Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Lies and David Eddings

One thing that is exceptionally common in Richard Carrier but that Pearce also references quite a bit is the idea that the Gospel authors were lying and/or making stuff up in their accounts.  Carrier, of course, tends to express those feelings stronger than Pearce, but both of them quite often argue that sections — preferably important ones — of the Gospels are just made up.  Unfortunately, from what I can tell for the most part they rely on two arguments to make that work.  The first is that they don’t think that it’s historically accurate, and the second is that it aligns with the overall theological theme that that specific Gospel is built around.  Thus, the argument is that the story isn’t true and it fits with the theological commitments of the author, and so the reasonable conclusion is that they just made the story up to buttress their theology.  As Pearce constantly says in his book on the Resurrection, it’s theology, not history.

What I want to do here is argue that if we take the Gospel authors — especially Luke — seriously then this isn’t the most reasonable conclusion.  What is more likely is that the link between these stories were invented in the stories they followed, and that the reason they align with their own theology is more due to an interesting feedback loop between them.  In short, the stories were not invented by them to buttress their theology, but were instead selected by them where their theology was an important factor in determining which stories they considered accurate and important.

Let’s start with Luke.  Luke says this (which I’m taking for my own amusement from the New Catholic Bible):

Since many different individuals have undertaken the task to set down an account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, in accordance with their transmission to us by those who were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word from the beginning, I too, after researching all the evidence anew with great care, have decided to write an orderly account for you, Theophilus, who are so greatly revered, so that you may learn the unquestioned authenticity of the teachings you have received.

And so here’s where the first reference to David Eddings comes in, because in the Elenium we have a character that seems to be doing the same thing as Luke claims to be doing here for the story of Bhelliom.  Count Ghasek set himself a goal of gathering up all the stories about the battle and the stone and setting down the most coherent account he could of the entire sequence.  This means that he gathered up a number of odd and even contradicting accounts and had to decide which of them were credible and which were not.  Now, because the story is fictional the accounts were more varied and covered a wider area than we’d expect a real story transmitted merely by verbal accounts, but it is clear that he’d have to sift through the stories and try to eliminate the things that were flourish or were corruptions from the things that were really accurate.  In the story, all they need is a location where it was likely last seen, but for his book he’d need to write down all the things he considered credible and eliminate all the things he didn’t if he wanted to create one consistent narrative, which he did.

If we take Luke at this word here — and as far as I know we don’t have any reason to not take him at his word — then Luke is doing the same thing.  He knew of a number of attempts to write down the various stories that were only transmitted verbally and so were only verbal histories, and knew of a number of those verbal histories, and so set himself a goal to go out, research all of this, and write down what he thinks is the best account so that others can come to believe that it’s true and accurate.  But Luke almost certainly started with an idea of what he thought was true about Jesus when he started, and so from the very beginning he was going to have an at least slightly biased idea of which stories were accurate and which were not.  Thus, from the conflicting accounts, he was going to select stories that fit with his theology.  He was also going to select the ones that he felt were the most convincing as well, which means that as per Pearce’s comments he was going to select the ones that made for the best and strongest narrative, and so the ones that had the most elements of a good story (Pearce at one point notes this tendency in Luke as a way of pointing out that one passage is an odd one for Luke to have made since it doesn’t seem to make for a good story).  So from the start we were going to have Luke selecting stories that fit with his own theology and that fit the style that he was trying to get across.

But the influence doesn’t stop there.  As Luke went around gathering up stories, he was also going to be impacted by them.  So to a large degree his personal theology was going to be impacted and developed by this project.  The stories that he found the most convincing were going to be ones he adopted, and so the theology they developed was going to be the one that Luke himself eventually adopted.  So the stories and theology that we find in his Gospel were going to be heavily influenced by the thread he followed in those verbal histories, and thus by the thread that he found the most convincing.  Therefore, there were going to be other threads that he decided not to follow because he didn’t find it convincing, whether because of its sources or its theology or its historical aspect or its storytelling aspects.

And we can easily imagine that the other evangelists were doing the same thing.  It’s perfectly credible to think that Matthew was following a thread or threads that focused more on Jesus as Messiah and the links to the Jewish scriptures and prophecies, which Luke would have ignored because he was not particularly concerned with that and seems to be writing more for Gentiles.  John could easily be following a thread that was following a specific disciple, which none of the others found particularly convincing or interesting.  Mark seems to be doing something similar to Luke, but given the lack of flourish likely is a more bare bones and historical account and so is following threads that seem more accurate to him and, likely, is him being more stringent and not including things that aren’t covered in all or at least most of the sources that he thinks credible.  The Gospels, then, are accounts that selectively follow specific threads in the verbal histories that align with what each specific author both thought credible and important.

Thus, we would obviously expect each Gospel and the stories in it to align with the theology of the author, even if they didn’t invent a single line in them.  As long as the stories existed somewhere and seemed convincing and important to them given their own views, those stories were going to be included in their Gospel, and would be included even if the authors made a mistake in thinking that they were indeed correct.  Thus, the fact that the stories align with the theology of the author cannot be used as an argument to say that they were invented by the author.  The author is equally likely to select a false account that aligns with their theology as they would be to invent one.

And, of course, following verbal histories is going to be fraught with embellished and inaccurate stories.  And here we return to Eddings.  In the Belgariad, the character of Belgarath poses as a storyteller and presents embellished accounts of the real events that he played a personal role in all the time.  Sometimes, he does that simply to provide a dramatic flourish to make the stories more entertaining.  And sometimes — and importantly — he does that because people ask him questions that he doesn’t know or doesn’t have an answer for, and so he makes something up.  But it’s important to note here that he is indeed talking about real events that he himself played a direct role in and heard from other eyewitnesses when he didn’t.  For any storyteller that is taking the story they heard from him and passing it along, they are going to be in similar situations and are going to invent stories and aspects both for flourish and to answer the questions of the audience, but will only have Belgarath’s original story to work from and so will invent things that make sense to them but that might be entirely inaccurate.  Thus, we’d have a thread with a more or less consistent theme based on the theme the storyteller took from the original stories, but that would have stories added to it that are not actually historically accurate.

Taking the two aspects together, what this means is that if we want to insist that a Gospel author made something up, we’d have to find a reason why it was very important for them, in their account to have that story in their account and to work out the way it did, so much so that they would feel the need to invent it.  But it is incredibly difficult to find such a reason that those who were passing along the verbal histories wouldn’t also have.  You might be able to get that for Matthew’s references to the scriptures, although even there a thread that really, really wanted to make that link would do the same things that Matthew attempted to do and so Matthew could have simply selected the ones that he most liked, instead of inventing the links himself.  What this means, then, is that it’s much, much harder to make a claim that an evangelist invented something than I, at least, feel Pearce and Carrier understand, and certainly harder than the evidence they tend to give, at least in their informal works, for that claim.

So why is that claim important to them?  Recall that Pearce specifically wants to show that the Gospels are not accurate enough to support the claims in them, and as noted wants to claim that they are theology not history.  If he can claim that the Gospel authors made things up, then he can show that they aren’t at all accurate accounts and that anything in them could be completely made up.  So, then, we can’t trust the Gospels at all because we can’t trust the authors of them to tell us the truth.  So if he can establish that the evangelists are willing to out-and-out lie to us, then he can establish that we shouldn’t trust them at all and so shouldn’t trust their accounts at all.  So for Pearce a lot of his arguments are indeed going to be attempts to show that the authors and the accounts are unreliable, and so it’s a boon for his argument to show them as simple liars.  While we would still have to accept that even this process has produced inaccuracies, we wouldn’t be justified in claiming that they are just plain liars and so would have to treat them as accounts assembled from verbal histories, and so would have to apply the methods and standards that we normally apply to such things to determine what is and isn’t correct.  So, obviously, this account does make the Gospels 100% accurate or even incredibly good history, but it does make Pearce’s argument weaker than it would be otherwise.

There are other things to consider in light of this.  One of these is the fact that the Gospels contradict each other.  Pearce and others seem to think of this as being odd and in need of explanation, and Pearce dismisses the “Traffic Accident” example — which states that different eyewitnesses of a traffic accident will give different accounts of what happened — by simply stating that the Gospel authors were not eyewitnesses, which rather misses the point that even given such a clear example different people will see things differently and highlight different things, and so produce different accounts (the movie “Rashomon” is also a good example of this).  Since Luke is explicitly saying that he isn’t an eyewitness but is chasing down eyewitness accounts, the defense works for him.  And we can see from this example that if the evangelists were following specific threads in the verbal histories we would indeed expect there to be differences between them, and those differences would align with their specific focuses and theologies.  So unless they want to take a literalist account the skeptic doesn’t have any reason to think that there wouldn’t be any differences, nor can they simply point to differences as evidence that the story is false without showing how those differences are crucially important to the overall ideas.  That they are different people with different focuses following threads that they find important, interesting and credible is enough to explain any differences other than crucial ones.

The second thing is that this weakens attempts to argue that they used each other as sources.  If they were following threads, then it is quite possible that at times they were following the same threads at various times.  Again, Luke is explicit that he’s following multiple threads and sources, Mark is almost certainly doing so, it’s credible to think that Matthew was as well, and only John, the one most different from the others, is the one where the number of threads being followed was minimized.  It’s also likely that the same stories appeared in different threads, and so each of them could be following different threads and yet coming across and selecting the same stories.  Since the main evidence for one using another as a source tends to be noting that the phrasing of the story is pretty much identical, we can see that if they were following the same thread for that part and lifting the phrasing directly from the story they encountered then the phrasing would be identical even if they weren’t using each other as a source.  And it’s also credible that even different threads could use the same phrasing of the same story if that phrasing was effective, which would also be the precise reason the evangelists would use that specific phrasing as well.  So just from following threads we could find identical stories and phrasings even if they were not using each other as sources.

Now, I’m not crazy enough to challenge the established wisdom that Luke and Matthew used Mark as a source.  After all, if Mark was indeed written first then it is reasonable to think that they could have used him as a source and not credited him.  However, the idea that a Q is necessary or Carrier’s claim that Q is unnecessary and Luke copied from Matthew is more open to challenge.  If they followed similar threads, then that could explain their similarities without there needing to be another specific source that they were using, or arguing that Luke had to copy from Matthew.  So all we need are the existing threads, not a Q and not Luke using yet another Gospel as a source for much of his own Gospel without telling anyone.

To summarize, that the Gospels align with the theologies of the authors and include some inaccurate stories is not exactly surprising if we take the authors at their word and treat them like historical works.  This also means that it’s not surprising that they differ from each other.  This seems to me to be another example where skeptics tend to treat the Gospels as having to be more inerrant than a historical treatment of them would require.

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One Response to “Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Lies and David Eddings”

  1. Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: The Census | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] I noted last time, it is important when noting that things seem to be invented that they were invented for a specific […]

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