Taking A Blind Leap Of Doubt: Common Objections To The Historicity Of The New Testament, Jesus, And The Resurrection-Part 2

A continuation of my rebuttal to objections from ‘NotAScientist’…

I mentioned in a comment that it is clear who Jesus thought he was and who he claimed to be. I was then asked why this is important. I think it is very a important thing to take into account. He claimed many ‘wild’ things and clearly thought he possessed abilities and functions that were reserved for God alone. Historians do agree that he came onto the scene with a sense of divine authority (which is why he was charged of blasphemy which led to his crucifixion). Jesus claims raise many important questions. He was either blatantly lying or sincere. If he was sincere he was either speaking truth or a falsehood. If he was sincere but his claims were false then Jesus was entirely deluded of his self image. But what was he claiming? He was literally claiming to be God! A sincere but false claim like this would put one firmly in the category of a madman. But one brief look through his life and moral teachings demonstrate that the view that Jesus was a deluded madman, is entirely implausible. His teachings are some of the wisest and best moral teachings of any person in the past. If Jesus was neither lying or mad, then he was both sincere and correct about his self image. Jesus claims to divinity and life tell us a lot about the plausibility of his claims.

NotAScientist argues: “The utter lack of non-anecdotal evidence (for miracles) is the best objection. And the only one I need.”

I’m afraid it isn’t! While anecdotal evidence from one person would not be enough for a strong case, the New Testament accounts are supported by many independent eyewitness accounts. They pass through the criterion of multiple attestation, criteria of embarrassment, historical coherence etc…But on the question of miracles, there isn’t an utter lack of non-anecdotal evidence. One could argue that the truly drastic transformation of the eyewitnesses lives and their willingness to suffer or be martyred is non-anecdotal evidence of a resurrection miracle. Although it isn’t proof on it’s own for it, it certainly supports it strongly especially when considering other evidence. Also consider some of the archaeological evidence further down.

I claimed that the New Testament is reliable historically. He then asserts: “I’m sorry, but this is untrue. Forgetting that they (the gospels) contradict in certain places, and forgetting that some write about events that the others ignore, and forgetting the massive gap missing between his childhood and adult life…forgetting all that…the earliest gospel was written 10 years after Jesus was supposed to have died.”

I’m afraid that that claim is demonstrably false! Why? Because of the four accurate facts outlined above and that many critical scholars agree that there have been many other New Testament claims that have been verified. There is nothing from the ancient world that comes close in terms of manuscript support. Most survive on fewer than 12 manuscripts yet very rarely do people question the historicity of them. The New Testament in just the Greek manuscript has 5700. The closest in the ancient world is Homer which has 643 manuscript copies. The gospels can be harmonised successfully and differences are usually there because the writers are coming from different perspectives. A difference isn’t necessarily a contradiction! Yes conservative dating takes Mark to be within 10-20 years, the earliest one, but this is when the full book was established. Most of it was written down much earlier but in fragments. Even if it wasn’t I don’t see the force of the objection? This is a negligible period of time and no where near long enough to reject the accounts. I can remember very vividly many things that happened longer than 10 years ago! Take the example of New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. In his books he writes in various detail about his teenage years and Ehrman is 56. 36 years after the fact. Does this mean his account of his adolescent years are to be rejected? The first recording for Julius Caesar is by Historian Tacitus which is over 100 years after the events yet nobody questions these. I sense a double standard!

You write: “If you think that anecdotes are sufficient, then I have to ask whether or not you believe people are being abducted by aliens. (And I mean this 100% seriously.) There are hundreds if not thousands of people who have eye-witness testimony of being abducted by extraterrestrials. You’ll find both accounts from single people and accounts from groups that are consistent. These are people you can talk to right this second. And yet, I’m guessing you don’t believe they were actually abducted by aliens.”

This is an interesting question but not a decent objection or comparison. I am agnostic on the issue of whether other intelligent life exists in the cosmos. I do not rule out the possibility. But the reports of people’s abductions I don’t think are sufficient. I would like to hear of an example of a group of people claiming to be abducted? Alien abduction claims to my knowledge would not pass enough of the historical criteria that the New Testament accounts would. As pointed out above the gospels don’t rely merely on anecdotes and have many other supporting elements. Many UFO and alien abduction cases have been exposed as deliberate fraud and it could be argued that reporters of these have vested interests. The martyrdom risk behaviour on the part of apostles like Peter undercuts deliberate fraud hypotheses completely. They had no vested interests and knew they would suffer or be put to death for their claims. I wonder how many abduction reporters would die for the claims if they were knew they were fraudulent? Although it would be unfair to dismiss them all as fraudsters, there are many other adequate and plausible explanations e.g. hallucinations, influence from pop culture, temporary schizophrenia, epileptic seizures, sleep paralysis etc. With regards to the gospel accounts, these type of explanations do not wash. The problem with UFO and abductions explanations is that they are so ad hoc. But the Resurrection is not an ad hoc explanation given the religio-historical context in which the event happened. I think this is a point made by theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg. I considered the question seriously and answered it seriously.

You write: “Unfortunately, you have no extra-biblical sources that are contemporary to the life of Jesus. You have no biblical sources that are contemporary to the life of Jesus. Which is why I consider his existence questionable, not just the supernatural claims about him.”

So What? JP Holding notes that this objection would cause us to trash a great deal of ancient history. The best references to the Emperor Tiberius (14-37 AD) come from historians who lived much later than he did (Tacitus, c. 115 AD; Suestonius, c. 120 AD; Dio Cassius, 230 AD), so this is hardly reason to dismiss a testimony such as Josephus’ concerning Jesus. As I have responded earlier we do in fact have contemporary biblical sources so there is little reason to consider his existence questionable unless you are willing to jettison a lot of other significant individuals from ancient history or hold a double standard. I don’t think the rational person would want to do either.

Archaeological support for the historicity of the New Testament

“There is also various archeological findings that help to confirm the gospel accounts.”

Recently archaeology has been very supportive of the truth of several New Testament claims. Examples? I thoroughly recommend reading this in-depth article written by Peter.S Williams who surveys nearly 30 separate important claims in the New Testament that have been well verified by archaeology. New Testament scholar Craig L. Blomberg notes: “archaeology can demonstrate that the places mentioned in the Gospels really existed and that customs, living conditions, topography, household and workplace furniture and tools, roads, coins, buildings and numerous other ‘stage props’ correspond to how the Gospels describe them. It can show that the names of certain characters in the Gospels are accurate, when we find inscriptional references to them elsewhere. Events and teachings ascribed to Jesus become intelligible and therefore plausible when read against everything we know about life in Palestine in the first third of the first century.

One more issue that I haven’t discussed is philosophical presuppositions. This point is important because the with the question of miracles like the resurrection, it is necessary to distinguish between doubts based upon a metaphysically naturalistic assumptions, and doubts about the chain of evidence. If you come to the issue with a firm belief that God doesn’t exist, then you will not be open to the possibility that miracles can in principle happen. Afterall, if there is no God or supernatural reality, who or what is there to do the miracle working? On the other hand the theist, like me, will often come to the issue already believing in God (which is not an arbitrary decision but one based on good reasons). The theist will be more open to the possibility of a miracle happening and would need less persuading that, in the resurrection case, a supernatural miracle had really happened. Even if one is agnostic about God’s existence, then you must be at least open to the possibility of divine revelation. However, whatever worldview framework that we hold and bring to the issue, the facts remain just as crucial and we must attempt to be as unbiased as possible. I think it may be impossible to be entirely unbiased, it’s human nature. Our worldview should be informed by the data that we can access. The evidence on a subject can convince one against indecisiveness or even contrary to our former view. Many people have looked at the evidence for such things as the resurrection and have been moved to a belief in God and didn’t argue from a belief in God. It can happen both ways. Worldview-facts-explanation or facts-explanation-worldview. I strongly think the facts support the traditional Christian view.

This is by no means all that can be said on these issues. In the future I’ll probably chose to explore these points in more detail, once I’ve researched them more thoroughly (not that I haven’t done some considered research for the above comments). In retrospect, I could have just provided links to various internet articles dealing with the relevant points but I felt the need to address them directly. I hope the reader has benefited from this as I have.

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2 thoughts on “Taking A Blind Leap Of Doubt: Common Objections To The Historicity Of The New Testament, Jesus, And The Resurrection-Part 2

  1. Just found your blog and it will take a while to work through your posts. I particularly enjoyed this one which I found very interesting with some really good arguments. The strength of the historical evidence for the existence and crucifixion of Jesus is often overlooked by Christianity’s critics.

    Whilst reading it, the following points occurred to me:

    In the introduction to part 1 you state “Using the many extra-biblical sources alone, there is a lot that we can discern” yet you only mention two (Josephus and Tacitus), are there any others? If not, your use of the word “many” is misleading. If there are more it would be helpful if you could reference them as it would strengthen your argument considerably. This is particularly important since the main reference to Jesus in Josephus is not uncontroversial.

    At the beginning of part 2 you say “A sincere but false claim like this would put one firmly in the category of a madman”. Although I am familiar with this argument, I am not completely convinced by it. It seems overly simplistic, real life is rarely as black and white as this (i.e raving lunatic or God). Mental illness can cover a very wide spectrum of behavior and it doesn’t seem impossible for someone to truly believe that they are divine without appearing to be a “madman”. It would be interesting to get an expert medical opinion on whether Jesus’ behavior is truly inconsistent with mental illness. I do accept that the coherence and selflessness of his teaching supports his claim, but I don’t think that this is as strong an argument as you suggest it is.

    I am looking forward to reading some more of your thoughts.

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