Sunday, March 31, 2013

Resurrection reply

As people have been made aware of my apostasy, a few [read: exactly three thus far] have made attempts to engage me in correspondence about matters of religion while remaining civil in tone. One mailed me a book, but two have done so in their own words. Both of them have my respect.

What follows is a response to a letter one of them wrote me in which they provided their expanded personal testimony along with an appeal to the historicity of the resurrection, among other things for my consideration. I've left out identifying remarks and portions pertaining to their personal testimony. This is, admittedly, only one side of the dialogue. However, I'm putting it up as a reference I can point people toward if and when they bring this particular issue up with me. Also, today is Easter Sunday so I felt it was appropriate.

Obviously I cannot address the elements of your subjective experience. However, I would like to speak to some aspects of the historical argument you put forward to show why I don’t find it that compelling.
Reconstructing the past and evaluating historical claims can be a bit sticky from a methodological standpoint. Even with the most reliable sources, the best we can hope for is to reach conclusions about what probably happened in a given event. That’s already a problematic way to approach something like claims about absolute truth in my opinion. However, I’ll look at what you’ve presented and try to treat it as fairly as I can, but I will state up front that it is my opinion that your historical investigation presumes too much.

You mentioned the Golden Rule ethic as what prompted you to consider the claims of the Gospels of the New Testament. Of course, this ethic was not unique to the teachings attributed to Jesus of Nazareth. As you know, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a quote from Leviticus that is repeated in the Gospels, Galatians [Romans] and James. Additionally, hundreds of years before Jesus people like Confucius, Mo Tzu, Lao Tzu, Vidura, Thiruvalluvar, Buddha, several ancient Greeks and even earlier Jewish contemporaries of Jesus like Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Hillel all had formulations of the Golden Rule or ethic of reciprocity very close or nearly identical to the one attributed to Jesus in Matthew 7:12. Rabbi Hillel was even teaching “this is the whole Torah” and emphasizing that the worth of human beings is bound up with their being “created in the image of the Almighty King of the world” before Jesus was supposed to have been born.

The ethic of reciprocity is foundational to most religious and secular ethical systems cross-culturally. People who study evolutionary biology among social creatures, especially primates, point out that altruistic and cooperative behavior favors participation in the larger group. In other words, this central ethical principle that most people seem to have “written on their hearts” need not have divine origin, but could be attributed to natural selection. Furthermore, the formulation of the ethic of reciprocity attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew is not even the best one. Arguably a better formulation would be “do to others as they would have you do to them” as the preferences of others may not be the same as your own.

In recounting reading the book of Mark you state, “Mark had obviously been a friend of Jesus.” I’ll assume you mean that whoever wrote the Gospel of Mark had a favorable view of Jesus, as we simply don’t know if the writer of that gospel ever even personally knew Jesus. Indeed some of the glaring errors in that book would seem to suggest that the writer didn’t even have a good grasp of the geography of first century Palestine, much less first-hand knowledge of his subject. I’m aware of the early tradition that Mark is a recording of Peter’s memoirs, but the evidence for this is hardly compelling. Eusebius in 326 wrote that Papias claimed that John the Elder said that Mark wrote down what Peter recalled while preaching in Rome and this may or may not have been the book we now know as Mark; Irenaeus writing well over 100 years after Mark’s composition follows this tradition as well but does not provide a source for his information. For all intents and purposes, the Gospel of Mark, like all the canonical gospels but unlike some of the epistles, remains anonymous.

You mention contemporary writers who were not followers of Jesus and wrote about him and his “extraordinary deeds of kindness.” [I only deal with the ones he mentioned by name] Tacitus, writing over eight decades after Jesus was supposed to have been crucified and no doubt relying on Christian sources, merely relates that Christus was crucified by Pilate and that “a most mischievous superstition” later arose in Judea and spread to Rome. Pliny the Younger, also writing eight decades after Jesus, doesn’t write of Jesus himself, but of Christians living in Asia Minor. His letters to Trajan may even imply that there was no systematic Roman persecution of Christians prior to his time, contrary to the exaggerated claims of early church historians like Eusebius.

Josephus, writing six decades after Jesus, does appear to make some rather glowingly dubious and completely out of context remarks about Jesus in a passage known as the Testimonium Flavianum. Unfortunately, Josephus was likely tampered with. The passage is unknown to the writings of anyone prior to Eusebius even though Justin Martyr, Melito of Sardis, Iranaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen and others all show familiarity with Josephus. Wouldn’t at least one of these apologists like, for example, Justin Martyr writing in his Dialogue with the Jew Trypho have eagerly made reference to this passage in support of the faith? Origen even writes in both his commentary on Matthew 10:17 and in Contra Celsus 1.47 that Josephus did not recognize Jesus as the Christ, contrary to what the Testimonium itself states. Josephus himself writes in Wars of the Jews that Vespasian fulfilled the messianic oracles. Thus consensus seems to be that even if the passage wasn’t inserted whole cloth, the original stated merely that Jesus was executed under Pilate. Even the other passage that speaks of the stoning of “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James” (Antiquities 20.9.1) may be about a brother of Jesus ben Damneus, the anointed high priest who is referenced a mere 90 words later and not “James the brother of the Lord” spoken of by Paul in Galatians.

As for Suetonius, he was writing nearly 90 years after Jesus was supposed to have died about the expulsion of the Jews from Rome, which he claims to have occurred 70 years prior to his writing, the accuracy of which some historians doubt.  The rather brief passage you make reference to is very ambiguous. Chrestus is the Latin form of a Greek name, so when Suetonious writes, “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome” he could have been merely referring to someone named Chrestus who was in Rome and was stirring up the Jews leading to Claudius’ decision to expel them. There’s even enough ambiguity for it to mean that Chrestus was perhaps an advisor who instigated Claudius to expel the specific Jews who were causing trouble. There’s simply no need to suppose that Chrestus even refers to Jesus Christ. Most of the sources I checked mentioned that Chrestus means “good” or “useful” and not “The Kind One” [this was his claim]. In any case, it’s a pretty big stretch to go from there to concluding that Suetonius thought Jesus was kind simply because that’s what his followers may have called him, especially when many believe that this could merely be the result of a copyist error as you note.

What is of note about supposed disinterested or even hostile contemporary sources for Jesus and historical support for the claims of early Christianity is that there really aren’t any. His life, death, alleged resurrection, and subsequent works of his followers were so unremarkable that outside of interested parties within the movement, no one that we know of wrote a scrap about these events until many decades later. If we are to take the claims of the book of Acts seriously, for example, then there should be a reasonable expectation that someone like a Josephus would have written about events like many thousands of people in Jerusalem along with many of the Jewish priests rapidly converting to an early Jewish sect that laid claim to a crucified and risen Messiah (Acts 2:41, 4:4, 6:7, 21:20). Wouldn’t it have been noteworthy for over 1/10th of the population of a city like Jerusalem to suddenly convert to this particular religious sect after the preaching of a couple of public sermons by followers of  a man who had been recently executed as an enemy of the state? Wouldn’t Roman authorities take notice and make a record of something like that?

The New Testament recounts very public things like great earthquakes (Matt. 27:51, 28:2, Acts 16:26), three hours of darkness in the middle of daytime (Matt 27:45), rocks splitting followed by an undead invasion of Jerusalem (Matt. 27:52-53), thousands being fed miraculously on at least two separate occasions, a revolutionary running people out of the temple on apparently two separate occasions (Matt. 21:12, Mark 11:5, Luke 19:45 & John 2:13-22) and one of those following a triumphal procession into the city, the appearing of a bright star followed by magi from the east with Herod and all of Jerusalem being troubled with him and the slaughter of all the male children in Bethlehem (Matt 2:3 & 16). These are all things that people all over that region should have taken note of, and yet people like Josephus find the lives of John the Baptist and some Egyptian who led a failed revolt more noteworthy than Jesus Christ? Now I realize that absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence, but in the case of many of the claims of the New Testament like these we should reasonably expect there to be evidence of documents and artifacts that could corroborate those extraordinary claims. Why is it that the only surviving documents that record such amazing events come from people within this movement?

You seem to have made several assumptions about how Jesus is portrayed by the writers of the Gospels regarding his behavior, the significance of his treatment of women and the way he viewed the Hebrew Bible and his ethical teachings. These things are not remarkable given the growing status of women in Greco-Roman culture, the influence the writer of Mark (who put emphasis on secret truths being revealed to the lowly) had on the other Gospel writers, and the fact that much of Jesus’ teaching can be found to have parallels in other works like rabbinical sayings recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Jubilees, Tobit, Sirach, and perhaps other writings and oral traditions which are now lost to history.

I’ll set aside specifics about those things and get to what you refer to as “the crux of the issue.” You state that “apart from the resurrection Jesus was no more than a failed prophet and teacher.” I would argue that if the New Testament writers did accurately record Jesus’ words then he was indeed a failed prophet regardless of whether or not the resurrection occurred. Even if the disciples witnessed what they thought was a resurrected Jesus, this in no way validates his claims and teachings. According to the synoptics, Jesus taught without any ambiguity whatsoever that his return was to be during the generation in which he lived (Matt. 10:23, 16:27-28, 24:20-34, 26:64, Mark 9:1,13:30, 14:62, Luke 9:27, 21:25-33). Similarly, those writings attributed to his followers also predicted and anticipated a return within a few years of their writing (Rom. 13:11-12, 16:20, 1 Cor. 7:27-31, 10:11, 11:26, Gal. 1:4, Phil.4:5, 1 Thess. 1:10, 4:15-17, 2 Thess. 1:5-10, 2:1-12, Heb. 1:1-2, 9:26, 10:25,Jas. 5:1-9, 1 Peter 1:20, 1 John 2:17-18, Jude 18, Rev. 1:3, 3:10-11, 22:6-7, 10,12 & 20). A couple of late New Testament writers (or perhaps even interpolators), aware of these failed expectations, tried to hedge in places (2 Peter 3:4, John 21:22).  It’s interesting that the canonical gospel believed to have been written the furthest from the time of Jesus records none of the sayings regarding his return in that generation, nor is its focus on an outward manifestation of “the kingdom of heaven” but instead the writer focuses on inward concepts like personal belief and regeneration. It seems those earlier expectations had not been met. Additionally, apologists have been making excuses for these failed predictions for centuries. However, anyone with a remotely critical eye toward the obvious intent of the statements attributed to Jesus has all they’d need to see this as just another religious leader’s unfulfilled prophetic pronouncements of the end of the world within a specified time period. This seems to be a regular recurrence that segments of humanity have been obsessed with for millennia. We even just had a recent “scare” thanks to some misunderstood Mayans.

If we take the Torah seriously, it gives every reason to believe that if what Jesus said is accurately recorded in the synoptic gospels, his teaching is to be disregarded. Deuteronomy 18:21-22 makes clear that “whenever a prophet speaks in the name of Yahweh and the word does not come to pass, that is the word which Yahweh has not spoken. The prophet has presumed to speak it, so you need not fear him.” So it doesn’t matter if Jesus’ disciples claimed to have witnessed signs and wonders like rising from the dead because the Hebrew scriptures even show that Yahweh uses things like lying spirits and signs and wonders performed by false prophets to test his people and bring about judgment (Deut. 13:1-5 & 1 Kings 22:22).

If appeal to the supernatural is not to be ruled out as a possible explanation for things like the empty tomb and post-resurrection appearances, why should we discount the possibility of explaining those things with demonic deception, for example? How are we to judge at all between competing supernatural explanations? What if there was a supernaturally induced mass hallucination? What if Satan impersonated Jesus after his death? What is the justification for preferring the “standard” explanation to one of those? Given the prophetic failures of Jesus and his early followers, those explanations would seem just as warranted. If I were I an Orthodox Jew, I’d likely favor one of them. The way in which those writers so loosely interpreted and appropriated obviously out of context passages from the Tanakh in their writings and scripted the events of their messiah’s life around those interpretations would only further cement that view.

I do not agree that without the resurrection Jesus’ followers would have returned to their previous activities. People don’t always just give up their religious fervor when their expectations are unrealized. They often make excuses or even claim to experience things that didn’t actually happen to deal with the cognitive dissonance associated with this experience. There are plenty of examples of this throughout history. Think of the Millerites after the Great Disappointment. Did they all just throw their hands up in the air and go back to their former lives? No. Many maintained their beliefs, modified them and increased their zeal. Several even experienced persecution as a result of their unwillingness to relent. Consequently, in spite of these unrealized expectations, their movement still exists today in the form of Adventism.

This kind of modification of expectation following such a disappointment as the death of the one they thought was the messiah could easily explain why, despite perceived Jewish expectation, Jesus’ early followers proclaimed a dying and rising son of God. Additionally, the notion of a dying and rising son of the gods was easily borrowed from the influential Hellenistic culture where such mythic motifs are numerous.

Joseph Smith faced persecution and death for his beliefs. If anyone knew whether or not he was making things up, it would’ve been him. Yet when imprisoned and attacked by an angry mob, he never recanted that we know of. The same thing could be said for Jim Jones or numerous other cult leaders. People are apparently willing to be persecuted and die for things they know are not true and they need not be motivated by greed or political power. There are simply no well-established and documented cases of either pre-Columbian white Israelites settling in the Americas or people rising from the dead, but there are millions of documented cases of people lying. Which is more probable?

There is another problem with the notion that we should believe the claims of Jesus’ “eye-witness” followers simply because they were willing to die for the movement. Outside of the later development of legends, we simply don’t have any evidence that any one of them died for holding to the belief that Jesus rose from the dead bodily. Stephen and James are the only recorded martyrs in the New Testament. Stephen was supposedly killed by a mob based on trumped up charges and not given an opportunity to recant. Much like Paul, the only Jesus we know of that Stephen saw was in a vision that no one else witnessed. We are not told why James was executed or if he was given a chance to recant. If he had recanted, would Jesus’ followers have had reason to record it? If we are to believe that Josephus was telling us of the same James [most do not as Acts refers to this James as the brother of John and not the brother of Jesus], then he records that James was stoned for breaking the Jewish law. Recanting would not have saved him anyway, so why recant? We don’t even have reliable evidence that either one of them held to a belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. They could’ve believed in a spiritual resurrection based entirely on visions.

The reasoning that the enemies of Jesus could have easily proven that he was not raised from the dead by producing his corpse seems a bit strained. According to the book of Acts it was, at minimum, seven weeks after Jesus’ death that his disciples began to publicly proclaim his resurrection. Even if this is reliable, what good would producing a rotting seven-week-old corpse have been? There would’ve been no methods available to the first century Sanhedrin to even establish a positive identification. They would’ve known the disciples could’ve simply said, “Yeah, that’s not him. It’s just some imposter body you’ve dressed up to look like him.”

All of this assumes that the writer of Acts is giving us reliable historical information about when the disciples started gaining the attention of the authorities. There is every reason to believe this writer is not a reliable source, given a comparison of his timeline for Paul’s post-conversion visits to Jerusalem to Paul’s own timeline in Galatians. First-hand accounts like Paul’s are typically given historical priority over anonymous, second-hand accounts like Acts. No other New Testament writing makes reference to those very public events at Pentecost and the gospel of John even places the receiving of the Holy Spirit prior to Jesus’ ascension (John 20:22). Furthermore, things like the account of Judas’s death (Acts 1:18-19) do not align with other New Testament documents (Matt. 27:3-10), nor do this author’s writings in the gospel of Luke align with extra-biblical documents regarding the details of things like the census of Quirinius. The writer of Acts is not historically reliable, and therefore we may conclude that it could’ve easily been years after Jesus’ death before his disciples’ teaching became a noticeable problem for local religious authorities in Jerusalem. Rotting corpses and empty tombs would’ve been moot at that point.

There is another reason why it is not at all probable, historically, that Jesus came alive from the dead bodily. Supernatural claims in and of themselves are extraordinarily improbable. We don’t witness them with any regularity the way we witness things like lying, mythmaking, exaggeration and hallucination. Claims like someone rising from the dead require extraordinary evidence to support, and the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus does not even come close to overcoming the vastly superior probability that someone is lying, mythmaking, hallucinating or exaggerating.

If you answered your door and there I stood holding a package and I told you the UPS guy met me at the door and asked me to give it you, you would likely not require any further evidence other than my claim before you would believe me. I’ve been fairly trustworthy in the past and you can see the package in my hand with the UPS label on it. That’s plenty of evidence right there and my claim is not extraordinary. UPS delivers packages every day. Now, suppose I told you a gorilla ran up and handed it to me before it took off running down the block. You would find my claim highly suspicious and would want more evidence. Suppose I could point to large gorilla footprints in the dirt outside and later the sheriff came by and said a gorilla had escaped from the local zoo. You would probably have enough evidence to believe my claim at that point.

Now suppose I claimed a dragon named Smaug handed me that package before he flew away down the block. You would not go looking for evidence of my claim. You would not believe me at all because you would regard my claim as simply being impossible. Despite my insistence you would not believe me. You would sooner believe I was crazy. Why? Because the claim I made simply does not line up with anything known to your experience of reality. It is such an extraordinary claim and there is nothing supporting it that is even remotely confirmed. Not only do you have very good evidence that “a dragon named Smaug handed me this package” is not true, you also have no evidence that this has ever been true for anyone other than fictional characters, unlike the example of the gorilla. You don't even have reliable evidence that dragons have ever existed. Therefore, the evidential burden I would have to bear here is virtually insurmountable.

Just imagine what it would take for you to believe my claim. You would want to see Smaug with your own eyes or at least see the scorched remains of your neighbor’s houses and people running and screaming in terror. Even then, you would probably not conclude a dragon had done it. When we appeal to common sense like this, everyone concedes that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The resurrection of Jesus does not come close to meeting this requirement, and is not admissible as historical fact. If you wish to believe in it as an article of faith, I certainly can’t begrudge you that. I would humbly ask, however, that you consider refraining from claiming it as an objective historical fact. That’s just not a conclusion that can be reached by most accepted standards of historical methodology.

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