Friday, March 18, 2016

Perman Wrap-up

This is the final article in a series of four in reply to a Christian, Matthew Perman, on the alleged resurrection of Jesus Christ, from *The Skeptical Review*, 1997/Mar-Apr:

By Farrell Till 
The Jewish author Pinchas Lapide has become the darling of Christian apologists, because even though he himself is not a Christian, he has stated a quasi-belief in the historicity of the resurrection. For some reason, apologists cite this as if it were some kind of conclusive evidence that should end controversy over the foundation doctrine of Christianity, but I find it inconsistent, to say the least, that Christians would use an argument that they would instantly reject if anyone should present it as evidence for a position contrary to what they believe. If, for example, a Christian writer should state his belief that Muhammad was a genuine prophet of God, Christians would rightly see this as proving no more than that this particular Christian thinks that Muhammad was a real prophet. So if such argumentation proves nothing about truth in other religions, it cannot be used to prove anything about Christianity.

This is all that I really need to say about the "testimony" of Pinchas Lapide, but there are other facts about this writer that shed considerable light on possible reasons why he has stated publicly a reserved belief that the resurrection did happen. In his book, The Resurrection of Jesus (Translated by W. C. Linss, London, 1984, pp. 32-34), Lapide reveals an interest in promoting dialogue and unity between Christians and Jews, a goal that would hardly be promoted if he accused Christianity of having been founded on historical falsehood or self-delusion in the first Christians. This fact alone is sufficient to make us wonder if Lapide's position on the resurrection is a matter of sincerity or expedience. I find it hard to imagine that a non-Christian would investigate the Christian resurrection claim, decide that it is a true claim, yet not convert to Christianity. To say the least, this does not sound like a very firm belief in the resurrection.

I said earlier that Lapide's belief in the resurrection was only a quasi-belief, and this is evident from the many problems that he noted in the resurrection story. He noted, for example, that a resurrected savior is not unique to Christianity, because there were "deities, heroes, philosophers and rulers who, all long before Jesus, suffered died and rose again on the third day" (p. 40), and he noted that resurrection from the dead was a belief that was familiar to Jews as well as pagans (pp. 46ff). He pointed out that the only people who claimed that they had encountered Jesus were those who were already believers in him. He acknowledged that the New Testament is "the only source of the resurrection" and described the gospel accounts as narratives that contain "much legend" and "glaring inconsistencies" (p. 32). A more complete discussion of the problems that Lapide pointed out in the resurrection doctrine is in The Jesus Legend by G. A. Wells, pp. 56-63.

Extrabiblical testimony: The embarrassment of not having any nonbiblical contemporary records to corroborate the New Testament claims of amazing events that accompanied the death and resurrection of Jesus has forced apologists like Perman (who is actually only parroting the simplistic "arguments" of Josh McDowellian writers) have tried to manufacture contemporary testimony where none really exists. Perman said, for example, that I had "disputed [his] reference to the non-Christian Thallus" on the matter of the midday darkness while Jesus was on the cross. What Perman was alluding to here was a statement made by Julius Africanus, a 3rd-century Christian writer, whose work survives only in fragments. In one of the fragments, he made this brief comment: "In the third book of his history, Thallus calls this darkness an eclipse of the sun--wrongly in my opinion." On the basis of this truncated quotation, Christian apologists have argued that a non-Christian contemporary of Jesus testified to the midday darkness, but there are serious problems with their claim. (1) The surviving fragment in which Africanus made this statement has the first letter(s) of the name missing, so in actually, we know only that Africanus referred to someone named (X)allus. Whether this was a reference to a writer named Thallus is, therefore, merely conjecture. (2) Even if the name in this fragment was "Thallus," we can't really know who he was. (3) The actual writings of this "Thallus" have not survived; we have only the brief allusion that Africanus made to "Thallus's" reference to an eclipse, so it isn't possible to examine the statement in its original context.

Steven Carr, a subscriber to TSR's errancy list on the internet, has posted some excellent comments about early church writings. In a posting dated March, 30, 1996, he addressed these and other problems in the reference that Thallus allegedly made to the three-hour darkness at midday when Jesus was crucified: "I posted the full text of Africanus's citation of Thallus a while back. It is not very convincing. It is, as far as we can tell, Africanus, not Thallus, who identifies this eclipse with Jesus's crucifixion.... "What do we know about this Thallus? We have two possible additional references to him. One, Eusebius tells us that this Thallus wrote in Greek an account of world history from the fall of Troy down to the midfirst century--ca. 52. Thallus' work is generally believed to have been written in the period A. D. 50-100 [Murray Harris, JSOTGP5:344]. Eusebius wrote, `From the three books of Thallus in which he collects (material) from the fall of Troy to the 167th Olympiad)....'

"Two, Josephus possibly refers to a certain Thallus as a wealthy Samaritan freedman of Tiberius who had lent a million drachmas to the bankrupt Herod Agrippa (Antiquities, 18.167):
Now there was one Thallus, a freedman of Caesar's of whom he borrowed a million of dracmae, and thence repaid Antonia the debt he owed her; and by spending the surplus in paying his court to Caius, became a person of great authority with him
If these two are the same Thallus, then it would explain how he had both time to write a history and how he hadaccess to records (being a close associate of Tiberias) and how he had knowledge of events in Palestine (being a Samaritan). The identification of these two individuals is made by Emil Schuerer (HJP: 2.2.241).

"In Volume 3, Section 33a,10 (page 543-544), Schuerer writes as follows:
Thallus, according to Julius Africanus, mentioned a solar eclipse... so either Eusebius did not hand down correctly the number of Olympiads or Thallus' work must have been extended at a later date.... The reasons for believing Thallus to have been a Samaritan are two-fold. First, he wrote about the history of Syria. Second... if Thallus is correctly reported by Africanus as having written about the eclipse of A. D. 29, his work goes up to at least the time of Tiberius, and it may therefore be possible to identify him with a Samaritan Thallus, whom Josephus may (depending on the text) have mentioned.... However, Thallus in Josephus's text is only a conjecture from "x"allus in the manuscripts (x is not theta), and although the original name is difficult to understand in this context... it is possible. In that case the evidence for Thallus as a Samaritan historian would disappear.... In favour of identification with Josephus' Samaritan Thallus is the fact that the name occurs may times on Roman inscriptions.... The conjecture is certainly reasonable and should be accepted with caution.
It hardly seems convincing to me. After all there were lots of Thalluses, and the manuscript in Josephus does not say Thallus but only something close to Thallus. It is not clear to me at all that Thallus, whoever he was, was writing about Jesus."

Carr has pointed out some serious problems in the Christian attempts to find in Africanus's fragmented quotation an allusion to the midday darkness that was made by a writer contemporary to the time of the alleged event, but there is another problem that must also be considered. If Christian "apologists" are correct in their identification of this (X)allus, they would still not have their contemporary witness, because this Thallus's birth is estimated at about A. D. 50. At best, he could be considered only a near contemporary, and so if he did allude to the midday darkness in the disputed quotation, he could only have been reporting what he had heard but not what he had seen himself.

Perman complained that I did not "deal with the fact that in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a does record the crucifixion" (TSR, November/December 1996, p. 3), but Perman surely knows that the references to Jesus in the Babylonian Talmud have been dated no earlier than the 2nd century A. D., so these could not be considered contemporary references either but merely reactionary statements to the principal claims of Christianity. The same is true of Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny, and other early writers whom Christians often cite as "contemporary" witnesses to the historicity of Jesus, but none of them were contemporaries. They all were born after the alleged crucifixion of Jesus, so the few brief and disputed references that they made to him can only be considered allusions to what the Christians of their time were known to believe. Perman is going to have to keep looking for a non-Christian witness who was a contemporary of Jesus.

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