Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Who were the Jesus Seminar? Should anyone have taken them seriously?

Was having a conversation Sunday evening with the woman I am mentoring and she brought up the Jesus Seminar – a small group of naturalistic, pluralistic academics. Apparently, someone’s child went to college, heard about them, and lost their faith because of their writings. I wanted to find a good article for her on this, and since Dr. William Lane Craig has debated most of the leading scholars in the Jesus seminar, (e.g. – John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Roy Hoover, Gerd Ludemann, Robert Price, John Shelby Spong, etc.), I chose an article by Dr. Craig. I also link to two debates that Dr. Craig did with Jesus Seminar people below.

First a short video (4 minutes):

If you can’t watch anything long, then watch that.

Here is the article, on the Reasonable Faith web site.

Intro:

In 1985 a prominent New Testament scholar named Robert Funk founded a think tank in Southern California which he called the Jesus Seminar. The ostensible purpose of the Seminar was to uncover the historical person Jesus of Nazareth using the best methods of scientific, biblical criticism. In Funk’s view the historical Jesus has been overlaid by Christian legend, myth, and metaphysics and thus scarcely resembled the Christ figure presented in the gospels and worshipped by the Church today. The goal of the Seminar is to strip away these layers and to recover the authentic Jesus who really lived and taught.

Excerpt:

The number one presupposition of the Seminar is antisupernaturalism or more simply, naturalism.Naturalism is the view that every event in the world has a natural cause. There are no events with supernatural causes. In other words, miracles cannot happen.

Now this presupposition constitutes an absolute watershed for the study of the gospels. If you presuppose naturalism, then things like the incarnation, the Virgin Birth, Jesus’ miracles, and his resurrection go out the window before you even sit down at the table to look at the evidence. As supernatural events, they cannot be historical. But if you are at least open to supernaturalism, then these events can’t be ruled out in advance. You have to be open to looking honestly at the evidence that they occurred.

[...][T]he second presupposition which I wanted to discuss, namely, sceptical critics presuppose that our most primary sources for the life of Jesus are not the Gospels, but rather writings outside the New Testament, specifically the socalled apocryphal gospels. These are gospels forged under the apostles’ names, like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Philip, and so forth. These extrabiblical writings are said to be the key to correctly reconstructing the historical Jesus.

In addition to that, there seems to be a third presupposition – radical religious pluralism.

John Dominic Crossan closed his opening speech in his debate with Dr. Craig with this:

When I look a Buddhist friend in the face, I cannot say with integrity, “Our story about Jesus’ virginal birth is true and factual. Your story that when the Buddha came out of his mother’s womb, he was walking, talking, teaching and preaching (which I must admit is even better than our story)—that’s a myth. We have the truth; you have a lie.” I don’t think that can be said any longer, for our insistence that our faith is a fact and that others’ faith is a lie is, I think, a cancer that eats at the heart of Christianity.

But of course, he thinks that all miracle claims are lies, because of his supernaturalism. What he is really trying to do here is redefine these claims so they are not truth claims at all, but personal preference claims.

But the main point is that the co-chair of the Jesus Seminar pre-supposes that nothing that Christianity claims that offends people in other religions can be true. Before he sits down to look at the evidence. I’m not saying that these guys can’t do history, I’m saying that the real debate with these guys should not be about history. The real debate should be about their presuppositions. We should work to defeat their pre-supposition naturalism with good scientific arguments like the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning, the origin of life, the Cambrian explosion, the habitability-discoverability argument, etc. And we should work to defeat their pre-supposition of pluralism by just asking them to defend it, and maybe point out that a person’s being offended by some claim about reality being true does not make that claim false. Logic requires that people who make claims that are made false by reality are wrong and no amount of crying and sobbing can change that.

The second article in the series that Dr. Craig mentioned in the article I linked above is a generic article on the evidence for the historical Jesus. If you have not read a case for the resurrection of Jesus, then read it, too. Or you can check out this lecture by Dr. Craig on the Jesus Seminar and the historical Jesus:

If you want to see a good debate between Dr. Craig and Marcus Borg, here it is:

Dr. Borg is one of the more respected Jesus Seminar people, and a really nice guy. But also, a really wrong guy.

The key thing to know about them is that they presuppose naturalism (miracles never happen) and radical pluralism (no exclusivist religion can be correct, because that would make people in the other religions feel bad). The presuppositions are key to understanding the “historical work” of the Jesus Seminar.

 

 

 

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What criteria do historians use to get to the minimal facts about the historical Jesus?

Have you ever heard Gary Habermas, Michael Licona or William Lane Craig defend the resurrection of Jesus as the best explanation for the “minimal facts” about Jesus? The lists of minimal facts that they use are typically agreed to by their opponents during the debates.

For example, in his debate with Bart Ehrman, Craig was able to quote Ehrman’s own writings where he agreed that all four facts were probably true.

Excerpt:

Now in his early published work Dr. Ehrman expressed skepticism about these facts. He insisted that we cannot really affirm these facts.

[...]Dr. Ehrman has himself come to re-think his position on these issues. Inconsistencies in the details notwithstanding, he now recognizes that we have “solid traditions,” not only for Jesus’ burial, but also for the women’s discovery of the empty tomb, and therefore, he says, we can conclude with “some certainty” that Jesus was in fact buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb and that three days later the tomb was found empty. 

When I discovered that Professor Ehrman had reversed himself on this question, my admiration for his honesty and scholarly objectivity shot up. Very few scholars, once they’ve gone into print on an issue, have the courage to re-think that issue and admit that they were wrong. Dr. Ehrman’s reversal of his opinion on these matters is testimony, not merely to the force of the evidence for these four facts, but also to his determination to follow the evidence wherever it leads. What this means is that my first contention is not an issue of disagreement in tonight’s debate.

So what are the criteria that historians use to derive a list of minimal facts about Jesus?

Dr. Craig explains them in this article.

Excerpt:

The other way, more influential in contemporary New Testament scholarship, is to establish specific facts about Jesus without assuming the general reliability of the Gospels. The key here are the so-called “Criteria of Authenticity” which enable us to establish specific sayings or events in Jesus’ life as historical. Scholars involved in the quest of the historical Jesus have enunciated a number of these critieria for detecting historically authentic features of Jesus, such as dissimilarity to Christian teaching, multiple attestation, linguistic semitisms, traces of Palestinian milieu, retention of embarrassing material, coherence with other authentic material, and so forth.

It is somewhat misleading to call these “criteria,” for they aim at stating sufficient, not necessary, conditions of historicity. This is easy to see: suppose a saying is multiply attested and dissimilar but not embarrassing. If embarrassment were a necessary condition of authenticity, then the saying would have to be deemed inauthentic, which is wrong-headed, since its multiple attestation and dissimilarity are sufficient for authenticity. Of course, the criteria are defeasible, meaning that they are not infallible guides to authenticity. They might be better called “Indications of Authenticity” or “Signs of Credibility.”

In point of fact, what the criteria really amount to are statements about the effect of certain types of evidence upon the probability of various sayings or events in Jesus’ life. For some saying or event S and evidence of a certain type E, the criteria would state that, all things being equal, the probability of S given E is greater than the probability of S on our background knowledge alone. So, for example, all else being equal, the probability of some event or saying is greater given its multiple attestation than it would have been without it.

What are some of the factors that might serve the role of E in increasing the probability of some saying or event S? The following are some of the most important:

(1) Historical congruence: S fits in with known historical facts concerning the context in which S is said to have occurred.

(2) Independent, early attestation: S appears in multiple sources which are near to the time at which S is alleged to have occurred and which depend neither upon each other nor a common source.

(3) Embarrassment: S is awkward or counter-productive for the persons who serve as the source of information for S.

(4) Dissimilarity: S is unlike antecedent Jewish thought-forms and/or unlike subsequent Christian thought-forms.

(5) Semitisms: traces in the narrative of Aramaic or Hebrew linguistic forms.

(6) Coherence: S is consistent with already established facts about Jesus.

For a good discussion of these factors see Robert Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” in Gospel Perspectives I, ed. R. T. France and David Wenham (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1980), pp. 225-63.

Notice that these “criteria” do not presuppose the general reliability of the Gospels. Rather they focus on a particular saying or event and give evidence for thinking that specific element of Jesus’ life to be historical, regardless of the general reliability of the document in which the particular saying or event is reported. These same “criteria” are thus applicable to reports of Jesus found in the apocryphal Gospels, or rabbinical writings, or even the Qur’an. Of course, if the Gospels can be shown to be generally reliable documents, so much the better! But the “criteria” do not depend on any such presupposition. They serve to help spot historical kernels even in the midst of historical chaff. Thus we need not concern ourselves with defending the Gospels’ every claim attributed to Jesus in the gospels; the question will be whether we can establish enough about Jesus to make faith in him reasonable.

And you can see Dr. Craig using these criteria to defend minimal facts in his debates. For example, in his debate with Ehrman, he alludes to the criteria when making his case for the empty tomb.

Here, he uses multiple attestation and the criteria of embarrassment:

Among the reasons which have led most scholars to this conclusion are the following:

1. The empty tomb is also multiply attested by independent, early sources.

Mark’s source didn’t end with the burial, but with the story of the empty tomb, which is tied to the burial story verbally and grammatically. Moreover, Matthew and John have independent sources about the empty tomb; it’s also mentioned in the sermons in the Acts of the Apostles (2.29; 13.36); and it’s implied by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian church (I Cor. 15.4). Thus, we have again multiple, early, independent attestation of the fact of the empty tomb.

2. The tomb was discovered empty by women.

In patriarchal Jewish society the testimony of women was not highly regarded. In fact, the Jewish historian Josephus says that women weren’t even permitted to serve as witnesses in a Jewish court of law. Now in light of this fact, how remarkable it is that it is women who are the discoverers of Jesus’ empty tomb. Any later legendary account would certainly have made male disciples like Peter and John discover the empty tomb. The fact that it is women, rather than men, who are the discoverers of the empty tomb is best explained by the fact that they were the chief witnesses to the fact of the empty tomb, and the Gospel writers faithfully record what, for them, was an awkward and embarrassing fact.

There are actually a few more reasons for believing in the empty tomb that he doesn’t go into in the debate, but you can find them in his written work. For example, in his essay on Gerd Ludemann’s “vision” hypothesis. That essay covers the reasons for all four of his minimal facts.

So, if you are going to talk about the resurrection with a skeptic, you don’t want to invoke the Bible as some sort of inerrant/inspired Holy Book.

Try this approach instead:

  1. Explain the criteria that historians use to get their lists of minimal facts
  2. Explain your list of minimal facts
  3. Defend your list of minimal facts using the criteria
  4. Cite skeptics who admit to each of your minimal facts, to show that they are widely accepted
  5. List some parts of the Bible that don’t pass the criteria (e.g. – guard at the tomb, Matthew earthquake)
  6. Explain why those parts don’t pass the criteria, and explain that they are not part of your case
  7. Challenge your opponent to either deny some or all the facts, or propose a naturalistic alternative that explains the facts better than the resurrection
  8. Don’t let your opponent attack any of your minimal facts by attacking other parts of the Bible (e.g. – the number of angels being one or two, etc.)

And just keep in mind that there is no good case for the resurrection that does not make heavy use of the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. You have to use that – it’s the law.

Back to the minimal facts criteria. The best essay on the minimal facts criteria that I’ve read is the one by Robert H. Stein in “Contending with Christianity’s Critics“. It’s a good short essay that goes over all the historical criteria that are used to derive the short list of facts from which we infer the conclusion “God raised Jesus from the dead”. That whole book is really very, very good.

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

William Lane Craig vs Walter Sinnott-Armstrong: evil, suffering and God’s existence

This is one the top 4 best debates that William Lane Craig has done in my opinion. (The other two are Craig-Millican debate and the first and second Craig-Dacey debates) This one doesn’t seem to get a lot of play on the Internet: there’s no video, transcript or anything. But it is a great debate, and on a problem we are all concerned about: the problem of evil and suffering. One other thing – Sinnott-Armstrong is also a very courteous, respectful and intelligent scholar and he is very good at defending his side. This is a very cordial and engaging debate, and because it was held in front of a church audience, it was targeted to laymen and not academics.

The MP3 file is here.

There is also a book based on this debate, published by Oxford University Press. I was actually able to find a PDF of it online. I should also remind people that you can get the wonderful Craig-Hitchens debate DVD from Amazon.com if you are looking for a debate to watch, or show in your church.

The debaters:

The format:

  • WSA: 15 minutes
  • WLC: 15 minutes
  • Debaters discussion: 6 minutes
  • Moderated discussion: 10 minutes
  • Audience Q&A: 18 minutes
  • WSA: 5 minutes
  • WLC: 5 minutes

SUMMARY:

WSA opening speech:

Evil is incompatible with the concept of God (three features all-powerful, all-god, all-knowing)

God’s additional attributes: eternal, effective and personal (a person)

He will be debating against the Christian God in this debate, specifically

Contention: no being has all of the three features of the concept of God

His argument: is not a deductive argument, but an inductive/probabilistic argument

Examples of pointless, unjustified suffering: a sick child who dies, earthquakes, famines

The inductive argument from evil:

  1.  If there were an all-powerful and all-good God, then there would not be any evil in the world unless that evil is logically necessary for some adequately compensating good.
  2.  There is evil in the world.
  3.  Some of that evil is not logically necessary for some adequately compensating good.
  4. Therefore, there can’t be a God who is all-powerful and all-good.

Defining terms:

  • Evil: anything that all rational people avoid for themselves, unless they have some adequate reason to want that evil for themselves (e.g. – pain, disability, death)
  • Adequate reason: some evils do have an adequate reason, like going to the dentist – you avoid a worse evil by having a filling

God could prevent tooth decay with no pain

God can even change the laws of physics in order to make people not suffer

Responses by Christians:

  • Evil as a punishment for sin: but evil is not distributed in accordance with sin, like babies
  • Children who suffer will go straight to Heaven: but it would be better to go to Heaven and not suffer
  • Free will: this response doesn’t account for natural evil, like disease, earthquakes, lightning
  • Character formation theodicy: there are other ways for God to form character, by showing movies
  • Character formation theodicy: it’s not fair to let X suffer so that Y will know God
  • God allows evil to turn people towards him: God would be an egomaniac to do that
  • We are not in a position to know that any particular evil is pointless: if we don’t see a reason then there is no reason
  • Inductive evil is minor compared to the evidences for God: arguments for a Creator do not prove that God is good

WLC opening speech:

Summarizing Walter’s argument

  1. If God exists, gratuitous does not exist.
  2. Gratuitous evil exists.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

Gratuitous evil means evil that God has no morally sufficient reason to permit. WSA doesn’t think that all evil is incompatible with God’s existence, just gratuitous evil.

Everyone admits that there are instances of evil and suffering such that we cannot see the morally sufficient reason why God would allow it to occur.

The claim of the atheist is that if they cannot see that there is a moral justification for allowing some instance evil, then there is no moral justification for that instance of evil.

Here are three reasons why we should not expect to know the morally sufficient reasons why God permits apparently pointless evil.

  1. the ripple effect: the morally sufficient reason for allowing some instance of evil may only be seen in another place or another time
  2. Three Christian doctrines undermine the claim that specific evils really are gratuitous
  3. Walter’s own premise 1 allows us to argue for God’s existence, which means that evil is not gratuitous

Christian doctrines from 2.:

  • The purpose of life is not happiness, and it is not God’s job to make us happy – we are here to know God. Many evils are gratuitous if we are concerned about being happy, but they are not gratuitous for producing the knowledge of God. What WSA has to show is that God could reduce the amount of suffering in the world while still retaining the same amount of knowledge of God’s existence and character.
  • Man is in rebellion, and many of the evils we see are caused by humans misusing their free will to harm others and cause suffering
  • For those who accept Christ, suffering is redeemed by eternal life with God, which is a benefit that far outweighs any sufferings and evils we experience in our earthly lives

Arguing for God in 3.

  • If God exists, gratuitous does not exist.
  • God exists
  • Therefore, gratuitous does not exist.

Four reasons to think that God exists:

  • the kalam cosmological argument
  • the fine-tuning argument
  • the moral argument
  • the argument from evil

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William Lane Craig assesses the credibility of the Rapture doctrine

In the Christian Post. (H/T Pastor Matt’s round-up)

Excerpt:

Several months before “Left Behind” opens in theaters, a prominent Christian philosopher is reminding the American church that the movie’s claims about the rapture are false.

“This doctrine is not really found in the book of Revelation. If you read the book of Revelation, you won’t find any mention of the rapture there,” said William Craig, a Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University.

Instead, Craig says, the idea of the rapture comes from a “misinterpretation of 1 and 2 Thessalonians where Paul is describing the coming of the Lord and resurrection of the dead, which will occur at His coming.”

“If you compare what Paul says there to what Jesus says about the End Times, Paul uses the same vocabulary, the same phraseology. I think it’s very plausible that Paul is talking about the same event that Jesus predicted, namely the visible coming of the Son of Man at the end of human history to usher in his kingdom,” said Craig. “But proponents of the rapture view, say that Paul is not at all talking about the second coming of the Christ there. What he’s really talking about is this invisible preliminary secret return of Christ to snatch believers out of the world before the great tribulation occurs. I think there’s no textual warrant for that at all.”

According to Craig, the rapture became a popular theory about the End Times due to the influence of the Scofield Reference Bible, which was published in the early 20th century and promulgated John Darby’s mid-18th century’s views on the rapture. Later, Christian institutions, among them Dallas Theological Seminary, and churches began teaching the validity of the rapture.

“A good many Bible-believing Christians absorbed this view as their mother’s milk as it were and have never thought to question its Biblical credentials,” said Craig.

I have no opinion on end times doctrines, although people always ask me. I don’t know and I don’t care. I don’t know and don’t care about the rapture, especially. And what’s more, I think that thinking about the exact timing and events of the end of the world is a waste of our time – it has no value whatsoever.

I wish that the Christian church put every second of time they put into reading or thinking about end times issues into science apologetics instead. I think that we would be in a much different position culturally if we spent more time thinking about the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning, the origin of life and the Cambrian explosion than we spend reading Christian fiction and worrying about the end of the world. And I think it’s better for God if we do that, although it might be less “fun” for us.

Let’s leave the fiction reading to the atheists.

Filed under: Polemics, , , , ,

William Lane Craig and atheist Daniel Dennett discuss cosmology and fine-tuning

This audio records a part of the Greer-Heard debate in 2007, between prominent atheist Daniel Dennett and lame theistic evolutionist Alister McGrath. Craig was one of the respondents, and this was the best part of the event. It is a little bit advanced, but I have found that if you listen to things like this over and over with your friends and family, and then try to explain it to non-Christians, you’ll get it.

By the way, this is mostly original material from Craig, dated 2007, and he delivers the speech perfectly, so it’s entertaining to listen to.

Craig presents three arguments for a Creator and Designer of the universe:

  • the contingency argument
  • the kalam cosmological argument
  • the teleological argument

He also discusses Dennett’s published responses to these arguments.

Dennett’s response to Craig’s paper

Here is my snarky paraphrase of Dennett’s reponse: (this is very snarky, because Dennett was just awful)

  • Craig’s three arguments are bulletproof, the premises are plausible, and grounded by the best cutting edge science we know today.
  • I cannot find anything wrong with his arguments right now, but maybe later when I go home it will come to me what’s wrong with them.
  • But atheism is true even if all the evidence is against it today. I know it’s true by my blind faith.
  • The world is so mysterious, and all the science of today will be overturned tomorrow so that atheism will be rational again. I have blind faith that this new evidence will be discovered any minute.
  • Just because the cause of the beginning of time is eternal and the cause of the beginning of space is non-physical, the cause doesn’t have to be God.
  • “Maybe the cause of the universe is the idea of an apple, or the square root of 7″. (HE LITERALLY SAID THAT!)
  • The principle of triangulation might have brought the entire physical universe into being out of nothing.
  • I don’t understand anything about non-physical causation, even though I cannot even speak meaningful sentences unless I have a non-physical mind that is causing my body to emit the meaningful sentences in a non-determined manner.
  • Alexander Vilenkin is much smarter than Craig and if he were here he would beat him up good with phantom arguments.
  • Alan Guth is much smarter than Craig and if he were here he would beat him up good with phantom arguments.
  • This science stuff is so complicated to me – so Craig can’t be right about it even though he’s published about it and debated it all with the best atheists on the planet.
  • If God is outside of time, then this is just deism, not theism. (This part is correct, but Craig believes that God enters into time at the moment of creation – so that it is not a deistic God)
  • If deism is true, then I can still be an atheist, because a Creator and Designer of the universe is compatible with atheism.
  • I’m pretty sure that Craig doesn’t have any good arguments that can argue for Christianity – certainly not an historical argument for the resurrection of Jesus based on minimal facts, that he’s defended against the most prominent historians on the planet in public debates and in prestigous books and research journals.

This is a very careful treatment of the arguments that Dr. Craig goes over briefly during his debates. Recommended.

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