The articles on a “positive” case, remind me very much of my father’s tool-box. Dad was a die maker and as a result, he had (and still has) tools that are interesting to look at, but I don’t the faintest idea of what he does with them. He has shown me how to use a micrometer, etc., but for the most part, the tools in that particular box are completely esoteric to my senses. Information, even Biblical scholarship, when put into sermons or anything else has the same, ultimate effect. “That’s a great fact to know, but what do I do with it, how does it affect me today.” (This is the reason why I’m fully in favor of application in sermons. A good expositor will provide information to his congregation to help them understand the meaning of the text, but the preacher must also help his hearers to understand how to apply that to their lives in a 21st century context). The same can be said of apologetics.
What do we do with this case? I suggest that there are three primary “applications” of this information to our current world. The first is personal. This information is an anchor. It is often assumed that Christians prize blind faith. While I have met Christians like this, most of us don’t have blind faith. Most of us have dealt with doubt at some point in our lives. My first taste of serious doubt came as a teenager, reading Holy Blood, Holy Grail. I didn’t have the facts at the time to really dig through them. I have dealt with doubts since. When I grew older, in college, I felt the compunction to read both sides of a story before settling on any issue. (I have therefore changed my position on some issues, but not on the faith). Doubts, for me, are a reason for research, but this leads to the question, where do we start? I suggest that this is the right starting point for dealing with doubt. When doubt strikes, the first question that should be asked is, “have they really provided something that is contrary to your positive case?” I would state it this way: if someone wants to convince me that Christianity is false, they must disprove the resurrection in a way that explains all of the minimal facts for the resurrection; or as I sometimes put it, find the body. (While it is true that liberals have attempted to present various theories about the resurrection, none of them have been terribly convincing. Primarily, this is because all of these theories fail to explain all of the facts in a believable way). This should give us confidence in our beliefs.
A second use for this case is argumentative, and operates on the same standpoint. The Resurrection is the point of testability, therefore it is that point at which we use as our shield, defensively when the heathen attack the faith. For the most part, I have found that those who attack the faith are Biblically illiterate. They understand nothing of either the Scriptures, nor the construction of Christian theology. Most attacks, therefore come from other quarters. Either they aim at inerrancy, thinking for some reason that Christian acceptance of the Scriptures is uncritical, or they come from the ghosts of liberal theology’s past: One will find modern versions of the Swoon Theory (The Passover Plot for example) despite the fact that it was debunked in the mid-nineteenth century; the Religiongeschite school was proven to be an exercise in begging the question in the 1950s but that hasn’t stopped those who argue the gospels are a myth from Joseph Campbell onwards. On the popular level, attacks are based on extreme levels of speculation about Christian origins (often referring to conspiracies to cover the complete lack of evidence in their work). In all three cases, the Resurrection provides us with a balance point to counter the attack leveled. The affirmative (or the person trying to convince someone to change their position) always has the burden of proof, and any attempt to convert someone from Christianity must of necessity answer these questions.
The third use, and I believe in our time, the most neglected one, is the offensive use. The Church has allowed itself to be put on the defensive. This is a mistake. We are commanded to earnestly contend for the faith, and this means more than taking defensive actions. Where is our ability to provide a reason for someone to convert to Christianity? I would submit, a careful examination of Acts indicates that the early Church preached the resurrection as their primary message; in many ways, to use the previous analogy of a meteor in a field from our introductory article, the meteor itself is the resurrection (and my preference for an evidentalist approach is perhaps typical of my own preference for working from the baseline of any discussion). Over the years, many atheists, agnostics, and others have come to Christ after they began to objectively examine the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some have written books on the subject. One of them, that is clearly written on the lay level, is Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ. It is an exceptional work from a newspaper reporter who was convinced by evolutionary theory to become an atheist, but who later found he had no reasonable explanation for the resurrection within the framework of religious atheism. Another is Warren Wallace’s Cold Case Christianity, by a cold case detective who investigated the gospels from the standpoint of a cold case detective who is used to working with eyewitness testimony when forensic analysis is not possible. The problem is that the information is not available, despite the work of Strobel, Wallace and others to popularize the information that is out there. That is the central purpose of Truth in the Trenches ministries, to provide facts to help believers understand how good the evidence is for the faith. Use this information to challenge the one attacking the faith. Ask him how he deals with the underlying facts. Perhaps the Spirit will use such a thing, as He has so many times before, to draw that skeptic to Himself. Like many skeptics, he may simply dismiss the resurrection with an apriori shrug, but maybe he will begin to look at the evidence rather than the pseudo-scholarship that world in which we live revels. Truth can still counter error.
We’ve covered two major elements in the discussion. First, we discussed the evidence of the gospels, then we discussed why the alternative theories brought out by the religious left and by philosophical naturalists fail to explain the theory.
In the words of Sherlock Holmes, “When you remove the impossible, what remains, no matter how improbable must be the truth.” In the first phase we proved that the gospels were historically reliable, and this leaves us with several core statements. Different men will summarize these elements in different ways, but my approach is to note that the following are the irreducible minimal facts that any theory of the origin of Christianity must take account of.
1. Jesus Christ was crucified by the Romans by the orders of the Pontius Pilate on behalf of the Jewish Sanhedrin.
2. Jesus followers (those inclined to accept his apostleship) claimed that they saw him alive after his crucifixion, their was a marked change in their lives after these appearances and all died martyrs deaths.
3. Some became followers after the resurrection who were disinclined to accept Jesus claim to be the Messiah (Paul and James), both died martyr’s deaths.
4. Jesus tomb was empty.
No theory, other than the resurrection of Christ can adequately explain all of the minimal facts I have noted. To Sherlock Holmes quotation, these ideas have been proven impossible because they are not prima facia, and that leaves us with the conclusion that Jesus was in fact, resurrected from the dead.
The one argument that will constantly be raised is that miracles are impossible. The basis of this is a number of variations on Hume’s argument against miracles as well as some of the work of Voltaire. The problem with these arguments is the same problem with all purely rationalistic philosophies: one needs an adequate empirically derived premise from which to work; a false premise about the nature of the universe leads to a false conclusion even if the logic is impeccable.
Hume’s argument, in particular is guilty of this sin against reason, which I will get to in a moment. But first we should not that the structure of the argument itself is an exercise in begging the question. Hume’s premise in whatever version of his argument one follows begins with the unsupported contention that the evidence for the existence of natural law is contradictory to the existence of miracles, which of course it is not. Natural law is simply the standard operating system of the universe, God as the programmer has the ability to make individual changes as He deems necessary, the existence of these isolated instances does not mean the operating system does not exist. He furthermore begs the question – in Hume’s original argument, the evidence for a lack of miracles is “exceptionless” but the very fact that people argue for the existence of miracles indicates that this is not true, and this is ultimately what his argument tries to prove. One must assume, without evidence and without rational argument, that natural law is immutable.
Hume’s argument went on to prove several other issues with miraculous accounts, in all cases, these are examples of what your teacher would call “glittering generalities” including the generalization that religious people are universally uncritical (which cannot explain Paul, Lord Kelvin, or modern apologists such as Craig Lane Smith, the master of the Kalam Cosmological argument), or the idea that miracles only happen in “Barbarous cultures,” but modern archeology has proven that this is ultimately not true of the first century world.
Yet the final nail in the coffin is what I noted earlier, and elsewhere: it uses rationalism in the absence of evidence to answer the question of the resurrection of Christ. As I’ve noted on our main blog (http://truthinthetrenches.org/2014/08/18/the-atheist-popes/), Hume’s argument against miracles ultimately is similar to the opposition exercised by the Aristotelian philosophers that dominating the Church and Western thought during the debates over the Heliocentric universe. The final answer given by those opposing Galileo was that Aristotle’s philosophy was inviolable, and dismissing the evidence of observation on these rationalistic grounds. Hume’s argument does the same thing – it assumes a conclusion and dismisses the evidence before actual investigating the matter – this is ultimately a violation of the empirical methodologies Hume and many of his followers espouse.
But, taking all this into account, Hume allowed testimony of miracles only if the source was unassailable – I believe that challenge has been met, based on the inability of the theory to be assailed. Try as they might, the religious left and the Atheists have failed to provide an alternative to the central argument of Christianity. Many moderns will restate this by saying a miracle can only be admitted into evidence if the contrary position would be more miraculous – I believe this standard has been met as well.
But what does it mean
So what do we do with the resurrection? Was this some aberration of natural law that we are otherwise unaware of? The answer to what we do with the resurrection is found in the same sources of the eyewitness accounts we have discussed previously – the New Testament gospels.
Throughout the gospels, the key claim that Jesus made was that He is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. Accordingly, the gospels indicate that the reason the Jews sought to have Jesus executed on the grounds that he had committed blasphemy; at the time the Jewish leaders had certain rights and interplay under Roman law because of the Jewish temple. This is actually corroborated by the Talmud, which discusses Jesus execution in similar terms; rather than denying the miracles ascribed to Jesus in the Bible, the Talmud states that Jesus learned sorcery in Egypt.
So if we must either accept Jesus Messiahship, or we must accept the extremely unlikely position that the resurrection from the grave happened to occur someone who claimed to be the Messiah and was not. In short, if the resurrection is true, conservative Protestant theology is the only rational approach to life.
While it is certainly true that protestant theology is logically consistent, at some point, the Christian faith is something that must move beyond mere facts and bare discourse. Paul, one of the eyewitnesses to the resurrection, when he saw the resurrected Christ did not merely change his philosophical proclivities, he proclaimed Jesus to be God, and asked what He would have Him to do. If Jesus is Messiah, then likewise our only rational approach is to accept that He is Lord by faith, to declare Him to be our Lord and our God.
If you are a skeptic, I will acknowledge that I cannot make you change your bias, no one can simply be argued into heaven. Yet, if you are honest, you must do something with the facts I have presented – even if it is simply to dismiss them out of hand. I encourage you instead to examine if what I have said is true – because if I am right, this is the most important thing in life to make sure we get right. Yet, at some point, if you find what I say to be true, you must make that next step to accept Him. Scripture tells us if you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”
As we say during Easter – He is Risen, indeed. I hope you will come to know Him for who He is.
This is our final article dealing with modern theories denying the resurrection of Christ, though we will have some concluding arguments and my understanding of how we use this information. Still, lets end on a note of Triumph. During Easter, we often greet each other with the statement, “He is Risen” with the answer, “He is risen indeed.” When the left tells us to question our faith, to claim that no one has a market on truth, the positive case is a shield that demonstrates solidity of the Christian faith, and which we can use offensively, to demonstrate that their arguments against Christianity lack credibility and rationality. We cannot claim to have proven the faith, but we can demonstrate that our faith is reasonable. When the left therefore says, “He is not risen” our answer will ever be, “He is risen indeed.”
Last time, we completed our discussion of gnostic beliefs and the gnostic gospels. Now we will discuss one of the major pillars that the gnostic origin theorists discuss. At some point in their discussion, most gnostic origin proponents will start explaining the importance of the Council of Nicea. To listen to the gnostic origin theorists, Nicea is a scandal akin to Watergate, and was ultimately a political takeover by a group of “fascists.” They specifically believe that the church became dominated by “proto Catholicism” during Nicea, and then eliminated the gnostic sects.
Their argument consists of two major parts. First, they believe that the period before Church history was very open with a wide variety of interpretations of Christian beliefs being considered valid, similar to the nature of the various gnostic sects. Over time, one group of these early sects began to became more rigid and less willing to accept other points of view, and evolved into the early orthodox party. Second, they claim that the early orthodox party came to power during the council of Nicea and began to use political pressures of the Roman empire under Constantine to declare orthodoxy as the only type of Christianity (Christian writings from the period after Nicea are fairly full, but don’t indicate any presence of Gnosticism. Therefore, one cannot argue for an orthodox takeover after this point in time). As there are two components to this belief, we will deal with these two ideas individually.
The argument that the early Church had a tolerance of various sects
While it is true that there were divergences between various “Christian” sects in the early part of the first and second century, there is no trace in the literature of the early Church to this period of “tolerance.” Within the first century, Paul had made several arguments indicating that other groups were not to be tolerated as Christian. Thus, the early orthodox party must go back as far as Paul’ writings, at least to the middle of the first century. As we have noted in our previous two issues, there is no evidence of Christian Gnosticism before about AD 85. The early Church fathers were opposed to Gnosticism, claiming that it was a change from the earliest teachings of the Church. Of course, the conspiracy theory argument remains. Most gnostic origin theorist claim the orthodox party would later purge the Scriptures. This argument is raised without evidence to support the point and is a violation of Ockham’s razor.
The history of the period of Church history immediately following Nicea is quite different from what was suggested by the gnostic origin theorists. The council of Nicea was convened over the controversy with the Arians, regarding the deity of Christ. The council of Nicea did not actually end the Trinitarian controversy. In many ways, Nicea was the beginning of the controversy. After Nicea the orthodox party was persecuted by the Arians for decades. Constantine, after backing the Trinitarian party at Nicea, immediately began to back the Arians and was later baptized by an Arian bishop. Between he and his immediate successors, Athanasius of Alexandria (the leader of the Trinitarian party) was banished from Alexandria on five separate occasions. One of the western Church Trinitarian leaders, Hillary of Portiers was banished three times. In both cases, it was not the Trinitarians involved in politicizing the issue.
The orthodox party did come to dominate the church, but it was a process that took a century, as God’s truth prevailed. While Nicea was a victory in defining orthodoxy, it did not end the controversy. Nicea was momentous for defining (not creating) orthodoxy. Gnosticism, while still present in some quarters, was not a major force in Christianity those days. In short, the ideas of the Gnostic Origin Theorists fall short of being convincing once the facts are examined.
We have begun a discussion of the gnostic origin theory as an outgrowth of our discussion on the positive case for Christ. Among the objections to the positive case, the gnostic origin theory explicitly denies all aspects of the positive case. Those who accept the gnostic origin theory deny the positive case on the basis questionable reconstruction of church history and a number of inaccuracies about the gnostics, themselves. Last time, we discussed the Gnostic beliefs, noting the oddities in gnostic theology. Many modern writers (as well as a large segment of the population) believe the gnostic gospels are equivalent to the canonical gospels. Thus, they will describe them as “the lost books of the Bible” or with a similar, sensational title. We will therefore go through a discuss the general nature of the gnostic gospels.
Details versus General
The Gnostic gospels are generally “low resolution” when it comes to history. We do not see many historical figures, such as the Herodians. Within the canonical gospels we have a fairly compelling picture of the Pharisees and other Jewish sects. At times there are explanations of their beliefs. With the gnostic gospels these types of details are not present. When details of this kind are present, they are typically wrong. For example, one of the gnostic gospels implies that Christ died under the governance of Archealus, the son of Herod the Great rather than Pontius Pilate; (Archealus reign ended long before Jesus ministry began).
Most gnostic gospels begin by indicating a particular apostle who received special “secret” knowledge from Jesus, that was not available to every member of the twelve. This “secret” knowledge is best understood as an attempt to explain why the canonical gospels do not contain the same ideas as those presented in the gnostic gospels. Thus, this writing format indicates that the gnostic gospels were written after the canonical gospels were already published, and distributed.
Late rather than early
Historically, the evidence of the oldest church histories suggests that the earliest gnostics used the canonical gospels rather than writing their own. For example, the second century saw a small movement among the orthodox known as the “alogoi,” who did not accept the gospel of John, because of the book’s use by gnostic sects. Likewise, another early gnostic, Marcion, produced his own edited version of the epistles of Paul and the gospel of Luke as the true Christian canon, dismissing everything else in the New Testament. This editorial activity makes little sense if the gnostic gospels were already in existence and widely published.
The most important thing that has actually been proven by the gnostic gospels that have been found is that we now know that Irenaeus and others early Church fathers were accurate in their descriptions of the gnostics. The fathers have always been an important and useful source of historical information about Church history – while Biblical protestants do not consider the fathers to be authorative they are useful historical sources about the transmission of the biblical materials. Previous to our finding these gospels
The Gospel of Thomas
The gnostic work that is most commonly cited as being early is the gospel according to Thomas, but there are two reasons to dismiss this claim out of hand. First, the gospel of Thomas makes use of a second century translation of the gospel of Matthew. Thus, one cannot date Thomas before this translation. Additionally, Thomas has an unusual trait for the gnostic gospels: It quotes numerous apostles as important as a source of estoric knowledge. One of the defining traits of the gnostics that is prevalent in their writings is the tendency to focus on a single teacher as the dispenser of “secret wisdom.” This indicates that the book of Thomas is a composite work, drawn from earlier gnostic writings rather than being an early work.
The left accepts the gnostic gospels not because there is intrinsic evidence to support the gospels, but because they fit a framework of the gnostic origin theory. Therefore, the modern use of the gnostic gospels reveals the circular reasoning of the left’s use of the gnostic origin theory. Now that we have discussed the gnostics themselves, we will discuss an underlying contention that the Gnostic origin theory relies on: How monolithic was the teaching of the early Church.
We’ve come around the corner, and we’re, discussing the claims that the earliest Christians were from a group known as the gnostics. But who exactly were these gnostics? Perhaps more important for our purposes, what is our earliest, reliable historical reference to the gnostics? What are their probable origins? Gnostics were a sect that we know best from the second century church father known as Ignatius. In his work, Adversus Heresies, he describes them in detail. One of the interesting things about Ignatius is that recent archeological works have verified his accuracy.
When we are discussing the gnostics, we are not referring to a purely Christian tradition, though Christianized Gnosticism is our central concern. The gnostics were related to the mystery religions that were incredibly popular in the period and were connected with Greek, Egyptian and other mythological systems. In a sense, the gnostics and the mystery religions formed something akin to the New Age movement of their day. The precise origins of the mystery religions/gnostics are unknown, though there are various guesses. Likely, this is related to one phenomenon that is common to the gnostics: They seem to have borrowed ideas from various sources. To explain who they were, and when they began, we will begin by looking at a few of their beliefs, which will help us to date them.
Basics of the Gnostic Worldview
The Gnostics believed that in the beginning there was only the pleroma, a Greek term meaning “fullness,” which in their mythology is similar to the force in Star Wars. The Pleroma spawned a number of angel like beings, known as “aeons,” that spawned more Aeons, who form a progression between man and the Pleroma, and these aeons are usually given Greek names for character qualities. The final Aeon is the Demiurge, who either became evil, or insane because of the distance between the Demiurge and the Pleroma. As a result, the Demiurge created matter, the ultimate source of evil and suffering in humanity. The Demiurge is sometimes associated with Satan in the New Testament.
The Gnostics believed that matter was inherently evil. This led to a serious issue with regards to Jesus Christ, who clearly had a body. There were several solutions given to this problem. One solution, known as Doceticism, claimed that Jesus only appeared to have a body. Another solution was the idea that “Christ” and “Jesus” were separate entities, with the Christ spirit (an Aeon) who joined with the mortal Jesus. Christ came not to redeem men on the cross, but to provide estoric knowledge (or gnosis, the basis of the name Gnosticism) to men. This knowledge was secret, and usually was given to a particular disciple. The four canonical gospels were merely the first, preparatory step to understand the greater gnostic “truths.” The ultimate goal of Gnosticism was to rejoin with the Pleroma.
Gnostic practices were varied. Gnostics were broken into a number of sects, all of whom had a differing formula for rejoining the Demiurge. Because they believed matter was evil, some practiced asceticism – hoping to lessen the affect of the body on the spirit. Others went to the opposite extreme and practiced licentiousness, believing that the physical body was of no consequence. All gnostics considered relationships with the Aeons (who were usually related to character qualities, and might be named such things as patience), as a ladder that was to be climbed to draw closer to the Pleroma.
Gnostic Origins – What is known
Ignatius stated that the gnostics followed Simon Magnus. We have no means of evaluating whether this claim is true or false.
The earliest clear reference to the gnostics is the epistle of 1 John, written around AD 85. Some writers have seen elements of Gnosticism in other works, particularly claiming that they are addressed by Paul in several of his epistles. Gnosticism is variously connected to numerous references in Paul, and some are simply ridiculous. To begin discussing a date for the existence of Gnosticism we need a literary reference to a belief that was held by “Christian” gnostics, bearing no similarities to other groups. Of the various Pauline epistles tied to Gnosticism, the most compelling is the book of Colossians. However, even this reference is highly questionable – the elements of Colossians that are used to assert a connection to Gnosticism apply equally as well to Jewish traditions, and thus he was as likely (I believe more likely) to be addressing a group advocating Gentiles be required to adopt the OT Law. As we know that there was an early Christian Heresy in Paul’s time connected with Judaism. It is difficult to use this as a marker to indicate the existence of Gnosticism at this time. 1 Corinthians, likewise, has elements that are tied to Gnosticism, but these elements were also common to Greek philosophy. Thus, the elements asserted to connect Gnosticism to 1 Corinthians to Gnosticism could equally indicate influence by Grecian metaphysics, a trap that many of the latter father fell into.
However, 1 John’s regular references, to Christ coming in the flesh does seem related to Docetism, a gnostic belief. This is, historically, the oldest reference to something that is distinctive to Gnosticism. It should be emphasized that we have not proven that Gnosticism did not exist before this time period, but rather that there is no unambiguous evidence of Gnosticism before this point. While some have posited Gnosticism as existing beforehand from potential references to Gnosticism, this is ultimately speculation.
When John wrote against the gnostics, he attacked a central doctrine, the doctrine that Christ did not come in a physical body, but only appeared to have a body. Likely, if Paul’s were writing about gnostic beliefs, he would also attack the these beliefs more directly, and unambiguously. While this supposition is by no means unassailable, when combined with the possibilities noted above, it indicates that the theories noted above are more likely correct than the theory that implies the early existence of gnosticism.
There is an additional argument about dating the gnostics to the first century, but we will use that argument when we complete this study. What we can say is that no one can argue dogmatically that the gnostics existed in any form before the last quarter of the first century. With that fact in mind, we have our first “uncertainty” in the gnostic origin theory. In our next issue, we will discuss the issue of the gnostic gospels, an element that is included in some versions of the gnostic origin myth, but not in all.
The Gnostic Origin Myth: Blueprint of a Bad Design
Theories, like buildings have supports, and to destroy those theories, you need to destroy the pillars that hold it up. Tearing apart a bad idea is sort of like causing a building to implode. Before you begin placing explosives, you need to study the blue prints of the building so that you know where to place them effectively. The gnostic origin myth is one of those ideas that has become “common wisdom” in our modern culture. The gnostic origin theory states that the New Testament gospels were never intended to be taken as history, but were written as “myths” to communicate intangible truths. In the first article, we noted certain modern myths surrounding this theory that makes the theory more imposing than the evidence actually allows for. Now, we will plan our attack on the theory itself. Therefore, we will begin our dissection of the Gnostic origin Myth with one question that will help us to deal with this problem.
So what exactly is the Gnostic origin myth?
You’ve probably heard various discussions about how the gospels are derived from other previous stories, but let’s make sure we understand the full story. In the nineteenth century, a few German scholars noticed some similarities between some phrases Paul used and some phrases used in the mystery religions (religious secret societies which were very popular in the Roman world). Based on a few verbal similarities, they began to hypothesize that Paul had borrowed various elements of his teachings from the mystery religions. This theory became known as the “religiongeschicte school” (meaning the history of religion). Over time, those holding to this approach began to suggest that the gospels were simply a myth, intended to teach estoric truths. This became connected to a second and third century heresy known as Gnosticism (from the Greek word “gnosis” meaning knowledge). The gnostics are difficult to explain because there were a lot of different types of gnostics. The real key to understanding the gnostics, for our purposes, is to understand that they mixed Christianity with non-Christian teachings (most notably Greek philosophy, and the mystery religions). The theory as it stands today is that the gnostics were the original Christians. They believe that many of the myths of the ancient world are retelling the same story, and the Christian gospels are merely another version. There are many variations on this theme. In some cases, for example, some people pay a lot of attention to the gnostic gospels and others will say that the gospels developed over a long period of time, from historical legends.
One of the most commonly cited mythical deities is Mithras, the problem is that their analysis is based on sources that are no longer considered valid. For example, more recent scholars would disagree that Mithras was viewed as Virgin born or that he was resurrected.
Tearing Down the Supports
With this thumbnail sketch, we can start seeing where the “supports” are for the Gnostic Origin myth. The first one is the “mythical” nature of the gospels. As was noted in our last issue, our first leg of the positive case for Christ has addressed this question, by noting that the gospels are historically accurate. Yet we must still discuss the question of the comparisons to other myths. Additionally, we must ask the question of whether the gnostics were the first Christians or not. A final support is something that is not as obvious: there is a very important question to be asked that is rarely considered by those who advocate the gnostic origin theory. What kind of sources are the gnostic origin advocates using, and are they using them accurately? Simply put, what do we really know about the written documents that the gnostic origin advocates are comparing to the canonical gospels? Do we have reason to believe that they are using them carefully and accurately? Do they deal with the Biblical texts in an accurate manner? All of these questions are intertwined, but we will start by asking a question about one of these threads, and deal with the rest from here. Our next piece, however will deal with the question of the gnostics, themselves.
Our final objection to the positive case for Christ will require additional time to consider, and that is the gnostic origin theory, that appears to be quite popular in our pseudo intellectual culture. One of the attacks against Christianity that is becoming increasingly common is the argument that the gospels arose as a myth, based on earlier myths. This attack is all the more insidious because it has wide access to the media. Documentaries and books in the pop-religion section of the book store would make it seem that this idea is well proven and accepted in scholarship. The reader will probably be surprised to find out that this idea is not as common among Biblical scholars (even among unbelieving scholars) as it is among the general population. Actually, the modern version of this theory was popularized in works by those who are not experts in the field, such as Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Cambell’s work drew on previous works, many of which were known to be flawed before Campbell popularized them. Before actually touching on the gnostic origin theory itself we are going to begin by clearing away some underbrush that makes this belief seem so daunting. Thus I will note some facts that the reader should keep in mind.
Fact 1: Your college or high school English teacher is not an expert in Biblical literature.
Many of those who perpetuate the gnostic origin theory are not actually experts in the field. Most of them have gotten their information from people such as Campbell, who is not an expert in the field of Biblical studies. While your English teacher understands literary devices, themes, etc., they will likely not be familiar with books some of the more important books written in the study of the New Testament. Likewise, they will not have more than a cursory understanding of the history of New Testament times, or for that matter the history of New Testament studies. They will also be unlikely understand or study the Bible in the original languages. In fact, your English teacher’s primary professional contact with the Bible will come from studying the impact of the Bible on English Literature.
Fact 2: Documentaries about the Bible are placed on TV less for their intellectual value than for their ratings.
Television stations care primarily about what their viewers want to see. Television producers are rarely experts in the Bible themselves, so they have no ability to judge the merits of a particular works accuracy. Like many in our age they have an interest in the things that grab headlines. For example, compare the following two headlines, “Archeologist calls Luke a historian of the first rank,” and “the Tomb of Jesus has been found.” The latter is more likely to make the front page, the previous is true, while the latter is dubious. The result is that the history channel, TLC, and PBS are increasingly becoming Coast to Coast with George Nory when discussing Biblical subjects. I rarely find a documentary on the Bible on television that is of any real intellectual value.
Fact 3: The proponents of the Gnostic Origin theory tend to ignore the evidence of the historicity of the Gospels.
In some sense, the gnostic origin myth has no answer to what we have already demonstrated about the historical value of the gospels. Yet, this historical value is of extreme importance to their case. If someone is going to write a myth (also known as fiction) to present a moral lesson, they will probably not worry about the accuracy of the details. In fact, they will probably write about something that happened “a long time ago, in a land far away.” The writers of the gospels, on the other hand, are accurate. This is a serious problem for those who advocate a gnostic origin for the New Testament, but it is one that they ignore, rather than address.
Fact 4: The assumptions of gnostic origin proponents are speculation masquerading as facts.
The Gnostic origin theory rests on claims about the nature of the early Church. For example, they claim the first century Church is was much broader and tolerant than the Church in the time of Constantine (the time when they say Christian belief’s actually solidified). As an example, one of the major proponents of the gnostic myth viewpoint, a man named Rudolf Bultmann, spent nearly one hundred pages discussing diaspora churches. The problem is that there was not a single concrete fact in evidence that these groups even existed as a separate set of views from the teaching of the apostles. More often than not, when Gnostic origin proponents say something is a proven fact, what they really mean is that certain people have speculated something and presented that speculation as if it were a proven fact.
Fact 5: Many of the proponents of this theory have been influenced by existentialism.
This is not a hard and fast rule, but it’s a trend that I’ve noticed, and it affects the discussion in two ways. Existentialism is a major philosophical system that is outside of the scope of this article. When it comes to the issue of literature and interpretation, existentialists argue that meaning is found in the reader’s response rather than in looking for the author’s intended meaning. Many existentialists do not tend to apply the same rigor than those of us who consider this type of “interpretation” to be intellectually dishonest.
Fact 6: Literature is not necessarily opposed to history.
Finally, many of those who hold to the gnostic origin theory tend to state that the Bible is literature and not history. Occasionally, this is stated by noting that the gospels were intended to persuade rather than to present historical facts. This is an artificial dichotomy. The Bible can be literature and history. While the gospels were written to persuade people that Jesus was the Messiah, that does not discount that they are works of history. After all, Tacitus, one of our primary sources about the early Roman Empire, wrote his works trying to persuade people that many of the problems of his day were caused by the early Emperors rather than by the Senate. No one denies that his writings are works of history, or that they are historically accurate. Likewise Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which was a major influence on historians for several generations, begins with a preamble that could be considered a classic of English prose, in which he describes the decayed beauty of Roman ruins, and his longing for the greatness that was Rome. In reality, many works of history have “an agenda” of some type, but that does not deny that they seek to present facts accurately. Many writers use various literary devices to communicate and organize their thoughts, but that does not lessen their historical value. The study of literature is the study of a form of communication. Ultimately, many historical writers use literary elements in their works to communicate their central message.
Moving forward from here: Hopefully, this will make the task of attacking the gnostic origin theory less daunting. Our next step is to do what we have done in our introductory articles in the past: explain the basic elements of the theory, and describe our plan of attack.
We have come to our penultimate objection in our positive case for Christ. We began by establishing three facts of history. They are:
1. Jesus of Nazareth died when he was Crucified.
2. There were witnesses who claimed to see Jesus alive after the crucifixion. These witness included those who were friendly to Jesus (such as the twelve), as well as those who were unfriendly to the cause of His messiahship (such as Paul).
3. The tomb was empty after the resurrection appearances.
These conclusions are derived by treating the Scriptures as being historically reliable, something that we have demonstrated in our early articles. After establishing the data we have been addressing the major objections to the positive case for Christ. Our next objection is that the body of Jesus was stolen by the disciples and that the whole resurrection was a fake.
The various claims of grave robbery have gone back to the earliest days of the Church. The Jewish leaders, according to the gospel of Matthew, bribed the Roman guards to say that the body had been stolen. Modern proponents have suggested that the body may have been stolen before the guards arrived (as in the documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus see our E-Pamphlet on this topic), or that the presence of the guards is a later level of tradition. The argument that is then leveled is that Christianity was an intentional hoax from the beginning, as was common in religious movements in the ancient world.
This claim, however, suffers from the usual issues faced by the conspiracy theories. The first is that the claim flies in the face of what the apostles would later be like. The apostles did not deny the resurrection, even on pain of death. Acts tells us that Peter and John were threatened by the Sanhedrin in an attempt prevent them from preaching on Temple grounds, but they refused. James the brother of John, an influential apostle in the early Church, was killed very early in the Church’s history by Herod Agrippa I. Yet, they refused to bow to the pressure. Early accounts from the gospels indicate a level of cowardice that was unbecoming of the apostles (and thus less likely to be faked by a later revisionist). The question then remains, if the gospel was a hoax, then how did the apostles “grow a spine?” Some have argued (as has Simon Jacobovich, of the Lost Tomb of Jesus documentary) that this was because the resurrection was a cover for Jesus brand of Jewish nationalism. Yet, if the core of Jesus message was Jewish nationalism, it is hard to conceive that the Pharisees would be so opposed to Jesus, or supporting his death (it would be far more likely that they would oppose him if they thought he was a Roman collaborator rather than a Jewish nationalist). Nor do the gospels provide support for this supposition, unless one cherry picks the evidence.
Real world conspiracies likewise suffer from the problem of defections. The more conspirators there are, the more likely one will defect when pressure is placed on them – pressure such as being stoned, dragged to prison by men like Saul of Tarshish, or later, persecution by the Roman authorities. As many conspirators as would be necessary to make this case, the lack of defections is a critical failure for the hoax theory.
A second issue also involves the presence of eyewitnesses, as well. There were eyewitnesses that were disinclined to accept Jesus Messiahship. These include James, the brother of Jesus and Paul. The question of the brothers of Jesus is an interesting one, some have argued that they must have been among the early followers of Jesus, and the gospel accounts changed their story later. However, this is unlikely because of the criteria of embarrassment. If someone was making propaganda, they would be unlikely to make up a story that the brothers of Jesus, who grew up with him and knew him for his entire life, would doubt His divinity; someone who was creating a hoax (or perhaps a later historian less concerned with accuracy) would avoid (or gloss over) such details. Therefore, it is unreasonble to assume this is some kind of later insertion; something must have happened to convince James and the brothers of Jesus to overcome their disbelief. If the gospel is initially a hoax, then there is no basis for their conversion.
Additionally, there is the conversion of Paul. As a self-proclaimed persecutor of the Church, Paul would again need to have a reason to believe. His anti-Christian sentiments were so great that he was involved with having Christians executed for their faith, it would be the equivelent of Lenin advocating capitalism. While some have argued that Paul had a hallucination, this would only account for his life to a certain degree (certainly not to the lifetime obsession that Paul had with the gospel). The basis of this claim is that Paul had a deepseated guilt over his actions in persecuting the Church. However, Paul’s own testimony on the point does not corroborate the idea that he felt guilty at the time when he was persecuting the Church.
Additionally, as noted last time, Paul’s sholarship is a fly in the ointment for the reasons noted in our last piece. Paul had some contact with the other apostles throughout his life, and seems to have been aware of the physical evidence; as a trained scholar, he was not critical.
Finally, from the chapter that launched this entire discussion (1 Corinthians 15) there were a few “mass” appearances including one to over 500 people at one time. This would be hard to account for. Paul spent time in Jerusalem, and would certainly have known those who were present if many were still living when he wrote 1 Corinthians. Therefore, either Paul was a part of the hoax (which is unlikely when you consider his history) or he had spoken with these witnesses. It is difficult to account for a hoax of this magnitude without someone telling the governmental powers about the hoax. In short, the theory that the gospel is a hoax fails to carry its own weight.
Conspiracy theoies make exciting fiction, but they are a poor means of understanding history.
In our development of the positive case for Christ, we have come a long way. We began by demonstrating the historical reliability of the New Testament gospels. We did not do this to deny inspiration or infallibility. We take inspiration and infallibility of the Bible by faith. Therefore, inspiration is accepted by believers and not by unbelievers. It is questioned by those in doubt.
Thus, we bring the Bible into a discussion on the level of facts, before we discuss it on the level of faith. While these doctrines are important, we will focus for our purposes on the logically prior step of historical reliability. This allows us to use the Bible in debate and discussion, but focusing on a provable standard that becomes undeniable. We then noted that there were three facts that can be gleaned through historical process from these documents. First, Jesus died on the cross after his crucifixion. Second, he was seen alive after his crucifixion by those who were inclined to accept the resurrection, as well as by those that were disinclined to accept His Messiahship. Finally, that Jesus’ tomb was empty. We have been examining various objections to this idea. In this issue, we discuss the possibility that the gospel accounts developed through the process of legend.
Is the gospel a legend
In recent decades and centuries, we have found a surprising number of legends are actually based in historical fact. Egyptologists have discovered a tomb they believe to be the legendary Scorpion King, the first human pharaoh of Egyptian myth and legend. Likewise, the Illiad contains a surprisingly accurate picture of late bronze age warfare. Since the nineteenth century, the ancient city of Illion (commonly referred to as Troy) has been discovered and excavated and remains of the Trojan war are clearly historical. Some have argued on the basis of the Cargo cults that Christianity is similarly a tradition surrounding some true historical events of Jesus teaching, and that this is sufficient to explain any historically accurate elements in the gospels.
Problem 1: The Problem of Time
Paul’s conversion is the great fly in the ointment for this theory. Paul’s conversion creates two separate problems for the legendary development theory. Time is the first of these. The left has tried valiantly to overcome the problem of time by comparing Christianity to the cargo cults (cults in various parts of the world among primitive peoples, based on legends formed around aircraft landing during the years of World War II). Yet the cargo cults originated in primitive, illiterate cultures, far different than the relatively advanced Hellenistic world. To put it in perspective, the Roman world of the first century was on the verge of the Industrial revolution. Heron of Alexandria, who lived during the time of Christ, had invented the first steam engine. Likewise, Archimedes seems to have discovered the rudiments of calculus before either Newton or Leibnitz. Thus, while the gullible exist in all cultures, in more advanced cultures, there exist those who are trained to think critically (people such as Paul, for example, but we will discuss that later). Thus, the differences in culture seriously weaken the argument of the lefts response on the basis of the cargo cults.
The true problem of time for the legendary development theory is far greater than most understand. Paul’s conversion happened at a time that is far earlier than many imagine. The book of Galatians was probably written in AD 48 to 49, (though some would place it in the middle of the fifties, about AD 55). Within the book, Paul tells the Galatians that his second visit to Jerusalem was fourteen years after his conversion. This dates Paul’s conversion between AD 34 and 35, (or if we take the later date, around AD 40). Jesus was crucified in either AD 30 or in AD 33. This means that the period of time for the legend of Christ to develop is within less than a decade. Within an advanced culture, such as the Hellenistic world, this is far too fast for a legend of the magnitude of the resurrection of Christ to grow.
Problem 2: Paul’s disinclination to accept the Gospel
A second problem for the legendary theory, mentioned in previous issues, is the disinclination of Paul to accept the gospel. This is related to the previous argument, but is distinct in a sense. His previous opposition to the Christian doctrines means that he would be disinclined to believe the evidence of legend. If we discuss this in terms of legend (rather than a hoax) Paul’s credentials as a scholar at such an early period of church history is inexplicable, if the gospels are the result to the slow growth of legend. If Paul had lived later, his conversion could have been related to either poor source material or accepted a theory simply because it had become the status quo in scholarship. Such could not be said in the thirties and forties of the first century. Any theory that attempts to explain the resurrection of Christ must explain the conversion of Paul in a realistic way: A highly educated Pharisee, who was opposed to the early Christian Church, until after the Damascus road experience. At this point, he literally turned his life around to follow Jesus Christ as the first great Christian scholar and apostle to the gentiles.
Problem #3 – Apples and Oranges
A lot of the arguments for the legendary growth theory are apples and oranges comparisons. We have noted already that comparisons to the primitive culture of the cargo cults are ultimately incompatible comparisons, but this is also true of many other arguments from antiquity. The argument that the gospel are similar in development to the Illiad or the legend of the Scorpion King are like comparing apples and oranges; the differences are striking. During the development of the evidence, we discussed the work of William Ramsey, who demonstrated that the book of Acts is correct in identifying precise details. Ramsey’s conclusion was to refer to the author of Acts as a “historian of the first rank.” This is not the same kind of accuracy when scholars discuss the historical accuracy of the Illiad, however. The Illiad’s accuracy is found in the general details. There is evidence of a war between the ancient Greeks and ancient Illion (better known to English speakers as Troy). There is evidence that the invaders (presumably the Greeks) won, and the poem correctly notes many aspects of bronze age battle. However, we do not know whether the details of those battles are correct or not; that is, we do not know about the specific offensives of Hector, or of single combat between Hector and Achilles. Many of the plot points of the Illiad, even the existence of some of the major characters are of unknown value. Some may be true. Many details, likely, are not. The same is true of the Scorpion King. All that can really be stated is that he might have really existed, and might have controlled a significant territory in Egypt. No other details have been proven. Acts has been proven right in the details of the period – it demonstrates accurately who was in what city in what year and accurately depicts titles. This level of confirmed accuracy is a very different thing that what we have in other sources.
The theory of legendary development is relatively weak. If the gospels were written in the middle of the second century, or Paul lived thirty or forty years later, perhaps those with this opinion would have a point. Ultimately, the theory of legendary development is based on assumptions based on a disconnect between periods of time. While investigating the tomb of Jesus Hoax and discussing the matter on the films boards, one woman stated that I had her going until I stated that Paul was in Jerusalem at the time of the Crucifixion.