Sunday, September 21, 2008

Is Ignorance Bliss?

Recently, while listening to a debate between Christian apologist Dr. William Lane Craig and humanist atheist Dr. John Shook, I was surprised to hear Dr. Shook ask Dr. Craig if any extra-biblical evidence existed for the life of Jesus Christ. In other words, does any evidence exist for Jesus outside of the Biblical narratives? Dr. Craig, a veteran of numerous debates, rightly pointed out that indeed sources for Jesus do exist outside the Bible (he offered a few resources), but that even if they didn't we still have good reasons to trust the New Testament documents.

The following week I listened to a debate between atheist Sam Harris and journalist Chris Hedges. In Harris' opening remarks he made the absurd claim that "no extra-biblical evidence describes the miraculous events recorded in the four gospel accounts." Harris went on to say that "all scholars agree that the gospels were written decades after Jesus's death." I find these statements troubling because: 1) The first one is false. 2) the second one is very misleading.

For anyone who has studied the historical evidence for Christ, this certainly is absurd and speaks volumes as to how little Sam Harris and John Shook know about the available historical evidence for the life of Jesus Christ. I find that interesting simply because they both seem to believe they are informed enough to speak publicly on the topic.

Is there any extra-biblical evidence for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ outside the gospels? And if so, what can we learn about the life of Christ and the accuracy of the NT from these sources?

We briefly addressed the extra-biblical evidence for the life of Christ in our January Newsletter as follows:

"Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, in their book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist:

"Just how many non-Christian sources are there that mention Jesus? Including Josephus, there are ten known non-Christian writers who mention Jesus within 150 years of his life.

By contrast, over the same 150 years, there are nine non-Christian sources who mention Tiberius Caesar, the Roman emperor at the time of Jesus. So discounting all the Christian sources, Jesus is actually mentioned by one more source than the Roman emperor. If you include the Christian sources, authors mentioning Jesus outnumber those mentioning Tiberius 43 to 10!

Some of these non-Christian sources-such as Celsus, Tacitus, and the Jewish Talmud- could be considered anti-Christian sources. While these works do not have any eyewitness testimony that contradicts events described in the NT documents, they are works written by writers whose tone is decidedly anti-Christian.

What can we learn from them and the more neutral non-Christian sources? We learn that they admit certain facts about early Christianity that help us piece together a storyline that is surprisingly congruent with the NT. Piecing together all ten non-Christian references, we see that:

1. Jesus lived during the time of Tiberius Caesar.
2. He lived a virtuous life.
3. He was a wonder-worker.
4. He had a brother named James.
5. He was acclaimed to be the Messiah.
6. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
7. He was crucified on the eve of the Jewish Passover.
8. Darkness and an earthquake occurred when he died.
9. His disciples believed he rose from the dead.
10. His disciples were willing to die for their belief.
11. Christianity spread rapidly as far as Rome.
12. His disciples denied the Roman gods and worshiped Jesus as God.

Clearly, anyone willing to consider the data can see that the non-biblical evidence for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ indeed exists.

For an exhaustive look at the ancient non-Christian Sources for Jesus Christ, please see here.

Perhaps before his next debate, Mr. Harris may want to brush up on his research...or maybe think about starting it.

Also, the historical reliability of the NT documents is very well attested. As Douglas Groothius writes:

"the documents were written just a few decades after the events they describe by eye-witnesses or those who consulted eye-witnesses (see Luke 1:1-4; John 21:24; 1 John 1:1-3). It is very likely that the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) were written before 70 AD. The Gospel of John was probably written about 90 AD. The Epistles of Paul were written even earlier than the Gospels, probably from the late 40s to the early 60s. Contemporary readers may deem the gap between the writing of these documents and the events themselves as being too long, but this ignores two pertinent facts. Historians generally trust ancient documents that have far longer gaps. Moreover, Jewish teachers of that day taught in very memorable styles and their disciples were known for great feats of memorization. This was common in a largely oral culture (unlike our own). Therefore, a gap of several decades between the writing of a document and what it describes provides no reason to distrust it. [1]

For more on the credibility of the NT documents, see here and here.

To explore how the New Atheist camp has sought to misrepresent the reliability of the Bible, Jesus Christ, and the existence of God, please see Douglas Groothuis's thoughts here and here.

Courage and Godspeed,
Chad A. Gross

7 comments:

Jason Bishara said...

Hey Chad,

How are you my friend? I recently watched the debate between Sam Harris and Chris Hedges that you have linked on this post. I had seen it some time ago but thought id listen to it again. It’s a great debate I thought :) I have a few things to say in defence of Sam, in which I think you missed the point he was trying to make. You said:

“I was surprised to hear Dr. Shook ask Dr. Craig if any extra-biblical evidence existed for the life of Jesus Christ.”

Then you throw Sam’s statement in as if it’s in the same category, I’m using my own quote which is word for word from the debate:

“The only thing that testifies to these miracles ever having occurred, is the gospel, there’s no extra biblical description of these events.”

They are in fact different questions. Sam is referring to the absence of eye witness testimonies to the miracles of Jesus outside of the bible; Dr Shook is questioning the life of Jesus.

You said that Sam’s first statement is false. I have read all of the extra biblical testimonies that mention Jesus that I could find (I read them as a Christian). To the best of my knowledge (please correct me if I’m wrong) the earliest are all written about 70 years after Jesus, the main ones I can think of are Tacitus (AD 116) Josephus (AD 93) and Pliny the younger (AD 112) (rough dates). Out of these three none of them mention anything other than the fact there were indeed early Christians who worshiped a man they believed to be the messiah (or Christ). Josephus having probably the best one we could hope for is considered by the consensus among scholarly opinion (including Christians) to be untrustworthy because of tampering by later Christians. In which outside biblical source does anyone mention Jesus Virgin birth? What about turning water into wine, walking on water, feeding the 5000, dead people being raised and appearing too many (Matt 27:51-53) or Jesus himself appearing to 500 people at once after his death? This I believe was Sam’s point. If these sorts of things really did happen on such large scales we would expect a myriad of eye witness testimonies around that time frame, but outside the bible, we don’t find any. I wish there were, trust me.

Your second quote is incorrect, you quote Sam:

"all scholars agree that the gospels were written many decades after Jesus's death."

You even go as far to call this misleading. Well he actually never used the word “many”, perhaps in your sub conscious you put that word in for him. I catch myself doing it all the time! Dam presuppositions! Suppose it’s something we all have to be careful of :)

Here is the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xj3R6GH3AY , at 9:30 is when he says:

“... everyone agrees that the gospels were written decades after the events they report.”
Which sounds pretty familiar with your quote:

"the documents were written just a few decades after the events they describe”

Few decades, many decades, this could mean anything; it’s really just a words game. I don’t understand why people just don’t start saying, roughly around 3 decades is when we get the first gospel mark.

Look forward to your reply mate,
Peace
Jason

Chad said...

Hello Jason,

I thought I would go ahead and publish this comment for the benefit of readers and it keeps me honest! :-)

Both Shook and Harris were attempting to cast doubt on the reliability of the historical record concerning Jesus of Nazareth.  That was my main point.  They just went about it different ways.

Your quote from Harris:

“The only thing that testifies to these miracles ever having occurred, is the gospel, there’s no extra biblical description of these events.”

Here, Harris is simply wrong.  Further, this assumes that the gospels are not reliable. 

As I wrote in the article: 
 
Some of these non-Christian sources-such as Celsus, Tacitus, and the Jewish Talmud- could be considered anti-Christian sources. While these works do not have any eyewitness testimony that contradicts events described in the NT documents, they are works written by writers whose tone is decidedly anti-Christian.

What can we learn from them and the more neutral non-Christian sources? We learn that they admit certain facts about early Christianity that help us piece together a storyline that is surprisingly congruent with the NT. Piecing together all ten non-Christian references, we see that:

1. Jesus lived during the time of Tiberius Caesar.
2. He lived a virtuous life.
3. He was a wonder-worker.
4. He had a brother named James.
5. He was acclaimed to be the Messiah.
6. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
7. He was crucified on the eve of the Jewish Passover.
8. Darkness and an earthquake occurred when he died.
9. His disciples believed he rose from the dead.
10. His disciples were willing to die for their belief.
11. Christianity spread rapidly as far as Rome.
12. His disciples denied the Roman gods and worshiped Jesus as God.

Note numbers 3, 8, and 9.  Now, do these sources specifically reference all the miracles you listed?  No.  However, they do suggest that something extraordinary was going on.

Chad said...

As noted in the article, an exhaustive look at the extra-biblical data regarding Jesus can be found:

http://garyhabermas.com/books/historicaljesus/historicaljesus.htm#ch9

A shorter treatment can be viewed:

http://www.provethebible.net/T2-Divin/D-0201.htm

Quote from Harris that I added "many" to:

“all scholars agree that the gospels were written many decades after Jesus's death."

I concede here that the "many" should be removed from the post and I will do so.  It was not purposeful on my part. My apologies to you and readers. 

However, I stand by my statement that Harris was being "misleading" simply because he leads the listener to believe that because of the stated time period, the gospels should be doubted.  This is simply not the case, as Groothuis explained in the article:

the documents were written just a few decades after the events they describe by eye-witnesses or those who consulted eye-witnesses (see Luke 1:1-4; John 21:24; 1 John 1:1-3). It is very likely that the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) were written before 70 AD. The Gospel of John was probably written about 90 AD. The Epistles of Paul were written even earlier than the Gospels, probably from the late 40s to the early 60s. Contemporary readers may deem the gap between the writing of these documents and the events themselves as being too long, but this ignores two pertinent facts. Historians generally trust ancient documents that have far longer gaps. Moreover, Jewish teachers of that day taught in very memorable styles and their disciples were known for great feats of memorization. This was common in a largely oral culture (unlike our own). Therefore, a gap of several decades between the writing of a document and what it describes provides no reason to distrust it.

Chad said...

Finally, I would argue that even if we had no extra-biblical data for the life of Christ and His miracles, the gospels would still offer plenty of evidence for the seeker of truth.

Regarding eyewitnesses, consider Mike Licona's point from the article below:

"Even if this late dating were true, [of the gospels] there would still be eyewitnesses living who could confirm or deny the details. Ehrman compared this chronological distance to WWII. But there are still living witnesses from WWII that can certainly remember key events from their experience in the war."

For a short treatment of gospel reliability, see here:

http://www.conversantlife.com/theology/can-we-really-trust-the-gospels

I have collected articles, audio, and videos that deal with the very questions of gospel reliability here:

http://truthbomb.blogspot.com/search/label/Bible

I would encourage you to check out Mark Roberts exhaustive treatment of the topic:

http://apologetics315.blogspot.com/2010/11/are-new-testament-gospels-reliable.html

My main point in stating that Harris was being misleading is because we have good reasons to trust the gospel accounts, as the above links demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt.

Further, I felt he hand waved the extra-biblical data as if it tells us nothing of value, which is clearly not the case. I encourage readers to listen to the debate and judge for themselves.

I would also recommend Mike Licona's latest book which you can checkout here:

http://truthbomb.blogspot.com/2010/11/book-release-resurrection-of-jesus-new.html

Thus far, this book is the most objective look at the resurrection I have viewed. Licona's deals with pre-suppositions (he calls them "horizons") and how they influence historical inquirer, as well as the extra-biblical accounts of Jesus and what they actual tell us.

Finally, your main beef seems to be:

"If these sorts of things really did happen on such large scales we would expect a myriad of eye witness testimonies and outside biblical reports around that time frame, but outside the bible, we don’t find any"

I think you are making some big assumptions here. As the Groothuis quote highlights, we must remember the type of culture we were dealing with. Not everyone was a scribe. This was an oral culture.

I plan on dealing with this in a forthcoming post under Common Objections because I believe it to be a very good question that all readers could benefit from.

Respectfully

Chad said...

Hello Jason,

Response is here.

Enjoy and I hope all is well!

Respectfully

Jason Bishara said...

Enjoy it? I loved it! Something to wrestle with and think about for the next few days :)

Like yourself im a bit busy at the moment, but i will reply on the objections post you graciously posted with a quote from that sincere reader. Perhaps im reading too much into it but he sounds like a really awsome guy ;)

Thanks pal,

talk soon

Jase

Chad said...

Hey Jason,

Ha; your comment made me laugh!

I hope you are well!

Take care