I would like to thank Steven for the opportunity to conduct this interesting debate. We seem ultimately to be divided less on what are the particular points of evidence, more on fundamental issues of how evidence and truth can be assessed, and the relationship of such assessment to broader paradigms and world-views. Before making a summary, I will take up the few remaining issues from his final email.
Paradigms and Singular Anomalies
Can major paradigms be refuted by singular counter instances? In the history of science there have often been inexplicable counter instances (eg Miller's repeat of the Michelson-Morley experiments with opposite results), or anomalies which remain unanswered. Major paradigms seldom if ever change solely as a result of single counter instances a point recognised earlier in the 20thC by 'Conventionalism'. Yet to Steven my avowed inability to produce some line in the Qur'an or Book of Mormon which would refute Islam or Mormonism is 'telling' -although I have explained that my rejection of both is based on much broader issues of coherence. He seems fixated in a 'crucial counter instance' mentality which is unrealistic. Of course counter instances can in some circumstances lead to a complete change of major paradigm (or way of looking at things), but this is usually because some other major system offers better overall coherence.
These comments also apply to miracles. As I sat to begin this final email, the day's main headline in the tabloid Daily Mirror was about a professional psychologist apparently healed miraculously:
So are all the Mirror readers plus Steven Carr going to accept this testimony and flock off to church now? I doubt it. Yet all the elements of 'proof' he seems to want are there. The point, as I keep saying, is that we all assess evidence according to world-view. His world-view presumably cannot accept miraculous healing as a result of prayer even when reported by investigative journalists not renowned for pious credulity.
My own world-view allows a bit wider scope. Steven says that I 'rejected the possibility of a miracle' in an event recorded by Josephus in the Temple. Not necessarily. I find it hard to see any reason for a cow to bear a genetically perfect sheep, but whether there was some observed portentous mutation is an open issue. I accept the miracles recorded in the Gospels because they are part of a wider world-view in which Gospel authenticity makes sense. Other reported miracles may or may not be true but I assess each individually. In a parallel way, I believe there are people today whose truthfulness is always good and others whose truthfulness may sometimes be. There is nothing irrational in this.
I value modern biblical scholarship, and accept the possibility of source, form and redaction criticism. In practice, however, some scholars seem to use these to build castles in the air, making assumptions which are absurd. In the nineteenth century the Tubingen school solemnly assured us of a late second century date for the Gospels although we now have part of an actual copy of John dating some 75 years earlier! On Channel Four this month we had a programme on 'The Real Jesus' in which a Professor suggested that the betrayal by Judas must 'really' be a myth invented by pro-Paul anti-Jerusalem groups late in the century, and the Gospels were dismissed as Pauline propaganda portraying Jesus as 'Son of God' (a phrase he actually avoids using of himself). Whereas Steven has argued that Paul couldn't have known about the virgin birth, this programme argued (with just as little basis) that it 'must be' a myth made up by Paul and his followers to credit a divine origin for a Jesus different from the one known to his disciples. Never did it seem to cross anyone's mind that a group advocating the highest standards of truth might scruple to make up fairy stories about the one they regarded as the Messiah and Son of God. Some 'critics' seem to assume that gospel sayings of Jesus which the early church liked were probably made up, whereas those they disliked were probably genuine. Personally, I believe that the writers leaving in some 'awkward' sayings indicates a reverence for his words which makes it improbable that they would make up things to ascribe to him. I make 'imaginative reconstructions' of events because I have no access to those who were there to ask exactly what happened, and I wish to demonstrate that the descriptions we do have are plausible and fit together. The early churches did have access to those who were there, and had no need to either make such reconstructions or portray them as fact - unless they were dishonest.
The gospels were not written to satisfy historical curiosity, but to chronicle the events which formed the centre of the faith of growing churches. Their provenance and authority are not with individuals but with church communities. Even Steven notes that in our book we 'play down' the issue of authorship, though he is 'sure' that I accept the 'traditional authorship' whilst not arguing for it. Well I do tend to credit some truth in early traditions associating elements in the gospels respectively to Matthew-Levi, Peter (Mark), Luke and the apostle John and have seen no arguments from modern scholars which negate this. But if 'the traditional authorship' means that the individuals so named 'wrote' the gospels then I don't believe it. They are church expressions, and, as such, are more rather than less reliable than works of individuals. Their underlying familiarity with relevant locations and people (not present in apocryphal works) is reassuring, but their authenticity lies not in particular sources but their position in churches which contained many members who could remember the events. Churches would, of course, well know the origins of the gospel accounts redacted within their communities, which is why I tend to take notice of the earliest traditions about these. As for 'historians' examining the gospel documents, a string of famous archaeologists have become convinced of their worth. One of the first was Ramsay who changed from scepticism to viewing Luke as a 'historian of first rank', and I met one personally (William Baker) who made a similar journey in recent years.
The Gospels Authorised but not Exhaustive
Steven says: 'Dr Marston will confirm that every other story about Jesus in every other Gospel written was false.' Far from it, I think this highly unlikely. Both miracles and sayings of Jesus may well have found their way into some apocryphal works. In one, the Acts of Pilate, when Pilate asks 'What is Truth?' Jesus replies 'Truth is of Heaven' Pilate asks 'Is there not truth upon earth?' and Jesus replies 'You see how they who speak the truth are judged by those who have authority on earth.' Though few 'alternative' gospels exhibit any historical or
geographical knowledge, and other parts of this one seem unlikely, this anecdote sounds pretty credible to me and could well be genuine. Steven also says: 'no other Christian has ever shown any knowledge of a single one of these other true stories.' So, is he saying there never was a Jesus? This stretches the credulity of even the most ardent sceptic. But if, then, there was a Jesus who was in any way remarkable, is Steven suggesting that no one anywhere circulated any true story about him which is not in the Gospels? Surely not. Again, as on so many points, he seems just to be lashing out with whatever argument comes to hand without having any real alternative hypothesis. I believe the Gospel accounts are historically referenced, and authenticated by their positions in early church communities whereas stories embedded in other literature may or may not be true and generally I feel no need to decide.
The differences between Gospels in naming the women who went to the tomb are well explained in the reconstruction of events in our book Reason, Science and Faith. I do not accept that 'their testimony does not agree on the details'. There is a difference between partial descriptions and contradictory ones, and (as we show) the accounts do harmonise (given the different likely viewing points of their main sources) and elements in one make more sense in the light of information in another. Steven's lawcourt analogy is inappropriate because the writers were not setting out to describe 'the whole truth'. Any lawyer would ask: 'can you name all those who went to the tomb ' But John, for example, was well aware that there had been other women with Mary when she said in breathless haste: 'They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and WE do not know where they have laid him (Jn 20:2 compare 20:11). John's focus on Mary is for dramatic purposes, like a film which follows just one of the characters not to make a legal case in which comprehensivity is important.
I really answered this point in my last email. Of course Mary knew that something special was going on with her son. But Steven is naïve when he takes it that they were 'slow to believe in Jesus'. Mary knew he was Messiah, but it was what being Messiah meant which was the issue. Jesus' own family did accept his special-ness. His brother James soon became central to the church, and there is some evidence (see our R&F or John Wenham's book Easter Enigma) that a number of disciples were his cousins not to mention second cousin John the Baptist. No one can blame them for slowness in understanding the whole concept of a Messiah who conquered through death.
Einstein, Science and Fine Tuning
Steven suggests that Einstein 'chose to do science' to explain the 'fine-tuning of inertial mass and gravitational mass'. This is not really fine tuning but equivalence fine tuning concerns the apparent adjustment of different constants and Steven rightly accepts that our universe seems extraordinarily 'fine tuned' in its design to allow life. As Freeman Dyson put it '..the universe in some sense must have known we were coming'. There seems no diminishing of the 'coincidences' which famously led atheist astronomer Fred Hoyle to remark that it looked as though someone had been monkeying with the laws of physics. Cambridge astronomer Martin Rees' latest book (Just Six Numbers) holds out little prospect of scientifically 'explaining' the 'coincidences' unless we are desperate enough to believe in innumerable parallel universes which we will never be able to visit. Even then, in the words of Professor Stephen Hawking: 'What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the question of why there should be a universe to describe.' Even Einstein himself saw science itself as a way to better understand God. He once wrote: 'I want to know how God created the world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, or the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know his thoughts, the rest are details.' If there is no rationality and meaning behind reality then science itself is ultimately as pointless as ludo.
If the events of Jesus' life were broadly as described in the Gospels, then we would expect what other first century records exist to refer to him (or not) much as they in fact do. The Gospels probably reflect the slants of particular individuals (represented in early church tradition) but are fundamentally redactions of material undertaken in church communities in contact with eye witnesses. They show a good familiarity with both the terrain and personnel in the locations described. Suggestions that they are just made up rehashes of the Old Testament and/or Euripides, are based on a few linguistic similarities quite likely if the writers were very familiar with the LXX translation, and superficial similarities in stories which also have great differences. There seems good reason to suppose that writers who thought they were recording words of the key human being in history would at least try to represent him truthfully and this is borne out by the fact that some of his Gospel sayings are 'inconvenient' to the later church, and some early church burning issues are not dealt with at all in his narratives (eg the place of Gentiles in the church). Frankly, had I been sitting down to make up some resurrection stories I would have had all the main disciples sitting opposite the tomb when Jesus came out in triumph - but the Gospels do not claim that anyone actually saw the moment Jesus emerged from the tomb, and his first appearance is to a woman of dodgy repute. As translator J.B.Phillips once wrote, this has the ring of truth.
Assessing the Gospels, however, is not entirely like assessing (say) Tacitus for accuracy. They record miracles, for example, and if one's world view cannot accept miracles (whether in the Gospels or the Daily Mirror) no amount of evidence would seem convincing. If, on the other hand, a theistic view of the universe seems to make the most sense, and Jesus as a unique expression of the one deity also makes sense, then the Gospels make sense as the record of that unique life as preserved in different church groups of his followers. His utter commitment to truth, and the veneration in which he was held by them, argue for their general accuracy. Most of the 'problems' Steven has raised are based on unrealistic assumptions about the nature of historical description and human nature. There remain a very few genuine 'problems' to which Christians have suggested different answers but to which there is no single definite response. These include in particular whether the last supper was a Passover meal, and what Luke meant when describing a census which (unlike most events described) would have taken place over a half century before the time of gospel compilation.
Steven closes with an aphorism that 60% of scientists prefer to have 'questions which cannot be answered rather than answers which cannot be questioned.' I have never believed in a God who gives answers which cannot be questioned. In 1971 our first book was called : 'Yes but? Reasonable Questions About Living Faith' and we pointed out that biblical figures like Habakkuk and Job were commended for being real with God and asking questions. We should ask questions but we ought to at least try for answers which make sense of it all.
All unified world-views contain some answered and some unanswered questions. My world-view gives reasonable if incomplete answers to questions about whether there is a meaning to life and existence. It answers positively about whether the universe is fundamentally rational and open to human reason, because human consciousness was designed and formed (by whatever path of development) in the image of a personal creator. It answers positively about the meaningfulness of human relationships because the personal creator is a Trinity and inherently relational. It leaves some uncertainty in answering one or two questions about Luke and a census, and the full menu at the last supper.
Readers must choose their own world-views, and in doing so must decide which of these kinds of questions are more important to answer.
Thank you again Steven for allowing me to present my viewpoint on your website.
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
Steven Carr's Final Response
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