Thursday, June 17, 2004

Kurtz oder Christ?

Ever so many articles have been written attacking Mel Gibson's adaptation of Good Friday. Many were written even before its preliminary screening.

However, it occasions special attention when Paul Kurtz takes up the pen to write a critical review for Free Inquiry magazine:

Kurtz is arguably the greatest living humanist philosopher, and Free Inquiry is the leading organ for the cause.

As a man who trumpets the virtues of rationality and rigorous argument, we'd naturally expect his review to exemplify his stated standards of excellence. So how well does he measure up against his own yardstick?

Two features stand out for particular note: (i) the regular resort to unsubstantiated claims, and (ii) the lack of critical coherence.

1. On the one hand, he characterizes the flogging of Christ as "sadomasochistic." But in the next paragraph he warns the reader of the religious right, which, among other things, is opposed to same-sex marriage.

But the relation between these two criticisms calls for a couple of comments.

i) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the depiction is, indeed, sadomasochistic, it is hard to see how Kurtz can oppose sadomasochism in a film when he supports same-sex marriage, seeing as sadomasochism is a feature of the queer lifestyle.

ii) It is also unclear on what scientific basis a secular humanist would support same-sex marriage. What survival advantage does the impotent, disease-ridden lifestyle of the sodomite confer on the species?

2. He goes on to say that "more than ever before, the Bible has become a powerful political force in America." Really? More than it was in Colonial America, in the age of Winthrop, Witherspoon, Bradford, Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards, to name a few?


i) He devotes a fair amount of his time to browbeating Mel Gibson for taking too many liberties with the canonical Gospels. But it's more than a little unclear what the point of all this is, for in the very next section he takes issue with the canonical Gospels themselves. Why should he care whether the secondary source is inaccurate when he regards the primary source as inaccurate?

ii) And since when has historical exactitude been an artistic benchmark of a cinematic adaptation? Would he fault De Sica for taking liberties with Bassani?

iii) He spends a lot of time on the contributions of Catherine Emmerich, as if he were breaking the story of the Pentagon Papers. But this has been widely reported for over a year.

4. On the one hand, he repeats the old-heard assertion that Gibson's dad is a Holocaust-denier. On the other hand, he says, parenthetically, that "some even question whether he [Jesus] lived."

But what's the difference between a Holocaust-denier and a Christ-denier—between someone who denies the historicity of the one, and someone who denies the historicity of the other? Frankly, Kurtz is putting himself in the same company as Gibson's crackpot father.

5. As is characteristic of these movie reviews, the movie is putatively the primary target, when, in fact, the Gospels are the primary target.

i) On the one hand, he says that the Gospels were written "to satisfy the immediate practical needs of the new Christian churches then developing." On the other hand, he had earlier informed us that "they were thus written some forty to seventy years after the death of Jesus."

But this, to say the least, demands a rather elastic definition of "immediate." If they were written to satisfy an "immediate practical need," then how could they be written 40-70 years after the fact? Doesn't seem very immediate or practical to me.

ii) So which claim should we sacrifice to restore coherence? Or should we dump both of them?

If you compare the Gospels with the Epistles, you can see that they don't cover all the same ground by any means. But if this were merely a literary device to historicize doctrine and ethics, then there ought to be a point-by-point correspondence.


i) Kurtz denies that the Gospel writers were eyewitnesses. But this is a straw man argument. Who ever said that all four Gospels were the word of eyewitnesses? Rather, the usual claim is that at least two of the four (Matthew, John), were eyewitnesses. It is more than possible that Mark, as a resident of Jerusalem, was an eyewitness of some events as well. And Luke, by his own admission, relies on eyewitness testimony rather than eyewitness observation.

ii) But, of course, history is a history of the past, not the present, so that few scholars are participants in the events they recount. Would Dr. Kurtz discount a modern-day historian who writes about the Middle Ages or ancient Near East?

For example, Kurtz informs the reader that Julian the Apostate was "most likely [murdered] by a Christian soldier in his army." Was Dr. Kurtz an eyewitness to that event? Does this bit of speculation come from "an impartial observer"? Is this a "scientific" datum?

7. Kurtz asserts that the "Gospels are based on an oral tradition." He offers no evidence for this claim. How does he happen to know that?

Why assume that an oral stage precedes a literary stage? The Greco-Roman world was not preliterate. The Gospel authors did not discover the art of writing. If they could write 40-70 years after the fact, why could they not write 5-10 years after the fact? If they knew how to write, and their audience knew how to read, why interpolate a lengthy interval of time?

8. For that matter, what if they were written several decades after the event? Most men and women, if they pen an autobiography, do so towards the end of life. Doesn't Dr. Kurtz remember what happened to him in his teens and twenties?

9. Kurtz asserts that the "Gospels' claims are not independently corroborated by impartial observers."

i) But, to begin with, if you have "four" Gospels, as well as other NT documents bearing witness to the historical Christ (e.g., James, Jude, 1-2 Peter), that is independent corrobortion several times over. So multiple-attestation is not wanting by any means. These are 1C witnesses to a 1C figure.

ii) Does Dr. Kurtz demand independent corroboration for Tacitus or Josephus? Certainly there is a regular and glaring absence of independent corroboration for many of his own claims about the Gospels.

iii) The term "impartial observer" is treacherous. Does he mean impartial before or after observing the event in question? One can hardly be impartial after the fact for you have formed an opinion on the basis of your eyewitness experience.

10. Kurtz claims, without any corroboration of his own, that the Gospels "were not written as history or biography per se—and the authors did not use the methods of careful, historical scholarship."

i) Well, for starters, Luke tell us that he did just that, and he has not been without his defenders.

ii) But what about an eyewitness account? An autobiographer or biographer of a contemporary friend may make no use of "the methods of careful, historical scholarship" for the simple reason that he's reporting on what he heard and saw for himself.

11. Kurtz then tries to dismiss the Gospels on the grounds that they were written to "attract and convert" their readers to the cause.

Well, if that's a disqualification, then we must also disregard Free Inquiry magazine as sheer "propaganda" and "special-pleading," must we not?

There is no automatic antithesis between advocacy and accuracy. It depends on whether the bias was formed on the basis of the evidence or else is manipulating the evidence. It depends on whether the writer has an incentive to lie and shade the coverage.


i) Kurtz says that the Gospel writers found inspiration in the OT. But how is the promise/fulfillment scheme a disproof of the NT? When a scientist predicts a new discovery, and his prediction comes true, is that a disproof of his theory?

ii) Again, how does a "passionate yearning" disprove the fulfillment? Doesn't a scientist long to find confirmation for his theory?

13. Kurtz then makes the breathtaking claim that "there is no mention of Jesus or of his miraculous healings in any extant non-Christian literature."

i) For starters, this claim is demonstrably false. Cf. F. F. Bruce, Jesus & Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Eerdmans 1974).

ii) But even if the claim were true, so what? There is no mention of Tacitus in Jewish sources, no mention of Josephus in Roman sources, and so on. What's the relevance of this claim?

14. Kurtz says that according to late tradition, "Mark heard about Jesus from Peter." But we don't have to depend on Eusebius to figure out where Mark may have gotten his information.

i) The fact that Mark was a resident of Jerusalem, whose home was a house-church (Acts 12:12), means that he had access to all the Apostles, and may have been an eyewitness to the Jerusalem ministry of our Lord.

ii) And as Kurtz himself admits, Mark is not the only source for Matthew and Luke. Matthew had his own first-hand experience to draw upon, while Luke had a wide circle of informants—as is clear from the Book of Acts. And John was, of course, on the scene for everything of consequence.

15. On the one hand, Kurtz dismisses the canonical Gospels as third-hand accounts, even though they're 1C primary sources of 1C history. On the other hand, he takes the word of John Crossan and Elaine Pagels, who rely on 4C apocryphal gospels. Talk about "ill-attributed sayings"! No one is more credulous than an unbeliever.

16. Contrary to his baseless allegation, there is no compelling to evidence to date the Fourth Gospel after the fall of Jerusalem, although that's perfectly possible, and would not subtract from its authenticity as long as John lived long enough to write it—which is perfectly possible as well. In my own estimation, Jn 21 was probably occasioned by the death of Peter, which would date the Gospel to the 60s.

17. He then says that the Apocalypse, which he designates by the vulgar plural form of "Revelations," "reflects, in the view of many scholars, the ruminations of a disturbed personality."

i) Really? And exactly how many such scholars has he actually read on Revelation? I'd like to see his list. Here as elsewhere, Kurtz makes a sweeping statement couched in strict anonymity. This is the telltale sign of over-reliance on tertiary sources. Of course, we all have to take shortcuts, but if you're going to publish something on the subject, and if you're flaunting your intellectual superiority throughout, there is something to be said for making some slight effort to know what you're talking about.

ii) He says that Revelation predicts "the Rapture." No, that would be 2 Thes 2.

iii) He says, "we have no reliable evidence that these events will occur in the future." But this misses the point. You don't need direct evidence for everything you believe in as long as you have a reliable source of information. Kurtz believes in many things he has never attempted to independently verify. Instead he puts his faith in scientific and historical authorities—especially those most favorable to his viewpoint!

18. He says that Christianity "developed a more universal message" than Rabbinic Judaism, which, incidentally, was already implicit in the letters of Paul." Actually, it was already implicit in the Abrahamic covenant, and patent in the latter-day prophecies of Isaiah.

19. Regarding the Gospels, he says that "one finds many omissions and contradictions."

i) I don't doubt that there are omissions in the Gospels, although I don't quite know how one would "find" an omission. How do you discover something that isn't there?

ii) But any history will have its share of omissions. That does not, of itself, render the history inaccurate. An omission is not a positive falsehood, but only the absence of some additional point of truth—of which there is no end. If Kurz wrote a history of secular humanism, there would be many omissions as well.

iii) At the same time, it's one thing to know that there are omissions, quite another to know what omissions there are. Without a more complete frame of reference, there is no basis for comparison.

On the one hand, Kurtz refuses to believe in the testimony of eyewitnesses and contemporaries of Christ; on the other hand, he acts as though he himself were an eyewitness, able to tell on the basis of personal information what really happened, and what was left out of the final edition. Does he know something we don't?

iv) As to contradictions, this is another lonely assertion in search of a supporting argument. Certainly there are a number of formal contradictions, in terms of variant wording and ordering. But a formal contradiction does not implicate a factual contradiction, and does not, therefore, amount to an error. Since Kurtz offers no argument to the contrary, there is nothing to rebut.

20. Kurtz goes on to say that "each Gospel was crafted post hoc" to satisfy the needs of the new churches. The "post hoc" caveat is decidedly odd. I mean, a history or biography is ordinarily written after the fact. Would Kurtz find the Gospels more believable if they antedated the life of Christ? Although this evinces a promising confidence in the power of prophecy, we somehow doubt that Dr. Kurtz would find a history written in advance of the events to be more credible than one which tags along with the arrow of time.

21. He says that the Gospel authors were "motivated by the transcendental temptation to believe in Christ as the Son of God and the Savior of mankind."

i) Why could they not be motivated to believe in Christ because they knew him, were witness to his wonders, and saw in him the convergence of many OT motifs?

ii) Moreover, this armchair analysis can be turned on the analyst. We could just as well assume that Kurtz is motivated by the immanental temptation to be his own god and savior.


i) Kurtz offers the reader a fictitious history of the canon, mistakenly claiming that the canon of the NT was fixed by the Council of Nicaea. I don't know where he gets his information, but he has obviously not given the matter much study.

ii) But even putting aside his historical blunders, the fact that the Church rejected the NT Apocrypha, far from showing a lack of historical awareness, displays a strong historical consciousness. The church excluded evident forgeries that were not well-attested in their putative milieu. Let him make a case for the authenticity of one writing that was excluded from the canon. He does not because he cannot.

23. He then proceeds to drag in all the atrocities committed in the name of religion.

i) But to blame one theological tradition for the crimes of another makes about as much sense as blaming one political ideology for the crimes of another. You'd think that a philosophy prof. might be capable of a bit more rational discrimination, especially when he claims to be a rationalist.

ii) In the nature of the case, only those in power are in a position to abuse their authority and to persecute their opponents. So it's just a case of who is in power at any given time. Both secular and religious regimes have a history of persecution. The record of secular humanism is knee-deep in bloodshed.

24. He brings in the Establishment clause, with the usual historical revisionism. But the so-called Constitutional separation of church and state was only discovered in the mid-20C by Hugo Black, a Klansmen and a Jew-hater. As a man who lost family members in the Holocaust, you'd think that Kurtz might be a bit more discerning in his choice of cobelligerents.

25. He says that "the origins of the Christian legend have for too long lay [sic] unexamined, buried by the sands of time."

i) Where has he been for the last two-to-three hundred years? The origins of Scripture have undergone a sustained assault from every quarter.

ii) The truth of the matter is rather the reverse: for nothing is more quickly buried by the sands of time than ephemeral theories of Bible criticism. Just browse the back-stacks of your used bookstore.

iii) I can understand someone who, due to prior intellectual commitments, is unprepared to believe the Bible. But no one is more gullible than a Bible critic who supposes that he can reconstruct the creative process two-to-three thousand years after the fact.

iv) Here as elsewhere, Kurtz is very fond of the "scientific" adjective. But the direct relevance of this to a work of history is left considerably unclear. Science is a field of study generally confined to the discovery of impersonal, universal "laws" of nature—whereas history is a field for the study of persons and particulars. We would not normally judge the accuracy of Boswell's Life of Johnson on scientific grounds.

v) And the most meaningful things in life occur at the level of history rather than science, at the level of persons and particulars, for that is who we are and how we live. To impose a rule of evidence that leaves out the human equation is like a man who defines a home by the architecture instead of the family.

vi) He goes on to say that "we can apply circumstantial evidence, archaeology, linguistic analysis, and textual criticism to authenticate or disconfirm the veracity of ancient literary documents."

Indeed we can. And many conservative scholars have been doing just that for decades—in confirmation of Scripture. But, of course, Kurtz spares his secular faith from falsification but only reading one side of the argument.

Of his bibliography, one of the four books is by John Crossan, the renegade priest; while the other three are put out by Prometheus Books, the publishing house of modern-day atheism.

He appears not to have read any of the conservative scholarship on Scripture. This from the elder statesmen of secular humanism.

What is that if not the very definition of prejudice and invincible ignorance? Nothing could be more anti-intellectual than such an utterly insular and one-sided sifting of the evidence.


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