Monday, October 29, 2007

Strobel's sermon at Southeast

As I had announced, Lee Strobel was the guest preacher this weekend at Southeast. He preached on the four primary evidences for the Gospels which had led to his conversion fom atheism (available until next Monday or so on-line).

1.) The execution of Jesus, leading to a resurrection not a resuscitation. Both the Bible and extra-biblical sources agree here. Moreover, the extent of the pre-Cross beating and the wounds inflicted on the Cross makes it beyond incredible that Christ could have survived.

2.) The early accounts came far earlier than would be plausible for legends to develop about Christ. The gospels are plenty early to make this point, but the extra-biblical record is again quite clear. It would be historically unprecedented for legend to develop that quickly; again, it takes far less faith to believe in the historical accuracy of the traditional account of the Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.

3.) The empty tomb. Strobel made two points here. First, he noted the "criterion of embarrassment"-- where some details in a fictional account would likely be omitted since they cause embarrassment. One example is women finding the empty tomb and acting as witnesses (a no-no in that culture). Second, he noted that no one disputed the empty tomb, they merely wrestled with how it could have happened. The Romans and Jews didn't want it empty-- and it is incredible to imagine that the disciples were able to recover and pull off that feat in the face of such strong opposition.

4.) Eyewitnesses-- more than 515 in at least 12 different encounters with the risen Jesus. Strobel asked us to imagine 15 minutes of testimony and cross-examination (more than five 24-hour days)-- and then saying "I don't believe that". Moreover, it is again incredible to imagine that the disciples would have been willingly persecuted, tortured, and willing to die for a lie.

If you are not yet a disciple of Jesus Christ, consider the testimony-- whether the evidence of Strobel, the logic of Geisler, the argument from conscience of Lewis, the paradoxes of life and Christianity from Chesterton, or the confession of Tolstoy.

23 Comments:

At October 29, 2007 at 10:45 AM , Blogger Vinny said...

Our first record of the empty tomb is the Gospel of Mark written thirty years after Jesus died. We have no record of whether anyone disputed the story prior to that time or after that time. That does not mean that no one did. It means that we have no record of it.

We can imagine testimony from 515 witnesses, but we do not have testimony from 515 witnesses. We have testimony that there were 515 witnesses. There is a big difference.

 
At October 29, 2007 at 11:05 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Vinny, thanks for your comments. You are completely correct. Thanks for the clarifications. But in drawing inferences, we're stuck with the data we have.

As such, it is important to reiterate that the extra-biblical sources fully corroborate the Biblical account of the empty tomb.

In any case, even the 30 years between the ascension and the writing of Mark is not enough time for legend to develop-- about empty tombs of famous figures or witnesses to a resurrection.

 
At October 29, 2007 at 11:27 AM , Blogger Vinny said...

Thirty years seems like a pretty long time to me. There were 60,000 Mormons only thirty years after Joseph Smith stuck his head in a hat claimed to translate golden plates with magic seer stones. I think people have a remarkable capacity for embracing unlikely stories with no proof or evidence.

In any case, I am not aware of any extra-biblical sources that corroborate the empty tomb account.

 
At October 29, 2007 at 11:54 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

With Mormonism, the difference is that there's no evidence for Joseph Smith's supernatural claims, despite the fact that it was in the 19th century. And every time I've asked a Mormon about this, they profess ignorance or claim that it is unimportant ("we don't base our faith on...").

If a mutual friend of ours died today and then we started to claim that he had been resurrected and done miracles, we'd need a whole lot more than 30 years to blow up that legend! In any case, the academic literature on such things is apparently unassailable.

Josephus speaks to the empty tomb directly and many/most scholars believe that Tacitus alludes to it as well.

 
At October 29, 2007 at 12:49 PM , Blogger Vinny said...

Josephus wrote some sixty years after Jesus's death and I don't think he ever refers to the empty tomb. At best, he confirms that Christians believed that Jesus rose from the dead but that does not constitute independent corroboration of the event.

I agree that there was no evidence for Joseph Smith's miracles other than his own claims. That did not stop a lot of people from believing in them. Modern Mormons who are raised in the faith may not attach much importance to Smith's claims, but the early converts who followed him around the country must have.

Stobel may believe that thirty years is too short a period of time for such a legend to develop in first century Palestine and I have no doubt that he has experts who agree. Nevertheless, I am confident that I could find many well respected scholars from well respected institutions who would disagree. If Strobel is claiming that the scholarship is "unassailable," I think he is misleading his listeners.

 
At October 29, 2007 at 1:50 PM , Blogger rparker said...

Vinny

"I am confident that I could find many well respected scholars from well respected institutions who would disagree."

I would be interested in such evidence form a "Respected scholar"--- Strobel's sermon was a convincing one and I am sure that his source are well documented.

 
At October 29, 2007 at 2:26 PM , Blogger Vinny said...

Authors I have read who I am pretty sure would reach a contrary conclusion include Bart Ehrman, Geza Vermes, Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong, and Keith Nickle. I realize that Strobel would disagree with all of them and I respect his right to do so. However, I suspect that any claim that there is some sort of unanimity of scholarship for Strobel's position is pretty blatant overreaching.

 
At October 29, 2007 at 3:30 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

In Strobel's book, he cites a passage in Testimonius Flavianium where Josephus uses langugage to describe what happened (rather than what some said had happened).

Sure, Mormons (past and present) and all sorts of other people believe all sorts of things-- with little or no evidence. But here, we're talking about faith based on evidences (or not). The comparison is apples and oranges-- or more aptly, apples and rocks.

If you find something on legends of this sort starting within 30 years, let me know. I'd be quite interested to read it.

 
At October 29, 2007 at 4:17 PM , Blogger Vinny said...

My question is whether the faith really was based on evidence. Strobel's position seems to be that Christianity could not have grown the way it did unless the early Church had the evidence to back up the stories. I think the Joseph Smith story tends to show that a religion can grow pretty rapidly without any evidence at all to support its claims.

 
At October 29, 2007 at 4:42 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

I can't imagine Christianity growing without evidence, especially in that historical and political environment.

Mormonism, in its historical and geographic context, did not require similar evidences in order for it to grow.

 
At October 29, 2007 at 6:36 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Another thing Strobel mentioned yesterday which I could not easily corroborate from school (but now that I'm home)...

The book of I Corinthians precedes Mark by 15-18 years-- and the creedal comments in I Corinthians 15 about the death and resurrection precedes Paul's writing of the epistle.

I think Strobel claimed that this could be traced back to within a few years of the resurrection. (I don't remember the sources on that, if he provided them.) In any case, even a conservative reading of I Corinthians gets one within 15-20 years.

 
At October 30, 2007 at 11:15 AM , Blogger Vinny said...

It seems that there are scholars on both sides of the aisle who think there is good reason to believe that the creed in 1 Corinthians reflects an early tradition and I don’t doubt that the resurrection was a foundational belief for the early church. Unfortunately, we cannot make the same claim about everything else in the New Testament. For the rest we may be unable to say anything more than that the writings reflect the understanding of the authors at the time they were written. We cannot eliminate the possibility that many of the stories and doctrines in the New Testament underwent significant development in the years between Jesus death and the writing of the books.

We may know that the church believed from an early point that Jesus had appeared to many people, but we don’t know that all the details of the Gospels were part of those early beliefs. For example, the earliest accounts may have been based on visionary encounters rather than physical encounters. There are stories of Jesus appearing and vanishing in ways that suggest a spiritual being rather than a physical being. Luke describes the appearances to Paul as a light and a voice rather than a physical being. The insistence on the resurrection of the physical body and the details of the empty tomb story may have been a later development.

I am very interested in the argument that thirty years is too short a period of time for the development of a legendary Jesus. I have seen it made several times recently and I wonder about its source. As a matter of first impression, I wonder how such a theory might be demonstrated. Do we really have enough accurate accounts of legendary developments that we can build some sort of model that definitively tells us how long any particular story should have taken to develop legendarily? I have read enough books by scholars who question the historicity of the Gospel stories to doubt that such a theory is really very widely accepted.

I also wonder how we could reach the conclusion that evidence would have been required for Christianity to thrive while Mormonism was able to succeed based on the claims of one man. Do we really have such accurate models of how and why religious beliefs grow and flourish to reach that conclusion? Do we really have such accurate information on the social and political climate of first century Palestine to confidently fit it into such a model? Off the top of my head, I would guess that nineteenth century America would be much less susceptible to such a thing.

 
At October 30, 2007 at 4:55 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

It seems that there are scholars on both sides of the aisle who think there is good reason to believe that the creed in 1 Corinthians reflects an early tradition...

--> I'm glad to hear that you accept that.

...the earliest accounts may have been based on visionary encounters rather than physical encounters. There are stories of Jesus appearing and vanishing in ways that suggest a spiritual being rather than a physical being.

--> There are the super-natural stories and then there are the utterly natural/physical stories. Taking the text at face value (as I understand that you are wont to do), the most obvious conclusion is that Christ had a post-resurrection body that had been "upgraded". Once you've resurrected, that's not a big stretch, huh?

I am very interested in the argument that thirty years is too short a period of time for the development of a legendary Jesus...I wonder how such a theory might be demonstrated. Do we really have enough accurate accounts of legendary developments that we can build some sort of model that definitively tells us how long any particular story should have taken to develop legendarily?

--> I'm glad to hear that you're very interested in it. Let me know what you think after you've investigated it further-- and in particular, if you find a good counter-example.

I have read enough books by scholars who question the historicity of the Gospel stories to doubt that such a theory is really very widely accepted.

--> Is it surprising that scholars "who question the historicity" of the Gospels would not talk at all about the legends theory? ;-)

I also wonder how we could reach the conclusion that evidence would have been required for Christianity to thrive while Mormonism was able to succeed based on the claims of one man. Do we really have such accurate models of how and why religious beliefs grow and flourish to reach that conclusion? Do we really have such accurate information on the social and political climate of first century Palestine to confidently fit it into such a model?

--> Interesting! Let me know if you find out anything here.

Off the top of my head, I would guess that nineteenth century America would be much less susceptible to such a thing.

--> I'd agree with your intuition that 19th century Americans would be less susceptible-- with two important exceptions: American's entrepreneurialism extending to its religion (a la Harold Bloom's The American Religion) and the impact of millennialism on the growth of innovative religious beliefs in the 19th century.

--> That said, I'd also argue that the costs of following Smith were significant but relatively moderate compared to the early Christians. Moreover, Smith's claims were not subject (or subjected) to easy verification.

 
At October 30, 2007 at 7:31 PM , Blogger Vinny said...

I do make an effort to find those points where conservative and liberal scholars agree in order to find a starting point for discussion. For example the first thing I did after finishing Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus was to look for conservative reviews of the book. When I found that they disagreed with his conclusions, but acknowledged his credentials as a historian and manuscript expert, I felt that I could be reasonable confident about his factual assertions.

This business of thirty years being too short for a legend seems to trace back to a scholar from Oxford named A.N. Sherwin-White. Unfortunately, while he is frequently cited, no one seems to provide much detail about how he reached his conclusions. My local library does not have his book, but I have requested it through an inter-library loan. I'll let you know what I find.

 
At November 1, 2007 at 9:03 AM , Blogger William Lang said...

Eric, the "Testimonium Flavianum" is not a work of Josephus. It is actually a highly-disputed passage in his Antiquities of the Jews. In this brief passage, he affirms the Resurrection of Jesus, but if you read this (and understand that Josephus was never a Christian), you'll realize it is a later interpolation by some Christian scribe. (It may have been an embellishment of a statement by Josephus referring to Jesus.)

Here's the text of the passage, by the way:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.

 
At November 10, 2007 at 9:07 AM , Blogger Vinny said...

I received Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament through inter-library loan a couple of days ago and I have posted my thoughts at http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/2007/11/apologists-abuse-of-sherwin-white.html. Frankly, I would characterize Strobel's reliance on A.N. Sherwin-White as ludicrous rather than unassailable.

 
At November 11, 2007 at 11:20 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Vinny, it looks like you've done some thorough research. And if some Christian writers have been sloppy-- and I've followed in their footsteps-- I'd like to apologize for myself and for them.

That said, the "it takes many years to pass for legends to be established" seems intuitively obvious and would, in any case, be easy to disprove with a counter-example. I'd be curious if you were to find any examples of that in your research.

In the meantime, grace to you...eric

 
At November 12, 2007 at 9:32 AM , Blogger Vinny said...

I suppose I need to know what you mean by established. Christianity was still a minority belief almost three hundred years after Jesus died. It was only after Constantine, that it became established as the dominant religion in the Roman Empire. On the other hand, 60,000 Mormons believed that Joseph Smith had found a new book of scripture within thirty years. In only six years, there are large numbers of people who believe that the World Trade Center fell as a result of a controlled demolition carried out clandestinely by the U.S. Government. Within two years, the miracles at Fatima were widely accepted by the Catholic Church including the belief that 70,000 people saw the sun “dance” in the sky in 1917. It seems to me that there are always large numbers of people who are prepared to believe fantastic stories without much proof.

 
At November 12, 2007 at 12:22 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

I don't see the relevance of whether Christianity was a minority belief or how long it took to be dominant. The question would seem to be whether it had a significant following.

Moreover, having a significant following in the face of rampant persecution is far more impressive than whatever attaches to the Mormon example.

Then there's the difference between a willingness to die for something one thinks is true (especially if it cannot be easily corroborated) vs. something one knows to be a lie.

I agree with you about one thing. As a public policy analyst, I run into all sorts of people who have all sorts of fantastic beliefs about the cause and effect of government policy-- out of ignorance, in something that cannot be easily corroborated.

 
At November 12, 2007 at 1:06 PM , Blogger Vinny said...

Your question was whether I could suggest a counter-example in which it did not take many years for a legend to to be established. That is why I was concerned about how "established" is defined.

"Established" could mean accepted as true by most people, in which case Christianity was not established for several hundred years.

If, as you reasonably suggest, "established" means attracting "a significant following," then I think Mormonism and Fatima (both of which I consider legendary) attracted a significant following relatively quickly.

So far, I have been addressing the "legends don't spread that quickly" argument. "People don't die willingly for disprovable legends" is a different argument that raises many additional questions.

 
At November 13, 2007 at 12:26 PM , Blogger Vinny said...

I agree that it is irrational for people to willingly die for a known lie. However, it is only slightly less irrational for people to die for an incredibly far-fetched story for which there is virtually no evidence. Yet we know that happens. Mormons were killed in both Missouri and Illinois for their beliefs with no more evidence than Joseph Smith’s claim that he used magic seer stones to read golden plates in a hat. So while I might infer from any early martyr’s death that he had never seen any evidence that disproved his belief, it might still be possible that they had never seen any credible evidence to support it either.

Another complication is establishing that death was a voluntary choice. If a person is given the choice of recanting or dying, then we can say with some confidence that they were willing to die for that belief. I think such stories are pretty common from the Roman persecutions of the second and third century. However, some persecutions are not carried out that way. Sometimes, as in the holocaust or the pogroms, people are targeted and killed because they are viewed as a threat or a nuisance and they are not given the opportunity to recant their beliefs. Without the stark choice, you cannot really say whether the person wouldn’t have done things differently if given a second chance.

Another problem is the question of what beliefs the earliest martyrs died for. It might be fair to say that the earliest martyrs willingly died for their belief in the creed found in 1 Corinthians 15 if you accept that it dates to an early point. However, you cannot use that to project everything else in the gospels back into the minds of the earliest Christians. The gospels may reflect later traditions that did not form part of the early martyrs’ beliefs. The fact that the empty tomb story might be easily disproved immediately after the resurrection does not mean much if the story was a legendary development thirty years later.

 
At November 13, 2007 at 5:52 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Vinny, good stuff!

I agree that Mormonism and Fatima are counter-examples. I don't find their context/circumstances nearly as powerful as those surrounding the Resurrection, but their existence does undermine the argument to some extent.

Combining arguments certainly adds complexity-- and takes us beyond the scope of this thread-- but is appropriate in a context where no single argument (or even a set of arguments) can "prove" such an event.

In sum, I find the various (objective and subjective) evidences within Christianity to be compelling. In terms of the objective evidences, the Christian explanations seem far more compelling than any alternative hypotheses. (This is similar to G.K. Chesterton's theme in Orthodoxy-- about how life works. Have you read that gem?)

As an aside/reminder, we've already talked about why the timeline here is no more than 20 years (and likely, much less-- instead of 30 years).

Grace to you...eric

 
At November 14, 2007 at 1:16 PM , Blogger Vinny said...

I have not done much reading on the dating of the New Testament, but I may have to. I usually rely on Bruce Metzger's estimates because he seems to be well respected by conservative Christians. I figure my Catholic Bible is probably a good source as well because the Catholic Church has been in the business of biblical scholarship longer than anyone and it has no vested interest in dating the books later rather than earlier.

 

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