Thursday, December 10, 2015

Christianity, The World's Most Falsifiable Religion?

I find myself not writing about religion very often anymore mostly because I’ve got the gist of Christian apologetics at this point and am rather bored by it, so I’m much less often inspired to respond to something I read. Still, something extraordinary does occasionally drift by, like this article from Michael Patton, Th.M., (presumably not the Mike Patton from Faith No More) entitled “Christianity, The World’s Most Falsifiable Religion.” It struck me as odd that someone with a background in theology would write so confidently about the historicity of the core claims of the Christian faith. Then again, the major endeavor of Christian apologetics is to attempt to muster up some kind of argument other than “you just need to take it on faith,” even though most believers would not cite “the overwhelming persuasiveness of Christian apologetics” as the reason for their belief. Apologetics is not for convincing nonbelievers, it’s for reassuring believers that they have legitimate, non-laughable reasons for the beliefs that they already hold, beliefs that don’t actually have their origins in the cosmological argument, or the teleological argument, or the moral argument, or the [insert apologetic du jour] argument.

Here is Patton’s thesis:
“Christianity is the only viable worldview that is historically defensible. The central claims of the Bible demand historic inquiry, as they are based on public events that can be historically verified. In contrast, the central claims of all other religions cannot be historically tested and, therefore, are beyond falsifiability or inquiry. They just have to be believed with blind faith.”
The TL;DR version of my response: No, Christianity is not historically defensible. Its claims, like those of all other religions, are not falsifiable, and you do just have to take it on faith. Here’s the long-winded version:

What is History?

To explain why the claims of the Christian faith cannot be investigated historically, the first thing that needs to be done is to define what history is, and just as importantly what history is not. (I’m borrowing heavily here from the work of Dr. Bart Ehrman, New Testament scholar and historian.) History is not the past. History is what we can show probably happened in the past. This is not a trivial distinction; there are things that certainly happened in the past but cannot be shown to have happened with any high probability. For example, there is a factual answer to the question “What did Benjamin Franklin eat for dinner on October 23rd, 1778?” Unless we’re fortunate enough to discover Franklin's journal meticulously detailing his prandial selections on that day, we have no method of seeking the answer to this question. So although the question asks about a particular event in the past, it is not a historical question – it can’t be investigated historically. Let’s look at the claims of the New Testament and determine if they are historical claims, i.e. claims that can be investigated historically.

History as a Genre

Not every piece of writing that talks about the past is historical. “History” is a specific literary designation, and any writing deemed to be “historical” must meet certain criteria, just as any writing claiming to be satire or science fiction or biography must meet certain criteria. So, what exactly is history? The word itself comes from Herodotus, the 5th century BCE Greek writer commonly referred to as “The Father of History” (an honor conferred upon him by Cicero, no less.) Herodotus begins his famous work with the immortal words “Ἡροδότου Ἁλικαρνησσέος ἱστορίης ἀπόδεξις ἥδε,” “This is the display of the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus.” The Greek word whence comes our word history means an investigation or inquiry. In this hugely influential work, Herodotus establishes many basic features of the genre of historical writing. First of all, he clearly identifies himself by name and place. Second, he often gives multiple conflicting accounts of a story and identifies to which people each perspective belongs. In the case of events he didn’t witness himself, he tells the reader where he got his information and reports it neutrally, inviting the reader to decide which side is telling the truth, if any.

Thucydides, Herodotus’ 5th century Greek contemporary wrote a detailed history of the war between Athens and Sparta as it was unfolding before his very eyes. His methods are even more mindfully scrupulous than those of Herodotus, and he tells us explicitly in Book I, section 22 how he gets his information:
“And with reference to the narrative of events, far from permitting myself to derive it from the first source that came to hand, I did not even trust my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible. My conclusions have cost me some labour from the want of coincidence between accounts of the same occurrences by different eye-witnesses, arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for one side or the other.”
Thucydides’ work is also noteworthy for his inclusion of long speeches, about which he gives the following disclaimer in the same section:
“With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one's memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.”
So, history as a genre was established more than four hundred years before the New Testament: a transparent inquiry into events by an author who identifies himself, dutifully reports on sources, and declares any biases. It should already be clear that the writers of the gospels make no effort to be historical in their approach to narration. But wait, there’s more!

Investigating the Historical Past

Having established what historical writing looks like from its ancient roots, we should mention what modern scholars of history look for when trying to determine what probably happened in the past. The most important resources in investigating the historical past are primary sources – first-hand accounts reported by people who witnessed the events. Historians want not only primary sources, but multiple primary sources that were created independently of one another, are consistent in their description of the events, and have no obvious bias in reporting. How do the gospels of the New Testament fare as desirable historical evidence? Let’s find out:
Are the gospels primary sources?
The stories narrated in the gospels are not eye-witness accounts and don’t even claim to be. Even worse, the original autographs of all New Testament books are lost. The earliest texts of the gospels we have are copies from a century later or more. Historians don’t know what the authors of the gospels originally wrote because the original texts don’t exist.

Are the gospels multiple independent sources?

Well, kind of. Multiple? Yes, technically. Independent? Definitely not. The first three gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) are plagued by a troublesome debate known as the synoptic problem, a veritable cluster-fuck of scholarly confusion as to where the hell the writers of these books got their information, because large parts are repeated verbatim across the three books, and the authors never mention their sources.

Are the gospels consistent in their descriptions of events?

When was Jesus executed? Mark (14:12, 15:25) and John (19:14-16) can’t agree on the hour or the day. Did Jesus carry his own cross, as John says (19:17), or did Simon of Cyrene carry it, as Mark (15:21), Matthew (27:32), and Luke (23:26) say? Were the women watching the crucifixion from far away, as Matthew (27:55), Mark (15:40), and Luke (23:49) say, or were Jesus’ mother Mary, her sister, and Mary Magdalene close at hand as John (19:25) says? What were Jesus’ last words before dying? Did he say “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” as Mark (15:34) and Matthew (27:46) report, or “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” as Luke (23:46) reports, or “It is finished,” as John (19:30) reports? That’s just a small selection of the inconsistencies in the crucifixion story alone. The gospel writers don’t tell the same story about anything.

Are the gospels unbiased in reporting events?

The gospels are stories narrated as if factual with no attempts whatsoever at impartiality. The authors of these books were 1st century Christians who already believed these stories and disseminated them for the purpose of converting people to their religion.

So, the gospels display precisely none of the characteristics shown by actual writers of history, and the texts have none of the characteristics that modern historians look for when investigating historical events. I could stop here, but wait, there’s more!

The Nail in the Coffin (Stone in front of the Tomb?): Miracles

As if everything mentioned thus far wasn’t problematic enough for the historicity of the claims in the New Testament, Dr. Ehrman reminds us of an even bigger problem: miracles. What is a miracle? A miracle is a suspension of the natural order of the world - an event that transcends the very physical laws that govern our entire existence. A miracle is not just an improbable event, but an impossible one. It’s rolling a 7 on a six-sided die, or being raised from the dead, or correctly folding a fitted bed sheet. Historians, as we established earlier, have to try to demonstrate what probably happened in the past. Miracles are by definition the least probable things that have ever happened. Of course they are – if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be miraculous. The conflict should be obvious: the least probable occurrence can never be the most probable explanation for anything. Thus, for a historian, no miraculous story can ever be a historical one. This is why history text books do not mention gods, demons, angels, fairies, and hobgoblins when explaining the D-Day invasion, or the Cuban Missile Crisis, or the French Revolution. Highly improbable explanations have no historical explanatory power.

What About Other Sources?

There aren’t any. Jesus of Nazareth, whoever he was, wrote nothing. His disciples wrote nothing. His contemporary followers wrote nothing. (This shouldn’t be surprising – lower class people in Judea in the 1st century were illiterate.) The earliest author we have is the apostle Paul, who never met Jesus. Everyone else, including the gospel writers, the Jewish historian Josephus, and the Roman historian Tacitus, came later. There are no verifiable historical witnesses to the crucifixion, to the empty tomb, to the resurrection. As far as historians are concerned, these claims cannot be evaluated, let alone shown to have probably happened.

Conclusions and Caveats

If you're a Christian and reading this (or if you're Michael Patton,Th.M. - Hi Mike!) and frothing at the mouth right now, please note that at no point have I said that the crucifixion, the empty tomb, and the resurrection did not happen. To say that a claim is not historical is NOT to say the event did not happen. Michael's claim is that the Christian stories about Jesus are historical, and I've explained why that isn't true.

I don't personally believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. I'm not even entirely convinced that anything reported about him in Christian texts is factually true, given how powerfully unhistorical they are. I cannot, however, state with absolute certainty that the claims are false, because they are unfalsifiable. The complete lack of evidence to substantiate any claims about Jesus' birth, life, death, and resurrection strongly suggests to me that the claims are false, but it does not prove that they are false. It could be that there was a 1st century Palestinian Jew who performed miracles and survived his own murder, just as it could be that Benjamin Franklin had steak and eggs for dinner on October 23rd, 1778. Both could be facts; neither is historical.

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