Can any historical information be taken from the New Testament, at all?

I hear this a lot from skeptics: If you try to give historical evidence for anything in Christianity, you can’t use the Bible. It’s circular, for one thing, using the Bible to prove itself. And another thing, it’s just a bunch of fables with no historical worth. Only people who believe in the Bible already will accept it. That is, only people who already accept the Bible as the Word of God will be convinced (and unfortunately so).

So if someone were to try to present historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection using texts from the Bible, skeptics would likely object as I just have above.

Is the above a good argument? I don’t think it is. For one, it seems in danger of a logical fallacy — False Dilemma. In dilemma-style arguments, the arguer presents two options, one of which is obviously unacceptable, forcing us to accept the other option. The fallacy occurs when there are more than two options. Here the skeptic seems to argue that either you accept the Bible as the Word of God, or you have to reject it completely. Since the former is unacceptable, the Bible must be rejected completely.  But these two aren’t the only options. One could believe the New Testament to be partially true, for one thing. Another thing, one could accept certain claims made by the Bible without claiming it’s the Word of God.

Still, there’s more to the above argument than this. The argument might be that the Bible has so many obviously irrational claims, that nothing in the book can be trusted. Would you believe anything said by a schizophrenic who thinks he’s Napoleon, or the Real Donald Trump (the one you see on TV and Twitter is an impostor, placed there by the space-alien-supported Illuminati)? Probably not. That’s how we should treat the Bible.

Or, maybe less harshly, the book is really, really, old. It was written back when people weren’t as careful as they are today. They jumped to supernatural conclusions, were much less disposed to critical thinking, more gullible, more ignorant, and so on. Given the unbelievable nature of much of what’s in the book (numerous miracles, for instance), we can’t trust the book at all.

It’s an inductive argument: since the New Testament contains many things that are unbelievable, we can infer that everything in the book is unbelievable.

Another, perhaps more careful, argument along the above lines is this; the Bible is full of unbelievable claims. And although these alone don’t prove that everything in the Bible is false, there is a big burden of proof now placed on all claims in the Bible. There may, indeed, be some ordinary facts described in the Bible that really happened, but unless they are independently corroborated, we can’t rationally accept them. That is, if it’s in the Bible, it’s guilty until proven innocent, given all the other nonsense the Bible says.

William Lane Craig, a philosopher and resurrection specialist, doesn’t accept this argument (the last one was made, more or less, by Richard Carrier regarding the Gospels in his debate with Craig on the Resurrection). One reason that he doesn’t accept it is that the New Testament isn’t just one document. The New Testament is a compilation of separate writings. Each of the Gospels, furthermore, are themselves compilations, writings that include other writings and oral testimony. In fact, a whole discipline has arisen to try to figure out all the different underlying sources behind the Gospels. The many sources gleaned from the Gospels, plus references in other parts of the New Testament, serve as independent corroboration.

A lot of skeptics wouldn’t consider this corroboration at all. For it’s all from the Bible. But it would be begging the question to assume that we can’t take as corroboration different passages from different authors or books in the Bible, without knowing that everything in the Bible is untrustworthy in advance. They are separate sources, complied decades/centuries after they were written.

However, skeptics could reply that the Gospel authors, and all the other New Testament authors, had discrediting ulterior motives. They were concerned with aiding the fledgling Christian movement in one way or another. They cannot be trusted.

This is an ad hominem against the Gospel authors. Ad hominems reject claims because of some feature of the person(s) making the claim. They had such and such motivations is one. But what they say might still be true, and their arguments may still be good (e.g., a defense attorney has a motive to defend her client — that alone doesn’t mean her claims are false or her arguments are bad).

Still, there are all those miracles and other unbelievables in the Bible. And there are the apparent inconsistencies. So there still is that inductive argument. My reply to this is a counter-example. It’s one that Craig uses in his debates about the Resurrection. Consider Matthew 28:

11 While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.”15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

Look at the last line: “And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.” Even if we don’t accept that Jesus rose from the dead,  don’t accept miracles or God or the supernatural, couldn’t we acknowledge that it’s plausible to believe that the story of the stolen body was widespread among Jews at that time? If it wasn’t so, the entire motivation for writing this passage is gone, even if the author of Matthew was just a fanatic trying serve the young Christian movement. If it weren’t true, moreover, including it would probably dissuade Matthew’s audience, for his audience would know whether such a story was currently widely circulated (his audience was probably Jewish). It makes much more sense to say that he and other Jews of his time knew about the story and that he needed to provide some kind of answer to it to defend his movement.

I don’t know if you would accept this reasoning, but doesn’t it at least seem possibly rational to reason this way about a passage in the New Testament and accept a claim in it, even without confirmation from outside the Bible?

This reasoning was used by Craig to support the claim that Jesus’ tomb was empty, which, in turn, was used to support the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. However, even if skeptics disagree with the last use, I think the claim about the empty tomb itself is reasonable.

I should clarify. In the above I was not trying to argue that everything in the Bible should believed. What I was arguing against is the view that nothing in the Bible should be believed.

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Who Made God?

Children often ask this. The quick answer: God wasn’t made, He was always there. Only things that weren’t always there have to be made.

But atheists may still complain about God being used as an explanation because it stops inquiry. We should always look for some other explanation because of this. Saying “God did it” stops science. Sometimes they also insist that to use God as an explanation, we need to explain God first.

I think these complaints are based on a confusion between arguing that and explaining how. When theists use God as an explanation, they are arguing that. That is, they are trying to argue that it is true that God exists and did such and such. Theists have to admit, however, that this does not explain how. It doesn’t provide details about the processes of how the universe was made. Because “God did it” doesn’t explain how, atheists reject God as an explanation.

But we can use explanations for both of the above purposes. We can use an explanation to uncover a mechanism, or we can use an “inference to the best explanation” to argue that a certain event occurred. An example: I can explain why the sky is blue by pointing out different features of light and the absorptive properties of gasses in the atmosphere — that’s explaining how. Or I could argue that my friend was awake late last night because there is an email in my inbox from him with a timestamp of 2:20 am. In the latter case I am not trying to get into the details of how the universe works so much as show that my friend was awake at that time. Notice that I don’t need to have an explanation for why my friend was awake to make the point: what kept him up is a different question from whether he was up.

In the same way, when theists offer arguments for God’s existence involving God as an explanation, they aren’t trying to uncover mechanisms that can be used to further scientific inquiry. They are merely arguing that God exists; they are arguing that, not explaining how. And just like my friend’s email, arguing that God exists isn’t the same as showing how God exists.

So arguing that God did something may not advance scientific goals, but that in itself doesn’t mean that God didn’t do it, or that God isn’t a good explanation. It just means that God doesn’t suit the goals of atheists.