Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Case For Christ - Examining The Record - Rebuttal (part 1)

I don't claim to know more than what a PhD in the field of Biblical Studies would know, or what a PhD in the New Testament would know, or the Old Testament, or of Ancient Religion, would know, but what I find I am good at is picking up on logical fallacies, on logical inconsistencies, and on people who think talking louder or with more words or by name-dropping means you are winning an argument.

Have all the 'evidence' you want, but if you apply incorrectly what the evidence actually is or what is says or what it means, or take it out of context, then it's like being handed $1'000'000 to invest, but you spend it all on genetically-engineered squid (read P.J O'Rourke's Eat The Rich to get the reference).


So no, I'm not a qualified expert in the field of biblical studies...but I know when someone is making a bad argument, hence why I give myself permission to criticise books that contain material or interviews from experts well above my pay grade.

The way I look at it, if I'm right, I have just confounded the experts. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong, and hopefully someone out there will be kind enough to correct my errors.

With that in mind, I wish to begin my rebuttal to The Case For Christ, beginning with Strobel's part 1, 'Examining The Record'.


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Chapter one starts off with the heading titled The Eyewitness Evidence: Can The Biographies Of Jesus Be Trusted, and begins with an anecdote about a guy named Leo Carter who witnessed a murder in his neighbourhood and was almost killed by relatives of the accused before he could testify, but he lived to see justice served.


But already I can see what Lee Strobel is doing - by making eyewitness testimony out to be the highest form of evidence possible, particularly in an historical context, and then finding a biblical scholar who is willing to vouch that the gospels are either eyewitness testimony (or the closest thing to it), then it's an open-and-shut case: the gospels are eyewitness, the Bible is true, God is real, you're going to hell.


(OK, I added that last part in).


But there's one thing that Lee Strobel conveniently overlooks. Actually, two - firstly, eyewitness testimony has been found to be incredibly unreliable at times, and secondly, in Strobel's anecdote, we actually know there was a murder that took place - there was a dead body, a murder weapon, and an accused.


I won't focus too much on the first issue (a cursory Google search will give you enough to go on), but I want to write a bit about the second point.


If we were to apply what we have in the gospels to a modern day murder case, the analogy would look like this:


You are accused of committing a murder fifty years ago. However, no body was or ever has been found, no murder weapon was ever recovered, and no specific date, time or location has been given to say when and where you murdered the victim.


But to further complicate the case, there just also happens to be no external record that this murder victim ever actually existed - no birth certificate was produced or commissioned, no drivers license created, no entry was ever put in the electoral roll for the victim, no tax file number recorded, no business registration details listed, no record of entry in to the country, no missing persons report was ever filed - in short, there is no contemporary documentary evidence that this person was even actually around. So as far as government records are concerned, this murder victim never existed.


The only evidence against you comes in the form religious hagiographies written decades after the murder victim was last seen alive. Further, these hagiographies are all anonymously authored, and in some cases they contain information that could only be described as third-hand.


If you feel the case is already on shaky ground, you're right. But also consider this - those same people who read and copy those hagiographies used indict you also claim to have seen the murder victim, repeatedly, during vivid hallucinations over the course of decades since the victim died - and in one instance, the murder victim dictated entire letters to at least half a dozen communities across two continents sixty years after his death.


This analogy shows why the case for Christ is flimsy from the outset - there is simply no evidence that Jesus Christ ever existed outside of written records. 
Further, the written records we do have for Jesus are the worst kind of written records (hagiographies, written by supporters pushing a theological line, with very little attention to historical accuracy), not the best and most robust.

In any court case, eyewitness testimony needs physical evidence to be contrasted against - the testimony of Leo Carter needs a dead body and a weapon to be validated, and that's what the testimony of Leo Carter validates.


What do the gospel writers validate? Nothing that we can substantially check the historical record for. No statues. No busts. No coins. No tomb. No letters. No senatorial or imperial decrees. No trial records. No civil wars.


It was like Jesus' death and crucifixion happened only on paper.

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But to get back to the book. Quoting Strobel:



"Do we have any records from first-century 'journalists' who interviewed eyewitnesses, asked tough questions and faithfully recorded what they scrupulously determined to be true?"

Talk about leading the witness! Strobel again plays innocence-by-association - "Yes, of course the gospels are eyewitness documentation. Why wouldn't they be?". Strobel, from appearance, has never read up on any of Robert Price or Richard Carrier's work.


But let's answer the question - do we have dispassionate and accurate records from first century 'journalists'? No. One of the best and most thorough historians of the time was Flavius Josephus, and in his writings Josephus has zero authentic references to the Jesus of the gospels, but funnily enough has time discuss in detail the life and crimes of all manner of fake messiahs.

This theme is continued when we survey other contemporaries of Josephus or of Jesus himself.
The first authentic, undisputed reference to Jesus outside of the gospels is Tacitus writing in 116CE, and even then, it gives no detail that the gospels themselves (already in circulation by that time) didn't mention.

A very weak case, so far.


Did the gospel writers ask tough questions? In my mind, no. The gospel writers were not trying to write neutral or dispassionate biographies.


Firstly, if they were writing biographies, they would get a lot more detail about the childhood of Christ, including what happened to Joseph. After the narrative of Jesus' conception and birth, there is only one mention of Joseph - you know, the guy who was the earthly father to the son of God - and that one mention is the story of when the boy Jesus hung at the temple for three days without letting his parents know (Luke 2).

Secondly, we know the gospel writers aren't writing biographies because in Mark's gospel, Joseph is not mentioned even one time, and in John, Joseph is mentioned only twice. It's a bit hard to claim you're writing a biography, but don't mention your subject's parents or how or when they died.

So we can see that the gospel writers weren't writing biographies. Instead they were writing wonderfully structured Greek prose (particularly Mark), making use of tropes found in the Greek literature of the time, and no consideration is given to historical sources or contrary references.

No tough questions were asked.


Did they faithfully record the evidence? This is hard to say, because when it comes to the gospels, we have zero originals. This isn't the death knell for the reliability of the gospels, but you have to consider this fact alongside other facts:

a. The earliest complete New Testament dates from around 200CE. So between the first gospels being written, and a whole collection, there is a gap of roughly 100 years between the events and the most recent available documentary records.

b. The earliest complete Bible we have is the Codex Siniaticus, dating from the 4th century, which encompasses a 300-year gap.

c. There is so much variation in the available manuscripts we do have that Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies at UNC Chapel Hill, is quoted as saying:


"There are more variations in the (New Testament) manuscripts that we have than there are words in the New Testament"

There are approximately 130'000 words in the New Testament. If scholars have found more than 130'000 variations in the text, it's a pretty safe bet that the text we have is not a faithful recording of the events concerned.

And d. The gospels are anonymous. The names attached to the gospels were only added in the second century at the earliest, by people guessing and inferring from the internals of the text. Further, the Greek titles attached to the gospels use a Greek word, kata, meaning 'according to' or 'passed down from' - To Kata Markon Evangelion, "Gospel According to (handed down from) Mark".
This is like having a friend come up to you and say, "According to Mark, you were supposed to be paying for the tickets!".

A text that purports to be a thorough and complete analysis of historical events, indeed, one of the most history-shattering events in the history of mankind, finds a way to minimise manuscript variance, keeps as many of the originals as possible, or keeps the variances as close to the original as possible, and does not have the names of the authors left off.


Did the gospel writers scrupulously determine that what they were writing is trueThe only way we can be sure they were is by comparing what the gospels say happened, when it happened and where it happened, against what we already know about the world of Roman antiquity.
Unfortunately, the gospels also fail in this regard.

Some (and I mean some) things the gospels got wrong:

a. Instead of being weak-kneed, vacillating, and trying to stop the Jews from reporting him to his boss, Pontius Pilate in reality had no problem offending the Jews of early Palestine. He didn't do what they asked him, and he did what they asked him not to do. Pilate was recalled by the emperor Tiberius exactly because he was brutal and heavy-handed towards the Jews.
The gospels have not accurately portrayed history in this regard.


b. There was no Roman custom where the governor or procurator of the province released a prisoner of the crowd's choice. And there is no way a Roman governor would willingly release a man who has been accused of murder and insurrection. The Romans of all people were tough on insurrectionists.
So again, the gospels inaccurately portray Roman antiquity.

c. The Sea of Galilee in not a sea or ocean - it is just a mere lake, called Lake Kinneret, measuring 21km by 13km. And it doesn't take all night to row across a 13km lake, as the gospels report.
(By comparison, Lake Superior in North America measures 560km by 260km).


d. The Sea of Galilee also is not capable of producing life-threatening waves. At best, a lake as small as the Sea of Galilee would produce small surfing waves, not something that you would need to cry out to the son of God for help with.
Yet again, the gospels have not accurately portrayed reality.

e. Matthew reports in his gospel, in 27:53 that a number of Jewish prophets rose from the dead and wandered Jerusalem after Jesus' death. No other gospel reports this, no Jewish writer reported this (and I'm sure the Jews would be glad to report that their prophets rose from the dead!) and no Roman historian reported this either.
Is this an example of something that 'the gospel writers scrupulously determined' was true?


Given this, I am not convinced the gospel writers were scrupulously recording history.

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To be continued.


Stay classy!


-Damien

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