Selective Sources

(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 8: “Who Was Jesus?”)

Christianity is, above all else, a story. We don’t see God showing up in real life. Jesus doesn’t go to church on Sunday. Miracles like healing someone born blind, or resurrecting someone who died three days ago, only happen in the tales told from the pulpit and in ancient parchments. The heart of the Gospel is the story of the Gospel, and if there are any doubts about the story, then Christianity itself is in danger of being reduced to a pleasant (or not-so-pleasant) myth.

Starting in Chapter 8, William Lane Craig takes on the task of trying to make the Gospel sound like history. It’s not an easy task, but Craig has thousands of years of pro-Christian scholarship to call on, as well as an equal or greater volume of traditional apologetics. The classic problem, of course, is that the primary historical evidence is highly biased: the documents that survive were mostly written by men who wrote for the explicit purpose of persuading people that Jesus was the Christ. What’s more, we know historically that the early Christians went out of their way to destroy any evidence and/or testimony that was contrary to the message they wanted to preach, even from non-Christian sources, so we don’t have much in the way of balance. The deck is stacked in Craig’s favor, and now he’s ready to deal out the cards.

He begins by suggesting that the Gospel is helped, rather than hindered, by modern scholarship. Speaking of questions like “How do we know that what the apostles wrote was accurate?” and “How do we know they didn’t embellish things, or report hearsay, or just make things up?” he writes:

Well, up until the modern era these sorts of questions were basically unanswerable. But with the rise of textual criticism and the modern study of history, historians began to develop the tools to unlock these questions. Today Jesus is no longer just a figure in a stained-glass window, but a real, flesh-and-blood person of history, just like Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great, whose life can be investigated by the standard methods of history.

That’s not necessarily a good thing, at least for Christian apologists! And in fact, Craig is already off the mark just a bit, because we do have a way to judge whether or not the stories of men are reliable stories. Truth is consistent with itself. If we want to know whether the Gospels are true, we need to ask, “Are these stories consistent with themselves? Are they consistent with the real world we see all around us?” While modern scholarship does help, there has long been fairly conclusive evidence that the Bible is a myth (or rather, a not-entirely-harmonious collection of myths) that ought to be taken with a big grain of salt, just from the internal and external contradictions.

Craig prefers to take a more optimistic view, however. In his opening paragraphs, he boasts:

Little did I realize [in the 1970's] that a veritable revolution in New Testament scholarship was transpiring that would soon reverse such skepticism and establish the gospels as historically credible sources for the life and claims of Jesus. Radical critics will get a free pass from the press today for their sensational assertions, but they are being increasingly marginalized within the academy, as scholarship has come to a new appreciation of the historical reliability of the New Testament documents.

Take that, skeptics! Now to be fair, I think Craig does have a partial point. Some critics have gone too far in suggesting that Jesus himself never existed. That strikes me as a silly notion: obviously somebody had to originally invent this stuff at some point, and why would that man’s name be any less likely to be “Jesus”? (Cf. today’s post at Alethian Worldview.) The problem for Christianity is not proving that there once was a religious figure whose name was Jesus, the problem is the things men claim about him.

Getting back to the historical question of the Gospel’s accuracy, then, Craig begins by considering all the sources we have for information about Jesus.

Jesus of Nazareth is referred to in a range of ancient sources inside and outside the New Testament, including Christian, Roman, and Jewish sources…

The most important of these historical sources have been collected into the New Testament.

Oops, there’s Craig’s bias showing through. The Gospel is a story, and the “New Testament” is the official Catholic version of that story, selected centuries later by theologians (not historians) for the express purpose of promoting the official version. Right from the start, Craig tries to implant the idea that the New Testament is somehow more authoritative and trustworthy, even though we know they’re unashamedly biased. Naturally, he follows the traditional apologetic for the canon of Scripture.

The church chose only the earliest sources, which were closest to Jesus and the original disciples, to include in the New Testament and left out the later, secondary accounts like the forged apocryphal gospels, which everyone knew were fakes. So from the very nature of the case, the best historical sources were included in the New Testament.

And how do we know that the bishops chose only the good books, and rejected only the fakes? Well, because they told us so themselves. Plus they burned a bunch of books so that we wouldn’t need to bother comparing them to the official accounts. It wouldn’t do to leave behind evidence that might show, say, that the Gospels of Peter and of Thomas actually had historical antecedents dating back before the Gospel of John. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t, but we won’t know now because early Christians were very good at wiping out any evidence not in their favor.

But we should just take their word for it anyway. They claim to have picked all the right books and to have rejected all the “fakes,” and therefore their testimony establishes the New Testament as the most reliable historical evidence we have about the life of Jesus. That’s what Craig would have us believe anyway, though he more or less glosses over that part. He barely mentions this as a given, and then immediately blows the dog whistle of “evil liberal scholarship.”

People who insist on evidence taken only from writings outside the New Testament don’t understand what they’re asking us to do. They’re demanding that we ignore the earliest, primary sources about Jesus in favor of sources that are later, secondary, and less reliable, which is just crazy as historical methodology.

This is important because all of the radical reconstructions of the historical Jesus in the news today are based on later writings outside the New Testament, in particular the so-called apocryphal gospels…[which] began to appear in the second half of the second century after Christ. Revisionists claim that these extrabiblical writings are the key to correctly reconstructing the historical Jesus.

Notice the prejudice: these aren’t historians, they’re “revisionists” and “radicals” who insist on ignoring primary sources in favor of a “crazy” methodology. There’s no mention of the unique problems that arise when you try to rediscover history after the thorough and systematic destruction of all evidence outside the officially-sanctioned narrative. There’s no hint that we might be able to uncover traces of earlier histories through an examination of the few non-canonical works that did survive, no mention of the possibility that these later works might be based on earlier manuscripts that have since been (*ahem*) “lost.”

Craig spends several paragraphs painting critical scholars as dishonest, agenda-driven revisionists trying to “dupe” you into rejecting the New Testament. Despite his glowing endorsement of New Testament scholarship at the beginning of the chapter, he doesn’t think much of scholars who fail to restrict themselves to the official accounts. There have been those in the skeptical community who have defended Craig and argued that he is not dishonest at heart, just very committed to his beliefs. Craig himself makes no such allowances for New Testament critics, though. They’re all a bunch of con men out to make a buck at the expense of your immortal soul.

Craig’s next maneuver is to invoke the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” in order to claim that the burden of proof is on the skeptic. This is a classic debate strategy: if you have the evidence to back up your claim, then you want the burden of proof, because this will give you the opportunity to present your evidence. Craig, however, can’t back up his claims, since the Gospel talks about things that are entirely unlike anything we see in real life. Therefore his goal is to push the burden of proof onto his opponents.

Notice, too, the false dichotomy Craig presents: either the New Testament is reliable, or it is unreliable. Not, “is the NT biased or unbiased?”—obviously it’s heavily biased, and that means we have to consider the reliability of the Bible in the context of the writers’ agenda. Where historical facts are irrelevant to their goal of promoting Christianity, we have no reason to assume the text is unreliable. When it comes to the unique claims that they appeal to as proof of their faith, though, a healthy skepticism is warranted. Indeed, under the circumstances it would be sheer gullibility to assume that their accounts, in such cases, were objective, unbiased, and accurate.

Craig, however, wants to make it an all-or-nothing, one-assumption-fits-all dichotomy, and he offers five arguments why we should assume that the gospels are accurate until proven otherwise.

  1. There was insufficient time for legendary influences to erase the core historical facts.
  2. The gospels are not analogous to folk tales or contemporary “urban legends.”
  3. The Jewish transmission of sacred traditions was highly developed and reliable.
  4. There were significant restraints on the embellishment of traditions about Jesus, such as the presence of eyewitnesses and the apostles’ supervision.
  5. The gospel writers have a proven track record of historical reliability.

Notice that none of these 5 excuses actually address the problem of bias in the gospels, and in fact, many of them actually seem likely to maximize the effectiveness of the bias. Next week, we’ll look at points 1 and 5, since Craig picks these two to elaborate on, so in the meantime, let’s just look at the middle three.

Craig denies that the gospels are analogous to modern urban legends, on the grounds that urban legends “rarely concern actual historical individuals and are thus not like the gospel narratives.” In other words, by carefully selecting certain specific characteristics about urban legends and the gospels, he can think of one way in which the gospels are not like urban legends. That’s not the same as proving that the two are never alike, however. Elvis Presley was a real person. Can you think of any urban legends about him? What were the names of the two disciples who allegedly walked to Emmaus with Jesus, without recognizing him, shortly after his death?

But let’s not get distracted here. The identity of the characters is irrelevant; the real significance of urban legends is the psychosocial mechanism that allows such legends to arise and become widespread. Why do so many people believe that Obama was born in Kenya? Why do people believe that vaccines cause autism? The important thing is that the success of the legend is proportional to how sensational it is and how willingly people believe it. That’s a serious issue for the Gospel, which is a sensational story that people are eager to believe, and is thus very similar to urban legends.

Look at point 3, that “Jewish transmission of sacred traditions was reliable.” That would be great if Moses had written the New Testament. But he didn’t. Jewish traditions don’t apply to the gospels because the gospels were not part of Jewish sacred tradition. Even if you say that Christian stories later became a sacred tradition, that doesn’t cover the initial development of the tradition. Point 3 might explain, for example, why one gospel has Mary meeting a risen Jesus in the cemetery, while another has her telling the disciples she doesn’t know what happened to his body. Later traditions faithfully pass on the contradiction between the two gospel stories, but the stories themselves developed in an unreliable way that allowed contradictions to arise in the first place.

Point 4, that the apostles or eyewitnesses resisted all attempts to embellish the gospel, is pure fantasy. There is no evidence of the apostles ever attempting to shut down any claims or arguments that made the Gospel look better, and in fact there is some evidence to the contrary, like the blind man Jesus allegedly healed outside Jericho, who later became two blind men. Craig is simply assuming that believers would never embellish or allow others to embellish the facts, but when we look at real Christians in the real world, we see that this is not the case.

In the end, Craig himself is a demonstration of why we should not naively assume that everything in the Bible is necessarily true. Believers do not give us unbiased accuracy in their reporting. Craig omits important and relevant information about the historical issues involved, he slanders NT critics as con men and revisionists, he distorts the facts and distracts us with irrelevancies. And he does it because it’s to his advantage to do so—the Gospel is the kind of story that benefits more from a biased and distorted look at history than from a balanced and impartial consideration of the evidence.

That in itself tells us all we really need to know.

14 Responses to “Selective Sources”

  1. Vox Says:

    Thanks for this, I look forward to the ones that will follow.
    The supposed historical merit of the gospel has always been a very annoying argument used by those I talk with. But it still surprises me how many believers are not well versed in the history of their own culture. Why wouldn’t you want to know all you can about something so crucial to your life?
    I guess they might fear having their belief shaken. Some of my family members turned skeptical after becoming interested in & learning about history. Of course, I help them along by giving them a book or two. Maybe one about Alexander the Great; “Isn’t it interesting how much we /actually/ know from that long ago?”, “Oh. Alexander was thought to be the son of god, huh?” :]

    • Lucas Says:

      Alexander being the son of Zeus was a deliberate fabrication used by and Alexander and Olympias to distance themselves from the memory of Philip II after Alexander’s death. For Olympias, it was revenge for Philip’s polygamy and security against the Diadochoi. For Alexander, it was good propaganda that helped make the one who assisted in the crushing of the Greeks at Chaeronea more amenable. In Egpyt, when he was adopted as the son of Ammon, it was that region’s means of surrender to Macedon made far more appealing than the signing of some charter.

  2. Response to Selective Sources | Biblical Scholarship Says:

    [...] Realism blog is reviewing William Lane Craig’s book On Guard. In the most recent post, Selective Sources, he is commenting on Craig’s treatment concerning the historical Jesus. I have not read this [...]

  3. Steven Carr Says:

    Craig, of course, is famous for refusing point-blank to debate the historical reliability of the Gospels.

  4. Steven Carr Says:

    CRAIG
    There were significant restraints on the embellishment of traditions about Jesus, such as the presence of eyewitnesses and the apostles’ supervision.

    PAUL in 2 Corinthians 11
    For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.

    CARR
    Paul laments the readiness of Christians to accept false stories.

  5. Charles Says:

    Regarding WLC’s 5 argument’s that allow him to assume the Gospels are accurate. Perhaps I can pick away at his first point, that “There was insufficient time for legendary influences to erase the core historical facts”. This is a nonsense as can be shown from recent, well documented examples of fiction (legends) entering the realm of history. This can happen with or without official connivance; for example the Satanic ritual abuse scandals or the mythologising of the “Dear Leader’s” (Kim Il Jong) birth and death in North Korea.

    There are a couple of cases that I know a little better:
    1) Sherlock Holmes;
    2) The Angel of Mons;

    1) For years, at least through the 1950s to 70s the Abbey National Building Society (Mutual for American readers), that occupied a building on the site of 221b Baker St had a small group who answered the letters of those who wrote to ask the advice of the famous detective. Some of the writers were children but the majority were sane, sensible adults who asked for the advice of a “real” human detective. Even today biographers and journalists will seek for the man who was the “real” Sherlock Holmes and usually arrive on two, Dr Joseph Bell and Sir Henry Littlejohn.

    It is easy to imagine how, in a pre-literate society, these fables could have become part of accepted history and how other gospels could have been added to the canon, little editing would have made Monsieur Poirot and Monsieur Dupin part of this bible. Carrying this jeu d’esprit further, perhaps the terrible heresies in the writings of the false detective “Jane Marple” would have been burnt!

    2) In 1914 a well known writer called Arthur Machin wrote a story called “The Bowmen” which was published in The (London) Evening News. It contained an account of a miracle that occurred during the recent Battle of Mons when a small British force held and withdrew in good order despite being massively outnumbered and outflanked. The story, as published, was about a soldier calling in St George and receiving an answer to that prayer by the appearance of ghosts from the battle of Agincourt.

    Within weeks Machin received requests for reprints in parish magazines and was asked for his source for the story when he would carefully explain that it was fiction. However at least one clergyman insisted that Machin’s claim was false because the “facts” must be true and Machin’s tale had just built upon that truth. Very early derivative tales, always claiming to be true accounts appeared. Very quickly these stories included figures that were more and more angelic and more and more miraculous. This despite the best attempts of Machin and others to de-bunk it.

    The story had sticking power as well because in 1968 my class of told by the ancient teacher (who had won an MC in WW1) that this was a true story and proof of divine favour. Even later others cited the story as proof of miracles.

    This last case in particular shows it was a matter of months that allowed the fable to erase the historical record.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    WLC puts together arguments based on assumptions that cannot be effectively defended without distortions. To seem to have effective arguments he always begins by shifting the burden of proof. He then proceeds to deny the bias of his assertions, The arguments remind me of those of Lee Stroble in which his authorities could speak no wrong while those who disagree can safely be ignored since they are inferior scholars. If this were not bad enough, his arguments ignore the psychology of how human beings deal with traditional stories. The process of confabulation takes place rapidly and time frame rather than being to short in the case of the gospels is more than sufficient. The more one hears of Craig’s arguments the more difficult it is to dismiss a pattern of intellectual dishonesty. Whether or not this is simply delusional or not is hard to tell.

    • David Tyler Says:

      Not that my comment was that important but I did want to leave my name with the above comment – David Tyler

  7. Terry Groff Says:

    I have not read Craig’s book so I’m wondering if there is any mention of Constantine’s “consolidation” of the bible in the 4th century.

  8. If You Can’t Have the Bible You’d Love, Love the Bible You Have « Exploring Our Matrix Says:

    [...] of this post. While some conservative Christians engage in heated debates about the scientific and historical accuracy of the Bible, what the Bible says about possessions and wealth isn’t even debated, but sits in a blind (or [...]

  9. Tony Hoffman Says:

    Charles, thanks for the post. I love the example from the Battle of Mons — I hadn’t heard about that one.

    It has slowly dawned on me that what so many religious believers have in common is a poor to virtually non-existent knowledge of history. I have a theory that the study of history may be more destructive of religious belief than the study of science. On the plus side, studying history is also waaay easier, and I think it’s more fun to boot.

  10. pboyfloyd Says:

    In a commentary on another blog, I mentioned that Jesus of Nazareth was, effectively Joshua the Nazerite, IOW, ‘Saviour, the Branch’.

    My Christian correspondent(I think that’s the word) lit right up! He understood that I understood that Jesus Christ was ‘really’, by name, (The) Saviour(of) The (Christian) Branch (of Judahism)! How is that not mythology? Yet I was ‘getting’ from him that I seemed to understand much, why wasn’t I taking that final step’?

    Of course it might be that we both happen to be under the same ‘delusion’ but he happens to like mythology whereas I just think it’s myth.

  11. pboyfloyd Says:

    Oh yea, I’m surprised that the Christian right are not happy with Nuke Gingrich. It is ‘Nuke’, isn’t it?


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