Sunday, September 15, 2013

Charles Leslie: How unreasonable to reject these facts

"Besides that the importance of the subject would oblige all men to inquire more narrowly into the one than the other. For what consequence is it to me, or to the world, whether there was such a man as Caesar; whether he beat, or was beaten at Pharsalia; whether Homer or Virgil wrote such books; and whether what is related in the Iliads or Aeneids be true or false? It is not two pence up or down to any man in the world. And therefore it is worth no man’s while to inquire into it, either to oppose or justify the truth of these relations.

"But our very souls and bodies, both this life and eternity, are concerned in the truth of what is related in the holy Scriptures; and therefore men would be more inquisitive to search into the truth of these, than of any other facts; to examine and sift them narrowly, and to find out the deceit, if any such can be found; for it concerns them nearly, and is of the last importance to them.

"How unreasonable then is it to reject these facts, so sifted, so examined, and so attested, as no other facts in the world ever were; and yet to think it the most highly unreasonable, even to madness, to deny other facts, which have not the thousandth part of their evidence, and are of no consequence to us, whether true or false!"

Charles Leslie, A Short and Easy Method with the Deists (New York: New York Protestant Episcopal Tract Society, 1830), pp. 23-24.

Image: by George White, after Unknown artist. mezzotint, 1714-1732. NPG D5066

15 comments :

Zachary Smith said...

Rarely do I have a conversation with a non-believer without needing to paraphrase this concept in one way or another.

Phil Ensor said...

Funny stuff this. The author attempts to claim the moral high ground with a worthy setting of parameters and then proceeds to ride roughshod all over his premise. And then Zachary says he uses this particular 'argument' in handling disbelievers. Actually, I take it all back. His original premise is a shambles. To elevate one unfounded work over another purely on his own fancy shows the shallowness of the OP.

Ex N1hilo said...

Phil,

Of course the Scriptures are not unfounded and Mr. Leslie's elevation of them is hardly based "purely on his own fancy." Did you even read the quote? If so, then you ought to engage with its content or say nothing. You make yourself look foolish in dismissing his points so smugly.

MaryLou said...

I think a lot of non-believers read the work of John Dominic Crossan (The Jesus Seminar) and Bart Ehrman, but they don't bother to read that of Dan Wallace, Darrell Bock, etc. who have pointed out the flaws in the methodology and conclusions of each. Therefore, they only have a one-sided view of the matter.

I also encounter a great many people who still insist that Jesus is just a mythological figure, comparing him to Mithras, Osiris, etc. Again, they have read the authors who make such assertions, but they have never bothered to read the many articles and books debunking such comparisons.

I have come to the conclusion that a lot of people read only what lines up with the beliefs they already have and do not want to read an opposing position in case they find out those beliefs rest on nothing valid or true.

Phil Ensor said...

Ex N1hilo, the Scriptures are as unfounded as those works Leslie chose to dismiss. The argument/thesis is a non-starter. It automatically presumes superiority, but based on what? Anything measurable? No. Just 'belief'. So to call me smug smacks of irony.

David Carter said...

MaryLou, do you not think everything you say is equally true of the vast majority of Christians, with the sides swapped around? How many Christians do you know outside specialist apologetic circles who have read Crossan, Ehrman, Doherty, Wells and Price? And who has "debunked" the arguments of the last three? Boyd and Eddy?

christandcosmos said...

David,

Doherty, Wells, and Price reside toward the fringes of scholarship, which is probably why they have not commanded as much attention from apologists. Nonetheless, J.P. Holding has debunked Doherty, Wells, and Price here:

http://www.tektonics.org/

James White and Phil Fernandes have debated Robert Price:

http://store.aomin.org/debate-is-the-bible-true-white-vs-price.html

http://www.apologetics315.com/2008/12/phil-fernandes-vs-robert-price-debate.html

The eminent scholar James Dunn has responded to Robert Price, as documented here:

http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2009/11/james-dunns-response-to-robert-price.html

And Gary Habermas has debunked some of Price's arguments:

http://www.garyhabermas.com/articles/religious_studies/rel_stud_res_claims_in_non-christian_religions.htm

Licona engages Doherty a bit here:

http://risenjesus.com/liconas-reply-to-doherty

Ben Witherington also rebutted one of Doherty's books on his old blog; I would provide the link but I keep getting a malware warning.

David Carter said...

Thanks, christandcosmos. It's good to have a list like that. I know all the names but mostly haven't read those articles. I looked at Holding a while ago and didn't find him convincing.

To return to my original point about people only reading stuff they already agree with, though, I think that tendency is reinforced by your and MaryLou's unfortunate choice of language. If someone is on the "fringe" (with an implied "lunatic" before it) then they can't be right because we all know (don't we?) that the truth is always what is believed by the greatest number. Meanwhile if someone has been "debunked", it follows that what they were saying was bunk all along, and therefore not worth anyone else wasting time on. This kind of talk, which is very widespread, is heard by non-specialists on the same side as the speaker with some relief: "oh good, the opposition are lunatics spouting bunk, so we must be right after all". It all serves to shut down any possibility of genuine enquiry.

David Carter said...

Just looked at Gary Habermas' "debunking of some of Price's arguments". He seems to be reading Price as being insufficiently critical of claims that other people than Jesus have been resurrected at various times, and asks why he only subjects the claim of Jesus' resurrection to critical scrutiny, not the others. This is just silly. Price is an atheist and doesn't believe any of the claims; nobody these days believes Apollonius of Tyana rose from the dead, so why waste space disproving it? Price's position as I understand it is that resurrection _stories_ are quite common, actual resurrections are not, and so we should be pretty sceptical of any given story. Habermas does not address that at all in the article. So much for "debunking".

David Carter said...

Re James Dunn: he assumes an early dating of the gospels that I know Price does not accept, and says Price's arguments make no sense with that dating. And to take one bit of his quote, "How can Price actually assert that "we should never guess from the Epistles that Jesus died in any particular historical or political context,"?". Well, it's an interesting exercise to try and construct a biography of Jesus from the epistles alone. Plus, Price addresses in his various books most or all of the other objections Dunn raises. So he remains undebunked as far as I'm concerned.

christandcosmos said...

David,

You are misreading Habermas’s critique of Price. Habermas is interacting with the argument that since a number of religions report miracles, including apotheoses and (allegedly) resurrections, we ought to be skeptical of all of them, and no religion can point to a particular miracle as evidence of its truth claims. Habermas’s point is that those who make this argument (such as Price) assume that all miracle claims are on equal epistemic footing, but fail to demonstrate this by critically engaging non-Christian miracle claims. He also makes the point that the vast majority of purported “resurrections” in other religious traditions are not actually resurrections at all, in the sense that first century Jews used that word.

“It’s an interesting exercise to try and construct a biography of Jesus from the epistles alone.”

Who said anything about constructing a biography? Dunn is addressing Price’s claim that the epistles provide no indication that Jesus died in a particular historical or political context, which is patently false. You may dispute the dating, authorship, and truth value of the epistles, but that will do nothing to rescue Price’s outlandish assertion that they do not make claims about the death of Jesus.

David Carter said...

Christandcosmos,

I've re-read Habermas's article and it still seems incoherent to me as a critique of Price. Habermas and Price agree that resurrection claims for people other than Jesus do not stand up. Price nowhere claims that any of them do. So how is he "insufficiently critical"? Why should he devote space to arguing against resurrection claims that neither he nor any of his readers consider plausible?

You say "Dunn is addressing Price’s claim that the epistles provide no indication that Jesus died in a particular historical or political context, which is patently false." Really? OK, tell me what particular historical or political context the epistles give for him. Who do they say crucified him, where, and when? For example, do they say he was killed by the Romans, in Jerusalem, a few decades before their date of writing?

"...that will do nothing to rescue Price’s outlandish assertion that they do not make claims about the death of Jesus." Where does Price ever assert that? Of course they claim repeatedly _that_ he died and talk about the meaning of his death. The point is that they never provide a particular historical context for his death: time, place, perpetrators.

christandcosmos said...

I can’t speak for Habermas, of course, so perhaps you are correctly interpreting him. If he didn’t argue the way I am interpreting him to have argued, then he should have! :) I take him to be arguing that Price and others assume without argument that purported "resurrection" stories from other religions (which very rarely involve actual "resurrections" in the sense that term was used in first-century Judaism) are on an epistemic par.

The specific assertion of Price that Dunn was addressing was “we should never guess from the Epistles that Jesus died in any particular historical or political context.” This is false.

1. Paul makes numerous references to Jesus’ crucifixion, including in the undisputed Pauline epistles. Even if Paul’s writings were the only early Christian literature we had (i.e., no Gospels) this would count as evidence that Jesus died at the hands of the Roman authorities (given what we know about crucifixion in that time period). More specific evidence of this is found in 1 Corinthians 2.8, in which Paul states that Jesus was crucified by “the rulers of this age,” which at the very least suggests death at the hands of political authorities.

2. Paul mentions Jewish involvement in the death of Jesus:

1 Thessalonians 2.14-15. For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judaea, for you also endured the same sufferings at the hands of your countrymen, even as they did from the Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out.

3. 1 Timothy contains an explicit reference to Pontius Pilate. This of course is very relevant to the historical and political context in which Jesus died. (Although I strongly suspect that Price disputes Pauline authorship of the pastorals anyway; I think that position is incorrect, but that’s another debate.)

1 Timothy 6.13. I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who testified the good confession before Pontius Pilate.

Furthermore, Paul claims to have had personal interactions with family members and disciples of Jesus (Galatians 1.18-19, 2.9). This is significant because if Paul claims to have known those who knew and were related to Jesus during his lifetime, Price cannot assert that the epistles provide no evidence of a recent historical Jesus.

David Carter said...

Christandcosmos,

"I can’t speak for Habermas, of course, so perhaps you are correctly interpreting him."

That's gracious of you :-)

"The specific assertion of Price that Dunn was addressing was “we should never guess from the Epistles that Jesus died in any particular historical or political context.” This is false."

I'll deal with this point by point...

"1. Paul makes numerous references to Jesus’ crucifixion, including in the undisputed Pauline epistles."

Of course, but not to time, place or perpetrators, which is what we're talking about, except as I'll deal with below.

"Even if Paul’s writings were the only early Christian literature we had (i.e., no Gospels) this would count as evidence that Jesus died at the hands of the Roman authorities (given what we know about crucifixion in that time period)."

As I've said, I don't think this is at all strong evidence. Crucifixion was not specifically Roman.

"More specific evidence of this is found in 1 Corinthians 2.8, in which Paul states that Jesus was crucified by “the rulers of this age,” which at the very least suggests death at the hands of political authorities."

I would say "at the very most suggests". It could equally well be referring to spiritual principalities and powers, as similar phrases do in other epistles. I am not a specialist but I have read that the consensus on this question, even among scholars who do believe Paul knew of a recent historical Jesus, is that it does refer to principalities and powers. So again, this is not strong evidence either way.

"2. Paul mentions Jewish involvement in the death of Jesus:

"1 Thessalonians 2.14-15. For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judaea, for you also endured the same sufferings at the hands of your countrymen, even as they did from the Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out."

It goes on, "They displease God and are hostile to everyone in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last." I'm hesitant to play the interpolation card, but here I really do think it's justified; that kind of gloating over the Jews' fate (presumably written after AD70) is not compatible with the compassion Paul shows towards them in Romans 9. And anyway, according to the gospels, the Jews did not kill Jesus, the Romans did.

"3. 1 Timothy contains an explicit reference to Pontius Pilate. This of course is very relevant to the historical and political context in which Jesus died. (Although I strongly suspect that Price disputes Pauline authorship of the pastorals anyway; I think that position is incorrect, but that’s another debate.)"

He does dispute it, as do a lot of scholars. But I agree that's another debate.

I'll post a second comment, otherwise I'll be over the 4096-character limit...

David

David Carter said...

Continuing...

"Furthermore, Paul claims to have had personal interactions with family members and disciples of Jesus (Galatians 1.18-19, 2.9)."

No. Those passages refer to apostles, not disciples of Jesus. Paul himself was an apostle and no-one claims he knew Jesus in the flesh. I don't know what you mean by "family members" in the plural. Presumably you're thinking of the phrase "James, the brother of the Lord", which is a rather vague expression that could well be an honorific as a designation of family membership. That too is another debate I think.

"This is significant because if Paul claims to have known those who knew and were related to Jesus during his lifetime, Price cannot assert that the epistles provide no evidence of a recent historical Jesus."

I'm not sure he ever does claim that. I have heard him say the balance of evidence is that there wasn't a (recent to Paul) historical Jesus, but he doesn't want to assert it dogmatically. And of course evidence for something does not imply it happened - for example finding someone's fingerprints on a murder weapon is evidence they could be guilty, but not conclusive proof.

Against the passages you quote, we have to set the places where Paul's silence on the historical Jesus is distinctly odd if you believe he knew of one. How could he write Romans 13 if he believed the ultimate "good man" had been executed by the very authorities he was commending? And there are multiple places where simply quoting the teaching of Jesus could have clinched the points he was debating, with regard for example to marriage and eating food offered to idols. But he never talks about Jesus having taught anything to anyone. Isn't that a little strange? And things become even more unsettling when you recognize that no historical Jesus appears in the non-Pauline letters of the NT, nor in a whole swathe of early extra-canonical writings like the Didache. And yet later (late 2nd century onwards, after the gospels became widely known) Christian writings in the same genre do repeatedly talk about Jesus' deeds and teachings. For me, all this, combined with the overwhelming literary dependence of the gospels on the OT and on each other, makes the case overwhelming.

I think we've got about as far as makes sense in this context, and I won't post on this thread again, though of course I'm happy for you to. But I hope at least I've demonstrated that Price's position is extremely cogent, and he does not at all deserve to be on the receiving end of words like "debunked".

Thank you for an interesting discussion!

David

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