XFiles Friday: “I was a 98-pound weakling…”October 31, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 11.)
We’re ready to start on Geisler and Turek’s top ten excuses reasons for believing that the New Testament writers were telling the truth. Chapter 11 opens with the following epigraph:
“Why would the apostles lie?…If they lied, what was their motive, what did they get out of it? What they got out of it was misunderstanding, rejection, persecution, torture, and martyrdom. Hardly a list of perks!”
Kreeft builds an argument out of an implied false dichotomy (either the apostles were deliberately lying or they were telling the truth), a selective list (carefully omitting any mention of what they received from their followers), and a distorted rendition of the actual history of the early Christian church. But the fully-developed version doesn’t appear until later on in Geisler and Turek’s list, so this week we’ll content ourselves with the first item on the list: “The New Testament writers included embarrassing details about themselves.”
As with much of Geisler and Turek’s apologetic lately, the authors contrive to pull in just enough truth to make their arguments sound plausible without including so much that their point falls apart.
One of the ways historians can tell whether an author is telling the truth is to test what he says by “the principle of embarrassment”…This principle assumes that any details embarrassing to the author are probably true. Why? Because the tendency of most authors is to leave out anything that makes them look bad.
This is true as far as it goes. It’s a subjective judgment, to be sure, but in general it’s a safe bet that an author who is confessing sordid details of his own past is more likely to be telling the truth—usually. There are three caveats, though: (1) Telling the truth about one thing doesn’t guarantee that you’re being truthful about everything else; (2) There are certain circumstances in which a writer is more likely to exaggerate “the dirt” about himself; and (3) Not everything the writer believes is necessarily factual.
How do Geisler and Turek deal with these caveats? They don’t. Instead, they want us to believe that the entire New Testament Gospel must be true, because the apostles would not include uncomplimentary details about themselves if it were false.
What do you think the New Testament writers would have done if they were making up a story? You know perfectly well: they would have left out their ineptness, their cowardice, the rebuke, the three denials, and their theological problems, and depicted themselves as bold believers who stood by Jesus through it all and who confidently marched down to the tomb on Sunday morning right through the elite Roman guards to find the risen Jesus waiting to congratulate them on their great faith!…
In short, we don’t have enough faith to believe that the New Testament writers included all of those embarrassing details in a made up story. The best explanation is that they were really telling the truth—warts and all.
Notice, they’re claiming that it takes “faith” to believe that the Gospel is a made up story, knowing that the writers told embarrassing details about their own past. They’re not saying merely that historians would tend to think the embarrassing details were true, they’re saying that the whole story must be true.
If you want to get rich, just tell Christians that you used to be fat and ugly and socially awkward, and then sell them an herbal weight loss formula. After all, you’ve told them embarrassing details about your past, so everything you say must be true! The less gullible among us, though, might want to take a closer look at Geisler and Turek’s glibly triumphant boast. For example, what exactly are these embarrassing details? G&T list them for us:
- They are dim-witted—numerous times they fail to understand what Jesus is saying…
- They are uncaring—they fall asleep on Jesus twice when he asks them to pray…
- They are rebuked—Peter is called “Satan” by Jesus…
- They are cowards—all the disciples but one hide when Jesus goes to the Cross…
- They are doubters—despite being taught several times that Jesus would rise from the dead,…the disciples are doubtful when they hear of his resurrection…
Geisler and Turek could also have listed such shortcomings as the fact that the disciples were ambitious and quarreled amongst themselves as to who would be the greatest. That’s an important point, as we shall discuss below.
There are several other factors that Geisler and Turek neglect to mention. We’ve already noted the fact that the disciples are recorded as having been jealous of one another, and of jockeying for status within the group. The principle of embarrassment says that an author is less likely to record embarrassing details about himself, but most of the examples Geisler and Turek cite are not being written by the people who committed the gaffes. It’s always “they did this” and “they did that,” not “We did it.” And guess who the one disciple was who didn’t hide when Jesus was crucified? Yep, it was John, as reported in the Gospel According to John. The embarrassing details are, for the most part, not embarrassing details about the writer per se.
Even in cases where the writer is included in the group that’s being bad, the details would not necessarily have been embarrassing to the Christians that wrote them, for a number of reasons. For example, if you’re in a group that misbehaves, and you’re the one who tattles on them, it could be that you’re doing so out of guilt, or it could be that you disapprove of the group’s behavior, and your “confession” is really intended to imply that you don’t deserve to share the group’s guilt. For a group of religious leaders anxious to show themselves more spiritual than their brothers, that could be a motive strong enough to overrule the principle of embarrassment.
Then there’s the fact that the Gospel accounts are intended as evangelistic stories centered around the crucifixion. I mentioned before that there are some circumstances in which the principle of embarrassment is not a reliable guide, and conversion stories are a notable example. Just like the magazine ads that show “This is me BEFORE SexyTrim™/This is me AFTER,” the evangelistic writer can use the bad stuff as a “before” picture, in order to emphasize the life-changing power of the central event—”accepting Jesus” in modern testimonies, or the Atoning Cross in the Gospels.
In fact, if you’ve attended many evangelistic meetings and listened to as many personal testimonies as I have, you’ll find that it’s not uncommon for people to exaggerate the shamefulness of their past behavior in order to produce a more striking testimony of “what Jesus has done for me.” This turns the principle of embarrassment on its head, because people become eager to make themselves look bad, in order to show how much Jesus has done for them (and by implication how important they are to Jesus). Christians compete for spiritual status (or at least, some do), and the dramatic conversion is an oft-deployed weapon in the battle for pre-eminence. And, coincidentally, the New Testament records that the disciples were prone to just this sort of competition. Hmmm.
It’s also possible that, for common psychological reasons, the disciples felt personally guilty about Jesus’ death. If only they’d stayed and fought! If only they’d kept awake and prayed! If only they’d been more united and less self-centered! If only they’d paid better attention to what Jesus was saying! And now he was gone, and it was all their fault. Guilty feelings are always a strong motivator for a person to confess doing wrong.
Confession, they say, is good for the soul, and the early Christians were big on confession. No private little booth or curtain for them: first century confession was a public announcement. If you lied or stole or slept with someone you shouldn’t, you went to the front of the church and loudly proclaimed your sins to everybody. Those who wouldn’t (or didn’t dare) were regarded as weak, and possibly apostate. This, again, turns the principle of embarrassment on its head. A Christian who believed that a sin confessed was a sin forgiven (I John 1:9) is not only more highly motivated to volunteer embarrassing details about himself, he’s liable to be tempted to confess more than he’s actually done, so as to be sure he’s covered it all.
Like Kreeft, Geisler and Turek are pushing a false dichotomy: the idea that EITHER the Gospel is a complete fiction OR it is a complete truth. Their argument depends on getting us to swallow the idea that the apostles would never make up a complete fiction that made them look bad, and therefore the Gospel must be completely true instead. They neglect to consider the possibility that the writers of the New Testament might have been writing a subjective, biased, and distorted version of the truth, and so created a narrative that misleads the reader as to the literal, material facts of the matter.
The bottom line is that the principle of embarrassment is generally reliable as applied to the embarrassing details themselves, and there’s no good reason to doubt that NT writers were telling the truth when they tattled on each other’s failures. It might, perhaps, have been exaggerated for dramatic effect, but chances are it is close enough for practical purposes. These confessions, however, do not imply that the writers were necessarily accurate, objective, and literal in everything else that they wrote, and indeed, even their honest confessions would have had a self-serving purpose in early Christian culture. Everything they write in their gospels is written with a purpose: to convince people to believe in Jesus. They’re not historians; they’re evangelists.
The best way to understand the true significance of the Gospel accounts is to assume that the Christians of the past behaved in a way that’s similar to the behavior we see in the Christians of today. We know that Christians today take pride in confessing the sins that Jesus has allegedly cured them of (or at least helped them with). We know that Christians value repentance, and place somewhat higher respect on those who’ve been saved from the worst sins. And we know that some of them will say what ever it takes to get people to believe in Jesus, because once someone believes based on your witness, they’re going to respect whatever you tell them Jesus wants them to believe.
This is the answer to Kreeft’s questions, by the way: the apostles, and their successors, preach their gospel because of the power it gives them over the beliefs and behavior of others. That’s a potent motivation, strong enough to make people willing to risk opposition, persecution, and even death (the key word being “risk”). There’s no doubt the apostles also believed their gospel to be true in some sense, but ultimately, they preached it because it was their gospel, and its triumphs were their triumphs. Public confession of what you were before (and the key word is “before”) is a small price to pay for the power you can wield, through your religion, right now.
Next time: The embarrassing and difficult sayings of Jesus.