Evidence for the Existence of Jesus – Extra Biblical Sources 2

28 02 2009

Last week I gave you the first three extra-Biblical sources that attest the the life of the actual person by the name of Jesus. As I mentioned last week, many these days are making claims that Jesus never existed. Even this week, in a discussion online, one of the people with whom I am interacting brought up this issue again by claiming that “scholars” question the veracity of the existence of Jesus. I assure you that the term scholar here is a loose term as there may be scholars who raise this question, but few, if any, are scholars in the field of historical New Testament study. There are plenty of scholars, even atheist scholars in the field of historic New Testament study who would put these questioners in the fringe camp. The historic existence of Jesus of Nazareth is not widely questioned among scholars in the field.

Today I will present a few more extra-Biblical sources that give attestation to Jesus’ life and that of the early church. Why am I starting with extra-Biblical sources rather than the Bible? Mainly because skeptics are quicker to dismiss the Bible than they would be sources outside of the Bible whom they would not believe would have an ax to grind. Later, we will look at the historical reliability of the Bible as an ancient text and the reliability of the witness contained therein. Last week we looked at Tacitus, Suetonius, and Josephus, showing them to be credible sources of historical information, this week we will look at four additional sources: Pliny the Younger, Emperor Trajan, and the Jewish Talmud.

Pliny the Younger, Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor around 112 AD:

“[The Christians] were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food–but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.”

Mentions the fact that Christians and sang hymns to Christ as God, as well as moral commitments that they made. He also expresses in his letters that the teachings of Jesus and the disciples was excessive and contagious superstition.

Emperor Trajan, in reply to Pliny:

“The method you have pursued, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those denounced to you as Christians is extremely proper. It is not possible to lay down any general rule which can be applied as the fixed standard in all cases of this nature. No search should be made for these people; when they are denounced and found guilty they must be punished; with the restriction, however, that when the party denies himself to be a Christian, and shall give proof that he is not (that is, by adoring our gods) he shall be pardoned on the ground of repentance, even though he may have formerly incurred suspicion. Information without the accuser’s name subscribed must not be admitted in evidence against anyone, as it is introducing a very dangerous precedent, and by no means agreeable to the spirit of the age.”

Although this excerpt does not mention Jesus directly, it does speak to the persecution of the early church for not worshiping the gods of Rome.

The Jewish Talmud, compiled between 70 and 200 AD:

“On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of the Passover.”

Mentions Jesus crucifixion (hanged) on the eve of the Passover.

Again, these are early sources that give attestation to the facts set forth in the Gospel accounts and that all fill in some of the history that we know about the treatment of the early church. I set this forth as more and more people these days are expressing doubts about the veracity of Jesus life and the facts of the early church. Our best evidence, however, is from the New Testament accounts, and in coming weeks I will give evidence for the authenticity of the New Testament writings that we have.


Evidence for the Existence of Jesus – Extra-Biblical Sources 1

23 02 2009

Today I would like to discuss an exchange that I have been engaged in recently with a group of skeptics who deny that Jesus was a historical person. The original poster on this thread said that he was having a hard time denying that Jesus was real. My response to him was that he has reason to be troubled about denying that Jesus was a real person since he was a real person. I told him that if he didn’t want to start with the Bible for evidence, he could look to extra-Biblical sources. So, over the next few weeks I will give the evidence as to why most scholars, even liberal ones, believe that Jesus was a historical person. As with the poster, I will begin with the extra-Biblical sources since non-believers seem to put more trust in them than they do the NT sources; however, in future posts I will also give evidence as to why we can trust the NT as a valid source for historical information about Jesus. Due to the length of some of these quotes, I will only give a few each week.

Source 1: Cornelius Tacitus (55-120 A.D.), Roman Historian

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.

  • This passage discusses the early Christians; Christus (Christ), from whom they they derived their name, and the early persecutions and the charge on which it was based.

Source 2: Gaius Suetonius Tranquillas (117-138 AD), Chief Secretary of Emperor Hadrian

Because the Jews of Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, [Claudius] expelled them from the city.”

After the great fire at Rome [during Nero’s reign] … Punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous religious belief.

  • Mentions Chrestus (Christ) and the punishments of Christians for supposedly buring Rome.

Source 3: Flavius Josephus (37-97 AD), Court Historian for Emperor Vespasian:

At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.

  • Mentions Jesus, his crucifixion, the disciples mentions that the disciples reported seeing him alive after his crucifixion, perhaps was the messiah.
  • Note: there is a disputed passage of Josephus’ writings that may have been altered by Christians who were the keepers of many documents of antiquity; however, this passage is not that one and is not considered be in dispute as to embellishment. In other words, some skeptics will want to throw out all of Josephus because a passage was added to; yet, that should not be done since we know what is authentic and what is not. This passage is believed by most scholars to be the authentic account of Josephus.

I hope that gives you a taste of some of the historic extra-Biblical accounts that testify to Jesus as a person from history. I will give you more accounts next week.

Evidence for the Existence of God – Moral Argument

15 02 2009

As some of you know, I was introduced to the site ex-Christians.net some time ago when engaging an atheist on William Lane Craig ‘s discussion board on the existence of God. I hadn’t gone to the ex-Ch site for some time and recently began to track the discussions via RSS feed. A couple of weeks ago a troubled young man posted that he couldn’t understand why it was so hard for him to deny the existence of Christ. This intrigued me, so I posted a quick note telling him that it was not unusual that he had this difficulty as even non-Christian historical writers documented the existence of Christ. Well, this started a flurry of responses from the atheists on that site and off we went. Now, this site has rules, for which I wasn’t aware, that restrict Christians from posting in certain safe areas of the site, and apparently I was posting in one of those areas, so they moved the discussion to the Lions Den and I quickly found out why the called it this.

The discussion has touched on many different issues, including whether these historical, extra-Biblical writings were legitimate and actually give the evidence for which Christians claim; whether God is evil; whether the origin and design of the universe point toward God; and other fun subjects. Today, I thought I would focus on one of the evidences for the existence of God; this is one of the stronger arguments for God’s existence in my book. So, here is the moral argument for God’s existence:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
2. Objective moral values do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.

Now, what counter-arguments would an atheist have for this argument? Well, they might first argue that objective moral values can exist without God. This would require them to provide an objective basis for morality in the absence of God. On what could they base these values? Well, one person that I debated said that objective moral values just exist as Platonic forms. He argued that this is how people like John Locke grounded moral values and that he influenced Thomas Jefferson when he wrote of unalienable (or inalienable, if you prefer) rights in the Declaration of Independence. This person said that Jefferson was an atheist, so he didn’t mean God as we know him, when he said we were endowed by our Creator with these rights. It was a strained argument to be sure, but even if he were correct and these moral values do exist, they would not have an oughtness to them. In other words, there is no reason that I ought to obey them if all they are are brute facts. What are the consequences if I choose to ignore them? These people would come back and say, “I don’t need a God to threaten to punish me to obey to be moral.” The problem is they can’t obey the rules when there is a God who can punish them, so why would I believe that they would obey them in God’s absence? The bottom line is that there is no reason that I should obey morals that are disconnected from a lawgiver.

Others would say that we do have objective moral values and these are derived through evolution. They would say that evolution has “selected” for moral behavior that benefits the group or society, therefore, we should obey them. The question is, how do we know these morals? Clearly, they weren’t spoken to us, they must come through instinct. The problem with this view is that we have competing instincts, how do we know which to obey? How do we really know which behaviors will lead to the ultimate survivability of the species? We cannot see into the future and know which decisions we make are going to promote the highest possibility of the survival of the species.

Still, others would say that we can just look around us and see which behaviors are good and which are bad. In essence, we work from particular behaviors to a universal moral code. Here is the problem with that view. When we see behaviors on what basis do we know which are good and which are bad? We still need a basis on which to judge them that is independent of us. If I asked you, which is better foowqof or xupsil, what would you say? On what basis would you judge? Well, you might go to a dictionary and try to determine what these words mean. Not finding them in an English dictionary, you would search foreign dictionaries, again you would fail. So, what would you do? Your first response to words for which you were unfamiliar was to compare them to an objective standard (dictionaries), yet when objective standards fail, you are left to your subjective opinion or preference. You might prefer one word to another (maybe you like the sound of one or prefer shorter words to longer ones), but you would not be making an objective decision at that point since you have no objective basis on which to make a determination. The same is true of observing moral behavior, unless we have an objective standard by which to judge behavior, it becomes a matter of preference.

God is the only reasonable objective basis that can fit this need. The source must be transcendent, above us. The source must be personal in order to communicate these values. The source must have authority by which to enforce these standards. The source must be inherently good. The source must be immutable or unchangable. All of these characteristics are descriptive of God.

The next question revolves around whether objective moral values actually exist. If they don’t exist, then the atheist would have a basis on which to say that God doesn’t exist. So, let’s look at whether this claim number 2 is true. To do so, we look at certain moral behaviors and ask whether they could ever be justified. Could murder (the wanton taking of innocent life) ever be justified? What about rape? Child abuse? Racism? The list could go on, but the truth is that only one example is needed to prove that objective moral values do exist, and I have not met anyone yet would could justify any one of these. I have heard the scenario that says, suppose someone were holding your family hostage and threatening to kill them unless you murder (or do some other behavior usually considered immoral) another person, wouldn’t that make that behavior ultimately good as it saved your family? The answer is no, the behavior is still evil, even though it may prevent a greater evil from occurring. So, point two of the argument is sustained.

That leads to the logical conclusion that God does exist.

Now, when you engage in this conversation with an unbeliever, they will have a tendency to shift the argument. They might say things like, “are you saying that I cannot be a moral person unless I believe in God?” The answer is you can, but on what objective standard do you base your morals? One can live a moral life as God has given us a conscience so that we know right and wrong, but that is a question of how we know morals, not whether they actually exist. They might also say that cultures that have never heard of God know that murder and rape are wrong, but again, that goes back to how we know versus whether they exist. I generally have to repeatedly steer people back to the main argument from these sidetracks in a conversation. The question of how we know what moral are is a separate question from whether objective moral values actually exist, and we must establish the existence of objective moral values before we discuss how we know what they are.

One poster wanted to drag me into the discussion of God’s commandment to Israel to wipe out the Amalekites, and this is a common complaint among atheists. I asked the poster to first establish his objective basis for morality before we could discuss this subject, since he needed an objective basis on which to indict God. He was borrowing from a Christian worldview (objective moral values) to indict God. I didn’t allow him to do that, I made him answer for his basis of objective moral values apart from God before he could indict God. If someone is going to claim objective moral values, they cannot, at the same time, argue that God doesn’t exist. They would be using an argument for God’s existence to try to prove that he doesn’t exist, which is illogical.

I am sure that I have stirred up more questions than I have answered with this post, so if you have questions, feel free to send them my way and I will try to clear them up.

Seeing God in Aesthetic Beauty

9 02 2009

This past Thursday night a small group of us gathered to discuss the topic of how aesthetics fits in with our understanding of the world. Aesthetics is the study, reflection, and critique of art and culture. I have recently been reading a couple of books that are well known reflections on these fields. The first book, The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom, a University of Chicago professor, was written over 20 years ago; yet, it is still very pertinent to the cultural situation today. Bloom talks about how we have moved from a culture based in objective morality to a culture of subjective values; from a culture based in truth to a culture based on the self as the center of reality. Bloom shows how these moves have left the modern university in disarray and education in chaos.

The second book is becoming my new favorite non-fiction book. Prior to reading this book, my favorite had been The God Who is There by Francis Schaeffer. So, who could top Schaeffer on my list? Only Francis Schaeffer himself with his book How Should We Then Live? Schaeffer follows the historical development of thought through philosophy, the arts in their various modes of expression, and into religion. Schaeffer explains how man moved from explaining the world from God (the universal) to how we live our lives (the particulars), and then transitioned to trying to explain life from the particulars in order to reach a universal explanation (without God). I know that this may not make sense, but you will have to read the book to understand it, and when you do I believe it will be revolutionary to your thinking and the way you understand the world in which we live.

Schaeffer explains how artists tried to express a universal understanding of the world through their art, music, and literature, and in so doing blurred the particulars more and more in order to reach that universal. This is why we see art go through the phases of expression, where the paintings moved farther away from realism and eventually into modern art, where expressions of man were lost altogether in the painting. Marcel Duchamp expresses this in one of his famous paintings (see if you can find the person descending the stairs in this painting).

Later, artists moved away from the optimism of trying to find meaning and to express the universal through their art and moved into despair and the loss of that hope. This type of art was expressed by people like Jackson Pollock who would suspend paint cans above the canvas to create paintings “by chance” (both the title and the method of creating this work.) Because we live in a world where people believe that we are the product of chance, it is not unusual that these people would create works by chance. This idea carried into a school known as the Dadaists, the name was chosen by randomly opening a French dictionary to a page and randomly pointing to a word on that page; it is the art and form of the absurd (btw, the word dada means rocking horse.) Others, including John Cage in the field of music, tried to create works of randomness as well. Later, artists tried to make the “leap of faith” to the universal from the particulars by using other methods including meditation and drugs, which is what led to the drug culture of the sixties and its impact in the field of music.

So, in the discussion on Thursday we had an interesting time. One member of our group, is an artist and I asked him to speak first from his perspective. He, surprisingly, believed that man could truly know aesthetics through experiences with art. This person is not an evolutionist, which is why he holds this view. From a hardcore evolutionary position, aesthetics, like truth do not make sense. Evolution, as Schaeffer would say, makes man out to be a machine. Man is determined by his DNA and so understanding things like truth and beauty, or even love, don’t fit into the model – man must make a leap of faith to believe that these exist and could have meaning. That was the gist of our discussion on Thursday and most, if not all in the room understood the implications. However, I don’t know that anyone in the room was a hardcore atheist or evolutionist, so that wasn’t a hard conclusion to which to come. However, it is further evidence pointing to God.

Evidence for the Existence of God – Design of the Universe

1 02 2009

Evidence for the Existence of God – Design of the Universe

This week I will continue the series that I began last week in providing arguments for the existence of God. Last week, we discussed the origin of the universe, which, if you missed, can be found here. This week, as the title suggests, we will discuss the teleology or design of the universe. The word teleology means design or purpose, so we will look at those aspects of the universe that show this design or purpose.

So, here is how the Teleological Argument is stated by William Lane Craig:

1. The fine tuning of the universe is due to either to physical necessity, chance, or design.

2. It is not due to physical necessity or chance.

3. Therefore, it is due to design.

What is meant by premise one is that the universe either has to exist in the condition that it is in, there is no other possible condition in which it could have existed, or it is order purely by chance, or it was designed. Premise one is not the disputed premise of this argument as it would require an alternative explanation to those given, and no one really provides such an alternative; therefore, we will focus on premise two.

Since some do dispute whether the universe is truly fine tuned, we will spend some time examining that question. Physicist Paul Davies quotes Fred Hoyle as saying that the universe gave the appearance as if a “superintellect had been ‘monkeying’ with the laws of physics.” Davies concludes, “He might be right in his impression. On the face of it, the universe does look as if it had been designed by an intelligent creator expressly for the purpose of spawning sentient beings.”[1]

Davies goes on to look at various laws of physics and asks why the laws work the way that they do. Whether it is gravity, the magnetic force, Boyle’s, Kepler’s, Newton’s or a host of other laws, the question is how we can find these consistent behaviors in the universe. In fact, Davies explains that these laws do not just work independently, but they are also often linked to one another.[2]

Another interesting “coincidence” of the universe is the fact that the positive and negative mass of the universe is nearly equal, “to within 2 percent accuracy of the measurement.” Davies tells us that the “observable universe contains 10^50 tons of visible matter in the form of stars, gas, and dust, all of which combine to create a powerful gravitational field.”[3] How they measure this, I am not sure, but the measurement is not disputed. We are then told that a “simple estimate of the gravitational energy binding all the galaxies to one another gives an effective mass for the gravitational field (using E=mc2) of about minus 10^50 tons, which is roughly equal (and opposite) to the mass of all the stars and other stuff.” Davies goes on to explain that this is “yet another one of those “coincidences” that is needed for a life-permitting universe.”[4]

Craig adds other data to the mix in quoting Davies he writes that “changes in either a(g) [gravitation] or a(w) [the weak force] of only one part in 10^100 would have prevented a life-permitting universe.” He goes on to say, “Stephen Hawking estimates that a decrease in the expansion rate of even one part in a hundred thousand million million one second after the Big Bang would have resulted in the universe’s recollapse long ago; a similar increase would have precluded galaxies’ condensing out of the expansion matter.”[5] Most fantastic of all the precision of the universe is found in two factors: the cosmological constant, which is fine tuned to one part in 10^120; and, Roger Penrose has calculated the “odds of the special low entropy condition having arisen sheerly by chance in the absence of any constraining principle” being “at least as small as about one part in 10^10^123 in order for the universe to exist.” That is one part in ten to the ten to the 123 power.

Just these two last parameters alone would be enough to negate chance as an explanation, yet considering the fact that there are many of these parameters that are highly fine-tuned and that many are not dependent upon the others, makes chance not a viable explanation.

Some physicists are trying to develop a theory of everything (TOE) to explain the fine-tuning of the four fundamental forces of nature: gravity, the strong and weak nuclear forces, and the electromagnetic force. String theory or super string theory are the leading candidates; however, Craig explains that string theory “allows 10^500 different possible universes governed by the present laws of nature,” which negates the possibility of the current set of fine tuning parameters being necessary. Craig continues, “given the multiplicity of constants that require fine-tuning, it is far from clear that even 10^500 possible universes would be enough to guarantee that even one life-permitting universe would appear by chance in the landscape.”[6] Craig concludes that “there is no reason to think that showing every constant and quantity to be physically necessary is anything more than a pipedream,”[7]

Let me restate the fine tuning argument:

1. The fine tuning of the universe is due to either to physical necessity, chance, or design.

2. It is not due to physical necessity or chance.

3. Therefore, it is due to design.

We have eliminated chance and necessity as possible explanations and given no other valid alternatives; we can conclude that the fine tuning of the universe is due to design with intelligence and the purpose of creating conditions necessary for intelligent life to exist within the universe. This, combined with the Kalam Cosmological Argument, give us sufficient and plausible reasons to believe that the cause is God.

[1] Fred Hoyle, “The Universe: Past and Present Reflections,” Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, vol. 20 (1982), 16, as found in Davies, Cosmic Jackpot, 3.

[2] Davies, Cosmic Jackpot, 7-11.

[3] ibid., 37.

[4] ibid., 43.

[5] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 158.

[6] ibid., 163.

[7] Ibid., 164.