Christian Apologetics (And Its Problems) In Miniature

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Andrew Livingston

I have a challenge for my readers. I want you to get on Youtube right now and find any random formal interfaith debate about Jesus. Or at least any debate about his alleged divinity or resurrection—the two most important topics. Feel free to stray as far from the top results of your search as you want. Then listen to the Christian’s opening statement. Listen to it before you read even a single paragraph below. And then pause the video and come back to this article.

No, come on, actually do it. Ordinarily in this situation I wouldn’t bother either but please make an exception for me.

Was the debate about Jesus’s divinity? Then here is what you just heard the Christian debater say:

1. “Jesus called himself the Son of Man, which is a distinctly divine title.”
2. “In the parable of the tenants Jesus asserted his status as the Son of God.”
3. “Ditto for Jesus’s saying in Mark 14:62 (that is, the ‘son of God’ statement at his trial).”
4. “Mark 13:32 indicates a hierarchy which has Jesus placed above both humans and angels. Early Christians wouldn’t have made up this saying seeing as it allows for Jesus not being omniscient.”
5. “Matthew 11:27 has been called by one scholar”—(whom I’ll bet the Christian debater did not identify; I still don’t know who it is)—“‘the Johannine thunderbolt’. This verse possibly comes from a hypothetical lost source called the Q Gospel. One way or another the verse shows you that the high Christology of John was there in the early tradition.”
6. “Jesus’s claim to be able to forgive sins meant that he believed he was God.”

Or did you see a debate on the Resurrection instead? Once again it’ll follow a formula:

0. If it was a debate with a Muslim, the first comment right out of the gate was a scornful dismissal of the idea that Jesus wasn’t crucified. Even though the crucifixion wasn’t the debate topic in the first place or that the Muslim debater hasn’t yet said anything at all.

The actually on-topic points will proceed as follows:

1. “The creed Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 was a tradition he learned from James and Peter. This means that the very earliest Christians believed in the Resurrection, including a group of five hundred people who all saw the risen Jesus at once.”
2. “The testimony of women wasn’t regarded as reliable by first-century Jews: therefore the story of the empty tomb being discovered by women must be authentic, as it would have been passed along only by people who felt that they had no choice but to tell the tale that way.”
3. “As N.T. Wright said, something radical must have happened to cause the apostles to suddenly believe in a dying and rising Messiah, seeing as Jews had no concept of such a Messiah beforehand.”
4. The speech then ended with a diatribe carrying a distinct air of forced triumphalism. This diatribe mainly consisted of a long list of alternative theories to the Resurrection which, one by one, have all allegedly failed. Yet you’ll notice that half of the theories listed rarely if ever show up anywhere. [1]

You may have even found there’s an item or two on the list which didn’t come up in the debate you watched. But I was at least pretty close, wasn’t I?

This means that I can write a semi-short series of refutations for you right here. Give you an all-purpose article you can link to in response to pretty much anything. Well, obviously I can’t very well cover every cliché on every issue. Maybe in future articles I’ll go over the rest of them. For now I’d like to instead focus entirely on the arguments for Jesus’s incarnation and resurrection. Let’s begin with the latter and go through both of the above lists bit by bit.

CLAIM: “Jesus called himself the Son of Man, which is a distinctly divine title.”

As the Christian is always quick to point out this is supposed to be a reference chapter 7 of Daniel:

“I saw one like a human being (footnote: “[Aramaic]. ‘one like a son of man’”) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” (Verses 13-14) [2]

Whatever that passage may look like on its own, with the advantage of full context you can see that it’s only the last part of a five-part prophecy. The first four parts—the four beasts of Daniel’s vision—are universally seen as referring to nations or peoples. Would the fifth part just suddenly and radically break this pattern? Rather, what we’re seeing is an end times prediction about Israel being menaced by other nations, one by one, after which it’ll triumph and be sovereign forevermore, with God as king in the world’s first true thearchy.

Who, then, is this “one like a son of man”? To answer that we must consider a later passage, in which Gabriel comforts Daniel. (And as you read it remember that the phrase “son of man” means the same thing as “man”, just like the son of a mongoose is a mongoose and the son of a cat another cat. See, for example, Psalms 8:4 and Job 25:5-6.)

“One in human form touched my lips, and I opened my mouth to speak, and said to the one who stood before me, ‘My lord, because of the vision such pains have come upon me that I retain no strength. How can my lord’s servant talk with my lord? For I am shaking, no strength remains in me, and no breath is left in me.’ Again one in human form touched me and strengthened me. He said, ‘Do not fear, greatly beloved, you are safe. Be strong and courageous!’” (Chapter 10, verses 16-18)

“One in human form.”
“One like a son of man.”

These terms are so similar that we must call them rewordings of the same expression. As such the phrase “one like a son of man” can only refer to angels (who, if you’ll remember, often do appear in human form; see Hebrews 13:2). Now chapter 12, verse 1 refers to the archangel Michael as “the great prince, the protector of your people”. Are you starting to see it now? This “Son of Man” figure is Michael. Just as God does so many other things through His angels, so will he someday reign over the earth with an angelic viceroy carrying out His decrees (at least according to the book of Daniel). So what could Jesus have meant by calling himself “the son of man”? Did he misunderstand Daniel? Is it even historically accurate that he called himself by that title at all?

That’s a tricky historical question and I’m already worried about the length of this article so I’ll keep to one obvious and highly important point—one which, by the way, covers Mark 13:32 and 14:62 as well. Both of those passages, when seen in full and with utmost self-honesty on the part of the reader, depict Jesus as predicting a first-century Armageddon that never came. In fact The New Testament has him doing that quite a lot. Take Matthew chapter 10, verse 23, in which he tells his apostles:

“When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

When the authors of Matthew, Mark and Luke [3] called Jesus “the Son of Man” they were referring to him as an apocalyptic figure who was supposed to return from heaven within the lifetimes of the earliest Christians. So if the biblical concept of Jesus as “the son of Man” is indeed historical, that can only mean that Jesus was a false prophet, which nixes Christianity and Islam alike. As such the Christian apologist’s argument is self-defeating. (See Deuteronomy 18:21-22.)

CLAIM: “In the parable of the tenants Jesus asserts his status as the Son of God.”

The parable in question reads as follows:

“A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” (Mark 12:1-9)

Maybe I should’ve mentioned this before: I’ve compiled these lists based mainly on the debates of William Lane Craig (whose arguments every other apologist—Jay Smith, Justin Bass, Tony Costa—repeats in toto). As such let me quote Craig directly here:

“Even the radical, skeptical critics like those in the so-called Jesus Seminar recognize [this passage] as authentic. In this parable the vineyard symbolizes Israel. The owner of the vineyard is God, the tenants are the Jewish religious figures, and the servants are the prophets sent by God…What does this parable tell us about Jesus’ self-understanding? It tells us that he thought of himself as God’s only beloved son, distinct from all the prophets, God’s final messenger, and even the heir to Israel.” [4]

That. Is. Not. What. The. Jesus. Seminar. Said.

Rather, the Seminar postulated that Jesus taught some sort of parable along those lines—but before it had finished the trip from word of mouth to Markan text the original message had already become lost. Or to put it their way, “The Fellows of the Seminar were of the opinion that a version of this parable, without allegorical overtones, could be traced to Jesus.” I think they’re right. “The long-suffering owner,” the Seminar tells us,

“will…destroy [the] tenants (Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.) and give the vineyard to others (gentiles, who by the time Mark wrote, constituted the greater part of the Christian movement).” [5]

Why would Jesus have told that parable to people who didn’t have any way to know the reference? Jesus’s ministry came decades before the destruction of Jerusalem: an allegorical reference to such a future event would be useless. Likewise, the controversy over the gospel getting preached to Gentiles occurred because of Paul’s ministry, which itself came years later. (See Romans 11:7-14.) And so you can see that Jesus never told this parable in the first place—or at least in not the way it’s told in the text.

CLAIM: “Matthew 11:27 is a “Johannine thunderbolt”—that is, it shows you that the high Christology of the book of John was already there in the early tradition. So Jesus actually did refer to himself as the Son of God.”

The verse in question reads as follows:

“All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” [6]

After quoting that verse the Christian debater will usually say something like, “Now some people think that this verse was part of a lost Gospel of Jesus’s sayings called Q, which would place it very early.”

Q most definitely existed. I will leave you with a link so that my article won’t become any longer than it already is: “The Existence of Q

Anyway, the Christian here has undermined his own argument. When he calls this passage a “Johannine thunderbolt” he’s calling attention to how strikingly incongruent it is with the rest of Q (that is, from what can be known of Q’s contents, anyway).

This isn’t a hard thing to reason out. What makes more sense: that Matthew 11:27 marks the earliest strains of a Johannine tradition which had never existed beforehand and which therefore isn’t true to the historical Jesus, or that a single isolated case of finding a Johannine Jesus in an earlier source proves that the book of John got it right?

So once again we have something Jesus likely never actually said.

CLAIM: “Jesus claimed that he was able to forgive sins, and this can only mean that he thought of himself as God Incarnate.”

As far as I know C.S. Lewis invented this argument in “Mere Christianity”, and it’s been popular ever since. The reference is again to Mark:

“Some people came, bringing to [Jesus] a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’

At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, Your sins are forgiven, or to say, Stand up and take your mat and walk? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’ And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’” (Chapter 2, verses 3-12)

The most obvious thing to mention is that the author never specified that the people were glorifying Jesus. Unless you have already forced a Trinitarian interpretation into the story it doesn’t naturally read as, “They glorified God (meaning Jesus, because he was himself God incarnate).” Note also that the Matthean version of the story says that

“they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.” (Chapter 9, verse 8)

I’m not at all sure how true or false this story is—but it hardly matters given the gross misinterpretation. Were Christian apologists to be believed this would be the one and only time in the Gospel narratives when the Jewish scribes are exactly right. You see, there is a pattern repeated throughout the texts of Mark, Matthew and Luke (and to an extent, John). Numerous variations of the same basic story. First Jesus will do something or other (it often involves a miracle); then some nearby Sadducees or Pharisees will witness it and accuse Jesus of breaking Torah or Talmudic law. Interestingly, even though their accusations never hold water Jesus never responds by pointing out how they’ve misapplied a rule or misunderstood the text: instead he’ll make an indirect point to the same effect, often in the form of a rhetorical question. This formula can be found all over the text. Let’s take an example from Matthew chapter 12:

“A man was there [with Jesus in the synagogue] with a withered hand, and [the Pharisees] asked [Jesus], ‘Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?’ so that they might accuse him. He said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.’ Then he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other.” (Verses 10-13)

You see the pattern? Jesus performs a miracle; the scribes accuse him of violating Jewish law (even though he didn’t); Jesus takes apart their faulty logic using a rhetorical question. In short, the scribes are revealed to have completely misunderstood the situation because they were searching for any sort of excuse to rebuke Jesus.

Let me put it this way. Consider Matthew chapter 16, verses 5-9:

“When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ They said to one another, ‘It is because we have brought no bread.’ And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, ‘You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive?’” (Verses 5-9)

This time the connection may not be so clear from a translation. When the Pharisees say, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” and Jesus replies, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts?” the original Greek word rendered there as “raise such questions” is dialogizomai, the very same word Jesus uses when he says, “Why are you talking about having no bread?” [7] Bearing that in mind compare the passages again and you’ll see my point. Jesus was not confirming what the scribes were saying, he was correcting them. Either the Pharisees were wrong in thinking that he’d literally said he could forgive sins himself, or they were wrong in thinking that such an ability would automatically make him God.

I still haven’t gotten around to the most obvious point: if Jesus could forgive someone just by saying to him, “Your sins are forgiven,” why on earth would he then need to die for our sins??

We’ve gone over the arguments for Jesus’s divinity. What about the arguments for his resurrection?

I’ll disregard the crucifixion, on the aforementioned grounds that bringing it up is changing the subject. Logically, proof of a resurrection would by proxy also be proof of a death (in the same way that if you can show that someone has been healed, he must therefore have first been injured) and so we’re back to square one. Why, then, does the Christian debater always say so much about the crucifixion before his Muslim opponent has uttered a single word? There can be only one answer: they’re just trying to poison the well.

CLAIM: “Paul said in Galatians 2 that when he met James and Peter they ‘added nothing’ to him.

In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 Paul recites a creed about early Christians seeing the risen Jesus—a creed which he therefore must have learned from James and Peter. This means that the very earliest Christians believed in the Resurrection—including a group of five hundred people who all saw the risen Jesus at once.”

CLAIM: “As N.T. Wright said, something radical must have happened to suddenly cause the apostles to believe in a dying and rising Messiah, seeing as Jews had no concept of such a Messiah beforehand.”

There is so very much that can be said here—about whether or not the 1 Corinthians passage is an interpolation into the original text. About how, if it’s not an interpolation, it may still be an amalgam of different creeds. About how in that same Galatians passage Paul clearly denies that he’s learned his beliefs from the original apostles (c.f. Galatians 1:10-12, 16, 19-20—in fact just read the whole thing). About how these creedal statements are all over the New Testament, and include examples which should be called heretical by modern Christians (such as the adoptionist creed of Romans 1:3-4). About how some books in the New Testament are flat out forgeries, and still nonetheless contain what looks like traditional creeds. [8] And so forth.

Instead of dwelling on these things, though, let me focus on what all else Paul says in 1 Corinthians. Throughout the letter he takes a very clearly fideist approach. An approach which precludes, if not the existence of proof for his beliefs, then at least any personal interest in such. “Jews demand signs,” he says, “and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (Chapter 1, verses 22-24; see also chapter 2, verses 9-13; chapter 13, verses 8-12)

As such only three options exist: that 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 was an interpolation into the text and not something Paul ever wrote; that Christian apologists have grossly misunderstood it; or that Paul was contradicting himself. Any which way it doesn’t work out well for the apologists.

CLAIM: “Since the testimony of women wasn’t regarded as reliable by first-century Jews, therefore the story of women discovering an empty tomb must be authentic.”

The apologists are here using a common and admirably sound criterion: cutting against the grain. Here’s the gist of it: when you hear a story and you find that everything in it fits well with the author’s agenda or personal beliefs, that’s no big deal. It’s what you would’ve expected, isn’t it? Whereas when someone tells a story that goes against his agenda or beliefs, that’s when your eyebrows pop up. It may be that the story is so widely known to be true that he felt he had no choice but to include it. It may even be that the story has been accepted for so long that he didn’t notice the implications of what he was admitting.

So can you apply this criterion to the story of the women finding the empty tomb? No, as it turns out, you can’t. First off, the idea that among early Christians women weren’t considered reliable witnesses over this sort of thing is positively silly: just look how many female apostles (using Paul’s broad sense of “apostle”) you’ll find listed in the last chapter of Romans.

Secondly, this kind of role reversal happens all throughout the text, where it’s the non-obvious person who does the right thing or confirms important information. A centurion shows faith that Jesus hasn’t seen anywhere in Israel; a centurion, after the crucifixion, is the first to proclaim, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”; Jesus says that in order to enter heaven you must make yourself like a child; demons proclaim Jesus’s Messiahship when the teachers of the law do not. You see, the whole point of women finding the tomb is that it was ironic. Far from being against the grain of the text this is actually an example of one of the biggest recurring themes.

Would you like to know where we can validly apply this criterion of going against the grain?

“As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.’” (Mark 10:17-18)

Christian apologists, faced with such an explicit denial by Jesus of his divinity, desperately flip the meaning backward and insist that Jesus meant he was God. Never mind that the author of Matthew didn’t seem to share their interpretation, seeing as how he had to change the verse:

“Someone came to [Jesus] and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.’” (Chapter 19, verses 16-17)

Between the earlier and later versions of the tale Jesus went from saying, “Why do you call me good?” to, “Why do you ask me about what’s good?”

Because the story had changed.

To get away from the fact that Jesus did not believe that he was God.

And there is nothing wrong with that at all.

Christians already believe that Jesus spent years walking around and teaching people as a prophet. If his purpose on earth was to die for our sins, why was this part necessary? We’d had so many teachers already. Couldn’t he have just let himself get massacred by Herod along with the other infants and been done with it?

Or could it simply be that Jesus was in fact only a prophet, and was recognized as such during his own time, and it was only afterward that people turned him into an Incarnate God who came to die for our sins?

NOTES:

[1] Most especially I’m still not sure, after watching a boatload of debates, exactly what this “conspiracy theory” the Christian debaters keep referring to even is. I think they’re talking about Matthew 28:11-15—a story which is never referenced in Mark nor any of Paul’s letters, and which in any event involves a claim about the Resurrection that no one makes today.
[2] Unless I say otherwise, all of my biblical quotations come from the New Revised Standard Version—sometimes directly out of the print and sometimes copied from the website Bible Gateway but I think it always amounts to the same.
[3] I say it that way because despite our calling these books “The Gospel According to Matthew” et cetera they weren’t actually written by any of those people—at the very least not in the text’s current form. First-century authors in the Roman Empire didn’t place giant title headings at the beginning of their texts like we do now; rather, those titles were added in later on just like the chapter and verse divisions were. At the following link I’ve gone into a fair amount of detail about how we know that the Gospels were written by completely anonymous people and not eyewitnesses: https://callingchristians.com/2015/12/30/who-wrote-the-gospels/
[4] From Craig’s debate with Shabir Ally, “Who Is the Real Jesus?”
[5]: “The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus”, page 101. New translation and commentary by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar. A Polebridge Press Book. 1993 Macmillian Publishing Company. I’m quoting from a hardback with a black cover.
[6] I can’t help but notice that in the very next verse Jesus says, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth…” I know what the apologists are going to say to that. Every time a Bible verse clearly depicts Jesus as a mere mortal it has to be because Jesus was “both fully man and fully God”, and so his actions are explainable by his two natures. Even when he’s praying to God and worshiping Him, you mean? What exactly would Jesus have to do in order for that defense not to apply?
[7] “The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of The Bible” by James Strong, page 1,154. 2010 Thomas Nelson publishers. It’s a large hardback with a beige cover.
[8] There is a very long list of potentially creedal New Testament verses in the following source. Said list contains several verses from the books of Timothy (1 Timothy 1:15 being a particularly obvious and striking example).
“Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary”, page 233. General editors Chad Brand, Charles Draper, Archie England. 2003 Holman Bible Publishers.
A brief explanation for why the letters of Timothy are second-century forgeries can be found at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/1timothy.html

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2 Responses »

  1. Your website begins with a lie- “see all comments”, yet you post none. Thus the title “Discover the truth” is in itself, a lie. The truth is you have only desire to spew deception.

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