Tuesday, March 03, 2009

How Significant Is It When Modern Scholars Affirm The Historicity Of A Biblical Account?

As the thread here illustrates, many critics of Christianity are largely ignorant of modern scholarship. Here are some of the comments of various posters in that thread:

[A majority of scholars in "a Christian dominated culture" has] The same weight that a majority of scholars in Iran has on the reliability of the Koran?...

Habermas is seemingly not telling the whole truth of the matter with regard to the 75% of scholars claim...At best it is a divided score...Or maybe Craig made up a figure he found reassuring?...

Aren't these "Biblical Scholars" anyway? People who study with the intent of proving the Bible 'true'? I had the idea that among general scienctific archeologists, there was no 'historical' evidence for odd happenings at a crusifixion and that there is scant evidence that Jesus even was a real person. Among archeologists and historians who don't have the word "Biblical" in front of their titles, anyway....

The only reason Christian's refer to "the majority of scholars" is because the only scholars they know are the ones they hang out with in their christian circles. Since birds of a feather flock together, they think the majority of scholars agree with themselves. They then make stupid points like this in debates only to be embarrassed to have their opponent point out, as Ehrman did, that in fact most historians are not Christians and that most historians do not believe a man rose from the dead 2000 years ago....

Habermas informs us that of the scholars he's surveyed, 75% would be called conservatives. He defines a conservative as someone that believes that Jesus was raised from the dead in some manner. Then Craig thinks we should be impressed that 75% of the scholars Habermas surveyed believe the tomb was empty....

Craig should be a politician - he seems to have certainly mastered the "double speak answer" (ie flat out lie) to the extent of one.

Case in point from the linked article: "it is fair to speak of them as established facts about Jesus that need to be explained. That doesn’t mean that they are certain or indubitable.....but merely that they have a degree of credibility comparable to other commonly accepted facts of ancient history."

These two statements are completely contradictory. If something is an established fact (ie Lincoln was assassinated) then by definition there is sufficient evidential proof to conclude that the even is certain. What we see Craig doing here is a deliberate attempt to redefine (to his custom meaning) the term "fact" so as to make room for the vague and poorly attested assertions he bases his arguments and faith on.

Such deliberate deception, common in Christian circles, is beneath contempt.

There are too many errors in these posters' comments for me to address all of them. Just how ignorant does one have to be in order to think that William Lane Craig "made up a figure he found reassuring"? Or to think that men like Habermas and Craig "think the majority of scholars agree with themselves" because "the only scholars they know are the ones they hang out with in their christian circles"? Or to think that Biblical scholars are "People who study with the intent of proving the Bible 'true'"? Gerd Ludemann, John Dominic Crossan, and Bart Ehrman can be classified as Biblical scholars. Do they "study with the intent of proving the Bible true"? Do these skeptics apply the same sort of reasoning to philosophers, scientists, historians, and other scholars who agree with them on various issues? Should we be as dismissive of such non-Christian scholars as these skeptics are of Christian scholars? After all, non-Christian scholars have a non-Christian bias. Etc.

I addressed some of the relevant issues in a thread last year:

Gary Habermas and Michael Licona refer to majorities of "critical" and "non-believing" scholars, not just professing Christians or just conservative Christians....

Jon also makes the following claims about what Gary Habermas has reported concerning trends in resurrection scholarship:

"The vast majority of scholars are conservative Christians (see DagoodS's comments under my own blog entry here.) Conclusions about the beliefs of the majority of scholars are based upon studies by Christian apologist Gary Habermas. Habermas further informs us that a full 75% of these scholars believe that Jesus rose from the dead."

But if we go read DagoodS's comments, we see that he refers to "moderate conservatives", not "conservative Christians". Habermas, from whom DagoodS derived that phrase, is discussing the conclusions people reach about some issues related to the resurrection, not their beliefs in general. Many people who aren't "conservative Christians" in general fall into Habermas' "moderate conservative" category. And, as I've mentioned above, Habermas sometimes specifies that majorities of unbelieving scholars accept the relevant facts.

Concerning one of the issues I addressed in my reply to Touchstone, Habermas writes:

"From considerations such as the research areas above, perhaps the single most crucial development in recent thought has emerged. With few exceptions, the fact that after Jesus’ death his followers had experiences that they thought were appearances of the risen Jesus is arguably one of the two or three most recognized events from the four Gospels, along with Jesus’ central proclamation of the Kingdom of God and his death by crucifixion. Few critical scholars reject the notion that, after Jesus’ death, the early Christians had real experiences of some sort....Fuller elsewhere refers to the disciples’ belief in the resurrection as 'one of the indisputable facts of history.' What caused this belief? That the disciples’ had actual experiences, characterized as appearances or visions of the risen Jesus, no matter how they are explained, is 'a fact upon which both believer and unbeliever may agree.' An overview of contemporary scholarship indicates that Fuller’s conclusions are well-supported. E.P. Sanders initiates his discussion in The Historical Figure of Jesus by outlining the broad parameters of recent research. Beginning with a list of the historical data that critics know, he includes a number of 'equally secure facts' that 'are almost beyond dispute.' One of these is that, after Jesus’ death, 'his disciples . . . saw him.'" (source)

Thus, the fact that early Christians, such as Jesus' disciples, thought they saw Him risen from the dead isn't just accepted by "conservative Christians". It's also accepted by most non-Christian scholars.

Furthermore, Curry is misleading in his claim that "Conclusions about the beliefs of the majority of scholars are based upon studies by Christian apologist Gary Habermas." I've also cited similar conclusions by other scholars, such as William Craig, and, as the quote above illustrates, men such as Craig and Habermas cite other scholars agreeing with them about the widespread scholarly acceptance of conclusions relevant to the resurrection. Both Craig and Habermas frequently cite other scholars, including non-conservatives, agreeing with their conclusions about scholarly trends.

Curry is also misleading in his comment about 75% of scholars believing "that Jesus rose from the dead". Habermas is including scholars who believe in some type of non-physical appearance of Jesus. For Curry to make an unqualified reference to "rose from the dead" after misleadingly referring to these scholars as "conservative Christians" doesn't imply the sort of nuance that Habermas had in mind.

Furthermore, neither Curry nor DagoodS mentions Habermas' qualifier in note 35 of the article linked above:

"These percentages reflect only those publications that answer this specific question"

In other words, the 75% figure has to do with those scholars who comment on the subject. That's not all scholars. Because of the nature of the issues involved, more scholars comment on a subject such as the empty tomb or whether the early Christians thought they saw the risen Jesus than comment on an issue like what these early Christians actually saw.

In the comments of DagoodS that Curry has referenced, we're told:

"Is there any surprise, that those who hold to Jesus actually being raised from the dead, believe an empty tomb is historical? Within this particular topic, 75% of scholars writing on it believe Jesus was actually raised from the dead. The same 75% hold to an empty tomb. What is so remarkable about that percentage?"

Where does Habermas say that the two groups overlap in that manner? He doesn't. DagoodS and Jon Curry have both misrepresented Habermas on multiple points.


  1. Or to think that men like Habermas and Craig "think the majority of scholars agree with themselves" because "the only scholars they know are the ones they hang out with in their christian circles"?

    Statements like this show the patent dishonesty or plain stupidity of the commenters. Have any of them actually compared conservative commentaries to liberal commentaries. If they had, they would know that conservatives regularly interact with liberals. It's the liberals, not the conservatives, who don't interact with the opposing side. Rather, like those who make comments like this, they dismiss the other side and go about their merry way.

  2. So, all those biblical scholars WLC debates on the resurrection wo accept the empty tomb and everything else are christians themselves?


  3. This dialogue seems a bit irrelevant for athiests to attack us, but also these stats don’t really help us, either. Craig & Habermas often cite the 75% of New Testament scholars who support the ‘4 points,’ but in Habermas’ summary online, he points out that 75% of the scholars in the work happen to be conservative Christians.

    Does that not make the findings somewhat of a ‘So What?’ In other words, Habermas has demonstrated that conservative Christians believe that the NT is accurate. Isn’t that to be expected? Just as a poll could show that most Quranic scholars believe the Quran to be accurate. I’d be interested to know what our non-Christian friends in the scholarly world think.

    If 75% of scholars agree on these 4 points, and 75% of the scholars reviewed are conservative Christians, no matter how one slices it, once one removes those of us who are already believers, the numbers drop a lot.

    I’m just saying that, although I think the atheists misunderstand the numbers, the stats don’t help us as they only serve to demonstrate that most NT scholars happen to be conservative Christians.


  4. testing123,

    Reread what I wrote above. You're misrepresenting the data.

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  6. Jason, I'll try to clarify what the critics are saying.

    If you look in Habermas’ study, the people he lists as ‘moderate conservative’ (the majority) include Richard Swinburne and NT Wright. Hardly what one would call agnostics. I think the point is just that most NT scholars happen to be believing Christians, however one slices it.

    The criticism is not that Craig is citing inaccurate data per se, simply that it’s misleading because most people in the field he’s quoting happen to be of the same religion as him.

  7. walker_family_123,

    Reread what was said above. You're ignoring and contradicting what's already been documented.