Sunday, August 05, 2007

A Film Beyond Belief: Part 1

I was checkin out the Searching for Christianity blog because the author left a comment on my last post saying that she has been struggling with her beleifs about God and the Bible. One thing I found there was a synopsis of a documentary called The God Who Wasn't There: A Film Beyond Belief. This synopsis basically gives the main arguments that the movie makes against the existence of Jesus. Movies like this can be alarming for people who are searching for Christianity for the first time, and even for long-time Christians. It's only fair that the other side of the story is presented and the real errors of this movie are exposed. Therefore, I have written the following:
The film begins with a view of our solar system from a distinctly Christian perspective--with the sun revolving around the earth. Having established the religion’s credentials in the field of science, the film goes on to examine how well the religion is doing in the field of history.
Note the argument here: "Christians didn't always properly understand the solar system, therefore this must mean that they have their history wrong too." This is terrible logic. For one, it's a red herring. Presenting the Church's misunderstandings of science does nothing to actually address Her arguments for the historicity of Jesus. It's flat-out off-topic. Furthermore, I can get science wrong all day long but my Christology can still be right. It does not follow that, if I don't know the solar system well, then I must not know Jesus well either.
Christianity’s main historical claim is that a man named Jesus actually lived in Palestine, conducted a traveling ministry, and was put to death by Romans at the instigation of Jewish leaders.

But how much evidence do we have that this claim is any more justified than the assertion that the sun revolves around the earth? Does the record we have of early Christianity justify the belief in a historical Jesus?
Well, we've already addressed the bearing that Her ancient scientific claims has upon her assertions about Jesus. As for the evidence of a historical Jesus, there is an overwhelming preponderance from Jewish, Christian, and pagan sources (for example, see this article from the New Advent encyclopedia). But, my suspicion is that Brian has not bothered to investigate this evidence. At least, as far as the synopsis reveals, he has not engaged any of it.
An interviewer asks Christians outside a Billy Graham event if they can tell him about how Christianity spread in those early days. Astonishingly, no Christian has a clear idea. Many stammer when asked the question--as if they’d never even considered it before.
Here's another logical fallacy that he makes throughout this movie. He assumes that if one particular Christian or group of Christians does not know the answer to his questions then there must not be an answer. But, he's not proving that the historical claims of Christianity are without basis. He's just proving that certain Christians don't know their faith as well as they should. Nothing groundbreaking there, I'm afraid.
The first century of Christianity is largely undiscussed in Christian culture, and Brian discovers why: It turns out that there is a gap of several decades between the supposed life of Jesus and the appearance of the first gospel account of his life.
Statements like this clearly reveal that Brian has not done his homework. For one, it's absurd to say that the first century of Christianity is "largely undiscussed in Christian culture," as least as far as Catholics are concerned. Protestants may not know the history of the Church as well as they should, but Catholics sure do.

We have plenty of evidence that Christians were talking about Christ from the very beginning. We have no "large gap of several decades." For example, see the dates of the following works (source here):

30-60: Passion Narrative:
40-80: Lost Sayings Gospel Q
50-60: 1 Thessalonians
50-60: Philippians
50-60: Galatians
50-60: 1 Corinthians
50-60: 2 Corinthians
50-60: Romans
50-60: Philemon
50-80: Colossians
50-90: Signs Gospel
50-95: Book of Hebrews
50-120: Didache
50-140: Gospel of Thomas
50-140: Oxyrhynchus 1224 Gospel
50-200: Sophia of Jesus Christ
65-80: Gospel of Mark
70-100: Epistle of James
70-120: Egerton Gospel
70-160: Gospel of Peter
70-160: Secret Mark
70-200: Fayyum Fragment
70-200: Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs
73-200: Mara Bar Serapion
80-100: 2 Thessalonians
80-100: Ephesians
80-100: Gospel of Matthew
80-110: 1 Peter
80-120: Epistle of Barnabas
80-130: Gospel of Luke
80-130: Acts of the Apostles
80-140: 1 Clement
80-150: Gospel of the Egyptians
80-150: Gospel of the Hebrews
80-250: Christian Sibyllines
90-95: Apocalypse of John
90-120: Gospel of John
90-120: 1 John
90-120: 2 John
90-120: 3 John
90-120: Epistle of Jude
93: Flavius Josephus

All of these works have a possible date of authorship within the first century. I haven't read them all, but I'd be willing to bet that the vast majority of them talk about Jesus Christ too. The canonical works in this list definitely do.

That said, we must also note that we're going back 2000 years. We can't expect for there to be libraries of written information at our disposal. That we have what we do have is amazing enough.

Finally, it's a logical fallacy (again) to assume that if a person (or group of persons) didn't write about something, then they didn't believe in it. Jesus wasn't trying to start his own book-of-the-month club. He commanded his followers to go and teach, to spread the gospel by word of mouth. Christians were always talking about Jesus, from the moment he died and rose again. Were there an actual absense of literature on his life from the first century, this still would not mean that the story of Jesus was just conjured up "several decades" after his death.
The documents covering that gap were largely written by the apostle Paul, who is generally credited as the main architect of Christianity. Without Paul, most secular and religious scholars believe, there would be no Christianity. His zeal and love of Christ helped spread Jesus’ message far and wide.
First of all, if we look at the list of works provided above, Paul only wrote about a quarter of them. That's hardly a majority. Secondly, what "scholars" is he reading? Paul was definitely one of the most influential figures in the early years of Christianity. But, the Church doesn't live or die with him. The gospel wasn't just passed on to him. It was passed on to all of the apostles, and they all took seriously their mission by Christ to "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Mt 28:19-20).
And here’s what most Christians don’t know about Paul: If Jesus was supposed to have been a real human who recently lived, nobody told Paul about it .

Paul’s writings--80,000 words--never mention a historical Jesus. The story you know about Jesus? Paul never heard of it. He never heard of Mary, Joseph, a birth in Bethlehem, King Herod, any miracles at all, any ministry at all, no trial by Jews, no trial by Pontius Pilate.

If you could go back in time and tell Paul the story of Jesus, he’d have no idea what you were talking about. Until the crucifixion. Like other savior gods popular in Paul’s time and region, Paul’s “Christ Jesus” suffered on a cross, beat death, and then returned to his father. But it all took place in a mythical realm--just like the other savior myths of the day.

The person who invented Christianity had no idea his savior was supposed to have walked the earth.
This is by far the most utterly ridiculous argument against Christianity that I have ever read. Has this guy even opened a Bible? It's hard for me to take this movie seriously after reading arguments like that. It's just so ignorant and absurd, it's shocking. I'm flabbergasted.

Anyway, if Paul knew nothing about the historical Jesus, why was he persecuting people who believed in Him? Was he really killing people for believing in someone he knew nothing about? He stood there and witnessed Stephen's martyrdom for Christ (cf. Acts 7:58; 22:20) and all of his words about Jesus (cf. Acts 7:52,56,59). He was knocked down by the light and the voice of "Jesus of Nazareth" (Acts 22:8).

If that weren't enough, in his writings, Paul states several historical facts about Jesus: Yet Paul didn't know that Jesus walked the earth? In light of the evidence, such an assertion is preposterous.
Decades after the supposed life of Christ, the first gospel--Mark--appeared. But it’s not at all clear that Mark thought he was writing history. The language and imagery of his account suggests that not even Mark thought the events he described really happened. Allegorical literature of this type was extremely common during this period.
Gimmie a break with this guy! I would love to know why it's unclear that Mark was writing history and what exactly suggests that Mark never thought the events he described actually happened. Perhaps this is fleshed out more in the movie, but, as it stands now, we simply have an assertion with no proof.

As for evidence of the Gospel's historicity, Brian himself gives us a clue. As he said, Mark is regarded by most scholars to be the first Gospel written. If that is true, then it is likely that Mark's Gospel would be a reliable source of historical information, since the author was closer to the life of Christ and the teaching about him than the other Gospel writers. Also, it is very widely held by Catholic and Protestant scholars that Mark's gospel was the result of him writing down the teaching of Peter, of which he was well acquainted, being himself a disciple and close companion of Peter. Of course, Peter was one of the twelve apostles of Christ. If anyone knew the historical details of the life of Christ, it was Peter, and Mark received these details from him.

Note also that Brian accuses Mark of using language and imagery to craft an allegory, as if Mark possessed great literary skill. But, the internal evidence reveals that he was largely recording everyday speech (that of Peter) instead of composing literary art. J.A. O'Flynn explains:
Mark's narrative is direct, simple and graphic, but these qualities cannot be attributed to the literary skill of the author. His style lacks variety and the range of his vocabulary is limited; frequent redundancies of expression, lack of grammatical sequence and omission of connecting particles suggest everyday speech rather than literary art. The unimportant details which make the narrative so realistic were not inserted for literary effect, but simply because they were part of what Mark had heard from Peter, the eye-witness who remembered vividly the scenes at which he had been present [J.A. O'Flynn, "The Gospel of Jesus Christ According to St. Mark," A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (1953), p. 906].
He also notes that it has long been held that "Mark's narrative shows fewer traces of subsequent interpretation intermingled with the primitive record of Christ's Life and Teaching than do the other Gospels, and consequently, that Mark should be regarded as our most reliable source of information for the simple historical facts concerning the Person and Mission of Christ" (ibid., p. 905). I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that O'Flynn knows a little bit more about the Gospel of Mark then Brian does.
These are the roots of Christianity--one man who had no idea that Jesus was a human, and another who likely wasn’t even trying to make that claim.
This has hardly been proven, as I hope I have shown. More to come in Part 2.

Pax Christi,


MICKY said...


TheGodFearinFiddler said...

Just wanted to mention that the Church never got her science wrong - she simply doesn't teach science. Before the Galileo incident, all scientists (not just Christian ones) believed in geocentricity. (Also note that geocentricity has not been disproven and it literally cannot be disproven and therefore is outside the realm of what we would call "scientific theory".

But I digress. I also challenge you to study more in depth on the dates for the above material. The dating scheme you gave is a generally accepted secular/protestant timeline but actually has little basis in reality. Here is an excellent essay on that subject.

phatcatholic said...

Well, my point was not so much to assert that the Church got science wrong as much as it was to say that, even if she was wrong, it would have no bearing on the historicity of Jesus. As for the dating of the books I listed, I used a source that in turn utilizes popular scholarship. I'm not really interested in trying to resolve the problem of dating the Gospels. As far as this movie is concerned, the order in which they were written is not as important as the fact that they were written early in the life of the Church and they do provide historical details about Christ. That's all that I was trying to assert.

Laudate Dominum said...

There are plenty of exceptions to geocentrism before Galileo. Not to invalidate your point, I just find ancient science to be interesting and must make note of this fact.

Laudate Dominum said...

Just for fun I will drop some names. In India we have Yajnavalkya (9th century BC); The Vishnu Purana (1st century BC); Aryabhata (5th century AD). From Greece we can name Philolaus (4th century BC); Aristarchus of Samos (3rd century BC) and others. I think that Seleucus of Seleucia (2nd century BC) is a notable addition to our list, and of course I would not exclude my boy Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, who preceded Galileo and Copernicus although his methods would not count as "science" by our standards.
This is a partial list and of course if we were to include forms of pseudo-geocentrism we could expand it further.

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