A couple years ago a young lady, a college student perhaps, going by the handle Young88Apologist, took the time to read through one of my posts and left a long comment challenging my conclusions. There was nothing new to the comments, but what made her comment stand out in my mind is that she strongly recommended I reconsider my position by listening to an audio series produced by Pastor Chip Ingram, of Living on the Edge Ministries.
She couldn’t have known, of course, that I was very familiar with Pastor Chip, as he had been my pastor at Santa Cruz Bible Church from 1990 until I moved my family out of the area in 2001. I was very active and dedicated, running music and drama programs for most of my time there. Even though the church grew to 2,500 people, I had the opportunity to be personally acquainted with him and his family.
I was pretty surprised that, of all the apologists out there, she would choose the one guy I knew. Since then, I vacillated on whether I wanted to take the time to listen to the series. It’s over 4.5 hours of listening time, and I’m pretty sure I know what he’ll say. I may even have been there when he said it (I’m not sure when the series was originally recorded, but they consist of recorded sermons.)
So recently I’ve been interested in meeting my critics where they are and checking out some of the material they find so convincing.
Now, in taking on Chip’s apologies, I want to make it clear that I’m criticizing the mateiral at hand and his analysis and not him personally. I have always found Chip to be a very sincere and good-hearted guy, and his family very kind and winsome. I ask you to please not construe any of my criticisms as a disparagement on his character, and instead to just focus on the ideas, even if my delivery is sometimes less than skillful.
End of introduction – onto the fun:
Chip’s series, Why I Believe, is a five part series covering the following topics:
- Why I Believe in the Resurrection
- Why I Believe in Life After Death
- Why I Believe in the Bible
- Why I Believe in Creation
- Why I Believe in the God of the Bible
This first installment addresses the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. In introducing the topic, Chip (rightly, in my view) states that Christianity rises and falls with the physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ. He backs this up with quotes from the Apostle Paul (I Cor. 15:13-19) and from noted atheist, the late Anthony Flew. (Of course, this has more to do with the fundamentalist-Evangelical-literalist brand of Christianity. John Shelby Spong and other liberal Christians wouldn’t be quite so invested in any single theological concept such as this.)
This really is the key to the whole smash. After all, if you remove the bodily Resurrection of Christ, you destroy the the entire theological core of Christianity. If Christ doesn’t die and rise again, sins are not forgiven, death is not defeated, the Holy Spirit isn’t sent, and so on. Many Christians even get focused on other aspects of the faith and view them as do or die doctrines. Creationism is one of those. Chip is going to argue in favor of Special Creation later anyway, but the fact of the matter is that if Jesus actually died and was resurrected three days later, what does it matter how everyone got here. He still did it, right?
Throughout Chip kind of blows through the standard apologetic assertions without much corroboration. It’s actually a bit frustrating, because, being restricted by the medium (the Sunday Sermon, carefully timed) he will tend to say a sentence or two as though a thing were simply true and accepted, then move onto the next, expecting the listener to accept it. And the dedicated Christian will do just that, assuming that Chip wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t rock solid truth. So where he offers a sentence or two, I’ll often offer a paragraph or five. That will make this a rilly long post, so I may need to break it up into a longer series of shorter articles. Regardless, it’s worth trying to break it down a little further in order to shed some brighter, more accurate light on what he says.
Chip begins by asserting the reliability of the biblical documents and thereby asserting first that Christ simply existed before moving onto the Resurrection. This is critical to his case because much of the “proof” he offers is simply a series of biblical citiations. So if the bible is shown to be less than reliable recording of historical events, his storyline suffers significantly.
He titles section 1:
1. The HISTORICITY of Jesus of Nazareth is airtight:
A. Biblical Manuscripts
His first assertion is that the quantity and quality of biblical manuscripts confirms their reliability. He says there are 5,000 New Testament documents and 25,000 total biblical documents dating from within 100 years of the events they purport to record. To contrast, he says “Homer, Plato, Socrates, we only have 5 or 6 documents, and some of those date 5 or 600 years after the origin.”
It is sort of interesting that he groups Homer, Plato, and Socrates into one sentence. Regarding Plato and Socrates we have little doubt about what they wrote, and their ideas are still foundational to modern philosophy. Yet scholars today argue about whether the situational aspects of the writings, the events surrounding the ideas, actually happened the way they were written, or whether they were stylized to strengthen the illustration.
More importantly, the ideas conveyed and in use in the practice of Philosophy do not remotely ride on the situational backdrop upon which they were communicated. The philosophical ideas are still in use because they are useful and proven philsophical tools.
Moreover, nobody even begins to assert that the supernatural events in Homer’s writings are historical events. They are recognized by their supernatural nature alone to be mythological – perhaps at one point believed, but today recognized for what they are. There are real places in Homer’s writings, and likely many real people. But the sirens were not real. The Cyclops was not real.
Starting from Chip’s point of comparison, if we were to therefore afford the biblical documents the reasonable consideration that he seems to think is shown to Homer we would confirm the historically reliable aspects of the bible and reject the fantastic and supernatural aspects of the story, just as we do with Homer. After all, while there is archaelogical evidence to suggest that there was a long seige of the city of Troy, nobody ever asserts that Thetis actually speaks to Zeus, that Zeus sends a dream to Agememnon, that Aphrodite rescues Paris, that Hera seduces Zeus in order to free Poseidon to help the Greeks, or that Hermes leads Priam into Achilles’ camp to rescue the body of Hector. Yet Chip implies that we should accept the New Testament account, with all it’s supernatural elements, without dividing mythology from its historical backdrop.
The issue at hand is sort of a bait and switch. The assertion is that the documents we read today are pretty much what was written 2,000 years ago. That may be true. However, the implication that Chip would like us to derive is that this accuracy of transmission thereby confers historical accuracy upon the content. But as we see in Chip’s comparison with Homer, this does not logically follow. Accuracy of transmission does not mean accuracy of content.
This also glosses over the fact that the “bible” didn’t exist in 125 CE. In fact, the first we know of a suggested canon comes from a gnostic heretic named Marcion, probably somewhere around 140-150 CE. The books that make up what we now know of as the New Testament were but scattered copies of letters shared between churches. And they were shared along with many other letters that eventually would be rejected by the Council of Constantinople centuries later. The first time a list of books we would recognize as the New Testament was proposed was in the early fourth century CE by Eusebius. The canon itself was not decided until 382 CE, and that after a bitter dispute between the camps of Arius and Athanasius, who asserted two very different versions of who Jesus was.
Chip, and most apologists, would have us believe that the church at its core was a cohesive organization with a recognizable central scripture to guide them and a very consistent story to tell. But the reality is that there were many versions of the story (along with many, many other spiritual traditions that have since gone by the wayside) and it wasn’t until 350 years after the supposed events that a committee, after decades of infighting, chose one version (Jesus is God) over the other (Jesus is a created being separate from God) and in the end only chose the 27 books that supported their version. Granted, this is a serious simplification of what amounted to a very convoluted 60+ year process, but it’s important to recognize that the quantity/quality argument has no bearing on the truth of the included scriptures. We have reliable copies of many of the excluded texts as well. What level trust should we grant them?
To take it a step further, we are at least as reasonably sure that the Quran has been accurately preserved from its original writing to now. Muhammed purportedly spoke the prophecies that make up the Quran between 609 and 632 CE. According to Muslim scholars, the Quran was assembled in its current form ~650CE by a committee of Muslim leaders after Muhammed’s death. The earliest manuscript fragments are dated before 671, only 20 years after it was written down, and less than 40 years after the events. Are we then to take that as proof that their content is true and historically accurate? You can’t have it both ways.
Well, this topic could be (and is, many times over) the topic of its own book – so, moving on…
B. Contemporary Historians
Chip’s next assertion is contemporary Jewish and Roman historians also wrote about Jesus, so he must have existed. He mentions Josephus, Pliny, and Tacitus with literally zero citation. Of course, remember his audience, and remember that they nearly universally rely on the bible as their primary authority and view it as “God-breathed,” so rattling on about some non-Christian historian is less authoritative than expounding God’s Word. But of course, the devil is in the details, so to speak.
A quick look at his three “contemporary historians” will paint a very different picture.
Flavius Josephus was a Jewish historian and left beind a wealth of information about the region and its history. The passage Chip refers to is known as the Testimonium Flavianum. It reads:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and as a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvellous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
At first glance, that’s impressive. Considering how reliable we know Josephus’ work to be, a passage such as this would pretty much cement the existence of Jesus Christ, if nothing else.
However (and you knew that was coming) it turns out this passage is, at least in part, a thoroughly debunked interpolation – a passage not written by Josephus, but a later forger who apparently sought to provide some sort of proof that didn’t otherwise exist. Truth is, even most of the most devout, conservative Christian scholars agree that this passage is at the very least partially forged, and that part being the obvious messianic and divine claims of the passage.
How do we know this? There are many long articles on this topic alone, but a couple of quick highights:
- Even the early church leader Origen specifically said that Josephus did not acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, so would hardly have written the glowing claims above.
- Josephus was a Pharasaic Jew and would not have spoken in such glowing terms regarding what would essentially be a blasphemer.
- The linguistic patterns in the passage do not match the rest of Josephus’ writings, indicating a different, later author.
Keep in mind, too, that Josephus was born in 37 CE, after Jesus is said to have died/resurrected/ascended and was writing decades after the events as well. Anything he did include, if indeed he included anything, would not have been first hand.
The Pliny the Younger reference is even more suspect. Communicating with the emperor Trajan around 110 CE, Pliny references the cult of Christians and mentions some of their practices, apparently complaining that they do not honor the gods of Rome. He makes zero mention of Jesus or any aspect of his having been a real person at all. Everyone knows there were Christians in the Roman empire in 110CE, nearly 80 years after Jesus’s alleged resurrection, so this is not proof of anything other than the fact there were Christians.
The Tacitus reference suffers the exact same flaw. Written around 116CE, the passage in questions reads:
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.
Tacitus here is only relating what he has been told from unknown sources about Christians and their beliefs. The fact that he refers to Pilate in error as a procurator rather than his correct rank of prefect also indicates that he was not referring to actual Roman records of the time but rather repeating what he had heard from unofficial sources about the tenets of the Christian cult. More evidence that he was not using Roman records as his source is that he refers to Jesus as Christos, a religious title which would not have been recorded in the Roman records of his death. To put a point on it, the passage is not even about Jesus (and that name isn’t even used, only the religious title) but rather about the behavior of the follows of the Christian religion. He was not trying to establish any sort of fact about Jesus, but relating facts about the followers, their actions, and the ramifications.
Chip’s third assertion is that there is a myriad of archaeological evidence for the existence of Jesus. Unfortunately he gives us exactly zero actual examples to cross-check. He tosses out comments about a census, coin inscriptions, mentions of things Jesus said, but he offers no way to check out what he really means. He just says there’s more and more every day.
At least with the census comment there’s really only one possibility, which would be the census of Quirinius. This is usually touted as proof that the biblical account of a census that drove Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem is true. However, this creates more problems than it solves when you delve into the actual history. According to the Gospel of Luke, the census took place during the reign of Herod the Great, and was ordered by the Governor of the region, Quirinius. The problem with that is we know from Roman records that the census of Quirinius took place in 6CE. We also know that Herod died in 4BCE, 10 years before the census even took place. And of course, within all records of the census, there is nothing to actually identify anyone even remotely connected to Jesus. If anything, the passage points to the historical unreliability of the gospel accounts.
If I find anymore specifics on his scant references, I’ll update this post and add them in.
All that said, it is very possible that there was an itinerant Rabbi known as Yeshua, and that he gained a following that eventually evolved into the Christian Church. That may even be the more likely explanation, rather than the strict mythicism of the likes of Richard Carrier. But that is a far cry from Jesus as God. As we’ll see in the next installments, which begin to rely almost wholly and even circularly on biblical accounts, none of this will lead reasonably to a resurrected savior.