April 20, 2011

Secular Science Analyzes Jesus

In a classic religion-vs-science confrontation, Live Science took on the question, “Jesus Christ the Man: Does the Physical Evidence Hold Up?” The answer may say more about science than about Jesus.

To begin with, reporter Natalie Wolchover drew distinctions between scientific evidence and belief – as if scientific evidence requires no belief or assumption or interpretation. She says the belief of Christians in Jesus’ life comes from “textual evidence in the Bible” – betraying first of all a bias that textual evidence is less credible than scientific evidence. Her headline also implies that evidence must be physical. This rules out logical and textual evidence and eyewitness testimony. It also begs questions about whether other beliefs accepted by scientists are based on physical evidence alone.

Wolchover spent a moment on a red herring about Simcha Jacobovici (“The Naked Archaeologist” from the History Channel) and his latest documentary about two crooked nails he claims are tied to the crucifixion. Many scholars consider this little more than a publicity stunt (see here). From there, Wolchover debunked various other controversial relic stories, including the lead plates recently announced from Jordan (see here). But dubious archaeological claims, frauds and forgeries have little to do with the question of whether Jesus really lived.

After dispensing with relics, Wolchover turned her science scanner on texts. The Dead Sea scrolls are not much help, she claimed, because the “Teacher of Righteousness” mentioned in some scrolls could be anybody.

Regarding the Biblical text, she seemed to indicate that non-canonical gospels have equal bearing with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John on the history of Jesus: “There are still other Gospels,” she said, without naming them, “never canonized but written by near-contemporaries of Jesus all the same.” She did not mention that the Gospel of Judas was written much later by Gnostics, and that the Gospel of Thomas and others have long been considered spurious by early church fathers who lived closest in time to the writing of those documents. Nor did she explore the church fathers’ criteria for authenticity, the social dynamics of heretics and cults who might have reasons to write spurious accounts, nor the science of textual analysis, concerned with the authenticity of texts.

All the same, she drew a middle ground on the historicity of Jesus, quoting Marcus Borg, a secular scholar at Oregon State: “We do know some things about the historical Jesus – less than some Christians think, but more than some skeptics think.” That judgment, though, rests on what documents one takes as credible. Borg did not question the fact that Jesus lived, but from the textual evidence, presented a synopsis of Jesus’ life sanitized of the miraculous. Acknowledging that “More healing stories are told about Jesus than about any other figure in the Jewish tradition,” he proceeded to the crux of the story - the cross and resurrection:

He was executed by Roman imperial authority, and his followers experienced him after his death. It is clear, Borg said, that they had visions of Jesus as they had known him during his historical life. Only after his death did they declare Jesus to be “lord” or “the son of God.”

To make such claims, Borg (and Wolchover, the reporter) had to rule out of court the eyewitness testimony of Thomas, the doubter, who reached into the wounds of the risen Jesus (John 20:24-27), of John, who said their hands touched Him (I John 1:1-4), and of all the disciples who saw him eat and drink in their presence (Luke 24, John 21), and the 500 who saw him at one time (I Cor 15:1-11), most of whom were still alive when the testimony was written.

Moreover, to deny the resurrection, they would have to completely discount the life testimony of the Apostle Paul (I Corinthians 15, written at most 25 years after the crucifixion), the fact that Paul had been a hostile witness (I Timothy 1:12-16), yet spread his testimony of the risen Christ throughout the Middle East and Europe, finally being martyred without flinching from his testimony.

They would have to deny that Matthew, Mark, Peter, John (1 John 1:1-10), James and possibly the writer of Hebrews were also eyewitnesses of Jesus and the resurrection, and that the New Testament authors, including Luke (Luke 1:1-4, Acts 1:1-3), Peter (2 Peter 3:16-21), John (I John 4:1-6), Paul (2 Timothy 3) all advocated telling the truth, each of them staunchly opposing myths and fact-free speculations (I Timothy 4:1-4).

Furthermore, they would have to ignore the fact that all the apostles (except possibly John), who claimed they had seen the resurrected Christ, died martyr’s deaths without recanting. Plus, they would have to explain the explosive growth of the early Church in a time of persecution, when all the enemies of the new faith would have to do to squelch it was produce the body of Jesus and parade it down the streets of Jerusalem. Furthermore, Wolchover and Borg had to dismiss a priori the possibility of predictive prophecy (Isaiah 53, Luke 24, esp. vv. 25-26).

No philosopher of science would affirm that the opinions of Borg and Wolchover were dictated to them by the scientific evidence itself. Their knowledge of Christianity too seems limited to fringe and controversial claims that can be easily dismissed. Clearly a different set of authorities would produce different conclusions. The question of what constitutes evidence is a philosophical question about science, not a statement by science. Invariably, one must consider the biases that fallible human beings bring to a question.