About Kazz

My name is Shawn Esplin and I am an advocate of Free Thought and general good sense and thought in general. To that end, I encourage people to seriously question the things that they have been taught, especially as children, because many of these things - religious and secular - are taken on faith until we actively choose to seriously examine them for ourselves.

Resurrection Debate – Question #4 From Vocab With Tim’s Response

Q4. Do you think that the Resurrection gave rise to Christianity or do you think that Christianity gave rise to the Resurrection? Why do you think so?

A4. None of the above. I hold that the idea of resurrection from the dead is an ancient idea, way back to the old farmer religions where death and rebirth was a symbol of the season cycle. Like so many other religions, Christianity incorporated many miraculous memes into it, including the concept of a resurrection. Prove me wrong :-)

Resurrection Debate – Question #4 From Tim With Vocab’s Response

Q4. What are your sources of history about the early church? About the earliest Christians and what contemporary people were thinking about Jesus? One of your pivotal arguments seems to be that the elite Jews would have hated Christianity for its message (that whole eye of the needle thing isn’t exactly wooing the rich, for example). History indicates that you are right about this, and that early Christians were not from this class at all. Can you bridge the gap and show us that a portion of these Jews did indeed convert, against their theological convictions? And did they mention why they converted? (As in: did they report being a witness to the resurrection?)

A4. This question actually contains about five questions. I cannot answer them all here, especially since I feel I have answered some of them already during the course of this debate. One thing Tim is confused about is he seems to think that lower class Jews had entirely different theological beliefs than upper class Jews. There is a small grain of truth in this; for example, the unpopular Saducees were an elite aristocratic power group who did not even believe in a general resurrection of the dead. They were a small minority, though. The Pharisees did believe in a general resurrection and most common people theologically aligned with them on a large host of issues. We know why many of these working class folks, such as fishermen and tax collectors, changed their theological convictions – it was because they claimed to have seen the risen Jesus. Many of them give their reasons and we have many of their stories documented – in a first century Jewish Christian work now called The New Testament.

Although we have the seen the foolishness of discounting the Gospels as historically reliable, I do want to briefly mention some writings of the early church dealing with the resurrection so we can look at some early evidence for the resurrection outside of the NT.

One early non-canonical Christian source – I Clement – is highly significant because it is so early – 96 AD. This means Clement was writing contemporaneously with the last author of the NT itself – John. Some folks who deny the bodily resurrection as the central early Christian belief will say resurrection belief evolved and grew later. But here we have Clement, writing from Rome, attesting to this belief several times in his little letter. NT Wright, who wrote a whole chapter on the resurrection in non-canonical early Christian texts had this to say about Clement:

"Clement is quite clear that the future resurrection is based upon the resurrection of Jesus himself." [1]

Another clear example of resurrection belief outside the NT was Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote around 107 AD:

"For I know and believe that after the resurrection he was in the flesh. … After the resurrection he ate and drank with them as a fleshly being …" (Smyrn 3.1-3).

Wright provides a longer list and more precise exposition that shows resurrection belief was indeed alive and well outside of the NT from the first century on.

Those were from Christian sources and very clear about belief in the resurrection. These next two are from non-Christian sources and are not very clear. I would not build an entire case around them. Still, they are worthy to mention as a sort of ‘closing excursus’.

A governor in Asia Minor named Pliny the Younger, writing around 112 AD, relates some information he has learned about Christians (via torture):

"They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god…"

The phrase ‘certain fixed day’ refers to Sunday and is proof from a non-NT source that early Christians met on a specific day and then worshipped Jesus as a god." Historically, we know the certain day would be Sunday – in honor of the event of the resurrection. As a side note, Pliny’s statement "as to a god" implies “unlike other gods who were worshipped, Christ was a person who had lived on earth.” [2]

The Roman historian Tacitus wrote this about Jesus:

"Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of . . . Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome. . ."

Tacitus reports the Christians had derived their name from a historical person, Christus (from the Latin). His details about Jesus’ crucifixion comport to the NT record. But there’s something else here: what of the odd statement by Tacitus where he says this “most mischievous superstition,” was "checked for the moment" but then it "again broke out not only in Judaea, but also in Rome?" One historian thinks Tacitus is “bearing indirect . . . testimony to the conviction of the early church that the Christ who had been crucified had risen from the grave." [3] We can’t be certain, of course, but that would help explain how a movement based upon a disgraced criminal could have spread to the capital so quickly.

NOTES:
[1]N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 483.
[2] M. Harris, “References to Jesus in Early Classical Authors,” in Gospel Perspectives V, 354-55.
[3] N.D. Anderson, Christianity: The Witness of History (London: Tyndale, 1969), 19.

Resurrection Debate – Question #3 From Vocab With Tim’s Response

Q3. What kind of evidence would it take to convince you that Jesus bodily rose from the dead? Please explain why you chose this particular criterion. Would you honestly say you are objective in regards to your reading of the historical evidence in favor of the resurrection of Jesus?

A3. I truly think that any event like the resurrection from this period in time would be difficult to prove conclusively. It’s simply too long ago, and the narrative style of the day too prone to distortion. Even if an unambiguous extra-Biblical contemporary resurrection account could be found, it would still need to be dated reliably and so forth (even though such an account would surely get my attention!).

However, there are some consequences if the Christian creed is true. Then the resurrection not only took place, but Jesus is an omnipotent being occupied with the salvation of those who accept him as saviour. This is something that could conceivably be proven at any time and therefore, retroactively, prove the truthfulness of the Gospels and thus the resurrection. This could – as an example – be a miraculous event like the stars suddenly spelling out “ACCEPT JESUS AS YOUR PERSONAL LORD AND SAVIOUR AND ESCAPE THE FIRES OF HELL!” and the gates of Hell and Heaven being opened to touring visitors. This miracle would convert 1,000,000 times as many people as any number of missionaries and preachers in one swift move, and it would provide proof anyone could accept. I choose this type of proof because it is open to objective and independent analysis and removes the element of faith, which is a generator of false positives like no other. I don’t choose it to be facetious. If it seems absolutely absurd, it may be because we have gotten used to not expecting omnipotent things from an omnipotent god…

I have never read any historical evidence of the resurrection of Jesus, so I can not assess any objectivity. The resurrection stories in the Gospels and that one dodgy passage from Josephus fail any objective standard of historicity, which is exactly why you don’t read about the resurrection in history books as if it were a historical fact.

Resurrection Debate – Question #3 From Tim With Vocab’s Response

Q3. You have been quite emphatic about your claim that the resurrection story happens in a sort of idea vacuum; that it is inconceivable that any of the Gospel writers could have had any cultural outside influence while writing the Gospels. Yet, you point out correctly that the Jews were waiting for a God-man to save them, and indeed, there were many contenders to the throne at the time. Also, ancient texts are notorious for their fictionalizing to create a compelling narrative structure. The intellectually honest thing to do – and the default position of historians – on any text from this time, secular or religious, is therefore to analyse it critically with regards to these problems. You have claimed repeatedly that it is too much of a stretch to do so.

What actual evidence (not mere armchair speculation) do you have for your positive claim that the Gospels are literally trustworthy in form and content in such a landscape, and that they should therefore be exempt from such critical scrutiny? And why would texts such as the Illiad, the Quran or the book of Mormon NOT be exempt for the same reasons?

A3. I never said the resurrection story arose in an idea vacuum. It most certainly arose within a certain cultural framework and plausibility structure; that of first century Palestinian Judaism. The problem is Tim keeps on wanting to posit the wrong context over Christian resurrection belief so as to make his case ‘work’. I am not saying it is simply a ‘stretch’ for him to do this, I am saying it is wholly incorrect and completely amiss for him to do this. It has been easily demonstrated by current mainstream scholarship that this is the case and I think it has also been demonstrated in this particular debate.

Please note, I never said the Gospels should be exempt from critical scrutiny. In fact, one way we know how incredibly accurate they are is because they have been exposed to so much critical scrutiny. I think it would be accurate to say that no other ancient work has received so much critical scrutiny as the Gospels. The amazing thing is they have come out vindicated time and time again.

Lastly, for Tim to put the Gospels in the same league as The Quran or the Book of Mormon serves as a reminder to all of us reading this that Tim is unfamiliar with modern archaeology and historiography. Either that, or he is unfamiliar with these other works, especially the Book of Mormon (my understanding is that even The Illiad fares better, as it seems to have some actual history and geography in it).

Resurrection Debate – Question #2 From Vocab With Tim’s Response

Q2. Can you give your own brief definition of ‘miracle’? Why do you define it that way? Do you think miracles are possible? Why or why not?

A2. A miracle cannot be defined outside of culture. If a group of people observe, or examine evidence of, a certain event and are unable to explain this event in terms of the explanatory tools they have at their disposal, then this event is a miracle to these people. Rain would be a miracle to primitive peoples. An iPhone would be a miracle to 13th century scholars. This definition of miracle does not require the event itself to be supernatural, simply unexplainable. It also allows event formerly classed as miracles to be re-evaluated as explicable events at a later date. I imagine that I am not in the majority when I use this definition, but I think it is a reasonable one.

Any miraculous event needs to be evaluated by its own merits, and examined using the best tools of the day. The reason the age of miracles is over is because our tools of analysis and understanding are becoming more honed. In an age where most people experienced miracles many times during a lifetime, people would tell stories of miracles, amplify them (miracles, by their very nature, need not be plausible or comprenhesible and therefore suffer litte risk of fact-checking) and pass them along, thus causing the plethora of supernatural legends from that age. This still happens in certain parts of sub-Saharan Africa, as an example, and for much the same reasons.

Resurrection Debate – Question #2 From Tim With Vocab’s Response

Q2. You mention in your rebuttal the fair and true point that creeds evolve over time, and that the pertinent question is not when the faith started, but when a particular *idea* within a faith came about. The earliest christian writings, i.e. Paul and Mark 1:1-16:8, make no mention of bodily resurrection. Indeed, Paul speaks to Jesus only in an ethereal vision. Later writings become more and more emphatic about the “fleshiness” of the resurrected Jesus, to the point of groping his feet and wounds and feeding him fish. This indicates to me that the bodily resurrection is a later addition to the resurrection story. Can you provide me with solid evidence that the concept of a BODILY resurrection has been present in Christianity since its inception?

A2. It is incorrect to say Paul makes no mention of a bodily resurrection, as the previous answer demonstrates. Furthermore, Jewish belief at the time does not allow for any other kind of resurrection except a physical ‘standing up among the corpses’ type of resurrection. All one needs to do to see what kind of resurrection Paul meant is refer to a Greek lexicon. To see this point being illustrated superbly in a debate, check out the pertinent section in Richard Carrier’s debate against William Lane Craig at Northwestern Missouri State University in 2009. You will see it is hopeless to argue against the physicality Paul uses in regards to Jesus’ resurrection.

Further, Mark does mention the resurrection! He mentions Jesus’ resurrection 4 times explicitly – Mark 8:31, 9:9-10, 9:31, 10:34 – and two times implicitly – Mark 14:28 and 16:6. A notable fact about some of these resurrection related statements is that a number of them include the phrase ‘Son of Man,’ which is undoubtedly a phrase that goes back to Jesus himself.[1] Another indicator that certain portions of Mark are ultra early is the pre-Markan Passion narrative. Here, Mark talks about the high priest but does not mention him by name (14:53-63) – this makes it likely that Caiaphas was still the high priest when this section originated so there would be no need to state his name. The latest date for this tradition is 37 AD because Caiphas was the high priest from 18-37 AD.

Lastly, Tim makes it plain in his question he thinks Mark and Paul leave out bodily resurrection but that Matthew, Luke and John include it. Is he seriously asking us to believe that bodily resurrection managed to simply creep into Christianity between the years of 65 (when Mark was written) and 70 (when Matthew was written)?

[1] This phrase – Son of Man – even passes all of the idiosyncratic criteria laid out by the Jesus Seminar. Nonetheless, they reject it because it suggests a Messianic consciousness, which they will not ‘allow’.

Resurrection Debate – Question #1 From Vocab With Tim’s Response

Q1. Do you believe Jesus existed as a historical person? If so, what do you think we can know that’s historically probable about him? Why do you think this?

A1. I don’t really think we have enough evidence either way. The arguments for and against are equally convincing to me, but I don’t think it’s important. The Christianity we have came from traditions and theologies from the early Christians and those ideas are the ones that matter, historically. Nobody knows exactly who the earliest Christians were – the history is simply lost. But the ideas attributed to Jesus were, and still are, hugely influential. That is the main thing, which I could wish Christians could focus on. The ideas are in no way devalued by conceding that the person who said them might not have been an all-powerful God.

Resurrection Debate – Question #1 From Tim With Vocab’s Response

Q1. Much of this debate has centered on sociology rather than evidence from both sides (from my side, about the nature of belief, from yours, about the likely behaviour of early Christians and about transfer of religious ideas). I agree with you that we need more history. So, name your single best piece of primary historical evidence for the resurrection. Can you also give a reason why you chose that particular piece of evidence over all others, and why you think it’s the best?

A1. A particularly good piece of evidence for the resurrection can be found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.”

I believe Paul wrote all thirteen epistles attributed to him. Most ‘critical’ scholars think he wrote seven: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians and Philemon. These same critical scholars recognize there are primitive creedal statements – such as the aforementioned passage – within these documents (another example is Philippians 2:5-11, read an article on that here). 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 has been almost universally recognized as an early pre-Pauline creedal statement. Here is why this matters: 1 Corinthians is usually dated around 54 AD, which is early, but the creed is even earlier. Here is a likely timeline:

30 AD – Crucifixion
31 AD – The creed is first formed
34 AD – Paul’s conversion
37 AD – Paul confirms creed from Peter, James and John in Jerusalem [1]
55 AD – 1 Corinthians written

This is using conservative numbers, meaning it could even be earlier. Either way, this puts us right on top of the actual event of the resurrection. The upshot is that the creed originated far too early for legend and myth to have crept in. There are a number of technical details that solidify this creed as early: for example, it uses the Aramaic name for Peter, Cephas, and leaves out the women as witnesses; both of these facts demonstrate its antiquity. Only a person with limited knowledge of current NT scholarship can doubt these facts. The evidence is so compelling that uber-skeptic and NT scholar Robert Price uses an ad hoc argument against it, claiming the creed is a late interpolation, even though there is no literary evidence of this.

Gary Habermas writes the following (source):

Whenever these early sources are also derived from eyewitnesses who actually participated in some of the events, this provides one of the strongest evidences possible. Historian David Hackett Fischer dubs this ‘the rule of immediacy’ and terms it ‘the best relevant evidence’. When scholars have ancient sources that are both very early and based on eyewitness testimony, they have a combination that is very difficult to dismiss….This is even conceded by atheist scholar Michael Martin. [2]

[1] The way we know about Paul’s Jerusalem meeting is via Galatians 1:11-24 and Galatians 2:1-10. Galatians is another book even critical scholars recognized as being authentically Pauline.
[2] Of course, Martin merely believes Paul thought he saw the risen Jesus.

Resurrection Debate – Vocab’s Rebuttal to Tim’s Opening Statement

Tim’s Opening Statement

It strikes me as strange that in a debate centered on history, Tim has devoted so much of his time to psychology. His main argument seems to go something like this:

  1. Lots of people believe lots of things that never happened
  2. Lots of people believe the resurrection happened
  3. The resurrection must have never happened

Even though I am slightly lampooning it, this still is not a particularly good or relevant argument. As such, I am going to deal with the more pertinent points Tim raised.

THE CRITERION of EMBARRASSMENT

Tim dodges the criterion of embarrassment issue by committing the genetic fallacy (or the fallacy of a bulverism, take your pick) in regards to what he labels "biblical theologians." Then he parenthetically offers: "In the Gospel of Thomas, young Jesus kills a playmate among other nasty things. According to the criterion, we should accept this story as being more reliable? It certainly is embarrassing to modern Christians…." The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is not deemed as reliable because it is a 2nd century document, as opposed to the canonical gospels, which are all 1st century documents written within the lifetime of many of the eyewitnesses.

LUKE’S RELIABILITY

Tim says, "Luke is not a historian. He tells us that he is, but he is not." Archaeologist Ramsay says, "Luke is a historian of the first rank … this author should be placed along with the very greatest historians." (The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, (1915), 222).

Tim says, "Luke shows absolutely no interest, in his Gospel or in Acts, to present the reader with any sort of fact-checking possibility…." Geisler says, "Luke names 32 countries, 54 cities and 9 islands without an error." (Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (1998), 47)

Tim says, "We have no evidence that he used any sort of reliable critical method." Historian Sherwin-White says this (in regards to Acts, which Luke wrote), "the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming…. Any attempt to reject its basic historicity must now appear absurd." (Roman Society and Roman Law in the Setting of Hellenistic History (1963), 189).

In 1990, Classical historian Colin Hemer went through Luke’s other book (Acts) and identifies 84 different historical facts that have been verified by history and archaeology (The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, Eisenbraums). Has Tim perhaps misdiagnosed Luke?

DID GREEK MYTHS INFLUENCE THE GOSPELS?

Tim is still stubbornly claiming the Gospels (and apparently all Palestinian Jews) were heavily influenced by "the general mythical landscape of the Mediterranean of the time." Why would 1st century Jews, many of whom were eagerly awaiting a military Messiah to kick out the godless Romans, want to adopt their oppressors myths? Nonetheless, since Tim offered up a few names, let’s take a look.

Zalmoxis is one of the names Tim gives as resurrecting bodily. This person – whom Herodotus is not even sure ever lived – taught his people about a common Greek belief – the immortality of the soul. It is unfortunate Tim used Zalmoxis as a forerunner for a belief in bodily resurrection when the body of teaching surrounding Zalmoxis relates to the immortality of the soul, something very different from the doctrine of bodily resurrection.

As far as Inanna’s death, I found this:

She struck her.

Inanna was turned into a corpse

A piece of rotting meat

And was hung from a hook on the wall

A dead corpse hanging from a hook on a wall does not a crucifixion make. I don’t have enough space to deal with Castor and Pollux (I did look them up and found them to be hands-down the worst of Tim’s candidates for any kind of comparison). All I can ask is for people reading this debate to Google their names, read the legends surrounding them and then ask yourself if Tim’s accusations can withstand scrutiny.

A.T. Fear, wrote a whole essay on the subject of how the Attis cult evolved as a direct reaction to Christianity. Fear specifically says the doctrine of ‘resurrection’ is a "late-comer to the cult." (Cybele, Attis and Related Cults (1996), 41-42). It’s not even really a ‘resurrection’ but rather a celebration of Attis’ arrival in the underworld; hardly a resurrection. Another Attis scholar, Maria Lancelotti, explains that only a bare hint of resurrection belief was present in the Attis cult; worse, it did not appear until the 4th Century AD. (Attis Between Myth and History (2002), 160, 288).

One problem I have encountered when people accuse Christianity of borrowing from pre-Christian cults is this: they don’t realize the amount of fluidity in cultic doctrine and practice; many of these cults may have had an origin at a certain point in time but changed drastically as they went on. This means it is not historically responsible to say, "this cult around this god started way back then so it must have influenced Christianity." One also must know when a certain belief arose within said cult. Scholars understand this fact and that is why we see very few bona fide scholars lining up to support these silly accusations; in fact (as is the case with Attis), they often directly refute such naïve notions.

Let me pause here and point out an inconsistency in Tim’s rebuttal: he says I can’t draw Witherington – a NT expert respected by both liberals and conservatives – into the debate and then he proceeds to cite Dennis McDonald as proof for his case! McDonald’s whole thesis is severely flawed so he resorts to literary wizardry to try and prove it. Here is my personal favorite: MacDonald says Jesus’ "casting his gaze" about at everything while in the Jerusalem Temple is a parallel to when Odysseus "ogled" some buildings while visiting a city. Seriously? McDonald also says although Mark "borrowed heavily" from Homer "readers for 2000 years apparently have been blind to this important aspect of Mark’s project." (The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark (2001), 6-7). This type of argumentation is tailor made for Internet conspiracy theorists but ill suited for the serious study of historical events.

A final point on the whole ‘Christianity utilized the dying and rising gods motif’ accusation. Even if there were true bodily resurrection parallels in pre-Christian religions – we have seen this is not the case – that in and of itself does not invalidate the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Don’t miss this point; it is key: even if there were similar stories prior to Jesus – which there were not – it in no way follows that his resurrection never took place. Lastly, a parallel – real or imagined – does not necessarily mean dependence.

RESURRECTION as CATALYST

Unfortunately for Tim’s case he did not address my third point, which was really a series of proofs to demonstrate the sea change that took place in the beliefs and practices of the first Jewish Christians. The question I posed was why did this happen if there was no resurrection? He declined to answer, save a denial: "I will just point out an inaccuracy: the early Christians were almost exclusively poor and downtrodden Gentiles and Hellenistic Jews, not established Jews." Many of the earliest Christians were nationalistic Jews, look at the disciples: Simon (not Peter) appears to have been a member of the Zealot Party Josephus mentions in Antiquities 18.1.6. Judas Iscariot may have had similar associations. Peter demonstrated a strong anti-Gentile bias that had to be corrected by a vision (Acts10.1-11.18) and the Apostle Paul (Gal2.11-21). Only 2 of the 12 (Andrew & Philip) went by Greek names. Tim is partially mischaracterizing the earliest followers of Jesus – they were not Hellenized to the extent he portrayed. The Apostolic Age (30-100 AD) is primarily characterized by its Jewishness and if Tim is claiming the earliest Christians weren’t practicing Jews in the first place so no real change occurred then he is at odds with most historians.

On a similar note, noted scholar R.H. Fuller pointed out, "Even the most skeptical historian has to postulate an ‘x’ … to account for the complete change in the behavior of the disciples…." (The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives (1972), 2). How do we account for the post-resurrection behavior of the disciples? How did they go from turncoats and cowards to bold proclaimers of a new faith? By all accounts, 10 of the 12 died as martyrs and proclaimed their belief in the resurrection of Jesus until the end. Who knowingly dies for a lie of this sort? Sometimes I hear people bring up Islamic terrorists as a counter example. The difference is the disciples were in a position to know whether they were lying about the resurrection; modern day Muslims are not.

Another tactic I sometimes hear used to evade this questions is "well, those accounts of their martyrdom are based on uncertain traditions." Even if we grant this point, we still must ask why the disciples would put themselves in a position to be killed for their proclamation? Even if Tim thinks we don’t know for sure how the disciples died, he still has to deal with the fact they willingly placed their lives in danger because of their new message. These last few considerations only further the case that the bodily resurrection of Jesus indeed happened … and it does not look as if Tim will be offering any real evidence to the contrary.

Resurrection Debate – Tim’s Rebuttal to Vocab’s Opening Statement

Vocab’s Opening Statement

1A: It’s Good Friday today, a suitably meaningful day to be debating the death and resurrection of Jesus. Incidentally, it’s also April Fool’s day today. There is something interesting to learn about April Fool’s day. Even in 2010, in an age of almost unlimited source material and fact-checking capabilities, millions upon millions of people are taken in by phony news reports, even if they read them on the internet where a new tab in Firefox would allow them to fact-check.

I am going to make a larger claim that people are not critical creatures by default. We are wired to believe what we hear (ask any parent of a young child and they’ll tell you!) Very rarely do we dive into the pool of primary evidence. It saves time, sure, to believe what we are told – but it leaves us open to false beliefs.

Vocab, you ask me “why were the faithful the faithful in the first place?” My answer will center around evidence for natural human credulity. (This term has a negative charge, but it is meant in its neutral sense here).

In our time, we have studied the formation of beliefs in the human mind to some extent. We have shown that authority figures can form strong beliefs in the minds of their followers, even though those beliefs are self-destructive (see Eric Hoffer, “The True Believer” (2002)) Other studies on political and religious beliefs show that we tend to echo the culture of our surroundings (see, for instance, Andrew Gelman et. al (2008) “Red State, Blue State” and Michael Argyle “The Psychology of Religious Belief, Behavior, and Experience” (1997). Margaret Gilbert and Emile Durkheim have written about “collective belief” as a sort of shared credulity which, in the minds of the sharers, become solidified as fact. This phenomenon seems endemic to all cultures, and attests to our collective method of fact-sharing and fact-gathering.

Finally, work by cognitive psychologists such as Daniel Simons have taught us that we are very unaware of the imperfections of our sensory perceptions of the world, often overlooking, misconstruing or filling in the gaps of our imperfect memory record of events to provide a narrative. This happens more or less automatically.

So, the question “why are the faithful faithful?” seems to find its answer not in fact-finding but in natural human credulity.

We must always be wary of projecting modern ideas onto ancient times, however. Can we find evidence of this form of credulous behaviour in the ancient world? Indeed we can. I can start in the Bible itself, in Acts 14:8-18. Regardless of whether you believe that the man was healed or not, what this story tells us is that the Lystraians immediately process this experience within their own Hellenistic religious framework, and they are clearly very difficult to convince otherwise. Another example from Acts is 28:6, where the Maltese need no more proof that Paul is a God than the fact that he doesn’t swell up after being bitten by a snake.

Acts 21:38 has Paul mistaken for an Egyptian who is also mentioned in Josephus (JW,2.261-2) who has 30,000 followers who believe he can perform miracles until the Romans kill most of them. Jewish Antiquities 20:97 mentions Theudas, another man who claimed divine powers and whose followers maintained he could part rivers. Plutarch decribes (and derides) in “The Life of Coriolanus” flocks of worshipping a crying statue in Tyche (sound familar?).

First and foremost, we have myriad written accounts from believers in the divine powers of Asclepius. They were healed at his temples and inscribed their testimony over a period of almost 800 years, all over the Roman Empire and beginning in the 4th century BC. (See Edelstein and Edelstein, “Asclepius: A Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies”) Clearly, belief in healing saviour God-men was possible and ubiquitous in the ancient world.

Why were the faithful faithful? The answer lies in psychology and not in evidence.

———————-

1B: The criterion of embarrassment is an interesting one, as far as I am aware only used by biblical theologians to justify the veracity of the Gospels (correct me if I’m wrong). Since I spent a lot of time on the nature of belief, I will address this in shorthand:

i) The story of the death of Jesus is a story, from start to finish, of poignant abandonment and, ultimately, in victory against all odds. The theme is one of role reversal. The Jews do not recognize Jesus, whereas Pilate and the Centurion do; He wrote of Jewish religious leaders accusing Jesus of being the Messiah, whereas his disciples were the ones betraying him to the executioner. After all is lost, and his parents do not even tend to Jesus’ corpse (even though conveniently-named Joseph and Mary are there instead), what better role reversal could you expect from Mark than having the disciples hiding away and the lowly women discover the empty tomb? Given that Early Christianity found its followers almost exclusively in the down-trodden, poor castes, including women, such a conclusion to the tale would not be an embarrassment to them. (In the Gospel of Thomas, young Jesus kills a playmate among other nasty things. According to the criterion, we should accept this story as being more reliable? It certainly is embarrassing to modern Christians, if not to Thomas it seems.)

ii) This criterion works both ways. If statements detrimental to the author’s point can be deemed more reliable, then surely statements furthering the author’s point should be deemed less reliable. Applying the flip side like this, the least reliable parts of the Bible would be the parts which cement Jesus’ status as the Messiah – in particular, the resurrection itself.

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1C: Luke is not a historian. He tells us that he is, but he is not. He never once cites sources or uses any sort of historical method. Lest you think that no ancient historian did these things, I present as one contemporary example among many: Suetonius, regarded by most as an unreliable reteller of rumours, and yet even he manages to mention his sources and compare and assess them when he has more than one (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/suetonius-caligula.html). Luke shows absolutely no interest, in his Gospel or in Acts, to present the reader with any sort of fact-checking possibility. He does say that he his sources must be “handed down from the beginning” bue he never tells us which criteria he uses to determine if his sources are indeed handed down from the beginning. We have no evidence that he used any sort of reliable critical method.

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2: I’m going to turn this one around on Vocab. He claims that it is faulty to assume strong Hellenistic influence on the Gospels and that they must only be seen as Jewish texts. Why? In order for this claim to have value, you need to argue that the Jews at the time were not influenced by these thoughts. I know Witherington’s book which Vocab cites, but since Witherington seems quite convinced of the historicity of the Gospels from the outset, it is circular to draw him into a debate about the veracity of the Gospels themselves. In any case, the claim rests with Vocab who needs to provide historical justification that the Jews were not inside, or were immune to, the general mythical landscape of the Mediterranean of the time.

The Greeks, by the way, did not shun bodily resurrection at all. Some did – the Platonists indeed – but not all Greeks were Platonists. Indeed, as we see in the myth of Castor and Pollux, the twins who were resurrected (bodily) several times and were hugely popular as saviour Gods and are mentioned in quasi-historical myths, taking part in battles etc. This shows that bolidy resurrection was very much within the Hellenistic mindset, and, crucially, there are signs that Mark deliberately employed the Castor/Pollux typology in his Gospel (Dennis McDonald, “The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark”, 2000). Herodotus mentions Zalmoxis who resurrects bodily. Looking back even further, we find the ancient mesopotamian goddess Inanna who descends to the underworld after death (by crucifixion, incidentally) and is bodily resurrected.

This, by the way, is also a solidly dated precursor to the concept of a God-person dying and being brought back to life. I hope it’s ancient enough for you (at least 2000BC). Vocab goes on to make a long and rather startling list of demands for evidence before he will accept the rather simple idea that “the Gospels were not the first people to ever talk about a God-man dying and being bodily resurrected”. I feel no need to bow to those demands. I will agree entirely with Vocab that it is fruitless to search for an older carbon copy of Christianity (although you will find, on the internet, a long list of comparisons with Mithras. The list has little basis in historical record and can be safely ignored here). You won’t find a carbon copy because all religions are different. Attis, a God-man from around the 7th century BC, died and was resurrected by Cybele. But he died by castration, not crucifixion (indeed, the Cybele priests ritually castrated themselves because of this belief). Does that mean that there is no overlap between the two beliefs? Of course not. The general idea “God-man dies and resurrects” is found in countless religious stories, including Christianity. The details differ between them all. It doesn’t matter.It’s like saying Star Wars and Star Trek have absolutely nothing in common, not even the sharing of basic ideas.

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3: I have almost no room left to address Vocab’s third point, so I will just point out an inaccuracy: the early Christians were almost exclusively poor and downtrodden Gentiles and Hellenistic Jews, not established Jews. (Eusebius, “History of the Church”, John Polhill, “Acts: The New American Commentary”, (1992), Richard Rohrbaugh, “The Jesus Tradition” (2000)) In an age where religious shopping around was much more widespread than it is now (and my opening remarks about the nature of belief), this proves nothing about the truthfulness of the resurrection.