XFiles Friday: Believing men

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 10.)

God’s consistent and universal failure to show up in real life is an undeniable fact with an inescapable consequence: we have no choice but to rely upon men to tell us about God, in His absence. For this reason, Christian apologists like Geisler and Turek have to put a lot of effort into making sure we’re willing to believe what men tell us. Chapter 10 gives us the full treatment.

Do the New Testament documents contain eyewitness testimony? Let’s begin by taking a look at the eyewitness claims of the New Testament writers.

If you accept the plain reading of the text, the New Testament certainly contains eyewitness testimony. Notice how many times various apostles claim to be eyewitnesses:

G&T follow this with a list of NT verses where the speaker or writer claims to be a witness or to have seen and heard something. But notice how this particular argument begins: “If you accept the plain reading of the text…” As I’ve mentioned before, the field of apologetics is not intended to convince unbelievers, it’s intended primarily to convince believers. The conservative, evangelical Christian, upon reading these words, will be encouraged to embrace the conclusion because conservative evangelical Christians are committed to what they see as the “plain reading” of the text. In a way, it’s a sort of rallying cry, a way of saying, “Everybody on our side, get over here.” Given what follows, it’s not surprising that G&T would want to make sure their target audience is rooting for the right side from the very beginning.

The bulk of Chapter 10 is centered on the word “eyewitness,” meaning “someone whose testimony is unimpeachable, because they’re an eyewitness.” You might think that’s not a very good definition (and you’d be right), but that’s the definition G&T are working with. In the real world, there’s no such thing as being just “an eyewitness”—you are an eyewitness of something, and the thing you saw is what defines what it means for you to be an eyewitness of it.

Geisler and Turek, however, seem to avoid making this distinction, putting forth pages and pages of “evidence” that New Testament writers were “eyewitnesses” (of something, doesn’t really matter what) in order to be able to argue that we should accept their testimony uncritically and at face value. For example, after the paragraph quoted above, G&T cite a number of Bible verses in which various apostles and NT writers claim (a) to be witnesses of a risen Jesus, (b) to have seen and heard certain unspecified things, (c) to have seen Jesus exalted to the right hand of God (which the Acts 1 account contradicts, saying Jesus disappeared into the clouds before reaching God’s heaven), (d) to have witnessed everything Jesus did during his ministry, (e) to have witnessed Jesus’ suffering, and so on. They even include passages like 1 Cor. 15, where Paul says Jesus “appeared” to a number of people, and 1 John 1:1-2, where John makes a couple vague references to having seen and heard and touched a “Word of life.”

Geisler and Turek’s argument is that, because Paul and various others were “eyewitnesses”—never mind “eyewitnesses of what,” just eyewitnesses—therefore we ought to believe what these men tell us, even when it runs contrary to what we see in real life.

The risk Paul, Peter and the other apostles took to claim that they were providing eyewitness testimony certainly suggests that they were telling the truth. If these accounts are true, the apostles’ unwavering testimony and provocative challenges demonstrate that they were eyewitnesses who really believed Jesus rose from the dead.

According to all four Gospels, nobody was actually an eyewitness of the resurrection. Many men claimed to have seen a post-burial “appearance” of Jesus (in stories that have a striking resemblance to canonical ghost story themes, like magical appearances and disappearances, walking through locked doors, not being recognized by close friends until after the “punch line” of the story, etc). But the resurrection itself, the main thing that the apostles are supposed to be “eyewitnesses” of, is an event that allegedly took place inside a sealed tomb. The closest we have to that particular event are some guards, who the Bible tells us testified that the disciples took the body, plus some women, who allegedly supported the Christian version.

You see the problem? G&T are arguing that the apostles were “eyewitnesses”—and notice, it’s eyewitnesses, and never just “witnesses” as far as G&T are concerned—and therefore we should believe what they say. If we start looking at the specifics, however, we find that the truth claims they make don’t exactly line up with the specific things they claim to be eyewitnesses of. They’re “eyewitnesses who believed Jesus rose,” not “eyewitnesses who saw Jesus rise.”

As an even better example, G&T spend 3 and a half pages spelling out 84 historical details that Luke got right in the book of Acts. 84 things, such as the fact that he spelled the names of cities correctly, and mentioned Greeks believing in gods named Zeus and Hermes, and used the correct names of local officials and VIP’s. They conclude the list by asking, “Is there any doubt that Luke was an eyewitness to those events or at least had access to reliable eyewitness testimony?”

Well, yes there could be. Obviously. If the only way a person could know such things is by being an eyewitness to Paul’s missionary journeys, then there would be no way scholars today could know that Luke got any of them right. The fact that G&T are bragging about Luke’s historical accuracy demonstrates that this information does not require eyewitness participation and/or access. They are inflating Luke’s credentials as an eyewitness by citing trivialities that don’t actually demonstrate he personally witnessed anything.

Nor is it necessarily the case that we do know that Luke got all of these details right. A few items on the list, for example, have to do with a specific shipwreck during a specific Mediterranean storm. Scholars can verify that Luke’s account is not inconsistent with typical weather patterns for that part of the world, but it would hardly take a great feat of storytelling to imagine a dramatic shipwreck in a seafaring region known for sudden dangerous storms.

Geisler and Turek also ask, “What more could [Luke] have done to prove his authenticity as a historian?” I’m glad they asked that question, because it really gets to the heart of the matter. What establishes the authenticity and reliability of your historical account is not whether you’ve been an eyewitness to the correct spelling of some provincial capital city’s name. Authenticity and reliability are a matter first and foremost of consistency with the verifiable facts. To paraphrase an example G&T use in this chapter, if a man told you a story about your own hometown, and he got all the street names right, and described all the buildings just the way you remember them, and mentioned all the people you knew, and got their mannerisms and appearance down to a T, and then told you he saw the Easter Bunny murder Santa Claus (i.e. the “real” Easter Bunny and the “real” Santa, not just people in costumes), would his “authenticity” as an eyewitness of your hometown justify concluding that the Easter Bunny was real and that Santa Claus used to be?

Geisler and Turek’s whole argument here is that Luke mentions 84 things we can check, and since he got those all right, we should believe him about the things we can’t check.

[W]hy would Luke be so accurate with trivial details like wind directions, water depths, and peculiar town names, but not be accurate when it comes to important events like miracles? In light of the fact that Luke has proven accurate with so many trivial details, it is nothing but pure anti-supernatural bias to say he’s not telling the truth about the miracles he records. As we have seen, such a bias is illegitimate. This is a theistic world where miracles are possible. So it makes much more sense to believe Luke’s miracle accounts than to discount them. In other words, Luke’s credentials as a historian have been proven on so many points that it takes more faith not to believe his miracle accounts than to believe them.

Geisler and Turek inadvertently answer their own question: trivial details are less subject to biased reporting precisely because they are trivial details. If Luke had said the water off Malta was a fathom or two deeper or shallower than what he reported, would that make it any less likely that Jesus rose from the dead? Who cares whether you know the major shipping lanes in the eastern Mediterranean? Does claiming to have come ashore at a particular port make the Gospel sound fake in some way?

Luke’s point, in writing Acts, is to show that God did a number of amazing things. The trivial details neither help nor hinder that objective; it’s nice if they’re there, but if he’d messed anything up, rest assured that Christian apologists would reconcile the difficulties the same way they reconcile the variant accounts in the four Gospels that don’t add up. There’s simply no reason why Luke would be motivated to distort or “improve” the kind of trivial details that Geisler and Turek cite as proof that he is an “eyewitness” (or an “authentic historian” with access to eyewitnesses).

What a genuine historian is going to be most concerned about is whether or not the stories Luke tells are consistent with the verifiable facts. But there’s no carry-over rule. If we can confirm that Luke spelled “Malta” correctly, then we can know that he was right about how to spell Malta. If he correctly names all 50 US states and their capitals, then we can know he was right about the states and state capitals. But no matter how high his score in Trivial Pursuit, if he starts telling us that Zeus came down and arm-wrestled Thor, we’re entitled to make the observation that his claims don’t match what we find in the real world.

Geisler and Turek do not want to subject Luke’s complete testimony to the same standards of consistency and verification they use for the trivial details. They want to use one standard for the trivial details, and then judge the really important claims by simply taking Luke’s word for it, on the grounds that he’s an “eyewitness.” That’s why they try to dismiss any critical look at the important parts of Luke’s testimony, claiming that it is an “illegitimate” anti-supernatural bias to try and hold the entirety of Luke’s testimony to the same evidentiary standards.

What Geisler and Turek forget is that we are eyewitnesses as well. Every day we live, we are eyewitnesses of a world in which God’s behavior is dramatically different from the sort of behavior Luke ascribes to Him. We witness a self-consistent world, an infallibly true world, in which God does not do any of the things Luke claims to have seen (or heard of). And even though the alleged reasons for God’s past behavior are just as real and just as compelling today as they were back then, we see an unmistakable lack of divine response to those needs and priorities.

So what we have here is really two sets of eyewitness testimony—and our testimony is verifiable. God does not behave the way Luke claims He did, and while the trivialities of Luke’s account may pass muster, that’s no guarantee that he’s giving us an accurate and reliable account about the claims he makes that do not match our observations. It boils down to Geisler and Turek telling us that we should believe the incredible things men tell us, just because they used good spelling and grammar, and knew who the local government officials were.

In short, it’s a defense of gullibility. Pay no attention to whether the important parts of Luke’s story are consistent with what we find in real life. Just believe whatever he tells you. He’s an eyewitness, or an authentic historian with access to eyewitnesses. He has the authority to say things that don’t quite fit in with real life. And you, dear gullible reader, need only believe whatever he says. After all, any attempt to actually verify Luke’s non-trivial claims is purely an illegitimate, anti-supernatural bias. You don’t want to be biased, do you?

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Posted in IDHEFTBA, Unapologetics, XFiles. 6 Comments »

6 Responses to “XFiles Friday: Believing men”

  1. mike Says:

    Every UFO abduction or Loch Ness Monster sighting has been reported by verifiable eyewitnesses. These eyewitnesses could most certainly describe the trivial details of the incident’s setting (the road they were driving on, the location on Loch Ness shore) and get them verifiably correct.

    The unescapable fact here is that eyewitness testimony is so much farther from perfect than G&T are making it out to be.

  2. David D.G. Says:

    I wish I could rate this entry higher than a 5. Bravo!

    ~David D.G.

  3. Crafty Witch Says:

    How many rape victims or victims of other crimes have been utterly convinced about the identity of their attacker only to be contradicted by the DNA evidence. Quite a few in recent years. It’s not that the witnesses are lying; it’s that their memories are incorrect.

    Perhaps this video will get the point across. There are two teams, one in black shirts and one in white. The players are passing basketballs back and forth. Your task is to pick a team and count how many times members of that team pass the ball between each other. Then rewatch the video. This time don’t worry about the balls being passed, just pay attention to the big picture. Apparently it does make a different which team you track. Most of the sites where I’ve seen the video ask the viewer to watch the white team. The point is, a significant number of people miss the really oddball detail on the first viewing (no, I’m not saying what it is).

  4. Arthur Says:

    I’m sorry, but all of you will just have to throw up your hands and surrender to the charge of “anti-supernatural bias,” an absoluate gem which I’m going to start sprinkling into all of my conversations from now on. Atheism is dead. Pass the word to Pharyngula.

  5. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Considering that “the supernatural,” in practice, works out to mean “that which cannot be verified by real world evidence,” I suppose that “anti-supernatural bias” is just a longer way of saying “not gullible.”

  6. Steven Carr Says:

    Was Joseph Smith an eyewitness of Joseph Smith being given Golden Plates to translate?