Gospel Disproof #56: Rebuilding the temple

I got another comment from a believer asking me about the gospels, and I answered it in place. On re-reading my answer, however, I realized that this would be a good addition to my series on Gospel Disproofs, so I’m re-posting it here.

[Update: Aly responded in the comments and writes, “I’m neither a ‘believer’ ~which provokes+implies so much contempt on this blog (I don’t think that’s fair, considering they’ve been lied to their entire lives); nor a ‘grumpyoldfart’. I’m just a teenager questioning my ‘faith’” — Apologies to Aly for jumping to a false conclusion.]

The original commenter, Aly, writes:

I’m curious about the complete lack of your explanation of Jesus’ proclamation that he would ‘rebuild the temple in three days’ after it was pulled down. If you say that this statement was not related to the resurrection, then why do you suppose he said so? I’m disinclined to think that he might have been boastful and arrogant about his abilities, because this isn’t evident in other writings on him. I’m under every impression that he was a humble man. However, if you are able to prove otherwise, then I am willing to accept that.

If you would say that someone might have planted that statement in, I do not think that possible. Mostly because many people have reported him saying that [something that appears in the books by Matthew, Mark, and John and the book of Acts; whereas like you say, the resurrection story et all is only in the one by Matthew which makes it questionable], and the different varieties of ‘tear (it) down and (it) will be rebuilt in three days’. Also because of the fact that the Jews were present during this declaration by Jesus and countered saying (paraphrase) ‘it took forty years to build it, what are you saying man’.

So, in effect my question is this: Why do you think Jesus said ‘I will rebuild my temple in three days’? What did he mean by this?

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Calling it what it is

It bugs me when I hear the right-wing propaganda engine refer to the wealthy as “job creators,” as though our economic well-being depended on appeasing them and encouraging them and generally admiring them. I think that whenever you pay your employees less-than-poverty-level wages, you deserve to be known for what you are: a poverty creator. You’re creating poverty, and thus, you’re creating a burden on society. It is you, and not the people you are impoverishing, who are the true parasite. Noble titles, like “job creator,” should be reserved for those who actually benefit society, and don’t just enrich themselves at society’s expense.

The coming Gaypocalypse

Ed Brayton has been documenting the rising hysteria and apocalyptic paranoia of the Christian right in connection with the Supreme Courts upcoming ruling on gay marriage. If the Court legalizes same-sex marriage, they warn, we can expect wars! and diseases! and the end of families! and of law! and of civilization! and so on and so on, with lots of extra exclamation points.

I have some sympathy for believers. I think legalizing gay marriage will be just as devastating for Christianity as these groups are predicting. Not because any of their predictions will come true, but because they won’t.

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A macabre digression

I think a good blog post should have a single main topic, and should stick to it, but today I’m going to break that rule rather badly. This post is going to be mostly about Ben’s most-recently-published comment, but at a certain point I am going to digress by bringing up a rather grim and horrific possibility that accounts for the empty tomb in a way I haven’t heard before. I may end up derailing my own conversation with Ben, but I can’t help it. This one is just too fascinating to pass up.

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Understanding ancient events

Ben closes his presentation with one last, short argument, and a summary.

A fifth feature, similar to the criterion of embarrassment, is the use of hostile witnesses. The earliest Jewish arguments against Christianity, for example, accuse the disciples of having stolen the body. This is important because it involves an incidental admission of a fact that was operating against the Sanhedrin attempts to suppress the spread of Christian belief: That the tomb was empty. Paul Maier argues that, “if a source admits a fact that is decidedly not in its favour, the fact is to be presumed genuine.”

As with some of his other arguments, this one cuts both ways: an empty tomb is one that does not contain a resurrected Jesus either. If the early Christians had had an actual, risen Savior, the presence of Jesus would have consumed their attention to the point that nobody would care about his absence from the tomb. The early Christian emphasis on the tomb very strongly suggests that it was the only part of the post-crucifixion narrative that had any basis in fact. In this context, it is Matthew, and not the Sanhedrin, who is a hostile witness against himself when he testifies that disciples were commonly known or believed to have moved the body, even before Christians were influential enough to want to suppress.

There’s lots more that could be said on that point, but a lot of it I’ve said before, here and elsewhere. Let’s leave that for now and move on to his summary, which does raise some interesting discussion.

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Believing anyway

Christian apologists have come up with some real doozies over the centuries, and the argument Ben chooses as his fourth evidence for the gospel is, I have to say, one of the more implausible ones.

A fourth related feature of the Gospels is their proximity in time and space to the events they describe. Given the number of Jewish and Roman authorities hostile to Christianity, it is unlikely that the early disciples would have exposed themselves and their fledgling movement to discredit by making false statements that it would be easy for their opponents to refute.

That’s right: whoever invented this argument long ago, they seriously expect us to buy the claim that believers would never say anything the unbelieving authorities might contradict, because untrue religious beliefs are easy to refute. Just ask any Mormon about Joseph Smith’s police record.

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An Inconsistent “Truth”

Ben’s third argument is another familiar one, though it seems odd to see it presented as though it were a positive evidence in favor of the Christian gospel.

A third feature of the Gospels vouching for their authenticity as eyewitness testimony is the one we have already discussed: The superficial inconsistency of detail. I think this suffices to justify a dismissal of factual infallibility. To my way of thinking, testimonial cogency is superior to factual identicality insofar as the former compels belief and the latter invites us to suspect a conspiracy. I therefore see no reason why we should equate divine involvement with infallibility. And I certainly cannot see the logic in your objection that noting the discrepancies between the different narratives is tantamount to demonstrating their overall falsity. It only disproves the falsity of inerrancy. It doesn’t disprove the hypothesis that 2015 years ago an incandescently mysterious event occurred which has been filtered through to us in the form of a collection of scattershot Greek texts which, over, as a result of their transaction with the divine, may yet be regarded as Holy.

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The embarrassing gospel

One of the problems with writing a blog is that you have to keep coming up with something to write about. I think, though, that I’m going to have no shortage of material for the next few days, thanks to our new commenter, Ben, and his arguments from Christian apologetics. Continuing with his second comment, he presents us with the Christian version of the criterion of embarrassment.

The second self-authenticating feature is our justification in applying, to several key details in the Synoptic Gospels, the so-called criterion of embarrassment. This is a principle of historical analysis which states that any detail problematic to an ancient account can be presumed true on the logic that the author would not have invented a detail problematic to his account.

The criterion of embarrassment can indeed be used as a legitimate tool by historians. But, like any tool, it can also be misused, whether by incompetence or malice, much like the same chisel can be used both to carve the sculpture and to destroy it. We thus need to not only identify the use of the tool, but also verify whether it has been applied correctly.

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CS Lewis’ argument from literary style

Most believers who comment on my blog are kind of drive-by commenters: one post and then they’re gone. But there are exceptions, and not all of them are outright trolls. Sometimes, they even provoke some interesting discussions, and I think (I hope!) that we’ve got one now.

By way of background, this past Easter season brought a lot of attention to a post I made in February 2012 about Matthew’s story of the guards at the tomb. It has been getting consistent hits in my “Popular Pages” log, and has attracted a few comments, most of which are of the “post and run” variety. Two of them, however, are from a commenter named Ben, and these are the ones I’m referring to.

The second of these is quite long, but he brings up some interesting material, and I’d like to address some of it here, starting with his citation of CS Lewis’ argument from literary style. Ben writes:

Here you, the nonbeliever, loudly object that the Gospel forms the main part of the evidential basis for its own claim. And on the face of it this would appear to be a formidable objection…

[The] problem is one which Christian apologists are able to meet with surprising assurance and lucidity. And they do this by drawing our attention to the unique self-authenticating features of their source material.

I can definitely agree that their assurance is surprising, given the nature of their argument.

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A reminder to believers

Since the Supreme Court is currently hearing arguments regarding gay marriage, I thought it would be a good time to remind believers of a very important moral principle that’s relevant to this particular case. That principle is as follows:

You always have the option of not doing harm to those who have done no harm.

That’s it. That’s all that gay rights advocates are asking for. Just don’t do harm to gays and gay couples, who have done no harm to you or to anyone else. Don’t slander them or discriminate against them or attack them physically or interfere in their personal relationships or do anything to them that you would not want done to yourself. Every major religious or moral system in the world gives you that option. It is allowed, and morally acceptable, to refrain from doing harm to those who have done no harm.

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