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22nd November, 2010

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Unreasonable reason

Skeptics love to represent faith as hostile to reason and unbelievers as having a monopoly on logical reasoning. What a misrepresentation! True, many Bible advocates display a gobsmacking talent for folly in their logic. The reasoning underpinning many anti-biblical theories is patently unreasonable, specious to the core. ("Anti-biblical" is used here to describe all ideas that treat the Bible as human in origin and prone to error.) In some instances, no reasoning is advanced, just personal theories. Personal theorizing should never be portrayed as reason, but in anti-biblical circles it often is. Some scholar presents a theory and it's treated as if it is reasoned and logical when in fact it could be pure speculation.

A perfect place to find unreasonable reason among skeptics is in the old debate about the Jesus of history vs. the Jesus of "tradition" (that is, of the Bible). Of course, as soon as you try to squeeze a big topic into a short blog you leave yourself open to charges of making sweeping generalizations. If you report on what only one humanist scholar has to say someone will find another humanist scholar who takes a different stance. Be that as it may, generally speaking one can sum up the "Jesus of history" position as little more than the rejection, to varying degrees depending on the individual scholar, of the Bible as a reliable source of truth about the person of Jesus Christ - what He actually did and said. To find the "real Jesus", they argue, you must look to archeology and extra-biblical literature to find the truth. The gospel accounts are a mix of fact and fiction. But first and foremost, one must accept that Jesus was an ordinary man like the rest of us. That position is not reasoned, it springs entirely from an anti-supernatural prejudice. It most certainly does not come from reading the gospels "carefully".

One disclaimer needs to be made immediately. The so-called "search for the historical Jesus" has produced one good fruit; it has corrected the false impression that had been in vogue for many centuries that Jesus spurned His "Jewish roots", or that He was not even a Jew.1 Most all scholars now regard Jesus as a bona fide Jew who strongly related to His Jewish identity. Good start, but almost immediately all fall from grace. You see, to them the "real Jesus" was an ordinary Jew whose thinking was guided by some Jewish sect or another, and His teachings reflected the group to which He belonged. Forget the New Testament which presents Jesus plainly as the ultimate authority on truth, the final word in the proper understanding and interpretation of the Old Testament, not as the leader of some Jewish sect.

Certainly, you can find snippets of information in there that, washed and rinsed in the pure waters of humanistic scholarship, can provide data for reconstructing the real Jesus. To illustrate, consider a recent interview between Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, and Sean Freyne, director of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Studies, as well as emeritus professor of theology, at Trinity College, Dublin, and well-known "expert" on the historical Jesus. Prof Freyne, for instance, says,

Well, for me, one of the important things is to start with Jesus' relationship with John the Baptist. We know from John's gospel that, later, the Jesus and the Baptist movements were in opposition, since their disciples

were in competition for members (John 3:26). In this gospel the Baptist is apologetically presented as being the first witness to the Christian gospel (John 1:29-34). In the much-earlier synoptic account, Jesus says that "nobody born of women is greater than John the Baptist" (Matthew 11:11; Luke 7:28). These are the words of an admirer of John. Jesus has left his Galilean village culture of Nazareth and joins the Baptist movement in the desert, it would seem.

For starters, John 3:26 does not suggest that John's disciples and Jesus' disciples were involved in a numbers game. That is an unreasoned assertion and underscores the cavalier attitude these skeptics have towards the biblical data. To treat Scripture in an off-handed manner and take it to mean whatever one wants amounts to unreasonable reason. Second, how in creation can one describe John's witness to Jesus as "apologetic"? It's just not there. Finally, what a joke - Jesus "joins the Baptist movement in the desert". The reasoning for such a pronouncement is not presented; one can fairly safely assume it is based on the unspoken premise that you cannot accept the New Testament interpretation of Jesus' significance. Therefore you must come up with some other explanation for Jesus' behavior. Blind Freddie can see that the thrust of John 1:19-35 is to give credibility to Jesus as the Lamb of God, not to suggest that Jesus joined John's band. Skeptics will applaud Prof. Freyne as a "man of reason"; truth is, his reasoning is unreasonable.

Prof. Freyne, while acknowledging his disagreement with those who embrace the idea, treats as potentially valid the notion that Jesus' power to perform miracles was little more than crass deception:

According to Celsus [a second-century C.E. Greek philosopher], Jesus went to Egypt and learned magic there, and came back and deceived the people. I think we have to try to balance a negative account with what we can establish historically. And I think that "magician," for me, is not the appropriate title.

Well, that's encouraging. Jesus was not a magician - but then again, he may have been; it depends on how you define it. Maybe Prof Freyne doesn't go along with the idea, but other scholars reject the New Testament in favor of a loony "historical" record written over one hundred years after the gospels. Celsus also averred that Jesus was born as a result of an adulterous relationship between Mary and a Roman soldier named Panthera. All highly credible!

Most historical-Jesus scholars arbitrarily reject the historicity of whatever portions of the gospel accounts they find don't fit their view. Prof Freyne is no exception:

We have the infancy gospel stories, which of course are highly theological and highly literary, made up later. So we really can't build anything historical on those narratives.

No, we can't trust Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. What could they have known? Or worse, someone came along later and tampered with their accounts. May we suggest you read the entire interview for yourself. As you go, try to analyze the logic of the assertions that are presented as sound reason. Believers who have sound reason for their beliefs need not feel one whit behind the logic eight ball.

1The Real Jesus, (pdf) Jay Tolson and Linda Kulman, U.S. News and World Report (March 8, 2004)


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