On Being Right – Dialectic Two Step
A stranger who is an evangelical Christian has been sending a series of emails to me. According to his address, his name is Jeff. Jeff has offered some lengthy expositions touting evidence that Christianity is “right”. The latest edition offers an earnest four part treatment on the trustworthiness of the New Testament, the historicity of Jesus, and the virtue of miracle-claims and predictive prophecies. He or someone that he has quoted put a lot of effort into this essay.
I usually ignore emails like this. In fact my response to the first one was to request that he remove me from his list. Alas, it had no effect, they kept coming. I chose to respond to this latest message. In my response I’ve made an effort to be kind and respectful but I’m also careful to be clear that his efforts are lost on me.
His email can be found at the bottom of this post.
This is my response:
For what purpose do you send me these emails?
Why does a perspective require a defense?
What does the authenticity of a text inform us about loving our neighbors?
If Christianity or Buddhism or Atheism were false, would that change the fact that we benefit from mutual respect?
These academic exercises invite criticism and fact checking; mental accounting that is unrelated to the purpose of religion. They also invite suspicion from those of us who distrust the religious instinct to indoctrinate.
If you seek the satisfaction of being right, I wish you luck.
If you seek to change someone’s mind, I recommend convincing them to turn from violence to peace; from malice to empathy, from ignorance to wisdom. What do we gain from establishing religious authority but oppression?
<end of email response>
I consider this a meditation. When I first started reading Jeff’s email (below), I went into critic mode. I was tearing through the text, finding ironies and falsehoods, circular reasoning and other fallacies. But the shear volume of it seemed daunting. Would I spend two hours methodically shredding Jeff’s email, working my self into a frenzy? Or could I avoid that mess and even turn it into something good?
Something clicked. What would a cold and logically precise demolition of an evangelists beliefs accomplish? I’d loose a few hours. We might go back and forth on email pointing out each others errors. One of us could resort to ad hominem attacks and spiral further and further from civil discourse. All of this in the hopes of somehow being right! All of this completely removed from the goal of religion – union with the divine.
The mystery of the divine escapes words, descriptions, or labels. Arguing about the words, descriptions, and labels is about as productive as pushing the wind. It leads to agitation, anger, and alienates us from the experience of the divine.
I was lucky this time around (I think). I didn’t stray from my beliefs, I delivered my message respectfully, and I didn’t get riled up. I also don’t think I insulted Jeff. I call that a win! Call me after my 2 hours of reclaimed peace are done!
Positive Defense of the Christian Perspective
Email from [email protected]
A. The Trustworthiness of the New Testament
The New Testament has better manuscript evidence than any other ancient book.
- There are over 5,000 New Testament manuscripts and portions of manuscripts. By comparison, the majority of classical works have less than 20 manuscripts.
- The dates of the New Testament manuscripts are close to the original writings. One Gospel fragment (Ryland’s) dates about 25 years after the Gospel of John and most of the New Testament (Chester Beatty and Bodmer Papyri) from 50-150 years after the originals. Most classical works date from 700 – 1400 years after the originals.
- None of the canonical New Testament is lost or missing. By comparison, 107 of Livy’s 142 books of history have been lost and about one half of Tacitus’ 30 books of Annals and Histories is missing.
- Good arguments can be given that each of the Gospels was either written by an eyewitness, or significantly influenced by firsthand testimony, as recognized by many contemporary scholars.
- Even without proving eyewitness authorship, the Gospels measure up well by normal historical standards used in ancient historiography.
- The Gospel are trustworthy sources, as explained by A.M. Hunter
- These Christian authors, like their Jewish counterparts, were careful to preserve traditional material.
- The Gospels are close to eyewitness sources.
- The Gospel authors were honest reporters.
- The picture of Jesus presented in the four Gospels is virtually the same (see Archibald M. Hunter, Bible and Gospel, 32-37).
- The Gospels and Acts exhibit a specific interest in reporting historical facts, not mythology. This is especially the case when the life of Jesus is reported.
- Contemporary historians frequently opposed the application of radical criticism to New Testament studies. According to A.N. Sherwin-White and Michael Grant, such attacks fail at a number of crucial points (see A.N. Sherman-White, Roman Society, 186-193; Grant, Jesus: An Historian Review, pp. 179-184, 199-201).
- Numerous ancient works exhibit intentions and methodologies similar to that of the New Testament authors, and yet these ancient works are well accredited as historical works.
- There are no ancient writings in the category that radical critics place the Gospels.
- New Testament books such as Acts have been largely confirmed by external test of historicity.
- The Gospel and Acts were recognized as inspired books almost immediately after being written (see J.B. Lightfoot,The Apostolic Fathers).
- 1 Timothy 5:18 quotes Luke 10:7 and refers to it as “Scripture.”
- Clement of Rome (about AD 95) speaks of the “Gospel” and quotes portions found in all three synoptic Gospels, referring to them as the words of Jesus (Corinthians 13,46).
- Ignatius (Smyrnaeans 3) and Polycarp (Philippians 2, 7), both writing about AD 115, refer to verses in the synoptic Gospels as the words of Christ.
- Paul’s epistles were also recognized as inspired Scripture almost immediately after being written.
- 2 Peter 3:15-16 calls Paul’s epistles “Scripture.”
- Clement of Roman (Corinthians 47), Ignatius (Ephesians 10; to Polycarp 5), and Polycarp (Philippians 1,3-4, 6) all refer to Paul’s writings as inspired
B. The Historicity of Jesus
- The trustworthy Gospels (A above) exhibit much interest in the historical Jesus and give accurate accounts of his life, death, and resurrection.
- Numerous pre- and extra biblical sources record much ancient testimony concerning Jesus within 125 years after his death.
- Early Christian creeds that pre-date the New Testament, as well as the historical facts that virtually all critical scholars admit, provide an extremely strong case for the death and resurrection of Jesus.
- Archaeology contributes a few finds that illuminate and provide background for Jesus’ career, such as the crucifixion victims investigated by archaeologist Vasilius Tzaferis, “Jewish Tombs At and Near Giv’at ha-Mivtar,” Israel Exploration Journal 20 (1970), pp. 38-59.
- Also the Shroud of Turin (Historically proclaimed to be the actual burial garment of Jesus). See Ian Wilson, The Shroud of Turin (New York: Doubleday, 1978, also see John Heller, Report on the Shroud of Turin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983), especially chapters 12-14.
- Secular historians (e.g. Cornelius Tacitus, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillas), government officials (e.g. Piny the Younger, Emperor Trajan), religious works (e.g. The Talmud, Toledoth Jesu, and other sources report many details about Jesus from non-Christian viewpoints.
- Ancient Christian sources preserve a number of historical statements about Jesus (e.g. Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Justin Martyr).
- To reject Jesus’ miracles a priori is to ignore correct inductive procedure where all the facts are investigated before a decision is made.
- To reject Jesus’ doctrinal teachings a priori as valid for today is to pick and choose portions of the Gospels. Further, If Jesus was raised from the dead, there is, at a minimum, some implied significance for Jesus’ teachings, as well.
- Without a significant historical basis in the life of Jesus, Christianity would have had no impetus for its origins.
- Jesus died on the cross, as indicated by several facts.
- The nature of crucifixion, including the discovery of Yohanan’s skeleton, reveals both the nature and assurance of death by this method.
- The explanation of Jesus’ heart wound indicates that it would have killed him even if he had been alive.
- The death of Jesus is the most recorded event in ancient, non-Christian history.
- The trustworthy Gospels give accurate accounts of Jesus’ death.
- After his death, Jesus was raised bodily and appeared to his followers.
- Naturalistic hypothesis that have sought to explain in normal terms the supernatural element of Jesus’ resurrection have failed to do so, chiefly because they are refuted by the known historical data. Several other reasons also indicate this failure.
- There are numerous positive evidences for the resurrection that indicate that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to many of those who followed him.
- A case for the resurrection can be built by using only those minimal facts that are clearly established by the historical method. On a smaller scale, these facts can refute the alternative hypotheses and provide the best evidences for the resurrection.
- The Shroud of Turin may supply some additional scientific evidence of Jesus’ resurrection.
- Jesus’ message was not changed by Paul or by other followers.
- In both the synoptics, as well as in John, Jesus claimed to be deity. Often this was done by his words, such as his claims to be Son of God and Son of Man (c.f. Mark 2:10-11; 10:45; 13:32; 14:36). At other times he showed his deity by his actions, such as forgiven sin, fulfilling Old Testament messianic prophecy and by claiming authority much greater than that of the Jewish leaders (see Mark 2:1-12; Matthew 5;20-48; cf. Isaiah 9:6-7).
- Numerous pre-Pauline creeds such as Philippians 2:6-11, Romans 1:3-4, 1 Corinthians 11:23, and many from the book of Acts designate Jesus by the loftiest titles, thereby indicating the early teaching of his deity. These show further that this doctrine definitely did not originate with Paul.
- Neither Jesus nor Paul taught that Christianity was a new religion. Both held that Christianity was a fulfillment of Judaism (see Matt. 5:18; Luke 16:16-17; Romans 10:4:9-11; Colossians 2:16-17).
- Jesus’ central teaching of the Kingdom of God and its entrance requirements of faith in his person and teachings in found in all four Gospels (c.f. Mark 1:14-15; Matthew 18:3-6; Luke 18:28-30; John 1:10-13) and in Paul’s epistles (c.f. Romans 6:23; 1 Corinthians 15:1-4).
- Paul was known as the apostle to the Gentiles (see Acts 9:15;16; 22:21; Romans 11:13-14). Not only did Jesus command his disciples to take the gospel to the Gentiles (see Matthew 28:19-20; Luke 24:47; John 10:16; Acts 1:8), but this was actually a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, not a new doctrine (see Genesis 12:3; Isaiah 19:18-25 for two examples).
- Since Jesus literally rose from the dead, any verification of the truthfulness of his teachings would even extend to Paul’s message and writings, since they are in agreement with the Gospels at these points.
- Jesus was not an international traveler during his “silent years” or after his death.
- There is no viable historical evidence for such international ventures.
- The swoon theory fails and is rejected by critical scholars.
- These endeavors almost always involved a long trail of illogic and incredibly mysterious connections.
- Although many would place miracle-claims completely in the realm of faith, such is to ignore their possibly objective theistic and historical nature.
- If it is taught that miraculous events have occurred in history, as in the case with New Testament miracle-claims, then at least the objective, historical side of such a claim can be investigated. In other words, if it actually happened, at least the portion of the event that touched the space-time world can potentially be examined.
- In the New Testament, the resurrection of Jesus is not only the central tenet Christianity, but it is asserted that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then faith in actually in vain (1 Corinthians 15:1-20). Paul even supports his point that Jesus was raised by citing eyewitnesses, historical testimony to this fact (vv. 5-8). Under these circumstances, one could hardly claim that objective, factual interests in the resurrection are foreign to the New Testament.
- This objection also commits errors that are associated with the “leap of faith.” If carried to its logical conclusion, it provides no objective basis for faith, including any reasons why faith should be exercised at all. As such, it is difficult to distinguish between belief and credulity.
- Alternative theories that have been proposed to account for Jesus’ resurrection on naturalistic grounds have failed to account for the known historical facts.
- There are many strong historical reasons to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead.
- The disciples’ experiences
- The transformation of the disciples into bold witnesses
- The empty tomb
- The resurrection of Jesus was the very center of the apostolic message.
- The Jewish leaders could not disprove their message.
- The very existence and growth of the church.
- In this resurrected physical body Jesus appeared to more than five hundred of his disciples on twelve different occasions over a forty-day period and conversed with them (see Luke 24:13-49, 1 Corinthians 15:5-7, Acts 1:4-8, Matthew 28:1-10, John 20:24-31).
- This was the greatest of all miracles since the creation itself, and could have been accomplished only if Jesus indeed is God, as He had claimed to be.
D Predictive Prophecies
Consider the following predictions made centuries in advanced that Jesus would be:
- born of a woman (Genesis 3:15; cf. Galatians 4:4);
- born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14; cf. Matthew 1:21);
- “cut off” (die) 483 years after the declaration to reconstruct the city of Jerusalem in 444 C. (Daniel 9:24);
- of the seed of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3 and 22:18; cf. Mathew 1:1);
- of the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10, cf. Luke 3:23);
- of the house of David (2 Samuel 7:12; cf. Matthew 1:1);
- born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2; cf. Matthew 2:1);
- anointed by the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 11:2; cf. Mattthew 3:16-17);
- that Jesus would performed miracles (Isaiah 35:5-6; cf. Matthew 9:35);
- would cleanse the temple (Malachi 3:1; cf. Matthew 21:12);
- would be rejected by Jews (Psalms 118:22; cf. 1 Peter 2:7);
- die a humiliating death (Psalms 22; cf. Matthew 9:35);
- that he would rise from the dead (Psalm 2:7 and 16:10; cf. Acts 2:31)
- ascended into heaven (Psalm 68:8; cf. Acts 1:9);
- and sit at the right hand of God (Psalm 110:1; cf. Hebrew 1:3).
It is important to understand that these prophecies were written hundreds of years before Christ was born. No one could have been reading the trends of the times or just making intelligent guesses, like the “prophecies” we see in the checkout line at the supermarket.
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