XFiles Friday: hitting the books

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

It’s time to put the New Testament documents to the test. Geisler and Turek have composed a list of seven questions which, as we saw before, are intended to make the documents look like they pass the test of history. The first question posed is, “Do we have early testimony?” The answer is, “Yes—depending on how you define ‘early’…”

Geisler and Turek take a step by step approach to dating the New Testament Scriptures, starting with the later dates, and working their way towards the earlier ones. Step 1 is the end of the first century, around 100AD. All but two of the New Testament books are cited by Church Fathers writing between 90AD and 110AD, which means that it’s a pretty safe bet the books were already written and circulating among the members of the church by then.

Ok, 70 years isn’t too bad. After all, compared to 2,000 years, a mere seven decades is almost nothing. Then again, compared to an average human lifetime (especially in the first century), seventy years is pretty significant. Let’s see if we can’t push that back farther.

The next step back is 70AD, or about 40 years after the events described in the Gospels. In contrast to the clear, factual table they presented to support the 100AD date, Geisler and Turek (for some reason) invite the reader to indulge in a bit of fantasy before thinking about the historical questions here.

Imagine this. You’re a devout Jew in the first century. The center of your national, economic, and religious life is Jerusalem, and especially the temple. It has been that way in your nation, your family, and almost every Jew’s family for a thousand years—ever since Solomon built the first temple. Most of the newest temple, constructed by King Herod, was completed when you were a child, but portions of it are still under construction and have been since 19 B. C. For your entire life you have attended services and brought sacrifices there to atone for the sins you’ve committed against God. Why? Because you and your countrymen consider this temple the earthly dwelling place of the God of the universe, the maker of heaven and earth, the very Deity whose name is so holy you dare not utter it.

They continue in this vein for quite some time, inviting you to picture yourself as an early follower of Jesus, imagining how “scandalized” you would be at his prediction of the destruction of the temple, and how amazed and awed you would be watching him rise from the dead and witnessing many more miracles being performed by his hands prior to his ascension into heaven. The point of all this fantasy comes in the form of a purely rhetorical question at the end: “If you and your fellow followers write accounts of Jesus after the temple and city were destroyed in A. D. 70, aren’t you going to at least mention that unprecedented national, human, economic, and religious tragedy somewhere in your writings, especially since this risen Jesus had predicted it?”

G&T intended that as a purely rhetorical question, since the whole “guided imagery” thing was designed to make sure you would come to one and only one possible conclusion. But let’s take it as a legitimate question, and compare it to similar circumstances with which we ourselves might be familiar.

When Osama bin Ladin launched his terrorist teams against the World Trade Center, he selected a target that, in his estimation, represented all that was religiously corrupt about America, and its “worship” of material goods and benefits. The fall of the two towers, while not striking at an actual organized religion, struck a devastating blow against American pride, national self-esteem, and a superstitious confidence in the motto “God bless America.” It would be hard to imagine anything that could happen in America today that would give us a better sense of what devout Jews must have experienced in 70A.D.

So let’s look at 9/11, and at how we refer to it today, less than ten years after it happened. Do we go into detail about exactly what happened every time we make a reference to the event? No, of course not. We do sometimes, of course, but in a lot of cases it is sufficient to simply mention 9/11, or the twin towers, or some other brief reference, and everyone knows what you are talking about. Precisely because it is such a traumatic and significant event, there is no need to belabor the point, because everyone who cares already knows.

Geisler and Turek want to argue that “most if not all of the New Testament books were written before 70AD.” Of the 27 NT books, however, only the four Gospels even mention any prediction that the temple would be destroyed—a prediction that would sound rather less impressive if you knew that the person reporting it had already seen the destruction of the temple. Prophecy sounds a lot more prophetic if you think the person who wrote it didn’t know what was really going to happen yet. So at best we would think that the 70AD argument would only apply to the Gospels. But Geisler and Turek argue otherwise.

Some may object, “That’s an argument from silence, and that doesn’t prove anything.” But in fact it is not an argument from silence, for the New Testament documents speak of Jerusalem and the temple, or activities associated with them, as though they were still intact at the time of the writings.

Um, yeah, they talk about Jesus teaching in the temple. Are we supposed to believe that that was also still going on at the time of the writings? When describing past events, you can write about how things are different today, but no law says you have to.

But even if this were an argument from silence, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

“Just because it’s a fallacy doesn’t mean it’s not true.” Strictly speaking, of course, they are correct. “All dogs have four legs. My pet has four legs. Therefore my pet is a dog.” The logic is fallacious, but as it happens, my pet is indeed a dog. But Geisler and Turek have forgotten one thing: the question we are supposed to be looking at is “Are the New Testament documents reliable.” We’re not here to ask whether fallacies can sometimes refer to correct conclusions, we’re asking whether we ought to trust the conclusions. In the case of fallacies like the above, the answer is “No, that would not be justified. Try something else.”

Consider these modern parallels: If a former sailor aboard the USS Arizona wrote a book related to the history of that ship and the book ends with no mention of the ship being sunk and 1,177 of its sailors being killed at Pearl Harbor, do you have any doubt that the book must have been written prior to December 7, 1941?

They also cite the World Trade Center and 9/11 in a similar fashion. But again, at best this would only apply to the four Gospels, which are the only four NT books that even purport to describe the events of the early first century, decades before the destruction of the temple. Let me add another parallel to the list: suppose you read a book about the history of Japan through 1910, and it did not mention the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Would you be absolutely certain that the book could only have been written prior to World War II?

In the end, Geisler and Turek are appealing to the Argument from Incredulity, while using every rhetorical trick they can think of to make it sound incredible that a Christian could write something after 70AD and not mention the destruction of the temple. What they fail to mention is that we have quite a few early Christian writings, dating after 70AD, and we know that they rarely, if ever, bothered to mention the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, because they believed that their own bodies were the temple of God, and that the God of Heaven did not dwell in any temple made with human hands. Geisler and Turek would like to think that this is a significant silence, but…well, it’s no coincidence that this section begins with an invitation to fantasize.

Next stop: AD 62. Oh, no, what’s this?

Imagine this: You are a first century medical doctor who has embarked on a research project to record the events of the early church…

Deja vu. The argument this time is that “many” NT books were composed before AD62, when the Apostle Paul died. Now, to the extent that Pauline authorship can be assumed to be valid, Geisler and Turek are quite correct: Paul would indeed have written at least most of his books prior to his death. Does what we have today correspond to what he originally wrote? That’s also entirely plausible, at least, though there may be some questions in certain specific instances.

The interesting thing about Paul’s writings is that, while they are indeed the great majority of the NT canon, Paul himself did not become a follower of Jesus until after Jesus died. Paul, of all the apostles, was the only one who did not graduate from Jesus’ informal “seminary,” but rather assumed a leadership role based on a vision he claimed to have had, and on his rabbinical training in the more orthodox Jewish educational system. Paul presents, not “This is what I heard Jesus teach,” but rather, “This is the way things ought to be, and I can quote you the [OT] Scriptures to prove it.”

Let’s stop a minute to get our bearings. We’re reading I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to be an ATHEIST, Geisler and Turek are trying to prove that the New Testament documents are reliable, and the point we’ve actually arrived at is that it’s probably true that a rabbi named Paul wrote a bunch of letters about religion prior to AD62. Not that Paul is a witness to the things Jesus said and did, because he never claimed to be. Most of the letters Paul wrote, and thus most of the New Testament, are instructions and admonitions not all that different from what Christian leaders have been writing ever since. That these writings happened early on, granted, but what does that have to do with needing faith to be an atheist?

Let’s go ahead with G&T’s date estimates: AD62 for Acts and the letters of Paul, and let’s say AD60 for the Gospel of Luke. Upwards of three decades after the events described. G&T think that’s pretty conclusive. “[T]he very fact that we know beyond a reasonable doubt that Luke is before 62 and probably before 60 means that we have meticulously recorded eyewitness testimony written within 25 or 30 years of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. This is far too early to be legendary.”

Oh really? Then that means reports of Elvis being seen alive, and Nessie being spotted, and the incident at Area 51, are also far too early to be legendary, right?

Well, let’s take a break for this week. Geisler and Turek have an ace up their sleeves, an argument that they think pushes the writing of the Gospel back to within eighteen months of the crucifixion. Tune in again next time…

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Posted in IDHEFTBA, Unapologetics, XFiles. 1 Comment »

One Response to “XFiles Friday: hitting the books”

  1. Galloway Says:

    G & T : ” Consider these modern parallels: If a former sailor aboard the USS Arizona wrote a book related to the history of that ship and the book ends with no mention of the ship being sunk and 1,177 of its sailors being killed at Pearl Harbor, do you have any doubt that the book must have been written prior to December 7, 1941? ”

    If they want to apply ‘logic’ to the written word, consider Mathew 27:51 – 53 : “. . the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after HIs resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.”

    These incredible events are mentioned only in Mathew, not in any of the other gospels. Do you ( G & T ) have any doubt that something is very wrong?