Sunday, March 13, 2016

Standing On Quicksand

This article is a follow-up to "Put Me Down For Myth"(3-12-16), which should be read first. From *The Skeptical Review*, 1996/Nov-Dec:

by Farrell Till 
I welcome Matt Perman's second attempt to prove the historicity of the resurrection. He is to be commended for having the courage to defend his belief in a forum like this. He is not to be commended, however, for the quality of his arguments. Most of them are as transparent as cellophane, and, like many fundamentalists, his primary defenses of the resurrection are based on (1) unsupported assertions, (2) the fallacy of the appeal to authority, and (3) an unwarranted assumption that the New Testament documents are historically accurate. His unsupported assertions are so many that I will not be able to respond to all of them in a single article, so I will publish a series of two, possibly three, responses, after which Perman may respond to them if he wishes. 

There are some general observations that need to be made about Perman's latest article before I address his "arguments" specifically. First, there is the very nature of the resurrection claim that makes it untenable, and Perman and his apologetic cohorts seem completely unable to grasp the significance of this point. There is a widely accepted rule of evidence that says extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In my debate on the resurrection with Michael Horner, he tried to impose the meaning of "miraculous" on the word extraordinary to make it appear I was arguing that it would take a miracle to prove a miracle, but this is only a straw man set up to give the appearance of responding to an argument that is very damaging to the resurrection claim. The frequent application of the word extraordinary to situations that are explainable by natural laws shows that the word extraordinary is not commonly considered just a synonym for miraculous. In reality, the word extraordinary simply means "beyond the ordinary," and events that are "beyond the ordinary," without being miraculous, certainly happen. As I write this, the Olympic games are in progress, and those who have been watching them have seen many athletic achievements that can properly be called "beyond the ordinary" or extraordinary. Each time an Olympic contestant breaks a world record, this can be properly called an extraordinary feat, because breaking world records doesn't happen routinely. One swimmer, for example, broke the world record in the preliminaries and then turned around and broke that record in the final event. Who could argue that this was not an extraordinary feat, i.e., an event that was beyond the ordinary?

If, however, resurrection apologists want to quibble, we can think of "extraordinary evidence" as simply being unusually good or unimpeachable evidence. Hence, I will argue that exceptional or extraordinary claims require unusually good evidence that is so convincing it cannot be rationally impeached. I would assume that even Perman is willing to admit that a resurrection from the dead would be an event that is well "beyond the ordinary"; otherwise, we could expect resurrections from the dead to occur at least a few times in the life of the average individual, just as the average person can expect world records in athletic events to be broken at least a few times during his/her life span. Hence, Perman certainly should not object if I say that before rational people will accept the claim that a man rose from the dead, they will demand "unusually good" evidence that cannot be impeached. As we will see, the claim that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead doesn't even come close to being supported by unimpeachable evidence.

Eyewitness Testimony. Perman has tried to prove the resurrection by claiming eyewitness testimony, but in my first rebuttal article, I showed that a scholarly consensus rejects the notion that the gospels were written by actual eyewitnesses of the events recorded. I further showed that even if we accept that the apostles Matthew and John wrote the gospels traditionally attributed to them, this still would not make people like the women who went to the tomb or the disciples on the road to Emmaus or Simon Peter eyewitness testifiers to the resurrection, because none of them left any firsthand testimony that they had seen Jesus alive after his crucifixion. The gospel writers merely said that these people said they had seen Jesus alive after his burial. So even on the assumption that the apostles Matthew and John wrote the gospels attributed to them, this would reduce the sum total of eyewitness testimony in all four of the gospels to just two people. That is hardly unimpeachable evidence for a claim as extraordinary as a resurrection. Far more people now living have claimed that they personally saw Elvis Presley after his reported death, yet no rational person gives any serious credence to such reports. Such testimony is impeachable by the very nature of what is being claimed.

To illustrate what constitutes unimpeachable evidence, let's look again at the Olympic swimmer who broke a world record in the preliminaries and then broke that record in the finals. There is unimpeachable evidence to establish that this extraordinary event happened, because it was not just witnessed on TV by millions of people around the world but was recorded by the best electronic equipment available, which was in turn verified by other back-up systems. Let's suppose, however, that this remarkable feat had happened under different circumstances. Suppose that the swimmer had done this in another place where the only witness was a person who had timed her with a hand-held stopwatch. Who then would be willing to accept her feat as a new world record? The question is rhetorical, because any sensible person would know that the probability for error or outright false testimony would be too high to be accepted as fact. Well, let's suppose that 15 or 20 or even more people should come forward and claim that they too had witnessed the event. That wouldn't make the claim any more credible, because rational people would realize that it is more likely that people poorly equipped to judge would be mistaken than that an exceptional feat like this could happen twice in the space of just two days.

Now let's make the feat really remarkable. Let's suppose that someone should claim that she had swum 800 meters in only 15 seconds. Who would believe her? Well, what if someone claimed that 500 people had witnessed her alleged accomplishment? Would that make it more believable? Not to rational people, because rational people would realize that it is far more likely that the claim of 500 witnesses was a lie or an honest mistake than that such an extraordinary feat had actually been accomplished. Even if the 500 people should come forward and swear under oath that they had witnessed the feat, rational people still would not believe it, because rational people would still understand that it is far more likely that 500 people would all lie or could be honestly mistaken than that a person could actually swim 800 meters in only 15 seconds.

Even if resurrection apologists could prove beyond reasonable doubt that they had personal firsthand testimony from Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, Salome, Joanna, Simon Peter, and the other apostles that they had seen Jesus alive after his burial, that still would not constitute unimpeachable evidence that Jesus literally died and rose from the dead, because there would be too many natural explanations for their testimony: (1) they all lied in order to further the cause of their Christ beliefs, (2) the cognitive dissonance they were struggling with in their extreme grief caused them to rationalize or imagine that they had seen Jesus alive again, or (3) they were mistaken in thinking that Jesus had actually died. Any of these would be a more likely explanation for firsthand testimony to a resurrection from the dead than the assumption that a resurrection had actually happened.

The historical reliability of the New Testament Documents. I have argued, and still do, that basically all of the so-called evidence for the resurrection so highly touted by Perman and his fundamentalist cohorts assumes the historical accuracy of the New Testament documents. He objects to this and says, "I am emphatically not arguing from the premise that the New Testament documents are reliable in everything," but this is only a smoke screen intended to make him appear to be the very epitome of scholarly objectivity. Perman is a biblical inerrantist, but he wants to leave the impression that this irrational position has in no way influenced the formation of his belief that a man was once restored to life after lying dead for about two days. To his credit, he did at one point admit, as a parenthetical aside, that he does believe the New Testament is "always trustworthy." So let's lay this fact out on the table and keep in mind while we are discussing this issue that Perman really believes that Jesus rose from the dead for no reasons except that the New Testament says that he did. If the New Testament had said that Jesus urinated watermelon juice, Perman would believe it. Nothing could be so outrageously absurd that Perman would not believe it if the New Testament had said it. This is the kind of mentality that I am presently trying to reason with.

Perman, of course, will not appreciate my characterizing him as a slavish advocate of whatever the New Testament says, because he wants us to believe that his faith in the resurrection of Jesus has been based on reliable history rather than mere gullibility, but let's look at some of Perman's "reliable historical claims" and just let the facts speak for themselves.

The empty tomb. Perman said that he had "appeal[ed] to Matthew 28:11-15 to show that the earliest Jewish propaganda admits the empty tomb," but apparently he can't understand that appealing to the New Testament is not an appeal to Jewish propaganda but to Christian propaganda. All that any appeal to the New Testament accomplishes is to show what early Christians believed, not what non-Christian Jews believed. Perman expects us to believe that this passage proves that contemporary Jewish leaders knew that Jesus had risen from the dead but circulated a rumor that the body had been stolen in order to curtail the growth of the Jesus movement, but in my first response to Perman, I pointed out that an interpretation of Matthew 28:11-15 can lay no claim to objective analysis unless it considers the distinct possibility that this passage was written into the text as a means of countering a legitimate claim that was circulating at that time. In other words, if the death of a man named Jesus actually did occur, it is entirely possible that the body had been stolen, and Jewish leaders knew this had happened and were so informing their people. If such were the case, then it is easy to see what Matthew's purpose was in this passage. He wanted to give his readers an explanation for why the rumor had been circulated, so he concocted an unlikely scenario that had the Roman guards reporting to the chief priests and then accepting a bribe to say that while they had been asleep on duty, the disciples had come and stolen the body.

In accepting this tale as historical fact, Perman shows an incredible lack of critical ability. How likely would it have been that Roman guards would have reported to a group of Jewish officials rather than to their own officers? How likely is it that these Roman guards would have claimed that they had fallen asleep on duty, an offense that could have brought them severe penalties? How likely is it that Jewish priests could have persuaded the Roman governor to rid the guards of blame, as they promised the guards they would do if charges were brought against them (v:14)? This whole scenario is so unlikely that John Wenham took the position in Easter Enigma that its very absurdity must mean that it is true. This is the way that Christian apologists have to reason to find support for their resurrection belief. They have to assume that the New Testament documents are historically reliable no matter how absurd their claims may be. So what Perman is actually arguing on this point is that he knows that Jewish propaganda admitted there was an empty tomb, because the New Testament says that this is so. If that is not assuming the historical reliability of the New Testament documents, I would like for Perman to explain to us why it isn't.

Perman argues that "serious scholars (whether Christian or not) across a broad spectrum of beliefs" accept the six points (one of which was the empty tomb) that he presented in support of the resurrection doctrine. Is he right about this? Do some "serious scholars" accept the empty tomb as historical fact? Of course, they do, but what Perman conveniently left unmentioned is that probably even more "serious scholars" reject the empty-tomb claim as well as the resurrection story in general. No matter how many "serious scholars" Perman may produce who believe in the historicity of the empty tomb, one stubborn fact remains: no Jewish records, no Roman records, no contemporary records of any kind mentioned an empty tomb in Jerusalem at the time Jesus was alleged crucified and buried. The only records that mention an empty tomb are the New Testament and apocryphal gospels, which were all written well after the fact, when Christianity was becoming an established religion, so if no other records of the time mention an empty tomb in Jerusalem, how could anyone believe that such a tomb did exist except by assuming that the New Testament documents are historically reliable? Even if Perman should produce a million "serious scholars" who agree with him on this point, it would have to be true that they formed their opinion the same way Perman did. They assumed the historical reliability of the New Testament documents. If there are no contemporary secular references to Jesus, then there are no contemporary secular references to the alleged empty tomb. So how else could anyone believe that there was an empty tomb in Jerusalem at this time except by assuming that the New Testament documents are accurate in their claim that there was an empty tomb? This is so obvious that I can't believe Perman is even disputing it, so what he needs to do is produce some "serious scholars" who accept the historicity of the empty tomb on grounds other than that this is what the New Testament documents claim. We have every reason to believe that if Perman could produce evidence that corroborates the New Testament on this point, he would have done so long ago.

The Benefit of the Doubt. As a reason why the New Testament documents should be considered historically reliable, Perman cited Aristotle's dictum that "the benefit of the doubt should be delegated to the document itself, not arrogated by the critic to himself." I have heard this dictum before, but I have never seen it quoted in its full context. Exactly what was Aristotle saying? I would like to know if he was contending that this principle should be followed no matter what the document says or if he was only stating it as a principle that should be followed in evaluating claims of ordinary, everyday events that one's common sense says could very well have happened. If the latter, then why is Perman quoting it in support of documents that, among many other fabulous claims, reported that a dead man returned to life? If the former, then I beg to differ with Aristotle, who, after all, was just another fallible human being, so in that case, I see no reason to evaluate historical information by a standard that would require me at times to surrender my common sense, even if Aristotle thought otherwise.

Perman asked, "What right does Till have to operate from the extreme assumption that the New Testament is fundamentally unreliable?" Extreme assumption? What right does Perman have to label a conclusion arrived at by recognized methods of historical analysis as an "extreme assumption"? When I read in the Book of Mormon all sorts of fantastic claims, such as voices speaking from heaven, the postresurrection appearances of Jesus in the Land of Bountiful, multitudes of sick Nephites being healed by Jesus, etc., am I making an "extreme assumption" of fundamental unreliability when I doubt that such events actually happened? Should I follow Aristotle's dictum and give the benefit of the doubt to the Mormon documents rather than arrogating it to myself? This is a question that Perman and other Christian apologists who are so enamored with the "historical reliability" of the New Testament need to answer. If we assume that the outrageous claims of the New Testament deserve the "benefit of the doubt," just where does this process of according the benefit of the doubt end?

As just noted, the Book of Mormon makes many fantastic claims that rational people simply cannot accept as historical facts, yet in my opinion the evidence for the reliability of the Book of Mormon is much better than any evidence that Perman can cite in support of the New Testament. The Book of Mormon is prefaced with the firsthand testimony of Joseph Smith and the three and the eight witnesses, who tell what they claimed to have seen, experienced, and personally witnessed when the golden plates on which the book was allegedly inscribed were revealed to and translated by Smith. The following affidavit, with emphasis added, was sworn to by the three witnesses:
Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That we, through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, have seen the plates which contain this record, which is a record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites, their brethren, and also of the people of Jared, who came from the tower of which has been spoken. And we also know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true. And we also testify that we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates; and they have been shown unto us by the power of God, and not of man. And we declare with words of soberness, that an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon; and we know that it is by the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, that we beheldand bear record that these things are true. And it is marvelous in our eyes. Nevertheless, the voice of the Lord commanded us that we should bear record of it; wherefore, to be obedient unto the commandments of God, we bear testimony of these things. And we know that if we are faithful in Christ, we shall rid our garments of the blood of all men, and be found spotless before the judgment-seat of Christ, and shall dwell with him eternally in the heavens. And the honor be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen (emphasis added).
This document was signed by the three witnesses: Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris. In addition to their firsthand testimony, the Mormons also have the testimony of the eight witnesses:
Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That Joseph Smith, Jun., the translator of this work, has shown unto us the plates of which hath been spoken, which have the appearance of gold, and as many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated we did handle with our hands; and we also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship. And this we bear record with words of soberness, that the said Smith has shown unto us, for we have seen and hefted, and know of a surety that the said Smith has got the plates of which we have spoken. And we give our names unto the world, to witness unto the world that which we have seen. And we lie not, God bearing witness of it (emphasis added).
This document was signed by the eight witnesses: Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer, Jun., John Whitmer, Hiram Page, Joseph Smith, Sen., Hyrum Smith, and Samuel H. Smith.

Christian apologists would be deliriously happy if they had even a tenth as much evidence to support the New Testament resurrection accounts. They talk about eyewitness testimony, which isn't eyewitness testimony at all but only second- and thirdhand accounts of alleged postresurrection appearances, but the Mormons do have the firsthand testimony of eleven witnesses who swore that they actually saw and handled the golden plates, and three of those witnesses swore that the angel laid the plates down right before their eyes. The closest thing to firsthand testimony to the resurrection that Christians can produce is the apostle Paul's imprecise claim that Jesus had appeared to him (1 Cor. 15:8), and according to Luke's secondhand account of this appearance, Paul called it a "heavenly vision" (Acts 26:19). That's pretty weak evidence compared to the sworn detailed testimony of the Mormon eyewitnesses.

Perman, of course, rejects in toto these Mormon claims. Although I have not discussed with him his reasons for this rejection, I am sure if he were asked why he doesn't believe the testimony of the Mormon witnesses, he would say such things as (1) the claim is too unlikely to believe without better evidence, (2) the eyewitnesses were biased followers of Joseph Smith, (3) the surnames indicate that most of the witnesses were related and therefore likely to have had self-serving family interests, (4) the Book of Mormon itself is too flawed by inconsistencies and discrepancies to believe that it is divine in its origin, etc. In other words, Perman undoubtedly rejects the Mormon claims for reasons that he arrived at by rational methods of critical analysis. Yet he denounces skeptics who by parallel reasoning reject the fantastic claims of the New Testament. There seems to be more than just a slight inconsistency in Perman's methods of evaluating historical claims.

Furthermore, the same basic "arguments" that Christian apologists use in defense of the resurrection can be applied with equal legitimacy to prove the divine origin of Mormonism. The origin of Christianity requires an explanation, apologists say, so that is a good reason to believe that the resurrection was a crucial activating circumstance in the Christian movement. Mormons, however, can adapt this same "argument" to their religion. The Book of Mormon requires an explanation, so that is a good reason to believe that it was revealed in the manner sworn to by Joseph Smith and the three and eight witnesses. The early disciples died for their claim that Jesus had risen, Christian apologists say, and they surely would not have died for what they knew was a lie. But Mormons also suffered persecution. I live in Western Illinois where Mormons fleeing persecution in the East once tried to establish a settlement. Only about 65 miles from my home, Joseph Smith was lynched at the Carthage, Illinois, jail, which is now a Mormon shrine, and eventually Mormons were driven by persecutions farther west from their settlement at Nauvoo, Illinois. So if the Christian argument based on persecution proves the truth of the resurrection, why wouldn't the same argument prove the truth of Mormonism? Would Mormons have suffered and, in some cases, died for what they knew was a lie?

Virtually all "critical non-Christian scholars" accept Perman's "six points."Undoubtedly, Perman considers a "critical non-Christian scholar" to be a non-Christian who accepts his six points, and any who don't just aren't "critical scholars," no matter how impressive their academic credentials may be. It is telling to note, however, that Perman, aside from dropping a name or two, didn't bother to list these "critical non-Christian scholars" who agree with his position. Are there really non-Christian scholars who agree with at least some of Perman's points? Of course, there are, but Perman is a gullible victim of apologetic propaganda if he really believes that "virtually all" non-Christian scholars agree with him. Common sense should tell him that if virtually all non-Christian scholars agree with his position, then they would be Christian rather than non-Christian scholars. The truth is that not even virtually allChristian scholars are in agreement with Perman's basic points. The Jesus Seminar, whose opinions Perman will certainly ridicule, consists of seminary professors and other biblical scholars, who as a group even reject the resurrection claim itself.

I have no desire to get into a shooting match with Perman in which he fires the name of a scholar who agrees with him, and in response I fire back the name of a scholar who agrees with me. Such an approach would be a resort to the fallacy of the appeal to authority, and would prove exactly nothing. No matter what religious opinion one may have, he can always find books that agree with him, so I will insist that we discuss the merits of our respective arguments without appealing to what alleged "scholars" may believe.

My position is that belief in the resurrection is irrational for reasons that I have noted in my responses to Perman, so if he intends to continue this discussion, I urge him to confront those arguments and explain to us why they are unreasonable. In particular, I wish Perman would address the very nature of the resurrection claim and explain to us in logical terms why rational people should give any more credence to the resurrection claim than they would give to any other fabulous claim, because this is really the crux of the matter. Rational people, even Christian apologists themselves, routinely reject miraculous claims, but Perman just can't seem to understand that Christian claims of the fantastic and supernatural warrant no more serious consideration than other such claims. A slogan of the Democrats in the 1992 presidential election was, "It's the economy, stupid," so in the matter of the resurrection claim, I think it is appropriate for skeptics to keep reminding Christians of the primary reason why so many rational thinkers just can't believe in their resurrected savior-god. It is the very nature of the claim, stupid, that makes it so unbelievable. Will some Christian apologist please try to deal with that problem?

In the next issue, I will respond to Perman's specific counterarguments, especially those he presented in denial of the spiritual resurrection that I believe the apostle Paul argued for in 1 Corinthians 15. After that, Perman may respond to my articles if he wants to.

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