Tuesday, March 05, 2013

God and Reason, Lecture 6: Who Was Jesus?

I attended Lecture 6 in the God and Reason short course given by Christian professors at my university. Once again, attendance was down signficantly since Lecture 3. Once again I had to leave at 5:20 PM, so I missed most of the question and answer sessions. Today's lecture was given by Civil Engineering professor Wayne Brodland, and was entitled "Who Was Jesus and Did He rise from the Dead?" Prof. Brodland has won a teaching award at UW and his presentation was (like others in the series) well-done and easy to follow. However, it was very heavy on the Christian evangelism and quite light on the reason, in my opinion. As usual, my comments are in brackets.

He started by comparing his method for ascertaining truth in the laboratory with how he ascertains truth in his faith:
In his lab:
1. start with data (theory, experiments, computer simulations)
2. Sometimes he doesn't like the data and struggles to explain it
3. Employs "circularity" and seeks the best fit for jigsaw-puzzle pieces
4. Strives to constantly update his understanding
5. Submits his understanding to peer review
6. Tries to advance knowledge
7. Prefers simple closed-form answers.

In his faith:
1. start with data (Bible, experience, personal conversations)
and then 2 through 7 are the same.

Prof. Brodland claims he uses the same approaches to ascertain truth in the lab and his faith. [I don't think this is the case at all. For one thing, in science we try very hard to disprove our hypotheses, by setting up experiments to test them. What are the corresponding experiments Prof. Brodland has done to try to disprove his faith? None that he spoke about; if anything he seems extremely willing to take personal experiences as confirming of his faith, even if they are quite tenuous; see below. For another, "peer review" means submitting your work to reviewers that are often hostile, not just talking about your faith with friends who share the same opinion. Where is the evidence that Prof. Brodland has explored Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and so forth with equal research that he has done on Christianity?]

Prof. Brodland went on to discuss the tools used for data collection and analysis. He divided these tools into three parts, which he called "body", "soul", and "spirit". By the "body", Prof. Brodland means the five sense and scientific instruments that detect physical phenomena. By the "soul" Prof. Brodland means "logic to organize ideas and make inferences" [which seems like a very strange definition of "soul" to me]. And in the last category, "spirit", Prof. Brodland refers to "communication from the supernatural realm". Naturalists or Deists, he claimed, only recognize the first two. whereas Christians are more "broad-minded" because they allow another kind of information, namely information from the supernatural realm, to influence them. [Prof. Brodland could be even more broad-minded by allowing information from Zeus, Bigfoot, and extraterrestrials to influence him. In other words, it's not clear to me that being "broad-minded" in this sense is a virtue.]

He then compared Jesus to Einstein, Fourier, and Pasteur. They all risked their credibility and changed the world with their ideas. For Einstein, it was relativity; for Jesus it was "love your enemies" and "I am the truth and the life". He then presented many passages from the New Testament that showed that Jesus claimed to be the son of the Christian god.

Who was Jesus? Prof. Brodland claimed he is the son of the Christian god and the only other possibilities are that he was (a) self-deluded (b) a liar (c) just a good teacher or (d) just a legend. He dismissed (d) as implausible by saying that there are "lots of extra-Biblical sources" proving Jesus' existence. [This is false or misleading. There are a handful of extra-Biblical sources, and not one is contemporary. Some of these extra-Biblical sources are widely acknowledged to be Christian fabrications, such as certain passages in Josephus. And these extra-Biblical sources are clearly just reporting what they have heard from others and are not first-hand, independent sources.]

He dismissed (c) by saying that if Jesus was not the son of the Christian god and yet taught that he was, he could not be a good teacher. [This also seems quite unreasonable. Has Prof. Brodland never been mistaken in something he taught? Then I guess he is not a good teacher, either, by this criterion. On the contrary, it is perfectly possible to be a good teacher and still be mistaken, even about fundamental claims.]

Prof. Brodland dismissed (a) and (b) by saying that Jesus' claims are validated by his resurrection. [He did not consider the other obvious possibilities: Jesus was misquoted, or Jesus was misunderstood, for example.]

Prof. Brodland gave three claims he felt were good reasons to believe in the resurrection:
1. The disciples were despondent and a triumphal re-appearance of their leader was not on their minds.
2. They were feeling defeated and not likely to have hallucinated his return.
3. In ancient times it was believe that the soul was good but the body weak or corrupt, and hence resurrection was not part of their thinking.

[None of these seem like even slightly good reasons to me. On the contrary, if the disciples were despondent they would be very quick to grasp any way to be less despondent. All they needed was one person who claimed to see Jesus and many followers would be quick to glom on to this as a "miracle". Furthermore, it is simply not true that resurrection was not in the minds of people of the ancient world. Some say Asclepius was resurrected by Zeus after being killed by him, for example.]

Did Jesus rise from the dead? Prof. Brodland said we could test this hypothesis against the null hypothesis by considering data in 3 areas:
- the empty tomb
- reports by witnesses to his being alive
- change in the witnesses' attitude after resurrection

The tomb: all 4 gospels report an empty tomb, some written only 30 years after the event, when eyewitnesses were still around. The eyewitnesses would have complained if inaccurate reports had circulated. Since they didn't, the reports must be accurate. [How does Prof. Brodland know there were not eyewitnesses who took issue with these reports? There could well have been, but since we have so few documents from that time and place, how would we know? Furthermore, there would have been great pressure at early church meetings to suppress any such documents, if they existed.]

Also, secular sources don't challenge the fact that the tomb was empty; instead they put forward alternative explanations for it. [Well, one alternative explanation is that the disciples went to the wrong tomb. So the "real" tomb might not be empty.]

No body was ever produced and no shrine was built. If there a body, there would be a shrine there. [Prof. Brodland seems to have inadvertently supported the most obvious explanation: the body was removed by enemies of early Christianity, fearing that the resting place would become a shrine.]

Reports by witnesses: there were over 500 witnesses that reported seeing Jesus. [This is quite misleading. There were not 500 individual witness reports; instead there is a claim by Paul to that effect, a claim that is not substantiated by the existence of the supposed reports.]

Changes in Jesus' followers: disciples "suddenly" started appearing in public; many died horrific deaths because of their beliefs. If they had just made it up they would not be so willing to die. [Again, this is very misleading. Most of the people "willing to die" probably did not experience the resurrection themselves but were simply told about it by others, and believed it. Many people died willingly as followers of cult leader Jim Jones, but that doesn't make Jim Jones's claims true.] The Church grew quickly, even where the government wanted it suppressed. Today, many report personal experiences of Jesus. [Yes, and many report other kinds of extraordinary experiences, but it doesn't follow that these experiences correspond to reality. Does Prof. Brodland believe in Bigfoot, extraterrestrials, and Elvis still being alive?]

Prof. Brodland concluded by telling about his personal experiences. He suffered from deafness and stated that doctors said he had nerve damage and would be deaf for life. However, after he started praying and asking for friends to pray for him, "Jesus healed me". An audiologist confirmed that his hearing improved. "Those are the facts. When I asked Jesus to heal me, he did. This is powerful personal evidence that Jesus is alive and he did respond. I have the records to show. This is such a strong piece of evidence and you can test my claims." [How does he know it was Jesus? This is a classic case of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. A scientist should know better.]

I had time to ask one question. I said that I too, have suffered from hearing problems. I too visited doctors and had tests and the doctors said there was nothing they could do. But the problem has largely resolved itself with time, and my hearing is much better -- all accomplished without prayer. I said that I had not prayed, but if I had (say) prayed to Zeus and gotten better, would this be evidence of the existence of Zeus?

Prof. Brodland did not really address my question. To paraphrase his answer, he said that he had his story and he was sticking to it. That well may be, but it is not very good evidence for Jesus when there are spontaneous improvements in nerve damage all the time. It even happens in hearing loss, although apparently it is rare (I don't claim to be an expert). This page, on the other hand, claims spontaneous remission is common! Prof. Brodland certainly should understand the extremely weak status of personal anecdotes as evidence. Good evidence would be to test many people, each with similar conditions, some of which pray (or have friends pray for them) and some don't. That would be an example of the scientific method that Prof. Brodland claims to follow. Unfortunately for Prof. Brodland, studies of intercessory prayer do not provide much confirming evidence at all.

All in all, this was just another exercise in Christian evangelism, full of fallacies and incorrect claims. It does not surprise me, though: the case for Christianity always has been extremely weak.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Can you back up your claim that "Some of these extra-Biblical sources are widely acknowledged to be Christian fabrications, such as certain passages in Josephus". What references can you give?

Luke Barnes said...

I'm enjoying this series. Was this the last lecture?

A few comments:
* "Civil Engineering professor Wayne Brodland". Why didn't they get a historian?

* "Where is the evidence that Prof. Brodland has explored Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and so forth with equal research that he has done on Christianity?". I think the important thing is not equal research but sufficient research to have good reasons for not being a Buddhist etc. I assume you've investigated evolution more than ID, but still have good reasons to reject ID.

* "There are a handful of extra-Biblical sources, and not one is contemporary." Define "contemporary". Within a few years? Within living memory? Should we discard all historical sources that are not contemporary?

* "Some of these extra-Biblical sources are widely acknowledged to be Christian fabrications, such as certain passages in Josephus." That's not quite correct, so far as I know. Christian editing, sure, but not compete fabrication from scratch. (I take it that calling a source a "fabrication", rather than "containing fabricated parts", implies that there was no existing passage about Jesus in Josephus before Christians got to it)

I'm not an expert on this, either, so here's wikipedia: "The general scholarly view is that while the Testimonium Flavianum is most likely not authentic in its entirety, it is broadly agreed upon that it originally consisted of an authentic nucleus with a reference to the execution of Jesus by Pilate which was then subject to Christian interpolation." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephus_on_Jesus). Also, there is information in these sources that isn't in the New Testament, e.g. the death of James, the brother of Jesus.

* "there would have been great pressure at early church meetings to suppress any such documents, if they existed." What do you mean by "early"? Because Christians clearly had no power to suppress anything for quite a while, arguably until Constantine the Great, 300 AD. They wouldn't have any power to suppress Jewish reports or Roman reports. If "the body was removed by enemies of early Christianity, fearing that the resting place would become a shrine", then a report of such would not be able to be suppressed by Christians for a few centuries. Still, your point about "we have so few documents from that time and place" is a good one.

* 500 witnesses, "a claim that is not substantiated by the actual reports". What do you mean by "actual reports?".

* "Most of the people "willing to die" probably did not experience the resurrection themselves but were simply told about it by others, and believed it." Not really relevant. Those who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus were often killed for this belief, but such threats did not deter them. Doesn't prove it's true, as the Jim Jones example shows, but it does make the "they just made it all up" hypothesis rather unlikely.

Jeff Orchard said...

Jeff, thanks for sharing your own hearing-loss episode. What a priceless moment during the question period. Here is my perspective.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

(I take it that calling a source a "fabrication", rather than "containing fabricated parts", implies that there was no existing passage about Jesus in Josephus before Christians got to it)

Please don't read more into it than what I said. My use of "fabrication" was just intended to mean that some parts were made up, or existing parts were changed, in order to make the evidence seem stronger.

And, Anonymous, just go read the article on Flavius Josephus's work mentioned by Luke. I note that skeptical sources mention additional reasons to question Josephus. Most Biblical historians seem to be Christians and are therefore much less likely to be skeptical of such sources.

Should we discard all historical sources that are not contemporary?

You have an unfortunate tendency to take what I say and exaggerate it beyond recognition. I said nothing about "discard[ing]" anything. It is simply a fact, though, that human memory is extremely unreliable, and studies show that in recording events even as little as a few years after the events will likely introduce substantial errors. So we can reasonably be much more skeptical of testimony that is written 15 or 30 or 45 years after alleged events, especially when the testimony is about (in the words of Ambrose Bierce) "things without parallel".

What do you mean by "early"?

I had in mind early meetings where the books of the Bible were made canonical.

What do you mean by "actual reports?"

I struggled with that sentence, rewriting it multiple times to try to make the meaning as clear as possible. Obviously I did not succeed! Let me try again: we do not have 500 reports! We do not have 500 individual pieces of paper by 500 authors of the time, testifying that they saw Jesus after he was killed. All we have is Paul's claim that there were 500 witnesses. Is that clearer?

Not really relevant. Those who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus were often killed for this belief, but such threats did not deter them.

Who, specifically? Let's have a list of this occurrence which is claimed to be "often".

As for "claimed to have seen the risen Jesus", memory is a very malleable thing. (I have a personal story I could tell you.) Once one person claimed to have seen Jesus risen, other people would not want to have been left out. See a shadowy figure in the mist one morning? Suddenly, you're in the club, too! And repeat the story often enough and pretty soon you believe it.

Why didn't they get a historian?

Because, in my opinion, the goal is not to present a fair and balanced summary of evidence, but to engage in Christian evangelism. In order to achieve that, pretty much any good speaker will suffice.

Diogenes said...

Not really relevant. Those who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus were often killed for this belief, but such threats did not deter them.

Mormon prophet Joseph Smith said an angel showed him golden plates and a mob mudered him for it. It does not make his story true or even plausible.

Smith had sworn depositions from I think 13 eyewitnesses who swore they saw the golden plates. This is far more evidence than we have for Jesus' resurrection.

In the early days Mormons were murdered for their beliefs. Doesn't make the books of Mormon and Moses into non-forgeries.

Ditto Adventist prophetess White. Skeptics warched while she had an out of body experience and went to Saturn, coumting its moons. People lie and people die, who knows why.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Good points about the Mormons, Diogenes. I made the same points in my more recent post.

Laurence A. Moran said...

Prof. Brodland has won teaching awards at UW and his presentation was (like others in the series) well-done and easy to follow.

At my university (University of Toronto) that's all you need to get a teaching award. It doesn't seem to matter whether what you teach is accurate or not. Style trumps substance every time.

I assume the same standards apply at Waterloo? :-)

Reginald Selkirk said...

Jesus in Josephus
by Richard Carrier
"Now that the world has ended, my peer reviewed article on Josephus just came out: “Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200” in the Journal of Early Christian Studies 
(vol. 20, no. 4, Winter 2012), 
pp. 489-514.
...
My proof of that is pretty conclusive. But this article also summarizes a sufficient case to reject the Testimonium Flavianum as well (the other, longer reference to Jesus in Josephus), in that case as a deliberate fabrication (see note 1, pp. 489-90, and discussion of the Arabic quotation on pp. 493-94). And I cite the leading scholarship on both. So it’s really a complete article on both references to Jesus in Josephus..."

Reginald Selkirk said...

The Signs of Allah the Most Merciful Ar-Rahmaan in the Jihad of Afghanistan
(miracles in the Afghan War)

This book was written by Shaykh Abdullah Azzam during the Afghan-Soviet Jihad in the 1980's. It deals specifically with first hand accounts of the miracles that occured during this Jihad. Shaykh Abdullah Azzam writes, 'These incidents…

Similar miracle tales were circulated by the Taliban after the more recent Afghan war. Miracle tales are not rare, and not exclusively Christian. Christian apologists must explain why early Christian miracle tales are to be accepted as reliable accounts when they do not accept miracle tales of other religions.

Reginald Selkirk said...

Jihadist Battlefield Miracles
"Part of my talk discussed how the jihadists believe that God is on the battlefield with them, not merely protecting them, but actively taking part in combat. I mentioned that stories abound about God shooting down American fighter planes with lightning bolts, about God sending ravenous beasts to the battlefield to eat the enemy, and other such miraculous events."
...
"Prof. David Cook wrote an article several years ago about how some of these sorts of stories manifested themselves in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002. He characterizes them as part of a “disconfirmation” process that the jihadists use to come to grips with their setbacks."

Reginald Selkirk said...

"He then presented many passages from the New Testament that showed that Jesus claimed to be the son of the Christian god."

This is not an adequate treatment. There are also many NT passages which portray Jesus as not the Son of the Christian God. An honest treatment would have to deal with all such references and sort out why one set of references are to be preferred over others. This is apologetics, not scholarship.

"The tomb: all 4 gospels report an empty tomb"

But this is not documented in an secular sources, and the 4 gospels are certainly not independent.

"Also, secular sources don't challenge the fact that the tomb was empty"

You give too much credit by calling it a "fact." It is an element in a story.

Reginald Selkirk said...

A Christian blogger summarises the Greco-Roman references to Jesus
and gets it wrong.
An even briefer summary:
Josephus, born 37 AD
Tacitus, born 56 AD (erroneously reported as 14 AD by Matthew Clayton)
Pliny the Younger, born 61 AD
Mara bar-Serapion - unknown, except for a single letter dated after 73 AD, and probably not referring to Jesus at all
Suetoniusm born 69 AD
Lucian, born 125 AD
Celsius, second century

And, as mentioned already, the few references in Josephus are highly suspect as being doctored by Christians. One of them is probably a reference to a Jesus other than Jesus H. Christ. (Jesus is the Greek form of Yeshua, a derivative of Joshua. It was at the time a popular name among Jews. Josephus mentioned twenty different Jesuses in his lengthy writings.)

Imagine someone today writing a new book about John F. Kennedy, who died 50 years ago. One of your first question would probably be, did they make good use of the primary sources? But most certainly, you would not mistake it for a primary source.

Reginald Selkirk said...

The Book of Mormon
Follow links to

"Testimony of Three Witnesses" (who claimed to have seen the golden plates and the angel who delivered them, heard the voice of the Lord, etc.)
Oliver Cowdry
David Whitmer
Martin Harris

and "Testimony of Eight Witnesses" (who claimed to have seen and handled the golden plates)
Christian Whitmer
Jacob Whitmer
Pter Whitmer, Jun.
John Whitmer
Hiram Page
Joseph Smith, Sen.
Hyrum Smith
Samuel H. Smith

SLC said...

Regarding the question of the execution of Yeshua ben Josef of Nazareth, how does Prof. Brodhead know that the Muslim position is incorrect? The Muslim position is that Yeshua was not the man on the cross, it was Judas Iscariot and that Yeshua left town traveling perhaps to Damascus.

Steve Finnell said...

THREE EXAMPLES OF WHY MEN SHOULD USE THE BIBLE ALONE

Should mankind use the Bible and the Bible alone for teaching faith and practice? If God's truth is the template for you, then the Bible should be your source for truth.

THREE EXAMPLES OF WHY EXTRA-BIBLICAL SOURCES ARE NOT RELIABLE SOURCES FOR GOD'S TRUTH.

1. Quote from Pope Francis May 22, 2013: "The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not evil. All of us. "But Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.' Yes he can..."The Lord has redeemed all of us,all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us not just Catholics Everyone! Father, the atheist? Even the atheists. Everyone! ....We must meet one another doing good. ' But I don't believe, Father, I am an atheist! But do good:we will meet one another there."

2. Quote from Billy Graham October 20, 1997: "I think everybody that loves Christ, or knows Christ, whether they're conscious of it or not, they're members of the Body of Christ......He's calling people out of the world for His name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world,or the Christian world, or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ,because they've been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus, but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don't have, and they turn to the only light that they have, and I think they are saved, and that they're going to be with us in heaven."

3. Quote from Doctrine of Covenants -section 130:22 (Mormon supposed divine revelations): The "Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man's; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were is not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us.


GOD'S WORD IS FOUND IN THE BIBLE AND THE BIBLE ALONE.


YOU ARE INVITED TO FOLLOW MY CHRISTIAN BLOG. http://steve-finnell.blodspot.com