Sunday, December 27, 2015
Christians usually claim that the evidence for the gospel stories is very good, and that's why they are justified in believing them. If a skeptic tries to tell them that the evidence really isn't that good, they never, ever listen to the reasons offered by the skeptic. Instead, they tend to double down with one excuse after another to convince themselves that their belief is based on rock-solid evidence. At the same time, they often try to minimize the value of historical evidence for other events that are generally accepted as having occurred in the course of history. So on the one hand, they insist that their evidence is solid as any evidence can be. On the other hand, if they are forced to admit that it's not so solid after all, they have the backup position that accepted history is based on equally bad evidence, and therefore, we should accept the gospel stories lest we be seen as using a double standard.
This raises the question: What constitutes good evidence for accepting the truth of historical stories? I'm sure it would come as a surprise to many Christians that history is a kind of science, as noted by historian Marc Comtois, with a methodology that is designed to produce the most reliable results possible. As with other sciences, the raw material the historian has to work with is a body of evidence and objective facts, such as the existence of documents or records relating past events. In the case of written or oral accounts, it is not necessarily the events related by those accounts that are to be regarded as objective facts, but the existence of the various documents and records, which might be wholly or partly fictitious, and which may contain discrepancies and inaccuracies, along with facts of authorship and other information relating to the creation of those documents and records. The historian must piece together information about past events to produce an account of the past that is the most likely among numerous possibilities. As with any scientific hypothesis, it represents not the ultimate truth, but a historian's best or most likely approximation of the truth based on the available evidence. Objectivity is a key characteristic of the historian. It is doubtful whether a Christian can be objective in evaluating the historical reliability of the gospels.
Historical method encompasses a variety of techniques that are used for selecting information that is more likely to be reliable, and weeding out the less reliable, as described in Wikipedia. One significant problem faced by the historian is the fact that testimony may or may not be true. The historian must evaluate the source of information in an effort to assess its credibility. Eye witness testimony is better than hearsay. The motivations of the author can be major source of bias. The gospels contain no eye witness testimony at all about the life and works of Jesus, and the authors are obviously motivated by their religious ideology.
One key characteristic of any scientific approach to evaluating a historical hypotheses is verification by physical evidence or corroboration by multiple independent sources. The more the better. Verification and corroboration are severely lacking in the case of the gospels, despite Christians' protestations to the contrary. The gospels contain many tales of miraculous events without any trace of physical evidence to prove that those events happened, or any corroboration from sources outside the bible itself. To make matters worse, much of the text of the gospels is clearly derived from a single source, and the parts that aren't copied verbatim tend to contain many discrepancies, both major and minor. These discrepancies cast serious doubt on the veracity of the stories.
When examined in chronological order, it is clear that there is a progression of the narrative. The earliest gospel, Mark, tells of a man who performs miracles, but otherwise is not divine. There is no virgin birth, no claim of being the son of God, and no resurrection, at least in the original version. (The final verses that tell of the resurrected Jesus were added later, according to most scholars. And considering that the story says that the witnesses never told anyone about it, it is literally impossible for this part of the tale to be a factual account of events.) Subsequent gospels embellish the tales by adding fulfillment of prophecy, divine origins, claims made by Jesus about his own divine purpose that appear nowhere in the earlier narrative, and of course, the resurrection of the body. (Note that the earliest mentions of resurrection were made by Paul, who says that Jesus was "resurrected in the spirit".) The progression of the narrative over a period of decades when the gospels were most likely written, is strong evidence that Jesus had taken on a legendary status, and the narratives of the gospels reflect the evolution of the legend.
One tactic of Christians, faced with the knowledge that the gospels have very weak historical support, is to claim that other widely accepted historical accounts also have weak evidentiary support. Victor Reppert cites an essay that attempts to cast doubt on the historicity of Napoleon Bonaparte. Another example of this Christian strategy is the claim that the historical record for the destruction on Pompeii by the eruption of Vesuvius is just as sketchy as the historical record in support of the Gospels. Christians may want to present these as a means of weakening the case for accepted history in order to make the case for the historical accuracy of the gospels seem more acceptable. But the truth is that there is much better historical evidence for them, in the form of multiple independent corroborating accounts, than for any of the stories told in the gospels. And that's precisely why there is not significant doubt about the historicity of these things. Nice try, but no dice.
Christians who insist the the evidence for the gospels is rock-solid are fooling themselves. It is much more reasonable to believe that Jesus was a charismatic preacher who acquired a devoted following and came to be seen by his followers as a messiah - one who would save them from the tyranny of the Romans. The Romans, in turn, came to view him as a subversive and put him to death. Upon gaining a legendary status, the oral accounts of his life became progressively more embellished, crediting him with numerous miracles. Paul created a religion based on the oral stories and the claim that he has been resurrected in the spirit. The stories continued to evolve, even as they were being committed to writing, with the addition of divine status and many of the features commonly attributed to the divinities of other religions of the day. All kinds of anecdotes were invented to show the fulfillment of prophecy, and resurrection in the spirit morphed into resurrection in the flesh.
There is nothing in this hypothesis that is inconsistent with known facts about the people of the time and their religious traditions. Nor is there anything that would stretch credulity. Plus, it has the advantage of explaining the many discrepancies and contradictions found in the New testament. Judicious application of historical method should lead any reasonable and objective historian to conclude that the gospels simply don't present an accurate reflection of the truth. But there are reasonable alternative accounts that are far more likely to be true.