Thursday, January 17, 2008

What did Irenaeous Know?

Since the gospels were written anonymously, claims that they constitute eyewitnesses accounts must rely on early church traditions that attribute them to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Proponents invariably cite Irenaeous writing in 170 A.D. who seems to be the first person to attribute all four gospels to their traditional authors. However, I have never seen anyone discuss Irenaeous' basis for believing that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John actually wrote those books.

Irenaeous just does not seem to be the kind of guy who cares about the kind of evidence that a historian would respect. Consider his argument for there being exactly four gospels from Against Heresies:
The Gospels could not possibly be either more or less in number than they are. Since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is spread over all the earth, and the pillar and foundation of the Church is the gospel, and the Spirit of life, it fittingly has four pillars, everywhere breathing out incorruption and revivifying men. From this it is clear that the Word, the artificer of all things, being manifested to men gave us the gospel, fourfold in form but held together by one Spirit. As David said, when asking for his coming, 'O sitter upon the cherubim, show yourself '. For the cherubim have four faces, and their faces are images of the activity of the Son of God. For the first living creature, it says, was like a lion, signifying his active and princely and royal character; the second was like an ox, showing his sacrificial and priestly order; the third had the face of a man, indicating very clearly his coming in human guise; and the fourth was like a flying eagle, making plain the giving of the Spirit who broods over the Church. Now the Gospels, in which Christ is enthroned, are like these.
I just cannot help but think that a guy who reasons to the number of gospels from the number of faces on the cherubim is unlikely to have any better reason for believing in the authorship of the gospels.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

That's Two!***

The Church of the Nazorene in Aurora, Missouri has disabled the commenting function on Coffee Break with Pastor Russ after I left the following comment yesterday.

I am not aware of Kirk Cameron’s qualifications as a scientist. What degrees does he hold?

I find that most people who say they don't believe in evolution have never done any reading in the sciences for themselves. They are simply repeating what some aplogist else has told them.

Pastor Russ thus joins Culture Campaign as the second blog to disable comments as the result of my contributions.

*** Pastor Russ has in fact restored my comment and responded to my question. Further comments are restricted to "team members."

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

You Call That Evidence?

I found the following statement in a post titled Science and the Bible in a Missouri pastor's blog:

I know that many people are skeptical of the Bible and I have no problem
with that, it is a good trait of an intelligent person to consider evidence
before deciding whether or not something can be trusted. All I ask is that you
really do look at the evidence and not make up your mind before you even take a
look. Most people who say they don't believe the Bible, have never read it for
themselves, they are simply repeating what someone else has told them.

Pretty run of the mill stuff.

What I found interesting is where he finds his evidence for his understanding of science and the Bible: "[T]he bulk of our research has come from the work done by Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron in their ministry 'Way of the Master.'"

Kirk Cameron?????

Am I really the one who is failing to investigate the issues?

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

What Does Strobel Read?

I ran across a review of Lee Strobel's The Case for the Real Jesus in which the reviewer wrote "It is clear that [Strobel] has read their books, heard their arguments, and has given them their say. It got me to wondering and I posted the following comment:

I am not convinced that Lee Strobel really does read the skeptics that he purports to refute and he certainly does not let them have their say. I could easily believe that he simply works from questions that are scripted by the experts he interviews. As an agnostic, I can assure you that any self-respecting skeptic could come up with much more challenging questions than Strobel does.

In The Case for the Real Jesus, I was particularly struck by the relationship between the response to Challenge #4, "Christianity's Beliefs were Borrowed from Pagan Religions," and the response to Challenge #5, "Jesus Was an Impostor Who Failed to Fulfill the Messianic Prophecies." The response to the former was that the events in the Gospels must have really happened because they have no meaningful parallels in the beliefs of the pagan religions. On the other hand, the response to the latter was that Jesus must be the Messiah because the Old Testament contains so many parallels to Jesus life. I think any skeptic worth his salt would have asked both experts whether it was possible that the stories about Jesus were simply “borrowed” from the Old Testament rather than pagan religions. The fact that Strobel did not ask this makes me wonder how much skeptical literature he has actually read because I have seen both John Shelby Spong and Dominic Crossan make that exact point.

In The Case for a Creator, I am convinced that Strobel’s questions were scripted by his experts from “The Discover Institute.” I have read many of the transcripts from Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District and I know what kind of questions real challengers asked when they got to cross-examine those same experts (at least the ones who did not withdraw from the case before trial).

Further Thoughts on Comparing Apples to Aircraft Carriers

In order to determine whether a particular thing is "reliable," it is important to know the purpose for which the thing is going to be used.

If my wife asks me how big the living room is because she is going out to buy paint, I might just pace off the length and width and do a calculation in my head. If she gives that measurement to the clerk at the paint store, she will probably come home with a reasonable amount of paint. However, if my wife were planning to buy wallpaper, I would not consider this a reliable measurement. I would want to measure and calculate precisely, taking into account the location of doors and windows so she could get the right number of rolls. A measurement that is reliable for one purpose might not be reliable for another. When it comes to the reliability of the transmission of information, the same point holds. A method I might consider reliable for transmitting the results of a football game would likely be completely unreliable as a method for transmitting orders to a submarine to launch nuclear missiles. The latter demands much greater accuracy and security.

That is why I find comparing the reliability of the Bible to the reliability of other ancient writings meaningless. No one wants to use the Iliad for the kind of purposes for which conservative Christians want to use the Bible. No one shows up at school board meetings demanding that the curriculum be controlled by what the Iliad says about homosexuality or the origin of species rather than what the scientists at leading research universities say. Nobody tries to find exact and certain answers to complex questions in the Iliad in the way that conservative Christians try to find them in the Bible. The only meaningful comparison would be to another historical record that claims the same kind of exactitude and certainty.

Unfortunately for the Christians' case, historians never seem to claim the kind of certainty and exactitude for any historical record that conservative Christians claim for the Bible. For example, if a historian wanted to study the Battle of Gettysburg, he could look at contemporaneous reports, letters, and diaries written by soldiers of every rank from both armies as well as memoirs written in the months and years afterwards by eyewitnesses to the events. He could read first hand reports in articles from newspapers and periodicals of every political persuasion. He could walk the battlefield and examine artifacts. Nevertheless, the historian would never claim absolute certainty about every fact or detail of the battle.

Despite the wealth of contemporaneous source material with which to study an event that took place one hundred and fifty-four years ago, there are many aspects of the Battle of Gettyburg, both large and small, about which historians are unsure. They are not sure how many men participated in Pickett’s Charge. They are not sure how Union General Custer and Confederate General Stuart came to fight a cavalry battle behind the Union lines on the third day. They are not sure whether Confederate Commander Lee complained about General Longstreet’s slowness. Moreover, even the things they are confident about are subject to revision by new evidence and explanations. Bible believers, on the other hand, claim to have absolute historical certainty about events that occurred two thousands years ago based on anonymous accounts written thirty to sixty years after the events in question.

Christians claim that the Bible compares favorably with other ancient historical documents, but they make claims that are totally unlike any claim historians would make about any document ancient or modern. No historian believes he has the exact words given in speeches in the Roman Senate, but Christians believe that they can know exactly what Jesus said. No historian believes he has every relevant bit of information about Caesar, but Christians believe that the New Testament contains everything they need to know about what Jesus said or did. They believe that nothing he said or did outside of that which is recorded in the Gospels could affect their understanding of his purposes. Every historian knows key details can be altered or invented for political purposes, but Christians believe that nothing that Jesus said or did was distorted between the time he died and the time the gospels were written thirty to sixty years later. Every historian knows that there is frequently more than one possible explanation for the data and that any given explanation can only be considered the most likely or best supported, but Christians believe that their understanding of how the New Testament came to be written can be adopted to the exculsion and categorical rejection of all others.

So when I hear a Christian assert that the Bible is better attested than some other work of ancient history, I am unimpressed. Given the way the conservative Christian relies on the Bible, it would have to be better attested many times over than every work of history ever generated up to and including this morning’s newspaper.