XFiles Friday: Answering the skeptics

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

Geisler and Turek have been looking at the manuscript evidence for the New Testament, and they cite 1 Cor. 15 as proof that the resurrection story goes back as to within a few years, and possibly only 18 months, of the events it purports to describe. As we saw last time, however, 1 Cor. 15 might actually suggest that the Gospel evolved, from an early version in which Jesus rose spiritually, to the eventual orthodox story we have today. Geisler and Turek follow this conclusion with a promise to look into the skeptical objections to Gospel authenticity, but this problem is not one that they happen to address. And with their answers to the objections they do deal with, they only dig them in deeper.

The Documents Are Not Early Enough

Some skeptics may thing that a 13 to 40-year gap between the life of Christ and the writings about him is too wide for the testimony to be reliable. But they are mistaken.

Right away, G&T misstate the problem. The question is not whether testimony can sometimes be accurate for decades, the question is whether or not 13 to 40 years is long enough for the story to have become embellished and distorted by credulous and superstitious believers. Remember, we’re evaluating the testimony of men who claimed that God behaved in ways that we do not see Him behaving in real life. What accounts for this discrepancy between what they say and what we see?

Is it possible that there exists some all-powerful, supernatural Being who cares a great deal about our relationship to Him, and that for some unexplained reason He chooses not to show up in a way that would make that relationship possible, except in the case of a handful of men (and even a few women), for whom He behaved in a strikingly different manner than is His usual pattern? Ok, that’s conceivable, but isn’t it more likely that, as so often happens, the story has improved with the retelling? We don’t see miracles; we do see people exaggerating and embellishing stories, especially when the story has something of a legendary character to it. The apologetic version is merely conceivable; the skeptical version is consistent with real-world truth, as we experience it all the time.

Geisler and Turek miss this point completely, and argue instead that there are cases where people do remember things for a long time. They cite the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger disaster, and of course 9/11, as examples of experiences that people care about so much that they remember details like where they were and what they were doing when they heard. But these are actually fairly poor examples, since two of them are the subject of various legends that arose in far less time than a mere 13 years, and that still have adherents today, despite the number of eyewitnesses. In fact, if you search Google for “9/11 pentagon missile eyewitness,” you can find testimony claiming to have “eyewitness” proof that disproves the official story of what happened.

Geisler and Turek try to argue that “eyewitness” testimony makes the Gospel account unassailable.

Furthermore, if the major works of the New Testament are eyewitness accounts written within two generations of the events, then they are not likely to be legend. Why? Because historical research indicates that a myth cannot begin to crowd out historical facts while the eyewitnesses are still alive. For this reason, Roman historian A. N. Sherwin-White calls the mythological view of the Net Testament “unbelievable.” William Lane Craig writes, “The tests show that even two generations is too short to allow legendary tendencies to wipe out the hard core of historical fact.” Inside of those two generations, eyewitnesses are still around to correct the errors of historical revisionists.

Inexplicably, Geisler and Turek completely fail to mention the fact that, during those first several decades, the historical accuracy of the Gospel was disputed, and it was not the case that everyone involved agreed that the eyewitnesses were telling a straight story. As a matter of fact, according to Matthew 28, there were conflicting eyewitness accounts at the time Matthew was writing his gospel. As I mentioned before, none of the so-called eyewitness accounts was written by anybody who actually saw Jesus physically rise from the dead, since Jesus allegedly rose inside the tomb while the tomb was still sealed. But Matthew 28 tells us about a small group of people who came as close to being eyewitnesses as anyone could be: Mary Magdelene, “the other Mary,” and of course the guards, all of whom were present when an angel came down, shook the ground, rolled away the stone, and frightened the guards (but not the women) to the point that they all fainted.

What makes Matthew’s account particularly revealing is that he goes on to say that the guards reported to the Sanhedrin, and that the Sanhedrin bribed them to tell everybody that the disciples had taken Jesus’ body, “And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.” In other words, even though Matthew was not there when this alleged bribery took place, he felt like he had to say that the guards were bribed, because at the time the Gospels were being written, everybody knew that the eyewitness testimony of the guards was that the disciples had Jesus’ body. (And since the guard was not even posted until after the Sabbath, the Christians, with their teacher’s loose interpretation of the Sabbath, would have had no problem doing so.) So the guards’ eyewitness testimony was plausible, well-known, and widely accepted as true. By their own standards, Geisler and Turek ought to admit that we have early eyewitness testimony to the effect that Jesus did not rise from the dead (at least physically).

Of course, G&T can easily back out of this problem by insisting that eyewitnesses aren’t necessarily telling the truth. Up to now, however, their whole argument has been based on the assumption that eyewitness testimony is always true and reliable, even when it comes from witnesses whose concept of “truth” is flexible enough to believe that Jesus is truly present wherever two or more are gathered in his name, even though he’s not literally physically there.

In short, Geisler and Turek’s answer to the first skeptical objection is an incredibly flawed response that asks the wrong questions, ignores the commonly-observed rapid evolution of urban legends, ignores the historical and biblical record of first-century skepticism and contrary eyewitness testimony, and concludes that even though the gospel writers and apostles tell a story that doesn’t match what we see in the real world, we should go ahead and take their word for it anyway because they said it a long time ago.

Call me unconvinced.

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Posted in IDHEFTBA, Unapologetics, XFiles. 5 Comments »

5 Responses to “XFiles Friday: Answering the skeptics”

  1. Crafty Witch Says:

    What makes the examples of the JFK assassination and 9-11 even worse is the fact that we have technological recordings take at the time of the incidents and legends have STILL arisen concerning them. Just check out the conspiracy theory forums at JREF (http://forums.randi.org/forumdisplay.php?f=91).

  2. David D.G. Says:

    If those guys claim that legends cannot give truth a serious run for its money during the lifetimes of those who were part of that event, then they are either unbelievably naive or profoundly dishonest. Can you say “moon landing hoax”?

    ~David D.G.

  3. ron Says:

    Actually, anybody who has set through a contested trial knows that eye witnesses often see or at least remember very different things.

    This will all happen within 6 months to 5 years of the event.

  4. Vinny Says:

    Turek, Geisler and Craig badly misrepresent the work of the Oxford historian of ancient Rome, A.N. Sherwin-White. His book dealt with the extent to which the legal procedures described in the gospels and Acts lined up with what historians new about ancients Roman practices. It never touched on any of the supernatural elements of the New Testament. He freely acknowledged that there was plenty of time for myths and legends to develop. He merely opined that critical historical methods might still be applied to find some historical truths.

    “Certainly a deal of distortion can affect a story that is given literary form a generation or two after the event, whether for national glorification or political spite, or for the didactic or symbolic exposition of ideas. But in the material of ancient history the historical content is not hopelessly lost.” (Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament p.189)

  5. » XFiles Friday: Hearsay and Heresy Evangelical Realism Says:

    […] amount of formalization and adjustment. As Geisler and Turek’s own examples show (from last week), the time periods involved are more than sufficient for an improved (and urban legendary) version […]