XFiles Friday: Deja vu all over again

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 12.)

Geisler and Turek have been making the same argument for some time now: that because the NT writers presented some (trivial) details that have been historically accurate, we ought to assume that everything they report is historically accurate, even when they offer us conflicting stories, or ghost stories, or stories of subjective experiences that should have been visible to all, but weren’t. As we’ve seen, there are actually some substantial, valid reasons why at least some of what the NT writings ought to be taken with a grain of salt, but instead of addressing those areas, Geisler and Turek just keep repeating the same argument over and over again, as though you can make something true just by repeating it.

We’re into the chapter about “Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?” but you might think we were anywhere in the past 80 pages based on all the progress G&T have made.

The New Testament Story Is Not A Legend—The New Testament documents were written well within two generations of the events by eyewitnesses or their contemporaries, and the New Testament storyline is corroborated by non-Christian writers. In addition the New Testament mentions at least 30 historical figures who have been confirmed by sources outside the New Testament. Therefore, the New Testament story cannot be a legend.

Once again, they try to blur important distinctions: “eyewitnesses or their contemporaries.” In other words, we’re supposed to believe these are eyewitness accounts just because the writers lived during the same years as actual eyewitnesses. “The NT storyline is corroborated by non-Christians;” in other words, because some details have corroboration, the entire storyline has been corroborated. They don’t mention that the corroboration stops at the point the storyline starts to become suspicious (e.g. at the four different resurrection accounts). They’re conflating the disputed resurrection accounts with the mundane Jesus-lived-and-died stories, as though there was no difference between them. And “30 historical figures” are mentioned, therefore we’re supposed to believe that all the other details are historical as well. Would Geisler and Turek accept this standard of “proof” for non-Christian stories? Don’t bet any large sums on it.

There is one new trick here, though. Geisler and Turek are claiming to have proven that the NT story is not a “legend,” even though there’s evidence that the story improved with the telling, and is based on rumors that became adopted as canonical traditions (even though they remained rumors long enough to produce conflicting variants). What G&T mean, of course, is that it is possible to use the word “legend” in a kind of specific, technical sense such that it applies only to legends with different characteristics.

For example, there are currently a number of legendary accounts of what happened during the Columbine shootings or during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. There are other famous urban legends, like the one about someone plotting to trick the FCC into shutting down Christian radio stations. These legends also mention contemporary figures and events and locations and so on, but technically speaking, Geisler and Turek could say “these accounts are not legends,” meaning they don’t follow the same specific pattern as ancient legends about Hercules or Ulysses or Persephone or whatever.

By artificially excluding more commonplace legends, and secretly limiting the term to only what might be called “formal, epic legends,” Geisler and Turek achieve their goal (denial of a Jesus legend) without actually proving that the resurrection accounts are not legendary. A story can be exaggerated beyond the limits of factual accuracy, and can spread by word of mouth, gathering subtle embellishments and plausibility improvements, until it achieves a canonical form, all without being technically a “legend” in the sense that Geisler and Turek are using the term. Yet it shares this vital characteristic with the more formal legend: the story isn’t really reporting factually accurate detail. G&T have awarded themselves a contrived point, but they haven’t really scored.

The New Testament Story Is Not a Lie—The New Testament writers included divergent and embarrassing details, difficult and demanding sayings, and they carefully distinguished Jesus’ words from their own…referenced facts and eyewitnesses…provoked their readers…to check out what they said. If that’s not enough… then their martyrdom should remove any doubt. …they could have saved themselves by simply denying their testimony.

Déjà vû, eh? Yes, they’re summarizing, but they’re doing that an awful lot lately. And their point does not get any better, no matter how many times they repeat it. Even granted that the disciples were not consciously lying, their testimony is complicated by the fact that it is not technically “lying,” in Christian usage, to say that Jesus is present wherever two or more gather in his name, even when he does not literally and materially show up. So Christians could very well believe and insist that Jesus “rose” in some sense that would not be lying, even if he failed to do so materially and literally. Paul “saw” a resurrected Jesus who was invisible to men who were standing right there with him, yet Paul did not consider it lying to claim that Jesus “appeared” to him. So it may be true that the believers were not consciously “lying,” yet their “truthfulness” does not reliably establish whether there was a literal, material resurrection in actual historical fact.

The New Testament Story Is Not an Embellishment—The New Testament writers were meticulously accurate, as evidenced by well over 140 historically confirmed details. They recorded miracles in those same historically confirmed narratives, and they did so without apparent embellishment or significant theological comment.

Geisler and Turek make it hard for us to assume that they’re sincerely trying to present an honest and unbiased summary here. The difference between the stories about miracles (especially about the alleged resurrection) and the more mundane stories that seem to be consistent with the historical fact is precisely that the stories about the miracles have not been historically confirmed. Geisler and Turek are simply tempting us to jump to the conclusion that if someone says one thing that is correct, then they never lie, exaggerate, make mistakes, or otherwise deviate from the strict, straightforward truth. Again, they would never apply this standard of judgment in any other circumstance; only Gospel writers and apologists seem to get this degree of benefit of the doubt. Darwin mentioned historical details too, but you don’t see Geisler and Turek assuring us that On the Origin of Species is not a legend, not a lie, and not embellished.

Their goal is, as it must be, to persuade us to put our trust in the words of men. God does not show up in real life, and hence men must provide us with words to serve as the object of our faith. So they cherry-pick the best details about the stories of the NT writers. They don’t emphasize the fact that the four resurrection stories are irreconcilably contradictory, they try to convince us that the contradictions prove that the writers were not manufacturing a story, and thus should be trusted. They don’t point out that sleeping disciples would have been unable to see Jesus sweating blood in the dark, they merely provide a technical name for a similar-sounding phenomenon and want us to assume that Luke must have had some magical insight into future medical discoveries. They don’t mention the fact that Pliny reports many Christians who did recant under torture, or the fact that John, the only Gospel writer who was an actual eyewitness, did not die a martyr, they only mention the ones who did die without denying their faith, in order to prove that they are the ultimate in trustworthiness.

Just believe what men tell you, and never mind the fundamental and obvious fact that Jesus, who allegedly loves us enough to die for us, is somehow not present to tell us that he loves us. Never mind that the resurrection would have made it possible for him to do so. Never mind that a truly risen Jesus could have been seen by unbelievers, and would have had a much more powerful and effective ministry after rising from the dead—and yet, inexplicably, did not. Never mind that the ghost stories of Jesus’ alleged post-resurrection appearances contain details that manifestly rule out the possibility that his “resurrection body” was a physical, material one. Never mind that only believers could “see” him, even when non-believers were in the same place and at the same time.

Never mind the evidence. Just believe what the men say. Especially when they tell you that their stories, holes and all, are definitely not lies, not legends, and not embellishments. And if you can believe all that, then you’re just the kind of sheep God wants in His flock. And his followers have got the shears to prove it.

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