• True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism: A Refutation, Part 11

    Chapter 13: Historical Evidences for the Gospels, by Randall Hardman

    Randall Hardman focuses on a few key aspects that relate to the reliability of the gospels: “the question of miracles” and the “skeptical bias,” the oral tradition, and historical accuracy.

    Hardman begins the discussion about miracles and skeptics’ “bias” against them. He argues that naturalism is a “philosophical assumption concerning reality and history.” (133) He continues to argue that this viewpoint “denies a priori an open system in which God might or might not intervene in human affairs and, therefore, unjustifiably presumes a closed system.” (134) Finally, in his denouncement of the scientific method he says that “science has never made a case for the necessity of philosophical naturalism, nor is it within science’s competency to do so […]” (134-135)

    In actuality, science denies the supernatural, not for metaphysical reasons, as is assumed by Hardman (135), but because of practical reasons. Donald Prothero writes,

    [S]cientists practice methodological naturalism, where they use naturalistic assumptions to understand the world but make no philosophical commitment as to whether the supernatural exists or not. Scientists don’t exclude god from their hypotheses because they are inherently atheistic or unwilling to consider the existence of god; they simply cannot consider supernatural events in in their hypotheses. Why not? Because […] once you introduce the supernatural to a scientific hypothesis, there is no way to falsify or test it. (emphasis in original) [1]

    There are no philosophical assumptions, only practical ones, for the reasons mentioned. I also do not believe that science is incapable of making a case that methodological naturalism is the preferred means by which to do science. It’s a simple fact that many scientific tests have confirmed that there is no evidence of the supernatural. Studies that contain strict protocols, such as ensuring double blind studies, have shown over and over again that there are no benefits of prayer, there are no psychic phenomenon, and a host of other supernatural claims have been investigated and found wanting.

    Mark Isaak explains how,

    [M]any supernatural explanations are rejected not because they are supernatural but because they cannot or do not lead anywhere. It is possible to come up with any number of possible explanations for anything – lost socks could be caused by extradimensional vortexes which our observations prevent from forming; hiccups could be caused by evil spirits inside us trying to escape; stock market fluctuations could be caused by the secret manipulations of powerful extraterrestrials. Scientists reject such claims on the grounds of parsimony. All of these claims are possible, but they require adding complicated entities which there is no adequate evidence for. [2]

    Finally, early scientists were forced to abandon such thinking (“God did it.”) because the “scientific understanding of nature” went “nowhere.” Methodological naturalism became a necessity even to religious scientists such as Isaak Newton, Pierre Laplace, and James Hutton, because it was realized that “supernatural intervention did nothing to help” these scientists to “understand” the workings of the natural world. All of this was done by religious scientists so for Hardman to say this is some form of atheistic bias demonstrates he has not read up on the history of science very carefully. [3]

    Having said this, I will now tackle Hardman’s claims that the New Testament is reliable. He quotes NT scholar David DeSila who says “that if we can get past an anti-miracle bias and leave open the possibility of such occurrences, the potential for engaging the Gospels and Acts on their own terms increases exponentially.” (136)

    Read that sentence again. Essentially what Hardman is advocating is a suspension of disbelief. If only we would accept such seemingly impossible tales as angels appearing, miraculous healings, and the like we might be able to understand the NT on its “own terms.” We could just as easily argue that if we took the Koran or the Book of Mormon “on their own terms” our eyes would be opened and the truth would finally be revealed. John Loftus’ Outsider Test for Faith is instrumental in this situation. If only Christians opened their minds to the possibility that the Book of Mormon is just another testament of Jesus Christ… Of course, this will not happen. Why? Because Christians disbelieve the miraculous stories in the Koran and the Book of Mormon for the same reasons atheists reject the same kinds of stories in their own Bible.

    Let me respond to this point more directly as it harkens back to what I said earlier. Due to the lack of evidence of genuine miracles it is simply illogical to assume they exist until one has been demonstrably proven. In addition, the people who wrote the bible believed almost everything was divine or a miraculous event because they did not understand the world in the way we do in these modern times. Christopher Hitchens writes,

    Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody – not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms – had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion […] [4]

    Speaking of taking the bible on its “own terms” I’d like to ask Mr. Hardman (or any other Christian) if he (or she) believes in the Leviathan, a giant sea monster, whom the bible claims god’s “magic binds?” (Job 3:8, NEB) If we are to read the bible on its “own terms” as Hardman requests is he willing to accept the existence of sea monsters? Or what about “fiery serpents?” (Deuteronomy 8:15, NKJV) Does he believe in fire breathing dragons? [5] Is his mind open enough to accept the plausibility of these creatures?

    Hardman continues to argue how Christianity’s oral period was 1) not entirely oral; it included “note-taking,” and 2) the oral tradition was much stronger than is commonly believed. He cites Birger Gerhardsson’s Memory and Manuscript, which argues that there was a “degree of oral stability” within both Judaism and Christianity, and that this careful process allowed for these writings to be “safeguarded” and “prevented them from inevitable distortion.” (139-141) Hardman says this research was beneficial but that it was ultimately “historically out of touch.” He argues that a more likely theory is called “informal, controlled model of orality,” which was developed by Kenneth Bailey. Hardman says that this oral tradition was kept accurate and controlled by the entire “community,” not a single authority as with Gerhardsson’s theory. (143)

    The problem with this line of argumentation is that it is based upon a gigantic assumption. In fact, we do not know if the works that ended up in the bible were memorized in this manner. Judging from the great amount of instability within early Christianity I do not believe this is likely. Unlike how the early Christian community is often portrayed, it was not a very close-knit community. This does not sound like a very effective, nor efficient, environment in which to pass along critical information from person to person, group to group, generation to generation, of which there were several, prior to the appearance of formal and codified gospels.

    In early Christianity there were already problems with the earliest scriptures, let alone in any oral tradition. In fact, many scholars discount the inclusion of any oral tradition into the discussion in the first place because you cannot examine an oral tradition, like you can physical manuscripts, and any argument made about the oral tradition (what it contained and how effectively it was transmitted) is purely speculation. [6] This does not appear to be a very stable or effective environment for such oral transmissions. The problems only get worse once we begin to look at the early Christian churches and communities.

    Before the gospels were written Paul commented how he felt great “concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28). He noted how there were many “factions,” along with “hatred, discord, jealousy,” and “fits of rage” and tells these congregations to “not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” (Galatians 5:19-26) Paul also noted other disputes among the churches. He wrote, “My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ’.” (1 Corinthians 1:11-12)

    Even church fathers writing much later would comment about their frustrations over the changing of scripture. Origen once wrote,

    The differences among the manuscripts have become great, either through the negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others; they either neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of checking, they make additions or deletions as they please. [7]

    Not only Christians but their critics also took advantage of these poor copying practices. In Against Celcus (2.27) Origen quoted Celsus arguing how,

    Some believers, as though from a drinking bout, go so far as to oppose themselves and alter the original text of the gospel three or four or several times over, and they change its character to enable them to deny difficulties in face of criticism. [8]

    This problem was very well known in the ancient world, even prior to the period when the gospels were written, and the bickering and confusion only increased from that point on with various Christian sects claiming to represent the true teachings of Jesus, even though many of them held entirely contradictory doctrines. [9] The various beliefs of “Christians” during the second and third centuries were highly diverse, and each claimed to be following the “true” teachings of Jesus and his followers. There was no “agreed-upon” canon or scripture, only “diverse groups asserting diverse theologies based on diverse written texts, all claiming to be written by apostles of Jesus.” To quote Bart Ehrman,

    In the second and third centuries there were, of course, Christians who believed that there was only one God, the Creator of all there is. Other people who called themselves Christian, however, insisted that there were two different gods – one of the Old Testament (a God of wrath) and one from the New Testament (a God of love and mercy). There were not simply two different facets of the same God: they were actually two different gods. Strikingly, the groups that made these claims […] insisted that their views were the true teachings of Jesus and his apostles. Other groups, for example, of Gnostic Christians, insisted that there were not just two gods, but twelve. Others said thirty. Others still said 365. All these groups claimed to be Christian, insisting that their views were true and had been taught by Jesus and his followers. [10]

    The views pertaining to god were just as diverse as those about Jesus during Christianity’s first few hundred years after the alleged crucifixion. Ehrman continues,

    Some of these groups insisted that Jesus Christ was the one Son of God who was both completely human and completely divine; other groups insisted that Christ was completely human and not at all divine; others maintained that he was completely divine and not at all human; and yet, others asserted that Jesus Christ was two things – a divine being (Christ) and a human being (Jesus). Some of these groups believed that Christ’s death brought about the salvation of the world; others maintained that Christ’s death had nothing to do with the salvation of this world; yet other groups insisted that Christ had never actually died. [11]

    These facts to do not bode well for Hardman’s theory about the cohesion and reliability of the oral period with the continuous bickering and in-fighting among the various sects of Christianity. These facts also ought to cast doubt upon the gospel’s alleged historical accuracy, because that’s the next topic covered by Hardman.

    He claims that Luke was an eye-witness “to some of the events he recorded, and, where he wasn’t, he sought out eyewitness testimony.” (145)

    I briefly covered the issue of the historical reliability of the gospel of Luke in chapter 10, so I will copy my response from there.

    Luke composed a large bulk of his gospel by merely copying the gospel of Mark and Matthew, which are not eye-witness accounts. He “was simply pulling material from books and traditions that were never even claiming to be history, much less produced by eye-witnesses,” writes Richard Carrier. “And even had his sources been written by eyewitnesses, he could not interrogate or cross-examine a book or oral tradition anyway, no matter how skilled he was. And when we consider that evidence, in addition to the fact that Luke shows (or pretends to show) no awareness of conflicting stories (like the deviant nativity or empty tomb narratives of Matthew), and never makes any effort to show how he chose what evidence to accept or reject, we can rightly say that Luke was probably not a critical historian.” [12]

    Not to be deterred, Hardman cites the initial passage of Luke to demonstrate that he was, in fact, an eye-witness:

    If we suppose that Luke was in his 20s at the death and resurrection of Jesus, he would have been in his 60s when writing his gospel. […] [Hardman quotes the initial passage of Luke:]

    Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses (autopsai) and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught (Luke 1:1-4). (145)

    First of all, Hardman’s assumption that Luke was in his 20’s is mere speculation. Given that the average lifespan during this time period was an average of 50 years-old it is highly unlikely the writer of Luke was an eye-witness, much less that there were eye-witnesses available to interview, assuming one could find any to begin with (and this is assuming the author of Luke did not die during the war (of 66-70 A.D.) or from persecution at the hands of Romans or Jews). [13]

    How Hardman can argue this passage claims Luke was an actual eye-witness is beyond me. It says nothing of the kind. As I noted in chapter 10, how could Luke have “investigated” everything when he says quite plainly that these stories were “handed down” from alleged eye-witnesses? He says nothing about knowing who these alleged witnesses were, or that he received them directly from the witnesses themselves, nor does he explain the manner in which he went about checking their authenticity, which is in serious doubt in the first place. [14]

    After looking at all of the facts what shall we conclude? Well, for one, science is not inherently biased against the supernatural; second, any oral tradition is impossible to study and this argument is further harmed when we consider the strife within the Christian communities and the contradictory claims about even basic doctrine. Finally, Luke did not appear to be a reliable historian and he was not an eye-witness and could not have checked his story for authenticity since he did not appear to know by whom the accounts he was recording were from.

    1. Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, by Donald R. Prothero, Columbia University Press, 2007; 11

    2. Ibid.; 11

    3. Ibid.; 11-12

    4. god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens, Twelve, 2007; 64

    5. Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity, by John W. Loftus, Prometheus Books, 2012; 255-294

    6. There Was No Jesus, There Is No God: A Scholarly Examination of the Scientific, Historical, and Philosophical Evidence & Arguments for Monotheism, by Raphael Lataster, CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2013; 41

    7. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, by Bart D. Ehrman, HarperSanFrancisco, 2005; 52

    8. Ibid.; 52

    9. See Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, by Bart D. Ehrman, Oxford University Press, 2003 and Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why

    10. Misquoting Jesus; 152

    11. Ibid.; 153

    12. Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn’t Need a Miracle to Succeed, by Richard Carrier, Lulu, 2009; 177

    13. Ibid.; 203-204

    14. Ibid.; 173-192

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    Article by: Arizona Atheist