Thursday, October 3, 2019

Apologetics for a New Millennium, Same as the Old Millennium

It's fun to peek from time to time at the present state of fundamentalist Christian apologetics.  I've begun reading Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture's Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ by Darrell L. Bock and Daniel B. Wallace (Thomas Nelson, 2010), and it doesn't seem that much has changed in the past fifty years -- longer, really.

Bock and Wallace are both academics, professional scholars, but they begin Dethroning Jesus with some rather lazy arguments.  Bock recounts how he debated John Dominic Crossan "in front of a packed house at Southern Methodist University" (page 2).  Crossan, a member of the notorious Jesus Seminar, told the audience of a study of college students who were asked where they were the Challenger Space Shuttle blew up, and were asked again three years later.  Not only did their memories change, but:
Afterward, the students were asked to compare their testimonies and choose the one they liked best. The study noted that most students preferred the description they gave three years after the event rather than the initial account they gave immediately after the event. [Crossan's] point in citing the study was to say that memory becomes distorted over time [page 2].
I notice that we're already getting some distance between the original study and the account I've quoted here: we have Bock's memory of Crossan's description of the study.  No reference is given for the study itself, and though I've heard of similar research that led to similar results, I'd like to be able to have a look at the actual report.  Because memory can indeed become distorted over time, and as we'll see, Bock doesn't actually dispute this, it would be nice to have some backup.  (A cursory search on Youtube didn't bring up anything, but I'll look again.)

Here's how Bock remembers his rebuttal of Crossan:
I noted that two very important points were missing from his discussion of the experiment at Emory. First, it took place in a culture that has developed distance from the use of memory. We have video footage and computers now. Second, those who were asked at Emory had no stake in what was being recalled. I raised the question of what might have happened had the NASA astronaut corps been asked to go through the same exercise, since their lives would be at stake in the shuttle’s fate. The analogy was that those who followed Jesus paid a great price for their belief. Their families probably disowned them. Many even lost their lives for their faith. They likely would have been marked by such an event, and thus their memory was likely to be better. Quite a gap existed between college students and NASA astronauts when it came to the shuttle. The astronauts were more like the martyrs of the first generation of faith.
This is a standard fundamentalist move, brought up-to-date for the space age: because the early Christians suffered, "even lost their lives for their faith", their account of Jesus is trustworthy.  If you accept this argument, however, one must ask about non-Christians who lost their lives for their faith, often at Christian hands.  Many Jews chose martyrdom rather than convert to Christianity, so by Bock's logic, this counts against the truth of Christianity and for Judaism.  Further, most Christian martyrs had no personal memory of Jesus' ministry, so their tenaciousness can not be explained by fidelity to what they had seen and heard and touched.  And what of those Christians who chose life over martyrdom, probably outnumbering those who chose to die?  Notwithstanding its enduring popularity, Christian martyrdom is not an argument for the truth of the New Testament.

More could be said about Bock's attempt to recast the focus to the "astronaut corps" instead of the students.  The astronauts who died in the Challenger disaster could hardly repeat the experiment, since they were dead.  (The same is true of the Christians who died for their beliefs.)  In the absence of evidence about the other astronauts' memories of the disaster, this move can only be seen as an attempt at distraction.  (I'll try to find a study I read about, of children who'd survived school shootings; as I remember it, if they were near the shooters, they remembered that they were far away from him; if they were not near, they remembered being closer and in greater danger.  There are obvious parallels to some of the gospel material here.)

Bock returns to his second point:
Add on top of this the fact that Judaism was a “culture of memory,” for that is how the Jews passed on stories, and the appeal to a modern analogy at Emory looks less plausible. This difference over memory parallels the way Jesus is remembered and discussed today. Some are skeptical about memory and Jesus, arguing that Jesus has been formed largely in the image favorable to those doing the remembering. Others argue that Jesus’ presence and teaching were so powerful that they were well remembered by people who were used to passing on teaching orally. In many ways, this book is about that debate. It is a debate that rages in our culture as people speak about who Jesus was and what he taught.
I'm a bit surprised that a professional New Testament scholar could get so much wrong, but then Bock isn't the first I've encountered.  Judaism in Jesus' time relied on written sources to pass on stories: it was unique among pre-Christian religions in its reliance on Scripture, which means "writing."  Literacy wasn't as widespread in those days as it is now, but reading the Torah in synagogue was a regular part of Jewish worship.  True, the written text was used as a springboard for oral commentary, but that is true today among Christians too, and that commentary could range widely beyond the letter of the text.  There's a genre of Jewish biblical interpretation, haggadah, which retells the written biblical stories with a great deal of variation and invention, but those retellings have also been written down.  And the earliest Christian evidence we have are written documents, the letters of Paul, written a decade or more before anyone bothered to write the gospels.

If you accept the traditional authorship of the gospels, you have to cope with the fact that the evangelists provide as many as four discordant versions of Jesus' life and teaching -- five, if you include Paul's accounts of the first Eucharist and the resurrection.  That "culture of memory" was not all that reliable, even for preserving material that we know was of first importance to believers.  There's been a resurgence of attention to "oral tradition" in New Testament scholarship in the past couple of decades, but it seems to be as much about variation in the church's use of the Jesus tradition as about preserving historical data, and it doesn't give much support to apologists like Bock.

Still, reading these arguments gave me a warm feeling of familiarity: Bock's arguments are invalid, but they bring back memories of other invalid defenses of Christianity that I've encountered over the past forty years.