Ancient Historical Writing as the Atheist's Inerrant Scripture
One of my projects this week has been an examination of claims by one of the supposedly better-educated atheist critics out there. I'm finding that, as usual, even when they have degrees, the education these folks have pretty much stops at the tip of their own noses.
One of the arguments made by this character is that the Gospels don't deserve our trust because they lack certain features of what they take to be reliable histories. For example, they quote the following from Dionysius of Halicarnassus:
For perhaps readers who are already familiar with Hieronymus, Timaeus,
Polybius, or any other historian that I mentioned a short while ago as being careless in their works, when they do not find many things in my own writings that are mentioned in theirs, will suspect me of fabricating them, and will want to know where I learned of such things. Lest anyone should hold such an opinion of me, it seems better that I should state in advance what narratives and records I have used as sources.
According to this critic, the Gospels would have a lot more credibility if they included stuff like this where the authors discuss their sources.
Yeah, right. If you believe for one minute that any atheist would suddenly give the Gospels more credibility if only Matthew or Luke or whoever had gone on some skein like the one above, I have some land here in Florida to sell you. It's a great deal, you just have to evict the giant mouse living there right now.
That's the most obvious problem, but here are a few more. The first is that this amounts to a ridiculous argument that no author has e.g., made use of sources unless they say something like the above. The second is that while an author like Dionysius had plenty of scratch available to publish their works, the authors of the Gospels generally did not -- especially because they were publishing for a mass audience, whereas Dionysus was publishing for a small group of like-minded peers. I have yet to see an atheist critic take any serious accounting of the fact that this wasn't a world where you could pop down to Office Depot and buy a ream of paper for $5.59. This was a world where paper (or parchment or whatever) was an expensive luxury. Yet they have a fit when the Gospel authors don't expend their limited resources to lay out what amounts to methodological window dressing.
The last problem I'll note, though, is the most significant one, and it indicates a blind spot in atheist critics that is as serious as that of a KJV-Only fundamentalist. Basically, atheist critics often take a profession of critical examination (like the one above by Dionysius) and turn it into a citation from inerrant Scripture. You've seen it before: For example, all Carl Sagan had to do was babble, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," and suddenly he became a deity who could say and do no wrong, not even when it comes to his screwed-up history of the Library of Alexandria.
What escapes such critics is that a statement like the above is anything but a profession of objectivity and careful source-filtering. Basically, here's what it is really for: Dionysius is covering his backside in case he is called a liar. He is concerned about his personal honor, which was the primo #1 concern of members of honor-shame societies. What the critic takes to be an explanation by Dionysius of historical rigor is actually little more than an extended pre-emptive exercise in covering his own posterior and protecting his honor rating, and that undoubtedly from peers all too willing to savage it in a context where honor was seen as a zero-sum game.
There were plenty of other motives for Dionysius to say stuff like this, and a cynic who treated his work like the critics treat the Gospels might be apt to pull those out also. The basic description of Dionysius' work indicates that Dionysius "states that his objects in writing history were to please lovers of noble deeds and to repay the benefits he had enjoyed in Rome." Read that through the lens of that social world, and it amounts to him writing as a way to repay the favor shown to him by his patrons or others from whom he had received benefits. Put in a nutshell, his history was a work of quid pro quo.
The standard description also says that one of Dionysius' purposes was to "reconcile Greeks to Roman rule." That sure sounds like an objective measure, doesn't it? Sort of like, a 19th century slave owner writing tales of how happy all the slaves were as a way to "reconcile" their chattel to slavery. Yes, using that logic, we definitely have someone here who was writing the A-1 Steak Sauce Objective History of Rome, don't we?
In light of all that, it's more than a little laughable when critics downgrade the Gospels for being documents meant to encourage faith in Christ. Dionysius was writing for people who wanted to hear things they wanted to hear; a cynic might argue that he was under what amounted to a censor's control and that his history was therefore to be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. Therefore, it could be argued, his work is entirely untrustworthy. If anything, if we follow this logic to the end, the Gospels are clearly more objective histories than those of Dionysius, because at least the authors don't fill their text with a lot of self-serving descriptions of how gloriously competent they were, and they also at least were not in the pay of some patron who wanted them to make the local home team smell like a rose garden in order to placate the guys who were being compelled to spade the manure.
I'm not actually arguing that, of course. But I am pointing out just how easy it is to allow your ideology to govern the discussion. And that's exactly what atheist critics do when they complain that the Gospels deserve an F because e.g., they don't imitate Dionysius' self-serving rhetoric.