XFiles Friday: Hearsay and Heresy

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

In examining the documentary evidence for the text of the New Testament, Geisler and Turek have consistently blurred the distinction between having an accurate record of what Christians were saying early on, and the accuracy of the sayings themselves. Reacting to the suggestion that the New Testament is unreliable because the documents weren’t written until long after the events they describe, G&T seem to be assuming that if they can make the documents sound close enough to the A.D. 30’s, they will have proven that the documents are reliable. That’s a logical fallacy, however:

If my pet is not a mammal, then my pet is not a dog.

My pet is a mammal.

Therefore my pet is a dog. (Oops, my pet is a ferret!)

If the New Testament documents were not written before 100AD, then they are not reliable. Geisler and Turek are saying that the manuscripts were written before 100AD, and therefore they are (allegedly) reliable—the same logical fallacy as is illustrated above. In trying to answer the skeptics, however, they accidentally betray the fact that there is indeed good reason to doubt the reliability of the testimony within the documents. And not just because they portray God as behaving in ways that are markedly different from what we see in real life.

At this point the skeptic might say, “Okay, fine. The New Testament is early, but it’s not as early as I would expect. Why didn’t they write down their testimony earlier? If I saw what they said they saw, I wouldn’t wait 15 or 20 years to write it down.”

There are a number of possible reasons for the wait.

First, since the New Testament writers were living in a culture where the vast majority of people were illiterate, there was no initial need or utility in writing it down. First-century people in Palestine, by necessity, developed strong memories in order to remember and pass on information…

In such an oral culture, facts about Jesus may have been put into a memorable form. There’s good evidence for this. Gary Habermas has identified forty-one short sections of the New Testament that appear to be creeds—compact sayings that could be easily remembered and that were probably passed along orally before they were put into writing (one of these creeds we’ve already mentioned—1 Cor. 15:3-8).

In other words, Geisler and Turek are admitting that the New Testament manuscripts are primarily written records of an oral tradition—what a lawyer might refer to as hearsay. This is actually a very significant point, and something that ought to be front-and-center in a discussion of the accuracy of the contents of the New Testament manuscripts, but instead they tuck it away in the “answers to skeptical objections” section, with the excuse that ancient cultures had legendary powers of recall, or some such.

Notice, though, that they observe, “[i]n such an oral culture, facts about Jesus may have been put into a memorable form.” This is actually a phenomenon we frequently see in urban legends. The story begins as an account that is remarkable and striking in some way, and as the story is told and retold—via email as well as orally—the more striking details become stereotyped, and take on a particular style of retelling that becomes more and more fixed and inflexible as time goes on. It is significant that Habermas finds evidence in the NT manuscripts consistent with the conclusion that Christian stories underwent a similar process of stereotyping.

Much as Geisler and Turek would like to believe that the NT documents were written early enough to avoid this period of oral transmission (and evolution), they know that the facts are otherwise, to the point that they have worked out a strategy for confronting the problem: instead of admitting that this is a liability for their side, they frame the issue as being one where skeptics are making unreasonable demands (i.e. that the Gospel has to be written down unreasonably early) and where the apologists are ready with an explanation that shows the “flaw” in the skeptics’ thinking.

But it’s not a case of skeptics setting arbitrary dates and making unreasonable demands based on those dates. The point is that there was a significant interval during which the Gospel existed in a purely oral form, and that there is evidence, as even conservative scholars agree, suggesting that during this time the story underwent a certain 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 of the Gospel story to develop.

G&T’s rebuttal, that the ancients had amazing powers of recall (when they wanted to), falls short of guaranteeing that the traditions they remembered and passed on orally were infallibly accurate. Oral traditions, while perhaps not as unreliable as some people might think, are less reliable than written records. That is, after all, why we have written records. And yet, even with things like email, which is a written medium, we still have urban legends that survive and thrive. The accuracy of oral tradition, as a record of what was received, is not the issue. The issue is, was this medium used to transmit accurate information. As we’ve seen, the documents we do have suggest that the story did “improve” with the retelling, changing from an account of a spiritual resurrection in a spiritual body, to a physical resurrection, in a physical body that somehow poofed into a spiritual one (but which still counts as a physical resurrection—don’t ask me how!).

The last skeptical objection that Geisler and Turek try to address is “Why didn’t the early Christians write more?” G&T’s answer is fairly predictable: people don’t always write about things (have you sat down and written out the story of 9/11?), it was a long time ago, manuscripts are fragile, etc, etc. One point that they don’t mention, however, is that there were a lot more manuscripts written than what we have today. Not all of them were orthodox, however, and a number of them were openly hostile. With the rise of the Catholic church in the Roman empire, history saw a number of Church Councils that sat down and voted on which doctrines were orthodox and which were heretical. Since it was the custom in those days to burn heretical materials, and since opinions sometimes wavered on which materials were heresy, it’s not too surprising that the life expectancy of ancient manuscripts would depend on how strongly they supported the central party line.

It’s also not too surprising that Geisler and Turek would be a tad soft-spoken regarding this part of the explanation for why we don’t have as many manuscripts regarding early Christianity as we should. While they boast about how many manuscripts we do have, and claim that there is more documentary support for Jesus than for Caesar, they omit any mention of the fact that this is a selected (and thus biased) sampling, out of all the documents that originally pertained. Both the testimonies against the Gospel, and the heretical versions of the Gospel, have been purged, leaving only the approved and official accounts to claim the title of “Oldest Available Manuscripts.” Sadly, we have few clues today as to what kind of information was being expunged from the historical record. It is suggestive, however, that the stated reason for destroying them is that they were regarded as being contrary to the official dogma.

That’s going to wrap it up for Chapter 9. Next week, we’ll continue with Chapter 10 and the question, “Do We Have Eyewitness Testimony About Jesus?”

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Posted in IDHEFTBA, Unapologetics, XFiles. 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “XFiles Friday: Hearsay and Heresy”

  1. Crafty Witch Says:

    With the comparison to urban legends, it seems only appropriate to mention a notorious true one: Craig Shergold. For all it’s been transmitted in written or electronic form, this one has mutated several times and won’t die even though the subject of the story has since made a full recovery and DOESN’T WANT ANY MORE CARDS.

  2. palmd Says:

    The printing press allowed for at least reasonably faithfu reproduction of texts. Before that, texts weren’t all that much better than oral history

  3. John Morales Says:

    PalMD, scribes were generally quite accurate, and traditionally the copying process was punctilious.