Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"What's the Son of a Duck?"

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Bart Ehrman

According to Bart Ehrman, scholars have for a long time said that the Bible is filled with contradictions, and the central teachings of Christianity, like the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity, are not found in the synoptic Gospels. He said that Jesus was a human Messiah in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and then by the time John was written, He was viewed by the church as divine. Of course, what he means by "scholars" is "the scholars I agree with," but let's ignore that for now, because it wouldn't matter if all scholars really did make unanimous pronouncements about the Bible. What matters is what the Bible says, and Ehrman is just wrong about this. Jesus does not portray Himself as merely a human Messiah in the synoptic Gospels.

Why was Jesus sentenced to death by the high priest and handed over to Pontius Pilate? Matthew 26:63-65 says: "And the high priest said to Him, 'I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God.' Jesus said to him, 'You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.' Then the high priest tore his robes and said, 'He has blasphemed! What further need do we have of witnesses?'" This incident is repeated in Mark and Luke. 

So Jesus was sentenced to death for blasphemy. If the high priest thought that He claimed to be a human Messiah, why would He have been guilty of blasphemy? 

And lest there be any ambiguity, in Matthew 22:41-46 Jesus asked a group of Pharisees, "'What do you think about the Christ, whose son is He?' They said to Him, 'The son of David.' He said to them, 'Then how does David in the Spirit call Him "Lord," saying, "The Lord said to my Lord, 'Sit at My right hand, until I put Your enemies beneath Your feet'"? If David then calls Him "Lord," how is He his son?' No one was able to answer Him a word, nor did anyone dare from that day on to ask Him another question."

The clear implication is that He is equal to God, even though He was also a descendant of David. So He said that He was fully divine and fully human, just like Christians have always believed. Jesus was using the Socratic method with the Pharisees rather than announcing to them that He was the Son of God. If He had been more explicit, they would have had Him arrested for blasphemy before the time set by the Father, so He chose His words carefully. They couldn't arrest Him for just asking a question about the Scriptures, regardless of the implications. This sheds further light on Jesus' trial before the Sanhedrin because it tells us that although, as Ehrman said, the Jews expected a human Messiah, Jesus had earlier made the connection to Psalm 110:1, thereby subtly correcting them, but also probably stirring up the suspicions that would eventually lead to His arrest and death sentence. 

In Matthew 11:27, Jesus says: "All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him." So the Son has a very unique relationship to the Father--so much so that He is the only one who knows Him and has the power to reveal Him to us--and all authority has been handed to Him. How could He possibly be just a human Messiah?

And in Matthew 28:19, after His resurrection, Jesus says to His disciples: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (italics added). That is the Trinity. 

Ehrman is right that the Gospel of John is much more explicit about the divinity of Jesus than the synoptics, but Jesus still makes it clear in Matthew, Mark, and Luke that He is the Son of God, and not a human Messiah. Ehrman is also right that it took the church a while to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity into a creed. But all of the elements are in the Bible, including the synoptic Gospels. 

Ehrman's words have interesting implications for the dating of the synoptic Gospels. He says that Jesus was "portrayed as a human Messiah in the earliest parts of Christianity" (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), but He eventually came to be seen as divine in the Gospel of John. But Paul makes it very clear that Jesus is the Son of God in the first letter to the Corinthians, which was written around 55 AD. 1 Corinthians 1:9 says that God called us "into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord." And in 1 Corinthians 2:14-16, Paul says that the person who has the Holy Spirit has the mind of Christ. Most scholars also think that the epistle to the Romans was written around 55 AD, and in it Paul says: "He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?" (Romans 8:32). Romans is widely considered the most important theological work in the Bible. 

So Paul characterizes Jesus as the Son of God and gives the elements of the doctrine of the Trinity fifteen years before liberal scholars like Ehrman think the first synoptic Gospel was written. How do "scholars" explain this? Could it be that it's their thinking, and not the Bible, that is filled with contradictions?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Skeptical Response to the Resurrection: The Appearances of Jesus

As I said before, most scholars accept the historicity of the empty tomb, but virtually all scholars believe 
that the apostles had experiences in which they saw Jesus postmortem. Atheist and New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann said, "It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus' death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ."

Why are scholars--even skeptical ones--almost unanimous in the conclusion that the followers of Jesus at least thought they saw Him postmortem?

First, Paul says that Jesus appeared to him personally (1 Corinthians 15:8), and that prior to his conversion, he was a zealous, upwardly mobile Pharisee who persecuted the church (Philippians 3:5-6). After his conversion, Paul gave up prestige and worldly goods, was imprisoned several times, and was charged with treason for his faith. Paul's words about Jesus appearing to him are firsthand testimony, and combined with his actions following his conversion, they are highly credible.

Second, in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, Paul cites what is widely believed by scholars to be a creedal formula of the Christian faith passed down to him by his predecessors--dated to within five years of the death of Jesus: "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles."

Lüdemann says in The Resurrection of Jesus that "the elements in the tradition [of 1 Corinthians 15:3-7] are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus." Jewish scholar Geza Vermes says that the words of Paul are "a tradition he has inherited from his seniors in the faith concerning the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus." A. M. Hunter says, "The passage therefore preserves uniquely early and verifiable testimony. It meets every reasonable demand of historical reliability." Reginald Fuller concludes: "It is almost universally agreed today that Paul is here citing tradition."

This corresponds to the words of Paul in Galatians 1:18-19, where he talks about going up to Jerusalem three years after his conversion to become acquainted with Cephas (Peter), and where he also met "James, the Lord's brother," but none of the other apostles. And in 1 Corinthians 15:5-7, the only individuals he mentions by name are Peter and James, the two apostles he met when he went up to Jerusalem. Gary Habermas, who has done extensive research of the opinions of critical scholars, said: "The most popular view is that Paul received this material during his trip to Jerusalem just three years after his conversion, to visit Peter and James (Gal. 1:18-19), both of whose names appear in the appearance list (1 Cor. 15:5, 7). An important hint here is Paul's use of the verb historesai (1:18), a term that indicates the investigation of a topic."

So in this group that, according to 1 Corinthians 15:5-8, saw Jesus, we have Paul, the intellectual Pharisee who violently persecuted the church; Peter, the coward who denied Jesus three times when He was arrested and then went into hiding; James, the brother of Jesus who was skeptical of Jesus' claims during His lifetime (Mark 3:21, John 7:5); and the five hundred, most of whom were still alive at the time of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, and available for questioning, since the Christians were called to be "witnesses" (Acts 1:8).

Modern scholars have almost unanimously dismissed the idea that these individuals lied about the appearances, because they would not have given up everything, including their lives, for a known lie. The Christian faith is based on the fact of the resurrection, and if the early Christians knew that Jesus had not really risen from the dead, their subsequent behavior would have been incomprehensible. If James did not at least think he saw Jesus, how did he go from being a skeptic who believed that his brother was insane (Mark 3:21, John 7:5) to the head of the early church (Acts 15:13) to being stoned to death by a sanhedrin of judges (Antiquities of the Jews, 20:200)? Why was Paul willing to give up his prestige to suffer poverty, imprisonment, and persecution? And why did Peter overcome his cowardice to boldly proclaim the gospel if he was part of a conspiracy to deceive? Why sacrifice everything to be part of a small Jewish sect that was deemed heretical by other Jews and illegal by the Romans? And how could such a conspiracy survive the severe persecution of Christians by Nero beginning in 64 AD?

One might argue that it is not unusual for religious fanatics to be willing to die for what they believe. The 911 terrorists were brainwashed into thinking that they would get seventy-two virgins in Paradise for killing American infidels. (In other words, if they died killing debauched Americans, their reward would be an eternity of debauchery.) But the faith of the disciples of Jesus was based, not on expectation, but on experience. They claimed to have seen the resurrected Jesus.

The primary hypothesis put forth by skeptics to explain the appearances and the subsequent faith of the disciples is that they all hallucinated. They had some kind of experience that deeply affected them for the rest of their lives, but it was psychological. The proponents of this theory postulate that the disciples experienced grief-related hallucinations after the death of Jesus, and they spread via chain reaction to what Lüdemann labeled "mass ecstasy."

But there are several problems with the hallucination theory: First, hallucinations by their very nature are psychological phenomena, so most psychologists say that they are private experiences. Since they are perceptions independent of external stimuli, it is no more possible to share the exact same hallucination with another person than to share the exact same dream. Second, even if "collective hallucinations" are possible in some situations, as psychologists Leonard Zusne and Warren H. Jones say may have been the case with the Marian visions, the criteria present during those events were not present when the apostles saw Jesus postmortem.

Zusne and Jones say that "emotional arousal is a prerequisite of collective hallucinations," and "all participants in the hallucination must be informed beforehand, at least concerning the broad outlines of the phenomenon that will constitute the collective hallucination."

So with that in mind, I'm going to compare the event at Fátima to the resurrection appearances. First, the large crowd that saw the "miracle of the sun" came expecting to see something miraculous. They had been told that something would happen that day.

The disciples, on the other hand, did not expect to see Jesus resurrected. The Gospels indicate that everybody was initially skeptical. The disciples did not believe the women when they returned from the tomb (Luke 24:11) and Thomas did not believe the disciples (John 20:25). Was their skepticism a later invention? Under the criterion of embarrassment, there is no reason why the faithlessness of the disciples should be emphasized unless it was authentic.

And Paul certainly didn't expect to see Jesus on the road to Damascus. He was probably the last person he wanted to see. Acts 9:1-2 says, "Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem." Then he saw a light from heaven and heard a voice, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" His travel companions heard the voice but saw no one.

What kind of a hallucination turns a murderous persecutor into a peaceful missionary? And who hallucinates a light that is so bright that it leaves him blind?

The second criteria Zusne and Jones give is emotional arousal. Those who witnessed the "miracle of the sun" at Fátima came to see something supernatural, so they may have been in a state of religious fervor, but the disciples had just seen their friend and rabbi being publicly flogged and crucified as a criminal, thus dashing their hopes that He was the awaited Messiah. The normal reaction would be depression and fear for their own lives, and that is exactly how the Gospels tell us they did react.

Also, James and Paul were not exactly the credulous type. The Gospels make it clear that James did not believe during Jesus' lifetime, and 1 Corinthians 15:7 tells us that Jesus appeared to him. Paul must have known everything about the teachings of the Way, including the claims of the resurrection, but that did not stop him from persecuting its followers. He was also highly educated and trained in Greek philosophy, and in 1 Timothy 4:7 he warns his followers to have nothing to do with worldly myths and old wives tales. In no way does he seem like someone who was prone to flights of fancy.

So even if the event at Fátima was, as Zusne and Jones hypothesize, collective hallucination "mingled with some celestial event," they say nothing about the postmortem appearances of Jesus. And with good reason, because the resurrection appearances do not meet the criteria they put forth. 

But Lüdemann gives a different explanation. He says that the extreme grief of the disciples led them to hallucinate the appearances. The first point to note here is that Lüdemann is not a psychologist, and Zusne and Jones, who are psychologists, say nothing about grief leading to collective hallucinations. This kind of hallucination may perhaps be experienced by a bereaved spouse, but it doesn't spread to the other family members, neighbors, and treating health care professionals.

Second, Paul felt no grief, nor is there any evidence of guilt prior to his conversion. He persecuted the Christians because he was zealous for his ancestral traditions (Galatians 1:14), and he was faultless in his legalistic righteousness (Philippians 3:6). He was well-educated and rational, and most likely he thought very highly of himself prior to his conversion. And yet he is our primary witness of the resurrection because he speaks of his own first-hand experiences.

The hallucination hypothesis has many problems, but even if it didn't, it wouldn't explain the empty tomb. Another naturalistic explanation is required to account for that, and as I have attempted to demonstrate in a prior post, none fit the evidence.

The question then remains: Why should we prefer one apparent violation of the laws of nature (the resurrection of a dead man) to others like mass hallucinations under impossible circumstances? That is a question of applying Bayes' Theorem to all the salient facts and weighing the probability of the resurrection against the naturalistic explanations. Several people have already done this and found that given the vanishingly small probability of the naturalistic explanations, the probability of the resurrection is high even if we assume that it has a very low prior probability apart from the specific evidence.

And the prior probability is not as low as some may think. As I pointed out in my post about Hume and Bayes' Theorem, it is not simply the probability of a violation of the laws of nature, but the probability of God raising His Son from the dead in order to prove His deity and victory over death. And in order to do that, He has to exist, so we have to view the prior probability in the context of arguments in natural theology for the existence of God. That is, the stronger the fine-tuning argument, the cosmological argument, the argument from moral law, and other arguments for God's existence, the higher the prior probability that God exists and therefore the more likely that He raised Jesus from the dead. Conversely, the stronger the atheological arguments, like the problem of evil, the less likely that God exists and therefore the lower the prior probability that He raised Jesus from the dead.

In the same way that the evidence in natural theology increases the prior probability of the resurrection, the resurrection is one more argument for the existence of God, specifically the God of the Bible. God intended it as proof to all (Acts 17:31). Thomas Arnold, former Professor of History at Oxford, concluded: "I know of no one fact in the history of mankind which is proved by better, fuller evidence of every sort, to the understanding of a fair enquirer, than the great sign which God hath given us that Christ died, and rose again from the dead."