Monday, October 29, 2012

Rom 1 reply, 15: Pace New Atheist Richard Dawkins et al., the minimal credible historical facts based, 1 Cor 15:1 - 11 anchored Case for Christ (as discussed by Habermas, Licona, Strobel, McDowell and many others) -- is a life-changing game changer

Some little while ago, I learned of an interview by -- I insist on that -- leading New Atheist, prof Richard Dawkins (ret'd) with Playboy Magazine:

DAWKINS: The evidence [Jesus] existed is surprisingly shaky. The earliest books in the New Testament to be written were the Epistles, not the Gospels. It’s almost as though Saint Paul and others who wrote the Epistles weren’t that interested in whether Jesus was real. Even if he’s fictional, whoever wrote his lines was ahead of his time in terms of moral philosophy.

PLAYBOY: You’ve read the Bible.

DAWKINS: I haven’t read it all, but my knowledge of the Bible is a lot better than most fundamentalist Christians’. (HT: UD News [inadvertently left out snippet added, Oct 30])

 Of course, this confident manner, breezy and contemptuous dismissal is the very opposite to what Paul wrote c. 55 AD, to the Corinthians regarding the core facts of the gospel formally handed to him through the official testimony communicated by Peter, James, John and other leading witnesses in Jerusalem, c. 35 - 38 AD. 

So, by direct contrast to this dismissive skeptic, 1 Cor 15:1 - 11 -- written by the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians c. AD 55 to lay a base of facts to address controversies in that troubled church, and which lays out that which is "of first importance" [v. 3] based on the testimony of over 500 eyewitnesses -- has always been the life- and community- transforming game changer on coming to grips with the reality of God in Christ.

As Lee Strobel lays out in his The Case for Christ video, that has not changed in our day:

Now, of course, today, many (such as Dawkins and his fellow new Atheists) are inclined to doubt or dismiss the teaching in that key text:
 1 Cor 15: 1 Now I would remind you, brothers,  of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you-unless you believed in vain. 
 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. [ESV]
 The first problem for Dr Dawkins' dismissal is that this is a text that is deeply concerned with historical fact: Paul is here concerned to underscore to the Corinthians in 55 AD, that which he solemnly passed on to them as sacred truth of first importance, c. 51 AD. 

And, in so doing, he speaks to key eyewitness anchored historically grounded facts, joined together with a drumbeat pattern: that . . . that . . . that . . . that . . .

1: Christ died  -- for our sins, in accordance with the OT scriptures (Cf. esp. Isa 52:13 - 53:12, penned c. 700 BC)

2: He was buried -- again, prophesied, especially in Isa 53:9

3: He rose on the third day -- by the power and promise of God, as he had himself prophesied on the sign of Jonah and in accordance with the same Isa 53:10

4: He appeared to witnesses -- over 500, most of whom were still alive in 55 AD (as in, he was confidently inviting his audience to go check them out)
Of course, as Habermas and others often point out, 1 Cor is indisputably Pauline, and dates to c. 55 AD, on the circumstances of Paul's life. That already puts it well within eyewitness lifetime. But that is not all. 

In the list of 500+ eyewitnesses, Paul highlights Peter, James and the rest of Jesus' family (who had previously been doubtful to the point of at one time coming to take him in charge as demented . . . ) and the Twelve. This carries the point where he solemnly, formally received the sacred, historically anchored official summary of the testimony of the 500+ witnesses during visits to Jerusalem back to 35 - 38 AD, well within a decade of the pivotal events in Jerusalem that first Easter Weekend.

Far, far too early and far too close to the place where the events happened, for myths to have grown up in the teeth of concerned eyewitnesses to the general course of events, both friendly and hostile.

And, in a primary source document of unquestionable authenticity.

But, some object: that's what the Christians (in this context, often pronounced as an epithet) say. 

Of course: those who directly knew the facts became the unshakeable core of the Christian church and mission. Nothing -- not whips, not being lynched by stoning, not fire, not sword, not crucifixion or lions in the arena etc -- could get them to back down from testifying to what they personally knew to be true and "of first importance."

However, it is worth pausing to observe -- and here I clip from my NCSTS course, Unit 1 -- Paul Barnett's summary of the record of early non-Christian sources on the basic facts of the early Christian movement and particularly the existence of Jesus as an historical figure:
On the basis of . . . non-Christian sources [i.e. Tacitus (Annals, on the fire in Rome, AD 64; written ~ AD 115), Rabbi Eliezer (~ 90's AD; cited J. Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth (London: Collier-Macmillan, 1929), p. 34), Pliny (Letters to Trajan from Bithynia, ~ AD 112), Josephus (Antiquities, ~ 90's)] it is possible to draw the following conclusions:
    1. Jesus Christ was executed (by crucifixion?) in Judaea during the period where Tiberius was Emperor (AD 14 - 37) and Pontius Pilate was Governor (AD 26 - 36). [Tacitus]
    2. The movement spread from Judaea to Rome. [Tacitus]
    3. Jesus claimed to be God and that he would depart and return. [Eliezer]
    4. His followers worshipped him as (a) god. [Pliny]
    5. He was called "the Christ." [Josephus]
    6. His followers were called "Christians." [Tacitus, Pliny]
    7. They were numerous in Bithynia and Rome [Tacitus, Pliny]
    8. It was a world-wide movement. [Eliezer]
    9. His brother was James. [Josephus]
[Is the New Testament History? (London, Hodder, 1987), pp. 30 - 31. Cf. McDowell & Wilson, He Walked Among Us (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1993) for more details; free for download here.]
It is no surprise to see that Habermas and others note how per an ever growing survey of the literature across the range of views (apparently now approaching or in excess of three thousand sources), the majority to an overwhelming majority of scholarship on the passion and resurrection of Jesus accept that we can identify a core of "minimal facts," up to twelve in number.

The point of this, is to look at well attested, well-grounded, widely accepted facts that are "a game-changer." 

For, if these facts are so, there is but one really good explanation for them, the well-warranted truth of the core gospel message. The good news:

i: of God who so loved us that
ii: he gave his one and only Eternal Son as our Saviour, 

iii: who died on a cross for our sins, 

iv: was buried, rose, was seen of altogether 500 witnesses, and 

v: who commissioned the church to go forth to all nations and all generations with that good news, and 

vi: to thereby call us all to repentance, trust in Christ, and a new life of discipleship. 

vii: All of us, no exceptions.
And, once that is grounded as well-warranted, bedrock foundation truth, the compelling force of truth and our patent duty to face the truth at the heart of the Christian Faith and message and live by it then changes everything.


So, as Paul said, this is "of first importance."

Thus, the method is potentially decisive.

The method, in a nutshell -- and Greenleaf's remarks are also highly relevant, is:

The minimal facts method only uses sources which are multiply attested, and agreed to by a majority of scholars (ranging from atheist to conservative). This requires that they have one or more of the following criteria which are relevant to textual criticism:
    1. Multiple sources - If two or more sources attest to the same fact, it is more likely authentic
    2. Enemy attestation - If the writers enemies corroborate a given fact, it is more likely authentic
    3. Principle of embarrassment - If the text embarrasses the writer, it is more likely authentic
    4. Eyewitness testimony - First hand accounts are to be prefered
      Early testimony - an early account is more likely accurate than a later one
Having first established the well attested facts, the approach then argues that the best explanation of these agreed to facts is the resurrection of Jesus Christ . . . . [Source: "Minimal facts" From Apologetics Wiki. Full article: here. (Courtesy, Wayback Machine.)]

Why is that so?

The easiest answer is to simply list the facts that meet the above criteria and are accepted by a majority to an overwhelming majority of recent and current scholarship after centuries of intense debate:

1. Jesus died by crucifixion [--> which implies his historicity!].
2. He was buried.
3. His death caused the disciples to despair and lose hope.
4. The tomb was empty (the most contested).
5. The disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus (the most important proof).
6. The disciples were transformed from doubters to bold proclaimers.
7. The resurrection was the central message.
8. They preached the message of Jesus’ resurrection in Jerusalem.
9. The Church was born and grew.
10. Orthodox Jews who believed in Christ made Sunday their primary day of worship.
11. James was converted to the faith when he saw the resurrected Jesus (James was a family skeptic).
12. Paul was converted to the faith (Paul was an outsider skeptic).
[Cf. Habermas' paper here and a broader more popular discussion here. NT Wright's papers here and here give a rich and deep background analysis. Here is a video of a pastoral presentation of a subset of the facts. Habermas presents the case as videos here and here, in two parts. Here is a video of a debate he had with Antony Flew.]
The list of facts is in some respects fairly obvious.

That a Messiah candidate was captured, tried and crucified -- as Gamaliel hinted at -- was effectively the death-knell for most such movements in Israel in the era of Roman control; to have to report such a fate was normally embarrassing and discrediting
to the extreme in a shame-honour culture. The Jews of C1 Judaea wanted a victorious Greater David to defeat the Romans and usher in the day of ultimate triumph for Israel, not a crucified suffering servant.  In the cases where a movement continued, the near relatives took up the mantle. That is facts 1 - 3 right there. Facts 10 - 12 are notorious. While some (it looks like about 25% of the survey of scholarship, from what I have seen) reject no 4, in fact it is hard to see a message about a resurrection in C1 that did not imply that the body was living again, as Wright discusses here. Facts 5 - 9 are again, pretty clearly grounded.

So, the challenge is to explain this cluster or important subsets of it, without begging questions and without selective hyperskepticism. The old Deist objections (though sometimes renewed today) have deservedly fallen by the wayside. [Also, cf. ten video shorts on popular myths here.] 

 We may briefly compare:
Match to four major credible facts regarding Jesus of Nazareth & his Passion
Overall score/20
Died by crucifixion
(under Pontius Pilate) at

c 30 AD
Was buried, tomb was found empty
Appeared to multiple disciples,
many of whom proclaimed
& suffered for their
Appeared to key
objectors who then became church leaders: James & Paul
Bodily Resurrection
Wrong tomb
Stolen body/fraud
Quran 4:155 -6: "They did not slay him, neither crucified him." 1 1 1 1 4
 "Jesus never existed" 1 1 1 1 4
 "Christianity as we know it was cooked up by Constantine and  others at Nicea, who censored/ distorted the original record" 1 1 1 1 4
"What we have today is 'Paulianity,' not the original teachings of Jesus and his disciples" 2 1 1 2 6
Christianity -- including the resurrection --  is a gradually emerging legend based on a real figure
Complete legend/pagan copycat (Greek, Persian, Egyptian, etc)

(I have given my scores above, based on reasoning that should be fairly obvious. As an exercise you may want to come up with your own scores on a 5 - 1 scale: 5 = v. good/ 4 = good/ 3 = fair/ 2 = poor/ 1 = v. poor, with explanations. Try out blends of the common skeptical theories to see how they would fare.)

 Laying a priori anti-supernaturalism aside as a patent case of worldview level question-begging closed mindedness, the above table shows that there are two serious candidates today, the resurrection as historically understood, or some version of a collective vision/hallucination that led to a sincere (but plainly mistaken) movement.

The latter of course runs into  the problem that such collective visions are not psychologically plausible as the cultural expectations of a resurrection would have been of a general one in the context of the obvious military triumph of Israel. Nor, does it explain the apparently missing body. Moreover, we know separately, that the culturally accepted alternative would have been individual prophetic visions of the exalted that on being shared would comfort the grieving that the departed rested with God. So, an ahead of time individual breakthrough resurrection -- even, one that may be accompanied by some straws in the wind of what is to come in fulness at the end -- is not part of the mental furniture of expectations in C1 Judaism.  Where, hallucinations and culturally induced visions are going to be rooted in such pre-existing mental "furniture."  

Where, also -- tellingly -- the women who bought spices and went to the tomb that morning plainly expected to find it occupied by a dead prophet, one unjustly judicially murdered as so many others had been.  (And if you doubt the account that reports how these women became the first to discover the tomb and to see the risen Messiah, consider how dismissive C1 Jews were to the testimony of "hysterical" -- that very word in English is rooted in the Greek for womb,
hustera (reflecting a very old prejudice . . . ) -- women. Such an embarrassing point would only be admitted if the reporter was seeking to tell the full truth as best as he could, regardless of how poorly it would come across to his audience; a C1 audience, not a C21 one.)

The Easter event cuts across all reasonable cultural expectations, and obviously forced a much closer -- transforming -- look at messianic prophetic passages such as Isa 52 - 53 which plainly led to an aha moment.

Moreover, the visions suggestion also runs into the problem of the empty tomb; hence the skeptical resistance to that otherwise quite reasonable fact. 

(Remember, the NT record is that the women disciples who went to the tomb that first Easter Sunday morning to complete the burial rituals that had been hastily begun just before the Sabbath, on finding the grave open and the body missing at first thought the authorities had taken the body. These primary documents subsequently record the Sanhedrin's official talking point as that the disciples stole the body while the guards slept. Oops. The point of agreement is obvious: the body was missing, and neither group seemed to be responsible for it. [Cf below for more.])

You may think that this sort of balance of evidence should be well known and that educated, responsible and reasonable people would at minimum be willing to accept it as well-grounded that Jesus of Nazareth was a significant Galilean Jew and teacher who had clashes with the Jerusalem authorities which cost him his life. Whereupon, his followers then proclaimed to one and all across the eastern littoral of the Mediterranean and beyond over the next several decades, that Jesus was the prophesied Jewish Messiah, and that though shamefully (though unjustly) crucified -- blatantly true by the criterion of admitting an utterly embarrassing claim -- he was risen from death as Lord and eschatological Judge; until Nero would find it convenient to divert suspicion by falsely accusing Christians of setting fire to Rome in 64 AD.

But, sadly, that is not the case. 

What is driving that?

A glance at the table above will show that once we see the well-grounded facts in context, there is no contest on what best explains them. So, the issue is that one way or another, the credibility of these facts is being impugned and dismissed. Some do so by accepting an anti-supernaturalist prejudice [we KNOW miracles are impossible], often anchored in "Science sez." Others find some conspiracy theory or another, or imagine that a legend was copied from pagans and/or embellished on the far more modest "real" Jesus the Carpenter turned wandering amateur preacher, or the like. 

Some -- such as Dan Brown --  have even tried to resurrect Gnosticism from C 2 - 4 documents imagined to have been improperly suppressed by church leaders in conspiracy with civil authorities, as this video (and 15 following segments) discusses:

Perhaps the most revealing  point comes form a usually hostile source, Wikipedia, remarking on what has happened with all too many academic theologians (who often train those who man our pulpits), in light of J A T Robertson's 1976 Redating the New Testament:
Although Robinson was within the liberal theology tradition, he challenged the work of colleagues in the field of exegetical criticism. Specifically, Robinson examined the New Testament's reliability, because he believed that very little original research had been completed in the field during the period between 1900 and the mid-1970s. Concluding his research, he wrote in his work, Redating the New Testament,[13] that past scholarship was based on a "tyranny of unexamined assumptions" and an "almost willful blindness".
Robinson concluded that much of the New Testament was written before AD 64, partly based on his judgement that there is little textual evidence that the New Testament reflects knowledge of the Temple's AD 70 destruction. In relation to the four gospels' dates of authorship, Robinson placed Matthew at 40 to after 60, Mark at about 45 to 60, Luke at before 57 to after 60, and John at from 40 to after 65.[14][15] Robinson also argued that the letter of James was penned by a brother of Jesus Christ within twenty years of Jesus’ death, that Paul authored all the books that bear his name, and that the apostle John wrote the fourth Gospel. Robinson also opined that because of his investigations, a rewriting of many theologies of the New Testament was in order.[16][17][18]
C. H. Dodd, in a frank letter to Robinson wrote: "I should agree with you that much of the late dating is quite arbitrary, even wanton, the offspring not of any argument that can be presented, but rather of the critic's prejudice that, if he appears to assent to the traditional position of the early church, he will be thought no better than a stick-in-the-mud."[19]
This is sadly revealing.

Going further, we often encounter a dismissive attitude to the weight of the manuscripts (MSS). 

So, it is well worth also pausing to note the summary compiled by McDowell on the comparative weight of MSS for the NT and other classical literature:

Copies of Classical works
AuthorWhen WrittenEarliest CopyTime SpanNo. of Copies
Caesar100-44 900 A.D.1,000 yrs.10
Livy59 B.C.-A.D.

Plato (Tetralogies)427-347 B.C.900 A.D.1,200 yrs.7
Tacitus (Annals)100 A.D.1,100 A.D.1,000 yrs.20
 also minor works100 A.D.1,000 A.D.900 yrs.1
Pliny the Younger (History) 61-113 A.D.850 A.D..750 yrs.7
460-400 B.C.900 A.D.1,300 yrs.8
(De Vita Caesarum)
75-160 A.D.950 A.D.800 yrs.8
480-425 B.C.900 A.D.1,300 yrs.8

900 yrs.
Sophocles430-406 B.C.1,000 A.D.1,400 yrs.100
LucretiusDied 55 or 53 B.C .
1,100 yrs.2
Catullus54 B.C.1,550 A.D.1,600 yrs.3
Euripedes480-406 B.C.1,100 A.D.1,500 yrs.9
Demosthenes383-322 B.C.1,100 A.D.1,300 yrs.200*
Aristotle384-322 B.C.1,100 A.D.1,400 yrs.5**
Aristophanes450-385 B .C.900 A. D.1,200 yrs.10
*All from one copy. **Of any one work.
From Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, rev ed. (San Bernardino, Calif.: Here's Life,1979), p. 42.

The well known philosopher-theologian, J P Moreland (who cites McDowell as above) goes on to aptly observe as follows, in his online essay,
The Historicity of the New Testament:

A brief perusal of the table indicates that for a representative sample of ancient historical works, we possess only a handful of manuscripts which are, on the average, one thousand years removed from their originals.

In contrast to this, the New Testament documents have a staggering quantity of manuscript attestation. [6] Approximately 5,000 Greek manuscripts, containing all or part of the New Testament, exist. There are 8,000 manuscript copies of the Vulgate (a Latin translation of the Bible done by Jerome from 382-405) and more than 350 copies of Syriac (Christian Aramaic) versions of the New Testament (these originated from 150-250; most of the copies are from the 400s+). Besides this, virtually the entire New Testament could be reproduced from citations contained in the works of the early church fathers. There are some thirty-two thousand citations in the writings of the Fathers prior to the Council of Nicea (325).

The dates of the manuscript copies range from early in the second century to the time of the Reformation. Many of the manuscripts are early-for example, the John Rylands manuscript (about 120; it was found in Egypt and contains a few verses from the Gospel of John), the Chester Beatty Papyri (200; it contains major portions of the New Testament), Codex Sinaiticus (350; it contains virtually all of the New Testament), and Codex Vaticanus (325-50; it contains almost the entire Bible).
McDowell and Williams, in He Walked Among Us (1993) -- free for download here --  also help us to pull together a picture of the chain of custody of the historical materials behind the NT:
In short, we see here a chain of custody that would be very difficult to overthrow, if it were given a fair hearing.

And in the end, that is exactly the problem: the gospel needs to be carefully listened to and given a fair hearing on its merits and on its 2,000 year long, global track record of life- and community- transforming power. But if we have become sufficiently locked up in a system that rejects such evidence, we can find ourselves in the position Jesus warned against ever so sternly in John 8:
 John 8: 43 Why do you not understand what I say? 

It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. 

44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 

45 But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me . . . [ESV]

A grim warning indeed, on the power of locked-in deception and resistance to unwelcome but well-warranted truth.

So, "today, if you hear His voice do not harden your hearts."

It is more than time to give the gospel a fair hearing and heed its game-changing truth.

So, let us ask: Why not now, why not us, why not here? END