My response to Steven will consider:
In the philosophy of science, there has been recognition since Lakatos that scientific paradigms (and especially major ones) are usually tested/assessed in a context of comparing two alternatives. This would seem to me to be sensible also eg in explaining the content and language of some of Luke's recorded incidents, ie are they best explained as based on actual events or as myth based on OT or classical stories? But the comparison of hypotheses can also be applied on a more fundamental level of assessing rival major world-views which claim to explain reality. The underlying issue behind this debate is, it seems to me, whether militant atheism or Christian theism makes more sense of the universe in which we find ourselves. Is the universe, and human life and consciousness, the creation of some kind of consciousness we call God, or is it a purposeless accident? The evidence from nature is that we are in an incredibly 'fine tuned' universe, which in statistical terms would be extraordinarily unlikely. The evidence from consciousness consists in something we all experience from the inside ; irreducible to pure material descriptions. Atheists can, of course, deny both of these. The 'multiple universes' theory is a way to explain away the fine tuning (cf Cosmic Coincidences, M Rees and J Gribbin) ; a kind of ultimate 'what if' based on no actual evidence that such universes exist. Human consciousness can also be denied ; eg by Daniel Dennett and lately Susan Blackmore who sees it as an illusion, a trick of the memes. Even going back to Hume , who implausibly suggested that consciousness was nothing but a bundle of perceptions; atheists have found ways to explain it away. To some of us, however, a theistic explanation of the universe, life and consciousness seems to make most sense.
My own line of thinking would then be to ask, if the universe is the product of some kind of consciousness analogous to our consciousness, would (s)he have communicated with us? The Old Testament claims to be the record of such communication, and part of this is the prophecy of a coming Messiah ; particularly in the servant songs of Isaiah. The life and death of Christ, as recorded in the gospels, makes sense to me as the ultimate act of God in communicating with and reaching humankind. The 'evidence' for the resurrection does not stand on its own ; like all 'evidence' we interpret it according to the paradigms which seem to us to make the most coherent sense of reality.
Now I am unimpressed with militant atheist alternatives. This is not because on certain small issues they don't get bits of history exactly right, but because they make no fundamental sense. There was last week a radio programme in which A.J.Ayer was described as the best known philosopher of the century. Yet his militantly anti-metaphysical Language, Truth and Logic (1936) made no sense. The suggestion that the only meaningful knowledge was that verified by sensory experience just didn't work ; and by the end of his life he recognised that 'almost all' of his early logical positivism was mistaken. Scientific laws may be testable but cannot be 'verified', and all perception involves interpretation. Even the logical positivist principle itself is unverifiable and by its own criterion meaningless. Metaphysics of some kind is an essential presupposition to and prerequisite for observation, knowledge, and reason. But why did it take Ayer so long?
I am even less impressed with present militant atheism of (say) Peter Atkins , whose scientistic suggestion that mathematics is the language of all ultimate reality is bizarre. Richard Dawkins, having in The Selfish Gene spent umpteen chapters explaining how over millions of years the genes (unconsciously but ruthlessly) mechanically manipulate organisms to ensure their own survival, suddenly announces that we are free to ignore this , presumably because they have made a botched job of determining us. Out of thin air he introduces elements of freedom and morality - speaking later eg of speciesism and our moral duty to higher primates. In Reason ,Science and Faith we pursue at length the unwillingness of the inventors of 'Denkinsland' (Dawkins, Dennett, Atkins and Co) to truly live in the world they have invented. The common occurrence of militant and moral atheism does not make it less strange. I only once heard live the late Carl Sagan, at the 125 th anniversary of Nature . He came across as a warm and moral person, but his argument was something like this. If we could only observe from outer space, and see how minute specs we were on an obscure planet circling an average sun on the edge of an obscure galaxy , then we would surely all learn to live together better. What I couldn't see was why someone should not argue that, if we really are accidental, unplanned specs of nothing, doomed to ultimate extinction in a blind purposeless universe, then why should we not kick the blazes out of each other if we feel like it? I can understand nihilistic, self-centred, couldn't care less about 'truth' atheism (although it seems bleak and has no answers as to why the universe exists at all) but not militant moral atheism.
My assessment of Christian theism is not in a vacuum , it is weighed against other claims to interpret our human experience the most rationally. My assessment of the evidence of the life of Jesus is in a context of the possibility that there is a God who has chosen to communicate with his creation.
Steven says that my first email presents 'precious little evidence' but seeks to answer problems he has raised. What kind of 'evidence' was he expecting? I am not an archaeologist to find new 'evidence', but (as I said) can spot duff arguments. My preliminary email was to try to establish logical bases for assessing evidence, which were illustrated from points he made earlier. The persistence of his first reply in perceiving 'problems' or 'difficulties' where there is no basis in logic to do so makes it clear that we need to do more work together on these areas.
What Constitutes 'Evidence'
Steven protests that I misrepresent him in supposing that he discounts Luke as 'evidence' but would accept a secular writer. The context was Luke's mention of Italian soldiers at Caesarea. Steven claimed that the ' first mention ' was in AD 69 and adds ' It is possible that an earlier mention of the Italian Cohort than AD 69 will come to light, but until then this looks like an anachronism '. I did not, of course, say that Steven held Josephus to be ' completely reliable and not biased '. But what kind of 'mention' would count? Why isn't Luke's reference a 'mention'? If it had been in Josephus would it have been a 'mention'?
Might Haves and What Ifs
I was really astonished at Steven's apparent contempt for the hypothetico-deductive method - the 'what if,' form of reasoning. Many major scientific advances involved exactly that kind of thinking. Galileo's methods are often thought to involve it, as Newton's Axiomatic method and use of hypotheses (in spite of his stated aversion), Huygens, Locke etc (cf eg Barry Gower Scientific Method ). Whewell (who invented the word scientist) ascribed a hypothetico deductive method to Newton, and others have supported his advocacy (cf eg John Losee A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Science ch 10). Popper's falsificationist view of the nature of science involves deducing the expected results of conjecture or hypotheses. Testing hypotheses statistically (which is part of what I teach) depends on a 'what if' kind of inference. Some scientific works which Steven presumably regards as seminal adopt the 'what if,' and 'might have been' approach in a context almost devoid of positive evidence or possibility of testing. Darwin's Origin of Species almost entirely adopts it, as does Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. Darwin's work explains away the great gaps in the fossil record, and (as contemporary reviews like that of Fleeming Jenkin pointed out) with all the resources at his disposal could explain virtually anything. I make no comment either way here on how far modern neo-darwinism is true , but it is worth noting that like any unifying system it can face a series of 'but what abouts,' Just as Steven raises a lot of points like 'but what about, Luke mentioning Quirinius as governor of Syria', so modern anti-darwinians raise points like 'but what about, the development of the eye/cilium/bombadier-beetle' etc. Dawkins, dealing with the development of the eye, uses just the kind of 'what if,' and 'might have been' arguments which Steven spurns.
There are two ancilliaries to this. First, it is odd to hope that readers have ' noticed it is not sceptics who have to explain away Biblical problems with might-haves' . Obviously it is for the advocates not opponents of any unifying system of thought to seek to suggest plausible hypotheses which explain any apparent difficulties or anomalies in it. One could hardly expect the Creation Research Institute to seek to explain away difficulties in evolutionary theory , or the Rationalists Association to try to explain away biblical difficulties. The second point is that of course not all 'what if..' or 'might have been' arguments are equally convincing. They are an essential part of assessing many hypotheses , historical and scientific , but vary greatly in plausibility. This plausibility is assessed rationally and in reference to the overall coherence of the particular unifying system. The Bible comprises 66 books, written over a period of over a millennium, in languages and literary conventions foreign to our modern thinking. It is therefore hardly surprising that there can be an 'encyclopaedia of bible difficulties' , though I have to say that most of those Steven raises seem to me pseudo problems erected on totally unrealistic premises/assumptions.
The particular 'what if,' hypothetico-deductive issues relevant to our debate concern historical events. It is hard to doubt that the Gospel writers had some kind of familiarity with the events and terrain of the mid first century. Christians go further and believe that the Gospels are historically reliable in what they record , providing that we view these within the literary conventions accepted for them by the early church. It is Steven who has raised a string of supposed difficulties and inconsistencies. Why is he then so dismissive when we try to 'explain them away'? They are set up by professional sceptics as 'problems' because sceptics argue that no plausible explanation could exist for them consistent with their truth. They are shown to be pseudo-problems if we can construct not just any old wild suggestion but a sensible and plausible explanation of how the truth of the accounts is consistent with the evidence.
Jesus Outside the Gospels
Is there an unaccountable lack of mention of Jesus in contemporary documents? Paul, in speaking to Agrippa, flatters him on his knowledge of things Jewish and in this context says that 'these things were not done in a corner.' But in terms of the Roman Empire they certainly were done in a corner , and Paul's words should not be taken out of context. In my first email I asked which contemporary Roman/ Jewish/Greek historians Steven would have expected to mention Jesus. My claim is that IF Christianity had developed much along lines described in the NT, then we would expect no mention of Jesus in the few extant works. These include Phedrus' fables, Persius' satirical lines, Lucan's poem on a much earlier war, Petronius' racy novel, and the anthologies on nature by Pliny the Elder. Only Seneca is even a possibility, and in a work of that period ( On Withdrawing from the World ) Seneca closes a description of tortures with the words 'Let us therefore avoid giving offence.. the wise man will never provoke those in power' ( Epistulae Morales xiv). Seneca wrote little about contemporary events for fear of offending a crazed Emperor who burned Christians and eventually ordered Seneca's own suicide. So who would have recorded events in an obscure and 'superstitious' Roman province? In his response Steven simply reasserts: 'they went unrecorded by all contemporary Jewish and Roman writers'. He still does not state who all these writers were who would have been expected to record anything. He does just mention the only two contemporary Jewish sources I know:
On (a) Steven also mentions Antiquities 20:9:1, arguing that it would be odd to refer to James as 'the brother of Jesus called the Christ, whose name was James and his companions', and apparently implying that it may be interpolated. Ironically, Origen in Contra Celsum i:47 (pointing out that Josephus was not a believer in Jesus as the Christ) cites Josephus on John the Baptist and on the martyrdom of James the Just 'a brother of Jesus (called Christ)'. Earlier Steven has suggested we should doubt the genuineness of the Josephus passage on Jesus himself because it is not cited by Origen, now he wants us to doubt the reference in 20:9:1 even though Origen cites it. But would Josephus simply have referred to 'Jesus called the Christ' without explicit reference back to book 18 or further explanation? Josephus wrote in AD93, largely as a PR job for the Jewish people in the Graeco-Roman world. This was a world in which there were churches throughout the Graeco-Roman world including Rome and Athens, and in which within twenty years Pliny was writing from Bythinia to his Emperor Trajan asking what to do about the Christians. Some knowledge about 'Jesus called the Christ' must have been common amongst Jews, and amongst people generally. In such circumstances, it would be quite reasonable to expect someone writing as a non-Christian Jew to put in a brief non-commital passage about Jesus (noting that his followers claimed he rose again etc) and to later identify James as 'a brother of Jesus called the Christ' without feeling any need to refer back. I really cannot see any problem, but as Steven says, the reader must judge.
Steven can suggest no first century writers who would have been expected to mention Jesus or (in the case of Josephus) to mention him in terms other than those found. Early second century Roman writers, as we show in Reason and Faith, do all mention Jesus in exactly the kind of terms we would expect. If, as Steven suggests, they got their information from the Christians themselves, so what? Our claim is that references in first and second century writers are just what we would expect , and we would expect early second century ones to reflect what Christians were saying.
Steven responds to my comments on Jesus in Gethsemane by saying 'the reader may judge' but does not tell us what the reader is supposed to judge between. He does not tell us what exactly he imagines Mark and Luke were saying happened. As I pointed out, the recorded prayer of Jesus contains a few words which take (in Greek or Aramaic) under ten seconds to say. Jesus actually laments that they could not watch with him 'one hour'. 'One hour' is imprecise but does not mean ten seconds. Any reasonable reader would get the following picture from the gospels:
My point that John specifically says he has selected episodes in Jesus' life for a specific purpose answered Steven's earlier point about the very different content of John and the Synoptics. So Steven comes up with some actual points of supposed difference between them , which is, of course, another matter. Let us look at these:
As I said in my first email, the early church never imagined that the Gospels recorded events chronologically. This certainly applies to the events at the start of Jesus' ministry which are in a different order in John and the Synoptics. I have always understood it that John is writing not a 'biography' as such, but a theological treatise to explain who Jesus was. The incidents he records really happened, but are selected and arranged on a theological basis. The cleansing of the Temple is recorded in John 2:13-25, in a passage blatantly unconnected with what precedes or follows. It follows the water-into-wine episode, also out of chronology compared with the Synoptics. I believe that John places these at the start because they underline the whole ministry of Jesus , the symbolism of 'water into wine' (repentance into richness), and the cleansing of worship. They are placed theologically not chronologically. Professional sceptics may merely scoff at this, but any reader seriously intending to ask whether the Gospels contain 'truth' will need to try to understand them in the terms in which they were written. To do otherwise would be like trying to understand quantum mechanics or relativity with a newtonian mind-set and, in failing to do so, proclaiming that if such theories can be accepted then virtually any scientific theory full of contradictions will also be acceptable.
c) The Events in Gethsemane
Steven says 'In John there is no agony in the Garden of Gethsemane' . This is simply selection, John specifically says that Jesus went into a 'garden' which he and the disciples often frequented. Then Steven says: 'In John Jesus comes out to meet the soldiers rather than wait for Judas to betray him with a kiss, John wants to portray his Jesus as being totally in control of events. Why should sceptics not be worried that John has such a different view of the scene, when the differences are for theological not historical reasons?' I am puzzled by this question. Every modern philosopher of history I know accepts that all historical writing involves both selection and perspective. What are ' historical reasons '? On another level, consider newspaper reporting of any great event. A recent major rail crash was reported markedly differently in the various newspapers , each making selection and perspective according to the point they wanted to emphasize. So are 'sceptics' going to be 'worried' that the events they record are therefore fictional ? Surely not.
Let us again recap on the central issue. I cannot claim to 'prove' that the arrest happened as described, but just that it is entirely plausible to accept that these were different descriptions of the same actual event. Can we, then, hypothesize a set of events which could reasonably have led to these different descriptions? Well here is one, judge for yourselves:
d) The time of the Crucifixion
Steven wrote: 'Mark 15:25 says it was the third hour when they crucified him. John 19:14 says it was the sixth hour.' Though John actually says ' about ' the sixth hour, this is one of very few genuine comparative gospel 'problems' - recognised as early as Eusebius. Some have suggested that John 'used the Roman way of counting' but this seems to me unlikely, as the '6th hour' (noon) was the time the Passover sacrifice began and John has obvious theological thoughts. Some note that Mark, unlike John, seems to take the scourging as a part of the normal preface to crucifixion after Pilate had already reached his verdict (Mark 15:15). It may be, therefore, that to Mark, his statement of the time of crucifixion reflects the whole process. This, however, cannot be the whole answer. What is important to note is that. to them, day and night were divided into three hour segments, and in the NT we find the following mentions for specific 'hours':
3rd: Mt 20:3/Mk 15:25/Acts 2:15
6th: Mt 20:5/27:45/Mk 15:33/Lk 23:44/Jn 4:6/19:14/Acts 10:9
7th: Jn 4:52
9th: Mt 20:5/27:45/27:49/Mk 15:33/15:34/Lk 23:44/Acts 3:1/10:3/10:30
10th: Jn 1:39
11th: Mt 20:6-9
3rd of night Acts 23:23
In the reference to the 7th the precise time was crucial, and '11 th hour' reference implies 'last minute'. Otherwise only the 10th (perhaps remembered with precision because the disciple then first met his Lord?) departs from the normal of citing 3rd, 6th or 9th. The word 'about' (hos) is also often inserted - as indeed in John 19:14. The 'discrepancy' is therefore not as great as we might first imagine if one says 'the third' and the other (with symbolism in mind) 'about the sixth'. This is, I believe, a genuine 'problem' but I don't think it a very serious one. For the Gospel writers not much was hanging on the precise time, and I am willing to concede their imprecision in terms which were vague.
Shifting the Burden of Proof
The question about how Luke knew what was said in the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:35-40) well illustrates a central methodological issue in this debate. Let us recap:
The Few Real Counter-Evidences
Steven picked up my 'Woody Allen' point about demonstrable errors in the gospels and so comes up with two:
Steven speaks very disparagingly of ancient historians, and suggests that people of those times were gullible, naive, and credulous , presumably now we are careful, sophisticated and sceptical. I really cannot share this apparent cultural arrogance. We are coming to the end of a century in which some leading scholars have taken seriously the arrant nonsense of logical positivism and behaviourism, and others are swallowing the attempts of Dennett and Blackmore to prove to us our own non-existence. We are in times when (as Steven himself points out) on a popular level people believe in alien corn circles, strange new sects, etc. On the other hand it seems to me that the NT is no more short of sceptics than today. Mary, being told she was pregnant, immediately reacts by saying it is impossible as she has not had sex. London Professor of Genetics R J Berry (is he more credulous than Mary?) has told me that it is actually theoretically physically possible for a virgin to give birth to a boy , though he thinks this as irrelevant as I do. But Mary's contemporaries seem no more 'credulous' or unaware that such things don't normally happen, than we are today. The man born blind, for example, goes as far as to say such a thing has never happened before , but he knew it had just happened to him. We also note that both Festus and some of the Athenians reacted incredulously when Paul spoke of an actual resurrection. So do I believe that a heifer gave birth to a lamb in the Temple area as Josephus suggests? No, but some kind of mutated deformity is entirely possible. I would not as easily as he does deny any possible empirical basis for such accounts.
NT Resemblances to OT
Steven makes a great play (in his email and on his miracles page) of the fact that Gospel stories of miracles sometimes resemble OT ones, and NT writers sometimes quote the Septuagint language. But why is this a 'problem'? As I said in my previous email, clearly the Gospel writers believed that Jesus was Jewish Messiah, and in selecting stories they might pick those vaguely resembling OT ones. What more natural, then, in recounting these stories, than to use the language of the Septuagint OT version in common use in Asia Minor? Neither of these things implies that they made them up or that the events didn't happen. There was a time when the King James version was the only generally used translation in this country , achieving almost (though never quite) the veneration given the Septuagint in the Diaspora. Preachers would frequently use its language in describing their experiences , sometimes sounding fairly quaint. A person may well do this if saturated in language of what they regard as a holy book, and believing that the same God is in operation in their own day.
In his email Steven raises the similarities between Luke 7 and 1 Kings 17, claiming ' Luke copies word-for-word a sentence '. Let us look at the passages:
The similarities are:
Well, frankly, quite a lot more clear-cut. In this, as previously, the use of some phrases similar to those in the Septuagint (though even these are few) would not surprise me at all, nor would it constitute 'evidence' that the stories were made up. Steven's 'evidence' is largely fantasy. Readers may apply the same approach to other supposed 'copies' of OT stories, and will find them just as unconvincing.
It is a problem, claims Steven, that in the vision of Paul on the road to Damascus is contained a quote from Euripides' The Bacchae. So let us look at some background:
H2: Paul (coming from the university town of Tarsus) quoted Greek writers in Acts 17, and had read Euripides works. In speaking before the very well educated king Agrippa, he used a familiar phrase from Euripides (but in a context more relating to Hosea) in conveying the sense of the message.
H3: The phrase 'kick against the goads' (like the English phrase 'kick over the traces') was, or had become, a known if not common everyday idiom. The author of Acts (deliberately noting the passage to be a translation into Greek) used this idiom in a paraphrase translation of whatever the original Hebrew/Aramaic was.
It seems to me that even were I an atheist I would find H1 wildly implausible. H2 is a bit more likely, and I could see how Paul might have referred in his disputes with Greeks to Euripides' plays which are full of tension about whether gods could behave like that, and whether they were just an 'excuse' for bad human behaviour (a highlight of my last summer was to see Helen performed in Greek in an ancient Greek theatre!). We note, however, that the 'goads' in The Bacchae were not those of conscience but of self-interest in submitting to an immoral but powerful demi-god. It is hard to see why any Christian would consciously associate this with Christian conviction. This makes H3 by far the most likely. It's unimportant whether Euripides invented it, or just used a (fairly obvious) idiom already in occasional use. People use idioms like 'kick over the traces', or 'burn your boats' without any notion who started them. Steven's other supposed links with Euripides are just as fanciful. Thus eg the word 'door' ( thura ) is used 39 times in the NT and around 200 times in the Septuagint (not including the apocrypha). So, in pointing out that thura is also used by Euripides (3rd email to Stephen Motyer), does Steven really hope to convince us that Acts 16:26 is a fable based on The Bacchae ? He adds to it the use of automatos (of itself) in 'Acts 10:12' (he means 12:10), although in Euripides it refers to chains falling off and in Acts to an iron gate opening. This word is used twice in the NT and six times in the Septuagint including Joshua 6:5 where Jericho's walls fell 'of themselves'. What other Greek word could Luke have used anyway? I teach probabilistic inference, and to argue for a connection to Euripides on such flimsy 'evidence' seems to me clutching at straws.
Luke did deliberately use Septuagint phraseology. He had to use words found in classical Greek, and may also have used common Greek idioms originally derived from classical works. The similarities between Acts incidents and Greek plays , both in language and content , are slight, and it is wildly implausible to argue from such as there are that the one must be derived from the other.
In examining the various 'problems' Steven has presented I have used only forms of reasoning central both in science and in general human thinking. Nearly all of them are not problems at all, and the few real issues all have at least some kind of possible explanation. Answering 'difficulties' always requires more space than raising them, and I am now beyond my quota. I leave, then, to my next the issues of the book of Mormon and Qu'ran, and also of the psychology of the disciples (and his slightly out of context quote from Reason,.Science and Faith). I await Steven's response with interest.
Steven Carr's Opening Statement
Dr. Marston's Opening Statement
Steven Carr's First Response
Steven Carr's Second Response
Dr. Marston's Second Response
Steven Carr's Final Response
Dr. Marston's Final Response
There is a Map of this web site
Comments to Steven Carr
General messages (not for publication) can be sent to me using Not for Publication
OR Use the Comments page ,if you do not want to use email
OR Use the Guest Book Comments page , to leave an entry in the Guest Book
OR View previous entries in the Guest Book