Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Touchstone's Implausible Reconstructions Of Early Christianity

In his thread at Debunking Christianity on Francis Xavier, Touchstone has made a lot of dubious assertions, often without any attempt at documentation. He doesn't seem to know much about early Christianity, the arguments used by Christian scholars to substantiate their conclusions, or the argumentation of non-Christian scholars who accept some of the facts that Touchstone disputes.

I responded to some arguments similar to Touchstone's two years ago, in response to Bill Curry of Debunking Christianity. See, for example, here and here.

Touchstone writes:

"I don't think the desire is overt in embellishing or inventing, generally, in either case. For the admirers of Xavier, there's the desires to glorify. So, too, with Jesus, but even that I think is overridden by the crisis of disconfirmation that was Jesus' death. Here was acute, devastating cognitive dissonance. Given a credulous worldview pre-disposed to magical thinking in both cases, legend happens. A follower of Jesus reports several days after Jesus' death that she had a vision of Jesus in a dream. Relayed to another follower, that becmes just a vision. Passed on once again, it morphs from 'vision' to 'appearance'. At this point, passed along in passionate retelling to others sympathetic to the legend, credulous in their worldview, Jesus has now 'appeared', isn't that miraculous???...If you are part of the growing sub-sect that is harboring the fantasies of resurrection, and you hear James was brought in and stoned by the Romans, why of *course* it would be because he was preaching the resurrection! It might have been, so you think, therefore it was."

Do people normally believe whatever they want to believe in the manner Touchstone is suggesting? Does a person who wants to make more money believe that his paycheck for $500 is actually a paycheck for $5000? No, and, if he did, his desire would soon come into contact with the contrary desires of the bank, his employer, etc. If his family shared his desire for a larger paycheck, would that desire be sufficient to result in hallucinations every time one of them looks at the ink on the check? Would they all agree that the paycheck is for $5000 rather than, say, $7000 or $10000? Since ancient Roman historians often reported events that they would have desired to be true, such as a Roman victory in a war or something virtuous done by a Roman leader, do modern historians discussing Roman history normally engage in the sort of unverifiable reconstruction of events that Touchstone has engaged in above, involving people believing something just because they desire it to be true?

N.T. Wright, after studying religious movements in Israel around the time of Jesus' death, commented:

"So far as we know, all the followers of these first-century messianic movements were fanatically committed to the cause. They, if anybody, might be expected to suffer from this blessed twentieth century disease called 'cognitive dissonance' when their expectations failed to materialize. But in no case, right across the century before Jesus and the century after him, do we hear of any Jewish group saying that their executed leader had been raised from the dead and he really was the Messiah after all." (cited in Paul Copan and Ronald Tacelli, edd., Jesus' Resurrection: Fact Or Figment? [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000], p. 183)

Psychological studies and other data have shown that hallucinations and other relevant psychological disorders tend to occur under conditions different from those of the resurrection witnesses. See, for example, here, here, here, and here. For example, the apostle Paul wasn't a "follower of Jesus" and "sympathetic to the legend" when he thought he saw the risen Christ.

And if Touchstone wants us to believe that the early Christians had "a credulous worldview pre-disposed to magical thinking" to such an extent as his theory suggests, then he ought to interact with the sort of data discussed here and here.

On some of the issues relevant to early Christianity, we don't just have the testimony of Christian sources, but also corroboration from non-Christian sources. See, for example, here and here. Like the pre-Christian Paul, these sources weren't "followers of Jesus" and "sympathetic to the legend".

He writes:

"That is, if I asked you to substantiate the Biblical claims that the disciples a) were witness to the resurrection/reappearance of Jesus and b) went to martyr's deaths in defense of a), I think you'd have great difficulty, save for relying on the self-attestation of the followers of Jesus."

Historians and courts of law, for example, frequently accept the testimony of people engaging in "self-attestation". Do we dismiss all reports of Roman history coming from Roman sources, similar to Touchstone's dismissive approach above?

For more on the problematic nature of Touchstone's objection, see here.

He writes:

"I can't find grounds for the conviction that the disciples were party to the resurrection/reappearances of Jesus at all, let alone later martyrs in witness to that claim."

Touchstone is disagreeing with the vast majority of scholars, then, both Christian and non-Christian. Based on evidence such as 1 Corinthians 15, the vast majority of scholars believe that the early Christians, including disciples of Jesus, believed they saw the risen Christ. See, for example, Gary Habermas' research on scholarly trends discussed here and here. If Touchstone is saying that he sees no grounds for the conclusion that Jesus' disciples thought they saw the risen Jesus, as his comments and the context of what he was responding to suggest, then how does he explain 1 Corinthians 15 and the other evidence that leads both Christian and non-Christian scholarship to disagree with him?

He writes:

"We don't have the reliable autobiographical or contemporary accounts in Jesus' case, like we do with Xavier. If we did, I believe it parallel Xavier's in many respects: fairly plausible biography that has fantastic legends grafted on later."

Touchstone gives us no reason to doubt the Christian claims about Jesus comparable to the evidence he cited against the claims about Francis Xavier. Instead, he just tells us that he thinks the two cases would be seen to be comparable if we had more data relevant to Jesus. But without such data, why are we supposed to agree with Touchstone's conclusion?

He writes:

"For example, if I recall correctly, Josephus has narrative on the stoning of James. This account is controversial in its own right, but the account as it is recounts the *stoning* of James, the result of charges brought by the sanhedrin by breaking the law."

Maybe if Touchstone were more familiar with the evidence, he wouldn't have to say "if I recall correctly". Given his recent association with Debunking Christianity, which has had the likes of Acharya S and Evan on its staff, and given the presence of doubts about Jesus' existence on that blog (another position the vast majority of scholars reject), is Touchstone suggesting that both passages in Josephus might be fraudulent? If so, that's a conclusion rejected by the large majority of scholars. If Touchstone doesn't think that such arguments of those who deny Jesus' existence are credible, then why does he keep making comments to the effect of "if we assume Jesus' existence" or "this account is controversial in its own right"? If Touchstone doesn't deny Jesus' existence himself, he at least seems to be willing to assign that position more credibility than it deserves.


  1. Jason, Gene, Steve, et al,

    I've been wondering about this ever since I saw Francis Xavier paraphernalia all over Kagoshima, Japan when I was mission-ing there recently. Kagoshima is where Xavier landed in Japan before making it upcountry to see a shogun or 2...
    But this guy was one of the founders of the Jesuits, and journeyed to Japan not long after the Reformation. Any idea whether he would be a guy that we as Reformed people would want to claim even a little?

  2. Rhology,

    I think you've missed the thrust of Jason's post, which is not to defend Xavier but rather to demonstrate that Touchstone's attempt to link claims about Xavier to claims about Jesus is a bogus connection. Thus, we don't have to "claim" Xavier at all, any more than we have to claim Sargon to dispute Avalos's claims regarding Sargon and Moses.

  3. Sorry, Peter P, you're right. I didn't mean the comment to be a continuation, actually, but more of a Mathetes-like "hey, if you're looking for material, here's an idea from the peanut gallery" kind of thing.

    It's mostly off-topic.

  4. Ah!

    Although it's scary when people start emulating Mathetes..... :-D

  5. I'm the Protestant your Mother Church warned you about.

  6. Touchstone has posted a response to me in the thread linked above at Debunking Christianity. The response doesn't interact with most of what I wrote, and he misrepresents much of what he does interact with.

    He writes:

    "As a matter of course, no, even if we forgive Jason for the silly, irrelevant example here offers (the, uh, 'paycheck' thing). That wasn't my suggestion. A reasonable question, one that isn't so patently self-serving as the one he offered, is 'do we have cases which show followers and admirers embellishing and inventing stories?' I've said nothing about that being the day-in-day-out operating procedure for people. Rather, I am saying that precedence does exist for this kind of development. It happens. It is not be the default behavior for everyone everywhere, as Jason's red herring rejects, but we have cases in view that undercut Christian claims that that kind of thing 'doesn't happen', or is somehow implausible. It's manifestly plausible -- it's *actual* in the case of the admirers of Xavier."

    In his response to Rachel, Touchstone made some claims about early Christianity. The primary issue under consideration in such a historical dispute is what's probable, not what's possible. The fact that some followers of Francis Xavier made some unreliable claims about him doesn't justify a conclusion that something comparable occurred in early Christianity. Touchstone would need to present further argumentation to support his conclusions about early Christianity, which he didn't do. If Touchstone fails to provide that further argumentation, then it's valid for me to point out that what he's suggested about early Christianity doesn't reflect a "default behavior", to use his phrase. If his suggested scenario isn't something we would normally assume happened, and he doesn't present any argument that his scenario did occur, then all he's doing is describing a possible scenario. It's valid for me to point that out.

    I doubt that Rachel's intention was to ask Touchstone for a possible scenario that addresses the issues she raised. A theory involving space aliens would be a possible explanation, but I doubt that Rachel was asking for an explanation that aims merely at possibility. And she wasn't denying that "followers and admirers embellish and invent stories". Rather, she was addressing what's probable with regard to early Christianity.

    Not all of Touchstone's comments were addressing the issue of "do we have cases which show followers and admirers embellishing and inventing stories". He also commented on other subjects. And I discussed why his comments on such subjects are dubious. He hasn't interacted with most of what I argued.

    As I discuss in my responses to Bill Curry, which I linked at the beginning of my reply to Touchstone, more knowledgeable Christians, such as William Craig, use an argument that's more nuanced than what Curry and Touchstone have responded to. If Touchstone wants to argue that he's replying to less knowledgeable Christians, then I'd like to know more about who these people are. Are they unaware that any "embellishment and invention" can occur within a short period of time, such as in contexts like televangelism and Marian apparitions? If these people are as ignorant as Touchstone suggests, then he must be picking some really low-hanging fruit. Why would he choose such an insignificant topic for his first post at Debunking Christianity after his deconversion story?

    Touchstone writes:

    "My post, which offers Xavier and friends just as an example of the social dynamic that shows legendary evolution of the Jesus legend as plausible, is conveniently transformed in Jason's post into a claim that this was what the *evidence* showed. He even calls it a 'reconstruction' in the title."

    I wasn't just responding to his post about Francis Xavier. I was responding to the entire thread, primarily his comments in response to Rachel. Touchstone made a lot of claims, in his post about Francis Xavier and later in the thread, that aren't "an example of the social dynamic that shows legendary evolution of the Jesus legend as plausible". My reference to reconstruction has to do with the scenario he suggested for early Christianity in his reply to Rachel.

    He writes:

    "As for Jason's appeal to authority here, that's just another transparent bit of self-indulgent caprice by Jason."

    I made the comments I made about scholarship for a few reasons:

    - Touchstone often appeals to scholarship in discussions about other subjects, such as evolution, and he's commented about the alleged interest in scholarship at Debunking Christianity. When responding to such a person, it's appropriate to point out that he's taking positions on early Christianity that are at odds with scholarship or is associating with others at Debunking Christianity who take positions that are widely rejected in scholarly circles, such as the non-existence of Jesus.

    - Since Touchstone presented a lot of unsupported speculations about early Christianity in his reply to Rachel, it's appropriate for me to point out that much of what he presented is rejected by both Christian and non-Christian scholarship. It encourages people to look further into why scholars across such a wide spectrum disagree with Touchstone on these matters. Scholarship doesn't resolve such an issue by itself, but it does have some relevance. Anybody impressed by Touchstone's unsupported assertions should be impressed by supported scholarly assertions as well.

    - Touchstone referred to the alleged controversial nature of a passage in Josephus, and people often have scholarly controversies in mind when they make such comments, so I responded by discussing scholarship on the subject.

    He writes:

    "What do the 'vast majority' of historians conclude about the resurrection? Jason hides behind the skirts of sympathetic and compromised witnesses here. You know, the vast majority of creationist scholars affirm the truth of special creation!"

    If Touchstone had read the articles I linked to, he'd know that scholarship of all stripes is being taken into account, not just "sympathetic and compromised witnesses". Gary Habermas and Michael Licona refer to majorities of "critical" and "non-believing" scholars, not just professing Christians or just conservative Christians.

    Jon Curry also posted some comments recently in the thread at Debunking Christianity, and his comments are similarly erroneous. He once again links to some previous discussions we've had in which he allegedly corrected me on various issues, although he left every one of those discussions without interacting with my last response. I'll let the readers judge whether he was correct in those discussions and why he left.

    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.

  7. You think thats skeptical, check out the marathon over at bahnsenburner.

  8. I should comment on something else Touchstone wrote:

    "Yeah, the Triabloggers are cowards. Easier to deal with uncomfortable criticism by huffing, puffing and banning."

    The large majority of those who disagree with us aren't banned. And those who are banned have often been allowed to post for months or longer before the ban, often with multiple warnings before the ban occurs. If we're "cowards" looking to avoid "uncomfortable criticism", then why do we allow comments on the blog and only ban a small percentage of our critics? Touchstone was here for a long time before we banned him. Were his criticisms in his posts during those months so ineffective as to not make us uncomfortable? Did it take him that long to begin arguing effectively? Maybe he should apologize for wasting people's time with such inept arguments for so long. Since other members of the staff of Debunking Christianity, such as John Loftus, haven't been banned, should we conclude that their criticisms haven't made us uncomfortable?

    What about the bannings and other forms of moderation that occur at Debunking Christianity? Do those actions suggest that the staff there are "cowards" who find it "easier to deal with uncomfortable criticism by huffing, puffing and banning"?

    For those who are interested, here's the post last year explaining why Touchstone and Jon Curry were banned. Many more examples of their irresponsible behavior could have been cited, but we cited some representative examples in the post announcing the bans.

  9. I haven't been banned?

    Woooo Hoooo!

    Paul Manata says I am with regard to his postings. [I'll try to remember that from now on.]

    But how can I get banned in general?

    Please. Please. Choose me. Choose me.


    As far as the few bannings we've done at DC go, we follow our comment policy. No intelligent person who has commented respectfully has ever been banned.

    I think Touchstone and Jon Curry are intelligent and respectful people. Any intelligent and respectful Christian person who comes to DC will not be banned. In fact, we invite them.

    I can understand that if a person who is intelligent and respectful comes to DC and repeatedly demolishes our arguments as soon as we post them, that this would be annoying and we too might have to consider banning him in order to save face.

    But this has not happened.

    And I don't expect it will. ;-)


  10. Oh, one last thing. I challenge Triabloguers to consider the respectful way we at DC treat our opponents to the way you treat yours. While we can all get riled from time to time, you berate and demean and belittle your opponents without provocation most all of the time.

  11. Loftus:

    a) That's not a fair characterization of the Triabloguers.

    b) I find that the atheist participants in these conversations are actually not all that respectful - especially here at the Triablogue.

    c) Respectful behavior is not good, unless engaged in to promote a good end. Your behavior is not directed to a good end - in fact you seek to turn people from the truth. So, even if you were always perfectly respectful it would still not be pleasing to God.

    d) The fact that you are conscious of the reality of morality (as illustrated by your challenge) ought to undermine your atheism/agnosticism.