Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Alleged Gullibility Of Jonah And His Contemporaries

John Loftus has made another attempt to justify his assertions about the alleged gullibility of ancient people. His latest attempt, like the ones before it, fails to prove anything significantly relevant to the issue at hand. I'm writing a response primarily for the benefit of other people. John Loftus has repeatedly demonstrated his unreasonableness, and his latest article gives many more examples. But I think others might benefit from a discussion of some of the issues Loftus raises, so I'm writing a response. I don't know how much more of Loftus' material I'll respond to in the future.

Loftus' latest article is centered around the book of Jonah. I'm going to respond to some of his comments throughout the article, in the order in which they appear, not in topical order. Notice the large number and variety of errors in Loftus' reasoning. If you read the Debunking Christianity blog in the future, or have discussions with people influenced by it, keep in mind their demonstrated lack of effort in being reasonable. The number of errors they make and the ease with which those errors could have been avoided are significant.

Loftus comments, near the beginning of the article:

"I have recently argued the Bible itself tells us ancient people were superstitious"

What Loftus means is that the Bible refers to people who are, by Loftus' definition, superstitious. The Bible also refers to people who weren't superstitious, whether by Loftus' definition or mine or the definitions of others. Earlier, Loftus cited some Ephesians in Acts 19 as examples of superstitious people, yet the rest of the book of Acts gives us examples of other people behaving in significantly different ways. As we see in today's world, different people have different characteristics. Citing people like the Ephesians in Acts 19 doesn't explain the beliefs of somebody like Thomas, Paul, or Luke. That's why no scholar arguing against Jesus' resurrection, for example, will just cite something like the book of Jonah or Acts 19, and refer to ancient people as gullible, without addressing the details surrounding the claims made by the early Christians. You can't sufficiently explain the testimony of somebody like Paul or Luke by arguing that some ancient Ninevites or some ancient Ephesians were gullible. Similarly, we can't dismiss what John Loftus says just because he lives in a world with militant Muslims and people who consult psychics.

Loftus continues:

"For what I consider a typical look at the evidence of a prophetic word, take a look at the prophetic story in Jonah."

Is Jonah typical of the Christian argument for prophecy? In some ways, but not in other ways. Christians would justify their acceptance of the book of Jonah on the basis of something like the evidence we have for the inclusion of Jonah in the canon of the ancient Jews and Jesus and the apostles. In other words, the evidence we have for the apostles' reliability, for example, would be applied to their comments relative to the canon. We would accept Jonah on the basis of apostolic authority. Do we accept the book of Jonah merely because Jonah is portrayed in that book as claiming to have received a revelation from God? No. And, as we'll see later in this article, the book of Jonah doesn't tell us that Jonah and his contemporaries accepted Jonah's claims without evidence. The fact that some ancient people were gullible to some degree doesn't change the fact that other ancient people were more discerning, nor does it change the fact that we can verify some of the supernatural elements of the Bible today, regardless of how gullible ancient people were.

Jonah is different from other prophetic books in some ways. Jonah doesn't make the sort of predictions we find in a book like Isaiah or Daniel, which pertain to events that can be demonstrated to have occurred long after the book was written. So, while we do have evidence for Jonah from something like the apostles' testimony about the canon, there's other evidence for other prophetic books that we don't have for Jonah. In an earlier response to Loftus, I gave some examples of verifiable prophecies made in books other than Jonah. Loftus never addressed the specifics of those passages. Why criticize a lack of verifiable prophecy in Jonah when there are verifiable prophecies in other Biblical books? The truthfulness of Christianity doesn't depend on every book of the Bible having an equal amount of verifiable evidence supporting it. I don't know of any Christian who cites Jonah as one of the primary pieces of evidence for Biblical prophecy. For Loftus to say so little about the other prophecies I mentioned, while making so much of the book of Jonah, doesn't make sense.

Loftus continues:

"I do not believe there is a shred of historical evidence for this story"

We don't have much direct evidence for the events of that era in history in general. Should we expect to have extra-Biblical accounts corroborating Jonah? No.

Loftus goes on:

"In the O.T. there were many prophets (I Sam. 10:10-13), and they sought guidance from God in dreams and visions. So how did any of them know for sure their prophecies were truly from God? They had a dream. They saw a vision (which probably is indistinguishable from a dream like state anyway). I take it that Jonah was upset at the corruption in Ninevah, much like Christians today are upset at the corruption in America, and had a dream about it, and just felt certain about it."

Do we know that all professing prophets in the ancient world were sincere? No, and it seems unlikely that all of them were. Surely many people in the ancient world, like many people in today's world, claimed prophetic status in order to attain influence, sex, money, or something else. There would be false prophets alongside true prophets.

But among the professing prophets who were sincere, are the reasons John Loftus mentions the only reasons we're given for believing their claims? No. One of the means of verifying prophetic claims is fulfilled prophecy. Another means is the performance of miracles, such as those performed by the prophet Elijah or the apostle (and prophet) John. Sometimes dreams would be involved, and sometimes a vision would be involved, but the means involved weren't limited to the subjective, such as what a prophet "felt".

It should also be noted that Loftus' assertion that a vision "probably is indistinguishable from a dream like state" is misleading and insufficient. How does Loftus know what these prophets experienced? He doesn't. And if a vision occurred when a prophet wasn't sleeping, then that prophet would have good reason to conclude that he hadn't been dreaming. Loftus' vague reference to a vision occurring in a "dream like state" does nothing to prove that these prophets were experiencing something natural. Loftus seems to think that he can dismiss something like a purported vision by applying a term such as "dream like" to it. But Loftus' unargued speculation that these visions were similar to a dream does nothing to prove that these prophets had insufficient reason for concluding that they had received a message from God. The problem here is with what Loftus unreasonably assumes, not what the ancient sources in question reported. Loftus gratuitously assumes that the prophets reached their conclusions without evidence, then criticizes them for reaching their conclusions without evidence. Later in the article, Loftus will acknowledge that there could be factors involved that he's ignorant of, but, then, what does such an acknowledgment do to Loftus' argument? The best Loftus can argue is that some prophets might not have had sufficient evidence to support their conclusions. None of the prophets in question give us sufficient reason to conclude that they had no evidence to go by. Loftus' assumption that they had no evidence is gratuitous.

He continues:

"There were lots of prophets in the land, false ones, and prophets for other gods. THEY ALL FELT CERTAIN THEIR PROPHECIES WERE OF DIVINE ORIGIN. ALL OF THEM. The tests of the prophet laid down in Deut 13, and 18 just demand that they spoke in God’s name, and the thing should come to pass."

Again, how does Loftus know that every professing prophet "felt certain"? He doesn't.

Does the Old Testament tell us that the predictions of a prophet must come to pass? Yes. And that's an objective standard that was applied in ancient times and, in some cases, can still be applied today to the Old Testament prophets. For example, we today can verify that books like Isaiah and Daniel were written prior to the birth of Jesus, and we can verify that Jesus fulfilled highly unusual, detailed prophecies contained in those books.

What Loftus seems to be suggesting, though his choice of words is unclear, is that people believed what the prophets said just because they spoke "in God's name". But that isn't the only standard we see in the Old Testament. The prophets also were evaluated on other grounds, such as whether their prophecies came to pass and whether other evidence supported their claims, like the miracles performed by Elijah. Neither the people of the Old Testament era nor Christians today have accepted the claims of the prophets just because they spoke in God's name.

Loftus writes:

"The captain didn’t care which god Jonah prayed to, so long as no god was left out of their prayers. This is a true polytheism."

The captain was desperate, and he was uncertain about which gods were true gods, so he was willing to accept an appeal to any god who might help. That tells us about the desperation and uncertainty of one man who lived in ancient times. It doesn't tell us that every relevant Biblical figure was gullible or that people today don't have any verifiable evidence for Christianity. You can't get from the ignorance and bad judgments of one man in the book of Jonah (or a group of people in Jonah) to the conclusions John Loftus wants us to reach. There is no logical connection.

Loftus continues:

"They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. This is a form of divination. Do you want to cast lots to see who’s to blame for any hurricanes that come our way? Jonah accepted the results too."

How does the historical fact that the people with Jonah cast lots lead to the conclusion that Christians should want to cast lots in order to blame people for modern hurricanes? Again, there's no logical connection between the evidence Loftus cites and the conclusion he reaches. The Bible doesn't approve of every action of Jonah's shipmates, it doesn't approve of every action taken by Jonah, it doesn't tell us that the storm in Jonah is representative of every storm, and it doesn't deny that God can use the bad judgments of men to accomplish His purposes. Rather, the Bible tells us that God does use crooked sticks to draw straight lines (Genesis 50:20). Nothing in the Jonah account logically leads to the conclusion that Christians should cast lots in order to blame people for modern hurricanes.

He goes on:

"These sailors would still respond in the exact same way, because the proof was in the casting of lots, and the storm, and the story. They didn’t need any other proof or evidence. Does this type of gullibility describe any thinking person today?"

How does Loftus know what evidence Jonah's shipmates had to go by? He doesn't. They would have had experiences traveling in the past, so they would have known which weather patterns were normal and which ones weren't. They would have seen the manner in which the storm emerged, whether it came about in a normal way. They would have had discussions with Jonah and would have made judgments about his credibility (Jonah 1:10). Once the storm began and they became desperate, they would have been willing to make an appeal to Jonah's God if no other way of escape seemed available. Jonah's shipmates, like any other humans, would be making judgments based on their circumstances and probabilities. The fact that they were willing to appeal to Jonah's God in a time of desperation doesn't prove that they were uninterested in evidence in those circumstances, much less in all circumstances of their lives.

If a mother in today's world decides to take her sick child to a faith healer out of desperation, we don't conclude that the mother therefore has no concern for evidence in any area of her life. Humans can't function for a single day of their lives if they don't have some concern for evidence at some points along the way. The fact that Jonah's shipmates appealed to Jonah's God out of desperation doesn't prove that the people who lived in Jesus' day, for example, would think that they had seen Him give sight to the blind or had seen Him risen from the dead when such events didn't actually occur. Jonah's shipmates appealed to an unseen God out of desperation. Men like the apostles John and Paul, on the other hand, reported events they witnessed, mentioned names and timeframes and places, cited other witnesses to corroborate their claims, etc. Loftus claims that Jonah's shipmates didn't look for any evidence to support their conclusions (a claim Loftus can't prove), but the New Testament repeatedly appeals to eyewitnesses and other evidence. How, then, can Loftus conclude that the New Testament authors were unconcerned about evidence? Citing some Ephesians in Acts 19 or Jonah's shipmates doesn't prove that men like John and Paul were unconcerned with evidence.

Loftus asks "Does this type of gullibility describe any thinking person today?", but what's the relevance of his question? He's already acknowledged that some unreasonable people exist today. If unreasonable and reasonable people can co-exist in today's world, why not in the ancient world as well?

He goes on to write:

"Jonah believes the storm is his fault? Have you ever blamed yourself because of a storm? Does God or nature act that way?"

If you had reason to believe that God had called you as a prophet, and you were resisting what God called you to do, and a storm arose (perhaps in an unnatural way), yes, you would have some reason to think that God might be disciplining you. Does it therefore follow that every human should be able to think of a storm that he's blamed himself for? No. Again, there's no logical connection between Loftus' argument and the conclusion he asks us to draw.

He writes:

"These sailors should be tried for attempted murder. Surely they had a list of the people on board. And when they docked to a port someone would notice him missing. What would the police in Tarshish do then? Anything comparable to what our police would do? What would these men say to the police? Would their story hold up in today's courts? Absolutely not!"

Why should we think that there were "police" in Tarshish who checked ships for lists of passengers? How does Loftus know what happened when the ship did arrive at its destination? Why would ancient court systems have to operate as John Loftus describes in order for us to conclude that the Bible is credible?

But since Loftus has brought up the issue of courts, I'll repeat something I said earlier. Do our law courts (which Loftus here holds up as a standard) dismiss the testimony of all children, on the basis that children are gullible? No. Would a law court dismiss the testimony of a man who claims to have witnessed a murder just because he carries a good luck charm with him wherever he goes? Would the court refuse to accept the man's testimony, since he held a belief commonly considered superstitious? No. Our courts don't operate the way John Loftus operates. Our courts recognize, for example, that eyewitness testimony can be credible even when it comes from a source who's unreasonable in other areas of his life. Our courts are willing to accept testimony from people who live in today's world, despite the fact that so many gullible people live in that world. Our courts don't operate under the reasoning of John Loftus, because reasonable people don't think the way John Loftus does on these issues.

He writes:

"And if people were superstitious enough to believe God caused a storm to stop Jonah in his tracks without any evidence but nature and the story itself, then they would also believe he was swallowed by a fish simply because he told them it happened. If no evidence is required to believe the first part of the story, then no evidence is required to believe the last part."

Loftus doesn't know that Jonah and his shipmates had no evidence. And those of us who accept the historicity of the book of Jonah today do so for a variety of verifiable reasons, such as the testimony of the apostles related to the canonicity of the book.

Loftus continues:

"In the first place, what evidence did the king of Ninevah have for believing Jonah? We are simply not told. Presumably none was needed because of the supposed fame of the Hebrew God."

Notice that Loftus acknowledges that we "are simply not told", but then he goes on to assume that the Ninevites didn't want any evidence. His accusation against the Ninevites is based on an assumption he makes on an issue he's ignorant about by his own admission.

With regard to why the Ninevites believed Jonah, the issue is probability, not certainty. The Ninevites could have thought that Jonah's claims were probable, even though they had some doubts.

What evidence would the Ninevites have had? They would have had evidence for the existence of God in nature. They also would have had a conscience to tell them that their behavior was wrong. If a man from another land traveled to their city to tell them that God was going to punish them for their sin, the general theme of Jonah's message could have been plausible to them. They had reason to believe in a God or gods, and they would have had evidence that their behavior was destructive. It's unusual for a man from another nation to travel to a city to bring the sort of message Jonah was bringing, and Jonah did it by himself, which involved risk on his part. The Ninevites would have had good reason to believe that Jonah was sincere, and his message could have seemed plausible. We've seen the same sort of thing occur in other contexts. A city, nation, or family can be brought to shame by the rebuke of an outsider. In Jonah's case, the plausibility of his message would depend on factors such as the plausibility of the existence of God and the plausibility of that God's disapproving of the behavior of the Ninevites. Even without having evidence for Jonah's claim about when their city would be destroyed, the Ninevites would have had good reason for believing the general concept that God was going to punish them for their behavior.

But do we know that the Ninevites had no other evidence to go by? No, we don't. The text doesn't tell us about everything Jonah said or did. We also don't know the details of what happened in the hearts of the Ninevites. A common theme of both the Old and New Testaments is God's influence over the human heart (Proverbs 21:1, John 16:8). The conviction of God upon the hearts of the Ninevites isn't something that we today can verify as we would verify other historical events. But it is a potential factor in the process, and the Ninevites wouldn't have been unreasonable to have followed such a supernatural conviction of their hearts (or a conviction of their conscience) that was consistent with everything else they knew.

Let's assume, though, for the sake of argument, that the Ninevites did behave unreasonably. Does it therefore follow that all ancient people acted unreasonably in all situations? No. As I said before, the fact that Jonah's shipmates, the Ninevites, or other people (allegedly) made false judgments about their relationship with God doesn't logically lead to the conclusion that we should doubt what men like John and Paul reported about historical events they eyewitnessed. Making a judgment about whether God is going to punish the ship you're traveling on or the city you live in isn't in the same category as making a judgment about whether you saw a man perform miracles and heard that man speak with you after He had risen from the dead. Mental judgments about unseen and complex entities aren't in the same category as judgments about what you see with your eyes, touch with your hands, etc. Saying that the Ninevites believed Jonah too easily doesn't justify a rejection of the eyewitness testimony of a John, a Paul, or a Luke.

Loftus writes:

"I’m sure I read somewhere that the test of a prophet was that what he said was to come to pass. Didn’t he say Nineveh would be destroyed? Did he or didn't he? Answer the question."

Speaking of a conditional action as if it's something that's going to occur is common. It was common in the ancient world, and it's common today. The Ninevites thought that Jonah's prophecy might be conditional. That's why they repented, in order to prevent the predicted outcome (Jonah 3:10). And Jonah seems to have viewed the prophecy as conditional. When he was raising his objections to what God did (Jonah 4:1-2), he said nothing about God breaking His word. Jonah comments that what God did was what he expected God to do. Jonah comments that the conditional nature of the prophecy was the reason why he tried to avoid going to Nineveh. He suspected that the Ninevites would repent and that God would therefore not do what He had threatened. If both the Ninevites (Jonah 3:10) and Jonah (Jonah 4:1-2) thought that the prophecy was conditional, how can Loftus claim to know that it wasn't?

Loftus ignores the potential conditional nature of the prophecy, and he ignores the indicators within the narrative that point to a conditional nature. It seems that, again, he's going to the text with a desire to find error, and his desire leads him to wrong conclusions.

He continues:

"If what he prophesied didn't come to pass, then is there any evidence at all that he was really called to speak God's word?"

Yes, we have evidence from Jesus' acceptance of the Jewish canon of scripture, which included Jonah. We also have evidence from apostolic support for the Jewish canon and from other sources. Our evidence for the reliability of the book of Jonah is less direct, less diverse, and less strong than the evidence we have for other Biblical books, but why would every Biblical book need to have the same extent of supporting evidence?

Loftus writes:

"What's missing in this story is evidence. No evidence was offered for any claim, except that Jonah said it was true."

How does Loftus know what evidence was available to the ancient Jews? He doesn't. We don't know the details surrounding the incorporation of Jonah into the canon. For all Loftus knows, Jonah may have performed miracles not recorded in the book of Jonah, which led to the acceptance of the book of Jonah, or other prophets or authority figures may have testified to the book's status, accompanied by evidence. We don't know. The primary issue for us today is whether we have evidence for the Divine inspiration of Jonah. And we do. Loftus' speculations about a lack of evidence among ancient people (for Jonah the individual or for the book of Jonah) are unproveable.

Loftus goes on to say:

"If it was just about their moral behavior, then cities and countries all go through some cycle of 'revival' from time to time, so it might be that Jonah was taking credit for something that happened on its own anyway."

The people of Nineveh repented when Jonah came to them, and they mentioned Jonah's message as a reason. Jonah had evidence that would reasonably lead him to the conclusion that the Ninevites repented as a result of the message he brought. He also may have had other evidence that God had called him, such as hearing the voice of God in some sense. The book of Jonah itself records some examples of messages God communicated to Jonah. And Jonah may already be a prophet when the book opens. If so, then Jonah had experiences with God prior to the start of the book. How can Loftus claim to know that Jonah didn't have any evidence for his beliefs?

Loftus continues:

"And where's this fish? The ancients had the superstitious belief that mythical beasts and fish lived in the seas, likened to the Loch Ness Monster, like 'Rahab,' 'Behemoth,' and 'Leviathan.'"

How does Loftus know that Behemoth and Leviathan were "mythical"? He doesn't. How does he know that the creature mentioned in Jonah was mythical? He doesn't.

Loftus concludes:

"This is what I mean by superstition. Little or no evidence is required, just a good story, based in fear, along with the storms of life. The Bible Debunks itself."

John Loftus has now made yet another attempt to justify his argument about the alleged gullibility of ancient people, and his latest attempt is another failure. Jonah, his shipmates, and the people of Nineveh weren't as unreasonable as Loftus claims they were, but, even if they were, it doesn't therefore follow that we shouldn't trust what John said about the empty tomb, what Paul said about seeing the risen Christ, or what Luke said about the miracles performed by the apostles. You can't dismiss John's testimony on the basis of the alleged irrationality of the Ninevites, nor can you dismiss Paul's testimony on the basis of the irrationality of some Ephesians in Acts 19.

Maybe Loftus will eventually be shamed into writing a response that's more relevant. But, so far, he's rejected opportunities to discuss Jesus' prophecy fulfillments and Paul's credibility, for example, and has chosen instead to discuss the credibility of some ancient Ninevites and Ephesians. Why has Loftus repeatedly avoided discussions of more relevant issues while pursuing less relevant issues?


  1. It's really funny to watch this one unfold. Loftus denies the historicity of the Bible, yet he appeals to it as historically reliable in order to make his case for the gullibility of its people, but if the Bible "debunks itself" and is not historically reliable, then how can he use it as historically reliable evidence for the gullibility of the ancients?

    Indeed, has he not stated that he evaluates the past based on his present experience and used this to deny the miracles? He doesn't experience miracles today, so he concludes the past resembles the present in this respect. He admits that people today are skeptical in his experience, but he believes the ancients were gullible. However, if the past truly resembles the present, then logically, he should believe they were no more or less gullible than they are today.

  2. Apparently, Loftus thinks it's significant that not only does he consider ancient people gullible, but so does the Bible. Nobody denies that some ancient people were gullible in some situations, though, so it isn't sufficient for Loftus to cite examples like Acts 19 and Jonah, all the while ignoring the many Biblical passages that show people being concerned with evidence. If men like Thomas and Paul, for example, didn't believe in the resurrected Christ until they saw Him, how would Loftus characterize those men as gullible people who weren't concerned about evidence?

    If he wants to argue that something like the account of Thomas was fabricated so as to give an appearance of having evidence for Christianity, then why would the ancient Christians have done such a thing? Why would gullible people living in a gullible world fabricate evidence in order to persuade people? Why is evidence fabricated in a world that's unconcerned with evidence? How does Loftus explain the many Biblical passages that make arguments from evidence and advocate evidential concepts like prophecy and eyewitness testimony?

    Loftus has changed his arguments in the middle of a discussion before, and I expect him to keep doing it. His previous arguments about gullibility can't be maintained, so I expect him to change course and act as if his latest claims are what he's been arguing all along.

    Even in the small handful of examples Loftus cites, like his examples from the book of Jonah, it doesn't seem that he's made much effort to think through the evidence. The book of Jonah is short. It doesn't give us many details. We don't know much about Jonah's background, for example, such as how he came to recognize his status as a prophet. There's no need for the book of Jonah to give us such details. But even in the little information the book gives us, we can see examples of evidence Jonah would have had for his calling. He was able to accurately predict the future, such as in his prediction of how the storm at sea would end (Jonah 1:12-15). He may have had evidence for answered prayer, if his deliverance came around the time that he prayed (Jonah 2:1-10). And he heard God speak in some manner (Jonah 1:2, 4:4-11). Loftus' suggestion that prophets like Jonah had no evidence to go by is unproveable and contrary to the data we have.

    Jonah's shipmates may have had evidence from their discussions with Jonah (Jonah 1:10) or from the storm being unnatural in some sense, much as the storm ended in an unnatural way (Jonah 1:15). But whatever evidence Jonah's shipmates had, they were in a desperate situation. Sometimes we have to choose the least bad scenario out of a series of bad scenarios. If you're in a building that's on fire, you might choose probable death by jumping from the building instead of certain death by remaining in the building. Both options are bad, but one of them is less bad. Jonah's shipmates tried some common responses to a storm at sea, such as throwing cargo overboard and rowing harder (Jonah 1:5, 1:13). The fact that they also appealed to the supernatural doesn't prove that they would believe any supernatural claim they came across in any situation in life. If appeals to the supernatural in times of desperation are evidence of the sort of gullibility Loftus is referring to, then I don't know how he can deny that our modern world is gullible also. The large majority of people in the world today are supernaturalists of some sort, and behavior such as praying in a time of desperation is common. Since Loftus lives in such an allegedly gullible world, how can we trust anything Loftus writes? Surely Loftus is a child of his age (to use the phrase he applied to the apostle Paul).

    What about the people of Nineveh? Were they gullible? We don't have enough data to conclude that they were, for reasons like the ones I mentioned in the first post in this thread. I agree with Loftus that the Ephesians of Acts 19 acted unreasonably, but not every example of gullibility that he cites is an actual example of gullibility, and he ignores large amounts of evidence that many ancient people were concerned about evidence.

  3. "Jonah doesn't make the sort of predictions we find in a book like Isaiah or Daniel, which pertain to events that can be demonstrated to have occurred long after the book was written."

    I predict that former President Gerald R. Ford will die in the near future.