Τρίτη, 7 Μαρτίου 2017

Richard Carrier : Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False? (9)

14. Was the Apparent Ignorance of Jesus a Problem?

James Holding argues that "if you want a decent deity, you have to make him fully respectable," yet "ignorance of future or present events" is embarrassing and would be a big hurdle to overcome in selling Jesus as God. This is by far Holding's weakest argument. He never proves this was a problem in the first hundred years of Christian preaching. Indeed, he doesn't even establish that the statements in question were at all widely known even among Christians in the first century, much less an element of any conversion speech, even less an objection anyone raised until elite scholars took notice in the 2nd century. Those same elite scholars attacked all popular religions for exactly the same reasons: the precious myths the common people believed about their gods depicted those gods as exhibiting human weaknesses, including ignorance of things they should have known. Obviously, though this annoyed elite scholars, it was never any barrier to the success of widespread belief in these gods. So why should it have been a problem for Christians?
That is sufficient to nullify Holding's point. But there is a further problem worth discussing: Holding does not take into account the probability of evolution in Christian ideology. When the sayings of Jesus first began to circulate, the early Christians probably had a very different conception of who he was than Christians a century later did. As already discussed in Chapter 9, the earliest Christians may not have believed Jesus was literally God. Mark appears to deny it in 10:18, 13:32, and elsewhere. And only once does any Pauline letter directly call him God (Romans 9:5), rather than a son, king, or intermediary between man and God, and that one direct attribution may well be a scribal interpolation. The fact that it is unique in the Pauline corpus suggests this, as does the fact that magnifying the Christological titles of Jesus, especially adding the appellation "God" (theos), is one of the most commonly documented interpolations, with numerous examples in extant manuscripts.[1] Even 1 Clement, written at the end of the first century, never claims Jesus was literally identical with God, but always portrays Jesus as a chosen intermediary. So it cannot be confidently proven that in the early days of the Christian mission Jesus was thought to share in the omniscience of God, any more than any other prophet did. Thus, a few sayings suggesting his ignorance would present no barrier to believing that Jesus was the Chosen One of God, Lord and King of Kings, Anointed Son of God, and so on. For Jesus was not expected to share all the divine attributes during his days on earth, until much later in Christian history.[2]
Likewise, Holding's only evidence is the fact that the Gospels suggest Jesus might not have known some things, and depict him showing "weakness." But this is not relevant to what the Christians were actually saying about Jesus from the beginning. The entire purpose of God's incarnating and taking on flesh was to suffer.[3] This is clear throughout the Epistles. His death could not logically atone if he could not physically suffer, and therefore signs of weakness (including weakness of mind) are necessary to God's plan, not indications against the divinity of Jesus. It would be meaningless (in fact, heretical) to believe Jesus took on a human body that was indestructible, all-powerful, and impervious to pain. Nor did most pagans believe such things of their own incarnated gods (as discussed in Chapter 9). To the contrary, to be incarnated meant to them, as it did to the Christians, that a god voluntarily (or, often, by fate of birth) took on many of the weaknesses of flesh, until shedding that flesh and adopting once again the true divine body (as Christ did at his resurrection).
Ultimately, Holding fails to prove any obstacle was created for the Christian mission in its first hundred years by these details of the Gospels. Nor does he show that these details were widely known even within the Christian community, or that they played any role when persuading anyone to convert. He also doesn't show that Christians in the first hundred years even taught that Jesus was literally identical to God, sharing all the divine attributes during his sojourn on Earth--which means Holding can't even demonstrate that prospective converts would have been bothered by a Divine Man who shared in human weaknesses. To the contrary, the Christians were preaching that he had to share in these weaknesses for his salvation to work its magic. Only as Christianity grew more distant from its Jewish roots, and aspired more toward winning over more studious elites, did the role of Jesus as "suffering servant" recede into the background, and the need to build him up as a superman came to the forefront. But by then it was too late. There would be no way to check. But even then, most people would have no difficulty, just as most had no difficulty worshipping pagan gods with similar foibles.

Buy Not the Impossible Faith!
Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn't Need a Miracle to Succeed

Now available as a book, fully updated and reorganized. This is the definitive edition of “Was Christianity Too Improbable to Be False?” Even better than online, improved and revised throughout. Available at Amazon


[1] See scholarship and cross-reference in Note 5 in Chapter 9 (the whole of that chapter is relevant here as well).
[2] Indeed, logic suffices here: obviously Jesus did not possess God's attribute of omnipresence. Therefore, there is no logical reason why Jesus could not have lacked other omnible attributes. In other words, to argue that Jesus could not be God because he wasn't omniscient is no more logical than arguing that Jesus could not be God because he wasn't omnipresent. Anyone unimpressed by the latter argument would be equally unimpressed by the former argument. And Christianity only won over those who were suitably unimpressed by such highbrow nitpicking.
[3] e.g. Romans 8:17; 2 Corinthians 1:5; 1 Peter 1:11, 2:21, 3:18, 4:1, 4:13, 5:1; Hebrews 2:9 & 13:12; and see Chapter 1.

15. Who Would Follow an Executed Criminal?

Not much needs to be said about Holding's next point, which simply duplicates what he already argued earlier: that "Jesus endured disgrace--and thereby also offended the sensibilities of his contemporaries" by being mocked and humiliated by the authorities, convicted of blasphemy and sedition, and buried dishonorably as a convicted felon. We already addressed these issues in Chapter 1 and Chapter 2. The bottom line: Christians taught that Jesus was completely innocent, and received all this treatment unjustly--but voluntarily--exactly as scripture required. This message had genuine appeal to many groups, even as it remained repugnant to still other groups--especially those in the elite upper classes. Consequently, exactly as Holding's argument entails, Christianity succeeded only among those groups who were receptive to its message, and failed to find favor among those groups who found such a messiah beneath their contempt. But there were more than enough people in the former category to fully account for the actual scale of Christian success in the first century (which we shall discuss in Chapter 18). So there is nothing "improbable" about Christianity's success on this score.

16. Were Christian Teachings Too Radical for Anyone to Buy?

Holding then throws in a hodgepodge of miscellaneous difficulties we might categorize under the general argument that "Christian teachings were too radical to be popular." That may be true--after all, Christianity wasn't, in fact, popular. In its first century, its scale of success was so small it was barely even noticed--a point we shall make in Chapter 18. For now it is enough to note that the Christians themselves routinely admitted they were a small, oppressed, and misunderstood minority, even after a hundred years of earnest preaching and recruitment. Thus, there is no need to explain some universal "popularity" of Christianity, because there was no such thing. Rather, what requires explanation is the attraction of Christianity to those few who flocked to it despite the distrust or condemnation of their peers. And we have already answered different elements of this question in nearly every chapter so far (see Table of Contents).
Some of Holding's grab bag of objections are simply nonsense. For instance, "the theme of being 'born again' was a real shocker," Holding claims--indeed "preaching a 'new birth' would have been inconceivable!" This is a typical foot-in-mouth kind of statement from a man who makes no effort to actually study ancient culture and check his own assertions against the evidence. For in actual fact, far from being "inconceivable," rebirthing was an accepted symbol in pagan mystery religion--that is surely a major reason why the Christians adopted it. For example, Apuleius gives us a detailed account of the ceremony of initiation into the cult of Isis and Osiris, which was one of the most popular religions of the day: the initiation, he tells us, resembles a "voluntary death" (instar voluntariae mortis) after which one is "reborn" (renatus). After you are baptized, the day of initiation became a new "day of birth" and the priest who initiated you became your new father.[1] So much for all this being shocking and inconceivable. To the contrary, it was a popular idea!
Some of Holding's notions are dubious. For example, he argues that "for Jesus to say [the Temple] would be destroyed, and by pagans at that, would have been profoundly offensive to many Jews," yet it was Jews who predicted that very fate in their own sacred scripture: Daniel 9:26. Why would it be okay for the Prophet Daniel to predict this, but not the Prophet Jesus? Holding's argument makes no sense. What's worse, many scholars reject these statements as having been added after the Temple was destroyed, and thus not originally spoken by Jesus, which completely moots Holding's argument, even if we could make sense of it. Likewise, in some cases Christians saw this as having nothing to do with the actual Temple anyway (John 2:18-22), and regarded its literal interpretation as a slander and not what Jesus really meant (Mark 14:57-59). If that were so, then the remark could only be "offensive" to those who didn't inquire as to its meaning--but all converts surely would have, so it would present no barrier. One can debate all these issues, but the fact remains that they are not resolved to any sort of consensus among experts, and so no strong argument can be built on such a point.
Some of Holding's arguments are circular. He asks, for example, "Why did the early Christians make such a bold political stand part of their established belief system?" and finds the only answer to be, "They must have truly believed that Jesus was the Lord of this world, and that His resurrection from the dead proved it." Indeed! By definition all Christians believed Jesus was Lord because he was raised from the dead.[2] That's what it meant to be a "Christian." The fact that Christians believed this cannot be used as proof it was true. That's circular reasoning--for it begs the question whether their belief was justified, by any respectable modern standard. Perhaps Holding means that Christians couldn't have locked horns with their peers and authorities in such a bold culture war if they were merely "pretending" to believe. That's debatable (see note above). But we could concede the point happily--for even Holding must admit that many Muslims really believe martyrs gain paradise, that many Hindus really believe they will be reincarnated, and so on, yet their belief is false. Thus, Christians could certainly throw themselves pell-mell into a dangerous culture war because of a false belief. The issue is whether their belief was false, not whether it was sincere.
Holding also misrepresents the arguments of Malina & Rohrbaugh. For example, though he quotes them saying "departure from the family was something morally impossible in a society where the kinship unit was the focal social institution," he curiously fails to mention that they go on to explain how Christianity offered an even better family to be loyal to and thus fulfilled the expectations of their society--proclaiming to do so, in fact, better than existing social institutions:
The household or family provided the early Jesus-group members with one of their basic images of social identity and cohesion. It is important, therefore, to understand what family meant to ancient people. In the Mediterranean world of antiquity the extended family meant everything.... Loss of connection to the family meant the loss of ... vital [social] networks as well as any connection to the land. Loss of family was the most serious loss one could sustain.
        Yet a surrogate family, what anthropologists call a fictive kin group, could serve the same functions as a family of biological origin. Jesus groups, acting as surrogate families, are the locus of the good news for all the Gospel writers. It quickly transcended the normal categories of birth, social status, education, wealth, and power.... Followers of Jesus are "brothers." For those already detached from their families of origin (for example, noninheriting sons who go to the city), a surrogate family could become a place of genuine refuge.
        For the well-connected, particularly among the city elite, giving up one's family of origin for the surrogate Jesus-group family, as the Gospels portray Jesus demanding, was a decision that could cost one dearly.... It meant breaking ties not only with family but also the entire social network of which one had been a part. Yet, as Jesus promises in Mark 10:30, the rewards could be unimaginably great: "a hundredfold now in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life." [3]
This is exactly what I have argued throughout my critique: Christianity was rarely appealing to the well-connected elite, but was often appealing to many lower down the ladder whose social circumstances were unsatisfying--like "noninheriting sons" and those who migrate to cities in search of a better life--and these people, Malina says, would find joining the Christian family to be quite attractive, not "impossible" as Holding misrepresents him as arguing.
Of course, in actual practice, Christians rarely asked people to depart from their families anyway, and often sought to recruit heads of household first so the rest of the family would follow (see Chapter 6, Chapter 10.2, and Chapter 18.4). Indeed, on every point Holding quotes them on, Malina & Rohrbaugh say much more than he lets on. They do not agree with Holding at all that these radical ideas (which were not unique to Christianity--similar proposals were advanced by various sects and philosophical schools) could not have won converts without "irrefutable" empirical evidence. To the contrary, Malina & Rohrbaugh's message, throughout all their commentaries, is that Christianity found a following because its progressive moral vision was actually appealing--it purported (and in many cases genuinely appeared) to solve real social problems. Holding will search Malina & Rohrbaugh in vain for any argument that evidence was a factor in Christianity's actual success. But they do remark in one way or another on the attractiveness of the Christian moral message as the real key to its success (as in the quote above), at least among those groups who were desperately eager for some solution to the failures of their own social institutions.
And this one-sided use of Malina & Rohrbaugh exposes the most pervasive error Holding makes: most of his observations miss the entire point of a culture war in the first place. For example, Holding argues that the "teachings and attitudes of Jesus and early Christianity" were "contrary to what was accepted as normal in the first century," but that isn't exactly true--ancient society was highly cosmopolitan, with numerous different cultures and value systems intermingling and living together. One man's "normal" was another man's anathema. Accordingly, in many ways Christianity gained an audience because it opposed certain values among the elite that were often despised by outsiders as producing a dysfunctional, unjust society. Obviously the elite didn't think so, which is why almost none of them joined up. Yet in other respects, Christianity actually appealed to popular values, religious beliefs, and cultural symbols and expectations--it was deliberately sold as their truest realization, against the corruption and failure of other religious sects. Both tactics are proven winners in the game of cultural warfare. So there should be no surprise that Christianity won many adherents.
Holding doesn't seem to grasp the multiculturalism of antiquity, or the nuances of just what the Christians were actually arguing. "Think of how people react when someone burns Old Glory," he asks, offering this as an example of radical behavior that breeds cultural outrage. But somehow he manages to forget the fact that there are a lot of people who don't care whether someone burns the flag (in fact, most people don't), and still a lot who see it as symbolically appropriate, and even many who actually cheer the flames. That is why the flag is burned. Thus Holding is engaging in yet another hasty generalization, pretending everyone was exactly alike in their values and beliefs, when in fact the Roman world, just like modern America, was awash with battles between numerous conflicting cultural values. And even then, most of the ancient culture war, again just like today, wasn't really a clash of different values, but a clash of different perceptions of whether those values were actually being realized. Most flag burners in the United States are patriots: they burn the flag to protest the fact that the present government is not living up to the very values it professes to serve. The same holds for any contemporary issue you care to mention--whether it's war, capital punishment, abortion, school prayer--in every case, there really isn't a difference in values, for both sides profess to value compassion, liberty, freedom from oppression, and equality before the law. Rather, there is only a difference in perception: one side says the other's behavior violates their own values--of compassion, liberty, freedom from oppression, or equality before the law. So it was in antiquity: Jesus and the early Christians believed and preached that their apparently "radical" behavior and teachings were actually a fulfillment of the ordinary and beloved values of the wider society, and that what others in that society thought was fulfilling those values was actually trampling and destroying them. It was a debate. Some cried poppycock. Some rubbed their chins and nodded. Some cheered. Christians recruited from the cheering section.
So, for example, it is certainly true the Christian movement was an attempt to supplant the Jewish Temple cult, as Holding details. Indeed, the Christians were not shy about this: their language on the matter was explicit. It was, in fact, their primary message. Many other Jewish sects also attempted exactly this--the Samaritans, for example, as well as the community at Qumran. But that was because the Temple cult, and the system it entailed, was seen by many as a major cause of society's problems. I elaborate on this point elsewhere.[4] Here it is enough to cite the fact that the Temple cult was perceived by many as commercialized and hypocritical, and it had become a focal point of violence. Thus it was a major social problem. So to get rid of it was often seen as a viable solution--to those who were locked outside of the system that controlled it. Insiders--like the Pharisees and Judaean Rabbis--were appalled, of course. But that's a typical elite response to popular unrest. Citing how shocked the elite were tells us nothing of how the discontented masses felt about the matter.
And that's really the most important point here. Holding can certainly claim that Christian teachings "would have shocked most" listeners, but that only serves to explain the actual fact that "most listeners" didn't become Christians. Even by the middle of the 3rd century A.D., after 200 years of vigorous missionary activity establishing hundreds of churches throughout the Roman Empire, the Church comprised less than 1% of the Empire's population (see Chapter 18), which means even then (much less in its first hundred years) 99 out of 100 people (and that is certainly "most") rejected the Christian message. The few who accepted it did so because they approved of its anti-elitist message in all the ways I have already explored in previous chapters. Flag burners in the United States serve as a perfect parallel: their numbers and motivations are largely the same--a tiny minority who believe the larger society has failed to live up to its own values. Ultimately, Holding cannot offer the fact that "by far most" rejected Christianity as evidence that Christianity had "irrefutable proof" that Jesus rose from the dead! Nor can he claim that the tiny minority who were persuaded converted only because the proof of this was irrefutable--for there were numerous other motives available, and as we have seen in several past chapters, the evidence shows those other motives were operating, fully explaining the actual scale of Christianity's success.

Buy Not the Impossible Faith!
Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn't Need a Miracle to Succeed

Now available as a book, fully updated and reorganized. This is the definitive edition of “Was Christianity Too Improbable to Be False?” Even better than online, improved and revised throughout. Available at Amazon


[1] Apuleius, Metamorphoses 11.21-25. Apart from the language just quoted, he describes the ritual in such terms: "I approached the border of death, and once the threshold of Proserpina was crossed, I was conveyed through all the elements, and came back" (ibid. 11.23). Proserpina is the Goddess of the Underworld, and as such is a personification of the Land of the Dead). All this is again called a "rebirth" in 11.16.
[2] Or maybe--as Malina & Neyrey explain--not all Christians would necessarily have to really believe this in order to find the movement worth every sacrifice. They could merely profess to believe it in order to support and promote its superior cultural agenda. See Chapter 10.
[3] Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 2nd ed. (2003): p. 414 ("Surrogate Family") (emphasis added).
[4] Richard Carrier, "Whence Christianity? A Meta-Theory for the Origins of Christianity," Journal of Higher Criticism 11.1 (Spring 2004).


17. Did the Earliest Christians Encourage Critical Inquiry?

17.1 Holding's Bogus Evidence
17.2 Method as Revealed in Paul
17.3 Survey of Passages Relating to Method
17.4 Conclusion

17.1. Holding's Bogus Evidence

Holding claims that "throughout the NT, the apostles encouraged people to check" and "seek proof and verify facts." This is blatantly false. Indeed, the only evidence he can adduce for this absurd claim has nothing to do with "facts" and actually implies the opposite attitude toward method that Holding intends. Holding begins his case with 1 Thessalonians 5:21, which says (in context, i.e. 5:19-22): "Do not extinguish the Spirit, do not scoff at acts of prophesy, but put them to the test, and hold fast to what's good, and push away every kind of knavish thing." Is Paul talking about checking the evidence for the Resurrection? Or in fact any empirical claim? No. He is talking about testing ongoing prophesies in the Church,[1] and the test he refers to is not empirical, but moral: believe any prophesy that is morally good, and shun any prophesy that is morally bad. That kind of test is not even relevant to Holding's argument.
The test in question is the same described or alluded to by other New Testament writers (e.g. 1 John 4:1-5:13; 2 Peter 1:19-2:22), and no other test (for distinguishing true from false prophesy) is ever mentioned in the New Testament. The Gospel of Matthew has Jesus himself describe and promote this "moral" test for prophesy: the sole criterion is whether the prophesy produces good or evil fruit (Matthew 7:15-20). No mention is made of doing empirical research or logical analysis or anything like that. To the contrary, Christians are told that false prophets will come bearing all the same evidence true prophets will (Matthew 24:23-29; Mark 13:21-23), therefore only a moral test will tell them apart. The assumption is that false prophesy produces lawlessness and abandonment of love (Matthew 24:11-12). This reflects the irrational groupthink assumption that a well-behaved man can't lie and a morally successful group must have the approval of God (see again, for example, Chapter 6 and Chapter 10). The only exception in the New Testament is when a false prophet is exposed the same way Moses proved the greatness of his God: in a contest of miracles (Acts 13:6-12)--not by researching or logically analyzing what he claims, but simply by seeing whose miracles work. Period. No other evidence or investigation ever comes up, or is at all required to convert even an elite (as discussed in Chapter 13).
Indeed, in the most explicit instruction, John uses the same vocabulary as Paul when he tells Christians to "test" prophetic spirits by seeing whether they promote or stifle love. Indeed, his test is absurdly question-begging: "every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not of God, but is the spirit of the Antichrist" (1 John 4:1-3). As standards of inquiry go, this hits rock bottom. The only further test subsequently offered is the criterion of whether the spirit promotes love or worldly desires (1 John 4:4-5:13), since only the former comes from God. It is impossible to accept any of these tests as evidence today. Whether someone in a prophetic trance confesses Christ and advocates love has no bearing at all on whether Jesus really rose from the dead. Indeed, the mere fact that these tests were more than sufficient for Christian converts proves exactly the opposite of Holding's point: they were satisfied with far, far less than anything we would call "irrefutable" evidence. So long as people had visions of a Christ telling them to love each other and give up worldly lusts, that was enough to prove Christ lived. Maybe they would require a missionary to perform some miracle before being truly convinced (as discussed in Chapter 13). But the Christians themselves admitted that even false prophets could do that! Therefore, even empirical evidence was inadequate. Only the moral (and thus thoroughly natural) success of the movement really counted.
The only other piece of evidence Holding has to offer is just as fatal to his case. Holding claims that "when fledgling converts heeded this advice" to check the facts, "not only did they remain converts (suggesting that the evidence held up under scrutiny), but the apostles described them as 'noble' for doing so," citing Acts 17:11. But that passage says the opposite of what Holding thinks: it says these "nobler" Christians accepted the gospel "readily" ("with all willingness"), not skeptically. And it says the only test they conducted, the only research they engaged, and the only fact-checking they carried out was "closely examining the scriptures on a daily basis" as to "whether these things were so," and from that alone "many of them therefore believed, and many among the respectable Greek women, too, as well as not a few of the men" (Acts 17:12). That's it. They checked scripture. And that was enough to persuade them to convert--on the spot. Not a single bit of actual research was required, nor was any engaged. No letters were sent. No inquiries made. No empirical evidence demanded. There wasn't even an interrogation of the apostles as witnesses--to the contrary, their stories were "eagerly" believed, and as soon as what they said matched what the scriptures said, that was sufficient to convert everyone who did convert, even "respectable" men and women. And this is what Acts praises as most noble--not skeptical inquiry as we understand it.
All the evidence from Acts and beyond corroborates this same picture, as demonstrated already in Chapter 13. So even if we completely trust what Acts says, it still proves exactly the opposite of what Holding argues: no empirical research of any kind was required or undertaken, even by wealthy converts, and in fact Christians were hailed as especially "noble" who simply "accepted" the message, confirming no more than that it agreed with scripture. Just as the Gospel of John says, "Because you have seen me, you have believed, but blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe." The greater praise, in other words, went to those who rejected the skeptical standards of Thomas and simply trusted what they were told. That entails a hierarchy of empirical values quite the reverse of what Holding pretends.

17.2. Method as Revealed in Paul

That concludes all the evidence Holding can find. There is no other evidence. And even these two passages utterly fail to support his point. As it happens, like these passages, the collective evidence of the New Testament, especially in the Epistles, supports quite the opposite conclusion. Never once is anyone "encouraged" to "check," "seek proof," or "verify facts" at all. No empirical method or standard of critical inquiry gains any praise. To the contrary, those who advocated such methods, and the principles of reasoned doubt and investigation, are pretty much on the receiving end of condemnation. Christianity, after all, targeted for conversion those who scorned the "wisdom of the wise" (1 Corinthians 1:17-31), not those who cherished the forensic standards of the supereducated lawyers, historians, and scientists of the day.
And this is born out in evident practice, as Paul could demonstrate any point he wanted by simply articulating a clever proof from scripture. Failing that, all he had to do was claim a revelation from God. No other evidence really mattered. At most, if he really needed some corroboration, he would appeal to the fact that he suffers for the faith, therefore he "must" be telling the truth, and he can perform "miracles," therefore God "must" approve what he says. Try as you might, search every verse, and not once is any other kind of evidence offered for any claim he makes, beyond "appearances" like his own vision. These are not fact-checkers. These are mystics. And the standards of mystics are wholly alien to any respectable empiricism.
Read the Epistles and see. Paul and his audience do not seem very impressed by rational, historical, scientific, or dialectical evidence (check out 1 Corinthians 2), so these get no significant mention in his letters. Instead, Paul always 'proves' the truth by appealing to the efficacy of apostolic miracle-working, to subjective revelation, to scripture, and to his upstanding behavior or 'suffering' as proof of his sincerity.[2] That's pretty much it. After all, Paul and his flock believed 'truth' had to be grasped spiritually, on faith (1 Corinthians 2:15-16), not through skeptical investigation. Consider the argument of Galatians:
I am amazed that you are so quickly abandoning the one who called you in the grace of Christ, for a different gospel, which isn't really another gospel, except there are some people who trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you any gospel other than what we preached to you, let him be anathema! As we have said before, so say I now again, if any man preaches to you any gospel other than that which you received, let him be anathema. (Galatians 1:7-17, emphasis mine)
Here we have a serious situation: Christians are abandoning the faith for some alien gospel. Surely here, of all places, Paul would pull out all the stops in emphasizing the proper empirical methods for checking the truth of what Jesus really said and did, and hence what the true gospel really was. Yet what do we get? A question-begging criterion of blind dogmatism: anything you hear that contradicts what we told you is false. Period. No fact-checking required. Even a vision from heaven won't cut it! Paul is so adamant about this criterion that he repeats it twice. This is clearly the criterion of truth he and his congregation should and do employ. Yet it is exactly the opposite of the empirical standards Holding wants to pretend Paul advocated.
Paul continues (emphasis mine):
For I make known to you, brethren, regarding the gospel which was preached by me, that it is not according to a man, neither did I receive it from a man, nor was I taught it. Rather, it came to me through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my manner of life in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and made havoc of it: and I advanced in the Jews' religion beyond many of my own age among my countrymen, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when it was the good pleasure of God, who separated me, even from my mother's womb, and called me through his grace, to reveal his Son inside me, that I might preach him among the Gentiles, right away I did not consult with flesh and blood, nor did I go over to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me.
Think about this argument for a minute. Paul is surely using the best argument he knows will persuade his audience, and get them back into the fold--so we can say his audience must have found this line of reasoning more persuasive than anything else he could think to say. But his line of reasoning is the exact flip-side of empirical standards: whereas a good critical thinker would only trust a man who immediately went and checked all the facts before believing, Paul not only explicitly declares he did not do that at all, but the fact that he didn't is actually his very argument! In other words, he expects his audience to be impressed by the fact that he didn't fact-check! So important is this point that he actually goes out of his way to insist, "I'm not lying!" (Galatians 2:20).
Thus, Galatians 2 expresses values exactly the opposite of what Holding wants. Paul and his audience are thoroughly uninterested in Holding's idea of "fact-checking." To the contrary, the testimony of men, indeed even of angels, is inherently suspect--so suspect, in fact, that they can dogmatically reject it a priori. What is persuasive is simply and only this: that God spoke to Paul in a private revelation. That is the only kind of evidence his audience will accept--indeed, even so much as a hint that Paul checked the facts before believing the vision would destroy Paul's credibility entirely. For if he showed any doubt at all that the vision was true, if the vision was so insufficient that he had to seek reinforcement or additional instruction from mortal men, then this would cast doubt on the vision being an authentic communication from God. After all, his audience were the sort of people who thought God punished Zacharias (by striking him mute) for merely asking for evidence (Luke 1:18-20). That's how hostile the Christian mind was to Holding's dream of "fact-checking." The Christian moral was that Zacharias, and hence all of us, should simply trust a vision--no questions asked, and no facts checked. The same twisted logic also makes sense of Paul's tactic of pointing out how he did a total 180 from enemy to friend, as proof that his vision must really have been from God. The fallacious logic here would impress many people back then. But we have no good reason to buy it today.

17.3. Survey of Passages Relating to Method

Paul's bizarre anti-empirical assumptions reflect the fact that Christian epistemology was fundamentally centered on faith over evidence. For "the righteous shall live by faith" (Romans 1:17, quoting Habakkuk 2:4) and so "we walk by faith and not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7). This is an attitude that offers little encouragement to "checking the facts first." To the contrary, when questions arise, far from being encouraged to fact-check, the Christian is told to "ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind," and "such a man cannot expect to receive anything from the Lord, since he is a man of two minds, unstable in all his ways" (James 1:6-8). Ask in faith. Ask without doubting. The man who doubts is aimless, unstable, and worthy of no help from God. This is exactly the opposite of encouraging critical inquiry. It quite clearly discourages it.
Far from being told to check things out, the Christian is told "you have no need for anyone to teach you" because Christ "teaches you about all things and is true and is not a lie, and just as this has taught you, you abide in him" (1 John 2:27). In fact, don't even pay attention to what anyone else says, just what we tell you, for "we are of God, and he who knows God understands us, while he who is not of God doesn't understand." That is our criterion of truth; "by this we know the spirit of truth" and can distinguish it from "the spirit of error" (1 John 4:6). This is dogmatism, not empiricism. Fact-checking is portrayed here as all but ungodly. Instead, believe what we say. End of story. That's indeed the only criterion implied in 1 Corinthians 15:11: after reciting the claims grounding the faith, Paul does not mention any facts having been checked or needing to be checked; all he says is "so we preach, and so you believed." That's considered enough.
At the same time, the principles of philosophy, science, logic, and forensics are lambasted as foolish. People who rely on them "become futile in their speculations," and though "professing to be wise," they are really just "fools" (Romans 1:21-22). Christians are openly discouraged from learning, developing, and employing skills of interrogation, investigation, and examination. Anyone who attempts to do that merely "deceives himself," for all those things are "foolishness before God." In fact, "it is written" that "the reasoning of the wise" is "useless," that God "will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and [that God will] bring the discernment of the discerning to nothing"--making fools of "the wise man," "the scribe," and "the skilled questioner" (1 Corinthians 1:18-20 & 3:18-20). This isn't exactly an encouragement to follow in the footsteps of philosophers, scholars, and skilled inquirers.
Indeed, Christians are specifically told to reject logical analysis, since "wrangling over words" is "useless" and brings only ruin (2 Timothy 2:14), and it's all "fruitless discussion" anyway. Whoever entangle themselves in it "neither understand what they are saying nor grasp the matters about which they make confident assertions" (1 Timothy 1:6-7). Examining alternative accounts and claims is discouraged, too:
If anyone advocates a different doctrine, and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing, having a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. (1 Timothy 6:3-4)
Thus, the very sort of person who asks questions, seeks precision in description and terminology, or even suggests the truth is other than what the Christian leaders say it is, is just plain evil. How can you check any facts, when any fact contrary to dogma is automatically a lie, born only of evil, arrogance, ignorance, and greed?
So fact-checking is practically ruled out a priori. Anything contrary to the "knowledge of God" and "obedience to Christ" must be destroyed (2 Corinthians 10:3-6). Not checked. Not looked into. Just destroyed. All mundane knowledge is suspect: "if anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know" (1 Corinthians 8:2). And the cure is not employing some critical method to gain reliable knowledge, but to simply reject everything contrary to dogma. The Christian is simply told to "make sure no one makes a captive of you through philosophy and senseless deception according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the natural world, and not according to Christ" (Colossians 2:8).
In fact, the earliest Christians conveniently constructed an epistemology whereby any evidence or testimony that contradicts their dogmatic beliefs could be rejected out of hand. Anyone who says anything contrary to the claims of the apostles is surely deluded, "for God has sent upon them a deluding influence so they would believe what is false" (2 Thessalonians 2:11), and they are all hypocrites, liars, victims of deluding spirits, and the puppets of demons (1 Timothy 4:1). Christians are even told, point blank: don't debate (Galatians 5:20-26), even though debate is the lifeblood of critical inquiry. Likewise, instead of checking out the facts and developing well-researched refutations, "false teachers" are simply to be "shunned" (2 Timothy 3:5), and so anything contrary to dogma won't even be heard--much less looked into. As Timothy is instructed, "guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith" (1 Timothy 6:20-21). In other words, trust what you were told. Don't even listen to anyone else. Rather than being told to investigate them, Christians are instructed to simply reject what stories they may hear (1 Timothy 4:7).
One can certainly try to sugarcoat all this, spin it to one's liking, make excuses, and ultimately argue that these declarations only apply to certain contexts, or whatever. It still won't change the fact that these are the only encouragements regarding method to be found in the Epistles. And not a one encourages anyone to "check the facts." Instead, when we catch glimpses of the actual methods that Christians respected, we find mysticism trumping empiricism every time. Consider Paul's moving appeal:
When I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom when I proclaimed to you the testimony of God.... My message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in a demonstration of the spirit and of power, that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)
Thus, Paul openly disavows the established rhetorical principles of evidence and argument, and says instead that the miracles of the Holy Spirit are all he came with, and all that God wants Christians to trust as evidence. Miracles and revelations and the apostle's word were always sufficient. No research was necessary, for "the Lord will give you understanding in everything" (2 Timothy 2:7; e.g. Mark 13:11; Luke 12:11-12, 21:13-15). Like modern New Agers (see Chapter 13), Christians are exhorted to ignore the evidence of their senses, and trust instead in the invisible certainties of their heart (2 Corinthians 4:18), since that is where God speaks to you. Indeed, Paul gives away the game when he says "what shall I profit you unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching?" (1 Corinthians 14:6) Funny how "evidence" and "logic" don't make the list. Paul is saying outright that if a claim doesn't come by revelation, prophecy, inspiration (gnôsis), or tradition, it is profitless and not even worth mentioning. So much for fact-checking.
Apart from Scripture, the Holy Spirit is their only sourcebook:
For to one God grants the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge (gnôsis) according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another workings of power, and to another prophecy, and to another interpretations of spirits, to another different kinds of utterances, and to another the interpretation of these utterances. (1 Corinthians 12:8-10)
Wisdom. Knowledge. Faith. All come from the Holy Spirit. Not from research. Not from making inquiries. Not from questioning witnesses accurately and weighing different kinds of testimony. Indeed, when Paul declares the hierarchy of reverence, the list goes: "first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, then the ability to help, then to administer, then varieties of speaking in tongues" (1 Corinthians 12:28). Again, fact-checkers don't even make the list.
Christianity's earliest critic certainly noticed the problem, and it is well worth looking at what he said on this matter, and what the Christian apologist Origin had to say in reply, even though this comes two hundred years late. When Celsus attempted to investigate the claims and doctrines of Christians, he kept running into this same wall: Christians would simply exclaim "do not question, just believe!" They expected converts to simply trust in Jesus--without evidence or demonstration. And Origen does not deny it. To the contrary, he defends it! He says, point blank: "we admit that we teach those men to believe without reasons." So much for the supposed encouragement to "check the facts" first.
Origen does claim that Christians believe in inquiry into the meaning of their prophetical writings, the parables of the Gospels, and "other things narrated or enacted with a symbolical signification," but mentions nothing about checking witnesses, documents, physical evidence, histories, or anything empirical at all. And what's worse, not only is "study of scripture" the only inquiry Christians engage in, Origen declares that most people don't even have the time for that (since people worked long hours in antiquity just to get by), and "therefore" the Christian exhortation to "simply believe" is actually a good policy! So rather than refute or even challenge Celsus on this point, Origin defends the very anti-empirical policy we have found throughout the Epistles, on the dismal argument that faith is good for people.
By wasting no time on "fact-checking" before committing to the faith (or even afterward!), people can gain salvation and moral improvement. "Isn't it better for them," Origen insists, "to believe without a reason, and then become reformed and improved," rather than "not to have allowed themselves to be converted on the strength of mere faith, but to have waited until they could give themselves to a thorough examination of the reasons?" Origen says it is indeed better to "just believe," because most people could never complete such an examination, and therefore would remain wicked and die unsaved. So it is better they simply have faith, and not waste time checking the facts.[3] So much for Holding's argument.

17.4. Conclusion

In conclusion, there is no evidence the apostles were "actively encouraging people to check out their claims" in any sense we would find relevant today. To the contrary, as best we can tell, they were encouraging the rejection of the methods of critical and empirical inquiry advocated by elite scientists and philosophers, and instead advocating the pursuit of entirely different criteria of truth--criteria we know today are full of holes and incapable of actually getting at the real truth about anything (beyond blind luck). Their standards were mystical (appeals to scripture and revelation), moral (appeals to the virtue of the speaker as proof his story is true), and superstitious (appeals to the miraculous "powers" of the speaker as proof he's right)--never anything validly empirical.
Obviously, this won over no one who already valued the skeptical and empirical standards of the philosophical schools. But that is precisely why these people are condemned as fools. The Christians found favor instead with those who despised elite philosophy and cherished in its place entirely different standards of inquiry, standards focused on God, spirituality, and moral development. And that is all the more reason why we can't much trust what the Christians claimed. By its very design Christianity excluded rational and critical minds, driving most of them away with every insult, while sucking in droves of what we would today call New Agers, people who prefer to "feel" their way to the truth through blind faith in dreams, oracles, and superstitious assumptions about God, man, and the universe. These were people who were annoyed with the uncertainties of real knowledge, and preferred to find refuge from the anxieties of doubt and the rigors of research by clinging to the absolute certainty of unquestioning faith. Their standards were incapable of ascertaining the truth--about anything, much less the resurrection of Jesus. And for that reason we cannot conclude they would only believe it if it was true. Indeed, from what we can see of their methods, that isn't even probable.

Buy Not the Impossible Faith!
Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn't Need a Miracle to Succeed

Now available as a book, fully updated and reorganized. This is the definitive edition of “Was Christianity Too Improbable to Be False?” Even better than online, improved and revised throughout. Available at Amazon

Back to Table of ContentsProceed to Chapter 18


[1] Ordinary converts would prophesy as a standard Church practice at the time: Romans 12:6; 1 Corinthians 11:4-5, 13:9, 14:1-39.
[2] Miracles as Criterion: 1 Corinthians 2:4-5 ("my speech and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so your faith would not stand on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God," emphasis mine); 2 Corinthians 12:12 ("truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, by signs and wonders and mighty works"); 1 Thessalonians 1:5 ("how that our gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and in much assurance, even as you know what manner of men we showed ourselves toward you for your sake"); Hebrews 2:3-4 ("what was spoken through the Lord, was confirmed to us by them that heard, and God bore witness with them, both by signs and wonders, and by manifold powers, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to his own will"). Moral Virtues as Criterion: 2 Corinthians 11:23-27, 12:7-10; 1 Thessalonians 1:5. Scripture as Authoritative: Romans 15:4, 16:25-26; 1 Corinthians 4:6, 15:3-4; 2 Timothy 3:15-16. Revelation as Authoritative: 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, 12:8, 13:2; 2 Corinthians 12:7-9; Galatians 2:1-2 (note how Paul occasionally distinguishes between his opinion and instructions from God, e.g. 1 Corinthians 7:12, 7:25 vs. 14:37), see also Ephesians 3 & 2 Peter 1:16-18. Examples in Acts of Trusting Visions: 7:55-56, 10:1-7, 11:5-14, 12:6-11, 16:9-10, 22:17-21.
[3] Origen, Against Celsus 1.9-10 (Galen makes a similar observation about Christians in On the Different Kinds of Pulses 2.4 & 3.3 = Kühn 8.579 & 8.657; and there are similar quotations surviving in Arabic, cf. Early Christian Writings: Galen). Origen even appeals to the "fact" that Christianity improves men's morals as sufficient proof that it's true--because no doctrine could do that unless God approved of it. This is the same pseudologic I've discussed in other chapters: from Origen's cultural point of view, to be good, and to be approved by God, are synonymous and inseparable. So good men can't lie, nor even be mistaken in their doctrines--for if they were, they would not be good. Vicious logic indeed. In contrast, Celsus advocates the view that we must "follow reason and a rational guide, since he who assents to opinions without following this course is very liable to be deceived." Notice how we never find any statement like this in the Bible.

Δεν υπάρχουν σχόλια:

Δημοσίευση σχολίου