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. Rob 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 a couple of days ago on someone else’s blog. I had made some comments on a post there. Then Rob, who also commented on that post, challenged my comments (by the way, we don’t otherwise know each other) and our dialogue took on a life of its own. Therefore, I’ve moved it here. (For a quick background on dialogues that appear on this site, see the post Dialogues.)
(If you want to see our initial comments in their original context, see Is Richard Dawkins a Secret Christian? on Scott’s Catholicism Blog on About.com.)
In this post I’ll reproduce all our exchanges to this point (with some very minor editing to improve readability). Then Rob will be able to comment on this post and the dialogue can continue.
Here are the two statements I had made which provoked Rob’s first comment:
“Jesus read the same Old Testament that [Richard] Dawkins did and it led Him to a life of kindness, generosity, power, self-sacrifice and – summing it all up – love…that has not been achieved by any other human being before or since.”
“I believe what the Bible says about Jesus because it’s logical and persuasive.”
And here then is how Rob began:
Rob: Mike, it says in the bible that Jesus lived this oh-so-perfect life, and you assume this to be true…..why?
Obviously the writers of the bible had a bit of a vested interest in having you think that Jesus lived a perfect life. Even so, how do you know that no one before or after did the same, but just didn’t get attention for it? There’s been 20-billion-some people on the planet, and you’re willing to state that Jesus lived a “better” life than any of them?
All you’ve said is “it is logical,” but with nothing whatsoever to indicate why you think so.
Mike: Rob, I thought I addressed that but I’ll be happy to repeat and elaborate. I accept the story about Jesus in the Bible to be true because it’s logical and persuasive – the same basis on which I accept news reports, weather reports, history books, and anything else I read. Some things we hear are credible and some are not. I find the gospel accounts to be credible history. As for His disciples having a vested interest in making Him look good, I’d say quite the opposite. They had a vested interest in forgetting the whole thing, and indeed they all forsook Him at the crucifixion. Only when He was raised from the dead was their zeal restored. Even then, they knew that their zeal would only lead to the same fate He had experienced. When Dawkins and Hitchens find acceptance for their message it leads to financial rewards and worldly praise – and I don’t begrudge them that at all. But the fellows you think had a vested interest in fudging the story of Jesus had no such hopes. For them, a job well done meant shame, disgrace, and death. They wouldn’t have done it unless the resurrection were the truth.
Yet another strong corroboration is the Old Testament. When you read its prophecies of the Messiah, you see that ONLY the life Jesus lived could fulfill them all. Until Jesus, these prophecies were considered contradictory (“How could you have a Messiah who both suffered and triumphed?”). It was a riddle to which Jesus’ life was the only answer.
I’ve read and loved books all my life. When I began reading the Bible in my late 20’s I approached as I would any other book. I did not consider it sacred. I only considered it historic. I still read it today as I would any other book. The difference is that it rewards me more than any other book.
Oh, and as for the possibility that some other human life was as great as His, I suppose that could theoretically be possible. However, that point is moot because no other life could have been the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies.
Rob: Ok Mike, well I guess my standards for credibility wouldn’t include unverifiable ancient texts, but to each his own. At least other things from history (say, Julius Caesar) are corroborated by a lot more sources.
As for the “vested interest,” well, they wouldn’t have written it down if they didn’t have an interest in getting people to follow it. Even if they thought their reward comes in the afterlife.
But maybe even “vested interest” was the wrong term. A better way to look at it is probably almost Darwinian….those religions which were NOT documented in a way that made their founder look particularly impressive, aren’t around today because people weren’t as likely to follow them. So, any religion around today would be expected to be similar in that respect to Christianity….whether it is true or not.
”(How could you have a Messiah who both suffered and triumphed?”) It was a riddle to which Jesus’ life was the only answer.”
Well, ok. And you don’t think that it’s possible….just POSSIBLE….that someone might have altered the story of Jesus to make it fit the prophecy? (as many think they did having him born in Bethlehem, rather than Nazareth)
And… don’t you see the circular reasoning? He only “triumphed” if he really is a supernatural savior. If the atheist point of view is correct, he was simply a guy who was executed in a cruel way, like so many others of his time.
Mike: Rob, you and I seem to agree that it comes down to this: the followers of Jesus who wrote the New Testament documents were either fabricating the resurrection or telling the truth. I find the latter infinitely more logical than the former.
To believe that the apostles were lying I’d have to believe in a conspiracy involving more people than have ever been involved in a conspiracy…and that they all plotted to put forth a fiction about someone whose chief claim was that He was nonfiction (”I am the truth”).
As the adages go, “truth is stranger than fiction,” and “you can’t make this stuff up.” The New Testament documents are the personal testimonies of His followers about Him. I challenge you to read these documents for yourself with an open mind and come away with the conviction that they made it up.
“…the followers of Jesus who wrote the New Testament documents were either fabricating the resurrection or telling the truth. I find the latter infinitely more logical than the former.”
Hmmm, really? There is this notion of “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” that would seem to apply. If a few people say they saw a car accident, I am inclined to believe they are not lying. If those same people say they saw space aliens come out of a flying saucer, I want a little more than hearsay to back it up. I consider my approach pretty logical, if I am really interested in knowing the truth.
“To believe that the apostles were lying I’d have to believe in a conspiracy involving more people than have ever been involved in a conspiracy”
Are you basing this on simply reading the Bible, or have you followed any of the scholarship on the historicity of Jesus?
Because it wasn’t many people that would be involved in the “conspiracy” at all. It wasn’t written down until decades later, and it was then circulated in lands far away from where it supposedly happened, where it was impossible for anyone to fact-check the original story or corroborate with any witnesses. Sure, supposedly a bunch of people witnessed the resurrected Jesus, but this is simply what a few (unknown) authors wrote much later, after most of those people would be dead….and their readers had no ability to verify it one way or the other. Lots of witnesses” doesn’t count for anything if the information, via retelling, gets bottlenecked through a much smaller number of people.
“…and that they all plotted to put forth a fiction about someone whose chief claim was that He was nonfiction (”I am the truth”).”
Oh dear, I don’t know even what to do with this. Because the story says that Jesus said “I am the truth,” that’s really good enough for you? Are you suggesting that, while people might lie, they sure wouldn’t go so far as to lie about someone claiming to be telling the truth….? I’m losing you here. If someone said he saw Elvis in a 7-11, would you give it more credence if he mentioned that Elvis said “I’m really still alive”?
“As the adages go, “truth is stranger than fiction,” and “you can’t make this stuff up.” The New Testament documents are the personal testimonies of His followers about Him. ”
Yes, you can make stuff like that up, and history shows many cases of people making up stranger stuff. (and actually, a lot of very similar stuff) And no, the New Testament was probably not written by his direct followers, it was probably written by unknown people many decades later.
Mike: Rob, I take the New Testament at face value – that is, that the documents are simply what they present themselves to be (Occam’s Razor, if you will). By contrast, you believe that they are fabrications produced decades after the fact by people who were not Jesus’ direct followers…and that they did this at the peril of their lives because they believed God would reward them in the afterlife for doing so. Talk about extraordinary claims! Where’s your extraordinary evidence?
If someone told me that Elvis appeared and said, “I am the truth,” I would reject the idea because it is inconsistent with what I know of Elvis’ life and sayings. When Jesus says “I am the truth” I read the four accounts we have of His life and sayings, and I see consistency. And His claim to be the truth is one I cannot logically reject.
I should tell you that I began reading the Bible in my late 20’s and did so as a skeptic. At that point, I only considered the Bible as having literary value. It was the text itself that convinced me otherwise. Until you read the New Testament for yourself you are depriving yourself of the opportunity to make an informed decision about the claims Jesus made for Himself.
Rob: Mike, all I can say is that is a strange application of Occam’s razor. You take an ancient document at face value because it is simpler to assume the magical claims of the document are true, than that the author might not be fully truthful? People lie/exaggerate/spread myths all the time. Come back from the dead? We don’t see that so often.
I seriously doubt the authors of the gospels put themselves at risk by writing it. People later put themselves at risk by spreading it around, sure. But that happened with numerous other religions, which you presumably don’t accept the truth of. Do you think those who flew airplanes into skyscrapers were “correct”? If you apply Occam’s razor as you have, you’d have to assume they must have been. No, reasonable people would assume they were deeply misguided. Just because someone puts themselves at personal risk in the name of some religion does not bolster the truth.
And I think you missed the point on the Elvis thing. Substitute Harry Houdini if it helps. If Houdini came back from the dead, it probably would have been consistent for him to communicate that he really is him. Regardless, hearing second-hand (or third or fourth hand), that he said “I am really me,” does not in any way strengthen the claim that he came back from the dead. It is bizarre to me that you would quote someone’s claim of being truthful, as if it somehow strengthens the case that they indeed are.
And trying to demonstrate that a work is not fictional simply because it is internally consistent (not that the Bible is known for consistency, but whatever!), makes no sense at all. I’m sorry you don’t see the problem there. You need to look outside the Bible (or Harry Potter, or the myths of ancient Greece, etc) to be able to make any inferences as to its truth. And there is little outside the Bible to back its claims (other than the most basic, such as that Jesus probably did live, get some followers, and was executed … none of which was particularly remarkable).
Thankfully our judicial system has doesn’t use such illogical means of establishing truth.
Mike: Rob, you so frequently misrepresent my positions when you argue with them that I have to assume you are not thinking through what I am saying.
Rob: Mike, you are welcome to clarify. I don’t think I unfairly represented your opinion as being that you believe what the Bible says purely based on the Bible itself, rather than based on any external corroboration. That sort of logic permeates everything you have said, and is incredibly weak evidence, if evidence at all.
If you have a different position, please do state it.
Mike: Thanks for letting me clarify.
I don’t find the New Testament’s claims “magical” at all. In fact, the pragmatic nature of the miracles (all of them helped people in practical ways) and absence of titillating embellishment (the New Testament authors do not merchandise or sensationalize Jesus’ accomplishments) lend to their credibility. I considered the possibility that the documents were falsified but I could not and cannot come up with a plausible motive. Your notion that a handful of people far removed from Jesus and His lifetime forged the documents in order to get followers does not comport with the uniqueness of teaching and elegance of thought in the New Testament. In my lifetime, whenever I see religions trying to get followers there is always a motive of self-aggrandizement that appears in one form or another. I can’t see it in the New Testament for it actually announces the end of organized religion! And indeed, in accord with its prophecies, Jerusalem, the center of Old Testament worship, was destroyed in 70 A.D. Yes, people do lie/exaggerate/spread myths all the time, but the New Testament just doesn’t read like a lie, exaggeration, or myth.
I agree with you that just because someone puts himself at personal risk in the name of God does not mean he is telling the truth. The 9/11 killers prove this. And indeed that’s what they were: killers. What a contrast with Jesus who condemned not just homicide, but even hateful and disrespectful thoughts toward one’s enemies! Suicide bombers are putting whole societies at risk; Jesus and His apostles put no one at risk but themselves.
If all we had were third- and fourth-hand claims of Jesus’ resurrection, I would be suspicious of its authenticity. However, in the New Testament we have first-hand accounts from Peter, John, Paul, and Matthew – not to mention many others whom they reference. When I read them, they just don’t sound like liars to me.
As for what you said was “bizarre,” I wasn’t saying that I believe Jesus was truthful because He said He was truthful. I was saying that Jesus said, “I am the truth,” and after thinking about this claim in light of all that was in the New and Old Testaments I could not logically or in good conscience reject it. It’s one thing for a person to say, “I am truthful.” Both honest and dishonest people say this sort of thing all the time. What Jesus said was, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” That sort of boldness invites us to make a decision. It polarizes. We must accept or reject such a claim; once we’ve heard it, we cannot ignore it. It’s the kind of statement that would make me think the person uttering it was mentally ill – unless it was that one-in-a-million case where it might possibly be true. All I have been saying is that after reading the New Testament, I felt far more comfortable accepting His amazing claim than I did rejecting it.
Like you, I want multiple witnesses for an issue as important as this. For you this seems to mean that you have to go outside the Bible. But the Bible is not one book; it is a collection, a library. And I’ve already mentioned at least four different witnesses who said they saw Jesus after He was raised from the dead. The New Testament says there were over 500 who saw Him. If such statements were viewed as false at the time of their writing, the writings would have been immediately discredited. Immediately after the generation of the apostles, many documents sought inclusion as sacred texts, were judged to be false, and were excluded from the collection. The scores of documents we have in the Bible were the survivors of fierce scrutiny.
If all the evidence for a crime is collected in one folder, I don’t dismiss it out of hand and say it’s not enough to prove the case. If I do, then there will never be enough evidence because every relevant piece gets added to the folder. After a while, it’s like saying I can’t believe in the American Civil War because its not chronicled in the history books of India. Indeed there is corroboration of Jesus’ life in both Jewish and Roman history; of course not in any detail because neither had any interest in prolonging his memory.
Again, I arrived at my position by refusing to take other people’s word for what the Bible said and by reading it – quite skeptically at first – for myself. Before you completely dismiss Jesus, you owe yourself the same experience.
Your turn, Rob. Just comment below.