Thursday, April 29, 2010

Do You Believe in Caesar?

I am often asked how I can believe in the Bible. I find it to be a very odd question. Usually I respond by asking if the questioner believes in Julius Caesar. When discussing the reliability of an ancient document there are two important factors that historians consider. First, the number of manuscript copies still around and, second the time between when it was first written and the oldest copy still in existence.
For comparison, let me show you some well known ancient documents and how they rate on these key areas. The Gallic Wars, the work detailing Caesar’s major conquests, was written over a 56 year period. We have 10 copies, the closest to the original is 1,000 years removed. In other words, the oldest copy we have of The Gallic Wars was written nearly 1,000 after the events happened.
Most kids read The Iliad  by Homer in either Jr. High or High School. We have 643 copies of Homer's Iliad and there is a 500 year span between the original and oldest existing copy.
I have never heard anyone seriously question the reliability/accuracy/validity/believability of either work. We should note that The Iliad is a work of fiction, so believability really doesn’t apply to it. So these seem to be decent standards by which to judge another ancient work. We will now apply these standards to  the writings describing the life, death, and purported resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, also called Jesus Christ. These writings are collectively known as The New Testament.
The New Testament was written over a time period of 60 years. We have over 24,000 copies and some of the copies we have are only 25 years removed from the originals!
These are the facts, and they are not in dispute.


Gravity said...

I prefer you as a tank than a philosopher.

CaptainPsyko said...

You're missing one major criteria, which is the availiability of other evidence, either archaelogical (Artifacts which corroborate the information found in the text), or textual (Other texts which refer to the events described, or which otherwise indicate that it was likely true).

There is an enormity of both Archaelogical and Textual evidence that Ceasar not only lived, but did the things he did.

What evidence there is corroborating the life of Jesus meanwhile, falls squarely into the same camp as that evidence which corroborates the information found in The Iliad - that is, the locations are mostly factual, some figures bear resemblance to figures corroborated by the Archaeology, but things don't line up 100%, etc.

I don't think anyone is out to deny that the New Testament was written somewhere around the first century, CE, and that it was distributed very widely and very quickly.

Nobody denies the authenticity, with regards to age, of the Iliad of The Gallic Wars either.

But that's hardly the argument being made when someone questions your ability to believe that the events described within the bible actually occurred as described, a proposition that most historians are able to rather handily dismiss. Leaving aside the various inconsistencies within the various texts, the texts themselves for the most part, match up, at best loosely with the archaeology. This is in part because of the aforementioned inconsistency - clearly each of the various gospel writers took some degree or another of artistic/divine license. Partly, it's also because, at the end of the day, Jesus circa 0 BC would have been a pretty unremarkable cult leader in a city that was absolutely swarming with 'messiahs,' 'prophets,' any number of bizarre cults and heresies, to say nothing of the various political dissidents to be found (and there's evidence that what historical Jesus there may have been clearly was seen as falling squarely into the latter category just as much as the first).

Given that, you basically have someone thoroughly unremarkable to historians of the era, outside of the followers of his own specific cult. Thus, we don't have much textual corroboration of the events described. (Contrast with Julius Ceasar. Not only do we have his accounts of the Gallic Wars, but we have the writings of his contemporaries - Cicero, Publius, Catullus, Plutarch, and many others, all of which square with Ceasars own. We don't just know when Ceaser lived, we know what he looked like. What he wore. We know what his friends thought of him, and his enemies.)

Drazmor said...

That's an interesting point. I never thought of it that way.

What's my main Again? said...

@ Captain

Why out of all the other "cults" did Christianity stick? Why is it that when faced with prison, death, torture that none of his apostles revoked the name of Jesus. Why would so many people die for someone who wasn't legit?

Why was the roman empire and Jewish leaders afraid of letting Christianity spread if it was on false pretenses?

CaptainPsyko said...

As to why the leadership was afraid of letting it spread... they sought to suppress all of that nonsense. In fact, most of the evidence indicates that they were far more worried about the various other cults popping up for a few hundred years. The specific persecution of Christians doesn't pop in the history immediately co-temporaneously with Jesus, or even just after. It takes a while for the movement to build up steam. Meaning, either during his life he was just a blip, (That's the faithful Christian who isn't rejecting history version btw), or, the Gospels were written after he died, whole cloth, by a bunch of guys that were out to build their own religion. (That's the dirty skeptic 'I hate christians version' fwiw - My own view, just so you know, is somewhere in between).

As to why it survived? Well, isn't that where Faith is supposed to take over?

Listen, I've got no problem with the idea of Faith. With those who believe. I personally don't, but I respect those who do, and have no intention of trying to stamp it out. What I DO have a problem with, is those who attempt to dismiss History, Science, Archaeology, as being no more substantive than their faith.

Do you believe in the events of the Bible? If so, you should do so because you have faith in the salvation spoken of therein, because you have faith in God, in Jesus, in the Truth revealed in that text. You shouldn't need History to be on your side, so long as it doesn't outright contradict you. Making the argument that one should believe in Jesus because one 'believes in Ceasar' is disingenuous. It is the worst kind of Tautology, and the argument breaks down even under the lightest of reasoned investigation. It ascribes to those critics of christianity an argument that none are interested in making (That the New Testament is somehow not as old as is claimed), while making baseless and frankly extreme claims about History.

If you Believe, go ahead and Believe. If someone will ask 'How can you believe?' Well, quite frankly, the only appropriate answer should always be Faith.

Helion said...

Live and Let Live. You can believe in anything that gets you through the day. I object to someone's pressing need to impose their beliefs on someone else.

What's my main Again? said...

Honor's point was made more against the view that the bible is a hand me down that has been changed over the last 2000 years and therefore invalid. A lot of claims against the bible are made in that context. Saying that the bible has been rewritten through history is a false claim. The evidence honors brought forth is because of that.

Now back to your point. The persecution of the church didn't start until the late first century... but Jesus' ministry started in 30 AD and lasted around 3 years. Relative to the life of Ceasar this short span is a little road bump in historical terms.

The early church was started after the death of Jesus by the apostles, but involved a large portion of the jewish population who wanted Jesus dead in the first place. Fact is that the most of the jewish people were looking for that political power house that would come in and reshape the scene. That isn't what Jesus was but that doesn't make him any less the messiah.

Anyway only the first 4 books of the new testament deal with the life of Jesus whereas the rest fulfill his teachings with the creation of the first century church. Even in the bible Jesus' life isn't important... its the message that he brought.

Anyway I honestly don't think Honor's point was You believe in ceasar therefor you must believe in Jesus. Just that people have such a hard time believing the bible can stand the test of time... but not other historical accounts/documents that go unchallenged.

CaptainPsyko said...

And again, I contest the statement that these documents go unchallenged. In fact, if anything, I would argue that the reason most such documents do stand the test of time is because they stand up to such rigorous scrutiny, and because the information contained therein corroborates so closely with other textual evidence, and with the Archaeology.

Now, it's remarkable that the New Testament has stood the test of time similarly to be sure, but it has done so for remarkably different reasons - most notably, whereas the scholarly community has invited archaeological and textual scrutiny over the centuries, the ecclesiastical community, has, for the most part, explicitly rejected similar degrees of inquiry, dismissing them, at best as attempts by the unfaithful to discredit the church, at worst as outright Heresy.

Hombre said...

Heh. Came in here armed with a mass of facts and arguments about Caesar only to find out that CaptainPsyko has done exactly what I wanted to do only much better! Thanks for expressing my views so eloquently.

Ben Lamb said...

You should check out this link

An awful lot was removed from the main edition of the Bible that was originally part of God's Law. Mostly stuff that didn't go down well with the churches of the time.

Also, it's important not to forget that the English translations of the bible are just that. Translations from what was a dead language. This leads to an incredible amount of ambiguity as to the meanings of the original words, and a lot of flexibility for a translator.

Honors Code said...

Which is why when we study the Bible it's important to go back to the original language and learn the meanings of words and culture. Biblical Study under a good Bible teacher is very enlightening.

Anonymous said...

Amen, Honors!