Saturday, October 30, 2010

Did Jesus Really Exist?

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No serious contemporary historian questions the historicity of Jesus, and that includes skeptical scholars like John Dominic Crossan, Gerd Lüdemann, and Bart Ehrman, so this may be a redundant post. But a few atheists--like Dan Barker and Christopher Hitchens--have publicly disputed His existence. So for the sake of completeness, I will briefly state some of the extra-biblical evidence for Jesus's existence.

First century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus mentions Jesus twice in Jewish Antiquities:
At this time there was a wise man called Jesus. And his conduct was good and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.
The original version had unfortunately been interpolated later to include questionable phrases like "if it would be lawful to call him a man," and "he was the Christ." However, the above translation is of the Arabic version, which was found without the interpolated parts. It has been translated by Schlomo Pines, professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The second mention of Jesus by Josephus is as follows:
Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others. 
Jesus (Yeshu) also appears to be mentioned in the Jewish Talmud, in Sanhedrin 43a:
On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, "He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf." But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of the Passover.
This tells us several things: First, this Yeshu was accused of practicing sorcery, which sounds like a derogatory characterization of the miraculous. It is also consistent with Luke 11:15, which says that some of the Jewish leaders accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons.

Second, he "enticed Israel to apostasy." This indicates that he had a strong following among the Jews and that he taught something the Jewish leaders disapproved of and labeled "apostasy."

Third, he was hanged on the eve of the Passover, just like Jesus. The word "hanged" was also used for crucifixion, in the sense that someone was hanged on a cross.

Wikipedia adds the following: "In the Florence manuscript of the Talmud (1177 CE) an addition is made to Sanhedrin 43a saying that Yeshu was hanged on the eve of the Sabbath." So this Yeshu was hanged on the eve of the Sabbath and on the eve of the Passover, just like Jesus in the Bible. It is rare for the Passover and the Sabbath to fall on the same day; for example, in the twentieth century it only happened ten times.

Fourth, the herald that went out before the hanging said that Yeshu was to be stoned, which was the penalty for blasphemy. However, he was not stoned--he was hanged.

Although the Talmud does not mention Pontius Pilate, Cornelius Tacitus, one of Rome's greatest historians, does. He wrote in his Annals about the great fire of Rome in 64 AD, which had been blamed on the emperor Nero, and explained:
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a deadly superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but also in the City [Rome], where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world meet and become popular.
Some skeptics have claimed that this part of the Annals was a forgery added later by Christians. But most scholars have concluded that the passage was written by Tacitus, including the skeptical Bible scholar Bart Ehrman, who said, "Tacitus's report confirms what we know from other sources, that Jesus was executed by order of the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, sometime during Tiberius's reign."

Pliny the Younger described more persecution of the early Christians in his lettters to Trajan around 110 AD:
In the meantime, the method I have observed towards those who have been denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed. For whatever the nature of their creed might be, I could at least feel no doubt that contumacy and inflexible obstinacy deserved punishment. 
Lucian, a second century Greek satirist, wrote:
The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day--the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account . . . You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws.
Second century philosopher Celcus, an opponent of Christianity, wrote a book about the Christians in which he said that Jesus was a sorcerer. In other words, in his effort to discredit Christianity, he unwittingly affirmed that Jesus did perform extraordinary works, because rather than denying them, he explained them away.

These and numerous other sources indicate that Jesus really existed. There is simply no dispute about that among historians. In fact, atheist New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann has written a book in which he explicitly tries to disprove Christianity by arguing that the resurrection never happened, but not only does he concede that Jesus existed, he also says that there is no question that Jesus actually died on the cross, and that his disciples "had experiences after Jesus's death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ."

In the next post I will discuss the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. And in the following post, I will discuss the response of skeptical scholars.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Evidence for the Supernatural?

Wolfgang asked an interesting question: "Do you think that two intellectually honest people can arrive at contradictory conclusions?"

Of course it is possible to honestly reach different conclusions if the evidence is inconclusive, but the interesting question is whether it's possible when the evidence strongly supports a particular conclusion. I think it is possible when people start with presuppositions.

For example, Answers in Genesis (AIG) presupposes that the Bible clearly teaches a recent creation and they therefore interpret scientific evidence in a way that supports that conclusion. (However, many Christians, including St. Augustine who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries, reject that presupposition and hold that the Bible says nothing about the age of the earth.) AIG maintains that everyone has presuppositions, and that there is nothing intellectually dishonest about them.

Is it intellectually honest to have presuppositions? Well, it is a form of question-begging because the presupposition itself determines our conclusion. So if the highest level of intellectual honesty is an honest search for truth, then any presuppositional bias undermines it. However, I would not say that presuppositions are necessarily a sign of intellectual dishonesty because they are so common. As Winston Churchill said, "Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened." But although presuppositions are common, they keep us from engaging honestly with the evidence.

Skeptical Bible scholars tend to presuppose that the supernatural is impossible. And if a Bible scholar starts out with the presupposition that nature is all that exists, then of course it follows that it would be impossible for God to raise Jesus from the dead because that would be a supernatural act. Any natural explanation, no matter how tenuous, would then be preferable.

For example, atheist New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann maintains a priori rejection of the supernatural and yet he says, "It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus's death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ." Although he accepts the historical evidence he concludes that the best explanation for it is that everybody who thought they saw the resurrected Jesus actually hallucinated. Peter hallucinated because he was overcome by grief for denying Jesus, Paul hallucinated on the road to Damascus, James the skeptical brother of Jesus hallucinated, and all the five hundred who saw Jesus at one time hallucinated.

As I'll discuss in a future post, this hypothesis betrays a lack of understanding of hallucinations, but the question is whether, based on my limited mind-reading abilities, I think that conclusion is intellectually dishonest. Although I disagree with Lüdemann's presuppositional bias, I think that his inability to believe in the supernatural is sincere. He started out as a liberal theologian who didn't accept the supernatural, and he became an atheist when he concluded that it is not possible to be a Christian and not believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and I think that decision was an honest one. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:14, the resurrection of Christ is the bedrock of Christianity, and if it didn't happen, our faith is in vain.

But I think it would have been even more honest to question the presupposition that the supernatural is impossible, because there is no logical reason to conclude that. We only assume that a person cannot rise from the dead because we have never heard of a medically documented case. Dead people stay dead--at least if they've been dead for over two days.

However, that is an empirical conclusion, not a logical one. The fact that the laws of nature are predictable tells us nothing about whether anything exists beyond nature. We are like the primitive person from a tropical climate who doesn't believe that it is possible for a lake to be solid. And of course it is impossible in a tropical climate, but not in parts of the world where the temperature drops below freezing. The conclusion that water can never be solid is an empirical one that only holds true if the temperature never drops below freezing. Sub-zero weather adds a contingency that negates the conclusion that water is never solid.

In the same way, what is true within our space-time is not necessarily true beyond it. Lüdemann objects to miracles because they're unscientific, and since science depends on the predictability of nature, it is certainly true that miracles are unscientific. But since science cannot explain why the natural laws on which it depends exist in the first place, this doesn't mean that miracles are logically impossible--it means that the explanatory power of science is limited.

But if we left it at that, we could just as easily believe in pink unicorns; there is no reason to believe something just because it's logically possible. However, it is rational to believe something if it is the best explanation for the evidence given the context, particularly if there is no viable alternative explanation.

And what is the context? John 1:14 says, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." The Greek word translated "Word" is "Logos," which means "reason," "rationality," "order," or "word." John tells us that Jesus is the transcendent, creative Mind that became flesh. He existed in the beginning, and everything came into being through Him.

The laws of physics break down at the Big Bang singularity, so speculation as to what caused it goes beyond the reach of science into metaphysics. The predictability on which the scientific method depends comes to an abrupt end at the beginning of time. We know nothing of a beyond, so a naturalistic cause is not inherently more parsimonious than a supernatural First Cause.

If anything, an eternal, immaterial, transcendent, and all powerful Mind is the simplest explanation that explains the scientific evidence without the need for further assumptions. If this universe consists of all nature, then the Creator would be supernatural; if the Big Bang marked the beginning of time, then the Creator would be eternal; and if the universe is all matter, then the Creator is immaterial. This fits what we know about the universe and explains what we don't know. Unless we assume as a premise that nothing exists beyond nature, it is the most parsimonious explanation.

So in the context of this Grand Miracle--an ordered universe emerging from nothing--we ask ourselves whether it is reasonable to conclude that the power behind this universe also has power over death. And if that power is a Mind, then He certainly does.

But we don't have to accept anything on blind faith; we just have to examine the historical evidence carefully and reach an honest conclusion. In the next posts, I will examine facts that have been widely accepted by historians, and I believe the best explanation for those facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead.

Monday, October 18, 2010

How Independent Were the Four Gospels?

In the previous post, I said: "The four Gospels agree on the important details"

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John on the Isle of Patmos
And Clamflats replied:

There is a bank robbery. Four tellers are interviewed by investigators. At the trial, the investigators state, “The four witnesses agree that the bandit wore a red shirt and black pants.” The defense attorney asks the investigators if they interviewed the tellers independently or as a group. I think you'd agree that independent corroboration should be considered more potent and that a group interview brings in questions about groupthink errors, such as, one teller remembered the clothing and the other three agree with him. Don't biblical scholars agree that the Gospels show signs of having some common source? I believe it is known as Q. And given the time difference between the events and the documentation, should we at least suspect that a number of the “important details” had already been accepted?

The three synoptic Gospels--Mark, Luke, and Matthew--include the same stories, often in the same sequence, but the Gospel of John is different. Scholars believe that Mark is the earliest Gospel, followed by Matthew and Luke, and then John.

The reason why scholars have hypothesized a Q source is because Matthew and Luke contain material that doesn't exist in Mark, and the idea is that Q is a collection of sayings and quotations by Jesus. However, they are not entirely happy with that hypothesis because it seems unlikely that such an important document would have been entirely lost and never referenced. 

But for the purpose of answering your question about groupthink, I'm going to focus on Luke and John. Luke wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles to "the excellent Theophilus." Luke 1:1-4 says: "Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught."

So we know that he is writing to someone who is important enough to need his excellence affirmed in the salutation, and that he is purporting to give a detailed, consecutive account of the events of the life of Jesus. In other words, Luke probably held himself to a high standard in researching and writing the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.

The question then becomes whether we have more than Luke's word for his factual accuracy. The world-famous archeologist, Sir William Ramsay, has said, "Luke is a historian of the first rank . . . This author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians." Do we have reason to accept his assessment of Luke? Yes we do, because the historical accuracy of the book of Acts is indisputable. For example, according to Professor A. N. Sherwin-White, author of Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, "For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming. Any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd."

Also, Luke begins to use the first person plural starting with Acts 16:11, indicating that he joined Paul in an evangelistic tour of Mediterranean cities. This is consistent with his statement at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke that he got his information from eyewitnesses and "servants of the word."

Whereas the Gospel of Luke purports to be a detailed, chronological history of Jesus, the Gospel of John is a deeply spiritual, reflective work with a high Christology, which means that it is more concerned with the nature of Jesus than with the details of His life. Rather than starting with the beginning of the life of Jesus, it starts with the beginning of time, and talks in a simple, mystical way of how the logos--the eternal transcendent Mind--became flesh and dwelt among us.

John is an entirely independent source, and scholars are split in terms of whether they think it was written by the apostle John himself or a follower. Although I see no reason to doubt the authorship of John (the work was attributed to John as early as the second century), even if one of his disciples wrote the Gospel the material would have originated from John himself, who was an eyewitness and very close to Jesus, calling himself "the disciple whom Jesus loved." In no way is he claiming that Jesus loved him more than the other disciples; he is basing his identity on his deep, personal awareness of God's love for him. In his epistles he emphasizes love as the essence of God's nature, so it is fitting that John's Gospel would focus on Christology.

So although the two Gospels cover the same events, Luke and John are very different in terms of their focus and style. Most likely they had little, if any, influence on each other.

Many people knew about the events (in Acts 26:26, Paul says that he's confident that King Agrippa knew about the events, because they did not take place in a corner), so it would have been very difficult for groupthink about important details to emerge so soon afterwards. And the fact that even the synoptic Gospels differ in the minor details indicates that there was no collusion. Even if Luke and Matthew based their account in part on Mark, they included details that were not found in Mark.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Most Important Fact in the Bible

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The resurrection of Jesus is the fact on which Christianity stands or falls. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:14, "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, your faith also is in vain." And in Romans 10:9 he says, "If you believe in your heart that God raised [Jesus] from the dead, you will be saved."

Without the resurrection as a factual, historical event, nothing else in the Bible matters. All the prophecies and typology in the Old Testament would be in vain--as Paul states, our faith would be entirely in vain. 

But the evidence supporting the resurrection looks like a carefully orchestrated litigation strategy by God Himself to make His case to those who honestly seek the truth. He does not call us to believe "what you know ain't so," in the manner of Mark Twain's definition of faith. Instead, He rewards the diligent seeker of truth. Proverbs 8:17 says, "I [wisdom] love those who love me; and those who diligently seek me will find me." 

Before I get into the evidence for the life, deity, and resurrection of Christ in future blog posts, I want to address the fact that each Gospel gives a slightly different account of what happened at the empty tomb. Why does Matthew only mention Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary," while Mark adds Salome to the two Marys, Luke omits Salome but mentions Joanna, and John mentions only Mary Magdalene? I have heard numerous attempts to reconcile these discrepancies and some of the explanations are persuasive. For example, in John 20, Mary Magdalene is the only woman mentioned but she says, "They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have laid Him," (John 20:2, italics added).  So the authors may have chosen to omit extraneous details and focus on some things and not others.

However, I'm not going to attempt to reconcile these facts, because this "problem" is no problem at all--in no way does it undermine the central question of whether Jesus rose from the dead. If anything, it provides additional evidence that the tomb was indeed empty because it makes it clear to us that there was no collusion between the authors of the four Gospels, nor did anyone edit the manuscripts afterwards to make them consistent. The rawness is a sign of authenticity.

And even if these are actual human errors, they do not undermine the Bible's claim to divine inspiration, because God can and does work through human weakness to accomplish His goals. These discrepancies assure the reader that no conspiracy or editing took place.

In spite of minor discrepancies, the four Gospels agree on the important details, including the fact that the chief witnesses to the empty grave were all women. Women had so little status in first century Palestine that such a detail would not have been fabricated. First century historian Josephus said that the prevailing attitude was, "From women let not evidence be accepted because of the levity and temerity of their sex." So the only reason to mention the women was that they really did discover the empty tomb. 

The Gospels also all agree that Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin. Joseph would have been very well known, so this detail could not have been fabricated. And the tomb was in Jerusalem, not in some obscure place where nobody would know it if the tomb was empty. 

So unlike the question of how many women were present at the tomb, these are important details, because they help us determine whether deception was likely, so an honest skeptic can weigh these and other factors in order to determine whether Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. This will be the subject of my next several blog posts.