Alan Billings: The contemporary mind is not comfortable with the idea that Christ rose from the dead

Posted by Kendall Harmon

Our contemporary mindset is not dissimilar. We are deeply and rightly impressed by the transience of all things. Even when, as at this time of year - and snow apart - we are suffused with joy and hope at the new buds and new birth - the daffodils in the wood, the lambs in the meadow - we know they are but part of the endless cycle of birth, growth, decay and death. The eternal note of sadness is never far way. So we are not very receptive to any aspect of our experience that might suggest otherwise. We are not comfortable with the idea that Christ rose from the dead. We are not comfortable with the idea of our own transformation beyond death. We dismiss intimations of immortality. None of this suits the contemporary mind.

So what are we to make of the Easter claim of the church that Christ is risen?

Recently on the Today programme a biblical scholar suggested that it might make better sense to speak about the resurrection not of Jesus but of the disciples. The hard historical evidence is that after Easter Day they become changed people - a radically different mindset, a psychological resurrection. That is true. And yet even a psychological resurrection needs something to trigger it. Given the deep scepticism of the disciples that all was lost, could that trigger have been anything less than an empty tomb and a mysterious presence?

Read it all.

Filed under: * Christian Life / Church LifeChurch Year / Liturgical SeasonsHoly Week

34 Comments
Posted March 28, 2008 at 7:42 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. Br. Michael wrote:

It was a tough sell in the 1st Century.  The Greeks and Romans were not stuped.  They “knew” that dead is dead and that dead people stay dead.  How then do you deal with folks who claim that it happened as an historical fact and were willing witness to it and die for it?

Yet even most skeptics embrace some sort of life after death even if they deny the resurrection.  Very few embrace the idea of personal extinction at death.  Indeed very few are willing to fully embrace the nihilism implicit in the materialist worldview.

March 28, 11:12 am | [comment link]
2. Irenaeus wrote:

“The contemporary mind is not comfortable with the idea that Christ rose from the dead”

“Behind a table…with various secretaries about him sat His Sufficiency, the Governor of the Lone Islands. He glanced up as the strangers entered and then looked down at his papers automatically, ‘No interviews without appointments except between nine and ten p.m. on second Saturdays.’”
—-C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

March 28, 12:03 pm | [comment link]
3. Philip Snyder wrote:

“The contemporary mind is not comfortable with the idea that Christ rose from the dead.” 
Well, neither is any mind.  I love this temporal chauvinism.  We don’t believe the resurrection because we are so much smarter than those first century idiots.

It takes more faith to believe that Jesus bones are still in the ground than it does to believe that hundreds of eye witnesses died horrible, nasty deaths rather than recant their belief in the Resurrection of Jesus.

YBIC,
Phil Snyder

March 28, 12:16 pm | [comment link]
4. DonGander wrote:

Not only are “..we are so much smarter than those first century idiots”, we are also very much smarter than those 19th Century idiots. I’ve not been to the university recently but I can only assume that now one might hear that we are smarter than those 20th Century idiots as well.

About 1959 I heard my (19th Century) grandfather say he thought that the early people of the earth were smarter than the people of today (1959). Now, who is the most open-minded, who is the most generous, who is the least biggoted; the pople of today, or, my 19th Century grandfather?

Thank you, Phil, for inspiring the thought.

Don

March 28, 1:11 pm | [comment link]
5. Pb wrote:

The folks in Athens actually laughed upon hearing about the Resurrection of Jesus according to Acts. What is new about this?

March 28, 1:12 pm | [comment link]
6. Philip Snyder wrote:

Where is the wise man?  Where is the scribe?  Where is the debator of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the follow of what we preach to save those who believe.  For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, bot to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than men and the weakness of God is stronger than men.  I Cor 1:20-25

YBIC,
Phil Snyder

March 28, 1:38 pm | [comment link]
7. Chris Molter wrote:

One need only read about Archimedes, Galen and others like them to understand just how frighteningly smart our predecessors were.  The bodily resurrection would have been as ‘foolish’ to the educated Greco-Roman world as it is to ours today.

March 28, 1:59 pm | [comment link]
8. St. Jimbob of the Apokalypse wrote:

Jesus predicted this unbelief in the Resurrection, from the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 16:

27"He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, 28for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

29"Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

30” ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

31"He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’

March 28, 2:05 pm | [comment link]
9. Pb wrote:

I wonder why the contemporary mind can accept reincarnation, pantheism, and other new age ideas.

March 28, 3:33 pm | [comment link]
10. Chris Molter wrote:

#9, because those beliefs wouldn’t require the believer to make any substantial changes to their lives.

March 28, 3:46 pm | [comment link]
11. DonGander wrote:

10. Chris Molter:

I’ve been a christian for 50 years and have never ask the question, why is God’s plan based on repentance and grace?

I think that you have both caused me to ask the question and given me a substantual part of the answer.  No other plan would give us hope, both in this world and the next.

God has such good ideas. I’d almost say that they were perfect.

OK, I’ll say that they are perfect.

Don

March 28, 3:53 pm | [comment link]
12. frreed wrote:

Perhaps the reason is the Church (primarily the “American” church) has so focused its proclamation of the Good News on such things as social justice and other political concerns (MDGs) that the resurrection has become disassociated from the Christian faith by many contemporary minds. 

If you don’t use it, you lose it.

March 28, 5:54 pm | [comment link]
13. mathman wrote:

The modern mind has no trouble with astrology.
The modern mind has no trouble with Nostradamus.
The modern mind has no trouble with divination.
The modern mind has no trouble with sodomy. It is the most effective transmission method for AIDS, along with 20 or 30 other diseases, but other than that it is OK.
The modern mind, it seems to me, has trouble only with those issues which demand commitment, require sacrifice, and come only with a changed life. The modern mind rejects everything which is not free.
The ancient mind could memorize all of Homer. The ancient mind of Socrates had no need to write everything down, as it was all in his head. And the ancients flatly rejected the resurrection from the dead. You can read all about it in Gibbon.
Whether the “contemporary mind” should still be classified as capable of reason is clearly open to question.

March 28, 6:30 pm | [comment link]
14. D. C. Toedt wrote:

Mathman [#13] writes:

The modern mind has no trouble with astrology.
The modern mind has no trouble with Nostradamus.
The modern mind has no trouble with divination.

Um, the modern mind has trouble with every one of these things. Anyone who doesn’t have trouble with them is implicitly disobeying the mandate of Deut. 18.21-22:

21-22 You may be wondering among yourselves, “How can we tell the difference, whether it was God who spoke or not?” Here’s how: If what the prophet spoke in God’s name doesn’t happen, then obviously God wasn’t behind it; the prophet made it up. Forget about him. [The Message]

——————-

Are we smarter than the ancients? We probably aren’t any more innately gifted than they were. But it’s indisputable that, over the centuries, by learning from experience and from each other, people have developed better intellectual tools for analyzing and dealing with life than those the ancients had available. (We should certainly hope that our gifts of memory, reason, and skill would improve our intellectual tools over time!) 

An analogy:  At the controls of his personal jet plane, John Travolta can cover the distance of the marathon run in roughly 3 minutes.  It’s thought that Phidippides, at the Battle of Marathon, took about 3 hours. It’s not that Travolta is 60 times better as an athlete; he just has better transportation tools.

March 29, 12:23 am | [comment link]
15. William Witt wrote:

But it’s indisputable that, over the centuries, by learning from experience and from each other, people have developed better intellectual tools for analyzing and dealing with life than those the ancients had available. (We should certainly hope that our gifts of memory, reason, and skill would improve our intellectual tools over time!)

D.C.,

We have better tools.  That’s it.  I have always been amused by Bultmann’s claim that no one who uses electricity can believe in the miracles of the Bible, or Spong’s great advance—because we can travel in rocket ships and airplanes we know that Jesus could not have been born of a virgin.

In terms of philosophy, the modern mind has been severely limited since Descartes, at least.  (I would argue “since Nominalism,” but most people at least know who Descartes is.)  Modern thinkers tend to restrict themselves to two of Aristotle’s four causes—efficient cause and material cause—ignoring completely formal cause and final cause.  If we eliminate final and formal causality from our reasoning, discussion of whether it might be reasonable to claim that the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ might raise him from the dead is reduced to such inanities as “In my experience, dead men stay dead.  Ergo, Jesus is still dead.”  Such sophistry is an advance?

And, of course, there are indeed modern people who believe in shamanism, pyramids, past life regressions, palmistry, etc.  They probably outnumber those sceptics who say none of this is possible.

It would seem that when people forget how to think properly, they alternate between extreme scepticism and rationalism, on the one hand, and gullibility and superstition, on the other.  Welcome to the superior modern age.

March 29, 8:02 am | [comment link]
16. DonGander wrote:

DC:

You are missing the point. Jet planes and cars and computers are just really fancy crutches that make life easier in this physical world. But as the crutches that I use for a broken leg must be given up once my leg has healed (or I will weaken), so the other crutches of this life that aid mental proccesses, that we are so accustomed to, while looking to make life more efficient, have attrophied our minds.

There is also newer genetic research which indicates that all, every nation and group, over time has a deteriorating genetic component. It is quite likely that my ancestors had stonger minds than mine. Perhaps stronger in other ways as well. I know that I could not live long of faced with the food, bacteria, and work tht they faced day to day.

Don

March 29, 8:16 am | [comment link]
17. William Witt wrote:

Also, D.C.,

That John Travolta can fly his personal jet has not kept him from believing in Dianetics.

March 29, 11:35 am | [comment link]
18. D. C. Toedt wrote:

William Witt [#15] attributes to Spong the following:  “... because we can travel in rocket ships and airplanes we know that Jesus could not have been born of a virgin.

We don’t know any such thing. But it’s indisputable that (A) we have no idea where the notion of Jesus’ virgin birth originated, nor how reliable the account is; (B) the scriptural stories concerning the Nativity have significant problems; and (B) so far, the available biological evidence is overwhelmingly to the contrary. Consequently, disbelief in the virgin birth is certainly the prudent bet, and belief would seem to amount to so much wishful thinking.

———————————

William Witt writes: ‘...discussion of whether it might be reasonable to claim that the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ might raise him from the dead is reduced to such inanities as “In my experience, dead men stay dead.  Ergo, Jesus is still dead.” Such sophistry is an advance?

Some of us have a more nuanced position than that:

A) We don’t categorically proclaim that Jesus absolutely was not raised from the dead.  We don’t rule out the possibility; presumably God can do whatever he wants.

B) But neither are we persuaded that Jesus was in fact raised from the dead. The available evidence is just too full of holes and contradictions — and too amenable to other, more-conventional explanations. 

C) We don’t feel it appropriate to commit ourselves irrevocably to one or the other side of the debate.

D) Moreover, we reject the view that refusing to assent to the proposition betrays a lack of faith.  To riff on something the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor once said in an interview, we believe:

* that true faith consists of remaining open to the truth, whatever the truth turns out to be, which goes hand in hand with trusting in God;

* that we have no reason to think that what we “know” now is the whole truth (indeed, we have every reason to believe the contrary);

* that putting God first, and trusting in him, calls for us to remain open to new evidence and new insights as they’re revealed to us, even if they happen to contradict received wisdom, and even if that received wisdom was canonized by our predecessors.

————————-

As to whether “it might be reasonable to claim that the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ might raise him from the dead,” many things seem reasonable, but when we look at the evidence, it turns out not to be the case. (That’s why Deut. 18.21-22 is probably my favorite single passage from the Bible.)

March 29, 5:27 pm | [comment link]
19. William Witt wrote:

Well, D.C., it seems you’ve either changed the subject (from technology to history) or you’re claiming that because practitioners of Scientology can fly jets, we are somehow better historians.  I don’t quite follow your argument.

But, of course, this is not true:

(A) we have no idea where the notion of Jesus’ virgin birth originated, nor how reliable the account is;

We certainly do know where the notion of Jesus’ virgin birth originated.  It originated somewhere in the early Christian communities from which Matthew and Luke received their historical sources.  If true, the accounts would have to originate within Jesus’ own family.  If not true, from elsewhere in a Christian community that also provided both Matthew and Luke with historical sources that we have every reason to believe be historically accurate.  As Luke, in particular, makes clear that he confirmed his account as much as possible by consulting with eyewitnesses, we must assume either: 1) Luke’s account is accurate; 2) Luke was lying; 3) Luke’s witnesses were lying.

March 31, 9:13 am | [comment link]
20. Dave B wrote:

D.C. I find our culture extemely egocentric. Could you survive in the wilderness as the primitave stone age americans did, could you track an animal over long distances, engineer a functioning bow and arrow?  The Romans used concrete and that technology was lost till the 1800’s.  We are so clever but can’t figure out how much housing we can afford.  We can cure illness of the body but can’t figure out promiscuity has severe consequences.  Are we really all that more the wiser?

March 31, 9:20 am | [comment link]
21. D. C. Toedt wrote:

William Witt [#19], the stories concerning Jesus’ virgin birth don’t survive even cursory critical scrutiny. In court they’d immediately be ruled inadmissible; if submitted to any reputable scientific journal, they wouldn’t even be sent out for peer review. Leave aside that the stories have no foundational support: Just the inconsistencies between the Matthean and Lukan accounts alone make a mockery of the claim that those accounts are based on “historical sources that we have every reason to believe be historically accurate.”  Advanced degree or no, I fear you’re living in a fantasy world, my friend.

———————

Your trichotomy about Luke doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. You’re too quick to rule out several other obvious possibilities, for example:  4) We can’t rule out that Luke himself never actually talked to eyewitnesses — in his prologue, he artfully creates the impression that he did, but he never comes right out and says so. 5) We can’t rule out that the stories Luke heard were distorted in transmission, unintentionally or otherwise, as very commonly happens. The teller(s) — or Luke himself — might have had an ax to grind, or an agenda to advance, or a reputation to protect, or a score to settle, or just plain faulty understanding or -memory. 6) We can’t rule out that Luke misunderstood the stories he heard, not least because we don’t know what language(s) were involved. 7) We can’t rule out that Luke messed up his articulation of those stories — think of all the times you’ve read newspaper stories that got it wrong in subtle or serious ways.

——————————

Dave B [#20] asks: “Could you survive in the wilderness as the primitave stone age americans did, could you track an animal over long distances, engineer a functioning bow and arrow?”

Alone? Quite possibly. 

In a tribe with, say, my fellow adult leaders from my son’s Boy Scout troop?  Absolutely; there’d be no question about it — that is, until I was felled by an infection, or some other illness, or a heart attack, or any one of a thousand formerly-fatal inconveniences that the egotistical Enlightenment culture has equipped humanity to cope with, rather better than our ancestors ever could.

March 31, 2:39 pm | [comment link]
22. William Witt wrote:

In court they’d immediately be ruled inadmissible; if submitted to any reputable scientific journal, they wouldn’t even be sent out for peer review.

D.C.,

You constantly bring up the question of what kind of material would be admissible in court.  Completely irrelevant.  The materials historians have to work with are precisely the kinds of materials that would not hold up in court, or would not survive peer review in a journal.  We have no way, for example, to cross examine Plato to discover whether his account of Socrates’ death was reliable or free from bias.  We have no authority other than Caesar’s own claims for the wars in which he fought.  We have no authority other than Tacitus for most of what we know about the Caesars.

Yet no one makes the claim that these materials cannot be trusted because they would not hold up in court.  Your constant appeal to the admissibility of court room evidence would lead to total skepticism about 90% of what we know about world history.

The fact is that numerous historians (both secular and theological) and, yes, lawyers(!) have examined the evidence for the historical reliability of the NT witness, and found it to be as solid as anything we have from the ancient world.  The ancient Roman historian A. N. Sherwin-White, in his book, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, showed persuasively that, when tested against what we know of first century Palestininian and Roman culture, the gospels and other NT writings consistently hold up.  As a historian, Sherwin-White noted how puzzling it was that NT scholars often had less confidence in their material than secular historians had about other ancient materials that were much less promising.

We can, of course, speculate about all the possibilities that you raise.  They amount to what I had already listed as possibilities if 1) is not true;  You are saying that either Luke lied, or his witnesses lied.

Your claim that Luke may simply have misunderstood is absurd.  Luke was as capable as any user of email or private jets to ask such questions as: “What do you mean when you say that Jesus had no human father?” or “Or you saying that Jesus actually appeared and ate with his disciples after his crucifixion?”  Don’t you think that Luke knew as well as any twenty-first century lawyer where babies come from, and that dead people don’t eat?

The historian’s dilemma was well expressed by E. C. Hoskyns in his celebrated book, The Riddle of the New Testament (1931).  No matter how far back we try to go with historical-critical method, we never discover a Jesus who is not the Son of God, who did not perform miracles, who did not rise from the dead.

Our options, then, are stark.  If we are going to be consistent, we can either choose to accept the NT on its own terms, or we can choose to reject its central claims.  If we do the former, we have confidence in its historicity, but we have to swallow the divine revelation.  If we do the latter,  we can dodge the revelatory bullet, but we are reduced to utter skepticism about any trust in its historical contents whatsoever.

Yet, where the historical contents can be tested, they hold up.  So the last option is really incoherent.

Among more recent works, I refer you to:

Richard Bauckham. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2006)

Craig Evans. Fabricating Jesus (IVP, 2006)

Richard Burridge. What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (Cambridge U Press, 1995)

I will note, again, that you have willfully changed the subject.  Your claim that our ability to fly airplanes somehow makes us competent to judge that the NT writers are false witnesses is silly.  Your claim that the gospel material is not the kind of material that would be admissible in a court of law is about as relevant as my refusing to trust my wife’s claim that she put gas in the car because she cannot produce eyewitnesses whom I might cross-examine.

March 31, 6:32 pm | [comment link]
23. Ross wrote:

#22 William Witt:

One of the complicating factors is that the NT writers were not writing by the standards of what we would consider objective journalism or even objective history—which is in no way a slam against them; those standards simply hadn’t been invented at the time.

Just for one example, the writers of the gospels obviously all felt free to arrange the incidents of Jesus’ ministry according to each writers’ individual thematic structures, and without much regard for actual chronology.  For another, it was considered perfectly acceptable in that time and place to pen a document and ascribe it to someone with more authority than oneself, if it sounded like the sort of thing that person might say.  We would call that a “lie,” but at the time it was considered a routine rhetorical device.

And since you bring up “central claims,” I would question whether the “virgin birth” is indeed a central claim of the Gospels.  I argue that it is not—two of them don’t even mention it, just for starters.  The Resurrection is indeed a central claim of the Gospels, and the Incarnation would become a central theological point very quickly in the early church… but even John, the most Christological of the Gospels and pretty definite about the divinity of Christ, isn’t particularly concerned with the precise circumstances of Jesus’ human birth.

Is the virgin birth, as recounted in Luke and Matthew, a necessity for the Incarnation as it is now understood?  I don’t see that it is; surely God can bring about the Incarnation of the second person of the Trinity in any fashion God chooses.

However, some kind of story of a miraculous birth would certainly have fleshed out the life of Jesus and made it more compelling to listeners used to hearing stories of heroes and demigods.  If, say, Luke the master storyteller had such a story at hand, I doubt he would have scrupled to include it in his gospel no matter how poorly attested it might have come to him.  The important part of Jesus’ life—Luke’s “central claim,” judging by what he focused the rest of his gospel on—was his ministry and his death and resurrection; so if a harmless rhetorical flourish made the beginning of his story that much more convincing, why not?

In contrast to D.C., I’m not so much skeptical of the virgin birth as I am agnostic about it.  I don’t consider the Gospel witness for it nearly as compelling as the witness for the Resurrection; and—unlike the Resurrection—I don’t consider it a fundamental make-or-break part of the story.  Could it have happened that way?  Sure it could.  But the evidence seems pretty iffy; and since I see no reason why I should have to come to a conclusion on the matter, I don’t.

March 31, 7:37 pm | [comment link]
24. D. C. Toedt wrote:

William Witt, once again you’re focusing on only half the issue, as does every Christian author I’ve ever read in dealing with this subject. (From what I can tell, such authors tend not to be impartial investigators, but polemicists for their cause; they seem to bury their heads in the sand rather than confront inconvenient questions of witness reliability, that is when they recognize the existence of the questions in the first place.)

The issue here is not a binary one: can the NT materials be trusted, yes or no.  The issue is rather more nuanced: how much can the NT materials be trusted for a given use; in particular, can those materials support the decisional weight we’re being asked to put on them.

Suppose someone were to ask you to make a supremely-important decision that would affect every aspect of how you live your life and raise your children. And suppose you were supposed to make that decision based solely on something Socrates allegedly said or did; not because it made sense in itself, but because Socrates supposedly said or did it. Would you want more evidence than just Plato’s account?  I daresay you would.

You write:

Your claim that the gospel material is not the kind of material that would be admissible in a court of law is about as relevant as my refusing to trust my wife’s claim that she put gas in the car because she cannot produce eyewitnesses whom I might cross-examine.

Good example; let me riff on it:  Suppose that you needed your car to take your sick child to the hospital, across miles and miles of the Big Bend in Texas, with gas stations few and far between. Sure, you’d trust your wife, in the sense that you accepted that she believed she was telling you the truth. But you’re a sensible fellow; surely you’d check the gas gauge before starting out.

——————

Incidentally, to say that courtroom tools are for the courtroom, and therefore are irrelevant to the search for religious truth, is like saying that X-ray machines are for hospitals, and therefore are irrelevant to (say) finding flaws in steel weld joints: That’s what’s just silly.

March 31, 7:37 pm | [comment link]
25. William Witt wrote:

And suppose you were supposed to make that decision based solely on something Socrates allegedly said or did; not because it made sense in itself, but because Socrates supposedly said or did it. Would you want more evidence than just Plato’s account?  I daresay you would.

D. C.,

If per impossible  some major decision in my life had to be based not on whether some particular event in Socrates’ life were accurately depicted by Plato, as, for example, whether Thrasymachus was actually present during the events described in the dialogue of the Republic, e.g., but on whether I trusted Plato to give me a reliable account of Socrates’ life as a whole, his conflict with the Athenian authorities, and his death by poisoning, I might wish for more certainty than what can be derived from Plato’s witness, but I would also not demand the kind of certainty of Plato that could stand up only under court room examination.  But, at any rate, since I would have no other substantive source for the life and death of Socrates than Plato’s witness, I would have no choice, but to give to Plato exactly the kind of confidence he deserved.  I would consider someone who demanded of Plato the kind of immunity from doubt that D.C. demands of the gospels to be irrationally skeptical.  I trust Plato, and I see no reason not to.  Moroever, I tend to trust the gospels more than Plato, because, while Plato is only one source, the gospels reflect multiple testimony, including source testimony that can be speculatively reconstructed. 

Suppose that you needed your car to take your sick child to the hospital, across miles and miles of the Big Bend in Texas, with gas stations few and far between. Sure, you’d trust your wife, in the sense that you accepted that she believed she was telling you the truth. But you’re a sensible fellow; surely you’d check the gas gauge before starting out.

I would glance at the gauge (as I always do), but I would not deliberately check it before starting out.  To do so would indicate a decided lack of trust in my wife’s word.  It would indicate that I suspected my wife to be untrustworthy and deliberately lying.  What I definitely would not do would be to tell my wife that I could not believe her because her testimony to have filled the tank would not stand up in court.  I would not cross-examine her, or demand to speak to unassailable eyewitnesses who had seen her fill the tank.  I would not drive the car first to a service station and have the gauge tested for tampering.  Nor would I dip some measuring device into the tank to discover whether it was covered with gas.  I would trust my wife to have told the truth, and act appropriately on that belief.

IOW, as for Plato, I would give my wife the kind of credence that would be reasonable and expected.

As with the gospels—which brings me to Ross’s point.

One of the complicating factors is that the NT writers were not writing by the standards of what we would consider objective journalism or even objective history—which is in no way a slam against them; those standards simply hadn’t been invented at the time. 


I would say that this is an extremely misleading statement.  On the one hand, this is exactly part of my complaint against D.C.  D.C. is demanding that the gospels be the kind of critical historical documentation or objective journalism that did not exist in the first century, but also that they meet standards impossible to meet for dead people—that they stand up to courtroom examination.  Twenty-first century historians do not demand that kind of certainty—because they know that ancient history does not provide it, but also because they know it is not necessary.  They are confident of their abilities to reconstruct the historical past based on just the kinds of documents we find in the ancient world—of which the gospels are examples.

At the same time, I think it highly misleading to assume that because ancient people did not do the kind of modern history that originated in the nineteenth century that they were careless about historical detail, or simply made things up.  There is every reason to believe that the early Christian church cared very much about the facts of Jesus’ life, and that they were careful to preserve what he actually said and did.  The closest ancient parallel to the kind of writing we find in the gospels is actually something like Plato’s dialogues—the use of historical events (which actually happened) to recount the life of a known figure (a biography) to communicate an ideal.

And since you bring up “central claims,” I would question whether the “virgin birth” is indeed a central claim of the Gospels.

I would not claim that the virgin birth is central to the gospels in the same way as the incarnation or resurrection.  I introduced it only to point out the irrationality of Spong’s claim that flying in rocket ships somehow makes it impossible.  It was, in fact, D.C. who pounced on this, with his usual unwarranted skepticism. 

Christianity stands or falls with the resurrection.  Every book in the NT presupposes that the resurrection is the foundation for everything that follows.  And, indeed, if the NT writers got that one wrong, we should be skeptical not only about that claim, but about anything else they say.  The resurrection has better authentication, for example, than the Sermon on the Mount.

At the same time, the gospel narratives stand as a whole.  The same gospels that tell us about the teaching and miracles of Jesus tell us about the virgin birth.  Despite great differences in detail, there is surprising unanimity, and no actual contradictions.  I find extremely implausible the notion that the gospel writers were influenced either by pagan wonder stories, or that they would uncritically have accepted such stories from their audiences.  If anything, there seems to be a tendency to downplay the miraculous in later gospels.  Mark, the earliest gospel, portrays Jesus most as a wonder worker.  John, the latest, has the least miracles.

What we never find in any of the gospels or other NT writings is a Jesus who is the kind of non-miraculous moral example that D.C. would like him to be.  There is no evidence that such a Jesus never existed.

And, of course, that brings us to the reason for this entire discussion.  We all know why people are skeptical of the gospels.  It is not because they have been subjected to careful historical criticism and been found implausible.  Rather, it is because they contain miraculous events.  D.C. lives in a world in which dead people do not rise.  D.C. would not be convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead or was born of a virgin even if he were able to cross-examine the witnesses, and they agreed in every detail.  D.C. would likely argue that such agreement proved collusion among the witnesses, and would argue as he does below:

From what I can tell, such authors tend not to be impartial investigators, but polemicists for their cause; they seem to bury their heads in the sand rather than confront inconvenient questions of witness reliability, that is when they recognize the existence of the questions in the first place.

Thank about that.  By definition, anyone who takes seriously the notion that the gospels might actually be reliable witnesses cannot be an impartial investigator, but is actually a “polemicist” with head buried in the sand.  And this from someone who makes his living by being a polemical advocate!

April 1, 3:12 pm | [comment link]
26. William Witt wrote:

Coming back a little later . . . .

I should have made it clear that there is in one sense a very real parallel between Plato’s account of Socrates and the gospels.  In both cases, there is a very real sense in which the moral and ontological worldview being advocated is summed up in a narrative account of a historical figure.  And there is a real correlation between the historical events and the ideals.  For Plato, Socrates represents the ideal Platonist.  Or perhaps rather, Plato sees his own philosophical worldview as summarizing the point of Socrates’ life.  Platonism is, in a very real sense, Socratic discipleship.

Plato represents Socrates as not only teaching the Platonic ideals, but living them out.  His challenge of the Athenian common sense notions of justice and the virtues, his willing acceptance of condemnation at the hands of Athenian “justice,” and his calm resignation in drinking hemlock, all “incarnate” the Platonic ideal.  While Plato’s philosophy is not in principle tied to the historical figure of Socrates, there is a sense in which, should Plato’s account of Socrates be shown to be historically unreliable, Platonism would be discredited.  So, for example, if it could be historically demonstrated that Socrates was not the paradigm of philosophical virtue that Plato claimed, but rather a con man, who intentionally took advantage of the young (as the Athenians claimed), and Socrates were justly executed as a fraud, Plato’s philosophy would collapse under the weight of an inherent contradiction.

So, in fact, were I to decide to become a Platonist, there is a very real sense in which a fundamental and monumental life decision would be based on my trusting Plato’s account of certain historical events as actually having taken place.  And the only basis I would have for making those decisions would have to be my trust in Plato’s own account of Socrates’ life and death, since the other ancient Greek references to Socrates are simply too scant to either credit or discredit Plato’s account.

Should I demand the kind of certainty in the case of Socrates that D.C. demands for the gospel, I would indeed be paralyzed because there is no question that Plato’s account would not meet D.C.‘s criteria of holding up in a court of law.

Yet should I decide that Platonism were credible, I would nonetheless be justified in becoming a Platonist despite being unable to meet D.C.‘s criteria, for Plato provides us with just the kind of certainty we normally require when making important life decisions.  I have every reason to trust Plato’s account of Socrates’ life as generally reliable, including the way in which Socrates exemplifies Plato’s ideals.  In fact, while I could account for Socrates if there were no Plato, it would be hard to account for Plato historically without Socrates.  The one is certainly the disciple of the other.

It is quite the same, I think, with the gospels.  In ordinary life, we seldom require the kid of absolute certainty that D.C. demands for the gospels, but are generally satisfied with what Leslie Newbigin calls “proper confidence.”  We marry without conducting extensive background checks on our potential spouse.  We undergo surgery without double checking the doctor’s credentials, without making sure that he or she really did graduate from Medical School.

The gospels witness to certain historical events which are part and parcel of their meaning.  The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are of a piece.  There is nothing in the historical materials we have that enable us to separate off the supernatural bits and to suggest that, for example, Jesus preached a love ethic but did not rise from the dead.  The most solidly verifiable bits of evidence we have for the teaching of Jesus, e.g., his teaching about the Kingdom of God, are tied up inseparably with his miracles.  At the center of the gospel writers witness to Jesus is their unanimous testimony that Jesus rose from the dead, and was seen by his disciples afterward.

As with Plato’s Socrates, the gospels leave us with the dilemma of accounting for the rise of the Christian Church unless we accept the account of Jesus that they provide.  As it would be impossible to account for Plato’s writings should Socrates not have lived and died as Plato claimed he did, so it is extremely difficult to come up with an account for the origin of the Christian Church apart from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that would not be more implausible than the one they offer.

The gospel’ historical claims leave us then, in a similar situation to that which the ostensible Platonist might have with the life of Socrates.  As with Plato’s account of Socrates, they provide us with an ontological worldview that is communicated through a narrative account of a historical figure.  The worldview is inherently connected to the historical events.  If Jesus did not rise from the dead, Christian faith really is in vain.

Yet all we have are the historical claims of ancient texts, which, like the writings of Plato can be traced to within a generation of those who knew him. When the gospels can be tested against ancient history, they can be verified.  But, no, the gospels do not provide us with the kind of knock-down absolute certainty that D. C. demands.  No ancient text does.  They do provide us with the same kind of certainty we have in Plato’s account of Socrates.  Where they can be tested, they hold up.  But we can always hold off the hand of heaven if we want.  Should we demand the kind of absolute certainty that will hold up in a court of law (beyond a reasonable doubt), they will not oblige.  Nor should they.

The gospels do not force faith.  As Karl Barth says, we are not demanded to believe.  We are allowed to believe.

April 1, 7:44 pm | [comment link]
27. Ross wrote:

If anyone is still reading this…

The problem as I see it is that most reasserters are not willing to read the Gospels in the way you describe.  You suggest that the Gospels are, on the whole, a fairly reliable description of Jesus’ life—just as Plato’s dialogues seem to be, on the whole, a fairly reliable description of Socrates’ life.  And I would agree with that description of the Gospels, although we might wrangle a bit about which parts are more “fairly” than others.

But reasserters in the main insist that the Gospels must be read as perfectly reliable accounts of Jesus’ life, without error of any kind.  When reappraisers like myself suggest that perhaps the Gospels might not be perfectly accurate in all details, the usual rejoinder is, “Well, then how can you trust anything at all that they say?”  It is the reasserters who are demanding certainty, not us.

April 2, 4:09 am | [comment link]
28. D. C. Toedt wrote:

I’m still reading, Ross [#27].

You put your finger on a recurring theme, one that I suspect is responsible for a lot of discord.

Some reasserters seem to have an intense craving, almost an overpowering need, for certainty about religious matters. It’s as though they’re terrified that, if Life, the Universe, and Everything aren’t the way they’ve been taught, then it will all be just too much for them to cope with.  (This indicates a lack of real trust in the Creator, IMHO.) 

Or maybe it’s a learning disability: Some of them appear to be literally incapable of grasping that there might be possibilities other than the ones that they’ve deemed acceptable. They like Possibility A; Possibility B is disagreeable; therefore A it is — indeed, A it must be — and anyone who thinks we might also want to take into account Possibilities C, D, etc., is either foolish or malign.

According to this kind of thinking, the New Testament accounts are either trustworthy, or they’re not; if the former, then it’s our duty to accept them whole hog, and try to reframe our entire lives around them. Here’s another example: If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then our faith is worthless.

I’m not going to mince words: This kind of reasserter reasoning is risible. We expect middle-schoolers to do a better job than that. (And sure enough, that’s about the age when a lot of them start questioning The Faith Once Delivered.)

Sure, in the right circumstances, the process of elimination is a serviceable tool. But some of these reasserters don’t seem to grasp that it’s just one of the tools in the toolbox, and might not always be the one to use — when you need to make a precise cut in a piece of wood, a hole, it’s moronic to insist on using a hammer.

So how do we know that the reasserters aren’t wrong?  The proof is in the results. The so-called Enlightenment mindset has, by several orders of magnitude, done a better job of understanding and dealing with the reality that God has wrought, thereby enabling us to do a better job as workers in (what appears to be) his ongoing project of creation.

April 2, 9:14 am | [comment link]
29. D. C. Toedt wrote:

Correction in the last paragraph:  So how do we know the reasserters aren’t right.

April 2, 9:16 am | [comment link]
30. William Witt wrote:

But reasserters in the main insist that the Gospels must be read as perfectly reliable accounts of Jesus’ life, without error of any kind.  When reappraisers like myself suggest that perhaps the Gospels might not be perfectly accurate in all details, the usual rejoinder is, “Well, then how can you trust anything at all that they say?”

This would certainly not be true of any the scholars I mentioned above: Hoskyns and Davey, Bauckham, Evans, or Burridge.  I would suggest that such an all-or-nothing approach is epistemologically suicidal.  It buys into the same Cartesian demand for absolute certainty that I find in D.C.‘s demands that the gospels meet the requirements of a modern law court.  D.C. says he won’t trust the historical witness of the gospels unless they have that kind of certainty.  The fundamentalist claims to the contrary that they do.  Neither approach respects the actual integrity of the NT writings as first-century narratives.  They are not critical modern biographies with footnotes, indexes, and precise citations of all sources.  This does not mean that they are not reliable in their central witness.

April 2, 6:35 pm | [comment link]
31. D. C. Toedt wrote:

William Witt [#30], you’re gravely misreading me if you think I’m demanding absolute certainty. Far from it.

(In civil matters, Anglo-American ourts require only a preponderance of the admissible evidence, by the way, and in rare cases “clear and convincing” evidence; criminal courts require proof beyond a reasonable doubt.)

What I’m saying is this: There are so many gaping holes in the reasserter narrative — so many other, more-plausible explanations for the sparse extant evidence — that it’s impossible to say the narrative is supported by compelling evidence, which in essence is the reasserter claim.

April 2, 8:27 pm | [comment link]
32. William Witt wrote:

What I’m saying is this: There are so many gaping holes in the reasserter narrative — so many other, more-plausible explanations for the sparse extant evidence — that it’s impossible to say the narrative is supported by compelling evidence, which in essence is the reasserter claim. 

And, D. C., I most heartily disagree.  The disagreements are precisely the kinds of disagreements we would expect in different accounts of the same events given by different people, scattered over different geographical settings over a period of a few decades.

There is, for example, far more disagreement between other ancient texts than there is between the gospels, e.g., accounts of the lives of the Caesars.  Moreover, we have more sources in the gospels and they are closer to the events that they describe. As Sherwin-White mentioned in his book, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, “[I]t is astonishing that while Graeco-Roman historians have been growing in confidence, the twentieth-century study of the Gospel narratives, starting from no less promising material has taken so gloomy a turn. . . [T]he more advanced expononents . . . apparently maintain . . . that the historical Christ is unknowable and the history of his mission cannot be written.  This seems very curious when one compares the case for the best-known contemporary of Christ, who like Christ is a well-documented figure—Tiberius Caesar.” (187).

Sherwin-White wrote during the height of form-criticism, a movement that has more or less been abandoned.  Scholars are much more confident today.

Scholars like Sherwin-White have repeatedly shown that, when tested against their ancient Near Eastern and Roman environment, the gospels and other New Testament writings are surprisingly vindicated.

Sherwin-White demonstrated, for example, that Luke-Acts gives an entirely accurate account of Roman jurisprudence during the first half of the first century, but not for the later first-century.  If the materials were made up, there would have been no reason to have gone to such trouble to correctly describe no longer practiced Roman law and governance.

Joachim Jeremias translated the sayings of Jesus in the synoptic gospels back into Aramaic, and discovered a number of unique patterns that have been preserved: use of the “divine passive,” antithetic parallelism, various kinds of rhythm, alliteration, assonance and paronomasia, riddles, etc.  He concluded that while the gospel writings made many stylistic changes in their materials, they were extremely cautious in making alterations to his actual words. Jeremias notes that there are no ancient parallels to the parables of Jesus.  The gospels also consistently portray the Kingdom of God as the center of Jesus’ preaching, although it is not a major theme in the early church, e.g., Paul.  Jeremias concluded: “In the synoptic tradition it is the inauthenticity, and not the authenticity, of the sayings of Jesus that must be demonstrated.” New Testament Theology (Scribners, 1971), 37.

Richard Burridge compares the gospels to ancient Graeco-Roman biography and argues that the gospels clearly belong to the category of bioi, What are the Gospels? (Cambridge: 1992) and must be gauged according to that category.  As Ben Witherington says in New Testament History (Baker, 2001), [A]ncient bioi, like modern biographies, center on a particular person and seek to present an adequate and accurate characterization of that person.”

Craig Evans, in Fabricating Jesus notes that there are a catalog of indisputable “basic facts” that provide the context for Jesus’ ministry:

1) baptism by John; 2) Galilean preaching and healing; 3) calling of twelve disciples; 4) confining of activity to Israel 5); controversy about the temple; 6) crucifixion outside Jerusalem; 7) the continuation of Jesus’ ministry after his death; 8) persecution of Jesus’ followers.

Evans fills out the details: Jesus was viewed as a prophet; the kingdom of God was at the center of his preaching; his temple controversy challenged the ruling priests; he was crucified as “king of of the Jews.”

Evans further argues that Jesus’ ministry makes no sense unless it is recognized that he was a miracle-worker.  The miracles are confirmed by the standard criteria of authenticity. 1) His miracles have multiple attestation (found in all four gospels); 2) they are dissimilar to claimed miracles of his contemporaries; 3) In numerous occasions, they produce embarrassment; 4) numerous sayings that meet criteria of authenticity make no sense apart from the miracles.

These unchallengeable facts provide the general structure to provide a context for the material in the gospels, even when we cannot be certain of precise details.

Finally, and most important, Jesus’ resurrection is the presupposition of the entire New Testament.  Any account of the survival of the Christian movement has to be provide a plausible alternative explanation that is both more plausible and has greater explanatory value than the explanation that the NT itself offers.  That Jesus really did rise from the dead.

I find any alternative explanation other than the one pervades the entire NT—that Jesus is the Son of God who died for our sins and rose from the dead—to so fly in the face of the overwhelming evidence as to be question-begging.

April 3, 10:50 am | [comment link]
33. William Witt wrote:

I forgot to mention Richard Bauckham, who, in his book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans 2006), argues for 500 pages that the best analogy for the gospels is the kind of eyewitness testimony one associates with holocaust survivors.  He argues that such recollective memory remembers the following kinds of events best: 1) unique or unusual event; 2) salient or consequent event; 3) event in which a person is emotionally involved; 4) vivid imagery; 5) irrelevant detail; 6) point of view; 7) lack of dating detail; 8) gist not detail; 9) frequent rehearsal.  The gospels have precisely these characteristics.

In contrast to these kinds of recollective memories, says Bauckham, are court testimonies, which, for various reasons, are less reliable.  Recollection is usually accurate as far as central features but not details; court testimony is often concerned with the details as such.  Court witnesses are often uninvolved bystanders rather than central participants.  The aspects of testimony that are relevant in court testimony are unrelated to the kind of testimony we find in the gospels.  They are participants in the events—not bystanders.  It is not the details of the events, but the gist of what is recalled.  They are not required to recall faces, nor to remember details that do not come easily to mind.

April 3, 12:11 pm | [comment link]
34. D. C. Toedt wrote:

William Witt, in pointing out all the things that are supposedly right about the gospel narrative, you’re like a California real-estate agent insisting that a buyer focus on a new house’s wonderful architecture, landscaping, pool, etc. — except that the buyer is an engineer who can’t help but notice that the house is built on a steep, wooded hillside with a history of mudslides and wildfires, and oh yes, it’s right next to the San Andreas fault. What are the odds of the real-estate agent making the sale?  Essentially zero.

———————-

I quite agree that differences in narratives on minor points are not necessarily fatal to the credibility of the “core” narrative.

Moreover, my main concern is not the minor differences in the gospel narratives, but the material inconsistencies between them and other facts that seem fairly well established.  I would be genuinely interested in your response to the questions I pose here and especially here.

When narratives differ dramatically about material matters, or are inconsistent with other known facts, often the only proper posture is agnosticism, that is, an admission that we simply don’t know what really happened in respect of those matters.

————————

I guess you’re likely always to regard my point of view as reflecting insufficient acculturation into the academic disciplines of history, just as I’m likely always to regard yours as naive. The discussion is challenging, though, and therefore enjoyable.

April 3, 2:00 pm | [comment link]
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