Monday, May 9, 2016

A Word to Christian Apologists



I have been interested in apologetics for quite a few years, dating back to my college years at Portland State University and Dr. John Whitehead’s Philosophy of Religion course. I look back with special fondness to Dr. Whitehead’s non-falsifiability argument and his “invisible unicorn” illustration. It spurred the beginning of my intellectual quest for truth and faith, though I'm sure that wasn't his intention. 

The intervening forty-eight years or so have been challenging. I have myself entertained serious doubt as I have read the ideas of atheists and anti-theists. I have purposefully sought out the challenges to Theism and Christianity. I have interacted with scientists on the subject of evolution and cosmology. And I have done personal research in both fields, trying to catch up in areas of study that my college studies in literature had not prepared me to understand.

During that time I also engaged in serious study of the Bible and history. I earned a graduate degree from a theological seminary where the grammatical-historical method of hermeneutics and exegesis was the centerpiece of biblical study and a knowledge of the original languages was expected. 

In the last few years I’ve read the books and the blogs of the new atheists and have watched as the New Atheism put on muscle as the New Anti-theistism. A current faculty member of my old alma mater Dr. Peter Boghossian, who seems poised to take up the mantle (pardon my biblical allusion) of my old professor of the 1960s, is a case in point. (I trust he will be as much as spur to faith to a new generation as Dr. Whitehead was for me.)  But there are many others.   

Recently, after playing on the fields and with the rules of the adversaries of Theism and Christianity for many years, it has occurred to me that, though Theism and Christianity have held their own, Christian apologists have too often misrepresented Christianity in the minds of their readers. 

The fact, and the point I repeatedly made to my students in Apologetics, is that no apologetic argument based on science or philosophy ever resulted in faith. Only a personal encounter with God convinces a non-believer of God or of his need for God. 

Yes, I know there are well known apologists who were formerly atheists and who speak of the reasoning that brought them to faith. Among them are people like C.S. Lewis and Josh McDowell.  And I have no doubt that reason and evidence brought down the barriers to personal faith, but no genuine Christian becomes such without the experience of being born again. 
 
That requires explanation. Being “born again” does not mean what it has recently become, a matter of a change of mind or the adoption of a new life changing conviction. (See Merriam-Webster) “Born again” is a supernatural God encounter initiated by the Holy Spirit and is irrefutable to anyone who has experienced it. It is a change on the level of spirit not merely on the level of the intellectual or emotional, though there will also be intellectual and emotional change that follows.   

For anyone familiar with the Bible and with the testimony of men and women from the beginning of human history, that is not a surprise. Everyone who has become a genuine follower of God, in other words a “believer,”  from Abraham in Genesis, to Paul in the New Testament, to the Muslim in Pakistan who had a vision of Jesus, and to me has  become a believer in God because they met him. 

That is the playing field on which we need to play the championship game. 

I know that our adversaries will complain. They will say evidence that is not independently verifiable is not admissible. (I recently had a serious young man who described himself as an agnostic say this very thing.) Only sound objective scientific evidence is valid. But that is true only when the debate is confined to the realm of science. However, Christianity is not proven true or false by science. We might expect that science and the scientific method will have something to say about claims that can be verified or disproven by science. But God is not one of those things. Christianity is not one of those things. 

So debating whether Jesus actually walked on water, as one anti-theist  blogger wished to do, is meaningless. It will never be accepted as a possibility by anyone who is not a believer in God. But for anyone who has actually met God it is a very viable possibility. It is something that could well have happened because God wrote the story that we live, including the “natural laws, and he can write it anyway he chooses. The laws of nature are subject to him, not he to the laws. 

That God could do this is not a debate point. It is our settled confidence based on our personal knowledge of God, and it cannot be explained to the skeptic any more than red can be explained to a blind man. 

So we can continue playing on the field chosen by the anti-theists. It is important that we do. It is good for us to know that the best efforts of our adversaries aren't decisive. But the final game must be played on our field, the field where a God encounter is the deciding play.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

The People You Think Wrote the Gospels Aren't



Most Internet pieces that argue against the historical position of the church on issues of faith are not well thought out. Most demonstrate a poor understanding of the claims they attempt to refute. Most demonstrate a superficial knowledge of the Bible. Most are not written by well qualified scholars. 

One exception is the blog written by Matthew Ferguson, a graduate student at the University of California. He does have the academic skills required of scholars. So when I came upon his blog Κέλσος, I was interested in his argument for non-traditional authorship. The article is “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Author of the Gospels"  See Ferguson's article here 

But. . .

Here are my reactions and responses to several of his arguments. 

Ferguson begins with his thesis: 

The mainstream scholarly view is that the Gospels are anonymous works, written in a different language than that of Jesus, in distant lands, after a substantial gap of time, by unknown persons, compiling, redacting, and inventing various traditions, in order to provide a narrative of Christianity’s central figure — Jesus Christ — to confirm the faith of their communities.
Maybe it is just a way to get the reader’s attention. But playing the “mainstream scholar” card is not a great way to win a debate. Ferguson would do well to speak from his own expertise rather than use the logical fallacy of appeal to authority.

However, when he does present his own insights, he fails to be persuasive. On the issue of attribution - that is, how the author is identified - he writes:

Here, we already have a problem with the traditional authors of the Gospels. The titles that come down in our manuscripts of the Gospels do not even explicitly claim Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John as their authors. Instead, the Gospels have an abnormal title convention, where they instead use the Greek preposition κατά, meaning “according to” or “handed down from,” followed by the traditional names. For example, the Gospel of Matthew is titled εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Μαθθαίον (“The Gospel according to Matthew”). This is problematic, from the beginning, in that the earliest title traditions already use a grammatical construction to distance themselves from an explicit claim to authorship.
To be fair, Ferguson admits this is much ado about nothing. The titles were appended to the gospels many years after the gospels were written and not by the authors themselves, but his last sentence is insightful. Those who added the titles were, in fact, distancing the author from a claim to authorship. The gospels were not the product of the authors, be they Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.  Jesus is the author of the gospel, and he is clearly identified in the texts. 

Accordingly, the preposition κατὰ is a better representation of the fact that the writers were only the mediate authors. The conventional way of attributing a piece of writing to an author using the genitive case (or more specifically the ablative case which expresses derivation or source) implies source. That is how, for example, it is used in Luke’s genealogy of Jesus when he wishes to express the relationship of a son to a father: Joseph tou (son of) Heli  in Luke 3:26. That was the convention, but the gospels are not conventional. The gospel writers were not the source of the gospel. 

A second problem with the traditional authors according to Ferguson is that they were incapable of writing in Greek or writing a piece as complex as the gospels. 

As we will see for the Gospels’ authors, we have little reason to suspect, at least in the case of Matthew and John, that their traditional authors would have even been able to write a complex narrative in Greek prose. . . .Only a few could read and write well, and even a smaller fraction could author complex prose works like the Gospels
The reality is that the quality of writing we encounter in the gospels varies. Mark is straightforward and unpolished. Luke demonstrates a good command of the language, a well developed literary style, and the perspective of an educated man. (But Luke is not really referred to in Ferguson’s argument.) The author of the Gospel of John, if the Apostle John was the author rather than an editor compiling John’s memories, demonstrates an ability in Greek that we would not expect of a simple Galilean fisherman. But the possibility that there was a compiler/scribe working with John remains. We are well acquainted today with memoirs  written by a ghost writer for the person whose name actually appears on the cover as author.  

Matthew, however, is different. Ferguson goes to lengths to characterize Matthew as an illiterate and social/religious outcast who we would expect incapable of the complex narrative of the Gospel or of the knowledge of the Hebrew Scripture evident throughout the the Gospel of Matthew. I would respectfully but strongly differ. 

 Matthew was a Levite. That is the strong implication of his name Levi, the name the other gospel writers give him and the name Clement of Alexandria uses of him. As a Levite he would have been well educated and capable of speaking and writing Hebrew and Aramaic. It would also have prepared him with both a good knowledge of the Hebrew Scripture and a knowledge of the rabbinical hermeneutic that is obvious in the gospel.  

Being a tax collector in the polylinguistic region of Galilee would have required knowledge of Greek. It was probably the predominate language of the region. Matthew would have at least known street Greek. But Matthew’s education would have included  more than street Greek; it was the language of the Septuagint which was the Bible used by many Jews, not all of whom spoke Hebrew. 

Ferguson was right, however, about the rhetoric of the Gospel of Matthew. It is complex and carefully organized. The argument that Jesus was the Messiah presented by Matthew is very well argued and supported by the evidence Matthew includes. It is uniquely targeted to the Jewish reader who lived in a very Jewish culture.  It is an extraordinary piece. But there is no reason Matthew/Levi the disciple would not have been capable of that level of writing. In fact, of all the people close to Jesus he is the only one with that capability.
Dr. Hector Avalos in his blog (http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2015/08/why-david-marshall-is-not-biblical.html ) critiquing the qualifications of anyone claiming to be a scholar states that "in general, a scholar is one who, at minimum has the equipment needed to verify independently the claims made in the relevant field."  Though Ferguson may have the academic qualifications, he is “indolent.” He accepts the “mainstream scholarly view [s]” without independently verifying them.
An example in point is this statement:
Once more, for the Gospel of Matthew, the internal evidence contradicts the traditional authorial attribution. The disciple Matthew was allegedly an eyewitness of Jesus. John Mark, on the other hand, who is the traditional author of the Gospel of Mark, was neither an eyewitness of Jesus nor a disciple, but merely a later attendant of Peter. And yet the author of Matthew copies from 80% of the verses in Mark
Ferguson is simply repeating what amounts to an urban myth in the academic world. It is true that Matthew and Mark share many pericopae in common. But it is an uncertain and debated idea that Matthew copied from Mark. A better solution to the shared material is that both drew upon an earlier source, which scholars have come to call Q.
I argue here that Q was likely the collection of the Apostles’ teaching and since Matthew was one of those Apostles, Q represents his own recollections of the sayings and works of Jesus. But that thesis is not unique to me. Why does Ferguson neglect to go deeply enough into his sources to uncover this possibility?
I end with this reaction to Ferguson’s statement that "the author of Matthew does not 'rely' on Mark rather than redact Mark to change important details from the earlier gospel." (What Ferguson means is that Matthew edited Mark.)
Matthew and Mark had different rhetorical purposes. They had different intended audiences. It would be reasonable for there to be differences in use of the source material. Clearly Matthew is writing for a Jewish reader. He did not have to explain Jewish customs or idioms as Mark who is writing for a Roman audience does. Matthew had a better knowledge of the Hebrew Scripture (and the Septuagint) than Mark, or even Peter, so he is able to be more precise than Mark in his use of the Scripture.
The evidence points, then, not to a rude copy or a redaction of Mark but to knowledgeable use of the source for the purpose of arguing that Jesus was the Messiah to a largely Jewish audience. Again Ferguson relies on urban myth. He does not engage the biblical material in a scholarly way.  And he cherry-picks his secondary sources to prove his thesis. He does not engage counter arguments from qualified scholars, but chooses to reference people who are not scholars but Christian apologists for whom he has personal disdain.  That is not acceptable scholarship.
So the bottom line is that Ferguson’s opinions are interesting but are far from persuasive.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Where's the Logic In It?



In America Atheism seems to be on the rise. A recent Pew poll found that about 3% of Americans describe themselves as Atheists.  Another 4% describe themselves as agnostic. Those would be folk who believe that there is no God or who believe it is not possible to know.  I would call them intellectually lazy because the logic is greatly on the side of there being a Mind behind the universe. 

               We’ve all heard the debates. If you poke around Internet sites like YouTube or read the comments following any semi-religious topic on news websites, you know that there are a lot of vocal opponents of religion or belief in God.  Most of the talk is simply mindless trash talk. Though occasionally someone puts forth a reasonable argument. But often the argumenters are simply debating the details. Few get to the core of the issue.

               The core of the issue is this: Either a Mind exists behind the universe or there is only mindless matter/energy. And that Mind or mindless matter/energy must be eternal. There does not seem to be any other alternative.  What is the logic? 

There has to be something that is eternal for there to be anything.

               Some years ago I was conversing on the topic of God and science with several guys on a New York Times website. I brought up the simple observation that nothing comes from nothing. That reminded them of Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, and they all had a big laugh.  But the observation is not funny. It has been around for a good long time, at least since Parmenides in the fifth century B.C.. And it is still valid.

               Some today argue differently, of course. What fun would we have if we all agreed? Physicist Lawrence Krauss, for instance, argued in a recent book that the universe might have come from quantum fluctuations in empty space. But as mathematical physicist Amir D. Axcel counters in his book Why Science does Not Disprove God, space is something. Space is not empty, and quantum fluctuations are energy waves. They are something. Anything that comes from quantum fluctuations comes from something.

               Others have been suggesting that this present  universe came from a prior universe and perhaps that universe from an even more distant prior universe. But anyone with any sense can see that only leads to an infinite regression of universes. And that still supports, if it were true,  the proposition that something, be it matter or energy, is eternal. 

               Or the Mind we call God is eternal. 

               I sometimes hear people say if God made the universe, where did God come from. Let's put that to rest. Something must be eternal for there to be anything.  Where did God come from is as unanswerable as where did matter/energy come from. 

               Those are the two choices.  

               Which is the more reasonable? 

               The Atheist must say that it is more reasonable that matter/energy is the ultimate reality. And logically we must admit that is a possibility. But is it reasonable given the evidence? 

               The universe we know is an amazingly complex interactive thing.  It operates on consistent principles we call laws. It is described by complex but entirely logical mathematics. It is predictable and understandable.  That is what makes science possible.

               Is it reasonable to conclude that this universe is the product of mindless matter and energy? Okay, that is still possible, but it does stretch the boundaries of the possible. How could such complexity be the natural product of what is essentially the most non-complex thing we know of? That would be the singularity where all energy and undifferentiated matter was concentrated in a single very small point?

               But there is more. The earth we live on is even more complex than the universe beyond.  

               Is it reasonable to conclude that the world we live on, with its complex and interactive systems and with the life that teems upon it, is the product of mindless matter and energy? 

              Regarding life, there have been many debates. Could life come from non-life when entropy rules the universe? And entropy moves from organization to chaos. Could the sun’s energy could drive the evolution of life and reverse the process of entropy? Maybe. But evolution is only a small component of the system that is our earth. We know now that not only is energy essential but the placement of our earth in the solar system, the placement of our solar system in the galaxy, as well as many dozens of other conditions must pertain before the energy of the sun could possibly have any influence on the product that is our world and all the living things upon it. Is it reasonable? That stretches the definition of possible to the breaking point. 

               There is still more. We ourselves are at the apex of complexity. The DNA in every cell of our bodies is the most complex thing in the universe, and yet it is readable by our science and understandable by our minds.  Is it possible that we, the earth on which we live, and the universe that contains it all are the product of mindless matter and energy? At this point logic leads us to the conclusion that such is fantastically impossible.  

               The evidence for a Mind behind the universe, on the other hand, is an irresistibly compelling and exceedingly simple answer.  Only a mind can put together such complexity.  It would be irrational to conclude otherwise.

               At this point someone always brings up Occam's Razor and complains that we are adding entities unnecessarily. I like that. It makes sense. But in this case the operational word is unnecessarily. An eternal, mindless matter/energy entity is not sufficient to explain the universe. But a Mind is sufficient, and we can stop right there. No other entity is required.

               The greater puzzle is that minds that can think logically would choose to believe in the irrational.  It would seem to make more sense to use the power of the mind to discover the nature of the Mind that must be behind it all. Perhaps theology really is the Queen of the Sciences after all. And Wisdom her sister.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Guards-at-the-Tomb Lie



Matthew records that on the day after Preparation Day, which was the day on which Jesus was crucified and buried, the chief priests and Pharisees went to Pilate to ask to be allowed to set a guard to secure the tomb and prevent the body of Jesus from being stolen by his disciples. It is the most puzzling story in the book of Matthew and the target of critics who say the whole story is a lie.

            Let’s see. 

            There is one part of the story on which that all parties agree: There was a report that the disciples had stolen the body, and that report had spread among the Jews and was current at the time Matthew wrote the Gospel.  If that had not been true Matthew’s Gospel would have been immediately discredited among Matthew’s Jewish readers. They would have known of any explanation of the resurrection put forth by the Jewish religious leaders.  And they would have known if there was no such explanation.  For Matthew to have  lied about that would make no sense. 

            But the factuality of other parts of the story is not so easily determined.  The first puzzle is that the priests and Pharisees knew about Jesus’ prophecy that he would rise in three days. The argument is that even the disciples did not understand Jesus to say that he would rise from the dead in three days. They certainly did not act like they did. They were not at the tomb on the third day awaiting the resurrection. Even the women who were there at the tomb were there to anoint the dead body.  They were not expecting a resurrection.  If the disciples did not understand Jesus would rise from the dead, how was it the Pharisees  knew about the prediction? 

            The answer is probably in the difference between believing that Jesus would rise from the dead and knowing that he had predicted his resurrection.  It seems clear from the gospel stories that the disciples did not fully come to grips with the idea that Jesus would die much less rise from the dead. He had told them, of course. That too is clear in the gospels, but knowing and believing are different things. 

            For that reason when Jesus was arrested and crucified the trauma for the disciples was incredible. Their world had come to an end. Their belief in Jesus as the Messiah was shattered. They ran and hid. 

            The priests and Pharisees, of course, did not believe Jesus was the Messiah. As far as they were concerned, he was a man and nothing more. They did not believe he would rise from the grave. The guards, even in this story,  were not at the tomb to prevent his resurrection; they were there to keep the disciples from taking his body and claiming he had risen. But did they know that he had made that prediction? It is possible.

            Jesus and his disciples were not isolated from the crowds. In fact, they were constantly surrounded by crowds of the curious. And the Pharisees and others of the religious leaders were among them. Both Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who had gone to Pilate to get permission to bury Jesus and who were secret disciples, were part of the council of elders. All these men talked. What Jesus had been saying was common knowledge among the priests and Pharisees.  In one interaction with the Pharisees Jesus had spoken to them about the final miraculous sign he would perform. It was the sign of Jonah, who had been swallowed by a fish and come back after three days when the fish spewed him out on the beach. The Pharisees were not totally clueless. They could easily have put that prediction together with other clues and rumors to figure out that it was a prediction of a resurrection.
            The priests, of course, did not believe Jesus would rise from the dead, but they were aware that he had spoken of rising. And they understood that if a rumor were to get started that he had risen from the dead, the end as they said would have been just as bad.  It is plausible that they would think it wise to take precautions.
            The second puzzle is that Pilate would get involved. The common story is that Pilate had nothing but contempt for these Jewish leaders. Why would he agree to their request?  The answer is that this simple description is not the entire truth.  In a recent book by historian Charles Freeman, A New History of Early Christianity, Freeman describes the relationship between Pilate and the Jews as strained. Pilate lived not in Jerusalem but in Caesarea miles away and isolated from the world of Jerusalem. He traveled to Jerusalem only occasionally, one of those visits was at the annual festival of Passover.  But his stay was brief.  He did not like the Jews. His only concern was to keep the Jerusalem scene peaceful during a time when it would have been packed with visitors there to celebrate Passover. When that was over he would return to Caesarea. 

            That is probably why Pilate was willing to  concede to the demand that Jesus be executed.   The Jews threatened to tell Caesar that Jesus was a rebel and aspired to be a king. That would have made executing Jesus imperative, despite Pilate’s resistance to anything the Jews wanted, despite Pilate’s own conviction that the charges were trumped up out of jealousy and had no substance. He could not afford for Caesar to hear that he had not acted summarily to any such threat to the peace of Judea.  It was also why Pilate just wanted this all to go away. The best way was to humor these crazy Jews – for the time being.  He would find opportunity in time to flex his muscle as the Roman governor as he had done before. But this was not the time. 
            It is plausible under those circumstances that Pilate would humor them one more time. It was crazy to put a guard on a tomb. But this whole place was crazy. 
            The third puzzle was how Matthew got the story – if he didn’t just make it up. How did he know that the priests and Pharisees had gone to Pilate to secure a guard for the tomb? How did he know about the report those guards brought back of the empty tomb? The answer was that Matthew himself had connections with the Jewish religious elite. He was a Levite and probably grew up among the people who were now part of the inner circle of the priests.
  
            But even if Matthew didn’t have a hotline to the inner circle, there were others. Many of the priests became followers of Jesus in the months after the resurrection. They would have known what the priests had done. And that does not even account for the loose lips of the soldiers.  Soldiers talk.

            A final puzzle is how the priests were able to bribe the guards into telling the story that they had fallen asleep and that the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus. If these were Roman soldiers, falling asleep on guard duty would have been a capital offense.  And allowing a rag tag bunch of disciples to steal the body without having stood their ground to the last man would have had similar consequences.  It seems unlikely that Roman soldiers would have agreed to the priests’ fabricated story.  But the actual story that they brought to the priests about a violent earthquake and an angel who had rolled away the stone while the guards had become so frightened that they fell prostrate on the ground would have been no easier to tell.  And it would be reasonable to expect that Roman soldiers would have to give a report to their superiors. No report that they could give, not to speak of the one the priests fabricated, would have satisfied a Roman superior. It would have meant serious trouble for them. In a similar story of a guard who failed in his duty – Paul’s imprisonment in Philippi – the guard was prepared to kill himself rather than face the consequences. 

            However, if these were temple guards from the priests, the situation would have been different.  They would not have had to report to a military superior; the priests were their superiors.  They would have had every reason to agree with the priests’ plan, money or no money. The money was simply added security.  They would have had little expectation that Pilate would learn of the affair. Even the reply of the priests phrased as it was in a second class conditional clause – “if it comes to the hearing of Pilate” -  suggests that it would be unlikely.  Pilate was not going to be in Jerusalem long.  Perhaps he had already gone back to Caesarea , and he had little interest in temple intrigue anyway. 

            And their story about the disciples stealing the body would not be questioned. It was the official story.  It was, of course, a patently implausible story.  The disciples had no motive for stealing the body.  The only possible motive for taking the body from the tomb was that some from Jesus’ family might have wanted to rebury Jesus’ body in a more appropriate tomb, though where that might have been is a question. They were many miles from their homes in Galilee. Burying Jesus there would have been impossible.  But that they would have been able to retrieve Jesus’ body with guards present in any event is not plausible.  

            Not only is it implausible that they would have retrieved the body, but it is even more implausible that they would have then ended up as central figures in the early Jerusalem church which was founded wholly upon the belief that Jesus rose from the dead. And that is what happened.

            There is one remaining puzzle. Why did the priests have to get Pilate’s permission to set a guard?  Could they not have simply put some of their men around the tomb? They sent the temple guard to arrest Jesus without any permission from Pilate.  The answer is likely that once Pilate and Rome got involved, the whole affair became a Roman issue.  They owned it.   Joseph had to get Pilate’s permission to bury Jesus. 

            What priests got, however, was not a Roman guard but Pilate’s agreement that they set a guard.  Literally, Pilate said, “You have custodians (guards). Go and make it as secure as you can.” The guard was not a Roman guard.

            The bottom line is that the story as it is found in the Gospel of Matthew is more plausibly true than any alternative explanation.