The Argument from No Other Versions
Metas Blog sets forth an interesting argument for Christianity with which I have little familiarity called the "Argument from No Other Versions." Below, I set forth Metacrock's statement of the argument as posted in a blog entitled "Defending No Other Versions Argument against Kirby" -- that's Peter Kirby, author of the Christian Origins Blog.
Specifically, Metacrock's argument responds to the "Jesus Mythers." Believe it or not, there are people out there who not only deny that Jesus was God or was resurrected, they deny (contrary to the great weight of the evidence, in my humble opinion) that Jesus Christ was an actual figure in history. In essence, the entire Biblical account of Jesus' life, earthly ministry and death is, in their view, a fiction. They put together interesting, but scholarly irrelevant, items such as Earl Doherty's The Jesus Puzzle in argument that Jesus never existed. As my fellow blogger Layman has demonstrated in an essay entitled "Scholarly Opinions on the Jesus Myth", those who believe that Jesus never existed, but believe that Jesus was rather a myth made up by people like St. Paul about 2000 years ago, are really outside the pale of scholarly research.
For example, as quoted in Layman's "Scholarly Opinions" essay, in his book Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels, atheist historian Michael Grant completely rejected the idea that Jesus never existed.
[I]f we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus' existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned. * * * To sum up, modern critical methods fail to support the Christ myth theory. It has 'again and again been answered and annihilated by first rank scholars.' In recent years, 'no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non historicity of Jesus' or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary.
Still, as an advocate of intelligent design, I am aware that simply being outside the scholarly mainstream is insufficient reason to conclusively demonstrate that the argument has been refuted (elsewise, no advances in knowledge outside of the reigning paradigm are possible). Thus, the "Argument from No Other Versions" as another refutation of the belief that Jesus never existed interests me greatly. Moreover, I think the "Argument from No Other Versions" goes well beyond an argument against Jesus' non-existence to a positive argument for the truth of the central claims of Christianity.
As set forth by Metacrock in his blog, the "Argument from No Other Versions" begins by asserting that there is a fundamental difference between the mythology that we see and the history that we see coming down through the ages. Mythology, he argues, tends to proliferate, that is, myths have multiple versions of the accounts which can differ wildly in their views. History, on the other hand, has a core story which is consistently involved in every early retelling of the account. Let me give an example.
Proliferation of Myth
Anyone who has ever tried to look up the history of just about any mythical figure learns quite quickly that multiple accounts of his life and adventures exist. For example, many versions of the story of Greek hero Herakles (more commonly known by his Roman name of Hercules) exist from Apollodorus to DAulaires Book of Greek Myths. (House, Christine "Hercules the hero: understanding the myth.") These multiple accounts exist because there is no central core of truth behind the story that people of that time would have known to be true and would have dismissed any major variation. Thus, if follows that if there are fewer versions of an account, that means that there is more likelihood that it is based on historic fact rather than mythology.
Keep in mind, that when Metacrock is talking about "multiple story versions," he is not speaking of minor discrepancies. He is talking about major differences in the accounts. Getting back to Hercules, for example, "There are as many different versions of Hercules' life story as there are storytellers. Differences between the Disney movie version and other versions include the explanation of who Hercules' parents were, and why he had to perform the 12 Labors." ("The Life and Times of Hercules.") As will be discussed further below, minor inconsistencies in the story can be attributed to a large number of issues including different viewpoints, different emphasis, and differing languages. Thus, it is not enough to point out, for example, that the number of angels at the tomb changes depending upon which Gospel account you read. They are all in agreement on the basic fact that there was a tomb of Jesus that was empty and someone told the women (angels in most of the Gospels, a young man who could be an angel in Mark's Gospel) that He was not there.
Non-Proliferation of History
Accounts that are actually historical, on the other hand, tend to be more consistent in their retelling and contain a consistent core story that reaches out from each of the retellings. If the story is a myth, then it seems to follow that anyone would be free to change and embellish the account as they wish without fears of repercussions. However, if there is a consistency from the earliest retellings of the account, that consistency seems to speak to the fact that there was a core historic story which the people who told the account (I will refer to them as "storytellers" even though I am not suggesting that what they related is fiction) did not feel free to change.
The argument lists three reasons that they would not feel free to change it. The first is that eyewitnesses would be the guardians of the truth and would challenge any change to the story that is untrue. Second, if everyone else already knows the story, to change it for purposes of making a point would hurt the storytellers credibility. Thus, there is every reason to believe that a storyteller would not make changes to the core story if he already knows that the central story is well known to the members of the community. Third, a point that I think is very important, why bother to change the story if everyone already knows the facts? If the storyteller would change the known facts, he would be challenged to support his change by those who know better.
Thus, if there is a consistency in the account of a person's life, then it is likely that one of these three facts -- if not all three -- would explain that consistency.
The Argument from No Other Version contends that the Gospel accounts (which are by far the four earliest accounts of the account of Jesus) are very consistent in their core story. This is different from myths where the storytellers are free to make up the facts surrounding the key figure. Thus, this consistency argues strongly in favor of a historical core of truth that the authors of the Gospel knew and which they were trying to relate.
Variations in the Gospel Accounts
Does the fact that there is some variation in the accounts argue for myth? Two answers come to mind in response to this question. The first is what can be called the "You Can't Win Either Way" response. It goes like this: Skeptics use the fact that there are inconsistencies in the Gospel to argue that they are not truthful because if they were truthful then all four authors of the Gospel would have the same things, e.g., Jesus would say the same things on the cross in all four Gospels, they would all say precisely how many women went to the tomb, etc. But imagine for a moment that they were all perfectly consistent in every respect down to relating the same quotes word for word. What do you suppose would be the charge by skeptics? I know from experience that wherever two or more Gospels relate the same account, the charge from skeptics is that one or more of the Gospel authors copied from one of the others. You cannot win in that situation with a skeptic.
Another response is to note what my friend Bede at Bede's Journal, a professional historian, has to say:
You see, history is not just a collection of facts and figures. People who just try and sort out the facts are usually called 'antiquarians' who are supposed to be a bit inferior to real historians. Also, a record of events that is just "one damn thing after another" is called a chronicle and not a history. The chroniclers are also felt to be a rather lowly breed compared to the true man of history. So it is the explanatory, analytical and narrative elements of a historical work that mark it out as a member of that illustrious genre. And it is the case that you can analyze, explain and narrate in many different ways. The facts can be fitted together to produce radically different pictures. So in what sense is the historian's creation not fiction? Based on a true story perhaps? Dependent on the facts but not determined by them?
Bede makes an excellent point. Even in a narrative of events that one knows, the analysis and explanation of those events are going to be colored by the reporters point of view. There is no question that each of the four Gospels were written at different times by different authors for different audiences and different purposes. Each of these authors, then, would have related the facts that they thought most important to make an impact on their intended audience to meet their intended purpose. Does that mean that the Gospel authors are not relating history? No, because all history is written in exactly the same way.
The truth is very important, but none of the Gospel authors were simply trying to chronicle the events of Jesus life. They were taking their best recollection of the facts of His life and telling them in a narrative for differing audiences at differing times and for differing purposes. However, even in these different narratives, they did not change the core story and, in fact, I would argue that one of the reasons that the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke seem to follow each other so closely is because the authors did use each other's works to double-check their own recollections. Why is it hard to believe that Matthew, being outside of the inner-circle of Peter, John and James, would defer to Mark's account of what happened during the Transfiguration because Mark was Peter's companion and would have heard Peter's account first hand more recently than Matthew? Why is it hard to believe that Luke, not being an eyewitness but talking with eyewitnesses, would defer at points to the account of Matthew who was an eyewitness?
I think that the Argument from No Other Version has some promise even though it comes with some questions that I am still trying to sort out. In the meantime, I conclude this blog with Metacrock's version of the argument as found on his blog.
Metacrock's Version of the Argument from No Other Version
1) Mythology tends to proliferate: multiple story versions are common.
2) When historical facts are known to a wide audience, people tend not to deny the basic facts of an event--a) eye witnesses keep it straight,
b) people who try to invent new aspects of the event are confronted with the fact that most everyone knows better, and
c) people know the story for a fact and just don't bother to change it.
3) Story proliferation would probably influence further tellings, thus creating many more documents with different versions of the same story.
4) If a myth proliferates we would tend to find more versions of the same story, when there is only one version we can accept a degree of certainty that the story did not proliferate.
5) We do not find a proliferation of versions of the Jesus story in any sources we know of.
6) The most logical way to account for this single Jesus story is through (p2), that everyone knew it was the case, there were too many eye witnesses to spread new versions.a) It is illogical to assume that everyone just liked it so they didn't add to it.
b) There was no canonization process in place in the early period, and the single unified version existed from the earliest trace of the story.
7) Therefore, we can assume that it is probably the case that the masses were familiar with the story of Jesus because the story reflects events known by all to be factual.