Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Logic of Christianity 16: The Gospels (and Acts) are True until Proven False

In May of 2013, I presented a scholarly paper at Ghent University, Belgium,

in which I discussed the Beatitudes in Matthew and Luke and the nature of the Gospel genre.  The title of my presentation was "Burke's Entelechy, Perelman's Epideictic, and the Transmission of Values.  The conference was the Rhetoric as Equipment for Living (Kenneth Burke, Culture, and Education) Conference.  It was the first European conference devoted to the study of the concepts of Kenneth Burke.  While I consider Kenneth Burke to be the premier rhetorical theorist of the 20th Century, another close contender for that honor is Chaïm Perelman, who, during his lifetime, taught at the Free University of Brussels. 
I was honored to have in the audience at my presentation not only elite Burkean scholars from across the globe, but also the Belgian scholar who had succeeded Perelman as Professor of Rhetoric and Philosophy at the Free University of Brussels, Michel Meyer, a former student of Chaïm Perelman.  During the Question-and-Answer period following my presentation, Professor Meyer took it upon himself to question the historicity of all of the Gospels.  He asserted that there was no difference between the Gospels and the story of Pinocchio.  He asserted that anything that was written sixty years after the supposed historical event (which he asserted that the Gospels were) is nothing but fable.  I continued the conversation with Professor Meyer, following the session at which I spoke, and subsequently published a journal article on the topic—at the urging of other Belgian scholars—in the KB Journal

Volume 11, Issue 1 Summer 2015

Professor Meyer’s objection to the historicity of the Gospels is typical of many biblical scholars who, since the last third of the nineteenth century, have exchanged the previously overwhelming consensus that the Bible is the infallible Word of God for a new presumption—that the Scriptures are “a singular human book rather than a divine revelation” (Mark A. Noll, Between Faith and Criticism, 13).  The Society of Biblical Literature (of which, incidentally, I am a member) was founded in 1880, and generally accepted assumptions, such as “that all religion reflects an evolutionary development from the primitive to the complex . . . and that supernatural events are not possible” (Noll, 20).  Hence, a paradigm shift developed, between 1880 and 1900, for studying the Bible.  The new paradigm dictated: “[T]he Bible . . . is a human book to be investigated with the standard assumptions that one brings to the discussion of all products of human culture” (Noll, 45). 

Of course, that new liberal paradigm was a product of Modernism, which itself is now considered a failed philosophy.  However, as it turns out, even according to that Modernist paradigm of studying the Bible as a “human book,” the Gospels still shine as being historically reliable.  Most liberal scholars now place the writing of the gospels within 40 to 60 years after Jesus’ earthly life.  These critical scholars typically place the writing of Mark in the 70s, Matthew and Luke in the 80s, and John in the 90s.  If Jesus died in 33 AD, and the earliest gospel was written in the 70s, the gospel accounts began to be written down around 40 years after Jesus’ earthly life.  However, it is by no means certain that the liberal scholarly dating of the gospels is correct.  Dr. Craig Blomberg
argues that the Book of Acts could not have been written later than 62 AD, because it concludes with the Apostle Paul still living under house arrest in Rome, yet Paul was put to death sometime between 62 and 67.  Since Acts was written by Luke AFTER Luke wrote his gospel, the Gospel According to Luke was probably written no later than 61. Since Luke appears to rely somewhat on Mark, Mark would apparently have been written no later than 60.  If Jesus died in 33 AD and Mark was written as late as 60, the first gospel was written only 27 years after the events it describes.  Is it possible for eyewitnesses to reconstruct historical events in detail correctly 30 or 40 or even 60 years after the fact?  Absolutely! 
I offer a personal example. 
My brother Rod emailed a sister, another brother, and me, recently, recalling a car trip our family took 60 years ago.  Rod wrote: “Barb your trip reminds me of the 1957 trip to Pikes Peak. Dad picked up the new ‘57 pea green Ford in Mason City. We stopped overnight at Uncle Ted's and they took us by Harry Truman's house. Then on to the Kansas sod house with Dennis in the cowboy outfit. Then it was the disappointment of the real Dodge City and Boot Hill. On toward Colorado with Marilyn saying, ‘Mom make the boys sit still.’ Stan saying, ‘Are we there yet?’ Tim saying, ‘Dad make Barb drive faster!’  With Stan joining him in saying ‘Yeah, let's go 80.’”  In the spirit of eyewitness confirmation, Barb wrote back: “Wow Rod what a memory! . . .  It seemed like many times dad packed us all into the car in the early morning to make a trip --always so pleasant to be riding as the sun came up.”  To illustrate the corrective nature of eyewitnesses, I then responded: “Rod is mistaken about me saying, ‘Let's go 80.’  I recall that the line came from one of the children Uncle Emery used to take to church.   The child told him, ‘Let's go faster, Henry! Let's go 50.’  The story was related to me by Sam.  I do remember how exciting it was to be surprised at school by having Dad pick us up in a new car and take off on vacation.”  Rod, then, corroborated my account of the “let’s go faster” line: “Cindy Hartey implored ‘Henry’ to go faster, and her brother said, ‘Yeah, Henry, let's go 50,’ when our super uncle was already going 60.  Taking that lead, Barb's brothers implored her to drive faster and upped the ante to ‘Let's go 80.’  I was with Dad when he picked up that 57 Ford.  He loved the collar [Dad’s pronunciation of the word: color] he chose and ordered.  He was so disappointed when it over-heated so we didn't reach the top of the mountain.  But it was only a six cylinder and was loaded to the hilt with him, Mom, six kids and a trunk crammed with luggage. I loved his driving on those terribly narrow mountain roads. His wheels were often too close to the edge for Mom's sanity. And he had to back up to a wider place in the road several times upon meeting other cars. On the way to CO it was really good of him to give our 17-year-old sister a chance to drive.  On the way home, I think he must have been pretty tired of driving and, if Barb would drive, he would not back-seat-drive and have her go 80 NO MATTER HOW MUCH YOU AND TIM YELLED AT HER!!!!!  But, Stan, you will be most pleased to learn that for the first time in family history Mom, Barb, and Marilyn ordered this new food called pizza in Colorado Springs, the night before we attempted the trip up the mountain. Of course, we boys didn't even try it because we thought it had to be yuk.”  I deferred to my older brother’s recollection, but added a caveat: “You are correct.  It was Cindy (although, for some reason, I had envisioned her last name as being spelled ‘Hardy’) and the joke was that Uncle Emery had already been going 60, at the time.  I suppose that it is possible that I upped the ante to 80 on that trip--I would have only been 7 years old at the time.  What I find fascinating about these interactions regarding our past shared history is the way they corroborate the ‘historical’ facticity of the Gospel accounts.  . . .  It emphasizes to me that these events happened 60 years ago, yet we eyewitnesses are able to supply recalcitrance (both corrective and corroborative) to reconstruct even the minute details of conversations and events that occurred so long ago.  If we ‘kids’ can do this sort of thing sixty years after the events, it would be a piece of cake for Jesus' hundreds and thousands of eyewitness disciples to supply this kind of recalcitrance regarding the sermons, teachings, conversations, and events of Jesus' life that were recorded by Paul (just a few years after Jesus' death and resurrection in I Corinthians 15:1-9, where he mentions hundreds of eyewitnesses) or his student and assistant Dr. Luke or Peter's student Mark or the actual eyewitnesses Matthew and John, within only 40 years after the events.  And our reconstructions are accomplished even without the considerable benefit of the spiritual gifts of Apostles and Evangelists!  . . . Dennis--being a later arrival, like the Apostle Paul--gets to confer with us original experiencers to discover the details he was not around to experience.  However, when Barb shoots us those pictures of her and Marilyn and the Flood, I find myself in Dennis and Paul's situation, as well!”  Rod, then modified his account of me saying ‘Let’s go eighty’: “I confess, you may not have egged Barb to drive faster.  It was Tim and I who coined the word squeighty on that trip.  I cannot imagine why a 17-year-old girl wouldn't feel safe driving 80 on a two lane road with her family of [eight] shoehorned into a little 57 Ford. My memory and faith (even in Barb's driving) fail miserably when compared to Matthew's and John's ability to recount events and statements.  Methinks, it is the difference between blowing smoke and the Holy Spirit giving utterance.  I debated Hardy and Hartey and thought it was the latter.”  Finally, Dennis, who was just a baby at the time of the trip we discussed, joined in to confirm the Cindy Hardy story, but in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner, threw in the concept of textual variants: “I also remember the Cyndi Hardee story (note the textual variant!), though, obviously not from personal eyewitness experience. Stan, your implied designation of me as ‘one untimely born’ makes a lot of sense and helps me with my own self-understanding a bit.  Being untimely born has its pros and cons.  On the one hand, . . . I have little to no personal connection with our Lindsay cousins – certainly not the way you elderly siblings have.  On the other hand it affords me a unique perspective/voice in the family, not necessarily anchored to some of the earlier family experiences and experiments.”  Having some fun with Dennis’s allusion to the similarities between the Apostle Paul and himself, I replied: “Right, Dennis!  Don't push the metaphor too far!  :)  Were you thinking of making Rod into Cephas and Barb into the Magdalene?  I, being somewhat younger than Rod, am content with being the disciple whom Jesus loved.

            If this exchange among my family members seems excessively conscious of critical Biblical issues, it is because my brother Dennis holds a Doctor of Theology degree from the University of Tübingen and both my brother Rod and Barb’s husband Dean are Christian ministers, both holding the M.Div. degree from Lincoln Christian University.  Yet, I repeat my observation: “What I find fascinating about these interactions regarding our past shared history is the way they corroborate the ‘historical’ facticity of the Gospel accounts.  . . .  It emphasizes to me that these events happened 60 years ago, yet we eyewitnesses are able to . . . reconstruct even the minute details of conversations and events that occurred so long ago.  If we [OLD] ‘kids’ can do this sort of thing sixty years after the events, it would be a piece of cake for Jesus' hundreds and thousands of eyewitness disciples to supply this kind of recalcitrance regarding the sermons, teachings, conversations, and events of Jesus' life . . . within only 40 years after the events.”  And, this example of our reconstruction of events in our childhood is typical.  We have done this type of reconstruction countless times, regarding countless shared events in our lives.  I’m sure that we are not alone.  Virtually everyone could verify this type of phenomenon occurring in their lives. 

Crowdsourcing, a term coined in 2005, conceptualizes some of the very phenomena that I have just described from familial and Gospel contexts.  The primary difference is that the internet is now used to cross-check and verify information, whether used for ideas, services, marketing, or even Wikipedia, which offers the following definition: “Crowdsourcing is distinguished from outsourcing in that the work can come from an undefined public (instead of being commissioned from a specific, named group) and in that crowdsourcing includes a mix of bottom-up and top-down processes.”  On October 2, 2017, I watched the premier episode of a television show, “Wisdom of the Crowd,” which shows the crowdsourcing methodology being used to solve crimes.  This is not dissimilar to what occurred as the Gospels were being formulated.

The Gospels, however, were not the first written accounts of events in the life of Jesus. The earliest written record of events in the life of Jesus occurs, not in the Gospels, but in the epistles of Paul, written in the 40s and 50s.  Professor Meyer’s assertion that anything that was written sixty years after the supposed historical event (which he asserted that the Gospels were) is nothing but fable begins to unravel with the fact that Paul, in I Corinthians 15:3-8, gives an outline of the most important section of the Gospels (occurring in all 4 gospels and Acts):   “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

WHEN did Paul receive this account of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection on the third day, plus his appearances to his disciples (the related events of which take up one-half of the Gospel according to Mark)?  He certainly received it BEFORE he wrote the book of I Corinthians.  The most logical suggestion is that he received the account sometime in the three years following his conversion on the Road to Damascus, at which time Paul himself became an eyewitness of the resurrected Jesus.  That event occurred approximately two years after Jesus’ death, and Paul (previously called Saul of Tarsus) had surely heard some of the gospel message, beforehand, because he had been actively persecuting the Christian sect for their message.  He would have known some of the claims of the sect he was persecuting.  Within three years of his conversion, he learned the gospel more fully from Ananias in Damascus and, eventually, three years later, from Peter and James (Jesus’ brother) in Jerusalem: “After three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:18-19).  If Paul is passing along information that he received within the first five years after Jesus’ earthly life, Professor Meyer’s assertion that these biblical accounts are non-historical because they are all written too many years after the fact is unraveling even more.  Paul’s writings confirm the Gospel accounts that:

1.      Jesus was a direct descendent of King David (Romans 1:3, II Timothy 2:8)
2.      Jesus’ brother was James--the son of Joseph and Mary (I Corinthians 15:3-8, Galatians 1:19, 2:9, 12)
3.      Jesus had twelve disciples (I Corinthians 15:3-8)
4.      Jesus is the Christ, the Jewish Messiah, the Son of God (throughout Paul’s writings)
5.      Miracles actually do occur (I Corinthians 12:10, 28-29)
6.      Healings actually do occur (I Corinthians 12:9, 28, 30)
7.      Jesus was transfigured (Philippians 2:5-11)
8.      Jesus introduced the Lord’s Supper (I Corinthians 11:23-26)
9.      Jesus was betrayed (I Corinthians 11:23)
10.  Jesus was killed by the method of crucifixion (Philippians 2:5-11)
11.  Jesus actually died (I Corinthians 15:3-8, Philippians 2:5-11)
12.  Jesus was buried (I Corinthians 15:4, Romans 6:4, Colossians 2:12)
13.  Jesus was resurrected in three days (I Corinthians 15:4, II Timothy 2:8)
14.  Jesus appeared in resurrected form to Peter and the twelve (I Corinthians 15:3-8)
15.  Jesus appeared in resurrected form to many others (I Corinthians 15:3-8)
16.  Jesus was exalted in heaven (Philippians 2:5-11)

If liberal scholars generally accept assumptions such as “that supernatural events are not possible” (Noll, 20), they would tend to write off all miracles and healings in the Gospel accounts.  I wrote, in The Logic of Christianity 15:  Revelation is True until Proven False:  “As I point out in my book ArguMentor, ‘Miracles and fulfilled prophecies are proofs that do not necessarily rely on ethos [and, hence, are logical, relying on logos].  However, ACCOUNTS of miracles, absent substantiating evidence, do again rely on ethos.  It is generally advisable in argumentation not to rely excessively on ethos, unless both parties in the dispute are willing to stipulate that the individual (or individuals) being relied on for ethos is in a position to know the truth of a matter.’ . . . How would one ever prove that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that he walked on water, changed water into wine, fed 5000 with two fish and five loaves of bread, raised Lazarus from the dead, and performed numerous healings?  Conversely, how would one ever disprove those things?  One just has to TRUST the person/s relating the account.  Of course, in the case of the gospel accounts of miracles, apostles and eyewitnesses were willing to die instead of recanting their testimonies.”  The writings of Josephus and other Jewish writers from the period do nothing to disclaim accounts of Jesus’ miraculous works, although the Talmud credits “sorcery” as the basis upon which he accomplished the works.
            Logically, it seems to me the height of arrogance to suggest that feats that defy nature that have been accomplished by other human beings would be IMPOSSIBLE to accomplish by someone who received power from God.  Except, possibly, for “raising the dead,” virtually every type of healing the Gospels attribute to Jesus has been accomplished, over the years, by medical science.  Chapter 3 of my book Implicit Rhetoric:  Kenneth Burke’s Extension of Aristotle’s Concept of Entelechy is entitled “The Human as Super-Natural:  Aristotelian Types of Entelechy.”  The premise of the chapter is a clause from Kenneth Burke’s Definition of Human.  The clause is that the human is “separated from his[/her] natural condition by instruments of his[/her] own making” (LSA 16, bold mine).  If even we humble mortals are capable of overcoming natural laws and conditions, how arrogant must we be to insist that God’s Son would never be able to defy natural laws?

The following list of illnesses and bodily malfunctions cured by Jesus is fairly complete:


·         bent spine Lk. 13:10-21 (crippled woman)

·         blind Jn. 9:1-41 (man born that way); Mk. 10:46-52; Mt. 20:29-34; Lk. 18:35-43; Mt. 11:2-19; Lk. 7:18-35

·         deaf Mt. 11:2-19; Lk. 7:18-35

·         diseases Mt. 11:2-19; Lk. 7:18-35

·         epileptic Mt. 4:23-25

·         fever Jn. 4:46-54; Mk. 1:29-34; Mt. 8:14-17; Luke 4:38-41

·         lame Jn. 1:5-47; Mt. 11:2-19; Lk. 7:18-35

·         leprosy Lk. 17:11-37; Mk. 1:40-45; Mt. 8:2-4; Lk. 5:12-16; Mt. 11:2-19; Lk. 7:18-35

·         palsy Mk. 2:1-12; Mt. 9:1-8; Lk. 5:17-26 (paralytic?); Mt. 4:23-25; Mt. 8:5-13; Lk.7:1-10 (near death)

·         plagues Mt. 11:2-19; Lk. 7:18-35

·         raise dead Mt. 11:2-19; Lk. 7:18-35; Jn. 11:1-44 (Lazarus); Lk. 7:11-17

·         sick on their beds Mk. 6:53-56; Mt. 14:34-36

·         various illnesses Mk. 1:29-34; Mt. 8:14-17; Luke 4:38-41

·         withered hand Mk. 3:1-6; Mt. 12:9-14; Lk. 6:6-11

Of course, being born of a virgin, walking on water, changing water into wine, feeding 5000 with two fish and five loaves of bread, and raising Lazarus from the dead are qualitatively much more substantial miracles than most of the healings Jesus effected.  But what greater miracle was there in all of history than Jesus’ resurrection from death by crucifixion?  And, Paul’s early testimony of more than 500 eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection argues strongly that the Gospel accounts were confirmed by the testimony of hundreds of eyewitnesses. 

In Lee Strobel’s powerful book, The Case for Christ, he interviews 13 scholars with excellent credentials for attesting to the historical reliability of the Gospels.  I recommend that readers purchase the audiobook version of this text and listen to it over and over again.  Strobel is a former legal editor of the Chicago Tribune, and approaches the issue of whether Christianity is reliable from a legal/forensic perspective, as he calls scholarly witnesses.  His chapters focus on issues such as whether the eyewitness testimony in the Gospels is credible, whether the text of the Gospels have been reliably transmitted through the years, whether there is corroborating testimony concerning the historical reliability of the Gospels from other historical sources, whether archaeology confirms details found in the Gospels, etc.  Strobel’s interviews supply answers for a multitude of attacks that have been made against the Gospels. 

Certainly, as Strobel himself admits in a subsequent interview, it would be impossible to offer answers for every attack that has been launched against the Gospels in a single book.  Yet, many of the most important attacks are considered.  One such attack that is not covered by Strobel is one that I personally had the most difficulty with while studying in the Graduate School at Indiana University.  One incidental verse in the text of John 19 was nearly fatal to my faith, as I studied for my Master's in Hebrew at Indiana University, back in the 1970s. At Indiana, I had studied at the feet of scholars who were not only Biblical scholars, but also, especially, Jewish scholars, who had absolutely no vested interest in helping me defend the Christian scriptures.  I came home to my wife, Linda, on many occasions, saying that Biblical problems had been presented to me for which I had no answers.  Linda always said, "Just keep your faith; there will be answers."

But one day, I came home from class and said, "I think they have finally done it.  They have shown me an error in the New Testament for which there can be no answer."  The Jewish scholar who pointed it out even stated that, while Christian apologists have found answers to other Biblical problems, this is the one obvious contradiction that no one has ever been able to solve:  The synoptic gospels claim that the disciples ate the Passover Meal with his disciples before he was crucified.  You can't take an "absentee" Passover Meal like you vote with an "absentee" ballot.  No one eats the Passover until the evening of the first night (Friday night, being the beginning of Sabbath) of the Passover Week.  The paschal lamb is killed in the afternoon, before that meal.  But, according to John (19:14, et. al.), Jesus was crucified at the same time they killed the lamb (on the day of Preparation).  He was dead and in the tomb at the time when the Passover was eaten.  This was presented to me as the ultimate proof that the Gospels made an error.  Romans 3:4 says, "God must be true though every man be a liar," and in John 10:35, Jesus says, "Scripture cannot be broken."  Still, I trusted my wife's admonition.

Just TWO days later, I was reading one of Millar Burrows's books on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and it jumped out at me.  It virtually slapped my face and said, "Don't ever doubt Me again (just as Jesus implicitly scolded Thomas for doubting)!"  I suspect that there was some Providence involved.  It seems that among the Dead Sea Scrolls, a calendar was found that disagreed with the official calendar of the Jerusalem temple cult.  The Essenes (from whom John the Baptist and his disciples came, some of whom subsequently became Jesus' disciples) followed a different calendar with a different date for Passover (and the day of Preparation).  There were at least two different dates for the first day of Passover in Jesus' time.  It was possible for the synoptic gospels to have used a different calendar when they said that Jesus ate the Passover meal before he died.  They say that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger.  I learned.  My faith has been thoroughly intact since then.

Christians will certainly stumble across issues that non-Christians argue should be obstacles to believing in the truth and infallibility of the scriptures.  Virtually everything a Christian might face has someone (usually cited on the internet) who offers plausible answers for the issue.  We return to Professor Meyer’s teacher, Chaïm Perelman.  As I stated earlier, Perelman states on pages 24-25 of the Realm of Rhetoric that presumption “imposes the burden of proof upon the person who wants to oppose its application.”  These are some of my presumptions:
·         The resurrection did occur.
·         God did create the universe.
·         The Bible is inspired of God.

Furthermore, they are presumptions held by a massive Christian Culture.  My presumption is that these premises are “true, until proven false.”  If others want to prove that the Bible is false, they must first determine every possible meaning of every Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic word in the Scriptures.  Then, they must consider every conceivable grammatical combination in which those words may be found.  Next, they must consider every possible trope, every figure of speech, as a means of determining the multitudinous possible interpretations of every verse of scripture.  And, they must disprove not just one or two interpretations that they might prefer to debunk, in a “straw man” logical fallacy approach.  They must disprove every single interpretation that is remotely possible—that has been previously advanced or that will be advanced at any point in the future.  The Gospels are true, until proven false.