Sunday, December 23, 2007

Rodney Stark's Discovering God - Part 7 - Desperately Seeking Jesus

Following Chapter 4, titled The "Rebirth" of Monotheism, Stark devotes the next two chapters to Indian and Chinese religious thoughts. I am going to skip those chapters and jump right into Chapter 7, The Rise of Christianity.

When last we left off at the end of Part 6 of my commentary on Discovering God, the Jews of the Diaspora were assimilating to Hellenism even as they were converting pagans to Judaism. Meanwhile, back in Judaea, the Jews who remained there were anticipating the coming of a Messiah who would send the Romans packing.

Having refrained from addressing the historicity of Jesus in his prior writings on Christianity, Stark makes what he derisively refers to as "the controversial and often bizarre search" for the historical Jesus his opening salvo in Chapter 7.

The quest to find the historic Jesus, complains Stark, "has been carried to obsessive and absurd lengths as soaring scholarly imaginations." He is dismissive of the Jesus Seminar, "whose members...have been meeting annually to winnow the Gospels", and believes that the search for the historic Jesus "is in many ways a fool's errand." I can only imagine that Rodney Stark is not a particularly big fan of this site.

I have to confess that I am personally agnostic as to whether there was a real Jesus, though I lean towards giving the benefit of the doubt that the Jesus of the Gospels is based at least in part on a real person. Since, as Stark points out, the Scriptures tell us very little about the life of Jesus, "it is his death and resurrection that dominate Christian thought."

Stark goes on to criticize the assumption that "no intelligent modern person could credit tales involving healing, exorcism, or changing water into wine, let alonge such an absolute impossibility as the claim that Jesus rose from the dead!" He considers it narrow minded and ignorant to use the miracles reported in the Bible to discredit the Bible. He vehemently objects to both "militant atheists" who dismiss the miracles described in the Bible as fairy tales and "those seeking to defend their faith by trying to show how miracles could have had natural causes." As Stark sees it, "to make miracles plausible, all that is needed is to postulate the existence of a God who created the universe, nothing more."

And here is where Stark goes off the rails. The parting of the Red Sea. Joshua making the sun stand still. The Virgin Birth. Raising Lazarus from the dead. Stark writes "Some believe these things happened, some believe they didn't-and both positions are based on faith!" (Bold text mine). All that is needed is for someone to believe that these things could have happened. There are some people who believe that the United States government recovered a crashed alien space craft. Most people don't believe in such a bizarre story. But, using Stark's reasoning, both positions are equally based on faith, when in fact they are not. Rather than boiling such controversial claims down to an "either it happened or it didn't", the question that needs to be asked is "How plausible is this story?"

Take the story in Joshua 10 where the sun is alleged to have stood still in the sky. That means the Earth stopped spinning on its axis, unless anyone reading this still subscribes to the geocentric model of the solar system. According to Rodney Stark, if a god exists that created the universe and intervenes in human history, then it is perfectly reasonable to believe that this god can cause the Earth to stop spinning, which would cause the sun to appear to stand still in the sky, so that the Israelites would have extra daylight to slaughter a retreating enemy army. To disbelieve this story requires just as much faith as it does to believe it. Oh really? Consider the context of the story in Joshua. A coalition of kings attacked the Gibeonites, who had allied themselves to the Israelites. The Gibeonites called on the Israelites for help, and Joshua answered their pleas. Not only did the Israelites defeat the coalition, God Himself saw fit to hurl "large hailstones down on them from the sky." If the story is to be believed, more of the enemy died from the hailstones than from Joshua's warriors.

When one considers the vast extent of the universe, and how our planet is an infinitesimal speck within all of it, how plausible is it that a deity that created all of that is going to take such an active interest in the affairs of a particular group of humans in a small sliver of land in the Middle East? Joshua 10 makes it clear that the battle was already won and was a rout, and yet on this day only, we are expected to believe that the creator of the universe stopped the sun in the sky for almost a full day so that a confederation of Hebrew tribesmen could have more daylight in order to slay more of their enemies in a battle that was already won. One wonders why it would be even necessary, since god supposedly killed the majority of them with hailstones. And why hailstones? Why not cause the Canaanites to spontaneously combust on the battlefield? That would have been really damaging to their morale! Considering all this, it is perfectly reasonable to dismiss this story from Joshua as being fictional while it requires a tremendous leap of faith to believe that it is literally true.

Stark then proceeds to concentrate on what we can know about Jesus, if indeed he was an actual historical figure. He makes an interesting argument against the belief that Jesus and his disciples were a bunch of homeless vagabonds. In the Gospels, Jesus spends most of his ministry in Galilee. This region "is so tiny that it is an easy two-day walk from north to south and only a day's walk from east to west at the widest point." Therefore, Stark considers it to be perfectly reasonable that Jesus and his apostles had homes in Galilee and that therefore his journeys were rarely more than a day's travel from where he lived. In this I can find no disagreement with Stark.

Next, Stark addresses the purpose of the crucifixion of Christ. He notes that the "objection to the entire Christ story has been that it seems so fundamentally pagan." But, as before, Stark trots out the divine accomodation argument. "God's revelations are always geared to the current capacity of humans to comprehend," Stark reminds us, "Hence, the message to Greco-Roman pagans: Christ died for your sins! Forget offerings of a hundred or even a thousand cattle! The Christian God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. That message spoke powerfully and eloquently to a culture that took sacrifice, especially blood sacrifice, as fundamental to pleasing the Gods." So there you have it, Christianity paved the way for the animal rights movement.

Therefore, rather than discrediting Christianity, its similarities to pagan beliefs were seen as a verification of its truth. Consequently, what are considered to be the pagan elements of the Christ story, "maximized the cultural continuity between Greco-Roman paganism and Christianity." On the other hand, it is also possible that the Christian message was deliberately tailored by early Christian missionaries to appeal to pagans.

Stark proceeds to make a revisionist case not only for the historical reliability of the New Testmant, but also for the early authorship of the Gospels. He derides Biblical scholars such as those affiliated with the Jesus Seminar as being "motivated by angry atheism." Stark disagrees with the Biblical critics who "take the position that unless something reported in scripture can be completely verified by nonbiblical sources, it must be rejected as mythical."

The veracity of the New Testament is sound, argues Stark, because it "provides a very accurate geography, not only of Israel, but of the Roman Empire. Places are where they are supposed to be. Reported travel times are consistent with the distances involved. The topography is accurately described and extends to tiny details such as the location of wells, streams, springs, gorges, cliffs, city gates, and the like."

Contrary to the consensus that the Gospel of John was written much later than the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Stark is impressed by the argument of the late Biblical scholar John A. T. Robinson that John actually predates them. Among the pieces of evidence in support of Robinson's contention is that John "is infused with fear and antagonism toward the Jews at a time when the Roman authorities had long since become the primary persecutors." Perhaps it is ignorance on my part, but I would have thought that the antagonism towards the Jews would be evidence for a later authorship of John, as well as Matthew, precisely because of the references to "the Jews" as some other entity, considering that Christianity started out as a reform movement within Judaism. Would not early Christians, who believed that Jesus was a fulfillment of Jewish prophecies, still see themselves as Jews?

Among other factors Stark gives for the historical reliability of John is that the author "displays far more detailed and accurate information about the city of Jerusalem than do the other Gospels, which suggests he lived there (and before 70 CE)." There is also an "apparent lack of knowledge that Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 CE-John seems to assume that many places were currently existing that were razed by the Romans."

Stark also argues in favor of earlier dates for the Synoptic Gospels. Stark cites Gerd Theissen and Richard Bauckham, who note the frequent use of "protective anonymity" in many passages of the Gospels, including John. There are the references to "the disciple that Jesus loved" for example, which Theissen and Bauckham believe were necessary to shield them from prosecution should their identities be exposed. Writes Stark, "This frequent resort to anonymity suggests that the Gospels were written at a sufficiently early date that these people were alive and still at risk."

Well, if the Gospels were written so close to the events depicted in them and the environment was still so fraught with risk, the authors seem to have been privy to information that they should not have in such dangerous times. For example, Matthew 28:11-13, where the tomb guards and the priests are discussing amongs themselves what to say about the disappearance of Jesus. Where would the author of Matthew have gotten this information? In fact, one thing that struck me upon reading the Gospels again last year was that they read like novels with an omniscient third person narrator. Conversations and events are portrayed to which none of the authors of the Gospels could have been witness to. And to have actually located these people, again in a time supposedly close to the events reported in the Gospels, and in a climate that was dangerous for early Christians, does not strike me as plausible. However, what cannot be denied is that the authors of the Gospels clearly do set the story of Jesus in a real time and place.

Stark concludes that "at the very least, the New Testament provides a truthful and reliable account of what the first generation of Christians believed to have taken place." Or, I would add, at the very least, the Gospels provide an account of what early Christian missionaries wanted potential converts among the Jews of the Diaspora to believe to have taken place.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello. My name's Andrew and I happened to stumble upon this page today. I am a Christian but I enjoyed what you wrote and see that you are trying to be fair.

I thought, however i would just respond to a couple of points at the end of your piece:

For example, Matthew 28:11-13, where the tomb guards and the priests are discussing amongs themselves what to say about the disappearance of Jesus. Where would the author of Matthew have gotten this information?
I think the answer might be in Acts 6:7

In fact, one thing that struck me upon reading the Gospels again last year was that they read like novels with an omniscient third person narrator.
You might be partly right here. But I was thinking about this just recently with regard to Luke and Acts.

Have you noticed in Acts how there are these "we" passages that keep appearing which make no sense unless Luke is sometimes with Paul on his journeys?

And have a look at the opening chapters of Luke. You can work out who one of Luke's anonymous "eyewitnesses" (1:2) is because we know her thoughts. When she and her husband speak to their son it is recorded as "your father and I..." (2:48). Luke seems to be working off interviews with Mary herself.
I find unannounced clues like that kind of persuasive.