Friday, March 23, 2012

Miracles today?

Just listened to last week's 'Unbelievable' radio show on Miracles in the bible - did they happen? Tomorrow's show is on Miracles - do they happen today?

I'm thinking these issues through at the moment, and will blog about them in due course. So just out of interest, please leave comments below regarding any miracles - other than medical healings - that have happened to you or those you know.

I know that healings happen today. Its the other stuff I'm unsure about, so please tell me if you know any good stories...

Friday, March 09, 2012

Gay marriage?

Having read a load of nonsense on both sides of the debate this week, and having read some really quite sensible comments on both sides of the debate as well, I feel like making a few comments.

If "marriage" is defined as a union of a man with a woman, as is commonly stated by many folk on the no-gay-marriage side of things, then what we need for gays who want to get married is something which is like marriage in every way, but simply has a different name. Then it wouldn't be marriage, it would be something different, and the no-gay-marriage bunch could just give up and go away.

If "marriage" is not defined as involving different genders, then why is there a debate going on?

And why is there no such thing as a heterosexual 'Civil Partnership'?

That is all.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Proofs of the resurrection?

"Proofs of the Resurrection" is a video lecture series by Mike Licona on YouTube. Someone posted links to all of the episodes in a comment on one of my previous posts. You can watch the lectures here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. I thought I would watch the lectures. But I don't have time for that, so I ripped the audio content from them and put it on my iPod and have been listening to the lectures on my daily commute to work. There's a lot in here, most of which I won't comment on in detail, but here are my main thoughts and opinions on these lectures.

Despite the title of the lecture series, the first 5 hours of lectures offer no proofs or even evidence for the resurrection or anything else. Licona starts by explaining why only the opinions of experts who have studied the resurrection as historians really matter. Thus the opinions of textual critics like Bart Ehrman or people with a background in theology, but not history, do not matter. These people are not qualified to give informed opinions. Unlike Licona, of course. It seems that only he and his mentor Gary Habermas are really qualified to make historical judgements on this topic. And they both conclude that the resurrection really happened, so it must have done. QED. Licona also (strangely) dismisses the need for consensus - consensus doesn't mean anything if it is a consensus among non-experts. He then relies on consensus in some of his later arguments.

Next Licona, by way of anecdote, implies that the science of physics is very imprecise and that history is at least as precise as this, so therefore history is science. No it is not. Here he is trying, once more, to persuade his (already believing) audience that his conclusions are as firm as anything in science, before he has even discussed the evidence that led him to those conclusions. This is not science or history, this is apologetics. Indeed, later on in the lecture series it becomes clear that this is intended as apologetics, the aim here is not to find out the truth, but to defend the faith.

Can the historian ever conclude that a miracle happened? Well, if history is science (as Licona claims) then I would say only if the same kind of miracle can be observed to happen today (that's a topic for a future blog). Based on this, I don't think the historian can ever conclude that the resurrection happened, as it was a unique event with no other historical or contemporary parallels. Licona redefines miracles here as events which happen with no apparent naturalistic cause and which occur in a religious setting. He contends that you can conclude miracles by historical methods.

After the discussion of miracles (we're now in hour five) we get the biggest and most ludicrous claims in the whole series - firstly, that the 'burden of proof' regarding the resurrection is actually on the side of the skeptic, and unless a skeptic can disprove it, beyond reasonable doubt, then we are entirely justified in believing in it. Then, on the back of this comes his response to Sagan's "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" statement, here he basically claims that it is not required to provide enough evidence to change someone else's worldview, only enough evidence to convince someone who is already predisposed to believe in miracles. Eh? What? I think I'll have to come back to this in a future posting. But this makes it clear that he is dealing with the kind of apologetics which exists only to entrench the beliefs of those who are already believers, not to convince anyone else that Jesus actually came back from the dead. Thus, he fails in the stated purpose of the series, he fails to convince skeptics and, essentially, he fails as an evangelist!

Finally, after a lot of preamble, he gets to the evidence - evidence from the gospels, evidence from the epistles, evidence from 'pre-Pauline' material, evidence from the church fathers, evidence from early non-Christian sources. Despite claiming to be an inerrantist, he (repeatedly) states that he doesn't require the inerrancy of the biblical writings as part of his argument. What he does is he looks at all the evidence and starts labeling it as 'possible', 'probable', 'definite', and so on, using historical criteria. Many of his arguments here appeal to consensus, which is odd as he dismissed consensus as being irrelevant in lecture one!

Along the way, he assumes the gospels and epistles were all written by single authors (OK, Matthew may not have been written by someone called 'Matthew', but it was written by a single individual) and have not been modified by later editors. He also assumes that the gospel accounts are trustworthy and were written as history. He does assume that at least one of the gospel authors (the 4th one) was an eyewitness of the resurrection. He also assumes the earliest dating of most of the documents.

Based on all this he establishes a number of 'historical facts' which are 'beyond doubt', including:
  1. Jesus died by crucifixion
  2. The disciples believed that they saw Jesus raised from the dead
  3. Paul, a persecutor of the church, converted because of an encounter with the risen Jesus
  4. Jesus' brother James, who had been skeptical, came to faith and was martyred for it
  5. There was an empty tomb

Only after he establishes those 'facts' does he consider the skeptical arguments against the resurrection, and he only considers the skeptical arguments which accept that some of the above are historical facts. Thus, crucially, he does not even mention the 'Christ Myth' hypothesis, which claims that all of the above 'facts' are part of the same fiction.

The problem for me is that the above reasoning 'puts the cart before the horse' the facts are established before the source documents are questioned. And then the source documents look good - because they contain facts!

Wearing a slightly skeptical hat (and it doesn't need to be radically skeptical), there is reasonable doubt over those five facts.

  1. Jesus died? What we are sure of is that in the early 2nd century (Tacitus wrote circa 116AD), perhaps the very late 1st century (Josephus wrote circa 95AD) there were 'Christians' who were believers in a Messiah who they claimed was killed by crucifixion by the order of Pontius Pilate. We know when Pilate had responsibility in Palestine, so we can roughly date this alleged event. All the secular references to Jesus death show that there was a belief in this event by Christians, not that the event actually happened. But if there was a real, historical Jesus, then it is reasonable to assume, on the basis of the evidence, that he was crucified and died.
  2. Disciples saw? The evidence is one or two steps removed for this. What we have is evidence that Christians in the late first century believed that their predecessors in the faith had seen the risen Christ. We do not have any eyewitness accounts and the letters attributed to Peter are widely held to be pseudopigrapha.
  3. Paul's vision? This comes from Paul's letters and from Acts. There is good evidence that these documents were edited in the 2nd century, and the accounts are contradictory, so it is hard to conclude 'facts' from this.
  4. James martyred? Someone called James, the brother of Jesus 'called the messiah' was killed. We know this from a secular source (Josephus), but it doesn't tell us what he believed. Had he seen a risen Jesus? We don't know. That comes from 2nd century tradition.
  5. Empty tomb? The earliest stories of the empty tomb that we know of were not widely circulated until 50 or more years after the alleged event, so there is no way of confirming these stories, even then, the stories could not be confirmed as this is over a generation later.

So. If, and only if, we accept the NT writings as accurate historical reportage, can we conclude that the resurrection of Jesus happened.

Unfortunately, it appears that many of the documents we have have been redacted, edited, tampered with and perhaps even rewritten by people up to a century after the alleged events. Given this, it is nearly impossible to figure out what, if any, of the content of the NT writings is original or dates back to a time within living memory of Jesus.

Licona makes a big deal out of the fact that he only considers documents which originated within 150 years of Jesus' death. What he fails to point out is that in that society, at that time, 150 years is about 8 to 10 generations after Jesus and that the average life expectancy was only of the order of thirty years! Even a document written 50 years after the event would likely have been written by the grandchildren or the great-grandchildren of the 'first disciples', or whoever was around at the time of Pontius Pilate.

Proof? No. Its a good case, enough to convince those who already believe that the Bible is trustworthy, but nobody else.