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.
Ben’s first argument is drawn mostly from CS Lewis. It’s somewhat long, so you’re welcome to skim it or pick it apart as you see fit. My comments will follow.
The first such feature is both the most subtle and, in my view, the most compelling and interesting: The psychological verisimilitude of the narrative style. In a wonderful essay called Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism, the British novelist C. S. Lewis calls our attention to the Gospel of John: to its conspicuous lack of hyperbole so typical of ancient myth; to its striking economy of means; to its inclusion of extraneous but astutely observed details—Christ scratching words in the dust and quickly erasing them before they could be read; a languid conversation with a woman at a well—and also to the striking understatements of the man born blind who, returning home with his sight restored by Christ, is asked by his amazed neighbours to explain why he is no longer blind,
He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”
“Where is this man?” they asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Under what inner compulsion did the author of this scene refrain from putting orotund religious proclamations into the mouth of his character, if not a frightened fidelity to the truth of what he had witnessed? Lewis writes,
“I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage—though it may no doubt contain errors—pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else some unknown writer in the second century without known predecessors or successors suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic realistic narrative.”
So Lewis has been reading “poems, romances, vision literature, legends [and] myths” all his life, but do you notice what genre he doesn’t mention? Parables. Parables are fictional stories that contain a “striking economy of means” and “extraneous but acutely observed details” too, or at least you could attribute such things to them if you wanted. Yet this does not mean that Jesus is either engaging in “reportage…pretty close up to the facts” or else was someone in the first century who “without known predecessors or successors suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic realistic narrative.” He’s just telling parables, a type of story that’s not in Lewis’ list of allowed fictional styles.
What Lewis is doing here is setting up a classic false dichotomy. He’s cherry picking specific styles of writing and/or storytelling that have the advantage of being both fictional AND dissimilar to the New Testament stories, so that he can then claim the New Testament stories must be non-fictional, since they don’t follow the prescribed style. He completely overlooks the possibility that some or all of the reported New Testament stories might fail to follow accepted literary conventions because they originated with people who were not writers.
What we have to believe, if we are to accept Lewis’ argument, is that no one in the first century ever said anything untrue, either verbally or in writing, unless it was in the form of a formally-specified poem, romance, vision, legend, or myth. No politician ever exaggerated their political accomplishments, no soldier ever told tall tales about his military exploits, no religious charlatan ever twisted the facts to make himself sound like a true prophet of God, unless they did it in one of the specific literary styles authorized by Lewis as being the only possible way a first century story teller could ever say anything other than “reportage…pretty close up to the facts.”
Now, I’ll give Lewis the benefit of the doubt here and assume that he is not deliberately lying. But his argument is obvious rubbish. He’s basically saying, “I can imagine these stories being told differently, and there are fictional stories that are told the way I imagine, but the New Testament stories were not told that way, therefore they must be true.” It’s like arguing that hobbits must really exist because Lord of the Rings is written differently than Fifty Shades of Grey.
Notice, too, the strong subjective bias of Lewis’ argument:
The account in John of the discovery of the empty tomb by two myrrh bearing women is also instructive. It is sparing, almost stark, in its development and firmly planted in the gritty realities of first century Judea with scarcely a hint of mythological embellishment. The Gospel of Peter, by contrast, an apocrypha rejected by the church, marshals a whole town to the tomb to witness the resurrection and when Christ emerges he does so in the company of two angels so tall their heads are lost in the clouds and also (I am not making this up) a talking crucifix.
Now, if Lewis is going to be consistent, he needs to reject Genesis (and its talking snake), and Exodus, with its extravagant plagues and pillar of fire and so on. And let’s not even start on the book of Revelation. But he accepts all those things because they’re canonical, and he rejects the Gospel of Peter because it isn’t. I have no doubt that if the Gospel of Peter were the 28th book of the New Testament, he’d have no more difficulty with the talking crucifix than with Balaam’s talking donkey. Hey, if God says talk, you talk (or so the Bible would have us believe).
What Lewis is appealing to is a subjective and unverifiable standard for how much is too much. If you are familiar with the old Charlton Heston movies, maybe all those amazing supernaturalisms feel perfectly fine and normal to you. Meanwhile, the apocrypha (Old and New Testament) are unfamiliar, and also disreputable, so they feel somehow suspect. It’s easy to spot mythological embellishment when you are not predisposed to the conclusion that the story has to reliable reportage, but how are you going to detect embellishment when you are biased in favor of the story being literally true?
In Lewis’ case, maybe you don’t. If we were going to apply a more objective and unbiased standard, however, we might look at things like how the story changes when it’s reported by different people, or at different times. Maybe if an empty tomb becomes an empty tomb with an angel, that then becomes an empty tomb with two angels, perhaps some embellishment is going on. Or we might compare the claims of the story against our verifiable observations in the real world. A young single woman is pregnant, and claims she hasn’t had sex and that God supernaturally made her conceive—and it’s not Mary. Do you accept it as unembellished reportage, since she said nothing about angels having heads reaching up to the clouds? Maybe that might be stretching the facts just a tad as well.
Like so many apologetic arguments, this one is very appealing to believers because it reinforces their biases and redirects their attention away from the problems of the gospel. But the arguments themselves are amazingly shallow and fragile, once you approach them without being biased in their favor.
And speaking of Charlton Heston, here’s a reward for those of you who have made it all the way through this long post: