Posts Tagged ‘jesus and the eyewitnesses’

Lewis Wolpert and Russell Cowburn debate “Can science tell us anything about God?”


manicstreetpreacher analyses a debate between two scientists at opposite ends of the spectrum of religious belief.

I have listened to the 19 December 2009 edition of Premier Christian Radio’s sceptical debate programme Unbelievable? featuring atheistic embryologist Lewis Wolpert of University College London, author of Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief and theistic physicist Russell Cowburn of Imperial College London on their recent debate “Can science tell us anything about God” held at Gunnersbury Baptist Church on 8 November 2009, as well as the audio of the full debate from the Gunnersbury website.

UPDATE 08/01/2009

I have found a video of the full debate:

Wolpert’s main line of attack is there is absolutely no evidence for God and he doesn’t seem to have done very much since raising Jesus from the dead over two millennia ago.  I have to agree with him here: people get all choked up every time a baby falls out of a window and is saved by the soft roof of a passing car – they remain oddly silent at all the ditches that are full of dead babies when no one did a thing.  I thought that Cowburn’s objections that Wolpert and the rest of the world’s non-believers ought to believe what was written down 2,000 years ago and it is irrational and unreasonable to expect God to appear in to each and every one of us were very weak.

As Thomas Paine argued in The Age of Reason (First Part, Section 1 – 2), we are perfectly entitled to reject Moses’ account of meeting God atop of Mount Sinai (if such a place even exists; no geographer has ever been able to identify the biblical Sinai from the true geographical location!) then I am perfectly entitled to reject his account, because to me it is hearsay and not direct revelation:

No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication, if he pleases.  But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only.  When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons.  It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it.

It is a contradiction in terms and ideas, to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing.  Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication – after this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.

When Moses told the children of Israel that he received the two tables of the commandments from the hands of God, they were not obliged to believe him, because they had no other authority for it than his telling them so; and I have no other authority for it than some historian telling me so.  The commandments carry no internal evidence of divinity with them; they contain some good moral precepts, such as any man qualified to be a lawgiver, or a legislator, could produce himself, without having recourse to supernatural intervention.

When I am told that the Koran was written in Heaven and brought to Mahomet by an angel, the account comes too near the same kind of hearsay evidence and second-hand authority as the former.  I did not see the angel myself, and, therefore, I have a right not to believe it.

Cowburn should also read my disgracefully unscholarly piece about Richard Bauckham’s erm, “arguments” in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses for my full thoughts.  That quote at the end from Sam Harris about how the evidence for Christianity would still not be good enough even if we had multiple contemporary eyewitness accounts empties all “scholarly” discourses about the reliability of oral tradition from direct observers and who-first-started-to-believe-what-when.

Of course, the atheist will always complain about the hiddenness of God.  Why can’t God just reveal himself in the middle of the World Cup final when most of the humans on the planet will be watching and put the matter beyond doubt rather than appearing to stupefied illiterates in remote parts of Middle East in the pre-scientific past?  If you can’t believe what you read last week in The Sunday Times, then fail to understand Cowburn’s scepticism when confronted with a collection of disjointed and contradictory documents from the ancient past.

And I’m still waiting for a convincing response to Christopher Hitchens’ 94,000 – 98,000 Year Wait Gambit as to the Almighty being rather tardy and allowing of a great deal of suffering and death before finally deciding to step in with an offer of salvation:

Perhaps Cowburn can now supply it.

Finally, I would recommend that Cowburn investigates the work of Victor Stenger, American cosmologist, atheist and author of Has Science Found God? and God, The Failed Hypothesis who debunks the idea that “whatever begins to exist has a cause” as the kind of common sense logic that tells us that the Earth is flat.  Particles produced by nuclear decay come into existence without a cause.  The universe was like a subatomic particle at the time of the Big Bang, so this example could well apply to the beginning of the universe.

Stenger also debunks the fine-tuning argument that carbon-based life in the universe cannot have come about naturally because it was too “improbable”.  Firstly, virtually all every day events are “improbable” when you state them a priori and then crunch the numbers, such as a person’s very existence in this world.  And secondly, what is the probability that this universe is the result of a divine design?  It could be even lower than the naturalistic alternative.  What data do we have in order to make the calculation?  Not very much, it would appear.

I have recently posted my own analysis of Stenger’s debate against William Lane Craig at the University of Hawaii in 2003, as well as the transcript of Stenger’s three main speeches, which provides further comment and elaboration.

UPDATE: 26/12/2009

I emailed this piece to Lewis Wolpert and Russell Cowburn for their comments.  “Lewy” replied saying that he liked the piece and hoped that I liked his theory about the origins of human religious behaviour.  I realise now that the piece neglects somewhat Lewis’ book on religion!  Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast is less a polemic against the untruths of and crimes of religious faith, but an explanation of why Homo sapiens practise religion if there is no God.  I replied to Lewis that such theories come ten-a-penny, but his is as good as some and better than most.

Essentially, Lewis thinks that religious behaviour is an extension of humans’ interpretation of “cause and effect”, such as shaking a tree to make its fruit fall off and using tools to make other objects.  The offshoot of this is that we see agency and patterns in practically everything, even whether no such invisible guiding hand (i.e. God!) exists.  Lewis says that animals show the seeds of this behaviour to a very limited extent.  They know that shaking a tree will get the fruit down, but aren’t intelligent enough to use tools.

However, a few days after posting my original piece I came across this article on the BBC News website which says that certain groups of chimpanzees in the Nimba Mountains of Guinea, Africa, are now using both stone and wooden cleavers, as well as stone anvils, to process Treculia fruits:

The apes are not simply cracking into the Treculia to get to otherwise unobtainable food, say researchers.

Instead, they are actively chopping up the food into more manageable portions.

I emailed the article to Lewis, saying that they’ll be worshipping the sun and sacrificing their cubs to ensure it rises every morning in no time!  Lewis replied that the chimps are beginning to learn how to use tools, but it is very limited.  Perhaps there won’t be any Blessed Virgin Marys and weeping statutes for a while after all.

For more on the evolution of religious faith, I would strongly recommend watching or listening to J Anderson “Andy” Thomson’s superb lecture at the American Atheists 2009 conference and Thomson and R Elizabeth Cornwell’s paper, “The Evolution of Religion”.

Finally, I have often been asked what evidence that I as an atheist would accept for the existence of God.  Up until now, I have jumped in with both feet and then made a bit of a fool of myself.  This is partly due to theists always being able to re-invent their God to conform to the empirical data and then accusing me of merely citing reasons not to believe in God.

However, I thought that Lewis’ example of having his departed wife returned to him was a wonderfully moving example of possible evidence for the supernatural that would make a sceptic reassess his or her non-belief.  While I have not lost anyone close to me up to now in my life, I might just use that one in future when I am asked the question again.

Richard Bauckham and the Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony





manicstreetpreacher proffers his heretical, unscholarly opinion of Anglican New Testament historian, Richard Bauckham, after hearing his debate on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable?, 29 August 2009.

Richard Bauckham -v- James Crossley on the Gospels as eyewitness testimony, Part I, Unbelievable?, Premier Christian Radio, Saturday, 29 August 2009

I’ve just finished listening to the first debate between Richard Bauckham and James Crossley and found it to be the same old circular, assertive, self-opinionated and ultimately frustrating and unconvincing mode of thinking that leads me to conclude that theology and biblical scholarship are not really subjects at all.  Bauckham, author of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, committed the usual mistake of assuming that Jesus and all the other characters actually existed and the basic narrative of the Gospels is in some sense historically true and proceeding from there.

Bauckham mentioned Paul’s account of five hundred people seeing Jesus ascending in heaven (1 Corinthians 15:6), but failed to acknowledge the fact that Paul mentions very few other details about Jesus’ life and nothing was written down until the Gospel of Mark, a full 50 to 60 years after the supposed crucifixion.  As an aside, Acts 1:15 states that the number of witnesses who saw Jesus before the ascension was 120, so which account is the more accurate?   (For more in a similar vein, see Skeptics Annotated Bible: Contradictions and Self-Contradictions in the Bible by William Henry Burr.)

Bauckham also put great trust in the Gospel of Luke.   What he omits to mention is that Luke messes up his historical dates in relation to the nativity something rotten and fabricates a Roman census with the ludicrous obligation for the populous to return to the town of their ancestry to be registered in order to fulfil the prophesy that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.   As Robin Lane Fox summarises in The Unauthorized Version:

Roman censuses cared little for remote genealogies, let alone false ones: they were based on ownership of property of the living, not the dead.  As the Gospel has already stated at the time of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26), Joseph and Mary were people from Nazareth in Galilee, the home town which later rejected its prophet, Jesus.  A Roman census would not have taken Joseph to Bethlehem where he and Mary owned nothing and were therefore assumed to have needed to lodge as visitors in an inn…

The scale of the Gospel’s error is now clear.  The first census did occur under Quirinius, but it belonged in AD 6 when Herod the Great was long dead; it was a local census in Roman Judea and there was no decree for Caesar Augustus to all the world; in AD 6 Joseph of Nazareth would not have registered in Bethlehem and was exempt from Judea’s registration; his wife had no legal need to leave home.  Luke’s story is historically impossible and internally incoherent. It clashes with his own date for the Annunciation (which he places under Herod) and with Matthew’s long story of the Nativity which also presupposes Herod the Great as king.  It is, therefore, false.  (London: Penguin, 2006, p. 31)

These are very straightforward objections raised by “New Atheists” Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.  Critics chide them for relying on “unscholarly” sources, but this amounts to little more than ad hominems against bibliography as a means of avoiding answering their actual objections.

Personally, I don’t think the single man Jesus of Nazareth actually existed.  My two-pence is that the character is based on several eccentric preachers doing the rounds in 1st century Palestine, and there were no shortage of those.  Perhaps one stood out more than others, but we simply don’t have enough evidence to be certain.  As American mathematician, John Allen Paulos, points out in his superb little bastion of common sense, Irreligion, we are used to reserving judgement on events that happened within recent memory for which we have far more of contemporary documentation and living eyewitnesses to hand.  Let’s take the Watergate scandal for example: we still don’t know who ordered what and are prepared to reserve our final opinions until conclusive evidence comes to light.

The fact that the debate over the historical Jesus has been so long running and scholarly opinion so varied has to say something in itself.  I recently read Who On Earth Was Jesus? by Quaker humanist writer and former World In Action journalist, David Boulton.  I was interested to read about J P Meier’s multi-volume study of the historical Jesus, A Marginal Jew, since first time I appeared on Unbelievable?, my theologian opponent, Andy Bannister, mentioned it.

Meier’s “Criterion of Embarrassment” particularly fascinated me: the more difficulties the stories would have caused for the early church, the less likely they were fabricated.  Christians see the discovery of the empty tomb by Mary Magdalene and her girlfriends as concrete evidence for the story’s authenticity.  Since women did not have equal standing with men at that time and place as it was unlikely to have been concocted by the early church.

As is so often the case, Christopher Hitchens put a rather different spin on matters in a debate with Dinesh D’Souza at Freedom Fest 2008: “What religion that wants its fabrication to be believed is going to say, ‘You’ve got to believe it, because we have some illiterate, hysterical girls who said they saw this’?”


The following quote from Daniel Dennett’s book, Breaking The Spell, which spends all of six pages on discussing the arguments for God’s existence(!) is, in my view, the last word on assessing the truth of the Holy Scriptures:

We can begin with anthropomorphic Gods and the arguments from the presumed historical documentation, such as this: according to the Bible, which is the literal truth, God exists, has always existed, and created the universe in seven days a few thousand years ago.  The historical arguments are apparently satisfying to those who accept them, but they simply cannot be introduced into a serious investigation, since they are manifestly question begging.  (If this is not obvious to you, ask whether the Book of Mormon (1829) or the founding document of Scientology, L Ron Hubbard’s book Dianetics (1950), should be taken as irrefutable evidence for the propositions it contains.  No text can be conceded the status of “gospel truth” without foreclosing all rational enquiry.)  (London: Penguin, 2007, pp. 240 – 241)

Manifestly question begging” is the key phrase here.  The Bible, like the notion of God, raises more questions than it answers.  The most satisfying explanation is to take out Ockam’s trusty razor and consign it to the flames, along with all other sophistry and illusion as the great Mr Hume once advised.

Returning to Bauckham, I can do no better than the comments of prolific ‘net infidel Steven Carr regarding Jesus and the Eyewitnesses in response to the “scholarly” Mr Bannister:

“Have a look at Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses for example”

And laugh heartily at the arguments it presents which are ridiculous.

Apparently, the anonymous Gospel of Mark is based on the eyewitness testimony of Peter, and this is proved because Peter is the first person named in the Gospel and also the last person named in the Gospel.

What a load of trash!

Not one single ancient author ever said he used that technique of “inclusio”.

Not one ancient reader ever said he head heard of that technique.

And no ancient author ever discussed such a technique, although there were many other writing techniques discussed.

Bauckham says on page 124 that this “inclusion” technique is “hardly noticed by modern scholars.”

Which is code for “I just made it up and pulled it out my behind”.

How should we treat first-century sources like the Gospel of Mark which were anonymous, undated, have no indication of sources, have no chronology, steal plot lines from the Old Testament and have scenes of Jesus speaking to Satan in the desert?

There is absolutely nothing in the Gospel of Mark to indicate it is even intended to be history.

Indeed, the characters in it are absurd…

Mark 4:11 says that the secret of the kingdom of God has been given to the disciples.  What was this secret?  When was it given to the disciples, who seem totally ignorant of who Jesus was (Mark 4:41)?

In Mark 6:7-13 till 29-30 the disciples are sent out to preach and teach.  As the disciples did not know Jesus was the Messiah until Mark 8:30, that must have been interesting!

Surely the average Christian would fall about laughing if he read such stories in the Book of Mormon or the Koran.

Serious scholars, (and not jokes like Bauckham and his “inclusion” Bible-code techniques), have treated the Gospels just like other first-century sources.

This is why the Quest for the Historical Jesus has failed so miserably that “serious scholars” are now counting the failures (First Quest, Second Quest, Third Quest).

Treating the Gospels as ancient sources means you fail to find the Historical Jesus so totally that you can have books devoted to documenting and classifying the failures.

Following Bannister’s recommendation, I did actually purchase a copy of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. I haven’t read it in detail yet, but a quick skim through a couple of chapters made my left eyebrow virtually fly off my forehead.  If I concocted a story about the exploits of His Noodly Appendage and used the word “witnesses” a lot, challenging readers a few centuries down the line to go out and find them, would that make the story a lot more easy to swallow?

Also, Bauckham should consider Victor Stenger’s comments regarding of the reliability of eyewitness testimony in God, The Failed Hypothesis.  When DNA forensic evidence was passed as admissible in court, numerous people on death row convicted of serious crimes on the basis of eyewitness testimony alone had their convictions overturned after their cases were re-examined.  Eyewitness testimony based on reliable oral tradition?  I think not.

I will hopefully get round to reading Bauckham’s book more thoroughly, although I do not have very high hopes for it.  I’ve been doing this religious-debate thing long enough to hear all of the kinds of arguments that apologists throw at me.

Ultimately, we have a collection of disparate documents, based on third hand accounts by people who never net the man, set in the pre-scientific past, copied, re-copied, edited, altered by countless anonymous scribes with their own theological axes to grind, which portray a world that bears scant resemblance to our own.

I will listen intently to next week’s show on the reliability of the New Testament miracle accounts, but I think it too will be a foregone conclusion.  Sam Harris’ recent chastisement of theistic scientist, Francis Collins, sums up the woeful inadequacy of the Gospels’ account beautifully:

[E]ven if we had multiple, contemporaneous, first-hand accounts of the miracles of Jesus, this would still not constitute sufficient support for the central tenets of Christianity.  Indeed, first-hand accounts of miracles are extremely common, even in the 21st century.  I’ve met scores of educated men and women who are convinced that their favourite Hindu or Buddhist guru has magic powers, and many of the miracles that they describe are every bit as outlandish as those attributed to Jesus.  Stories about yogis and mystics walking on water, raising the dead, flying without the aid of technology, materialising objects, reading minds, foretelling the future are circulating right now, in communities where the average levels of education, access to information, and sceptical doubt are far higher than we would expect of first century fishermen and goatherds.

In fact, all of Jesus’ powers have been attributed to the South Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba by vast numbers of eyewitnesses who believe that he is a living god. The man even claims to have been born of a virgin.  [Christianity] is predicated on the claim that miracle stories of the sort that today surround a person like Sathya Sai Baba – and do not even merit an hour on the Discovery Channel – somehow become especially credible when set in the pre-scientific religious context of the 1st century Roman Empire, decades after their supposed occurrence, as evidenced by discrepant and fragmentary copies of copies of copies of ancient Greek manuscripts.

Does anyone else see a problem with that?