Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Historical Christians, or believers who think that the quality and quantity of historical evidence we have justifies our concluding that the resurrection really happened, are inclined to take the Bible as a reliable source of information about events in history. There are a number of problems with the position, and specific challenges that I have outlined to the case for the resurrection are insurmountable. But for the sake of argument, let’s accept the criteria of historical reliability that the Christian would have us apply to the Jesus case. Now consider the conundrum that accepting some, but not all Biblical claims about historical events. We know, beyond any reasonable historical doubt, that many other historical claims made by the Bible, such as the age of the Earth, the order and occurrence of animal life, the history of the universe, the lineage of the human race, basic biological facts about pregnancy, menstration, medicine, and other historical facts are wrong. Given that so many other historical claims coming from the same book, with presumably the same historical virtues and lineage, are wrong, what are we to make of someone’s claims that the resurrection of Jesus is justified on the basis of the historical merits of the Bible.
If the historical Christian acknowledges, as they should, that at least some of the many historical claims of the Bible are mistaken, but they insist that the claims about the resurrection are reliable, what exactly are the criteria that separates the categories? Recent archeological evidence has overturned a number of important stories from the old Testament. Many believe that the Jewish exodus from Egypt never occurred. The existence of Moses and Abraham have come under serious doubt. Not a bit of archeological evidence has been found to corroborate the opulent, influential, and vast reign of Solomon. Even the use of camels in the Old Testament is reported thousands of years before there were any camels in the region. See Daniel Lazare’s False Testament: Archaeology Refutes the Bible's Claim to History, from Harper’s Magazine for a survey.
So the dilemma for the Christian who would defend the historical resurrection is, under what circumstances, generally, can we accept Bible history and when should we reject it? The universe has existed for 13.7 billion years, with the earth not forming until about 4 billion years ago. Life was present and evolving on Earth for billions of years before humans came onto the scene only recently. Dinosaurs existed tens of millions of years before humans did. There is simply no way to reconcile those clear facts with the stories about the origins of the Earth, life, and the universe in Genesis. Humanity did not start with Adam and Eve 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, there was no great flood, and so on. We must either conclude that those historical claims from the Bible are false, or perhaps they best understood metaphorically, mythically, or allegorically. If the historically minded Christian acknowledges that they are false, then we would like to know what set of criteria of historical reliability requires that we reject one set of claims from the Bible but accept the resurrection stories? If the historically minded Christian suggests that the origin stories are metaphorical, mythological, or allegorical, then again we want to know what are the criteria that indicate that those stories should not be taken as true, but the resurrection did occur. And these criteria must not include any ad hoc or special pleading provisions; they should motivated by sound historical and epistemological reasoning.
The problems get compounded when we take these trumped up historical criteria and apply them to other religions. The question becomes, what is the result when we apply these same criteria of historical reliability to the important books of the other religious traditions? Will those criteria make it clear that the miraculous claims about Muhammed’s encounters with Allah are not reliable? Will the principles that the Christian says show that Jesus’ resurrection was real also show that all of the other supernatural claims from historical sources in the ancient world were not? I think it is obvious that without some creative ad hoc rationalizing, they will not.
The simple and obvious fact is that the Christian cannot have their cake and eat it too here. They cannot reasonably argue that the Bible is a reliable historical document concerning the magical return from the dead of Jesus, and then with the next breathe dismiss the host of other outrageous and false claims claims made by the Bible and other ancient religious documents. The same criteria that lead us to reject the supernatural claims about the origins of Mormonism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and various other mistaken claims about the history of the Earth and humanity in the Bible should lead us to reject the resurrection of Jesus. And if we acknowledge that the resurrection is not justified, then the entire edifice of Christian belief topples.
Posted by Matt McCormick at 10:09 PM