Jason Engwer vs. The Superstitious Past

Jason Engwer has offered a critique of what I argued in “Jonah, Evidence and the Superstitious Past” I will respond to it here.

Jason: John Loftus has made another attempt to justify his assertions about the alleged gullibility of ancient people. His latest attempt, like the ones before it, fails to prove anything significantly relevant to the issue at hand. I'm writing a response primarily for the benefit of other people. John Loftus has repeatedly demonstrated his unreasonableness, and his latest article gives many more examples. If you read the Debunking Christianity blog in the future, or have discussions with people influenced by it, keep in mind their demonstrated lack of effort in being reasonable. The number of errors they make and the ease with which those errors could have been avoided are significant.

All I can do is to share reasons why I see things differently than Christians do. And I can only do so one story at a time and one argument at a time, since my rejection of Christianity is based upon a cumulative case. To say that I’m unreasonable is merely to say you disagree with the way I see things. To argue that I am unreasonable because you reject the way I see things, is judging the way I see things by the way you see things. I do my best to describe the way I see things. But if you reject my reasons for seeing things the way I do, it's not because I’m unreasonable, for I'm sure that I am reasonable. It may be because you have blinders on. And it may just be that we see things differently. Anyway, let’s see how unreasonable I am…..

Citing people like the Ephesians in Acts 19 doesn't explain the beliefs of somebody like Thomas, Paul, or Luke. That's why no scholar arguing against Jesus' resurrection, for example, will just cite something like the book of Jonah or Acts 19, and refer to ancient people as gullible, without addressing the details surrounding the claims made by the early Christians. You can't sufficiently explain the testimony of somebody like Paul or Luke by arguing that some ancient Ninevites or some ancient Ephesians were gullible. Similarly, we can't dismiss what John Loftus says just because he lives in a world with militant Muslims and people who consult psychics.

Just so we are clear here, I never said that based upon my analysis of the Ephesians and Jonah’s book that the resurrection never happened. I have some other reasons for thinking this. But I'm saying that the people in Biblical days were very superstitious such that I question whether any evidence was needed to convince them of something. I merely used the Ephesians and Jonah’s book as examples of this. I could multiply these examples with Elijah at Mt. Carmel with the prophets of Baal (did these “false” prophets really think they could bring down fire from the sky, such that they spent all day trying?) Paul in Lystra (Acts 14:8-20), Paul in Athens (Acts 17:16), Paul on Malta (Acts 28:1-6). Then there’s Daniel who was the head of the Magicians (do you know what Magic is?). There is Nebuchadnezzar and his dream (Daniel 4), Pharoah and his dream (Gen. 39ff), and even Pilate’s wife’s dream. There are mandrakes, and Pharaoh’s sorcerers.

There is Rhabdomancy, (Ezk. 21:21. Sticks or arrows were thrown into the air, and omens were deduced from their position when they fell); Hepatoscopy. (Ezk. 21:21. Examination of the liver or other entrails of a sacrifice was supposed to give guidance); Teraphim. (Associated with divination in 1 Sam. 15:23; Ezk. 21:21; Zech. 10:2); Necromancy, or the consultation of the departed (Deut. 18:11; 1 Sam. 28:8; 2 Ki. 21:6); Astrology (draws conclusions from the position of the sun, moon and planets in relation to the zodiac and to one another). The wise men (Magi) who came to the infant Jesus (Mt. 2:9) were probably trained in Babylonian tradition which mixed astronomy with astrology and Hydromancy, or divination through water. (Here forms and pictures appear in the water in a bowl, as also in crystal-gazing. The gleam of the water induces a state of light trance, and the visions are subjective, Gen. 44:5, 15).

Speaking of visions Matthew has argued that there is a visionary basis to Christianity.

And our world is different than the ancient world. We can see how applied science has impacted us (in no particular order) in the areas of medicine, biology, earth science, computer science, engineering technology, zoology, geology, electricity, botany, genetics, dental technology, rocket science, astronomy, forensics, meteorology, chemistry, laser surgery, hydraulics, X-rays, Plasma Physics, increased the number of elements in the Periodic Table of Elements, understanding the nervous and muscular system, brain science, the whole notion of friction, etc, etc. [See the popular treatments in New York Public Library's Science Desk Reference, or the Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, ed. James Trefil, (Routledge, 2001)].

Compare the above scientific disciplines with such things as divination, casting of lots, dreams, visions, trances, magic, exorcisms as healings, astrology, necromancy, sorcery, prophets for every religion, idol worship, gods and goddesses for every natural phenomena, human and animal sacrifices, priests, omens, temples, festivals, sacred writings, and the Pseudepigrapha. We live in a much different world than the ancients, primarily because of Newtonian science.

Consider also how that in a modern world Christian Prayers have been secularized. This all makes me wonder why Christians presuppose the Bible is true?

Jason: Christians would justify their acceptance of the book of Jonah on the basis of something like the evidence we have for the inclusion of Jonah in the canon of the ancient Jews and Jesus and the apostles. In other words, the evidence we have for the apostles' reliability, for example, would be applied to their comments relative to the canon. We would accept Jonah on the basis of apostolic authority.

Sure you do. And I make no outrageous claims here that you are unreasonable to do so, like you fault me when I think the opposite. Look at the book of Jude. He believed that Enoch, “the 7th from Adam” prophesied something (v.14). Jude made it into the canon too. But it’s crystal clear Enoch’s book is pseudonymous and not written by Enoch. So if I’m right that there was no evidence for Jonah’s prophecy, then those who accepted Jonah into the canon didn’t have any either! (Did you miss this point?) You must argue from within the book of Jonah rather than claim that because his book was canonized it proves what you think it does. I’m questioning Jonah and the people in his story. They did not act like modern people would act today (even if there are always superstitious people in every age).

Jason: There would be false prophets alongside true prophets.

Of course there were. But in such a superstitious age they were everywhere. They had a dream. They claimed to see a vision, which according to fellow Blogger Matthew J. Green is the basis of the Christian religion, and able to be explained naturalistically. How would anyone know which visions or prophesies were true? Jeremiah had a battle over this. In his day the people didn’t know whom to believe since prophets abounded saying this or that, and Jeremiah advocated that God’s people surrender the city of Jerusalem. With so many prophets saying this or that, someone was bound to be right. The fact that Jeremiah labels them “false” prophets is simply because he ended up being correct and wrote his book telling the story(if it was written by him). History would’ve been written differently by those whom he called false prophets, if what they said eventually happened. Then Jeremiah would have been called a false prophet by them.

Jason: If unreasonable and reasonable people can co-exist in today's world, why not in the ancient world as well?

Sure they do. But I never claimed ancient people were stupid. I think the collective IQ has pretty much been the same down through the centuries. I’m just claiming the ancients were overly superstitious by today’s standards. They were much more willing to believe something without evidence when it came to God, gods, or goddesses.

Jason: Why should we think that there were "police" in Tarshish who checked ships for lists of passengers? How does Loftus know what happened when the ship did arrive at its destination? Why would ancient court systems have to operate as John Loftus describes in order for us to conclude that the Bible is credible?

Our modern standards are different, then? This grants my point, does it not?

Jason: Making a judgment about whether God is going to punish the ship you're traveling on or the city you live in isn't in the same category as making a judgment about whether you saw a man perform miracles and heard that man speak with you after He had risen from the dead. Mental judgments about unseen and complex entities aren't in the same category as judgments about what you see with your eyes, touch with your hands, etc. Saying that the Ninevites believed Jonah too easily doesn't justify a rejection of the eyewitness testimony of a John, a Paul, or a Luke.

Well then, Jonah also describes himself as swallowed by a great fish; probably one of the mythical sea creatures of the deep, like Leviathan, Behemoth, or Rahab. This is something he claimed to have seen, but taken with the rest of what he writes I have no reason to believe it.

Besides, when it comes to John, Paul, and Luke, which ones can actually claim to be an eyewitness of Jesus’ miracles and resurrection? John? And where can we find his testimony? The book of John? Most scholars dispute he wrote it. And what makes you so sure that the book of John didn’t embellish the stories, since gospel scholars see him doing so with Jesus’ long discourses?

Jason: Loftus ignores the potential conditional nature of the prophecy, and he ignores the indicators within the narrative that point to a conditional nature. It seems that, again, he's going to the text with a desire to find error, and his desire leads him to wrong conclusions.

Hmmmm. Then the conditional nature of prophecy is something added to the Mosaic tradition which originally didn’t provide for any exceptions or conditions…it must come to pass.

Jason: How does Loftus know that Behemoth and Leviathan were "mythical"? He doesn't. How does he know that the creature mentioned in Jonah was mythical? He doesn't.

Rahab? Then whom was God fighting in order to create the universe? (cf. Isaiah 51:9-10; Ps. 74:13-14; 89:10-12; Job 26:7-13).

It is claimed that Behemoth and Leviathan denote respectively the hippopotamus and the crocodile. However, "they are probably instead chaos monsters. The description of neither Behemoth nor Leviathan corresponds to any known creature, and certainly not the hippopotamus and crocodile. It seems fundamental to the argument in Job 40–41 that the beasts in question can be captured by God alone, otherwise Job might have replied that he could have captured them, and then God would lose the argument!” [The Anchor Bible Dictionary].

GeneMBridges said:
It's really funny to watch this one unfold. Loftus denies the historicity of the Bible, yet he appeals to it as historically reliable in order to make his case for the gullibility of its people, but if the Bible "debunks itself" and is not historically reliable, then how can he use it as historically reliable evidence for the gullibility of the ancients?

I provisionally take Jonah at face value, as if it happened. Then I ask questions about those purportedly historical claims, to test them. If the questions I ask lead one to think ancient people acted in ways that would be rejected by most all of us today, then I can subsequently reject those historical claims of Jonah. There’s nothing absurd with that, and if I don’t miss my guess, this is what you call an “internal critique” of the book.

Jason: Apparently, Loftus thinks it's significant that not only does he consider ancient people gullible, but so does the Bible. If he wants to argue that something like the account of Thomas was fabricated so as to give an appearance of having evidence for Christianity, then why would the ancient Christians have done such a thing? Why would gullible people living in a gullible world fabricate evidence in order to persuade people? Why is evidence fabricated in a world that's unconcerned with evidence? How does Loftus explain the many Biblical passages that make arguments from evidence and advocate evidential concepts like prophecy and eyewitness testimony?

In the case of the disciple Thomas, John describes a risen Jesus who appeared to Thomas, even “though the doors were locked,” indicating that Jesus either walked through the doors, or just appeared out of thin air. And then Jesus proceeds by asking Thomas to put his finger in his hands, and his hand in Jesus’ side. How can both of these descriptions of Jesus be of a flesh and blooded person? The way Jesus appeared to Thomas leads us think that this was nothing but a vision. How then can Thomas touch the flesh of Jesus, which still had open fatal wounds? Did the post-resurrected Jesus still have blood running in his veins? We now know that blood is necessary for the body to function, and that breathing gives the blood its oxygen, which is pumped though the body by the heart. Did he have a functioning heart and a set of lungs? Did the post-resurrected Jesus breathe? To speak, as it’s claimed Jesus did, demands a functioning set of lungs. John specifically said that he breathed (John 20:22). But didn’t Jesus lose all of his blood on the cross, and didn’t the post-resurrected body of Jesus still have open fatal wounds, according to John? These fatal wounds would cause him to lose any remaining blood out of his body. All of this leads me to suspect, at best, it was a vision.

There was no evidence. It was a story about Thomas. A vision. And it subsequently became a legend, which grew and grew as people passed it on, not unlike how the myth of Santa Claus grew up until the poem, “’twas the Night Before Christmas,” which revolutionized the way we thought about St. Nick.

Jason: Jonah was able to accurately predict the future, such as in his prediction of how the storm at sea would end (Jonah 1:12-15). He may have had evidence for answered prayer, if his deliverance came around the time that he prayed (Jonah 2:1-10). And he heard God speak in some manner (Jonah 1:2, 4:4-11). Loftus' suggestion that prophets like Jonah had no evidence to go by is unproveable and contrary to the data we have.

There's no evidence here. This is just Jonah's story-telling. Jonah tells us this. And I've already argued he was a superstitious ancient person (if he existed), who believed God chases people down for running away from them and who believed the lot will reveal God’s truth (divination—do YOU do this?).

Jason; Jonah's shipmates: The fact that they also appealed to the supernatural doesn't prove that they would believe any supernatural claim they came across in any situation in life.

They would have believed Poseidon (or some god of theirs) sent the storm if the lot had been cast saying so. And if the storm didn't subside, it must've been a different god who sent it, or this god refuses to be appeased for some reason.