Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Conspiracy Theory as a Persuasive Device

The following is a comment by Farrell Till to "OSM", a 
Christian apologist--from the Yahoo errancyn discussion
group, May 3, 1999:

Another posting discussed the way that persuasive devices are used
by those who want extraordinary claims to be believed. A common
persuasive device is the "conspiracy theory," which is most commonly 
used to explain the absence of evidence that one could reasonably 
expect would exist if an extraordinary claim were really true. Probably 
the best contemporary example that I could cite would be the famous 
Roswell incident. UFO buffs claim that an alien spacecraft crashed at 
Roswell, NM, some 50 years ago. The simplest way to prove that this 
happened would be to produce the wreckage of the spacecraft and the 
bodies of the aliens who were aboard it, but no such evidence has ever 
been produced. UFO believers have an explanation for the absence of
this evidence: the U. S. government has classified all of the evidence 
and kept it from public viewing. In other words, the U. S. government 
has conspired to hide from the public that this incident actually
happened.

Christian apologists will sometimes resort to the conspiracy theory to
explain the absence of any disinterested contemporary references to
Jesus of Nazareth or extraordinary events that should have caused
secular records to make some mention of them. They argue, with
no evidence to support it, that the enemies of Christianity destroyed
all such records in order to contain the spread of Christianity. In other
words, the enemies of  Christianity conspired to destroy secular
records that referred to Jesus of Nazareth, and that is why no such
records exist. Some apologists have even used this theory to explain
why there are so many similarities in Christianity and pagan religions,
such as, the virgin birth of a savior-god and his resurrection from the
dead. They actually argue that Satan arranged for such beliefs as
these to develop in paganism prior to Christianity so that when the
real thing came along, people would reject it as just another tale
of a virgin-born, resurrected savior. In other words, Satan conspired
to arrange history so that the coming of the real savior would be
less credible.

In recent weeks, we have been seeing OSM's resort to a variation of
the conspiracy theory in the matter of the Roman guard that was allegedly
posted at the tomb of Jesus. The extraordinary claim of the gospel writers
that Jesus had actually risen from the dead certainly needed persuasive
devices to make it credible, and Matthew filled his crucifixion/resurrection
part of his gospel with such devices: (1) A Roman centurion seeing events
that happened at the time of Jesus's death allegedly said, "Truly this was
the son of God." This was the familiar device of corroborating testimony
from hostile sources. (2) An earthquake allegedly opened the tombs of
many saints, who rose from the dead and went into the city where they
appeared to many witnesses. This, of course, would be the device of
eyewitness testimony (which in this case turns out to be only
uncorroborated hearsay). (3) Witnesses allegedly saw the body being
wrapped in linen cloth and placed in a tomb. (4) A Roman guard was
allegedly put at the tomb as a precaution to keep the body of Jesus
from being stolen from the tomb. (5) Witnesses allegedly saw the tomb
opened and an angel telling them that Jesus had risen from the dead.
(6) The guards were allegedly bribed to say that the disciples of Jesus
had come and taken the body of Jesus out of the tomb while they slept.
At this point, Matthew turned to the device of accusing the enemies of
Jesus of conspiring to hide the truth from the general public.

There is no reason at all why #6 cannot be viewed as just a variation
of the conspiracy theory, which Matthew used for no other reason than
to give some semblance of credibility to an otherwise unbelievable tale.
In the resurrection narratives, the gospel writers were saying, without
actually spelling it out, "You see, these things did happen, because people
saw them," but in Matthew's case, he provided the added device of the
conspiracy theory. He was telling his readers, even the enemies of Jesus
know that these things happened, and to keep the public from knowing
that Jesus had risen from the dead, they conspired to hide the truth by
bribing the Roman guards to say that the disciples of Jesus stole the body
while the guards were sleeping. There is no more reason to believe that
the bribery of the guards actually happened or even that a guard was
placed at the tomb than there is to believe that a Roman centurion
actually said, "Truly this man was the son of God." or that an earthquake
opened the tombs of many saints who were resurrected and seen by
many people inside the city. OSM likes to talk about such and such
having "the ring of truth." Well, in my opinion, this tale about the Roman
guards and their bribery has the "ring" of just another persuasive device
that a writer used to try to give some semblance of credibility to an
unbelievable story.

OSM has said that if this tale about what the guards had said were not
true, then those who had lived at the time of the events would have said,
"Hey, I don't remember ever hearing anyone say anything about guards
who claimed that the body had been stolen," but I will be commenting on
this is another posting about attempts to prove the incredible on the
grounds of what would have or would not have happened if the claim
were not true.

Just one more comment is in order concerning the tale that Matthew
spun about the Roman guards. Besides the absurdity of thinking that
Roman guards would have sealed their fate by saying that they had gone
to sleep on duty, there is the matter of a serious flaw in what the guards
were allegedly bribed to say. The chief priests and elders said to the
guards, "Say that his disciples came by night and stole him away WHILE
WE SLEPT" (Matt.28:13). In concocting this persuasive device, Matthew
showed little respect for the intelligence of the general public, because
anyone with any ability at all to reason critically would wonder, "Well, if
the guards were asleep, how could they know what happened to the
body?" After seeing this flaw in the tale the guards were telling, what
would have kept people from thinking that since guards who were asleep
would not be able to know what had happened to a body that had
vanished, maybe Jesus, as his disciples were claiming, had indeed risen
from the dead while the guards, by their own admission, were asleep.
Hence, Matthew was actually saying that the guards had accepted a
bribe to say something that would probably have resulted in their death
but would not in any way have proven that Jesus did not rise from the
dead as his disciples were claiming. If OSM wants to see this as some
kind of wonderful evidence that the resurrection happened as claimed,
then all I can say is that there is no law against gullibility, but he shouldn't
assume that everyone else is as gullible as he is.

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