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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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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NPR, science, and God. (And magic.)

In a commentary posted on the NPR web site, Nancy Ellen Abrams writes:

“God” is a word. If we define it, even subconsciously, as something that cannot exist in our universe, we banish the idea of God from our reality and throw away all possibility of incorporating a potent spiritual metaphor into a truly coherent big picture. But if we take seriously the reliable — and, thus, invaluable — scientific and historical knowledge we now possess, we can redefine God in a radically new and empowering way that expands our thinking and could help motivate and unite us in the dangerous era humanity is entering.

I actually have had similar thoughts myself, once upon a time, and can still feel a bit of sympathy for this point of view. I think, however, that any comment I could make on this article would be best made by restating her arguments with one slight substitution. Instead of taking this as an argument for a “scientifically real God,” what if we view it instead as an argument for magic?

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Belief versus knowledge

Here’s a quick illustration of the difference between knowledge and belief: Christians believe that Jesus loved them so much he was willing to lay aside his divinity, descend from heaven, and spend 33 years growing up in poverty and preaching the Gospel and ultimately dying a horrible, painful death for them. But they know that if they drop their pencil on the floor, Jesus will never pick it up and hand it to them.

How to evolve a resurrection myth

Since a lot of people are celebrating Easter this weekend, I thought it might be a good time to review how easy it is to end up with a resurrection story in the absence of anything supernatural. This account is a bit different from some of the better-known explanations of the Gospel story, but I think it’s more plausible than at least some of them, and might be the most plausible explanation of all.

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