XFiles Friday: Some guy said it, I believe it, that settles it.July 18, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 9.)
A few chapters ago, Geisler and Turek were looking at the scientific evidence for evolution, and they were hardcore. Every claim by scientists and/or unbelievers was greeted with carefully measured skepticism, every alleged fact was challenged, turned over, and probed for weaknesses. Clearly, Geisler and Turek, like Holmes and Watson, are a diligent team of investigators, subjecting each alleged fact to meticulous cross-examination. So when someone gives them a list of what a handful of randomly-selected non-Christians supposedly said 18-19 centuries ago, we can expect that they’ll give this testimony the same careful, conscientious evaluation, right?
Some of these non-Christian sources—such as Celsus, Tacitus, and the Jewish Talmud—could be considered anti-Christian sources. While these works do not have any eyewitness testimony that contradicts the events described in the New Testament documents, they are works written by writers whose tone is decidedly anti-Christian. What can we learn from them and the more neutral non-Christian sources? We learn that they admit certain facts about early Christianity that help us piece together a storyline that is surprisingly congruent with the New Testament. Piecing together all ten non-Christian references, we see that:
- Jesus lived during the time of Tiberius Ceasar.
- He lived a virtuous life.
- He was a wonder-worker.
- He had a brother named James.
- He was acclaimed to be the Messiah
- He was crucified under Pontius Pilate
- He was crucified on the eve of the Jewish Passover
- Darkness and an earthquake occurred when he died.
- His disciples believed he rose from the dead.
- His disciples were willing to die for their belief.
- Christianity spread rapidly as far as Rome.
- His disciples denied the Roman gods and worshiped Jesus as God.
In other words, if a non-Christian mentioned something they heard about Christian beliefs, that means that “they admit certain facts about early Christianity.” Sigh. So much for Sherlock. After all the grief they tried to give science about evolution, we have a handful of non-Christian sources making passing references to things they heard Christians say about their own beliefs regarding Jesus, and Geisler and Turek regard this second-hand retelling of Christian teaching as confirmation that the events referred to are proven facts. No cross examination, no exploration of any questions about the authenticity of certain passages (like the obvious interpolations into Josephus), and above all no mention of the fact that some of the testimony, such as Pliny’s report of coercing Christians into sacrificing to Roman gods, directly contradicts certain points on the list above.
And isn’t it clever how they slip in that little dig about “[no] eyewitness testimony contradicting…the New Testament documents”? There’s plenty of contradiction, it’s just not eyewitness contradiction, since the people who recorded the testimonies (with the possible exception of the original writers of the Talmud account) were born too late to be eyewitnesses of anything in Jesus’s life. Not that this gives Geisler and Turek any qualms about using this testimony as evidence the gospels are true! When it contradicts the Gospel, they dismiss it as “not eyewitness testimony,” but when they think it agrees with the Gospel, why, it is admitting certain facts about early Christianity.
The only problem is, when this testimony does seem to agree with Christian accounts, the person offering the testimony is merely reporting what Christians themselves claim to believe. This is, in other words, mere second-hand hearsay about the stories the early Christians were telling. None of the non-Christian accounts even pretend to have made any kind of reliable determination about whether these stories were actually true. How could they? All they are doing is playing “telephone“—passing on the hearsay that was passed to them.
It’s hardly “surprising” that a record of what Christians were saying would be “congruent” with other records, written by Christians themselves, about what early Christians were saying. It’s possible, though, that these non-Christian sources were recording a slightly garbled version of Christian faith and practice. Christians were not, for instance, practicing cannibalism in their communion services (at least as far as what the Romans would have regarded as real cannibalism), and likewise it’s not entirely certain how much early Christian devotion to Jesus was actual worship, or how much this varied from community to community.
None of that matters to Geisler and Turek. They’ve found a cadre of witnesses who say, or seem to say, or can be interpreted as saying, the kind of things that Geisler and Turek want to hear. Case closed. Men said it, they believe it, that settles it. Except that, given a Christian view of what constitutes “truth,” it doesn’t really settle much. If a piece of bread and a cup of wine can become the “true” body and “true” blood of Jesus without undergoing any kind of physical transformation, and if Jesus can truly enter the heart of a believer without truly leaving heaven, and if Jesus can go “up” into heaven without there being any kind of heavenly place literally up there for him to go to, then all of these other supposed Christian “facts” can be “true” in some sense that does not involve corresponding to any literal reality either.
So there you have it. The historical evidence for Jesus, as seen thus far, consists of a handful of reports about what early believers accepted as being true in some not-necessarily-literal sense. The real evidence, however—the evidence which would be the most fundamental and obvious consequence of the Gospel (if the Gospel were true)—is mysteriously missing. Jesus, who allegedly loved us so much he was willing to live among us, die for us, and rise again so we could be together with him forever, who allegedly removed the final barrier keeping him from having what he desired most, is not here participating in the relationship he died to make possible. Who, after all, would care what some dude named Phlegon might have written about the weather 2,000 years ago, if we had a real, live, immortal Messiah right here among us doing what He most wanted to do? He should be here. He isn’t.
Somehow, Geisler and Turek seem to have neglected that little bit of evidence. It may be the evidence most directly indicative of whether or not the Gospel is really true, but G&T would rather stick with what they think agrees with them. I’d say this shows they really do have more faith than atheists, only that ain’t faith. That is pure, self-inflicted, and abject gullibility. Which is a shame because Geisler and Turek really are a couple of smart, well-intentioned guys.