Most common errors skeptics sometimes make in anti-Christian arguments:
[Note: I intend to develop these fully, and then go through the various major sections of the anti-Christian web sites and classify the various arguments there, under the following error-categories. I will probably start with the "Jury is In" one, since 1) I get a lot of requests to do that; and 2) its excellent organization by Lowder makes it easier to do, on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis.]
"Only X gospel writers refer to it, so the event is questionable"
Point: This typically takes the form of "this event is only MENTIONED by ONE (or TWO or THREE or 'ONLY PAUL') of the NT writers, so it is questionable". The apparent intent of the remark is to discount the truthfulness of an account and/or relevance of the event. The overall goal seems to be to 'dismiss' the account from having to be explained.
Spoof: "Only X people recorded the voyage of Columbus, so it is questionable that he actually sailed".
Structure (without assumptions):
- If an event occurred , it would have been recorded by ALL writers (or the majority or the more important ones or whatever);
- Some event X was NOT recorded by ALL writers (or the majority or the more important ones or whatever);
- Therefore, we are not justified in believing that event X occurred.
Questionable Assumptions in the argument:
- That ALL writers KNEW of the event.
- That ALL writers felt it necessary to include ALL events in their document, regardless of literary structure or intent.
- That the records of ALL writers have passed down to us 100% intact.
- That justification for believing in an event (and consequent accounts of that event) is STRICTLY based on written records (cf. eruption of Vesuvius, birth of Sargon).
- MAIN: That we are NOT justified in believing a written account of an event if ONLY one writer's records (regardless of credibility, other non-written evidence, etc.) survive the passage of time!!!!! (major, major fallacy!)
There is a variant of this that applies mostly to gospel accounts: "since it was only recorded by TWO authors, it MUST NOT HAVE been a widely-held, widely-known, or important event/issue". Most of you will recognize this as an argument from silence. Arguments from Silence are notoriously useless, for they can be used to support OPPOSITE positions! Consider:
- This puts an impossible restriction on most experience. By definition NO EVENT that was witnessed by a single individual can be accepted!
- This typically is used ad infinitum. If only two writers refer to an event, then it's 'only two'. If it's three, then 'only three', etc. This is sometimes actually extended to 'only the NT refers to this event--it is never referred to in the Church Fathers.'
- There is NO correlation between the number of observers and the 'questionableness' of an event. This simple assertion on their part is a serious oversimplification. The ACTUAL situation is much more complex--the 'questionableness' depends on MANY more elements than just the number of witnesses (e.g. the nature of the observational situation, the character of the witness, the event seen).
If the 'only one' argument is shaky, the 'only two (or three)' is even MORE shaky. When you get to a plurality of witnesses, the original objection loses much of its apparent force. "Only 14", for example, would be a patently ridiculous argument.
- The practical problem should be obvious to any student of history. The VAST majority of ancient history is recorded by 'only one' or 'only two' recorders! Even the vast majority of our current scientific experimentation is witnessed by 'only two or three' witnesses! (This does not take into account the theoretical reproducibility of scientific events--a situation that does NOT obtain in historical data.)
- The other main problem of this position concerns the simple reality of the paucity of data that has survived antiquity. THERE may have been tons and tons of these accounts floating around in that time period--only a handful of which have survived to the present. (Indeed, Luke specifically asserts this in the first verses of his gospel narratives: "Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.").
- There is a general epistemological problem in here also; the move from ontics to epistemics is completely unfounded. To argue from 'an event must have had multiple recorders' to 'we are only justified in believing multiple witnesses' requires an ARBITRARY CRITERION that CANNOT be defended. Even under the guise of 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence' it is ENTIRELY ARBITRARY to 'set the bar' at multiple witnesses! [Sounds a little like the high and lofty positivist criterion of the old Vienna Circle, doesn't it?! ;>) ]
A: Since it wasn't mentioned but once, it must not have been widely known.
~A: Since it wasn't mentioned but once, it must have been so widely known as to not need repeating.
This AMBIGUITY is what renders the Argument from Silence impotent (generally, but there ARE exceptions).
Element of Truth: We know that the credibility of an account IS strengthened by the presence of multiple witnesses (as long as the witnesses don't lead us to suspect 'conspiracy' or 'collusion'). But the OPPOSITE is not necessarily true--that only one witness CANNOT be trusted. Also, there are certain contexts in which MULTIPLE witnesses were required under God's law in the OT. Specifically, capital offenses required the presence of two witnesses (Num 35.30: "Anyone who kills a person is to be put to death as a murderer only on the testimony of witnesses. But no one is to be put to death on the testimony of only one witness."), and this is generalized to other criminal acts (Deut 19.15). [This was an issue in Jesus' trials-cf. Mark 14-but it COULD be overridden (apparently) in the case of a confession of guilt under oath-as in that passage and in Matt 26.] But this is explicitly for LEGAL contexts, which do not apply in most skeptic-believer arguments.
"No outside confirmation exists, therefore we don't have to take the report seriously"
Point: This normally attempts to 'throw out' a piece of data by forcing an arbitrary requirement on it. "Outside confirmation" is required to 'validate' inside witness. (You can probably see the resemblance to the above argument.) There is often an implicit 'accusation of bias' hiding in this argument--'insiders' cannot be trusted; but outside observers can.
Spoof: "Since there was no outside confirmation of the birth of Julius Caesar, then we can't be sure he was born".
Structure of the Argument (without assumptions):
- If an event X occurred, then there would be some outside confirmation;
- Some event X has no outside confirmation;
- Therefore we are not justified in believing that event X occurred.
- That there even IS something that can be called 'outside'--especially in religiously-charged areas!
- That each and every IMPORTANT event in history would have been witnessed by at least two parties (one 'inside' and one 'outside')
- That any outside confirmation would survive the passage of time.
- That we are NOT justified in believing a writer UNLESS some writing from an 'outside' source survived time! (major, major problem here!)
- This would eliminate most of ancient history, and a great deal of contemporary events as well. There are very few events that have 'outside confirmation'.
- There are other ways to 'validate' an account than by 'outside confirmation': presence of supporting data, credibility of the witness, confirmation of direct consequences (e.g. we know Caesar lived, therefore it is reasonable to assume he was born!).
- This is highly arbitrary as a restriction; it doesn't hold sway in very many contexts at all.
[If it is a 'bias' accusation, all of the objections to THAT kind of accusation obtain (both below, and Were the NT writers so biased as to be untrustworthy?]
- It should be obvious that the credibility of the outside witness MIGHT BE LESS than that of the inside witness--just being an 'outside' witness has NO bearing on 'confirmation' or credibility.
- In some cases, the outside witness may have been dependent on the inside witness anyway, making the credibility of the outside USELESS as an 'independent source'. (Some of the outside evidence for the historicity of Jesus probably falls into this category.)
- There is a more technical issue in how far 'outside' you have to be--Apostles, John vs. Synoptics, the Eleven vs. Paul, followers of the apostles, Church Fathers, early deviant Christians (e.g. Marcion), related movements (e.g. Gnostics), hostile "anti-movements" (e.g. Second-century Palestinian Judaism), hostile political authorities (e.g. Pilate and camp), later Christians and later polemics?
- And, of course, there is ALWAYS the problem of how 'objective' the outside witness could be. Would ANY of the possible 'outsiders' of the day (i.e. Roman government, Jewish oligarchy, messianic sectists) be candidates for being more 'objective' or more 'honest with the truth' than the 'insiders'? The political and religious situation that obtained between the Jewish leadership and the Roman military occupation forces might absolutely PRECLUDE any 'objective' documentation of a risen Messiah from such 'outside parties'!
The epistemic problem from above also raises its head here. There simply is no defensible 'justification' for limiting 'justification' to this arbitrary criterion of 'outside' (assuming we can make it precise enough of a concept--and THEN DEFEND THAT PRECISE DEFINITION!)
Element of Truth: As in the above, the presence of an outside witness might ADD to the credibility of an account (especially if it's not dependent on it), but the ABSENCE of such a witness is NOT correlated to the truth or falsity of an account (nor the consequent truthfulness of a solitary report). It can be especially useful in situations where there is SOME evidence to doubt the trustworthiness of the account, and in situations were there are adequate grounds to suspect 'conspiracy'.
"No contemporary confirmation"--"surely something THAT important would have been recorded"
Point: This attempts to make the requirements EVEN tighter than the above. Not only do we have to have multiple witnesses (with at least one 'outside'), but now they have to be "contemporaries". This is generally coupled with the phrase "surely something THAT important would have been recorded". This is slightly different than the above cases, since its argument has a different structure than the others:
Structure (without assumptions):
Questionable Assumptions in the Argument:
- Something THAT important would have been recorded by multiple, outside, contemporary witnesses.
- No record of that event exists.
- Therefore, we are not justified in believing in that event (or the recording of that event).
- That writing was the only means of 'recording' events of community importance (vs. Traditional ANE oral tradition control methods).
- That the importance of the event/issue was RECOGNIZED by 'multiple, outside, contemporary' recorders.
- That the importance of the event/issue was RECOGNIZED IMMEDIATELY by 'multiple, outside, contemporary' recorders.
- That the significance of the event did not run COUNTER to any polemical interests of these 'outside' contemporaries (e.g. would we actually expect the Rabbis to record a resurrection of an alleged messiah and miracle worker?!)
- That those who were so qualified, decided to write it down, and in fact did so.
- That those writings (or at least one or two) would have been preserved through the vicissitudes of history
- This would eliminate most of ancient history, and a great deal of contemporary events as well. There are very few events that have 'outside, contemporary confirmation'.
- There are other ways to 'validate' an account than by 'outside, contemporary confirmation'-presence of supporting data, credibility of the witness, confirmation of direct consequences (e.g. we know Caesar lived, therefore it is reasonable to assume he was born!).
- This is highly arbitrary as a restriction; it doesn't hold sway in very many contexts at all.
- There is the general problem with the notion of 'contemporary'--what would that mean concerning the resurrection of Jesus? For example, Paul would have been a young child--would he have been a contemporary? What about the followers of the apostles? (they would have been alive at the Crucifixion also.)
- What counts as 'importance' is a significant issue here. Too often the events are NOT recognized as important until later. And things of 'importance' are too often also things of 'polemic'-issues in which ALL of the parties have a stake. The event of executing a Jewish messiah and subsequent experiences of His resurrection would NOT be a popular event in either Jewish history (e.g. a divine Messiah with authority over the ruling oligarchy?--"I don't THINK SO!") or Roman history (e.g. another Son of God/King of the Jews instead of CAESAR?--"I don't THINK SO!").
- Consider even the birth/death records in most of the Roman occupations; we simply have so very,
very few of them, even in the cases of famous and/or royal families.
"One dissenter in early witnesses" implies "no agreement" which implies " not true"! (especially used with Church Fathers)
"Some textual variants exist", therefore, throw the passage out!
"They felt strongly about what they believed"--therefore, throw their writings out!
"Other earlier people believed similar things", therefore the biblical writers must have plagiarized!
"They should be judged by today's standards of precision, science, etc."
"We must use MY criteria of what counts as proof or speculation..."
Rampant, unfounded speculation
"Some ambiguity exists", therefore throw the data out!
Domino theory: "One error means you throw it ALL out as untrustworthy"
Improper weighting of the data! (which data points 'relativise' the others? The Cross or Midian?)
Sources hopelessly out of date! (Kersey Graves, for goodness sake!)
Differences in gospel accounts MUST BE contradictions (e.g. no real evaluation of potential explanations)
"Since there are alternative possible explanations for the phenomena, we should not accept the most plausible!"
The Infinite regress problem of "extraordinary evidence"
"You should not use personal experience of God as evidence for His existence--even to yourself." (It is not verifiable by non-believers).
General lack of familiarity with the Biblical world--its history, customs, language, politics.
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