17 May, 2016

Why I Am A Christian and Not An Atheist: The Historical/Legal Method

Disclaimer: The following are paragraphs and not individual sentences; therefore, it is a fallacy (namely, quote mining) to snip phrases and/or sentences out of the paragraphs in question and refute them individually. Paragraphs must be intact in order for any refutations to be valid. Also, the topic of this blog post is the veracity of the New Testament as a document. Any attempt to snub the gospel writers by speculating on whatever personal motives that they may have had — someone did this before and I deleted the comment in question — is ad hominem directed at the gospel writers and therefore also fallacious. Finally, this blog post is cumulative in nature — if you think that these points do not add up when in fact they do, then that is also the quote mining fallacy.

Is the Bible really accurate in its claims? I mean, as a middle schooler (and on the fine line between Christianity and atheism at the time), I had quite a few doubts about its reasonability.  It wasn't until 9th grade (2007-08) that the first of those doubts began to get debunked, and it wasn't until I learned the historical-legal method in my third full year of college (2014-15) that I began to really see how accurate the claims in the Bible are, since that's when Biola professor and bestselling author Sean McDowell first showed up at my church and used the same method to prove the Bible accurate in its claims. Since then, he has shown up two other times and Greg Koukl has shown up once, each time adding more ammunition to this arsenal. This post, therefore, is dedicated to going through how I got to that conclusion in detail.

Let's start with the Honesty Test: The claims that women are the first ones to discover the empty tomb (in ancient Israelite culture, women's testimonies were seen as completely worthless — that's obviously not the case in 21st century American or European cultures, but it would be an instance of the historian's fallacy to project 21st century American cultural values onto a story that takes place in 1st century Israel), that one of the Apostles denied Jesus three times, that, in the OT, an Israelite soldier by the name of Achan steals an offering during the Conquest and provokes God's anger as a result, and that the writers of Exodus claim that their ancestors were slaves (the chronology and archaeology are different topics altogether, but one should also take note that all who conclude that the Exodus did not happen do so because they all look in the wrong chronological period) all fall under the criterion of embarrassment. Further, the introductory statements to certain Gospels, like that of Luke for example, that don't claim to have been written by an apostle make claims that the writers *investigated* all the content available to them, using Roman forensics methods, not unlike what J. Warner Wallace did back in 1996. Conclusion: not only do the Gospel writers claim to care about truth, but the entire Bible is *loaded* with embarrassing admissions that serve to back that claim up — lying to make oneself look bad is completely unreasonable from the perspective of any ordinary human being.

Some cop out of the embarrassing admissions argument by claiming that these embarrassing details were carefully crafted to fool people into believing a fictional story as fact — the only being with even remotely enough omniscience and foresight to be capable of seeing this cop-out coming 2000 years in advance would be none other than God Himself. This argument inherently assumes that the Gospel writers were omniscient — if they weren't, then they would be incapable of tackling future objections that they never heard before. Either the Gospel writers were themselves omniscient — which is a logical impossibility given how clueless they portray themselves to be in their own works — or the Gospels are actually honest narratives and not fabrications.

Ah, but wait, were they actually written by the Apostles or are they all forgeries, as some people love to claim when presented with the above? That's where the Telephone Test comes in. For the New Testament alone, we've got close to 24,000 copies or portions (not counting mummy mask teardowns, which are making that number even higher still), not to mention a time gap of only between 25 and 50 years in the case of the Rylands Papyrus P52, and in the case of the 1st century Mark fragment obtained from a mummy mask teardown, less than 40 years. I have decided to come up with a formula to compare this to other sources:

V = (N1/G1)/(N2/G2)

where V = veracity, N1 = Biblical number of manuscripts, G1 = Biblical time gap, N2 = number of manuscripts for another source, and G2 = time gap for another source.

Apply that formula to Cicero, where the earliest manuscript dates to AD 400 and there are only 15 manuscripts available, and we have a situation in which the New Testament is (24000/50)/(15/400) = 480/0.0375 = 12,800 times more reliable than Cicero. Try to use Sallust and it gets even worse: we've got 20 manuscripts — slightly more than Cicero, sure — but the earliest manuscript is from — wait for it — the 10th century AD! We're talking a *quadruple-digit* time gap in Sallust's case, which would make Sallust and Tacitus tied at 1,000 years removed with only 20 manuscripts. This results in a situation in which the New Testament is (24000/50)/(20/1000) = 480/0.02 = 24,000 times more reliable than both Tacitus and Sallust, and this is based on the most conservative estimate possible. What about Caesar's own works, that he himself allegedly wrote? We've only got 10 manuscripts in that case and also a time gap of 1,000 years, making the case for the historicity of Jesus 48,000 times stronger than the case for the historicity of Caesar if self-published sources are preferred. Plato? Even worse: Try 1,200 years removed and only 7 manuscripts available. Thucydides? 1,300 years removed and only 8 manuscripts to choose from. Suetonius? 800 years removed, only 8 manuscripts to choose from. Even the Iliad, which is already in second place to the Bible with regard to this test, only has 1,757 manuscripts available and a time gap of 500 years! So, does one affirm the historicity of Jesus, doubt the historicity of both Caesar and Jesus, or is he or she a hypocrite? Because these numbers are incriminating evidence that affirming the historicity of Caesar while at the same time doubting the historicity of Jesus is hypocrisy.

Ah, but how different are the manuscripts from one copy to the next? Well, sure, there are hundreds of thousands of differences, but 80% of them have to do with spelling and another 19% with grammar. That leaves only 1% variation with anything more than 1 sentence long, and of that, 0% has anything to do with any essential doctrine. Spelling and grammar have absolutely nothing to do with validity — anyone who has ever used the term "grammar Nazi" is a hypocrite if they go on to apply "grammar Nazi" standards to the Bible as a veracity marker.

Even after all this, you cannot necessarily get a complete historical account if there's no corroboration from other sources. Is there? Time to test it. It's funny, really, that Tacitus, whom we know almost everything about ancient Rome from, despite being hostile towards Christians and despite epically failing the telephone test in comparison to the NT, happens to make the assumption that Jesus was indeed historical (see Annals 15.44.3). Tacitus certainly does not assume other radical claims like those mentioned in the Bible, but he does indeed assume that Jesus existed — why? Same thing with Josephus (Antiquities 8.3.3), a Jewish religious leader, who goes even deeper still (some claims may have been edited in by Christian scribes, but only a minority of them). Pliny (Letters 10.96-97), despite being given orders to persecute Christians, also makes a claim — the claim that the earliest believers worshipped Jesus "like a God" — that just assumes that this Jesus whom they worship actually existed.

It does go beyond mere existence, however. Extra-biblical sources also corroborate the Bible's claims that the crucifixion of Jesus was an actual historical event (Thallus, Pliny), that there was darkness during the crucifixion (Thallus, Phlegon), that the crucifixion occurred in Judea during the reign of Tiberius and the governorship of Pontius Pilate (Tacitus, Josephus), that the Jewish religious leaders played a role in the crucifixion of Jesus (Mara Bar-Serapion, Josephus), that the crucifixion occurred on the day before Passover (Talmud), that many prophecies by Jesus we're fulfilled (Phlegon), that the first Christians believed that Jesus is God (Pliny the Younger), that the first Christians upheld a high moral code (Pliny the Younger), that the first Christians met regularly to worship Jesus (Pliny the Younger), that Jews were expelled from Rome by Emperor Claudius (Suetonius), that the earliest Christians were willing to die for their beliefs (Suetonius), that Jesus' teachings included teachings about repentance and about the kingdom of God (Lucian of Samosata), that Jesus' earthly father was a carpenter (Celsus), that Jesus possessed unique powers (Celsus), and, last but certainly not least, that Jesus claimed to be God (Celsus). That is a very exhaustive list, and if you notice, it is a list that is wholly consistent with claims made not only in the Gospels but also the Epistles.

So, honesty test — pass, telephone test — EPIC pass, corroboration test — pass. If the Bible passes all these tests, then it must be true, and if it is true, then all the claims within must be true, and if all claims within the Bible are true, then Christianity itself is true. The lesson I learned, however, is this: Although we Christians must be ready to defend our faith and make sure people know that the "blind faith" charge is patently false, unbelief based on circular reasoning is just as irrational and fallacious as belief based on circular reasoning ― it is just as irrational to assert that "the Bible cannot be accurate no matter how much evidence exists in this blog post because there is no God because <repeat>" as it is to assert that "the Bible is true because it says that it is true because <repeat>". One needs to examine (and cross-examine) both sides before taking a side.