Before we begin, I do need to mention a few of the main characters, and a bit of the story. Craig is William Lane Craig, Christian apologist extraordinaire. McCullagh is philosopher of science C. Behan McCullagh, author of Justifying Historical Descriptions (1984). Campbell is Travis Campbell, a theologian who critiqued Avalos' criticism of Craig, in what Avalos concedes is a fair tone. Avalos wants, however, to (a) push back against Campbell's criticism, (b) continue to maintain that Craig's defense of the resurrection is flawed, and (c) sling a bit of mud at Christian intellectuals in general, (d) and also, of course, undermine the historical credibility of the resurrection itself. As mentioned, my primary interest will be (d), but we'll touch on (c) at the end, as well.
I put background texts in dark brown, and the words of the person I'm responding to in purple this time.
Criteria for Historicity
McCullagh, according to Avalos, offers the following seven criteria for a well-attested historical event:
“The theory is that one is rationally justified in believing a statement to be true if the following conditions obtain:
(1) The statement, together with other statements already held to be true, must imply yet other statements describing present, observable data. (We will henceforth call the first statement ‘the hypothesis’, and statements describing observable data, ‘observation statements’.)
(2)The hypothesis must be of greater explanatory scope than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject; that is, it must imply a greater variety of observation statements.
(3) The hypothesis must be of greater explanatory power than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject; that is, it must make the observation statements it implies more probable than any other.
(4) The hypothesis must be more plausible than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject; that is, it must be implied to some degree by a greater variety of accepted truths than any other, and be implied more strongly than any other; and its probable negation must be implied by fewer beliefs, and implied less strongly any other.
(5)The hypothesis must be less ad hoc than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject; that is, it must include fewer new suppositions about the past which are not already implied to some extent by existing beliefs.
(6) It must be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject; that is, when conjoined with accepted truths it must imply fewer observation statements and other statements which are believed to be false.
(7)It must exceed other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject by so much, in characteristics 2 to 6, that there is little chance of an incompatible hypothesis, after further investigation, soon exceeding it in these respects.”
Craig argues that the Resurrection meets all, or nearly all, of these criteria. Avalos disputes two or three, as we shall see.
Craig argues that the Resurrection meets all, or nearly all, of these criteria. Avalos disputes two or three, as we shall see.
Avalos' argument, and where it goes wrong
Natural and Supernatural?
McCullagh argues that those who accept or deny the possibility of the miracles of Jesus may obtain different results when using these same criteria. McCullagh specifically remarks: “So, what constituted the prime domain of evidence for one historian could be almost entirely denied by the other” (Justifying, p. 28).
A point admitted I think by most scholars who debate the resurrection. Along with historical evidence for or against the proposition that Jesus rose from the dead, one must also take into account the "prior probability" of background facts that make that story more or less credible. The question of miracles is no doubt the most important such background fact: do they happen, or don't they?
I have argued on this blog before that the prior probability of the Resurrection is remarkably high. But of course, McCullagh's point would seem to be that historians as historians may evaluate that background evidence differently, and therefore come to the specific evidence for any given miracle with different philosophical or theological assumptions about how credible it might be.
Aside from a brief comment on Jesus’ resurrection (which he denies passes all his own tests) and the death of William II (a discussion that Campbell misunderstands), McCullagh does focus on how these criteria differentiate between natural explanations.
Which is to say, McCullagh doesn't exclusively apply his tests for historical credibility to events that have obvious natural explanations. But no doubt he recognized that the possibility of miracles introduces a complication that makes straight-forward historical reasoning insufficient by itself to reach clear conclusions.
For simple explanations, one wisely uses simple examples. Introducing the further complexity of alternative worldviews, is like throwing a few extra variables into an equation. In fact, that is exactly what debate over religion forces us to do. That's one reason why theology is so interesting, and also why it's so difficult for scholars of the 1st Century to resolve apparently simple questions about who Jesus was, what he taught, what he did, and what happened to him after he died.
Is it Ad Hoc to believe in the Resurrection?
Avalos argues that it is:
Campbell admits that McCullagh does not believe that the resurrection definitively passes all of his tests. This is because McCullagh states:
“One example which illustrates the conditions most vividly is discussion of the Christian hypothesis that Jesus rose from the dead. This hypothesis is of greater explanatory scope and power than other hypotheses which try to account for the relevant evidence, but is less plausible and more ad hoc than they are. That is why it is difficult to decide on the evidence whether it should be accepted or rejected” (Justifying, p. 21).
So, of the seven criteria, McCullagh states that his following ones are not satisfied by the resurrection of Jesus (using McCullagh’s numbering):
4. It is plausible.
5. It is not ad hoc or contrived . . .
Campbell first focuses on McCullagh’s charge that the resurrection story is ad hoc, and he states that McCullagh defines ad hoc “in terms of the number of new suppositions made by a hypothesis that are not already implied by existing knowledge” (ACC, p. 292).
Campbell then repeats Craig’s assertion that the resurrection story is not ad hoc because it “requires ONLY ONE new supposition: that God exists” (ACC, p. 292; my capitalization) . . . (I cut Campbell's arguments here -- DM.)
Rather, my main contention is that NONE of the statements about Jesus’ death, burial or resurrection found in the New Testament can be corroborated independently, and so deserve no more credence than what we bestow on other resurrection or miracle stories that also cannot be independently corroborated in any other religious tradition.
Such a position does not obligate me to make any suppositions at all about the disciples or their mental states. All I am saying is that there is no independent evidence to substantiate the claims of NT AUTHORS about what the disciples experienced . . .
Avalos is, I think, making a fundamental historical error here, an error that may be classified as an anachronism. It is one he repeats later on, but let's flag it now.
The New Testament is not one source, or arguably, even one "tradition." The NT contains a large number of partially interdependent, but largely indepedent texts from very early in the Christian tradition or traditions -- from late in the first generation of Jesus' followers, between about 50 and 95 AD.
So the NT texts themselves, being largely indepedent of one another, should not be taken as a single source, but as sources that can substantiate one another. The people who put these texts together in one book, lived much later. (We'll talk about this more, later.)
There may, of course, also be various forms of internal evidence that substantiates individual NT texts. (I think there is, and lots of it, of unusually high quality -- some of which we will also return to.)
Of course, we have no “existing knowledge” that there was an empty tomb, or that Jesus resurrected. These are simply claims made by ancient authors. We have no existing knowledge that people resurrect, but that does not stop Craig from positing something that is not “existing knowledge.”
By that standard, we also have no "existing knowledge" that Alexander the Great faced elephants on the battlefield in India, or that Confucius climbed Mount Tai in the state of Lu. These, too, are "simply claims made by ancient authors."
But again, the question is not "whether people resurrect," but whether God (an all-powerful, benevolent being) may have resurrected one or more people. One needs to be careful not to phrase this to make a miracle sound like spontaneous combustion, or some other arbitrary, inexplicable event.
On the other hand, people lying, having hallucinations, and not dying after severe injuries are part of our existing knowledge, and so can be used as explanations where the evidence fits.
Craig Keener argues, in effect, that miracles may also be taken as part of our existing knowledge. Certainly I have met far more people who have experienced miracles, than who have hallucinated on the scale required to explain the resurrection appearances, or who have survived crucifixion and then been well enough to walk through walls to tell the story afterwards.
Furthermore, the biblical god’s existence does not constitute “existing knowledge” any more so than Krishna’s existence . . .
Of course God's existence is more part of "existing knowledge" than that of Krishna. As I show here and here, the True God transcends individual cultures. That is, even by New Atheist arguments, a valid reason to believe in God. The same cannot be said of Krishna. (Although in the Baghavad Gita, and for instance in the Hare Krishna movement, a theistic concept of Krishna may develop, which shows the plausibility of the Christian concept of God even within allegedly pantheistic traditions. More on Krishna, later.)
Craig apparently thinks that ONLY ONE ad hoc supposition is required to explain the resurrection—namely, that God exists.
However, this is not the case. For example, to say that God raised Jesus from the dead might also require the following “new” or ad hoc suppositions:
A. God intervenes in our world. We can suppose the existence of God, and yet not suppose that He intervenes in our world (ala deism).
B. Craig’s God is the same as the biblical god. There is no reason to assume that God is the same as the biblical god even if we suppose God exists.
C. God wanted to raise Jesus from the dead. We can suppose that God exists, but it does not mean that he wanted to raise Jesus from the dead.
D. God did raise Jesus from the dead. God could exist and yet not raise Jesus from the dead.
E. God raised Jesus from the dead, but not other people for which claims of resurrection by God have also been made.
So, the mere existence of God is NOT the ONLY NEW supposition needed.
This seems confused on several levels. First of all, the question is not about “Craig’s God,” or even the “biblical god,” but about the one and only God, Creator of all things, who transcends particular cultures. (See links above.) So B is just irrelevant: Craig can be factored out.
Secondly, since “God” by definition is all-powerful, A, C and D are really only one new assumption – if God exists, and intended to raise Jesus, by definition He could and therefore did do so. (See link to article on prior probability, above.) And E is just wrong: Christianity not only does not assume that only Jesus was raised from the dead, the gospels specifically say that other people have been, as well. (See also Craig Keener's book, in which with full and reasonable confidence of orthodoxy, he cites more recent resurrections as well, including of people he personally knew!)
But there is an even more fundamental answer to the charge that the resurrection is in some sense ad hoc: the Old Testament.
The Old Testament says that in the beginning, God created all things. It describes Him intervening in our world. It speaks of a Messiah or Suffering Servant who will bring salvation to all the peoples of the world – including, Isaiah 53:10 seems to hint, by dying for humanity, then rising from the dead.
Ad hoc literally means “for this.” The notion is that Christian theology was invented on the spur of the moment, to fill a particular need, such as to explain why Christianity took off as it did, when it did, or tales of a risen Christ circulating within the early Church. But God had already been assumed for hundreds of years in Jewish tradition, and transcends that tradition. So that assumption was not at all manufactured "for this."
Why should we make modern secular humanism, still very much a minority faith, normative? The only additional conclusion -- one can hardly call it an assumption -- that the resurrection requires beyond the existence of God, already factored into prior probability calculations, is that God wished to raise the greatest and most famous human being, who had been unjustly done to death, and whose resurrection would change the course of history. And that wish was suggested by the prophets already -- not just Isaiah, I would argue, but even in the Chinese Scriptures. And of course, Jesus promised it himself, as admitted by his executioners.
So the idea of the resurrection is really not so very ad hoc. One might even express surprise at God, had He NOT raised Jesus from the dead.
Note also how McCullagh defines ad hoc here: “[I]t is ad hoc if there are no reasons for thinking it true besides the fact that it would explain the available data.” An ad hoc cause is posited solely to explain some datum, but there is no other reason to think that this cause exists. It is a case of special pleading.
In other words, Craig (and Licona) would be invoking the existence of God solely to explain the resurrection because there are no other known means by which the resurrection can happen naturally . . .
This is not at all true. Craig regularly trounces leading philosophers and scientists by arguing in favor of other evidences for the existence of God which are entirely independent of the resurrection. (True, he appropriately adds evidence for the resurrection as a further point in God's favor. But he is being succinct in those debates: there are many additional evidences, for example which I brought up in my debate with Richard Carrier.)
And so Craig’s ad hoc supposition is like saying:
A. I cannot explain how X was resurrected by Krishna naturally in a Hindu story.
B. But if we assume that Krishna exists, then
C. resurrections by Krishna become more probable, and reports of Krishna resurrecting people become more probable . . .
What "Hindu story" is Avalos talking about? Avalos needs to be specific, if we are going to make a genuine historical comparison.
In any case, Krishna is not God. He is an avatar of the god Vishnu, who in the henotheistic thinking of the Baghavad Gita, envelops all gods, and approaches therefore the concept of God. (Which may be why the text is so popular in India, along with its poetic beauty.) To the extent that Vishnu is used in a monotheistic sense, "the one God, with many aspects or appearances," one might say that "Vishnu" could be used in some instances as a synonym for the English "God" -- though often, he appears to be simply one out of many gods. And sometimes his character may preclude identification with God.
If there is a God, sure, He can resurrect people in India as easily as in Palestine, if He wants. But any such claim, as with the resurrection of Jesus, needs to be considered both in terms of prior probability, and in a specific historical context. Avalos is free to make such an argument, if he likes. But if he can find a reasonable resurrection account in the Hindu tradition, it may prove a two-edged sword, that cuts him as a Secular Humanist, more deeply than it cuts Christians. If there's evidence for it, and it's reasonable, why does he not believe it? If there is no evidence for it, and it's unreasonable, why bring it up in this context, except to confuse the gospel accounts with weak parallels?
How should we explain the Resurrection?
And are there known causes that can explain stories of resurrections? Yes, the following ones that can be all tested to see if they can result in stories of resurrections or empty tombs:
A. Outright lying by authors for
1. Political motives
2. Economic motives
B. Theological narratives not meant to describe historical events
C. Intentional fiction (not necessarily lying)
D. Acceptance of traditions that are false even if the author does not know that.
All of these can cause stories of supernatural events, including resurrections, to be produced.
True. And such motives can also inspire stories of murders, extramarital affairs, bad weather, or military incursions, among many other things.
On the other hand, I have NEVER observed an actual resurrection causing a story of a resurrection.
And I have NEVER observed an actual murder causing a story of a murder, or even an actual extramarital affair causing a story of an affair. Perhaps both of us need to get out more.
But Arguments from Limited Personal Experience need not be universally persuasive.
And I have NEVER observed an act of God producing any story, and so why should I appeal to a non-observable cause, when I have plenty of known causes that I can observe and test to see if they produce the same or similar result today?
Well I have observed events that are most easily explained as acts of God. But of course, being a civilized human being with the gift of language, almost all that I know comes from other people. This is also the case with miracles. I have met perhaps two hundred people who offered first-hand accounts of miracles to me personally, or to audiences of which I was a part. Some of those people, I had good reason to trust.
Avalos is just begging the question, then appealing to our atavistic, Unabomber, pre-civilizational instinct for distrust, selectively, to cut us off from the wealth of evidence that makes civilization possible, and incidentally may render miracles credible. If we limit ourselves to what we have personally observed, we might as well go back and live in caves. (Without fire, since I have NEVER observed fire produced by humans from purely natural materials.)
Even if we never saw a specific event in the past, scientific historians still only appeal to causes that are known to produce similar results today.
A dubious claim, since the universe itself is a "result" that is not known to have been "produced" again in our day -- and I am not that much younger than Dr. Avalos, at least not in geological terms!
But miracles do happen today, as Keener shows.
Otherwise, Craig’s explanation is no better than those who invoke a magical Santa Claus to justify stories of Santa Claus’ magical powers. It is ad hoc and circular reasoning through and through.
Here Avalos demonstrates that he is simply not observing the actual character of the events he seeks to evaluate accurately. Magic and miracles are, as I show in Jesus and the Religions of Man, very distinct phenomena. The fact that radical skeptics can't recognize those clear distinctions, or even see the vast and obvious differences between two such stories as the Gospel tales about Jesus, and, say, "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer," shows why their work so often seems to marginalize itself.
This criticism would also seem to apply to the account of William II's death, possibly of "witchcraft," which Avalos discusses at some length. I skip that discussion, though, for the reader's sake, and for my own. We are in sight of the end, though we have two more hillocks to climb.
Let's consider first "consensus," and what it can tell us about the gospels.
What Use is Consensus?
Craig, in fact, picks and choose when consensus counts as evidence. For example, in a debate with John Dominic Crossan, the celebrated historical Jesus scholar, Craig argues:
“In summary, there are good historical grounds for affirming that Jesus rose from the dead in confirmation of his radical personal claims. And Dr. Crossan’s denial of this fact is based on idiosyncratic presuppositions which no other serious New Testament critic accepts.”
(Note: Craig is right about this. I describe and rebut Crossan's idiosyncratic views in a full chapter of Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could.)
In the very same paragraph Craig is arguing that the resurrection of Jesus is a credible event because Jesus made “radical” and unique claims that were outside of the consensus of Judaism at the time. On the other hand, Crossan is not credible because he makes claims no other New Testament critic accepts. Uniqueness, therefore, is applied on a pick-and-choose basis.
The difference between these two cases, and why Craig thinks both count for Jesus not against him, should be clear In the one case, Craig is appealing to the consensus of modern NT scholars across the ideological and religious spectrum. That is an obviously valid appeal, which Habermas has established in more detail. Scholars of all makes and models admit certain basic background facts that Habermas and Craig argue, lend strong support to the physical resurrection of Jesus -- against Crossan. (Craig resoundingly won his debate with Crossan, by the way, as even many skeptics admitted)
In the other case, Jesus himself went against the consensus of Jewish religious leaders of his time at many points. This is a valid reason, or part of a valid reason, to recognize the historical reality and originality of Jesus. The full argument has been developed by NT scholars into criteria like "dissimilarity" and NT Wright's sophisticated and powerful "Double Similarity, Double Dissimilarity."
A consensus about facts among historians, is not at all the same as a consensus of expectations among leaders. For instance, suppose modern American conservatives universally predict that the second Obama term will be an economic disaster. Suppose that two thousand years hence, however, a 2017 broadcast from Rush Limbaugh is uncovered, in which Limbaugh notes that actually, the US GDP rose by 33% from 2013-2016. That fact might confound the prior expectations of conservatives, "go against consensus" in that sense. But it would also tend to confirm the very fact that flies against that prior consensus -- the late but substantial arrival of economic recovery.
There is no contradiction whatsoever between these two excellent arguments.
Jesus did not conform to the thinking of his time, nor does the resurrection conform to what Jews of his day expected. It is quite valid to argue from those facts to the historicity of the gospels and the Resurrection account, along with other good arguments. NT Wright develops such an argument in great depth, and the philosopher Raymond Martin finds his history the most sophisticated among well-known modern scholars of the period.
Liars for Jesus?
Finally, Avalos responds to a related argument from Campbell by attacking (apparently) the credibility of Christians in general. These criticisms merit further consideration (or perhaps they don't, but we will give it anyway):
Second, Craig’s comments on Party Lines were given in the context of his claim that historians distinguish history from propaganda. However, this does not answer the question of whether the resurrection story of Jesus is history or propaganda. After all, the very word “Propaganda” was part of the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for Propagating the Faith), an office of Catholic Church that was charged in 1622 with disseminating its teachings . . .
Well, now that is remarkably anachronistic.! We are talking about the 1st Century, not the 17th!
ALL of the information usually used to support the historicity of the resurrection comes from one general source: Followers of the Jesus cult. There are no contemporary non-Christians speaking of the resurrection of Jesus, or even attesting to the belief of Christians in a resurrection.
Here again, while at least returning us now to the ancient world, Avalos adopts an anachronistic view of the "New Testament," which I mentioned earlier in this post.
The earliest Christian sources cannot reasonably be spoken of as "one general source." They are many sources, gathered together centuries later into one book.
One might as well say that "All surviving information that testifies to David Marshall's near-triple play as a Little League Second Baseman comes from one general source: fans of Little League Baseball."
Well yes, because only fans of Little League baseball watch Little League baseball games.
But if you have seven surviving accounts (say), you still have seven sources, not one. That will still be the case even if, 300 years from now, someone gathers those seven sources into one book.
Similiarly, Avalos recognizes five or so sources for the papal sermon that inspired the First Crusade -- even though most of them have since been gathered into Edward Peters' The First Crusade: The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres and Other Source Materials, and even though all the authors were Christians. One book, several independent sources.
Fourth, Campbell apparently forgets that erasing history is precisely a mainstay of Christian history. For much of the last two thousand years, Catholic and Protestant churches functioned as totalitarian machines that sought to stamp out rival views of God and Jesus by branding opponents as heretics.
More anachonism. No Christian church had any real political power until well into the 4th Century. No Protestant church had any power, or even existence, for another millennia.
Nor I think would any reasonable historian of the Middle Ages describe the Roman Catholic church as wielding "totalitarian power." That's just poisoning the well. No sources I've read from the Middle Ages seem to reflect the kind of society one gets to know in studying a genuine totalitarian society, like Soviet Russia.
Sometimes certain churches gained too much political power, and sometimes they abused that power. But "totalitarian" is, I think, over the top.
Book burning, whose main function is to erase history or opposing teachings, was widely practiced in Christian history. Already in Acts 19:19 were are told: “And a number of those who practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all; and they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver.” Even if Christians are not forcing people to erase their books through burning here, they are seemingly endorsing the practice.
I'm glad Avalos added that last sentence: I corrected him on his earlier account of this passage in which he forgot to make that concession. So maybe it was worthwhile to make the correction: I can be milder in my criticism, this time.
But the purpose here was not to "erase history," since the books being burnt were not historical, but books apparently of magic spells. And since the burners owned the books, and since there were no burn bans on yet, what they did was in no way immoral, or at all in contradiction to ethics or good taste.
Avalos then returns to his favorite whipping-boy, Martin Luther:
Martin Luther’s seven-point plan against the Jews included this one: “I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”
Why not cite, instead, the tens of thousands of cases in which Christian monks spent months of their time, and large quantities of money, pain-stakingly copying ancient pagan texts?
The point is supposed to reflect somehow on the credibility of 1st Century accounts of the life of Jesus. The argument is stunningly anachronistic, not to mention cherry-picking and unfair.
As if to outdo himself, Avalos then lists several scholars who have lost their jobs for not conforming to the faith statements of the Christian schools in which they taught. He adds:
On the other hand, I don’t know of ANY scholars who have been fired from a public secular university for expressing belief in the resurrection of Jesus.
Now that is remarkable. Not to mention, ironic. Read Guillermo Gonzalez' account of how he lost his job at Hector Avalos' own university, Iowa State University, (a controversy in which Avalos himself seems to have played no neglible at least climactic role), in Faith Seeking Understanding.
But of course, a private school is not a public school. Private schools have the right to hire only teachers who will affirm the pedagogical assumptions they promise prospective students and their parents. Public schools are funded, by contrast, by taxpayers, and are responsible for educating the general audience. Shouldn't that difference be obvious?
I plan a series here on how public schools abuse history to unreasonably undermine Christianity, later this year, however. I think Hector Avalos might appreciate some of that anti-Christian propaganda, because it so closely parallels his own overwhelmingly (and I think unfairly) negative approach to Christian history.