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.”

Despite laying out six “criteria of authenticity” that professional historians could use to determine the authenticity of individual events in the Gospels, Craig’s “historical” approach ends up being an exercise in repeating the standard, conservative, evangelical Christian interpretation of certain passages. It’s not an unreasonable approach, commercially speaking. After all, he’s writing for standard, conservative, evangelical Christians, so reinforcing what they already believe only helps his fan base. But as historical research it leaves much to be desired. He decorates it with a facade of “historicitithiness” by sprinkling in key words from his six criteria, but it’s the same familiar sermon his audience is used to hearing.

Let’s take a look at the authenticity of three of Jesus’ explicit claims: His claims to be the Messiah, the unique Son of God, and the Son of Man. As we look at each title, I’ll first show by means of the criteria of authenticity that Jesus did make such a claim, and the, second, I’ll discuss the significance of this claim for who Jesus held Himself to be.

“Messiah” comes from a Hebrew word meaning “Anointed.” Anointed, in turn, means “having had some kind of oil brushed, dripped, or poured onto you,” and stems from the practice of using a ritual application of “holy” oil to signify God’s blessing and/or selection of someone or something. Christians have adopted this language and retroactively turned it into what Craig calls “Israel’s ancient hope for a Messiah…sent from God,” which was allegedly “revived” in the decades preceding Jesus.

It’s certainly true that a lot of people in Palestine were hoping God would send them a new king to kick out the Romans and restore them to their “rightful” position of supremacy over everybody else in the entire world. (People haven’t changed much, have they?) And Craig is correct that the Greek language translation of “Messiah” is “Christos,” or Christ, and that the early believers were called “Christians” because they so frequently referred to Jesus as “the Christ.”

The question is: Where did they come up with this idea? If Jesus Himself never claimed to be the Messiah, what would prompt His followers to call Him that? He did not, in fact, reestablish David’s throne in Jerusalem; instead, he was crucified by His enemies. Even the belief that God had raised Him from the dead would not have led His followers to see Him as the Messiah, for there was no connection between resurrection and messiahship. Only if Jesus’ crucifixion was the direct result of His claim to be the Messiah would His resurrection lead His followers to see Him as the risen Messiah.

Not exactly a critical and unbiased account, eh? He’s just finished reporting that there was a strong hope and expectation that God would send them a Messiah of some kind to lead them, and he’s also reporting that at least some people would be willing to accept a Messiah even if he didn’t take the throne or fulfil all the prophecies. Yet, for some reason Craig insists that the only way anyone would call Jesus “Messiah” would be if he were crucified as a direct result of claiming to be Messiah. Considering the number of Messiahs they had back then, it seems like maybe there might be other reasons why they would call him that, don’t you think?

It’s not clear which of Craig’s six criteria of authenticity he thinks is satisfied by the above argument, since he does not mention any, but he does try to bring them in to his next argument. Citing Mark 8:27-30, where Peter calls Jesus “the Messiah,” Craig writes:

Is this a historical incident? Well, it would be natural for people of that time to be interested in who Jesus claimed to be. Independent accounts tell us that John the Baptist was confronted with a similar question (Luke 3:15-16; John 1:19-27). No doubt the disciples, who had left their families and jobs to follow Jesus, would have asked themselves whom they were following! Peter’s reply to Jesus’ question is independently confirmed in John 6:69, where Peter says, “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Recall that Criterion #2 was “Independent, early sources.” That seems to be the target Craig is aiming at, due to his repeated use of “independence.” Yet there’s something odd going on here. First of all, none of the passages involve Jesus claiming to be Messiah. Despite his promise to use the 6 criteria of historical authenticity to prove that Jesus really did claim to be Messiah, Craig is citing 2 passages where John the Baptist says “I am not the Messiah,” and two passages where Peter says Jesus is the Messiah (or something similar).

And even in the latter case, Craig is only assuming that Mark’s account is independent of John’s, and vice-versa. As Wells and Loftus have pointed out, there is a strong tendency to incorporate other people’s stories into your own recollection, even when you were an eyewitness. Merely appearing in different books does not mean that one account could not have influenced the other (or that both accounts might not have been influenced by some common source). And in the case of Luke 3 vs John 1, Craig is assuming that Luke’s account is independent of John’s, even though Luke’s Gospel begins with an explicit declaration that he is reporting other people’s stories.

Obviously, this doesn’t disprove the notion that John the Baptist denied being Messiah, or that Peter believed that Jesus was. That’s not the point, however. The point is that Craig does not have sufficient grounds for his conclusion that either of these things really happened. After all the fuss Craig made about being “neutral” in one’s approach to history, Craig himself is not being neutral. The passages he’s citing contain examples of people jumping to the conclusion that Jesus is Messiah without him ever mentioning any such claim, yet Craig is presenting these as “independent, early sources” showing that Jesus claimed to be Messiah.

Craig’s next example is Matt. 11:2-6 as compared to Luke 7:19-23, where John the Baptist allegedly sends messengers to Jesus to ask him if he’s the Messiah or not.

The criterion of embarrassment supports the historicity of this incident, since John the Baptist seems to be doubting Jesus. The phrase “the one who is to come” harks back to John’s prophecy of “the one who is coming after me,” which is independently recorded in Mark and John (Mark 1:7; John 1:27). Jesus’ answer to John is a blend of prophecies from Isaiah 35:5-6; 26:19; 61:1, the last of which explicitly mentions being God’s Anointed One… Perhaps most remarkably of all, these very signs are listed as signs of the Messiah’s coming in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls from the Jewish sect that lived at Qumran at the time of Jesus (4Q521).

In sum, the criteria of embarrassment, historical fit, and coherence with other authentic material, coupled with its presence in a very early source, give good grounds for seeing this incident as historical.

Once again, we see Craig citing an instance where Jesus does not, in fact, claim to be Messiah, and treating it like evidence for the historicity of Jesus claiming to be Messiah. The standard conservative evangelical Christian interpretation of Jesus’ reply was that he was thinking of himself as Messiah, but he never comes right out and says so. And even then, Christians reach that conclusion by taking snippets of Isaiah out of context and superimposing their own anachronistic interpretations over the actual words of the texts, while ignoring any bits that don’t happen to fit.

In Isaiah 61, for example, the prophet claims to have been anointed by God, which historically is not all that uncommon—lots of people claimed divine anointing. The prophet in Isaiah 61, however, proclaims not just the exaltation of the poor, but also the day of God’s vengeance, neither one of which happened in the first century. Isaiah 35, likewise, says the “signs” will include water springing up in the desert, which also did not happen. Assuming that John the Baptist knew his Old Testament, and assuming that Jesus was indeed trying to direct his attention to those passages, John’s conclusion should be that Jesus was not Messiah, due to his failure to fulfill all the predictions. But that’s not the standard Christian interpretation, so it doesn’t count. Or something.

The criterion of embarrassment is similarly misused. To be a genuine embarrassment to the Gospel, this story would have to reach a conclusion that was somehow wrong by Christian standards. Instead, it vindicates Jesus (which is the whole reason Craig is citing it in the first place). That’s not an embarrassment for the Gospel, that’s support. At worst this story might suggest that John the Baptist somehow forgot his own earlier prophecy about Jesus being the Lamb of God, but that’s not especially embarrassing for Christians.

As for being “a historical fit” and “coherent with other authentic events,” Craig is taking criteria that are really most reliable as negative indicators, and using them as positive indicators. If a report is not a historical fit or if it contradicts authentic events, then we’d be justified in rejecting these stories as authentic. The mere absence of obvious contradictions, however, is no guarantee that the story is necessarily authentic. Sherlock Holmes is a historical fit as well, but that doesn’t mean it’s a true story. Craig is just misusing historical criteria in order to reach a preferred conclusion.

He tries a few more times to make Jesus claim to be Messiah, through his actions if not his words: by riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, by driving moneychangers out of the temple, by the fact that the Sanhedrin asked if he were Messiah at his trial, and by the fact that Pilate had them put “King of the Jews” on his cross. In other words, Craig thoroughly documents that, despite multiple opportunities to do so, and despite strong desires on the part of both his friends and his enemies to have him do so, Jesus never actually came right out and called himself God’s Messiah. From this, Craig concludes that by his six criteria of historical authenticity, Jesus claimed to be God’s Messiah.

So much for neutrality.

One Response to “In the eye of the believer”

  1. Minogaade Says:

    Think of how small the earth is within our solar system. Then think about our solar system within the Milky Way. Then think about the Milky Way within the universe. “God” allegedly made it all, in 6 days. How hard would it be for such an artificer to demonstrate BEYOND A SHADOW OF A DOUBT that it decided to play the game of I’m-my-own-sacrifice? Just stick around. Walk back into Jerusalem after the resurrection, hang around a 1000 or 2000 years. Write Hebrew indelibly in the stars. On every rational level, Christianity is utterly absurd. It’s first century Mormonism. If there were a god, she would have destroyed the planet long ago, just on the strength of Newt’s primary showing.

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