Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Gospels Tell You... So What?

Some Christian bloggers got together and published a free ebook called Is Christianity True? This is my smackdown of one chapter in that book: "The Gospels Tell Me So" by Vocab Malone and Paul Adams. (See pages 109 to 114 in the book to see the chapter I'm responding to).

In a nutshell, the authors argue that since the gospels say that certain miracles happened, we ought to believe them because we usually believe what ancient authors wrote (if they intended to record history). Now let me be very clear: I agree that in general we ought to believe ancient historians. But what about in the specific case of miracles? In the present day, we've investigated lots of miracle reports and found them to be mistakes, frauds, or not credible in some way. See the work of James Randi or Joe Nickell if you don't believe me. That tells us that most of the time, perhaps all of the time, when someone reports a miracle it did not happen. Therefore, when it comes to miracle reports in the gospels, they ought to be considered false until rigorously proven otherwise. This standard is no different from the standard we apply to other ancient authors. After all, most of us wouldn't believe tales of witchcraft occuring in Salem, Massachusetts or ghost stories from the ancient world.

I have some doubts about whether the gospel writers even intended to record history. Though some of what is in the gospels may reflect actual events, large portions of it that at a glance look like historical reporting turn out on closer examination to be symbolic stories. For example, the temple curtain is reported to be torn at Jesus death. The temple curtain was what separated man from God, as the sanctuary was the dwelling place of God himself. Jesus figured in Christian theology as a mediator between man and God (1 Timothy 2:5). So the tearing of the curtain is a removal of the separation between God and man, which occurs when the one who mediates between God and man dies. Anthony Harvey's Companion to the New Testament (Published by Cambridge University Press) page 99 documents this (I've also found a handy webpage with plenty of scripture references that show this). Jennifer Maclean published an article in Harvard Theological Review which argues that the Barabbas narrative in the gospels is symbolism based on the Levitical scapegoat ceremony. In a nutshell, the scapegoat ritual in Leviticus 16:6-10 prescribes that (a) We take two goats (b) release one (c) sacrafice the other for remission of sin. Now look at Mark's Barabbas narrative. Little known fact, Barabbas means "son of the father" and Jesus, of course, is a "Son of the Father." The plot of the story is that (a) We have two sons of the father (b) One is realeased (Barabbas) (c) The other (Jesus) is sacraficed for remission of sin. Spooky, isn't it? The cursing of the fig tree is yet another instance of symbolism. So much symbolism in the gospels introduces a decent chance that any other story there is mere symbolism, too, even if we aren't able to see it (after all, these are cult documents from 2,000 years ago; we may not know what they had in mind when they were writing simply because our knowledge of the time and the authors is limited).

Malone and Adams tell us "Luke’s prologue is clear that he interviewed eyewitnesses before assembling an accurate account of Jesus’s life."

No, it's not clear. Read Luke 1:1-4: "Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled [The NIV says that this can also be translated as "have been surely believed] among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word." In other words, Luke said this information was "handed down" to him. By whom? Most scholars believe that there was an oral tradition about Jesus and his life that was passed down over the generations, and so this is possibly what Luke means, that is, if he is not referring to his source documents, Mark and Q. In any case, Luke is so vague on this point that it cannot be asserted that he went around interviewing eyewitnesses. At best, he got it from people who got it from eyewitnesses. Otherwise, why would he have copied Mark so much? It gets worse, because for all we know, Luke got it from someone who heard from their neighbor who went to church with someone who was the nephew of the supposed eyewitnesses.

Malone and Adams trot out a few tired old examples of gospel reliability based on archaeological evidence, but archaeological evidence doesn't prove a miracle occurred and the level of confidence we can place in a historian based on the fact that archaeology corroborates his writings is weak. As I've written before:

"Herodotus, who was an educated, careful, and generally reliable historian, reports all kinds of fantastic tales, such as a fortress that magically defended itself with armaments. But no one would believe any of Herodotus' wild tales... Herodotus has recieved some fantastic corroboration, and even some corroboration for issues about which some historians thought he was full of it. His fantastic tale of giant ants, for example, probably refers to something real (!), he correctly identified the first pharaoh and the builders of the pyramids, he correctly reported that Medes was overthrown by Cyrus, and he's been vindicated by various topological and archaeological surveys, as has been reported in the Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writings."

In short, Malone and Adams have made an argument which is not only logically unsound, at odds with the facts, but also terribly unconvincing. However, I would like to thank them for the opportunity they gave me to write something fun and interesting for other people. You should too.

13 comments:

Paul D. Adams said...

First of all, thanks for reviewing our entry. I'm grateful you have taken the time to respond. To return the favor, I would like to raise a few points.

You state: "when it comes to miracle reports in the gospels, they ought to be considered false until rigorously proven otherwise." Though your logic is sound, the premises should be questioned.

Your logic runs:

If M, then not true.
M.
Therefore, not true.

Basically I hear you saying: Because most miracle reports have been proved false, then we must hold an a priori commitment to the belief that all miracle reports are false. Admittedly you do leave the door open with the caveat "until rigorously proven otherwise," but you offer no criteria wherein one may do this and you go on to argue that the Gospel accounts of miracles are false. This is logically unsound and commits the fallacy of composition, which means that something is true of a whole (all miracles are false) because something is true of a part (some, even most, miracle reports are false).

You make a similar move when you state "So much symbolism in the gospels introduces a decent chance that any other story there is mere symbolism, too, even if we aren't able to see it (after all, these are cult documents from 2,000 years ago; we may not know what they had in mind when they were writing simply because our knowledge of the time and the authors is limited)." Your logic: Since some symbolism occurs in ancient, historical narrative, and we all know that symbolism is "spooky" (this is an immature jab and suggests to makes it difficult to take you seriously), then all Gospel accounts are not to be trusted as history.

Yet, I see no reason to dismiss the historical speak we do find in the Gospel accounts simply because symbolic use is found within it. We do this everyday in our speak due to the economy of words we have available to us where one thing represents another. All languages have a limited number of words to express thoughts and ideas, experiences, feelings, and thoughts. Because of this poverty of words, we begin saying the sun rises or we feel blue. These types of expressions are what we call figures of speech, which is a special way of creating a picture in the mind of the reader or listener to enhance understanding. Examples include simile, metaphor, hyperbole, parable, personification, and typology. If, for example, I read an account of Abraham Lincoln's last hours as he lay in the bed of a hotel near Ford's Theater in Washington D.C., and figures of speech were used describe the events that led up to the gunshot fired, I would not dismiss the entire narrative simply because figures of speech were employed, nor would I go into the narrative with an a priori commitment to distrust it.

As to Luke's "vagueness" there is much I could speak to, but for now I would simply ask: If it's so vague as to what Luke meant, how are you justified in saying what he did not mean? The "vague" sword cuts both ways.

Again, thanks for taking the time to read and interact!

AIGBusted said...

Hi Paul,

I'm glad to give you a forum to respond on this blog. I hope we can have a meaningful dialogue and learn something from one another.

You commented that I "[O]ffer no criteria wherein one may [rigorously prove a miracle] and you go on to argue that the Gospel accounts of miracles are false."

My criteria for proving demonstrating a miracle would involve Bayes' Theorem. Lydia McGrew (Type in her name and a "dot com") wrote an article with her husband about Bayes' Theorem and the Resurrection of Jesus. Their article, though flawed in numerous, numerous ways, does articulate the correct procedure for showing that a miracle is true. You'd have to know a bit about Bayes' Theorem to understand this, and I'll link to some material when I'm done writing this, but here is my explanation of their procedure: In a nutshell, they assume that the prior probability of the resurrection of Jesus is absurdly low. They then try to show that the evidence we have for Jesus' resurrection is wildly unlikely to exist unless Jesus actually rose from the dead. In fact, according to the McGrews, the evidence we have for Jesus' resurrection is so wildy unlikely on any natural explanation of the facts that when we factor everything together, in the end we have to judge that the miracle is actually the most likely explanation.

That being said, I strongly disagree with the so-called "facts" the McGrews rely on in their analysis and I strongly disagree with their estimate of how likely our evidence is if Jesus did not raise from the dead, and if you want to probe a bit more on that I can give the details and show you with real world facts why they are objectively wrong. But all of this is a digression, I just wanted to show you the type of approach that could demonstrate a miracle. Anyway, I'm continuing my thoughts in another comment.

AIGBusted said...

"This is logically unsound and commits the fallacy of composition, which means that something is true of a whole (all miracles are false) because something is true of a part (some, even most, miracle reports are false)."

Wrong. I did not say that all miracle reports are false because some are. I said that most miracle reports are false because that's an observed fact of human nature (again, if you doubt me about this, pick up a book from Joe Nickell or James Randi, or inquire about the beliefs of basically every other religion on the face of the earth). If most miracle claims are false, then in any one specific case, though it is not certain, it is likely that it too is false. For example, if I go up to a gumball machine that I know contains at least 99% pink gum balls, then I know when I put my quarter in the odds are very good that in this particular case I will get a pink gumball. After I've put the quarter in, I might make an observation that changes the odds. If I observe the gumball to be yellow then I'm going to say its certain that this gumball is not pink even though at first it seemed unlikely. Likewise with miracles: we need an observation to show that this gumball (the event) is not pink (miraculous, rather than ordinary). By observation I don't necessarily mean that we have to go back and time and see Jesus get back up, but we need something we can observe now, a written text of some kind, or something, that we could point to and say, "Hey, this really changes the odds! This document/artifact is extraordinarily unlikely to exist unless Jesus rose from the dead!" No one, to my knowledge, has ever done that. They've tried, but their attempts fail.

AIGBusted said...

"Your logic: Since some symbolism occurs in ancient, historical narrative, and we all know that symbolism is 'spooky' (this is an immature jab and suggests to makes it difficult to take you seriously), then all Gospel accounts are not to be trusted as history."

When I say "spooky" I didn't mean that that in any way discounts the credibility of the author. "Spooky" is, for lack of a better word, my reaction to the brilliance of the symbols I pointed out. I really mean it: Whoever wrote the gospel of Mark was highly intelligent, and I mean that in the best possible way.

As to what I wrote on the symbolism, I stand by my point: when literary symbolism is reported with no indication or warning that it is only symbolism in a book that people take to convey historical facts, then it becomes all the more difficult to decide for sure whether any specific thing in that book is myth or fact.

"I read an account of Abraham Lincoln's last hours as he lay in the bed of a hotel near Ford's Theater in Washington D.C., and figures of speech were used describe the events that led up to the gunshot fired, I would not dismiss the entire narrative simply because figures of speech were employed, nor would I go into the narrative with an a priori commitment to distrust it."

What the gospels contain isn't simply using common figures of speech. A better analogy would be with another president, George Washington. Mason Weems, a biographer of Washington, fabricated the myth about Washington and the cherry tree in order to convey what an honest man he was (even though the story itself never occured). How much of Weems biography would you trust? I would be cautious about trusting any of Weem's account that could not be backed up by more credible historians who didn't mix in myths with the history.

And by the way, I'm not dismissing the whole narrative, I understand that most scholars have good reasons for believing that some of what is written does reflect history. I'm just saying that it is very difficult to know what to trust and that we ought not take anything (except widely attested facts like "Jesus was crucified" or "Jesus had a fairly large following") with anything like *absolute* certainty.

"If it's so vague as to what Luke meant, how are you justified in saying what he did not mean? The 'vague' sword cuts both ways."

Do you concede then, that based on the opening of Luke's gospel, we cannot tell whether he interviewed eyewitnesses or whether he was saying he heard from someone who heard from someone else... Who spoke to the eyewitnesses? If that's so, then that means we just can't tell, at least not from the introduction *alone*. I gave a reason why I think it is likely that he meant he did not get it directly from the eyewitnesses in my post, though that is not based just on what the introduction to Luke's gospel says.

AIGBusted said...

At long last, here is the article by Lydia McGrew that I mentioned:
http://www.lydiamcgrew.com/Resurrectionarticlesinglefile.pdf

And here is something to help you on Bayes Theorem. It's very long and requires close attention, but I think if you read it in your own time you'll find it rewarding:
http://yudkowsky.net/rational/bayes

Paul D. Adams said...

Ryan,
Thanks for your responses. Time does not permit me to interact further as I have travels upcoming and other duties more pressing. As an FYI, I am familiar with Bayes's Theorem and the McGrews' contention. Of course Bayesean approaches are useful re: inductive reasoning but calculating the number of possibilities [PR (H/E)] becomes inscrutable since most cannot agree on E (evidence). Unless and until that alignment obtains, it's only slightly useful to use it as a ground upon which to measure miraculous reports. More as time permits.....

AIGBusted said...

Hi Paul,

If we can't, at the present time, agree on all of the "facts" to consider as "evidence", then I think the debate needs to be settled as to what the actual facts are and then we can talk about explaining the facts. The same issue would plague any discussion over anything: both sides have to agree that what is being called "facts" is "facts" before the debate could proceed. Looking forward to your response,
Ryan

vocab malone/jm rieser said...

Ryan (I thought it was Nicholas)?

I wrote a brief response to one part of your review. It is titled "Did Early Christians & the Gospel Writers Care About Eyewitnesses Testimony?" and can be found here:

http://vocabmalone.blogspot.com/2012/01/did-early-christians-gospel-writers.html

I will try to address a few more points of your review as time permits.

Thank you for your review.

Vocab Malone
co-author of "The Gospels Tell Me So"

AIGBusted said...

Hi Vocab,

This is what was written in your original essay: "Luke’s prologue is clear that he interviewed eyewitnesses before assembling an accurate account of Jesus’s life."

As I pointed out, the prologue is not clear. As most scholars have posited that there was oral tradition passed from one person to the next to the next, Luke may have simply meant that he recieved an oral tradition that originated with eyewitnesses (as it did) but that was passed down through several people before Luke got it.

In fact, that's what we'd have to think, since why would anyone who knew the eyewitnesses have bothered copying extensively from both Mark and the Q document? Alternately, maybe Luke's reference to material "handed down" from eyewitnesses was Mark and Q. In either case, he wouldn't have been interviewing eyewitnesses like you wrote. You were wrong about that, and nothing in this post shows anything different.

Steven Carr said...

If we apply the same rules to the Book of Mormon that we would do to the Koran and the New Testament, no Holy Book would ever get past the 'Is it full of fraud?' test.

And then where would we be?

Vocab Malone said...

Steven, can you explain what you mean exactly?

And have you guys seen this lecture "New Evidences the Gospels were Based on Eyewitness Accounts" by Dr. Peter Williams? I think it presents some good food for thought about the topic at hand.

Steven Carr said...

Please present the evidence. Does it consist of saying that Jesus was a common name?

Vocab Malone said...

Mr. Carr,

As far as the BoM vs. Scripture, I'm sure you can understand history being recorded by eyewitnesses within the lifetime of other eyewitnesses (as in the case of the NT canon) versus a history being given thousands of years removed from when the events are supposed to have happened (as in the case of the BoM, the Qur'an, and the Big Bang Theory).

Some evidence is better than others. Steve, I really would love for you to come on BACKPACK RADIO so we could debate the reliability of the gospels.

Interested?