Wednesday, 16 November 2011

God Is A Myth - Part 4: Jesus

4. Myth provides the best explanation for the historical facts concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. First, a qualification. I'm not advocating the Jesus myth hypothesis; I don't particularly care about what historical truth lies at the core of the biblical account. Myth, in this context, should be taken to mean a fiction as we would the claim that Uri Geller bends spoons with psychic powers or that homoeopathic remedies heal through the memory of water.

Uri Geller was able to convince many people he had psychic powers, demonstrating his "powers" to audiences around the world. There are people who swear that mediums like John Edward have contacted their deceased relatives. People have not only claimed to witness alien aircraft, but have claimed to be abducted as well. Many people have claimed to have seen or felt the presence of ghosts. Eyewitness accounts of cryptids such as bigfoot or chupacabra abound. All kinds of alternative "therapies" have been dubbed miracle cures with no shortage of people willing to testify on behalf of a "treatment". And so on.

All these are extraordinary claims. Not extraordinary in the sense that the claims are infrequent, but extraordinary in the sense that they violate how we've come to understand the world works. A claim that someone gives a lecture at a given time might be a unique event, but if they're said to have given two lectures simultaneously in two cities halfway around the world, we have good reason to think that there's something wrong with the account. People just aren't in two places at once.

This is not to say we can rule it out a priori. Perhaps the lecturer has found a means to travel through time and can be in two places at once, or that the lecturer has cloned herself and each clone gave a simultaneous lecture. But those cases have to go up against what we know about how the world works. That people can be mistaken, that people can make up things, that people cannot be in two places at the same time. So if we were to accept an account of that lecturer being in two places at once, we would need very compelling data to be able to overcome the implausibility of such an event.

Carl Sagan, channelling David Hume, remarked that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. An eyewitness account of a bigfoot sighting differs to an eyewitness account of a bear sighting because we know bears to exist. Even if bear sightings are unusual, we have reasons outside of the testimony to suspect that a sighting did happen. If it were a sighting of a creature thought to be extinct, such as the thylacine, we'd have reason to be sceptical such a sighting. Anecdotal reports might give reason to search an area, but are by no means enough to establish the existence of something thought gone from the earth.

With all that in mind, it's time to turn to the accounts of Jesus. Considering the extraordinary accounts of the gospels, there's very little written about Jesus outside them. For someone who was meant to be God on earth, and performed miraculous events, no pagan writer in the first century even mentioned Jesus.

Take one account from the Gospel of Matthew: "And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God." (Mt 27:51-54)

It's a curious account to have included in a historical attempt. Yes, earthquakes do happen, but there are no accounts of an earthquake at this time. The dead coming back to life, however, is unheard of and contradicts everything we know about biology. This is good reason to think that the account is fiction.

But what of the gospel accounts? We're left without almost all relevant knowledge as to their reliability of testimony. Who were the original authors? What were their sources? How many mouths had the accounts of Jesus gone through? What were the motivations of the individuals involved in the eventual outcome? What was lost in translation? Were multiple accounts conflated? We simply do not have much evidence to go on at all other than the accounts claiming the miraculous.

We have people who lie to promote faith. We have people who use faith for political purposes. We have people seeing God's hand in a piece of burnt toast! And that's on top of all we know about human nature, including that people are prone to confirmation bias, embellishment, conflating accounts, misremembering, trusting anecdotes, etc. How are we meant to trust the gospel narratives in light of all we know about human nature, and the near complete absence of any data to assess such claims?

One approach to get around this problem, and the one taken by William Lane Craig, is to take the resurrection as the best explanation of the facts as they stand. It might be implausible, but it's the only explanation that can give a satisfactory account of the facts as it stands. At best, the lack of a satisfactory naturalistic account just means we don't know. But given the lack of knowledge of the situation (like any historical account), we can't hold the facts with absolute confidence. Not being able to come up with a naturalistic account of how Moses and the Egyptian sages could turn staves into snakes doesn't mean that staves were really turned into snakes.

The biggest problem with any discussion on the historical Jesus is that people have theological reasons for believing in the resurrection. William Lane Craig put it in his debate with Bart Ehrman: "[E]ver since my conversion, I believed in the resurrection of Jesus on the basis of my personal experience, and I still think this experiential approach to the resurrection is a perfectly valid way to knowing that Christ has risen. It’s the way that most Christians today know that Jesus is risen and alive." How objective can one be when acceptance of a claimed historical event is external to that event? Furthermore, when the historical claim of the resurrection is at the centrality of the Christian doctrine: "if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain;" (1 Cor.15:17), how can we expect an impartial look at the historical question?

As Bart Ehrman argued in the aforementioned debate: "But even if these stories were the best sources in the world, there would still be a major obstacle that we simply cannot overcome if we want to approach the question of the resurrection historically rather than theologically.[...] this cannot be a historical claim. Historians can only establish what probably happened in the past. The problem with historians is they can’t repeat an experiment. Today, if we want proof for something, it’s very simple to get proof for many things in the natural sciences; in the experimental sciences we have proof. But we can’t repeat the experiments in history because once history happens, it’s over. [...] Historians can only establish what probably happened in the past, and by definition a miracle is the least probable occurrence. And so, by the very nature of the canons of historical research, we can’t claim historically that a miracle probably happened. By definition, it probably didn’t. And history can only establish what probably did."

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