June 6, 2006

Why Believe The Bible?
Part 2: The Life and Teachings of Jesus of Nazareth

Welcome to part 2 of my promised series on divine revelation! My apologies for the long delay (it's been over a month since I first posted my plan of attack), but I've been very busy moving here there and everywhere, and I still don't have all my books and stuff unpacked (nor do I have a desk).

According to the plan of attack, this part of the argument "will argue in a manner based heavily on Swinburne that there is good reason to suppose that the life and teachings of the historical person Jesus of Nazareth represent a revelation of God to mankind." The chief source here is Richard Swinburne's book Revelation, but the general form of the argument is not an uncommon one. The idea is that the central revelation of God is to be found in the life and teachings of the historical person Jesus of Nazareth (Hebrews 1:1-4), which were attested to by miracles, primarily his own resurrection from the dead (see Matthew 12:39-40). Swinburne has, however, presented the clearest version I have seen (not that I have seen that many different versions of the argument), and so my argument will be based chiefly on his.

We must begin by stating our initial premises, which will be as follows: a Being exists who is far more intelligent and far more powerful than I am. The limits, if any, of his power are beyond my knowledge. He is the ontological source of the world I experience, and the purpose of this world is in part to be community of minds with whom he desires to have meaningful interaction. These premises will not be argued for here. They are assumed. If there is great interest I may post and argue for them elsewhere.

Note that the argument does not assume the existence of a God like that of the Judeo-Christian tradition in advance, but merely a super-human mind. I've phrased the problem this way because I'm not convinced that 'natural theology' is able to establish the existence of the tri-omni God. I think we may need to appeal to Scripture for that, which means that we must not assume it in advance. I will nevertheless refer to the Being described as 'God' for the sake of convenience, but ask the reader to keep in mind that this Being's identity with the traditional monotheistic deity is not yet established.

Now, it has been posited that God desires to have 'meaningful interaction' with a 'community of minds' (i.e., us). He does this in part simply in the design of the world: he creates stimuli around us, and we respond to them (this ties into George Berkeley's theory of sense perception as language on which I plan to write my honors thesis next semester, but that's another story). Would God be satisfied with this level of interaction? Is it 'meaningful'? Well, perhaps, but perhaps not. We can interact with him in this way without even knowing it, and that might make the interaction less meaningful. Also, human beings (and, presumably, God) are capable of abstraction, but our actions are very concrete. Our interactions with the physical world may well be the most important of our interactions with God, but there is at least some reason to suppose that he would desire another type of interaction: interaction on a more 'human' level, possibly through human language. Therefore, if we accept the initial conditions of the argument, it seems that we ought to be on the lookout for a 'divine revelation' on the human level, perhaps in verbal form (although we haven't yet proven that such a thing exists).

What would the divine revelation look like, and how would we be expected to recognize it? Swinburne asks how we solve the question of authorship in general: if I want you to know that I am the author of a text, I affix to it my signature. The point of my signature is that it is very easy for me to make it, but very difficult for anyone else, and so if you see it, there is a high probability that I did indeed write it myself. What would God's 'signature' look like? Well, it would be something that was very easy for God to do, but difficult or impossible for anyone else to counterfeit: a miracle. Furthermore, if the revelation was intended for all of the successive ages (it might not be), then it would be well-attested and more or less verifiable, even across centuries.

Now, it may be a bias because of my growing up and being educated in the West, but I can see only one place and time that really might fit the bill: Jerusalem, c. 33 AD.

(Note: the historical arguments below will be familiar to many readers, who may want to skip to the end - for the record, Swinburne's book skips over this part of the argument, referring readers to the historians.)

It is absolutely indisputable that something highly unusual occurred in or around Jerusalem in the first century and as a result the world is a different place. Furthermore, I would argue that none of the commonly proposed explanations are prima facie plausible: some people claim that Jesus of Nazareth never lived. Others claim that he wasn't really dead (but how did he manage to get out of the tomb, if it was sealed with a big rock, and he had passed out from blood loss three days earlier, during which time he had eaten nothing?). Still others claim that his disciples (the same disciples who ran away and hid during his execution) stole his body in order to claim that he rose from the dead (and that ten out of twelve were martyred for what they all knew to be a hoax). Finally, there is the mother of all improbable claims: he was in fact quite dead, and even "descended into Hades" ("The Apostles' Creed" - see also Ephesians 4:9-10), and on the third day after his death simply decided to 'get up' (the Greek word used in Matthew 28:6 ordinarily means simply to get out of bed in the morning; on the ease of Jesus' supposed resurrection, cf. John 10:18).

So what evidence do we have, some 2000 years later, regarding this bizarre event? Well, some hundred years or more after the fact, once the story of Jesus become central to the lives of many people, a huge body of literature sprang up. However, most of the authors had little if any knowledge of the events that took place, and were simply using an influential story to teach their theology. Are there any sources recording the resurrection of Jesus that might have been written by people who did actually have knowledge of what happened? The answer is yes.

First, there are indeed a handful of sources by non-Christians which make brief reference to the existence of Jesus and are close to the time, but there are, in general difficulties with these sources and they tell us very little about Jesus (a brief list of them is to be found here).

The reason for these 'objective' sources being so sparse is simple: for people who didn't believe Jesus' claims, there was little that was noteworthy about him until at least the mid-second century when Christianity began to be a large enough movement to attract imperial attention. Thus it is unsurprising that only those sympathetic to Jesus give us any detail about him close to the time of his life (incidentally, the same is true of Socrates, about whom we have much less evidence). Most of the sources that might plausibly have been based on direct knowledge have been included in the New Testament canon simply because that's what Christians were looking for when canonization was being discussed beginning in the third century.

Some have doubted whether these sympathetic accounts are even legitimate: that is, some people have thought they weren't actually written by the people they claim to be written by, or close to the time of the events at all. As to the former claim, let me simply state, as a classicist, that there is no more reason for doubt as to authorship in the case of the New Testament books than there is with regard to classical Greek texts. That said, there is some room for doubt with the classical texts, but no one seems to think it is significant enough to be a source of doubt as to, e.g., the reliability of Herodotus' Histories. Furthermore, it is almost certain that the majority of the New Testament books were written in the first century. While secular scholars have some doubt about the legitimacy of the First Epistle of Clement, which was traditionally believed to have been written c. 95AD and quotes several NT books, it is clear that several books of the NT were available to early Christians writing in diverse parts of the Roman Empire in the early second century. Manuscripts of pieces of NT books have also been found dating to the mid-second century. It can be assumed that the books were written substantially before this, in order to have acheived such wide circulation. (See here for a brief listing of the evidence, but note that the list is somewhat biased). The books which are critical for our purposes are the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Acts, and 1 Corinthians. All of these are quoted in 1 Clement (if legitimate), and the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, c. 120. Matthew and 1 Corinthians are also quoted by Ignatius, c. 115.

What do these sources say? Well, they all claim that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. Matthew accounts for one of the other explanations at 28:11-15, where he claims that the Jewish priests bribed the Roman soldiers to claim that the body had been stolen. Furthermore, Luke and Paul both give accounts of the evidence in favor of the resurrection: "He also presented Himself alive after his suffering by many infallible proofs" (Acts 1:3); "He was seen by Cephas [i.e. Peter], then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that he was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Last of all He was seen by me also" (1 Cor. 15:5-8). Elsewhere in Acts we have Paul claiming that Herod Agrippa must already know the story of Christ's death and resurrection which Paul has just told him: "I am convinced that none of these things escape his attention, since this thing was not done in a corner" (Acts 26:26). What is significant here is that there are appeals to evidence which was available to the readers, and enough readers found the account credible that the account was preserved. This is one of the chief ways that historical books are judged for their reliability. A book that appeals to no evidence, or a book that had no real evidence available to the readers, is not necessarily reliable, but one which appeals to evidence that admits of independent verification, it is probably fairly reliable. When Paul says that "this thing was not done in a corner" and that most of the 500 people who saw Jesus at once are still alive ("go ask them!"), he makes a strong case for the credibility of his account.

The point as far as our overall argument is concerned is this: I claim that, based on the above evidence, if we accept our postulate from the beginning of the post that a very powerful being is trying to get our attention, then the most coherent of these explanations is that the texts are true, and Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. Of course, the evidence is not sufficient that an individual whose worldview precludes the possibility of a resurrection should change his entire worldview, but such an individual should certainly be deeply troubled by the facts of this bizarre incident.

So suppose the resurrection did occur, as now seems likely, and that this was God's 'signature' pointing us to his revelation, as also seems likely. What exactly was God signing and validating? Well, Jesus made some very peculiar claims about himself, and he further claimed that his resurrection from the dead would serve as evidence of those claims (Matthew 12:39-40). Thus we can claim, even granting the New Testament texts only the status of fallible historical sources, that God has validated the claims of Jesus of Nazareth as his own self-revelation (the content of these claims is, of course, beyond the scope of this series - go read it!). Stay tuned for the next part of the series, which will discuss Jesus' claims about the Old Testament Scriptures, and argue that the entirety of the Hebrew Bible is 'included by reference' in the revelation of God in the life and teachings of Jesus.

Posted by Kenny at June 6, 2006 9:32 PM
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Why Believe the Bible?Part 1: Plan of Attack
Excerpt: There has been a lot floating around about the doctrine of inerrancy recently. I posted on this subject not long ago, responding to a post at World of Sven and a lengthy series at Chrisendom. Since then, there has been a second World of Sven post, and ...
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