Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Jesus Sharpshooter Fallacy

The Texas Sharpshooter gets his rifle and fires a round at the side of a barn. Then he goes over, draws a big circle around the bullet hole and proudly announces that he’s a perfect marksman.

It has become very common for Christians to proclaim the virtues of the Bible. It’s a singular, coherence narrative, they say. Or they are awestruck by the seeming consistency between the different Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life (they aren’t very consistent, but we’ll leave that alone for the moment.) They marvel that Jesus was the culmination of lots of Old Testament prophecies about a savior. They say, “How else could so many people over so many centuries come to agree about so much and have such an integrated view about what God is?” The book itself, it seems, is evidence enough that the book itself is profoundly accurate.

What the modern believer often fails to realize is that they are at the receiving end of a very long, complicated historical Sharpshooter fallacy. From the time of Jesus until about 250 A.D., hundreds of early Christian writings came into existence and began to circulate among early followers. These documents told a wide range of stories about Jesus, God, and the early history of Christianity. In some Jesus was not resurrected from the dead; he was only a man. In others, the course of events is very different than that told in the four Gospels. Intense debates and analysis resulted. By sometime in the mid 200s, those debates were being won by a sect of followers who had settled on the 27 book canon of the New Testament that we have today. Part of what was on their minds, it seems, were questions about consistency, plausibility, coherence with other older texts, and unification. That is, when these 2nd and 3rd century Christians were sifting through all of these hundreds of documents they made a deliberate effort to settle on one story. They consciously excluded the stories that did not seem to fit with the favored view, they even ruled some texts heretical. In short, they took a very large set of diverse writings and carved the version of the New Testament that we have out of them. That’s why you haven’t been reading the stories in Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of the Twelve, Gospel of Peter, Gospel of the Basilides, Gospel of Mathias, Acts of Andrew, Acts of Paul, Acts of John, and the Epistle to the Laodiceans. And That’s why you probably haven’t heard of Marcionism, gnosticism, the antitactici, Montanism, and other apocryphal writings, especially the ones that do not tell the same stories about Jesus.

So for the modern Christian to hold that book up centuries later and marvel at its coherence and unified message creates an ironic embarrassment. The reason that that book has those stories with those features in it and not some others is because a bunch of the early Christians went through all the early writings and found the ones that would hang together in that fashion. You’ve been handed an impressive looking bullseye, with a bullet hole through the center, but what they didn’t tell you is that after taking thousands of shots at a barn, they just found the one they liked and drew a circle around it. It’s a bit like leaving some money in an old savings account, forgetting about it, and then being surprised to find it in there years later. Except in the Bible case, Christians are using this false fortuitous event as support for a whole world view from the Iron Age, and wrecking our social, educational and political structure in the process.

It’s a wonder then, perhaps even a miracle, that the doctored text that we got isn’t more coherent and unified. But even a casual read reveals countless inconsistencies. Take just the accounts of the resurrection that we get in the four Gospels, and let’s throw in the non-cannonical Gospel of Peter.

In the Luke account, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women go to the tomb, find it open, talk to two men in shining garments, and then go tell what they saw to the other disciples.

In Mark, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome go to the tomb, find it open, and find one man sitting there in white inside. They talk to him, then they run away in fear and they do not say “any thing to any man; for they were afraid.”

In the Matthew account, Mary Magdalene and the “other” Mary go to the tomb. A great earthquake opens it by rolling the stone away. They go inside and find an angel of the Lord in white. Then they leave with fear and joy and run to bring the disciples word.

In the John account, Mary Magdalene (by herself) finds the tomb open. She goes and gets Simon Peter and the other disciple “that Jesus loved.” The two of them go to the tomb and find it empty. They leave, but Mary stays crying. Then two angels appear to her. Then Jesus himself appears to her. She talks to him and then goes to tell the rest of the disciples.

In the Gospel of Peter, the account of the resurrection that suggests grave robbing, and perhaps that’s part of why it got thrown out when they were “tidying” up and getting their story straight. In it, the Jews get Pilate to put Roman guards at the tomb. The guards hear a voice and then see two men come down from the sky and then carry a body out of the tomb. Later, Mary and her friends find someone dressed in white in the tomb who claims that Jesus is gone.

The Jesus sharpshooter fallacy and the starkly different stories of Jesus that persist should raise serious questions for anyone who thinks that this book can be employed as a reliable historical document or trusted for accuracy. The billions of Christians in the world celebrate the empty tomb, for instance, as the proof of their dogma, but if we include the Gospel of Peter account, then in four out of the five accounts, the tomb isn’t found empty at all; rather some one or two people (“angels”) are found inside. And in one case, they are seen removing the body. And none of the accounts tell the same story about who went to the tomb and the series of events after.

So now instead the Christian claim that the Jesus story is remarkable isn’t even as good as our hapless Texas sharpshooter. He shot one bullet at the barn and then drew the target around it after the fact. The baffling messiness of the resurrection stories are more like spraying thousands of bullets into the barn wall, drawing a convoluted shape around a handful of them, and then proudly announcing that you are an incredible shot.

23 comments:

Reginald Selkirk said...

You've got to admit that firing all those bullets was an impressive feat for the time, since the gun wasn't invented until about the 12th or 13th century.

ungullible said...

This reminds me of the classic classroom example of the difference between accuracy and precision: Accuracy is a cluster of shots centered (but not tightly) around a bulls eye, while precision is a tighter grouping of shots that is off-center from the bulls eye. Only a grouping that is both tight and centered is both precise and accurate (respectively).

In the case of the resurrection story, the authors as a group are neither accurate nor precise. Only by shooting first and then drawing the circle around the tightest grouping do they create the illusion of accuracy. And then by eliminating the stories that fall outside of the circle, they further create the illusion of precision.

Matt McCormick said...

Nice, ungullible. And I've even contest the claim that the canonized stories are a tight cluster. Even a casual read reveals a baffling list of inconsistencies.

The idea that the Bible is a special, magical book with remarkable literary properties is so pervasive that even the non-believers and atheists will often give it deference. Were one to read that book for the first time without being immersed in a culture that reveres it so highly, you'd be utterly unimpressed.

MM

ungullible said...

> And I'd even contest the claim that the canonized stories are a tight cluster.

True. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that drawing the circle and erasing the outliers together achieves the illusion of accuracy, but precision is still missing.

Konrad Talmont-Kaminski said...

Mentions of barns have reminded me (how's that for a segue?) of an argument for atheism that may not be the most satisfying logically but is certainly pleasant to think about-

"Why am not a Christian? Because it is a sin to stay indoors on a fine day."

Brigitte said...

There is just no way it could be right, is there. If it agrees then it was by design and if it disagrees then it's all wrong.

"Were one to read that book for the first time without being immersed in a culture that reveres it so highly, you'd be utterly unimpressed."

Did you actually read it? I am truly curious. The other day I met a confessing atheist, who told me the 10 commandments were non-nonsensical, rather he believed in the 7 deadly sins. Yet in the same sentence he told me he did not know what the 10 commandments are and asked me if I could tell him what they are.

Matt McCormick said...

Do you have any useful comments that actually address the argument, or just irrelevant personal attacks? If the facts or the reasoning are wrong, then we will all benefit from knowing how.

MM

Player Piano said...

I have read the Bible. I have studied its teachings. I attended church weekly up until the last year or two of my life. I am now an atheist.

Brigitte, I know the Bible...and that it just doesn't make sense to me anymore.

Konrad Talmont-Kaminski said...

Christians protesting that atheists don't read the Bible. That's a bit too tu quoque for my tastes.

Bror Erickson said...

"What the modern believer often fails to realize is that they are at the receiving end of a very long, complicated historical Sharpshooter fallacy. From the time of Jesus until about 250 A.D., hundreds of early Christian writings came into existence and began to circulate among early followers. These documents told a wide range of stories about Jesus, God, and the early history of Christianity. In some Jesus was not resurrected from the dead; he was only a man. In others, the course of events is very different than that told in the four Gospels. Intense debates and analysis resulted. By sometime in the mid 200s, those debates were being won by a sect of followers who had settled on the 27 book canon of the New Testament that we have today. Part of what was on their minds, it seems, were questions about consistency, plausibility, coherence with other older texts, and unification. That is, when these 2nd and 3rd century Christians were sifting through all of these hundreds of documents they made a deliberate effort to settle on one story. They consciously excluded the stories that did not seem to fit with the favored view, they even ruled some texts heretical. In short, they took a very large set of diverse writings and carved the version of the New Testament that we have out of them. That’s why you haven’t been reading the stories in Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of the Twelve, Gospel of Peter, Gospel of the Basilides, Gospel of Mathias, Acts of Andrew, Acts of Paul, Acts of John, and the Epistle to the Laodiceans. And That’s why you probably haven’t heard of Marcionism, gnosticism, the antitactici, Montanism, and other apocryphal writings, especially the ones that do not tell the same stories about Jesus."
Matt,
Actually I have heard of and read a great deal of the above mentioned heresies. What I find funny about this is your thinking that a Christian should accept a document written in 250 A.D as being a more historically accurate description of the resurrection than one written, or approved of, by those who witnessed the event. It wasn't so much the theology behind the writings that discarded them, or the inconsistencies, but the knowledge that these gospels were not written by the apostles. A person teaching Philosophy at a respected university, should not be letting Dan Brown do his research for him.
The 27 books of the New Testament Canon were actually never officially decided on by anyone before the 16th century, and then not by all. Lutherans reject the council of Trent. The formation of what is commonly called the canon is a fascinating history that has a lot more to do with proving authorship than getting a consistent story.
As for the stories not being consistent and persuasive. Well St. Augustine in his confessions talks about how awfully written were the books of the Bible. I tend to agree with him. One would not want to teach another the niceties of Greek composition from the Biblical writings. And the events recorded often find differing specifics. Which give the Bible somewhat of a peculiar credibility. Should people have been trying to select books for nothing more than a consistent story, it would not have been beyond them to change and edit the accounts yet that did not happen. Some have to varying degrees of ability been able to synthesize the accounts so they are more or less coherent. But they do record different specifics and details. This far from destroying the credibility of the different accounts gives them credibility. A lawyer looking at eyewitness reports of an accident would expect four people to give slightly different accounts as to what happened, some missing a couple details, some reporting different ones. If he doesn't find that he finds they were operating in cahoots.
Also I don't find Brigitte's question of whether or not you have read the Bible to be out of line. You yourself make the claim that your living is one of attacking the Christian faith. I would expect that one who is to do this should be an expert on what he is attacking, which would require you to read the Bible, read accounts and arguments both for and against it, and so on. I don't expect him to be getting all his information from ill researched conspiracy theorists and fiction.

Reginald Selkirk said...

Did you actually read it? I am truly curious. The other day I met a confessing atheist, who told me the 10 commandments were non-nonsensical, rather he believed in the 7 deadly sins. Yet in the same sentence he told me he did not know what the 10 commandments are and asked me if I could tell him what they are.

Which version or the Ten Commandments? Exodus 20, or Exodus 34? Or do you prefer the version in Deuteronomy 5?

When God rewrote the Ten Commandments after Moses broke the original tablets (Exo 34:1)
And the LORD said unto Moses, Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables, which thou brakest.

Why was the text different than originally reported (Exo 20)?

BTW, theocrat and congressman from Georgia Lynn Westmoreland, who co-sponsored a bill to require the display of the ten commandments in both the House and Senate of the U.S. Congress, could not name the Ten Commandments.

Reginald Selkirk said...

It wasn't so much the theology behind the writings that discarded them, or the inconsistencies, but the knowledge that these gospels were not written by the apostles. A person teaching Philosophy at a respected university, should not be letting Dan Brown do his research for him.

But some of those others, such as the Gospel of Judas, claimed to have been written by apostles. And as we found out the other day, the Gospels of Matthew and Mark did not claim to have been written by those gentlemen, that was only a traditional attribution tacked onto them by the early church.

And someone who dismisses Bart Ehrman, one of the best scholars of the New Testament working today, and a terrific writer as well, as "liberal" has no business making a crack about Dan Brown.

Bror Erickson said...

Reginald,
let me ask you this: On what basis does Bart Erhman stake his claim that Matthew was written after 90 A.D. and that it was not Matthew who wrote it?
I am betting the arguments are the typical liberal arguments, and I do dismiss them as do other highly regarded Biblical Scholars, a few of whom I have had the pleasure of studying under.

Reginald Selkirk said...

Bror Erickson: I'm sure Ehrman's reasons for doing so are better than your reasons for believing that the apostles Matthew and Mark are actually the authors of the Gospels which bear their names. The manuscripts themselves are anonymous, and that assignment was made by early church members for the same reason you probably have: that's what they preferred to believe. Once again, you are in no position to criticize.

Bror Erickson said...

Reginald,
Mark wasn't an apostle. but hey if you think people 2,000 years after the fact are in a better position to ascribe authorship than the people within the first and second generations after the books were written than I don't know what to say.

Matt McCormick said...

The widespread consensus about the authorship of the Gospels is that they were not written by the eye witnesses and they were written decades after the alleged events. One might try to contest that, I suppose. But where would it get us? Suppose that all four gospels were written by actual eyewitnesses immediately after the alleged events (they weren't). Would it be reasonable to believe? No. In five minutes I can produce a hundred VIDEOS of alleged miracles on YouTube that are just as impressive but that are not real. And as the Salem Argument shows us, even when much more stringent standards of evidence are met than those in place around the Gospels, it's still not reasonable to believe that some supernatural event occurred. If the sworn affidavits of hundreds of eye witnesses in the Salem Witch trials aren't sufficient to prove that the women in Salem performed magic, then even on the best case scenario, the Gospels won't prove that Jesus did magic in the first century.

MM

Reginald Selkirk said...

but hey if you think people 2,000 years after the fact are in a better position to ascribe authorship than the people within the first and second generations after the books were written than I don't know what to say.

And yet you seem to have no trouble at all dismissing similar claims of 2000 year old books such as the Gospel of Judas, the Apocalypse of Adam and the story of Honi the Circle Drawer. Your standard of judgment are spinning so fast you should hook up a windmill and milk some electricity out of it.

Reginald Selkirk said...

Which version or the Ten Commandments?

It's a pity Brigitte didn't have time to answer that question. I personally think this would make a great plaque for every courtroom and classroom in the world, (Exodus 34):

[12] Take heed to thyself, lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest it be for a snare in the midst of thee:
[13] But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves:
[14] For thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God:
[15] Lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods , and do sacrifice unto their gods, and one call thee, and thou eat of his sacrifice;
[16] And thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make thy sons go a whoring after their gods.

Brigitte said...

Reginald:

I don't understand your question.
Why would what you quote be the list of the 10 commandments?

The contents of the 10 commandments is not under debate. It is a simple summary of the moral law. It is the moral law that matters. We would hopefully, you and I, likely, agree to the contents of it, aside from the fact that it begins with the fear and love of God.

Brigitte said...

This is what is taught by Luther regarding the 10 commandments:

The First Commandment
You shall have no other gods.
What does this mean?
We should fear, love and trust in God above all things.
The Second Commandment
You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, use satanic arts, lie,
or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give
thanks.
The Third Commandment
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word,
but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.
The Fourth Commandment
Honor your father and your mother.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and
other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.
The Fifth Commandment
You shall not murder.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his
body, but help and support him in every physical need.
The Sixth Commandment
http://lcms.org/bookofconcord/smallcatechism.asp (5 of 23) [7/31/2003 4:25:23 PM]
LCMS: The Small Catechism
You shall not commit adultery.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God so that we lead a sexually pure and decent life in
what we say and do, and husband and wife love and honor each other.
The Seventh Commandment
You shall not steal.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor's money or
possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and
protect his possessions and income.
The Eighth Commandment
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray
him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and
explain everything in the kindest possible way.
The Ninth Commandment
You shall not covet your neighbor's house.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God so that we do not scheme to get our neighbor's
inheritance or house, or get it in a way which only appears right, but help and be of
service to him in keeping it.
The Tenth Commandment
You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant, or maidservant, his ox or donkey,
or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God so that we do not entice or force away our
neighbor's wife, workers, or animals, or turn them against him, but urge them to
stay and do their duty.
http://lcms.org/bookofconcord/smallcatechism.asp (6 of 23) [7/31/2003 4:25:23 PM]
LCMS: The Small Catechism

Brigitte said...

Please note, we do not claim to be able to keep them any better than anybody else.

Reginald Selkirk said...

Why would what you quote be the list of the 10 commandments?

I'm sorry if I wasn't clear enough for some of your capacity to understand.

Exodus 20: A listing of the Ten commandments, written by God and given to Moses. A very similar listing appears in Deuteronomy 5.

Exodus 31:18 And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.

Exodus 32:16 And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables.

Clear so far? The tablets with the Ten Commandments were written by God himself, not transcribed by Moses, or any other such nonsense.

Exodus 32:19 And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses' anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount.

Moses broke the tablets. Now we're ready to revisit Exodus 34:

[1] And the LORD said unto Moses, Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables, which thou brakest.
[2] And be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning unto mount Sinai, and present thyself there to me in the top of the mount.
[3] And no man shall come up with thee, neither let any man be seen throughout all the mount; neither let the flocks nor herds feed before that mount.
[4] And he hewed two tables of stone like unto the first; and Moses rose up early in the morning, and went up unto mount Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tables of stone.


So now God says he's going to provide an exact duplicate of the text, written in his own 'hand.' But then the commandments are listed again (as quoted above) and the text is different. What's up with that?

Unknown said...

Here is a great point for atheism: God could not have writtten the ten commandments because at Moses' time the written hebrew language did not yet exist. Written hebrew is a much, much later development.
Agnosticus