I would like to thank Dr. Marston for agreeing to take part in this debate and thank him for his time and effort. I know how busy he is, especially at a time like this - the start of the academic year. I hope this debate allows us to express our positions so that people can evaluate them accurately and decide just what we differ on and why. Each of us is writing his Opening Statement without seeing the other person's.
The question is 'Are sceptics right to think that few stories in the Gospel have much historical worth?'. But what is a sceptic? A sceptic is not somebody who automatically disbelieves what others say. A sceptic is somebody who says 'Show me'. If somebody claims that some proposition is true, then a sceptic is somebody who asks to be shown the evidence. Hopefully, an honest sceptic is ready to admit 'Well, he showed me.', when somebody does produce the demanded evidence.
For example, it is reasonable for a sceptic, when reading a claim in Matthew's Gospel that the Jews spread a story that the disciples stole the body and the guards were bribed, to ask to be shown any Jew in the first two centuries who ever said any such thing. Once shown evidence to back up the claim in Matthew 28:15, an honest sceptic should accept it.
Where does the burden of proof lie when a sceptic examines religious claims in general, and the claims of the New Testament in particular? It seems to me that the burden of proof lies with those who say that religious claims are true.
In the past two hundred years, we have seen a lot of religions spring up. Some have fallen by the wayside, but many have grown substantially - and indeed have grown far faster than Christianity did in its early days.
Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Moonies, Christian Science, the Church of Scientology all have many members, often numbering in the millions. They have grown despite well-publicised and reasoned, effective critical analysis by opponents. They have grown despite heavy opposition, sometimes led by the power of the State. They have grown despite stunning blows, which would seem to outsiders to be fatal to their beliefs. Jehovah's Witnesses have taken in their stride failed prophecies of the end of the world. Mormons split , but did not fall, over the reversal of policy on polygamy.
Some beliefs seem very hard to eradicate. Even this year, there are people who maintain that corn-circles could not have been created by human beings, even after they have spoken in person to the people who admitted creating the hoaxes. The hoaxers have even demonstrated how corn-circles are made , yet there are still True Believers in alien corn-circles.
In view of the well-documented histories of thousands of beliefs and religions of all ages which persisted in the teeth of seemingly overwhelmingly strong evidence, then surely sceptics are justified in thinking that the burden of proof is on those who say Christianity is not just another one of the same.
Am I being unfair here and turning from a sceptic into a cynic?
On the face of it, it could well be that Christianity may have been fatally flawed from the outside. After all, according to the New Testament , Jesus spent three years preaching as one who had real authority, raised people from the dead, drew big crowds, and achieved such fame that even kings were desirous of seeing him - yet very few Jews converted. This is a smoking gun which has to be explained away.
The New Testament leaves the traces of other smoking guns. Matthew 28:17 explains that, even after the resurrection, some of the disciples still doubted. Most of the disciples disappear from the pages of Acts with alarming rapidity. The author never hints that this is because they were martyred. In the letters of Paul, primary sources from somebody who was there on the spot, only Peter, James and John are mentioned, and James had not even been a disciple. Surely these are broad hints that many disciples of Jesus, far from being transformed by a resurrection experience, simply disappeared from Christianity.
While most Jews who had seen Jesus in the flesh did not convert, Peter and Paul did. The New Testament insists that Peter and Paul were the sort of people who had visions and trances and acted on those visions and trances as though real people had appeared to them.
Am I being too harsh to think that people who talk about seeing men in visions, see Moses and Elijah, and visit the third heaven are not a reliable source of history?
Would I be too harsh in rejecting the named eyewitnesses who saw in visions the Golden Plates given to Joseph Smith? One of them was most interesting as even Joseph Smith was surprised by the testimony of David Whitmer's mother, who saw the plates in a vision. Independent, historical eyewitnesses testimony , as the Mormons claim, - or the deluded fantasy of somebody anxiously trying to be part of the magic circle who could see things others could not? People must make their own call, but sceptics can point out that people claim to see all sorts of things when expectations have been raised.
The New Testament itself paints a picture of intense expectations that Jesus was somehow connected with a resurrection, long before anybody claimed to have seen Jesus rise from his tomb. Ordinary people believed Jesus was John the Baptist resurrected, or Elijah, or Jeremiah or another prophet brought somehow back to them. Matthew 14:2 claims that even the very highest authority believed Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead. In such an atmosphere would not some small minority of people have believed, on no evidence, that Jesus rose from the grave? After all, the Gospels insist that very many people did wrongly believe Jesus was a resurrected person, when they had no evidence for that belief.
The first century AD was a time when claims of people being alive after death were commonplace, and people could rely on getting people to believe them. After his death, many people claimed to be Nero , and succeeded in attracting followers.
It is also well documented that first century Jews were prepared to follow just about anybody. Many tens of thousands followed a false Egyptian prophet and many thousands died at Jerusalem and Masada.
The New Testament also documents the fact that many people were quite prepared to accept that they had spoken to gods in the street. These were superstitious, gullible times. The burden of proof is on those who say that the Gospels are reliable when so many people of the time were so gullible. Perhaps Christians were only different in that enough of them were prepared to compromise their beliefs 'to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.', as Paul writes in Galatians 6:12.
Perhaps, despite the documented ability of a small minority of people to believe just about anything, the Gospels are rescued by the fact that they were written by reliable historians.
Here again, there are smoking guns which ring alarm bells for sceptics. The first Gospel written, Mark, claims that a first-century Jew would say that 'Do not defraud' was one of the Commandments. This seems anachronistic to me, and when Matthew rewrote the scene (Matt. 19:18-19) he kept to commandments from the original 10, plus the commandment many Rabbis thought of as summarising them.
The Gospels also state that Jews waved palm-branches and shouted 'Hosanna!' during the week-long festival of Passover. Palm-branches and Hosanna are associated with Sukkot, not Passover. It is rather like a story of people setting off fireworks at Christmas - not impossible, but worrying to read.
The September 1999 issue of 'Biblical Archaeology Review' documents another anachronism in the Gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke presuppose that the stone guarding the tomb of Jesus was round, but this reflects Jewish burial practices after 70 AD. The lame solution of the review writer is that 'kulio' , translated 'rolled' in all translations, just means moved and has no connotations of roundess. However we derive our modern word 'cylinder' from 'kulio', and 'kulio' always means 'rolled' every other time it is used in the New Testament.
Also, these 'historians' never name their sources. It is well accepted that Matthew and Luke used Mark and changed Mark freely, but, unlike reliable historians, they never say they are doing this.
Richard Carrier has an MA in Ancient History and he wrote to me in private correspondence (and I would like to thank him) '....good historians often denoted quoted text with characteristic language (i.e. 'he wrote this account in the following words') and named their source. In fact, any historian who never once does this is always suspected as unreliable--even though we don't expect the level of citation common in our scientific age, a good historian in antiquity will at least mention or list by name a dozen or so sources. That Luke does not do this at all puts him in the BOTTOM rung of reliability as far as historians go (compare him with Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Tacitus, Josephus, even Christians like Eusebius, and you will see what a third-rate historian he is, if he can even really be called a 'historian')'
I shall have to leave a more detailed discussion of historical reliability to further emails.
I look forward to reading your Opening Statement.
Dr. Marston's Opening Statement
Steven Carr's First Response
Dr. Marston's First Response
Steven Carr's Second Response
Dr. Marston's Second Response
Steven Carr's Final Response
Dr. Marston's Final Response
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