The Argument from Irony

As I pointed out in an earlier post, 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.

Is this a new logical salvo that shows Christianity is false? Is the Christian position really "ironic" and if it is, does that somehow demonstrate that it is false?

As a preliminary matter, it's clear that Price's argument from irony -- even if the apologists' position is truly ironic -- doesn't show that Christianity is wrong. To note that something is ironic is merely to note that something happened that could be described as out-of-sync with what should be expected. Thus, it is ironic when a person who spends his life fighting against drunk driving is killed by a drunk driver. It is ironic when someone complains that they hate noisy places while listening to their own stereo at a very loud volume while at home. Each of these situations are ironic, i.e., they present "an incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs." ( But simply because it was ironic that the person who fights against drunk driving was killed by a drunk driver does not mean the person is any less dead. Just because the person who hates loud places listens to the music loudly at home doesn't reduce the volume.

But is the Christian apologists' position truly ironic? Certainly, if the Christian claim were that it was obvious on its face that the resurrection occurred, then I would agree that the need to resort to probabilistic arguments would be quite ironic, indeed -- in fact, it would absolutely defeat the argument. After all, if the truth of the resurrection were so apparent that a five-year-old couldn't miss it, then the need to resort to probabilities to establish the fact would seem to be inconsistent with that claim. However, that is not the argument the apologists are actually making.

The argument (using what I understand the apologists to be actually stating and not how Price re-words it) is that the resurrection is among the most well-attested events in ancient history, and given Jesus' stature and location coupled with the nature of the resurrection, the attestation to the resurrection is extremely strong. Coupling the time, place and stature of Jesus as a non-political leader, and looking to the copies of the Biblical accounts that can be found (both in terms of time following the resurrection and in terms of copies and partial copies of ancient texts that can be compared to confirm what the original writings said) it very well may be the best attested event in history. Is it ironic that the proof of this point is difficult to establish? Hardly.

What makes the resurrection even more difficult to establish is that it is subjected to additional scrutiny than many other ancient writings because of what it claims. In fact, Christians argue, these other historical documents would not be nearly so universally accepted if put through the ringer the way the New Testament writings are deconstructed -- with ever single point about them being subjected to intense scrutiny. Yet, the New Testament books have managed to survive these attacks quite well. Despite claims by certain scholars that have the New Testament books being written one hundred or more years after the death of Jesus by people who had never met Jesus, the arguments supporting the early dates and authorship of the books have never been shown to be demonstrably wrong.

Given the nature of the New Testament documents and the arguments that surround them, how does one establish their veracity? One effective means is by probabilistic arguments based on the likelihood that the documents would read as they do under other circumstances. Hence, the situation that Price calls irony. But simply because he finds it ironic doesn't mean that it is really ironic or that the arguments are somehow untrue.

But let's assume that the argument is exactly what Price contends and that Christians are claiming that the "resurrection is the best attested event of [ancient] history" but then (ironically) they have to resort to probabilistic arguments to prove that point: does that make their case wrong? Does that mean that it isn't the best attested event in ancient history? Not necessarily. It could still be the best attested event because all ancient history relies on probabilistic arguments to establish the likelihood of their occurrences. After all, one still has to demonstrate that Hannibal crossed the Alps and do so using ancient writings for support. What is the probability that those ancient writings (given the time that the event actually occurred, the date of the recording of the events, and the reliability of the copies we have of the original recording of the event) supporting Hannibal's crossing of the Alps are truthful and recorded accurately? One needs to go through the same process that Christian apologists follow in supporting the truth and accuracy of the Biblical texts.

But let's assume that it is obvious that there are other ancient historical events that are better attested both in terms of being certain that the events were recorded by eyewitnesses, the events were recorded within a few decades of the occurrence of the actual events, and we have enough copies of the original writing both in terms of actual numbers and nearness to the original writing to give us a higher degree of confidence that the copies we have are accurate renditions of the original writings. In other words, let's assume that the apologists are demonstrably dead wrong in their arguments that the resurrection is the best attested event in ancient history. Does that mean that the resurrection didn't happen? If you said yes, you really need to think this through again. At best, Price's argument from irony is that the apologists are making a mistake in claiming too much about the evidence for the resurrection vis-a-vis other ancient historical events (or, at least, one other ancient historical event). That does not mean that the resurrection did not happen exactly the way the New Testament writers describe or that the New Testament writings are untrustworthy. The New Testament writings are still, in any case, extremely well-attested for their time, place and circumstance. Price's argument from irony merely points out that the attestation of the resurrection may not be as good as the attestation for another historical event, but really says nothing about whether the documents, in fact, support the Christian contention.

I am aware that the rest of The Empty Tomb supposedly puts to rest the idea that Jesus actually resurrected from the dead (at least, that's what the authors believe). The CADRE has assembled a very nice page answering a number of their arguments (and more articles responding to this book are coming) which can be found here. That debate is on-going and I don't intend to settle that argument in this one post. However, I hope that this post somehow puts to rest the idea that the resurrection is false because of some irony that Price sees when looking at the arguments from Christian apologists. That is simply absurd at heart -- which, in my mind, matches the arguments made in much of the rest of the book.


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