Thursday, September 26, 2013

The early Christian belief in the ascension?

In a recent episode of The Bible Geek podcast, a listener asked about passages in the NT which don't appear to have been in the earliest manuscripts, but appear to have been added some centuries later. The most famous of these is the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. But there are others.

What I had never previously realised is that all the ascension stories in the gospels are late additions. 

Of course, there is no explicit ascension in Matthew or John, but Mark and Luke have it, don't they? Well, I had never really thought about the fact that the ascension in Mark is part of the last bit of chapter 16, which isn't in the earliest manuscripts. But Luke at least has the ascension, doesn't he?

Well, no. It appears not. The single verse (and I had never before noticed that it is only a single verse) in Luke that refers to the ascension doesn't appear in any manuscript until the 3rd or 4th century. So it very much looks like none of the gospels originally had the ascension.


None of the four stories of the life and deeds of Jesus mentioned the ascension, at all? That wasn't a thing worth mentioning? I think if that was the way that Jesus's earthly ministry had actually ended, then one out of the four of them might have mentioned it!

Surely this observation is sufficient to deduce that the original stories about Jesus actually didn't feature the ascension. Which suggests that if there was a real Jesus, then he didn't ascend as most Christians today believe he did.

So if he didn't ascend, then where did he go?

That is an important question. If there was a real Jesus, who died and rose again, but didn't then ascend, i.e. didn't physically leave, then where was he in the years that followed, and where is he now? Given that I've got no good answer to that question, then I have to consider the premise of the question. What if some of the details in the story of Jesus in the NT are not true? Well, maybe that explains the lack of ascension. Here's the options as I see them:
  1. Jesus died and rose, but his resurrection was to a spiritual body, and was directly into heaven. Thus all the post-resurrection appearances were really just visions (c.f. 1 Corinthians 15 - Paul makes no distinction between the vision he saw and the appearances to the other apostles - maybe they were all the same, just visions). The need to invent an ascension at a later date, must have followed the shift to make the resurrection a physical thing, also at a later date.
  2. Jesus died but did not rise. However, his disciples believed that he was raised directly to heaven. And so on, as above. There is no way at this late stage to decide between these two options, there is no evidence either way. I guess it is a matter of faith.
  3. There was no Jesus. I don't really want to get into this in this post, but it should still be an option on the table.
So it doesn't matter which way you slice it, no ascension pretty much destroys contemporary Christian belief. But there are two other things to consider.

What about Acts 1?

Well the lack of ascension in Luke actually solves one of the classic biblical contradictions - Luke says the ascension was pretty much immediately after the resurrection, Acts says it was 40 days later. And yet these are supposedly the work of the same author? No ascension in Luke solves that problem. No contradiction.

But the ascension is still in Acts, so it clearly was part of early Christian belief, right? Well, yes, but how early is early? The book of Acts is not independently attested until the late 2nd century. A number of critical scholars believe it was composed in the 2nd century, possibly as part of a response to Marcionites (see, for example, Joseph Tyson) and possibly also as an attempt to unite rival 'Petrine' and 'Pauline' factions in the nascent church (Robert Price certainly thinks this). David Trobisch claims that Acts was composed by Polycarp in the mid 2nd century. If any of this is the case, then the stories of the ascension came into play about a hundred years after the alleged event. That's far too late to have any historical weight, especially since the earlier gospels all fail to mention it.

What about John 20v17?

But is there an oblique reference to the ascension in John's gospel? It says
"Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”" 
So it looks like the author of the 4th gospel was anticipating the ascension, even if he doesn't describe it explicitly. Well, yes, it looks like that in English, but I had a peek at the Greek and discovered that the word translated 'ascended' here is actually a pretty common word, which is usually translated 'went up'. As in "Jesus went up to Jerusalem" or "Jesus went up to Galilee". The word seems to convey physical elevation in some way, but clearly was used to mean simply travelling from one place to another. So here Jesus says he is going or travelling to the Father, and it is only the turn of phrase that suggests elevation. Maybe he just meant he was leaving, but didn't mean anything about flying through the air.

So where does this leave us? With an earth-bound Jesus, or a non-physical Jesus, but not with the one who most Christians believe in today.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

William Lane Craig vs. Lawrence Krauss Debates

Recently, the "world's best apologist" Dr William Lane Craig (who some claim has never lost a debate) took part in a series of informal debates with outspoken atheist physicist Prof. Lawrence Krauss in Australia. These were hosted by a Christian organisation, the City Bible Forum, based in Australia.

The video of these events has recently been made available on YouTube, and links to the various videos can be found here. A recent episode of the UK radio show Unbelievable featured interviews with both speakers after the events to see how they thought it went.

I have been doing a lot of travelling over the past week, so I loaded up the audio of these events onto my iPod and have been listening to them in airports, on planes, on trains, etc. on my travels. I'm not going to review the events in detail, but here are a few comments and opinions on the debates, in no particular order.

The debates all followed a similar pattern. In each case there was a theme, in each event each speaker had about 15 minutes to present their case for or against the motion, then there was about half an hour of moderated discussion between the two speakers, then there was about half an hour where the speakers responded to questions that had been tweeted or texted by members of the audience. The timings weren't precise and most sections of the discussion ran over time in most of the events.

Krauss was up for a fight. Even when the moderator of the event explicitly asked the speakers to be civil to each other and attempt to find common ground, Krauss stuck to his case that religion is demonstrably false and that William Lane Craig is a liar and a fraud. The first of those two is nothing new in such debates, but there was a great amount of ad hominem attacks on WLC, particularly in the Brisbane debate on "Has science buried God?" This might have made Krauss look bad, were it not for the fact that he backed up his statements with audio (or maybe it was video, I don't know I was only listening) featuring WLC, in which he (WLC) made statements (about an upcoming film featuring Krauss), which are demonstrably false. Krauss demonstrated the falseness. We have it on record that WLC bore false witness in some of his podcasts, and furthermore, he did not apologise or admit it when presented with this evidence. So Krauss effectively demonstrated that WLC is a liar. In doing so, I think he basically won this debate.

But. On the whole, Krauss came across badly. He frequently interrupted, wouldn't let his opponent finish his statements and poured scorn on what was said. He also seemed to get irritated and angry quite often, so that he seemed to be reacting from emotional, not rational reasons. Also, while Krauss has a great deal of knowledge and understanding of science, particularly physics and cosmology, his limitations were clearly shown when the discussion moved into the subjects of philosophy, theology, history or the bible. He failed on all these topics so, on the whole, Craig came out looking like he was winning. This should really come as no surprise, as Krauss is a professional scientist, and Craig is a professional debater. Craig knew how to play the discussion, play his opponent, and play the audience. Krauss came off badly against this.

Craig's debating style gets to be quite annoying if you listen to it for any time at all. One. He lists all his arguments numerically. Two. This is really quite annoying. Three. Therefore I'll stop doing it here.

The most clever, yet probably deceptive, feature of WLC's debating style is the way he cites experts to support his case. Generally, he gives quotes from named publications, by named experts, who I suspect the majority of the audience have never heard of, and will never read the publications. It is a blatant argument to authority - he never needs to explain why his arguments are valid, all he does is cite and quote experts who hold the same opinions as himself. But he does it with such confidence that the audience assume the quoted name must be a world leading expert in whatever field, and the theory they subscribe to must be generally accepted by the wider community in which they work. Maybe some of them are, but like most of WLC's audience, I haven't actually looked them up to find out.

There really was nothing new in any of these debates. I think I've heard pretty much all of it before. And the thing is, the arguments on both sides are still not compelling enough to sway the preconceived notions of the audience. The Christians who were there (quite a lot, going by the cheers when Craig made a point) will have left just as sure of their faith as when they arrived. Likewise the atheists (similarly, quite a lot, going by the cheers). So what is the point of it, really? Well, the Christian organisers presumably expect that the Holy Spirit was at work there, so there must have been value, even if they can't see it. But what's in it for the atheists? I think they must have a similar faith in the actions of 'reason'. Reason was at work in that place and some believers must be having doubts as a consequence. Not sure.

Both sides probably saw the events as some form of success. Well, maybe the benefit of the events will be witnessed in eternity. Or not, as the case may be. Hmmm.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

The mundane and the supernatural

I listened to another podcast of the Unbelievable show the other day. This one featured J Warner Wallace, author of "Cold Case Christianity", a book I intend to read someday. The basic underlying theme of the discussion on this particular show was how the gospel stories can be treated like witness statements in a police investigation. I remain to be convinced of this point, but I'l deal with that when I read the book.

One thing that was said along the way regarded the supernatural events in the gospels as well as the mundane ones. I don't remember if the word 'mundane' was actually used, but that's the distinction I remember being discussed. The point seemed to be that if you put the supernatural stuff to the side for a bit, the mundane stuff in the gospels can be shown to be accurate history. And the case for historical accuracy is sufficiently strong that you end up realising the supernatural stuff must be historically accurate too. They didn't say it exactly that way on the podcast, but this is my paraphrase.

But then I found myself wondering... what mundane events?

What mundane stories in the life of Jesus are there? Everything he is recorded as doing has a supernatural component. He was born, mundane enough, but of a virgin, which makes it supernatural. He was baptised in water, but then a supernatural dove comes down and a voice speaks from out of thin air. Even when he's just asking a woman for water from a well, he exhibits supernatural knowledge and insight. I actually can't think of any mundane events in the gospels other than the teaching passages, most of which come without any specific geographical or historical setting, so we can't really learn anything about history from them.

But if there are no mundane events described, then the line of reasoning that leads to acceptance of the supernatural events is a false one. 

But probably more on this issue when I get around to reading the book. Don't hold your breath though, I have several other books lined up to read before that.