XFiles Friday: From Luke to John

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

Imagine, for a moment, that Jesus has been accused of rape, or child molesting, or some other nasty crime. You, as judge, need to decide whether or not Jesus is guilty of the charge, and you ask to see the evidence. The evidence, however, consists of a book written by a man who was not present when the crime occurred, in which the crime is described. You are asked to convict Jesus on the grounds that the man who wrote the book named a couple dozen well-known political and religious leaders, a comparable number of important cities and trade routes, and a few observations about the weather. Since he has spelled all the names right, you are asked to conclude that the man is a meticulous historian who must have been, or had access to, actual eyewitnesses.

Is this enough evidence to convict Jesus of the crime?

Geisler and Turek have been going into great detail about a large number of trivial details that Luke got right in the book of Acts and in his gospel, because they want to convince us that “we have eyewitness testimony about Jesus.” It’s been almost sad, the way they’ve picked out any little thing that wasn’t wrong, and said, “Look! He spelled Agrippa correctly—one g two p’s! He’s right! He got it right! See? He gets lots of things like that right!”

It doesn’t seem to matter that most of what Luke writes about are stories to which he does not even claim to have been an eyewitness. Yes, it’s grand that Luke knows that there are storms on the Mediterranean Sea sometimes, but what does that have to do with whether or not his anonymous sources are telling the literal truth about what they claim to have been eyewitnesses of? There are a number of interesting questions we can raise with regards to the specific things the gospel writers are supposed to have been eyewitnesses of, if G&T would just put down the pompoms long enough to do some serious study. But instead they pad Chapter 10 with an item-by-item list of 84 things that Luke got right—or presumably got right, since some of the items are things like “he might have been correct about how many days the ship was driven by the storm.”

And then we get to John, and another list. If you thought G&T were reaching just a bit in their search for things they could claim Luke got right, wait till you see what they come up with as verification for John’s status as an alleged eyewitness.

Since John describes events confined to the Holy Land, his Gospel doesn’t contain quite as many geographical, topographical, and political items as does Acts. Nevertheless, as we’re about to see, quite an impressive number of historically confirmed or historically probable details are contained in John’s Gospel.

Notice the “or historically probable” in there. I’m not going to list all 59 “corroborations” of John’s gospel, but here are a few excerpts, for a sample:

1. Archeology confirms the use of stone water jars in New Testament times (John 2:6).

2. Given the early Christian tendency towards asceticism, the wine miracle is an unlikely invention…

5. “Come down” accurately describes the topography of western Galilee. (There’s a significant elevation drop from Cana to Capernaum.) (4:46, 49, 51)…

8. Jesus’ own testimony being invalid without the Father is an unlikely Christian invention (5:31); a later redactor would be eager to highlight Jesus’ divinity and would probably make his witness self-authenticating…

14. The charge of Jesus being demon-possessed is an unlikely invention (7:20).

Notice how much of this “evidence” is simply the apologist’s personal incredulity. “It is unlikely that anyone would invent such and such a detail”—and therefore we are supposed to believe that the story must be true. But is that really a sound criterion? It is unlikely that anyone would invent a story about a supernatural clown that murders children, but does that mean that Stephen King’s It is therefore a true story? Part of a storyteller’s art is coming up with convincing details that other storytellers are “unlikely” to have invented.

G&T’s reasons for calling these details “unlikely” are also fairly subjective and biased. Take #8, for example. Would an early Christian really be unlikely to portray Jesus’ as being a meek and suffering Servant who would submit to having John serve as his witness? That might be the case if we were talking about Christians who had not yet heard (or invented) the stories about Jesus going to be baptized by John, but there’s certainly nothing in John 5 that contradicts the gospel stories already being circulated by Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Equally spurious is the claim that Christians would be unlikely to invent the story of the crowd saying that Jesus (whom they had not recognized) was “demon-possessed” (i.e. nuts) for saying that they were trying to kill him. Again, there’s nothing in the context that is inconsistent with the early gospel idea of Jews failing to acknowledge Jesus as their God, and indeed the narrative rather enhances the idea that the unbelieving Jews just “didn’t get it.”

And so it goes. John’s authenticity as an eyewitness is “established,” according to Geisler and Turek, by a combination of trivial details that he got right (as though this would have been difficult at the time!) and a significant number of details that, for whatever reason, Geisler and Turek have decided are “unlikely inventions” (as though that were difficult or uncommon among storytellers).

And when it comes to the bottom line, it’s all basically busy work. Geisler and Turek want to appeal to the principle that the truth is consistent with itself, and want us to believe that we should accept the gospels as true because they consistently get minor details (and debatable interpretations) right. But unfortunately, they don’t apply the principle consistently—they don’t extend the same standard of verifiability and consistency with the truth to everything that the gospel writers tell us.

And above all, with their over-emphasis on trivialities and subjective expectations, they never confront the core issue that this chapter allegedly is supposed to address: what do we have eyewitness testimony of, who are those eyewitnesses, what did they mean by their testimony, and how consistent are their claims with what we know the truth to be?

These are the relevant questions, and Geisler and Turek’s endless irrelevant detail seems designed to distract us from the fact that they never really investigate them.

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