Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: “History Is Unreliable”

So, here are, finally, at the last chapter in Bannister’s book and so the last post Seidensticker will make about the book. As the posts went on, it seemed to me that Seidensticker felt more and more frustrated with Bannister’s book and that it wasn’t providing him with any real arguments to address. This is surprising since presumably before doing this he would have read most of the book to see if it was worth doing chapter by chapter. I mean, I when chapter by chapter with Philipse’s book (which I haven’t finished either commenting on or even reading yet) but there I only started it when I knew there were things that I really needed to talk about and that was one of the books that Coyne insisted all theists had to read, so there was a built in reason for me to take it somewhat seriously. Here, it really looks like Seidensticker picked up the book, thought it might say things, and then started posting on it without checking that or checking if he’d feel that each chapter needed to be looked at, and so ended up very frustrated.

On my side, I knew the posts would be bad starting it, and couldn’t read all of them to see how he’d end. My main frustration here is that Seidensticker doesn’t ever seem to actually defend the purported bad arguments … but, at least, my title is completely accurate (and that inability and/or unwillingness to defend the arguments was kinda the point of my writing these posts).

Anyway, it seems to me that the main issue here is how far one can push the line that the historical evidence we have is insufficient to claim that Christianity is true or that Jesus even existed without risking making all ancient history equally unreliable. The question, then, should turn on whether we have more evidence for other ancient historical figures or stories that we at least consider reliable enough to believe than we do for Jesus and what he did. This is, of course, only going to be a very minor part of this last post.

His complain about Islam is different: “Muslim theology is exceedingly clear that Muhammed was just an ordinary human being.” Yeah, and Mark, the first gospel, makes clear that Jesus was, too. It opens with Jesus being baptized. There’s nothing about Jesus being part of the Trinity or having existed forever. Avoid the Christian dogma, and a plain reading of Mark likewise tells of Jesus as an ordinary human being.

So, let’s go look at the opening to Mark, shall we?

1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah,[a] the Son of God,[b] 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”[c]—
3
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”[d]

4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with[e] water, but he will baptize you with[f] the Holy Spirit.”
The Baptism and Testing of Jesus

9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

So, the opening explicitly states that he was the Messiah, that John the Baptist was preparing the way for him, and that Jesus was the Son of God. I’m not sure how you get “an ordinary human being” out of that, beyond the perfectly compatible with Christian dogma interpretation that Jesus became Man, on any reading, plain or otherwise. In a post where we’re talking about history, it’s not a good idea to start by pointing to a source and badly missing what it actually said.

Bannister declares that to defeat Christianity, you must address Jesus and his claims. He ignores that Jesus didn’t make claims; the gospels say that he made claims. How reliable is that record? And if history is that big a deal, you must acknowledge that historians scrub out the supernatural. Sorry, historians aren’t your friend.

Well, how reliable is that record? If you’re defending a claim that they aren’t reliable enough, you might have wanted to start or stick to that instead of adding the sidebar of the supernatural. And if historians “scrub out” the supernatural, on what grounds do they do that? If they do it simply because it is supernatural, then historians may not be Bannister’s friend, but they would be letting philosophical views dictate their interpretations of history, which is bad for history. About the only real argument that can be made here is that historically speaking we’ve found that these supernatural elements are ones that tend to get added to these sort of stories, so we ought to be skeptical of them. Sure, but that’s a) not what Seidensticker says here and b) isn’t an answer to Bannister’s argument anyway.

Dawkins uses the game of telephone (“Chinese whispers” in British parlance) to show how the Jesus story is unreliable, but Bannister isn’t buying it. He mocks this approach:

We mustn’t think of Thucydides, or Josephus, or Tacitus, or St Luke as carefully interviewing eyewitnesses, reading sources, and weighing the evidence—goodness, no, they were ignorant ancient yokels, relying on what they half-heard, whispered into their ears, after the stories had made their way through a long line of pre-school children, high on sugar and gullibility.

Seidensticker’s initial reply?

Where do you start with someone so afraid of honest skepticism that he hides behind straw man arguments like this? Josephus said nothing about Jesus, and Tacitus wrote in the early second century. Thucydides died in about 400 BCE and so is irrelevant; presumably, Bannister uses him to say that the period produced well-respected historians. So therefore all ancient documents are reliable? Nope, that doesn’t follow.

But it does imply that you can’t merely look at assembled oral histories or ancient histories and declare them unreliable. You need to do something more than merely suggest that ancient historical works are formed by the game of telephone and so distorted so much that they are useless.

Seidensticker, shockingly, actually tries to do that:

Let’s review some of the historical weaknesses of the Jesus story that follow from Dawkins’ example of the game of telephone.

  • There were decades of oral history from event to documentation in the gospels.
  • There is a centuries-long period of Dark Ages from the New Testament originals to our best copies (more here and here). We can’t be certain what was modified during that period.
  • Much of Christianity comes from Paul, who never saw Jesus in person (more).
  • We don’t even know who wrote the gospels (more).
  • The gospel of Luke promises that the author is giving a good historical analysis, but why is that believable? You wouldn’t believe an earnest supernatural account from me, so why is it more believable if it’s clouded by the mists of time?
  • Matthew and Luke copy much of Mark, something that an eyewitness would never do.

I’m not sure how these can be said to follow from Dawkins’ assertion, as these seem to be facts that Seidensticker is mustering to show that the gospels are unreliable. But let’s take these in order:

1) Sure, but that would only mean that there’s a risk that it was overly corrupted through Chinese Whispers. And I’m not sure history says that decades of oral tradition mean that the traditions ought to be considered invalid when determining what historically happened.

2) Yes, that might cause some issues, but again I don’t think enough to invalidate them as historical sources.

3) I’m again not sure why that matters that much, since while he was getting things second-hand presumably he got enough of it from eyewitnesses (I’m not a Biblical scholar and so don’t know how much Paul interacted with the disciples).

4) If Luke says that he is going to make this a historical account, then we ought to at least consider that that is what he’s trying to do, and treat his work as such. Whether we accept what it says or not, we have to treat it like a historical account or an attempted historical account until we have real reason to think otherwise.

5) But neither of them are claiming that. Seidensticker explicitly says in the previous point that Luke is giving a historical analysis, which means that he’s going to gather up various sources — including eyewitnesses if he can get them — and use them to build his account. Matthew was one of those sources. Hardly surprising. And the only gospel that even remotely claims to be an eyewitness account is John’s. So this is an utterly irrelevant point.

So, sure, there are some issues, but they seem hardly damning, and hardly enough to get us to treat them as nothing more than “Chinese Whispers”. And in fact Seidensticker falls into the trap of assuming that these can’t be historical analyses with his fourth point, so he in fact uses the argument Bannister thinks is bad without ever defending it.

He declares that the gospels are biographies. Wrong again—they’re better described as ancient biography, which is a quite different genre. An ancient biography isn’t overly concerned about giving accurate facts but with making a point. (More: Charles Talbert, What is a Gospel? p. 93–98.)

And how do we know that these are that sort of ancient biography? Again, recall that Seidensticker points out that Luke claims to be making a detailed account. In fact, let’s look at what Luke says:

1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled[a] among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

Luke’s point, in his own words, is to write it all down in as accurate a way as possible so that the person reading it can be certain that the things that he has been taught are actually true. Seidensticker’s weak “why should we believe him?” counter would indeed be a universal acid of history because it can arguably be said about any work, where they could be either intentionally or unintentionally shading the truth to comport with what they already believe. Sure, we could find inaccuracies and changes that cast doubt on the account, but Seidensticker has no reason to attack the intention, and that intention alone seems to put it more in the range of “history” than of “ancient biography”.

Seidensticker then does his last set of questions and answers:

Jesus really existed; don’t believe Jesus mythicists! I don’t make that argument. I don’t care whether he was a myth or not. My point is that you have no reason to accept the supernatural claims in the gospels.

And again, Seidensticker refuses to defend the actual bad argument, and instead insists that he wouldn’t make that argument. Which pretty much means that he thinks the argument is indeed a bad one. But since some atheists make that argument, all Seidensticker is doing is agree with Bannister that it is a bad argument that atheists shouldn’t make without ever saying it, meaning that people can still deny that it’s a bad argument. Which, again, is not a defense of the argument in any way.

The gospel story isn’t fiction. If it were fiction, why invent these impossible-to-follow moral rules like looking at someone with lust equals adultery? Right—I never said the gospels were fiction. (Though fiction is still probably easier to defend than the supernatural.)

Look, the book is not called “Bad Arguments Bob Seidensticker Makes”. Thus, the book is not all about you. If you don’t want to or can’t defend the arguments, then don’t try. Instead, you damn them with the faint praise of “I don’t make that argument” when you know good and well that some atheists do.

The gospels weren’t myth. Right—they closer to legend. (Jesus probably a legend here; the differences between myth and legend here.)

So you’ll accept that any atheist who says it’s a myth is wrong? That would be very charitable of you … if you, you know, actually said that.

He says that the gospels have lots of place names with details about each, which refutes their being fiction. Right—I don’t say that it’s fiction. This is the Argument from Accurate Place Names fallacy.

Um, that fallacy is very often used to defend the idea that the work can still be fiction even if it includes real places, so that’s hardly something you’d want to mention right after pretty much saying that it’s not fiction. Of course legends and even myths include real places, but the — admittedly bad — argument is that works that put an emphasis on real places ought to be taken more seriously as historically inspired than a simple work of fiction. Which isn’t true. Now, if you find too many fictional places in a work, that’s a good sign that the work is a fiction, but the opposite is not true.

He marvels at the fluency of Jesus’s rebuttals to the bad guys. The story was honed over decades—I should hope that some compelling anecdotes would come out the other end. The stories that flopped didn’t make the cut.

This is a fair point. I’d need to see the original argument — and Seidensticker is lax in quoting or even summarizing arguments — but that the answers were good doesn’t mean that they are necessarily true. Again, fictional characters can make really good arguments, too.

He appeals to the Criterion of Embarrassment (the more embarrassing a story, the likelier it’s true) and gives as an example a passage from Mark in which a man calls Jesus “good teacher.” Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good?” Yeah, that’s embarrassing, and you’ve undercut your claims of deity. And just how is this supposed to give me confidence in the supernatural parts? He notes that Jesus died when he should’ve been a conquering hero. So much for him fulfilling the prophecy of the Messiah, eh?

For the first one, that indeed doesn’t sound all that embarrassing, so I’d go after Bannister on that tack, instead of the rather ridiculous “Jesus can’t really be a deity then!” claim, which seems to me to miss the entire point of Christianity. As for the second one, fulfilling the prophecy in a unique way suggests that it wasn’t simply manipulated to get the right answers, because if it was it would have made a more direct link. Thus, this at least implies that there was or was believed to be a real person who died that way, at least necessitating a change in the interpretation of the prophecy. But, yes, it could still be a legend.

“If we were dealing with theological fiction, one would expect the edges to be straighter, the language more doctrinally polished.” More to the point, we’d expect that if we were dealing with the words of the omniscient creator of the universe. You’ve nicely shown that it doesn’t hang together and could never have been inspired by a perfect being.

But the gospels aren’t the words of the omniscient creator of the universe, as you yourself pointed out in your discussion of Luke. So they could be inspired by a real Jesus who was the Son of God in the sense that his existence triggered the accounts without it having to be the case that God wrote the words for them, as again Luke makes very clear is his intent.

He gives Lewis’s (false) trilemma—the only possible bins to put Jesus in are Liar, Lunatic, or Lord. Wrong again. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t address the obvious genre: not fiction but legend.

Fine. I’ll grant that it could be legend. Any real reason for us to accept that? I mean, we don’t have an account of King Arthur that says that this is someone roughly contemporary trying to make a good historical account, which tends to work against it being mere legend.

Anyway, that’s all I’m going to look at here. In summary of the entire series of posts, Seidensticker is generally pretty consistent in not actually defending any of the atheist arguments that he is supposed to be defending. He consistently, in fact, ends up implying that he thinks they’re bad too. That’s … not the way to defend arguments.

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4 Responses to “Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: “History Is Unreliable””

  1. theoriginalmrx Says:

    This is one of the few times where I’m actually qualified to comment, since I did my degree in Classics and have a fair bit of experience studying ancient documents. The attitude which Seidensticker and other sceptical scholars show towards the New Testament goes well beyond what ancient historians would consider reasonable scepticism when dealing with any other source material. For example, the Epistles of Paul were written in the 40s and 60s, so about ten years after the death of Jesus; the Gospels are less certain, but the overwhelming consensus is that they were written before the end of the first century. So, that’s multiple different sources by multiple authors dating from between ten and seventy years after the events in question. In ancient history terms, this is really good. By way of comparison, the earliest surviving source for the life of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) is that Diodorus Siculus, writing some three centuries later; the most reliable sources are usually considered to be those of Arrian and Plutarch (both writing around four centuries after Alexander’s death). So basically, if we reject the Gospels as too late, we’d also have to reject pretty much everything we know about Alexander the Great, which I suppose is the kind of example Bannister was thinking of in this chapter.

    There is a centuries-long period of Dark Ages from the New Testament originals to our best copies (more here and here). We can’t be certain what was modified during that period.

    The same could be said of pretty much every document surviving from antiquity; in virtually all cases, the earliest surviving manuscripts are from the Carolingian period or later. Nobody suggests that we therefore have no idea what Caesar or Cicero actually wrote.

    (Though, on a point of fact, Seidensticker’s argument here is wrong. We have fragments of the Gospels dating back to the second century AD, and the earliest complete Bible, the Codex Vaticanus, is from the fourth century, well before the dark ages. I suppose Seidensticker could quibble that this isn’t one of “our best copies”, although the scholarly consensus would be against him; Wikipedia helpfully notes that “Most current scholars consider the Codex Vaticanus to be one of the best Greek texts of the New Testament, with the Codex Sinaiticus [also from the fourth century] as its only competitor.”)

    He declares that the gospels are biographies. Wrong again—they’re better described as ancient biography, which is a quite different genre. An ancient biography isn’t overly concerned about giving accurate facts but with making a point.

    That’s not really true. Sure, authors had some leeway in how they organised their material (ancient biographies were arranged thematically, rather than chronologically), but the idea that they didn’t care about factual accuracy is just silly. If anything, given that biographies tended to have less in the way of rhetorical flourish or invented speeches, ancient biographies were often more historically accurate than ancient histories.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      It’s always good to have someone who has knowledge and interest in a subject post the details that we might miss otherwise. I’m not knowledgeable or that interested in the specific details of Biblical scholarship, and so obviously didn’t really know how accurate Seidensticker’s assessment was.

      One point on ancient biographies, however: my impression from the links in Seidensticker’s post is that the term doesn’t mean “biographies written in ancient times” but instead biographies that were written/passed down with the intent of talking about a hero as a way to make a point or to encourage people to emulate them. So I think he’d concede that there are actual biographies that were ancient. His argument here is that the Gospels were less simple accounts of the person’s life and more accounts written to encourage people to emulate Jesus. Of course, he’d need to actually demonstrate that, and Luke’s preface pretty much contradicts that for him.

  2. theoriginalmrx Says:

    Having looked at the page Seidensticker links to in defence of his claim that ancient biographies are unreliable, the two main arguments seem to be (i) that ancient writers like Plutarch emphasise certain aspects of the events they’re recounting and de-emphasise others, don’t include some bits of information, etc., which could be said of literally every historical work ever written, and (ii) that biographers such as Plutarch sometimes contradict themselves on minor points, which is true enough but perfectly explicable through ordinary human error. Neither argument seems strong enough to establish that ancient biography was unconcerned with accurate reporting.

    Incidentally I also clicked through on the link which Seidensticker gives about the “centuries-long period of Dark Ages from the New Testament originals to our best copies”, where it looks like he’s using “dark ages” to mean the period of time between the text first being written and our earliest surviving copy. Of course, given that “the Dark Ages” is a common historiographical term for the period between about 500 and 1000, the natural reading of his statement would be that the earliest surviving Bibles date from after AD 1000, approximately 700 years later than is actually the case. Basically Seidensticker is taking one claim (the earliest surviving copies of the NT date to a few hundred years after the NT itself was written) and phrasing it in such a way as to imply another, much stronger, claim (the earliest surviving copies of the NT date to millennia after the NT itself was written), which doesn’t really speak well for his good faith here.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Yeah, Seidensticker’s PROOFS for his contentions and the implications he wants us to draw from what he says are not always entirely reasonable, to say the least. But it does seem to me that what he wants us to take from “ancient biography” is that those things exist BECAUSE the authors were more interested in trying to make a point than they were in accurately representing history. How much that differs from “modern biographies” and how well that would apply to the Gospels is an open question that Seidensticker, as is his wont, will take great pains to avoid addressing.

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