Monday, April 19, 2010

Essay: The Impossible Faith by James Patrick Holding

The Impossible Faith by James Patrick Holding
No doubt you’ll read here a lot of arguments that Christianity is true because Jesus rose from the dead, historically. I agree with those sentiments, and also know many of the standard critical responses (e.g, “the body of Jesus was stolen,” “the apostles hallucinated,” “aliens hoaxed the Resurrection”) and the answers to them.

But here I want to offer my unique perspective on why Christianity is true: I believe that the social world of the first century was, on a large number of counts, ideologically in opposition to Christianity. Response to Christian claims would have been so overwhelmingly negative that the only way anyone outside of an original, dedicated core of Jesus’ followers would have become Christians would have been if they had been able to present sufficient evidence to convince others that the Resurrection actually happened. What kind of evidence? I could discuss that in more words, but since my space is limited, I will only briefly note a few examples: The empty tomb; the miracles wrought by Jesus and the Apostles; the nature miracles at the time of the crucifixion; the testimony of those who guarded the tomb; the unwavering testimony under pressure of those who saw Jesus alive after death. (MP3 Audio | RSS | iTunes)

Our main subject, however: Why would they need this sure witness for people to believe?

The social world of the Bible was a lot different than ours. Values that are virtually unknown or unimportant in America were considered very important in the Biblical world (and also in much of the rest of the world, even today). The foremost of these values was personal honor, or put another way, your reputation with others.  One reason why the Christians needed a sure witness to Jesus’ Resurrection to convince people is that Jesus was crucified. Today we look at a picture of Jesus on the cross and feel sorry for him, but in the Biblical world, people would have looked at Jesus in disgust. Being crucified damaged your personal honor in the most complete and brutal way imaginable. Pagan critics of Christianity said that if Jesus were really deity, he would never allow himself to be crucified. So Christians would have needed to convince others that Jesus was resurrected and that the stain of dishonor caused by the crucifixion had been reversed.

Another important value was a person’s heritage. People of the Biblical world judged others based on where they were from. In this regard, Jesus had three strikes against him: He was Jewish (and in that time, anti-Semitism was very prevalent); he was from Galilee (which was a place associated with rebellion), and he was from Nazareth (a very small town – and being from a small town meant you had very little personal honor). On this account it would be impossible to convince someone that Jesus had been honored by God by being resurrected, unless you had sufficient evidence that he had.

Yet another factor: The process of resurrection itself. Claiming that Jesus physically rose from the dead would have been contrary to all that was believed about resurrection. Jews believed that no one would be resurrected until the end of the current age – and then, it would be everyone, not just one person. Pagans didn’t believe resurrection was possible at all – and even if it had been, it would have been regarded as undesirable, letting yourself be imprisoned in a miserable body.

There are many more examples I could give: The use of women as witnesses to the empty tomb; the fact that Christianity was a “new” religion; Christian intolerance of other faiths on the one hand, and Christian disdain for the system of classes in their society on the other;  the offensive nature of many of Jesus’ teachings – there was so much that ancient people would have found offensive about Christianity that anything good about it would be substantially overridden by howls of protest. You can see a more complete outline here.

In closing, I should note that yes, there have been critics of these arguments – one atheist even paid another atheist over five thousand dollars for a rebuttal to them! But yes – I’ve answered them all.  I have also applied the same tests to other faiths – Islam, Mormonism, and the ancient religion of Mithraism – and none of them pass the test on even a single count.

The case in sum: The fact of the Resurrection is the only suitable historical explanation for why Christianity gained even a single convert beyond Jesus’ original circle of disciples.

See also J.P. Holding's book The Impossible Faith.

16 comments :

J. P Holding said...

OK, ground rules to begin...

1) If you raise some argument I've answered before, you'll get links to where I've answered them. The wheel will not be reinvented here.

2)Any references to responses to TIF will simply be referred to my own responses to those responses.

3)Posts that are clearly not intended as honest inquiry will be ignored. Those who post such things know who they are. ;)

Ken Pulliam said...

Hi JP,

We are old buddies from TWEB. Since I have responded to all of the prior essays, I feel the need to reply to yours. I have not read Richard Carrier’s Not the Impossible Faith so anything I say that might correspond with what he said is, as they say, merely coincidental.

You say: Response to Christian claims would have been so overwhelmingly negative that the only way anyone outside of an original, dedicated core of Jesus’ followers would have become Christians would have been if they had been able to present sufficient evidence to convince others that the Resurrection actually happened. What kind of evidence? I could discuss that in more words, but since my space is limited, I will only briefly note a few examples: The empty tomb; the miracles wrought by Jesus and the Apostles; the nature miracles at the time of the crucifixion; the testimony of those who guarded the tomb; the unwavering testimony under pressure of those who saw Jesus alive after death I agree that there was definitely a core of dedicated followers of Jesus but I disagree that these evidences you mention were all that persuasive. The fact that all of these things allegedly took place in Jerusalem and yet the great majority of Jerusalem rejected Christianity speaks volumes.

You say: Pagan critics of Christianity said that if Jesus were really deity, he would never allow himself to be crucified. So Christians would have needed to convince others that Jesus was resurrected and that the stain of dishonor caused by the crucifixion had been reversed. I agree but I think the level of “proof” that was needed was not so great. Many people were inclined in that day to believe supernatural events regularly took place.

You say: Jesus had three strikes against him: He was Jewish (and in that time, anti-Semitism was very prevalent); he was from Galilee (which was a place associated with rebellion), and he was from Nazareth (a very small town – and being from a small town meant you had very little personal honor). Only the first would have been that significant outside of Judea. You continue: On this account it would be impossible to convince someone that Jesus had been honored by God by being resurrected, unless you had sufficient evidence that he had. I think the proclamation itself was sufficient. We don’t see any indication in the NT that anyone did any “fact-checking” on the claim of the resurrection. It may have been much like it is today with Marian apparitions—the believers don’t need any proof and those that don’t believe write it off to fanatical superstition.

You say: Jews believed that no one would be resurrected until the end of the current age – and then, it would be everyone, not just one person. I agree except I am not sure they expected everyone to be raised. I think the answer is that the disciples believed that the end of the age had begun with the resurrection of Jesus and they expected him to return and the resurrection completed at any moment.

You say: Pagans didn’t believe resurrection was possible at all – and even if it had been, it would have been regarded as undesirable, letting yourself be imprisoned in a miserable body. This is perhaps your strongest argument. The Greeks were pretty negative on the material body. However, we know that people can change their belief systems. Enough did to create the first Christian churches.

You say that the fact that Christianity was a new religion counted against it but the truth is that there were plenty of new religions springing up throughout the Roman empire. Most of them did not survive but then again they were not granted official status under Constantine either.

The truth is that religions and other bizarre beliefs have a way of surviving (not all but enough). While your arguments have some cogency, they are a long way from any kind of substantial proof—but that’s my opinion.

J. P Holding said...

Howdy,

>>I have not read Richard Carrier’s Not the Impossible Faith so anything I say that might correspond with what he said is, as they say, merely coincidental.

That's fine. Where it does correspond I'll note it and refer to my answers, so that I can save time. My answers to Carrier are right now offline while I finish a mss, but they'll be back up in a month or so.

>>>The fact that all of these things allegedly took place in Jerusalem and yet the great majority of Jerusalem rejected Christianity speaks volumes.

Carrier brought this up too...my brief answer is that I don't think the vast majority of people even considered the evidence, but rejected it out of hand and at once simply because of the absurdity of the ideas. For more than that, my full article will have to be consulted.

>>>I agree but I think the level of “proof” that was needed was not so great. Many people were inclined in that day to believe supernatural events regularly took place.

I believe we discussed this on TWeb once, along with Jaltus. I believe the general answer was that your estimation here is incorrect, and that there was relatively no more or less credulousness than we find today, even if the objects of credulity are different. Moreover, when dealing in honor claims, the demand for proof would rise substantially. (On that matter, how's the reading going in the social sciences that I once recommended to you?) :)


>>> Only the first would have been that significant outside of Judea.

Not at all. Small towns meant a lack of honor no matter where one went in the Empire. The reputation of Galilee may have been less well known, but I see that as more icing on the cake.

>>>We don’t see any indication in the NT that anyone did any “fact-checking” on the claim of the resurrection.

Carrier did bring this idea up and I did provide some commentary on it. The general answer is that it would have been done regardless of what the NT records; the NT is not an evangelistic document, but serves other purposes, and would have no reason to record the checking of these things.

>>> I agree except I am not sure they expected everyone to be raised. I think the answer is that the disciples believed that the end of the age had begun with the resurrection of Jesus and they expected him to return and the resurrection completed at any moment.

As you know I hold to a preterist eschatology, so I would not accept this answer as relevant. Preterism holds that an old age had indeed ended, but that the next one had just begun, and the general resurrection was expected at the end of that.

>>> However, we know that people can change their belief systems. Enough did to create the first Christian churches.

People change beliefs only for reasons...the issue is what that reason was.

<>>>You say that the fact that Christianity was a new religion counted against it but the truth is that there were plenty of new religions springing up throughout the Roman empire.

All the ones I have found were not "new" but old, or revamps of old ones (like Mithraism). Can you name which ones you have in mind?

>>> Most of them did not survive but then again they were not granted official status under Constantine either.

My thesis has only to do with the first century.

Enjoy...and keep your distance from Krispy Kreme. ;)

Sam said...

Ken, I wondered if you could clarify something for me. You said on the one hand that the evidences given by Jesus' first followers were not all that persuasive to the people in Jerusalem since the majority of those in Jerusalem were not convinced by them. But then later you said the level of proof needed was not that great since many were willing to believe supernatural events regularly took place. These two claims seem to be at odds with each other unless I've just got some misunderstanding. Were the people in Jerusalem generally skeptical or not?

Ken Pulliam said...

Sam,

I think the Jews were very skeptical because they did not believe the Messiah would die a shameful death. However, I think in general the ancient peoples including the Jews were not nearly as skeptical about supernatural claims as we are today. For example, on more than one occasion the Pharisees didn't deny that Jesus had done miracles, they just attributed them to the Devil. The supernatural was believed to be much more commonplace in ancient times than today. That is not to say that many people today still believe in supernatural events but I think they are in the minority in the western world whereas they were in the majority in the ancient world.

Ken Pulliam said...

JP,

Thanks for the reply. You said: my brief answer is that I don't think the vast majority of people even considered the evidence, but rejected it out of hand and at once simply because of the absurdity of the ideas. I agree and as I pointed out to Sam above, I think the biggest absurdity for the Jews was that the Messiah would die a shameful death. They couldn't get beyond that point.

You said: there was relatively no more or less credulousness than we find today, even if the objects of credulity are different.

I don't agree. I think people were much more inclined to believe in supernatural explanations for unexplained events than they are today in the Western world. However, you are right that there are still many superstitious people today as well.

You said: when dealing in honor claims, the demand for proof would rise substantially.

But I don't see any evidence in the NT that any of the Gentiles asked for evidence. Perhaps, they did but it seems there would be some reference to it. I also don't see in the writings of the Context Group that there was any call for evidence for the resurrection among these ancient peoples.

The fact that you hold to preterism doesn't change the fact that Paul and other NT writers believed that they would be alive when Jesus returned. They expected it at any moment (1 Thess. 4; 1 Cor. 15:51ff.). They said that the last days had begun with the resurrection of Jesus. Paul even said that because the time is so short, it would be better not to get married (1 Cor. 7).

People change their belief systems for all sorts of reasons, usually not related to any kind of thorough investigation of the evidence.

As for new religions, Christianity itself wasn't new but was a revamp of Judaism. "New" religions usually start as a reinterpretation of an existing religion or religions.

J. P Holding said...

Howdy,

Ken: I agree and as I pointed out to Sam above, I think the biggest absurdity for the Jews was that the Messiah would die a shameful death.

Indeed. You may find it interesting to check out a few of the other volumes I have read lately to update my material; I looked for works on other social settings where honor was a dominant factor, and it was very enlightening. Barton's Roman Honor was especially good, as was Campbell's Honour, Family and Patronage, and Blok's Honour and Violence.

Ken: I don't agree. I think people were much more inclined to believe in supernatural explanations for unexplained events than they are today in the Western world.

Obviously we haven't the space to debate that here. ;) But I'll probably do something more on that topic for a later book.

Ken: But I don't see any evidence in the NT that any of the Gentiles asked for evidence.

As noted, I don't think they would, because the immediate reaction would be dismissal out of hand. I think a handful of elite set out to debunk the faith and so went in search of evidence...which they found.

Ken: The fact that you hold to preterism doesn't change the fact that Paul and other NT writers believed that they would be alive when Jesus returned. They expected it at any moment (1 Thess. 4; 1 Cor. 15:51ff.).

I agree with Witherington's point on those verses: These should not as saying that they "believed that they would be alive" but that they could not say with certainty that they would be dead, because they had no idea when Jesus would return and the final resurrection would occur. I think only Revelation made it clear, in the mid-60s, that there would be an extended period before the final resurrection.

Ken: Paul even said that because the time is so short, it would be better not to get married (1 Cor. 7).

I read that passage in terms of Jesus' enthronement in heaven, indicating a radical transformation in the created order, not the final resurrection.

Ken: People change their belief systems for all sorts of reasons, usually not related to any kind of thorough investigation of the evidence.

And so the question again is: Why did they change their beliefs here?

Ken: As for new religions, Christianity itself wasn't new but was a revamp of Judaism.

Arguably so, from our perspective, but as noted by Wilken and others, Christianity, when it tried to sell itself as a revamp of Judaism, was called down on that claim by their opponents. Their potential converts would not accept such reasoning.

On the side, I will probably limit myself to responses here, to the end of the week...I still have a mss to finish. :)

Ken Pulliam said...

JP,

thanks for the response. In order to be fair, I need to read your entire book on the subject. I will also read Carrier's when I get a chance. I do want to commend you for at least taking a different tact than so many apologists who just seem to parrot William Craig or Gary Habermas.

J. P Holding said...

Thanks, Ken! Just a note on that, the book this site links to is NOT a full presentation of the case -- it's a summary version meant to be used as "food for thought". You can get that if you want, but it isn't something I'd recommend since I envision it more as a sort of mega-tract.

The mss I'm working on now, Defending the Resurrection, will have a much fuller presentation including responses to criticisms such as those found in Carrier's book. I am not sure when it will be out in print yet, there's some behind the scenes stuff happening that needs to be worked out.

Thanks for the good word. Might interest you to know that this weekend I'll be at a conference where I'll present a paper in which I argue that Craig is in error about the nature of Jesus' burial (honorable vs dishonorable). You know me -- no party line is sacred. ;)

Edward T. Babinski said...

Hi JP,

Claiming something is "impossible" proves nothing about whether or not it actually happened. The question is what proof you have that something DID happen.

A related question is why does the resurrection have to be "defended?" If an infinite Being wants people to know that everyone is in danger of eternal punishment then surely there must be universally agreed upon proof given to all of such a threat, and universally agreed upon proof of its removal as well. If such eternal danger, and its removal, exists, it ought to be made clear to all and require no "defense" (one human "defending" it to another) let alone having to quit one's job and study for years in order to specialize in "defending" such a view.

Moreover . . .

1) The threat of eternal punishment remains far less apparent than the far more universal recognition of life being followed by death.

2) Removal of the threat of eternal punishment (via the sayings and doings of one man who lived 2000 years ago) also has no universally agreed upon proof. Even when Jesus was alive, the majority of those who heard him preach as well as the majority of those living in the city in which he died, remained unconvinced. Luke-Acts (not our earliest source even in the NT, but a later writing) says the resurrected Jesus ate fish and told his apostles that he was flesh and bone and led the apostles out of the city of Jerusalem to Bethany and ascended bodily up into the sky past a cloud. But apparently it was a small procession that nobody noticed, and did not involve knocking on doors, nor any people shouting hallelujiah, nor any screams of "look, up in the air, it's Jesus!" Acts even suggests that Jesus remained on earth for weeks teaching his inmost group one lesson or another (all unrecorded and/or not preserved in the NT), before finally rising into the sky, but apparently no Scribes, Pharisees or Roman soldiers were in attendance during those weeks of lessons from the post-resurrection Jesus, so the resurrection wasn't preached by Jesus himself, though judging by the late Gospels of Luke and John it could have been preached by Jesus, even in Jerusalem where their first resurrection appearances take place. Instead, Jesus' resurrection was first preached seven weeks after Jesus' death, and not by Jesus, but by his followers. (At least that's what Acts says.)

Like all fledgling religions Christianity began with a small dedicated group and spread from there, gaining momentum in the Hellenized Roman world. But even after gaining notice among Romans the name of Jesus remained unknown on the earth's opposite hemisphere (for 1,500 years), as well as throughout most of Africa and Asia, Japan and Australia. The name of Jesus was also unknown by any humans who died during the million years before Jesus was born. Today, Christianity and Islam have the most adherents among the world's major religions, but also continue to mutate, adapt, and split off further branches as one might expect given the way all religions and cultures appear to evolve in ways similar to natural selection. Exactly how far this branching process can proceed we don't yet know, but it does not appear like the branches are growing together, but rather that different viewpoints and counterpoints continue to proliferate.

Edward T. Babinski said...

CONTINUED FROM DIRECTLY ABOVE

I think Christianity arose for a variety of reasons, none of them strictly "impossible." The ancient world of Herodotus (Greek), Josephus (Jewish), and Augustus (Roman), was not a world full of atheists, skeptics and critical journalists. Word of mouth was also good enough back then when it came to spreading stories. It was a world of deities in which people passed along miracle stories. Religions and philosophies also grow when they follow the evolutionary path of least resistance, i.e., by evangelizing everyone AND STRIVING TO RETAIN THOSE WHO BELIEVE. Some inevitably "fall away," so their questions are derided and they are characterized as "not being of us," therefore, "anathema" on them, don't listen to them, shun them, "turn them over to Satan," which later involved banning and burning books by "heretics," and by Christianity's earliest critics. (Christianity and Islam have a built-in defense system; anything that questions a belief, no matter how logical the argument, is the work of Satan by the very fact that it makes you question a belief.) Beliefs of course have to be attractive to grow as well. Eternal life in a personal sense is attractive, especially in contrast with dying and rotting, winding up in a shadowy Sheol/Hades, or worse, a Hell. Therefore, Christianity (and later, Islam) promised adherents a mighty big carrot--and threatened with a mighty big stick. And Christian missionaries had the advantage, in the Roman world, of a vast interconnected system of roads, and a language shared by people all over the Roman Empire, Greek.

J. P Holding said...

Ed Babinski = example of #3 above and will be ignored.

J. P Holding said...

My time here is up....Ken, thanks for your comments.

Chad said...

Ken, you wrote:

so many apologists who just seem to parrot William Craig or Gary Habermas.

It seems to me that this comment says nothing about the truth or falsehood of the arguments Craig and Habermas use.

I would want to ask if we are only supposed to use arguments that are original to ourselves. If your answer is yes, then I would further like to know if you hold yourself to the same standard?

Respectfully

Harry H. McCall, CET said...

Just how did a figure as well know from the Triumphal Entry and as controversial as Jesus arise from a guarded tomb and travel about seen by the very people present at the crucifixion and teaching for over a month, yet no one, but the apostles (according to the Gospels and Acts), ever see him and even they leave us no written records within weeks or months of these events?

Facts prove that the apostles fade into history only to reemerge in forged testimonies of what is called today the Apocryphal New Testament (as noted by J.K Elliot The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature). 

Just why did it take, conservatively, 30 plus years for Mark to be composed while “Q” or the Saying Source (such as its counterpart in the Gospel of Thomas) has no miracles, virgin birth, resurrection or ascension?  

Finally, just why does Josephus give only a passing comment on Jesus in his Testimonium Flavianum (Antiquitates Iudaicae 18: 63-64) composed from second hand sources in Rome.

Josephus scholar Steve Mason (who is editing the multi volume commentary on the works of Josephus for EJ Brill, referred me to this this major work the history of the Antiquitates Iudaicae: Josephus on Jesus: The Testimonium Flavianum Controversy from Late Antiquity to Modern Times, by Alice Whealey (Peter Lang Publishing, NY 2003).

From the Conclusion p. 203:

In modern time the text, known as the Testimonium Flavianum, has been considered to be the only extra-Biblical witness to the historicity of Jesus Christ.

In the late sixteenth century the text was pronounced a forgery by some scholars, creating an intellectual controversy that has not been resolved even today.


Please note! “…the Testimonium Flavianum, has been considered to be the only extra-Biblical witness to the historicity of Jesus Christ.” (Pliny the Younger dealt with Christians in Asia Minor and NOT with Jesus!)

Conclusion:
According to the Gospel of John, Jesus was so famous that “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” John 21: 25. So just where is all this testimony and just why were there not any eye witness accounts written down within days or months of Jesus’ major theological and historical resurrection and ascension?

Fact is, all we have are the late Gospel claims themselves which are often in conflict on times and events. Thus, to accept any claims of the resurrection of Jesus (be they Classical or other) apart from the Bible ( meaning the New Testament) is to put the cart before the horse.

For the era in which it was said to have occurred, we have no proof of any resurrection of Jesus (or Jesus himself) apart from the New Testament.



  

Ken Pulliam said...

Chad,

No of course not. Original arguments are probably hard to develop now after 2000 years of apologetics. However, it seemed like every esssay was just rephrasing Habermas and Craig. There are other arguments that could be used.

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