Stuart Gray is a Christian apologist, and he and I have been exchanging emails about our views on the origins of Christianity. He recently posted an interesting critique of my Christianity Myth argument called “Could Jesus’ Resurrection Have Been a Cunning Lie?” I commented that his critique of my argument suggested he had not fully grasped the real thrust of my argument. He replied “I’ve focused on what I observe to be the foundational idea that you build everything else upon. I’m keen to hear a counter from you on my response to your book’s foundational idea”. Stuart is referring to my suggestion that Peter simply lied to Paul about the alleged resurrection in Jerusalem. He seems to think this suggestion that Peter lied is “the foundational idea” of my argument, the very bedrock on which the rest my argument stands. Discredit this suggestion and the rest of my argument becomes irrelevant. It’s a classic straw man argument, but in this case it’s probably an unintentional one. Well Stuart, I’m sorry but the real bedrock of my argument consists, not of one foundational idea as you suggest, but of two foundational ideas, and neither of them have anything to do with lying.
Both foundational ideas forming the real bedrock of my argument are assertions, and both assertions pertain to the two alleged supernatural events forming the bedrock of the orthodox argument. These assertions are:
1. Jesus was not resurrected in Jerusalem c 30 CE.
2. Paul just hallucinated on the road to Damascus c 33 CE.
As I hope Stuart will eventually come to appreciate after reading this blog, my suggestion that Peter lied to Paul is not the foundational idea my argument as he suggests. It’s just a simple logical conclusion that flows from my first foundational idea
Implications of my first foundational idea that an historical-Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem c 30 CE.
The historicity of this Jesus character is now well established. Even apologists like Stuart himself accept that Jesus of Nazareth existed. Where they and I differ, is they assume this historical character was then resurrected after his crucifixion, whereas I maintain he was not resurrected after his crucifixion. I assert he was not the son of God as orthodox Christianity alleges. I assert he was just a simple itinerant preacher from Galilee who was crucified but not resurrected. This last assertion leads me to infer Peter just lied to Paul when he claimed Jesus had been resurrected in Jerusalem. If apologists want to assert this Jesus was resurrected after his crucifixion then it’s down to them to prove he was resurrected. It’s an extraordinary claim and it demands extraordinary proof to back it up. Simply asserting that the gospel evidence proves he was resurrected is not good enough. Apologists must first justify this claim by demonstrating the gospels are historically accurate.
If apologists want to discredit my suggestion that Peter lied to Paul about the resurrection then all they have to do is demonstrate that Peter told the truth about the resurrection. In other words they have to prove definitively that the alleged resurrection actually happened. Simply claiming the gospel evidence proved Jesus was resurrected worked well for centuries, mainly because the vast majority of Christians new little or nothing about the history of their religion. Most still don’t, but these days too many people know about the notorious gospel gap. The very existence of this 40-70 year gap proves the resurrection accounts in these gospels are based, not on first-hand eye witness evidence, as apologists used to claim and some still do, but on second-hand hearsay evidence.
Explaining the existence of this gap is still a thorn in Christianity’s side and the latest gambit to get round this hearsay evidence problem is something I refer to as “The Habermas Argument”. This argument attempts to authenticate the second-hand hearsay evidence in the gospels by linking it to Peter’s first-hand eye witness evidence. Essentially, the argument establishes a simple chain of events joining Peter’s evidence to the gospel evidence via Paul. In essence, Peter told Paul about the alleged resurrection in Jerusalem and Paul then relayed this information to his early Christian communities. A simple solid chain of events involving the two pillars of early Christianity.
This Habermas argument defuses the gospel gap issue, but in doing so, it raises an even thornier issue. Habermas has now demonstrated that the veracity of all resurrection accounts found in the gospels depend entirely on the veracity of Peter’s original claims. This veracity cannot be established directly, because there’s still nothing to corroborate Peter’s claims and still nothing to prove he told Paul the truth. Like all apologists, Habermas doesn’t let this bother him. He personally believes the resurrection happened, so he simply assumes Peter didn’t lie about it.
The total lack of reliable independent evidence to support allegations that Jesus was resurrected in Jerusalem forced early apologists to assert their gospels were historically accurate. They had no choice. It was the only as yet un-discredited evidence they had to offer. More recently, a total failure to adequately explain the existence of the notorious gospel gap, has forced today’s apologists to switch their focus entirely. They now attempt to authenticate Peter’s uncorroborated and unverified claims, by asserting he was martyred for his beliefs in Rome. They then assert this alleged martyrdom proves Peter told the truth, and thus the gospel evidence is authentic because it’s based on reliable eye witness evidence furnished by Peter. This simple logic explains why Stuart attempts to discredit what he wrongly sees is my foundational idea. As I said at the beginning of this blog, discredit this alleged foundational idea and the rest of my argument becomes irrelevant.
Unfortunately, apologists like Stuart now have to prove Peter was martyred as claimed. There’s no definitive direct evidence to support this assertion. There’s only the scant indirect evidence in the records of antiquity. Stuart lists this scant evidence in his blog and claims it confirms Peter was martyred in Rome. However, in reality, these records constitute little more than circumstantial evidence. We have a few facts which are difficult to explain. We have a reluctance to consider alternative explanations. We have an assumption that the proposed explanation is the only explanation. This satisfies the three basic requirements of all circumstantial evidence, and consequently it allows apologists to construct, what at best is a just simple prima facie argument. The records do exist and they do indicate some early scholars/historians may actually have believed Peter was martyred in Rome. They could just as easily indicate that vested interests back then were simply trying to promote the idea that Peter was martyred in Rome. None of these antiquity records actually proves Peter was martyred in Rome.
The origins of this martyrdom claim is still unclear but we do know the early church has a well established history of tampering with the evidence and a well established history of cooking the odd books here and there. Josephus’ Antiquities and the last few verses of Mark are just two of the more obvious examples. I’ve also demonstrated in my argument that we have just cause to question the authenticity of Galatians 1:19 and 1-Corinthians 15:7 [see The Christianity Myth blog for more details]. So in my opinion, the sparse records of antiquity currently being offered to prove Peter was martyred in Rome are more or less what one would expect them to be, given the nature of the beast. The early church preserved everything that supported its existence, they destroyed everything that didn’t support its existence and they modified the rest if possible.
Many apologists now promote this assertion that Peter was martyred in Rome, and Stuart cites Sean McDowell, one of the more vocal advocates of this idea, to make his case. But not all scholars/academics agree with these apologists, and there’s ample room for cherry picking on both sides of the fence. For a more balanced view of Peter’s alleged fate, I suggest Stuart also reads any, or preferably all, of the following:
Encyclopedia Britannica – Tradition of Peter in Rome
Nicola Denzey – The Apostle Peter in Rome
Peter Nathan – Was Peter ever in Rome?
Wikipedia-1 – Saint Peter
Wikipedia-2 – Authorship of the Petrine Epistles
Catholic Church – Was Peter in Rome?
The Catholic Church citation at the bottom of this list is especially interesting because it gives some insight into the possible origins of these ancient claims that Peter was martyred in Rome. Apologists invariably forget that early church politics and a willingness of some vested interests in the early church to cook the books both had significant impacts on the surviving records of antiquity.
Apologists can thus prove the obvious. They can prove some people long ago actually believed Jesus was resurrected in Jerusalem and they can prove some people long ago may have believed Peter was martyred in Rome, but proving what people believed does not constitute proof that either of these two alleged events actually happened. Two thousand years ago, the pagan world believed in all sorts of gods, miracles and the supernatural. It was part & parcel of their everyday culture. It simply enabled them to explain things they couldn’t otherwise explain, but all that bullshit was consigned to the dust bin of history centuries ago. The modern world we now live in has abandoned pagan beliefs in the supernatural in every aspect of our lives except one – religion. Apologists can prove only what people believed long ago. They still can’t prove Jesus was resurrected in Jerusalem, they still can’t prove Peter didn’t lie to Paul and they still can’t prove Peter was martyred in Rome. However, the rest of us can now understand why they’re always so desperate to convince us otherwise.
Obviously the natural corollary is also true. I can’t prove Jesus wasn’t resurrected in Jerusalem, I can’t prove Peter was not martyred in Rome and I definitely can’t prove Peter just lied to Paul. However, I can point to the lack of convincing evidence. I can make inferences based on this lack of evidence and I can then draw rational conclusions. Those wishing to discredit these rational conclusions need only to demonstrate I’m wrong and prove their case is stronger than mine. I simply offer an alternative possibility that addresses all the facts and delivers exactly the same final outcome without resorting to supernatural explanations. Apologists never make allowances for a recognised fact of life. They never allow for the fact that, when dealing with emotive subjects like religion, objectivity is often corrupted, albeit unconsciously, by inner needs to confirm pre-existing beliefs. It’s called confirmation bias, and it’s rampant in research associated with religion. This all too obvious assertion brings me to my second foundational idea.
Implications of my second foundational idea that Paul simply hallucinated on the road to Damascus.
These psychotic experiences, all triggered by temporal lobe epilepsy, are now well documented in the medical literature and they are fairly common experiences that occur somewhere or other almost daily. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, we can now observe that these experiences have occurred regularly throughout history. In Paul’s day they were believed to be caused by the sacred disease. If apologists want to assert that Paul’s 2000 year old self diagnosis was correct, it’s up to them to prove it. It’s another extraordinary claim and it demands extraordinary proof to back it up. Simply pointing to 2000 year old claims in the New Testament is not good enough. They must first demonstrate that these 2000 year old claims are historically accurate.
I’ve already dealt with this aspect of my argument in more detail in The Christianity Myth blog, so for now, I’ll just point out that Paul’s personal experience on the road to Damascus prior to visiting Peter in Jerusalem, made him a sucker for Peter’s lies. It explains both why Paul simply accepted Peter’s claim at face value, and why Paul then spent the rest of his life promoting these claims throughout the pagan world. Also at this point, I’ll draw attention to the religiosity factor and its bearing on these debates with apologists. Science is now slowly beginning to unravel the intrinsic biological factors determining and controlling the extent of our own innate religiosities. Religiosity is just another facet of our humanity. It dictates how we respond to religion and religious influences. For some of us, this inner innate need to believe is intense, and for others like me, it’s practically non-existent. Again, I’ve already addressed this issue in some detail in an earlier blog called Religiosity-Biology or Brainwashing? The video Dear believer why do you believe?, that I highlighted at the beginning of this religiosity blog, is well worth watching.
So where does all this leave us? Well, until recently we had just one way of explaining the existence of Christianity and the associated New Testament. Now we have two possible ways. The 2000 year old orthodox way requires a belief in gods and a belief in supernaturalism. The new Christianity Myth argument requires no such beliefs. It simply exploits both the lack of conclusive evidence and our better understanding of temporal lobe epilepsy. As long as Paul left Jerusalem c 36 CE believing Jesus had been resurrected in Jerusalem as Peter claimed, then the die was cast and the rest is just simple history, but like all history, it’s open to interpretation.
How we got from there to here is for you to decide. If you need to believe in gods miracles & the supernatural then stick with the 2000 year old Orthodox version of events. If like me, you find gods miracles and the supernatural unacceptable, then think about my simpler more pragmatic explanation of how Christianity started. Both versions lead to the same final outcome. However, when choosing which explanation is best, it’s important to remember that [a] any viable explanation has to explain and/or accommodate all of the following factors and [b] any viable explanation has to justify all assertions made:
Why Christianity exists.
Why the New Testament exists.
Why the Gospels exist.
Why these gospels claim Jesus was resurrected in Jerusalem.
Why these gospels contain many conflicting details and many contradictions.
Why the gospel gap exists.
Why people 2000 years ago started to believe Jesus was resurrected in Jerusalem.
Why Paul’s life changing experience on the road to Damascus happened.
Why “Petrine Christianity” failed and why “Pauline Christianity” didn’t.
Why & how a semi-illegal minority sect of Jesus followers in the pagan world morphed into a leading world religion.
I’m a simple pragmatic realist, and a readily explained psychotic hallucination on the road to Damascus, later reinforced with a simple lie told in Jerusalem, works better for me. It ticks all the right boxes and it explains everything without even a whiff of the supernatural. I think my argument does address both of the above criteria, but I leave readers to decide which argument actually does a better job. Let me know what you think.
P.S. The orthodox suggestion that god tapped Paul on the shoulder and asked him to lend a hand spreading the good news seems totally ludicrous to me. It also suggests this god entity is fallible. His plan A, that Jesus’ twelve Apostles would spread the news, didn’t turn out too well, so he appears to have resorted to plan B.