Monday, May 13, 2024

Gary Habermas's misunderstandings of C. H. Dodd, Part 1: Intro and Doubting Thomas


It's been a long time since I wrote in blog post form, but I decided that this is a good format for this information. Eventually all parts of this series will be linked at the top of this first post.

For several years now I've been publicly criticizing the "minimal facts" approach to arguing for the resurrection. Here is my three-part series on this topic from 2021. But there are multiple different ways in which the minimal facts argument has problems. In that series I focused on the epistemological problems with the very structure of the argument. In order to claim a large scholarly consensus for the "appearance" fact in the argument, scholars have to be counted who actually deny the phenomenological kind of experiences needed actually to support the bodily resurrection. Just affirming that the disciples had some kind of experience doesn't automatically support the resurrection if (as most non-conservative scholars think) we either have no way of knowing what kind of experiences they had (or claimed to have had) or they had a kind of experience that (given that it was the only type of experience they had) would count against a bodily resurrection instead. You can read more about that in the other series.

It is important that Christians not use deeply faulty arguments, and it behoves Christians to be open to internal critique of the arguments that we use.

In the present series I'm going to explore a different, but related, problem.

Most of the claims being made by minimalists about what "the majority of scholars across the spectrum" believe are based upon literature surveys performed by other people; we don't have the raw data. Nor are these claims based on question-and-answer surveys in which scholars answer questions put directly to them. So we're dependent on those who did the literature surveys to interpret scholars' writings correctly and to represent that data correctly. Recently on my Youtube channel (here and here) I discussed a sheer mistake (a pretty big one) about the authorship of Mark that made it into Dr. Gary Habermas's recently published book on the resurrection.

An important place where problems can arise for the MFA is in Habermas's own interpretations of scholarly writings and his statistical calculations. Many (including myself in the past) are inclined just to take his word for it that he interpreted what he read correctly and found that x% of scholars think y. But as I've begun chasing down his footnotes and reading the scholars he summarizes for myself, I've found a disturbing number of cases where the scholar just doesn't seem to be saying what Habermas attributes to him. The problem has become so severe that at this point I literally do not think that Habermas's summary of what a scholar thinks has much value at all, and even when he gives a short quotation, I want to chase down the context. It's not that I think he's being deliberately deceptive. It's just that unfortunately he's not doing a good job of interpretation at all. He's highly over-optimistic. After finding so many serious mistakes of interpretation, t's impossible to avoid the impression that he deeply desires to find critical scholars who grant something exciting and helpful to an apologetic case for the resurrection. This seems to have severely compromised his ability to understand what he's reading. He seems to be skimming rapidly, sometimes quote-mining, and often summarizing in a way that gives an inaccurate impression. Believe me, it gives me no pleasure to have to come to this conclusion.

This matters because the minimal facts case is based upon aggregated data supposedly showing what a "majority of scholars across the ideological spectrum" think about something. It heavily emphasizes the allegedly surprising concessions made by non-conservative scholars.

This problem of interpretation matters even when Habermas is inconsistent in his methodology and tries to supplement claims about the "majority of scholars" by speaking confusingly of "underlying data" and using the views of selected, somewhat less-critical scholars whose views are not representative of "the majority across the critical spectrum." Nor do their views represent  "underlying data" that explains the alleged concessions made by their more skeptical colleagues. C. H. Dodd is one of these. (E.g. Dodd's form criticism is not "underlying data" that explains why, say, Gerd Ludemann thinks that the disciples had some kind of experiences after Jesus' crucifixion.) I've found minimalists inaccurately summarizing or making inaccurate implications about the views not only of very skeptical scholars like Gerd Ludemann and Norman Perrin (see here on Perrin) but also of relative "moderates" like Dodd and E. P. Sanders.

This serious interpretive issue plagues the MFA in addition to the epistemological issues I've pointed out elsewhere. To see how these two issues work, consider the "minimal fact" about James. First we have to ask whether, as Habermas claims, a majority of scholars "across the theological spectrum" believe that Jesus' brother James was converted by what he took to be an experience of the risen Jesus. There is reason to doubt this, given the interpretive issues we find when we read some of the scholars Habermas cites as believing this.  Is Habermas including scholars in this supposed majority who don't even say that James was converted by an appearance experience? Is he including scholars who don't clearly address that question? Is he including some (like Dale Allison) who think it's just as likely, for all we know, that he converted first and had a vision of Jesus later? Beyond that, we would still have to ask what the epistemological payoff of this is within the MFA context, in which supposedly we are able to grant that the Gospels are unreliable. Are many of these scholars saying that James had a non-physical-like experience (an experience that didn't even seem like Jesus was physically present) and converted irrationally? (See here for my discussion of a maximal data use of the conversion of James, in which we do not grant the unreliability of the Gospels and Acts.)

In this series on Dodd I'm not going to discuss that James question and why I think Habermas is over-counting scholars who grant his "minimal fact" about James. I'm just using it as an example to show how the misinterpretation/overinterpretation issue dogs the MFA in addition to other problems of epistemological structure.

General Background on Dodd

C. H. Dodd's article on post-resurrection appearances of Jesus (pp. 102-133 in the anthology which you can e-borrow legally free, here) is very important to Habermas and has been for decades. Habermas treats Dodd as a famous scholar who nonetheless has supposedly detected some kind of historically interesting and helpful "core" narratives within the Gospels' resurrection stories. Since Dodd is in fact a critical scholar, Habermas sometimes speaks as though his conclusions can be used as-is by a minimal facts apologist as arguments for the resurrection, without asking whether these allegedly helpful admissions by Dodd are really "granted by the vast majority of scholars."

Classifying Dodd is a whole interesting issue in itself. As D. A. Carson notes, some scholars who are more liberal than Dodd think Dodd's too conservative, because he admits that there is some history in the Gospel of John. From an evangelical perspective, Dodd falls into the wide category of liberal scholars due to the fact that he takes it for granted that the Gospel authors felt free to make stuff up, including whole incidents--a point that we'll see illustrated repeatedly in this series. Dodd thinks several of the resurrection narratives were completely made up. It would probably be legitimate to speak of Dodd as a "moderate" on the spectrum of actual New Testament scholars. 

This means that even if Dodd says something that sounds rather conservative-ish, it cannot be automatically considered typical of what "all scholars across the scholarly spectrum" think or of what "underlies" what they think. An example that I'll be discussing later is this: He admits half-reluctantly and with many qualifications to having a "feeling," which he emphasizes can be "no more than a feeling" that there is something indefinably "first hand" about the story of Mary Magdalene meeting Jesus at the tomb, told in John 20. I seriously doubt that any scholars more liberal than Dodd himself--and there are plenty of those--have that same indefinable feeling about that specific scene. (Dale Allison, something of a moderate scholar himself, is quite explicit about this. In The Resurrection of Jesus, p. 29, he says that he does not share Dodd's feeling and that the most he thinks we can conclude is that there was probably some old tradition about a "Christophany" to Mary Magdalene after Jesus' death. Which, it must be emphasized, Allison sees as fully compatible with the entire invention of the actual scene between Jesus and Mary in John 20.)

So one shouldn't assume that, just because Dodd was a highly respected critical scholar, his positions are those held by a large majority of scholars, nor even that Bart Ehrman or some other skeptic is epistemologically obligated to accept Dodd's position if he says something helpful to the resurrection argument. 

But it seems like a rhetorical coup to find what sound like exciting admissions from a critical scholar of Dodd's standing. Habermas likes to use Dodd's article on resurrection appearances of Jesus because it is a critical scholarly article and yet says that there are some kind of early traditions that lie behind (some of) the stories in the Gospels. This is supposed to mean that we can make an argument, using Dodd, that non-conservatives at least should feel themselves obligated to accept, since Dodd is using a non-naive, critical methodology. 

But the epistemological value of what Dodd really says about the Gospel resurrection narratives is, I will argue, extremely meagre. Dodd's methodology when discussing the resurrection appearance stories in the Gospels leaves very little to work with in arguing for the resurrection when one understands him accurately. And most unfortunately, Habermas doesn't realize this.

Background on Dodd and resurrection narratives

Dodd claims to be able to discern within some of the Gospel resurrection stories an earlier layer of "corporate tradition." Each one of these "concise" segments is no more than a little snippet of text--usually no more than a few verses apiece. For example, Matthew 28:8-10 (one of these "concise narratives") is only a tiny portion of the story, which Matthew tells as a continuous narrative, of the women finding the tomb and then seeing Jesus on the road. Similarly, Dodd designates John 20:19-21 as one of these "concise" narratives, even though it is continuous with Jesus' breathing on the disciples (immediately after) and the story of Doubting Thomas. Dodd claims to be able to use form criticism to pick out these tiny snippets from the rest of the story and designate them as representing "corporate tradition." It is misleading to speak of these tiny snippets as containing the "basic facts" or the "gist" of the story. After all, Jesus' breathing on the disciples is as much a part of the narrative in John as Jesus' greeting the disciples. The women's seeing the angel at the tomb is as much a part of the narrative in Matthew as their seeing Jesus a little while later. So Dodd is already cutting out most of these narratives before coming up with these snippets.

As I'll argue in a later post, even when Dodd has whittled a story down to one of these tiny snippets, he still thinks that these snippets sometimes contain "apologetic expansions"--these being (no surprise) the parts like the women grasping Jesus' feet which are most relevant to an argument for Jesus' bodily resurrection. One of Habermas's important misunderstandings of Dodd, which I'll discuss in detail later, is that he doesn't seem to realize that Dodd casts doubt on important aspects even of the "concise" snippets themselves.

But some stories don't even, in Dodd's view, have such 3-4-verse snippets of "corporate tradition" embedded within them. They don't even rate that "high," historically. Dodd calls some of these "doubtful" or "intermediate" and others "Tales," the latter being a form-critical term for a heavily fictionalized work made up by a really good story-teller who crafts a (literarily) high-quality narrative to make theological points that are important to him while entertaining his audience. As we'll see in the next post in this series, Dodd places both the story of the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24) and the story of the encounter with Jesus by the Sea of Galilee (John 21) into this category of "tales," but Habermas doesn't seem to realize that Dodd does so, nor what the designation of "tales" means for historicity.

There are a few resurrection appearance stories that Dodd says don't fall clearly into either of these categories ("concise" or "Tales"). He calls these "mixed," "doubtful" or "intermediate" in form, but as we shall see, that doesn't mean that, in Dodd's view, they are close to history. In fact, a story can, in Dodd's view, be completely made up yet fall into this so-called "intermediate" category. The Doubting Thomas story is one of these.

Let me add right here that this whole form-critical method of claiming to be able to use some kind of scholarly second sight to discern an underlying layer of tradition "behind" the actual stories we have is all nonsense. And in fact, Richard Bauckham is pretty anti-form criticism, and Habermas wants to use Bauckham's arguments elsewhere in the book, without apparently realizing that these so-called "widely-used standards" (a phrase Habermas uses for Dodd's method of approaching the resurrection stories) have come under pretty strong doubt in recent decades, and not even just from "fundamentalists." In fact, there are no legitimate "standards" involved here. There is nothing more apparently historical about John 20:19-21 than about the verses following it. Dodd's method is heavily subjective and highly dubious. Be that as it may, this is Dodds' approach, and a major problem is that Habermas doesn't understand at all how little it leaves of the Gospel resurrection stories.

Habermas on Dodd on Doubting Thomas

In this series I will argue that the statements Habermas makes in his recently published resurrection book represent very serious misunderstandings of what Dodd says about resurrection appearance narratives in the Gospels. Let's start with Doubting Thomas.

Here is what Habermas has to say about Dodd on Doubting Thomas (and some other stories that we'll discuss later): 

It has already been noted that Jesus’s appearance to the women in Matt 28:8–10, then to the disciples in Matt 28:16–20 and John 20:19–21, are other examples of concise texts. On the other hand, Dodd judges that Jesus’s appearance to the two men on the way to Emmaus, as well as John’s three accounts of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene on her return trip to the tomb, to “doubting Thomas,” and at the seashore, do not quite make the same grade of “conciseness.” Habermas, On the Resurrection, Vol. 1, 846-847.

On C. H. Dodd’s very influential grid of “concise” narratives versus the “tales” or “circumstantial” accounts already discussed in an earlier chapter, the “concise” passages indicate those Gospel texts that are “drawn directly from the oral tradition” or that “represent most closely the corporate oral tradition of the primitive Church.” The significance here is that these “concise” narratives are deemed likeliest to be reliable reports. According to these widely used standards, John 20:19–21 makes the grade as a concise narrative, while John 20:26–29 is viewed as a sort of appendage to the earlier account, in that it depends on it for much of its meaning.

Perhaps quite surprisingly, the Jesus Seminar also lists John 20:19–23 as a “concise” account, while referring to John 20:26–29 as an “intermediate” story, which is also a category used by Dodd. The Seminar employs this group of texts as those being ranked somewhere in between “concise” passages and “legends.” Brown also agrees with Dodd (given a few caveats) regarding the “concise” designation for John 20:19–23, though he concludes that John actually created the Thomas story. Still, the respect given to at least the first appearance to the disciples (and to a lesser degree the Thomas account, at least for Dodd and the Seminar) all the way across the wide range of views from Brown and Dodd to the members of the Jesus Seminar is rather amazing. Habermas, 870-871.

Page numbers throughout this series are to the Kindle version of Habermas's book.

In these passages Habermas downplays Dodd's historical dismissal of the non-concise stories and gives the impression that they are just slightly less historical (in Dodd's view) than the "concise" ones, and even that Dodd gives them some measure of historical respect. From reading what Habermas says there, one would get the impression that Dodd thinks that the stories of Doubting Thomas, of Jesus' meeting with the disciples by the seashore in John 21, and of the Road to Emmaus (in Luke) just don't quiite "make the same grade of conciseness" as other stories (and hence don't quite make the same grade of probable historicity). 

Habermas's contrast between Dodd and Brown on Doubting Thomas gives the impression that Dodd thinks that John didn't wholly invent the Doubting Thomas story. Notice that Habermas says that Brown (sort of) agrees with Dodd about the earlier appearance story of Jesus in John 20:19-21, though Brown thinks that John invented the Doubting Thomas story. 

But actually, Dodd also thinks that John invented Doubting Thomas.

What Dodd really says about Doubting Thomas

Dodd could scarcely be clearer on this matter:

The story of Doubting Thomas is a pendant to the ‘concise’ narrative of the appearance to the Disciples in 20:19-21….It hardly forms a separable pericope, for it is not fully intelligible without the connecting narrative of 20:24-25. Its theological and apologetic motives are obvious. Its broad pattern scarcely differs from that of our typical’concise’ narratives of Class I, and there is little in the way of picturesque detail (not directly demanded by the main motive) to associate it with the ‘circumstantial’ narratives of Class II. Thomas is hardly an individual as Mary Magdalen is; he is a type of the ‘some’ who ‘doubted’, according to Matt. 28:17. We should not be far wrong in saying that John has chosen to split up the composite traditional picture of a group, some of whom recognize the Lord while others doubt, and to give contrasting pictures of the believers and the doubter, in order to make a point which is essentially theological. (Dodd, "Appearances," pp. 115-116, emphasis added)

Of course, the fact that the Doubting Thomas story depends on vss. 19-21 for background context in no way implies a positive historical evaluation of the Doubting Thomas incident. But more: Habermas, as quoted above, apparently thinks that Dodd is giving at least some degree of "respect" to the Doubting Thomas story (just not as much as to the "concise" narratives), and that he is not saying (as Brown does) that John made it up. 

Habermas's apparent reason for this is that Dodd says that the story isn't a circumstantial narrative. ("Circumstantial" is another word that Dodd uses for "Tales.") The false assumption here (which Dodd's own words refute) is that circumstantial detail is the only type of thing that leads Dodd to claim that something is fictional. 

(It should go without saying that Dodd is completely wrong to think that circumstantial detail indicates fictionalization by a tale-teller. If anything, verisimilitude should be an indication of historicity, all the more so when, as in the Gospels, the document presents itself as historical and when its verisimilitude does not resemble the ancient fiction that we have. But this upside-down view of the epistemological importance of detail is held by Dodd.) 

What Habermas apparently doesn't see is that psychological realism and circumstantial detail are not the only routes by which Dodd concludes fictional status.  

In the case of Doubting Thomas, Dodd seems to be reasoning from (what he views as) the lack of psychological depth in Thomas to the fictional status of the story. (So it's heads John loses, tails John loses.) While Dodd doesn't think the Doubting Thomas story has the high literary quality that he attributes to the "tales," he thinks he can tell that it's made-up because, he says, Thomas is just a "type" of the doubter, and John is rebuking and rebutting that doubt by personifying it in Thomas and making up a story of how Jesus rebuked and refuted it.

(Supplementary point: Dale Allison, The Resurrection of Jesus, p. 64, thinks that Doubting Thomas is made up for apologetic purposes and quotes Dodd's words above in support of his own view.)

For good measure, if there could still be any doubt of Dodd's view here (and there shouldn't be), here is a passage saying the very same thing in slightly different words in his rather famous book on John, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel.

John, it appears, has brought out this contrast of belief and unbelief by making Thomas the spokesman of the incredulous, and representing him as having been absent when Christ appeared to his disciples. HTFG, p. 145 (emphasis added)

And on that "dependent" status with the earlier verses:

The episode of Doubting Thomas in xx.26-9 is linked with the preceding episode in a way which is no less artificial than subtle. HTFG, p. 149 (emphasis added)

If the story of Doubting Thomas were true, there would be nothing artificial, nor for that matter subtle, about the link between it and the preceding verses telling about Jesus' first appearance to the male disciples. It's a very natural connection and presents itself as a simple statement of fact: Thomas wasn't there the first time, and that's why he doubts, then he is there when Jesus comes to them again a week later. The connection is only "artificial" if you think it's made up.

One more quote from Historical Tradition is relevant here:

[W]e may say that the tradition behind the Fourth Gospel, as distinct from the gospel in its present form, knew, like Matthew, only one appearance of the Risen Christ in Jerusalem...HTFG, pp. 149-150 (emphasis added)

The logic (for interpreting Dodd) is inescapable: If the only historical tradition lying behind the Gospel of John contained only one appearance in Jerusalem, then, since John narrates two appearances in Jerusalem to the male disciples, one of them must be ahistorically invented without its own separate historical tradition behind it. 

Dodd's words about Doubting Thomas make it clear that that story is the one that, in his opinion, the evangelist invented without even a historical "core." That it doesn't fall into the allegedly highly polished literary type of a "circumstantial" narrative makes no difference to that historical judgement on Dodd's part.

That Habermas does not see that Dodd considers the story a total fiction, given Dodd's clear statement about John's "splitting up the composite traditional picture of a group" in order to make a theological point, is rather disturbing.

Next up: Two "tales" discussed by Dodd, which Habermas doesn't seem to realize that Dodd considers fictional.

Friday, June 09, 2023

PJ Media, Dan Philips, Team Pyro, and Google

 Errr, just thought I would link this story here on my Blogger Blog.

Oh, heck, here, while we're at it, here's Dan Philips' letter:

Dear CBC parents, 

We all wish we could shelter our children from the harmful and corrupt elements of our God-hating culture. Apart from living under a rock, this is becoming increasingly impossible. The homosexual-and-much-more agenda has increasingly intruded itself into every area of American life, from the media to sports to department stores to fast food restaurants and coffee shops.

I am writing to try to help you talk to your children. I’ll write it as one side of a conversation. Use any part that helps you address matters that arise in your children’s world.

You asked me what “gay” and “homosexual” and “trans” means, and why you suddenly see the word “Pride” everywhere. I’m glad you asked me! Let me try to explain it to you.

We’ve read Genesis together. You know that God created the world as a perfect, wondrous place. And you know in Genesis 1 He created Adam and Eve without sin, or any of the awful things sin does when it gets inside someone. Adam and Eve loved God and were happy with themselves, with each other, and with their world.

But then Satan came along in Genesis 3, and he got them to be dissatisfied with what God gave them. He tried to make God look like He didn’t care, and like He didn’t really want what was best for Adam and Eve. Satan tried to convince them that they knew better than God what was right and good, and what was best for them. Now you know, that is pride. Pride blows us up like balloons — all big and impressive looking, but with nothing but air inside. So in their pride, Adam and Eve rebelled against God.

When they did, they died inside. The happiness and wholeness they had were gone. They weren’t happy with themselves, or each other, or their world — or God. So they had to find ways to try to make themselves feel happy, and to hide the guilt they had inside. They felt guilty, because they were guilty. They had sinned against God, their Maker.

All those words you asked me about come out of this. They are all about people dead and broken by sin, still trying to find happiness by defiantly shaking their fist in God’s face and pretending they’re smarter than God.

You remember that God made Adam and Eve, a man and a woman. That’s what sex means — it means being a man, or being a woman. People say “gender” today, but gender is really a grammar-term, about words, not people. “Sex” is the better word here. How many sexes did God make? That’s right: two. And when God saw it wasn’t good for the man Adam to be alone, what did God make for him, in Genesis 2? That’s right, a woman, named Eve. So God invented marriage, when a man wants to be with a woman in a special way, and a woman wants to be with a man — only the two of them, with each other.

But all of us children of Adam are sinners, and sin ruins all our good desires and feelings that God gave us. Sin makes us want what we shouldn’t want, and it makes us not want what we should want.

So some poor sad men don’t want to have a woman as their wife. They want another man. And some poor sad women don’t want a man, they want another woman. They are ashamed to want these things, they feel guilty. When we feel guilty, we can only do one of two things. We can go to God, confessing our sins and finding His forgiveness and help. Or we can pretend that we’re okay, and just keep holding to our sin. When people want to pretend these broken, wrong desires are okay, they call it being “gay,” pretending to be truly happy. But they don’t have peace with God, and they won’t be happy when God’s patience comes to an end and He judges them.

And then there are other people so broken by sin that they aren’t willing to be what God made them. God made them a man or a woman — remember, He only made two sexes — but they want to pretend to be something else. Men want to pretend to be women, and women want to pretend to be men. Of course, we are what God made us, and no one can really become the opposite sex. They may try very hard, and even hurt themselves, but it just can’t be done. Still, sometimes we keep pretending, even though it really harms and shames us to do so. And when men or women pretend to be the opposite sex, they call it being “trans.”

So they took the whole month of June to pretend together that all these wrong and harmful things are good, and they call June “Pride” month. Like the Bible says, their “glory is in their shame” (Philippians 3:19).

But things are what God calls them, aren’t they? Not what we call them. So men are always just men, women are always just women, and we can only really marry someone of the opposite sex from us. A man marries a woman, a woman marries a man. Anything else can never really be marriage.

Isn’t it sad to think about people so badly wanting things that are bad for them? Isn’t it awful that what people think will be good for them is really bad for them? But that’s what sin does. It does that to all of us! It’s why children want to disobey their parents. It’s why parents sometimes fight each other, or don’t do such a great job being parents. Sin is behind everything bad that we do or feel.

But remember, God so loved sinful men and women that He sent Jesus to save sinners. Jesus can save any sinner! There is no sin too big for Jesus. He shed His blood so that His people could be forgiven and freed from every last sin of every size! When we turn from our sin and believe in Jesus, we can know that all our sins are forgiven. Isn’t that just the most wonderful news there is?

Even more, Jesus died so that His people could be given new hearts, and so that God’s Holy Spirit could live in our hearts. So God removes our old heart that wanted awful and bad things and hated God, and He gives us a new heart. That new heart wants to love God, and believe Him, and walk in His ways. So all of us, whatever our sins were, can be made new people, children of God, learning to love what God loves and hate what God hates.

So we don’t hate people who want bad things. We would be exactly the same if it weren’t for Jesus. We love people who don’t know Jesus, we pray for them, we want to help them, we want to tell them about Jesus. And when they believe, we accept them and love them and help them to learn to walk with Jesus, just like we’re doing.

Thank you for asking me. Always feel free to ask me any questions you have!

I pray this is helpful to you.

Pastor Dan

Saturday, September 10, 2022

A maximalist use of the conversion of Paul

It's well-known that I'm highly critical of the Minimal Facts Argument for Jesus' resurrection. I consider it quite weak and therefore vastly oversold, due to its insistence on relying only on facts that are granted by a wide and diverse scholarly consensus. I've discussed this often and am preparing even as I write these words for a livestream in response to an alleged response from Drs. Habermas and Licona. Unfortunately, their "response" video was strikingly non-responsive. Indeed, it was pretty clear that neither of them understood the criticisms I've leveled, and it was unclear whether they were even familiar with those concerns.

The minimalist approach, whether in its MFA incarnation or in other versions, tends to rely heavily on the Apostle Paul as an alternative to relying on the Gospel accounts. The "creed" in I Corinthians 15 is especially prominent in all minimalist-type arguments. And when arguing for the bodily resurrection, it is quite common for minimalists to emphasize strongly that Paul had a bodily concept of the resurrection and that he stated that he and the Jerusalem apostles were preaching the same message. Hence, the reasoning goes, in all probability the Jerusalem apostles were preaching a bodily resurrection.

This may be a legitimate inference as far as it goes, but the problem is that it doesn't go very far. People believe all kinds of things, and the mere fact that the Jerusalem apostles and Paul believed that Jesus was raised bodily and had appeared to them bodily doesn't tell us whether they were reasonable to think so. Without further information as to the details of their claims, it is deeply unclear whether they jumped to conclusions, or, to put it in a more jargony form, interpreted some sort of (insufficient) experiences in the light of their theological expectations. (Compare the fact that you wouldn't be very impressed even if you were 100% sure that twelve people sincerely believed that they had conversations with aliens, in the absence of further details about why they believed this.)

On the other hand, in Tim's and my article on Jesus' resurrection published in 2009, we did give the conversion of Paul independent force for the resurrection of Jesus, by which we meant the bodily resurrection. In fact, we gave it a hefty-ish Bayes factor of 103. While I would note that even that Bayes factor needs to be part of a more robust cumulative case in order to overcome even a modestly low prior probability (in other words, impressive as it sounds, that Bayes factor all by itself isn't going to support strong, justified confidence in a miracle), and while I admit to some ambivalence now as to whether that factor may have been overly optimistic, it is still worth revisiting the conversion of Paul to ask this: Do I still grant the conversion of Paul any significant independent force in favor of the bodily resurrection of Jesus? And if so, how does this differ from the minimalist reliance on Paul?

The issue of independence is at the heart of my critique of the minimalist use of Paul in favor of Jesus' bodily resurrection. As I've discussed, by using Paul's conversion and concept of resurrection to support the idea that "the disciples believed" that Jesus was physically risen, the minimalist runs into the problem that I've called the bottleneck issue. Briefly, if the probability that Jesus was risen bodily given only that the disciples believed that he was, based on some unspecified experiences, is not very high (or, to put it a little differently, if their mere belief based on largely unspecified experiences provides only a weak Bayes factor in favor of the truth of their belief), then merely piling on more and more evidence that they had this belief cannot possibly rectify the problem, since it provides no independent evidence for the truth of the belief. My criticism has already assumed that we are "given" that they had that belief. I'm arguing that even if we are "given" it, it doesn't provide much evidence (when details of their reasons and experiences are excluded) for the truth. If we're "given" it, we're given it at probability 1, so making its probability approach 1 more and more can't help us to get beyond the criticism. Hence the minimalist use of Paul to support the proposition, "The disciples believed that Jesus was risen bodily from the dead" provides no independent evidence for the truth of their belief aside from that proposition itself.

A maximalist approach, however, does allow us to make use of Paul's conversion in a different way that doesn't run into this bottleneck problem. The maximalist is prepared to argue for the reliability of the book of Acts. This provides a great many advantages, including access to the serious risks that provided the context in which the disciples made their proclamation and, in the early chapters of Acts, direct evidence that they were preaching the bodily resurrection of Jesus from early on, with no need to infer this indirectly from Paul's letters and his relationship to the Jerusalem apostles as attested in his letters.

Even more importantly, the defense of the reliability of Acts and of the proposition that it comes from a companion of Paul who didn't mess around with the facts means that we can argue with confidence that Paul claimed what we find in the conversion accounts in Acts 9, 22, and 26. These include several very salient points relevant to the evidential force in favor of Jesus' bodily resurrection. Among others, 1) Paul was wide awake, walking down a road at about midday, when the conversion experience abruptly happened. So this couldn't have been a dream. (Contrast any sort of visionary experience stories that begin, "I was reading my Bible alone in my study..." where the person might have dozed off.) 2) Paul was with other people, who presumably could attest to his abrupt, completely unexpected, odd behavior. 3) These other people allegedly saw the light and would have been able to attest that Paul had to be led afterwards because he was temporarily blind. (In the interests of time and space, I'm not going into detail on the question of what they heard. I take the view that they heard a voice but that it was a voice-like sound to them without comprehensible words. This would be another intersubjective element, but I'm not giving it much weight here because of the alleged contradiction concerning it.) 4) Very important: Paul claimed that Jesus not only identified himself but also explicitly endorsed the teaching of the very sect Paul was persecuting by saying, "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting." This gives content to Paul's experience which, combined with our independent evidence (e.g., from the Gospels and from the early chapters of Acts) that the Christian sect Paul was persecuting taught that Jesus rose bodily, serves as independent evidence for that content, since the best explanation of Paul's conversion and of his account of what occasioned it is that his experience was veridical. 

The point is a little subtle, but I hope that it is clear. Paul's conversion provides independent, significant evidence for Jesus' bodily resurrection only insofar as it does something more and quite different from providing evidence that the disciples and Paul believed that Jesus was physically risen. In a maximalist use of Paul, we take it that, via the reliability of the Gospels and Acts, we have more than enough evidence already that they were teaching that Jesus was physically risen. Then we take it that the detailed accounts in Acts of the circumstances and content of Paul's abrupt conversion really come from Paul. They weren't embellished by the author of Acts. Then we argue that it is quite difficult to explain this abrupt conversion with these detailed aspects on the basis of a non-veridical category (that is, some category according to which Paul was mistaken and did not actually have communication with Jesus). But if Jesus himself said, in a supernatural communication with Paul, that he was to be identified with the group that was preaching that he was physically risen, then this is evidence that he was, indeed, physically risen.

Now whether this gives us an independent Bayes factor as high as 10or not, my point here is that it avoids the bottleneck issue, because it isn't just piling on more and more evidence for what the disciples thought, when a very salient question at issue (in the absence of details of their experiences) is whether they were rational to think that. Moreover, if (given the reliability of Acts) the accounts in Acts really do tell us what Paul claimed, then we understand further why Paul himself was rational in thinking that he had a supernatural communication from Jesus on the road to Damascus. His conviction is quite understandable given the details of the experience.

In contrast, the minimalist approach even to Paul's conversion is extremely tentative, a point that is especially notable given the great importance of Paul to the minimalist approach itself. In The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, Michael Licona is quite explicit that he treats the conversion accounts in Acts merely as "possible" sources concerning the nature of Paul's conversion, sources of "limited historical value," and that the reason for this is because there is no scholarly consensus concerning how much liberty Luke felt free to take in writing Acts (pp. 382, 394). (Licona is surely right about this absence of scholarly consensus. Bart Ehrman, for example, absolutely insists that we evaluate Paul's conversion based only on the epistles, and only on a subset of those, and must exclude the accounts in Acts as likely elaborated by the author. Ehrman then, with unintentional humor, complains about the maddening, frustrating limitation of our information about such a historically important event as Paul's conversion!) 

As I have pointed out before, the presence of a large and diverse scholarly consensus, whatever minimalists at times say to the contrary notwithstanding, is undeniably given epistemological weight in their methodology. They treat it as a limiting factor and a necessary condition for our being historically highly confident (confident "as historians") about specific propositions.

Cutting oneself off from the details of the Pauline conversion claims found in Acts cuts one off from the very factors that give significant, independent epistemic force to Paul's conversion. At that point we no longer know what exactly Paul claimed that Jesus said to him on that occasion and how clearly it endorsed what the apostles were already preaching. We don't know whether Paul was alone or with others when it happened, whether there was anything intersubjective about his experience, or whether he could possibly have been asleep at the time. We don't know (without Acts) whether his experience at the time of his conversion had (even to him) clear verbal content as opposed to feelings or impressions.

Another contrast between the maximalist case and the minimalist use of Paul's conversion is worth mentioning: On Paul's own account, unlike the disciples, he had no opportunity to touch Jesus. He wasn't invited to do so. He did not see Jesus eat or have a long conversation with him over a meal, and others were not aware of the various modalities of Jesus' presence in the same way that he was. For example, the others on the road didn't see Jesus. (Unlike in the Gospel accounts, where an entire group is conversing with Jesus at once.) I have found that it is very unpopular for me to say that in very notable respects, Paul's experience was more vision-like (though arguably objective) than the reported experiences in the Gospels. I have received a lot of pushback on this from some fellow believers, but I think it's important. The argument that Paul's experience was veridical and that it confirms Jesus' bodily resurrection is thus different in kind from the argument that the disciples really had bodily experiences of a bodily risen Jesus. Say what you will, Jesus did not seem even to Paul to be standing right there in the dust of the Damascus Road along with everybody else, plainly visible to everyone, plainly tangible, etc. And there is a reason for that: Jesus had, according to Acts, already ascended into heaven. After that the Bible accounts afford no indication that he ever walked around in his body on earth again, and indeed the biblical accounts would lead us to think that he didn't do so (Acts 1:11) and won't do so until his eschatological return. So he probably didn't do so with Paul. 

In contrast, the minimalist approach elides this distinction by referring to Paul as "an eyewitness" of the resurrection and treating him as being like the disciples in this respect, without qualification. This elision is a gift to the skeptic, or to someone like Dale Allison who thinks that the disciples had only visionary-type experiences of the risen Jesus. Evidentially, it is important to emphasize the differences between Paul's experience and the disciples' experiences. They were rational in believing that Jesus was physically risen because they had experiences both individually and in varying groups in which Jesus presented himself in a fully polymodal fashion, just as we present ourselves to one another in ordinary physical meetings. They had every reason to believe (given that they experienced what they reported) that anyone who walked into that room could have seen Jesus, and anyone who bumped into him could have touched him, just as with any other physically present person. 

Paul was rational in believing that Jesus was physically risen for a more indirect reason: He already knew the tenets of the sect he was persecuting and that (per the earlier chapters of Acts) they included the physical resurrection of this man Jesus. Paul then (according to his report, as recounted in Acts) had an experience of being struck down abruptly in the middle of the day, out of nowhere, while accompanied by others, by a light from heaven (which the others saw). He then heard a voice and saw something (perhaps Jesus as a human figure above him), and the voice explicitly stated that it was the voice of Jesus as preached by the group he was persecuting. When their brief dialogue was over and the light receded, he found that he was blind. Given the overwhelming and explicit nature of this experience, its partial intersubjectivity, and its occurrence while he was wide awake (as his companions could attest), it was quite understandable that he concluded that it was veridical and hence that Jesus really had risen from the dead, as preached by the Christians. But this was not because he personally had the opportunity to verify the nature of Jesus' body by interacting with it as the disciples did. The arguments are different. The disanalogy can and must be emphasized, while at the same time we can acknowledge that Paul's detailed claims have independent force in favor of the physical resurrection.

I hope that this has been a useful fuller explanation of how a maximalist "does" the argument from the conversion of Paul for the resurrection. 

Monday, August 22, 2022

Old post re-posted: "Does The Evidentialist Have to Endorse Apostasy?"

 Originally posted at What's Wrong With the World on December 10, 2015.

Long-time readers know that I call myself an evidentialist in Christian apologetics. (See also here and here.) This means that I think that Christian faith both should be and can be based solidly on available evidence. I'm eclectic in this regard. I think St. Thomas Aquinas was an evidentialist as well. While my own special area of interest and focus has been on historical arguments for Christianity (e.g., for the reliability of the Gospels and the occurrence of the resurrection), and while I am not convinced by all of the purely philosophical arguments for the existence of God that are sometimes proposed, I am by no means hostile or opposed to a priori, metaphysical arguments. To the extent that they work, they are evidence as well. The more the merrier.

But lurking in the background of the evidentialist position is the following consideration: Is there some sense in which a person should not believe something beyond its support by the evidence that he has? Do we say that a person should apportion the strength of his credence to the strength of the evidence?

Let me hasten to add that a "yes" answer to this does not preclude a) the possession of maximal, foundational evidence for some particular proposition which is not inferred from anything else (such as his own existence) or b) the possession of and reliance on evidence that is, strictly speaking, available only to oneself (such as one's sensory experiences).

Strictly speaking, stating that in some sense Christian faith "should" be based on evidence does not commit oneself to this more global statement about apportioning one's strength of belief to the strength of the evidence, but they go rather naturally together. In that case, one's opposition to all forms of fideism or belief beyond evidence in the area of religion is an instance of a broader principle.

It gets tricky to define the precise sense of this "should," and that is partly why I have used the phrase "in some sense." After all, not all belief is voluntary, and even irrational belief sometimes seems morally excusable if it has been deliberately encouraged by one's teachers from one's youth upwards. Not everyone thinks explicitly about whether he is believing things reasonably or unreasonably, and it doesn't seem like everyone ought to do so or is even capable of doing so. But there certainly seems to be something suboptimal about irrational belief.

Suppose that I water down the "should" here and, at least for now, defend only the following proposition:

If you are sufficiently reflective to realize that you have been holding some belief irrationally or arationally, with a strength of conviction beyond what is warranted by any evidence that you actually have, you ought to change your credence level for that belief.

This immediately raises the following disturbing consideration: Suppose that a person--call him Joe--has been raised in a fideistic form of Christianity. Suppose for the sake of the argument that Joe has been deliberately taught that he should believe in God "just because," that he should trust the Bible "just because it's the Bible," that he should not look for any further argument, and indeed that to do so is to show himself weak in faith. Suppose that Joe has been taught to rely on the fact that he thinks he can feel Jesus living in his heart, rather as Mormons are taught to rely upon the "burning in the bosom." Needless to say, Joe has been given no apologetics teaching whatsoever in his church or by his parents.

Now suppose that Joe wakes up one fine morning and says to himself, "This is ridiculous. I have no more reason to believe that Christianity is true than any adherent of any religion incompatible with Christianity has to believe his religion. I've been hanging on to my Christianity just because it is part of my individual identity and the identity of the community I am a part of. And I'm even willing to lay down my life for this set of theological beliefs! Why am I thinking this way, when I don't even know if any of this is true?"

Joe is having a crisis of faith, and he's having it after a lifetime (though perhaps a rather young lifetime) of being entirely unprepared for it. Indeed, one might say that he has been anti-prepared. When he goes to his pastor, let's suppose that he is told that he just needs to accept that the Bible is the Word of God, just needs to cling to Jesus more closely, and that his doubts come from Satan.

Not only is that unlikely, psychologically, to help Joe in this crisis, it is questionable as to whether it should help Joe in this crisis. His questions are reasonable, given the absence of any defense he has ever been given for belief in his community's holy book and theological commitments.

But what am I saying? It sounds for a moment here like I'm saying that Joe should apostasize!

Considering that I am, after all, a Christian, that I want Joe (which is to say, all the real-life people like Joe) to go to heaven, and that I seriously doubt that he's going to go to heaven if he just becomes an agnostic or an atheist and goes through the rest of his life explicitly rejecting belief in the existence of God and/or the tenets of Christianity, that would seem to be a pretty shocking position to take.

My answer, however, is no. I do not recommend that Joe apostasize, and I certainly don't say that he should do so.

The first reason for this is that Joe should consider that he may have more reason than he realizes, and upon reflection, I think he will find that he does. The fact that those in his background have taught him to disregard evidence and to believe on subjective grounds does not mean that he does not have evidence. If a man were taught from childhood that he ought to believe that his father is loving and good without evidence, it would not mean that he would have no evidence if he stopped to think about the matter.

So it is for the existence of God. Joe knows of the existence of the world around him, and probably knows at least something of its appearance of orderliness and design. He knows of the existence of his own mind. To be sure, naturalism has its own attempts to account for the existence of these things, but perhaps Joe can see (even if only dimly as yet) for himself that these are unsatisfactory. He knows of the existence of morality and the appearance of meaning in life, which gives him a reason to think, at least, that there must be more to life than atoms bumping against each other in the void. All of these considerations tend strongly against either atheism or agnosticism concerning the existence of God himself, though they certainly (as I am envisaging it) need to be refined and strengthened in Joe's understanding.

As for the more specific doctrines of Christianity and of the monotheism of Judaism on which it was founded, the existence of the books of the Bible is, at a minimum, a datum. Without considering them at the outset as holy books, one still can ask where they came from and what the best explanation is for their contents.

At this point, things become a bit delicate, for Joe's own background, as I imagine it, has taught him nothing about how to evaluate the plausibility of such works.

But here I want to bring in the second point: Joe should not apostasize even from Christianity (much less from theism), because the evidence for Christianity is available, and Joe himself can find it.

If Joe were kept locked up on an island without access to the wider world by his pastor and parents, then he might have to pray desperately to a God about whose attributes he is now (perhaps against his own will) uncertain to help him get out and find more information. And, to be clear, I believe that God does send light to those who sincerely seek it and who, God knows, will accept that light if given it. Jeremiah 29:13 applies here, I believe: "You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart." Meanwhile, even Joe-locked-on-an-island can keep reading the Bible and can, hopefully, notice for himself some of the internal evidences that give the Gospels, for example, verisimilitude.

But things are not that dire in the real world. Joe has access to books and, presumably, to the Internet. To be sure, he could just as easily wander onto a "myther" web site on the Internet as onto William Lane Craig's Reasonable Faith site or Apologetics315, but the fact remains that information is out there on questions like, "Why should I believe that the events in the Gospels took place?" and "How is the Bible different from other putatively holy books?"

Moreover, it's a pretty safe bet that, despite his fideistic upbringing, Joe has some friends or friends-of-friends who will recommend some good evidential material to him (perhaps, e.g., Lee Strobel's popular apologetics books) if he makes his doubts known, not only to his own immediate community but to the Christian community more widely.

This brings me to the importance of the inquiry. C.S. Lewis argues,

Here is a door, behind which, according to some people, the secret of the universe is waiting for you. Either that’s true, or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, then what the door really conceals is simply the greatest fraud, the most colossal “sell” on record. Isn’t it obviously the job of every man to try to find out which, and then to devote his full energies either to serving this tremendous secret or to exposing and destroying this gigantic humbug? (“Man or Rabbit?,” in God in the Dock, 111–112. HT to John DePoe for this reference.)

Since the question of whether Christianity is true or false is of such great moment, any light abandonment of the claims of Christianity, without doing due diligence, is epistemically irresponsible. The commitment to truth itself (an important part of the evidentialist position) means that we are bound to pursue truth and, indeed, that it can be a test of character for a man to be expected to make such an investigation rather than settling for a shallow and easy agnosticism.

The evidentialist is (I believe) bound to disagree with the Pascalian recommendation that one induce oneself to believe Christianity purely for reasons of utility. But it is crucially different to say that one should vigorously seek to discover whether there is good evidence for Christianity, and that one should do so because the stakes of missing out on the knowledge of God are so high. And, since I believe that there is such evidence, and that it is not hidden, a person who (like Joe) comes to have doubts upon reflection but who then engages in such a search can be rewarded with a Christian faith that is confidently based on fact.

In the end, those of us who watch struggles of faith from the other side--that is, from within Christianity--must have independent reason to have confidence in the justice of God. That is true whether or not one is an evidentialist. Indeed, if one is not, one must nonetheless account for the fact that God apparently "gives" some people a non-evidential confidence in Christianity but does not "give" this to others, since atheists and agnostics, after all, do exist. No position on evidence and apologetics offers a "get out of questions free" card concerning divine justice and salvation, since there will always be those who, it appears, never had a "real chance," whether one construes that chance in terms of receiving the best available evidence, the right upbringing, religious experiences, or firm feelings of confidence and assurance induced by the Holy Spirit.

For the evidentialist Christian, the confidence in the ultimate justice of God comes from the reasons that we do have to believe that God, who is by definition absolutely just and good, exists, loves us, and has revealed himself to us. It is, moreover, useful to see that the position does not create an actual contradiction--for example, it does not mean that a person in Joe's position both should and should not believe in God--and does not lead us to recommend apostasy to those who have been Christians and are now in the throes of mental crisis.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

The connections between "literary device" views of the Gospels and the Minimal Facts Argument for the resurrection

I’ve decided to write something clarifying exactly what connection I see between the minimal facts argument (along with other broadly minimalist types of arguments for Jesus’ resurrection) and the literary device views of the Gospels. My plan is to post this content both here and (perhaps in two parts) on Facebook. (If you read this on Facebook, please go to the blog post version to get all the links in their correct place where I say "see here.")

I’m not going to say “don’t comment” on this post, but I will say this: If you and I have already had lengthy back-and-forth arguments about this very topic elsewhere on social media, or on the value of the minimal facts argument, please don’t try to start the very same argument again on this post. I think if you and I have already done that elsewhere it will just cause frustration for both of us to start making the same arguments yet again on another thread. This seems like a fair request. 

It also seems like a fair request to ask that you read carefully before commenting, especially in disagreement. For example, if you find yourself saying, “Habermas can’t be giving epistemological weight to the consensus of scholarship, because he says the minimal facts also have to have good arguments for them,” you didn’t read carefully. That comment would be confusing treating consensus as the whole story with treating it as having some type of important, valuable, positive epistemic weight. Broadly speaking, this is the difference between its being a sufficient condition and its being a necessary condition for a particular kind of positive epistemic status. Please, I beseech you of your courtesy, take your time in reading before commenting that I'm just misunderstanding, much less misrepresenting.

An indirect epistemological connection between the MFA and literary device views

There are two types of connections between minimalist approaches, including the classic MFA, and the literary device approach to the Gospels. The first type of connection is epistemological and has to do with the matter of scholarly consensus. Having a high percentage and a broad spectrum (“across the scholarly spectrum,” or at least across the scholarly label spectrum) of consensus on a proposition is taken, not only by Dr. Licona but also by Dr. Habermas, to have positive epistemic weight. The type of positive epistemic weight that it supposed to have concerns guarding against bias

Notice here that I am not just saying that Dr. Habermas has endorsed Dr. Licona’s book on the resurrection. I’m not even just saying that he’s endorsed a particular statement in that book. I’m saying that he’s endorsed the idea that broad-spectrum consensus guards against bias as part of the minimal facts approach. He has explicitly, closely linked the MFA with the historiographical approach in Licona’s resurrection book and has explicitly endorsed the epistemological value of consensus as part of that approach. Here are several clear quotations from a detailed review essay (not just a brief endorsement) which is actually entitled “The Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus: The Role of Methodology as a Crucial Component in Establishing Historicity.” (Link will be in the first comment of the FB version.) 

First, the connection between "historical bedrock" and "minimal facts." Early on, Habermas says, “The heart of Michael Licona’s astounding and excellent PhD dissertation of some 700 pages is an application of the Minimal Facts argument to several scholars and their research on the resurrection of Jesus, in order to ascertain how these authors fare against the known historical data.” Toward the end, Habermas says, “In this essay, I have attempted to provide some elucidation of the Minimal Facts approach as a methodology for studying the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. This included unpacking several of the relevant aspects, as well as interacting with Michael Licona’s lengthy and rewarding treatment of this approach.” (Emphasis added)

In other words, there is not the faintest doubt that Habermas is saying that the “historical bedrock” methodology described and applied at length in Dr. Licona's book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, is the same approach as the minimal facts argument. This is not to say that he and Licona agree on every point, but Habermas is quite clear that methodologically he regards the 2010 resurrection book as a further spelling-out of his own minimal facts approach. I note the title and these quotations in order to address a recent and very strange attempt to protect the MFA from criticisms that might be leveled against the historical bedrock approach by claiming that they are quite different things and that references to Licona’s resurrection argument methodology are off limits in any critique of the “essence” of the MFA.

Second, the special epistemological importance of consensus: Avoiding our own “horizons” (biases) is extremely important to Licona in his book, and Habermas enthusiastically echoes this concern and connects it expressly with the minimal facts method: 

In keeping with the theme of this essay, Licona’s treatment of these matters surrounding the establishing and explicating of the Minimal Facts will most occupy us here. Very early in his discussion of historiography, Licona addresses the absolutely vital matter of the scholar’s horizons (chapter 1.2.2), the glasses that everyone wears when we view the world around us, and which can color severely and restrict our conclusions. And the more central the issues at hand, the more our prejudices and other views may rear their heads. To use Licona’s very helpful example, whether or not the runner was safe at second base depends largely on whether our son is the one stealing the base or the one who tagged him (p. 38)!

Habermas further quotes a passage from Licona in which L. says that the heterogeneity of consensus is something that “we desire” because it “gives us confidence that our horizons will not lead us completely astray.” Habermas then comments: 

Licona makes an insightful comment here regarding guarding against our own horizons. We must beware of our own imported biases, as well. When discussing the Minimal Facts, I have always purposely included notes at each juncture that list representative numbers of skeptics of various stripes who still affirm the data in question. This is a significant methodological procedure that serves more than one purpose. Among others, it assures the readers that they are not being asked to accept something that only conservatives believe, or that is only recognized by those who believe in the veracity of the New Testament text, and so on. After all, this sort of widespread recognition and approval is the very thing that our stated method requires.

Notice that he refers to this search for heterogenous consensus as important for “our stated method” and says that this has the effect, among other things, of helping to guard against our own biases.

Even when Habermas comments in the article on how he himself goes back and forth on whether or not to include this or that in the minimal facts, and even when he lists "second-order" facts, such as the conversion of Jesus' brother James or the nearness in time of the disciples' proclamation of the resurrection after Jesus' death, these are evaluated and discussed in terms of consensus: How large of a consensus? How many scholars address the matter? And the like. At no point does Habermas ever so much as approach the outer edge of suggesting that it would or could be a good method for arguing for the resurrection to go all-out against scholarly consensus, to say "damn the torpedoes," and to argue for something not granted by any significant scholarly consensus as a crucial part of a resurrection argument. 

I anticipate that immediately someone will say, "That's just because it wouldn't work rhetorically." No, that is not the only reason. As the above quotations show, both Licona and Habermas regard it as important to the MFA to have some substantial and heterogenous consensus for the premises for an epistemological reason--namely, to guard against our own biases. Whether we widen our facts in the argument to include the empty tomb (which neither Habermas nor Licona chooses to do) and the conversion of James or other propositions, or whether we stick only to a more minimal set, this is evaluated in terms of a condition that there be some degree of significant scholarly consensus. For example, the empty tomb supposedly had a 75% consensus among scholars, though Habermas and Licona don't think this is enough to treat it as a minimal fact or "historical bedrock." (Even the 75% is questionable, as I argued in a recent video.) Again: Yes, I know that these facts are also supposed to have good arguments for them as another necessary condition. (Though I should add that in some discussions of historical bedrock Licona seems a little confused on whether we need independent access to those good arguments or whether we assume that strong arguments must exist simply because of the consensus. See the discussion here on "Historical Bedrock as a Category that is too loose. But waive that, since I'm sticking to what Habermas has endorsed.) There is more than one way to give epistemological weight to consensus. One way is by considering it both sufficient and necessary for some sort of positive epistemic status. Another way is by considering it sufficient but not necessary. And another way is by considering it necessary but not sufficient. Since the minimal facts premises must have a certain degree and kind of consensus, and since this is said to be important for guarding against our own biases, I conclude that for this status (well-justified by publicly available evidence, and something for which we can be highly confident that we aren't being driven by our own biases) consensus is being treated as a necessary condition, though supposedly not sufficient.

Now, what is the connection here to the literary device views about which I've written so much?

In order to reject the idea that the Gospel authors deliberately changed the facts (whether or not you call those "devices"), and in order to be confident in that judgement, you have to be very ready to go up against scholarly consensus. But more: One needs to be ready to do that not just "as a Christian" (a concept used by both Craig Keener and William Lane Craig) but as a thinking person. In other words, you likely won't have enough confidence that the Gospel authors didn't change the facts if you just say, "I reject that idea because I'm a Christian and that wouldn't fit with my view of inspiration." Rather, you should think they didn't change the facts because that's the way the evidence points. You need to be willing to say that the scholars out there who think they did do so are seeing the evidence wrong. 

More: Did someone say something about heterogenous agreement? Well, if we're just talking about labels, it is sadly the case nowadays that we have scholars who both have the "mainstream" or "skeptical" label and some who have the "evangelical" or "conservative" label who have capitulated to the idea that the Gospel authors deliberately changed the facts. I emphasize "label" because time was that endorsing such a thing would have meant by definition that you weren't an evangelical! Times change. The actual consensus can get narrower while the so-called spectrum of labels remains wide.

So the proposition, "The Gospel authors never deliberately changed the facts" is not only not granted by a heterogenous majority of NT scholars, it's denied and its contadiction is asserted by a majority of scholars, including some examples across the scholarly spectrum!

And here are you: Likely a Christian, likely a conservative Christian, maybe a devout Catholic, Baptist, or evangelical. And darn it, you may not even have a credential in the field. If you are going to disagree with this consensus, how do you know that you aren't just being driven by your biases?

Now my answer to that is robustly anti-bandwagon, anti-credentialist, and evidential. I say that you go into the arguments that are being used by the scholars who are saying these things, whatever their labels, and you find out for yourself (yes, you can tell this even if you aren't a credentialed expert) that the arguments are terrible! And you find out all the great arguments that the Gospel authors were habitually truthful.

But if you accept what Habermas and Licona see as an important epistemological value--the use of consensus to guard against your own biases--it's going to be a lot harder to take this path and a lot harder to justify doing so to yourself. A lot harder. And believe me, I've seen this time and again: There is huge credentialist and consensus-based pressure placed on those who take a supposedly "too conservative" position, which is sometimes labeled as "fundamentalism."

Now, at this point, you may say something like this: "I never knew that Habermas said that about the importance of wide and large consensus for guarding against personal bias, nor that he connected it with the minimal facts method. I disagree with him on that. I use the MFA really, really, really just as a rhetorical way of arguing for the resurrection while using only facts that my non-Christian opponent will be likely to grant because they are so widely granted. I don't buy into that idea of the need for wide consensus to guard against bias, and I don't have to in order to use the MFA in this way. I'm totally willing to go up against consensus if it's wrong." (If you say this, though, please don't try to claim that Habermas didn't say this or that he doesn't connect it with the MFA, because I've documented that clearly.)

You're right, you don't have to agree with that reason for the need for consensus in order to use the MFA. I do not say, and I've never said, that the mere use of the MFA logically requires you to adopt this epistemological view about the value/importance of consensus in NT scholarship concerning the premises of arguments, even though the originators of the method do take that view and do connect it with their method. (And as I've documented here, Dr. William Lane Craig who has a somewhat similar "core facts" approach also conflates sociology and epistemology in his statements about how we know things about Jesus and what arguments are outdated.)

The first thing I would say if you make that response is that in that case you need to move on to something even more important--namely, my argument that the MFA is a weak argument for the resurrection! It actually doesn't provide a strong argument for the resurrection, once you recognize how limited the "appearance experience" fact/premise really is. See here for more. You need to consider that very carefully. We shouldn't be making weak arguments and implying that they are strong arguments. That's not good, and it certainly is no argument for doing so to say that it "works." We aren't just salesmen. We need to have intellectual integrity.

But hey, if you're really just using the MFA because you think it's easier rhetorically, you should be willing to give that up, right? It shouldn't be too hard for you to reconsider, right? Especially since I've shown again and again that a more "maximalist" type of argument, a Paleyan argument, can be given at various lengths and levels of detail. See here and here for examples.

That brings me to another point if you insist that you, unlike Habermas and Licona, are not giving epistemological value to consensus: Do a very serious thought experiment. Try to be as honest and self-aware as possible. Ask yourself seriously what you would do if you became convinced that the MFA doesn't provide a good, strong argument for the resurrection. What would you do? Would you regroup and be willing to say, "Oh, well, in that case, the heck with consensus, I'll make the argument in a different way"? Are you even willing right now to listen carefully to the arguments that the MFA isn't very strong? Or are you shying away from that because you're so wedded to it? Because if so, just how sure are you that you're willing to damn the torpedoes and go up against consensus, that you aren't at all dependent on a feeling of epistemological security from the supposed consensus?

Or as an alternative, ask yourself: What would you do if, in your own lifetime, the consensus shifted radically so that even those minimal facts were no longer widely granted? Would you keep harking back to an artificially circumscribed earlier consensus? Would you be in denial? Or would you say, "Okay, I'll stop saying this about consensus in the present tense, and I'll make an argument without that rhetorical motif"? 

You see, I hear people all the time absolutely insist, in an almost angry way, that no, no, no this is just rhetorical. They don't even want to admit what I've documented above about what Habermas and Licona have said epistemologically about their methodology. And yet. They also don't want to pay attention to my criticisms of the strength of the argument. Sometimes it isn't even just that they don't agree with them. In many cases they don't even want to hear it! (See this post for a summary of my criticisms of the strength of the argument.) And to my mind, that casts doubt upon the "it's just rhetorical" claim in the case of that person, even though the epistemological point discussed in this section is in principle separable from the use of the argument. 

So, too, does the promotion of literary device theories without due consideration. More about that in the next section.

Sociological/psychological connections between literary device view and the MFA

People get offended when I say what I'm going to say in this section. They also mishear it. They hear it as, "Lydia is saying that if you use the MFA you don't think that the Gospels are historically reliable, just because you're not using that in the argument for the resurrection." I'm not saying that. Nothing in this section is saying that. The point I'm making here is more nuanced than that, so again, please read carefully.

It is undeniable that if the MFA or some other argument that doesn't rely on Gospel reliability (like William Lane Craig's "core facts" approach) were a strong argument for the resurrection, this would make the stakes for Gospel reliability comparatively lower than the stakes would be if Gospel reliability were needed to undergird the argument for the resurrection. Thus far, this is just a comparative point. All else being equal, if we need Gospel reliability to have a strong argument for the central miracle of Christianity, the stakes for Gospel reliability are higher than they are if we don't need that for that argument. But in principle the stakes could still be very high, and some given person who uses the MFA could still recognize that they are very high. For example, you might think that you need a good, publicly available argument (not just the "internal witness of the Holy Spirit") for high Gospel reliability to make a good case for Jesus' teaching that he was God. (As an interesting sociological point, however, Dr. Craig doesn't think this. He uses a criteriological, passage-by-passage approach, to argue for Jesus' self-conception, and he doesn't use John 8:58 or John 10:30 in the argument.) Or you might think that you need such a publicly available argument for Gospel reliability in order to have a wide variety of Jesus' teachings for a well-taught personal relationship with God.

Now, if that's your position, and if you recognize further that the notion that the Gospel authors changed facts is incompatible with high Gospel reliability, even if the changes are labeled as "devices," and if you recognize that there are strong arguments against that notion, then you might use the MFA without being susceptible to the literary device views.

There are other possibilities. Maybe you recognize that there are high stakes to Gospel reliability but you have been confused by the obfuscating statements of evangelical literary device theories into thinking that these in no way undermine Gospel reliability. The obfuscation that occurs is highly, highly unfortunate, but if you are still unaware, let me say to pique your interest that when these folks use the term "paraphrase" and soothingly tell you that they aren't saying that the Gospel authors made anything up, this is highly misleading. One view that is spoken of as "paraphrase" is that John the evangelist was, shall we say, inspired by the saying, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" to make Jesus in his own Gospel say, "I thirst," which Jesus did not historically, recognizably utter. That probably isn't what you thought was going on if you considered these views uncontroversial, am I right? Another idea is that either John invented the scene between Jesus and Mary Magdalene at the tomb, because she really met Jesus under quite different circumstances when she was running from the tomb with joy, or that Matthew deliberately made her meet Jesus in those circumstances, while knowing that she really met him alone as recorded in John. Again, this is a matter of altering facts, but that isn't what the Christian advocates of these views normally bring up (even if they believe it) when assuring fellow Christians that this is all very trivial and there is nothing for them to worry about. So, if you do recognize the high stakes of Gospel reliability, and this is all new to you, I encourage you to get hold of The Mirror or the Mask rather than passing along the ideas uncritically.

But once again, as with the problems with the cogency of the MFA, it's rather odd to find that folks who supposedly think the stakes are high for Gospel reliability often seem curiously un-curious about whether or not reliability is being undermined by the literary device views. If the stakes really are high, shouldn't you find out more before telling everybody who watches your Youtube channel (or listens to your presentations) that "Scholars like Michael Licona have found that the Gospel authors used special compositional devices and that these explain most of the apparent contradictions in the Gospels"? 

Here I think there is a major sociological/psychological effect coming from the combination of the MFA with a certain meme or saying: "If the resurrection happened, then Christianity is true, period." Hmmm. the word "period" there does tend to convey the idea that this is meant to be taken literally, though I know that some people use the saying unwarily while meaning it as hyperbole. But the more you say it, and the more you listen to some high-profile apologists, the more likely you are to mean it literally. Literally, it's false. Plenty of heretics believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Biblical unitarians, Socinians, as far as I know even Mormons. It's entirely possible logically to believe in the resurrection of Jesus and to have non-Christian doctrine.

But the constant urging from the MFA camp is, "Use this, it works. Use this, the resurrection is everything. If it's true, Christianity is true, period. We can work out all those other little details later. Use this, it will bring people to Christ." I'm sorry to say that this sort of rhetoric--the very urging one often hears from people who insist that this has no connection to anything else--encourages carelessness. It encourages intellectual laziness. It encourages putting off indefinitely that nitty-gritty examination of alleged contradictions, which are spoken of over and over and over again as unimportant, irrelevant, something we can grant for the sake of the argument. We can get to them later, always later. Somehow, though, the time never comes. The time for worrying about them or dealing with them is put off indefinitely while their importance is downplayed. How does this not give the impression that the skeptical insistence that the Gospels are full of contradictions and deliberate factual changes is no big deal and wouldn't matter much even if it were true? 

Here's another thought experiment: How many presently living, high-profile Christian leaders do you know of who both a) use the MFA regularly in public presentations and b) consciously, unashamedly, and publicly reject the fact-changing literary device views? People who combine all of these characteristics are as rare as hens' teeth. I have encountered a huge amount of behind-the-scenes stonewalling when it comes to these matters. Some don't want to hear. Some don't want to take the time. Some don't want to speak out.

For the most part, the people who have public platforms, are well-known, and make heavy use of the MFA or "core facts" approaches are the very people who don't apparently think the matter of fact-changing literary devices is important enough to be a) investigated carefully and b) publicly and unashamedly rejected after investigation. Some, like (unfortunately) William Lane Craig and Gary Habermas, have decided to endorse the literary device work of Licona, at least in general terms, though without always spelling out in detail which specific examples they endorse.

I do not think that social fact is an accident, though it's not a matter of logical entailment from the MFA. Rather, it's a matter of being so focused in one's thinking and one's ministry for so many years, on "not worrying about" skeptical claims that the Gospels are full of inventions and embellishments (ostensibly granting this just "for the sake of the argument"), in order to make an argument whose premises will be acceptable to the scholarly establishment. The strong psychological temptation is then to think that anything that one has set aside like this isn't really all that important. After all, what does it really matter if John made up "I thirst" and "It is finished"? If the resurrection happened, then Christianity is true, period! What does it really matter if John made up the sub-scene where Jesus breathes on his disciples and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit"? That doesn't change "the gist" for some meanings of "gist." ("The gist" gets broader and broader, doesn't it?) And if the resurrection happened, then Christianity is true, period! What does it really matter if Matthew created a "doublet" of two blind men healed early in Jesus' ministry, plus the two blind men healed near the end? If the resurrection happened, then Christianity is true, period! How much does it matter if the Gospel authors thought that they were licensed to make all kinds of invisible factual changes, due to the "standards of their time"? After all, if the resurrection happened, Christianity is true, period!

The MFA does tell us that we have a strong argument that the resurrection happened that would still work even if the Gospels were unreliable. That much is an undeniable part of the MFA. So, if the literary device views call in that promissory note by hypothesizing that the authors did indeed change things, perhaps we shouldn't worry too much about it.

The issue of inerrancy plays an interesting role here: The stakes if the doctrine of inerrancy is false may be different (I think they are very different) from the stakes if the Gospels are not robustly, literally, historically reliable. But in articles like this one we see these issues conflated. If you think (rightly, I would say) that we have an excellent case for Christianity even if traditional inerrancy is false, it does not follow that we have an excellent case even if literal Gospel reliability is false. The rhetoric surrounding minimalist approaches unfortunately encourages the conflation between inerrancy and robust, literal reliability, which in turn helps to convey the notion that robust reliability is a fairly low-stakes issue.

This is the sociological/psychological connection between the MFA and acceptance of the literary device views: If you think that robust, unredefined, literal Gospel reliability is a fairly low-stakes issue, you are tempted to accept too readily, without due investigation, theories that undermine it such as the view that the evangelists sometimes deliberately changed facts. And the MFA, especially taken in conjunction with the idea that if the resurrection is true, that's all that is necessary for Christianity, makes it psychologically easy to conclude that literal Gospel reliability is a fairly low-stakes issue, since it is part of the MFA to say that you can have a strong argument for the resurrection using only a small number of premises granted by a large consensus of scholars across the spectrum.

Again, I cannot repeat too often, the point in this section is not a necessary, logical connection. You can consistently be an MFA user and a fierce, intelligent defender of unredefined Gospel reliability. But I wish we saw more of those, and all the more so if they were also willing to listen to concerns about the cogency of the MFA. 

But if you're deeply invested in the kind of rhetoric and talk that constantly goes around in certain evangelical apologetic circles, you will find that enthusiastic adoption of the MFA (and even angry defense thereof) tends to go hand-in-hand with downplaying the stakes for robust Gospel reliability and also with very great openness to, if not outright advocacy of, the literary device views. And all of these positions unfortunately tend to be held with a disturbing level of closed-mindedness in which critics such as myself are constantly rebuked for daring to criticize other Christians or other Christians' arguments. "Misrepresentation" is constantly alleged even where it cannot be shown to be true, and the shallow, lazy characterizations of my own criticisms are, ironically, instances of misrepresentation! For my own part, I think it's fairly obvious that both the above epistemic issue (about consensus) and the sociological/psychological issues discussed in this section are at work, along with the sheer popularity of the MFA. Criticizing a popular position has never been popular.


So where does that leave us? Especially, where does it leave you if you've been using either the MFA or Dr. Craig's "core facts" approach and the idea of a problem with it is relatively new to you?

I would say that if that's where you're coming from, you should dive into other things I've produced on this, especially on the "appearance experience" claim. Consider that what is granted by a huge majority of scholars across the spectrum is not that the disciples had experiences of the kind described in the Gospels but merely that they had experiences of some kind. These could have been vague or ghostly. They could have been vision-like. They needn't have had physical aspects involving touch, or eating, or lengthy conversations. They could have even had experiences that were evidence that they were not seeing a physically risen person--for example, if Jesus appeared transparent. Perhaps they didn't even have a clear sensory experience as a group. Mainstream scholars typically think that the physical details of the Gospel accounts are later embellishments and therefore typically think that the disciples, if they had appearance experiences, had experiences of a type that could be explained in some non-physical manner. Therefore, to include these scholars in a consensus that the disciples really had appearance experiences that are best explained by the literal, physical resurrection is to gerrymander a consensus. Well, I'll leave it there for now, since I've written and talked about it quite a bit in other places. But check it out. If this is just a rhetorical matter for you, if you're really not epistemologically dependent on the comfort of using only premises granted by a large, heterogenous majority of scholars, then you should be willing to change your rhetorical strategy. And if you are epistemologically dependent on consensus, you should reconsider that!

Now, suppose that you do think that Gospel reliability is a high-stakes issue. If you are unaware or only vaguely aware of what the literary device views are that I've been talking about, or (especially) if you've already committed yourself somewhere to the idea that lots of alleged discrepancies in the Gospels are best dealt with by specialized knowledge about "compositional devices of the time," then I would strongly suggest you delve into that. I've dealt with these issues in many places, most especially in The Mirror or the Mask, in a video series , and in many other videos and blog posts.

I'd especially suggest this: If you feel unpleasantly surprised or even annoyed by my making any sort of connection (either epistemic or social) between those views and the MFA as discussed in this post, it would be a good thing for you to ask yourself as honestly as possible whether you yourself are a case in point of the too-ready acceptance of the literary device views or apathy about them. Are you spending way more time and energy arguing on social media that there is absolutely nothing wrong in the slightest with the MFA, that it is a strong argument and that its use has no ill effects, that anyone who criticizes it in any way must be misrepresenting it, than you are willing to spend understanding the literary device views and their spreading influence in the evangelical world? Is that a reasonable set of priorities? If you do investigate them, and you realize that the compositional device perspective is problematic, please say so. Please say so publicly. I would say that publicly saying there appears to be a problem is especially incumbent on you if you have previously publicly endorsed the compositional device views, even in broad outline and even without knowing what you were endorsing or giving a positive platform to. Wagon circling and silence when something is seriously wrong do not create a good social dynamic. 

In closing, let me say loud and clear that I fully realize that there are lay apologists all over the U.S. and probably all over the world who are sincere Christians, have picked up minimal facts or generally minimalist arguments for the resurrection, and are using them enthusiastically, who have not the slightest intention of saying that the Gospel authors knowingly changed facts. Many laymen using minimalist approaches would be opposed to the literary device views if they knew of them and (sans euphemisms) understood what those views really are. I know that. I get that. I'm not saying that you're being inconsistent if you're one of those laymen. But I also believe that the MFA is oversold as far as what it can do. And I know that some of the same high-profile people promoting generally minimalist arguments are also promoting the constant deferral of questions about robust reliability and alleged contradictions. Some are also promoting downplaying statements about what is at stake in such questions and/or promoting the unqualified slogan, "If the resurrection happened, then Christianity is true, period," or something much like it. Some are also promoting the compositional device views. No doubt the leaders saying these things have the good intention of helping people and winning people to Christ, but I think they've made some serious mistakes. 

Even though one of these perspectives doesn't follow logically from another, they fit together quite well in a meta-apologetic worldview. So those lay-level apologists who are innocently using the MFA are often in a social and intellectual position where they are potentially vulnerable to eventually follow a line of thought from minimalism in resurrection arguments to assuming pretty low stakes for robust, literal Gospel reliability to uncritical promotion of literary device views. I want to raise a warning about that.

And if you consider it important to assume good intentions whenever possible, I ask you to assume my good intentions, as well, and my sincere desire to be of help to the church and the world, to the glory of God.