Category Archives: Reliability of the Bible

Historians are Biased: so Trust Conspiracy Theorists

conspiracy-theoriesContinuing on with Chris Hallquist’s “William Lane Craig Exposed”, I waded through several pages of insults and accusations of dishonesty before reaching actual content. In this case, it was a discussion of the argument for the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

This discussion, predictably enough, opens with more accusations of dishonesty.

I’ll not comment on that, except to say in passing that it misses the point of whether or not the argument is a good one. Craig asserts that most Biblical scholars accept the following facts to be true:

1. Jesus was crucified and buried in a tomb, which was later found empty

2. Jesus’ followers claimed to have seen him alive after his death

3. Jesus’ followers came to sincerely believe that he’d been resurrected

Hallquist points out that there are some scholars who deny one or more of these facts. This is both true and entirely consistent with Craig’s claim. After all, he claimed only that the majority agreed with him on these points. In any field of study, there is always a fringe of disagreement about nearly any topic. Even Bart Ehrman, though he emphatically denies the truth of the resurrection, agrees with Craig on these points.

Hallquist, then, simply sides with the minority view. This is his right, of course, but it hardly establishes atheism as the only, or even the most, reasonable position. Much less does it establish that Craig’s position is nearly so unreasonable or dishonest as Hallquist (repeatedly) claims.

Really, one would think a chapter called “William Lane Craig Exposed” would have juicier gossip in it than “Craig claimed that the majority agrees with him, and that’s true, but some people disagree”.

As to Craig’s actual argument, it is simply that the Christian interpretation is the most reasonable explanation of these facts. This is understandable, as there is no competing theory among experts; the positions are “Resurrection” and “We have no idea what happened”. But, while one may or may not agree with Craig, it is no good to take the approach that Hallquist does.

That is, he references several different scenarios, each of which are known by historians to be implausible, in an attempt to use them together against Criag’s position.

For instance, Hallquist suggests that the disciples were simply hallucinating, and completely ignores that this theory has been discredited. He does nothing at all to address the reasons why the overwhelming majority of experts reject this view, but simply throws out other discredited theories. After five or six, we’re apparently supposed to throw up our hands and agree that the resurrection must not have happened.

No good scholar tries to counter a theory in this way. Certainly, it is hard to imagine Hallquist rejecting the cosmological model he defended earlier simply because I can name quite a few discredited speculations which contradict it.

But Hallquist has a reason why his interpretation is dismissed by the experts: they are nearly all Christians, and don’t want to say anything too embarrassing for their religion. Of course, this completely overlooks the fact that it is not merely the Christian scholars who disagree with him (again I reference Ehrman). It also overlooks the fact that making bold claims is how one makes one’s name as an historian. This is how conspiracy theories about the Bible were begun, after all.

As when discussing Craig, the only argument Hallquist seems to have against those who disagree with him is to throw out the accusation of dishonesty. He never seems to realize that, to defend his atheism, he actually has to give us a reason to think that the experts are wrong. Simply implying that one can’t trust a Christian, any Christian, when many of the people disagreeing with him aren’t Christian is a conspiracy theory of his own, not a defense of rational thought.

At this point in the chapter, Hallquist takes a break from attacking the honesty of historians to spend a few more pages attacking the honesty of William Lane Craig. But I don’t think this warrants a response. Really, if conspiracy theories and personal attacks are the best Hallquist has to offer for his position, I don’t think he has any right to accuse others of biased thinking. One would think that, if he had a reason why Craig’s argument was wrong, he’d simply give it, and skip all the pointless and unsupported accusations flung at his enemies.

And this seems a common trait among Hallquist and his fellow New Atheists: loud emotive attacks in the guise of “reason” and “science”. Actual reason and science is fairly slim in this book.

Advertisements

The Other Christianity?

kenneth-garrett-fragment-of-papyrus-from-the-gnostic-text-of-the-gospel-of-judas_i-G-40-4040-VR7LF00ZMany believe that the gnostic gospels are a challenge to Christianity; some even think that it is a serious challenge. My personal reaction to this has always been fairly apathetic. I’ve never seen much reason to take the gnostic gospels as either historically serious accounts or a reason to throw out orthodox writings as more of the same.

This is to say that the fact that the mystery religions adapted the Christian story in order to promote beliefs more in line with greek philosophy is hardly surprising. All at really seems to establish is that Christianity was a known religion in the areas in which the gnostic gospels were written.

But very few people today take the gnostic writings to be credible. Rather, it is sometimes asked, how do we know that the writings eventually compiled into the New Testament are any more reliable? This is a good question, though it is has been answered by historians.

There are a few reasons for this, in fact. The orthodox writings are older, are written in the style of reports (unlike the gnostic gospels), and otherwise show more knowledge of the area near Jerusalem, to name two.

However, I’ve since run across an argument for taking the books more seriously–not as a refutation for Christianity, but as a support for it.

That is to say that the gnostic gospels constitute an excellent example as to what writing a story like Christianity’s, but divorced from the facts of history, would look like. The authors of these books not only fail to offer anything like the detailed information about the region, they clearly don’t know what Jewish people named their children (giving greek names to many characters).

The Christian gospels, on the other hand, are clearly written by people with knowledge of the area and its people. All of the information we’ve been able to gather has confirmed this.

For those interested, Peter Williams has presented an excellent summary of the argument (which is too long to present here). And, if he is correct, the gnostic gospels do more to highlight the New Testament’s signs of authenticity than they do to challenge Christianity.

So, while there’s nothing undeniably conclusive here, it is a point worth making for those who are concerned about the issues raised by the gnostic gospels.


Modern Myths about Myths

zeitgeist-dIt has been nearly a hundred years since New Testament historians took seriously the idea that Jesus was essentially a copy of earlier pagan myths, and, still, massive disinformation to that effect circles around an internet that didn’t exist until long after these ideas were refuted.

Take, for example, the claim that the gospels are simply a re-telling of the tale of Horus. This is the sort of idea that can only be taken seriously among people ignorant of the actual story of Horus. Many sites point out ‘similarities’ between Christ and Horus, such as being born of a virgin (though Horus’ mother was, expressly, not a virgin), having been crucified (though Horus does not die in his myth, and crucifixion was not practiced in Egypt), and having twelve disciples (though Horus had four followers).

There are many equally false claims, but I don’t think these suggestions credible enough to refute here. Simply reading the story of Horus should be enough for that.

And this is the point. Groups of people who insist that we not accept anything without clear evidence, and often present themselves as skeptical, are promoting such demonstrably false information as true. This is not remotely to say that all atheists are this glib. But, still, it seems that there are many for whom “evidence” is strictly something for the theist to provide.

So, different as the arguments seem to be on the surface, it seems that the “Horus” argument and the “lack of evidence” argument, in one respect, come from the same place: that a materialistic, anti-theistic view doesn’t need to bother supporting its claims.

It is no wonder, then, that much of our culture finds it so easy to doubt the historical validity of the New Testament. It places an immense burden on the writings themselves, while insisting that opposing views need not support themselves at all.

Were I to argue for my position in this way… well, I can imagine the reaction. Easy as it is to assume a view unquestioningly, we should a more open-minded approach to discussing the New Testament.


Russell XVII: The Joy of (Mis)Reading

kids-reading

Now turning to what he finds objectionable about Christ’s teachings, Russell starts with what he considers to be an obvious inaccuracy:

For one thing, he certainly thought that His second coming would occur in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time. There are a great many texts that prove that.

This is an old debate. As far as I know, it centers mostly around whether or not the word “come” in one particular verse describes Christ’s final return before the end of the world, or the coming of the spirit at the Pentecost. It takes very little study, however, to see that “great many” and “prove” are clearly overstatements.

I’ll not add more, because choosing between the resolutions of this issue seems a minor point for those who accept Christianity as true. It is not a major objection to Christ’s teachings as a whole.

What is more relevant is that Russell uses the following as one of his main supports for the point:

When [Christ] said, “Take no thought for the morrow,” and things of that sort, it was very largely because He thought that the second coming was going to be very soon, and that all ordinary mundane affairs did not count.

One wonders how Russell knows this is why Christ said these things. Surely, as a sage, it is not out of the question that he felt people were too worried about personal daily affairs? Is the idea that he thought the world was ending when he said “tomorrow will worry about itself” really the only possible explanation?

Russell seems to think so. In fact, he adds this:

The early Christians did really believe it, and they did abstain from such things as planting trees in their gardens, because they did accept from Christ the belief that the second coming was imminent.

I don’t know where Russell has gotten the idea that the early Christians refrained from planting trees, nor am I sure why he feels he can extrapolate from this that Christ had committed himself to a specific time-frame.

This is yet another point at which I am reminded of the New Atheists, who often demand, without support, that their own strange interpretations of the Bible are correct. Of course, if one simply takes full license to completely re-interpret a view, it is easy to “refute” it, but I doubt that the New Atheists would submit to others taking this approach to their own writings.


Russell XVI: Evidence has Left the Building

scales

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.