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Thursday, April 27, 2017

Sean McDowell interviews me on Jesus is No Myth

Josh McDowell introduced me, and many others of my generation, to the idea that strong historical evidence can be found for the Christian faith. So it is a special privilege to be interviewed by his son Sean, a professor at Biola University and prolific author in his own right, about my new book, Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels:

Here's his introduction: 

"I first heard of David Marshall when I encountered his book responding to the claims of the New Atheists (which is excellent, by the way). Then I heard him do an excellent job defending the existence of Jesus in a radio debate with Richard Carrier on Unbelievable. After that, I thought, “I really need to meet this guy. He’s sharp and making some unique arguments!”
"We touched base shortly after that and he agreed to answer a few of my questions about his work on the historical Jesus. His book is easy to read, and yet it is packed with some fresh insights. Enjoy the interview and think about getting a copy of his outstanding book: Jesus is no Myth."
Sean and I also both contributed to the anthology, True Reason.  

I do believe there's enough volatile material in this book, mined from the four gospels themselves and then combined in an explosive mixture, to blast whole mountains of skepticism and help people find the truth.  

Problems with Ferguson's Presuppositions against Miracles

In my last post, I described several problems I perceive at least with the "short" version of the Minimal Facts approach to proving the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  (Which appeals to scholarly consensus to support those points.  But John Fraser, who has studied with Gary Habermas for several year, argues that Habermas, at least, does not really relying on authority so strongly as I was assuming.)  But the original question posed was actually in regard to Matthew Ferguson's critique of that approach.  So I posted that first thought experiment (it may not rise to the category of "essay"), in view of the danger of allying on this point with Ferguson, who of course is an opponent of Christian thought (and, in the past, of mine). 

So now let me critique part of Ferguson's argument.  

Ferguson's essay is dozens of pages long.  As he correctly guesses, though, my interest is primarily in his introductory remarks.  Ferguson begins with more philosophical arguments, which if correct, would undermine any historical arguments for the Resurrection, and indeed for the gospels and for the notion that God acts in the world.  So let us focus on those few paragraphs.  If anyone else chooses to respond to his overall critique of MF, and does so well, I'll be happy to link to that article. -- DM

For the sake of time, I will limit myself to Ferguson's actual remarks in this introduction, not following links or tackling the entire essay as a whole.   If any of these points are strongly supported later in the essay, I'll try to consider such arguments later.  What I want to do here is put the miracles of Jesus, and the Resurrection, in to a context that relates more happily to the disciplines of history and philosophy.  

Knocking Out the Pillars of the “Minimal Facts” Apologetic


"When investigating virtually every other past event outside of the origins of Christianity, professional historians recognize that ancient texts — both Pagan and Christian — are generally incapable of proving paranormal claims about the past.  This is due to no special bias against the supernatural, as I explain in my essay “History and the Paranormal,” but would apply equally to natural paranormal claims, such as alien abductions, sasquatch sightings, and so on.  The operating principle has to do with ad hoc assumptions and “existing knowledge.”  As historiographer C. Behan McCullagh explains in Justifying Historical Descriptions  (whose methodology is summarized here), historians cannot make claims with good probability about the past that involve too many unproven, ad hoc assumptions that exceed ordinary background knowledge."

Christians like William Lane Craig maintain that the Resurrection need involve only one "ad hoc" assumption: that God exists.  If miracles happen sometimes -- and Craig Keener has offered mountains of evidence that seems cumulatively to overwhelmingly support that contention -- then the Resurrection need involve no ad hoc assumptions after all.  I have argued here that the Resurrection of Jesus is surprisingly probable a priori.  In that essay, I assume two extra hypotheses: that God exists, and that He may wish to affirm justice and help the human race.  Like Craig, I think both those hypotheses are well-supported by other bodies of data.  

Ferguson seems to be assuming that the probability of God acting in the world must be so low that evidence derived from ancient texts (being itself inherently limited) can never make up that deficit.  But such an assumption is unwarranted, certainly not by the claim "historians agree."  I'm an historian, and I don't agree.  Neither have many other Christian, and even one or two Jewish, historians.  And if we all did agree, how would mere consensus prove a universal negative -- that evidence from ancient history can never be strong enough to surmount whatever barriers philosophy and probability may place before a miracle?  

It can be argued that human testimony may, under rare circumstances, provide evidence for a claim that exceeds the universe's absolute probability bound, as William Dembski figures it: 10^150 to one.  (And certainly much greater than, say, the probability that the universe is a series of experiences in our minds or on a computer, a possibility that would render all calculations moot.)  

If God exists, and miracles occur, it would be arbitrary and intellectually prejudicial for historians to exclude the miraculous from the realm of "ordinary background knowledge."  Millions of human beings claim to have experienced miracles (properly defined).  I do not see why we historians have any right to dismiss all such historical claims a priori as proper objects of demonstration 

Probability is a function of the prior likelihood of a given claim, combined with the posterior strength of evidence for that claim.  

Better to concentrate on the actual a posteriori evidence, along with rational a priori factors which may dispose us to accept or reject that evidence, than simply declare the job hopeless, like a 4 minute mile, or the cleaning of stables, or fetching of golden wool from violent lambs.

Furthermore, if the gospels contain the dozens of markers of historical integrity that I claim, then they may provide evidence of a nature and force which exceeds what mere "ancient historical texts" can usually provide.  So we will have gotten both variables wrong, and the sum of them even more mistaken.  

"One way of identifying this 'background knowledge' is through the distinction of the paranormal.  A 'paranormal' event is defined by the Parapsychological Association (Glossary) as:
“Any phenomenon that in one or more respects exceeds the limits of what is deemed physically possible according to current scientific assumptions.'”
One might challenge whether biblical miracles meet this definition of the paranormal.

Science speaks of closed systems and physical causes and effects.   It makes no assumptions about whether God outside this universe can raise the dead.  Science doesn't even make any assumptions about whether future high-tech races will be able to bring life back to the dead, so far as I know.  Since God by definition lies outside of the material realm and is not limited by it, science can make no statement on whether it is "physically possible" for the Creator of matter to return life to a body which it has forsaken.

A miracle, in the New Testament, is most often spoken of as a "sign."  In other words, it is a marker or evidence pointing to God's handiwork in Nature.  If science could proscribe the work of God, then he would not be God, he would be a creature inside the Cosmos.  So this definition is only relevant if we begin by knowing that God is not God -- if we begin by begging the question in favor of atheism, in other words.

I know Ferguson means to avoid such circular reasoning, but without it, I don't think one can reach this conclusion in advance.

In addition, should we really conflate "current scientific assumptions" with "what we can know about the universe?"  We are told every day that it is the glory of science to advance and leave old assumptions behind.  Scientific claims should be falsifiable or amenable to alteration, given new data.  So the word "current" here seems especially peculiar.

"Events like extraterrestrial UFOs abducting humans, or a man resurrecting to life after crucifixion and multiple days of brain death, certainly fit this description."

Image result for aliens simpsons
Meet your public, secretive aliens!
Odd that skeptics should conflate two such obviously different kinds of explanations.  (I explained the problems with Richard Carrier's similar UFO analogy in an earlier post.)  Naturally evolved beings from other planets who travel quadrillions of miles to abduct a few random, carpet-level human beings (not the president, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, or even a famous basketball player), traveling for millennia through radiation and asteroids just to get their visits recorded in the National Inquirer (which either is smarter than these high-tech geniuses, or is for some odd reason their chosen media outlet), is a purely materialistic explanation that faces numerous barriers to credibility.  (Hugh Ross describes some of those problems here.)

God may exist or He may not.  He may wish to give humanity hope by raising the greatest man who ever lived from the dead, or He may have other plans.  But if He does exist, and brought the universe into being, he presumably is not bothered by the vastness of space, or cosmic rays, or asteroids, all of which He created.  There seems therefore to be little parallel between these two "paranormal" claims, except that most atheists doubt both.  (One can't even say that they are as rare as, say, claims that an heiress has been murdered!)  "This seems weird (para-normal) to me" is a psychological statement, and should not be taken as a proscription on ontological realization.  

"To assume that such events could have occurred in the past, one has to make ad hoc assumptions about kinds of phenomena that have not been scientifically confirmed.   For example, in order to claim that a particular alien abduction had historically occurred in the past (especially if the only evidence available is literature, with no testable physical evidence), one must first make general ad hoc assumptions that aliens even exist, visit the earth, and occasionally abduct humans.  These are assumptions that historians are unable to verify or investigate (absent the aid of modern scientific evidence), which cannot be assumed as sound premises in historical analysis. The same applies to the resurrection of Jesus.  In order to justify the particular claim that Jesus resurrected, one often has to assume a slew of untestable metaphysical assumptions about miracles, divine wills, and other unproven phenomena [1], which cannot be regarded as bona fide historical background knowledge (explained by Bayesian expert Robert Cavin here, slides 325-351)."

But miracles are not merely "metaphysical assumptions," they are experiential realities.  I have met probably hundreds of people who claim to have experienced them: I may have even experienced a minor miracle or two myself.  I have never met anyone who claims to have been abducted by aliens.  And there are strong positive reasons to doubt aliens would visit Earth in such a fashion, which do not apply to divine action.  

If Jesus was raised from the dead, then one can deduce divine will in the event.  While there is an element of metaphysics here, the Resurrection is a conclusion, not an "assumption."

Here disproving aliens and disproving God do share something in common, though.  In both cases, the being subject to proof or disproof is, by hypothesis, vastly more intelligent than we human beings.  Therefore He or they can remain hidden if they like.  Proof may still be possible, but not disproof.  And relations, friendship even, a meeting of minds, is the most likely form the relationship will take, not "scientist and object of science."  We would, by hypothesis, the object of any experiment going on.

"It should also be noted that I am unaware of any professional Classicist, who has published a book in an academic press or a peer-reviewed journal, that has made the argument that ancient literature can be used to prove miracle claims (even when there are several Pagan miracle claims attested in antiquity)."

These seem to me artificial constraints.  Certainly NT Wright and C.S. Lewis were deeply familiar with classical literature, and made such arguments in erudite and (in Wright's case) detailed forms.  (Though perhaps the word "prove," which I generally avoid for historical arguments, is too strong.)

And are we assuming that if there is no strong evidence that the Romans ever did any miracles, there can't be any such evidence for Jesus?  I have read numerous ancient pagan accounts of the supernatural, and describe them in several of my books.  But I find none that shares the qualities I find in the gospels which I argue make for strong historical credibility.  

I wouldn't dare argue for the historicity of any "miracle" in Apollonius, or Honi, or Vespasian, or Herodotus.  But I do dare argue for the historicity of the Resurrection, because the evidence seems vastly better, and the prior probability is vastly higher.

No Christian is claiming that the Resurrection was an every-day matter.  On the contrary, if miracles are exceptions by definition, the resurrection of Jesus was the greatest exception of all, one however which proves many great rules.  C. S. Lewis alludes to this in his book on Miracles, and I talk about it in the last chapter of Jesus is No Myth a bit.

"This observation should be applied to the standards of New Testament Studies. Classics and New Testament Studies deal with the same historical period, working with the same languages, and using the same historical methodology.  If Classicists are not in the business of seeking to prove miracles using ancient texts, then this provides a good outside model for the limitations of New Testament Studies.  Attempting to “prove” (or demonstrate the high probability of) the resurrection of Jesus, therefore, using nothing but ancient literature, is unlike any professional pursuit that I am aware of in the study of ancient history."

I have explained why this analogy does not work.  No historian has found any credible parallel to Jesus in the ancient world, as I have demonstrated.  By hypothesis, if Jesus is the Son of God, or even "merely" the Jewish Messiah, one would expect him to work miracles without parallel -- as the crowds around him already recognized.  "No one has ever opened the eyes of a man born blind."  "Get away from me, Lord!  For I am a sinful man!"

Despite his intent, Ferguson is thus begging the question with an added appeal to social consensus.   Serious historians have, in fact, argued for the historicity of the Resurrection.  That they make no similar case for other ancient figures, is precisely what Christians have been pointing out for thousands of years.  Why is the uniqueness of Jesus' experience supposed to be a surprise to us, now?

Meanwhile, scholars like Crossan and Borg argue against Christianity on the basis of (poor) alleged parallels to the miracles of Jesus from the likes of Apollonius and Honi.  (Which, true, these skeptics do not believe themselves.)  So it seems that if one finds parallels (however tortured) to the miracles of Jesus, we can take that as an argument against them.  And if we find no parallels, we can take that also as an argument against them!  All the bases are covered, and the Christian faith is doomed by definition!

"Normally historians, at the very least, bracket paranormal claims about the past, particularly those of a supernatural character, as philosophical questions that extend beyond the scope of the historical method."

In the strict sense, all historical questions presuppose philosophical beliefs that in themselves "extend beyond the scope of the historical method."  All historical reasoning involves bracketing, as does all scientific reasoning.  For instance, if you say "I released an apple and it fell to the ground," you presuppose the truthfulness of your sense impressions, the accuracy of your memory or notes, the ability of your readers to understand English, the analogy between your narrative capabilities and their abilities to follow story-telling, and so on, all of which take for granted weighty issues in brain science, philosophy, philology, human evolution or creation, and so on. 

Which only means that no historian or scientist can be merely an historian or scientist.  Disciplines are not air-tight or hermetically-sealed.  We are curious and ignorant humans before we are anything else, straining all our faculties, critical as well as physical, to find truth.

When writing for a general audience and general historical purposes, I, too, would undoubtedly "bracket" the Resurrection of Jesus.  I probably would not see it fitting, in a textbook on ancient history, to say baldy, "The third day, Jesus rose from the dead and showed himself to his disciples by many infallible proofs."  I would say, perhaps, "The earliest records of Jesus' life claim that Jesus rose from the dead the third day, a claim which is intensely debated to the present."

But if I am arguing for the Gospel, it is as appropriate to make the historical case for what I believe as it is for a Marxist, a heliocentrist, a believer in electricity or the dental value of chlorine in the water, to make a robust case for what I believe.  The scholarly procedure is to bracket for one discussion what one argues in detail for in another.\

There is, therefore, nothing at all improper in theory about arguing from history for the resurrection of Jesus, or any other miracle.  Whether the argument itself is sound, is another question.

"If they did not responsibly limit historical epistemology in this way, as I have discussed before, paranormal events such as witchcraft at Salem in the late 17th century would be fair game for being considered 'historical' and we would have far greater evidence to support such miracles than the resurrection of Jesus (for more information about the Salem comparison, see Matt McCormick’s article 'The Salem Witch Trials and the Evidence for the Resurrection' in The End of Christianity)."

McCormick's argument, and analogy, just do not work, I demonstrate here.  (At least, as given in his book.)  He seems to forget that he promised to offer evidence for witchcraft, and never explains, if there is such evidence, why he won't believe it.

In fact, on neither side of the equation -- prior probability, or posterior evidence -- does Salem witchcraft seem to approach the Resurrection in strength.  But perhaps someone else will seize the baton from McCormick and explain what that evidence is, and why she still doesn't believe it.

"We can all see the absurdity of the former example and yet apologists (who often exercise the same skepticism towards supernatural events outside of their religion) consider it an unfair bias to bracket Jesus’ resurrection as a religious, rather than historical, matter."

If by "bracket" you mean "assume cannot be true," why yes.  If you exclude opposing world views a priori, you are indeed being narrow-minded.  But McCormick gives no reason to believe either that witchcraft reported in Salem might be a priori probable, or that there is good evidence it occurred.  Christians have shown both for the resurrection. 

But let us not impose a false dichotomy (based on Steven Gould's NOMA) on the categories "religious" and "historical."  Christianity opens itself to falsification: "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is in vain!"  Some skeptics complain that it never does that.  Again, damned if you do, damned if you don't.

We do.  We welcome attempts to falsify our faith, which have been coming in for two thousand years, so far.

And by the way, why do "we all" recognize claims that the devil turned certain New Englanders into animals or made them fly through the air, are ridiculous?  Drill down at that point, and you'll hit pay-dirt.

(cut, one somewhat repetitive paragraph)

"Such apologists, seeking to use the field of ancient history, are eager to slap the label 'historical' onto the resurrection.  This goal is not really derived from academic concerns, but instead is born primarily out of the desire to evangelize.  Once Jesus’ resurrection is considered a 'historical fact,' you just have to accept it and apologists can accuse non-believers of being ill-informed or dishonest for not converting to their religion.   It was to avoid such non-academic agendas that historians bracketed such religious questions in the first place.  I myself was originally content with letting the resurrection be a religious, rather than historical question, but since apologists have fired the first shot in attempting to invade the field of ancient history, targeting lay audiences with a variety of slogans aimed at converting the public, my duty here on Κέλσος is to rebut their arguments."

Ferguson may again be operating from the same, admittedly popular, false dichotomy here, I fear.  Both William Lane Craig and John Crossan have opinions about Easter that they would like others to share.  There is no genuine contradiction between "academic concerns" and "desire to evangelize," which in this context means "desire that others accept my views and act on them."  If scholars have no opinions that they wish to persuade people of, why do they write so many books? 

Yes, we believe there is strong evidence for Christianity.  We are not ashamed of that, and we welcome attempts to seriously engage that evidence. 

"One such slogan is the so-called 'minimal facts' apologetic, spread by apologists such as Gary Habermas and William Lane Craig.  Both apologists use different sets of 'minimal facts' in order to provide a minimal case for proving just one of Jesus’ miracles: the resurrection."

Habermas is also an historian, and Craig a philosopher. 

"The strategy behind the “minimal facts” apologetic is based on the fact that apologists realize that there are many problems with defending the historical reliability of the Gospels and the other books of the New Testament.  Therefore, the “minimal facts” approach is to not argue that every claim found in the New Testament is true, but to base the case for Jesus’ resurrection solely on “facts” allegedly agreed upon by a consensus of scholars. Nevertheless, all of these “facts” are ultimately based solely on claims found in the New Testament and Christian literature, and some of them are not even accepted by all scholars [2]. Furthermore, the interpretation of these facts varies drastically between scholars [3]."

Here Ferguson may have a point.  I prefer to defend the truth of the gospels as a whole.

"Professional apologists (who often work as faculty at faith-based universities with doctrinal statements affirming the truth of Christianity) claim that these “facts” cannot be explained through any other cause besides the resurrection of Jesus. They use such rhetoric to attack non-believes for allegedly being 'hyper-skeptical' or even 'intellectually dishonest' for not converting to their religion. However, a closer analysis will reveal that all of the 'minimal facts' can easily be accounted for in purely natural terms, and have likewise been explained by multiple scholars at secular universities without any appeals to miracles.  As such, non-believers can accept all of the conclusions of mainstream NT scholarship, and yet still be perfectly rational in doubting the resurrection of Jesus."

I expect non-believers can indeed rationally accept what "mainstream' scholars admit about Jesus and still deny the Resurrection, since "mainstream NT scholarship" is effectively defined as "what an unbeliever can accept of the New Testament."  The whole purpose of secular NT scholarship seems to be to make Jesus safe for people who doesn't wish to believe.   

"This apologetic takes a variety of forms, but William Craig’s variation used in his debates about the resurrection of Jesus is perhaps the most popular. Craig claims that there are “four facts” about Jesus’ resurrection (taken from his website here):
  1. After his crucifixion Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb.
  2. On the Sunday after the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.
  3. On different occasions and under various circumstances different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.
  4. The original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.
"Craig uses the term “facts,” in order to treat these premises as non-negotiable. The reality, however, is that his first two facts are not even accepted by many mainstream scholars. Scholars like Bart Ehrman and John Dominic Crossan, for example, doubt the historicity of Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. For Ehrman’s case against the historicity of Joseph’s tomb, you can consult his blog series “Did the Romans Allow Decent Burials?.” Likewise, Ehrman also doubts the discovery of the empty tomb by women, which he discusses in his article 'The Women and the Empty Tomb.'

This is why I think a broader approach, which begins by showing how eminent scholars like Crossan and Ehrman err in their use of logic and facts, is useful.   In practice, if not necessarily in theory, Minimum Facts appeals to liberal scholars as if they were fair brokers of truth.  But I don't think they are.  I think that is psychologically naive, and ignores what we actually find.  I respect many skeptical scholars in some ways (though my respect for Ehrman has lessened, of late).  But I think the "mainstream" of NT scholarship has strong dogmatic and social reasons for fearing that Christianity is demonstrably true.  Indeed, Ferguson has hinted at those reasons himself.  They will be cut off from their colleagues in the Academy.  Classicists might look down their noses at them.  They will be violating basic rules of scholarship in a Copernican world -- indeed, the Jesus Seminar makes this appeal overtly. 

Indeed, I show that the Jesus Seminar committed at least twelve fundamental errors in their scholarship.  Among those are a philosophical bias against miracles (which we have also seen here), faulty chronology, poor logic, reliance on shaky sources, neglect of contrary arguments, and a preference for far-fetched skeptical theories over orthodox conclusions.  I find similar, or worse, problems in the work of Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels.  Ehrman gets almost every "fact" he adduces dead wrong when writing about Apollonius of Tyana, for instance, twisting raw data like an inquisitor to make it confess, "Jesus is not unique!" 

The name "Ehrman" has thus become, for me, something of a flashing red light warning "Tendentious arguments and gross misrepresentations of the texts ahead!" 

So I feel we must advance from a second-order argument, relying on authority, to first-order analysis of the gospels themselves, appealing to the evidence directly, at least when scholars who differ in biases, come to distinct conclusions.  (We may at least tentatively accept facts upon which scholars on all sides of the philosophical divide tend to agree.)

"Furthermore, even apologists Habermas and Licona (The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, pgs. 69-70) acknowledge that the discovery of an empty tomb is not a 'fact' accepted by all scholars, so that Craig’s first two premises cannot be treated as non-negotiable (to see my case against Habermas and Licona’s minimal facts, which are focused more on 'facts' derived from Paul’s Epistles rather than the Gospels, see my discussion in footnote 4)."

I would be surprised, anymore, to find any facts "acceptable to all scholars."  One could stop at that stoplight for a lifetime, and never get anywhere.  

Thus Jesus is No Myth focuses entirely on the gospels, and attempts to rescue seekers from being held hostage to dogmatically skeptical scholarship.  (Though, to be fair, one of Habermas' students, John Fraser, points out that Habermas' MF argument is not so dependent on scholarly consensus, and appeals more directly to evidence, than I supposed in my earlier post.)  

Scholarly consensus is a useful concept, and citing scholarly opponents is often a powerful way to make an argument, which I often attempt in my books.  But one must also bear in mind that scholars are human, not mere objective thinking machines or "angels from heaven" as Thomas Jefferson put it.  I really do doubt that one could derive an adequately strong Christian conclusion from premises that ALL or even most scholars admit.  Fortunately, the evidence speaks for itself, for those who have ears to hear, as Jesus put it.    
   
"I will explain why many scholars doubt Craig’s first two facts, and then address how the second two can easily be explained through purely natural explanations."

Ferguson may make useful points in what follows.  I will leave that to others, however, to discover.  

Monday, April 24, 2017

Problems with the "Minimal Facts" Approach to the Resurrection

Gary Habermas, whom I respect and count as a friend, has made a mark on scholarship in part by his exhaustive cataloguing of views which scholars have taken towards various facets of the Jesus story, and what can be made of what facts scholars generally concede.  (The oft-cited internet crank Richard Carrier implies that Habermas may not be accurately representing this data base, but I think that tells us more about Carrier than it does about Habermas.)  Habermas explains:

"For more than 35 years, I have argued that, surrounding the end of Jesus’ life, there is a significant body of data that scholars of almost every religious and philosophical persuasion recognize as being historical.  The historicity of each “fact” on the list is attested and supported by a variety of historical and other considerations. This motif began as the central tenet of my PhD dissertation.  This theme has continued in virtually all of my other dozens of publications on this subject since that time."

Habermas' work is of great value, and I certainly agree with him that evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is strong.  I am not entirely satisfied with the argument that is commonly snapped together from the pieces of evidence Habermas induces, however. 

In this post, I will explain some of my initial qualms.  Note that I haven't studied this argument in detail, and am open to being corrected if I have misrepresented or misunderstood it in some ways.

William Lane Craig has made effective public use of what has come to be called the "Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus."  Craig has debated numerous leading New Testament scholars on the resurrection, even giving some atheists the impression that he has won.  (And I think he has indeed won most or all of those debates I have watched or read.)  He sometimes uses this approach.  In debate with the Muslim Shabir Ally, for instance, he outlined the argument he was preparing to make as follows:

"In tonight’s debate, I am going to defend two basic contentions:

I. The New Testament documents establish five facts concerning Jesus:

1) His crucifixion
2) His burial in a tomb
3) The discovery that his tomb was empty
4) His post-mortem appearances
5) The origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection

II. The best explanation of these facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead."

That, in sum, is the Minimal Facts Argument.  Five simple facts, added together to one dramatic conclusion.

Craig complemented his initial argument with a more complex concluding set of arguments:

"In his book Justifying Historical Descriptions, historian C. B. McCullagh lists six tests which historians use in determining what is the best explanation for given historical facts.[25] The hypothesis “God raised Jesus from the dead” passes all six of these tests.

1. It has great explanatory scope.
It explains why the tomb was found empty, why the disciples saw post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and why the Christian faith came into being.

2. It has great explanatory power.
It explains why the body of Jesus was gone, why people repeatedly saw Jesus alive despite his earlier public execution, and so forth.

3. It is plausible.
Given the historical context of Jesus’ own unparalleled life and claims, the resurrection serves as divine vindication of those claims.

4. It is not ad hoc or contrived.
It requires only one additional hypothesis – that God exists. And even that need not be an additional hypothesis if you already believe in God’s existence as Shabir and I do.

5. It is in accord with accepted beliefs.
The hypothesis “God raised Jesus from the dead” does not in any way conflict with the accepted belief that people don’t rise naturally from the dead. The Christian accepts that belief as wholeheartedly as he accepts the belief that “God raised Jesus from the dead.”

6. It far outstrips any of its rival hypotheses in meeting conditions 1 to 5.
Down through history, various alternative explanations of the facts have been offered, for example, the conspiracy theory, the apparent death theory, the hallucination theory, and so forth. Such hypotheses have been almost universally rejected by contemporary scholarship. No naturalistic hypothesis has attracted a great number of scholars. So on this basis, it seems to me that we should conclude that the best explanation of the evidence is the one that the original disciples themselves gave; namely, God raised Jesus from the dead."

This broader scheme seems to suggest that Craig may find MF more a useful and succinct introduction to the historical arguments for the Resurrection, useful on stage in a brief debate, than a full argument.

In any case, I see several problems with the "minimal facts" approach:

(a) The most common rejoinder seems to be, "What do you expect from Christian or post-Christian scholars?"  Since Habermas has not (it seems) made his full list available, and since many scholars who work in New Testament studies are Christians, or began as Christians and no doubt continue to hold some Christian assumptions, it may seem plausible that if you only count those who were not ideologically inclined to admit some of these "minimal facts," then you would no longer get a majority of scholars in favor.

This is not a claim, it is only a gap in the argument so far as I understand it.  And it is, potentially, an ad hominem critique.  But since the argument itself is an appeal to authority, it seems somewhat susceptible to complaints about the bias or purported bias of the authorities appealed to.

(b) For some of the "facts," Habermas can only cite three quarters or less agreement.  But that would hardly constitute a consensus, even if Habermas is counting accurately and thoroughly.

(c) If all five facts, or say three of them, are required to constitute a given argument for the resurrection, then even if the probability of each is greater than 50-50, it may be that the probability of all five, or of four or three which are required, is less than 50-50.  So if it turns out that 70% of scholars agree on the empty tomb and 70% on Jesus' burial in a tomb, and if we crudely (of course this is silly) say that probability of each fact is the same as the percent of scholars accepting it, then the probability that both these two facts are true would seem to be only 49%. 

(d) Whatever percent you get, it is bound to be low for a doctrine that lies at the heart of Christian faith.  A large cathedral needs a solid foundation.  70% consensus seems to me like building a house on, if not sand, at least on a rock less solid than granite.

(e) Furthermore, one has to add in (or multiply) the background probability of a state of the cosmos which would make Jesus' resurrection plausible.  If one has strong reasons to deny God's existence, for instance, then even if the historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection were 90%, it would be trivially easy to conclude, "There has to be some other explanation," and rationally bet on the 10%.

If the claim were only that Peter had caught a big fish that day, a 60% probability might do.  But not that his boss died and came back from the dead. 

(f) Certainly the probability of resurrection would not impress a skeptic who holds to the maxim, "Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence."

 So far I've been listing considerations which undermine Minimal Facts from what might be described as a "skeptical" point of view.  But other facts, I think, undermine it from a more biblical point of view. 

(g) In Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, I described twelve errors which eminent skeptical Jesus scholars habitually make, and which undermine the value of their scholarship.  They assume that miracles cannot happen, which is inconvenient as well as unphilosophical, because they do.  They also tend to confuse past and future, rely on poor logic and shaky sources, neglect contrary arguments, prefer far-fetched skeptical theories over orthodox truisms, and rely on post-modern assumptions that cloud up minds that admit them, among other errors.

More recently, in Jesus is No Myth, I described numerous elementary errors committed by, among others, Bart Ehrman, the most famous and influential liberal New Testament scholar in America today.  He is not a stupid man, but some of these are really bone-headed mistakes -- like completely misrepresenting the actual text of Life of Apollonius of Tyana on most of the traits which he pretends mark Apollonius as a viable Jesus-double.  Not one or two, but MOST of those traits.

If we recognize these broad patterns of error -- and you are welcome to try to disprove the critical points that I make, if you like -- why should we appeal to such biased and error-prone scholars?  Citing scholars with such a record as the premise in a scholarly argument, would be like citing a known drunk who suffers from hallucinations as a murder witness.

(h) There is a more direct approach to arguing for the resurrection of Jesus:

(1) The gospels are works of enormous historical credibility which, furthermore, support one another on the fact of the resurrection.  (Jesus is No Myth.)

(2) Highly credible works should generally be believed about facts on which they agree, especially which are central to the narratives they tell.

(3) So the Resurrection can be affirmed with high confidence just on Gospel testimony.

(4) I. Corinthians 15 and other early evidence, including for the explosive growth of the Church based on eyewitness testimony for the Resurrection, strengthens that case, as can MF.

(i) Prior Probability and background assumptions about the nature of life, and therefore the plausibility of Jesus' resurrection, must also be considered.  Craig alludes to this realm of evidences and arguments.  I offer a case here that Prior Probability is much higher than generally supposed.  This also addresses the popular skeptical argument that arguing for the Resurrection is somehow "ad hoc" or that only vast evidence for a miracle can possibly challenge skepticism.  (Though I think the evidence for Jesus' Resurrection is indeed extremely powerful, vastly more powerful than even many historical claims that are pretty much universally accepted.)

So those are my initial qualms about the MF argument.  It is an Argument From Authority, which are often good arguments, but limited when the authorities are particularly biased, as they almost all are in this case.  It cannot yield so strong a historical conclusion as we must desire in this case.  But a more direct argument which includes the gospels does, in my opinion, yield far stronger certainty, than any argument that largely bypasses the gospels and their rich evidential resources and proven historical authority.

But as I said, these are initial qualms.  I haven't studied the argument in great detail -- I'm thinking out-loud, not trying to nail down a certain conclusion yet.  Next, I'll see what Lydia McGrew and Matthew Ferguson say about the argument, and how what they say may augment my own intuitions and gut reactions.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Valerie Talico and David Fitgerald "Debunk" Jesus

Valerie Talico, a Seattle psychologist, is fond of bad New Atheist arguments.  She doesn't know much about some of the subjects she posts on, but she is open to learning -- from non-scholars like David Fitzgerald -- whether someone named Jesus who didn't play for a Hispanic baseball team ever walked the Earth. 

Here the two are on my birthday, blogging about how my favorite ancient political philosopher never lived.

I doubt she'll read this rebuttal and up her game on the subject.  As Geico would put it, that's not what a clearing house for bad Gnu arguments does.  But refuting such arguments is what I do.  So let's get started.

Putting letters by dubious comments that merit challenge or amendment, I was hoping to make it through their relatively short article before running out of letters.  Pardon if I use some letters more than once, below.

Most people would be shocked to learn how little is actually known about Jesus.

Note: This story was co-authored with David Fitzgerald, (a) author of “Jesus: Mything in Action.”
Before the European Enlightenment, virtually all New Testament experts assumed that handed-down stories about Jesus were first recorded by eye witnesses and were largely biographical. That is no longer the case.
Assuming that the Jesus stories had their beginnings in one single person rather than a composite of several—or even in mythology itself—he probably was a wandering Jewish teacher in Roman-occupied Judea who offended the authorities and was executed.  Beyond that, any knowledge about the figure at the center of the Christian religion is remarkably open to debate (b) (and vigorously debated among relevant scholars).
(b) That there is a debate about Jesus is hardly remarkable.  The gospels describe Jesus in a way that directly confronts the central dogmas of modern materialism to which the Academy is wed: that God does not act in the world, that history is merely what we make of it, that the dead stay dead, and that sins need to be repented of.   Jesus is thus an offense to modern skeptics as to ancient Pharisees.  So why is is surprising that so many feel the need to get rid of him, one way or another?  
Where was Jesus born? Did he actually have twelve disciples? Do we know with certainty anything he said or did? (c-e))
(c) We don't know anything about the past "with certainty."  Certainty is for mathematics (maybe) not history.  But even the extremely liberal scholars of the Jesus Seminar, as hostile as it was to Christianity, found many of Jesus' sayings and deeds highly credible and well-evidenced.  That someone somewhere may demur -- as some people demur about the moon landings, or the value of vaccinations -- does not make the most famous and remarkable human being who ever lived completely unknowable.  
(d) And the fact that the phrase "the twelve" is repeated dozens of times in 1st Century records of Jesus' life, would in every other context be described as "evidence."   
(e) Birth records are another matter.  One probably can't place the birth of many ancients in a particular city with much certainty.  Wild stories are told even by good biographers about the birth of someone as famous and influential as Alexander the Great.  So it is rather unreasonable to demand clear and unproblematic birth records for Jesus. 
As antiquities scholarship improves, it becomes increasingly clear that the origins of Christianity are controversial, convoluted, and not very coherent. (f)
(f) If you're going to write about what "scholarship" has found, why don't you co-author with a scholar?    
All history is controversial, convoluted, and sometimes incoherent.  These are clichés that anyone who studies any field of history can trade in.  Now they have finished their introduction and reached their six main points, we'll see what specifics our duo can dig up.  
1. The more we know the less we know for sure.  After centuries in which the gospel stories about Jesus were taken as gospel truth, the Enlightenment gave birth to a new breed of biblical historians. Most people have heard that Thomas Jefferson secretly took a pair of scissors to the Bible, keeping only the parts he thought were historical.  His version of the New Testament is still available today.  Jefferson’s snipping was a crude early attempt to address a problem recognized by many educated men of his time: It had become clear that any histories the Bible might contain had been garbled by myth.  (One might argue that the Protestant Reformation’s rejection of the books of the Bible that they called “apocrypha,” was an even earlier, even cruder attempt to purge the Good Book of obvious mythology.) (g)
(g) On the contrary, the Reformation was more reasonable than Jefferson.  Both were cutting out what didn't fit their dogmas, but the Protestants had additional reasons to exclude the apocrypha, such as weaker provenance and later appearance.  
In the two centuries that have passed since Jefferson began clipping, scores of biblical historians—including modern scholars armed with the tools of archeology, anthropology and linguistics—have tried repeatedly to identify the “historical Jesus” and have failed.  (h)  The more scholars study Jesus, the more confused and uncertain our knowledge has become. Currently, we have a plethora of contradictory versions of Jesus—an itinerant preacher, a zealot, an apocalyptic prophet, an Essene heretic, a Roman sympathizer, and many more —each with a different scholar to confidently tout theirs as the only real one. (i) Instead of a convergent view of early Christianity and its founder, we are faced instead with a cacophony of conflicting opinions. This is precisely what happens when people faced with ambiguous and contradictory information cannot bring themselves to say, we don’t know.
(h) Have scholars failed to find Jesus?  Talico and Fitzgerald seem to be begging the question.  The scholars don't seem to think so. 
(i) But setting them all against one another, as Loftus sets religions against one another in the Outsider Test for Faith, is simplistic.  Human beings are complex creatures, and even skeptical scholars like Marcus Borg suppose that Jesus could have fit into more than one category.  The teacher who roams the pages of the gospels was, at least, one of history's great geniuses.  Who can say a moral genius cannot transcend a category that some simple-minded scholar may try to squeeze him into?  Heck, even experienced cowboys sometimes find sheep hard to corral: so much more the Great Shepherd.
The key word here is "only."  Who would deny the first item on this list, that Jesus was an itinerant preacher?  How does that conflict, say, with "apocalyptic prophet?"  Prophets are usually preachers, and most roamed around a bit.

Complex people can even be contradictory.   Think of Gandhi.  He was certainly an itinerate preacher.  Hindus might call him a Muslim sympathizer, while Muslim fanatics might call him a Hindu preacher.  Others have described him as a follower of Jesus, in some ways truthfully.  Or was he the founder of a commune and a quasi-socialist?  An economic conservative?  A sharp, British-trained lawyer?  A "half-naked fakir?" as Winston Churchill put it?  An international student?  A mystic?  All of these things and more accurately describe Mohandas Gandhi.  Yet he was one man. 
This scholastic mess has been an open secret in biblical history circles for decades. (j) Over forty years ago, professors like Robin S. Barbour and Cambridge’s Morna Hooker were complaining about the naïve assumptions underlying the criteria biblical scholars used to gauge the “authentic” elements of the Jesus stories.  Today, even Christian historians complain the problem is no better; most recently Anthony Le Donne and Chris Keith in the 2012 book Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity.
(j) More like a cliche.  
(i) Pointing out that some scholars hold some opinion, is no substitute for a good argument that that some opinion is true.  
2. The Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses. (j) Every bit of our ostensibly biographical information for Jesus comes from just four texts – the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. (k)  Though most Christians assume that associates of Jesus wrote these texts, no objective biblical scholars think so.  (j) None of the four gospels claims to be written by eyewitnesses, (k) and all were originally anonymous. Only later were they attributed to men named in the stories themselves. (l) 
(j) Richard Bauckham wrote Jesus and the Eyewitnesses 11 years ago, now.  What excuse does Fitzgerald have for not having read it?  True, he adds the weasel word "objective" here.  He may wish to claim that Bauckham (an eminent scholar, unlike Fitzgerald, who has no relevant scholarly credentials) is not "objective" and therefore doesn't count.  Nor perhaps would he concede that Martin Hegel, N. T. Wright, or James Dunn, eminent scholars who warmly reviewed that book, are "objective."    
In short, T & F's claim is just special pleading, either based on ignorance of contrary scholarship, or on the arbitrary exclusion of eminent scholars who disagree with their claim.  ("All scholars who recognize me as King of Siam, agree that I am King of Siam.  So bow down and render me obeisance!")  
(k) John does claim to have been written by or with an eyewitness. 
(l) Luke wasn't named in the gospels, and Mark only briefly.  So Luke, at least, never was attributed to anyone named in the gospels.  And Mark was a very minor figure.   
"While the four gospels were traditionally held to be four independent accounts, textual analysis suggests that they all actually are adaptations of the earliest gospel, Mark.(m)   Each has been edited and expanded upon, repeatedly, by unknown editors.  It is worth noting that Mark features the most fallible, human, no-frills Jesus—and, more importantly, may be an allegory."
(m) A highly dubious account of what textual analysis has shown.  In fact, scholars recognize that aside from Mark, the gospels rely on at least three other sources.  And no, Mark is not an "allegory:" the comment makes one wonder if these two know what allegory is.    
"All of the gospels contain anachronisms and errors that show they were written long after the events they describe, and most likely far from the setting of their stories. Even more troubling, they don’t just have minor nitpicky contradictions; they have basic, even crucial, contradictions." (n) 
(n) We'll stick with refuting arguments actually given here.  
3. "The Gospels are not corroborated by outside historians. Despite generations of apologists insisting Jesus is vouched for by plenty of historical sources like Tacitus or Suetonius, none of these hold up to close inspection.  The most commonly-cited of these is the Testimonium Flavianum, a disputed passage in the writings of ancient historian Flavius Josephus, written around the years 93/94, generations after the presumed time of Jesus. Today historians overwhelmingly recognize this odd Jesus passage is a forgery. (For one reason, no one but the suspected forger ever quotes it – for 500 years!) But Christian apologists are loathe to give it up, and supporters now argue it is only a partial forgery." (o-q)
So much wrong here.  
(o) The consensus on Josephus' longer passage about Jesus (the TF) is, in fact, that it contains a historical core, with a few additions by a Christian scholar.  Wikipedia notes accurately: 
"The general scholarly view is that while the Testimonium Flavianum is most likely not authentic in its entirety, it is broadly agreed upon that it originally consisted of an authentic nucleus, which was then subject to Christian expansion/alteration."
That these two commentators are unaware of this general view is troubling, considering how important skeptics like Fitgerald see debunking that consensus to be.  He OUGHT to know better.  He ought to know that it is not "Christian apologists" who are "loath to give up" the TF, and draw the conclusion that most of it was from Josephus himself (personally, I could hardly care less), but mainstream scholars.

This is a serious, and telling, misrepresentation of the state of the scholarship. 
(p) No one but Eusebius quotes the TF?  But Wikipedia against points out: 
"There is considerable evidence, however, that attests to the existence of the references to Jesus in Josephus well before then, including a number of ad hoc copies of Josephus' work preserved in quotation from the works of Christian writers. The earliest known such reference to Josephus' work is found in the writings of the third century patristic author Origen, who refers to Josephus' record of "the death of James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus (called Christ)" in Book I, Chapter XLVII of Against Celsus, including Origen's observations that Josephus did not recognize Jesus as "the Christ" when mentioning him in the "Antiquities of the Jews". 
True, Origen was referring to the other Josephus mention of Jesus -- which DF somehow neglects to mention.  
(q) Personally, I don't care much about these Josephus passages.  I argue in Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels that the gospels themselves provide more than enough evidence not merely to prove that Jesus lived, but that he was much as the gospels describe him.   Josephus is petty change, by comparison to the astounding wealth of evidence within the gospels themselves.  
"Either way, as New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman points out, the Testimonium Flavanium merely repeats common Christian beliefs of the late first century, and even if it was 100% genuine would provide no evidence about where those beliefs came from. This same applies to other secular references to Jesus–they definitely attest to the existence of Christians and recount Christian beliefs at the time, but offer no independent record of a historical Jesus."
The Josephus quotes, while almost certainly genuine, are not much worth arguing about.   They would be more than enough to prove that Jesus lived, were that a real issue, and were no one motivated to believe otherwise.  But why scramble for a nickel in the street, when you're sitting on a pile of gold?  
"In sum, while well-established historic figures like Alexander the Great are supported by multiple lines of evidence, in the case of Jesus we have only one line of evidence: the writings of believers involved in spreading the fledgling religion." (r) 
(r) Aside from Alexander's followers, do we really have much evidence from within Alexander's lifetime testifying to that life?  And should we toss the writings of, say, Ptolemy on the scrap heap, just because he had motivation to glorify his former boss?   
Anyway, I describe 30 "lines of evidence" within the gospels themselves testifying to their essential historicity.   
4. "Early Christian scriptures weren’t the same as ours.  At the time Christianity emerged, gospels were a common religious literary genre, each promoting a different version or set of sacred stories.  For example, as legends of Jesus sprang up, they began to include “infancy gospels.”(s)  As historian Robert M. Price (t) notes, just as Superman comics spun off into stories of young Superboy in Smallville, Christians wrote stories of young Jesus in Nazareth using his divine powers to bring clay birds to life or peevishly strike his playmates dead." (u)
(s) Anyone who can read the so-called "infancy gospels" and imagine them to belong to the same genre as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, is a poor literary scholar, indeed.   I wonder if Talico has even read those works?   
(t) Robert Price has a Masters and PhD in theological studies, not in history.  You might call him a historian, I suppose, since he has been working in that field, according to his lights, but going by his credentials, Price is a theologian.    
(u) Pointing to the stories of Jesus making birds or striking other children dead is another cliché in scholarship.  What is the point?  Some 2nd or 3rd Century Christian wrote obvious tall tales about the child Jesus, so any earlier stories about Jesus must also be fiction? 
Numerous great historical figures in the ancient world inspired such a secondary literature, including Alexander, whom T & F have already mentioned.  Shall we say that because Alexandria Romance is a tall tale, therefore Arrian can't be trusted?  Because George Washington didn't chop down a cherry tree, therefore he didn't cross the Delaware, or serve as president? 
There is simply no sense to such an argument.      
"Early Christians didn’t agree on which texts were sacred, and those included in our New Testament were selected to elevate one competing form of Christianity, that of the Roman Church over others. (Note that the Roman Church also proclaimed itself “catholic” meaning universal.)" (v)
(v) Actually, early Christians did agree on the real gospels quite early.   
"Our two oldest complete New Testament collections, Codex Siniaticus and Codex Vaticanus only go back to the beginning of the fourth century. To make matters worse, their books differ from each other – and from our bibles. (w) We have books they don’t have; they have books we don’t have, like the Shepherd of Hermas and the Gospel of Barnabas."
(w) Another standard, and irrelevant, cliche.  Read the Shepherd of Hermas, and please explain to me why anyone brings that book up in a discussion about whether we can believe the gospels.   This is like saying:

"Anthologies of C. S. Lewis' writings contain a varying selection of essays.  Therefore his autobiographical Surprised By Joy must be a forgery." 
A mere paeon to irrelevancy. which also underlines the scholarly limitations of Mr. Fitzgerald and Ms. Talico.  There is no relationship between premises and conclusion. 
The present four canonical gospels were recognized as authoritative fairly early in the 2nd Century, and were quoted extensively and widely at an early date.   That is all one needs to know.   The fact that early Christians were less clear about some other works, not having to do with the life of Jesus anyway, is neither here nor there. 
"In addition to gospels, the New Testament includes another religious literary genre—the epistle or letter. Some of our familiar New Testament epistles like 1 Peter, 2 Peter and Jude were rejected as forgeries even in ancient times; today scholars identify (x) almost all of the New Testament books as forgeries except for six attributed to Paul (and even his authentic letters have been re-edited)."
(x) "Scholars identify?"  Here, again, a claim by favored but unnamed (in this context, to be unnamed is to be favored, one might say!) "scholars" is treated simply as fact.

The gospels are not "recognized as forgeries" by "scholars in general."  Neither are "almost all the NT books." 
5. "Christian martyrs are not proof (if they even were real).  Generations of Christian apologists have pointed to the existence of Christian martyrs as proof their religion is true, asking “Who would die for a lie?” (y) The short answer, of course, that all too many true believers have died in the service of falsehoods they passionately believed to be true—and not just Christians. The obvious existence of Muslim jihadis has made this argument less common in recent years."
(y) What T & F put on the lips of Christians here is a "genuine forgery," if that be not self-contradictory.  The argument which "generations of apologists" have made (I know, I heard it as a young man from Josh McDowell) was not "Who would die for a lie?"  But "Who would knowingly die for a lie?"

Would T & F die for their lie of misrepresenting the Christian argument by dropping this crucial word?  I hope not!  But I don't know if I should hope that they are self-aware enough to realize that they have altered it to make it easier to defeat. 
But what is the actual effect of simplifying opposing arguments like this?  It is like pinning a sign to one's backside: "Sorry, I cannot deal with the argument in its proper form, so let me dump it down and deal with what's left."  If you will only fight a gladiator if he first cuts his arms and legs off,  isn't that a confession of impotence?  
"But who says that the Christian stories of widespread martyrdom themselves were real?  The Book of Acts records only two martyr accounts, and secular scholars doubt that the book contains much if any actual history.(z)   The remaining Christian martyr tales first appeared centuries later. (aa) Historian Candida Moss’ 2014 book The Myth of Persecution gives a revealing look at how early Christian fathers fabricated virtually the entire tradition of Christian martyrdom—a fact that was, ironically enough, largely uncovered and debunked by later Christian scholars."
(z) In fact, even so radical an anti-Christian scholar as Richard Carrier admits that Acts contains numerous facts that are known (and proven) to be historical.  (Colin Hemer names 84 in the last half + of Acts alone, which Carrier seems to concede.)  So this is just wrong.  Ben Witherington, a far better scholar than Carrier or Fitzgerald, makes a strong case for Acts in his two works on the book.  In my doctoral research on Acts 14 and 17, I found Luke a consummate historian. 
(aa) Christian martyr tales only appear centuries later, so much be fake?   Odd.  Tacitus records in his Annals ("the pinnacle of Roman historical writing") the following: 
"Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace."
Tacitus was writing Annals during the 2nd decade of the 2nd Century.  Is 116 AD "centuries" after the life of Jesus, which ended in 30 or 33 AD?  It's actually amazing to find such early corroboration about a community that must, at the time of Tacitus, remained tiny.   
Nor is Tacitus the only non-Christian Roman to record the persecution of Christians.  Most scholars also believe Suetonius referred even earlier to persecution of Christians. 
Valerie Talico has chosen her "scholar," and seems determined to stick with him -- no matter that he is no scholar at all. 
6. "No other way to explain the existence of Christianity?  Most people, Christians and outsiders alike, find it difficult to imagine how Christianity could have arisen if our Bible stories aren’t true.  Beyond a doubt, Christianity could not have arisen if people in the first century hadn’t believed them to be true.  But the stories themselves?
"Best-selling New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman believes that the biblical stories about Jesus had their kernel in the person of a single itinerant preacher, as do most New Testament scholars.  Historian Richard Carrier and David Fitzgerald (co-author of this article) take an opposing position—that the original kernel was a set of ancient mythic tropes to which unsuspecting believers added historical details.  Ehrman and Carrier may be on opposite sides of this debate, but both agree on one important fact: (bb) the only thing needed to explain the rise of Christianity is the belief fostered by the rival Christian preachers of the first century."
(bb) Carrier and Ehrman: the "C" and "E" of the ACE Detective Team which I refute in Jesus is No Myth!  They may disagree about whether Jesus was historical, but that's hardly a debate in scholarship: on more serious issues, they're allies and fellow lost pilgrims, as I show. 
"Witchcraft, bigfoot, the idea that an American president was born in Kenya, golden tablets revealed to a 19th century huckster by the Angel Moroni . . . we all know that false ideas can be sticky—that they can spread from person to person, getting elaborated along the way until they become virtually impossible to eradicate.  The beginnings of Christianity may be shrouded in mystery, but the viral spread of passionately-held false ideas is becoming better understood by the year." (cc) 
(cc) Yes, and if mythicism continues to grow more popular, our understanding of the process of how silly ideas spread will keep marching forward.  
But there is no real argument here.  Our two writers have yet to even engage with the positive evidence for Christianity, or even to hint that they know what that evidence might consist of.   As Jesus put it, they seem to be the "blind leading the blind." 
Keeping Options Open 
"University of Sheffield’s Philip Davies—who believes that Christianity probably began with a single Jesus, acknowledges that the evidence is fragile and problematic. Davies argues that the only way the field of New Testament studies can maintain any academic respectability is by acknowledging the possibility that Jesus didn’t exist.  He further notes this wouldn’t generate any controversy in most fields of ancient history, (dd) but that New Testament studies is not a normal case."
(dd) NT studies certainly is not a normal case, and the likes of Philip Davies (Richard Carrier's publisher) is a case in point.  If anyone claimed Confucius never lived, that would I believe kick up a stir in China Studies- if he were eminent enough that scholars noticed him.  But the evidence for Jesus is vastly stronger than that for Confucius.  The inability for some people to even notice that evidence is what is truly incredible in Jesus studies.  (And also the clumsiness with which scholars in the Jesus Seminar and the likes of Bart Ehrman stumble through the texts which contain that evidence, as I have documented.)
"Brandon University’s Kurt Noll goes even further and lays out a case that the question doesn’t matter: Whether he was real or myth, a historical Jesus is irrelevant to the religion that was founded in his name.
"That is because either way, the Christ at the heart of Christianity is a figure woven from the fabric of mythology. (ee) The stories that bear his name draw on ancient templates imbedded in the Hebrew religion and those of the surrounding region. They were handed down by word of mouth in a cultural context filled with magical beings and miracles. (ff) Demons caused epilepsy. Burnt offerings made it rain. Medical cures included mandrakes and dove blood. Angels and ghosts appeared to people in dreams. Gods and other supernatural beings abounded and not infrequently crossed over from their world to ours." (gg) 
(e)  There is no one at all like Jesus in ancient mythology, legend, novels, or plays.  After a lifetime of studying such literature, C. S. Lewis baldly stated that fact in his great essay "Fernseed and Elephants."  I show how threadbare the comparison is in more painstaking detail, in Jesus is No Myth.  The very parallels that skeptics put forward, demonstrate with special clarity how unique Jesus is, and how strong the evidence for the gospels actually is.  
(f) Magic is not miracle.  The purpose, causes, and nature of the two categories differ dramatically.  The failure by skeptics to recognize the true nature of Jesus' miracles, and differentiate them from the works of Apollonius or the infancy stories, is a serious critical lapse, indeed.  They fail to notice the elephant which stands a few paces in front of them, trumpeting and bellowing, to borrow C. S. Lewis' metaphor.  
(g) No "gods" appear in the New Testament.  And the problem with this whole argument is, miracles continue to occur in the modern world.  Its assumption is that the ancient "cultural context" is quite different from ours.  But it is not.  This failure to recognize events that tens of millions of people around the world have experienced -- including many of my friends -- reflects the blindness that is endemic to this whole tribe of skeptics.  
Real miracles are not so arbitrary and unreasonable as DF and VT depict them.  They again, simply miss the true nature of the phenomena they aim to describe.  
"Who, in the midst of all of this, was Jesus? We may never know."
Not if you keep your eyes closed and cover those eyes with your hands, then climb down into the cellar and turn off all the lights, you won't.  Not even an elephant can break through some walls.