Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Bart Erhman finds Jesus in Poland (Baal Shem Tov)

The search for a serious parallel to the life, person, teachings, and impact of Jesus intensifies, reaching in some scholarly quarters what appear to be the last stages of desperation.

A few weeks ago, the famous "Jesus sleuth" Bart Erhman, the New Testament scholar who has probably been appealed to on the Historical Jesus more than any other in recent years in America at least, debated the philosopher Tim McGrew on that issue.  All in all, I think McGrew won the debate.  Of course, we're on the same side, and also friends, so I admit to bias.  But McGrew offered what sounded like pretty good arguments, especially instances of what he calls "undesigned coincidences," in which one gospel answers questions raised in another gospel, in such a way that it appears they both have a common, interlocking set of real-world facts in mind.  Ehrman batted back in various ways, but he had not bothered to read Tim's arguments beforehand, and many of his rebuttals were simply irrelevant, or red herrings apparently intended to change the subject to something more familiar.  ("Heh!  Did you notice how the gospels become increasingly anti-Semitic as they go along?")  And most of these red herrings McGrew speared pretty easily.

Erhman did offer one argument, however, that I don't feel that McGrew answered very well.  Understandably.  Ehrman played the same trick that Richard Carrier played when we debated: he pointed to a particularly obscure alleged "parallel" to the gospels, and asked, "So if you believe the gospels when they report miracles, why don't you believe these reports, too?"  Which is hard to respond to, if you haven't recently read the given "parallel gospel," and don't have it fresh in mind -- unlikely, given the text's obscurity. 

But I love those kinds of challenges.  They are not the sort of challenges one can easily respond to on stage, or on the air, even if one has the book in question at one's fingertips.  But they join two fascinating skeptical themes into one, themes which I believe actually furnish powerful arguments -- arguments, in the plural, indeed I believe dozens of good ones -- for, not against, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Why is Jerry Coyne an Atheist?

In The Truth Behind the New Atheism, which one scholar describes as the first full-orbed response to the New Atheism, I dealt with the objection, "If Christianity is reasonable, why do most eminent scientists reject faith in God, not to mention the details of the creed?"  The title of the second chapter in that book was, "Are Scientists too 'Bright' to Believe in God?"  That chapter was written in response to Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who casually assumed that in this case, "correlation means causation," that scientists deny "religion" because they're too intellectually advanced to fall for the silly set of errors bounded by the word "religion."

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Notes on the Ehrman-McGrew debate

Recently, Bart Ehrman and Tim McGrew debated over two hours on the Unbelievable Radio Program in London, moderated by Justin Brierley.  (I've been asked to appear there for a third time, next month, by the way.)  This is the second hour.  Here are some observations:

* As usual, Justin does a wonderful job of summarizing, keeping focus, and keeping the conversation moving along.

* I do think Tim won the debate.  

* Tim seems to be operating under the erroneous impression that Bart Erhman is referring to the canonical Acts of the Apostles when he says the early Christian message was not preached on street corners. Tim appears to have overlooked Thomas Jefferson's fine editing of Acts, which can fit conveniently behind one's ear, with room left over for a pencil and and big fat eraser.  (I hope you all caught the sarcasm there.) 

* I like the vaudeville-like progression in Bart's argumentation at times. "Who says biblical scholars have a screw loose?" "These classicists, here. Quote quote quote." "Oh, you can always find someone to say anything. Take mythicists, for example." "Uh . . . "

* Ehrman is appeals in this debate, and also in a recent blog post, to forms of the Outsider Test for Faith. I believe I destroyed the basis for such appeals, in my last book.  Sometimes scholarship just takes time to catch up. :- )

* In any case, what would be wrong with simply asking, "So if the evidence, on your account, is so good for the good Medieval rabbi whom you say is also recorded as doing many miracles, why don't you believe those accounts?" And take it from there. These claims about some other guy really have nothing at all to do with the gospels. Maybe they occurred, maybe they didn't: either way, they in no way affect our reasons for believing Jesus worked miracles. 

* Bart anachronistically brings in "gospels" of Peter and, as I recall, Philip.

* I think a transcript would show Bart's circumlocutions and red herrings more clearly, since his soft, reasonable voice seems to cover a multiple of intellectual sins. Also Tim's dialectical precision, which may be harder to follow orally than it would be on a screen.

* Bart appeals to Dickens as a partial parallel to the gospels. As a Dickens fan, I find that absurd.

* I'm getting a better feel for the undesigned coincidences argument, and think I will include some reference in my next book.  (Apparently Tim's wife Lydia is now writing a book on the subject, also.)  More detailed study of fictional parallels would be useful -- could such coincidences be found, if you looked for them in fiction? I suspect Tim is right that it would not be so easy, but I would also like to see the attempt made before dismissing it.

*In any case, it will, I think, nicely complement a fuller "fingerprints" argument for the gospels (under R & D), which I think demonstrates the folly of most the parallels Ehrman and others cite thoroughly. I think we've just touched the edge of the historical evidences for the gospels, so far. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

How Matthew Ferguson Helps Prove the Gospels

I maintain that one of the best reasons to read radical skeptics like Richard Carrier, or even mainstream skeptics like Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels or the Jesus Seminar, is for the service they provide in trying, with increasing desperation, to locate some parallel, any parallel, to the life, teachings, and person of Jesus, as manifest in the gospels.  If Jesus were "just a normal Messiah," or pure fiction, as some maintain, finding real parallels ought to be a piece of cake.  So why do they wind up tossing out such ridiculous analogies as Apollonius of Tyana, Honi the Circle Drawer, the Iliad, or even Buddha?

Matthew  Ferguson
Matthew Ferguson
If even the best-educated and most relentless skeptics, scouring the ancient world for parallels to the gospels, can't find anything more like a genuine gospel than, say, the "Gospel of Thomas," the "Life of Hercules," "Golden Ass," "Life of Tobit," or Apollonius, that old standby, then skepticism is in deep trouble.  As Jesus put it, if you only have ten thousand troops, you should think long and hard about fighting an enemy who attacks with twice your number.  Given the actual character of the gospels and the remarkable Person they reveal, skeptics should think about making peace with God.

The unique character of the gospels is the theme of two of my books so far, a chapter in Faith Seeking Understanding, and many posts here. 

But the endless search for the grail continues.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Be with you shortly . . . First, these flowers from our Sponsor.

I flew into Seattle from Changsha, China three days ago.  Lots of things to say on my blog have occurred to me since I last posted here directly (rather than sending the article to James, and asking him to post).  So I'm hoping to post a bunch of stuff this summer -- there's so much to talk about. 

The first day after my return, therefore, I posted a long critique of an attack on the gospels by a young Classics scholar named Matthew Ferguson.  Quite a few people read the thing, though there were no comments yet. 

Looking it over this afternoon, I felt a twinge of embarrassment.  The post was too disorganized, too rambling, and lacked some crucial empirical evidence.  In some places my wording was a little too strident, as well.  So much for writing epics with jet lag. 

So I've moved that article temporarily back to "draft" mode.  I'll fix it up, offer a more thorough analysis of some of the works Ferguson cites, and hopefully post it again within a few days.  If my head weren't starting to swim a bit again, I might even promise later this evening.  But there's a good chance I'll be asleep by then. 

In the meanwhile, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.  These might be worth more than that. Here are some photos I took in the past few days, in some cases hours before my flight on Friday morning.  The flowers grow in the lotus fields just over the little hill from our school. 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Contest of Hesiod and Homer

I maintain that one of the best reasons to read radical skeptics like Richard Carrier, or even mainstream skeptics like Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels or the Jesus Seminar, is for the service they provide in trying, with increasing desperation, to locate some parallel, any parallel, to the life, teachings, and person of Jesus, as manifest in the gospels.  If Jesus were "just a normal Messiah," or pure fiction, as some maintain, finding real parallels ought to be a piece of cake.  So why do they wind up tossing out such ridiculous analogies as Apollonius of Tyana, Honi the Circle Drawer, the Iliad, or even Buddha?

Matthew  Ferguson
If even the best-educated and most relentless skeptics, scouring the ancient world for parallels to the gospels, can't find anything more like a genuine gospel than, say, the "Gospel of Thomas," the "Life of Hercules," "Golden Ass," "Life of Tobit," or Apollonius, that old standby, then skepticism is in deep trouble.

Matthew Ferguson, whom I've critiqued on this site before, contributes to this search by comparing the gospels to an obscure ancient writing called The Contest of Hesiod and Homer.  While he does not claim that the parallel is exact, he does claims the gospel are very much like that piece of fiction in many ways.

Great to see a fresh challenge!  The "restless fertility of bewilderment," as C. S. Lewis put it, as skeptics search for parallels to the historical gospels, bares fruit, once again!  Yet once more we get to see to what desperate measures the need to fill this gaping hole in the materialistic universe, drives denizens of that universe.

Given two works, and the desire, and one can find numerous similarities and differences.  Ferguson is good at finding historically--irrelevant points of comparison.  Thus the gospels and The Contest all use simpler language than that of Thucydides, they were influenced by earlier writings (as what book was not?), and so on, all points that are barely relevant to the historicity of the gospels.   

Ferguson does mention one trait which really does bear on historicity, and which he thinks favors The Contest of Hesiod and Homer over the gospels:

" . . . discussing contradictions among source material is a key feature of historical prose.  In this way, the Certamen is actually being more historically responsible than the Gospels."

Maybe, but that's pretty weak tea.  The "source material" here is already ancient, and the author makes it clear that he doesn't really believe that material -- as we shall see.  One would think centuries of time and the author's own skepticism might weigh against the work's historicity a bit more strongly?  But Ferguson doesn't so much as mention it.  Which reminds us why good scholars should not just cherry-pick criteria like witnesses at a kangaroo court, but should describe the characteristics of a set of literature before grilling it.

So let's compare the gospels on 30 historically-relevant characteristics typical of the gospels.  Most of these criteria, I set a decade before I ever read The Contest.  All the other criteria, I borrow from established scholars, before reading The Contest.  In many cases, why a given trait supports the historicity of a text that contains it, is obvious. In others, I explain my argument more fully in Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels. 

I. Setting 

(1) The gospels claim to be historical.  The Contest does not. 

"Some say (Homer) was earlier than Hesiod, others that he was young and akin to him . . . According to one account they flourished at the same time and even had a contest of skill at Chalcis in Euboea."

Is that what Ferguson means by "discussing contradictions among source materials?"  Saying, "There's all kinds of stories out there, and here is one of them?"  The author does not even seem to think the story he is telling is true!  Good Lord -- and Ferguson lacks the intellectual honesty to point this out to his readers.

A story for which the author does not even claim historical accuracy, is exponentially less likely to be true, than a story for which historicity is claimed. 

(2)  The gospels were written within the plausible life-span of Jesus' first followers.  The Contest was written perhaps 400 years later. 

Again, this is no minor difference.  How honest can a "scholar" be to compare the historicity of two sets of documents, and "forget" to mention that one was written within a generation of the passing of its subject, while the other was written SIX generations later?

These two facts make utter nonsense of Ferguson's comparison.  But let's go on.

(3) The gospels are ethnically distinctive and realistic.  This, too, is untrue of The Contest.  It is written entirely from within the perspective of Greek culture.  That does not undermine its claim to historicity (if it had one), but the ethnic realism of the gospels, though they are written in Greek, does support their historicity in a way that does not apply to The Contest.

(4) The gospels realistically describe the rural geography of their setting.  The author of The Contest seems to know his way around, though he gives fewer details.

(5) The gospels also realistically describe urban geographyThe Contest does not describe known urban locations.

II. Stylistic and Literary Characteristics  

(6) Both the gospels and The Contest are stories.  I argue that stories are slightly more likely to be remembered, than sayings or speeches, though this may be the weakest of all my criteria.

(7) In the gospels, the voice of the subject is distinct from other characters.  Except where the two poets are being directly quoted, this does not seem true of The Contest.  Hesiod asks what is best in life.   "Homer" replies, "For men on earth tis better never to be born at all or being born, to pass through the gates of Hades with all speed."  The playwright Aeschylus says this sort of thing all the time -- it does not sound particularly Homeric to me.  So the tone of the speakers in The Contest provides little or no evidence of historicity.  

(8)  The gospels often offer concrete, realistic, non-essential details.  The Contest does not.

(9) Reactions to Jesus are credible, given events.  This is not very true of The Contest.  For instance, the Argives are so thrilled that Homer praised their skill in war in a few brief lines ("Argives with linen jerkins, very goads of war"), that they give him "costly gifts" and set up a statue to him.  This sort of reaction is a typical detail in ancient Greek novels.   But Jesus never gets statues.  Also, Hesiod's body is brought to land by dolphins, another novelistic motif. 

(10) Jesus offers surprising, non-platitudinous teachings.  Homer, on the other hand, says, "By scorning to get unclean gain and if the good were honored, but justice fell upon the unjust."  What did he ask of the gods?  "That he may be always at peace with himself continually."  What is best of all?  "A sound mind in a manly body, as I believe."  What is happiness?  "Death after a life of least pain and greatest pleasure."

Needless to say, it is hard to believe that so great a poet would be reduced to such bathic responses.  More relevantly, since anyone can write such muck, anyone may have -- there is no evidence of Homer's fingerprints here.

(11)  Jesus taught in distinctive parables.  Neither Homer nor Hesiod do, here, at least nothing original to this work, though there are a few good lines. 
(12) While Jesus is presented as noble, he is subject to harsh yet realistic criticism.  Nothing like this appears in The Contest. 

(13) Jesus makes use of poetic language, including hyperbole, but not formal poetry.  Homer and Hesiod don't say much, outside of their poems and a few rather empty philosophical banalities.  This makes perfect sense coming from a second-rate novelist: Jesus does not. 

III.  Character Development 

(14) In the gospels, you get to know a few disciples well, who act in fairly consistent manners.  (The same is true of Confucius' disciples in The Analects.)  This is not relevant to The Contest, since neither man is shown as having disciples. 

(15) People exit from the story in the gospels without any unrealistic reappearances.  There are not enough important characters, aside from the two heroes, to much apply this criteria in The Contest.  Also the heroes are traveling and don't return anywhere. 

(16)  Historically-familiar political figures appear on stage occasionally, and act consistently with their known personalities.  Two sons of Midas sponsor Homer, and two historical kings named Midas do appear to have lived --not, however, at the right times, or not with the right children.  King Paneides, who is said to have judged the contest, is hard to track down, outside of this story.

(17) The gospels are about ordinary people, not royalty or superheroes.  This trait is not very relevant to The Contest, since both protagonists have by this time been famous for centuries. But one theory offered is that Homer is the grandson of Odysseus, and Hesiod descended from the god Apollo.  No one else is very important, aside from a few kings, and Zeus who sinks Hesiod's boat.  (More dubious details left out by our young scholar.) 

IV. Social Gospel: 

(18) Jesus praises people on the margins, but never flatters them.  Neither Hesiod nor Homer so much as notice much anyone besides themselves.  .

(19) Jesus reads the powerful the riot act for their obduracy and injustice.  Nothing like that in The Contest.

(20) Jesus' teachings were Earth-shaking then, and remain Earth-shaking now.  Not so, perhaps surprisingly, the fresh teaching, or even most of the cited poetry of the two great ancient poets.  

(21) The central figure of the gospels notices individuals, not just classes.  Again, this trait is absent from The Contest.

(22) Jesus was blind to social boundaries of caste, class, gender, and age.  Lacking much interest in others, this characteristic is not relevant to The Contest. 

(23)  The rabbi whom the evangelists describe treats women with great respect and compassion, but also challenges them to greater things.  There is no way the evangelists all independently decided to invent such a striking and unusual man.  No such quality can be found in The Context. 

V. Theology

(24) The miracles of Jesus are realistic, purposeful, constructive, respectful of the nature of things, and pious in the sense of pointing people to God.  This characteristic does not at all apply to The Contest. 

(25) Jesus fulfills ancient Hebrew traditions by a dialogue with that tradition that exhibits variety, subtlety, tying Jesus to that tradition by many threads of ancient truth.  Nothing like this occurs in The Contest. 

VI.  Traditional Scholarly Criteria

(26) Multiplicity.  The Contest stands on one weak, wobbly leg.  Well actually the historicity of its contest does not stand at all, as (1) and (2) are quite sufficient to demonstrate.   Other characteristics of the text just drive that point home with finality, while the gospels demonstrate their essential trustworthy from dozens of different ways.

(27) Coherence.  Nope.  The poets don't even cohere with their own brilliantly-expressed philosophies.

(28) Embarrassment.  Nope.  The author thinks he is telling a cute story about two famous poets, and nothing embarrasses his notion of what those poets might say or do.

(29) Undesigned Coincidences.  Nope.  With only one text, this criterion does not apply.

(30) Double Similarity, Double Dissimilarity.  Nope.  No later community rises from the influence of this text or these events, so this criterion also cannot apply.

Again, I don't expect the reasoning behind each of these points to be clear in this post. That's what Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels is for.   But enough should be clear, as to make complete nonsense of Ferguson's claim that The Contest of Hesiod and Homer can be seriously compared to the gospels, for its historical reliability.  What the comparison proves, is how baffled and desperate such critics have become. 

Why Ferguson's attacks help. 

Matthew Ferguson does not seem to me a mature scholar.  His response to my criticism has been emotional, without any sign of genuine intellectual curiosity.  Partly that was no doubt my fault: I was a bit brash in my initial response to his argument.  Still, Ferguson is studying ancient literature, and does have some scholarly training.  So his help in trying to locate a genuine parallel to the gospels in ancient fiction is welcome.  He proposes "novels" and "hagiography," along with the Challenge of Hesiod and Homer. 

I include all the ancient Greek novels in my analysis of the historicity of the gospels in Jesus is No Myth, and also quite a bit of hagiography.  

I think Christians can be properly grateful for such challenges.  May they continue, and increase in number and, if possible, in good sense.  Because truth makes its nature all the clearer, when put to rational and thorough tests.