Saturday, May 19, 2012

Eighth Best Review: Martin, The Case Against Christianity

Michael Martin, The Case Against Christianity

"Nice Try, No Cigar" (***) 80 + / 55 -

This book is a well-written and systematic argument against the Christian faith, mostly from the point of view of Biblical criticism and philosophy.  Dr. Martin's writing is disciplined and readable, though not as lyrical as, say, that of Bertrand Russell. Unlike some skeptical writers, he has done a bit of homework, quoting Plantinga, Habermas, and Kierkegaard, for example. (Though he seems to have missed others that he really should have read.) His tone is fairly genial.

Martin's argumentative method is to throw lots of arguments up and see what sticks. (Could the resurrection be caused by the indetermidacy principle of quantum physics? Or by Resurrecting Finite Miracle Workers [RFMW]?   I'm sure the little buggers are glad to finally get an acronym!) The more you know about the subjects he covers, however, the less seems to stick. And the more slides off, the more you wonder if Martin has got some of the mud in his own eyes.

Martin's first main argument, against the historicity of Jesus, is so weak, and Martin appears so unconscious of that weakness, that it undermines his credibility. He'll start an argument with, "Some scholars believe. . . " and end it (same sentence) "clearly, then. . ." What kind of argument is that? An argument is not as strong as the sum of its dependant clauses! A piece of speculation (often very wild) by an unnamed "scholar" seems to set up like concrete in Martin's mind in the space of a few clauses into fact. If my father built houses that way, he would have gotten into a lot of trouble during the last earthquake in Seattle!

Argument from silence is another of Martin's favorite weapons. "Surely if X believed or knew Y he would have said so." Generally, though, such arguments are fallacious, because you can only with great caution infer that an event did not happen because someone failed to mention it.  Also, the epistles to which Martin appeals in this regard, are short and on other subjects. (Such as Christian living.)  One fact most such arguments seem to overlook, is that we have a book in the New Testament -- Acts -- which tells the story of the early Christian church, while saying almost nothing about Jesus' life -- even though its author had just written the Gospel of Luke!  And most of the rest of the New Testament is written by Luke's main protagonist in Acts, St Paul, who would probably have had most of the eyewitness contacts Luke relied upon, and more.  So this sort of Argument from Silence really means nothing at all.  It is evident that early Christians could know a lot about the life of Jesus, without referring to it all the time, when they're talking about something else.  (As, indeed, can we.)

In any case, the Gospels do relate Jesus' life. Many wise Christian scholars, and even many non-Christians, have repeatedly pointed out the characteristics of the Gospels that mark them as historical. (See my Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus for one approach, citing many anti-Christian scholars to make some key points, and Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses for a very different, but also legitimate, approach.)  But Martin does not seem very aware of long-standing historical arguments for the Gospels, or of the qualities in the Gospels that make them credible.

Martin believes that the differences among Gospel accounts of the resurrection are a strong argument against it. What do you think skeptics would say if they agreed on all points? "Conspiracy!" And rightly so. As prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi said of the Manson case, when the killers prepared beforehand what to say, "The stories tallied perfectly," But when you have honest witnesses, "There will always be left over evidence that just doesn't fit." And the prosecutor in the Columbine case said, "Any time you have a tramautic situation, even if only one person is killed, every testimony is different." So it appears to many that the superficial differences, but underlying agreement, of the NT records, are very impressive evidence for the truth of the resurrection. But Martin does not even consider this perspective.

Martin's argument against Paul's testimony that 500 witnesses to the resurrection were mostly still alive, is breathtaking. "The fact that 500 people reported seeing a resurrected man would surely have attracted wide attention and come to the attention of. . . historians."  Therefore, since we didn't have any clear secular references to that, this report must be false, and Paul an unreliable witness!

This is only a touch less ludicrous than Jesus Mysteries, that argues against the existence of Jesus since Roman historians don't mention him much, and then turns around and notes that they don't say much about Christians at all until 250 AD! But if the community itself was ignored when it had hundreds of thousands of members, why should a single incident within that community be recorded when the membership was still just a few thousand? In fact, from my studies in China I know that remarkable things can happen among a disfavored group (Christians, again) with little or no mention of those events in the  press.  One would never know the story of how tens of millions of Chinese have become Christians in China, from casually following the Chinese press, still less if one were only given a small sample of politically-conscious contemporary Chinese historians during the Deng era.  From many such specious arguments, Martin proves to his own satisfaction that the Gospels are unreliable, but to mine that (at least) he is out of the loop when it comes to historical evidences.

If you want philosophy, Martin might help a bit more, but even here I find some of his arguments rather
contrived. For example, I guess the tension Martin describes between Scripture and theory of salvation arises because he is concerned with philosophizing about salvation for others, rather than gaining it for himself. But the Bible explicitly limits itself to aiding in the latter, not the former, enterprise. And Martin has overlooked other Scriptural principles on this topic, such as that we are judged by the light given us, and that God, not man, is the judge. Martin might have come to a better understanding of the issue by reading C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce. Its too bad that he nowhere mentions the most influential Christian thinker of the 20th Century, and unfortunate for his argument.

So if you're in the market for arguments against Christianity, what you get here for the most part is quality in terms of style, but quantity as to substance.


Doug said...

"the Bible explicitly limits itself to aiding in the latter, not the former, enterprise." Amen, Brother!

David B Marshall said...

Yes, but there goes a lot of theology up in smoke, too. :- )

Robert Lowrance said...

I have just started reading a book, "Redating the New Testament", by John A. T. Robinson. He is generally acknowledged as a liberal Christian scholar.

He decided to test the hypothesis that all of the books of the NT were written before 70 AD. He thought that he would easilly disprove the hypothesis, when he began. As he continued through, though, he found the exact opposite. He found that there is no compelling evidence to support the writing of any New Testament book after the destruction of the Temple.

I have just begun the book, so I can't really say much more now. If this hypothesis is correct, which as a Christian I have no reason to doubt, then the writing of the New Testament is much closer to the events than most liberal scholars would have us believe. This in turn boosts the reliability of NT accounts.

David B Marshall said...

I have no problem with that hypothesis. But there's a different between "there's no evidence against," "there's evidence for," then again "the evidence for is convincing."

Have you read Bauckham, Jesus & the Eyewitnesses? I think his arguments are going to stay with me for a while. You may also like to try my Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, which takes an unconventional approach to roughly the same station.

Robert Lowrance said...


I have read part of "Jesus & the Eyewitnesses". I have the book, but have been distracted by other books I am reading.

I have purchased your book, but have not read it yet. (My queue of books to be read is huge.)

I agree with you about the distinctions between those categories. I haven't finished Robinson's book yet, so I can't say how he deals with everything. So far it has been quite good.

I really like "Jesus & the Eyewitnesses" (even though I haven't finished it yet). I have actually used some of the tables in his book in a study I am teaching on Galatians. i.e. The most common male names in 1st Century Judea and Galilee. In the Gospels, the names match quite well what one would expect. This definitely explains the use of identifiers with many of the names. i.e. Jesus of Nazareth. The obvious question to the would be, which Jesus, since it was the sixth most common name. The fact that Simon was the most common name fits with their having been two Simons among the twelve, Simon Peter (or Cephas) and Simon the Zealot.