Monday, April 30, 2012

The "Shrouded" Sign: Can Thomas de Wesselow explain the Rez?

Skeptic theories about Jesus, C. S. Lewis noted more than half a century ago, tend to succeed one another with "the restless fertility of bewilderment."  Indeed, while the idea that Jesus was, say, a "copy-cat savior" like Osiris or Mithras were old hat already in his day, even Lewis might be surprised to hear some of the wilder recent theories, such as that Jesus was a "hippy in an age of Augustan yuppies," a rip-off from his beloved Iliad, or just a fictional excuse for people to inject hallucinogenic mushrooms. 

No, we have not quite reached the end of this road, yet.  The ingenious, we still have with us.  A Cambridge-trained art historian has just come out with a new one, tracing the rise of Christianity back to the Shroud of Turin.   Jesus' followers took him down from the cross, his wounds were printed (don't know how, yet) on his burial cloth, and the resulting image launched the whole Christian myth!  Judging by the introduction, this is not the most poorly-written or weakly-imagined "Christ of Doubt" yet to have been conceived. Certainly, this Thomas De Wesselow fellow has wit and smarts, has read a bunch of books (but already, it seems, not nearly enough), and has that impregnably cool Enlightenment "Tude" down double kosher.

Who knows?  Maybe De Wesselow will be the one who finally strikes paydirt, and the Christian church will have to pack up its tent and use its spare crosses as stakes to hang laundry lines from by mid-summer! 

Or maybe, yet again, the evangelists and the facts they report will find a way to outwit their oh-so-scientific, Ivy-League, Oxbridge-educated critics, once again. 

Let's see how be does, section by section, sometimes chapter by chapter. 

Chapter One: The Resurrection

A. The first chapter of the book gives promise both of an interesting read, from a man who has read widely and writes punchy prose, but also suggestions that the boxer may be fighting out of his weight class.  Let's begin our review with five of the former. 

Rationalists . . . were left, as it were, with a Resurrection-shaped hole in history. (7)
Precisely so.  This is the hole De Wesselow proposes to fill.

Over the course of the last 150 years the failure to solve the 'Resurrection problem' has become chronic . . . proposing many weird and wonderful ways of understanding the birth of Christianity, but there are major difficulties with every solution so far proposed, and none is generally accepted.  Confounding the intellectual optimism of the Enlightenment, the secret of the Resurrection has turned out to be as elusive as the Snark. (8)

Or as obvious as the smile on the Cheshire cat's face. 

The birth of Christianity is a marginal issue for no one.  (10)

No, indeed, since everyone seems to have written a book or two about it. :- )

These sophisticates are opposed by others who insist, even now, on the reality of the flesh-and-blood Resurrection. (10) 

Even now?  Do I detect a whiff of chronological snobbery?  One might say, especially now -- today, when more people than ever celebrate Jesus' resurrection.  Now, when Christian philosophers have taken their arguments to the heart of the university, again.  Now, when apologists like William Lane Craig regularly trounce atheist opponents on this very subject. 

But we move ahead of ourselves. 

(NT) Wright issues historians with a challenge: 'what alternative account can be offered which will explain the data just as well, which can provide an alternative sufficient explanation for all the evidence and so challenge the right of the bodily resurrection to be regarded as the neccessary one?

De Wesselow thus announces, early on, that NT Wright will likely be the major Christian scholar with whom he will cross swords in this book.  Good choice, if you feel lucky, DW.  Wright's Resurrection of the Son of God argues in 817 pages of erudite text and detailed notes, that in fact we do know what happened on Easter morning, and that's why we celebrate it. 

But can De Wesselow, an art historian with his first publication in this much-contested field, really contest this ground with the likes of Wright? 

B. That brings us to a number of less astute comments DW makes in this first and still introductory chapter, that make one wonder if, despite the succinct eloquence of his style, if he is really in the right ring:

(Christian) mobs set about razing pagan temples and sanctuaries, including the famous library of Alexandria, the greatest center of learning in the modern world. (3)

What, that old myth, again?  In fact, the library had been gone for centuries by this time. 

This relatively obscure individual (Jesus), whose activities are not mentioned in a single contemporary source . . .

Wrong in two ways.  First, the relevance of the comment is weak.  DW seems to be demanding that one find non-Christian historical records from the time of Jesus' own, very short life, that tell about that life.  But this is an absurd demand.  Given how few historians were writing about Palestine during the early 1st Century, really there were no non-Christian sources that COULD have mentioned Jesus, even if he was "famouser than Captain Kangaroo," as Forrest Gump put it.  Philo barely even mentions Pilate, and he was the king! 

Second, DW admits that Josephus mentioned Jesus, but did so "two generations" later.  But the generation that was alive when Jesus was alive, would not have all died off instantly.  In fact, most of his followers would have been younger than him.  Some could easily have survived into the 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s or 100s -- see my recent comparison between the Gospels and accounts of World War II.  Most of us still know people who fought in World War II, which is now 67-73 years to stern -- eg, comparable to 100 - 106 AD!  Isn't an account from an eyewitness still a "contemporary account" in the relevant sense, that the person writing could have been there?  Or if that account is second-hand, isn't it possible that the information came from a first-hand source?
One notices, regretfully, that DW fails to cite Richard Bauckham in this book.  Bauckham offers a slew of arguments that the Gospels were, indeed, based on the accounts of people who were eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus. 

In the "Acts of the Apostles," the legendary history of the early Church contained in the New Testament . . . the book of Acts is not a particularly reliable source. (4)

In fact, historians have found that Acts is brimming over with 1st Century names, titles, places, and events that have been confirmed from other sources.  Witherington and Blomberg are among those who have documented this fact. 

These were all written in the 50s, half a century or so before Acts.

In fact, Acts was almost certainly written well before 100 AD, and probably by the doctor we call Luke. 

Paul nowhere shows the slightest interest in the life and career of Jesus.

An exagerration. Quite a few details about Jesus' life and teachings can, in fact, be found in the writings of Paul.  Anyway, as Richard Burridge shows, ancient biography often concentrated on the climactic events in a person's life, as the Gospels do.  Paul seems familiar with some of that earlier material, and his moral teaching follows it fairly closely.  But of course the death and resurrection of one's teacher do rather concentrate the mind.   

The Four Gospels . . . generally reckoned to have been written sometime between 70 and 100 by anonymous second-or third-generation Christians. (5)

Here, again, it would be helpful if DW had read Bauckham. 

These dates are both rather late.  It is probable that John was largely based on the first-hand reminiscences of an apostle by that name.  While Mark and Luke probably were probably second generation, they seem to have been very close second-generation reporters, having interviewed not one but a number of first-generation sources, including Peter and others. 

(The doctrine of the Resurrection) stands as a testimony to the imperialistic power of the Church and its sustained stranglehold on intellectual endeavor. (5)

Hardly.  Actually, the doctrine of the Resurrection dominates Acts and the writings of Paul, which even DW admits were written centuries before Christians gained any political power at all.  As I showed in my debate with Carrier (at, Christianity gained acceptance throughout the Roman empire, and later, by mostly peaceful means.  The Church of the East seldom had much power.  Billions of Christians around the world, not only without power, but in the teeth of power, to paraphrase our good friend Dawkins, have also believed in the resurrection.  So this explanation does not explain much. 

Also, it was under the alleged "strangehold" of the Catholic Church that modern science, philosophy, shipping, the greatest feats of engineering the world had yet seen, were born.  For a baby that got strangled in its crib, European civilization grew up surprisingly strong. 

Tertullian, a contemporary Christian apologist, disarmed such rational objections  (as Celsus calling the Resurrection 'nauseating and impossible') by simply asserting, 'the fact is certain, because it is impossible.

This misquote of Tertullian ought to be retired into the Skeptical Hall of Fame by now.  In Dawkins' Delusion, McGrath shows how Dawkins abuses the very same quote.  My readers will have likely come across other instances of this miscitation.   

Tertullian was in no way attempting to "disarm rational objections" with this comment.  If historians won't read historical texts in context, who will?  He was not arguing with Celsus at all, but with the quasi-Gnostic ideas of Marcion.  He was refuting the notion that Christ only seemed to die, but didn't, really -- in other words, Tertullian was trying to suppor one of the pillars in DW's own argument, here! 

Needless to say, Tertullian's heirs made sure that the works of Celsus and Porphyry perished in the pious book-burnings of the fourth and fifth centuries.

What evidence does DW have that either book was ever burnt?  Still less that those alleged burnings made a profound dent in available stores of these two books?  Books were lost in antiquity by neglect more often than persecution.  If persecution were sufficient to destroy books that were loved, we would have no ancient Bibles, nor would the Christians -- but we do, and they had more, which were copied and passed on. 

The sea of faith gradually swamped the empire, and the spirit of rational inquiry was washed away.  

Oh, baloney.  A discredited version of Western intellectual history, another cheap shot that suggests DW is going to rely on a lot of stale old cliches in lieu of real historical research, at critical junctures. 

As even Richard Carrier admits, science had been ebbing for several centuries by the time Christianity was first tolerated.  In many ways, Augustine represented the last and perhaps greatest flowering of the intellectual power of Antiquity.  What put an end to Ancient Rome, though, was not this alleged "swamp" of Christian faith, but an intellectual decline that began even before the time of Christ, gradual demographic implosion of the sort that Italy and Japan face today (combined with immigration), but which  Christianity partly reversed, too little and too late, and then waves of armed invaders from the north. 

Blaming it all on Christianity is a taudry and hackneyed old ploy, that does not work anymore. 

The weightiest recent work on the founding event of Christianity is a spirited defense of the traditional doctrine by an Anglican bishop, Tom Wright, who makes hay out of the ongoing failure of the secularists to come up with a convincing story of their own. (10)

I agree that Wright's book is good.  But why identify him merely as an "Anglican bishop?"  Philosopher Raymond Martin says his historical methodology is far and away the best among NT scholars.  Marcus Borg also rates him as the best British scholar of the NT.  Wouldn't it be more relevant to mention his scholarly credentials? 

So already, one notes troubling signs that DW may be over his head when it comes to ancient Christianity.  One admires him for his boldness in stepping into this ring, even if he comes to the heavy-weight championship looking for a welter-weight opponent.

As an art historian, though, his discussion of the Shroud of Turin might be especially enlightening.  De Wesselow was speaking mostly on this subject this afternoon, on the Michael Medved show.  The history of the Shroud is the subject of chapter two: let us examine what he says.


Brian Barrington said...

It seems to me that De Wesselow is making a very fundamental mistake in his way of approaching this. He says,

“Over the course of the last 150 years the failure to solve the 'Resurrection problem' has become chronic . . . there are major difficulties with every solution so far proposed, and none is generally accepted. Confounding the intellectual optimism of the Enlightenment, the secret of the Resurrection has turned out to be as elusive as the Snark … Tom Wright … makes hay out of the ongoing failure of the secularists to come up with a convincing story of their own.”

The big mistake here, the key error, is to assume that all ancient historical “problems” can be solved i.e. to assume that we have enough reliable information or historical evidence to solve them. Our knowledge of Ancient history in particular is, on many issues, very uncertain, so on many issues the evidence, such as it is, leads one to conclude “I don’t know” or “I am not very sure at all”. This does not confound the intellectual optimism of the Enlightenment at all – it just means we need to be properly sceptical of many claims made about ancient history.

Consider the following situation: there is a set of historical data, and, say, broadly 10 possible explanations for a given set of data, and one thinks that each of those 10 possible explanations has an approximately 10% probability of being true. What to do? Based on the evidence alone, one will not believe ANY of the explanations, since there is a 90% chance that any of the explanations are false. In this situation one simply says, “Based on the historical evidence available, we cannot determine with any degree of certainty what, if anything, exactly happened.”

The stories of the resurrection are like that - based on the historical evidence available, we cannot determine with any degree of certainty what, if anything, exactly happened.

“That in fact we do know what happened on Easter morning”

No. The fact is, nobody knows what, if anything, happened. People might have various ideas and theories about it, but nobody knows with much certainty. Both Christians and “sceptics” who claim to know exactly what happened are talking rubbish.

The resurrection accounts claim that someone rose from the dead after three days. Since people rarely if ever come back to life after three days, and since accounts are frequently incorrect, one is justified in being sceptical of the accuracy of these accounts – is it more likely that the accounts are incorrect or that someone actually rose from the dead? Well if one is looking at it from a strictly historical perspective the answer is “It’s more likely that the accounts are inaccurate”.

So, whilst people might have other reasons for believing in the resurrection (perhaps good reasons) the historical evidence on its own is not enough to justify believing in it. At the very best it can provide part of the reason for believing the resurrection. But very few people who do not believe in the resurrection are persuaded to believe it based on the historical evidence alone.

Think about it this way: If the historical argument is really so good, then surely the resurrection should be thought in history class, as a historical fact? But it isn’t taught like that – and even advocates of the historical argument surely don’t think the resurrection should be taught in history class as a likely historical fact.

David B Marshall said...

Brian: By "solve," I think yes, DW means "explain what happened." But even more, he means "find some sort of answer to a strong Christian challenge based on excellent evidence, so our guys don't keep get thumped in these debates."

One thing DW makes perfectly clear in these early chapters, is that the academic community has often just ignored or even shouted down the evidence, because they found the possibility that Jesus really rose from the dead embarrassing. He agrees on that point fully. He just wants to offer his fellow skeptics a plausible solution, so they can finally get the monkey off their backs, ie, colonize this stretch of history for atheism.

Your comments are an echo of the approach David Hume tried. It doesn't work. It begs the question, and if consistently applied, would render it impossible to discover new facts about reality. You might also like to see my response to Stephen Law a couple posts back. Odd thing -- hundreds of posts under his article, and he engaged with skeptical challenges to his argument, but he seemed to simply refuse to engage with my several direct and courteous challenges.

Brian Barrington said...

The point I make is that nobody knows with much certainty what, if anything, happened here – and anyone who pretends they know with much certainty, whether a Christian or an atheist, is talking rubbish.

Incorrect claims are far more frequent than people coming back from the dead after three days. So, if one is going to believe that someone came back to life after three days based on the claims alone, it must be virtually inconceivable that the claims are incorrect. In this case, the claims could very easily be incorrect, so there is no reason to believe them (based on the historical evidence alone).

Taking this approach does not in least make it impossible for us to find out new facts about reality, although it does help us avoid mistakenly believing lots of non-facts.

David B Marshall said...

Brian: Well, if one has independent reason to think miracles do sometimes happen (as a lot of people do), it's not so hard to take the evidence, allowing for complexities in historical reconstructions, more or less on face value.

I've already explained, and you seemed to accept the explanation at least for the sake of the argument, why Jesus rising from the dead is different from "people" rising from the dead in general. So you can't argue now from mere frequencies.

A Lesser Son of the King said...

I noted one historical mistake in your writing: Pilate was a governor or prefect, not a king.

In support of your critique of DW:

Acts is very thoroughly attested. Luke gets information right that would not be expected if Acts had been written later and by someone who had never been to the places mentioned. He gives the proper titles of individuals used at the time of the events; these titles changed often, so this is telling. Luke also mentions names that make sense in context; i.e. the names in Acts reflect names used in the areas mentioned at the time. Neither of these things would be true if Acts had been written later, even if the author had gone to these areas. Titles and common names would have changed by that time.

There is no fact that I know of that would require any book of the New Testament to be written after 70 AD. That is not to say that they all were written before 70 AD, but it is quite likely that the bulk of the New Testament was written between 40 and 70 AD. This figure includes the books written by John. At the very outside, the New Testament was complete before 100 AD.

Now, this does not mean that there weren't glosses that may have been inserted later. However, with the wealth of documents that we have, we can be absolutely sure of about 95% of the text. Of the remaining 5% or so, no major doctrine of the church rises or falls upon these texts. Some minor doctrines, such as snake handling, are affected by this 5%. But these doctrines are minor because they do not affect salvation and they are not held by the vast majority of the church.

By the way, my name is Rob. A Lesser Son of the King is the title of my blog. Evidently, I made this my default identity as well.

David B Marshall said...

Rob: Oops! Did I say king?

Yes, I agree about Luke and the gospels, not only for historical reasons, but because of the kind of internal evidences I describe in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus. There's no way they quoted Jesus correctly on many occasions (as they clearly did), then got the little matter of his resurrection from the dead wrong!

In a sense, DW supports this, by showing that John and Luke were right about the linen burial cloths. More on that later.