Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Early Christians' Willingness To Suffer And Die

In a recent thread, I've been discussing some of the errors of Touchstone and Jon Curry in an ongoing discussion at Debunking Christianity. Rotten Arsenal added the following comments there this morning:

We don't have outside corroborating sources to verify the deaths of the disciples as martyrs. We don't have original copies of the gospels. In short, we have the Bible to tell us how things went down. One source isn't enough. So, to point at the disciples martyring themselves as a sign of Jesus's death and resurrection is not a good argument. This is a pretty poor and old apologist argument that relies on those needing reassurance of faith that the unprovable stories give themselves self-validation. I thought this was a dumb argument when I read it in McDowell's terrible "More Than A Carpenter" and I think it's a poor argument now.

Even beside that point, people die for lies or falsehoods all the time. David Koresh is an example. Would you burn for a lie? No? Well I guess Koresh really was Jesus come back to save us. Oops! Screwed the pooch on that one! All those people surely wouldn't have allowed themselves to die if Koresh wasn't telling the truth... right?

And while the Islamic suicide bombers weren't first hand witnesses to Mohammed's deeds, that doesn't stop them from blowing themselves up in his and Allah's name. But I guess they are killing themselves and others for a lie, but that's okay because their religion is fake.... isn't it?

I've written on some issues relevant to Rotten Arsenal's comments here. I think most people are aware of the erroneous nature of the comparison between the disciples of Christ and David Koresh and suicide bombers. And his comment about "original copies of the gospels" doesn't carry much weight, given the evidence we have for the reliable transmission of the texts. But some other points bear mentioning, or repeating, since some critics of Christianity seem to be ignorant or forgetful of them (some of these are meant to respond to Rotten Arsenal, but not all of them):

- The apostles are among the relevant early Christian sources, but they aren't the only ones. If a non-apostle meets the same criteria as an apostle in this context, then that non-apostle is relevant to a consideration of the larger issue involved.

- Martyrdom isn't all that's relevant. So is suffering in general, though it does make sense to differentiate between degrees of suffering.

- The issue is probability, not certainty. Arguing that it would be possible that somebody like an apostle died for a known lie, such as by giving one or two examples of others who have done such a thing, would weaken the force of the Christian argument, but it wouldn't eliminate it. A general tendency isn't disproven by an exception.

- The Bible isn't our only source. We also have data from Josephus, Clement of Rome, Tacitus, and other early sources relevant to the suffering and death of the early Christians. Not all of the sources give us all of the relevant data, but the overall scenario that a knowledgeable Christian is going to refer to when making the argument in question is derived from a wide variety of sources, including extra-Biblical sources.

- The Bible isn't just "one source" in this context. It's a collection of documents written by multiple sources.

- Christian sources can credibly report information relevant to Christianity, much as Jews credibly report information relevant to the Holocaust, Romans credibly reported information relevant to the Roman empire, etc. Just as Christian sources could have had bad motives or could have been in a bad position to judge an issue for some other reason, so could other sources. There's value in disinterested or hostile corroboration, but historians often accept historical claims without such corroboration, and so should we. For some examples of the reasons why, see here and here.

- The earliest Christians referred to John the Baptist's doubts about Jesus' identity, Judas' betrayal of Jesus, Paul's rebuke of Peter, and other examples of error, including rejection of the faith, among their leaders. We know that they were willing to criticize their leaders, and if it's to be argued that other apostles, for example, went the way of Judas in rejecting the faith prior to death, it should be explained why those other apostles' reputations didn't similarly go the way of Judas' reputation.

- The sort of apathy of Christianity's enemies that critics often assume needs to be demonstrated, not just assumed. For some examples of the evidence we have against common assumptions of apathy, see here. People don't normally crucify their opponents, imprison them, and send out messengers to argue against them across a wide geographical spectrum, for example, if they're highly apathetic about those opponents. The idea that somebody like the apostle Peter denied the faith before his death, or that claims of his martyrdom didn't arise until a few decades or more after his death, yet the early enemies of Christianity were too apathetic to leave any traces of such an objection in the historical record, is something that needs to be argued rather than just asserted. The ability of the early enemies of Christianity to notice and object to what the Christians would have been doing in some of the scenarios skeptics propose needs to be given more consideration than skeptics often give it. Many objections of the early enemies of Christianity are reflected in the historical record. The early Christians refer to hundreds of charges of contradictions in the New Testament, the non-historicity of Biblical events, immoral behavior by Christians, etc. If the earliest Christian reports about the suffering and death of men like Paul and Peter were false to the degree skeptics suggest, where do we see objections along those lines reflected in the early arguments of Christianity's enemies?

Again, the above are just some of the considerations that ought to be taken into account. For more on this subject, see here.


  1. In the same thread at Debunking Christianity linked above, Jon Curry writes:

    "Rachel, there is a key assumption involved in your question that the skeptic does not grant. Your question assumes you know what the disciples believed and what they were willing to die for. But you don't know what they believed. At 1 Pet 3:18 we're told that Christ was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit. Paul says in I Cor 15 that flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom of God. I'm not arguing that Peter and Paul held to a spiritual view of the resurrection, but what I am saying is that we don't know that they believed Christ was physically raised and a tomb was physically empty. They don't say that. They never say they saw a physically resurrected Jesus. Even the earliest gospel (Mark) never asserts that the disciples had experiences with a physically resurrected Jesus. It is only in our very latest NT texts that this claim is made. So, granting they were willing to die for their beliefs, since we don't know what those beliefs were they are not relevant for the apologist. For all we know they genuinely believed Christ was in some spiritual way raised from the dead and they were willing to die for it. Or they may have held to any of a myriad of other beliefs about Jesus."

    As I've said before, including in response to Jon more than once, the context surrounding men like Peter and Paul favors the conclusion that they believed in a physical resurrection, even if the writings of men like Peter and Paul themselves were unclear on the issue. Peter and Paul were Jews, and physical resurrection was the popular Jewish view. Paul had a background as a Pharisee, and the Pharisees believed in a physical resurrection. The other New Testament documents written when eyewitnesses and contemporaries of Peter and Paul were still alive repeatedly affirm the physical nature of Jesus' resurrection. The earliest Petrine and Pauline churches accepted documents like the gospels, which affirm a physical resurrection. (See, for example, Bruce Metzger, The Canon Of The New Testament [New York: Oxford University Press, 1997] and Clayton Jefford, The Apostolic Fathers And The New Testament [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006].) And the early enemies of Christianity don't argue that the Christians redefined the resurrection in such a way a few decades into church history. If men like Peter and Paul had traveled so far, planted so many churches, written to other Christians, etc. for multiple decades, why wouldn't their alleged teaching of a non-physical resurrection leave more traces in the historical record? Such considerations heavily favor the conclusion that men like Peter and Paul believed in a physical resurrection, even before we evaluate the writings of these men. (And Jon Curry has defended the ridiculous position that all of the Pauline documents, including ones like Galatians and Philemon, are forgeries, which should give the reader some idea of how reasonable he is.)

    Furthermore, Jon ought to interact with the sort of evidence for belief in a physical resurrection in Paul's writings discussed here and here.

    Even apart from such evidence, a non-physical appearance of Christ could still be supernatural. The testimony of men like Peter and Paul would still be problematic for somebody like Jon Curry. For some examples of his inability to explain the relevant evidence, see here.

    His comments about the gospel of Mark are similarly problematic. The gospel does anticipate appearances of Jesus (Mark 16:7). The implication is that Jesus had physically appeared to people. Paul's comments in 1 Corinthians 15 and elsewhere suggest that a belief in appearances was widely accepted before Mark's gospel was written. And there are good reasons for accepting the earliness of the empty tomb belief, to the point that its earliness is widely accepted even among non-Christian scholars.

  2. By the way, notice that Jon Curry writes:

    "Rachel, there is a key assumption involved in your question that the skeptic does not grant."

    Skeptics disagree among themselves on the issues in question here. Most aren't as radically skeptical as Jon Curry. Skeptics like John Crossan and Bart Ehrman will acknowledge Paul's belief in a physical resurrection, for example. Though somebody like Ehrman is unreasonable in some of his positions, he isn't nearly as unreasonable as Jon Curry.

  3. Touchstone writes:

    "Maybe the best way to draw this out is just to 'sit on the shoulder' of, say James, in a hypothetical....And, because it's apparently necessary to point out, this hypothetical is not the recounting from some ancient diary I happen to have on my shelf, the long lost account of James. I am not advancing this notion as my claim of how things went down. Repeat: this is not my claim of what happened. Rather, this is a scenario that's *plausible*, and depicts a path to belief for James that he is willing to pursue and cling to unto death, all without having any *actual* experiences of a risen Jesus. There's an observed tendency in some quarters to equate plausible hypotheses with concrete claims. This is not a concrete claim, but a plausible path that connects the endpoints for James, and one that doesn't need to make hash out of physical law and our observations of the behavior of physical law to do it."

    There's an observed tendency in some quarters to present hypotheticals that don't interact with the objections to such hypotheticals that Christian and non-Christian scholars have been discussing for centuries. There's also an observed tendency to put forward "plausible hypotheses" only to distance oneself from those hypotheses just afterward by saying something like "I am not advancing this notion as my claim of how things went down." Who can blame Touchstone for not wanting to defend such a flimsy hypothetical? He'd rather float trial balloons and keep a safe distance, seeing if he'll eventually find something that works. Does that seem like the behavior of somebody who's done sufficient research and has considered the issues thoughtfully and honestly enough?

  4. Jon Curry writes:

    "One additional point regarding Touchstone's suggestion about the accounts of martyrdom as themselves legend. The earliest account of Paul's martyrdom is contained in the Acts of Paul. Milk squirts out as he is beheaded, and following his beheading he's approaches Ceaser to inform him that he's next. Paul's disciples approach his grave and find him present there and raised from the dead. This is our earliest account of Paul's martyrdom."

    Curry's comments are either erroneous or of little relevance. If he's referring to the earliest account of Paul's martyrdom in the sense of any reference to Paul's death as a martyr, then he's mistaken. The document he's citing isn't the earliest source. If he's referring to the earliest account in the sense of a narration or highly detailed description of the events, then so what? Nobody denies that there are embellished accounts of historical events in Christian history, as there are in Roman history, American history, etc. If other early accounts of Paul's death don't contain such embellishments, then what is an apocryphal document like the Acts of Paul supposed to prove? Are we supposed to believe that either the early Christians probably were wrong every time they mentioned something like the martyrdom of an apostle or the evidence is always too unclear to reach a conclusion? Apparently, the early Christians had unusually bad memories, their enemies were unusually incompetent in noticing and responding to so many major misjudgments by the early Christians, etc. Isn't it odd that so much of what skeptics like Jon Curry and Touchstone argue isn't found in the historical record, but instead has to be read between the lines and has to be accompanied with so many theories of widespread gullibility, misunderstandings, apathy, etc.?

  5. Jon Curry has responded to some of my comments. I've addressed his misleading claims about why we banned him here. On another subject, he writes:

    "In response to my comments towards Rachel Jason says that early Christian martyrs like Peter and Paul must have believed that Jesus was raised physically because a physical view of resurrection was 'popular' amongst Jews."

    Jon is responding to comments I made in this thread. Scroll the screen up. Is Jon accurately describing what I said? No. I've repeatedly said that historical judgments are about probability, not what "must" be true, and I cited the Jewish background of Peter and Paul along with other lines of evidence, including some Jon doesn't address in his response. And I didn't just refer to physical resurrection as "popular amongst Jews". I said that it was the popular view, and I linked to an article that addresses the subject.

    Jon continues:

    "He also says that if they held to a spiritual view this would have left more traces in the historical record. But there are traces of a whole range of views in the historical record. The Gnostic Acts of Peter, which contains the account of Peter being crucified upside down, specifically says that Peter claimed Jesus was raised spiritually, not physically."

    The fact that a view is found in the historical record doesn't prove that it's found in the manner we would expect if people like Paul and Peter taught the view. If George Washington's contemporaries state that he held a particular belief, if other contemporaries he was close to and who would be expected to agree with him held that belief, and groups he founded or heavily influenced during his lifetime could be shown to have held that belief shortly after his death, it wouldn't make sense to respond to such evidence by citing an apocryphal document from a hundred years later that denies that Washington held that belief. We have good evidence that Peter was a Jew. We don't have good evidence that he was a Gnostic. The evidence I cited for Jewish belief about the resurrection is more relevant than the apocryphal document Jon is citing. And people like the authors of the gospels and Acts and the people who populated the early Petrine churches are far more likely to reflect Peter's beliefs than an apocryphal document written around a century later.

    He writes:

    "The contents of the documents at Nag Hammadi show a whole range of views about Jesus from earliest Christians, including views that Jesus was the reincarnated Seth or Zoroaster. And here we are talking about the documents that fortunately survived the Christian purges. How many additional views are we unaware of due to Christian censorship?"

    Jon's claims about "purges" and "censorship" were answered long ago in threads he left, such as here and here. And the fact that there's a wide range of beliefs in the historical record doesn't prove that they're all equally credible. If Jon wants to argue that "documents at Nag Hammadi" are comparable to or better than the sources I've cited for the purpose of identifying Paul and Peter's view of the resurrection, he'll need to present more of an argument than his vague comments above.

    He writes:

    "But where were the myth busters when it was necessary to correct either Matthew or Luke regarding the timing of Jesus birth? Where were the myth busters when Matthew and Luke disagreed about Jesus' genealogy?"

    If Jon weren't so ignorant of the history of Christianity, he might know that such issues were discussed in early church history. That's why gospel harmonies were written, why many sources discussed the relationship between the two genealogies, etc. Jon goes on to cite other alleged Biblical errors and some other issues related to early Christianity, such as the authorship of Ephesians and the authenticity of the Ignatian epistles. He claims that I "did not attempt a rebuttal". Considering how much of my material Jon has ignored, he wouldn't be in much of a position to issue such a criticism even if it were true. He links to an article here, but doesn't explain why. For more about Ephesians and the Ignatian epistles, see here. Jon's claim that I "did not attempt a rebuttal" is false. And his suggestion that Pauline authorship of Ephesians should have been criticized begs the question in favor of his (dubious) position that Paul didn't write Ephesians. His suggestion that the Ignatian authorship of the Ignatian epistles should have been criticized similarly begs the question. Not everybody accepted the longer versions of his epistles. Why should we think that nobody was criticizing the longer versions, or, if he wants to suggest that all of the versions are spurious, how does he know that?

    Furthermore, I haven't suggested that every potential criticism of Christianity should be found in the historical record. Judgments have to be made case-by-case. The resurrection was an issue of major significance to early Christianity, as we see reflected in its prominence in the gospels and Acts, Paul's comments in 1 Corinthians 15, etc. To compare the nature of the resurrection to an issue like the details of Jesus' genealogy or Ignatian authorship of the Ignatian epistles is ridiculous. If the early Christians rejected the common Jewish view of the resurrection in favor of a non-physical view, then adopted a physical view afterward, and the resurrection was so prominent in early Christian thought and early Christian interaction with non-Christians (as reflected in Acts, Paul's letters, the second-century apologists, etc.), why don't we see both Christians and non-Christians commenting on such a shift? Why no criticism for an initial rejection of the Jewish view of resurrection followed by an adoption of that view? Arguing that other criticisms weren't issued against the early Christians doesn't explain why there weren't criticisms in this context.

    He writes:

    "So to say 'Nobody believed this, everybody believed that' is just presumptuous. Maybe everyone did believe in physical resurrection. Unfortunately if that's true it's hard to know."

    I didn't say "'Nobody believed this, everybody believed that". And we don't need to know that everybody believed in a physical resurrection in order to notice that there's far more evidence for that view than there is for belief in a non-physical resurrection. And we don't need to know that everybody believed in a physical resurrection in order to conclude that it's probable that men like Peter and Paul did. Why does Jon keep misrepresenting the issues under discussion?

    He writes:

    "But I could even grant the point from Jason and assume they did hold to a physical resurrection of Jesus and this still wouldn't help the Christian. Because even if Paul believed that Jesus was physically raised, this wouldn't show that he claimed to be an eyewitness to a physical resurrection. Pentecostals believe Jesus is raised physically, and some of them likewise believe that they've seen Jesus."

    In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul cites Jesus' appearance to him in the context of discussing the resurrection, not just appearances in general, such as visions. If Paul believed in a physical resurrection, then the more natural way to read a reference to a resurrection appearance is to read it as a reference to a physical appearance. If Jon wants to argue that somebody who believed in a physical resurrection cited a non-physical appearance of Jesus while discussing resurrection appearances, then the burden of proof is on his shoulders. He's arguing for the less natural reading.

    Furthermore, Paul knew of ongoing visions of Jesus (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). He wasn't discussing those. He was discussing resurrection appearances, which were physical and limited to the past.

    And the earliest source outside of Paul to comment on the subject, a source contemporary with him and who knew him, describes the appearance to him as of a physical nature. The appearance to Paul is described as experienced by other people, not just Paul, and it involves physical light and hearing with physical ears (Acts 22:9, 22:11, 26:13).

    Once again, Jon is repeating an argument already refuted. See the discussion I had with him on this issue in the comments section of the thread here.

    He writes:

    "They might be willing to die for this belief. They are sincere in this belief. But this proves nothing. Neither Peter or Paul ever tell us they saw a physically resurrected Christ."

    As I explained before, it's not as though a non-physical appearance would be inherently naturalistic. The early Christian testimony would still be problematic for Jon even if we were to conclude that the early Christians believed in non-physical appearances of Christ. But the evidence suggests that they believed in physical appearances. Jon has failed to even disprove that.

    He writes:

    "Paul's letters strongly suggest that the appearances he experienced were visionary."

    Notice that Jon makes that unsupported assertion, but doesn't interact with the contrary data I've already cited earlier in this present discussion (my recent post on Romans 8:11).