The Gospels: too embarrassing to be fiction

In a clever and soundly reasoned article, Frank Turek explains why the Gospel accounts must be true: no one seeking to spread a new religion would have made up the many embarrassing things about the disciples with which the Gospels are filled.

The Bible: Embarrassing and True (Pt. 2)
by Frank Turek

Do the New Testament documents tell the truth about what really happened in the first century? As I wrote in my last column, authors claiming to write history are unlikely to invent embarrassing details about themselves or their heroes. Since the New Testament documents are filled with embarrassing details, we can be reasonably certain that they are telling the truth.

Notice that the disciples frequently depict themselves as dimwits. They fail to understand what Jesus is saying several times, and don’t understand what his mission is about until after the resurrection. Their thick-headedness even earns their leader, Peter, the sternest rebuke from Jesus: “Get behind me Satan!” (What great press the disciples provided for their leader and first Pope! Contrary to popular opinion, it seems the church really didn’t have editorial control of the scriptures after all.)

After Jesus asks them to stay up and pray with him during his greatest hour of need, the disciples fall asleep on Jesus not once, but twice! Then, after pledging to be faithful to the end, Peter denies Christ three times, and all but one of them run away.

The scared, scattered, skeptical disciples make no effort to give Jesus a proper burial. Instead they say a member of the Jewish ruling body that sentenced Jesus to die is the noble one—Joseph of Arimathea buries Jesus in a Jewish tomb (which would have been easy for the Jews to refute if it wasn’t true). Two days later, while the men are still hiding, the women go down and discover the empty tomb and the risen Jesus.

Who wrote all that down? Men—some of the men who were characters in the story. Now if you were part of a group of men trying to pass off a false resurrection story as the truth, would you depict yourselves as dimwitted, bumbling, rebuked, lazy, skeptical sissies, who ran away at the first sign of trouble, while the women were the brave ones who discovered the empty tomb and the risen Jesus?

If men were inventing the resurrection story, it would go more like this:

Jesus came to save the world, and he needed our help. That’s why we were there for him every step of the way. When he was in need, we prayed with him. When he wept, we wept with him (and told him to toughen up!). When he fell, we carried his cross. The gates of Hell could not prevent us from seeing his mission through!

So when that turncoat Judas brought the Romans by (we always suspected Judas), and they began to nail Jesus to the cross, we laughed at them. “He’s God you idiots! The grave will never keep him! You think you’re solving a problem, but you’re really creating a much bigger one!”

While we assured the women that everything would turn out all right, they couldn’t handle the crucifixion. Squeamish and afraid, they ran to their homes screaming and hid behind locked doors.

But we men stood steadfast at the foot of the cross, praying for hours until the very end. When Jesus finally took his last breath and the Roman Centurion confessed that Jesus was God, Peter blasted him, “That’s what we told you before you nailed him up there!” (Through this whole thing, the Romans and the Jews just wouldn’t listen!)

Never doubting that Jesus would rise on the third day, Peter announced to the Centurion, “We’ll bury him and be back on Sunday. Now go tell Pilate to put some of your ‘elite’ Roman guards at the tomb to see if you can prevent him from rising from the dead!” We all laughed and began to dream about Sunday.

That Sunday morning we marched right down to the tomb and tossed those elite Roman guards aside. Then the stone (that took eleven us to roll into place) rolled away by itself. A glowing Jesus emerged from tomb, and said, “I knew you’d come! My mission is accomplished.” He praised Peter for his brave leadership and congratulated us on our great faith. Then we went home and comforted the trembling women.

There are other events in the New Testament documents concerning Jesus that are also unlikely to be made up. For example, Jesus:

  • Is considered “out of his mind” by his own family who come to seize him to take him home (Mk 3:21,31).

  • Is deserted by many of his followers after he says that followers must eat his flesh and drink his blood. (John 6:66).

  • Is not believed by his own brothers (John 7:5). (Disbelief turned to belief after the resurrection—the Jewish historian Josephus tells us that Jesus’ brother James died a martyr as the leader of the church in Jerusalem in A.D. 62).

  • Is thought to be a deceiver (John 7:12).

  • Turns off Jewish believers to the point that they want to stone him (John 8:30-59).

  • Is called a “madman” (John 10:20).

  • Is called a “drunkard” (Mt. 11:19).

  • Is called “demon-possessed” (Mk 3:22, Jn 7:20, 8:48).

  • Has his feet wiped with hair of a prostitute which easily could have been seen as a sexual advance (Lk 7:36-39).

  • Is crucified despite the fact that “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deut 21:23).

If you’re inventing a Messiah to the Jews, you don’t say such things about him. You also don’t admit that some of you “still doubted” Jesus had really risen from the dead, especially while he’s standing right in front of you giving the great commission (Mt. 28:17-19).

Finally, anyone trying to pass off a false resurrection story as the truth would never say the women were the first witnesses at the tomb. In the first century, a woman’s testimony was not considered on par with that of a man. An invented story would say that the men—the brave men—had discovered the empty tomb. Yet all four gospels say the women were the first witnesses—all this while the sissy-pants men had their doors locked for fear of the Jews. (After I made this point during a presentation, a lady told me that she knew why Jesus appeared to the women first. “Why?” I asked. She said, “Because he wanted to get the story out!”)

In light of these embarrassing details—along with the fact that the New Testament documents contain early, eyewitness testimony for which the writers gave their lives—it takes more faith to believe that the New Testament writers were not telling the truth.

- end of initial entry -

May 8

Jeff W. writes:

I record Frank Turek’s Show, “I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist” every week on my DVR. He does a very good job of arguing the case for God. I am always impressed by his hard work and enthusiasm.

The Gospel accounts give a strong impression of being actual recorded history. Ignorant atheists describe them as “myths.” But they are nothing like myths. Embarrassing facts are one aspect of it. But another aspect is that many of the stories have a quality of veracity, leaving the reader to think, “That is just how people behave.” A good example of that is the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). That Martha complained about unfair division of labor seems very believable to me.

Greeks developed an accurate style of historical writing at the time of Thucydides, whose work compares favorably with the work of most modern historians. The Gospels are much closer to a Thucydides-style historiography than they are to myths.

The Gospel writers were people who had been transformed by the Holy Spirit. After that transformation, they no longer wanted to be associated with Satan, the father of lies. They wanted nothing do with lying, in my opinion, and wrote the Gospel accounts as truthfully and accurately as they could, being very mindful of the supreme importance of preserving the teachings of Christ and the accounts of what he did.

LA replies:

On a side point, I’d like to add some qualifications to your description of the Gospels as “actual recorded history.” Yes, the Gospels are telling of the career, teachings, actions, and personality of Jesus, and in that sense are historical. Many individual scenes in the Gospel convey an immediate concreteness of factual truth. When the Pharisees in Jerusalem ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not”?, trying to trap him into a damaging answer, and he says, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s,” and everyone is stunned and silenced by his answer, there is no question (in my mind) that that encounter actually happened as it is told. When Jesus, conversing with the disciples on the Mount of Olives, points across the valley to the Temple and says that no stone of it will be left standing, internal and external evidence points convincingly to the fact that he did stand there and he did say that.

At the same time, in my view, the primary purpose of the Gospels is not to tell history, in the sense of a journalistic recounting of external events, but to convey the inner truth of the personality and teachings of Jesus and their effect on his disciples. They are not simply a record, a chronicle. The Gospel authors shape the incidents and words they recount in such a way as to bring the reader into the reality of Jesus Christ and the divine truth and authority of his teaching. And they do so in a way that ordinary human authors, operating on the level of the ordinary human mind, could not have done. So, while the Gospel account is historical, it is not only historical. It is a divine teaching, it is revelation.

Zimmer writes:

This is also the argument of the extreme skeptic Bart Ehrman. The example Ehrman points to is Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan at the hand of John. Christians believe that Jesus is greater than John. To a believer, the baptism should have gone the other way around. Each of the four Gospels has its own way of working around that problem—and they did see it as a problem.

Some of the quotes you and Turek cite are actually not embarrassing contextually. For instance the bits about Jesus being threatened with stoning, being accused of madness etc are what John Wansbrough calls (in reference to Muhammad) “Emblems of Prophethood”. While the community is mocked, the community projects its experience back to the Founder, and reassures itself that this is what happens to all those who give truths no-one wants to hear. Even in the Hebrew scriptures Jeremiah was mocked.

In that light, every commenter knows that John 6:66 is a reference to the Eucharist. John doesn’t, however, have a Last Supper in his Passion (he’s got footwashing). The skeptic would say that John has dragged this story back to chapter 6 and tagged it with one of the Emblems.

But I’ll spare you and your readers most of the nitpicking. Where the stories aren’t victims of editorial work and storytelling flair, they’re probably accurate. We are in agreement that the bit about the women being the first witnesses is likely true.

Barry W. writes:

I see you are using Frank Turek’s arguments to support your contention that Christianity must be true because it is “impossible for it to be false.” [LA replies: I don’t think I’ve ever made such an argument.] Understand what you are arguing here. I will lay it out for you:

(1) The God of the universe, (2) who loves us all, (3) and came to preach a message of Salvation to mankind, (4) appeared in his resurrected body (5) in only one tiny place in the whole of the civilized world, (6) at only one time in all of human history, (7) to a small number of people (8) almost none of whom were hostile or neutral observers, (9) and all of whom were superstitious people lacking in scientific understanding.

Why would you argue this instead of the infinitely more plausible view that the Bible is fiction and it was written the way it was written to satisfy the faith needs of a primitive people? Here are three essays (here, here, and here) refuting Frank Turek’s and Norman Geisler’s apologetic arguments. [LA replies: Thank you for the laugh. I’ve been feeling blue for the last couple of days, and your silly and arrogant argument, telling me that I should believe the obvious truth that the Bible is a fiction written for a primitive people, gives me a lift. I believe the Gospels because everything about them conveys the quality of truthfulness, and not just ordinary human truthfulness, but divine truthfulness. Jesus is the most truthful and sincere person I have ever encountered, and I believe in him and trust him for that reason. I wonder how a fictional character could seem the most truthful person in the world? I guess the creator of this fictional Jesus had to have a mind and character and divine understanding equal to that of Jesus. Sort of like, either Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays, or someone just as good.

[As for the odd particularities of the Gospel story which you mention, the truth is that God’s revelation does not come to us through universal abstractions, but through concrete particularities. That’s just the way it is. The eternal Word of God became flesh as a Jewish man living among the Jews in first century Judea, and then his teaching and belief in him spread through the world. Very strange. But why is that particularity any stranger than, say, the workings of RNA, or the fact that the inert elements (except for helium) all have eight electrons in their outer electron shell, the “law of eight” as I have called it? It’s just weird. There’s no evident reason it should be that way. It just is that way. In a 2008 thread, “More mysteries of evolution,” I was presenting a view of evolution that could explain the sheer weirdness of so many species, and then continued:

Yes, oddness, the paradoxical, would seem to be built into the fact of existence. And if oddness is inherent in the universe from the moment God created it, then the oddity that e.e. cummings pointed to in his famous verse no longer seems odd but rather is along the lines of what we should expect:

How odd
Of God
To choose
The Jews.

Everything that exists is particular. And once you have particularity, you have oddness. And since Christ was born not just in some universal generic condition, not just as anyone anywhere, but as a particular person in a particular place and time among a particular people, such an event has to be odd.]

There is a lot to read there but what is important is the logical methodology of the blog author. He puts the Turek claims on trial so to speak and conducts an analysis not dissimilar to the process of criminal proceedings. The Biblical story just does not hold up. But even deeper, it can’t.

What you are asking me to do is believe in violations in the uniformity of nature based on legends that are two thousand years old. The “too embarrassing to be fiction” arguments are massive rationalizations. I don’t mean this disrespectfully, but they bespeak of desperation. [LA replies: gosh, that doesn’t sound very respectful.] Every one of the points you made has been dealt with countless times in the critical New Testament Scholarship made by the likes of Robert Price, G.A. Wells, and many others. [LA replies: you keep saying that this is my argument. But it isn’t my argument. A reader sent the Turek article, and it made sense to me and I posted it. His argument, as I understand it, is that a group of people trying to convince the world that they are the carriers of a divine message and mandate would not tell such damaging and embarrassing things about themselves such as Peter’s impulsiveness and subsequent cowardice. And by the way the same thing is true of the Jewish Bible. Was there ever a people that said such damning, critical things about themselves as the Jews tell in their own sacred book? Why is this the case with both the Old and New Testaments? Because the Bible is about a divine truth higher than man, and about man’s flawed nature and refusal or inability to follow that truth.]

You would have me disbelieve Darwinian evolution which has been confirmed by 15 different scientific disciplines [LA replies: talk about an appeal to authority!] but you would have me believe in an ancient fictional account of a supernatural prophet which is rife with internal contradictions and shows the unmistakable markings of mythical development. And further, you would condemn my disbelief in such ancient mythology as undeniable proof that I am a subjectivist, nihilist “liberal” whose thinking is aiding in the destruction of the Western World.

Just who is to be considered an “ideologue”?

LA replies:

I have never said to anyone at this site that he must believe in Christianity. VFR is not a Christian or evangelical website per se. Whenever I have discussed the truth of Christianity, I have explained why I believe it is true. I have never said that if a person does not believe in Christianity then he is a nihilist or a liberal. What has been said at this site, initially by Alan Roebuck, and I agree with him, is that all liberals reject the God of the Bible. No one at this site has said that all people who reject the God of the Bible are liberals.

Also, I have never condemned or criticized non-believers as such. What I have said is that hostile and ignorant attacks on belief in God and on Christianity—such as parts of your e-mail—are incompatible with conservatism. They are also rude and uncivilized. And insofar as a communication is rude and uncivilized, it is not deserving of a respectful response.

May 9

Kristor writes:

You write:

Was there ever a people that said such damning, critical things about themselves as the Jews tell in their own sacred book?

No kidding. Look at how King David is portrayed—and King Saul, and King Solomon, for that matter. A scoundrel, a maniac, and a pagan lecher. But David stands out, because he is the archetype of the flawed man who loves God. With Jacob, Israel himself, David is the great hero of the Jews. And look at Jacob! Good Heavens! The Jews tell the story of their founding by Jacob as an act of larceny perpetrated on their brothers, the Edomites, who were the true heirs to the House of Abraham and Isaac. When you look at the Old Testament in this light, it isn’t the least bit odd that God chose the Jews. Thanks to their scriptures, the Jews had to have been the most worldly-wise, cynical people on Earth. Who better to play host to God?

Debunking the historicity of Jesus, or of the Gospels, has been a good business for a thousand years. The problem with all these conspiracy theories about the origins of the Church is that they require us to believe that the Apostles who supposedly made up the Gospels were willing to wreck their lives and be tortured to death for the sake of a story they knew to be false. It requires us to believe the same about the hundreds of other disciples of Jesus who were hounded, persecuted, tortured, martyred. Peddling this sort of lie is not a good business proposition, when there are so many others that are less hazardous to one’s health.

Barry W. could well reply that the apostles and disciples did not know their story was false; that they died for a beliefs they thought, wrongly, were true. But here’s where the particularity of the Gospel story—of a particular man in a particular time and place, who wore particular clothes and ate particular fish, and laughed in a way that was peculiarly his own, and so forth—comes into play in a particularly forceful way, that makes all the difference in the world. The apostles and martyrs died for a revelation embodied in a particular man, whom they had actually known, and whom they recognized after his Resurrection as just that particular man. They did not die for airy fairy ideas, that are false to facts, the way Communists do. They died for a man. They died for a fact.

The Incarnation had to be particular in order to happen, for if things are not particular they are not things at all. So much is obvious, and the particularity of the Incarnation cannot therefore count at all against it. But in addition, it is the very concreteness of the Incarnation in just Jesus of Nazareth, and no one else, that makes the Gospels so compelling. The Gospels are suffused with the detail of humdrum life. After the Resurrection, Jesus fried up some fish for an al fresco breakfast with the Apostles. It’s just so … earthy. One can imagine Jesus scratching himself, there at the sea shore with his friends, or snorting with laughter.

If Christ had lived, either before or after the Resurrection, in some sort of ethereal, abstract fashion, it just wouldn’t have done the trick. No one would have been convinced of his story in quite the same way. And, of course, an ethereal incarnation would have been a non-starter, from a soteriological point of view; it wouldn’t, that is to say, have been an incarnation. It would have been something less. The Incarnation had to go all the way down into matter, because the mission of Christ was to redeem the world—the whole material world. He reached all the way down to the bottom of the created order so as to bring the whole thing up.

Bill W. writes:

I’d like briefly to comment on Barry W.’s particular objections to the Christian story, and then follow with a more substantial comment of my own. His comment is ripe with doubt, and doubt is generally not unreasonable, but the particulars of his doubts bespeak a general spirit of ridicule, rather than openness. He lays out his comment in bullet-points, as though each one carried an independent meaning, although I think that most honest questioners would have to admit that the story, as an explanation (not a proof) is thoroughly reasonable.

(1) The God of the universe,—yes, quite correct

(2) who loves us all,—again, correct

(3) and came to preach a message of Salvation to mankind,—which anyone, looking around our world today can tell is desperately needed

(4) appeared in his resurrected body—but also as a man prior to resurrection

(5) in only one tiny place in the whole of the civilized world,—would two have been preferable, or a larger country?

(6) at only one time in all of human history,—as opposed to what? Quarterly?

(7) to a small number of people—again, how many would be convincing?

(8) almost none of whom were hostile or neutral observers,—If you were to see a miracle with your own eyes, stripping away the doubts and questions and plainly showing you the work of God in our world, could you remain a “neutral” observer” after that? The objection that the Gospels’ accounts of miracles were not independently verified by non-believers in miracles seems fairly…. well, silly, to me.

(9) and all of whom were superstitious people lacking in scientific understanding.—But this, again, is just not true. When Joseph heard that Mary was with child, he was of a mind to divorce her quietly. Joseph was under no illusion as to where babies came from. And I know of no evidence that ancient persons had no understanding of natural laws.

Barry W. goes on to say that he feels it is unreasonable to ask him to put away a Darwinian understanding of biological development if only to replace it with the Bible’s explanation of our origins. I’ve always struggled to answer these kinds of objections, largely because I think we’re arguing about two different things at once. Before we argue about the relatively small question of the mechanism of how humans came into being, the larger question of God and His existence must be addressed. Barry W. perhaps believes that the Darwinian explanation for human existence (and general biological diversity) is so compelling that anything which even seems to contradict it must be dismissed immediately. Is Darwinian evolution so waterproof? Are there no gaps? What about the missing link(s)? Or should I say, the “missing two million [billion?] years?” Or the question of the initial genesis of life. How could something as complex as a simple cell (which is phenomenally complicated) simply have sprung into existence? It wouldn’t be difficult to go on. My point, generally, is that whatever else Darwinian evolution is, it is not watertight. Having studied evolution off and on over the years, as well as having studied human anatomy, biochemistry and physiology (professionally), I find myself thinking, “Well…. maybe” each time I hear an argument for evolution. And the counter-arguments are never addressed. Whatever else Darwinian explanations for human existence are, they are not watertight, to an honest questioner.

So the larger question of worldview must be addressed. Our experience of morality, our adherence to and belief in logic, and our intrinsic understanding of origins (from nothing, nothings comes) all point toward a higher, transcendent reality of which our experience of reality is derivative. For example, in the moral realm, every moral question will ultimately boil down to a statement of value or worth—e.g. “Human beings have intrinsic worth”—which cannot be further understood, but which must be intuitive, or else dismissed. Who ascribes that worth? God, and God only. Or in the realm of logic: you and I might agree that A and not-A are mutually exclusive, but why should this be so? Simply because it is a reflection of the mind of God. Or in the case of origins: if, within our universe, every thing must have a cause, isn’t it clear that if we trace a causal chain backwards, we must arrive at an infinite sequence of causes or else something which lies outside of the other laws which apply to our universe—which is God. I’ve met people who claim that they believe in an infinite sequence of causes, but I find this unconvincing—how could an “infinite sequence” also impart reason and morality to a sentient person?

To summarize, I think that Barry W.’s comment was fairly prejudicial, tending to ridicule the Gospel account, rather than consider them as possibly true. He put forward Darwinian evolution as an explanation of how humans and other species came into existence, but ignored the larger epistomological and ontological questions which are deeper and more important than biological questions, because the address the larger questions of how we know what we know, and how we know what is right.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 07, 2010 08:37 AM | Send

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