Opening Statement by Steven Carr
I would like to thank Dr. Wilkinson for agreeing to take part in this debate. As an astrophysicist and a man of the cloth, he is well qualified to give the Christian view point on the relationship between Christianity and science. This debate centres on issues raised in chapter seven of his book 'Thinking Clearly About God And Science', written by Rob Frost and him.
The question is - Can we believe in miracles in a scientific universe?
Arthur C. Clarke wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Many results of science would seem like miracles to people of just 200 years ago. We can fly. We can cure TB. We have eliminated smallpox. We can put a man on the moon. We can see live events from the other side of the world. We can talk to people thousands of miles away.
The miracles of science are well documented and can be demonstrated daily. We are so accustomed to them that we hardly think of them as miracles. What though of the miracles recorded in the Bible? In a scientific age when scientists talk seriously of black holes, wormholes, eleven-dimensional universes and the possibility of time-travel, should we be open minded about New Testament claims of talking donkeys, pigs possessed by demons, coins being found to order in the mouths of fishes etc?
It is not really a case of being open minded or closed minded. Science teaches us to believe in whatever has evidence that can stand up to close scrutiny. Many sceptics actively investigate miracle claims to see if there is evidence. For example, James Randi offers one million dollars to people who can demonstrate psychic abilities in controlled conditions. It is easy to think of miracles which can stand up to scrutiny. If I found the original autographs of the Gospels in a drawer in my bedroom, I could hardly write off this miracle as 'hallucination', especially after I had sold them to the British Museum for millions of pounds. It is difficult to hallucinate being a multimillionaire!
There are miracle stories in other religions. There are named eyewitnesses who claim to have seen Mohammed split the moon in two. Why should Christian claims not be subject to the same scrutiny that Christians subject Islamic claims to?
Of course, Christians claim that New Testament claims of miracles do stand up to scrutiny. One difficulty is that there are lots of miracle claims throughout history - many of them far better attested than Christian claims.
Josephus's 'Wars of the Jews' was written with ten years of the events , by a direct participant , and he records eyewitness testimony - 'I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it' . He is referring to a heifer giving birth to a lamb in the middle of the Temple. Does Dr. Wilkinson believe a cow gave birth to a lamb, in a work written within ten years of the event? Surely this is just as well attested as the raising of the widow of Nain's son.
In the 'Histories' by Tacitus, he records that the Emperor Vespasian cured blindness with spittle and cured lameness. Tacitus writes ' Persons actually present attest both facts, even now when nothing is to be gained by falsehood.' Does Dr. Wilkinson believe Tacitus's reports, based on eyewitness testimony, and attributed by him to the god Serapis?
In Mark 8:23-26, Jesus cures blindness, partly by spitting on someone's eyes. Does Dr. Wilkinson believe him?
In the Histories, Tacitus also records that a priest of the god Serapis, Basilides, was seen by Vespasian in the Temple, although Vespasian knew , and checked by sending horsemen to verify, that a moment earlier Basilides had been in a town some eighty miles distant. Does Dr. Wilkinson believe Tacitus, reporting the eyewitness testimony of the hard-headed Emperor/Soldier Vespasian?
In Acts 8:39-40, Philip was 'caught up' (same verb as in 2 Corinthians 12 where Paul is 'caught up' into the third heaven) on the road to Gaza and reappears at Azotus. Does Dr. Wilkinson believe Philip, like the pagan priest Basilides, transported from place to place like a character from Star Trek?
Ancient writers were credulous, gullible, unreliable, biased and superstitious. Is it closed-minded to examine the idea that Christian writers may share some of these faults? Are there any stories in the Gospels which, in Dr. Wilkinson's opinion, betray some of the credulity, gullibility and bias that we find in secular writers of the period, and in every single Christian writer who wrote non-canonical works?
I have an article about the miracles of Jesus at http://www.bowness.demon.co.uk/mirc1.htm
Using exactly the same arguments used by Christians about the Book of Mormon and the Quran, it is easy to show that the miracles of Jesus are fictional borrowings from other stories.
Are the Gospels so reliable that we can take their accounts at face value? Dr. Wilkinson concedes that there are 'differences' in the Gospel accounts of the resurrection, although he naturally denies that these differences are important.
What is important is why there are differences. It is well known that Matthew used Mark's Gospel as a source and took over 90% of it. The differences are due to Matthew deliberately changing what Mark wrote, simply because it did not fit Matthew's version of events. To take one small example, Mark 16:1 says the women went to the tomb 'to anoint the body'. Matthew , however, has a story of the tomb being guarded by Roman soldiers to prevent all access. Matthew therefore, drops the statement that the women went 'to anoint the body.'
Careful Biblical study of the texts has shown that there is a huge amount of such alteration - alteration done deliberately to suit the particular slant each Gospel writer wants to give to the reader. Does anybody seriously doubt that if Dr. Wilkinson found passages of the Quran which differed because somebody deliberately changed them to suit their particular version of the story, he would say that this detracted from the Quran?
Dr. Wilkinson also gives as 'evidence' of the resurrection, the fact that 'many of (the disciples) died for their belief that Christ was risen.' It would be nice to see documented evidence of this common Christian claim. All Dr. Wilkinson can produce in support are legends and myths about the disciples. Even if we accept that the James killed in Josephus' Antiquities Book 20 was the brother of Jesus , there is not the slightest hint in Josephus that James was killed because he believed 'Christ was risen.' Matthew 28:17 makes clear that the disciples still 'doubted' and they disappear from the pages of Acts with amazing rapidity - surely two big clues that many disciples packed in their Christianity.
Indeed, the New Testament itself supports the view that there was nothing controversial about claiming Jesus was resurrected. According to Matthew 14:2, Herod himself believed Jesus was a resurrected being. In fact, the New Testament claims that many people believed, even before Jesus's death, that he was a resurrected being. I'm sure Dr.Wilkinson would agree that lots of people believed without any evidence that Jesus was somebody resurrected.
Paul's letters make clear , in Galatians 6:12, that circumcision was the issue some Christians were persecuted on, not resurrection. Paul also makes clear that Christians compromised on their beliefs 'to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.'
Dr. Wilkinson also repeats the old, tired argument that Christianity could have been stopped in its tracks if the authorities had produced Jesus's body. According to the New Testament itself, it was seven weeks before the disciples went public with their claims. How could producing a decayed corpse have been any use? Why would the authorities have guarded a dead corpse for seven weeks? The New Testament claims that the authorities handed over the body to a secret disciple of Jesus, not knowing he was a follower of Jesus. Even if we grant for the sake of argument that the authorities tried to find a body and could not, how surprising is this? I'm sure if I unwittingly gave damaging evidence about Scientology to a Scientologist to look after, I would be unable to find it again seven weeks later.
Does Dr. Wilkinson believe producing the body of Jesus would have stopped Christianity any more effectively than people stop Jehovah's Witnesses by pointing out that the world did not end in 1914 or 1975 as they claimed it would? In 1 Corinthians 15:37 makes clear that the body which comes out of the ground is not the body which is planted in the ground. Why then would Paul be bothered by seeing the body which went in to the ground? As far as he was concerned, that was just a seed - the resurrected body was something entirely different.
Paul also makes clear that Christians believed the world would end in one generation. 1 Thessalonians 4:15 says 'According to the Lord's own word , we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.' The early Christian belief the world was coming to an end is well documented in Bart Ehrman's new book 'Jesus - Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.'
As Christians were so wrong about this central belief of theirs, why should we believe their other claims?
I look forward to Dr. Wilkinson's first email.
Dr. Wilkinson's Opening Statement
Dr.Wilkinson's First Response
Steven Carr's First Response
Dr. Wilkinson's Second Response
Steven Carr's Final Response
Dr.Wilkinson's Final Response
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