Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan MS Pearce’

Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Women

January 28, 2022

The last thing I’m going to directly talk about in Pearce’s examination of the Resurrection is the story of the women who came to the tomb and saw the risen Jesus.  Pearce explicitly calls out the differences in the women who came to the tomb as being impossible to reconcile:

Theists like to dismiss the contradictions here as being harmonisable or not at all important.  Personally, I don’t see them as harmonisable.  John is very clear in stating one woman and you would have to really want to achieve an agenda to translate that as “at least one woman, Mary”…

Pearce also relies heavily on the idea that this sort of numbering is a crucial contradiction that you cannot reconcile by saying that focusing on one out of the entire number doesn’t preclude there being more people that are not mentioned.  In talking about the angels at the tomb, he says:

Imagine going through life thinking like this:  That every time you gave a numerical answer, you could actually be referring to any number above the actual quantity referenced.  This was one of the first, simple contradiction arguments I got into when I first started arguing about Christianity and the Bible.  It was precisely this sort of rationalisation that opened to my eyes to what I saw as people being dishonest with themselves.  If you are the sort of person who can convince yourself with this type of argument, then we probably shouldn’t be talking.  You are probably convincing yourself of an awful lot of other nonsense that you really shouldn’t believe (Young Earth Creationism is a prime example).

Or, cognitive dissonance isn’t just an issue for Jesus’ early disciples; it remains equally problematic for his modern-day followers.

Strong words, and since I find these numbers arguments utterly unconvincing and unimportant it would imply that I shouldn’t be talking to Pearce, have a mindset that should convince me of Young Earth Creationism when I’m not one, and that I’m afflicted by cognitive dissonance because I don’t find Pearce’s purported contradiction at all convincing.  I suspect that I could reply directly to his words above as “Them’s fightin’ words” [grin].

Okay, so let me start by saying that he is characterizing the argument or attitude wrong.  The counter is not that whenever you say or come across a statement that gives a number you should assume that it could be any number up to infinity instead of what was said.  Provisionally, you should accept that the number in the account is an accurate one if you have no reason to think that it number might be different.  But Pearce here is not talking about a simple listing of a number, but instead is pointing to different accounts and saying that their use of a different number — either directly or, more commonly, implied — is a contradiction that means that the story cannot be believed, and the response is that especially in the implied cases you can reconcile the two cases by noting that as long as nothing in the account with the lower number is directly contradicted by there being more people then those people might have been there and just not something that the first account focused on or bothered to mention.  So this is what Pearce is opposing and what he says cannot be reconciled in any reasonable way.

Let me demonstrate that that sort of situation is actually reasonable in general by using this discussion:

Defense Attorney:  So, what happened when my client approach your teller window?
Teller:  He pointed a gun at my face and demanded that I give him all the money from my station.
Defense Attorney:  Ah-HA!  But it has been established that he actually pointed two guns at your face!  Your account cannot be reconciled with that clear fact, so therefore you are lying and my client is innocent!

Now, of course, in this case we can easily see that it’s ridiculous to dismiss their testimony or their account or the various accounts because of a difference in numbers.  The important things in the account are not in question, which are that the robber threatened to shoot the teller if they didn’t hand over the money.  Whether the robber was using one or two guns doesn’t change the fact that there was at least one gun which was used to threaten the teller and commit the crime.  And in general this is indeed how we handle numbers.  If I say that my manager was at the meeting and someone else says in a separate telling that another designer was also at the meeting, we don’t conclude that one of us is lying about who was at the meeting but instead conclude that both of them were at the meeting and that I didn’t note the designer’s presence in my telling of the story.  So, in general, in cases where the numbers don’t align we do, in fact, simply expand the total numbers to include the highest number, which is exactly the argument that’s being made and is exactly the argument that Pearce, for some odd reason, thinks we never make and can never make reasonably.

Now, of course, there are cases where we won’t make that expansion, and there are two main ones.  The first case is when there’s a direct contradiction in the two tales.  So if I had said that I had a one-on-one with my manager and someone else said that that designer was there, then one of us would have to be mistaken because a one-on-one meeting only has one designer and one manager except under exceptionally strange circumstances that would have been mentioned in my story.  The second case is where there isn’t a direct contradiction, but where it would seem reasonable that the person with the lower number would have mentioned the other people in their story and so we wouldn’t have had the discrepancy.  So what we need to do to dismiss this argument is not merely point out that the numbers don’t match, but instead point out that either the accounts have a real and direct contradiction in them that means that they can’t all be correct, or else that the other authors would have mentioned the other people if they were really there.

So let’s look at what they say (as per Pearce’s summary on page 210).  Luke’s account cannot contradict any of the other accounts, because all he says is that the women who came with him went.  Pearce translates this as being at least four, but since Luke isn’t specific about who it was it is indeed possible that some of the women who came with Jesus out of Galilee didn’t go, or that they did in fact all go and the others didn’t mention them (like saying that the group from work went to a pizza party at the park does not mean that I necessarily attended or that someone from another group who had left the group a short time before didn’t go).  Mark mentions Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome.  Matthew leaves out Salome, but again he might just have left out Salome — or, rather, the stories that he followed didn’t mention her — since she isn’t a key character in the story.  This actually has interesting implications, since if Matthew used Mark as a source as most claim then it seems quite likely that Matthew would have seen Mark’s reference to Salome and yet still deliberately left it out, which would suggest that the traditions he was following suggested to him that Mark’s adding of her wasn’t credible or wasn’t important.  And if this taken to be an actual difference in the accounts, a minor difference like this, as I’ve argued before, is not an important enough contradiction to worry about, as Mark could be wrong that she was there or Matthew could be wrong to have excluded her and no matter which of these we chose nothing important would change.

So that leaves John, who only includes Mary Magdalene.  But from the stories, Mary Magdalene was closer to the apostles and it is reasonable that she was the one who went and told them about the empty tomb.  Mark’s claim that none of them told anyone about it is obviously not correct, and is likely him following traditions that didn’t come up with a credible idea for who went and told the apostles, so he left it out.  John, being seen as an account of a specific disciple, is obviously focused more on their experiences, and so it is entirely reasonable that it would only have mentioned the one who went to the disciples and told them about the empty tomb.  So Mark may well be correct that some of the women didn’t tell anyone but misses that one of them did — which, again, must be true for the story to be known — and from John’s account that doesn’t mention that anyone didn’t tell the disciples but only mentions Mary Magdalene she was probably the one who went to tell them.

(As an aside, the comment about them wondering who will help them move the boulder is probably an addition in Mark but not something he made up.  In the oral histories, someone would have likely asked at some point how they expected to move the boulder on their own and that is a lampshade of the issue, which then would have stayed in the story for its dramatic effect.  But it is likely the case that they would have made arrangements to get the boulder moved or had a plan for it).

Anyway, from this it seems like we have a pretty easy way to reconcile all the stories.  Even just using the specific texts there’s no interesting contradiction there and it’s easy to reconcile them, even before a deeper analysis of what each author was doing in their accounts.  So, again, I don’t see why this is something that is at all worth worrying about.  But Pearce thinks this can’t be harmonized, and thinks that arguments that expand the numbers to the largest one that makes sense and doesn’t cause a contradiction are obviously bad arguments that cannot be at all countenanced.  And I admit that I absolutely cannot see why, and would need more than an accusation of “Cognitive Dissonance!” to accept that he’s right and I’m wrong.

Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Guards!

January 14, 2022

Let me return to looking at Jonathan MS Pearce’s criticisms of the Resurrection, this time looking at a chapter where he talks about guards on Jesus’ tomb, that only appear in Matthew.  Surprisingly — or, I guess, not so surprisingly given that there’s enough content there to talk about it — the argument that it only appears in Matthew is only a minor argument given against it, and so a lot of time is spent on other arguments.  I’m actually going to have to quote from a book directly here, which frequent leaders will recall that I rarely do.  However, this shouldn’t be taken as a sign that those arguments are particularly good, because obviously I could summarize good arguments but would need to directly quote poor arguments to make sure that everyone can see what I’m replying to in order to make sure that I’m treating the arguments fairly.  So the arguments that I will quote are not all that great.

Let me start, though, by quoting the relevant section, Matthew 27: 62 – 66 from the New International Version (which differs from Pearce’s, but I’ll get into that later):

The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. 63 “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”

65 “Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” 66 So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.

The first thing to talk about is an argument that was given by the Alethian Worldview that Pearce thinks is a really good argument.  I’ll quote the argument as Pearce quotes it (pg 184):

They’re too late!  Jesus’ body has already been unguarded all night.  Considering that one of the things that Jesus was executed for was his relaxed attitude towards Sabbath prohibitions, there has been ample opportunity for some small group of unnamed disciples to get to the unguarded tomb, remove the body, and get away before the Sanhedrin even asked for a guard.  Even if they had posted a belated guard, once the body was gone their excuse would be “disciples took it before we got there” not “disciples took it while we were sleeping on the job”.  Matthew screwed up again.

It’s just not a plausible story.  We know it’s intended to deny that disciples took the body, because that’s what Matthew tells us it “proves”.  And as a form of denial, it’s psychologically effective for believers.

As reliable history, though, it really sucks.

I will say that I had a temptation to be really snarky that I was indeed going to resist but that also has been tamped down by the fact that the quote does actually manage to in some way catch the really simple counter to their argument, but not in a way that recognizes how devastating a claim that is:  the idea that the Sanhedrin would, in fact, obviously check to see if the body was in the tomb before posting a guard there.  So let me posit this sequence:  they didn’t think of this the night before, but the next morning either remembered or, more likely, heard people talking about the possibility that Jesus’ words might be taken to suggest that Jesus was going to be raised from the dead after three days and they decided that they wanted to preclude that from happening.  So they’d go to arrange for guards and as part of that check to see if the tomb was empty.  For the first part of the quote, that’s not considered, but the article does hint at that by saying that if the tomb was empty they would have said that it was empty then instead of saying that their guards fell asleep while it was stolen.  But even this is prompting a temptation to snark because there’s an obvious answer to this:  the tomb wasn’t empty then.  Because if it was empty then surely they wouldn’t have posted a guard for the next couple of days, but would have immediately said that the tomb was empty and accused the disciples of stealing the body.  Remember, as stated what they are worried about is the claim that Jesus rose from the dead after three days, and if the body is missing on Day 1 then it couldn’t have been raised after three days, and an accusation that the disciples stole the body would have much more force on Day 1 when it a) could have been checked by people and b) when it being missing there would not fulfill the prophecy than on Day 3 when even people who would verify it would have to wonder if it was really stolen or if the authorities were lying and saying it was stolen just to try to hide the fact that this miracle occurred.  Which, in fact, is exactly what Matthew accuses them of:  bribing the guards and promoting the idea that the disciples stole the body.  Which, of course, they wouldn’t have to do if they could produce the body.

The next thing to talk about is Pearce’s attempt to discuss how the argument about the guards likely entered the debate in the first place, using this invented dialogue:

Christian:  Jesus resurrected from his tomb.
Jew:  No, he didn’t.  Anyway, how do you know his body didn’t get stolen — this is a more probable explanation.
C: … Um, aah, because there were guards outside the tomb on the insistence of the Pharisees.
J:  Okay, but what if the guards were asleep?
C:  The guards were not asleep.
J:  How do you know?
C:  We know because they saw it.
J:  But why didn’t they tell anyone?  Why is this not known everywhere since this is the Resurrection of the Messiah?
C:  Because the guards told their superiors and were bribed to keep silent and then disappeared.
J:  That’s … suspiciously convenient.

The thing I noticed on writing all of this down was that J really, really seems to be trying desperately to come up with any reason to reject the idea.  I mean, when it is raised that there were guards their reply is to say, without any reason, that the guards might have been sleeping and so were not, in fact, actually doing the one job that they were to do and that they were trained to do.  Pearce later talks about how guards who fell asleep on the job were harshly punished as a reason to claim that the guards wouldn’t have accepted a bribe to say that they fell asleep, so it’s also not that likely that they actually would have fallen asleep.  So no one could just toss that out as a reply to an argument that there were guards.

Which reveals the flaw in this entire chain:  each step in the dialogue assumes that J actually accepts the arguments presented by C before moving on to the next one.  But why would J do that if it was just being asserted at the time the criticism was being made?  If the idea of an empty tomb was just being raised to head off a comment that C doesn’t know if Jesus was really raised from the dead and that his body might indeed still exist, then the dialogue should have stopped at J’s first line with “No, he didn’t”.  So what this means, then, is that if the response of “The body was stolen” was being commonly raised, it had to be the case that the empty tomb was already a part of the Christian narrative.  Thus, if J was simply saying “No, it wasn’t” C would be replying with “Then how do you explain the empty tomb?  That’s been a part of the histories since the beginning!”, forcing the move to “It was stolen!”.

But there’s another interesting wrinkle here, which is about the guards themselves, because the same reasoning applies.  Why wouldn’t the critic simply say in response to “There were guards!” that C has no reason to think that there ever were any kind of guards on the tomb?  By the same reasoning as above, then, it could be implied that there already was a narrative in many of the histories that there were guards and they were sleeping on the job, justifying a claim that the body was stolen by the disciples.  This, in fact, is what Matthew asserts:  there was an empty tomb and the Sanhedrin spread a story that the disciples had stolen the body while the guards they had posted there were asleep.  The chain of arguments that Pearce himself outlines makes far more sense if this narrative was already part of Christian lore — although perhaps not universal — and so the critic can only appeal to the “asleep” narrative to counter it instead of simply rejecting it wholesale.

Pearce raises the issue that this is only mentioned in Matthew and not in the other accounts.  However, there is an explanation for that:  it’s not that important to the other accounts and so they don’t bother to mention it.  As per my assessment, Mark is minimalist and so won’t talk about things that are not universal, and this account may not be (as it might only be mostly referenced in debates between Christians and Jews), John is disciple-focused and so wouldn’t find these details that necessary, and Luke is appealing to non-Jews and so again doesn’t have to care that much about a story about the specific Jewish politics here.  Moreover, none of the ones who talk about Jesus appearing after being resurrected — Mark is left out here by Pearce’s previous notes that Mark in his original work, at least, doesn’t have such events — actually need to address the “body was stolen” argument, because they can say that the appearances prove that Jesus was resurrected and so get from there to “and so the tomb must be empty”.  Matthew, noted as writing for a Jewish audience, is the only one who would need to address that and relate that story if that was a common counter among Jewish skeptics.

Another minor point that Pearce raises is that if the guards were paid off to claim that they were sleeping, how can we know about it?  This is a rather poor argument, as anyone who knows anything knows that if you pay someone off that really doesn’t mean that they won’t mention it to anyone else ever again.  It’s entirely plausible that one of them was talking to a Christian at some point, or got drunk one night, and happened to spill the real story.  The official — and their sworn — testimony would be that they were sleeping, and so if rumours get out that something miraculous happened it can still be rebutted with the official testimony — if the Sanhedrin were considered reliable.  This is another reason why the “It’s too late!” argument fails, because the Sanhedrin’s account would be less trustworthy if it came after the three days and so as a weak rebuttal to “He is risen!” than if it came on the first day with a “Don’t let them fool you!” rebuttal.

But there is a point that is more of a concern, and I was originally relying on my memory — which is really quite good — and thought it a very poor argument until I tried to gather up the quotes and found that things are a lot more complicated than I thought.  The point is:  given that being asleep on the job is a terrible crime for a soldier, if these were Roman soldiers why in the world would they being willing to accept even a bribe from the Sanhedrin to make a public statement that they were?  The Sanhedrin couldn’t forgive them their crime, and the Romans were known to punish that harshly.  What in the world could the Sanhedrin offer to make that in any way appealing to them?

Now, why I thought this was a very poor argument is that in my recollections from Sunday Mass — and I was a voracious reader so I would in general take the complete edition and read all the Gospels for all masses week over week — was that the guards weren’t Roman.  My impression was that the Sanhedrin came to Pilate and asked for a guard, and Pilate told them that they had their own guards and so if they wanted the body guarded to do it themselves.  In the quote I gave above, it really sounds more like Pilate did say for them to take one of his guards, making the guard Roman.  In Pearce’s quote, it says this “”You have a guard”, which is a lot more vague, at least in English (it could mean that you have a guard already and to use it, or a really, really awkward way to say “Take my guards”).  In the Revised Standard Version, it says this  “You have a guard of soldiers”, which is equally vague.  In looking up the issue, I came across this site, which assumes that the guards were Roman and argues that Pilate was as concerned about the possibility as they were.

Given what I’ve talked about earlier, I don’t find the idea that Pilate was overly concerned about the potential for fraud here all that compelling, and it doesn’t seem to line up well with the other accounts with Pilate not thinking that Jesus had done anything wrong.  So if Pilate gave guards to guard the tomb, it likely was just to get them out of his hair.  This is why I also find it far more probable that the Sanhedrin used their own guards rather than Roman guards, which would make Pearce’s objections moot (as Sanhedrin guards have a lot of reasons to go along with what their superiors have said).  I do agree that it’s an issue that Roman guards would claim that they were asleep at the time unless their superiors put them up to it, and there doesn’t seem to be much reason for the Romans to do that and care at all about this minor religious spat.  So I will agree with Pearce that there is a bit of an issue here.  Again, I prefer the idea that the guards were Sanhedrin guards since it seems to fit with almost everything except the specific words used there, which could be distorted.  But because of that I can’t claim my explanation is the better sourced.

That being said, it’s not a big issue for Christians because of what I said above:  if Jesus made bodily apparitions, then He was resurrected and the idea that the body was stolen cannot get off the ground.  So we could indeed drop that story without impacting how reasonable a Christian is in believing that Jesus was resurrected.

Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Joseph of Arimathea

December 24, 2021

So this is all covered in one chapter in Pearce’s book “The Resurrection”, but it takes up only about 10 pages.  The big thing that I’m not going to talk about in detail is the claim that we can’t find the supposed city or area of Arimathea that he supposedly came from, but that if the name is broken down one can read out a supposedly meaningful title which would then indicate that he was a literary invention.  That he’s in all four of the Gospels and so would have to start from Mark who is, as noted by Pearce, not as inclined towards inventing characters or tying things to prophecies works against this interpretation.  It might be true, but this is one case where we have to believe that this was part of Christian lore and the Jesus narrative for a long time across a lot of threads, and so that it was just invented would require a lot more evidence than that, even if that’s actually correct.  So the challenges to the narrative are more important here than what seems like an important contradiction of the facts.  If the story can hold up, then either the name was lost and replaced with one that might have that meaning or else it was a real place that we haven’t found yet.

Of course, Pearce doesn’t think that the narrative holds up, and since I’m focusing on the narratives that’s what I’m going to focus on.

The four Gospels are actually pretty close in how they describe the events here.  At the end of the day, Joseph of Arimathea goes to Pilate and asks for Jesus’ body to be released to him.  Pilate agrees, and Joseph has him laid in a new tomb that no one else had been buried in yet.  The importance of this is to explain how Jesus was laid into a tomb so that He could be resurrected from it later, which is thus important to establish the claim of the empty tomb which provides “proof” that Jesus was resurrected and not just buried and forgotten.  So the narrative here needs to establish that Joseph had reason to claim the body, and the means to both claim it and have it be buried in a tomb.

Pearce, it seems to me, provides another example of digging too deeply into claims in an attempt to show them unreasonable when he claims this:

There is no reason why the Gospel author would mention Joseph as a rich man.  It seems this is another example of the prophecy fulfillment (page 150).

Pearce does point to a line in Isaiah that refers to Jesus having been buried with a rich man, but the claim that there was no reason for them to mention Joseph being rich otherwise makes no sense.  There are lots of reasons to mention him as being rich and/or prominent.  First, to provide an explanation for why he’d have access to a tomb (some accounts claim it was his).  Second, to provide an explanation for why he’d be able to get access to Pilate to be able to claim the body.  Third — although less critically — to explain why he would do that without having to fear reprisals from the religious authorities himself.  Being someone with power and authority but who doesn’t owe that authority to the Jerusalem leaders means that he doesn’t have to support their position and could toss the threat that the religious leaders threw at Pilate back at them (at least in my version):  they could go after him for giving the criminal a proper burial, but then his supporters would cause trouble for them.  And since Joseph at this time would be more popular with Pilate than they were and would still be a wealthy and prominent man, they would be quite likely to just go with it and avoid any new problems.

Now, I couldn’t see it in the quotes given, but there seemed to be some kind of narrative somewhere about not wanted dead bodies to hang on the crosses through the evening and/or into the Sabbath (Pearce mentions it on page 153 and talks about it a lot in the next chapter).  Pearce himself talks quite a bit about this, so I can use the idea that the Jews didn’t want the dead bodies hanging on the cross seemingly because that could bring a curse on them.  If this is true, then there is more to Joseph doing this and being a member of the Council than we might think, because this situation is a bit more complicated than Pearce thinks:

I can’t imagine that Pilate would normally care about such petty things as taking a body down from a cross to fulfill Jewish laws, as it would probably be happening every day or, at least, very often (page 153).

This is to question why a special request would need to be made at all.  And Pearce is right to say that under normal circumstances, we’d presume that some kind of standard procedure would be in place to deal with the fact that the Jews don’t want dead bodies to hang on an execution device into the evening (they believed that it ran the risk of them being cursed by God) while the Romans liked to leave the bodies hanging as long as possible as an object lesson to others.  However, given what happened this was indeed a special case, which I’ll weave into my narrative that tries to resolve the purported contradictions.

Jesus was, indeed, technically executed under the auspices of the Romans.  However, that execution was clearly at the instigation of the Jewish leaders, and as both the Gospels and my own account note Pilate made it abundantly clear that the responsibility for the deaths should fall on them.  So it’s easy to imagine, then, that the Council started to worry that if they are responsible for the execution of Jesus then that curse might fall upon them.  If they had performed the execution themselves, then they would clearly be responsible, but would clearly have the authority to take the dead bodies down.  If Jesus was just someone who violated Roman law, then they wouldn’t have that authority, but then the violation of Jewish law and the associated curse would fall on the Romans, which wouldn’t bother them that much.  So in cases where the execution was Roman, it’s actually possible that they just let the Romans do what they would normally do, safe and secure in the fact that any curse would fall on the Romans and not themselves, and in the cases where they did the execution then they’d obviously follow Jewish law.  But in this case the jurisdiction is a lot more complicated.

So I could easily see the religious leaders getting worried about this, and being unsure about whether the curse would fall on them or on the Romans.  But they certainly wouldn’t want to go against the Roman custom on their own, especially since Pilate was probably not all that happy with them at the moment.  So they needed someone to approach Pilate and ask for the body, and Joseph volunteered to do it.

Now, why would Joseph do that?  Well, at a minimum we’d want him to have a reason beyond just ensuring that they aren’t cursed, because otherwise Pearce’s comment that he would have just buried Jesus in a criminal’s grave would make sense.  So at a minimum he doesn’t think that Jesus was really a criminal.  He at least would have thought that if the Council wanted to execute a perceived threat to their power, they should have just done it themselves instead of trying to push the responsibility off on the Romans.  He also likely would have believed that what Jesus was saying wasn’t really seditious or blasphemy anyway.  He might even have believed that what Jesus was saying made sense and so secretly supported Him.  At any rate, he was pleasantly disposed towards Jesus, wasn’t part of the negotiations with Pilate and so wasn’t disliked by him at the moment, was prominent enough to get an audience without having to claim that he was from the religious authorities, and had a reason to want to take charge of the burial to avoid Jesus being buried as a criminal.

I think that Joseph wasn’t a disciple in the sense of being one of the Twelve.  The only mention of his being one is in John, and it doesn’t seem likely that he could be a secret member of the Twelve.  So at most Joseph would be a disciple in the sense that he wasn’t in any way official, at least, and still think it more likely that he was just a supporter.  This deals with Pearce’s arguments that if Joseph was a disciple why didn’t he co-ordinate with the others and with Mary and Mary Magdalene to tell them where Jesus was buried and why Joseph wasn’t mentioned in any of the later works.  As someone who was merely a supporter, he may not have liked or trusted the disciples enough to take them into his confidence, or even known enough about them to seek them out, and as merely a supporter despite being prominent he may not have done anything important enough to make it into the narratives.  As a member of the Twelve we might have expected it, but he almost certainly wasn’t one of the Twelve and so these aren’t interesting questions.

Anyway, to finish this off, Joseph likely wanted to ensure that Jesus was not buried as a criminal, and so took charge of the body to bury it in a tomb instead of a criminal’s grave.  He likely planned to leave it in that tomb for the year and then return it to Jesus’ family, which was allowed by Jewish law according to Pearce (in later chapters).  There are also the discussions about leaving it in the tomb overnight due to the Sabbath restrictions, and so Joseph may well have used that as an excuse and planned to never actually remove it.  As for the fact that others would likely have been buried there as well and that the families wouldn’t have wanted them to be buried with criminals, Joseph being prominent and respected could have pointed out that this was all illegitimate and so they didn’t need to worry about that at all.  And if the Council pressured him he could always push back with his wealthy and influence to get them to drop the issue.

Now, one final thing.  I don’t need to add the points about the Council needing to have the body removed and Joseph stepping forward.  I only added it because Pearce makes a big deal out of that.  As stated, Joseph is a prominent man who, finding that Jesus was already dead, asked Pilate if he could take the body.  His prominence would still protect him from the Jewish authorities, his support of Jesus would explain why he wants to save Jesus from a criminal grave, and his prominence would explain why Pilate would listen to him, and Pilate already has good reason to at least not care about whether Jesus was treated strictly as a criminal by Jewish law.  And being a mere supporter and upright man could explain why he participates in this scene and fades out afterwards.  So it actually holds up fairly well on its own, which is odd for a purported issue that gets its own chapter in the book.

Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Pilate and the Jews

December 17, 2021

After taking a break last week to talk about a post by Richard Carrier, I’m going to return to talking about Jonathan MS Pearce’s critical examinations again.  As noted before, I’m pretty much going to skip everything about the Nativity except for what I’ve already talked about and move on to talking about his book on the Resurrection.  Even here, I’m not going to talk about everything in the book or even the bulk of the book, because much of it I don’t find to be interesting or important contradictions or problems for the account.  And I’m not going to quote very much from it except where absolutely necessary — usually where Pearce says something that seems to me to be rather ridiculous and I want to make it easy for people to tell if I’ve interpreted it correctly or not — because I have them in hard copy and it’s not all that easy to quote from a hard copy.

Before getting into this in detail, let me reiterate that there are two things I will do here that Pearce may not agree with but that I think is fair given my position.  The first is that since I consider Pearce to be making a knowledge claim that these are major contradictions that cannot be reasonably resolved all I’m going to try to do is come up with a reasonable sequence of events given the Gospel narratives that resolves at least most of the contradictions.  The second is that there is no requirement for me to take the texts literally, so I can allow for some aspects to be legendary in nature.  The one thing that I’m going to resist is any attempt to claim that the Gospel writer completely invented it, and instead will aim for explanations that allow for those details of have been generated from the oral accounts and selected for by the Gospel writers, usually in line with their overall project.

So, let’s start with the events leading up to the Crucifixion, specifically Jesus’ trial and being condemned to death by Pilate.  Pearce questions this on the basis that since Jesus’ main crime was blasphemy He would have been tried by the Jewish religious leaders and stoned to death, not crucified.  Also, Pilate wouldn’t have acted the way he was presented in the accounts that focus on him.  He certainly, the argument goes, wouldn’t have had a tradition to release a prisoner for the people for the religious holiday so that he could offer them Jesus and have the people choose the other prisoner instead, and demand Jesus’ execution.  So, for these and some other reasons that I won’t list right now, he finds that account pretty suspicious.

Here’s what I think is the reasonable interpretation.

The Jewish religious leaders saw Jesus as a threat to their religious authority, and wanted to get rid of Him.  But He has support among the people, and they knew that they risked riling up their own people if they moved against Him without a sufficient case against Him.  This actually brings in their attempts to trap Him into making directly blasphemous statements, so that they could use that as justification for His arrest and potentially eventual execution.  But He managed to evade their traps.  However, at one point He made a “mistake”, at least from their perspective, and said that He was “The King of the Jews”.  While He certainly meant it religiously, this would seem like a glorious opportunity for them, as it would bring Him in opposition to the secular authorities and, thus, the Romans.  While He had evaded their earlier attempt — them asking Him to talk about whether the Jews should pay taxes to the Romans — and while this wasn’t as strong a statement, it was probably good enough for them to push Pilate to try and execute Him, and thus they’d eliminate the threat to their power while leaving their hands clean.

So, they arrested Him themselves and presented Him to the Roman authorities so that they could try Him.  But from what people in this debate have said about Pilate, he was both politically adept and a bit of a jerk.  So he would have realized fairly quickly from Jesus’ testimony that Jesus didn’t really mean it in the political sense and so what was happening was that the religious leaders were trying to use him to remove a rival.  And so he would have been fairly clear that he didn’t see this as being treason against the state and that he wanted to release Jesus.  But then the religious leaders would point out that the statement is technically seditious and so if Pilate let Jesus go free it would look like he was going easy on such sentiments, and would at least imply that they’d make sure that opinion was circulated among the people.

So at this point, Pilate has a bit of a political issue here.  And again Pilate is politically adept and a bit of a jerk, and so he will be examining this situation quite carefully.  Obviously, he’s not going to want the Jewish authorities feel that they can get him to do their dirty work all the time.  However, he also doesn’t want to get into these clashes for any reason either, because that will unsettle the area and make things difficult for him.  The first thing he’d note is that Jesus Himself is not in any way important enough for Pilate to fight over.  Pilate didn’t care one whit for Jesus except for His role in this specific situation.  So he had no reason to go to bat for Jesus Himself.  Given that, it would be far easier to just go along with the religious leaders and execute Jesus.  However, he would want to make it clear to the religious leaders not to make these sort of maneuvers a habit, and he would want to try to make it public that the main impetus for this execution was not him but was the religious leaders, in case the people got upset about the execution.  The religious leaders wanted to be able to blame him for the execution, but he wanted the people to blame them if they got upset.

So the entire scene where Pilate washes his hands of the situation and offers to release someone else to cries from the crowd to kill Jesus may not have actually happened as described.  Pilate could possibly have arranged some sort of dramatic signal of his views, and it’s not unreasonable to think that the religious leaders might have staged some sort of protest to demonstrate that they had the power to stir the people up against Jesus and thus against Pilate if Pilate didn’t execute Jesus.  But this also could have been legends that got mixed in afterwards.  However, if so, it seems reasonable to me that these were legends that were invented because they reflected the attitudes at the time, and ones that both sides were willing to make public:  Pilate making it clear that he didn’t think that Jesus deserved to be crucified and that the push for this came from the Jewish leaders, and the religious leaders making it clear that the people themselves railed against Jesus as someone pushing sedition and thus risking more oppressive measures being taken by the Romans against the Jews.

Pearce, if I recall correctly, talks about the Pilate stories being invented at the time when Christianity moved towards blaming the Jews instead of the Romans for Jesus’ death.  However, as seen above, the stories didn’t need to be invented, but instead could have been selected for to align with that idea, from a thread that Pilate would have deliberately created for his own political gain.

There’s also a curious issue here in that Pilate does ask them why they can’t try Jesus themselves and the religious leaders reply that they aren’t allowed to put someone to death.  As Pearce notes — and his entire argument relies on this — they were able to sentence people to death for blasphemy by stoning.  So why would they say that they couldn’t?  Since they wanted Jesus executed but to be executed by the Romans, it’s possible that they were relying on Pilate not knowing much about their authority to catch them in a lie, although I would think that Pilate would be aware if they could execute people or not given how much authority that entailed.  Pilate might also have not wanted to argue with them over the lie at this stage, especially given that he probably wouldn’t want them to execute people too blithely either.  Or else this one was invented by storytellers — not the evangelists — to answer that very question and explain why Jesus had to be crucified.

So, I think this account works, as it fits with pretty much everything that is described in the biblical accounts (or, at least, everything important).  And this account creates the political situation that explains a lot of what happened later, as next time I return to this topic I’ll talk about Joseph of Arimathea.

Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: The Census

December 3, 2021

Here, I’m actually going to talk a little bit about actual arguments that Pearce makes, mostly in his book on the Nativity.  So let me set out how I’m going to approach that.  I have actual paper copies of his books, because I don’t like to read books on a computer screen.  So I don’t even have any kind of E-Reader or anything like that.  This means, then, that if I want to quote something I can’t copy and paste it from a document or post, but instead have to manually type it in, which is obviously a bit more effort.  Since this is just a blog and I’m not writing an academic paper, I’m not going to do that all that often, except when it’s really, really necessary.  And for some minor points, as you’ve already seen I’m just going to loosely talk about them without even providing a direct reference to them.  So I obviously encourage everyone to read the works themselves if they find my summaries dubious to see if I’m correct in my interpretations.

I also want to note that I’m not going to talk all that much about his book on the Nativity, focusing more on his book on the Resurrection (and I’m not even going to read his upcoming book on the Exodus).  The reason is that it seems to me that the book on the Nativity, being the earlier book, is less detailed and also less important to the overall project.  So instead I’m going to use it to highlight another potential issue with Biblical skepticism, which is making arguments about things being invented and not being at all true while ignoring the purpose for which such things would be invented in the first place.

As I noted last time, it is important when noting that things seem to be invented that they were invented for a specific reason.  For the most part, we aren’t going to find stories that are invented simply for the sake of being invented.  I believe that most of the time any invented stories are going to be invented to answer questions from the audience.  Pearce tends to believe that the invented stories are there to further the specific theological commitments of the writer.  But even in that case we can’t leave the audience out, as they are going to have to go along with the story as well.  It won’t be terribly effective, even if the writer is pushing a theological line, to do that with a story that the audience reacts to with “Who cares?”.  So even in that case if the audience doesn’t share the theology the writer is going to have to write it in a way that makes the story compelling enough to them that they accept it and thus accept that theology.

One of the most prominent elements in the Nativity stories — they only appear in Matthew and Luke — is that they need to find a way to explain how Jesus seemed to come from Nazareth but, in order to fulfill prophecy, had to be born in Bethlehem.  The obvious interpretation of this is that the real person Jesus lived in Nazareth and if the stories were invented they were invented to fulfill the prophecy.  But since this would imply that Jesus was a real person, mythicists — people who believe that Jesus was a completely made-up myth, like Richard Carrier — argue that that’s not what it meant, but that people mistook the religious title of “Nazarene” for the place, and so that created the purported tension that needed to be resolved there.  Their main argument is that Nazareth didn’t exist at that point in time and so they couldn’t be saying that Jesus was from there.  The issue I have with this, though, is that it seems a rather odd mistake to make, given that the context should have been clear enough to discern that.  Why would these two writers both make that rather odd mistake?  Wouldn’t there have to be some kind of context that led them to that conclusion, and a strong enough context that they felt the need to write up an entire Nativity narrative to refute it?

To me, it seems equally if not more reasonable to argue that the context already existed, and that the later mistake, if it was a mistake, was in assuming that the religious title referred to the at that point known place.  If there had never been any issue with Jesus living in one place but needed to be born in another, and if most people knew that “Nazarene” could refer to a religious title, then why wouldn’t the writers simply avoid the issue by saying that it clearly referred to the religious title and that Jesus then unproblematically lived in Bethlehem.  But if there was an underlying context or question of why Jesus came from one place while needed to have been born in Bethlehem, then that option wouldn’t be available to them.  And it’s easier, then, to imagine that the original place Jesus was from might have been lost.  And so they’d have a need for Jesus to live in a place other than Bethlehem and something that at the time, at least, could refer to either a place or a religious title, which then would mean that in light of that conflict interpreting “Nazarene” to refer to the place is actually reasonable, given that the place Jesus was from was important and any Judaic religious title He might have had was not.

So we need to look at what the audience could be expected to know or need to know.  Yes, it’s possible that they just misinterpreted that title for the place, but given how important at least those two authors thought it that seems less likely than that the issue had already been raised and made a big issue, and then the more reasonable mistake would be to insert “Nazareth” in for the place Jesus lived as opposed to simply inventing an entire story about Jesus living one place and needing to be born in another.

This also applies to an argument that Pearce and Carrier both use, which is that Luke uses a census to explain why Joseph and Mary had to leave Nazareth and go to Bethlehem but even if there was a census at that time — which they doubt — censuses in ancient times simply didn’t work that way.  They do provide some evidence for this (and I’m not saying that they’re wrong) but there is an issue with this sort of argument:  they are arguing that censuses didn’t work that way from the perspective of what information we have today, but the audience was a lot closer to those times than we were.  Remember that Luke needed to come up with an explanation for Jesus being born in Bethlehem that his audience would accept, and they were relatively familiar with censuses, or at least the ones happening at the time.  That it doesn’t look like they were overly concerned with Luke’s explanation should at least cast doubt on whether a census working that way was as inconceivable as Pearce and Carrier say it is.  Pearce himself notes another explanation which was that Joseph had to go there for the Judaic tradition of returning sold property, but says that if that was the case Luke should have just said so but never mentions that.  But again if we appeal to the audience the audience would be well aware of that tradition, and so would simply accept that that was the reason.  Given that, Luke simply would never have felt the need to mention it.  Only here, in this time, where the tradition was lost, would we need that to be explicitly stated.  As an example, if someone was telling a story and said “He went to the supermarket, but he had forgotten his mask and had to go home, which is when he interrupted the burglar” these days pretty much all of us would not be at all puzzled by his needing a mask to go into the supermarket, but give it 20 or 50 or 100 years and the audience will probably not be able to figure that out.

So one thing that it’s important for pretty much everyone to do when doing these things is to think about what the audience at the time would have known or thought.  These accounts are always going to be written so that the audience finds them convincing (or else they wouldn’t have survived) and so we need to analyze these things knowing that the audience found them convincing and would be willing to question things that didn’t make sense, especially commonsensical things that are not themselves theological but instead impact it.  Anything invented will be invented to convince the audience that a purported problem isn’t one or to answer a question that the audience would have, and so it wouldn’t have done its job if it was obvious to that audience that it wasn’t true and so was invented.

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

November 26, 2021

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.

Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Possibiliter ergo probabiliter

November 19, 2021

So at the end of the last post I commented that it looked to me like Pearce is making a knowledge claim, and is basing that knowledge claim to a great degree on an argument that there are contradictions that cannot be reasonably resolved between the stories — either with themselves or with the historical record — and so the stories aren’t accurate and so aren’t true.  I noted there that if they base their argument on statements that these things cannot be resolved then all I need to do is show one possible way that they can be reasonably resolved to blunt their claim and so defeat their knowledge claim (at least to the point where it relies on that argument).  I can do this because if they are making a knowledge claim it has to be the case that, well, we really know that their argument is true, and if they are making a knowledge claim and I can introduce doubt into their arguments then they can’t be making a knowledge claim anymore.  If, on the other hand, they were just making a “I believe this” or “This is one credible option” argument then that argument wouldn’t be available.

I also noted there that they wouldn’t like this reply, and the reason is that this is something that Pearce and Carrier constantly call a possibiliter ergo probabiliter fallacy, where they argue that this is arguing “Possibly, therefore probably” and you can’t get from the fact that something is possibly the case to the fact that something is probably the case.  But where this goes awry — at least in the arguments that I will be using that sort of argument against — is that the argument is not being used to argue that something is possible so therefore it is probable so therefore we should believe that and, by extension, believe in the original proposition (usually, for them, the existence of God).  No, instead it’s being used strictly to challenge their arguments, which are presented as “There is no reasonable way this can happen/make sense”.  In that case, if I can show that there is a reasonable way that can happen then their argument falters.  This holds even if they could argue that their take on it is the more probable by whatever standard they are using, because what the argument would do is shift the debate from the one that more favours them of “This doesn’t and can’t make sense” to the one that favours their opponents more of “Which of these is actually the more probable, and if one is more probable than the other are we rationally required to take that option than the other one?”, which involves a lot more epistemology and the like.  And, again, as already noted the former can support a knowledge claim but the latter, in general, cannot (at least not without being able to demonstrate that the have evidence for their alternative that rises to the level of knowledge).

So if I am right that they are making knowledge claims or that their strong stances require them to make a knowledge claim, then all I need to do is introduce doubt, and doubt sufficient enough to mean that they can’t know their position is correct.  So for any argument they make that says that there is no reasonable way to reconcile the stories and events, all I need to do is show that there is a reasonable way to do that to blunt their argument.  As long as I am never stupid enough to make a knowledge claim, I can blunt their argument even if after all of this they still believe that their interpretation is more probable.  On the other hand, they must be careful never to use an argument that their interpretation is possible when they aren’t being challenged by a knowledge claim (Pearce actually does this at the end of his book on the Resurrection, so I hope to look at that when I get here).

Let me finish off this analysis of the typical fallacy claims involved in these arguments by looking at the theistic response of “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”.  I think that Pearce is right to point out that that is not true if that absence of evidence is in a case where you would reasonably expect that evidence to exist, and so it is conspicuous by its absence.  Pearce, I think, in general uses this correctly, as he tends to use it against the strong supernatural claims of Matthew — the dead walking through the streets of Jerusalem, for example — by pointing out that if something that strange had actually happened, other contemporary writers certainly would have noted it.  He has to be careful, though, to make sure that the examples really are that strong, because again this argument is vulnerable to a counter that says that we can find a reasonable explanation for why they wouldn’t, and some of Pearce’s examples do seem to fall into that category.

To summarize, because I see Pearce and others as making a strong knowledge claim, I can oppose their claims by raising doubts and so in a number of cases simply raising a reasonably possible alternative as being the case.  It’s important to note this before I get into the specific claims because there I will be arguing for reasonably possible resolutions to the contradictions Pearce sees and I don’t want to have to deal with charges of the fallacy of possibiliter ergo probabiliter.

Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Introduction

November 12, 2021

So, I’ve read a number of Jonathan MS Pearce’s books examining various aspects of Christianity, because I was conveniently ordering things from Amazon at the time and had heard about them from his blog, and it fit in with the “Examining Sophisticated Theology” thing I did in the past, being an Atheology aspect of that.  I’m going to talk about them off and on for the next while (I can’t promise it will be every week because there might be things that I want to talk about that I don’t want to wait to talk about).  Here, I’m going to start with the part that seems to most interest Pearce at the moment — he has written two recent books on it and is writing a third, although he has another book coming out that’s on more general topics — but interests me the least:  the historicity and accuracy of the Gospels and Bible in relating the Jesus story.

The reason this doesn’t interest me all that much comes from what seems to be the most common way skeptics go about challenging the Gospels or the Bible, which seems to me to be a Shotgun Approach:  fire off a great many arguments about contradictions with history and with each other and hope that by the sheer number their opponents will be overwhelmed and so their case will be made.  Why this doesn’t interest me much is because most of them end up being trivial and unimportant, most properly answered with a “I don’t care” than a “Yeah, that’s a tough one”.  I have long held that to make such arguments work you really need to find the critical components of the story and go after them, as it’s not crucial to the story how many angels or women were at the tomb, but is critical that Jesus was resurrected, for example.  As already noted, I think their hope is that with so many arguments they will overwhelm those who think the stories true and force them to come to the conclusion that they aren’t true, but I don’t think people work that way.  I think what happens instead is that people see all of these small arguments but in general don’t think them important, and so start to think that all of the arguments are just nitpicking, and so start ignoring them, especially if they were able to find reasonable — to them, at least — resolutions to the early ones.  It’s only people who are neutral or especially those who already have doubts that will eventually be overwhelmed by those arguments, concluding that their commitment to the belief isn’t strong enough to bother putting in the effort to resolve all of these arguments.  For any believer, however, for the most part they will be able to easily resolve these small arguments and will be motivated to do so, and so will be underwhelmed by the arguments (if that’s a word).

Pearce, I will say, is not as bad at this as others (I have read his book on the Nativity and his book on the Resurrection).  While he often does add up and reference a lot of really small arguments, he tends to focus on a couple of big cases at least that he then tries to shotgun, arguing that if this main component goes down then the whole thing goes down, and lists lots of reasons why that main component doesn’t seem to be correct.  However, that doesn’t mean that the ones he picks are actually important components or that he isn’t too quick to declare them impossible to resolve, which is something that I will probably go into in other posts.

The main approach that Pearce takes, particularly in this book on the Resurrection, is this:  he starts from the idea that the claims in the Gospels are extraordinary, and thus require extraordinary evidence to believe.  Then he wants to argue that the Gospels, for various reasons, are not reliable enough to be able to provide that sort of evidence.  He does this by pointing out contradictions between the Gospels themselves and between the Gospels and history, but also by showing that the Gospels are in general the sorts of historical documents that cannot provide that sort of evidence.  He does the latter by talking about how accounts that were not written down generally get corrupted easily, and also notes that ancient stories and histories tended to be unreliable unless they were done by dedicated historians, which none of the purported Gospel writers were (even Luke never claims to be and is never claimed to be a full historian, and only claims to be doing a more historical investigation).  So if they aren’t really reliable accounts, they could never provide the sort of evidence needed to justify that extraordinary claim.

Now, my first objection to this is that Pearce tends to consider anything supernatural “extraordinary” in that way, but the people he’s claiming should be convinced by this actually don’t consider the claims extraordinary in that way.  So this should result in an argument over that first, but Pearce tends to sidestep the arguments and maintain a naturalistic focus in the work, except to take small shots at anyone who is not a naturalist.  As most people reading this blog will know, I reject naturalism and all its works, mostly because I find the stance incoherent and ultimately meaningless.  So that the claims are supernatural don’t make the claims extraordinary to me, and a supernatural being that is claimed to have resurrected is actually less extraordinary than a being that wasn’t claimed to be supernatural.  So it is more reasonable to believe that Jesus qua Jesus was resurrected than any random person, and a lot of the arguments try to tie back to what ordinary people are expected to do, which is another flaw in naturalism.  The other, and perhaps larger, problem I have here is that let’s imagine that this really did happen, and this is the evidence we had.  Why couldn’t someone reasonably come to simply believe this based on this evidence?  Because if it is reasonable to think that this is the sort of evidence we could have, and the events really happened, then Pearce would have to be saying that it would be unreasonable to believe that what actually happened actually happened.  And that does not seem like a good epistemology.

Ultimately, this leads me to the major issue I’m having here:  Pearce — along with other people like Richard Carrier — seem to want believers, after they had read their works, to be compelled to give up their belief that these things happened on pain of being considered completely unreasonable and only acting on faith.  But the only way to be sure to get to that point is to be able to say that they know that these things didn’t happen, which means showing that key components of the story never happened.  You can’t do that by simply showing that the works are not necessarily accurate and are not necessarily reliable.  All that can do is cast doubt on the claims, and you cannot claim to know that something has not occurred by showing that we are reasonable to doubt that it occurred.  You need more than that.  To be fair, they do try to do this by showing that evidence that we should have is missing, but again that needs to be about important points and again they do tend to focus on a lot of points instead of on a few important ones.  While they tend to follow Bayesian epistemologies that rely on probabilities, I do not and do not agree that even under their model you can get to a reasonable definition of knowledge if you can merely claim that a claim is doubtful enough that the probability is low enough so that you can then claim to properly know that the claim is false.  That just seems weird, for the reasons I gave above:  true claims with unreliable evidence actually can’t result in a knowledge claim, so how could we ever know that a claim was false if all we have is that the evidence we have for it does not seem reliable enough to give a high enough probability?

So, for me, the important thing is the positive arguments against the claims, and that means given the evidence given in the books means looking at the cases where Pearce simply says that contradictions cannot be reasonably resolved in those cases where the story is critical to the belief.  Those are the cases that would justify a knowledge claim.  And so all I feel I need to do is show how they could be resolved, even if I can’t demonstrate that that’s what really happened.  Pearce and others really dislike that sort of response, but they need to establish that they can’t be reasonably resolved to make a knowledge claim and if I can show that they can be then they can’t make a knowledge claim.  And they can’t turn that around on me because I’m not making a knowledge claim here, but merely a belief claim.  And for a belief claim, I only need to claim what I personally think and don’t need to hold anyone else to what I believe, which again is not the case for them.

But I’ll get into more details on this when I get into the specific claims.  Here, I just want to outline what I think their project is — at least given their rhetoric — and what I feel they have to provide to succeed at their project. given that I don’t have the same philosophical foundations and starting points as them.  So, for me, they are not going to be able to use their preconditions in the way they normally do.