must be mowed and never usually gets questioned.

          If you and I had been born into a Hindu culture then the concept of Jesus as creator god would seem utterly alien to both of us.
          Without proselytizing no one born outside of this culture would ever “Come to Jesus”

          Ask the Native Americans (north and south)

          On the face of it, this doesn’t necessarily diminish the claim that Jesus is the creator god, but it leaves the door wide open to ask the very reasonable question, “Why not any other god?”

          Now, obviously, all religions cannot be right and all gods cannot be the creator god. However, they can all be wrong., and so far the evidence presented for every individual god does not come up to scratch, even though each religion is obviously convinced of its own rectitude, otherwise we would all be Hindus..or Muslims…or Jehovah’s .
          You get the picture? Looks like Culture is in the driving seat for now, with a capital ”C”

          Basically, the evidence ( for your creator god claim for instance),would not be accepted in any (western) court of Law: ( although the irony of course is that the Christian creator god is accepted,) “so help me God”.
          Although we could say that your creator god wouldn’t be accepted by the Klingon judicial system.

          And this is where Faith steps up to the Batting Plate.

          You have faith in your creator god, Jesus.
          Most of the world don’t. ( and the Klingons)

        • Debilis

          I was referring to Jesus of Nazareth as an historical figure. I completely agree that beginning a defense of Christianity by assuming some other meaning of that name would not make sense.

          But the figure that Ehrman believes in contains the three facts I named earlier.

          I’m not convinced that the New Testament is the only evidence for such a person, but I’ll quickly agree that it is the best evidence for it. I merely wonder why all of these books are being dismissed en masse.

          So, yes, if one disbelieves the basic claims of the New Testament, one would have to believe in some other view–whether secular or another religion.

          But I don’t see any review of the documents here–any reason to disagree with the experts.

          Rather, I see a diversion into the idea of other religions (without any consideration of any of their claims), followed by a claim that they all completely lack evidence.

          You claim to know that this is true because people often accept religion for cultural reasons. Of course people do this. People also accept General Relativity and the claim that the Tian An Men square massacre happened for cultural reasons. Most people don’t do legitimate research into those things. But that isn’t a reason to dismiss them.

          It’s simply a moot point.

          But I’ve never said that this is the evidence for my “creator god[sic]”. I have completely different reasons for believing in God as a creator. This topic is about the reason to believe in the resurrection.

          And, last I checked, testimony is evidence in a US court–even the written testimony of the dead. I have no idea why you’d think otherwise.

          But that isn’t important, either, I’m not interested in the law. I’m interested in what reason there is to reject historical documents wholesale as a source of information.

          Really, do you dismiss everything that we know from past writings? That’s quite a lot.

          I know that it is currently trendy to try to pit all the other world religions against the one currently being defended (as if this somehow supported atheism). But, may I suggest that this, too, is a kind of cultural belief? The jump from “we don’t know which religion is true” to “I guess we’ll just be materialists, then” is not a rational one.

          So, this isn’t about other religions unless you’re seriously willing to make arguments for one or more of them and compare.

          Right now, this is about the fact that you seem to think it reasonable to simply dismiss all historical documents. Could you give me a reason to do that?

        • Arkenaten

          I was referring to Jesus of Nazareth as an historical figure

          Ah..fair enough. I must have misread.
          In that case I shall confine my response to this particular ,aspect.

          I’m not convinced that the New Testament is the only evidence for such a person

          Interesting. In the years I have been researching and studying the only evidence for the character, Jesus of Nazareth is contained in the bible, specifically the gospels.
          If you are privy to some other source I would be extremely interested, especially as you reference Ehrman and he doesn’t seem to acknowledge any other source of evidence that mentions Jesus of Nazareth?
          Christians, yes, Jesus….no.

          Besides, there is not a single piece of contemporary evidence for this character.

          No, I do not think it reasonable to dismiss all historical documents at all.

          Why would you think this? I certainly don’t recall writing this. Nevertheless, I apologize if you got this impression.

        • Debilis

          There’s other mentions of Jesus of Nazareth even in the New Testament documents outside the gospels.

          There is also textual evidence that some of these writings are based on earlier accounts.

          But this all seems to overlook my basic point: that the New Testament accounts are themselves documents that I’ve not yet been given any reason to dismiss.

          I’m really not sure why you’re only interested in texts that weren’t later gathered into this collection. If one of the books in the New Testament had been excluded from canonization, would it have been more credible?

          If not, we need to treat them individually, not simply dismiss the whole lot of them.

          And this is why I wondered whether you dismiss all historical documents. I’m glad to hear that you don’t, but you haven’t given a reason to dismiss these.

          So, if they aren’t being dismissed simply because they are documents, and they aren’t being dismissed because they were later collected into the Bible, why are they being dismissed?

        • Arkenaten

          There’s other mentions of Jesus of Nazareth even in the New Testament documents outside the gospels.

          I did not say there weren’t other mentions in the NT. But there is no extra biblical evidence for the character.

          Dismiss as historical documents, No.

          Dismiss as factual history, Yes.
          In a thousand years Harry Potter books will be regarded as historical documents, but surely even you would not consider them historical evidence that supported their contents?

          Once we start to evaluate gospel by gospel, verse by verse, pretty soon we are left with very little that can be claimed historical ”evidence”.

          Also, so many of the accounts (tales) in the gospels are plainly ridiculous, and if you are suggesting that the “Zombie Apocalypse” for instance which only hard-line evangelists/ biblical literalists follow ( well, not Mike Licona and look what happened to him?) is not worth dismissing then you have some serious issues.

        • Debilis

          I’m not going to get into extra-Biblical evidence, because it is not necessary.

          The Bible isn’t a book. It is a collection of books. You need to deal with them separately.

          But simply comparing them to Harry Potter isn’t going to work. This is for the very simple reason that, in a thousand years, Harry Potter books won’t be considered historical documents. Nor is The Iliad considered an historical document today.

          Simply confusing reports with fiction isn’t a reason to dismiss these texts.

          But you say that, once we evaluate things one at a time, there is reason to throw out nearly everything (presumably, enough that the original three statements I made would not be accepted).

          Feel free to make your case, but please consider this as you do so:

          There is a difference between considering a document as historical, and assuming that it is 100% literal truth in every single sentence. There are such things as figures of speech, cultural translation issues, and the like.

          As such, I’m not terribly impressed by those who demand that the Bible be taken in the way that “hard-line evangelists/biblical literalists” take it. Fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon, and it is anachronistic to read the Bible under modern assumptions.

          That being the case, do you have a specific argument to discredit the particular points I named (as opposed to discrediting the biblical literalist)?

        • Arkenaten

          The bible discredits itself, as any person able to read will quickly discover. One does not need to be schooled in exegeses or hermenutics either.

        • Debilis

          If it is easy as that, then make the case. It really should be very simple.

          Anyone can say that anything is obviously false, and that the experts are completely wrong, but we need an actual reason. So far, I’ve not seen one.

  • Arkenaten

    I should add,.that faith does not equal fact.

    • Debilis

      I agree, and have no idea why anyone who’s read my blog would think this needs to be clarified.

      I’ve never referred to faith and fact as the same thing. And, frankly, I’ve never heard anyone else do this, either.

      Perhaps there is someone, but part of me suspects that this is mostly an idea about religious people that gets passed around atheist blogs–I don’t know of any real-live religious person whom it describes.

      • Arkenaten

        Well, biblical literalist such as YEC’s ( Mark Hamilton for one) consider the bible fact.
        In fact (sic) there are plenty of Christians who consider that it is fact that Jesus of Nazareth is/was a god. This is the core of Christianity.

        • Debilis

          Please correct me if I’ve missed it. I’ve never once experienced Mark referring to faith and fact as the same thing.

          But you seem here to be equating “the Bible” with “faith”. I’ve never heard Mark, or anyone else, do that, either.

          Nor is claiming that this-or-that teaching of Christianity to be fact the claim that faith and fact are the same thing. Rather, it is the claim that one’s faith is well-placed.

          You may disagree with that (feel free), but it is simply not the same thing as saying that faith and fact are the same thing.

          This is one more reason why so many theists keep saying to Dawkins and his fans “I don’t believe in the religion you don’t believe in, either”. This almost total misunderstanding of what religion actually is brings us to the point where people are attacking an imaginary religion.

          I know of no real religion that teaches that faith and fact are the same things. At the very least, this is not my view–meaning that every argument based on the idea that this is what religious people think simply does not apply to me.

          And that’s the case for almost everything Dawkins has ever said about religion.

        • Arkenaten

          Oh, I agree.Faith is believing in something that one knows there is no evidence for.. But in religion the words, faith and fact are often interchangeable.
          If one claims the bible is the inerrant word of your god then one is stating that it is factual as you do not believe god can err.

        • Debilis

          As with the issue of fact, I’ve never heard that definition of faith out of anyone who isn’t a self-proclaimed atheist. If one has to change the definitions of theists’ words in order to “refute” them, one is refuting something they don’t actually believe.

          But, as I’ve already said, I’ve never encountered any religious person who uses the words “faith” and “fact” interchangeably. You’ve claimed this, but I see no evidence for it.

          Many do claim that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. And, yes, this is claiming that it contains fact. It is not claiming that faith and fact are the same thing. This needs to be clarified: a statement of faith about what the facts are is not remotely the position that faith is fact.

          Rather, it is a way of saying “this is what I believe the facts to be”, the same way I’d say that I believe that the earth orbits the sun. It is not remotely the claim that belief and facts are the same things.

          And this is why I keep saying that you’re arguing against the wrong god. If your definition of faith, and your idea of the religious view of things in general, is this distorted, it’s doubtful that any argument you could make will ever apply to the actual God claimed by any religion.

          Really, these are basic Sunday school points. To misunderstand them is rather like arguing that gravity doesn’t exist because Australia hasn’t “fallen” off the bottom of the earth.

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