Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Were the Gospel Accounts Myth?

The challenges that the Apostles were deluded or lying are not very probable given the consistent accounts of the Apostles and their willingness to stick to it through hardship and death.  Because of this, another theory arose, which says that the Apostles never claimed to have encountered Jesus literally resurrected, but instead the symbolic words they intended were transformed over time into mythical accounts where miracles were "added."

Again, for such a theory to be considered credible, we need to look into what sort of evidence is available to prove such a thing.  Without proof, this is an opinion based on nothing but the assumption that miracles could not happen.

I've dealt with this a little in a past article, but the time has come to look at the matter in more depth.

The Basic Charge and what it needs to establish

The general assumption is that the Apostles did not teach what the Christian faith teaches today, but over time the Church became overly literal with things which were meant to be merely analogy or spiritual.

Supporters of this idea will argue that certain religions (Islam, Buddhism) have accounts which arose later which are alien to the actual teachings of the religious founders.  Islam, for example, teaches that the only miracle was the Koran.  Later stories of Mohammed flying to the Moon on a horse are considered additions.  They cannot be established as being around during the time of Mohammed, and only arose later.

From this, some argue that the accounts of miracles and the resurrection of Jesus were not original, but instead added later.

What this theory needs to establish is the existence of actual accounts sans miracles, claims of Jesus to be God and so on.  Since it is generally not disputed that the person of Jesus existed [generally, the dispute is over whether He was God, not whether He existed], for there to be a myth, there needs to be something for the myth to be based on.  We know of the life of Mohammed without miracles.  Do we also know of the life of Jesus apart from the miracles told about Him?

Biblical Criticism is a good tool, but it is only as effective as the one using it

Biblical criticism can be quite useful to understand the context of what was said and done.  However it is a tool, and if one uses a tool improperly, the results will be poor.  So if someone comes to the Bible with pre-conceived notions of what can and cannot be possible before looking at the texts, those pre-conceived notions will affect what the person using the tool will see.

I bring this up because some people invoke "Biblical Criticism" claiming they disprove the accounts of miracles, when in fact what we have are people who do not believe miracles can happen believing they can be added later.

Looking at some objections to the "Myth" theory

For those who want to argue that the accounts of Jesus we know of are in fact myth which was tacked on to what really happened, certain objections need to be met in order to establish this theory.

1) The accounts of the Gospels are not in the style of myth.  We have the events tied to real places and real times.  There are no anachronisms.  The people behave as First Century AD Jews, not as Third Century pagans or philosophers.  We see details that an eyewitness could have noticed but not necessarily understood (Jesus writing in the sand in John 8:6 for example).  We see references to witnesses.  The Feeding of the 5000 is often derided as sexist for the line "besides women and children" in Matthew 14:21.  Such a view shows a lack of understanding of the law of the times, where a woman or a child could not be a legal witness to a thing.  So Matthew 14:21 is saying in effect Thousands of people saw this, and 5000 of them were legal witnesses.

Actual apocryphal gospels show us what a mythical version of Jesus is like.  The child Jesus creating real birds out of clay, getting angry at a playmate and killing him, bringing another child back to life to say who really killed him when the child Jesus stood accused.  We see frivolous actions in these apocryphal gospels.  In contrast, the real gospels show miracles worked as confirming the authority He had to teach.  They had a very real purpose, done to meet real needs.

2) The time required for myth to develop from real events is longer than the time the accounts we have first appeared.  Those who deny that the accounts we have were original try to claim that the Gospels were written in the second century AD.  The problem is, accounts which reference the Gospels indicate they were written in the first century.  Legendary accounts of Buddha or Mohammed come from generations after Buddha and Mohammed died.  Accounts of miracles existed with Jesus in the first century when those who knew Jesus were still alive.

The Epistles of Paul were undeniably written within 30 years of the death of Jesus, and they are referenced by early Christian writers which confirm them from the first century.

We need to remember that while in modern times people challenge the accuracy of Scripture because "it is so old."  However, reading the Christian defense of the faith in the times of the Pagan Roman Empire shows they had to answer a different charge — that it couldn't be true because "it was so new."

[These are both fallacies by the way.  To reject an idea because it is old or because it is new has no bearing on whether it is true.]

The claims of the "myth added later" requires a two level structure:

  1. The so-called "Historical" Jesus who lived and taught but did not, claim divinity, perform miracles or rise from the dead.
  2. The so-called "Mythical" accounts we have in Scripture today.

The problem is, we have no evidence of the existence of the first layer.  Instead we have individuals who seek to remove the miracles, claims of divinity and resurrection and claim this was the "first layer."  All we do have are the accounts of Scripture which existed from the first century.

This presupposes "Miracles can't happen" however, which requires proof, and cannot merely be assumed to be true.

St. Augustine made an excellent point about this sort of objection, saying:

[A]t this time the words of one Helpidius, speaking and disputing face to face against the said Manichaeans, had begun to move me even at Carthage, in that he brought forth things from the Scriptures not easily withstood, to which their answer appeared to me feeble. And this answer they did not give forth publicly, but only to us in private,—when they said that the writings of the New Testament had been tampered with by I know not whom, who were desirous of ingrafting the Jewish law upon the Christian faith; but they themselves did not bring forward any uncorrupted copies. (Confessions.  Book V, Chapter XI Section 21. Emphasis added)

3) The Gospel Accounts do not omit details embarrassing to the Apostles or the Faith.  The first who saw the open tomb were not the Apostles, but women.  In first century Judea (and the Roman empire) women were not considered to be reliable witnesses and could not testify in a court of law.  A mythical account would doubtlessly be reluctant to open itself to such a charge as some could argue that the fact meant the account was not reliable.  Jesus rebuked Peter.  If the accounts we have were a myth, why was this not downplayed?  The Apostles were not triumphantly waiting for Jesus to rise again.  They were in hiding, thinking that Jesus had failed.  They ran away.  If the accounts of Scripture we have were "mythologized" then why do we see such failings so prominently displayed?

Because of this, we are faced with two choices.  if it is not a true account, it must be a lie… which brings us back to the problems of deception.  The Apostles specifically reject a mythic interpretation (2 Peter 1:16-19), insisting the accounts they have given are what they were eyewitnesses to:

16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” 18 we heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.

If someone wants to claim that another wrote this in the name of Peter, but Peter did not teach this, we again have the problem of deception, because this account plainly says they were eyewitnesses.

The Significance of these Objections

The significance of these objections demonstrates problems with the theory of myth which assumes that the miraculous could not have been original, and is in fact a lack of belief that the seems to be the motivation for the theory to begin with.

The problem is, if mythical interpretation is to be considered as a credible theory, we need to explain how the so-called "myths" arose so quickly and so consistently across the Roman Empire, instead of being localized to one area and disputed in others.  Greek mythology, for example, has many different variants of the same story where central elements of the story vary widely depending on the story.  Athens, for example, tended to deny or downplay elements about Athena which other regions.  (See Robert Graves' The Greek Myths for examples of these sorts of discrepancies).

In comparison, the Gospels do not have these sorts of contradictions.  We do not see a case where one account says "Jesus did X" and another where it says "Jesus did NOT do X."  Instead we see one account saying "Jesus did X", a second saying "Jesus did X and Y" and a third not commenting on it at all.  These are not contradictions, but rather differences which can be explained by different people having different impressions of the same event.

We don't see one copy of a gospel found in one area of the Roman Empire saying one thing, and another copy found on the opposite side of the empire saying something contradictory.  With the exception of certain copyist errors and glosses, we find a consistency which is remarkable in an age with no instantaneous transfer as we have today.

This anticipates the so-called "Telephone Game" theory which claims that passing on information from one to another will lead to a distorted message.  How can such a theory account for the consistent records which we do have?

Conclusion: Parvus error in initio magnus erit in fine

Again, as with the previous theories, we see a theory which is not a conclusion based on the gathering of evidence, but is instead the reading of evidence based on a conclusion already drawn of what must have happened to begin with.  Because miracles are assumed to be impossible, the reasoning is that there must be another explanation for the accounts.

However, if the assumption is wrong, the conclusions will doubtlessly be in error as well.  As St. Thomas Aquinas put it, "Parvus error in initio magnus erit in fine" (“Small error in the beginning; large [error] will be in the end”).

The way to avoid this is to eliminate preconceived notions and actually study Scripture and Christian teaching to see what was said, and look examine the reliability of the sources without deciding in advance that whatever does not fit our views must have been "added later."

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