Tag Archives: Jesus

Chris Sinkinson debates John Hick on religious pluralism and salvation

Two tough rams butt heads, and may the best ram win!
Two tough rams butt heads, and may the best ram win!

Looks like Justin Brierley on the Unbelievable radio show found a pastor with a Ph.D in philosophy, and he can really whip some ass. And that’s a good thing, because he is taking on one of the two leading proponents of religious pluralism, in my opinion, (the other being Paul Knitter).

The players:

John Hick is a noted philosopher and theologian who is a proponent of a pluralist view of religion – that there is one light (God) but many lampshades (religious expressions).

Chris Sinkinson is a pastor and Bible tutor who has critiqued Hick’s work.  He says that pluralism empties Christianity of any content and in its own way disrespects other religions more than his own exclusivist stance.

The MP3 file is here. (Note: This link works)

Justin does a great job as moderator of this debate. He said what I was thinking of saying a number of times during the debate.

Anyway, here is my snarky summary. I creatively paraphrase some of the things that Hick says to make it more clear. And funny.

—-

Hick:
– had an experience looking at the buildings of other religions
– other religions have buildings, so all religions are equal
– I spent some time in the East, and met nice Eastern people
– since Eastern people are nice that means all religions are equal

Justin:
– isn’t Jesus’ claim to be the exclusive path to salvation offensive?

Sinkinson:
– all religions that are exclusive and have to deal with religious pluralism
– even John Hick writes polemically in favor of his own view
– even John Hick thinks that religions that are exclusive are false

Justin:
– what about the blind man and the elephant?
– the story seems to say that other people have a partial grasp?
– but the story-teller himself has the privileged view
– so isn’t the religious pluralist just as arrogant as exclusivists?

Hick:
– well, it’s not arrogant to claim to have the right answer
– Jesus never made the claim to be God incarnate
– Jesus never made the claim to be the exclusive path to God
– historians don’t think that John’s gospel is reliable because it is late
– the proclamation of exclusivity was added by evangelists much later

Sinkinson:
– the historians who doubt the high Christology are radical skeptics
– the mainstream of historical scholarship accepts a high Christology
– the EARLIEST history about Jesus has the highest Christology

Hick:
– the moderate scholars do think Jesus was divine but that he didn’t think he was divine
– the phrase “Son of God” was used to describe any remarkable person
– only later did the early church turn the generic term into “God the Son”

Sinkinson:
– there is reflection on Jesus’ identity and developments, but not invention
– Jesus and his followers were in trouble precisely for linking him to deity
– why else would Jesus get into trouble and get crucified?

Hick:
– the Romans crucified him because people were saying he was the Messiah
– but the Messiah was not identified as being divine, but political
– and that’s why the Romans crucified him

Justin:
– do you (Sinkinson) think that people in other religions can be saved?

Sinkinson:
– the traditional view is exclusivism
– the other world religions are logically contradictory with Christianity
– you have to respect their differences – they are not the same as Christianity
– exclusivists allow that people can be saved by responding to natural theology
– and there are also other cases where non-Christians are saved, like old testament saints and babies who die in infancy

Hick:
– but people’s religions are based on where they are born
– so it’s not fair for God to expect people to be saved in one religion only

Sinkinson:
– the plurality of religions grouped by location doesn’t make christianity false
– that would be the genetic fallacy – rejecting an idea because of its origin
– the real question to consider is whether it is true
– and even the objection assumes that God is a God of love, who should be fair
– but how do you know that God is loving? that is an exclusive view
– how can the “blob” ultimate of religious pluralism be “loving” and “fair”

Hick:
– the ultimate reality is loving or not loving depending on each person’s religion

Sinkinson:
– but some religions and theistic and some are atheistic
– how can those God exist and not exist?

Hick:
– God is beyond everyone’s understanding, except mine
– God is beyond all definitions, except mine
– God is beyond all human understanding, except mine
– i’m not contradicting myself, it’s a mystery! a mystery!
– as long as you don’t look to closely, they’re all the same!
– allow me to tell you about God, which no one can do but me

Justin:
– doesn’t your religious pluralism mean that Christianity is false?

Hick:
– well, Christianity can’t be true, because it disagrees with other religions
– Christianity can’t falsify other religions, that would be mean to them
– other religions are just as “profound” as Christianity – and that’s what matters – not whether a religion makes true claims
– some religions are older than Christianity, that means they can’t be disagreed with
– we can’t let Christianity be true, because then some people will feel bad
– if people feel bad, then they don’t like me and then I feel bad
– if there’s one thing I know about the unknowable ultimate reality, it’s that it wants me to be liked by lots of people

Sinkinson:
– your view seems to be agnosticism – that nothing can be known about the “ultimate real”
– if we can’t express in words what God is like, then why are you saying what God is like?

Hick:
– the indescribable ultimate is described (falsely, but interestingly) by various tradition

Sinkinson:
– does the “ultimate real” exist?

Hick:
– no

Justin:
– are all the exclusive religions wrong, and only you are right?

Hick:
– all propositions about God in all the religions are false
– the experience of being deluded and having feelings about your delusions is “valid” in all religions
– all religions are equally good ways to believe false things and to have feelings about your false beliefs
– only my propositions about God are true
– everyone who disagrees with me is wrong

Sinkinson:
– so all the propositions of all the religions are wrong
– but all the experiences and feelings are “right”

Hick:
– yes
– all propositions about God are humanly constructed, and so false
– except mine – mine are true!

Sinkinson:
– so everything distinctive about Christianity are literally false?

Hick:
– yes, Christian doctrines are all false
– because if they were true, other religions would be false, and they would feel bad
– and we can’t have that, because everyone has to like me
– only things that don’t offend people in other religions can be true

Sinkinson:
– so do we have to then treat all religions as non-propositional?

Hick:
– well just don’t ask people about the content of their beliefs
– just treat their religion as non-cognitive rituals, feelings and experiences
– don’t inquire too deeply into it, because all religions are all nonsense
– i’m very respectful and tolerant of different religions!

Sinkinson:
– but Muslims, for example, think their religion is making truth claims

Hick:
– but there can be tolerance as long as you treat religions as non-propositional nonsense

Sinkinson:
– um, I have a higher respect for religions than you do
– I actually consider that the claims of other religions could be true
– I think that other religions make truth claims and not nonsense claims

Hick:
– well they are all useful because they are all false
– I don’t emphasize beliefs, I emphasize living, experiences and feelings
– as long as everyone accepts my view and rejects their religion, we’ll all be tolerant

Justin:
– erm, isn’t that an exclusive claim?
– you’re trying to say that your view of what religion is is right, and everyone else is wrong

Hick:
– I’m not arrogant, I just think that all the religions of the worlds are false
– only my statements about religion are true – everyone else is wrong
– I’m tolerant, and Christians are arrogant

Justin:
– but you think Sinkinson’s view is wrong
– why should we accept your view and deny his view?

Hick:
– His view of salvation is false, and mine is true

Sinkinson:
– you use words with set meanings, but you mean completely different things
– when I say salvation, I mean deliverance from sins through Jesus

Hick:
– I get to decide what salvation means for everyone, you intolerant bigot

Sinkinson:
– but that word has a specific meaning that has held true in all of Christian history
– but what you mean by salvation is people having subjective delusions that are not true

Hick:
– I don’t like using the word salvation

Sinkinson:
– but you just used it!
– and you think that it is present in different world religions, but it isn’t

Hick:
– God is unknowable and indescribable
– God isn’t a wrathful God though
– and the Christian description of God is false
– Evangelical Christians are mean
– I had experiences with people of other faiths
– and these experiences taught me that religions that think that the universe is eternal are true
– as long as you reduce religion to behaviors and not truth, then religions are all good at producing behaviors
– if you just treat all religions as clothing fashion and food customs, they are all valid
– the main point of religion is for people to agree on cultural conventions and stick to them
– never mind the propositional statements of religions… who cares about truth? not me!
– but Christianity is definitely false

Sinkinson:
– the Judeo-Christian God is different – he reveals himself to humans
– he is distinct from the other religions
– he is personal, and is loving but also angry at sin

Hick:
– But God isn’t a person, and he isn’t a non-person
– I can’t say what he is – I’ll offend someone if I say anything at all!
– except Christians – I can offend them because they are arrogant bigots
– I’m also very spiritual – I meditate on my breathing

Sinkinson:
– you can’t assess a religion by the experiences that people have
– people who have weird experiences do all kinds of evil things
– so the real question has to be about truth – is the New Testament reliable?, etc.

Mike Licona lectures on historical methods and the New Testament

Here’s a quick overview of Michael Licona’s latest book on the resurrection, entitled “The Resurrection of Jesus“.

60 minutes of lecture, 20 minutes of Q&A.

Summary:

  • Dr. Licona’s background and education
  • The definition of history and philosophy of history
  • Postmodern approaches to history
  • Historical bedrock: facts that are historically demonstrable
  • Historical criterion 1: Explanatory scope
  • Historical criterion 2: Explanatory power
  • Historical criterion 3: Plausibility
  • Historical criterion 4: Ad Hoc / Speculation / non-evidenced assumptions
  • Inference to the best explanation
  • Investigating miracle claims: is it possible? How?
  • Objection of James D.G. Dunn
  • Objection of Bart Ehrman
  • New Testament sources: Gospels and Paul’s letters
  • The Gnostic gospels: are they good sources?
  • The minimal facts
  • The hallucination hypothesis
  • The best explanation

While watching this lecture, it struck what good preparation it was for understanding debates. This lecture is more about historical methods, but if you’re interested in Mike’s minimal facts case for the resurrection, here’s a video on that:

This is the case he uses in his debates with Richard Carrier, Dale Allison, Bart Ehrman, etc.

Mike Licona’s ministry is here: Risen Jesus.

If you are looking for a good book to read on the resurrection of Jesus, the best introductory book on the resurrection is “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus” and the best comprehensive book is “The Resurrection of Jesus“.

What criteria do historians use to get to the minimal facts about the historical Jesus?

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let's take a look at the facts
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let’s take a look at the facts

Have you ever heard Gary Habermas, Michael Licona or William Lane Craig defend the resurrection of Jesus in a debate by saying that the resurrection is the best explanation for the “minimal facts” about Jesus? The lists of minimal facts that they use are typically agreed to by their opponents during the debates. Minimal facts are the parts of the New Testament that meet a set of strict historical criteria. These are the facts that skeptical historians agree with, totally apart from any religious beliefs.

So what are the criteria that skeptical historians use to derive a list of minimal facts about Jesus?

Dr. Craig explains them in this article.

Excerpt:

The other way, more influential in contemporary New Testament scholarship, is to establish specific facts about Jesus without assuming the general reliability of the Gospels. The key here are the so-called “Criteria of Authenticity” which enable us to establish specific sayings or events in Jesus’ life as historical. Scholars involved in the quest of the historical Jesus have enunciated a number of these critieria for detecting historically authentic features of Jesus, such as dissimilarity to Christian teaching, multiple attestation, linguistic semitisms, traces of Palestinian milieu, retention of embarrassing material, coherence with other authentic material, and so forth.

It is somewhat misleading to call these “criteria,” for they aim at stating sufficient, not necessary, conditions of historicity. This is easy to see: suppose a saying is multiply attested and dissimilar but not embarrassing. If embarrassment were a necessary condition of authenticity, then the saying would have to be deemed inauthentic, which is wrong-headed, since its multiple attestation and dissimilarity are sufficient for authenticity. Of course, the criteria are defeasible, meaning that they are not infallible guides to authenticity. They might be better called “Indications of Authenticity” or “Signs of Credibility.”

In point of fact, what the criteria really amount to are statements about the effect of certain types of evidence upon the probability of various sayings or events in Jesus’ life. For some saying or event S and evidence of a certain type E, the criteria would state that, all things being equal, the probability of S given E is greater than the probability of S on our background knowledge alone. So, for example, all else being equal, the probability of some event or saying is greater given its multiple attestation than it would have been without it.

What are some of the factors that might serve the role of E in increasing the probability of some saying or event S? The following are some of the most important:

(1) Historical congruence: S fits in with known historical facts concerning the context in which S is said to have occurred.

(2) Independent, early attestation: S appears in multiple sources which are near to the time at which S is alleged to have occurred and which depend neither upon each other nor a common source.

(3) Embarrassment: S is awkward or counter-productive for the persons who serve as the source of information for S.

(4) Dissimilarity: S is unlike antecedent Jewish thought-forms and/or unlike subsequent Christian thought-forms.

(5) Semitisms: traces in the narrative of Aramaic or Hebrew linguistic forms.

(6) Coherence: S is consistent with already established facts about Jesus.

For a good discussion of these factors see Robert Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” in Gospel Perspectives I, ed. R. T. France and David Wenham (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1980), pp. 225-63.

Notice that these “criteria” do not presuppose the general reliability of the Gospels. Rather they focus on a particular saying or event and give evidence for thinking that specific element of Jesus’ life to be historical, regardless of the general reliability of the document in which the particular saying or event is reported. These same “criteria” are thus applicable to reports of Jesus found in the apocryphal Gospels, or rabbinical writings, or even the Qur’an. Of course, if the Gospels can be shown to be generally reliable documents, so much the better! But the “criteria” do not depend on any such presupposition. They serve to help spot historical kernels even in the midst of historical chaff. Thus we need not concern ourselves with defending the Gospels’ every claim attributed to Jesus in the gospels; the question will be whether we can establish enough about Jesus to make faith in him reasonable.

And you can see Dr. Craig using these criteria to defend minimal facts in his debates. For example, in his debate with Ehrman, he alludes to the criteria when making his case for the empty tomb.

Here, he uses multiple attestation and the criteria of embarrassment:

Among the reasons which have led most scholars to this conclusion are the following:

1. The empty tomb is also multiply attested by independent, early sources.

Mark’s source didn’t end with the burial, but with the story of the empty tomb, which is tied to the burial story verbally and grammatically. Moreover, Matthew and John have independent sources about the empty tomb; it’s also mentioned in the sermons in the Acts of the Apostles (2.29; 13.36); and it’s implied by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian church (I Cor. 15.4). Thus, we have again multiple, early, independent attestation of the fact of the empty tomb.

2. The tomb was discovered empty by women.

In patriarchal Jewish society the testimony of women was not highly regarded. In fact, the Jewish historian Josephus says that women weren’t even permitted to serve as witnesses in a Jewish court of law. Now in light of this fact, how remarkable it is that it is women who are the discoverers of Jesus’ empty tomb. Any later legendary account would certainly have made male disciples like Peter and John discover the empty tomb. The fact that it is women, rather than men, who are the discoverers of the empty tomb is best explained by the fact that they were the chief witnesses to the fact of the empty tomb, and the Gospel writers faithfully record what, for them, was an awkward and embarrassing fact.

There are actually a few more reasons for believing in the empty tomb that he doesn’t go into in the debate, but you can find them in his written work. For example, in his essay on Gerd Ludemann’s “vision” hypothesis. That essay covers the reasons for all four of his minimal facts.

So, if you are going to talk about the resurrection with a skeptic, you don’t want to invoke the Bible as some sort of inerrant/inspired Holy Book.

Try this approach instead:

  1. Explain the criteria that historians use to get their lists of minimal facts
  2. Explain your list of minimal facts
  3. Defend your list of minimal facts using the criteria
  4. Cite skeptics who admit to each of your minimal facts, to show that they are widely accepted
  5. List some parts of the Bible that don’t pass the criteria (e.g. – guard at the tomb, Matthew earthquake)
  6. Explain why those parts don’t pass the criteria, and explain that they are not part of your case
  7. Challenge your opponent to either deny some or all the facts, or propose a naturalistic alternative that explains the facts better than the resurrection
  8. Don’t let your opponent attack any of your minimal facts by attacking other parts of the Bible (e.g. – the number of angels being one or two, etc.)

And remember that there is no good case for the resurrection that does not make heavy use of the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.

The best essay on the minimal facts criteria that I’ve read is the one by Robert H. Stein in “Contending with Christianity’s Critics“. It’s a good short essay that goes over all the historical criteria that are used to derive the short list of facts from which we infer the conclusion “God raised Jesus from the dead”. That whole book is really very, very good.

William Lane Craig debates Peter Atkins: Does God Exist?

Here is the video of a debate with Peter Atkins, from the Reasonable Faith speaking tour in the UK:

This is a must-see debate. It was extremely fun to watch.

Details:

On Wednesday 26th October 2011 William Lane Craig debated Peter Atkins on the topic: Does God Exist? This debate took place at the University of Manchester  as part of the UK Reasonable Faith Tour with William Lane Craig. The debate was chaired by Christopher Whitehead, Head of Chemistry School at the University. Post-debate discussion was moderated by Peter S Williams, Philosopher in Residence at the Damaris Trust, UK.

Dr. William Lane Craig:

William Lane Craig (born August 23, 1949) is an American analytic philosopher, philosophical theologian, and Christian apologist. He is known for his work on the philosophy of time and the philosophy of religion, specifically the existence of God and the defense of Christian theism. He has authored or edited over 30 books including The Kalam Cosmological Argument (1979), Theism, Atheism and Big Bang Cosmology(co-authored with Quentin Smith, 1993), Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time (2001), and Einstein, Relativity and Absolute Simultaneity (co-edited with Quentin Smith, 2007).

Craig received a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications from Wheaton College, Illinois, in 1971 and two summa cum laudemaster’s degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, in 1975, in philosophy of religion and ecclesiastical history. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy under John Hick at the University of Birmingham, England in 1977 and a Th.D. underWolfhart Pannenberg at the University of Munich in 1984.

Dr. Peter Atkins:

Peter William Atkins (born 10 August 1940) is a British chemist and former Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Lincoln College. He is a prolific writer of popular chemistry textbooks, including Physical ChemistryInorganic Chemistry, and Molecular Quantum Mechanics. Atkins is also the author of a number of science books for the general public, including Atkins’ Molecules and Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science.

Atkins studied chemistry at the University of Leicester, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and – in 1964 – a PhD for research into electron spin resonance spectroscopy, and other aspects of theoretical chemistry. Atkins then took a postdoctoral position at the UCLA as aHarkness Fellow of the Commonwealth fund. He returned to Oxford in 1965 as fellow and tutor of Lincoln College, and lecturer in physical chemistry (later, professor of physical chemistry).

You can get the audio of the debate here, along with links to their previous debate from 1998. This debate is accessible and understandable to novice-level Christians.

I am happy when debates like this come out. I have friends who are Christians who doubt the importance of apologetics in evangelism, because they don’t think that apologists can prove anything or win arguments. I have friends who are skeptical of using arguments that assume a 14-billion year old universe, because they think that the Big Bang is compatible with atheism (!). I have friends who think that philosophical arguments have no persuasive force. I have friends who think that nothing can be proven from history, beyond a reasonable doubt. I have co-workers who ask me whether anyone wins these debates. I think that this debate answers all of those questions.

This debate clearly shows why Christians should not shy away from studying science, philosophy and history. We will not discover anything that harms Christian theism by thinking logically and by looking at the evidence. To the contrary, it is the atheist who makes war on the progress of science, and who is forced to resist the clear experimental evidence, and to resort to baseless speculations and blind faith. If you want to see a good debate with an intelligent atheist, I recommend watching the debate between William Lane Craig and Peter Millican instead. But if you want to see a really, really overwhelming defeat for atheism, watch this debate. It is very clear at the end of this debate why Richard Dawkins refused to debate William Lane Craig at Oxford.

SUMMARY OF THE OPENING SPEECHES

I only had time to summarize the first two speeches. Keep in mind that Dr. Craig always shines in his rebuttals, and this debate is no different. So you’ll want to watch those rebuttals. Dr. Atkins literally says in this debate in his first rebuttal “There was nothing here originally. There is nothing here now. But it is an interesting form of nothing which seems to be something.” And the audience laughs nervously. This debate is like that. You will see a clear winner and clear loser in this debate. This fight is decided by knockout.

William Lane Craig opening speech:

1. the origin of the universe
2. the moral argument
3. the resurrection of Jesus

Peter Atkins opening speech:

1. Dr. Craig is stupid, lazy and evil:
– Dr. Craig’s arguments are old: from the 11th century! Old arguments can’t be true
– Dr. Craig is just asserting that “God did it” because he is lazy
– Dr. Craig feels pressured to agree with the theistic majority
– Dr. Craig needs a psychological crutch to comfort him
– Dr. Craig is fearful of death
– Dr. Craig is just wishing for an eternal life of bliss
– Dr. Craig is driven by his heart, and not by his head

2. Origin of the universe:
– Maybe the universe is eternal and has no beginning – we don’t know
– Maybe mommy universes can give birth to daughter universes
– It is naive to think that a cause is needed to cause the creation of the universe from nothing
– Science is just about to show how it is possible that something appears out of nothing without cause
– Some scientists have already begun to speculate about about how something can come into being out of nothing
– Maybe nothing is not really nothing, but it is actually something
– It would be admitting defeat to say that God created the universe out of nothing

3. Fine-Tuning:
– It could be the case that the fundamental constants are not variable
– It could be the case that the fine-tuning of the cosmic constants is a happy accident
– It could be the case that there are billions of billions of unobservable universes that are not fine tuned
– It could be the case that the cosmic constants in these billions and billions of unobservable universes are all random so that some are fine-tuned
– Anyone who infers that an intelligence is the best explanation of a finely-tuned set of life-permitting cosmic constants is lazy

4. Purpose:
– Philosophers and theologians are stupid
– I don’t think that there is purpose in the universe
– I think that the universe is more grand if there is no purpose, so there is no purpose

5. Miracles:
– I don’t think that miracles happen
– The resurrection is a fabrication
– It could be the case that Jesus didn’t exist
– It could be the case that Jesus wasn’t really crucified
– It could be the case that Jesus didn’t  really die after being crucified
– It could be the case that the disciples stole his body
– It could be the case that the women went to the wrong hole in the ground
– the gospels are political propaganda written long after the events they are reporting on

6. Theodicy:
– God has no morally sufficient reason for allowing humans to perform actions that result in suffering
– God has no morally sufficient reason for allowing nature to cause suffering

7. Morality:
–  customs and conventions emerges arbitrarily in different times and places based on an awareness of the consequences of actions, as well as various anecdotes and experiences
–  these customs and conventions are decided based on the goal for survival, in much the same way as politeness and manners emerge for decorum and to avoid offense
– it is childish to presume that there is an umpire God who decides moral values and duties

8. Religious believers are stupid, lazy and evil:
– the notion of God has arisen because people are stupid and want to be comforted
– there are no arguments or evidences for belief in God
– people who believe in God do not think, but instead take refuge in incomprehensible nonsense

Did the city of Nazareth exist at the time of the birth of Jesus?

Israeli archaeologist Yardena Alexandre inspects Roman 1st-century pottery found from the city of Nazareth.
Israeli archaeologist Yardena Alexandre inspects Roman 1st-century pottery found from the city of Nazareth.

A while back, I was discussing a recent debate that a friend attended between an atheist musician named Dan Barker and a Christian with a doctorate in New Testament Studies named Justin Bass.

According to my friend’s report, the atheist questioned the existence of Nazareth, and then went on from there to assert that everything we know about Jesus is legendary.

This is what the atheist’s argument sounds like:

  1. If the New Testament contains reliable history about Jesus, then Nazareth must exist.
  2. Nazareth does not exist.
  3. Therefore, the New Testaments does not contain reliable history about Jesus. (M.T. 1,2)

I was able to find a web site where an atheist was making the claim that Nazareth did not exist at the time of Jesus. So this is not completely outside the realm of mainstream atheism. I doubled checked with two more people who attended the debate that Barker indeed made an argument like the one above.

Two things to say about this 3-step argument. First off, when speaking to atheists, Christians only care about making a case for the resurrection. This is for two reasons. One, our goal is to disprove atheism, and the historical argument for the resurrection is the most evidenced miracle claim in the New Testament. Nazareth is not part of that core of minimal facts about the resurrection of Jesus. Second, it’s possible to be a Christian by accepting a core of Christian dogma (e.g. – the Apostle’s Creed), while remaining agnostic or even skeptical of other things in the Bible. Nazareth is not part of that core of minimal facts that must be affirmed in order to become a Christian.

The problem I have with atheists is that they pick and choose from the Bible according to their own agenda. Every Christian has read basic books on the resurrection by people like Lee Strobel, Michael Licona, William Lane Craig, J. Warner Wallace and so on. This is like table stakes for living a Christian life. We all know how to make a case based off of minimal facts for the resurrection. When Christians get into debates about Jesus, we want to make a case for the core of historical knowledge about him, minimal facts that almost no one disagrees with. But many atheists aren’t like that. They want to pick and choose a few verses out of the Old Testament and the New Testament that they personally find distasteful to them, and then deny the minimal facts about Jesus on that basis. I don’t think that it makes sense to deny evidence for widely-accepted facts by bringing up minor problems that are irrelevant to the well-attested core facts.

But it’s worse than that – we actually DO know that Nazareth existed, and we know it not from some fundamentalist preacher, but from atheist Bart Ehrman.

Ehrman writes in his book:

One supposedly legendary feature of the Gospels commonly discussed by mythicists is that the alleged hometown of Jesus, Nazareth did not exist but is itself a myth. The logic of this argument, which is sometimes advanced with considerable vehemence and force, appears to be that if Christians made up Jesus’ hometown, they probably made him up as well.  I could dispose of this argument fairly easily by pointing out that it is irrelevant.  If Jesus existed, as the evidence suggests, but Nazareth did not, as this assertion claims, then he merely came from somewhere else.  Whether Barack Obama was born in the U.S. or not (for what it is worth, he was) is irrelevant to the question of whether he was born.

Since, however, this argument is so widely favored among mythicists, I want to give it a further look and deeper exploration.  The most recent critic to dispute the existence of Nazareth is René Salm, who has devoted an entire book to the question, called The Myth of Nazareth.  Salm sees this issue as highly significant and relevant to the question of the historicity of Jesus: “Upon that determination [i.e., the existence of Nazareth] depends a great deal, perhaps even the entire edifice of Christendom.”

So that seems like a fair representation of the argument I outlined above.

Bart’s response is long, but here’s part of it:

There are numerous compelling pieces of archaeological evidence that in fact Nazareth did exist in Jesus’ day, and that like other villages and towns in that part of Galilee, it was built on the hillside, near where the later rock-cut kokh tombs were built.  For one thing, archaeologists have excavated a farm connected with the village, and it dates to the time of Jesus.  Salm disputes the finding of the archaeologists who did the excavation (it needs to be remembered, he himself is not an archaeologist but is simply basing his views on what the real archaeologists – all of whom disagree with him — have to say).  For one thing, when archaeologist Yardena Alexandre indicated that 165 coins were found in this excavation, she specified in the report that some of them were late, from the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries.  This suits Salm’s purposes just fine.  But as it turns out, there were among the coins some that date to the Hellenistic, Hasmonean, and early Roman period, that is, the days of Jesus.  Salm objected that this was not in Alexandre’s report, but Alexandre has verbally confirmed (to me personally) that in fact it is the case: there were coins in the collection that date to the time prior to the Jewish uprising.

Aalm also claims that the pottery found on the site that is dated to the time of Jesus is not really from this period, even though he is not an expert on pottery.  Two archaeologists who reply to Salm’s protestations say the following:  “Salm’s personal evaluation of the pottery … reveals his lack of expertise in the area as well as his lack of serious research in the sources.”  They go on to state: “By ignoring or dismissing solid ceramic, numismatic [that is, coins], and literary evidence for Nazareth’s existence during the Late Hellenisitic and Early Roman period, it would appear that the analysis which René Salm includes in his review, and his recent book must, in itself, be relegated to the realm of ‘myth.’”

Read Bart’s whole excerpt from his book in his post.

I did a quick double check on the archaeologist Ehrman mentioned, and found an Associated Press story about another archaelogical discovery made by archaeologists in Nazareth. This time, it’s not the coins, but pottery fragments. The date range on the pottery is 100 before Jesus’ birth to 100 years after Jesus’ birth.

Even though Ehrman is an atheist, I think that he understands how to do history. You can’t be a credentialed historian and throw out the early proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection because of doubts about Old Testament violence. You can’t be a credentialed historian and throw out the conversions of Paul and James because you don’t know whether there was one angel or two angels at the empty tomb. Denying the core facts about Jesus by bringing up concerns about peripheral issues is not a responsible way to investigate the historical Jesus.