Saturday, June 03, 2006

Dawson Bethrick And The Legend Theory

Dawson Bethrick recently posted an article responding to Paul Manata, and the article mentions other contributors to this blog, including me. There are far too many errors in Bethrick's article for me to interact with all of them, but I will respond to some portions of the article. I expect Paul Manata and Steve Hays to be posting responses as well. A lot of what would need to be said in response to Bethrick has already been said in previous replies.

Part of the problem is that he's largely relying on sources like Earl Doherty and Richard Carrier for his information. He cites sources who are so far out of the mainstream that they deny that Jesus even existed, and the more mainstream sources he sometimes uses are being cited for arguments that have long been refuted. For Christian responses to the articles by Robert Price and Richard Carrier, for example, see J.P. Holding's web site, such as here and here.

Another problem is that Bethrick seems to be undecided on some significant issues. He'll mention an argument as one possibility among others, but he won't commit to it. He'll put arguments in the form of a question, thus planting seeds of doubt in people's minds while, at the same time, distancing himself from the argument enough to deny that he ever adopted that argument if it doesn't go well. It seems that Bethrick is still grasping for something to hold on to on a lot of significant issues. He doesn't have much stability. A lot of what he puts forward is vague and unargued. Anybody responding to him has to guess at where he's headed and draw out the implications of his arguments for him.

Much of Bethrick's article is about Matthew 19:26. On that subject he writes:

"I need to provide an argument to the effect that the words 'all things are possible' mean 'all things are possible'? If we do not allow the words to speak for themselves, what good will it do for me to present an argument, which itself consists of words?"

Part of the problem here, as Paul Manata explained in a previous response to Bethrick, is that Bethrick is ignoring the larger context of Jesus' comment. Text is important, but so is context. Bethrick's absurd reading of Matthew 19:26 is contrary to the teachings of the Old Testament Jesus believed in and the common beliefs of first century Jews, of whom Jesus was one. The issue isn't just what words Jesus used in Matthew 19, but also the immediate and larger contexts in which He used those words. Similarly, modern Americans use many figures of speech that could be portrayed as absurd if we isolated them in the manner in which Bethrick is isolating Jesus' words in Matthew 19.

Even if we gave the words the meaning Bethrick suggests, do all of his conclusions follow? He makes much of the Christian belief that there's only one way of salvation, as if the fact that all things are possible with God means that all paths should lead to salvation. But the claim that there's only one way of salvation doesn't require that God would be incapable of saving people in other ways. God can be capable of a variety of actions, yet choose one among them. Bethrick's reasoning on this issue is multiply flawed.

He continues to make much of the fact that I've acknowledged that Christianity's historical arguments are about probabilities rather than certainties:

"In fact, I think there are better explanations for the development of the early Christian record, namely that it developed along the lines of an evolving legend. This is precisely what the documents themselves suggest if we examine their content in their own right, and refrain from the ‘authorized’ habit of reading the later accounts (i.e., the gospel narratives) into the earlier epistolary strata. I mentioned some of these points under the section titled ‘The Legendary Nature of the Evidence’ in my blog, but the responses that the Triaboogers have offered to it were weak where they were not concessional. Jason, for instance, basically admits that he is not certain about the resurrection accounts (he writes: 'Historical judgments, including a historical judgment about Jesus' resurrection, are matters of probability'), and seems to concede that it is 'not impossible' that mass hallucinations helped in getting the early Christians off to a good start."

Bethrick's appeal to the legend theory has already been answered. Eyewitnesses and contemporaries of Jesus and the apostles were still alive when the New Testament books were written. Some of the authors were eyewitnesses writing on matters about which they would be unlikely to be mistaken. The gospels are of the highly historical Greco-Roman biography genre. The earliest Christian and non-Christian interpreters of the documents interpret them as attempts to convey history. The earliest enemies of Christianity acknowledge facts such as Jesus' performance of apparent miracles and His empty tomb, but offer alternative explanations for those facts. Etc. The legend theory Bethrick refers to has a lot of problems, and he still isn't interacting with some of the most significant problems that have been pointed out to him.

He comments that I'm "not certain" about the resurrection accounts. I'm also not certain about the existence of Alexander the Great and the Revolutionary War. A high probability isn't a certainty, but it's better than the highly unlikely possibilities Bethrick offers as an alternative. But he's dependent on highly unlikely possibilities to maintain his position, so he writes:

"Indeed, unusual and unlikely things do happen. But it is most ironic to say on the one hand that a 'naturalistic' explanation - i.e., one which does not point to activity said to be performed by invisible magic beings - is 'incredible,' and then turn around and affirm supernaturalistic explanations as if they were credible....Moreover, although on my view mass hallucination is unlikely, it is not patently impossible, and the unlikely does sometime happen. For instance, it is highly unlikely that a piece of music I wrote and recorded (and yet had not published) in the mid-1990s would become a primary piece of evidence in a legal suit having nothing to do with me. And yet, in spite of these unlikely circumstances, this did in fact happen."

We believe that something that seemed unlikely to happen did happen if that seemingly unlikely occurrence better explains the evidence. The problem is that Bethrick is rejecting explanations that are more consistent with the evidence, because those explanations would support Christianity. On the empty tomb, for example, Bethrick writes:

"As for the claim that there was an empty tomb, what proof does anyone really have that there was an empty tomb to begin with? Even the apostle Paul, the earliest Christian writer, made no mention of an 'empty tomb.' Nor do the other NT epistles."

Think of the absurdity of how Bethrick frames the issue. Is there anywhere in the New Testament epistles where we would expect a mention of the empty tomb? There are places where it could be mentioned, but many subjects could be mentioned, yet aren't. If historians concluded that something must be mentioned in every context in which it could be mentioned, or else it's unhistorical, our view of history would have to be radically revised.

In contrast to Bethrick's appeal to silence in some portions of the New Testament, the Christian can cite:

- The Jewish context of the resurrection claim, which would have involved the common Jewish belief that the body that dies is the body that rises. Thus, an empty tomb would have been assumed even where it wasn't mentioned. See, for example, J.P. Holding's article here.

- The statements made by Paul, John, and other New Testament authors to the effect that the resurrection they were discussing involved the transformation of the body that died. See, for example, Christopher Price's article on Paul's view of resurrection.

- The eyewitness testimony of Matthew.

- The eyewitness testimony of John.

- The testimony of Mark, who apparently had Peter as his primary source.

- The testimony of Luke, a demonstrably reliable historian (see, for example, here and here), who was in contact with men like James and Paul.

- The large amount of evidence we have for the historical genre of the gospels, which means that the writers were composing documents in a genre in which historical scrutiny was expected. See my citations of the New Testament scholar Craig Keener on this subject in my last response to Bethrick.

- The early Christian responses to a Jewish acknowledgment of the empty tomb, which would suggest that the early Jewish opponents of Christianity acknowledged that the tomb was empty. It's unlikely that men like Matthew and Justin Martyr were interacting with arguments that their enemies weren't making.

- Elements of the empty tomb accounts that would be unlikely to have been fabricated, such as having women discover the empty tomb while the male disciples are in hiding and unbelief.

- Evidence for early Christian preservation of the grave site. Craig Keener writes:

"That Jesus’ followers would forget the site of the tomb (or that officials who held the body would not think it worth the trouble to produce it after the postresurrection Jesus movement arose) is extremely improbable. James and the Jerusalem church could easily have preserved the tradition of the site in following decades (Brown 1994: 1280-81), especially given Middle Eastern traditions of pilgrimage to holy sites (though admittedly evidence for early veneration there is lacking, perhaps because the body was not there – Craig 1995: 148-49, 152)….the Catholic Holy Sepulchre and tombs in its vicinity date to the right period. The tradition of the latter vicinity [Holy Sepulcher] is as early as the second century (when Hadrian erected a pagan temple there; he defiled many Jewish holy sites in this manner – cf. Finegan 1969: 164), and probably earlier. Good evidence exists, in fact, that this site dates to within the first two decades after the resurrection. This is because (1) Christian tradition is unanimous that Jesus was buried outside the city walls, and no one would make up a site inside (cf. Heb 13:12; Jn 19:41); (2) Jewish custom made it common knowledge that burials would be outside the city walls (4 Bar. 7:13; Wilkonson 1978: 146); (3) the traditional vicinity of the Holy Sepulcher is inside Jerusalem’s walls; (4) Agrippa I expanded the walls of Jerusalem sometime in the 40s A.D." (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999], p. 695)

More evidence could be cited, but the points above are more than sufficient to demonstrate that the Christian has a far better case for the empty tomb than Bethrick has against it. The fact that an empty tomb isn't mentioned in a document like 1 Corinthians or James is far too inconclusive to weigh as much as or more than the data I've outlined above. To dismiss the lines of evidence I've mentioned, Bethrick could propose that Matthew didn't write the gospel attributed to him. He could suggest that Mark made up the empty tomb account independent of Peter. Perhaps the contemporaries of Jesus who would have known that there was no empty tomb account early on either didn't object to the empty tomb account or their objections didn't leave any trace in the historical record. Men like Matthew and Justin Martyr were mistaken about early Jewish acknowledgment of the empty tomb. Or maybe the early Jewish opponents decided to acknowledge the empty tomb despite having no good evidence that the tomb was empty. Etc. Bethrick could propose a long series of such speculations in an attempt to dismiss all of the evidence for the empty tomb. But then he wouldn't be appealing to the explanation that's most consistent with the evidence. Rather, he would be assuming without evidence whatever he needs to assume in order to dismiss an unwanted conclusion. The conclusion that the tomb was empty explains the evidence well. It has no significant problems. In order to defend it, we don't have to propose the sort of widespread memory losses, carelessness, etc. that Bethrick would have to propose in order to deny that the tomb was empty.

On the resurrection appearances, Bethrick once again rejects the probable in favor of the unlikely:

"But if, for instance, the stories of Paul’s conversion in Acts are not historically reliable, then there’s no need to suppose that Paul was hallucinating. Time and again, such basic points seem to have escaped the wit and wisdom of Triablogue’s apologetic superstars, who are apparently so eager to rush into battle against their threatening nemeses that they don’t realize they’ve fallen over a cliff."

The writers for this blog have repeatedly addressed the issue of Paul's conversion in Acts. As I've said before, Luke is a demonstrably reliable source, all of the Acts accounts were written by one author, they can be harmonized with each other, and the author seems to have been present on at least one occasion when Paul spoke of the events (Acts 26:12-27:1). Furthermore, the information Paul gives us in his writings is consistent with what Acts reports. Paul confirms that he had been an enemy of Christianity, he confirms that he saw the risen Jesus, and he repeatedly refers to problems he had with his eyes (Galatians 4:15, 6:11), which is consistent with the light and blindness described in Acts.

Notice that Bethrick claims that he doesn't need a hallucination theory, yet all he does is make vague references to how the resurrection accounts in the gospels and Acts allegedly are unhistorical. Not only hasn't he given us sufficient reason to agree with his dismissals, but he also fails to explain the data in Paul. Whatever we think of the Acts accounts of Paul's conversion, the fact remains that Paul claims to have seen the risen Jesus. He also mentions hundreds of other people he was familiar with who also saw the risen Jesus, including people Paul says he met (Peter, James, etc.). Bethrick needs to explain what happened with these people. If they didn't hallucinate, then what did happen?

Bethrick ignores much of the evidence he's been given on issues like these, and he doesn't seem to have much familiarity with the scholarly literature on the relevant subjects. Yet, he keeps making comments like the following:

"Even though many apologists might prefer the safety of non-commitment, it seems that some apologists are in agreement that the Christian god could cause hallucinations on a large scale basis. But couldn't also the devil? Christianity's defenders tend to shy away from discussing (yea, even acknowledging) the mischief that demons, devils and other 'bad spirits' are presumably capable of wreaking in human affairs, for doing so admits the possibility that Christians themselves have been deceived by these invisible beings. And what about other gods? Naturally, Christians discount the claim that there are other gods. But if one grants legitimacy to the notion of the supernatural to begin with, then we could only rule out such possibilities by special pleading."

Maybe the reason why Bethrick doesn't see Christians addressing such issues is because he doesn't make much of an effort to look. Christians have written on these issues at length. I posted some related material last year on the Real Clear Theology blog, for example (see here and here). What we do is look at the nature of the Christian miracles, such as fulfilled prophecy and the resurrection, and ask how plausible it would be to conclude that an entity such as a demon was responsible. We would ask, for example, whether a demon would be able to predict the future in the detail in which it's predicted in scripture. We would ask how likely it is that God would allow a demon to operate with such power while that demon claims to be God. We would compare the miracle claims of one religion to those of another. Since religions like Buddhism and Islam don't have anything comparable to the depth and breadth of supernatural power we see in Jesus' life (prophecies Jesus fulfilled, prophecies Jesus made, Jesus' power over death, etc.), why is the existence of such religions problematic for Christianity?

Notice that, once again, Bethrick acts as if Christians must show that alternatives to Christianity aren't possible. Why should we accept such a ridiculous framing of the issue? An argument for certainty wouldn't be necessary. Probabilities would be sufficient.

Much of what I've said in this response to Bethrick either has already been explained to him in the past, yet he acts as if he's ignorant of it, or it's information he could easily have attained from other sources. He isn't prepared to discuss these issues in much depth, and reading sources like Earl Doherty and Richard Carrier isn't going to get him where he needs to be.

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