Monday, May 08, 2006

God Fought Monsters In Order To Create The Universe: How John Loftus Reads The Bible

John Loftus has posted a response to my article on Jonah. I suggest that the reader take note of the many relevant issues in my article that Loftus ignored. His latest article repeats some of his previous errors, but he does address some issues he hadn't addressed previously.

On the subject of the alleged gullibility of ancient people, Loftus lists some ancient practices he disapproves of, such as the behavior of the prophets of Baal and astrology, and he compares those practices to modern advances in science, including everything from "dental technology" to "laser surgery". He then comments:

"Compare the above scientific disciplines with such things as divination, casting of lots, dreams, visions, trances, magic, exorcisms as healings, astrology, necromancy, sorcery, prophets for every religion, idol worship, gods and goddesses for every natural phenomena, human and animal sacrifices, priests, omens, temples, festivals, sacred writings, and the Pseudepigrapha. We live in a much different world than the ancients, primarily because of Newtonian science."

In other words, Loftus compares what he considers some of the worst elements of the ancient world to what he considers some of the best elements of the modern world. He doesn't mention the positive elements of the ancient world or the negative elements of the modern world. As I've said repeatedly in previous responses to Loftus, the large majority of the people in the world today are supernaturalists. I can produce a list of modern beliefs that Loftus would disapprove of that would be longer than his list of ancient beliefs he disapproves of in his latest article. Many modern people believe in God or gods, astrology, ghosts, psychics, etc. And while our technology is more advanced than ancient technology, people in the forty-first century surely will have more advanced technology than we have. Does it therefore follow that people of the forty-first century should consider John Loftus a gullible source, since he lived in a world in which many people held false beliefs, a world with less advanced technology?

Loftus mentions modern advances in geology, rocket science, laser surgery, etc., but what relevance do such advances have in judging whether people in the first century saw an empty tomb or whether the gospel of John was written by John, for example? It's not as if Peter needed the latest advances in dentistry in order to know whether he had seen Jesus risen from the dead. It's not as if advances in chemistry have explained how Jesus could naturalistically fulfill prophecy. John wouldn't need the latest developments in meteorology in order to reach a reliable conclusion about whether he had seen an empty tomb. Loftus keeps making misleading generalizations about how much better off we are than ancient people, but his generalizations don't explain the data relevant to Christianity.

Regarding the resurrection, Loftus makes a vague appeal to "visions" again:

"Speaking of visions Matthew has argued that there is a visionary basis to Christianity."

And:

"In the case of the disciple Thomas, John describes a risen Jesus who appeared to Thomas, even 'though the doors were locked,' indicating that Jesus either walked through the doors, or just appeared out of thin air. And then Jesus proceeds by asking Thomas to put his finger in his hands, and his hand in Jesus’ side. How can both of these descriptions of Jesus be of a flesh and blooded person? The way Jesus appeared to Thomas leads us think that this was nothing but a vision. How then can Thomas touch the flesh of Jesus, which still had open fatal wounds? Did the post-resurrected Jesus still have blood running in his veins? We now know that blood is necessary for the body to function, and that breathing gives the blood its oxygen, which is pumped though the body by the heart. Did he have a functioning heart and a set of lungs? Did the post-resurrected Jesus breathe? To speak, as it’s claimed Jesus did, demands a functioning set of lungs. John specifically said that he breathed (John 20:22). But didn’t Jesus lose all of his blood on the cross, and didn’t the post-resurrected body of Jesus still have open fatal wounds, according to John? These fatal wounds would cause him to lose any remaining blood out of his body. All of this leads me to suspect, at best, it was a vision."

And:

"There was no evidence. It was a story about Thomas. A vision. And it subsequently became a legend, which grew and grew as people passed it on, not unlike how the myth of Santa Claus grew up until the poem, '’twas the Night Before Christmas,' which revolutionized the way we thought about St. Nick."

The article Loftus links to, in the first quote above, doesn't give many details, but instead makes assertions about experiences various people have had and claims that the early Christians must have experienced something similar. The article is more assertion than it is argument. Loftus needs to be more specific. The term "vision" can refer to many different things. If he has hallucinations in mind, then he needs to address the problems with any hallucination theory (see here and here). The resurrection accounts give many details inconsistent with what we know about hallucinations. Men like Paul, his travel companions, and James wouldn't have had a mindset in which they were expecting to see the risen Jesus. Even Jesus' closest followers weren't expecting a resurrection of the sort we see described in the gospels. Rather, common Jewish expectation was that there would be a general resurrection in the future, not an individual resurrection beforehand. If Jesus' followers had hallucinated experiences with Jesus, they would have been more likely to have reported something like a resuscitation, an experience with Jesus' spirit, or an assumption. Since hallucinations involve prior expectations, the unexpected nature of the resurrection experiences (relative to the recipients) is inconsistent with a hallucination theory. Hallucinations wouldn't produce an empty tomb. Etc. Loftus doesn't seem to be aware of the many problems with the sort of theory he's proposing.

Concerning John 20, there's no good reason to doubt that the experience described is physical. Non-physical visions don't leave an empty tomb (John 20:2), involve an ability to touch (John 20:27), build a physical fire (John 21:9), etc. Jesus' body doesn't have to have the same characteristics as the pre-resurrection body. It wouldn't be a resurrection body if it wasn't transformed. A transformed body explains all of the data. Loftus' theory only explains some of it, and it's a theory he has no evidence for. He's just speculating.

Loftus refers to legends "growing and growing", but John's gospel contains fewer miracle accounts than previous gospels, and it mentions far fewer resurrection witnesses than Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 15, for example. See here for David Wood's detailed refutation of the sort of argument Loftus is putting forward.

After a failed attempt to dismiss the resurrection with a hallucination theory, Loftus returns to the gullibility issue. He makes comments such as the following:

"Look at the book of Jude. He believed that Enoch, 'the 7th from Adam' prophesied something (v.14). Jude made it into the canon too. But it’s crystal clear Enoch’s book is pseudonymous and not written by Enoch."

Does a belief that Enoch prophesied prove gullibility on the part of Jude? No. Does Jude refer to any apocryphal work as scripture or as historically reliable? No. Similarly, Paul quotes pagan poetry without agreeing with everything it contains. Loftus would need more data to reach the conclusion he's reaching about Jude. He doesn't have that data.

He writes the following about Jonah and its canonicity:

"So if I’m right that there was no evidence for Jonah’s prophecy, then those who accepted Jonah into the canon didn’t have any either!"

Jonah made more than one prophecy. He accurately predicted what would happen when he was cast into the sea (Jonah 1:12). Loftus keeps referring to the prophecy of Jonah 3:4, but that wasn't Jonah's only prediction. Even if it had been, how could Loftus possibly know that the ancient Israelites had no evidence for the canonicity of Jonah outside of what's written in Jonah? Loftus is, again, assuming more than he can prove. We don't have the historical details surrounding the incorporation of Jonah into the canon.

On the subject of the creature that swallowed Jonah, Loftus makes another assertion without evidence:

"Well then, Jonah also describes himself as swallowed by a great fish; probably one of the mythical sea creatures of the deep, like Leviathan, Behemoth, or Rahab."

Later, Loftus misreads a series of Biblical passages in order to reach this ridiculous conclusion:

"Then whom was God fighting in order to create the universe? (cf. Isaiah 51:9-10; Ps. 74:13-14; 89:10-12; Job 26:7-13)."

Do any of those passages refer to God "fighting in order to create the universe"? No. There's some mention of God's work in creation, as well as His post-creation redemptive work and a lot of poetic language. Loftus seems to be combining things in the text that the text itself doesn't combine. If Loftus interprets the Bible this way, is it any wonder he arrives at such erroneous conclusions?

On the issue of New Testament authorship, Loftus writes:

"Besides, when it comes to John, Paul, and Luke, which ones can actually claim to be an eyewitness of Jesus’ miracles and resurrection? John? And where can we find his testimony? The book of John? Most scholars dispute he wrote it? And what makes you so sure that the book of John didn’t embellish the stories, since gospel scholars see him doing so with Jesus’ long discourses?"

Loftus mentions Paul and Luke, but gives us no reason to reject their testimony. Paul was an eyewitness of the resurrected Christ, and he was in contact with relatives and disciples of Jesus. Luke was an eyewitness of Paul's miracles, and he was in contact with other relevant early sources, such as James (Acts 21:18).

Loftus doesn't give us any reason to reject Johannine authorship of the gospel of John, but instead makes vague references to what some scholars believe. Since other scholars disagree with them, and since every manuscript names John as the author, the other internal evidence suggests John as the author, and the external evidence is heavily in support of John, why are we supposed to conclude that somebody else wrote the document? Does Loftus apply this same sort of reasoning to the writings of Josephus or Tacitus, for example? Do we disregard the weight of the internal and external evidence and speculate that somebody else might have written it? There's a difference between hard and soft evidence. The speculative theories of those who deny Johannine authorship are soft. Hard evidence such as we have for the gospel of John can't rationally be overturned on the basis of soft speculations that have long been answered by conservative scholarship. For some examples of the evidence we have for Johannine authorship of the fourth gospel, see here.

On the subject of Jonah's conditional prophecy in Jonah 3:4, Loftus writes:

"Then the conditional nature of prophecy is something added to the Mosaic tradition which originally didn’t provide for any exceptions or conditions…it must come to pass."

Where does Moses say that conditional prophecies are unacceptable? The writings of Moses themselves contain conditional prophecies. For example, God would bless the people in their land if they obeyed Him. A conditional prophecy includes the condition at the outset. It's predicting that an outcome will occur if a particular condition is met. The only way a conditional prophecy would be false would be if a condition were met without the predicted outcome following. If Jonah was giving a conditional prophecy in Jonah 3:4, as the context suggests, then he was predicting the destruction of the city only if the Ninevites didn't heed the warning. Since they did heed the warning, it would make no sense to expect the city to be destroyed. Does Loftus understand what a conditional prophecy is? Loftus should have made more of an effort to understand Christianity before he devoted a blog and his life to debunking it.

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