Sunday, January 29, 2012

Evidence for God: Arguments 27-41 (Jesus)

See the previous three posts on this book before reading this one [1,2,3]. Reading the last post on the evidence of the Gospels might help too.

This post covers the 'Jesus' section of the book "Evidence for God: 50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Science" edited by William Dembski and Mike Licona.

In some ways, this section is both the most interesting bit of the book (for me) and the most frustrating.

Interesting in that, for me, all of Christianity stands or falls on the question of who Jesus is (or was) and what are the facts we can know about him.

Frustrating, in that every chapter in this section of the book is fundamentally based on the assumption that the gospels contain accurate reportage about Jesus, with no editorial bias. Basically, it is assumed that all the NT writings are true. Furthermore, they assume that the gospel accounts are fully harmonious and speak with a single voice (i.e. they assume that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John would agree with everything that each of the others said, which is an assumption I have already discounted). They also assume that Paul wrote all the letters attributed to him (and Hebrews), and so on. No attempt is made to defend the (unstated) claim that the NT writings are true. Maybe that comes in the final section of the book (on 'The Bible'; which I haven't read yet) but if that's the case, it is a very odd editorial decision to address that assumption after all the chapters which rely on it. Maybe its only unintentional slight of hand, or maybe it is leaving the weakest link until the end, in the hope that the reader is utterly convinced before they get there.

The problem here is that for almost all of the chapters in this section, the argument runs along these lines:
  1. The bible says A, B and C are true.
  2. Because A, B and C are true, we can deduce that big claim D is also true.
  3. Furthermore, the bible says big claim D is true, validating our belief.
This is very, very, very circular reasoning. The claimed thing (Jesus, the resurrection, the trinity, whatever) is true because we assume it is true beforehand.

Anyway, here are a few comments on the chapters, one by one:

27. Did Jesus really exist by Paul L. Maier
This chapter aims at tackling a serious question, but doesn't take it seriously. The overall approach is very much one in the style of 'of course Jesus existed, Herod didn't attempt to kill a baby ghost'. I've dealt with this reasoning above, and this chapter doesn't really use any other method, other than an appeal to the majority: most Christian scholars believe in Jesus, so he must have existed. It does consider the evidence of the Jewish Talmud (written long after the time of Jesus) and the secular evidence of Josephus, et al. - which (as I've said before) only shows that there were Christians, not that the beliefs of Christians are necessarily based on real events, several decades previously.

28. The credibility of Jesus's miracles by Craig L. Blomberg
This is more of the same, although it turns the thing around and ends up concluding that if you discount the miracles as historical, then you have to discount the non-miraculous stories of Jesus, and of course we're not going to do that...

29. The Son of Man by Darrell Bock
A short chapter that boils down to saying 'the bible says that Jesus called himself the Son of Man, so he must have done this', with a few paragraphs suggesting what is meant by this.

30. The Son of God by Ben Witherington III
More of the same. Certainly no evidence or good arguments in favour of God here.

31. Jesus as God by Ben Witherington III
More of the same.

32. Did Jesus predict his violent death and resurrection by Craig A. Evans
Oddly enough, this chapter ignores the sort of reasoning used in the last few chapters and basically assumes that Jesus was human, but could see the way the wind was blowing, and knew he would die because of his convictions.

33. Can we be certain that Jesus died on a cross? A look at the ancient practice of crucifixion by Michael R. Licona
It is shown that there are comments in the gospel accounts which correlate with facts we know about crucifixion from other sources. From this the conclusion is drawn that Jesus must have been crucified, whereas all I can see from that is that the authors of the stories knew how Romans did crucifixions - something not very surprising as Romans crucified people all the time.

34. The empty tomb of Jesus by Gary R. Habermas
This is a perfect demonstration of the circular reasoning above. In this case it is basically, the bible says that B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, and K are true, so we conclude that big claim A of the empty tomb is demonstrated. Its all part of the one story, and we can't use parts of the story independently as evidence.

35. The resurrection appearances of Jesus by Gary R. Habermas
Same again. Habermas says he only uses evidence that is accepted by 'non-evangelical' bible scholars, as if that matters. Non-evangelical Christians are still Christians and still, by definition, believe in the death and resurrection of Christ. How about only using evidence that is agreed upon by atheist scholars? (of whom there are very few, and they don't agree on much)

36. Were the resurrection appearances of Jesus hallucinations? by Michael R. Licona

37. The Trinity by Bill Gordon
This is no evidence for anything. It is an attempt to show that the doctrine of the Trinity is consistent with the NT writings. OK, maybe it is, but how is this evidence for anything other than that some Christians believe what the bible says. I hadn't thought that that was in any doubt.

38. Is Jesus superior to all other religious leaders? by Tal Davis
Up until this point, the chapters have been presented as if they were written for a non-Christian audience, but the curtain slips here and it becomes evident that the intent of this book is to reinforce the beliefs of those who already believe. As evidence, it fails. The reasoning basically goes: Buddhism doesn't claim the Buddha was divine, Christianity claims that Jesus was, so Christianity is better... and so on.

39. Is Jesus the only way? by Michael R. Licona
More of the same, clearly written for already-convinced Christians.

40. What about those who have never heard the gospel? by Michael R. Licona
This chapter uses an amazingly placed 'apparently' as the central part of its reasoning. This is just there to say to Christians ' don't worry about this issue, its OK...' with poor reasoning and no evidence.

41. Did Paul invent Christianity? by Ben Witherington III
This chapter, like the 'Jesus didn't exist' chapter simply doesn't treat the question seriously.

To he honest, I found all of Ben Witherington III's chapters very simplistic and therefore frustrating. He is the most blinkered of all the writers in this section, unable to see past his own (big) assumptions. At least Licona pretends to see things from both sides, although the 'both' sides he seems to have looked from are both theistic - he appears to have considered other religions, but not to have considered that there might simply be no god.

And there we have it. 15 chapters on Jesus, all based on the same unstated assumptions, and therefore all flawed in the same way... unless of course the final section of the book can make a strong case for the reliability of the bible.

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