I read a post by Frank Boy Walton at his kindergarten blog, the one he so maturely named “Atheism Sucks”, and I wondered how he came to perceive something read by both of us in such a diametrically different way than I did. Read on for specifics.
Frank posted a link to a debate between Drs. William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman entitled Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus? He also posted a link to the audio, which I didn’t listen to, as I found the written transcript quite sufficient (it’s recorded from the audience; don’t waste your time). It is actually a very good debate, quite informative, as I learned a little bit more than I previously knew. As you might expect, at the conclusion, I felt Bart Ehrman had won the debate. Frank, on his post (sorry, I refuse to link to him but you can search the post dated January 31 if you are a glutton for punishment) said:
In my opinion, Dr. William Lane Craig bested Dr. Bart D. Ehrman in this debate.
He doesn’t say why, but if you are familiar with his blog(s), it easy to figure out. Of course, we both come to the debate with a certain amount of predisposition. Frank is a rabid Christian. I doubt he would disagree with my assessment of how strongly he feels about his belief in Christianity, though he’d probably take exception to my use of the term “rabid”. I’ll stick by it. I am very up front about my atheism, though as I’ve said before, that doesn’t put me on the opposite side of Frank or any other theist of the same ilk. I read a debate like that with skepticism, not to confirm my atheism, but to test my predisposition. Frank does the opposite (though again, he’d probably like you to believe he doesn’t).
William Lane Craig is a highly respected theologian. He taught John Loftus, who now is responsible for much of the blog Debunking Christianity, and who wrote the book Why I Became an Atheist, the predecessor volume of the book I reviewed here. Loftus does not hide his high regard for Dr. Craig personally, though not for his theology. If anyone would have proof of the historical evidence for the Resurrection, I thought Craig should.
Bart Ehrman is also a highly respected academic. Though he is not a theologian, he started out as one, but his studies convinced him that the existence of god was problematic. It’s safe to say he leans toward atheism now. At best, he’s skeptical of the claims of scripture, which he has studied in the original languages, and is considered a leading expert on them. He wrote Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.
The issue in the debate is one that is central to Christianity. Is there historical evidence that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead, after being put to death and buried? I feel it’s central, because without it, you really have no basis for believing that Jesus was god. Without a supernatural intervention in the laws of nature, i.e. the finality of death, Jesus was just another man, like everyone else (assuming he even existed in the first place). It is a question that has always interested me, and I have always been eager to hear both sides of the issue.
I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff. I grew up believing it was fact, so when someone offers to debate the evidence for what seems to me to be a very counter-intuitive notion – that someone could be raised from the dead – I jump on it. If there actually is evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, or for that matter anyone, then it could have a major impact on my lack of belief. So a debate between one of the leading lights of Christianity and an acknowledged scholar of antiquities, seems to me to be just the ticket.
Both debaters have comparable credentials, and even attended the same Christian college, so I felt they were a good match for a debate on the subject. I eagerly downloaded the .pdf file of the debate and read it closely, looking for the promised historical evidence from at least one of the debaters and a solid attempt of refutation from the other. As you might expect, I was disappointed with the former and unsurprised by the latter. As the proponent of the affirmative on the question, Craig had the burden of providing the evidence that was the topic for the debate. Here is what he said it boiled down to:
There are four historical facts which must be explained by any adequate historical hypothesis:
o Jesus’ burial
o the discovery of his empty tomb
o his post-mortem appearances
o the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection.
This is his evidence! He simply states them as facts. He provides nothing to support their claimed existence, other than the opinions of “scholars” that they are, in fact, undisputed. I don’t want to get into a long deconstruction of his argument, as you can read the entire debate and come to you own conclusion, but let me give one example, if only to convince myself that I’m not missing something. The first fact he states as:
Fact #1: After his crucifixion Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb.
His source for this fact?
We have four biographies of Jesus, by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which have been collected into the New Testament, along with various letters of the apostle Paul.
Notice his use of the term “biographies”? The Bible? Well, not just the Bible.
Moreover, Paul also cites an extremely early source for Jesus’ burial which most scholars date to within five years of Jesus’ crucifixion. Independent testimony to Jesus’ burial by Joseph is also found in the sources behind Matthew and Luke and the Gospel of John, not to mention the extra-biblical Gospel of Peter. Thus, we have the remarkable number of at least five independent sources for Jesus’ burial, some of which are extraordinarily early. (emphasis added by me)
Umm, what early source? He doesn’t say. Perhaps he means the Q document. It’s hard to tell. He goes on to argue that it doesn’t make much sense for a Jewish Sanhedrist (a group that apparently condemned Jesus) to go out of his way to bury Jesus. His conclusion on fact # 1 is:
…most New Testament critics concur that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb. According to the late John A. T. Robinson of Cambridge University, the burial of Jesus in the tomb is “one of the earliest and best-attested facts about Jesus.”
That’s it. That’s evidence for fact #1. What does Bart Ehrman have to say about it?
First, he explains what historians mean by doing history.
Historians try to establish to the best of their ability what probably happened in the past…Some things are absolutely certain, some are probable, some are possible, some are “maybe,” some are “probably not.”…the best kind of evidence, of course, consists of contemporary accounts; people who were close to the time of the events themselves. Ultimately, if you don’t have a source that goes back to the time period itself, then you don’t have a reliable source…
Are the Gospels good historical evidence? No, says Ehrman.
These are not historically reliable accounts. The authors were not eye witnesses; they’re Greek-speaking Christians living 35 to 65 years after the events they narrate. The accounts that they narrate are based on oral traditions that have been in circulation for decades. Year after year Christians trying to convert others told them stories to convince them that Jesus was raised from the dead. These writers are telling stories, then, that Christians have been telling all these years. Many stories were invented, and most of the stories were changed. For that reason, these accounts are not as useful as we would like them to be for historical purposes. They’re not contemporary, they’re not disinterested, and they’re not consistent.
But what does he say about Craig’s proof for his first fact? He points out that the use of scholars is not proof of anything. The scholars Craig quotes from are
believers in the New Testament, that is, they’re theologically committed to the text, so of course they agree on these points.
He then notes that the majority of non theological scholars, historians, actually do not agree with his conclusion.
…for the reality is that the majority of critical scholars studying the historical Jesus today disagree with his conclusion that a historian can show that the body of Jesus emerged physically from the tomb. Bill might find that surprising, but that would be because of the context he works in – a conservative, evangelical seminary. In that environment, what he’s propounding is what everyone believes. And it’s striking that even some of his own key authorities don’t agree. He quotes a number of scholars, whom I consider to be friends and acquaintances, and I can tell you, they don’t agree with his views. Does that make him wrong? No, it simply means that his impressive recounting of scholarly opinion is slanted, lopsided, and fails to tell the real story, which is that he represents a minority opinion.
Ehrman’s basic rebuttal, however is that even if you assume the truth of Craig’s facts, history is not able to assess them, because by definition, they are miracles, and history has no way of proving or disproving a miracle, so by definition, there can be no historical evidence for the Resurrection.
Historians can’t presuppose belief in God. Historians can only work with what we’ve got here among us. People who are historians can be of any theological persuasion. They can be Buddhists, they can be Hindus, they can be Muslims, they can be Christians, they can be Jews, they can be agnostics, they can be atheists, and the theory behind the canons in historical research is that people of every persuasion can look at the evidence and draw the same conclusions. But Bill’s hypothesis requires a person to believe in God. I don’t object to that as a way of thinking. I object to that as a way of historical thinking, because it’s not history, it’s theology.
What I can’t get my head around is that even when the concept of “historical evidence” was explained to Dr. Craig, he still argued as if it had never been spoken. He kept badgering Ehrman to address his four facts, then at the end, implied that Ehrman never disputed them, therefore they were established, yet Ehrman spent considerable time explaining why they were not. What was so hard for an outside reader to understand about that? Craig made a theological statement (which always presumes the existence of the supernatural) while Ehrman showed that history (like science) cannot have anything to say about theological explanations.
OK. That was a long winded way of getting to my point about perception. As long as it was, hopefully you didn’t need to read the whole debate to get my point, which was that the Christian (Frank) thought that Craig won the debate, while the skeptic (me) thought he didn’t. I suspect that 99 times out of a hundred, if I had an atheist and a Christian read that same debate, I’d get the same result. Why such divergence in viewpoints when the debate was about the historical evidence for the resurrection, and no evidence was shown? None whatsoever, unless…UNLESS… you consider the bible as evidence, without independent corroboration of its contents. Which is exactly what Craig did. Why are Christians patently unable to understand that their bible is not evidence of anything, all by itself? Why the perception disconnect? Why do I read a debate like this and feel that one side has won the debate, hands down, while a Christian can read the same debate and come to the opposite conclusion? There are a few possible explanations:
- One of the two sides, Christian or Atheist, is deluding themselves, because only one side could have won the debate, and the other had to lose.
- The members of the two sides have different brain chemistry that causes them to see a winning and losing argument differently.
- One of the two sides has been so indoctrinated into believing in a certain mindset and world view, so that their brain is trained to reject anything that conflicts with this prior indoctrination. This indoctrination is so strong as to actually overpower otherwise healthy and vibrant intellects.
There may be other explanations, but if I was to pick one, I’d pick 4.) all of the above. I can come to no other conclusion. The differing perceptions of theist and atheists has to be a subconscious form of self-delusion, brought on by early indoctrination. While there is always a confirmation bias working in all our brains, it’s particularly virulent in the Christian’s. Whether there is a chemical or neurological explanation that meshes with it seems possible, but I’ll leave that to scientists to confirm. I understand Sam Harris is preparing his doctorate dissertation in this field.
But on another level, there must be more. The above would suggest a subconscious, and therefore involuntary, mechanism. I still feel that at some level there is a voluntary aspect to the difference in perceptions. How else to explain the fact that many former Christians deconvert and shed their delusions, shed their indoctrination, dampen their brain chemistry, and become free thinking skeptics? Christians have the ability to make a choice, (they emphasize free will in their theology) and somehow they make the choice that makes sense to them, but not to us.
So one of the things that one must accept, given the paucity of historical evidence, is uncertainty. This, however, is a concept that Christians seem afraid of. The very idea of saying”I don’t know” scares them. They only feel comfortable when they can declare with absolute certainty that their god exists, and moreover, that he loves them, is watching them, and will take care of them for eternity. Anything less than that frightens the hell out of them, hence their resolute determination to perceive things that don’t exist. So they stick their fingers in their ears, and sing “la-la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you”, when confronted with the reality of uncertainty. Using their free will, they willfully choose ignorance, because ignorance is bliss. Reality and truth are scary.
Playing devils advocate, Frank would say that it is me who was indoctrinated, who is deluded. However, the evidence for that just isn’t there. I was indoctrinated, and at an early age, into Catholicism, a form of Christianity, one of the earliest forms, in fact. I no longer am. I read, questioned, and pondered the facts, and came to different conclusions, not as a child, or even as a young adult, but in my late 40s. I believed what William Craig believes, that the Resurrection actually happened. I had no proof, I simply accepted it, because my elders, relying only on the Bible, told me it was true. I graduated from college with a degree in history. I was taught what to accept as historical evidence, and what not to accept. No historian worth his degree would ever accept the Bible as historical evidence.
Looking at William Craig’s evidence with an historical eye confirms to me that what he concluded came first, from which he worked backward searching for rationalizations for that conclusion. That’s pathetic coming from an supposed academic, but that is essentially the nature of apologetics.
Frank’s perception that Craig bested Ehrman, however, is more a function of his own unwillingness to confront reality and to be comfortable with his delusion, than it is a statement of the sufficiency of the evidence.