Friday, September 09, 2011

The End of Christianity?

Robert Price: "Explaining the Resurrection Without Recourse to Miracle" (Part IV)

I have never written for publication on the resurrection of Jesus, though I follow the debate with partisan interest. Gary Habermas tells me he is presently preparing a long, scholarly work on the subject.

I will not attempt anything so ambitious here, or even pretend to be enough of an expert to respond fully to Robert Price's argument in this chapter. Dr. Price and I have debated in the past, and I found him congenial. But some of the key assumptions in this chapter seem really far-fetched, and that is what I will focus on.

My own positive argument for the Resurrection begins with my argument for the Gospels, which I give in that admittedly eccentric book, Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could. In the anthology we're putting together now, I am trying to boil some of the best of that down to a single chapter.

In the chapter under discussion here, Dr. Price compares the Gospels to the Wizard of Oz.  I regard this as pure poppycock.  I offer a number of reasons in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus why the Gospels are highly credible historical texts.  It is hard to believe the early disciples got many of the sayings of Jesus right, as Price's Jesus Seminar collegues rightly argue they did, yet were totally mistaken about what happened after he died.  Did Plato spirit Socrates away from his jail cell to Crete?  Did Joseph Smith retire to San Diego?  Disciples usually notice what happens to their master at the end of his life.

Dr. Price disagrees. He finds the Gospels so incredible, we can't even be sure Jesus ever lived at all, let alone came back to life.

Perhaps if we discuss early Christianity again, we can take up some of the issues that stand between us. Here, I'd merely like to question some of the assumptions Dr. Price brings to the table, so as to show why I did not find his argument persuasive.

(a) Do William Lane Craig "and his colleagues" simply "take for granted" that the Gospel stories are accurate?

"Keep in mind, though, that this is purely an exercise in analyzing the particular approach taken by William Lane Craig and his colleagues, not the approach taken by New Testament critics, who do not take for granted the accuracy of the Gospel stories. Craig and others prey on the naivite of their audiences . . . " (219)

This is not a fair description of the approach either Craig or "his colleagues" take to teh resurrection.

In a footnote here, Price cites as examples of Craig's colleagues, R. T. France, David Wenham, Michael Wilkins, J. P. Moreland, Gary Habermas, Michael Licona, Greg Boyd, and Paul Eddy.

In their arguments for the resurrection, do these men simply "take for granted" that the Gospels are accurate, unlike "New Testament critics?" (And who is that?) In fact, Habermas is best known for surveying thousands of works written in three European languages on the resurrection, and building his case for the Resurrection upon facts that a solid majority of scholars agree upon. This was the approach he took for his dissertation, and has built on in decades of work since. It is ludicrous to accuse Habermas of taking the Gospels for granted, and implying that his approach is somehow distinct from that of "NT critics" (unless he means by this term, "nihilistic historians") for his doing so.

Habermas and Licona justify their use of sources, in response to the objection, "The Resurrection Accounts are Biased," on page 124-8 of The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, among I think other places.

Craig follows the same methodology, also appealing to scholarly consensus on basic facts:

"Let me share with you, then, four facts which are established by the consensus of scholarship today. These provide adequate inductive grounds for inferring Jesus' resurrection." (Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?, 24)

Nor, having disposed of the false charge that Craig & Co are "naive" about scholarship, should one accuse these scholars, on the other hand, of simply making appeals to authority. The facts, Habermas emphasized in a piece he recently sent me, stand on their own: that most scholars recognize those facts, helps to show that we're on the right track.

(b) Can we trust any ancient history?

At one juncture, Dr. Price quotes himself in a way that makes him sound like an historical nihilist himself, willing to believe almost nothing in his own field:

"This is why, if apologists like William Lane Craig can get an opponent as far as admitting that Joseph of Arimathea probably did have Jesus interred in his own tomb, and if the women did probably visit the tomb, and that the tomb was probably found to be empty, he can then press on to the conclusion that, Bingo! Jesus must have risen from the dead! What they somehow do not see is that to argue thus is like arguing that the Emerald City of Oz must actually exist since, otherwise, where would the Yellow Brick Road lead? . . . We simply have no reason to assume that anything an ancient narrative tells us is true." (219)

Matthew, Mark, Lucy,
and John?
The emphasis here is Price's own; I would have put it on the astounding final sentence instead! In fact, let's look at that astounding sentence again:

"We simply have no reason to assume that anything an ancient narrative tells us is true."

Is Price really comparing 1st Century Palestine, as depicted in the Gospels, to the land of Oz? One might suppose he is merely engaging in crude trash-talking -- an obscene cartoon on page also refers to Oz. But "we have no reason to assume that anything an ancient narrative tells us is true" sounds serious.

What does this mean? Does Price mean that, rather than simply assume some ancient document is accurate, we should double-check it with other sources, test its internal consistency, and use the tools of scholarly reconstruction to figure out what in it is accurate and what, uncertain? But that's what NT scholarship does all day long -- that's what his own Jesus Seminar does, it's what NT Wright does. And while Craig and Habermas may personally affirm inerrant theologies of Scripture, in their historical arguments, neither do they "assume" the truth of the Gospels, but argue for that truth in light of centuries of scholarship.

In context, it seems what Price really means here, is that we have no reason to BELIEVE what the Gospels, or other ancient narratives, say.

If so, we have to kiss off ancient history. Sorry, Thucydides, Caesar, Si Maqian, Tacitus. So long, ancient historians, biographers, writers of diaries and military chronicles and shopping lists and love notes. You're all in the same boat, and Dr. Price's skepticism seems to have sent it to the bottom.

But why stop at ancient history? Why not throw out Medieval history as well? And why privilege modern historians, biographers and journalists, tappers on the Internet, and the creators of scientific journal articles?

And how do we know John Loftus didn't write this chapter? Maybe the printer, a fundamentalist who wanted to discredit Price, inserted the sleezy cartoon! If we've established the principle that no one can be trusted, where does it stop?

You know where Price's skepticism is likely to end. Price will take this principle just far enough to exclude what he wishes to exclude. Then he'll promptly forget it, as every other historical nihilist I've encountered seems to, when he's making some other argument that equally depends on human testimony.

Doubt is rational. It is possible that this world is an illusion, and we are all stuck in a computer simulation, or a brain in vat. Such scenarios are not unique to modern philosophy: some brands of Asian mysticism explored the outer reaches of skepticsm millennia ago. But reasoned faith is that which allows civilization and learning. Price's apparent readiness to simply dismiss all ancient history reminds us that there are no rational principles by which we can excise the Gospels without taking more of civilization than we would like to see go, with them.

(c) Are the Gospel narratives like the stories of Romulus and Hercules?

"But modern New Testament scholars no longer take for granted that the Easter narratives are history at all. Why should they be? They are so much like similiar apothesis narratives of Hercules, Romulus, Apollonius, Empedocles, and others that the burden of proof is on anyone who would insist that, in the single case of Jesus, 'myth became fact.'"

Here I am tempted to simply quote C. S. Lewis, "After a man has said that, why must one attend to anything he says about any book in the world?" and close shop.

Here, perhaps, it is Dr. Price who is depending on the naivity of his reader, or on the fact that most do not know these stories.

One suspects Price may have cited Empedocles more for his obscurity than for any real relevance. Diogenes Laertius says, according to one report, Empedocles died in a chariot accident at age 77. Some say he drowned, some, he died at 60 or 109. A "jesting epigram" says he threw himself into Mount Etna:

"You too, Empedocles, essayed to purge
Your body in the rapid flames, and drank
The liquid fire from the restless crater;
I say not that you threw yourself at once
Into the stream of Aetna's fiery flood.
But seeking to conceal yourself you fell,
And so you met with unintended death."

Or else:

Lost ending to the
Gospel of Mark?
"'Tis said the wise Empedocles did fall
Out of his chariot, and so broke his thigh:
But if he leapt into the flames of Aetna,
How could his tomb be shown in Megara?"

One can only admire Dr. Price's vivid imagination, in finding here some sort of parallel to the resurrection stories.

Hercules is the story of a god-man who lived, no one knows when. He was sent out to fight man-eating birds with metal feathers, steal carnivorous mares, slay a nine-headed hydra, and impregnated fifty sisters in one busy night (all with boys!). Another of his exploits was to hold up the heavens so Atlas could go pick some apples for him.

In Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, after analyzing the traits that define the Gospels, I set the story of Hercules side-by-side, and compared both sets of stories systematically.

One would be hard-pressed to point to any story less like the Gospels than that of Hercules. Of 41 non-theological characteristics, I found that Hercules shared only two with the Gospels in a significant way, and one more in a minor way. I found that it shared NO characteristic having to do with setting, NO styllistic or literary qualities, except that it is also a drama, NO trait having to do with character development, NO characteristic relevant to morality, except that vague moral notions (or just fate) may be imbedded in this, as in other myths, and that Hercules is expected to suffer to do his duty, and NOT A SINGLE social quality.

With all due respect, to compare the story of Hercules and the Gospels shows breathtaking obtuseness.

True, the Gospels do share a few characteristics typical of myth, and the overcoming of death is one of them.

What do these limited parallels mean? C. S. Lewis described the Gospel as "true myth;" in J. R. R. Tolkien's great essay, On Fairy-Stories, he tells how, the Gospels, "myth" has entered the "primary world."

That is the pattern I found by analyzing the Gospels and comparing them to other ancient writings. Some of the theological traits in the Gospels can indeed be compared to what you find in myth. But in dozens of other ways, these texts reveal a stark realism and historical credibility that no myth can match. The Gospels are loaded with qualities that only the most realistic narratives display -- and more than that.

No myth I examined, certainly not that of Hercules, is at all like the Gospels in those respects.

How did Hercules escape death? He was accidentally poisoned by a lover, ran into the woods, and constructed a pyre for himself, which someone lit. Just then a cloud descended, carrying Zeus, who lifted Hercules to the top of Olympus. He thus obtained immortality, and married the goddess Hebe.

The story of Romulus is told, respectively, by Plutarch and Livy, 800 or 700 years after the alleged facts. Romulus disappears in a storm or whirlwind, during or shortly after offering public sacrifice at or near the Quirinal Hill:

"And Proculus, a man of note, took oath that he saw Romulus caught up into heaven in his arms and vestments, and heard him, as he ascended, cry out that they should hereafter style him by the name of Quirinus."

Livy explained that the Senate actually offed him:

"Then a few voices began to proclaim Romulus's divinity; the cry was taken up, and at last every man present hailed him as a god and son of a god, and prayed to him to be forever gracious and to protect his children. However, even on this great occasion there were, I believe, a few dissenters who secretly maintained that the king had been torn to pieces by the senators . . . Proculus, aware of the prevalent temper, conceived the shrewd idea of addressing the Assembly. 'Romulus', he declared, 'the father of our city descended from heaven at dawn this morning and appeared to me . . . Go, he said, and tell the Romans that by heaven's will my Rome shall be capital of the world . . . Having spoken these words, he was taken up again into the sky."

Both are stories, and both share a few theological motifs with the Gospels -- the hint of violence, life (of some sort) after death, going up to heaven. (A pattern the great anthropologist Rene Girard shows the Gospels echo, but radically subvert and transform at the same time.)

I found that the Jesus Seminar recognizes a few of the historically-convincing traits found in the Gospels, while overlooking others. As skeptical as they are, as hostile to orthodox Christianity as they are, Funk, Borg, Crossan & Co are nevertheless forced by the facts to affirm a strong slice of historicity to Gospel story. They read him as a kind of social revolutionary.

At the same time, other skeptics, like Morton Smith, recognizes other sets of facts that force them to admit another aspect of the Gospel story -- Jesus as "magician."

Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, liberals, secular humanists, and communists also recognize other aspects of Jesus that are real, and tend to suppress the rest. We Christian are often guilty of doing the same.

The fact that well-read skeptics like Robert Price notice a few pale points of similarity, and leap to the conclusion that the Gospels ARE myth, missing these other remarkable characteristics, shows two things: (1) Myth does become reality, in the Gospels, but (2) unwillingness to accept that reality produces cognitive dissonance, creating the famous confusion of New Testament scholarship, which Crossan talks about.

C. S. Lewis described this, already, some 60 years ago. He wrote of the "restless fertility of bewilderment" with which skeptics wrote about the Gospels, even in his day.

G. Gresham Machen predicted, even earlier, that this cognitive dissonance would lead more and more skeptical scholars to accept what is today called the "Christ myth" hypothesis. His prediction may have been too dire -- facts are facts, and continue to force even most radical scholars to admit a great deal of historicity to the Gospels. But it is curious to observe the debate between those who recognize different parts of the elephant.

(4) Did Jesus swoon? Dr. Price then discusses several alternative theories about what "really" happened to Jesus, and explains why he finds them plausible. Most of this is like finding pictures of the Virgin Mary in a cookie. Why was Pontius Pilate surprised that Jesus expired so quickly? Aha! A clue! The Gospel writer is hinting that Jesus really didn't die at all -- never mind the details about blood and water gushing from his side as the sword went in. Details, shmetails.

Price does have an audience, so apparently some find this sort of thing interesting.

It does not interest me, though. It is a superficially clever game anyone can play with any set of historical evidence, to prove almost anything -- this is how most crack-pot theories get off the ground. Price ought to worry when he finds himself making common cause with a sect of heretical Muslims who think Jesus was taken down from the cross and lived out his final days in India.

(5) Much like Apollonius?

Dr. Price also compares the story of the Resurrection in the Gospels to the account of how Apollonius of Tyana appeared to his disciples after he had supposedly expired.

One wild and crazy peripatetic
He really ought to break this habit. In our debate, when Price brought up Apollonius in a similiar manner, I reminded him that the "biography" of Apollonius was written centuries after the life of Christ, when Gospels were already in circulation. Furthermore, the woman who sponsored the book's authorship was known to be anti-Christian -- the author, Philostratus, had motive as well as opportunity to "borrow" from the Gospels.

Not that I'm sure he did. As it happens, Apollonius of Tyana was also among the books I compared to the Gospels. Though it is placed in the category of "bioi" or biography by some scholars, rather than myth, I found that it shared very few of the characteristics that define the Gospels, and support their historicity. I compared it instead to a Saturday Night Live skit, which I think it much resembles -- the lead role could be played well by Steve Martin, in a suitably pompous voice.

Nor do I think the vague and late account of Apollonius' apotheosis has much in it worth commenting on.

As an element in many attempts to explain away the resurrection, mention of Apollonius of Tyana shows desperation. If they could find better parallels, they would. Apparently there are no serious parallels not only to the Gospels as a whole, or even to the ressurection accounts. Something new has entered the primary world -- the Word Made Flesh, dwelling among us.


Anonymous said...

In what world is 18% many, because that was the percentage of saying the Jesus Seminar concluded when back to a Historical Jesus. In your day to day dealing would you trust someone who only had 18% of their facts correct, especailly if they followed up their 82% failure rate with the exordinary claim that a dead person returned to life. Further, no where in the text of the Gospel themselves do they claim to have been written by eye wittness. Thus your claim that if they correctly reported 18% of Jesus' teaching they must have known, was disciples and eyewittnesses, what happen to Jesus, is absurd.

Anonymous said...

Your arguments mostly boil down to special pleading and appeals to authority. You dont have the knowledge to do this type of criticism.

David B Marshall said...

Anon: 18% is "many" in our world, and in the context of this argument, of course. That includes 90 sayings, often repeated several times. That's one heck of a lot of sayings to survive across 2000 years, from any source, and provides an excellent basis for the point I made here. If the gospel writers got 90 SAYINGS right (even according to hard-core skeptics, who I show err repeatedly on the side of skepticism), then it is unlikely they totally botched the most significant biographical detail of Jesus' life.

There are, actually, suggestions in both Mark and John that these two gospels were written in part (at least) by eyewitnesses, and Luke had access to eyewitnesses.

Are these mistaken objections, plus some surly hand-waving, all you've got? To claim that most of my arguments here reduce to "special pleading" and "arguments from authority" is vacuous: there are obviously many arguments in this post that don't come without a thousand miles of either supposed fallacy. (Though appeal to authority is, in fact, a reasonable part of almost every good argument. I don't know where you think I engage in "special pleading;" keeping things nice and vague, are we?)

If you have more cogent objections to my arguments, please give your name, next time. Which hopefully will also encourage you to improve the quality of your arguments.

David B Marshall said...

To give an example from the Greco-Roman world, most scholars think Tacitus "made up" the speech of the Celtic general Calgusus before battle:

“The speeches of Calgacus and Agricola before the battle of Mons Graupius owe something to Livy’s speeches of Scipio and Hannibal before the battle of Ticinum" . . . Ronald Martin notes, “It is unlikely that Calgacus delivered a formal pre-battle harangue, and if he did, it was certainly not couched in neat, Tacitean Latin” (Martin, Tacitus, 43)."

Tacitus probably made the speech up, but scholars agree he was, in general, a careful and reliable historian, who got the main events he related right. It is anachronistic and "absurd," as you put it, to argue, "The evangelists may have gotten some of the words of Jesus wrong, according to radical scholars, so they must have botched that bit about him rising from the dead, too!"

But the Jesus Seminar is almost certainly way too pessimistic about the words, too, given all the erroneous assumptions I detail in their arguments.