Should We Believe the Eyewitness Testimony of Large Crowds?

Dear Readers of this blog:

I believe that evangelical Christian and New Testament scholar Michael Licona’s research in his recent book, Why are there Differences in the Gospels?, demonstrates that it would be well within the standards of Greco-Roman biography, the genre in which the overwhelming majority of NT scholars believe the Gospels were written, for the Joseph of Arimathea Rock Tomb Story and the detailed Resurrection Appearance Stories in the Gospels to have been literary embellishments (fiction).

All or almost all scholars agree that the earliest Christians sincerely believed that Jesus had appeared to them after his death. The veracity of the Christian religion rises or falls on the veracity of the Resurrection and the veracity of the Resurrection rises or falls on the historicity of these alleged post-death appearances of Jesus to his followers. Christians believe that the appearance stories in the Gospels and in the Early Creed are historical fact based primarily on the following:

—there were so many alleged eyewitnesses to these appearances, sometimes in large groups.
—these alleged appearances had a dramatic effect on the character of those who witnessed them.
—these alleged appearances were the impetus for many early Christians to be willing to be tortured and painfully executed for their belief in the veracity of these appearances.
—these Resurrection appearances were the primary reason for the rapid growth of Christianity.

Question: Are these facts sufficient evidence to believe that a three-day-brain-dead first century corpse really did come back to life possessing supernatural powers; supernatural powers which allowed him teleport between cities, walk through locked doors, and levitate into space?

Before you answer that question I ask you to watch this Youtube video.

In this video, HUNDREDS of very devout, sincere people believe that a woman who has been dead for 20 centuries is appearing to them. I have no doubt that at least some of these “eyewitnesses” would be willing to suffer great persecution and even death defending their belief that this event really happened. Based on the large number of eyewitnesses to this event and upon their very intense, sincere belief that this very extra-ordinary event really occurred…should we believe them?

Answer: Absolutely not!

Why? These people are experiencing an illusion and this is very likely what happened in the first century. The appearance stories in the Early Creed make no mention of a talking, walking Jesus. If the detailed appearance stories in the Gospels are literary embellishments, perfectly acceptable in a Greco-Roman biography, it is quite possible that the actual early Christian appearance claims were based on illusions, similar to the one seen in the Youtube video above.

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Is the Foundation of Christianity the Bible or Jesus?

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Christian pastor and blogger:

The Bible is important but it is not the foundation of the Christian faith. The Bible points to and teaches about the true foundation, that of Jesus Christ.

 

Gary:  Without the Bible how would you know that Jesus is God?  Think about that:  There is no other source of information which gives (alleged) evidence that Jesus of Nazareth is the Creator of the universe and Ruler of heaven and earth.

Personal experiences, feelings, and perceptions of Jesus in your “heart”?  Sorry, but many people of many different religions can claim similar experiences, feelings, and perceptions about their god or gods.  Personal perceptions are notoriously unreliable.

So we are dependent upon the Bible for determining the veracity of the first century claim that a man from northern Palestine was King of all Creation.

How do we know that the Bible, in particular, the Gospels are historically accurate?  The majority of New Testament scholars today do NOT believe that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses or the associates of eyewitnesses.  Are we really to believe that a man was a god based on oral stories passed around for several decades prior to being written down by non-eyewitnesses in far away lands???

But even if the Gospels WERE written by alleged eyewitnesses, should we believe eyewitness testimony which defies science, medical knowledge, and common sense?  Just this year, a crowd of hundreds in Ireland claimed to have seen a woman who has been dead for 20 centuries appear to them.  These people are very sincere, very devout Christians.  I would not doubt that at least some of them would be willing to suffer great persecution and even death defending their belief.

Should we believe this very extra-ordinary claim just because there are so many alleged eyewitnesses?

No!

Why Do Christian Apologists Claim that Faith is Based on Evidence? Isn’t that an Oxymoron?

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Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Hebrews 11:1

 

Conservative Christian Blogger:

…One of the primary reasons I am a Christian is because of the overwhelming objective evidence that Jesus actually arose from the dead. The faith I have is not based on “lack of evidence.” Believing something without evidence is not faith; it’s stupidity. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.” The only way I, as a scientist, know how to love God with my mind is to be able to think, discover the facts, consider alternative views, and follow the evidence where it leads. That is exactly what Christian faith asks us to do.

…There is a common indictment made by skeptics and critics of religion, that Christianity is based on faith while science is based on facts. These skeptics view faith as a vice because, in their opinion, faith is not based on evidence and blindly accepts religious dogma. The biologist Richard Dawkins has said, “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence,” and “Faith, being belief that isn’t based on evidence, is the principal vice of any religion.” The biologist Jerry Coyne writes, “Indeed, by relying on faith rather than evidence, religion renders itself incapable of finding truth.”

…Thomas was a follower of Jesus who would not accept that the resurrection of Jesus happened unless he actually saw the evidence for himself. He said to his fellow disciples who had already seen the risen Jesus, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” That hardly sounds like the skeptics’ definition of faith. Unless he saw actual evidence for himself, Thomas would not believe that the resurrection occurred. I like Thomas. I think he is the “patron saint” of all scientists who require evidence to believe. What was Jesus’ response to this statement? He showed Thomas the evidence of the resurrection. At their next encounter, Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” See what Jesus did there? He asked Thomas to believe based on sufficient evidence, not the lack of evidence.

Gary:

You did not finish the story of Doubting Thomas. What did Jesus (allegedly) say to Thomas after instructing him to check out his wounds? Answer:

“Blessed are those who believe WITHOUT seeing [objective evidence].”

I agree with you that good scientists should be like Thomas: They should demand objective evidence before believing any claim that defies the current “laws” of science. But according to the author of the Gospel of John, Jesus chided Thomas for being so “cerebral”. Jesus (at least according to the author of the Gospel of John; the only gospel author who tells this story) wants people to believe that a three-day-brain dead corpse came back to life without objective evidence. He wanted people to believe a laws-of-science-defying claim based on what someone else claimed to have observed. No scientist should believe that the laws of nature have been violated based on what someone else claims happened. And unfortunately for conservative Christians, experts in the study of the New Testament have concluded that hearsay evidence is all the “evidence” that today’s Christians have for this alleged first century event.

The majority of scholars in New Testament studies believe that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses nor the associates of eyewitnesses. Even New Testament scholar NT Wright, a scholar whom conservative Christians frequently quote for his belief and support of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, states the following:

“I do not know who the authors of the Gospels were, nor does anyone else.”

Therefore, you are correct, Mike, it is incorrect to say that Christian faith is “blind faith”; that it is based on zero evidence. I would suggest that a better definition is this:

“Christian faith is belief in a particular claim based on INSUFFICIENT evidence. It is wishful thinking, hoping that better evidence for one’s desired belief exists but has not yet been discovered; evidence that will justify one’s hopes.”

The Christian claims that a three-day-brain-dead first century corpse came back to life and later flew off into outer space is based on HEARSAY evidence, and hearsay evidence is NOT admissible in most courts of law.

Therefore, I would encourage all scientists (and in fact everyone) to be like Thomas. Doubt! Doubt all extra-ordinary claims (especially those that defy the laws of science) until very, very good, OBJECTIVE evidence is presented that overturns that law of science.

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Can Christians Rely on the Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony for the Resurrection of Jesus?

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Nick Peters (son-in-law of evangelical Christian NT scholar, Michael Licona):

…The case for the resurrection does not depend on inerrancy [of the Gospels]. The question is “Was the early church right about Jesus?”

 

Gary:

I agree with you. I don’t think it depends on inerrancy at all. The fact that one author says that there was one angel at the tomb and another says there were two is not important. Such a variation in story telling was perfectly acceptable in Greco-Roman biographies.

But I think Licona’s research points out that it is POSSIBLE that much of the detail in the four Resurrection Stories in the Gospels could be literary invention. The Gospel authors started with the basic story as found in the Early Creed and then “fattened” the bare bones story with interesting (invented) details. That is all I am saying.

So, did Pilate really wring his hands over the fate of Jesus or this detail an invention for dramatic effect? Was there really a Barrabas, or was this detail an invention to make the story more interesting? What did Jesus really say on the cross, if anything? Was there really a three hour eclipse and an earthquake? Did dead saints really rise up out of their graves to roam the streets of Jerusalem?

And was Jesus really buried in a rich man’s tomb or simply in a common criminal’s grave??? In Jesus’ appearances, did he really speak, eat food, and allow people to touch him, or are these details literary inventions???

We can only guess…

Mike Licona (and yourself) may not base your belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus on the Gospels, but I would gamble to say that many Christians do. Many Christians believe in that a three-day-brain-dead, first century corpse really did come back to life because a group of women found his empty tomb; reported it to the disciples who viewed the same empty tomb; and later that very day, both the women and the disciples received appearances of Jesus in bodily form but with heavenly (supernatural) powers. This resurrected, supernatural body then made other appearances over the course of days or weeks, to multiple people at the same time, depending which Gospel you read, in which he spoke, ate food, cooked food, and allowed people to touch him.

However, if you completely ignore the Gospels, all you are left with as far as details of the Resurrection of Jesus is the Early Creed in First Corinthians 15. And this creed never speaks of Jesus being buried in Joseph of Arimethea’s rock tomb; women finding an empty tomb; disciples coming to an empty tomb; or, detailed appearances in which Jesus talks, walks, eats food, and allows people to touch him. And there is no witnessed ascension into the clouds!

Without the Gospels, all Christians have is a collection of dead person (ghost??) sightings, received as second hand information (hearsay) by Paul, a man who was NOT an eyewitness to the Resurrection, just one of the persons claiming to have received an appearance by a dead person…and he himself gives us ZERO details of his experience.

Without the details of the Gospels, the evidence for the Christian claim of a science-defying first century resurrection of a dead body becomes very, very scant and very, very weak.

 

Nick Peters:

Actually, even with just the creed, there is still a very strong case and one that I have not seen a convincing better explanation for. What I see mainly is a strong opposition to miracles, but I wonder what this is based on? Can it be shown that miracles have never happened or cannot happen? If not, then we should be open.

As for the Gospels, if we have to go the route of Gospel reliability, that is also very much doable. For the burial account, there is no competing tradition, it is multiply attested, it is a shameful event, and it is in line with the customs of the time. Consider what a Jewish NT scholar like Jodi Magness says who specializes in Jewish burial practices.

“Jesus came from a modest family that presumably could not afford a rock- cut tomb. Had Joseph not offered to accommodate Jesus’ body his tomb (according to the Gospel accounts) Jesus likely would have been disposed in the manner of the lower classes: in a pit grave or trench grave dug into the ground. When the Gospels tell us that Joseph of Arimathea offered Jesus a spot in his tomb, it is because Jesus’ family did not own a rock- cut tomb and there was no time to prepare a grave- that is there was no time to dig a grave, not hew a rock cut tomb(!)—before the Sabbath. It is not surprising that Joseph, who is described as a wealthy and perhaps even a member of the Sanhedrin, had a rock-cut family tomb. The Gospel accounts seem to describe Joseph placing Jesus’ body in one of the loculi in his family’s tomb. (Jodi Magness, Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, pg 170)

“There is no need to assume that the Gospel accounts of Joseph of Arimathea offering Jesus a place in this family tomb are legendary or apologetic. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’s burial appear to be largely consistent with the archeological evidence” ( Magness, pg 171)

When Ehrman writes on this in his book on How Jesus Became God, he does not interact at all with Magness or any of the other specialists in the field of Jewish burial practices. What happened in the crucifixion was what normally happened in peace-time in Palestine.

 

Gary:

Yes, I have read Magness’ article you mention. She states that whoever wrote the Gospel of Mark correctly described Jewish burial in a rock tomb. I agree that this is evidence in favor of the historicity of this story.

However, it is still possible that the Empty Rock Tomb story is a literary invention. Just because the author could correctly describe proper Jewish burial in a rock tomb is not proof that the story is historical fact. It is possible that Jesus was buried in a dirt grave, as was the custom for people of his class according to Magness, but the author of Mark changed the story to a rock tomb, the tomb of a rich man, to make for a more interesting read. This would be perfectly acceptable in a Greco-Roman biography.

By the way, Magness specifically states in her article that the fact that the story is consistent with Jewish burial practices is not proof that this story is true. I agree that we should not assume that the Joseph of Arimathea Tomb Story is legendary based solely on the fact that it would be unusual for a man of the lower classes to be buried in a rock tomb in first century Palestine. However, the fact that this is a very atypical burial should make us pause.

There are other reasons to question the history of the Arimathea Rock Tomb Story, such as the lack of evidence of subsequent Christian pilgrimages to this site.

Bottom line, Mike Licona’s research is excellent evidence that many of the details in the Gospels could be literary invention. Even arch-conservative scholar Richard Bauckham admits that there are invented details in the Gospels. If the Arimathea Rock Tomb Story is an invention, it deprives Christians of a very significant piece of evidence for their very extra-ordinary claim.

 

Above excerpts from a conversation on the blog of evangelical Christian NT scholar, Daniel Wallace:

Contradictions in the Gospels: An Interview with Mike Licona

Scientific Evidence Always Trumps Eyewitness Testimony

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“Over the last two decades, hundreds of people have been released from prison after being exonerated by DNA testing that was not available at the time of their convictions. In many cases, the conviction was obtained by eyewitness testimony. Nevertheless, when faced with a choice between eyewitness testimony and scientific knowledge, the law goes with the latter. No court has ever considered the possibility that some supernatural event might explain the discrepancy between the eyewitnesses and the DNA.

Even if it could be established that anything in the gospels could be traced back to eyewitness accounts, it is absurd to think that they could be used in a court to establish facts that are contrary to scientific knowledge.”   —VinnyJH57


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Should you believe that a first century, three-day-brain-dead corpse came back to life, exited his sealed tomb, and then ate a broiled fish lunch with his former friends solely based on alleged eyewitness testimony?

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Should you believe that a man in the first century levitated into the clouds solely based on alleged eyewitness testimony?

A Christian Pastor Struggles with the Morality of Slaughtering Children in the Old Testament

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Excerpts from a Christian pastor’s recent blog post:

If God told you to kill children would you do it?  Quite a question, isn’t it?  The answer should be an obvious “No”, right?

We’re studying the biblical book of Deuteronomy on Sunday mornings at Faith Church, and we’ve come to some troubling passages where God commands the armies of Israel to kill children. In chapters 2 and 3, Moses is reviewing with the people of Israel the story of how they made it to where they are encamped on the east side of the Jordan River.  Their journey took them through lands inhabited by Canaanites, and both times they proclaimed holy war on the Canaanites, utterly wiping them out.

Look at Deuteronomy 3:3, “We left no survivors.”  Skip ahead to verse 6: “We completely destroyed them…men, women and children.”

What in the world is going on?  They actually killed children!  It was holy war.

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Holy war will come up again in Deuteronomy chapters 7 and 20, so I decided this week that we’re going to talk about Holy war this one time and be done with it.  Why?  Well, quite frankly, it is difficult material.  I wonder how you are feeling as you read these passages?  Sometimes in the past, when we have come to a difficult section of the Bible, people in my church family have said, “Joel, just tell us how to understand it.”  Or they’ve said, “Joel, how do you personally interpret this passage?”

I think behind these comments is desire for relief from tension.  We feel very uncomfortable with tension, right?  Tension is when you are the middle and you are being pulled in two directions, and generally-speaking we hate it.  Do you feel that pull, the tension, when you read passages about God commanding the people to kill all the men, women and children of a nation?  I think you should feel tension.  I do.  Where is the tension coming from?  I think it is coming from the fact that we want to believe in a loving, good, merciful God on one hand, and on the other, we want to believe the Bible is true.  And when our true Bible teaches us about a violent, destructive, genocidal God, we’re stuck.  We want peace, not tension.  We want our impressions and beliefs about God to make us feel good, comforted and safe.  So what do we do to relieve the tension? I do not believe there is a satisfying answer to relieve the tension about the amount of violence in the Old Testament.

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…Here’s where I’m at with all the times God commands Israel to commit holy war against people.  It seems to me that the people of Canaan, including the Amorites (like King Sihon in Deuteronomy 2), were incredibly evil, and also very powerful.  Think Nazi Germany with the atom bomb.  For any of you that have watched the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle, this is exactly what happens. That TV show presents an alternate history, imagining that the Nazis win World War 2 because they create and use the atom bomb before we do.  They bomb Washington DC and win the war, together with Japan controlling the USA.  It is possible that Israel was up against similar powerful, wicked nations.  Archaeologists have done work on the Canaanites, finding them to practice child sacrifice and female temple prostitution, both practices treating vulnerable people terribly.  It was evil that needed to be stopped.  Also, take a much weaker nation with a slave mentality like Israel*, and the chances are incredibly high that Israel could have been quickly enslaved again by the Canaanites.

God knows this.  And so when you have Nazis versus your Jewish people, what happens? Nazis exterminate Jews.  Nazis are powerful and evil.  But God has a plan, a hope for the redemption and recreation of the world, and it is a plan that is to come through the line of the Jews.  Thus God empowers the Jews to eradicate the Nazis, judging evil in the land, and creating this new just society which is to be a blessing to the whole world.

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Gary:

I grew up hearing these stories in Sunday School as a small child so I became numb to the real horror of what happened. However, I’ll never forget the following experience:

A few years ago my two small children were involved in a singing performance at their Christian school. The performance was scheduled as part of the Sunday worship service of the church which sponsors the school. Approximately one hundred little, cute, smiling children sang their hearts out. It was beautiful. You could feel the joy and happiness of all the proud parents in the room.

Then the pastor started his sermon. The subject: The Slaughter of the Amalekites.

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The pastor described in detail the slaughter of every man, woman, and little child. I was horrified. Something in my brain said: “This just isn’t right. Not only should the pastor not be talking about these horrific details in front of little children, the story itself is immoral. There is NEVER a moral justification for the TARGETED slaughter of children. “Collateral damage” in a war is one thing, but running down a terrified, screaming child and chopping him to pieces has no moral justification whatsoever.”

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“Jesus would NEVER do that to little children,” I thought.

And after that day, it was as if a small light had gone off in my head. I kept hearing myself say, “There is NEVER any moral justification for the targeted killing of little children. Never. Jesus would never do that.”

I reviewed all the justifications that you have listed above, even the one about killing the children so that their parents wouldn’t kill them in a human sacrifice. Uh…Really?? It is moral to kill children so that someone else can’t kill them??? It is moral to kill children so that their more numerous offspring will not be killed in future generations???  I don’t buy it. I cannot look my little children in the eyes and EVER consider any justification for the targeted killing of children. Nope, Jesus would NEVER have commanded such a thing.

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And if I no longer believe that Jesus would EVER order the targeted killing of little children regardless of the wicked sins of their parents and culture, how do I resolve the tension (Psychologists call this tension:  Cognitive Dissonance) between this new perspective and Trinitarian Christianity which teaches that the God of the Old Testament was none other than JESUS!??

Then and there I decided I could NOT believe that Jesus was the God of the Old Testament. I could no longer be a Trinitarian Christian. The God of the Old Testament was EVIL INCARNATE. Yet…Jesus called this monster his “Father” and never once condemned his “Father” for his wicked acts in the Old Testament.

In a hypothetical scenario, if Hitler had had a son, and that son was the most wonderful, kind, generous, giving person on the planet…yet…he refused to ever condemn the horrific moral crimes of his father, would I still respect the son?

No way.

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Something’s wrong here, folks. Something is really wrong. Jesus can’t be perfect if he refuses to condemn the evil actions of his father and asks other people to “love” and “obey” this evil father.

The more I dug, the more problems I found with the Christian belief system. The evidence for the accuracy of the prophecies in the OT are poor. Multiple blatant historical (and scientific) errors exist in the Bible. The evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus is much weaker than our pastors tell us, and on, and on.

Nope. There is never any justification for the targeted slaughter of children, folks. Don’t ever let ANYONE attempt to justify such a horrific act.

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The Truly Sad Extent of Fundamentalist Christian Arrogance and Ignorance

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New Testament scholar, NT Wright

 

Online Fundamentalist Christian:  “Gary In the full context of [our discussion] I have based my argument on the readings from my private library and referenced such. One of my first purchases was in the mid seventies. The Wycliffe Bible Commentary is a favorite for its clarity of language and the fact that its contributors number fifteen denominational backgrounds, forty-eight writers and twenty-five Christian schools of education. In every case the writers of the Gospel sections proclaim their scholarly conviction that the writers were as named and excepting Luke were eyewitnesses to the events or having access to verified witnesses direct accounts. In the case of Matthew the Tax Collector the writer Homer Kent of Grace Seminary notes that Matthew by profession and interest was a shorthand scribe and familiar with numbers, accounts and statistics and very capable of capturing the Words of Our Lord contemporaneously in many cases.

While you have repeatedly argued for the vast majority of modern NT scholars as supportive of your position on writers and eye witness etc., you have never defined your term NT Scholars, nor the number and extent of such. Such argumentation is deficient since every seminary graduate is likely more schooled in NT than you or is an earned PhD required for such status. In any case you have no idea how many would be rightly included as highly qualified to render substantive opinions and certainly no idea of the statistics that

 

Gary:  I have given this Christian gentlemen multiple reliable sources which state that the majority of NT scholars doubt the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses or associates of eyewitnesses and he absolutely refuses to accept this fact.  Now he wants to nit pick and demand that I define “NT scholar”.  Good grief.

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New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman