Monday, December 22, 2014

Under Attack

Christians and their faith are under attack. If there were any question of that a quick google search for persecuted Christians will provide more than enough evidence. But that is not new? That has been going on for 2000 years. What is new in the last 50 years is the attack on Christians in America.

No, Christians are not being crucified or beheaded as they are in the Middle East. But they are under attack, and the attack is becoming increasingly sophisticated. An example is a Washington Post opinion piece published on December 18. The article written by Raphael Lataster is entitled "Did the historical Jesus really exist? The evidence just doesn't add up."

Mr. Lataster is a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney. His bio lists Bayesian reasoning as one of his interests, and that is where the sophistication (or false sophistication) comes in. Lataster along with many of the other antagonists of Christianity have attempted to raise the bar for knowing so high that no one, including themselves, are able to say with any certainty that they know anything, and if it cannot be known, then it cannot be real or true or reliable. That is why I like what one good old fashioned American said: "common sense is very uncommon."  It certainly is becoming uncommon in academic circles.

Epistemology.That is the branch of philosophy that has to do with knowledge: What is knowledge, and how much can we know? (See Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy) Increasingly people whom you would otherwise think were trained to know have assumed a skeptical position on just about everything. My professor for a course I took this summer over the Internet from Emory University is a case in point. The course title was The Bible's Prehistory, History, and Political Future.

Dr. Wright basically was floating his theory about the Bible's origins and purpose. There was so little hard evidence and so many baseless assumptions in the course that it should have been labeled an opinion piece rather than a history course. And that is my point. That is what history in the universities and in the books written by "historians"  has become.

So we come to the question of Jesus. Lataster's strategy is to quote the most extreme skeptics as if they were mainstream and the mainstream scholars as if they were marginal. He emphasizes what we cannot know rather than what we can know. So it is not surprising that he ends up with the conclusion:
"Were they [the gospels] intended to be accurate historical portrayals, enlightening allegories, or entertaining fictions? Ehrman and Casey [mainstream scholars] can’t tell you – and neither can any New Testament scholar. Given the poor state of the existing sources, and the atrocious methods used by mainstream Biblical historians, the matter will likely never be resolved. In sum, there are clearly good reasons to doubt Jesus’ historical existence – if not to think it outright improbable."

So, we can't know what the gospels are, but we can say what they are not. They are not historical. What?! Mr. Lataster, you can be skeptical about everything else, why not your own conclusion? Well, to be precisely accurate, you do qualify that with "improbable."

This was all published in the Washington Post, understand. That gives it credibility for those who read uncritically. But a closer look reveals a lack of scholarship and a uncritical dependence on one author, whom Lataster describes as an "independent historian," Dr. Richard Carrier.  Yes. I know. The Washington Post is not a professional journal and cannot be expected to maintain the same standards. But why Carrier?

Carrier's theories regarding almost everything historical are regarded by almost all actual historians as garbage. His application of Bayesian reasoning to history is one good example. No bona fide historian uses Bayesian reasoning to analyze history. Yet this marginal and biased author is Lataster's one source. Stop. I don't even let freshmen in my high school English courses get away with that.

Still the Washington Post published the piece. Why? Because it sells papers? That would have been my guess a few years ago. But then there were an equal number of articles written from the other point of view. Not so today. So my guess is because it feeds into the growing antagonism toward Christians and their faith. And of more concern, it builds support for such antagonism.

My hope is that Americans somehow are able to apply common sense to the question and are not swayed by the impressive credentials of those who admit they can't really know anything. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Scriptures

Every year as I get to the history of Christianity in the first and second century in class  I run onto those who object to the books that are the New Testament. They point out that there were other books written, other gospels. And they ask why were these not included. I find that an interesting but easily answered question.

Yes. There were other books and other gospels. Early historians of the church such as Irenaeus and Eusebius  both remark about them and quote from them at times. But both are clear that the books which we have now and have had for 1700 years in the canon of the New Testament are the books chosen almost from the beginning, certainly from the second century.

So, what of the others?  Did Constantine choose the books of the New Testament selecting those that would agree with the theology affirmed in the Council of Nicaea, the theology that declares that Jesus is equal in essence in every way to God the Father?  Did he have the others destroyed? Those are the rumors drifting around the Internet. The answer is no.

The churches collected and sifted through the writing of the first and second centuries. And they agreed in time - certainly by the end of the second century - on the writings that were genuine and inspired.

It was not hard to do. You can read many of these "other" writings for yourself. Early Christian Writings  has them nicely collected, at least those for which there are copies or fragments left. I've done that. I've even had high school students do that. And even they can tell the difference.

The most obvious difference is that the writings, especially the gospels, in the New Testament have a sober, realistic tone. Yes, some of the things reported are incredible, walking on water, for example. Yet they are reported as actual events. They are not fantasy. They are not myth. Even high school students can see the difference when they are placed side by side with any myth.

 They are also clear. There is no "secret messages" only the initiated can understand. Yes. Jesus used parables, but those are different from the secret knowledge spoken of in the Gospel of James or the Gospel of Thomas. Parables are stories intended to teach simple truths. The secret knowledge of the other writings is intended to separate the so called spiritually wise from the ignorant. That is never Jesus' objective in the canonical gospels.

So when I  get to the place in history where the modern scholars find some kind of conspiracy afoot, I find myself smiling -wryly.  It is true what Jesus said about revealing these things to children and hiding them from the self-proclaimed wise and learned.