Atheism: The Case Against Christ. Chapter 4

What do I think of McCormick’s continuing argument? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

McCormick early on has a list of people he thinks were in the chain that gave us the New Testament. These are first off, the witnesses who claimed to see the events. Next come the repeaters who repeated the story until it was written decades later. Third are the authors who wrote the books. Fourth are the copyists who copied the works. Finally are the canonizers who put them in the canon.

Now of course, there’s no real work done on identifying the authors. McCormick looks at writers like Ehrman for the most part and just assumes the writers aren’t the ones on the book. Don’t expect to see interaction with contrary scholarship in that regard. It won’t happen.

For instance, let’s suppose that Mark is the testimony of Peter. Have we not skipped a piece of the chain? Is it not the case that there are no repeaters but Mark is just recording what the witness said? What about Matthew? If Matthew is the author of his Gospel, have we skipped others altogether?

Never mind the questions of how sources were used. Matthew could be a witness and still use Mark. Why?  Because if Mark is the testimony of Peter, then Peter saw activities that Matthew didn’t. What in fact of the fact that some writers would even use a scribe still? Does that mean that they are not the author? What if the author refers not to a direct writer but the main source for the material? These are all good questions to ask. McCormick doesn’t.

Now to be fair, McCormick is right when generally, if a manuscript is from the 4th century and one is from the 8th, we should take the 4th century one more seriously. Of course, if we saw the 4th century one had been highly mutilated, say by a sect opposed to orthodoxy that heavily tampered with it, that might change things, but all things being equal, earlier is better.

There is much here about how reliable eyewitnesses are. (By the way, it’s worth pointing out this book came out after Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Don’t expect to see McCormick interacting with that.) McCormick says we would need to have the success/failure rate of the eyewitnesses. This would be nice for the Bible, but the problem is we don’t really have that for ancient history. We can’t go and cross-examine. Now if McCormick wants to rule out the New Testament on these grounds, I wonder if he’s willing to treat other ancient works the same way.

McCormick starts with an example such as a man making predictions about sporting events and who will win. Then he takes us over to Lourdes and points out that a number of people claim a miracle and so many of those are false so we should probably think that the others that are not shown to be false are likely false. Unfortunately, we have switched standards here. We went from one man by himself to rather a more general claim and said “If a lot of people are wrong with one claim, then others making a similar claim must be wrong.” These are not identical.

If we want to go with general, then we could say perhaps if atheism is true, then we should say that the reasoning capacity of people is terrible since so many are theists. Since people are terrible reasoners, we ought not trust the reasoning of atheists. After all, they are people. No. With Lourdes, we treat each claim on its own. Note that also not all the claims are said to be false claims. They’re just not verified claims. Those are two different things.

McCormick also wants us to know if the Biblical writers would be more or less reliable on what they saw? His answer is less because of who they were and when they lived. This is indeed a textbook example of chronological snobbery. Lewis would be amazed at how far McCormick takes it.

McCormick talks about a supernatural belief threshold (SBT). Of course, never mind that some of us question the usage of the term supernatural, but McCormick likes to use words like magic and such regularly. It’s kind of like he thinks those words are magic and as soon as you say them, you show how ridiculous an argument is.

At loc. 1163 he says that if you went to someone with a low SBT threshold, they would be more prone to accept more false beliefs. McCormick unfortunately only applies this to “supernatural” claims. One wonders if he doesn’t see himself as having a low threshold for claims sympathetic to his worldview. For instance, he seems open to Jesus mythicism. Does this not show a low threshold on his part? We’ll in fact see many other claims he believes without citing scholarship in this book. What about the fact that on the internet so many atheists share memes that are just blatantly false?

Perhaps McCormick should encourage cleaning out the house of atheism first.

McCormick also says that if he was a Protestant speaking against Catholicism or a Christian against Islam, the claims would likely be well received. Well no. I would want to evaluate the claims first. Even if a claim argues against something I am opposed to, I want to see if it’s true or false. Just because McCormick easily believes claims that agree with him doesn’t mean the rest of us do.

McCormick also says people living in an agrarian and Iron Age society with low scientific knowledge, education, and literacy would not be very skeptical. Well isn’t this amusing?

For one thing, McCormick is wrong about the Iron Age.

The accepted date for the end of the Iron Age is 587/586 BCE, with the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army, the destruction of the Temple and the end of the Davidic Dynasty. A glance at the historic – archaeological reality shows that this date is of no significance in most areas in the Land of Israel because throughout Samaria, the Galilee, Negev, Philistia and Transjordan no ruins from this period were found and no crisis occurred amongst the material culture. The events of 587/586 BCE only affected Jerusalem and part of the area of the Kingdom of Judah, whereas areas to the south of it were previously captured by the Edomites. It must be that the trauma of the loss of national independence, the destruction of the Temple, and their impact on previous generations of scholars of the Land of Israel, is what established this date as the end of the Iron Age. The date, therefore, is more historical-theological than it is archaeological. It turns out that the material culture of the country – that is, the types of ceramic, types of buildings, burial practices and even the language and writing – continued after the beginning of the sixth century BCE. Fundamental changes in the settlement models and the material culture began only later, at the end of the same century, around the year 520 BCE. Then the rule of the Persian Achaemenid empire was established, the import of the Greek Attic pottery increased, commerce increased and the settlements began to abandon their places on the traditional tells. At the same time the Aramaic writing and language are also replacing Hebrew writing and the Hebrew language and a new ‘ethnic map’ is created in the country with the penetration of the Edomite, Arabic, Phoenician, Greek and other populations.

Please note that this is something that I found just by doing a brief Google search. It’s a shame McCormick couldn’t do likewise. He must have a low Skepticism Belief Threshold (SKBT) where he will believe any claim that argues against Christianity. If McCormick isn’t willing to verify a simple claim like this, why should I trust him on all these other claims?

As for low scientific knowledge, not really. The Greeks for instance in that culture were making incredible advancements. People were interested in science. Either way, to say there was low knowledge does not mean there was no knowledge.

McCormick might be surprised to learn that in Israel, the dead were buried. Why? Because if a resurrection took place, it wasn’t until the end. Resurrections didn’t just happen. It was also known that people don’t walk on water so fishermen built these things called boats. They also had laws against adultery and laws on inheritance because they knew what it took to make a baby. These were not new discoveries.

And finally, illiterate does not equal stupid. Most people were so busy working that reading was not something they had the time or money for. That does not mean they did not possess knowledge. Did they lack formal education often? Yes. Again though, that does not equal stupid, unless McCormick wants to say something about anyone without a college degree being stupid today.

McCormick also says when people are more educated, they are less likely to believe. Well that would depend on what they’re educated in. If students are taught bogus lies like “Science and Christianity are in conflict” then of course an education will make them think Christianity is false. Do they have any arguments for it? Well my interactions show that for the most part, they don’t.

Furthermore, while we might have more knowledge today, overall, I would think most people in ancient and medieval history were getting better educations. They were thoroughly learning how to think when they were educated and tried to study and learn as much as they could. We have more access to knowledge today, but we also have more people relying on Google for everything instead of reading books.

McCormick says the people of the past would not know that the Earth moves or what the sun is or what electricity or hydrogen was. To which I say, so what? How does that mean that they were ignorant in what else they believed? Is it the mark of an intelligent man that he knows the Earth moves around the sun, which is a large star, and what hydrogen and electricity are? There are plenty of people today who are very foolish who can answer those questions.

We could just as well say what would people say 2,000 years from now? We should not believe what those people believed because they did not know about XYZ? If that is the case, should we believe anything today? I suspect McCormick would rightly say we should go by the evidence we have. Indeed. That’s just what the ancients did. The evidence at the time indicated that the sun moved and not the Earth.

McCormick also says they did not know what caused disease or pregnancy or death. Again, we have the same problem, but the second one is just ludicrous. The ancients did not know that sex caused pregnancy? If they didn’t know this, then please tell me when this was discovered. Now if McCormick wants to say “They knew that it was sex, but they didn’t know all about it like we do” then I say “So what?” That means they’re automatically wrong?

As for death, they might not have known exactly like we do, but they knew about death. Dare I say it but these people saw death a lot more than McCormick did in a culture where it’s pretty much isolated from us and we only see the dead person usually made up well in a funeral home somewhere. Not so for them. Death was an everyday reality.

And of course we have the gem at 1202 about Jesus that says in parentheses “If he was real at all.” This is how we know we have someone who just really isn’t interacting with scholarship. McCormick has a low SKBT.

McCormick then says at 1230 that if modern people accept magical claims about people they admire, how much more people 2,000 years ago? The problem is Jesus wasn’t admired. Now of course, you could say His own followers admired Him, but not outside of that. He was a crucified criminal. That is indeed something abhorrent to the people of the time.

““How grievous a thing it is to be disgraced by a public court; how grievous to suffer a fine, how grievous to suffer banishment; and yet in the midst of any such disaster some trace of our liberty is left to us. Even if we are threatened with death, we may die free men. But the executioner, the veiling of the head, and the very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears. For it is not only the actual occurrence of these things or the endurance of them, but liability to them, the expectation, nay the mere mention of them, that is unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man.” (Cicero, Rab. Perd. 16, trans. Hodge 1927)”

Saying a crucified criminal was the Messiah would be like going around today saying that a convicted pedophile should be the next president of America. In fact, Christianity should have died out quite early just like other beliefs have that have a disaster happen to the leader. Instead, the reverse happened. It would be good for McCormick to ask why, but he can’t get to this question because he already is beginning with a false presupposition.

At 1238, McCormick asks “What would a an ordinary person in the first century be led to think if he had a hallucination, heard something strange, had a remarkable dream, or had some other notable experience?” These are indeed good questions. Each one is worthy of research. Unfortunately, they are not researched and one thing I can assure McCormick of. They would not think “resurrection.”

Of course, at 1246 he says “It may have even been reasonable for them to think Jesus was resurrected, given that they just wouldn’t have known any better.” Maybe it would have been. It would be a great question to explore. Unfortunately, it is not. McCormick is not a researcher in this area. He can ask the questions, but he never follows up in getting the answers.

For one thing, just seeing wouldn’t be enough. There would have to be an empty tomb. McCormick never touches the burial of Jesus. He never also explains the group appearances which cannot be hallucinations. He says at 810 for instance about the witch trials that it strains incredulity to think there was a conspiracy or a mass hallucination. Okay. Then let’s assume McCormick rules those out to explain Jesus. What will he give?

At 1269, he says that it would be far more unlikely and surprising for Jesus’s followers to not have reported seeing Jesus return from the dead and for none of them to hallucinate Jesus. Unfortunately, this still assumes that if they thought they had seen Jesus, then this would mean they would jump to resurrection. No. More likely they would think that Jesus was in Abraham’s bosom. They could have a view of divine exaltation where Jesus had been honored by God in the Heavens, but going the route of resurrection would be the most extreme and the most dangerous route to take.

He also says that “the information we have are hearsay reports from the authors of the Gospels, which were created decades after it is alleged that Jesus appeared to the disciples.” Of course, we are not surprised that he does not interact at all with 1 Cor. 15 which is not decades later but rather has material that is just years later if even that long. He can talk all he wants about the ending of Mark, but meanwhile the real opponents of his position are pointing to a totally different area. That McCormick doesn’t interact with this shows that he is not aware of the material he is arguing against.

Even if we granted this, decades later is not a problem. Most ancient history is decades later. Heck. A great deal of it is centuries later. This is not seen as a problem. Decades later is something that is often tossed out to make the accounts seem problematic. For those who know about ancient history, it’s par for the course. Most historians would love to have four biographies of a Caesar written within a century of his life.

McCormick also says that this central source of information, the ending of Mark, which he has wrong, did not surface until one to two hundred years after the events.  I don’t know any scholar of the resurrection who makes a case based on the long ending of Mark. McCormick has just built up a straw man. McCormick thinks he has a good point. Unfortunately, he just has a low SKBT.

McCormick also says that resurrection reports are not uncommon. Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson report them. Yes. In a society where resurrection is seen to be a good thing and built on a Christian worldview where resurrection is now seen as a good thing, some people report resurrections. Today, it’s not so much of a stir. We can be skeptical, but we don’t balk at it. In the ancient world, that would be different. This is just McCormick imposing his culture on another.

Ironically, at 1372 McCormick says that for many tasks, the worse we are, the more confidence we express. This is the Dunning-Kruger effect. If anyone wants to see it at work, read McCormick’s book. McCormick is thoroughly incompetent with resurrection studies, but writes a book with confidence thinking he has proven his case. Of course, this is because he has a low SKBT.

McCormick also points to a study by Solomon Asch that shows that people seek to conform to the group even if patently false. McCormick thinks this is an argument to show the disciples would believe the resurrection. It’s just the opposite. The social stigma of believing in Jesus would be so great the disciples would be pressured the other way.  For more on that, listen to my interview with Larry Hurtado on Destroyer of the Gods here.

It gets even worse. McCormick claims that IQ scores have gone up on a regular basis so obviously, they would be even worse in the past. McCormick should realize that psycho-history was abandoned years ago. This kind of argument is just the worst kind of snobbery.

When we get to 1545, he says that the possibility of someone returning from the dead would seem like common sense to the ancients given the right background information and expectations. Why? Who knows? Resurrection was only thought to happen at the end of time. The reason the resurrection was talked about as such an unusual event was just that. It was unusual.

At 1568, he tells us that the Christians were deeply religious converts who were actively discouraged from being skeptical or critical about extraordinary claims. Well yeah, unless you consider active shaming or persecution to be discouragement. Their entire social lives would discourage them from this.

He then says “Unless you are a historically minded Muslim or a Mormon who takes the stories about Joseph Smith’s encounters with the angel Moroni to have actually happened, you would probably take a parallel argument to the one I have made against Christianity in this chapter against Roman superstitions, Islam, or Mormonism to be completely plausible.”

No.

I do not think these kinds of arguments are plausible at all. I would prefer arguments that actually study the culture at the time and not only ask questions but research them. Of course, this is because I have a high SKBT, unlike McCormick.

Even more amazing, he admits at 1582 that even if the story of the resurrection was true, because of all that he mentioned, we should not believe the story. At this, we have to wonder what would convince McCormick. He never says.

We could say more, but that’s enough for chapter 4. Next time we’ll cover the fifth chapter.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Part 1 can be found here.

Part 2 can be found here.

Part 3 can be found here.

Part 5 can be found here.

Part 6 can be found here.

Part 7 can be found here.

Part 8 can be found here.

Part 9 can be found here.

Part 10 can be found here.

Part 11 can be found here.

Part 12 can be found here.

Part 13 can be found here.

McCormick’s Gaffe

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