Does Coyne get any better? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
Last time, I spoke of a big blunder coming up in Coyne’s book. It was one paragraph I definitely had to type out immediately because it shows what is so symptomatic of the problem. Note that Coyne would not be happy with someone like me who does not study science seriously speaking on something like evolution. He would be right in that. Yet somehow, Coyne thinks he has justification to speak on history and Biblical interpretaton. How? Let’s take a look.
The following paragraph is one that is so full of mistakes it is hard to know where to begin. If I had to say what is the most ignorant part in this book, it would be this paragraph:
“If you want to read much of the Bible as allegory, you must overturn the history of theology, rewriting it to conform to your liberal, science-friendly faith. Besides pretending that you’re following in the tradition of ancient theologians, you must also explain the way you can discern truth amid the metaphors. What is allegory and what is real? How do you tell the difference? This is particularly difficult for Christians, because the historical evidence for Jesus—that is, for a real person around whom the myth accreted—is thin. And evidence for Jesus as the Son of God is unconvincing, resting solely on the assertions of the Bible and interpretations of people writing decades after the events described in the Gospels.”
Internet atheists will eat this up as if its a powerful indictment of their enemy. Anyone who has bothered to study any sort of history of the New Testament or taken a single course on hermeneutics will just be shaking their head wondering how someone can consider themselves an intelligent person and write something like this.
Let’s start at the beginning. Reading the Bible as allegory will not overturn much of history. Before the rise of modern science, Origen and Augustine were already doing the same. Some of the ways the early church read Scripture was indeed quite creative. The reason Coyne does not know about this is that quite simply, he has not read them. Coyne asks us how can we tell which is allegory and which is not as if this is a stumper question. Well geez. How about we use the same kind of methodology we’d use when we study any ancient document. Heck. Just use what you’d use for modern documents. Look at this review of Super Bowl XXII. Here are some key phrases:
Like worthless documents the Denver Broncos were cut up, torn apart and scattered about San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium by Olle North’s favorite team.
The Washington Redskins’ Sunday massacre was 42-10.
The slaughter was on.
A tremor started Super Bowl week in San Diego. A Washington earthquake ended it.
How do you know what’s literal? How do you know what isn’t? Now to be fair, sometimes you see terms like “like” which are a clue, but sometimes you don’t, and this is common in this kind of writing. How does Coyne tell? Most of us have a good rule. We use our brains and figure it out. In Coyne’s world, it is all-or-nothing. Either the whole Bible is literal or it’s all allegorical and metaphors. There’s no attempt to try to understand the genre of a passage. (For instance, most Old Testament scholars note a difference between Genesis 1-11 and the rest of Genesis and most New Testament scholars agree the Gospels are Greco-Roman biographies.) When you read wisdom literature, you are reading a lot of heavy poetry. When you read the prophets, you can expect many times to see apocalyptic imagery that is not to be read literally. This problem was also confronted by C.S. Lewis in his day who said in Mere Christianity that:
“There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of ‘Heaven’ ridiculous by saying they do not want ‘to spend eternity playing harps’. The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them. All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible. Musical instruments are mentioned because for many people (not all) music is the thing known in the present life which most strongly suggests ecstasy and infinity. Crowns are mentioned to suggest the fact that those who are united with God in eternity share His splendour and power and joy. Gold is mentioned to suggest the timelessness of Heaven (gold does not rust) and the preciousness of it. People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.”
I do not have to agree with all of Lewis’s interpretation, but I think he is treating the text better than literalists like Coyne.
But it gets worse for Coyne.
Coyne actually says the evidence for a historical Jesus is thin. This is another case of Coyne stepping outside of his field and probably relying on people like Dan Barker and Richard Carrier. Carrier is at least a scholar in the field, and he’s on the fringe. He does not teach at an accredited university for instance. There are thousands of NT and classical scholars out there and the number that hold that Jesus never existed can be counted on one hand. You can find more people with doctorates in the relevant field who hold to geocentrism than you can people who hold to Christ mythicism. For a man who write so much about the lunacy of ID in his mind, he should not speak here because there are far more credentialed scientists in the field of ID than there are credentialed historians of the time who hold to Christ mythicism.
Do I have any works to show Jesus existed? One that shows up in the bibliography of Coyne’s is actually Bart Ehrman’s. He could also consider these videos:
Another work is Maurice Casey’s book on the topic. Finally, he could go with Van Voorst.
He will in fact find few scholars writing on this simply because it really isn’t on the radar and most scholars don’t waste their time with arguments on the internet. From a non-scholarly perspective, he could go here or to the series of Ebooks on the topic here.
Of course, we also have the decades later claim. Of course, the writings are decades later, but in the ancient world, so is practically everything. Our biographies of Alexander the Great are centuries after his time. Coyne lives in a world where you write things down immediately so everyone can hear about them. Not so then. Oral tradition was more reliable to the people and it was absolutely free. Writing the Gospels was incredibly expensive and would have in fact reached fewer people since fewer people could read. Coyne could have been better served by reading a work like Walton and Sandy’s. Robert McIver’s work would have done him well as well.
Oral tradition was hardly like a game of telephone. The stories were told in community and repeated often and there were people branded gatekeepers as it were who would make sure the story was being told accurately. Minor details could be changed provided the whole thrust of the story stayed the same. We do this in our own storytelling today where we recount a story and we will change minor details in a story while still maintaining the basic truth or we will omit a part for one audience. If Mormons come to visit me, my parents will get an account of how the discussion went. If I call my in-laws, who are much more apologetically inclined, they will get a much fuller account.
Coyne also writes about the life of Jesus and how historians of the time did not write about it, particularly the events surrounding the crucifixion. This is more of a Remsberg’s List type of approach to the matter which probably came from Barker, yet even atheists have a problem with it. Jesus in His time was a nobody from a town called Nazareth, which no one cared about, in an area of the world valued mainly for its path for trade but whose customs were viewed as bizarre by others, who never traveled outside of his country as an adult, never went to battle, never wrote a book, never ran for office, and didn’t establish a philosophy. To top it off, He was crucified, the ultimate shame and disgrace in the ancient world. What would a Roman say far off in Rome who heard about Him? “Not worth talking about.” Oh! But He did miracles. This would make it worse. Jesus would be seen as a huckster then much like Benny Hinn is today. The stories about what happened would be seen to non eye-witnesses as Old Wives’ Tales.
In fact, if we want to talk about historians of the time, let’s talk about Hannibal. This was the guy who was Rome’s great opponent and nearly conquered them and who trampled over most every army Rome sent after him. This was a master general. In light of his great achievements, how many of his contemporaries talk about him? Answer? Zero.
How about Queen Boudica who raised an uprising against Rome. How many contemporaries talked about her? Zero.
How about the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that destroyed two cites killing 250,000? How many accounts do we have? (Not allusions. Accounts.) We have one off-the-cuff remark in an exchange between Pliny and Tacitus. We don’t even hear about the other town from a historical account until Dio Cassius writes later on.
If we focus it in on Judea and ask how many historians we have writing about Messiah figures, that is an easy number.
We have one.
And he did talk about Jesus, despite what many internet atheists would have you think. The Testimonium account is seen by scholars largely as only partially interpolated. It’s a wonder Jesus is even mentioned. For other Messiah figures, you had to call out Roman troops. Jesus didn’t have anything requiring a massive army. Pilate seems to have no idea who Jesus is in the Gospels when he first sees Him.
On page 67 Coyne says
Theologians intensely dislike the definition of faith as belief without — or in the face of — evidence, for that practice sounds irrational. But it surely is, as is any system that requires supporting a priori beliefs without good evidence. In religion, but not science, that kind of faith is seen as a virtue.
Here’s why we dislike it. It’s for the same reason atheists don’t like being identified as God-haters. We don’t see it as an accurate description. Theologians go by evidence just as much. Coyne might want to say the Bible doesn’t count, but the reality is theologians have evidential reasons for believing the Bible is what it claims to be, and that’s because we study the claims from a historical perspective. It’s not because of some nebulous feeling. For theology alone, we also use philosophy and specifically metaphysics to study the nature of God. This was the exact way Aristotle did and I don’t think we want to say Aristotle was anti-evidential. He, like his intellectual descendants, the Thomists (Including myself) was an empiricist.
Coyne also wants to go after Tertullian for saying “The Son of God died: it is immediately credible—because it is silly. He was buried, and rose again: it is certain—because it is impossible.” Interestingly, there is no primary source cited which tells me that Coyne never read the original source. Not very scientific really. The reference comes from On The Flesh of Christ, which is a response to Marcion and a refutation of a more docetic position which denied that Christ came in physical flesh. All this is in the fifth chapter.
There are, to be sure, other things also quite as foolish (as the birth of Christ), which have reference to the humiliations and sufferings of God. Or else, let them call a crucified God “wisdom.” But Marcion will apply the knife to this doctrine also, and even with greater reason. For which Is more unworthy of God, which is more likely to raise a blush of shame, that God should be born, or that He should die? that He should bear the flesh, or the cross? be circumcised, or be crucified? be cradled, or be coffined? be laid in a manger, or in a tomb? Talk of “wisdom!” You will show more of that if you refuse to believe this also. But, after all, you will not be “wise” unless you become a “fool” to the world, by believing” the foolish things of God.” Have you, then, cut away all sufferings from Christ, on the ground that, as a mere phantom, He was incapable of experiencing them? We have said above that He might possibly have undergone the unreal mockeries of an imaginary birth and infancy. But answer me at once, you that murder truth: Was not God really crucified? And, having been really crucified, did He not really die? And, having indeed really died, did He not really rise again? Falsely did Paul “determine to know nothing amongst us but Jesus and Him crucified; ” falsely has he impressed upon us that He was buried; falsely inculcated that He rose again. False, therefore, is our faith also. And all that we hope for from Christ will be a phantom. O thou most infamous of men, who acquittest of all guilt the murderers of God! For nothing did Christ suffer from them, if He really suffered nothing at all. Spare the whole world’s one only hope, thou who art destroying the indispensable dishonour of our faith Whatsoever is unworthy of God, is of gain to me. I am safe, if I am not ashamed of my Lord. “Whosoever,” says He, “shall be ashamed of me, of him will I also be ashamed.” Other matters for shame find I none which can prove me to be shameless in a good sense, and foolish in a happy one, by my own contempt of shame. The Son of God was crucified; I am not ashamed because men must needs be ashamed of it. And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And He was buried, and rose again; the fact is certain, because it is impossible. But how will all this be true in Him, if He was not Himself true-if He really had not in Himself that which might be crucified, might die, might be buried, and might rise again? I mean this flesh suffused with blood, built up with bones, interwoven with nerves, entwined with veins, a flesh which knew how to be born, and how to die, human without doubt, as born of a human being. It will therefore be mortal in Christ, because Christ is man and the Son of man. Else why is Christ man and the Son of man, if he has nothing of man, and nothing from man? Unless it be either that man is anything else than flesh, or man’s flesh comes from any other source than man, or Mary is anything else than a human being, or Marcion’s man is as Marcion’s god. Otherwise Christ could not be described as being man without flesh, nor the Son of man without any human parent; just as He is not God without the Spirit of God, nor the Son of God without having God for His father. Thus the nature of the two substances displayed Him as man and God,-in one respect born, in the other unborn; l in one respect fleshly in the other spiritual; in one sense weak in the other exceeding strong; in on sense dying, in the other living. This property of the two states-the divine and the human-is distinctly asserted with equal truth of both natures alike, with the same belief both in respect of the Spirit and of the flesh. The powers of the Spirit, proved Him to be God, His sufferings attested the flesh of man. If His powers were not without the Spirit in like manner, were not His sufferings without the flesh. if His flesh with its sufferings was fictitious, for the same reason was the Spirit false with all its powers. Wherefore halve Christ with a lie? He was wholly the truth. Believe me, He chose rather to be born, than in any part to pretend-and that indeed to His own detriment-that He was bearing about a flesh hardened without bones, solid without muscles, bloody without blood, clothed without the tunic of skin, hungry without appetite, eating without teeth, speaking without a tongue, so that His word was a phantom to the ears through an imaginary voice. A phantom, too, it was of course after the resurrection, when, showing His hands and His feet for the disciples to examine, He said, “Behold and see that it is I myself, for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have; ” without doubt, hands, and feet, and bones are not what a spirit possesses, but only the flesh. Howdo you interpret this statement, Marcion, you who tell us that Jesus comes only from the most excellent God, who is both simple and good? See how He rather cheats, and deceives, and juggles the eyes of all, and the senses of all, as well as their access to and contact with Him! You ought rather to have brought Christ down, not from heaven, but from some troop of mountebanks, not as God besides man, but simply as a man, a magician; not as the High Priest of our salvation, but as the conjurer in a show; not as the raiser of the dead, but as the misleader of the living,-except that, if He were a magician, He must have had a nativity!
Looking at the quote in its context, one can see that Marcion is trying to say that to have Jesus do the things Jesus did if He was deity is silly because no God would do that. Tertullian’s point is “Right. No one would make this up. That’s how we can be sure it’s credible.” Historians do the same thing today with the criterion of embarrassment. If a document contains information that’s embarrassing for the claimant or the side he represents, it has a greater likelihood of being true.
Coyne also is confused about the spirit of curiosity that is condemned, but that is not intellectual learning being condemned. It is looking into matters we have no business looking into for they serve no practical purpose and I would add, this includes occult knowledge.
As for Martin Luther’s view of reason, but as the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says
German theologian, professor, pastor, and church reformer. Luther began the Protestant Reformation with the publication of his Ninety-Five Theses on October 31, 1517. In this publication, he attacked the Church’s sale of indulgences. He advocated a theology that rested on God’s gracious activity in Jesus Christ, rather than in human works. Nearly all Protestants trace their history back to Luther in one way or another. Luther’s relationship to philosophy is complex and should not be judged only by his famous statement that “reason is the devil’s whore.”
Given Luther’s critique of philosophy and his famous phrase that philosophy is the “devil’s whore,” it would be easy to assume that Luther had only contempt for philosophy and reason. Nothing could be further from the truth. Luther believed, rather, that philosophy and reason had important roles to play in our lives and in the life of the community. However, he also felt that it was important to remember what those roles were and not to confuse the proper use of philosophy with an improper one.
Properly understood and used, philosophy and reason are a great aid to individuals and society. Improperly used, they become a great threat to both. Likewise, revelation and the gospel when used properly are an aid to society, but when misused also have sad and profound implications.
On pages 70-71, Coyne seems shocked that issues at Nicea was settled by a vote.
Well what would he have preferred?
After all the evidence was presented, would he have preferred that Constantine open up the coliseum and let both sides duke it out and the winner would get to establish the view of Christ for the future? Would he have preferred that one side just claim a revelation from above as to the nature of Jesus and everyone else submit? (We can be sure Coyne would have been thrilled with that.) What was done was the same methodology we use today. I do not see Coyne complaining about using a jury system to establish if a man should get life in prison or not today. That’s also a pretty major issue, at least for the defendant. Coyne should also know that this was not a close vote at all. It was about 300+ to 2. That’s how serious the evidence was in favor of the orthodox position.
On page 83, Coyne asks why believers in Islam and Christianity and other mainstream faiths are not as critical of their own religion as they are of new beliefs like Mormonism and Scientology. First off, this is just false. Many people do study other belief systems. I have read all of the Scripture of Mormonism. (Not all the statements of their president for sure, but I have done much reading.) I have also read the Koran and I have read the Tao Te Ching and the Analycts of Confucius. I happen to think it’s important to be informed on other belief systems. Do I have the time to investigate all of them? Not at all, but I do watch critically my own. That’s why I read books like Coyne’s regularly.
Coyne’s ultimate explanation though is that because Christianity and Islam are old, we can’t readily critique their claims of divine origin. One can’t help but wonder what world Coyne is living in with this kind of claim. Does he not know that New Testament scholarship regularly discusses this kind of claim for Christianity? What does he think Crossan is writing about in a book like The Birth of Christianity? What does he think Ludemann is interested in when he’s writing about What Really Happened To Jesus? These questions are discussed regularly. Once again, Coyne is just demonstrating his own ignorance on the subject matter. He needs to get back to evolutionary biology instead of embarrassing himself here.
Naturally, there must be the myth again of all the different denominations. Unfortunately, Coyne does not know what he’s talking about again. It is not as if all these denominations have wildly different beliefs. Some could be denominations of a specific people group, such as Koreans wanting to establish their own Korean churches where doctrinally, they’d agree with many Christians. Others could have different styles of worship. Even where there are doctrinal differences, Christians across the board tend to hold to the first four church councils.
But the biggest problem is that most people don’t know what counts as a denomination. For the purposes of the research done, a denomination is usually defined as a self-governing entity. Let’s suppose you live in a large town. There are two independent Baptist churches on each side of town because people want them and people on each side need to go there. These Baptist churches have identical worship styles and identical doctrinal statements. Okay. How many denominations do you have?
Why? They both worship the same way and believe the same thing. Yes. They’re also both self-governing.
Coyne, like many atheists, takes a brief statement and runs with it and doesn’t bother doing any research on the topic. Strange for someone who wants his beliefs to be evidence-based.
Of course, Coyne would probably exclude his own beliefs from any real research by studying the other side anyway. He naturally quotes with favor the Outsider Test for Faith by John Loftus, yet one wonders if he’s read David Marshall’s masterful response. Would Coyne be willing to read the best the other side has to offer to critique his view? He certainly hasn’t done so here. Perhaps the advocate of skepticism should practice the gospel that he teaches before suggesting we all join his movement.
He speaks disparagingly of J.P. Moreland on page 89 of his book asking Moreland to tell us which worldview is true and which is false out of all the faiths out there. Coyne might think this is a proper taunt to make to Moreland, but as one might expect, nowhere is Moreland’s Scaling the Secular City anywhere interacted with and it certainly does not make a mention in the bibliography. For one wanting to know what Moreland’s views are, perhaps Coyne would have been well served by going to a library and looking for them.
That’s enough for us to deal with today. Tomorrow, we’ll dive in even more. We’re only about 2/3rds in and already found this much problematic. Who knows what we’ll find next?
Part 1 can be found here.
Part 3 can be found here.
Part 4 can be found here.
Part 5 can be found here.