RD Extra: The Nativity Debate with Jonathan Pearce and Randal Rauser


why_does_mary_look_like_a_dudeDon’t get into heated debates with your family this Christmas without first getting your facts straight. Check out this debate between Jonathan Pearce and Randal Rauser on the historical reliability of the Nativity narratives so you can impress your family by being the most informed troublemaker at the dinner table. Merry Christmas from the Doubtcasters!

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  1. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    Song: HPLHS – Go Summon Up the Dead Ones
     
     
    * The nativity-celebrating “Go Tell It on the Mountain” tune, ported to the Cthulhu mythos describing “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” with advice on studying ancient lore and engaging family members.

  2. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    (1:19:44):

    Christians accept the virgin conception based on the unique teachings, historical impact, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Surely evidence such as this grants claims about the miraculous birth of Jesus a prima facie credibility not pertaining to other ancient miracle claims. At this point Jonathon simply declines to address the historical case for the resurrection. This is unfortunate though hardly surprising given the extremely powerful historical case that has been made in recent years by scholars like Michael Licona and N.T. Wright.

    Right, because no other religions’ characters have unique teachings, historical impact, and grand miracle stories to back up their lesser miracles.
     
    (6:20):

    The truth of Christianity is not at stake in this debate.

    And yet Randal cites the off-topic resurrection scenes and the attributed teachings to support his position, name-dropping authors and taking their unstated arguments as a given. Then he criticises his opponent for not first debating the truth of Christianity, in order to argue against any details relevant to the nativity narratives and minor doctrines.

  3. says

    Thank you Justin for organising this. May I first apologise as I think the first audio file should have been slightly different and not have included an inopportune doorbell and a few other bits! Hopefully that can get sorted.

    Anyone listening to this will surely understand that there were just too many points to address in the time, and many had to go unanswered – not because they couldn’t be refuted, but time did not allow. Randal, for example, expecting me to defend the Resurrection in 5 minutes whilst still being able to put my own case across being one such example (and ridiculous to boot).

    If there are any points which listeners would want dealing with, please let me know. I wanted to continue to debate this in written form to the end. I am SUPREMELY confident of my position. However, Randal does not want to do this, which may or may not reflect his demands to only deal with 3 claims as representative of the Gospels.

    It was in good spirit and I thank Randal for that, though I think his case is paper thin, as you can see here:

    http://skepticink.com/tippling/2012/12/23/merry-christmas-everybody-it-never-happened-though-and-heres-why-and-also-why-we-shouldnt-believe-anything-else-about-jesus/

    Thanks peoples. Remember, this was my very first debate – you gotta start somewhere. Be kind.

  4. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    Audio: Michael Licona vs. Richard Carrier Debate – Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? (2010)
     
    Ultimately, Licona too undermines that topic by backing up resurrection reports attributed to Yahweh with his prior belief that a god exists who would do resurrections. At the end, he confidently stated that the resurrection hypothesis makes no non-evidenced assumptions.
     
     
    @Jonathan MS Pearce #4:

    Thanks peoples. Remember, this was my very first debate

    Well done!

  5. says

    Jonathan writes: “Randal, for example, expecting me to defend the Resurrection in 5 minutes whilst still being able to put my own case across being one such example (and ridiculous to boot).”

    I certainly wasn’t asking you “to defend the Resurrection”, and I suspect if you choose to that won’t be much of a debate! As I explained in the debate, if there is good historical evidence for the resurrection at the end of Jesus’ life then the plausibility of a miraculous conception at the beginning increases substantially. There is good historical evidence for a resurrection at the end of his life. Therefore…

    The fact that you don’t have adequate time to try rebutting that point isn’t my fault! And keep in mind that it cuts both ways. I also am limited in my ability to lay out the historical defense of the resurrection.

    “I wanted to continue to debate this in written form to the end. I am SUPREMELY confident of my position. However, Randal does not want to do this….”

    I know many people that are supremely confident in their position. Some, like you, are even all-in-caps SUPREMELY confident. But supreme confidence can be overrated. Unfortunately I don’t have time to debate this further. I’ve got a full teaching load next semester, two conferences to prepare for in March-April, my new book with Loftus being released in March, a four week adult Sunday school to teach in March, search committee duties, an accreditation report to draft… You know how it is.

    Happy Christmas!

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  7. NewZJ says

    I expected less from Jonathan as the historicity of the nativity has been debated previously and very few irrefutable facts can be used to justify disbelief, I was satisfied in his rebuttals and counter points. Very well done.

    Randal couldn’t rebut Jonathan without using irrelevant analogies that missed the point entirely while throwing in smugness and ignorance by attempting to utilize a counter point in his favor. I was both unimpressed and unmoved by his statements

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  9. gridironmonger says

    I tried to put myself back into the mindset I had when I was a believer, to see if Randal’s arguments would have been fulfilling or persuasive. I failed, I guess, because I could not convince myself that Randal successfully shouldered the burden which was his to carry. He is an experienced debater and apologist, it would seem, but he also resorts to well-worn fallacies…. naked assertions, false analogies, and strawmen, oh my!

  10. Barefoot Bree says

    Well, I tried to listen to both sides with equal skepticism and criticism, but Randal’s continued twisting of each of Jonathan’s points just kept kneecapping me there. Randal is obviously no historian, and has no idea of how historians evaluate possible sources. I hate to break it to you, Randal, but Jonathan’s list is NOT “ad hoc”, nor is it unique or specially created just to cast doubt on the gospels. Rather, that list (the original, not your twisted, warped version of each point) is indeed a well-used, valuable, and insightful framework for such evaluations.

    Jonathan, my only critique of your rebuttals is that I wish you had gone into a bit more depth to show how Randal did twist and exaggerate every point in that list in order to either discount it or make it seem as if it supported his argument. None of them did. Other than that, good job! I’m impressed that this was your first debate!

    Finally, to Randal again: your express and careful wording of the point that (paraphrasing, obviously) Christians would find your three selected points quite easy to believe, because they already start from a belief in God, is the classic example of begging the question, in the classic sense, not the modern mangled one. If one must start from such a belief to find the arguments for historical reliability of these three tidbits (let alone the rest of the gospels) convincing, then you haven’t proven the historical reliability one whit. Further, throwing all the rest of the gospels out and only concentrating on these three bits, which Jonathan rightly points out are unprovable by any means possible OTHER than prior belief in God and the supernatural, why then, to any impartial observer, you’ve conceded the debate before you’ve started.

  11. says

    Barefoot Bree:

    // Further, throwing all the rest of the gospels out and only concentrating on these three bits, which Jonathan rightly points out are unprovable by any means possible OTHER than prior belief in God and the supernatural, why then, to any impartial observer, you’ve conceded the debate before you’ve started. //

    Out of curiosity: why shouldn’t one approach issues like the resurrection of Jesus with the prior belief that God exists? (If I’ve misunderstood you, please do correct me.)

  12. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    @Thomas Larsen #13:

    why shouldn’t one approach issues like the resurrection of Jesus with the prior belief that God exists?

    Which god?
    If it’s a god with lots of specific characteristics necessary to expect it to intervene in ways described by the holy book, you’d be using the holy book to define the god; then using that god to make the stories plausible. It’s circular and arbitrarily justifies whatever you want.
     
    A deist god that created the universe and winked out wouldn’t be impregnating virgins with itself, performing magic for the locals, and making a spectacle of after ‘dying’. A Muslim flavor of the abrahamic god wouldn’t perform that resurrection: Jesus let a stunt double die while he ascended (or fled). Anubis wouldn’t make the stories work either…

  13. says

    Barefoot Bree says

    “Randal is obviously no historian, and has no idea of how historians evaluate possible sources.”

    Really? I’ve been teaching graduate level history classes for ten years. If you listened to the debate you would have heard that I carefully went through Jonathan’s stated criteria and pointed out how and why they fail.

    “Finally, to Randal again: your express and careful wording of the point that (paraphrasing, obviously) Christians would find your three selected points quite easy to believe, because they already start from a belief in God, is the classic example of begging the question, in the classic sense, not the modern mangled one.”

    Unfortunately it seems that you didn’t follow the argument. The first thing you have to recognize is that nobody assesses historical claims from a neutral standpoint. Everyone is committed to a particular set of beliefs. So let’s say that two people are evaluating the historical case for the virgin conception of Jesus. One of those two people is a committed naturalist while the other is a Christian. Neither of those standpoints is neutral. Each individual evaluates the historical evidence relative to a background set of commitments about the structure of reality.

    This means that the Christian and naturalist will have different evidential requirements to assent to the virginal conception of Jesus. By specifying my audience I made it clear that I was concerned with removing defeaters to the Christian’s historical assent to this claim.

    So where then does this leave the naturalist or other skeptic? Granted, it suggests that they won’t assent to the virginal conception based on the same evidence the Christian would. However, it still leaves it open that they might come to assent to the existence of God on independent evidential grounds. And then they might assent to the truth of Christianity on still other independent grounds. If that were to occur then they too could benefit from the evidence I laid out in my argument.

    To sum up, the take away for the naturalist listening to this debate is that a Christian can rationally assent to the virginal conception of Jesus on historical grounds. And that is not an insignificant achievement.

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  15. Stefansky says

    To all those involved – thank you, especially Randall and Jonathan.

    Randall, one thing that really jumped out at me was your comparison regarding the impact that the length of time between events and the writing has on it’s accuracy. You stated that it can actually improve the veracity of a historical account and compared books about WW II to the writing of M & L. I am wondering if you think that is really fair, given that there were still plenty of people to interview, probably millions of documents to be analyzed, photos, films, thousands of other assessments regarding the war that could only add to our understanding. Whereas with M & L there are only speculative common sources and it probably grew out of an oral passing of stories. Personally, I found this comparison so absurd that I had a hard time focusing on the rest of your arguments.

  16. Barefoot Bree says

    Randal says:

    Really? I’ve been teaching graduate level history classes for ten years. If you listened to the debate you would have heard that I carefully went through Jonathan’s stated criteria and pointed out how and why they fail.

    Really? Then I must wonder what criteria you have been teaching your students for evaluating historical sources, since this seems to be the first time you’ve encountered this list.

    I did listen to the entire thing, and I heard you call it an “ad hoc” list several times, meaning “made up by Jonathan”, and indicating strongly that you’d not encountered them before. This impression was reinforced by the way you twisted several of them into strawmen in order to make them fail.

    For instance, more than once you pretended that the evaluation was an all-or-nothing switch, and to be taken all by itself, rather than a shading of grey to add to the rest of the list (or addition of numbers to the probability equation, if you prefer). A measurement – an artifact opposed to a testimony, for instance – which makes a source “more credible” doesn’t mean that’s it, all you have to know is that it’s an artifact, and therefore is 100% reliable – or that testimony is 100% discountable with no other considerations necessary. It means take a raisin and put it on that (whichever) side of the scale, then move on down the rest of the list of evaluatory considerations.

    Likewise, you twisted the measure of time, as mentioned by the previous commenter. All else being equal, a document written soon after the events in question would carry greater gravitas than one written several decades later. But in your two examples, all else was NOT equal. The two writers had different levels of access to a different breadth of documentation, different primary sources, had come from different backgrounds, etc etc ad nauseum. And it is all those other measures, amply (but not exhaustively) covered by Jonathan’s enumerated list, which would cause the evaluator of those two books to place a much lower weight to this particular measurement (that of time), or perhaps none at all. If Jonathan erred at all in his presentation, it was in not stressing the cumulative and variable weights given to each item of the list, and that the entire list – and more besides – are available to evaluate source reliability.

    So again, I would dearly like to know: what are you teaching your students about how to evaluate sources?

    I may return to your other point of intended audience and subsequent scope of argument later.

  17. says

    Stefansky,

    Thanks for your comment. Let’s start with Jonathan’s third principle: “The closer a source is to the event which it purports to describe, the more one can trust it to give an accurate historical description of what actually happened.” It was my burden to refute this principle as stated and that I did by providing one of innumerable disconfirming cases, i.e. WW2 histories. In addition, I pointed out that Jonathan himself doesn’t follow this principle when he accepts a contemporary skeptical account of the Lourdes healings over testimonials contemporaneous with the events themselves which, according to the principle, should trump any account written 150 years later.

    Despite these problems, you seem to think that this principle is at least true when applied to ancient history. Indeed, you think it is so obviously true when applied to ancient history that the denial of it in ancient history is absurd. But no such contrast in ancient and modern historiography exists. Proximity of testimony to the event described is simply not adequate provide meaningful guidance for the evaluation of the source. If you did want to argue your case you’d have to define the proximate cases in which this alleged principle does and does not apply and why it applies in just the cases it does and not others.

  18. says

    Randal

    On my third point, as mentioned here, these points (and I did not mention this, so you do have a right to point this out) hold strength in an approach of ceteris paraibus – all other things remaining equal. If a later source can mitigate its distance from the events with an ability to survey a set of varied and accurate OTHER sources, then this CAN make a later source more accurate.

    The whole issue here is that we have NO idea as to what the sources for the Gospels were, and whether they were accurate.With WW2 histories, a dearth of varied sources from thousands of historians and artifacts come into the later historian’s hands. As such, such histories can and do improve over time.

    The Gospels should not, however, be compared to such texts. 1) they are not histories anyway 2) they did not go through the same process.

    The authors simply did not survey, at least we have no idea they did, a range of historical sources in an attempt to garner the most accurate account.

    With the works you cited, we can actually access the sources used. We know exactly what sources were used by interviewing the authors or checking their bibliographies, which will be entirely different. From this, we can ascertain who would be more accurate and account for the differences.

    Of course, such analysis is impossible for the Gospels. All we have is a guessed date. With no knowledge of the sources, we can only suppose that, even if they did use eyewitnesses, and due to the weakness of memory etc, that a date closer to the event will be more accurate,

  19. Matthew Hodson says

    Why is it necessary for Jonathan to point out the obvious distinctions in post #20 above?
    History is fascinating in part because there are so many mysteries, new discoveries and analysis can shed light on these from time to time and offer varying degrees of certainty for one or other series of events.
    I enjoy rigorous debate about the bible’s authorship, history and relation to other contemporary writings.

    Why debate an apologist? Almost invariably the lack of serious argument from the apologist leads to the audience cringing in horror at the sheer lack of intellectual credibility.

    Randal was no exception. I had to stop listening several times. That Christians believe in the historicity of the story in which the god they believe in plays the staring roll is not an argument for historicity. Two documents agree on some, arguably theologically important elements of the story. Randal’s only evidence for historicity is these same two documents which both include other elements that are clearly unlikely to be historically accurate, were borrowed from other stories and/or seem to be constructed for theological rather than historical narrative purposes.

    Surely there are better arguments for historicity of the nativity. From this debate it seems we have no grounds for assigning any positive value to the likelihood of any aspect of the story, other than say babies were born in Palestine in the first century.

  20. haitied says

    I’m glad it was conceded early that all the evidence needed for the Christian that the nativity was historically true was it’s in the Bible. I still listened but at least it started honest.

  21. Barefoot Bree says

    I had a long message typed out, but decided it was getting too personal. Herein is an abbreviated version. Randal, I went to your website and looked at your “About me” page, and even read through your publicly-linked CV. I stand by my assessment: you are not a historian. You are a theologian, teaching in a seminary. There are only two classes listed among those you have taught that even come close to the subject of history (and they’re on church history).

    Why am I harping on this? And why do I take issue with your specific, narrow focus within the debate? Because the debate was supposed to be on this specific question (and I’m quoting directly from Justin’s intro here): “Are the nativity accounts in gospels Matthew and Luke historically reliable?” Not “convincing to theists”. Are they “historically reliable”? The very words imply the intent: can trained, methodical historians investigate these accounts and – using the tools at their disposal, the very tools of their trade – rate them as reliable; in other words, can we trust in the consistency of the author’s account of the truth?

    Immediately constricting your audience to Christians, thereby imposing the belief in God as a prerequisite, and implicitly barring neutral historians from weighing in on your arguments, twists the very question you were supposedly attempting to resolve. And by the way, I find your insistence that “everybody is committed to a particular set of beliefs” a trifle insulting to professional historians. While it is true that one’s prior ideology will largely determine their reaction to the claim of Jesus’ virgin birth, limiting your focus to ONLY those claims which RELY on that prior assumption not only undercuts the supposed topic of the debate, but is antithetical to the very notion of determining reliability. A trained, practiced historian can evaluate the overall historical reliability of the gospel accounts without reference to the supernatural bits, and then use that evaluation to look at said bits, regardless of their background inclination towards theology in general.

    To determine an account’s reliability, you verify every fact which can be verified against other such previously-verified accounts, and other facts as we know them. And yes, Jonathan’s list of criteria IS a commonly-accepted rubric for assisting in the overall assessment. THEN you can use the assessment of the overall reliability as a measure for determining how much credibility to give to the unverifiable portions of the account. The virgin birth is unverifiable. You cannot use it to help measure reliability. Instead, it is one of the items that would benefit – or not – from the determination of the overall reliability of the account.

    In short, you are arguing like a theologian, not a historian. While that may be your stated intent, it wasn’t how the debate was apparently initially intended, nor how it was marketed (to us listeners of Reasonable Doubts).

    If nothing else, however, it’s a perfect example of the difference between history and apologetics.

  22. Barefoot Bree says

    On second thought, I am going to expand a bit.

    A historian is someone who digs up and looks at primary historical documents: diaries, maps, letters, bills of lading, census records, church attendance records, births, deaths, baptisms, farm and harvest reports, business records, military records, yada yada yada, all the gazillion different things one might find in a musty old archive somewhere. He looks at them, evaluates them (usually with the help of established frameworks for doing so – such as Jonathan presented), and slowly coagulates them into a coherent, reliable narrative, most often in either a published book or an article in a published and often peer-reviewed journal – and sometimes textbooks.

    A history buff is someone who reads those books and articles, and often turns around and writes about them, but does not do the primary research themselves. Most textbooks (I believe – but I may be wrong) are written by history buffs, not historians. You can’t just read what others have written and regurgitate it, no matter how high the stack, and call yourself a historian.

    A history teacher, with no other additional information, can be nothing more than someone who presents the material in one or more textbooks (sometimes supplemented by other published books or articles – but all written by somebody else) to students. Now, additional information is critical. Perhaps they are a history buff (but even that’s not necessary to get a slot teaching a particular history course). Perhaps they’ve written books themselves based on other books. Perhaps they might even be a historian who has done the primary research. But not necessarily. And one cannot assume any of that without evidence.

  23. Barefoot Bree says

    Dammit, missed the last bit again. Please add this to the final paragraph of my last post:

    One can teach history without teaching – or even understanding – historiography:
    the body of techniques, theories, and principles of historical research and presentation; methods of historical scholarship; the narrative presentation of history based on a critical examination, evaluation, and selection of material from primary and secondary sources and subject to scholarly criteria.
    (Dictionary.com)

  24. John Grove says

    Randal says, ” I am SUPREMELY confident of my position”

    Ah Christians………and religious certainty. Randal, your position presented is weak indeed and if you are supremely confident in that position you can be swayed with damn near anything.

  25. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    @John Grove 26:
    Randal didn’t say that.

    Jonathan #4 wrote:

    I wanted to continue to debate this in written form to the end. I am SUPREMELY confident of my position. However, Randal does not want to do this

    Randal #6 wrote:

    supreme confidence can be overrated. Unfortunately I don’t have time to debate this further.

  26. says

    Jonathan, the gospels are examples of ancient biography so your denial that they are history is just outright false.

    You haven’t addressed the Lourdes point.

    As for your new ceteris paribus qualification, that weakens your principle to irrelevance given the abundance of factors that must be considered in the historical value of any document. Remember you were offering these as nine principles that undermine the historicity of M and L. So what you need to do is demonstrate that the factors are operative in this case.

    Consequently, invoking your principle three is like an automotive journalist saying that all things being equal a good sports car will have a large displacement engine. There are simply too many factors involved in the evaluation of a good sports car to make that a meaningful distinction. My WW2 and Lourdes examples do the same with your principle three, thereby demonstrating that it is a rhetorical tool rather than a meaningful principle in historiography.

  27. says

    Hi Randal

    Let me evoke the heads you win tails I lose scenario, often adopted by Christians, as detailed here:
    http://skepticink.com/tippling/2012/12/26/heads-you-win-tails-i-lose-1/

    This is where Christians claim contradictory or any criteria as supporting their evidential approach to biblical historicity (or evidence for God in any number of ways). Whether it be the criterion of dissimilarity being used in the same breath as the criterion of coherence; or whether is is a temporally closer Gospel is more accurate when it suits you, or further away in another context.

    What it seems that you are doing is heralding any claim about the Gospels (historiographically speaking) as either void or defending you position. In actual fact, there seems to be no epistemic way that the Gospels can fail. They are so close to the original eyewitnesses in comparison to so many other historical accounts that they are true! They are further away (90 years, if Jonathan is right) – but hang on, accounts further away are more often more accurate!

    And so on.

    These are the aspects we are fairly sure of:

    Authors of M and L do not use methodology associated with good historians (and you DID call them historians).
    They were not eyewitnesses.
    We have no knowledge of who their sources were.
    and so on, as mentioned.

    They could have been written by eyewitnesses, or contemporaneously. They weren’t.
    They could have been written much later using various authenticated sources and historical methods (as your analogies). They weren’t and didn’t.

    What does this leave us with?

    Not an awful lot.

    Can we have over 50% probability that they were reliable? Absolutely not. You can’t question them. When they are cross-referenced in the nativity narratives with other historical facts, they are found to be inaccurate and so on as mentioned. Yet, somehow, they receive what, to me, must be some way over 50% probability of being accurate to earn the title of historically reliable documents. Even though their claims are outlandish. Even though we don;t know who, where or when they were written beyond educated guesses. Even though we don’t know who the sources were. Even thought they are admitted ex post facto evangelising believers.

    etc etc

  28. Khue says

    Long time listener/lurker. I had a question. I think I heard it in one of the Reasonable Doubts podcasts, but I seem to recall some sort of reference to the fact that Matthew and Luke are both based off of Mark or at least the common components of M and L are based off Mark. Due to the nature of the fact that that both M and L are based off that single source for certain components, who’s to say that the sources from where they get the Nativity information from aren’t in fact one in the same? At best doesn’t this make them a potentially Secondary source? Furthermore, if you go with the theory that Nativity information shared between M and L are pulled from another single source, how do you say with any sort of reasonable certainty that the hypothetical third source is even a primary source to begin with or how do you even verify that the ambiguous third source is even a work of non fiction?

    Apologies if I have misinterpreted anything and per usual feel free to correct me as I understand I have a very limited understanding of the subject matter.

  29. says

    Jonathon comment #20 includes: With WW2 histories, a dearth of varied sources from thousands of historians and artifacts come into the later historian’s hands. As such, such histories can and do improve over time. Recommended edit: change ‘dearth’ to ‘plethora.’

    Randall Rauser’s argument from first to last is the same one presented each time by all apologists in all their debates and written works: argument from presupposition, based on appeal to authority (the authority the presumed supernatural author of so-called scripture [in the Bible when it is Christian presuppositionists] abundant with fantasy events that defy natural processes), supported by circumstantial evidence from unverifiable sources, e.g. the Gospels.

    Randall Rauser comment #29 (paraphrased): the Gospels are examples of ancient biography. This comment alone impeaches Mr. Rauser’s claim to the title of historian/history teacher.

  30. says

    Jonathan caricatures me as saying the Gospels “are so close to the original eyewitnesses in comparison to so many other historical accounts that they are true! They are further away (90 years, if Jonathan is right) – but hang on, accounts further away are more often more accurate!”

    As I pointed out in the debate, there are two main ways scholars date Luke. I go for the earlier dating in the early sixties (and I explained in the debate why). That is a reasonable historical reconstruction of the evidence as we have it. And it places Luke within thirty years of the death of Christ and Mark even earlier. In addition, passages like 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 can be dated to sources within a couple years of the death of Christ (this from the great scholar James Dunn, no friend to conservative Christianity).

    To have sources this close in orgination to the events described is quite unique in the ancient world.

    As for your last quip, the point is not that later accounts are always more accurate. The point, rather, is that your attempted crafting of historiographical principles (first unqualified, then ceteris paribus) to suit your polemical purposes is tendentious and facile.

  31. says

    Khue,

    First, a caveat: the reconstructions of source and form criticism are tentative reconstructions open to revision so they should be taken with a grain (or a pinch) of salt.

    Second, this is the way things are typically broken down. Matthew and Luke both have two kinds of shared material. Some of it appears to be drawn from Mark and thus Mark is considered a source for Matthew and Luke. But there is another independent source which has led critics to speculate that there is another written source called Q (from the German for “Quelle” or source). Although other critics challenge the very existence of Q, and it is certainly possible to explain the shared non-Markan material in Matthew and Luke in other ways (e.g. shared oral tradition).

    Finally, there is material that is independent to Matthew and Luke. These sources are typically called the M source (for material unique to Matthew) and the L source (for material unique to Luke).

    To sum up, it seems that Matthew is composed of material from Mark, Q and material that Matthew compiled independently while Luke is composed of material from Mark, Q and material that Luke compiled independently.

    The Natitivity sources (which I called M and L) fit into the third source as material independent and unique to Matthew and Luke.

    Is it possible that the Nativity material could all be drawn from one large nativity narrative in Q? That’s possible in the same way that it is possible aliens could land on the White House lawn tomorrow. But we have to stick with most plausible reconstructions in history and that reconstruction is not at all plausible.

  32. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    @Khue #31:

    I seem to recall some sort of reference to the fact that Matthew and Luke are both based off of Mark or at least the common components of M and L are based off Mark.

    Article: Wikipedia – Q Source
     

    Due to the nature of the fact that that both M and L are based off that single source for certain components, who’s to say that the sources from where they get the Nativity information from aren’t in fact one in the same?

    Article: Wikipedia – Nativity of Jesus…

    “The accounts of the Nativity of Jesus in the New Testament appear in only two of the four Canonical Gospels, namely the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew. Luke’s story takes place mostly before the birth of Jesus and centers on Mary, while Matthew’s story takes place mostly after the birth of Jesus and centers on Joseph. The two other canonical gospels, the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John, begin their narratives of Jesus’s life in his adulthood; both mention him coming out of Galilee and John mentions the name of Jesus’ father, but neither John nor Mark gives any other details of his life prior to adulthood.”
    […]
    “Some critical scholars have considered the birth narratives unhistorical because they are laced with theology and appear to present two different accounts. For instance, they point to Matthew’s account of the appearance of an angel in a dream, to Joseph; the wise men from the east; the massacre of the innocents; and the flight to Egypt, which do not appear in Luke, which instead describes the appearance of an angel to Mary; the worldwide census; the birth in a manger, and the choir of angels.”

  33. busterggi says

    “To have sources this close in orgination to the events described is quite unique in the ancient world.”

    Really? Really?

    I guess the thousands of surviving inscriptions, cuneiform tablets, papyrus records and others from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Turkey, China, etc don’t exist in your world – in my world they do and they range from monumental boasts of Babylonian kings to sales receipts from wine merchants to graffiti on ancient walls.

  34. says

    I’m only half way through this episode, and it really underscores the weakness of apologetic arguments. Rauser starts by spending 15-20 minutes arguing that the gospels could plausibly be historical accounts, not that there’s evidence for them being historical accounts. Plausibility only sets one up to defend the central claim of the debate; it does not defend it. Even then, he only argues that it’s plausible if you’re a Christian – i.e. if you already believe the miraculous claims in them. That’s like saying “I’ve shown that people who believe X is true believe X is true.” Then he takes a subset of nine criteria for determining credibility in a Bayesian manner and treats each like a solitary make-or-break binary criterion, “disproving” them using some very poor examples that are easily explained by taking the nine criteria in context. His argument was like saying “if gravity really pulls stuff down on Earth, then this helium-filled balloon will fall to the ground when I let go, but if it goes up, then gravity is disproved.” That would only be true if “gravity pulls stuff down on Earth” was an absolute statement with no need to specify context or details.

    I really like this debate format, but the debate itself is, so far (at the 51 minute mark), rather poor, with one side making really terrible arguments that don’t stand up to the smallest bit of scrutiny.

  35. says

    Hello again, peoples.

    Let me just state this. People here are rightly making some good arguments against Randal’s approach, both as stated in the arguments and as stated here. I feel, and I am sure you might as well, that many of these criticisms were not brought up by me in the debate. I really, really struggled to deal with everything in the time given. This is simply because, especially with extended time for the opening statements, there was a huge number of points to cover. I had to simply ignore a range of points that Randal made, without even referring to them, and Randal likewise with mine. This is why this post match conversation is so important.

    Randal, I would like to ask you a simple question.

    Do you find the larger number of claims outside of the 3 core points you expressed, in the nativity accounts, to be historically reliable? (If so, on what basis?)

  36. says

    Jonathan, I don’t think any of us are unaware of that particular problem. That’s one of the reasons I dislike the debate format as a rule, because it lends itself so easily to the Gish Gallop. I feel that a directed, exclusive, long conversation, one point at a time, is a much better way of hashing things out and coming to some sort of understanding. *IF* that’s what both parties are after. Otherwise, the debate is often merely a public platform for an extended advertisement with very little room for in-depth challenge. Those challenges which are raised in the rebuttals can be easily swept aside with the single allowed reply at the end.

    In spite of the sometimes hostile atmosphere, I do also hope that both of you, Randal and Jonathan, do stick around here for this after-conversation.

  37. says

    incidentally, most of the core principles were taken from Howell and Prevenier’s “From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods”. They are taken from Chapter 3: Historical Interpretation: The Traditional Basics

    http://www.amazon.com/From-Reliable-Sources-Introduction-Historical/dp/0801485606/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1356637486&sr=1-1

    I really don’t think they are in any way controversial, certainly not ad hoc, and were not derived out of any work to do with the historical Jesus. They actually come out of 19th century work into historical methodology (source comparison), when historical methods were first analysed and developed in an academic way.

  38. says

    Did the family of Jesus know he had been born of a virgin?

    Why do Christians claim James was a sceptic? Didn’t he know his brother had been born of a virgin?

  39. says

    I would just like to post this response to the debate from a facebook group that Justin and I are members of. It might also be of interest to Randal:

    I greatly enjoyed the debate. The format was good because all statements and replies were meaty and dealt with the issues. On the fly rhetorical skill was not a factor. Though, as someone who particular appreciates rhetorical skill, the fact that you guys were probably reading off of your screens and not in front of a crowd took some “oomph” out of the delivery. I liked the one part where Randal sounded like he was in an auditorium because there was a slight echo. I found it added great aesthetic value to the recording given that this was a recording of a debate.

    I think I would have to say it was a draw. The reason for this is because, as a Christian, I felt Randal “won.” There is also the fact that I went to Taylor and Randal was a professor of mine (I didn’t take a class with him, but I sat in on lectures, seminars, talked in his office, went for coffee with him, I’ve read his blog for years, etc). So no doubt that plays a factor as I may get more out of the phrases, terms, sources, and analogies that Randal uses because I’ve heard him use them (or things like them) before and thus have heard him expand on those points, thus giving Randal a content edge on Johnathan to my listening ears.

    However, if I were an atheist, I probably would have given it to Jonathan given that Jonathan hits on points that seem to bug atheists more than they do Christians (E.g. biased authors with an agenda, historical flexibilities, theological writing, inconsistencies, etc.) and Randal didn’t address those points in a way that, if I were an atheist, I would probably find even remotely satisfying (though I found his reasoning for his lack of addressing them satisfying as a Christian and as someone who knows Randal personally).

    Thus, if I would think one side won largely based on what side of the debate I was on, I would have to say the debate was a draw. Don’t get me wrong though, that doesn’t mean I don’t think it was helpful, or that neither side made excellent points, or that this debate was a waste of time. I think this was an incredibly useful debate and should be heard by all interested in these issues. It is one of those debates where you will go after each speaker “well how is the other guy going to respond to THAT!?”

    Thank you to all involved. If I were basing my opinion on those involved with this debate (debaters and RD Podcast) on the debate alone I would feel that all parties were respectful individuals seeking to discover truth wherever it led. And what more can you ask from a debate?

  40. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    @Relayed Facebook Comment #43:

    as a Christian, I felt Randal “won.”
    […]
    I sat in on lectures, seminars, talked in his office, went for coffee with him, I’ve read his blog for years, etc). So no doubt that plays a factor as I may get more out of the phrases, terms, sources, and analogies that Randal uses because I’ve heard him use them (or things like them) before
    […]
    I found his reasoning for his lack of addressing [Jonathan’s points] satisfying as a Christian and as someone who knows Randal personally

    Separating what’s uniquely in your head from what was presented is necessary for judging the content on its own merits. Otherwise you’re just describing your own reaction, a review that would be unhelpful to others and rehearses the personal bias.

    For example, sometimes it can require taking an additional deliberative pass at a story to disabuse oneself of positive baggage from its franchise before deciding it’s worth recommending.
     

    points that seem to bug atheists more than they do Christians (E.g. biased authors with an agenda, historical flexibilities, theological writing, inconsistencies, etc.)

    The topic is historicity: to what extent things the authors wrote can be said to accurately portray events.

    What, if anything, should Christians be more concerned with then?
    (Besides reassurances that they can still call themselves Christians regardless of the debate’s outcome.)
     

    I would feel that all parties were respectful individuals seeking to discover truth wherever it led. And what more can you ask from a debate?

    Substantive content and rebuttals.

  41. says

    Mr. Rauser’s several times makes the claim the M and L are “prima facie credible,” but I don’t remember him ever explaining the criteria for this designation or how M and L meet these criteria. Did I miss it? It seemed to be a bare assertion.

    In my opinion, I think Mr. Rauser lost this debate by failing to address—please correct me if I missed it—M and L’s contradictions (e.g., date of the nativity), the absolute absurdity of the census, the problems with the star of Bethlehem, the complete silence about the flight to Egypt in one account, etc.. When your opponent pokes gigantic holes in the Gospel accounts and you don’t even respond to them, you’re simply not addressing the question of the debate: “Are the nativity accounts in gospels Matthew and Luke historically reliable?”

    What’s even more telling is that Mr. Rauser fails to address the issue with the Hadith and explain why he’s not applying a double standard for his own religious tradition. In fact, he more or less admits to it in his closing statement when he says that the resurrection and life of Jesus give the nativity story more plausibility. The thinking seems to be that, “My religion is true, therefore its miracle stories are somewhat plausible. But other religions are false, therefore its miracle stories are completely implausible and can be dismissed out of hand.” And then I almost did a spit take when I heard him accuse Mr. Pearce of “history driven by ideology” and of crafting “ad hoc” historical principles to refute the nativity accounts. Just wow.

    Note: This is my first time posting here, so I’m not sure how to get a line between my paragraphs, so I’m sorry for any readability issues.

  42. says

    I concur with the comment immediately previous. Rauser’s entire argument seems predicated on the assumption that Matthew and Luke are credible, yet does not address the fact that at least one (if not both) of them got many major, important events wrong. On what grounds does Rauser judge Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts to both be credible, given the fact that they are mutually incompatible?

  43. says

    ‘with reference to the last few comments:

    This was the main tack that I used, and I felt it was woefully ignored.

    Basically, if at the times when one IS able to cross reference the claims of M and L, they fail, then on what basis can one credibly maintain 3 unverifiable claims are true? On what basis is that credibility built, considering the weakness of the other claims.

    The subject of the debate was not “Are 3 particular claims of M and L historically reliable?” but M and L as a whole. Just because RR uses those 3 points to represent M and L does not mean that they actually ARE representative of M and L! So RR really did need to deal with these other problematic claims. He did not do so, and I feel that is a crucial issue in the debate for his case.

  44. daniel1948 says

    What first struck me about the debate was that Randal begins by asserting the conclusion: The question under debate was whether the nativity accounts in Matthew and Luke are reliable, and Randal begins by asserting, without any evidence, they they are reliable on the face of it. Asserting a conclusion is not a valid argument for that conclusion. His reason seems to be that because so many people believe the accounts, those accounts are reliable.

    This is a logical fallacy. The number of people who believe a proposition is not evidence for it.

    Unfortunately, Jonathan makes the mistake of asserting that the more correct statements a witness makes, the more reliable is his testimony. In fact, eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable.

    OTOH, Jonathan does an excellent job of listing a large number of factual errors in Matthew and Luke. And what is definitely true (though he does not adequately stress the fact) is that the more errors an account contains, the less reliable the account in whole becomes.

    Nearly EVERY SINGLE verifiable claim made in the Gospel accounts turns out, upon investigation, to be untrue. The only claims remaining in question are ones which are unverifiable. This, far from constituting reliable evidence for the claims, constitutes in fact strong argument against them.

    When one considers the nature of the claims, which are impossible in the normal course of events (except for Jesus’s place of birth, which could have been anywhere in the region) we must acknowledge the accepted principle that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. A virgin birth and a resurrection after death, are certainly extraordinary claims, and the assertion that they are reliable on the face of them merely because so many people believe them is preposterous. We have two accounts, riddled with errors, which make impossible claims requiring the miraculous suspension of the laws of biology, and the obvious conclusion is that the only basis for accepting those accounts is an unquestioning, uncritical, and unscientific faith in the dogmas of mainstream Christianity.

    While Jonathan’s presentation left something to be desired, the clear conclusion is that the Gospel accounts are not reliable.

    As a side note, Randal suggested that Pauline trinitarianism is the only Christianity. In the early days, there were several Christianities, most of which were more consistent internally than is the Pauline version, which evolved as Paul and his followers battled opposing dogmas from both sides, including the Ebionites, who believed that Jesus was not a god, but merely a man adopted by God at his baptism, and the Marcionites, who believed he was purely god and not a man at all and was not actually crucified. Of all the versions of Christianity, trinitarianism is the most illogical and the most impossible to defend in any coherent manner.

    Randal does do a very good job of obfuscation in his attempt to bolster one particular supernatural belief system.

  45. says

    Regarding the virgin birth in particular, I think one might want to stress that the best evidence Matthew or Luke could theoretically have had was the testimony of Mary herself, but even this would be quite insufficient to make the claim credible given the incredibly low prior probability of a virgin becoming pregnant. And if either one of them somehow had interviewed Joseph, that would lend even less credibility given that he wouldn’t have been with Mary around the clock every day in the nine months before Jesus’ birth and would need to rely on Mary’s claim as hearsay. At best, the nativity accounts could establish that some woman claimed to have been a virgin when she gave birth, but it’s not clear even that’s the case.

  46. daniel1948 says

    To expand on what Secular Planet says, let’s ask ourselves which is more likely: A young woman gets married to an older man in an arranged marriage, and before her new husband has relations with her, he discovers that she is pregnant. She tells him, “The Holy Ghost did it.”

    Is it more likely that her pregnancy was miraculous, or that she is inventing a story so that she will not be stoned to death for adultery, as was the punishment of the time? Joseph went along with the story, claiming to have also been visited by the angel, to save face himself. According to the story, there were no witnesses at all to the angelic visitations. Only Mary’s and Joseph’s stories.

    On another point that I neglected to mention in my earlier post, Randall commits another massive and obvious bit of logical chicanery when he asserts that the resurrection has been proven, but he refuses to provide any evidence for this other than naming the author of a book, and then Randal uses his baseless claim of resurrection to bolster his argument for a virgin birth. He argues that since the resurrection happened, it’s no stretch to believe in the virgin birth.

    He excuses himself from demonstrating any credibility for the resurrection claim by saying that that’s not the subject of the debate. It is true that the resurrection is not the subject of the debate. But if he wishes to bring in the resurrection as evidence in favor of the virgin birth, then he is required to demonstrate the veracity of the resurrection. Since he does not provide any evidence for the resurrection other than to name an author who for all we know could be a total crackpot, he cannot assert the resurrection as evidence in favor of the vitgin birth.

    Randal is very smooth, but his entire argument is built upon empty claims and worthless logical fallacies.

    It is clear that the Gospels are fictional accounts based on a common religious belief in the divinity of Jesus. Matthew and Luke clearly both relied on several indirect non-eyewitness sources, some of which overlapped and some of which did not. There were clearly numerous accounts of the birth of Jesus which arose within a widely-dispersed community of Christians who had limited communication among groups, resulting in some common elements and some independent elements, so that they agree in some points, but are incompatible in others, so that they CANNOT all be literally true in all respects. And if there are errors, as there clearly are, and Jonathan cited a number of them, then the entirety of the Gospel accounts becomes unreliable, and any claims that violate the known laws of biology are most probably untrue. Randal makes much of the supposed independence of Matthew and Luke because they have such different accounts. But since they clearly come from a single faith community with a common dogma, their independence is of little value, while their incompatibilities show that they cannot be accurate overall.

    BTW, the council that assembled the canon was well aware of the contradictions throughout the Bible and allowed them to pass because THEY NEVER REGARDED THE BIBLE AS LITERALLY TRUE. The Bible before Luther was seen as a testament to faith, not as an accurate historical account. The authority of the Church, not the stories in the Bible, was seen as the arbiter of dogma. It was only when Luther posted his famous theses that the Bible was seen as anything more than stories, or even made available to the lay public. And by then, more than a thousand years had passed and it was easy to lose sight of the Bible’s original place in faith, and to re-assign it a new position in an attempt to undermine the authority of an extremely corrupt Church bureaucracy where indulgences were bought and sold and popes and cardinals kept mistresses.

    Nothing in the Bible constitutes reliable evidence of anything

  47. jimthompson says

    I was stunned to hear the comments on the Big Bang and DNA.

    There is a lot of research into abiogenesis that is fairly promising.
    Scientists don’t think that DNA “poofed” into being, creationists do.

    Perhaps he should listen to Dr Krauss on “nothing” as well.

    Perhaps I’m reading too much into his comments, maybe he’ll drop back in and explain

  48. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    @jimthompson #52:

    There is a lot of research into abiogenesis that is fairly promising.

    Lecture: Robert Hazen – The Emergence of Life on Earth

  49. says

    Jim

    I simply ignored those comments as I felt they were sooo problematic, but also too time consuming and irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

    Unfortunately, Jonathan makes the mistake of asserting that the more correct statements a witness makes, the more reliable is his testimony. In fact, eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable.

    My point was to communicate the rather intuitive criterion of reliability (general rule for which there are of course exceptions) that the more independent attestations there are of a claim, the more likely it is to be reliable. In the case of RR’s case, he does not do enough to back up the claim that M and L are independent, or that their gist is independent and so on. It seem that the core stories draw on other sources (Mark and or Q) and that the infancy narratives were tacked on, adopting the agendas of the respective authors.

  50. LawnBoy says

    Jonathan,

    Thanks for pointing out the “Head I Win, Tails You Lose” aspect of Randall’s approach. It drove me nuts listening to the debate for him to say, essentially, “That they sometimes agree makes them credible, and that they sometimes disagree makes them credible.” I’ll agree that independent complementary reports build credibility, but independent contradictory reports don’t. Randall ignores that distinction and wants us to think that differences themselves build credibility. They don’t when they are as contradictory as these stories.

    Also, I literally facepalmed near the end when Randall ridiculed atheists for accepting the Big Bang and Evolution on what he termed as something like worshipping chance.

    No, Randall, we accept Scientific theories that are supported by evidence and reasoned logic. That you don’t understand the difference is a huge mark against your credibility.

  51. says

    Lawnboy

    Thanks! I have to say that the technique of heads you win tails I lose is pervasive throughout Christian theology and ‘historical research’, as well as in treatments of science. It certainly gets my goat!

  52. greg1466 says

    I’m not sure why I bothered listening to the entire podcast after hearing Randals opening post. When you start with the premise of “Let’s assume M & L are historically accurate, therefore I believe that they are historically accurate”, it doesn’t inspire confidence that you are debating with intellectual integrity.

  53. Zack says

    I think it’s very simple to show that the Nativity narratives in Matthew and Luke are not reliable historical materials.
    The only way to verify a virgin birth is by physical examination. An ancient text cannot prove a virgin birth. How many virgin births of humans have been verified? Zero. How many virgin births are claimed by mythological and religious texts? Countless. What’s more likely, that it really happened or that it is mythology? If a mundane event is recorded in an ancient text there is no reason to doubt it unless it’s contradicted by another text. For example if Mary had given birth to twins, there would be no reason to doubt it because people are known to have twins. If an ancient text claims that something supernatural or impossible happened modern historian DO NOT take it at face value. Historians might say it is claimed but do not say that it really happened. If virgin births were mundane in human populations, then there would be no reason to doubt that Mary had a virgin birth. If we lived in a fantasy world where gods regularly had intercourse with humans and always made it seem like a virgin birth, then we would have no reason to doubt it.

    2000 years ago most important people, for example, Julius Caesar, claimed to have been born of a virgin and the son of a god. It would be ridiculous to read a history book about Julius Caesar that said was born of a virgin as matter-of-fact. In fact if you treated all ancient texts (even if you allowed for multiple attestations, the caliber of the person, etc.), history would be an absolutely absurd fantasy land where a Cyclops really lives in the Adriatic sea and Poseidon rules over mermaids and sirens. In our fantasy world, every other important person was born of a virgin and a son of a god, people went around performing miracles and Greco-Roman gods were as real as people. In such a world it would be impossible to construct an objective narrative of the Messiah. The “objective historian” would be forced to accept the hundreds of different Messiahs. Remember, according to Rauser, if any two obscure people attest to a supernatural event, and if the teachings were good, and if the teacher died because of his beliefs, it must be credible. In such a world it would also be impossible to adhere to one religion; you’d have to believe in ALL religions.

    Even more ridiculous; consider Randal’s Lincoln example. Lincoln was a great teacher and died because of his beliefs. If we tack a virgin birth story onto the historical narrative, then Randal should believe it.
    Two of us nobodies should re-publish the Lincoln story as best we can. One of us should omit the Civil War just to make them wonder in the future. Both of us should claim that he’s the son of a god and make up fake, contradictory genealogies. Since we’re already writing 148 years after his death, try to write in an early 20th century style to make it seem at least plausible. Then we’ll create a religion based on Lincoln’s beliefs. In 2000 years, a person like Randal will believe it’s absolutely true!

  54. Zack says

    Matthew and Luke cannot be reliable historical documents because they cannot be used answer basic historical questions.

    1. When was Jesus born? (contradiction; Matthew: Before 4 BCE; Luke:After 6CE)
    2. Who was the ruler at the time of Jesus’ birth? (contradiction; Matthew: Herod; Luke: Quirnius)
    3. Did King Herod slaughter all of the male babies? (Matthew only; cannot be verified by any other source and Luke’s narrative is contradictory)
    4. What city did Mary and Joseph come from? (contradiction; Matthew: Bethlehem; Luke: Nazereth)
    5. Was there a census? (This would have been recorded by Romans – it was not)
    6. Did the census require males to go to the city of their ancestors? (Luke only – Matthew’s narrative contradicts it; it’s completely illogical; it would definitely have been recorded by the Romans and been vigorously debated and would be the most outlandish thing the Romans have ever done! )
    7. Did a star guide the Maggi to Jesus? (Only in one Gospel – would have been recorded by all civilizations observing the sky – it was not. It’s also illogical. How can a star guide you to a specific dwelling?)
    8. What was Jesus’ genealogy? (contradiction; Matthew and Luke’s genealogy are irreconcilable)
    9. What’s the point of Joseph’s genealogy if Jesus’ father was a god? (inconsistent internal logic)

    Of course, the resurrection story has even more contradictions.

    As historical documents Matthew and Luke are completely useless. You cannot even answer basic questions about Jesus’ birth, without the Gospels contradicting each other or being verified by non-evangelist sources. This is only considering Matthew and Luke as found in the official Christian Cannon. If you consider all of the ancient texts about Jesus’ birth you get every kind of story you can imagine.

    However, it absolutely fits mythology and religious development. Matthew and Luke are good sources if you want to study ancient propaganda, religious development, translation techniques and 3rd Century Church politics; but not if you want to know what really happened.

  55. gshelley says

    Randal lost my sympathies when he started off his argument by saying we can just ignore the obviously false parts of the story and not even consider whether cast doubt on the reliability of the account as a whole, then claiming Papias as a witness to the four gospels with the current names and dating this claim to 90AD, neither of which can be substantiated.

  56. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    @Jonathan MS Pearce #61:
    With regard to Craig acknowledging disciplines’ conclusions and using gainsaying them with his theology, here’s what he said of philosophy; about how the word “cause” is nonsensical in the context of ex-nihilo creation.
     
    Video: TheoreticalBullshit – WLC is Not Doing Himself Any Favors

  57. Cylon says

    I am a newly recovering former Mormon, and this debate was really my first introduction to apologetic arguments for the infant Jesus narrative. I am more familiar with Mormon apologetics, which as you can imagine is ludicrous and relies on obfuscation, logical fallacies, and rhetorical tricks to even try to carve out the tiniest sliver of plausibility.

    After listening to this debate it seems mainstream Christian apologetics is not much better. Others have already pointed out in detail the flaws in Randal’s arguments, so I won’t belabor the point. I’ll just say that this was perhaps the most dishonest example of word-twisting I’ve heard in a debate. If this is the best they’ve got it’s pathetic.

  58. wanstronian says

    I’m a bit late to the party – only just listened to the podcast. To be honest though I was incredulous – all the way through Randal’s opening remarks I was thinking, “this guy’s going to get absolutely hammered.” The whole thing was based on a set of premises, only the first of which was true.

    Yet for some reason Jonathon failed to get to the root of the issue, which is:

    1. We have no scientific evidence of virgin humans giving birth.
    2. We have abundant evidence of people making up stories of the incredible and impossible.
    3. Therefore it is infintely more plausible that the story of this impossible event was fabricated to serve some agenda, than that a virgin birth really did occur.

    Randal’s follow-on comments such as evidence for the resurrection (again, we have no plausible such evidence); his claim that M & L were independent witnesses (called seriously into doubt by the fact that the authors weren’t even alive at the time of the events they purport to document – far more likely that they both heard chinese-whispers-based campfire stories and decided to write them down – the inconsistencies are just what one would expect); and so on, were hopelessly inadequate and added no weight to his central argument.

    Yet Jonathon made a huge meal of rebuttal. It didn’t help that he was clearly reading from a script – both the unnatural pauses and the narrative itself (clearly designed to be read rather than heard) made for an awkward listening experience. But more than this, the rebuttal of Randal’s position should have been straightforward, yet was a long, drawn-out affair that missed the main aspects of this easy refutation.

    Apologies if these points have already been made in the comments above – I’m pinched for time so haven’t been able to read through!

  59. says

    Hi there Wanstronian, and thanks for the comments

    I think, especially as it was my first debate, that yes, I would have done things differently. But hey, you gotta start somewhere.

    As for script, it was designed to be such a debate since the onus was on content and not delivery – perhaps I could have inflected my tone differently etc to make it sound more natural.

    Yet for some reason Jonathon failed to get to the root of the issue, which is:

    1. We have no scientific evidence of virgin humans giving birth.
    2. We have abundant evidence of people making up stories of the incredible and impossible.
    3. Therefore it is infintely more plausible that the story of this impossible event was fabricated to serve some agenda, than that a virgin birth really did occur.

    I did claim this in the debate using probability.

    Yet Jonathon made a huge meal of rebuttal. It didn’t help that he was clearly reading from a script – both the unnatural pauses and the narrative itself (clearly designed to be read rather than heard) made for an awkward listening experience. But more than this, the rebuttal of Randal’s position should have been straightforward, yet was a long, drawn-out affair that missed the main aspects of this easy refutation.

    The difficulty is that my time is not just used rebutting his position since that is an entirely negative argument.
    I have to do 3 things in each allotted time: 1) rebut Randal 2) defend his rebuttals of my position 3) continue to expose a positive case.

    I would certainly look, in future, to be more direct. In retrospect, I would pull in some of my later points much earlier in the debate, such as the use of Carrier’s quote on independent attestation which was key.

    I felt with the longer intros, more points were able to be made, and the less time I had to adequately respond to them – a sort of catch 22.

    Cheers

  60. wanstronian says

    Hi Jonathan, thanks for your response.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not implying that I would have done any better – I suspect it takes many years of practice before you can get to the point where you can make your points sound natural without recourse to reference material. I most certainly would have written down the whole shebang. And just playing back the intro by Justin, it does specifically state that it was “carefully scripted.” So apologies for so much negativity there. In terms of content, your side was definitely more coherent.

    I guess I missed the probability argument – I was listening while driving, so it’s entirely plausible that something distracted my attention for a few minutes. Apologies!

    I take your point about being entirely negative, but as your task was to present a negative position – that the nativity accounts in M&L are NOT historically reliable, I think a full-on debunking would have been perfectly appropriate! Although then the problem is that you can make all the salient points and win the debate in about three minutes flat…

    I think it’s probably made more difficult when you have to make your opening statement without having heard your opponent’s – as you say, it results in having to do too much in your subsequent segments.

    I enjoyed listening to the debate, and would certainly be keen to listen to a follow-up, as and when it happens!

    Cheers

  61. wholething says

    Did I hear that right? Did Randal say that Papias mentioned Luke and John? Where?

    Also, he says if it weren’t written by Matthew, they wouldn’t have claimed it was by him as he was a minor character. Papias said he knew of one by Matthew so if they had one that was anonymous, it would get that name. The Matthew we have today was certainly not the one Papias referred to as they had trouble interpreting it. Today’s Matthew 2as written in Greek.

  62. Persimmon Hamster says

    After listening (admittedly half-attentively) to this debate, Randal’s final rebuttal (the second-to-last bit) before his closing statements is the moment (for me) at which he most clearly reveals himself as just being angrily snarky (sarcastically loathing), as well as straight-up preaching to the choir — made clear by the irrelevant “dog whistling” about DNA/evolution/etc which any ‘undecided’ party is going to see as such. Of course everything he said was dripping with this but here it seemed most obvious.

    I generally wish skeptics debating apologists would spend less time repeating their own logical arguments, which are sound but which the apologist obviously isn’t listening to or processing correctly (or worse is intentionally misrepresenting/ignoring), and more time just pointing out all of the petty, illogical, word-twisting, circular things the apologist just said. Skeptics are usually too focused on advancing substantive arguments to take the time to do that…while apologists are more than happy to (poorly) attempt to do it to them. Just try not to sound as angry as they do while doing it.

  63. andrewviceroy says

    Has anyone seen the latest Superman movie? How many versions of Superman has there been over the last 50 years? Clearly, those must have been multiple attestations. ;-)

    I didn’t get the whole Zinn quote. Who cares if everyone has a purpose? What matters is if that purpose correlates to reality.

    Congratulations on your first debate Jonathan. I am so happy to see this debate format being used more often. The first time delayed debate I read (Carrier v Roth- it wasn’t audio, but it was delayed over months) really made sense to me and I hope to see more of it. Live debates are fruitless in comparison and allow for too many shenanigans.

  64. andrewviceroy says

    @Jonathan The notion that they are multiple attestations because early gospel writers would have picked Peter as an author belies too much, such as the numerous Superman-type examples we see in real life ALL THE TIME, as well as the possibility that PETER’S AUTHORITY ITSELF (AS “THE ROCK OF THE CHURCH”) COULD HAVE BEEN INTERPOLATED LATER!! At the time of the first writings, that verse might not have even been there. In fact, it would be plausible that was added for the purpose of claiming authority for that version. We simply don’t have the originals. Who is to say that lost versions don’t give authority to other Apostles either? Last, maybe it was not feasible to claim a writing to be by Peter for some reason, such as the author’s inability to mimic the handwriting. In this case, one would pick another disciple. There are so many possibilities, that hanging your whole worldview on this is crazy.

    Sadly, we also had to endure the “popped into existence/evolved by chance” babble. Theists simply REFUSE to acknowledge that for many years now, the REAL scientific claim is that evolution- both of biology AND cosmology IS directed BY WHAT IS ACTUALLY POSSIBLE. That is NOT “anything goes.” Not everything is possible, so this has a dramatic and crucial effect on probability arguments.

    Last, I was bummed that this wasn’t focused on the Gospels in general. Years ago, at holysmoke.org, Richard Smith had compiled a list of all of the historians that we know of who lived within Jesus’ lifetime (and area) or up to 100 years afterwards. They are listed as (I counted 43):

    Apollonius, Appian, Arrian, Aulus Gellius, Columella, Damis, Dio Chrysostom, Dion, Epictetus, Favorinus, Florus Lucius, Hermogones, Italicus, Josephus, Justus of Tiberius, Juvenal, Lucanus, Lucian, Lysias, Martial, Paterculus, Pruseus, Persius, Petronius, Phaedrus, Philo-Judaeus, Phlegon, Pliny the Elder, Pliny the Younger, Plutarch, Pompon Mela, Ptolemy, Quintilian, Quintius Curtius, Seneca, Silius, Statius, Suetonius, Tacitus, Theon of Smyran, Valerius Flaccus, and Valerius Maximus.

    Even including the infamous passages in Josephus (which most all scholars admit were interpolated to some extent), as well as the reports of the *beliefs* of Christians in the second century by Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger, why did absolutely none of these 43 historians (some of whom were very local and contemporary, like Philo-Judaeus) ever report about such huge biblical events as; Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents (Matt. 2:16-18); the many large scale miracles, including the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:1-15), a supernatural darkening of the sky for 3 hours and an earthquake at Jesus’ crucifixion (Mark 15:33, Matt. 27:51), the resurrection and ascension with many witnesses (whether it was one hundred and twenty witnesses in Acts 1:15 or five hundred witnesses in 1 Cor. 15:6); …let alone a town full of zombies (Matt. 27:52-53), *let alone* the existence of Jesus!? The ninth century *Christian* scholar Photius noted that the (now lost) work of the *Galilean historian* who was *a contemporary of Jesus*, Justus of Tiberius, contained, “not the least mention of the appearance of Christ” (Photius’ Bibliotheca, code 33). At what point does absence of evidence become evidence of absence?

  65. says

    @andrewviceroy

    That’s an awesome list – do you have a link? Also, the reference to Photius’ reference to Justus us great. Thanks!

    I did a post on absence of evidence:
    http://skepticink.com/tippling/2012/11/18/absence-of-evidence-is-evidence-of-absence-in-many-cases/

    Another thing, Andrew, I was wondering as to whether there is a formal fallcy for the approach which goes “we cannot prove 100% / know X, therefore anything goes”. Or is it just ad hoc?

  66. Brooks Austin says

    Frankly I think Randal lost the debate in the opening when he admitted the gospels didn’t have to be literally true for Christians to believe in them.

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