Defending Visions: Answering Objections, Part Two

In a previous essay on this subject here,I answered a common objection to a hypothesis of visionary origins of Christianity such as mine in which the Christian faith began as a series of visionary experiences involving altered-states-of-conciousness. It is alleged that hypotheses or theories of visions to not explain the empty tomb. I did my best to answer that objection in my previous essay but that is not the only objection leveled at the hypothesis I advanced. Another objection is that any hypothesis of visionary origins of Christianity doesn't explain the diversity of New Testament appearances. As was the case before, I will do my best to answer this objection but I ultimately leave it to readers to judge whether I have met my burden. First a few observations about the nature of this objection are in order.

First, I began with the observation that in the study of history, documents from any time period in history are to be given the benefit of the doubt and it is the critic of any document or set of documents that must bear the burden of disputing the historical reliability of authenticity of the documents in question, especially if such documents purport to narrate an event alleged to have occured in history. Only if there are prima facie grounds for questioning the relability or authenticity of a document or set of documents arises, does the burden shift from the critic to the documents and any such defenders of the documents to defend the reliability or authenticity of the documents in question despite the charges made by critics to the documents. The New Testament is a set of documents and in particular, the canonical gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John claim to narrate the death, burial, and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Secondly, the documents in question might be harmonizable but harmonization must be defended. If a set of documents claiming to narrate an alleged event in history appear to be discrepant, harmonization should be attempted if there are excellent critical-historical arguments for supposing a core historical fact underlying the event narrated and secondary details should be harmonized as much as possible as long as there are good grounds for believing the secondary details of the narration to be historically reliable and not just the core historical fact alleged to be narrated. Just because a core historical fact underlies documents narrating an event, it doesn't meant that the secondary details that make up the narrative accounts of those documents are, in fact, reliable themselves. Suppose two documents narrate a given event and there are good critical-historical reasons for believing that there is a solid core historical fact underlying the accounts in these documents.

Suppose, further, that these two accounts contradict each other. It can be that one document is inaccuarate in a detail or more or that the other document is inaccurate in some of the details or perhaps even both documents can be inaccurate in terms of the details.
Third, we should give, as a matter of rule, the greatest benefit of any doubt to documents written by authors who have a clear authoral intent or stated purpose in which to accurately narrate history. A critical mindset is very desirable and the more critical a given document or set of them is, when it comes to narrating events, the more the benefit of the doubt should be assigned to that document or set of documents. Conversely, the more a document or set of them lacks authoral intent in terms of accuracy or any kind of stated historical interest in being historically, chronologically, or geographically accurate or an expressed, deliberate stated desire or intent to be critical and careful in the evaluation of information, tradition, sources, or reports, the more we can expect to doubt that that document or set of documents narrates. With these considerations in mind, I now turn to the objection raised and what I consider to be the best answer to the objection.

First of all, I believe that the New Testament accounts of the resurrection are highly discrepant and are impossibly inconsistent, especially in terms of secondary details despite whatever core historical facts underly the accounts. Thus I am willing to grant for the sake of discussion that the empty tomb and postmortem appearances of Jesus are core historical facts underlying the New Testament resurrection narratives and I have absolutely no problem accepting the empty tomb and postmortem appearances philosophically, as core historical facts, if historical evidence should point in that direction. I am aware of attempts made by Christians to harmonize the accounts and I believe that this should be seen rightfully for what it is-an attempt at harmonization. The attempts at harmonization in my opinion are highly contrieved and quite fantastic in the sense that it's obvious that apologists who are constructing them seem bothered by the presence of discrepancies and are willing to go to lengths to harmonize them and the harmonization process in itself seems rather tortured in some ways. Even if the attempts are reconciling the accounts are plausible and can be achieved- that in my opinion would greatly lessen the historical value of the accounts. As Robert M Price notes, the very admission of a need to harmonize the accounts is an admission that the accounts cannot be taken at face value and that the burden of proof is on the resurrection narratives themselves, not on the critics who would call these narratives into question.

What harmonizing shows is that despite appearances to the contrary, the accounts still might be true, not that they should be taken at face value. The need for harmonization shifts the burden to the defender of the accounts, not the critics who would question the reliability of the accounts. The accounts cannot be taken at face value and it is the defender, the apologist who must defend the reliability of the accounts and show how they are still reliable despite appearances to the contrary, rather than the accounts being reliable as they stand, placing the burden on the critic who would challenge the reliablity of the accounts. This is made all the more problematic, in my opinion, with the lack of clear authoral intent in some of the narratives. The closest thing we have to an authoral intent to narrative events accurately is the Lukan prologue. Such a statement of authoral intent is clearly lacking in Matthew, Mark, and John. We don't have any stated intent in the other synoptics or John that the accounts are attempts to record and narrate history accurately. There is no critical mindset that I am personally aware of!

I see this as particularly problematic because the "diversity of appearances" in the New Testament resurrection accounts presupposes that the accounts are perfectly harmonizable historically and are as a whole inerrant. Thus, Christian apologists will point to appearances in both Jerusalem and Galilee, as recorded in Matthew, Luke, and John, as evidence of diversity. But this supposes beforehand that Matthew, Luke, and John are harmonizable and, ergo, historically inerrant in the sense that if you put their accounts side by side along with, say, the 1st Corinthians 15 creed, they will naturally merge smoothly and cleanly into a coherent and logically consistent whole. But what if the accounts conflict with each other as I hold that they do? Matthew records an appearance of Jesus to his followers in Galilee while Luke places the first appearance of the risen Jesus to his followers in Jerusalem on the night he rose from the dead. Christian defenders of biblical inerrancy and the resurrection will argue that the two accounts are complementary. What if they really do contradict each other? Then there really isn't any diversity so to speak. The problem, then, is that Christian apologists like Bill Craig and Gary Habermas may be milking the New Testament for data that simply may not exist, trying to squeeze as much juice out when the accounts may be completely dry. The "diversity" they have in mind, I would contend, is simply imaginary.

This is not to say that there wasn't a diversity of appearances, only, that it seems to me that Bill Craig and Gary Habermas and their apologist cohorts are basing their argument for a diversity of appearances on illegitimate grounds. They are treating the New Testament accounts as if they are reliable narratives, to be completely accepted at face value. I see no reason to accept the accounts at face value and furthermore, I contend that they are trying to milk a "diversity of appearances" out of their harmonization efforts. The bottom line seems to me to be that any such "diversity" presupposes harmonization and inerrancy and that has to be argued for despite appearances to the contrary, not simply assumed at face value. Christian apologists and other defenders cannot have it both ways in my opinion. They cannot argue for a prima facie "diversity" of appearances and at the same time argue that the resurrection accounts are in need of harmonization. Any such diversity must be argued for and defended, not taken at face value and simply assumed if Christian defenders of the New Testament accounts admit the need for harmonization. There might be strong grounds for a diversity of appearances if the accounts were true as they stand and were not in need of harmonization because it would then fall on the critic to explain away the diversity of appearances. But if the accounts are in need of harmonization, such a diversity of appearances can only be legitimately inferred if and once a successful harmonization scheme is proposed and defended and shown to be the right way to approach the accounts.

I would ask Craig, Habermas, Licona, Holding, and others- what diversity? Most importantly, I would simply ask them for their choice: harmonization or diversity? I don't believe Christians can have it both ways. They will have to pick one or the other. If harmonization is necessary, any such diversity cannot be argued for at face value. If a diversity is inferred at face value, then harmonization is not important and I would have to ask Christians to justify taking the accounts at face value without any harmonization . Until I see a successful harmonization scheme defended and the historical inerrancy of the texts defended, I don't believe any such diversity exists outside the imagination of most Christian apologists. I see no reason to infer a diversity of appearances and no need to "explain" them. Only once an inference of such diversity is successfully defended, then would I consider adjusting the explanatory scope of any hypothesis of visions to account for the diversity. Thus, I believe that this objection fails.



Daniel said...


Awesome posts. I can't wait to read the responses from theists.

Check out these guidelines to help you get the hang of formatting.

John W. Loftus said...

Superior, Matthew! Dagoods has previously looked at the problem of the soliders at the tomb as one of many problems with the narratives.

Hallq said...

These two counterpoints can be answered in a sentence: The credibility of the gospels reports isn't sufficiently well established. Or, as Richard Carrier put it: "Can you imagine a movement today claiming that a soldier in World War Two rose physically from the dead, but when you asked for proof all they offered you were a mere handful of anonymous religious tracts written in the 1980's? Would it be even remotely reasonable to believe such a thing on so feeble a proof? Well--no."

Mark Cote said...

Hi Daniel, hi John.
I'm sorry if I've posted off topic.
I decided to close that stupid Frank Walton site, I didn't think it was worth the time anymore. His latest posts, just made me realize what his level of complex reasoning is, well it turns out almost none.

Plus, my last post were just filled with way more effort than I really should be exerting.

Anyway, I'm trying to get a blog off the ground that addresses the real issue not some person who
just isn't up to the personal level of anything that an honest, inquisitive, decent person would want to deal with.

I'm going to try to put my ascerbic wit and UTTER RAGE, at what religion is about in this, or any other time. In rage at my wasting 13 years of my life as a member of the International Church of Christ, (Kip Mckean, Al Baird, Cult, Crossroads, just look it up if your wondering.)

All Im asking is for you to give it a chance.

It's my own art, and you can feel free to use it on your site or any where else you'd like, except please don't modify it.

The one's on allisondubois are mine too, feel free to use those.

Hey if you want something done,art wise, or flash, got an idea, let me know.

I need to try and not caught in crap like walton.



Daniel said...

Amen, Mark. Hot damn and hallelujah.

Edward T. Babinski said...

I'm going to repeat what I already wrote as a comment at the end of your "In Defense of Visions: Objection One" post. But first I wish to add that even some very positive Christian reviewers of N.T. Wright's book on The Resurrection felt his attempts to "harmonize" the Gospel accounts stretched credulity and perhaps constituted the weakest chapter in his book.

And now the repetitious part...

Excellent job dealing with the attempts at philosophical sleight of hand, or, one-up-man-ship, by Christian apologists!

I agree that agnosticism concerning accounts of ancient miracles that are spread originally only by partisan "believers" seems more than warranted.

Take Josephus's mention of "Jesus" (which was also such a common name back then that he mentions twelve or more people with that name in his writings). Even if parts of Josephus's sentences about Jesus of Nazareth are authentic and not later Christian insertions, he still probably got his info from stories spread by partisan believers "about" Jesus who started the Jesus cult and spreading their stories a generation before Josephus began collecting stories around Jerusalem. Josephus also mentions miracles that had nothing to do with Christianity, miracle stories spread by Jews or pagans. In all cases he's simply collecting tales. And nobody assumes any of his other miraculous tales are beyond question. So the stories of the Christian miracle of the resurrection originated with partisan believers (and even their stories of the "words" allegedly spoken by the resurrected Jesus kept growing numerically over time). The earliest tale of the empty tomb [Mark] ends with a mere promise of seeing Jesus. The next earliest tale of the empty tomb [Mat.] adds a handful of so-called post-resurrection words, a mere brief early creedal statement easily put into Jesus's mouth, and even adds, "but some doubted."

By the time the later written Luke/Acts and John came about, they had the resurrected Jesus speaking HUNDREDS of words, and in both cases they added stories that made sure the raised Jesus would not be confused with a "spirit" at all, having Jesus in both their late Gospels take pains to convince them he was "not a spirit." (There must have been some doubt somewhere for them to protest to much in the last written Gospels!)

So the story grew in stages. (Luke doesn't even bother to have the apostles run off to Galilee where Mark and Matthew claimed the raised Jesus first went and where the apostles had to go to first see him. Instead, Luke changes the message at the tomb. I invite all to go read how Luke changes the so-called sacrosanct "word of God" as found in Mark and Matthew.) There are other changes as well from Gospel to Gospel. In Mark it's a mere young man at the tomb, the same phrase being used of the young man whom Mark says followed after Jesus the night he was arrested and who had to flee into the night naked, but who is clothed come Sunday morning at the tomb. The later Gospel writers of course delete the entire early Markan story about the young man following Jesus at his arrest and change that young man at the tomb into one angel and then two!

Also keep in mind that the earliest followers of Jesus had various problems they HAD to find ways to deal with. They had perhaps left their families to follow someone whom they thought was a messiah [literally, an "anointed one," as were kings and prophets in ancient Israel], even THE messiah, who at baptism [in the earliest Gospel, Mark] said he saw the Spirit of God choosing him to be God's "son," as the earliest Gospel author cites a line from a psalm sung at the coronation of Hebrew kings in ancient Israel ("You are my son, this day have I begotten you.") But both messiah and the phrase, "son of God, this day I have anointed you," are ancient Hebrew metaphors applied to human beings. And that is how the earliest Gospel [Mark] depicted Jesus. So after leaving their families to follow Jesus the anointed son of God who preached messages about the kingdom of God, and after entering Jersualem, perhaps to the cheers of some crowds, they saw their fearless leader summarily executed, which meant they had to deal with some cognitive dissonance, i.e., the problem of having wasted their lives and time following not the messiah and son of God and preacher of God's present and coming kingdom, but a dead end, instead. Does the mind simply give up in such cases? Psychological studies of people in other religions that wound up at dead ends prove that in such cases some give up, but others take their beliefs to a new level of insistance and persistance, raising the stakes in invisible holy realms, and in spite of all earthly disappointments. That appears to be what the apostles did to solve their problem of cognitive dissonance.

The solution was denial of the earthly and concentration on the heavenly assertion even more strongly of the truth of Jesus' mission and his closeness to God, even his resurrection, and seat next to God in heaven. The fact that the first century had people willing to "see" things that way, rather than bow to Roman Imperialism is what gave the religion its birth. And I think some of Jesus' teachings as in his parables about the kingdom of God also attracted people and helped make him a larger than life figure, providing the seed of the new religion.

Anonymous said...

Overall, good. However, I do not think you met your burden and there are a few faulty arguments. For instance, you mentioned the so-called "first appearance" accounts. It is acknowledged by all that the writers did not adhere to any strict chronological sequence so we would quite expect the need for harmonization. To wit, all of history seems to be that way and if not done then much of recorded history would have to be thrown out so the above point would be moot to say the least.

Another question you raise (in the same paragraph) is "What if they really do contradict each other?" Obviously, one does not ask that question if it were proven fact??? You need to refrain from tossing those tidbits in unless you can prove a contradiction for apparent (or even real) discrepancies and inconsistencies do not the contradiction make. You dangle the old "simply imaginary" descriptor for the "diversity" angle? Bad move, for that leaves you open.

Do Craig and Habermas base their arguments on illegitimate grounds? Probably, but I'm not concerned with them and still wish to know how your hypothesis would answer to the "diversity of appearances" that you acknowledge? Furthermore, how does harmonization (or the act thereof) disprove in any way the whole "diversity" issue? It is not "inferred" and seems to be pretty plainly stated in all of the accounts.

However, I feel that for the most part, you wrote a very thought-provoking piece. Just don't fall prey to the apologists by including arguments that simply cannot be defended.