Any shoe that fits

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

Last week, we saw William Lane Craig use his 6 criteria of authentic history to try claim that Jesus really did call himself Messiah. As evidence, Craig cited a number of passages in which Jesus did not, in fact, call himself Messiah. Craig cites stories about other people calling Jesus Messiah, and about Jesus allegedly working miracles allegedly associated with Messiah, but having announced that he was going to show that Jesus claimed to be Messiah, he “met” his burden of proof by providing merely what he calls “good evidence that Jesus did…think he was the Messiah.”

That pretty much sums up Craig’s approach to “authentic” history. He “proves” that Jesus claimed to be Messiah by making guesses about what Jesus might have been thinking. Not surprisingly, his guess is that Jesus must have been thinking exactly what modern-day Christians wish he were thinking. And in Craig’s book, that means it’s a historic fact that Jesus claimed to be Messiah. (You see now why I was a tad skeptical when he introduced the criterion about a claim being coherent with “facts” already established about Jesus.)

In today’s installment, Craig takes his mindreading act a step further: he’s going to tell us what Jesus meant by the the things he (Jesus) might have been thinking.

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In the eye of the believer

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

In a study published in 2003 [PDF], psychology researchers Gary Wells and Elizabeth Loftus gave an example of how eyewitness testimony can evolve over time. A young woman was sexually assaulted and her friend was murdered. The young woman, Sherry Gillaspey worked with a police artist to put together a composite sketch of the assailant, and based this sketch, a young man named Thomas Brewster became a “person of interest.”

On December 19, 1984, Gillaspey was shown a photo lineup with Brewster’s photo in it. She could not make a positive identification. One day later, Gillaspey was shown a live lineup in which Brewster appeared. Again, Gillaspey could not make a positive identification… Nearly four years later, in August 1988, detectives again showed Gillaspey a photo lineup with Brewster’s picture in it. Once again she could not make a positive identification.

In 1995, 11 years after the murder, two new detectives were assigned to the case. These detectives brought photos and, after interviewing her with the photos, she signed a statement saying that Brewster was the killer. Six days later, she identified Brewster from a live lineup.

The report goes on to look at details of how the two new detectives, apparently believing or wanting Brewster to be the attacker, subtly guided Gillaspey into “remembering” Brewster as the perpetrator. Initially, the woman did not remember Brewster as being the man who assaulted her and murdered her friend, despite being an eyewitness to the whole thing. Under the influence of the two detectives, however, this “memory” appeared—more than a decade later! Nor is this a rare case. Wells and Loftus cite research documenting at least 80 innocent men in recent years who have been wrongly imprisoned—or executed—based on eyewitness testimony, sometimes involving multiple witnesses. Other research explains how this can happen, as Wells and Loftus summarize:

[D]ecades of research has shown that postevent information, particularly when it is misleading, can also alter recollections of other details about key events. A typical finding is that after receiving new information that is misleading in some way, people make errors when they report what they saw. The new, postevent information is often incorporated into the recollection, supplementing or altering it, sometimes in dramatic ways.

In short, eyewitness testimony is the category of evidence that is THE most likely to be influenced and/or modified in the presence of stress, peer pressure, the power of suggestion, and so on. This is why it is important to make a distinction, in historical research, between “independent” accounts that arise via collaboration in a context of shared religious fervor and perceived persecution, versus accounts that are truly independent (i.e. that arise without any collaboration, religious identification, shared goals, etc., between the parties). It is especially significant, then, that William Lane Craig consistently fails to make any such distinction in his own historical “research.”

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The seventh criterion

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

William Lane Craig openly admits that he believes in assuming the New Testament is right until proven wrong. For the sake of appearances, though, he proposes a kind of academic neutrality that is at least nominally open to the possibility that individual events recounted in the NT might be true or false, regardless of the reliability of other reported events. Today we’re going to look at the six criteria that he uses to judge the authenticity of individual gospel events. We’ll also look at the seventh criterion, which he seems to avoid mentioning.

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Legendary history

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

Last week we introduced Craig’s list of five reasons why he thinks we ought to accept New Testament accounts as factual history, despite their clear bias and explicit agenda. The middle three turned out to be smoke and mirrors that he mentioned briefly and then dropped, but he spends a bit more time on the first and last reasons, and that’s what we’re going to look at today. Though his goal is to convince us to believe whatever the New Testament writers tell us, what he actually demonstrates is that his own conclusions need to be taken with a very large grain of salt.

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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.

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