Bart’s trouble

I’ve been reading a little bit of Bart Ehrman’s work, and a little bit about him. I’ve tried to boil down his arguments against the validity, historicity, and relevance of the New Testament. I think they can be summed up in these statements, found mostly in his book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, but he repeats these same arguments through most of his book:

  • The NT gospels were written too long after the events they describe, and therefore are susceptible to the frailties of human memory and distortion.
  • The gospels are tainted with post-Easter doctrine, which could not have been considered before the death of Jesus.
  • The gospels record supernatural activity, which is unverifiable and therefore not historical.
  • The NT manuscripts contain so many variants, and this undermines its credibility.

I’ve only read (and read about) a small number of his books, so perhaps he has more arguments than these. Still, I can start by examining his arguments — not by trying to disprove them, but by trying to figure out just what kind of religious documents would actually meet his criteria.

This post will only address his first point: The NT gospels were written too long after the events they describe.

Bart’s point here is that since the gospels were written anywhere from 30 to 60 years after the time of Jesus, they are undoubtedly the product of oral tradition which changed over time, rather than the accurate recollection of eyewitnesses.

Bart uses the analogy of the party game of “telephone”. In this game, one participant whispers a phrase into the ear of another. The second participant whispers into the ear of a third, and so on throughout the room. The last person repeats the phrase as he or she heard it, and everyone laughs at how the phrase has changed.

Bart says that the stories about Jesus were changed over time, just as the phrase in this game. However, there are so many problems with this analogy! In the game, the phrase is whispered, one time only. It’s not repeated clearly, and there is no room to ask questions. And the phrase is supposed to change — the game wouldn’t be any fun if the phrase was repeated perfectly from beginning to end! And besides, there is one person who knows the truth — the person who started the phrase. Part of the game involves going back to this person and comparing the “truth” with the “distortion”.

The stories of Jesus were not at all like this. I’m sure that some people changed the stories to suit particular needs, but — just as in the game — there is someone (or often, multiple someones) who knew the truth. And Bart apparently assumes that the person writing the gospels (Matthew, Mark, etc) is at the end of the telephone line, not at the beginning. Also, he assumes that the people telling the story — or writing it down — are not interested in reporting what actually happened.

So what are we left with? What should we find in a two thousand year old document, in order for Bart to stamp it as historically accurate?

Well, I guess it should be signed, as in: “I, Matthew, wrote this down.” This probably wouldn’t cut it for Bart. We all know that some of the letters attributed to Paul in the NT are not accepted as being authored by him. So even as Bart bemoans the anonymity of the gospel authors, I doubt he would accept as authentic any self-attribution in them.

Bart has also said that a record of an event should have been written within a very short time of the actual event, so that the eyewitnesses would be able to accurately remember. Just how short a time are we talking about? We know that the testimony of courtroom witnesses can be unreliable just a few weeks or months after the incidents they are describing, and the testimony is often colored by the biases of those witnesses. Bart complains that 30 years is too long a time. What about three years? Three months? Even if the document claimed to be on-the-spot reporting, would Bart accept it as historically accurate?

My point is this: Bart (and others) choose not to accept the historical reliability of the NT gospels. They set up criteria which the documents are guaranteed to fail, and then proclaim the inevitable conclusion as the only one which could be reached.

The shallow atheist

Thanks to djayt for this link to Penn Jillette’s stance on why he is an atheist. When I first read it, I didn’t think much of it. Then I read it again, I still didn’t think much of it.

I first dismissed Jillette’s musings as those of an entertainer, so I shouldn’t expect him to be very deep or insightful. I therefore ignored his errors of logic, his ramblings, and his self-absorbtion. Then I noticed he’s a research fellow at the Cato Institute. Whatever that is (and I don’t know), I guess it’s supposed to make me think that he is someone with something to say. After all, he’s lectured at prestigious universities, written books, and produced TV shows. I’m not sure how the TV shows fit into all this, but I’ll just go with it.

Ok, so let me deconstruct his points. Jillette claims he’s beyond atheism, which he defines as “not believing in God”, whereas he claims to “believe in no God”. If there is a distinction between the two positions, Jillette’s doesn’t make it very well. Whether you say, “I don’t think anything is there” or “I think nothing is there,” you are making this point: “If you look, you won’t find it.” Word games aside, Jillette is an atheist. Why try to get fancy and say something different?

(One point in Jillette’s favor: at least he acknowledges that his atheism is a belief system. By saying, I believe there is no God, he is making a statement of faith, and it’s refreshing to have someone be so open about it.)

His second paragraph begins with a conclusion which he has not established in the least: “So, anyone with a love for truth outside of herself has to start with no belief in God and then look for evidence of God.” At best, this is an arbitrary starting point. What reasons does Jillette give for doing this? Absolutely none. How frustrating to have a conversation, even one like this, with someone who presents only conclusions!

Ok, frustrations aside, let’s briefly examine Jillette’s technique for finding God. “She needs to search for some objective evidence of a supernatural power,” he says. This is such a backward way of discovering God, although it has been tried for (literally) millennia. If you want to discover natural things, you observe nature, which can be (although not always is) done objectively. If you want to discover supernatural things, you observe….super-nature? How can this be done objectively? The god of our major religions claims to be a spirit; how can a spirit, or the actions, motivations, and effects of a spirit, be observed objectively? If you want to discover whether there is a god (Christian, Hindu, Muslim, or other), then the solution is to pursue him/her/them passionately, fervently, with a hope of finding that which you seek. Oops, hope isn’t objective. See? You can’t get there from here. (Side point: has Jillette actually searched for this evidence, objective or not? He makes no claim to do so. Instead, he makes a statement of faith: “I believe in no God,” then proceeds from there. Sigh.)

I feel sympathy for Jillette. He sees the truth staring at him, yet doesn’t realize it. He describes his wonderful life (love, blue skies, rainbows), and acknowledges that he has “won the huge genetic lottery” and needs nothing else. To summarize: I have a happy life on earth because there is no God. That is apparently good enough for Jillette, what about those among us without earthly happiness? More on them later.

Jillette impressed me with the word “solipsistic.” I had to look it up. Then I wondered if Jillette looked it up. The definition I found was: “The theory or view that the self is the only reality”. Now, Jillette is saying that his atheism keeps him from being solipsistic. So he’s saying that believing in no God keeps him from viewing himself as the only reality? But isn’t the opposite true? By saying, “I have found no objective evidence for God, therefore no God exists,” Jillette is claiming that his is the only reality, his experience is the only one that matters, and that if something is outside of his perception, it either does not exist or is irrelevant. Sounds like a pretty good definition of solipsistic to me.

It bothered me that Jillette took pot shots at religious people. My children, who have studied logic, would call this a Straw Man Fallacy. Jillette describes religious people as those who say, “How I was brought up and my imaginary friend means [sic] more to me than anything you can ever say or do.” If Jillette has had the misfortune to associate with that type of religious person, I understand his distaste for religion. However, that’s like hating Ray Kroc because a McDonald’s employee treated you poorly. Don’t blame Ray for the ignorance of his employees, and don’t blame God because some of his followers are idiots. And especially, don’t deny His existence because of it.

The Straw Man of an ignorant religious person is easy to knock down. How about taking a shot at Mother Theresa? That’s not so easy to do.

Finally, Jillette gets to what apparently is his real point, which is the old “If God were as good as I am, things would be much better on the earth” complaint. I don’t have much to say about this for Jillette, because he just finished telling us how his life is so great precisely because he doesn’t believe in God. Now he says that the lives of other people are so bad that they also demonstrate there is no God. Can you have it both ways? Apparently, if you’re a research fellow at the Cato Institute, you can.