Thursday, September 6, 2012

Should Historical Evidence of Jesus Be Convincing?

The Empty Tomb of Jesus Today?
Leah Libresco wrote a post a while back suggesting the historical evidence was unlikely to ever be convincing to her. I find that interesting. Not just because she has since converted but because she took the time to read Lee Strobel's book and explain why she was unpersuaded. Most atheists don't do that. They just sneer. I think an attitude like that is what eventually allowed her to be persuaded another way.
I’ve read Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ and I was unpersuaded.  (It doesn’t help that Strobel primarily interviews only believers and uses only the writings of critics without allowing them to comment on questions raised).
This is a common fallacy. People who are convinced of the truth of Jesus' resurrection are going to be believers. If I try and prove evolution and only quote people who believe evolution is true would that make my argument unconvincing? You can't just dismiss those who accept the argument because they accept the argument. It is really an ad hominem. The term "believers" is being used to imply they are not very rational and their thinking cannot be trusted.
But I’ll admit, it’s hard for me to come up with historical evidence of Jesus as messiah that would be convincing to me.  The long historical remove at which we operate, other instances of miracle workers in recorded history that are not treated as true, the extent to which the life of Jesus might not have been found worthy of record by historians of that era all make it extremely difficult to uncover anything that looks like a proof.
That is a bit lame.  Yes we should be skeptical of claims that someone is working miracles. Yes the chain of evidence is longer and that makes it harder. Again, if someone said that about evolution it would be lame. If the effects are still there we can figure out the possible causes and analyze which is most likely. If the analysis points strongly to one theory then that is a good reason to believe it is true.
And I should add that the quick expansion of Mormonism in the last 150 years (they’re apparently up to over 13.8 million converts worldwide) should cast doubt on the assertion that Christianity’s rapid success is proof of its truth.
Christianity's growth itself is not a reason to believe it is true. The Muslim faith grew faster, quicker than Christianity. I doubt the Mormons actually did but numbers themselves are not the story. The question is why were people becoming Christians or Mormons or Muslims. Christianity based its evangelism on the historically verifiable truth of the resurrection. People could check it out. There is evidence they did. Luke claims in his gospel that he has " carefully investigated everything from the beginning." If you read it it seems he did talk to Mary, Jesus' mother, and many other eye witnesses.  It was likely investigated by Jews and Romans as well to try and discredit the story. Why did those efforts not succeed?

We need to understand that people back then were skeptical just as we are now. They were not predisposed to believe all sort of stories like that. You often hear that but it is false. Jews were predisposed to believe in one God and execute anyone else who claimed to be God. Greeks and Romans were logical and they found Christianity offensive. So we can be sure they scrutinized it.

The other way the rapid growth of Christianity is convincing is because it was not governed very strongly from one central location. Sure the Bishop of Rome had primacy but churches were all over the Roman empire and beyond. Nobody could make a big change to Christianity unless they made it very early. Like while the apostles were still alive. It became too big with too many strong, conservative local leaders to let anyone throw in some new doctrine. If it was there consistently across the church then the only thing that would make sense is that it came from the apostles and probably from Jesus Himself.
I don’t think any truly persuasive evidence exists either way on the historical question of Jesus’s existence.  I’m glad to look at arguments on this topic, but to be honest, it’s frustrated to pour through conflicting secondary sources when I don’t have the training to evaluate their arguments or examine the primary sources myself.  Thus, I’m not ever likely to be moved by historical evidence for the truth of Christianity.
I am not sure you need a lot of training to evaluate the arguments. Most of the conflict is over whether to treat the supernatural as possible or not. That is a philosophical question. It is not a matter of training. If we are only going to learn when all scholars agree then we won't learn much.

We can read the documents. The question is whether they are authentic or they are forgeries. Have their been forgeries? Sure. That is one way we know what a forgery looks like. They tend not to be found in many locations. They tend not to be quoted by early church fathers. They tend to get lost and found again after many centuries. They tend to not have counter-cultural content.

So we have the two theories. The authentic theory and the forgery theory. We don't need special education to see some real problems with the forgery theory. Pops Benedict quotes Phil 2:9-11:
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.
This was written by St Paul about 30 years after Jesus died. He was likely quoting a hymn or poem that was written even earlier but let us say 30 years. We are talking about a time when people who saw Jesus and knew Jesus were still alive. Suppose He had not done miracles and not risen from the dead. Suppose He had just come out with some nice sayings. How does the idea that every knee should bow to Jesus come about? Think of someone who died 30 years ago. Say Martin Luther King. He was about 50 years ago. We have great respect for him. But nobody would say every knee will bow and every tongue will confess MLK as Lord. What does a person have to say or do to inspire this? Military and political leaders sometimes get this kind praise. That is a claim based on obvious power. But Jesus had no obvious power. So how did this idea come about?

Does this prove Christianity? Not completely. It shows some problems with not believing. You end up in the famous liar, lunatic, lord trilemma except you apply it to guys like Paul. Did Paul make up the gospel? Was Paul crazy? Or did he really experience Jesus. You can say the same about Peter or Polycarp. It is awkward but accepting Christianity is not unavoidable. It gets more and more convincing as you keep digging.

The other thing that becomes clear here is how much we depend on the early church to preserve the gospel. That it makes sense to call the church an object of faith because we make a choice to trust her when we make a choice to trust Jesus. Then it makes sense to trust her not only for the truth of the faith but also for the content of the faith. It makes no sense to say we can trust the early church on the resurrection but not trust her on saints or the sacraments.

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