XFiles Friday: Anticipating objections

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 9.)

Geisler and Turek are ready to begin their arguments for why the New Testament documents should be regarded as accurate history, but first they want to look at some general objections and try and get those out of the way. The objections are:

  1. History cannot be known.
  2. The NT documents contain miracles.
  3. The NT writers were biased.
  4. Converts are not objective.

Geisler and Turek take each of the above objections in turn, and show how they are not valid objections. Or at least, they show that the first one is not valid, and they try to show that the other three aren’t, either.

Of course, the first objection, that history cannot be known, is either meaningless or pointless. Do we really not know who signed the Declaration of Independence? We’ve still got the original document! Do we not know who won the presidential election in 1860? or 1960? or 2004? Those are all historical dates, and we have a pretty good idea of the history surrounding them, since their consequences still persist to the present day (and thus fall under the rule that says truth is consistent with itself).

Geisler and Turek rightly point out that this objection is sheer mush, and is a pointless tactic to use against any historical question (such as the validity of the NT documents). If history cannot be known, how can you know that it didn’t happen just the way the NT says? That’s a fair question (and it does have an answer: even without history, we can tell that the magical events described in the NT are not consistent with real life), but we’re not going to assume that history is unknown and unknowable. We’ll leave that to the young earth creationists. 😉

The next objection, that the New Testament is unreliable because it describes miracles, is a different story. Geisler and Turek don’t even attempt to give this one any serious consideration; they simply state, “We’ve already answered that objection. Since God exists, miracles are possible.” But this response doesn’t even come close to answering this objection. Let’s suppose that God does exist, and does work miracles. Does this mean that every account of miracles is therefore credible, and ought to be taken as historically valid? Suppose I claim to know a prayer that will turn lead to gold if you pray it. If God exists, and does do miracles, does that mean my claim is credible? Or should we ask ourselves questions like, “what kind of miracles does God typically do?”

Of course, if we look at real life, we find that the “miracles” we usually see God performing are the more mundane sort of miracles that happen when people expect A to happen, and B happens instead. The events themselves are not particularly miraculous, i.e. they don’t violate any natural laws. They just happen to be different from what people naively expected. So we ought to be suspicious when somebody tries to tell us that God mysteriously and uncharacteristically starts working alleged miracles that are inconsistent with His normal behavior. Whether or not He could behave differently is irrelevant. The question is, if somebody tells you they saw God doing something that is abnormal for Him, should you be skeptical?

If it were anyone other than God, I think most people would agree that skepticism is justified. Remember, we’re not dealing with a God whose observed behavior is hard to understand, we’re dealing with stories that people have told about God, and we’re comparing them to the truth we can verify to see how consistent these stories are with the truth. Geisler and Turek’s response to this is a cop-out; there are valid reasons to be skeptical of stories that claim God’s behavior was inconsistent in the past, and G&T are simply going to ignore them. Might be good apologetics, but it’s lousy history.

Third objection: the NT writers were biased. The authors try and turn this objection around by asking, “Yes, but why were they biased?” It’s not a very good question, since it invites the answer “Because they were superstitious, underprivileged, and gullible, and wanted to be part of something big and important,” so G&T turn it into a more apologetic version.

The first and most important question is, “Why did they convert to these new beliefs?” In other words, why did the New Testament writers suddenly abandon their livelihoods and treasured religious traditions for these new beliefs?”

Notice the subtle apologetic twisting here: the NT writers abandoned their treasured religious traditions for these new beliefs. They abandoned their livelihoods. They made sacrifices. They gave up important things. Why would they do that, if the things they were saying weren’t accurate, unbiased, and reliable?

This is a devious bit of misdirection, because it makes assumptions that aren’t really true. Jesus was a Jew, and he presented his teachings as being part of Judaism. He revered Moses and told his followers to continue to keep the law. And they did so. They did not abandon their “treasured religious traditions,” they claimed that Jesus fulfilled them, even as they continued to obey them.

Geisler and Turek are feeding into a popular misconception that Jews who became Christians stopped being Jews, stopped attending the temple and offering sacrifices, stopped circumcising, stopped keeping kosher, and so on. This is not true. Through Paul’s ministry, Gentiles were allowed to convert without keeping the Law of Moses, but that doesn’t mean Jewish converts stopped keeping them. That’s why Paul himself circumcised Timothy (even though he was only half Jewish, on his mother’s side), took a Nazarite vow (see Numbers 6), and made offerings in the Temple, both for himself and for others, to prove that he still continued to keep the Mosaic law.

Indeed, one of the principle themes in the Gospels is that Christianity is not a switch away from Judaism, but is (supposedly) the most pure form of Judaism. For Geisler and Turek to claim that the New Testament writers simply abandoned their Jewish religious beliefs is irresponsible to the point of being dishonest. Jewish converts continued to live and worship as Jews, which is one of the reasons why Paul is recorded as attending synagogue every sabbath. He continued to support himself as a tentmaker as well, except when his disciples saved him the trouble by providing for his financial needs.

Frank Turek, untroubled by the historical disconnect implicit in the question, asked a couple of local Black Muslims (note: not necessarily Muslim scholars, but just a couple of local guys),

What power did the New Testament writers gain by asserting that Jesus rose from the dead? The answer is “none.” In fact, instead of gaining power, they got exactly the opposite—submission, servitude, persecution, torture, and death.

“They had no answer,” Turek smugly reports. Meanwhile, millions of Christians around the world are trying to understand and obey what the NT writers wrote, sacrificing personal comforts in order to give to Christian ministries and promote the Gospel and even control the political process so that we don’t pass any unchristian laws. No power? According to Christian accounts, the NT writers were leaders of a grassroots movement that was “turning the world upside down” with its astonishing growth and public influence. No power? Seriously?

Submission and servitude? They submitted to a God for whom they themselves were the earthly mouthpiece—they submitted themselves to what they told everybody God’s commands were, and everybody else had to submit too. Where can I get a job like that? And they faced opposition and even death? So did the Caesars and the Byzantine emperors, and the various Messiahs, and everybody else who worked their way into positions of political power. Risk and opposition are just part of the job description for those who wish to become leaders. Turek’s version of early Christian history is just so much spin, and not really an accurate picture of what the apostles got out of their “ministry” at all.

So the question is, does the bias of the NT writers mean we ought to take their writings with a grain of salt? Let me put it this way: would you be skeptical of the bias in the writings of the early Mormons, Moonies, and Hare Krishnas? I would. The NT writers may have sincerely believed that what they wrote was the truth (in some sense), but this does not eliminate the bias from their reporting. Just look at Geisler and Turek themselves: their bias prevents them from accurately reporting the circumstances in which the NT writers wrote. And Geisler and Turek aren’t even getting credit as the founders of a new religion. Would the apostles, riding a tidal wave of adulation (from their followers) and opposition (from non-Christians) be any better at maintaining objectivity and accuracy than a pair of modern scholars writing in more peaceful times and with a greater historical perspective? Maybe, but skepticism is hardly unjustified here.

The last objection that Geisler and Turek address is really a repeat of the third one: i.e. that converts are not objective. Their response is to point out that it is possible to be objective even when you are not neutral, which is true but irrelevant. None of the NT writers is even trying to be objective, they’re all trying to win souls for Jesus. Geisler and Turek seem to be saying, though, that this doesn’t matter, it just needs to be possible that the apostles could have been objective. Holocaust survivors, they argue, were not neutral about the Holocaust, but this doesn’t mean their memoirs necessarily fail to convey the truth about what happened in the concentration camps.

Of course, this analogy breaks down on two points: number one, holocaust survivors don’t tell stories about Nazis doing supernatural things to them, and number two, we don’t need to just take the survivors’ word for it, because pretty much everything they claim can be verified independently, with many of the relevant artifacts available for display in Holocaust museums. Holocaust survivers aren’t really a good example; if you want a more parallel account, you ought to consider the accuracy of early Mormon accounts of the life of Joseph Smith, and of the migration west to Utah.

When all else fails, though, you can always try and make it sound like skeptics are being unfair and inconsistent.

This distinction between the neutrality and the objectivity of the New Testament writers is an extremely important point. Too often the documents that make up the New Testament are automatically considered biased and untrustworthy. This is ironic, because those who hold this view are often biased themselves. They are biased because they have not first investigated the New Testament documents or the context in which they were written in order to make an educated assessment of their trustworthiness.

What Geisler and Turek overlook here is that doubts about the reliability of the New Testament are not arbitrary, a priori assumptions, but are based on inconsistencies in the text, in subsequent history, and in the remarkable disparity between the number of pro-Christian documents that have survived under Christian rule, and the scarcity of any anti-Christian documents from the same period, not to mention the similarities between a large number of Christian doctrines and earlier, pagan mythologies. It’s no coincidence that some of the world’s most liberal universities started out as seminaries dedicated to exploring the original teachings of Jesus and the prophets!

Score this session as one for four: out of four objections addressed, Geisler and Turek really only got one right (and that was the easiest of the four). There are some very reasonable and historically valid reasons for taking a skeptical view of the accuracy of the New Testament texts, and Geisler and Turek are wrong, and possibly misleading, to dismiss them so lightly. The next few sections of their book will most likely reveal this shortcoming to an even greater degree.

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Posted in IDHEFTBA, Unapologetics, XFiles. 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “XFiles Friday: Anticipating objections”

  1. David D.G. Says:

    It’s a pleasure to watch you at work, Deacon. Keep it up!


    ~David D.G.

  2. B8ovin Says:

    I say the missed four out of four. They set up a straw man for number one: History can not be known.

    The simple answer is, history can be verified, but never “known”. Let’s look at a predecessor of Christianity, Greece. A review of the history shows an improving understanding of Greek art, social hierarchy, farming techniques and city to rural relationships, as research yields archaeological finds. We “knew” Greece’s history through Herodotus for centuries, but we “know” more now, including mistakes Herodotus made by relying on localized and anecdotal evidence for his history. Just looking at Greek art; the busts and statues Greek artisans made by casting bronze are extinct and have been since Roman empiric times. We only know them by copies made by Romans. Can we say we “know” them?
    You point to the words of the Holocaust victims, respectively, saying we have verification in other fields and further proof, and because this history is known doe not necessarily lead to a consistent knowledge of ALL history. Good point, and a devastating attack on Geisler and Turek’s first point.
    By framing the question, “History can not be known” they imply that all history can not be known. Certainly some history is available, but not all history, particularly motivation.
    Not to mention that you cite the signees of the Declaration of Independence, an historical event fairly recent relatively. Yet the mythology around this “known” historical event, with all its contemporary literature, is vast. A recent internet meme that related the fates of some of the signers was rife with mistakes, for instance.
    History can not be known to any greater extent than the present is known; that is a complete picture depends on the often vague motivations of those presenting the picture. One discovery can change our knowledge of a time and place, and alter our historical understanding.