Saturday, September 30, 2017

"The Bible is a claim, not evidence"

I continue to read John Loftus' Debunking Christianity web site occasionally, because no one on Earth, perhaps, is as good at setting up volleyballs for Christian apologists to ram to the ground on the doubters' side of the net.  That peculiar talent for making arguments both wretched and well-placed in time and space for delightful and informative refutation in itself implies certain virtues on John's side, such as inventiveness, perseverance, and desperation.  Anyway, DC has become a wholesale clearing house for bad arguments against Christianity, but arguments which, when rationally analyzed, often provide interesting insight from the opposite point of view.

Here's yet another such example, a “quote of the day" by one Koseighty of the sort that Daniel Dennett (I think it was) called a "deepism:"

"The Bible is the CLAIM, not evidence."

Notice that one thing this quote (which is itself a claim, whether or not it is evidence we shall see) does concede is the coherence of the Bible.  This is good to see, because many skeptics have made themselves blind to the fact that through all its 66 books, in three languages, over a thousand years, the Bible does in fact make a coherent series of claims about the universe, telling a story centered on salvation through Jesus Christ.  The Claim.  Not, "the claims."  Calling the Bible simply a "claim" may be a little simplistic, perhaps, and obscure the narrative nature of the series of claims that center on Jesus (a story, a meta-narrative, a meta-narrative of stories), but Koseighty does helpfully set the ball over the net by recognizing that the Bible offers a coherent message that can be tested and found sound or unsound, based on true facts or errors, and that offers a critically important claim about the universe, as suggested by K's caps.  ("CLAIM.")

The fundamental error here -- well, there are dozens.   (Impressive work for seven words!)

(1) The Bible really isn't one thing.  It's 66 books written over many centuries by a wide variety of authors.

(2) There is no necessary conflict between a statement being both a claim and evidence: in fact, most evidence about most matters involves claims.  For instance, earlier this week my colleague took down statements from boys who had been involved in an altercation in their dorm.  Almost every sentence they wrote was both a claim and evidence.  "I went into L' room and saw K punch him," is two claims and two pieces of evidence.  It was by putting all the claims / evidence together than my colleague arrived at plausible conclusions about the incident.

(3) Indeed, all history is a series of claims which amount to evidence.

(4) Every book, almost every word, is evidence for something or other.  Suppose you say, "I do not exist!"  Your words themselves and the breath coming out of your mouth when you say them are, of course, evidence of your existence.

(5) It would be a supernatural miracle if 66 books from ancient Israel did not provide rich mines of evidence on a wide variety of subjects.

(6) And of course they do, as every reasonable historian recognizes.  Acts provides evidence about ancient Mediterranean shipping.  The gospels tell us volumes about 1st Century Judaism in Palestine that we could not learn elsewhere.  We learn more about numerous persons we know from other sources, and a great deal about characters unknown from other 1st Century sources, as well, among many other subjects.  So yes, the Bible is a claim, and a bunch of claims.  It is also evidence, as even the most radical and ignorant mythicist on the planet implicitly recognizes by mining it for evidence for their own bad arguments.

(7) And of course the DC crew recognizes the Bible as evidence, and uses it that way (poorly, usually) every OTHER day of the week.

(8) But what K no doubt meant to say (famous last words) is that the Bible cannot reasonably be cited as evidence for the chief claims of Christianity.

Why not?

This is certainly not self-evident.  Of course believers in a given religion (or ideology) may lie, or make wild and unverifiable claims, which we are not obliged to hastily accept.

But the Koran is evidence about Mohammed (I believe the earliest that we have), the Book of Mormon provides evidence about Joseph Smith (if not ancient America), and the Analects of Confucius gives us much of what we know about the life and teachings of Confucius.  The fact that all three books were written by "believers" in no way renders their reports useless as evidence for the lives of the founders of their respective sects.

And when it comes to evidence, the New Testament gospels are chock-full of historically-relevant qualities which renders them vastly stronger evidence for the life of Jesus than any of these books are for their gurus:

(9) There are four gospels, but just one each of these other books.

(10) They date to within the natural life-times of Jesus' first followers.  Probably the Analects was written a little later, relative to many of the stories it relates.  And the Book of Mormon doesn't talk about Joseph Smith directly, I don't think.

(11) The gospels describe cities and countryside in Palestine which we have found, or know of, while the Book of Mormon describes a Central American strikingly alien to the discoveries of archeologists.

(12) The gospels describe specific sites later discovered by archeologists, such as the Pool of Bethsaida.

(13) Hundreds of the people, places, customs, and whatnot which Luke describes in Acts have been independently confirmed from other sources.  Such confirmation is I think weaker for the Koran, and non-existent for the Book of Mormon.

(14) As Richard Bauckham has shown, the very names used in Palestinian Jewish circles in the New Testament have been confirmed from ossuaries, including the frequency of specific male and female names.   This shows that the authors of the gospels were spot on in relating details which would be quickly lost in a giant, cross-cultural game of "telephone" such as Bart Ehrman imagines being played in the early Church.

(15) I have given dozens more traits which demonstrate the historicity of the gospels in Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels.  I found no ancient work of fiction to which any but a few of the most minor of those traits apply.  Each of the traits I describe can only be called "evidence," often detailed and compelling patterns of evidence.

We are learning, in the scientific era, that huge volumes of evidence can be uncovered almost everywhere: in rocks, in air bubbles, in pollen.   Just in the news today came a story about how a Medieval cloth which was thought to have contained bread given by St. Francis of Assisi was tested and found to show traces of mold spores that suggest the presence of bread from about the right date.  Fingerprints and DNA and voice prints provide powerful evidence to prove the presence of a suspect at a crime scene -- evidence left unconsciously, in most cases.

So, I argue, do the gospels provide dozens of forms of rich historical evidence, aside from the direct claims of the authors themselves that Jesus taught and did wonderful things, then died and rose from the dead.

K's claim is therefore half false.   At the same time, it is itself powerful evidence -- evidence of a monumental closing of the mind on the part of many skeptics to wave after wave of evidence.  This is a golden age of evidence, and the gospels are full of rich historical evidence.  The evidence for the general truth of the gospels surrounds skeptics like an ocean, washing away the very foundations of their skepticism, if only they would dare to take note.

But in the words of a famous prison guard:


The spirit of Sergeant Schultz lives on.
Image result for sergeant schultz


GalileoUnchained said...

Be careful about the comparisons to Mormonism. On many of the points Christian apologists like to brag about--oral history time gap, # manuscripts, gap from autographs to best copies, original language, and so on--Mormonism does much better than Christianity.

More here:

David B Marshall said...

GU: Read the comparison I actually made:

"The Book of Mormon provides evidence about Joseph Smith (if not ancient America)."

So my comparison is not about "Mormonism," but "The Book of Mormon." It is not about Joseph Smith, it is about "ancient (Central) America."

How many years between when ancient Israelites immigrated to America and Joseph Smith writing their story down, again?

Did Smith write in "Reformed Egyptian?" Is there any evidence that he understood any Egyptian?

When do I emphasize number of manuscript copies? I'll make my own arguments, thank you very much. If you want to know what they are, read Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels. Then, if you're not convinced, try to show that the 30 reasons I give for believing the Gospels strong historical accounts, also apply to the Book of Mormon! Make my day!

GalileoUnchained said...

Just in case it wasn’t obvious, I’m an atheist, not a Mormon.

“How many years between when ancient Israelites immigrated to America and Joseph Smith writing their story down, again?”

The golden plates were vetted as authoritative by an angel, and then Smith used magic glasses to translate it. It went from golden plates to paper to printed copy very quickly.

“Did Smith write in "Reformed Egyptian?" Is there any evidence that he understood any Egyptian?”

He had magic glasses.

“When do I emphasize number of manuscript copies?”

I’m comparing the typical Christian historical claims against those of Mormonism.

I’m happy to help strengthen your argument. You’re welcome.

David B Marshall said...

And you're welcome, for the 30 evidences I give for the historicity of the gospels, which do not (except perhaps for one or two of the most trivial) apply to The Book of Mormon. Interestingly enough, none involves magic peep stones or buried treasure from an otherwise unknown ancient civilization. Nor do they require us to believe that Native Americans are actually Jews, never mind their stubbornly distinct DNA. Only that Heaven takes an interest in the human drama.