The Case for Christ: The Movie: The Critique – Part 2

First, a recap. Lee Strobel makes a thin case for the gospels being eyewitness accounts of Christ's ministry, apparently oblivious to scriptures where Jesus is alone (yet we're told every word of prayer) and mountains of modern research that shows eyewitness testimony to be horribly unreliable anyway. Strobel spends twenty minutes explaining how great eyewitness testimony is and how meticulous the oral tradition is. Then, when presented with a litany of contradictions between the gospels, basically just says, Oh, well, you'd expect that. Huh? So, eyewitness accounts are reliable, but not that reliable. Oral tradition is meticulous, but not that meticulous. What is the independent criteria for objectively determining an acceptable level of disagreement between the gospels? Sorry, it's trick question – there is none. They just baldly assert that the gospels have just the right amount of disagreement; any more or less would be bad. Any fool can smell the circular reasoning a mile away

This actually illustrates perfectly why I have a hard time finishing apologetics books. As is usually the case, everything that we're going to hear next will build on this initial argument. Later, for example, they'll argue the case for the resurrection. But it's only worth taking seriously if you already accept that the gospels are highly accurate historical accounts of real events, and Strobel's crew has done a piss-poor job of making their case. There's not much reason to go on, yet we will, because more fallacies await. Here's the next segment:




"That's a huge step to take to believe that." Um, yeah. Carl Sagan famously said "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Here's something to consider:

If I heard a historical account of a first-century Rabbi giving sermons and having followers in Israel, I would probably find it to be a reasonable claim. It may or may not be totally accurate or even true at all, but I know it's at least plausible because it is consistent with my knowledge of reality. It's common historical knowledge that there were lots of Rabbis around there during that time, preaching about the kinds of things Rabbis preached about.

But if someone tells me that a first century Rabbi not only preached his religion and had followers but walked on water, turned water into wine, raised the dead, and just happened to be God himself in a logic-bending case of a god being his own son, well... those are quite a bit more far-fetched claims. I know that many people, including many people in my lifetime, have claimed (by themselves and by their followers) to be miracle healers (such as Benny Hinn or Sathya Sai Baba), liaisons between the living and dead (John Edward), prophets, seers, sages, and all other manner of magical and mystical things. What plausible reason might I have to give Biblical claims any more credence than I do these people? This is especially a poignant question because while people like Benny Hinn and Sathya Sai Baba live in our modern, scientifically enlightened world, people in the first century had no such enlightenment. If modern people can be duped so easily, why should I believe that people of 2,000 years were somehow immune to such delusions? This is particularly relevant when one realizes that the gospels are not contemporaneous, but rather written decades after Jesus purportedly lived.

Similarly, when we look at historical figures like, say, George Washington, we are simply accepting what we have as the best evidence. It could be wrong, or inaccurate in parts. But if new evidence emerges to cause us to doubt certain claims made by or about George Washington, we can examine it critically on its own merits. We don't take our historical knowledge of George Washington to be absolute, infallible truth.

Christianity, however, makes just such a claim with regard to the historicity of Christ and the legitimacy of the Biblical accounts. Even if some more liberal Christians may accept that there may be historically inaccurate pieces here and there, most of the fundamental claims — that Jesus was born of a virgin, performed miracles, died on a cross, rose from the dead, and ascended to heaven — are absolute pillars of the faith. Christians are expected to accept that these mystical claims are absolutely and infallibly true. Christians could not imagine altering such major parts of the story, even if the evidence was overwhelming, because to do so would be to dismantle the pillars of the faith itself.

And then there's the whole prophecy thing. Nobody can "disprove" that these were actual prophecies. But fortunately for us skeptics, we don't have to. All we have to do is give some plausible alternatives, and even if we can't absolutely prove these alternatives are true, we can win on parsimony simply by positing alternatives that do not require us to entertain all manner of supernatural beliefs.

So, here it is: when the gospels were being written, the authors combed the available scriptures and either took them out of context, or altered the gospel story to fit them. This would explain not only some of the contradictions between the gospels, but it would also explain why some of the "fulfilled prophecies" just don't seem to make any damn sense. For example, there's the famous virgin-birth prophecy from Isaiah chapter 7. From an article at Infidels.org:
Most other so-called prophecy fulfillments of the New Testament cannot survive contextual analysis any better than those just noted. Upon examination, they show flaws so obvious that only the very credulous can accept the tenuous claims that they are fulfillments of prophecy, yet some of them are widely considered remarkable examples of divine foresight. Possibly the best example of these is Matthew 1:23 where it was claimed that an angel's announcement to Joseph that his betrothed wife Mary would give birth to a child conceived by the Holy Spirit was done to fulfill a prophecy spoken by Isaiah: "Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call his name Immanuel." In the original context, however, Isaiah made this statement as a sign to Ahaz, king of Judah, that an alliance recently formed against him by Rezin, the king of Syria, and Pekah, the king of Israel, would not succeed in defeating him. The Lord (Yahweh), as he was prone to do in those days, had sent Isaiah to reassure Ahaz that the alliance would not prevail. Isaiah begged Ahaz to ask for a sign that his prophecy was true. Finally, Isaiah said to him, "Hear now, O house of David! Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will you weary my God also? Therefore Yahweh Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call his name Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:13-14). Hence, the context clearly shows that this so-called prophecy was made not to foretell the birth of Jesus some 700 years later but the birth of a child to that time and that situation. How could a birth that would happen 700 years later, after Ahaz was dead and the battles had long since been fought, have been a sign to him that the Syrian-Israelite alliance would fail? The premise is too absurd even to contemplate.
So once we take into account the context of the "prophetic" scriptures, acknowledge the missing ones (mainly in Matthew), and allow for the perfectly plausible scenario that the gospel stories were molded to fit the scriptures and/or scriptures were taken out of context to fit the story, there is absolutely nothing that demands actual prophecy as the only plausible explanation, or even the most plausible.


In part 3, I tackle the resurrection.

Comments

  1. I'm enjoying this a lot. Looking forward to part 3!

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  2. ---

    Another big sign that the prophecy was molded to fit Matthew's Gospel is that Matthew changes the pronoun at the end of the prophecy from "SHE will call his name Immanuel" to "THEY will call his name Immanuel". Matthew purposely changed the prophecy because Mary (she) never named him Immanuel, and by the time Matthew wrote his gospel, the name Jesus was widely associated with the Messiah, so Matthew HAD to change the pronoun to make the prophecy fit.

    There may be some harsh verses in the Bible about changing the words of the Lord, no?

    By the way, youtuber "ProfMTH" has some great videos on fallacious Bible prophecies and other general Biblical discrepancies.

    Thanks for the series, MIke.

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