Dialogue with KC (re: Jesus and the Bible)

This dialogue centers on Jesus and the Bible – can they be trusted?  I trust that the Bible is telling the truth about Jesus, and that He is all He claims to be.  KC is questioning me on these points because he does not understand why I take this stance.  It does not seem a reasonable stance to him.

This dialogue began when KC (We do not otherwise know each other) made a comment yesterday on the post Dialogue with Rob.  Of course, I don’t always break out a comment into a separate post.  This is one of those exchanges, however, that I thought worthy of it.  KC was, in essence, summarizing the dialogue with Rob and then giving his own take on it – which can sometimes give new perspective to the same issues.

(If you want to see KC’s initial words in their original context, see Dialogue with Rob and scroll down to the December 23rd comment he made.  For a quick background on dialogues that appear on this site, see the post Dialogues.)

KC:  This is actually a really interesting discussion. I have to say though, Mike (and I say this with all due respect) you are a little on the gullible side. I don’t know if you have had a lack of exposure to dishonest people or exposure to honest people with faulty human memories or what, but you seem to give the biblical account of Jesus’ life the benefit of every doubt and don’t seem to approach the issue with a healthy dose of skepticism. Historical documents should always be read with a skeptical eye, particularly those that claim to document events that defy what we know about science and the natural world.

As a lawyer I’ve had exposure to some of both. People tell boldface lies for little or no reason. Other people’s memory fails them on fairly key details. History is distorted by the passage of time. The fact that the events the bible purports to describe were written down years after the fact is a serious red flag for their accuracy.

But for me the biggest indictment of the big religions are 1) modern day alleged “prophets” who manage to bring everything from a handful to a few hundred to even thousands of followers. The 900 or so people who killed themselves on Jim Jones’ direction in Guyana tells me that some people will believe anything and follow anyone if they are brainwashed enough. 2) the fact that a LOT of humans to this day claim to witness miracles and/or talk to god when they quite clearly do not.

Its one thing to be open minded. It is another thing to believe things humans tell you.

Mike:  I would be gullible if I accepted without question an isolated document from the distant past which makes bold and dramatic assertions about its protagonist.  However, that is not what we have here.  (By the way, it is what we have in the Book of Mormon and the Quran which is why I regard their claims as dubious on their face – and even more so because in both cases the protagonist is the author!)

You are right that historical documents should be viewed with a skeptical eye, but I wouldn’t limit the skepticism to merely those that contained supernatural claims.  In any case, once a document has survived appropriate scrutiny, however, we ought not continue questioning it.  Otherwise we become excessively suspicious because we can’t trust anything.  (Apparently there are people who think the moon landing was faked or that the USA engineered the 9/11 attacks.) 

The dozens of documents produced over a thousand years by ancient Israel (that we call the Old Testament) had passed the test.  They were completely accepted in 1st Century Israel.  People certainly disagreed about what they meant, but no one challenged that they existed or what they said. 

It is these documents that originally made the bold and dramatic assertions about a protagonist – over and over again.  Therefore the New Testament was not an isolated document – not by a long shot.  Neither was it predicted by an isolated document, but rather many documents all regarded as national treasures (just as every country treasures the documents related to its formation and its pivotal moments).

Moreover, the New Testament itself was not a single document, but rather a collection of 27 of them – also by various authors – none of whom is the protagonist.  People often overlook this when they make the claim that it was “written many years after the facts described.”  This is only true of the historical books of the New Testament (the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles), and I’ll say more about them in a moment.  The other 22 books of the New Testament were letters, and thus were ipso facto documented as the act of writing occurred.  It wasn’t as if Paul’s letter to the Ephesians began with “Twenty years ago I wrote you a letter in which I said…” and ended with “…and that’s what I wrote you twenty years ago.”

As for the New Testament’s historical books, what is uncommon about history being written years after the fact?  In the last few years books have been published on World War II (60 years ago), the American Revolution (over 200 years ago), and, of course, virtually every period of history.  Are such books immediately discredited because they are written so long after the fact?  On the contrary, they’re accepted prima facie.  That’s not to say that no one disagrees with a historian’s conclusions; it’s to say that no one dismisses the historian because he’s not writing contemporaneously with the events.  In fact, no one allows that sort of thing to even be called history – it’s called journalism instead.

And journalism brings us to this point: the Gospels and Acts emanated from eyewitnesses.  In the cases of Matthew and John, the eyewitnesses wrote the accounts; in the case of Mark, Luke, and Acts, the writer assembled eyewitness accounts.  They were not immediately written down after Jesus’ resurrection, as if the good news was going to be spread through a book tour and an appearance on Oprah.  It was much more of an oral culture in those days.  In fact, it’s likely that most of the material we see written in these historical books existed in oral form for years before they were written down (which accounts for why they’re consistent without being uniform).  What then caused them to be written down?  Certainly one factor was the age and impending doom of the eyewitnesses. 

Peter and Paul each testify to their expectations of death.  The imminent destruction of Jerusalem (which occurred in 70 A.D., of course) would cause further disruption.  If the associates of the carpenter’s son managed to escape martyrdom (which, apparently, few did) there was still the fact that they weren’t getting any younger.  If they were the same age as Jesus, they would have been approaching 70 at the destruction of the temple by the Romans. Thus, oral transmission of the eyewitness accounts of Jesus was soon going to be impossible.  Better to have their depositions taken than to rely on second-hand witnesses and hearsay going forward.

As to your last point – on your “biggest indictment of the big religions” – I agree with you.  And I want to elaborate in a separate reply below this one when I have more time.

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16 Responses to Dialogue with KC (re: Jesus and the Bible)

  1. KC says:

    I guess the issue is that I apply a different standard of proof. I think with ordinary claims (i.e. the 101st airborne division was cut off by the Germans at Bastogne in WWII) they can survive based on evidence proving to a balance of probabilities–ie the evidence demonstrates that the events are more likely than not to have happened.

    Ordinary claims regarding Jesus’ life can withstand scrutiny based on the same standard of proof (i.e. that he was born, lived, that he was nailed to a cross, that he said A, B, or C–not that A, B, or C are true but that Jesus said them).

    However the extraordinary claims about his existence, those that defy science and have no proven parallels in the material world–i.e. that he performed miracles, and that he was resurrected after he died–require something surpassing beyond a reasonable doubt. A supernatural explanation has to be the only possible explanation for an event to occur for me to believe it.

    And quite frankly I dont think any human testimony–even human testimony from large numbers of humans–is sufficient to discharge that burden. Humans are just too fallible. They lie. They see things that arent there. They believe things that aren’t true. They perceive events incorrectly. They jump to conclusions about causes. Their recollections are faulty. The existence of all the transparently false modern day religions/prophets/miracles is evidence of that. The existence of mental institutes stuffed full of people who claim to have talked to god or seen the supernatural is evidence of that. The fact that we have to rely on human accounts for any of the major religions is the main reason I reject them.

    I realize that I am setting up a literally impossible standard of proof here but the supernatural is so rare (from my experience non-existent) in the material world that it is the only approporiate standard. To be honest if I personally thought I spoke to god or witnessed a miracle I’d probably confer with a psychiatrist rather than start a religion. That is how skeptical I am that divine intervention in the material world actually occurs. If you have an argument as to why I should apply a different standard of proof I’d be pleased to hear it. A few specific points:

    1) The fact that anyone testified to Christs’ divinity under threat of death is not as compelling as it might first appear. I hate to use the same example but its a real eye opener for me, but if Jim Jones can convince 900 people to drink flavor aid its not that surprising that a few people were willing to die for their belief in Christ.

    2) I’m sorry but the fact that documents were accepted during the superstitious 1st Century Israel is not proof of anything for me. This was a time when scientific discovery was in its infancy, and humans were generally pretty ignorant and willing to accept supernatural explanations for the world.

    3) I don’t mean to say that the fact that events were written down years after the fact is proof positive that Christ was not divine. It is merely a weakness in the account that tips the scales a bit in the “not divine” direction.

    4) Not believing that Christ is divine does not mean all his teachings are worthless. Richard Dawkins has a good article called “Atheists for Christ”. The thesis is that we can accept that Jesus had good teachings without believing he was divine. I’m a big fan of the political philosophy of John Stuart Mill, but thats because he was persuasive not because I accept his word on authority.

    For what it is worth I speak only of religion here. I think it is sloppy discourse to blend debates about the existence of god and the truth of religion. It is the latter I am interested in. I’m actually agnostic towards god. I’m strongly anti-theist towards the religions. The question of the existence of god is a philosophical or metaphysical question that I accept can’t really be answered.

    The truthfulness of the claims of religions is a whole different issue. They involve claims about historical events that can be evaluated using tried and tested of applying a proper standard of proof to historical evidence and filling in the rest with reasoning.

    I actually agree with you that the Christian story is more compelling than the Islamic story. When you boil it all down the Muslims pretty well accept that Mohammed talked to god because he said so. At least Christians claims that third parties witnessed miracles. I don’t ultimately believe it but it seems more believable than believing in someones divinity “because they say so”.

    • Mike says:

      KC, I answered your two main points in this post, at least according to Rob’s reckoning, yesterday. Those answers are below. I’d now like to go on and address three other points you raised, one by one.

      KC: Not believing that Christ is divine does not mean all his teachings are worthless. Richard Dawkins has a good article called “Atheists for Christ”. The thesis is that we can accept that Jesus had good teachings without believing he was divine.

      By suggesting such a thing, Richard Dawkins demonstrates his ignorance of the New Testament. This is the most illogical thing he could possibly say on the subject. If Jesus was not divine then his teachings will only bring harm to people. He advocated sacrificial love for God and our fellow man. In pursuit of this teaching, His followers have been persecuted, even to the point of death. If this life is all there is, then Jesus’ teaching brings division among people, suffering for the persecuted, and premature death. In a world without life after death, what good is that?

      Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” If He cannot be trusted regarding this statement, he certainly cannot be trusted regarding any other statement.

    • Mike says:

      KC: The fact that anyone testified to Christs’ divinity under threat of death is not as compelling as it might first appear. I hate to use the same example but its a real eye opener for me, but if Jim Jones can convince 900 people to drink flavor aid its not that surprising that a few people were willing to die for their belief in Christ.

      How can you compare Jim Jones with Jesus Christ? Did Jesus give poisoned drink to 900 people? On the contrary, He allowed Himself to be crucified for the benefit of humanity, making sure that none of His disciples were harmed in that process.

      How can you compare Jim Jones’ followers to those of Jesus Christ? Did Jesus’ followers commit mass suicide? On the contrary, they spent the rest of their lives spreading His message and doing His work. Yes, they were persecuted and killed in the end but it was not their choice to die. They just kept on doing their work until their enemies overcame them.

      Jim Jones’ followers are dead not because they followed Jesus – they’re dead because they didn’t follow Jesus and followed Jones instead.

    • Mike says:

      KC: For what it is worth I speak only of religion here. I think it is sloppy discourse to blend debates about the existence of god and the truth of religion. It is the latter I am interested in.

      I think that statement is worth a lot…and it puts you and I squarely on the same page. Religion is a diversion from God at best, and a perversion of God at worst.

      I reject religion and embrace Jesus Christ. I hope all mankind will do the same.

  2. rob says:

    I’m sorry to butt in, but KC, I feel like you very succinctly expressed several points that I kind of attempted to address myself, but didn’t really do as good a job. 🙂 I really like your comparison to an event in WWII, and the “balance of probabilities” thing.

    Mike, of all the things you can respond to in KC’s post, I sincerely hope that you take on these two:

    KC: I’m sorry but the fact that documents were accepted during the superstitious 1st Century Israel is not proof of anything for me. This was a time when scientific discovery was in its infancy, and humans were generally pretty ignorant and willing to accept supernatural explanations for the world.

    and:

    KC: That is how skeptical I am that divine intervention in the material world actually occurs. If you have an argument as to why I should apply a different standard of proof I’d be pleased to hear it.

    I’d love to hear your response to both of them. Why do you consider a 1st century stamp of approval “good enough” here in the 21st, and why should we be so willing to accept a supernatural explanation, when there are non-supernatural explanations that aren’t particularly far-fetched?

    • Mike says:

      Assuming KC’s permission, I’ll answer these two points first and get to the others later. Rob, I also owe you some responses in our separate dialogue which I will get to.

      KC: I’m sorry but the fact that documents were accepted during the superstitious 1st Century Israel is not proof of anything for me. This was a time when scientific discovery was in its infancy, and humans were generally pretty ignorant and willing to accept supernatural explanations for the world.

      I concede that 1st Century Israel did not have as many science books as we do, but that does mean they didn’t have as much skepticism. In fact, most of the people in that time and place – and especially people in authority – did not believe the apostles’ accounts that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Moreover, if people were as gullible as you suppose, then the authorities would never have sought to kill Jesus in the first place – they would only have incarcerated Him. For in your view, a deceased Messiah would grant license for His associates to foist any fanciful tale they could concoct onto an unsuspecting and uncritical populace. Incarceration, on the other hand, would guarantee that any magical explanation of His whereabouts or activities could be trumped by parading the chained prisoner down Main Street. No, the skeptical Pharisees sought to kill Jesus precisely because they expected His death to bring His movement to an unquestioned end.

      KC: That is how skeptical I am that divine intervention in the material world actually occurs. If you have an argument as to why I should apply a different standard of proof I’d be pleased to hear it.

      My argument is the statement you yourself made two sentences before: “I realize that I am setting up a literally impossible standard of proof…” Indeed you are. If you are committed to the proposition that the supernatural does not exist, then you can never believe the apostles’ depositions because they testify to Jesus’ resurrection which would have to have a supernatural cause. You are trapped in circular reasoning: “I know there can be no supernatural because any evidence of the supernatural cannot be true.” As long as you stay locked in this mindset, you can never be free to decide whether there is or is not a supernatural dimension to our existence.

  3. Mike says:

    KC: But for me the biggest indictment of the big religions are 1) modern day alleged “prophets” who manage to bring everything from a handful to a few hundred to even thousands of followers. The 900 or so people who killed themselves on Jim Jones’ direction in Guyana tells me that some people will believe anything and follow anyone if they are brainwashed enough. 2) the fact that a LOT of humans to this day claim to witness miracles and/or talk to god when they quite clearly do not.

    KC, as promised, here’s my agreement with your indictment of religions.

    I agree that many people claim to see miracles who do not. I agree that some people will believe anything and follow anyone if they are brainwashed enough. There is much hypocrisy and fakery in the world today. None of this, however, discredits the claims of Jesus Christ as we read them in the Bible.

    Jesus did not come to earth to found Christianity. He came to tell us the truth. Specifically, He came to tell us the truth about the aspects of existence that we cannot see. We do not need Him to tell us about the physical world for He gave us science that we might discover it ourselves. The spiritual world, however, cannot be navigated without a guide. Thus He came to tell us about the unseen aspects of the world in which we live, including our destination once we die.

    Jesus does not want people to become Christians. He wants us to love Him and love one another. Religious labels are of no interest to him. Group identities make no impression on Him. He deals with all of us as individuals.

    If people are to avoid the fate of Jim Jones’ followers, the best protection is to follow Jesus and not follow any human leader – even if that leader says he is acting on behalf of Jesus. Alas, people are attracted to large and established religious organizations, or maybe they’re attracted to powerful preachers with charismatic smiles. The common denominator is that such people are sheep looking to be led by a human shepherd. A mature human being, by contrast, is shepherded by God through his own individual conscience.

    Religion is toxic. What we need is more truth and morality – and that’s what Jesus of Nazareth gives.

  4. KC says:

    RE: JIM JONES

    I think you missed the point of the Jim Jones comparison. I didn’t mean to say that Jesus and Jim Jones were the same in terms of their moral character. In fact that would be silly as you are correct that Jesus never asked anyone to drink poison.

    I bring up Jim Jones because he is a contemporary example of someone who truly believed in his own nonsense, and convinced hundreds of others of his nonsense to the point that they were willing to take their own lives. Jonestown provides insight into the weakness of the human mind. By parallel it shows that the fact that Jesus’ followers genuinely believed in him and were willing to suffer for their belief in him is not strong evidence in favour of his divinity. If people were so easily led by Jones why couldn’t they have been easily led by Jesus? Isnt that a more probable explanation than that he was actually the son of god? (Answer: Yes it is)

    RE: THE STANDARD OF PROOF

    Well you haven’t taken up my invitation to argue why I should apply a lower standard of proof other than that if I don’t apply a lower standard I can’t accept the claims of Christ’s divinity. Now THAT is a circular argument. The fact is that in my years on this world I have never personally witnessed the supernatural. There have been no accounts of the supernatural in my lifetime that have been sufficiently attested to. I don’t disbelieve in the supernatural but given what I know about faulty human psychology I’m not prepared to take anyone’s word with respect to specific instances of it. Why should I accept claims about divine intervention in the case of Jesus but not in other cases?

    RE: None of this, however, discredits the claims of Jesus Christ as we read them in the Bible.

    Actually it does. It provides a reason to disbelieve the accounts of those who allegedly attested to his divinity. If we see contemporary delusional behaviour and no supernatural it stands to reason that those who attest to Christ’s divinity were suffering from similar delusion. That is a more logical conclusion than that he was divine.

    I think your argument that Jesus wasn’t really a “human” leader is pretty weak. He was (allegedly) a human, just like Jones. Only if we accept human accounts of his divinity do we have any reason to believe that he wasn’t actually human. Once again it is circular reasoning.

    RE: FIRST CENTURY DOUBTERS

    I think this is an incredibly weak argument and in no way discredits my argument of lack of skepticisism in the 1st Century.

    My argument that humans are gullible does not mean that everyone or even most people are going to believe extraordinary claims. If they did we may all be scientologists. In fact the fact that there were even skeptics in the first century further discredits Jesus’ divinity (not much, but some).

    You have asserted that various issues regarding Jesus’ life were considered in the first century and that is good enough for you. My response is that such trust in historical investigations carried out in an unscientific superstitious era (and carried out by those who were already committed believers I might add) is unfounded.

    RE: I reject religion and embrace Jesus Christ.

    I think we may have a definitional problem. When I speak of religion Im referring to specific beliefs regarding the intervention of the divine in the material world. If you believe that Jesus Christ had divine significance you believe in religion–maybe not in the organized sense of the world but in the sense that you have specific beliefs about an alleged instance of divine intervention.

    RE: ATHEISTS FOR JESUS

    I don’t think its illogical at all. Jesus had some destructive teachings yes but he also taught love for your common man which is a good message for humanity. That is the beauty of reading Jesus’ teachings as any other form of philosophy rather than divine mandate–you can pick and choose which parts you agree with. I cited John Stuart Mill as a philosopher I like. I certainly don’t agree with everything he had to say.

    • Mike says:

      RE: JIM JONES

      I don’t claim that Jesus’ followers’ willingness to risk their lives for Him proves His divinity. I do think it’s compelling evidence that they spoke the truth about Him and didn’t make it up. These followers couldn’t be more different from those of Jim Jones. Being willing to die if you have to is one thing; committing suicide is another. (When a soldier goes to war willing to die for his country we rightly admire him, but if he intentionally steps on land mines we send him to the battalion shrink.) Moreover, the willingness to die was an aspect of the apostles’ mission which was to bring us the message and meaning of Jesus’ life. What mission of Jim Jones’ followers was furthered by their suicide?

      I just don’t follow your logic here, KC. It seems to be 1) Jim Jones was a bad man, 2) people were gullible and followed him, 3) tragedy resulted, 4) therefore, Jesus can’t be who He said He was.

      I’m with you on the first three, but the fourth is a non sequitur.

      • KC says:

        1 and 3 aren’t vital to the conclusion nor is 2 conclusive proof of 4. 2 is merely a contemporary example of people being gullible and devotedly following an alleged prophet that provides a lens through which we can examine claims about Jesus. It is an example of human failings that provide insight into why Jesus’ follower could be so devoted yet so wrong.

        I just don’t understand why you so easily believe the extraordinary claims of Jesus’ disciples. Such trust in man is really unwarranted. People make things up the time. There are people out there who will to you to your face that they were abducted by aliens or that they saw Elvis. Its really not a huge stretch to believe that someone would make something up about Jesus.

        • Mike says:

          I appreciate your acknowledging that the fourth statement can’t be concluded from any of the preceeding three, so I won’t press that point further.

          Your question, however, intrigues me. Though I don’t know that it’s accurate to say I “easily” believed them, it is certainly accurate to say that I do believe them. This leaves me with a puzzlement of my own: why you can’t see the vast difference between the apostles and their message on the one hand, and that of alien abductees and Elvis observers on the other. The difference is night and day…and how do I explain the difference between night and day to someone who says he has never experienced it? Try this: get a copy of the New Testament and lay it on a table next to a copy of a supermarket tabloid that has alien or Elvis stories. Read them side by side. See if you really think these two samples were cut from the same bolt of cloth.

    • Mike says:

      RE: THE STANDARD OF PROOF

      I did respond to your invitation, but you’re unwilling to recognize the circularity of your reasoning – instead saying that I was proposing a circular argument to you!

      Let me state the issue again, though in slightly different terms. You have said that you have never experienced the supernatural, that you would never believe anyone else’s testimony that they experienced the supernatural, and that you would not even trust yourself if you experienced the supernatural. Is there any possible way you could be more closed-minded on the subject?

    • Mike says:

      RE: FIRST CENTURY DOUBTERS

      You had characterized people in New Testament times as superstitious and gullible. I said that there was skepticism about Jesus’ resurrection then just as the kind you are expressing. Your response is that this 1st century skepticism doesn’t diminish your claims of their gullibility but does diminish Jesus’ claims about His identity. Huh?

    • Mike says:

      RE: ATHEISTS FOR JESUS

      I can understand your being choosy about John Stuart Mill, but I don’t want to read Mein Kampf or Mao’s red book even if there are some dainty morsels in the midst of the poison.

      If Jesus was not who He claimed to be then He misled humanity and deserves our unified and vigorous condemnation.

    • rob says:

      KC, I just want to say you do an excellent job of presenting your case. I know how frustrating it is to feel like I’ve made a good case, and have it seem to fall on deaf ears.

      However, anyone other than Mike that reads this will clearly see your words, not Mike’s, as being the persuasive ones. Being his blog, he will have the last word, which is fair. But rest assured we’ve made a stronger case.

      • Mike says:

        I certainly don’t mean to frustrate you guys. And, believe it or not, my ears have been open, and continue to be open, to everything you say. It’s just that you’ve given me no reasonable alternative to accepting the New Testament documents as being what they present themselves as being – documents preserved from antiquity written by sincere people who believed in a man named Jesus.

        If someone reads your words or KC’s words, and finds in them such a plausible theory, I’ll be happy to have them put it in their own words so that maybe I can understand it. Until then, I not only can’t find a plausible theory in your words, I can’t find any kind of theory for all you’ve essential said is, “It’s possible that the documents could have been falsified, and therefore it’s probable that they were falsified.” When I ask how in the world you got so quickly from possible to probable, all I hear is that “supernatural explanations are improbable and therefore any natural explanation is always more probable” which is just another way of saying “any explanation that includes God is improbable and therefore any explanation that doesn’t include God is always more probable.” How can burying your conclusion in your assumption lead you to an objective conclusion?

        Your case seems strong to you because you have locked yourselves into it by the circularity of your reasoning.

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