Monday, September 22, 2008

Lazarus and Lazarus, or just Lazarus?

The primary skeptical alternative to apologists' arguments from the Gospels is that the stories of Jesus were legends that may contain an ounce of truth, but have grown enough to be unreliable.

Here, I will continue to make this case, again with a purely biblical argument. In particular, I will be comparing two stories that I believe to be parallel, although Christians will certainly disagree.

The first is Luke 16:19-31. This is a fictional story Jesus told. (I've heard Christian and skeptic alike argue that this was meant to be a true story. For the sake of this particular argument, it matters little.) It concerns Lazarus, a beggar who dies and goes to heaven, or somewhere similar. While in heaven, he has a dialog with an evil rich man who has died and is in a place similar to hell. The main point, or at least a main point of the parable is the final piece of dialog, where the rich man pleads to Abraham for Lazarus to be sent back from the dead and warn his brothers. Abraham replies that they have the Scripture, and if they are not convinced by the Scripture, they will not be convinced by Lazarus returning from the dead.

The second is John 11:1-53. This is presented as a true story, and contains the Bible's only other [mention of] Lazarus. Lazarus dies but is then brought back from the dead. Despite this, the chief priests who know the Scripture better than anyone do not believe in Jesus, but instead try to kill him.

There are three ways to look at this:

1. It's a coincidence that Luke has a hypothetical Resurrection of a Lazarus and John has a Resurrection of a real Lazarus.
2. Some other non-coincidental explanation.
3. Lazarus' Resurrection is a fish story that grew out of Jesus' parable.

At a glance, it would make sense to suggest that Jesus intentionally used the parable to foreshadow a real event. Until you consider what this would imply about Luke and his research.

This would mean that Jesus actually raised a man from the dead, many people believed because of this, this was the key event in Jesus life leading the chief priests to their murderous rage, and yet somehow Luke couldn't find a single witness to justify writing about this! And yet somehow, he found a witness who remembered the details of Jesus parable, all the way up to the name of the character Jesus used in his parable.

Furthermore, Luke 19:45-47 suggests that the chief priests wanted to kill him after he drove out the money changers. This suggests that Luke would have disagreed with what John thought the reason was. John also mentions that the money changers were thrown out in John 2:13-21. Do you see what John just did there? In Luke the key reason was the cleansing of the temple and in John the key reason is the resurrection of Lazarus, so John moved the temple cleansing to the beginning of the story.

Of course, Jesus could have cleansed the temple twice, and I'm not suggesting that anything is implausible about that. What I'm suggesting is that the Gospels fit together better from the perspective of “how are these stories changing with time?” rather than “how can I make these events fit together?”

A misconception apologists often have is that skeptics discount biblical miracles simply because they are naturalists. That is not the case. Here, I have given a purely biblical reason to think the resurrection of Lazarus never actually happened.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Matthew, the Colt, and the Donkey

Matthew 21:2-5: “[Jesus said] to them, 'Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied there and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to Me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, 'The Lord has need of them,' and immediately he will send them.' This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

The first thing to notice is that Matthew is telling us about a colt and donkey, while Zechariah 9:9 mentions a colt and donkey as well. That's probably not a coincidence.

However, Zechariah was actually talking about one animal, not two. The first part of the prophecy shares the surprise that their king would ride a mere donkey rather than a horse. In the second part, the word “even” is adding to this surprise; the extra detail of its age makes it even less majestic.

The authors of Mark, Luke, and John seem to have figured this out, as all three refer to the one animal on which Jesus rode. Mark 11:2-7 and Luke 19:30-35 say it was a colt. John 12:14-15 says Jesus found a “little donkey” and then paraphrases Zechariah 9:9 to say that a donkey's colt was to be ridden. This is a double affirmation, as John used little donkey and donkey's colt interchangeably, and also thought that a paraphrase of Zechariah involving one animal was accurate.

So if Zechariah was talking about one animal, and it's not a coincidence that both he and Matthew mention a colt and donkey, what are the alternatives?

One possibility is that the author of Matthew was intentionally describing Palm Sunday in a way that made Jesus look like a fulfillment of prophecy as much as possible. He wanted people to believe that Jesus fulfilled prophecies, and this was more important to him than limiting the details of his story to things that actually happened. The beginning of Matthew is already sufficient to reveal that convincing people was more important than not saying false things about the OT. Here, I'm suggesting that convincing people was also more important than not saying false things about the events in Jesus' life.

Another possible source of the story is poor reasoning that does not involve intentional deception. Suppose Jesus actually rode on a colt, and an early Christian heard this story. But then they looked at Zechariah, and mistakenly thought that it spoke of two animals. Here's their train of thought: “Zechariah is true, Zechariah prophesied about a colt and a donkey, therefore Jesus' triumphal entry involved both a colt and a donkey.” And so when the story was retold, a second animal was added. With this possibility, the person who made up the detail sincerely believes it to be true, and the author of Matthew need not be the one who misunderstand Zechariah.

This is a concern whenever a prophecy's fulfillment is only reported by people who were already certain that the prophecy was true. The prophecy itself is enough to convince a true believer that its fulfillment occurred. This results in a story that the teller honestly believes, despite that fact that they observed nothing.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Arguments of Josh McDowell: The Seventy Weeks of Daniel

In the book A Ready Defense: The Best of Josh McDowell, an argument is made which demonstrates all the worst aspects of apologists. If you read his argument uncritically, it sounds really, really good. But not only are the rebuttals to it effective, they refute McDowell with a thoroughness that shocked even post-Christian me.

About half of the general arguments I make come from someone else's post on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board. The details and examples are my own work.

Daniel 9:24-26 "Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place. So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress. Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing, and the people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary And its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined."

McDowell's Argument

Artaxerxes gave the decree to rebuild Jerusalem on March 5, 444 BC in Nehemiah 2:1-8. The sixty-nine weeks are "weeks of years." A year in the Bible means 360 days. For instance, in Revelations 12:6 and 12:14, 3.5 years = 3.5*360 days = 1260 days. Sixty-nine weeks = 173,880 days after this decree was Monday, March 30, 33 AD, the day Jesus was presented to Jerusalem as Messiah the Prince.

(You can read the argument in full here, by searching for "seventy weeks." Amazon will let you look at five pages: the page hit by the search, two forward, and two back. The relevant pages are 57-59.)

At a glance, this looks unbelievably impressive. Surely, the faith it takes to believe this is a coincidence is greater than the faith needed to believe Daniel was a prophet. But there are issues with his start day, the length of time, and the end date. When taken together, this is merely a demonstration of a determined seeker not discovering the meaning of a prophecy but creating one.

Time Interval

For starters, "69 weeks of years" is an interpretation, not a quotation. What Daniel 9:25 actually says is "seven weeks and sixty-two weeks." I haven't thought too hard about the given reasons for a day = a year, so I'll grant it and move on. What's more of a stretch is to count a year as 360 days. This lines up with neither common sense nor the Hebrew calendar. They used a lunar calendar, with one month being one lunar cycle, and a "leap month" 7 years out of 19. Just as now, 73 years meant 73 cycles of seasons, not 73*360 days = about 72 cycles of seasons. Imagine someone in 500 BC saying that someone is 73 years old. Would their friend ask in reply "solar years or biblical years?" or just effortlessly understand what "year" means?

Concerning Revelations 12, notice that 1260 days = 3.449 solar years. So if in Revelations, "year" just meant ... well, year ... then John rounded by 1.7%. He nearly got two significant figures right, which compares favorably with several other biblical authors. In 1 Kings 7:23, the mathematical pi is rounded to 3.0, which is a 4.7% change. Matthew 12:40 says Jesus would be dead for three nights, a "rounding" of 50%. (I'm not suggesting that Matthew thought Jesus died on Thursday. Matthew 27:62 makes this clear. I'm suggesting that he was intentionally loose with numbers to make Jonah and Jesus look parallel.) Also, Revelations doesn't even say the time period is "three and a half years" but "a time and times and half a time."

"Week" could just as easily mean 7 days, 7 solar years, 7 biblical years, or really seven of just about anything. It could be "weeks of weeks," or "weeks of months." It could be seven years, where year = 365.25 days as on the Julian calendar and not 365.2422 days. I mention the imperfections of having a leap year every four years as a serious objection, because over the course of 483 years, this is several days which could make or break an "exact day" prediction. Or maybe "years" means different things in different contexts. Maybe "year" meant 360 days for the first 488 years, and then started meaning 365.25 days once the Julian calendar started being used in 45 BC. Or maybe 46 BC is the correct date for the switch, because the calendar was introduced then but not in common use. Or maybe "year" meant 365 1/3 days, because of the messed up way leap year was used at first. Or maybe from 45 BC on, "year" doesn't have a fixed meaning, but just counts however it was that they counted back then, regardless of if mistakes were made. This means that the leap years were 44, 41, 38, 35, 32, 29, 26, 23, 20, 17, 14, 11, 8 BC, 4 AD, 8, and 12 etc. Keep in mind that every little detail determines whether or not it was to the exact day, and every little detail is a fudge factor at the disposal of the apologist.

Suppose that exactly 483 solar years later, Jesus came. Would not Christians say the Bible was correct to the exact year? If a skeptic then said that a year = 360 days, so 483 OT years = 476 solar years and thus the Bible is wrong, Christians would have a good laugh over how dumb atheists are. Similarly, if Jesus came 483 days later, Christians would laugh if a skeptic of the Bible said it really meant 483 years.

Next, once you have the day count, do you count both the day of the decree and the day of completion, only one, or neither? Personally, I think McDowell would have a better case if he used this fudge factor, so that the target would be Palm Sunday, rather than "Palm Monday."

The Starting Time

The starting point is not clearly labeled but is described as "the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem." McDowell wrote that the potential starting points are 539 BC (Ezra 1:1-4), 519-518 BC (Ezra 5:3-7), 457 BC (Ezra 7:11-16), and 444 BC (Nehemiah 2:1-8). I haven't checked if these are valid or comprehensive – I'm just taking his word for it here. But how do we know the exact day of the year of the decree? All Nehemiah 2:1 says is "And it came about in the month Nisan."

The Ending Time

Next, the prophecy doesn't clearly describe what event will come at the end. It says "until Messiah the Prince." There are quite a few events in Jesus life that could be the fulfillment of this. (His birth, coming out of Egypt, the arrival of the magi, in the temple at age 12, Luke 4:21, his baptism, the sermon on the mount, the last supper, his crucifixion, his resurrection, etc.) In fact, pretty much any event could be justified. Or even no event would be sufficient; if the time period terminated on some nondescript day of Jesus ministry, it would still satisfy sixty-nine weeks until the verb-less "Messiah the Prince." Also, why is "until Messiah the Prince" the ending point? Maybe that phrase is just being general, and the ending of the sixty-nine weeks was really supposed to be Daniel 9:26 "Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing." (Which could be either good Friday or the Saturday afterward.)

I also find it very strange that McDowell gives a Monday as the ending day and describes it as "the presentation of Christ Himself to Israel as the Messiah as predicted in Zechariah 9:9." Zechariah is talking about the Messiah riding a donkey, which happened on Palm Sunday. While there is an easy fix, what this shows is how willing he is to bend the truth to make it line up with the Bible.

The Total Fudge Factor

Next, I will measure the total room for fudging. There are at least 10 meanings for "week" comparably plausible to 7*360 days, 5 possible start years, 30 possible start days of the month, and at least 20 possible ending events. This gives a total of 10*5*30*20 = 30,000 different interpretations of the prophecy that all line up with McDowell's general framework. And there are even more if different things are fudged, such as finding different historians with different dates for particular decrees, doing something with the sixty-two weeks without the seven weeks, or adding a gap between the seven and sixty-two weeks.

Like McDowell, I do not consider the accuracy of the prophecy to be a coincidence. Unlike McDowell, the reason is that I use the word coincidence to describe things that are improbable.

Dissenting Opinions

At least six different interpretations of prophecy and history line up exactly. While googling seventy weeks daniel is hardly a stellar research technique, it brings up some interesting results. The top five hits are all different Christian sites explaining how well the historical events line up with the prophecy: gives the starting point as somewhere in March/April 444 BC without claiming to know the particular day and gives the ending point as Palm Sunday, March 29, 33 AD. This is one day away from McDowell, and is by far the closest any two of these six will come. gives the starting point as "very early in the month of Nisan in 445 B.C." and the ending point as Palm Sunday, April 9, 32 AD. bases their starting point off McDowell's starting point, and for the ending point "the dates that I have seen in my review of other people's research is April 6, either April 6, 32 AD, or April 6, 33 AD." disagrees with the time interval. I didn't read the details, but the bottom line is that they think a biblical year is a normal year, and the appropriate time interval is just the sixty-two weeks. 440 BC was "the beginning of the rebuilding in times of distress" and Jesus was born in 6 BC, giving 434 years = 62 weeks in between. Based on this and some other meaning for the first seven weeks, they conclude: "The dates are too exact to be dismissed lightly, and they stand well as a firm apologetic for the Divine/supernatural character of the prophecy." gives the starting point as "King Artaxerxes decree in 457BC" and the ending point 69 weeks = 483 years later as "Jesus Christ arrives as Messiah in the exact year 27AD."

It reminds me of a joke that I'm adapting:

Jack is accused of borrowing John's pot and returning it cracked, so John sues. The defense produces four witnesses who all attest to Jack's innocence. But the prosecution cross-examines the witnesses to produce the following four stories:

1. Jack never borrowed the pot.
2. The pot was already cracked when Jack borrowed it.
3. The pot was not cracked when it was returned.
4. There is no pot.

The defense persists that while the witnesses disagree on the details, we have four different witnesses who agree with the underlying idea: Jack is innocent. Each of the four stories is believed by three members of the jury. They pontificate over technicalities for a while, but quickly tire. Eventually, they just decide that all that matters is the bottom line of Jack's innocence, so they acquit Jack unanimously.

The Answers of C. S. Lewis: Genocide, Vessels of Wrath, and the Bible

The influence the moral argument against the Bible had on me was not so much as a positive argument itself, but rather as a rebuttal to the moral and anthropomorphic arguments for the existence of the Christian God. It was through Lewis that I learned about the moral argument for God, so I find his rebuttal quite interesting.

John Beversluis noticed an inconsistency in the way Lewis dealt with the problem of pain and wrote to him about it. The entirety of his reply follows:

"Dear Mr. Beversluis

"Yes. On my view one must apply something of the same sort of explanation to, say, the atrocities (and treacheries) of Joshua. I see the grave danger we run by doing so; but the dangers of believing in a God whom we cannot but regard as evil, and then, in mere terrified flattery calling Him 'good' and worshiping Him, is still greater danger. The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scriptures is to prevail when they conflict. I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two. Indeed, only that doctrine renders this worship of Him obligatory or even permissible.

"To this some will reply 'ah, but we are fallen and don't recognize good when we see it.' But God Himself does not say that we are as fallen at all that. He constantly, in Scripture, appeals to our conscience: 'Why do ye not of yourselves judge what is right?' -- 'What fault hath my people found in me?' And so on. Socrates' answer to Euthyphro is used in Christian form by Hooker. Things are not good because God commands them; God commands certain things because he sees them to be good. (In other words, the Divine Will is the obedient servant to the Divine Reason.) The opposite view (Ockham's, Paley's) leads to an absurdity. If 'good' means 'what God wills' then to say 'God is good' can mean only 'God wills what he wills.' Which is equally true of you or me or Judas or Satan.

"But of course having said all this, we must apply it with fear and trembling. Some things which seem to us bad may be good. But we must not consult our consciences by trying to feel a thing good when it seems to us totally evil. We can only pray that if there is an invisible goodness hidden in such things, God, in His own good time will enable us to see it. If we need to. For perhaps sometimes God's answer might be What is that to thee?' The passage may not be 'addressed to our (your or my) condition' at all.

"I think we are v. much in agreement, aren't we?

"Yours sincerely, C. S. Lewis"

So Lewis would agree with me – the same moral arguments that get one to the existence of a God get one away from the concept of God as revealed in the Bible. Lewis got around this by holding some parts of the Bible to not be inspired.

This quotation comes from pages 295-296 of C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion by John Beversluis, a book which I highly recommend. As Beversluis writes in the introduction:

"C. S. Lewis needs to rescued: not only from the evils of excessive loyalty. His apologetic writings deserve better than cavalier rejection or uncritical acceptance. He believed that Christianity is not only true but rationally defensible, and he was willing to debate it with all comers. An open forum of this kind is rare. In the following chapters, I take up his challenge and reconstruct and critically examine his 'case for Christianity.'"