Book Plunge: Faith vs. Fact Part 3

How goes our case against Coyne? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Today, I hope to get us all the way through to the start of chapter 4 and then continue tomorrow and hopefully finish up on Monday.

On page 90, Coyne tells us that in the field of biblical archaeology, there has been failure after failure. What do we get? Arguments from silence. Well there’s no evidence of the Exodus from Egypt, which of course you will not find interaction with works like James Hoffmeier’s that can be found here and here. You won’t find out about the claim that the Scythians were a much larger crowd that wandered for a much longer time and all that they left behind were the tombs of their kings, you know, the things that were designed to last. Why should we expect a group of nomands wandering in the desert for 40 years to leave behind something? We certainly should not expect records from Egypt as if Pharaoh would write “Pharaoh’s Journal Entry X. Today, those Hebrews managed to escape from me and go out and wander the wilderness and here I am powerless to do anything about it.” He certainly would not add in “And yeah, their God totally kicked the butts of our deities with powerful miracles that destroyed us.”

For the Gospel of Luke and its Census, there are a number of ways to interpret the passage. One such way is to say that this is an event that took place before the great census of Quirinius which took place later on. This would be the one that led to the revolt of Judas. This is indeed a possible reading and if there is a possible reading that destroys the contradiction, then we cannot say there is necessarily a contradiction. For why a historian should have recorded the miracles at the death of Christ, we have already addressed that. Yet to say it comes up as failure after failure is simply quite false. You can go to a library and find numerous books on biblical archaeology. We have found the bones of Caiaphas. We have found Nazareth. We have found the Asiarchs and Tetrachs Luke wrote about. We are finding that there were synagogues in 1st century Israel. I have near me here Craig Keener’s massive commentaries on Acts which include numerous archaeological discoveries. I have in my library Evans’s “Jesus and His World” which contains much more in archaeology as well.

Of course, Coyne has listed his own sources here on Biblical archaeology like…

Well, okay. There aren’t any, but hey, details. Who needs them?

On pages 92-93 Coyne tries to show that naturalism is not an assumption. Scientists do not assume naturalism. (And for the most part, fair enough. Not all do.) Yet he must deal with what Lewontin said in Billions and Billions of Demons.

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.

Coyne says that Lewontin was mistaken. We can allow a divine foot. We’ve just never seen it. But why should I believe Coyne over Lewontin, especially when Coyne says other scientific organizations echo the same claim? Especially since when Coyne sees two religious people disagree, he thinks that is cause for skepticism. What reason could I give for thinking Coyne’s position is the right one that represents true science while Lewontin’s does not? Is Coyne busy ousting his own that do not speak the true doctrine of science as he sees fit?

When we get to the next chapter, Coyne is arguing against accommodation. Of course, Coyne goes with the natural/supernatural distinction which I do not agree with and defines something of that sort as a breaking of the law of nature, though there is no source given for where this definition comes from. Coyne does say that he could see some things that could convince him of the truth of some religions, but then perhaps it’s really aliens.

Naturally when it comes to miracles themselves, you can be sure that any interaction with Keener is totally left out. One would think that if history was a science and one was doing a scientific study, you’d at least look at the best evidence against your position, but alas, people like Coyne are people of faith and really looking at the contrary position is not acceptable.

But hey, Coyne is not totally closed off to a religion being true. He does say what it would take to convince him. What’s that? Well he tells us on pages 118-119.

“The following (and admittedly contorted) scenario would give me tentative evidence for Christianity. Suppose that a bright light appeared in the heavens, and, supported by winged angels, a being clad in a white robe and sandals descended onto my campus from the sky, accompanied by a pack of apostles bearing the names given in the Bible. Loud heavenly music, with the blaring of trumpets, is heard everywhere. The robed being, who identifies himself as Jesus, repairs to the nearby university hospital and instantly heals many severely afflicted people, including amputees. After a while Jesus and his minions, supported by angels ascend back into the sky with another chorus of music. The heavens swiftly darken, there are flashes of lightning and peals of thunder, and in an instant the sky is clear.

If this were all witnessed by others and documented by video, and if the healings were unexplainable but supported by testimony from multiple doctors, and if all the apparitions and events conformed to Christian theology—then I’d have to start thinking seriously about the truth of Christianity.”

Please note that this is tentative to him. He could still be wrong he thinks even after something like this. What are we to get from this? For one thing, it means Coyne is closed off to evidence. What it would take for him to get to consider the truth of Christianity is not to look at the evidence for Christianity such as the classical theistic arguments or the historical case that Jesus rose from the dead. No. Those won’t work. What it would take is an experience. That means that whatever argument I come to him with minus the experience he has already decided will be ignored. Is this really a rational way to explore evidence? This even after he says we do not assume naturalism a priori? This after trying to tell us that we should go with the evidence?

At the bottom, he says to turn it around and ask religious people what it would take to make them abandon their faith.

Well that’s easy.

For theism, you would need to refute the classical theistic arguments and give a better explanation for reality than theism and at the same time give a disproof for theism. Without a disproof, we just have agnosticism. For Christianity, you’d need to give a better case for the rise of the early church than the proclamation that Jesus rose from the dead. Do you have a better way to explain the data? Note my position depends on the evidence. Coyne’s depends on an experience.

But maybe Coyne can explain the resurrection. That’s what he spends time doing on pages 121 and 123. On 121 he says:

“Historians have ways of confirming whether unique events are likely to have occurred. Those methods depend on multiple and independent corroboration of those events using details that coincide among different reporters, reliable documents that attest to those events, and accounts that are contemporaneous with the event. In this way we know, for example, that Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of conspirators in the Roman Senate in 44 BCE, though we’re not sure of his last words. As has been pointed out many times, the biblical accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection fails these elementary tests because the sources are not independent, none are by eyewitnesses, all contemporary writers outside of scripture fail to mention the event, and the details of the resurrection and empty tomb—even among the Gospels and the letters of Paul—show serious discrepancies. Nor, despite ardent searching, have biblical archaeologists found such a tomb.”

Here we have a lot of assertions. Do we have any scholars cited? Nope. Not a one. When it comes to Caesar, we are not told who these authors and when they wrote that make them reliable, but hey, Coyne has said so so, yeah, let’s just take it on faith.

For the idea of contemporaries, I have spoken of this with another similar event, namely that of Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon and I used Richard Carrier as an example. Coyne acts like writers outside of Scripture would really want to bother writing about Christianity. For one thing, the earliest ones saw this as an oddball sect not worth talking about. Give it a few centuries and everyone knows about it and at that point, there’s no need to state what Christians believe. It’s common knowledge at that point.

But for cases with the Gospels being eyewitness accounts, naturally, there’s no interaction with Bauckham. As for serious discrepancies, none of these are mentioned, but that only goes against Inerrancy if true. Christianity does not stand or fall on Inerrancy. I have already said much about the nature of the writing and events being contemporary here.

But you know, maybe Coyne will have an argument against the resurrection. Indeed, he does. What is it? It’s an argument of Herman Philipse on page 123.

“It seems likely—for Jesus explicitly states this in three of the four Gospels—that his followers believed he would restore God’s kingdom in their lifetime, including sitting on twelve thrones from which they’d judge the tribes of Israel. But, unexpectedly, Jesus was crucified, ending everyone’s hope for glory. Philipse suggests that this produced painful cognitive dissonance, which in this case was resolved by “corroborative storytelling”—the same modern millennialists do when the world fails to end on schedule. The ever-disappointed millennialists usually agree on a story that somehow preserves their belief in the face of disconfirmation (for example, “We got the date wrong.”) Philipse then suggests that in the case of the Jesus tale, the imminent arrivals of God simply morphed into a promise of eternal life, a promise supported by pretending that their leader himself had been resurrected.
If you accept that an apocalyptic preacher named Jesus existed, who told his followers that God’s kingdom was nigh, this story at least seems reasonable. After all, it’s based on well-known features of human psychology; the behavior of disappointed cults and our well-known attempts to resolve cognitive dissonance. Like disillusioned millennialists, the early Christians could simply have revised their story. Is this really less credible than the idea that Jesus arose from the dead? Only if you have an a priori commitment to the myth.”

Is this story really less credible? Why yes. Yes it is. It does not deal with all the evidence even accepted by scholars in the field.

For one thing, how about crucifixion. Did that happen? Why yes, yes it did. (And I must state that since Coyne is even skeptical Jesus existed.)

Christians who wanted to proclaim Jesus as messiah would not have invented the notion that he was crucified because his crucifixion created such a scandal. Indeed, the apostle Paul calls it the chief “stumbling block” for Jews (1 Cor. 1:23). Where did the tradition come from? It must have actually happened. (Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. Third Edition. pages 221-222)

Jesus was executed by crucifixion, which was a common method of torture and execution used by the Romans. (Dale Martin, New Testament History and Literature. Page 181)

That Jesus was executed because he or someone else was claiming that he was the king of the Jews seems to be historically accurate. (ibid. 186)

“The fact of the death of Jesus as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable, despite hypotheses of a pseudo-death or a deception which are sometimes put forward. It need not be discussed further here.” (Gerd Ludemann. .”What Really Happened To Jesus?” Page 17.)

And what about the account of the empty tomb. Is it reliable?

“Jesus came from a modest family that presumably could not afford a rock- cut tomb. Had Joseph not offered to accommodate Jesus’ body his tomb (according to the Gospel accounts) Jesus likely would have been disposed in the manner of the lower classes: in a pit grave or trench grave dug into the ground. When the Gospels tell us that Joseph of Arimathea offered Jesus a spot in his tomb, it is because Jesus’ family did not own a rock- cut tomb and there was no time to prepare a grave- that is there was no time to dig a grave, not hew a rock cut tomb(!)—before the Sabbath. It is not surprising that Joseph, who is described as a wealthy and perhaps even a member of the Sanhedrin, had a rock-cut family tomb. The Gospel accounts seem to describe Joseph placing Jesus’ body in one of the loculi in his family’s tomb. (Jodi Magness, Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, pg 170)

“There is no need to assume that the Gospel accounts of Joseph of Arimathea offering Jesus a place in this family tomb are legendary or apologetic. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’s burial appear to be largely consistent with the archeological evidence” ( Magness, pg 171)

And appearances?

“The only thing that we can certainly say to be historical is that there were resurrection appearances in Galilee (and in Jerusalem) soon after Jesus’s death. These appearances cannot be denied” (Gerd Ludemann. .”What Really Happened To Jesus?” p. 81)

“We can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that . . . he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead.” (Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, pg 230).

“That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.” (E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, pg 280)

“That the experiences did occur, even if they are explained in purely natural terms, is a fact upon which both believer and unbeliever can agree.” (Reginald H. Fuller, Foundations of New Testament Christology, 142)

Please observe this Coyne. This is how historical research is done. One consults the leading scholars in the field. These are going to be basic facts I will accept until shown otherwise. Note that Christ mythicism is not even on the radar. These are also not a plethora of Christians scholars I’ve gathered. Coyne’s approach would be like making an argument against evolution and thinking it has to be powerful because young-earth creationist scientists say so. But let’s go on.

For one thing, when a Messiah died, you went home or you found a new Messiah, as N.T. Wright says. There is no indication of any other movement where hope went on. Appearances by themselves would in fact lead the disciples to not think Jesus was alive, but that He was most certainly dead. The ancient world knew about such appearances and saw it as a sign that the person was indeed dead. It’s interesting to notice that no one ever considered James, the brother of Jesus, to be the new Messiah.

Second, you would think that if cognitive dissonance was applied, that there would at least be interaction with Leon Festinger. There isn’t. Festinger’s work wouldn’t even apply well to cognitive dissonance anyway since the observers in fact numerous times interfered with the study group, thus damaging the results, but from what we do know, cognitive dissonance does not reach other people outside of the movement and the movement does in fact die soon afterwards. This is not the case of Christianity where even those opposed to the movement accepted it. One has to ask what it would take to convince you that your brother was Lord and Messiah. (And Bauckham, Hurtado, Bird, and others have made numerous cases to show the earliest Christology after the resurrection was that Jesus was and is fully deity.) In fact, When N.T. Wright responds to this argument in The Resurrection of the Son of God he says “The flaws in this argument are so enormous that it is puzzling to find serious scholars still referring to it in deferential terms — which is indeed, the only reason for giving space to discussion of it here.” (p. 698)

Now Coyne wants us to believe that these stories of Jesus being seen as vindicated morphed into a resurrection. When? The earliest accounts we have are of a bodily resurrection per the creed in 1 Cor. 15. If we say that it was for the Gentile mission, the Gentiles scoffed at the idea of bodily resurrection. If we were talking about making a change to the accounts amenable to the Gentiles, we can talk about the Jesus found in the Gnostic Gospels. This Jesus is not at all a threat to the Roman Empire. Christians would be seen as quaint and bizarre, but hardly challenging Caesar. That’s not what we see in the New Testament.

Finally, in the honor-shame context of the New Testament, the Christians would have followed every rule of how not to make a new religion. Tie it in with the religion seen as most odd at the time, Judaism. Forego traditional practices that out you with society like animal sacrifice. Reject a morality common at the time, such as open sexuality. Have your Messiah be someone who was crucified, an utter shame. Make your figure be bodily resurrected, something that would be seen as a joke. Have your belief be a new belief since that would have been viewed with suspicion at the time. The wonder is that Christianity not only won overall, but survived.

So no Coyne, we find the explanation laughable not because we have an a priori commitment to the myth, but because we do know how to do history. Perhaps Coyne should consider going through Wright’s work and responding to it since the case is supposedly so obviously false, or go through Michael Licona’s work here.

On page 138, Coyne interacts with theistic evolution and asks can you believe there would be such a thing as theistic chemistry or theistic gravity? Why only apply it to evolution? Perhaps, but could we not put the shoe on the other foot. We hear talk about naturalistic evolution. Could we not say how ridiculous it would be to think of naturalistic chemistry and naturalistic gravity? Why do we speak of evolution? Because evolution is usually seen as a God stopper as it were. It doesn’t have to be. Again, I leave this to others to debate, but proving evolution does not disprove theism. In fact, if anyone had a bias in this, I would have to agree with Plantinga that it would be the atheist since naturalistic evolution is the only game in town.

Finally, when Coyne interacts with Plantinga, Plantinga in defending his view of creation does appeal to the devil as a possible cause for disasters in the world. Coyne says it’s hard to imagine a serious philosopher saying something like this. Of course, Coyne should not talk about serious philosophy. After all, he says:

Another problem is that scientists like me are intimidated by philosophical jargon, and hence didn’t interrupt the monologues to ask for clarification for fear of looking stupid. I therefore spent a fair amount of time Googling stuff like “epistemology” and “ontology” (I can never get those terms straight since I rarely use them).

Yes everyone. Jerry Coyne who has to google terms like epistemology and ontology is going to be telling Plantinga how he should do serious philosophy. This would be like me saying I have to google what a Punnett Square is and how to make one, but I am going to laugh at the thought of Coyne being a serious evolutionary biologist.

Plantinga’s argument however does not need to show the existence of the devil. The problem of evil is to ask if Christianity is consistent with itself and one aspect of Christianity is belief in the devil. If this is even a possible explanation, then Plantinga’s argument stands. I am not saying I agree with it, but I am saying it is still not a problematic statement.

But enough of this, next time, we shall see what Coyne says about how faith strikes back.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Part 1 can be found here.

Part 2 can be found here.

Part 4 can be found here.

Part 5 can be found here.