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 
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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