Saturday, April 7, 2012 Believe

Holy Week is mostly a time of faith. Because of that, some people think it's a season antithetical to reason.  So, as we do the Holy Week and Easter thing, maybe we should ask the question: "Just because I can believe in this religion, should I?  I mean, is it intellectually responsible of me to do so?"  Really, what I'm asking is, do we just have to take this Jesus/Christianity/Resurrection thing on faith only, or does it jive with reason too?  Are my only options to reject rationality or to reject Christianity?  

I can't make anybody assent to anything.  Frankly, I don't want to.  I really do have serious respect for people who have actually looked down the double-barrels of faith and reason and can walk away saying honestly they don't buy my religion.  I know I can't quite appreciate how hard of a decision that is: changing your worldview, knowing your Grandma will be confused by it and your parents will rant, and the certainty that Jesus-freaks will bug the crap out of you.  Seriously, I appreciate the honesty and courage.  I'm not here to proselytize to them.  
So this post is really about: 
A) reminding believers that they've got good reasons to believe, 
B) showing non-believers that we're not nuttier-than-squirrel-poo for believing this stuff, and 
C) telling Christians who say "you just have to believe it" to please go hang out with the Santa-believers elsewhere; you're making us look bad.  
Aristotle, Newton, Franklin, and Einstein are all great scientists who give pretty solid arguments for still believing there's some sort of "Uncaused Cause" behind the universe, so I'm not going to look at atheist vs. theist questions.  I just want to see whether a theist, deist, or soft agnostic could responsibly believe in Jesus as God.  These three categories cover most humans, including Gandhi, Madonna, Voltaire, and supposedly anybody in a foxhole.  

You've probably heard most of the objections before.  The 19th century "history of religions" school of thought is still prevalent.  You may know its three basic tenants: 1) all religions are basically bunk, 2) all religions are basically the same, and 3) all religions basically evolved out of each other.  This school added a framework to the earlier objections of guys named Spinoza and Reimarus, and the results are what you've already heard:
A) All of this is so old, so unreliable, so shrouded by centuries of superstition and myth, it's pointless.  All the people of that time were unenlightened and credulous.
B) Jesus, if he existed, was just a wise rabbi.  His message was distorted by Paul, who "made Jesus into God", and invented Christianity.
C) Our only real sources are the Christians' own writings, and they could have radically misrepresented Jesus and his first followers.
D) Maybe the real Jesus' story was unpopular with the early Church leaders, so they suppressed those other accounts, like the Gnostic gospels.  
E) The apostles just made up the story of the resurrection, either to further the cause of Jesus after his death or because they felt he had spiritually resurrected (gone to heaven) and they had now been forgiven by God because he died for them.
F) Whatever the original documents said, they've been recopied, translated, and distorted so many times we can't really know what the first Christians wrote down anyway.

So, I'm going to try to blow up three hundred years of rationalism and revisionism in four arguments within two blog posts.  
My Four Steps to a reasonable, responsible Christian foundation are:
1) Review the outside sources: the Roman and Jewish writings of the first two centuries.  These will give reliable testimony that Jesus existed, started a peculiar group, and detail enough of their beliefs to recognize it as Christianity.
2) Consider if the inside sources (the gospels) are reliable to tell the story, specifically the details in Steps 3 and 4.
3) Recognize that Jesus' claim to divinity eliminates options, namely, the possibility that he's just a "wise sage of ethics like Buddha, Zoroaster, or a Hindu sadhu".  Jesus forces you to accept him or denounce him.
4) Wrestle with the evidence for the Resurrection.  This is most often neglected because people think it's only a question of "I just have to believe!"  Yeah, it does require faith, but the leap is shorter than both secularists and fundamentalists think.

1. Outside Evidence

A. Roman Sources
We have four Roman writers (Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, and Lucian of Samosata) writing about Christ and Christians between 110 and 120 A.D., at a distance of forty-five to ninety years from the events of which they write.  For some, that distance seems a problem, but let's realize that the most accurate books on WWII and Patton and Hitler were not written in the 1950s, they've been written in the last ten to twenty years.  There is a "sweet spot" of historical analysis: close enough to access witnesses, far enough to have gained critical distance.  Suetonius and Tacitus are actually reporting what happened in 49 and 64 A.D. respectively, but they do it with a calm aspect of historians a half century removed.  From these four unbiased, secular sources we can safely say: Christians were a thoroughly established group in Rome itself by the late 40s; their founder, "Christus", was a Jewish religious lawgiver or philosopher who was crucified as a criminal by Pilate in the reign of Tiberius, but the "pernicious superstition" immediately broke out again with his followers worshipping him as a god, claiming to all be brothers now, and swearing oaths to do no wicked deeds.  

B. Jewish Sources 

The two key sources for this are Josephus and the Babylonian Talmud.  I know that some scholars think the Jesus sections of Josephus are later interpolations, but I think they actually read more like a sophisticated Greco-Roman skeptic (which Josephus was) than an excited believer's forgeries.  Nevertheless, I'll focus on the Talmud, as a safer source. Compiled between 70-200 A.D., the "Yeshu" section gives more data to help us triangulate our knowledge of Jesus ("Yeshu").  Interestingly, it directly addresses his birth: there were scandalous accusations about the conditions of his conception and birth, including that the carpenter was not the father of Miriam's baby.  Most importantly, it records that Jesus became widely known for his amazing works (which were perceived as sorcery) and for "leading Israel astray", and while he should have been stoned for his blasphemy, he was "hanged on the eve of Passover".  These are mirror images of what the gospels claim—same story, different faith-angle.

St. Paul fits in here too.  The claim since Reimarus (late 1700s) has been that Paul hijacked the story of the dead Jesus and made him the Christ of his new religion.  Paul is definitely the earliest Christian writer; he begins before the first Greek gospels are promulgated.  The claim is: Jesus was a good, wise young rabbi, killed tragically; Paul divinized him; the gospel writers then took Paul's theological Christ and wrapped it into sayings of the historical Jesus.  But the Jewish sources thoroughly agree with Paul, just for opposite reasons.  If Paul "made up Christianity", then he and the Jews made up identical stories about what Jesus said and did at the exact same time, for two exactly opposite purposes: Paul, to inspire belief; the Jews, to discredit the blaspheming magic worker.  Whichever one is right, Paul was doing this within fifteen years of the Crucifixion, in front of people who heard Jesus speak—both Jesus' followers and enemies.  And no one argued that Jesus didn't say what Paul claimed or the Jews accused him to have said.   The only argument was whether Paul or the Jews were proved right.  

Think of the sources this way: The Romans writers are like drawing a circle and saying: "Your Jesus must be somewhere in this circle. Here's the basic time, place, and consequences of your dude."  The Jews are like lines running vertically and horizontally edge to edge within that circle, giving it greater stability, because now any Christian claim is going to have to account for the data they they also recorded in those first decades.  Finally, Paul is like big dots of detail, sometimes landing right on a Jewish accountability line, sometimes adding new data to the story.  Nothing is like a fleshed-out narrative yet, but that's what we're setting a framework for.  The narrative is Step 2.

2. Are The Gospels Reliable?

I don't mean: "Did miracles really take place?"  The questions of who Jesus is and what he could do are more proper to Steps 3 and 4.  If they are affirmed, then everything in the gospels could be believed, natural or supernatural.  The two things I mean here are: 
A) Are the gospels in out Bibles today faithful transmissions of those original gospels?
B) Did the original gospel accounts faithfully record what Jesus said and did on the natural level?

We don't possess the "autographs" of the gospels, meaning, we don't have the parchments or scrolls that Matthew, John, and Paul personally wrote on.  But then again, we don't have any first century document's autograph.  Let's put this in context: the oldest copy of the next most ancient complete manuscript we have is for The Iliad, and it's from the 10th century.  The Iliad has 647 known hand copies; the New Testament has 5,633.  The oldest scrap of part of The Iliad is from fifteen hundred years after it was probably first written down (500 A.D.); the oldest NT scrap is from John 18:31-38, from about 110 A.D., some twenty years after it was written, and found some 300+ miles from its likely source city.

What about accuracy after all these copyings?  Our 5,000 plus copies yield 200,000 "variants", but most of these are misspellings, doubled-up or inverted words.  Of the 20,000 lines of the NT, only 40 lines are seriously "up in the air" according to textual critics, and none touch on any significant doctrine.  Consider: You have no idea what the Gettysburg Address really said.  There is significantly more textual variance in the five official copies and the newspaper accounts of Lincoln's nine sentences (just 150 years ago and in the age of printing presses) than in the Letter to the Romans, which is the longest existing letter from the ancient world, and which has been transmitted across two thousand years.  

So, did the gospel writers tell Jesus' story accurately?  Nobody thinks that Matthew or Mark was written earlier than the 45, most think the first three were done before 64, and no one thinks John wrote any later than 100.  So, all the gospels were written in living memory of their events (50-70 years).  This means people can call you out if you misrepresent the historical events that they witnessed.  But neither Jesus' early followers nor his enemies are recorded anywhere as disagreeing with how the gospels (or Paul) represented Jesus.  No, Jesus' former followers plainly were not protesting, "Stop making him a blasphemer!", and the rabbinical Jews proudly were saying, "Yup, that's what he said, and that's why we turned him over to Pilate."

3. What Kind Of Guy Might Jesus Be?

I think we've reasonably put Objections A, C, D, and F to rest, and I've been setting up Obj. B for the sake of blowing it out of the water here.  Obj. E is the final determiner in my mind: if it's legit, it legitimizes all other data in gospels, and if it's not, then all the rest is bunk anyway.  That'll be the topic in Step 4, which I'll cover tomorrow on Easter.

If the gospels are accurate accounts of what Jesus said, and no contemporary of his objected to their portrayals of him, then we must deal with the fact that Jesus regularly claimed divinity and divine prerogatives for himself.  Mark supposedly has the "lowest Christology" of the gospels, but even in his second chapter we hear Jesus say: "Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Get up, and pick up your pallet and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins"—he said to the paralytic, "I say to you, get up, pick up your pallet and go home."  This is the specific moment the Jewish leaders turned against him.  All four gospels record these claims as the exact reason he was to be put to death.  The Jews —as was expected of them in Leviticus and is recorded in the Babylonian Talmud— wanted to stone him, but the Romans alone could execute in Palestine in 30 A.D., and they used crucifixion.  The fact that Stephen was stoned to death lines up exactly with an interregnum in the Roman governorship, which allowed the Jews to act unilateral against the blasphemer.  Heck, in John 8, the Jews nearly stone Jesus anyway because he claimed "Before Abraham was, I AM", and only Yahweh every called himself "I AM" (see Ex. 3:14).  

All this matters immensely because the constant refrain of the revisionists and rationalists is that "Jesus was just a good, charismatic, moral teacher.  He probably died tragically and then they divinized him and made him the religion, not his ethical message."  We hear this constantly.  "All religions are basically the same, right?  Just differences of details or circumstances."  Or "Look, I like Jesus, but I'm not sure he's God.  Didn't some Buddhists kind of divinize him after death too?  That's the same, right?"  

The problem is it wasn't his followers who made the claims, it was he.  All religions are not the same; my religion has a dude trying to push himself off as the Living God, and you seem to think that's a lot like Socrates, Confucius, or Buddha.  You think Jesus can just be a good guy.  No.  Sorry.  Either Jesus is the best thing that ever came down from heaven or he's the worst demon to come up from hell.  You decide.  This is your dilemma.  Or as C.S. Lewis calls it, your trilemma—a three-horned test.  If he claims divine prerogatives, he's either a Liar, or a Lunatic, or the Lord. No exceptions.  The one thing he cannot be is just a nice guy, a good ethical teacher.  

You and I aren't God, but we don't claim it, so no big deal.  If God was here but didn't claim divinity, that'd be weird, but hey, God can play humble if He wants.  But that is manifestly not what happened in Galilee and Judea from 28-30 A.D.  A country carpenter got a big following and told everybody, "The Father and I are one.  He who has seen me, has seen the Father."  If you say that, and you aren't the Lord, the God of Hosts, Adonai, the Prime Mover, the Uncaused Cause, Yahweh Elohim....well, then you're a big fat liar.  And lying kind of disqualifies you from being an ethical sage.  Realize, too, that little lies make you disreputable, big lies make you a scoundrel, and great lies make you a blasphemer.  The greater the claim, the greater the crime.  Granted, Jesus could've just been crazy—hence the Lunatic option.  But I think we all feel that Jesus doesn't give off the persona of a lunatic, psycho, or narcissist.  And whether he did or didn't, we still shouldn't listen to what he says.  His would still be a horrible religion to join.  

"Liar, Lunatic, Lord" is huge.  It puts the challenge to modern man as Jesus himself did in his life.  He is the "sign of contradiction", the line of which you must be on one side or the other; you cannot straddle this fence.  If you're okay saying Jesus is a great fraud or evil genius or a blithering sociopath, then please, man-up and do so.  People for three hundred plus years have feared to be honest and do this, and that's why they want a "nice, normal Jesus" and an "evil, plotting Paul".  But Steps 1 and 2 eliminated that.  The claim is his, the claim is public, the claim is yours to wrestle.  I, for one, am done wrestling.  I made my choice, and it's more reasonable that the other two choices.  

Your move.


  1. I might suggest a fourth possibility to "Liar, Lunatic, or Lord"... what if Jesus was simply mistaken? What if he sincerely thought he was what people say he was? I would tend to subscribe to this theory.

    On a side note, I'm not sure it's at all reasonable to claim that since the gospels were written within living memory of Jesus, they must be correct. Another possibility seems to be that there were many many "gospels," each with slightly different variations on a theme. The ones that survived to today are simply the ones that people identified with most, not necessarily the most factual.

    Case in point, there are several important factual problems with the gospels - the birth of Jesus is terribly different across the four. Things like the Roman census are almost definitely (huge) fabrications (There was no Roman census in 4BC, and certainly no one would be required to travel to the place of his birth. That's simply absurd from a political/practical point of view). This is not to say that the gospels must be 100% false because they're not 100% factual. Simply that there is quite enough room to doubt their veracity.

    1. Wouldn't being "mistaken" into thinking that you're God in the flesh qualify you as a lunatic though? Take Jim Jones for example, he honestly believed and taught that he was the reincarnation of Buddha, Gandhi, Jesus, Lenin, and God. He then went on to commit mass suicide with over 900 of his followers. Most people would consider him a lunatic.

      So if Jesus claimed to be God incarnate, but was just simply mistaken, that would qualify him as a lunatic regardless of how sincere he was. However, as Father mentioned, Jesus is different. Something about Jesus's persona and reputation (by both Christians and non-Christians alike) negate the idea of a lunatic Jesus.