This is my concluding statement in this debate. As a guest on my website, Dr. Marston will have the final right of reply.
I would like to thank Dr.Marston for the time and effort he has put into this debate. I hope readers have found the debate useful and informative. I know I have.
This statement is intended to sum up the sceptical viewpoint. After that, I shall have to pick up a few points from Dr.Marston's last email. Finally, I shall look at what a natural worldview entails, as Dr. Marston mentioned it in his first main email.
Are the Gospel stories of historical worth?
This is the subject of the debate, but what are the Gospels?
There are three main questions historians would ask about them. Where do they come from? Where do they get their information from? What is in them?
Where do they come from?
All the Gospels are anonymous. None name the author.
Dr.Marston's book, Reason,Science and Faith does not defend the traditional authorship of the Gospels as being written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I'm sure he believes the traditional authorship, but almost all Biblical scholarship is against it. At any rate, his book plays down the importance of knowing who wrote the Gospels. However, it is much harder to claim that they are historically accurate if you can't say who wrote them. How can you check the reliability of a source if you don't know who that source is? It is true that John 21 says that a disciple wrote it, but even this addition is from an anonymous source, cannot be checked, and merely confirms that people felt free to edit the Gospels.
Neither can Dr.Marston say where they were written. The Gospel according to Mark has to explain Aramaic words, Jewish practices , Judean currency etc. We can rule out the possibility that it was written in Judea or Galilee. John's Gospel also has to explain Jewish practices and was not written for a Jewish audience. Likewise, nobody knows where Matthew's and Luke's Gospels were written.
So the Gospels are anonymous , not written in Judea or Galilee, and written in a different language to the language of Judea and Galilee. (Indeed, we have not a single Aramaic Christian document from the first century AD). The most basic documentation about the sources is missing.
We can only fix the dates of the Gospels approximately. They were likely to have been written from 60 AD -95 AD. They may have been written before 70 AD, but Dr. Marston can give no evidence that they were written before the Roman-Jewish war destroyed Jerusalem and any records there may have been.
What would Dr. Marston's reaction be if someone told him he should convert to a religion where there are only documents written by who-knows-who, who-knows-when, and who-knows-where?
Where do they get their information from?
None of the Gospels name their sources.
Let us compare them with Josephus's Antiquities.
Josephus mentions his sources frequently, among them: Berosus, Jerome, Mnaseas, Nicolaus, Manetho, Moschus, Hesiod, Menander, Dios, Herodotus, Megasthenes, Philostratus, 1 Maccabees, Polybius, Strabo, Livy, etc. Not all these sources are good but at least we can see where Josephus is coming from. Some of these sources are still extant and we can see how Josephus used them. We can see where Josephus changed from one source to the next, as his knowledge gets more or less detailed. Josephus would often quote his sources directly.
Historians of ancient history do find physical evidence such as coins, statues, inscriptions etc very helpful, but for Dr. Marston to say I am demanding signed photographs, videos, fingerprints, DNA etc before conceding that something has historical worth is just exaggeration. I am asking for no more than any historian examining ancient documents would ask for. I am asking for just basic documentation and confirmation.
The Gospels never name the sources they used. Although some copying went on, none of the Synoptics tell us about it. But from what we can tell of how Matthew and Luke used Mark, the evangelists used their sources quite freely. The evangelists are always omniscient, even when it comes to knowing what is in Pilate's heart.
I should point out that Matthew and Luke used as their main source, Mark's Gospel, an anonymous document, with no source, and no indication of where it was written or how it could be checked. Does this really build confidence?
Although Dr.Marston claims that the Gospellers selected from a large variety of true stories that were circulating, no other Christian has ever shown any knowledge of a single one of these other true stories. Dr.Marston will confirm that every other story about Jesus in every other Gospel written was false (and there are lots of other Gospels).
If lots of true stories were circulating widely, where did they all go, to be replaced by false stories? Surely some Christian somewhere must have known a true story as well as false ones. If these true stories were circulating widely, why did Matthew and Luke need to use a second-hand (at least) anonymous work, written who-knows-where and who-knows-when?
A great deal of pious fraud went on in writings of the ancient world. Paul himself complains about Christians spreading false stories about Jesus and forging letters in his name. Can we rule out the idea that no stories in the Gospels are the products of pious fraud?
Can Dr.Marston produce any evidence about sources - the most basic evidence any historian would ask for? Naturally, he can give us 'could-haves'. I quote his last email 'Mary could then well have still been alive (though in her 70's) or certainly Luke could have met friends of hers. '
It is easy to produce 'could-haves', if you need not produce evidence to back them up.
I also find it curious that Dr. Marston attempts to prove that Christians would not have produced imaginative reconstructions of what could have been, by himself producing imaginative reconstructions of what could have been.
I asked Dr.Marston to produce something from the Qur'an or the Book of Mormon that could not be 'solved' by producing a 'could-have' that had no evidence to back it up. His failure to do so is telling.
What is in them?
The Gospels contain astonishing , miraculous stories. For example, they describe a herd of pigs possessed by demons. I pointed out miraculous stories in other works of that period. Josephus's 'Wars of the Jews' was written within ten years of the events , by a participant , and he gives eyewitness testimony. This is far better attestation than the Gospels, yet Dr.Marston rejected the possibility of a miracle.
I also gave miracle stories from Tacitus, and astonishing feats mentioned by Pliny the Elder. I also pointed out that the Hadith name the eyewitnesses who say Muhammad split the moon in two. How would Dr.Marston approach the miraculous claims of antiquity, from the point of view of an historian assessing historical worth? How does he distinguish Christian miracles in the Gospels from very similar pagan miracles?
His last email makes clear he accepts Christian miracles in the Gospels (but not the apocryphal Gospels) because he is a Christian and he accepts what is written in the New Testament ,while he rejects other miracle claims because they are not in the New Testament and do not correspond to 'the Christian worldview'.
I am reminded of the famous dictum - 'Facts not in accordance with revolutionary theory are not true facts.'
There are many differences in the Gospels, even when they describe the same events. For example, the Gospels agree that women went to the tomb on Sunday morning, but each Gospel gives a different number of women. It is often pointed out that the versions agree on the main points , and the differences are just the normal variations expected when witnesses give their own version of events.
Curiously, the Gospels themselves take a far more jaundiced view of witnesses who agree on the main points, but differ in the details.
Mark 14:57-59 'Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him - 'We heard him say 'I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man'. Yet even then their testimony did not agree.'
Mark wants to portray the trial of Jesus as a shambles and he points out the farce of having witnesses who agree on the main points, but where their testimony does not agree on the details.
This is one Biblical principle sceptics can agree with. For any lawyer knows that you can expose falsehood by asking witnesses about the details. They will contradict each other, even if they know what the party line on the main points should be. Any prosecution lawyer faced with an alibi (say that some women went to a certain place early one Sunday morning) would at once ask for these women to be named. The lawyer would just love to have four different sets of women named by four different defence witnesses. She would almost feel ashamed to accept the fee for the case (assuming lawyers can feel such an emotion).
In my Debate Feedback page, Richard Carrier pointed out the difficulties with the translation of Luke 2:2 that Dr. Marston gave. In reply he wrote 'I don't know who Carrier is, but will also forward his Greek arguments to N T Wright (whose words I was quoting and who has taught NT at Oxford and Cambridge) and see if he would like to post a counter paper.'
I hope Dr. Marston chases this up.
I am not a spokesman for the Secular Web , but I am sure they will be happy to give space to N.T.Wright for any counter paper he would like to write.
In Richard Carrier's defence, the Revised Standard Version and the New International Version both agree with his translation. He is only following mainstream Greek scholars such as Bruce Metzger, Geza Vermes and Robin Lane Fox.
I pointed out the absurdity of the reaction of the family of Jesus when he started his ministry (Mark 3:21) after knowing he was born of a Virgin, and they had been visited by the Angel Gabriel , Magi etc etc and after they had spent thirty years observing Jesus's sinless, Christ-like behaviour.
Dr. Marston's response was to say about Mary 'The experiences of the shepherds and the visit of some magi - not three kings of course but possibly more like ancient new age travellers left her pondering what it all meant.'
One wonders why God chose such a women to be the mother of her only begotten son. After the Angel Gabriel told her 'He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; his kingdom will never end.' , surely she would have to be very slow on the uptake not to think something special was going on.
Her relative, Elizabeth, also had an astonishing, miraculous conception and told Mary 'But why am I so favoured that the mother of my Lord should come to me?' It seems Mary remembered these words all her life, ready in her seventies to tell them to Luke when he visited Jerusalem, but at the time she was 'pondering what it all meant' when she was told that she was the mother of the Lord. Did Mary really compose the poem in Luke 1:46-55 while all the time 'pondering what it all meant' ?
Could these people , who were visited by angels and saw astonishing miracles at first hand, really have been so slow to believe in Jesus, when today Christians like Dr. Marston himself are ready to believe on the basis of having read these stories in a book?
Dr. Marston's first main email , for some reason, mentioned atheistic world views and said that consciousness was a problem for naturalism.
I'm not sure of the relevance of this. Would Dr. Marston insist people reject scientific naturalism before deciding whether or not the Battle of Hastings took place, or whether or not Caesar crossed the Rubicon? But for some reason, naturalists are deemed incapable of objectively assessing the historical worth of four particular documents written 2,000 years ago. In itself the claim that the Gospels can only be appreciated by people who believe in the Christian worldview reduces the historical worth of the Gospels.
However, let us look at Dr. Marston's claim that consciousness is something that cannot be explained by natural mechanisms.
Cats and dogs appear to be conscious. Chimpanzees appear to be conscious. All people appear to be conscious. People can lose and regain consciousness without any sign of divine intervention.
A Greek philosopher once said that a blow on the head produces different effects to a blow on the foot and this cannot be due to an immaterial soul. People can alter their consciousness with drugs , for example, alcohol. There have been experiments where stimulating particular areas of the brain have brought very specific memories into a person's consciousness.
Consciousness appears to be as natural a phenomenon as sneezing.
It is the basic assumption of science that we can find scientific explanations of natural phenomena. Apparently, this scientific assumption ultimately derives from the Christian view that God has created a universe which is orderly and rational and can be understood by human beings.
Of course, we do not yet have any good scientific explanations of consciousness. Perhaps we never will. Perhaps the universe is not orderly and rational after all, and there will be many phenomena that we will never understand properly.
There are certainly lots of questions about consciousness that cannot be answered. It also can't be denied that saying 'God did it' as the answer to every question is nothing if not consistent, while scientific answers are often inconsistent (For example, quantum mechanics is inconsistent with general relativity) - or answers are just non-existent.
It can be very hard to find indeed answers to questions. For example, Einstein was very puzzled by the fine-tuning of inertial mass and gravitational mass. Nobody could explain why these should be fine-tuned to be equal when the slightest difference would have led to totally unworkable laws of physics. Eventually, this question led him to the Theory of General Relativity. He could have thrown up his hands in despair and said that God had fine-tuned the laws of physics to make inertial mass equal gravitational mass and that was the end of it. Instead though, he chose to do science and tried to work out what was happening.
Even today though, it must be conceded that there are still many examples of fine-tuning left which will take similar unimaginable leaps of genius to work out what is happening. There are still many unanswered questions.
In the book, Reason,Science and Faith, it is said that atheism is irrational.
A recent survey in Nature found that forty percent of scientists believed in God.
Sixty percent did not believe in God, although they know that science has many questions that cannot be answered.
Irrational though it may seem to Dr.Marston, a clear majority of scientists prefer questions which cannot be answered to answers which cannot be questioned.
Steven Carr's 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
Dr. Marston's Final Response
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