XFiles Friday: Deja vuDecember 5, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 11.)
Let’s see, where were we? Oh yes, we’re up to Number 6 on Geisler and Turek’s Top Ten list of why we ought to believe everything the New Testament writers tell us, no matter what. And hey, déjà vu!
6. The New Testament Writers Include More than Thirty Historically Confirmed People In Their Writings
This critical point bears repeating. The New Testament documents cannot have been invented because they contain too many historically confirmed characters…
And The Wild, Wild West cannot be fiction because it mentions Ulysses S. Grant.
I think it’s a measure of the evidence Geisler and Turek have to work with that they would present such a lame argument not only multiple times, but as a “critical point” that “bears repeating.” Apparently they think that merely mentioning the names of real people is enough to prove that nothing you say is a lie (though when Joseph Smith mentions real people, of course, Geisler and Turek strangely do not take this as proof of the accuracy of Mormon Scriptures. Hmmm.)
G&T try to defend this peculiar apologetic by arguing that “[t]here is no way the New Testament writers could have gotten away with writing outright lies about Pilate, Caiaphas, Festus, Felix, and the entire Herodian bloodline.” But that assumes that there is anything in the Gospels that would constitute an outright lie about the historical people involved. The Resurrection story per se doesn’t really do that, since none of these “historically confirmed people” are even alleged to have been witnesses to the alleged resurrection.
Geisler and Turek surely sense the weakness and illogic of this particular approach, and try even harder to defend it, saying, “Somebody would have exposed them for falsely implicating these people in events that never occurred.” But this is a bogus argument for two reasons. Again: the event that never occurred (i.e. the alleged resurrection) did not implicate any of these people.
More importantly, somebody did expose the historical holes in the Gospel accounts—lots of somebodies. The apostles’ ministry was widely opposed and its claims and teachings contradicted, which is one of the reasons why Matthew tried to spread the story that the guards had been bribed to say the disciples took Jesus’ body. The hostility and opposition of the Jews is widely documented (though needless to say, not spelled out) by the New Testament writings themselves.
Geisler and Turek are really wasting their time on this argument, and especially for as many times as they keep repeating it. They do not accept the mere mention of real people as proof for any other religion or Holy Writ. Mentioning real people does not prove anything about the claims you make in other areas (which is why we don’t send people to prison just because a witness for the prosecution knows who the current president is). And the consequences Geisler and Turek predict—the public contradiction, opposition, and repudiation of the apostles’ claims—are exactly what did happen, just as you would expect if the story were false.
Still, perhaps we can’t blame Geisler and Turek. This is the third time they’ve presented #6, and everyone knows that 6-6-6 is the Mark of the Beast, so perhaps this argument is just cursed by Satan.
Let’s move on to Argument 7.
7. The New Testament Writers Include Divergent Details
Critics are quick to cite the apparently contradictory Gospel accounts as evidence that the gospels can’t be trusted for accurate information. For example, Matthew says there was one angel at the tomb of Jesus while John mentions two. Isn’t this a contradiction that blows the credibility of these accounts? No, exactly the opposite is true: divergent details actually strengthen the case that these are eyewitness accounts.
There follows the standard apologetic claims that real life eyewitnesses not uncommonly give divergent accounts after having all witnessed the same event, coupled with the argument that, as above, some of the discrepancies can be viewed as being a case where one account provides supplemental information (a second angel) which the other account simply does not mention.
Let’s simplify (and shorten) the argument by stating up front that supplemental details are not a problem. Sure, there are some cases where you could reconcile the two gospel accounts by taking one version as being simply more detailed than the other. But such cases are not really “divergent details,” they’re simply one passage including more details. Let’s look instead at the cases where the details actually “diverge” (which is the euphemism G&T use in place of “contradict each other”).
Before we look at specific instances, let’s consider the whole story about eyewitness testimonies, and why they differ. Sometimes it’s literally a matter of perspective: one witness was in a different location, and was able to see details not visible to other witnesses. That’s not the case with regards to the Gospel, so we can skip this one.
Another reason is that sometimes the events being witnessed are so traumatic that the witnesses’ perceptions are distorted by their emotional reaction to the events themselves. That’s a more likely factor in the case of believers witnessing the crucifixion of someone they not only loved deeply, but also regarded as being the fulfillment of a prophetic promise to send a divine Savior to save Israel and restore the kingdom. Also, recent studies suggest that a surprisingly large percentage of people experience hallucinations related to the recent death of a loved one, so it’s entirely possible that such experiences could lead to divergent accounts of a “resurrection.”
A third reason arises when time passes between the event witnessed, and the recording of the witnesses’ testimony. People not uncommonly re-write their memories of deeply significant events, without ever realizing that they have done so. When the accounts are separated from the events by years, or even decades, discrepancies can arise as the different witnesses re-write their memories in different ways. (And note that the “oral tradition” defense doesn’t work in this case, because if the “witnesses” are taking dictation from some formalized oral tradition, they’re not really giving their own eyewitness testimony.)
The important thing to remember about discrepancies in eyewitness testimony is that they mean at least all but one of the accounts is inaccurate in some way. That seems like an obvious point, but apparently it’s easy to overlook, at least when you’re trying to prove that we should believe everything that every Gospel tells us. Yes, real people see real events and then sometimes give conflicting accounts of what happened. But these accounts are not infallibly true, because they contradict each other, and the truth does not contradict itself.
Now, as we look at the different variations in the Gospel story, we can see that the four different accounts do involve some actual contradictions. If Mary’s first experience at the tomb is that an angel comes down, opens the tomb, and declares that Jesus is risen, followed immediately by a visit from Jesus himself (as Matthew tells us), then she’s not going to run back to Peter and John and the other disciples and tell them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (as John tells us). If the women saw only a man at the tomb and immediately left and told no one what they saw (as it says at the original ending of Mark’s Gospel), then they did not tell the Eleven anything when they came back from the tomb (despite Luke’s claims to the contrary).
All of these accounts are presented as being literally the Gospel Truth, and yet they describe the events of the alleged Resurrection in such a way that if one Gospel is telling the truth, the other(s) are not. Geisler and Turek want us to believe whatever the NT writers tell us, on the grounds that they are accurate historians who only tell the truth, yet the actual records they cite in Item 7 on their Top Ten list are records that are clearly not accurate about the most significant matter discussed by the Gospels. The one place where accuracy and reliability are most crucial is the one place where the stories cannot all be accurate and reliable.
The Gospels can’t always be trusted to give a clear and accurate account of what really happened, because they tell the kind of stories you would expect to find arising via hearsay, misrecollection, and misperception—stories that just don’t fit together the way the truth would. This is a crucial point, because such discrepancies are the only means we have for detecting when a story is not true. Granted, sometimes true events lead to “divergent” reports, but if we allow ourselves to fall into the Converse Fallacy and conclude that divergent reports mean the event must be true, then we are doomed to believe all kinds of lies and deceptions that contradict both themselves and the real world.
Geisler and Turek do their best with what they’ve got, but Item 7 on their Top Ten list only goes to show that the New Testament writers are not always accurate and reliable, especially when describing the central event of the Christian Gospel, which the NT writers plainly declare they are trying to persuade people to believe. These are evangelists, not historians; people with something to prove, not mere disinterested bystanders. The very term “evangelist” means “one who spreads the Gospel (literally, the Evangel). If ever they’re going to be tempted to bend the truth, it’s going to be when they’re trying to prove their central point.
Just like Geisler and Turek, when they try to convince us that the contradictions in the Gospel are actually proof that the eyewitnesses are all telling the truth.