Sunday, March 19, 2017

Magnificent Obsession by David Robertson (a response, Part 1)

Dear D,

I've been reading your book "Magnificent Obsession" and I'd like to make a few comments on it. I'm writing this "review" (OK, so really its a response) in the form of a letter, mostly because your book chapters are written in letter format, but also because I think its quite likely that (unlike most of the book reviews I do on this blog) you might actually read this and will probably respond. (Yes, your reputation does precede you!) 

You might not remember me, but I've been in your church in Dundee on a few occasions (not for quite a few years now) as I'm friends with some of your congregation, both current and former members. 

As you'll see if you browse the previous posts on this blog, I've been a practicing and committed Christian since my teens in the 1980s, but over the past decade or so I've wrestled with a lot of issues to do with faith, belief, God, Jesus, the bible, and how all of them fit into reality. I started with the agenda of simply wanting to know the truth, in the hope that the truth would, indeed, set me free. Over the past decade, however, I (along with the readers of this blog) have witnessed a progressive and ongoing erosion of my faith. This wasn't intentional from the outset, but is rather the honest re-evaluation of my beliefs in the light of my study of the bible, and various books, writings and discussions on both sides of the 'God debate'. 

Anyway, all this by means of introduction. Lets get to thinking about your book. 

You seem, at the outset, to imagine yourself to have a different agenda to other apologists, and perhaps a different audience too, but I have to say that, much like almost all apologetics, this book is most likely to be read by those who are already (Evangelical) Christians and will serve to reinforce their already established beliefs. Of course, I expect a small number of non-Christians and atheist/agnostic types might read it too, but mostly for the challenge of 'debunking' it; I'm not sure they'll be swayed too much. The book is also being read by folk like me, somewhere in the middle ground, who've heard you on the Unbelievable show a few times... 

In Chapter 1, "Man", you aim to show that Jesus is (not was) a real person. As real to you as your own wife is. I once expressed similar sentiments myself, but came to realise that the comparison is not good. I can (literally) see my wife, I can (literally) hear her speaking to me, I can (literally) touch her. Occasionally I trust my feelings regarding her and she has to point out that I've completely misread what she says or what she wants. My feelings can be wrong, and frequently are. But with Jesus, all we have is an (unchanging) book, our feelings and our interpretative framework. If our feelings or interpretation are wrong, we have no way of knowing this. If our feelings come entirely from chemical impulses in our physiology, we have no way of distinguishing this from the 'promptings' of the Holy Spirit, if such exist. This is not analogous to a relationship with a person. A person can correct you even when your feelings are wrong.

But considering that this is apparently the stated intent of Chapter 1, you move rather rapidly from the subjective experience of Jesus now to the (slightly) more solid ground of the historical Jesus. Your evidence and reasoning here are not new, or particularly compelling, and you do quite a lot of appealing to authority, but anyway, on to the evidence. 

You present three pieces of non-biblical evidence for the historical Jesus. You mention Serapion, without presenting what he said. Probably just as well, as the evidence is very weak. He (writing at an unknown time between the destruction of Jerusalem and the 3rd century) mentions the execution of a Jewish "wise king" and nothing else. No name, no location, and the text suggests this occurred immediately before the destruction of Jerusalem. This might have nothing to do with Jesus, yet you suggest this is evidence. You also quote the rather late evidence of Tacitus. All this really tells us is that, by the beginning of the 2nd century, there were "Christians" who believed in a Christ who had been crucified by Pilate. These beliefs were attested some three or four generations after the alleged event. Nobody doubts that there was Christian belief in the 2nd century. This isn't evidence for any actual events occurring some 90 years earlier than the document was written. Even supposing that Serapion was referring to Jesus, all these two sources really give us is evidence for two things:
  1. that there was a man, known as "Christ", who was executed, and
  2. that there was a Christian religion in the early 2nd century.
I have to say that neither of these facts is particularly controversial. Almost everyone who knows anything about Christianity, but is not a Christian, will happily endorse both these statements.

You also quote the disputed passage from Josephus. Most 'critical' scholars appear to think that this is at least partially a Christian forgery. Origen certainly knew nothing about this passage, so some suggest it was added after his time. Josephus, whose job more or less required him to consider Vespasion as "lord", would never have said that Jesus was the Christ or Messiah, so that line -at least- is a Christian insertion. Given that, this passage only really shows that later believers in Christ were willing to change documents they copied to fit their own agendas. It gives us no information about a historical person. And that's really all there is outside of the Bible...

I've read thorough and compelling analysis of these passages in the 'new-atheist' literature, and your brief mention of them here does not provide enough reasoning to make me reconsider these passages as having anything useful to say about the historical person of Jesus. So to find him we have to trust the New Testament.

Of course, you do trust the NT accounts, without really giving your readers much justification for doing this. A serious historian can't take a book which claims a man walked on water or transmuted water into wine as being a reliable historical document. Our first approach must be one of scepticism, but you jump over this and assert that there is "no substantive reason to doubt" that these documents are eye-witness testimony. Well, to even the casual observer there are loads of reasons to doubt this, firstly the outrageous claims in the books, then the fact that they appear to have copied each other and changed bits of the things they copied to fit their own agendas, and also the fact that Jesus in the 4th gospel sounds almost nothing like the Jesus of the other three.

Now I'm not following the "nineteenth century paradigm of 'miracles don't happen'" here, I began all this firmly believing in the miracles and it was through a study of the unreliable reportage in the gospels that I ever came to doubt them.

Finally, in this first chapter, you (rather oddly) jump to the subject of the virgin birth. If this happened, as you say, it would define history. But two contradictory birth stories don't really make a very strong case. Yes, the authors of Matthew and Luke both appear to believe that Jesus was virgin born, but Mark, John, Paul and the other writers of the NT don't mention it, so it doesn't appear too foundational for them. You conclude with a couple of anecdotes of prodigals returning to faith. Yes, it happens. Hindus also become Muslims, Christians become Jehovah's Witnesses, etc. Anecdotes prove nothing.

So the odd thing in chapter 1 is that you don't support your main claim, that Jesus is real, with even a single anecdote from your own experience. We end this chapter having established that Jesus might have been a real person and that some people, some time after his lifetime believed outrageous things about him. What you haven't yet provided is any evidence that these outrageous claims are actually true.

In Chapter 2, you turn to the subject of "Miracles". You start off by poo-pooing the atheist caricature of blind faith. Fair enough. I know plenty of Christians who believe stuff because of the evidence of their experiences. You have a headache, somebody prays for you, the headache goes away, you have evidence that prayer for healing works. Of course the cause-effect chain might not be as clear cut as it appears to the believer, but to deny experience is pointless. But Christian faith is not, as you say, merely 'based on knowledge', it is based primarily on the bible and then, somewhat secondarily, on an interpretation of the evidence perceived through a biblical mindset. I've blogged before about the lack of a negative feedback loop in the Christian mindset. You pray, God answers, faith is boosted. You pray, no answer, faith is not diminished. Whichever way you slice it, if positive experiences boost faith and negative ones do nothing, then the net effect will always be to boost faith, even if the positives are only coincidence. Anyway, I seem to be straying away from what you said in your book.

The question at hand regards God. If there is a God (or there are gods) then miracles must be considered a possibility. Although, I must say even if there is a God, that doesn't necessarily imply that there must be miracles. So we can't simply assume that miracles can't or don't happen. Fine. I agree. Evidence for miracles amounts to evidence for God, not necessarily your God, but let's not go there just now.

Miracles might happen today. Miracles might have happened in the past. Either way, what constitutes evidence for a miracle? One thing that doesn't - in itself - provide any evidence for a miracle having occurred is somebody telling a story that a miracle occurred. By their very nature, miracles are rare events. Made up stories are rather common. So even if there are real miracles, the balance of probability is that any story claiming a miracle occurred is most likely fiction. The bible doesn't get special pleading here. The stories recorded here of miracles are probably fiction unless they can be verified somehow.

And there's the problem the apologist faces, we have no verification mechanism to prove miracles in the past. We could prove (some of) them if they occur now, but not the ones in the past. We have no evidence, only stories.

Did Jesus perform miracles? Well, the stories say so. His followers several generations later believed that he did. But that is no evidence. Throughout the 1980s and 90s there were hundreds if not thousands of people who believed that Elvis was still alive. Today there are thousands of folk who believe that the American government destroyed their own buildings on 9/11 2001. Widespread belief does not make a claim true. And holding a belief within a short period after the event does not make it any more likely to be true.

The historian only has probability to deal with. If something occurs today, there's a good chance it happened in the past. If miracles happen today, we can believe they happened in the past too. That is the 'principle of analogy'. We know that people are apparently healed by faith healers today, so we can assume that this happened in the past as well. We know there are exorcists who apparently cast out demons today, so we can assume this happened in the past as well. We know that people cannot walk on water, so we must assume that this cannot have been possible in the past. Jesus could well have been know as a healer and exorcist. He maybe even had a reputation as a miracle worker. But we have no access to what happened, so cannot conclude the truth of the stories.

I'm astonished that you take the words of Quadratus as true. He claims that there are 'some' (i.e. more than one) who had been raised from the dead by Jesus still alive some 90 years later. Unless they were infants at the time of their resurrections, it is almost inconceivable that this story is true, and even then it is highly doubtful. This first apologist is doing the same as many of his successors - exaggerating and embellishing his story to try and persuade his audience.

You do the same. You speak of 'hundreds' at the funeral of Lazarus. Where is that in the bible? In John 11v31 it implies that all those present for the resurrection of Lazarus had previously been in the house of Mary and Martha. They must have had a very big house!

Citing the 5000 who were fed or the hundreds who witnessed Lazarus being raised as evidence is just silly. We have no access to these people, we have no names, we have no independent testimony. They are just part of the story. As Robert M. Price frequently points out, using the characters in the story as supporting evidence is much like arguing for the existence of the Emerald City using the evidence of the Yellow Brick Road; of course there must be an Emerald City, where else would the Yellow Brick Road go? Even the first readers of the gospels had no way of finding any of the alleged witnesses, they were too late and probably too far away (some say Mark was most likely written in Rome, some claim Matthew was written in Antioch, almost everyone agrees that John was written late, and so on). If they couldn't confirm the miracle claims, what hope have we got?

The problem we face is that miracles don't happen today. Sure, healings happen, but not resurrections, walks on water, miraculous multiplications of food, etc. I've never seen good evidence for them. You don't claim they do. So we have a problem. We simply cannot verify unique events in history.

You build a theology of why Jesus might do miracles, but all this is built on the presupposition of the Christian God and Christian theology. Given that this is is the question we are actually trying to answer, your reasoning seems a bit circular, much like the accusation you point at some atheists out there.

Blimey, this response is getting quite long, and we're only 20% of the way through the book. Sorry about that, but you can't really respond to an entire book in just a few words.

Moving on we get to Chapter 3, "Messenger". Handily enough, after playing the nazi card, you begin this chapter with a summary of the book so far. You admit you're building a cumulative case, and assume the reader has accepted that Jesus was a real historical person, the bible accounts are accurate history and that miracles are possible. As you can tell from what I've said above, I don't accept these foundations of your cumulative case. 

You assert that the message of Jesus is the same as the message of the Old Testament, without discussing any specific passages, which is a bit sloppy. If you're making a case for something, you actually need to make the case. Then you cite Richard Bauckham as if that settles the 'eyewitnesses' argument. It really doesn't. I've read Bauckham and remain unconvinced. 

But the question remains, where did the teaching come from if not from Jesus? True, this is a problem for the skeptic. Maybe it originates from one man. Maybe Jesus, maybe someone else. Maybe it's a collection of sayings from multiple sources. There is no compelling reason to assume it all must have come from one man. And your argument that it couldn't have been the disciples as they were 'unlettered men' is fallacious - none of the gospels claim to be written by anyone in particular and only church tradition links the names to the gospels. It is clear that some of the gospels were written by very educated men, perhaps men who could have fabricated an inspiring central character for their writings.

You assume (rather than demonstrate) that the teaching attributed to Jesus originated from him. You briefly discuss the 'problematic' passages and talk about interpreting the bible with the bible. Basically this means you can explain away the bits of the bible that you don't like or are plainly nonsense, using the bits of the bible that you like, or which seem more reasonable. If the bible is an edited collection of various sayings by diverse people it would make perfect sense that there would be some disagreements in the text and some contradictions in there. It is only your presupposition that won't let you view it this way. 

There is an exceptionally clear command from Jesus in the gospel - give everything you have to the poor. It is clear and unambiguous, so why do I not know any Christians who have done this (yes, I know of one or two, but these are the exception rather than the rule)? It is because most Christians find ways to get around this by reading stuff into the context (so it doesn't apply to me!). All Christians 'pick and choose' the verses they like and 'interpret' the verses they don't like accordingly. If your starting point is the gospel of Matthew, you end up in a very different place than if your starting point is the letter to the Romans. This is why there are so many different denominations - they each hold a different set of passages as 'primary' and let those interpret the 'secondary' passages, but the choice of primary versus secondary is rather arbitrary.

But what is the message? Well, you side-step this and ask the reader to read the bible. Then you stop being an apologist for a bit and turn into a preacher - rather than defending the gospel message, you simply present it. So there's not much more to say about this chapter. I'll move on to the next chapter, which is pretty meaty, in the next post.

Cheers,

R.




2 comments:

Travis R said...

Hi Ricky,
I'm mostly just commenting here in the hope that I'll get notifications if there are other comments and David actually responds. Though I am only familiar with David from his appearances on Unbelievable and haven't read his book, I find agreement with most of what you say here. I also want to take this opportunity to say that your blog has been in my feed for years now and though I have rarely (ever?) commented, I have enjoyed seeing what you have to say. Keep it coming.

Ricky Carvel said...

Thanks!