CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

A few days ago I was thumbing through the The Empty Tomb, by Robert M. Price and Jeffrey Jay Lowder which is a book which (according to the inside cover) "scrutinizes the claims of leading Christian apologists . . . and critiques their efforts to provide the best historical explanation for the resurrection."

In a rather rambling prologue, Robert M. Price tries to point out what he sees as an irony of Christian apologetics: that Christians believe in a God who really was resurrected and that Christians seek certainty of that resurrection. He does so visiting a wide array of subjects making claims that are, in my view, silly. But he finally gets to the point:

And thus apologists love to make the claim (a claim that will be exploded many times in the course of this book) that the resurrection is the best attested event of history. The irony here is that the claim is always made amid a plethora of probabilistic arguments the very existence of which demonstrates that the resurrection is anything but an open-and-shut case. If apologists themselves did not realize the difficulty of their case they would waste no more time with skeptical objections to the resurrection than they do refuting, say, beliefs that Jesus was a space alien.

Now, I personally find this entire excerpt to be absurd. I intend to deal with his claim that the position taken by apologists is ironic in a future post. However, I first wanted to deal with his statement that "apologists love to make the claim . . . that the resurrection is the best attested event of history." What may come as a surprise to some people who have read this blog, I agree with Price that an apologist should not make such a claim because the resurrection is not the best attested event in history.

However, merely because I agree with Price on that single point is hardly cause for anyone to conclude that I think the resurrection is either not well-attested or that it is a myth.

Assuming that Price is correct that Christians are asserting that the resurrection is the best attested event of history, then I agree that they are mistaken. I am positive without checking that there is more evidence of the actions taken by Bill Clinton during his presidency than there is for the events that occurred in the life of Jesus Christ. But, of course, no one is asserting to the contrary.

Christians who make claims similar to the one asserted by Price are referring to "ancient history" -- roughly speaking, events that would have taken place more than 1000 years ago. While I am not an historian, it seems obvious that events that occurred in the last 100 years are generally better attested than the events that occurred more than 100 years ago. Likewise, events that occurred within the past 200 years are generally better attested than events that occurred more than 200 years ago. In measuring the attestation about Jesus' resurrection, the claim is necessarily made in the context of other events that happened in that same time period. So, let's start by amending the claim to read that the resurrection is the best attested event in ancient history.

But even that modified claim is, in my view, an overstatement.

Julius Caesar's life, for example, is the subject of a great deal of attestation. We find in the historical record documents that appear to have originally been written by Julius Caesar (such as the Commentarii de Bello Gallico). A contemporary historian, Sallust, also wrote favorably about Julius Caesar (of course, applying the same rules as many skeptics seem to apply to the books of the New Testament, the fact that he favored Caesar means that his writings should be thrown out as utterly worthless). Julius Caesar also has mentions made of him in the writings of Cicero and Catulus, both contemporaries. In addition, I am betting that you can find references to Caesar in other writings of the period from outside Rome because Julius Caesar, being the most powerful man in the world's only dominant superpower of the time, should certainly be mentioned since what he did impacted countries that Rome didn't even control. (Of course, if Julius Caesar isn't mentioned in other countries' writings, should we use that as evidence that Caesar didn't exist? Since skeptics argue -- at least on Internet message boards -- that the failure of people outside of the New Testament to mention Jesus is evidence that He didn't exist, I think that would be a fair conclusion to reach.)

Does the attestation for Jesus reach that level? My subjective viewpoint (even as a Christian) is that it doesn't. But that doesn't mean that the skeptics have won the battle.

When Christians make claims to the effect that the resurrection of Jesus is the best attested event of ancient history, that claim is based on the fact that there are multiple sources to the event (the four Gospel accounts plus the stripped down account from Josephus) two of which were allegedly written by eyewitnesses to the event, one of which was written by a man who claims to have personally investigated the facts, and the final of which was the writings of the recollection of another eyewitness. Three of the four major accounts (perhaps all four) were written within 40 years after the event and were able to be checked against the oral histories (common at the time) that were shared among the communities by others who also were eyewitnesses to the events or who had learned the accounts from eyewitnesses. The people who wrote these accounts and followed them were willing to die in support of these accounts when faced with persecution, and to contend (as skeptics must do) that they were willing to die for something which they would have known to be a lie is not very convincing. Moreover, we have many copies and portions of copies of manuscripts (numbering in the thousands) of these books that can be traced back to older copies in different areas that gives assurance that the copies of these books that we have today or extremely close to what was written into the original. The fact that the books make reference to people and places that actually existed (despite doubts raised from time to time by various scholars) that are remarkably accurate confirms that the writers knew the people and places involved and took care to be accurate in their descriptions. The fact that many of the places where the events described in these accounts are said to have occurred have been venerated from ancient times also adds credence to the events themselves.

Certainly, there are other events that may have more substantial evidence for attestation. For example, the fact that the Colosseum was built is attested to by the fact that the Colosseum is still standing. But Jesus' acts were not acts that would necessarily or even probably leave an archaeological artifact. Jesus didn't build buildings. Jesus didn't move vast armies. Among other things, Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, walked on water and self-volitionally resurrected from the dead. These types of things don't leave archaeological remains. Does anyone really expect to find remants of the breadcrumbs from the miraculous feeding of the 5,000? Do we expect to find footprints left behind from when Jesus walked on water? Of course not.

Moreover, Jesus' position in life did not lend itself to great biographies being written about Him. The fact that Julius Caesar served as Caesar is attested to by many individual writings, but that would be expected for the most powerful man in charge of the most powerful empire on Earth. Jesus, being born a poor non-Roman Jew in a backwater part of the Roman Empire who was neither a military figure nor a political figure, would not be expected to attract the attention of the Roman biographers. There was no CNN-Jerusalem in 31 A.D. to report on the curious events happening there -- and even if there were, the press would certainly only have reported on events that would be expected to effect the Empire. Jesus, being who He was, appeared to pose no threat to Rome -- even Pilate thought that. Yet, the information we have on Jesus under those circumstances is really quite astounding.

So, overall, I think that the claim that the attestation to the life of Jesus is "the best attested event of history" is definitely wrong, and the claim that it is "the best attested event of ancient history" is also an overstatement -- but not by much. Certainly, given the circumstances of the time, the amount of information available about Jesus from the contemporaneous biographies is (to my knowledge) unprecedented.

12 comments:

"A contemporary historian, Sallust, also wrote favorably about Julius Caesar (of course, applying the same rules as many skeptics seem to apply to the books of the New Testament, the fact that he favored Caesar means that his writings should be thrown out as utterly worthless)."

I think you're misrepresenting the argument here; serious skeptics don't, to my knowledge, argue that everything in the New Testament should be "thrown out" or is "utterly worthless", but that they should be regarded with (not surprisingly) skepticism, especially with regards to their more outrageous claims (eg, prophetic fulfillment, miracles, the resurrection.)

If we take the more hagiographic elements of Sallust's work as regards his good friend Caesar as being possibly unreliable should we not also be suspicious of the miraculous tales told by the New Testament authors? This doesn't seem to be an unreasonable position to take; in fact it seems to me it's the Jesus worshippers who are too quick to accept such stories at face value with regard to the Bible while recognizing the value of skepticism with regard to other historical figures.

hermit,

I think reading Gregory Boyd's "The Jesus Legend" would put your suspicions about 'Jesus believers' to rest. He applies the same standard to the New Testament as other ancient documents, neither too skeptical nor too trusting.

Hermit,

Thanks for your comment. Apparently what I wrote didn't read very well. It was intended as a sarcastic comment towards the position held by some skeptics that you can't believe the Gospel accounts because the people who wrote them were Christians. Obviously, it is reasoned, that makes them biased and therefore unreliable. Thus, it is further reasoned, you cannot rely on them for any truthful information about Jesus. I was simply applying the same standard to the work of Sallust since he was a supporter of Julius Caesar. If the humor didn't read well, then I guess I didn't write it tightly enough.

You say, If we take the more hagiographic elements of Sallust's work as regards his good friend Caesar as being possibly unreliable should we not also be suspicious of the miraculous tales told by the New Testament authors? My point is that we should take both as valid evidence for the events in the lives of Julius Caesar and Jesus Christ on an equal basis. We should not allow one to be treated as good evidence and discount the other when both are similar to the extent that they were written by people who supported one of the two men.

"We should not allow one to be treated as good evidence and discount the other when both are similar to the extent that they were written by people who supported one of the two men."

Sure; and we should also take into account other factors; like the fact that Sallus was a contemporary of Caesar's, while the earliest Gospels were, by all reasonable estimates, written decades after the fact. If, as you say they "were able to be checked against the oral histories (common at the time) that were shared among the communities by others who also were eyewitnesses to the events or who had learned the accounts from eyewitnesses" this is even more true for Sallus who was writing much closer in time to the actual events. So if we are to be skeptical of Sallus (and we certainly should) we should be even more skeptical of the Gospels, shouldn't we?

I disagree with your statement that "the earliest Gospels were, by all reasonable estimates, written decades after the fact." There are many scholars who believe that they were written by the people to whom they were originally attested (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and that three of the four (maybe even all four) were completed by 70 A.D. by the people who were contemporaries of Jesus. I have read where some place the writing of Mark and Matthew both within 20 years of the date of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. I don't agree that Sallus was writing any more closely in time to the events.

I don't think that we should be unreasonably skeptical of Sallus. I also don't think that we should be unreasonably skeptical of the Gospels. As I said before (or, at least tried to say before), I was trying to point out that there is a double-standard applied to the Gospels. I tried to work it backwards, but it seems to have failed miserably (at least as far as you're concerned).

So, let me try to make it clear by saying the following: I think that the writings of Sallus -- as a contemporary of Julius Caesar -- should be given great weight in its reports of events in the life of Caesar. Likewise, I believe that the Gospels -- written by contemporaries of Jesus -- should be given great weight in their reports of the events in the life of Jesus.

70 AD would be "decades after the fact" woudn't it? Even 20 years is two decades after the fact, so I'm not sure what you're objection is here.

Sallust appears to have written his accounts of Caesar much closer in time; he's also cited by his contemporaries and clearly recognized as the author of the works attributed to him. I don't think you can honestly say the same of the Gospel writers; there is, to say the least, a great deal of debate about their authorship.

Hey, if you consider that they are all finished by 70 A.D. to be decades (and, of course, technically that means they were all finished within four decades) then I have no problem with that. Usually when people argue that they were decades after the fact, the inference is that they couldn't possibly have been written by contemporaries of Jesus.

The arguments about the authorship of the Gospels is only debated so thoroughly because people want to raise questions. The writings of the early church fathers is unanimous on who wrote the Gospels (the only question being whether the Apostle John or another John wrote the book entitled "the Gospel of John"). In all sincerity, it is impossible to prove that Sallust wrote the books attributed to him if someone wanted to raise questions about it. So, while I certainly acknowledge the controversy, I really don't see any major difference other than there is a motive to disbelieving the authorship of the Gospels.

But the question is; if not all of Sallust's claims about Caesar are to be accepted as reliable, why should all the claims of the Gospel writers be believed? Especially when, they make claims about miracles, or event's to which they were not actually witnesses, like Jesus' birth?

Are you not more skeptical of Roman stories about the divinity of Caesar than you are about Gospel claims about Christ's divinity?

First, I never said that not all of Sallust's calims about Caesar shouldn't be accepted as reliable. In fact, I would expect that they should be given the highest reliance unless proven unreliable by other sources or unless they make claims inconsistent with his role -- that of a man who was the ruler of the Roman Empire. The Gospel writers, meanwhile, should also be given the highest reliance unless they make claims inconsistent with Jesus' role.

Only the earliest chapters of Matthew (1 and 2) and Luke (1 and 2)contain information that would not have been witnessed by the apostles. In the case of Luke, it is largely believed that he got his information from Mary, the mother of Jesus, so his information would be reliable and first-hand. We don't know where Matthew got his information to the best of my knowledge.

Yes, I am more skeptical about Roman stories because the Caesars claimed godhood as a means to increase their political power (just as the Egyptian Pharoahs did before them). Jesus didn't have political power, and appears not to have been particularly interested in politics (according to the Gospels). Moreover, he confirmed His right to make such claims by self-volitionally resurrecting after being crucified and dying on the cross.

It is appropriate to be skeptical, but at what point is your skepticism blinding you to the possibility that Jesus actually did these things and that the Gospels are reporting these events carefully and as truth?

"Jesus didn't have political power, and appears not to have been particularly interested in politics (according to the Gospels). Moreover, he confirmed His right to make such claims by self-volitionally resurrecting after being crucified and dying on the cross."

Perhaps Jesus did want political power but failed; perhaps he was self delude, perhaps he was the L Ron Hubbard of his day. Your rationalization here only works if you first accept truth of the whole story. Which kinds of defeats any honest attempt at skepticism it seems...

And perhaps he wanted to live in the Bahamas and drink Corona's all day. Anything is possible. The question is, based on the evidence we have available, what is likely. The best evidence we have suggests that he didn't want any of the things you suggest.

I appreciate the idea of being skeptical . . . I really do (in fact, I plan to blog on it in the next few days). I appreciate your honesty and approach to this whole discussion. But it seems to me that you have reached the point of having to grasp at possibilities that the evidence in no way supports. As I said at the outset, the best evidence that we have for what Jesus said and did is found in the Gospels. If you are going to suggest other motives or actions, what are you going to use to support that said motives and actions were actually Jesus'?

You say that I have to accept the truth of the whole story? No, I have to accept that the accounts of Jesus life (based on the arguments that they are written by people who were apostles and hence eyewitnesses to the events described) are the best evidence of what Jesus said and did until other evidence presents a stronger case to the contrary. You, in the meanwhile, have to wholesale doubt the accounts primarily because it makes a claim that you don't want to accept, and you have to present possibilites as other motivations for Jesus' actions (and the actions of his followers) which have no basis in fact if you start from the evidence available.

Where am I wrong in the foregoing?

"You, in the meanwhile, have to wholesale doubt the accounts primarily because it makes a claim that you don't want to accept, and you have to present possibilites as other motivations for Jesus' actions (and the actions of his followers) which have no basis in fact if you start from the evidence available.

Where am I wrong in the foregoing?|


Your error is in thinking that I anm being more skeptical of miraculous claims in the Gospels than I am of miraculous claims regarding Caesar. It's the nature of those claims that renders them more suspicious. We needn't be as skeptical about a claim that Caesar of Jesus was a person, or that they made a speech one day and said this or that as e should be about claims that they were Gods, or performed miracles.

Accounts written decades after the event by people whose agenda is to promote the program of the person they are writing about should not be taken at face value, and the more extraordinary the claims being made, the greater our skepticism should be.

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