Sunday, January 23, 2022

Rewriting History Is Harder And Rarer Than Often Suggested

Late last year, I discussed Stephen Carlson's recent book on Papias. Among other things, the book documents several dozen passages about Papias in various historical sources, spanning about 1500 years. You notice some recurring themes as you read through those passages. One of them is the widespread opposition to premillennialism during most of those centuries. Over and over, there are negative comments about the premillennialism of Papias and some other sources (Irenaeus, Tertullian, etc.). Notice not only that so many documents and fragments of documents advocating premillennialism were preserved for so long, but also that even the opponents of premillennialism kept discussing the subject, acknowledging the belief's existence and the fact that early sources like Papias and Irenaeus advocated it, etc. We see the same kind of thing in other contexts, such as later sources acknowledging that an early form of church government was different than what developed later. That doesn't go well with the notion that the early Christians had the ability and the will to rewrite history to the extent that skeptical hypotheses often require.

Another approach to take toward this issue is to think in terms of the differing circumstances of individuals within groups. If thousands or millions of people across countries and continents were opposed to something (Papias' premillennialism, a claim about the authorship of a certain book, a passage contained in a book considered scripture, or whatever), how likely is it that all of those individuals would simultaneously have sufficient motivation and opportunity to do something like destroy copies of a document or change its text? People range across a spectrum in terms of their interests, moral standards, how much risk they're willing to take in a given situation, their health, the responsibilities they have, etc. The fact that two people oppose something like the premillennial beliefs of Papias doesn't prove that both would be willing to do something to suppress what Papias said, that they'd both have sufficient opportunity to do so if they had that interest, that they'd agree on taking one approach toward the situation rather than another (e.g., destroying copies of Papias' writings rather than changing the text of those documents), and so on. Critics of Christianity often put forward hypotheses that would require an inordinately large amount of coordination among the people involved. The fact that people are sometimes dishonest, for example, doesn't justify a hypothesis involving a far larger degree of dishonesty than we typically see. If skeptics are going to increase the number and variety of people involved in that sort of activity, they need to increase their argumentation accordingly. It's one thing to forge a document written to an individual on one occasion, such as a letter from Paul to Philemon. It's something else to forge multiple documents written to a much larger number of people on multiple occasions, such as two letters of Paul to the Corinthians. It's one thing to speculate that one or two of the individuals who allegedly saw Jesus after he rose from the dead were hallucinating. It's something else to suggest that most or all of the witnesses were hallucinating. We have to make these distinctions.

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