Thursday, February 02, 2012

Evidence for God: Arguments 42-50 (The Bible); and my final summary

I've made it to the end of the book "Evidence for God: 50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Science" edited by William Dembski and Mike Licona. My thoughts on the first 41 chapters of the book can be found in these four posts: 1,2,3,4.

The final section of the book is disappointing (for me) in that it simply doesn't address the central issue: is the bible historically reliable? It skirts around this issue, and throws some actual evidence into the pot, but fundamentally doesn't demonstrate that we can use the bible as a collection of reasonably accurate historical writings, so all the arguments in the previous section (on Jesus), fall completely flat. Anyway, here are my brief comments on each of the chapters, in turn, followed by my summing up of the book:

42. Is the bible today what was originally written? by Andreas J. Kostenberger
More or less, yes, but what do you mean by 'originally'? This chapter does a good job of explaining how we can be reasonably confident that the bible we have today is pretty much the same as the 'bible' that was in existence around about 300AD. It doesn't give this date, of course, but reading between the lines, its there. The chapter completely ignores all the evidence of redaction and editing of the various books of the NT before they emerged in 'authorised' form sometime in the 2nd or 3rd centuries. The evidence of the lack of any extant copies of the Marcionite Canon, clearly show that the early church was very good at destroying unauthorised versions of any and all NT books. If the authorised version of, say, the epistle to the Galatians is different to the 'original', as the evidence suggests, then no, today's bible is not the same as that which was originally written.

43. Inerrancy and the text of the New Testament: Assessing the logic of the agnostic view by Daniel B. Wallace
This is very odd. This chapter admits that there are some very big issues with the doctrine of inerrancy, but deliberately (and explicitly) ignores them in order to focus on one tiny, tiny, side issue regarding inerrancy. Given that we no longer have 'the original manuscripts' (whatever that means), is there any point in justifying that these (now lost) documents were inspired and inerrant? Well, no, but this chapter thinks 'yes' and details why. As I've said countless times already, this is not evidence for God, so why is it in this book?

44. Why all the translations? by Denny Burk
Because the English language keeps evolving, we keep finding new manuscripts, and people read different interpretations into the text. Next...

45. Archaeology and the bible: How archaeological findings have enhanced the credibility of the bible by John McRay
Apparently space did not allow this chapter to look at Old Testament archaeology, but only New Testament archaeology. The author states this, but I think the title of the chapter should have reflected this too. The Old Testament details stories of wars, battles, kings, exiles and other events which, if they happened, would leave clear remains in the archeological record. The New Testament details stories of preaching and teaching, individual men doing healings, going on journeys, being crucified, etc. - exactly the sort of events that would leave no trace in the archaeological record. So focusing on the NT period is an odd choice. Perhaps it is because OT archaeology has raised some serious questions about the events described. In many cases, the OT record and the archeological findings contradict each other. In other cases, the evidence is inconclusive.

But what of the NT archaeology which is presented? Well, this boils down to confirmation of details in the setting of the stories: we know there was a pool of Siloam, we know that tombs in those days had stones which could be rolled away, we have evidence that Caiaphas was a real person, that there was a synagogue in Capernaum within a century of the time of Jesus, that the civic leaders in Thessalonica really were called by the unusual name used for them in the book of Acts, that a named character in one of the Corinthian letters (Erastus) was a real historical character, and a few other similar pieces of evidence.

All of these findings confirm the setting of the gospels and Acts. That is, it is clear from this that the writers of the stories knew details about the places, locations and people in the stories. None of this confirms the stories which are written in these settings. Its just like the way in which there are historical facts about places and people in the Sherlock Holmes stories, but that doesn't imply he was a real person, only that the author knew the details.

Nobody is in any doubt that the NT writings were written by people who knew the setting of the stories. The question is whether or not the stories are reliable, and archaeology cannot really answer that for us.

46. The Historical reliability of the Gospels by Craig L. Blomberg
Finally, the chapter I've been waiting for. Shame it is a short one that doesn't really grapple with the issues. It assumes that the gospels were based on eye-witness testimony and were written only a few decades after the events described. It uses the fact that issues like circumcision of gentiles (clearly an issue in the early church) are not discussed in the gospels as evidence that these are based on something real, rather than creations of the early church (actually, that's quite a good argument). But fundamentally, it does not address issues like the apparent 'redaction' of the gospels by a later 'ecclesiastical redactor' (as identified by Rudolf Bultmann), or the synoptic problem, which implies that Matthew and Luke copied Mark and changed it. Disappointingly shallow.

47. The new testament canon by Craig L. Blomberg
How did the canon of the NT get formed? This very short chapter presents the orthodox view of the selection and compilation of the documents based on the tree criteria of 'apostolicity', 'orthodoxy' and 'catholicity'. So how the heck did Hebrews and Jude get in there, they fail on at least one criterion? Only passing mention is made of Marcion, and no mention is made of the fact that the Marcionite Canon came first. The more I read on this issue, the more convinced I become that the 'Catholic' canon was formed as a reaction and a rebuttal to the Marcionite one. This is not discussed.

48. What should we think about the Coptic Gospel of Thomas? by Craig L. Blomberg
Not much, its probably late.

49. What should we think about the Gospel of Peter? by Charles L. Quarles
Not much, its even more probably late. (Excellent author name though! I hope the L represents 'Larles'. Although that's pretty unlikely.)

50. What should we think about the Gospel of Judas? by Craig A. Evans
Not much, its certainly late.

These last three chapters are clearly just filling up space to make this up to 50 chapters, much like most of the 'Science' section earlier. Sigh.

And there we have it. Didn't go out with a bang, but with a whimper.

In conclusion

The editors of this book set themselves a big task, finding 50 pieces of 'evidence' for God. Clearly, they never achieved this. Being generous, there are perhaps 10 good solid arguments or pieces of evidence for God in this book. The other 40 chapters are just filling, they bulk up the book without really adding anything to the debate.

With hindsight, this book is not intended to contribute to the debate. This book is intended for an audience of Christians, who have heard skeptical arguments from their friends or in the media. The aim of this book is to bolster the faith of the Christians without ever getting them to consider the real and valid issues that some skeptics make. I think the authors hope the Christian will read this book, be confused by the philosophy, be battered into submission by the science, be relieved by the weight of 'evidence' in favour of Jesus (without questioning the unstated suppositions), and be reassured by the apparent scholarship in the bible section.

The implication in lots of bits of this book is this: "Clever people have thought through all these issues in detail, so you don't have to..."

Is the evidence for God strong? Well, the philosophical and ID arguments for a Deistic creator are quite strong, although these don't fully tally with the God of the bible. The evidence for the Biblical God is quite a lot shakier. The intended readership of this book, however, won't notice the problems in harmonising the two, because those problems are not in this book.

So its been quite an ordeal, I've got angry at some chapters and been really disappointed by the lack of proper scholarship in others. The problem, for me, is that my crumbling Christian faith has not been in any way strengthened by reading this book, which actually disappoints me a great deal. I genuinely went in to this book with an open mind, actually hoping to find reasons to believe in here, but they are simply not there in any compelling way.

Why do the atheists have all the most compelling arguments?


minoria said...

Interesting article.As for me what gives credence to the gospels is:

1.That there are about 20-25 embarassing passages.If they were just propaganda works then they would never have been included.Like Jesus' family thinking he was mad,and in John we have Jesus brothers not believing in him,or Jesuss saying on the cross "My God,why have you forsaken me?",etc.

2.Luke-Acts ends in 61 AD for no reason at all,yet Luke has Jesus giving the prophecies that Jerusalem and also the Temple would be destroyed.It happened in 70 AD.

The technical reason scholars say Mark is from 70-75 AD and never earlier is because Mark says the Temple of Jerusalem would be destroyed.Since real prophecies are impossible then for them it is an invention for propaganda reasons.

Then Luke and Matthew copied from Mark and so are dated 80-85 AD,and 50% of scholars think John copied from the Synoptics,so it puts John at 90-95 AD.

Yet that doesn't square with keeping 20-25 embarassing passages in the 4 gospels.There was no propaganda value in that.

If you use Occam's Razor principle and I suppose,also Baye's Theorem for calculating probabilities,it is far more likely that:

Mark is from 50 AD,Luke-Acts and Matthew from 61 AD,and John from 65-70 AD.

All within the lifetime of some of the disciples,we know James,the brother of Jesus, was KILLED,no died of a natural death,in 62 AD,and Peter and Paul weere KILLED,notdied in bed,in 64 AD.

I would say one can reasonably say the evidence is that the 4 gospels SINCERELY SAY what the authors believed to be true:that was why they kept embarassing information.

Not that it is true but that there was no interpolation or lying for propaganda purposes,they talked of miracles that they thought really happened,not that it proves they happened.

Ricky Carvel said...

Yes, the argument for embarrassment counts for something. I'm not sure it can be used as evidence for any events, only evidence that the people writing the gospels were convinced that the awkward sayings originated with Jesus.

What is the purpose of Acts? If it is to show how the gospel reached Rome, then it succeeds in this, without having to narrate the death of Paul, Peter or the fall of Jerusalem. The second half of Acts doesn't care what happens in Jerusalem anyway.

The technical reason that scholars don't date any gospels that early is that there is no evidence that they existed that early. Only scholars who believe in Jesus and believe that these books are an accurate account of his life date anything early. No gospels are actually attested anywhere until the 2nd century.

Bayes's theorem needs evidence to work. No evidence is no evidence.

Someone called "James the brother of the Lord" was killed, yes. We have no evidence that he was a biological relation of Jesus. Evidence is that early Christians addressed each other as 'brother' and 'sister' so we have no way of knowing it wasn't a title.

We have no accounts of the deaths of Peter or Paul in books that don't also contain legendary and mythical stories about them.

minoria said...

Hello Rick,

You have heard that Luke-Acts is supposed to be propaganda,written in 80-85 AD.

What could be more logical than just having a few lines saying the 3 top leaders,peter,paul and James,died for their beliefs?

And that Jesus proved himself a real prophet with a few words saying the Temple and Jerusalem were destroyed?

There are those who say Acts has parts copied from Josephus'"Antiquities",written in 9O AD.

Now there it has almost half a page about the events regarding the death of James,brother of Jesus,the one called the Messiah.

If Luke coped and read Josephus and got information from him there is no reason he would not mention James' death.

And in the books I read about the dating of the gospels,read Ehrman,they say the reason Mark is dated 7O AD is because that was the year the Temple was destroyed,they don't say it is because there is no evidence of Mark before 7O AD.

They take it for granted nobody before could have forseen it.

minoria said...

Hello Rick,

I want to get back to Jesus as Yahweh.One must ALWAYS try to see it from the perspective of a religious Jew in Jesus' time.

Not only THEN but TODAY,if an Orthodox Jew were to say "I am the Lord of the Sabbath",any religious Jew would see he is saying:"I am YAHWEH".

The only Lord of the Sabbath in JUDAISM is Yahweh.And Jesus in Mark,for example,says he is Lord of the Sabbath.

The Sabbath was made by Yahweh and for Yahweh to adore him.

Anonymous said...

I think why atheists have the best arguments (in relation to Christianity) is that it is far easier to pick holes in an argument than defend it (similarly it is easier to destroy than create).

The real problem with Christianity is that a lot of questions need to be answered "I don't know" or rely on some level of checks and balances within the church.

Even the most liberal historical Jesus types seem to fine some fragment of Christianity to believe in. For me it's about acknowledging that Jesus was a real person and working out from there, using science and history wherever possible and a smidgen of personal experience rather than assuming the Church has it all right and seek to defend that position.