Friday, May 02, 2008

Falsifiability and Christianity

For the past day or so, fellow twitterers "Peter Rock," Clay Burell, and I have been having a mostly-civil discussion of religion over at Pete's blog. At one point I noted:

Just produce a corpse/set of bones/ossuary/occupied grave (with good provenance, of course) that can be positively identified as belonging to a 1st-century CE itinerant rabble-rouser/rabbi/healer/preacher named Y’shua Ben Y’suf, of Nazareth (or Capernum), where the body is that of a robust man in his early thirties, and has been scourged and crucified in the Roman manner.

Clay suggested that the falsifiability argument is silly - we can't find Adam's grave, either.

But it's not silly. Not at all. You see, it's not possible to disprove any other religion. You can argue that their teachings are silly, or dangerous, or inconsistent with archaeology, but it is not possible DISPROVE them. But it IS possible to disprove Christianity. It may nt be probable, but it is possible. There've even been novels written exploring what might happen if someone discovered the body of Jesus.

Why is it such a big deal?

Because the Empty Tomb is absolutely central to Christianity. Paul wrote, "If Christ is not risen, then all our teaching is in vain, and I am the most miserable of men, for I have been spreading false hope."

But how did this belief get started? The earliest written documentation of the belief in a literal resurrection are the letters of Paul, written ~55CE. They clearly show that belief in a literal, physical resurrection was central to "The Way." The earliest copies of the first Gospel to be written, Mark, include the discovery of the empty tomb.

Jesus was not buried in some common grave in a potter's field. He was buried in a rich man's tomb, and a guard was set over it by the Romans at the specific request of the Sanhedrin. And then the tomb was empty.

So what happened?

Muslims believe that it's wasn't Jesus, but someone else who was crucified that day. There was a last-minute switch. The only evidence they cite is the Q'ran. That's the only evidence they need. Mohammed said it happened that way? Case closed.

It's been suggested that Jesus wasn't really dead, and that he revived in the cool tomb. This of course flies in the face of modern trauma medicine and what we know about the physiology of crucifixion. (Not to mention the fact that the professional executioners were so sure he was dead that they didn't bother to break his legs.)

Maybe the disciples stole the body? Interesting hypothesis. Not a shred of supporting evidence, unfortunately. First of all, the record shows that the disciples didn't understand that Jesus would rise again. They thought he was dead and gone. Second, they were unsophisticated country folks, not exactly the sort of calculating crew that could pull off a truly world-class burglary and cover-up - and do it almost literally overnight. Besides, as Watergate felon Chuck Colson notes, conspiracies *always* fall apart. The conspiracy idea also omits the fact that the disciples were devout Jews, who would NOT about to defile themselves on the first Sabbath of Passover by handling a dead body.

There's an argument that the story is derived from Mithraism, which shares some interesting similarities - a demi-god hero who goes to the underworld and returns, a ritual meal, baptism. The first problem with this idea is culture. Mithraism was a secret cult popular among Roman soldiers. The first followers of Jesus were Jews - the last people you'd find adopting practices of the Roman soldiers. The second problem is time. Jesus died in the year 30CE. Paul wrote his letters around 55-60, after spending five years or so travelling around (sometimes with Luke).

Twenty years is nowhere near enough time for the folklore of Mithras to get jumbled up with the folklore of Jesus. There are folks *today* in the hills of Kentucky who sing songs their ancestors brought over from Scotland and England, and the songs are nearly identical to the "folk songs of the British Isles" collected by F. J. Child in the late 1800s.

There are a couple of other twists to the story that I find interesting. Both speak to the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts of Easter morning.

First, no one is recorded as having witnessed the moment of the resurrection itself. This is THE most dramatic moment in human history. If you were writing fiction, wouldn't you have someone there who could later say, "I was weeping next to the body when suddenly there was a blinding light and the sound of angels singing..."? But instead, we get two women who find the tomb empty and are bewildered. Women were not considered reliable witnesses in those days. They could not even testify in court. So not only do we not have any witness to the resurrection itself, the witnesses we do have are suspect.

It may seem counterintuitive at first, but those facts strengthen the case for the Gospels being collections of eyewitness testimony. If they're fiction, they're pretty bad fiction.

When the disciples started seeing Jesus alive again, they got excited and started talking about it. Just a few weeks later at Shauvot (the Jewish harvest festival akak Pentecost) they caused a big ruckus. (See Acts 2.) The Romans and the Sanhedrin had plenty of motive to haul out the body of Jesus and shut down these fanatics. It should have been easy - if they could have located the body. :-)


The Candid Christian said...

An absolutely wonderful post. Well done, well done. (I would love to have been privvy to the conversation that gave birth to these thoughts.)
Another key point: The martyrs. Just look at the previous cowardice of the 11 (discouting Judas, of course.) When pressed, His most ardent follower, Peter, denied even knowing Him. There is scant mention of the disciples in the hours following His arrest. Where were they? The implication is that they scattered, literally running for their lives. After Christ's resurrection, where did He find them? Hiding "for fear of the Jews."
Yet something interesting happens after the roughly 40 days He spent with them before His ascension. They speak boldly and without fear the message that "the kingdom of God is at hand." They heal people in plan sight of the very Jews from whom they once cowered in fear. They spread out into the Roman world, preaching Christ's message. And, when they are arrested and facing a must gruesome death, do they back off? On the contrary. They faced death head on. Only one of the original 12--John--didn't die a martyr's death. According to tradition, Peter, the same man who cut and ran as Jesus faced a kangaroo court, was crucified upside down because he didn't feel worthy to die the same death as Christ. This was after he reportedly survived being stoned. His brother, Andrew, was said to have died while preaching...on the cross itself. Matthew was run through with a spear. James was pushed off a high part of the temple and, when that failed to kill him, he prayed for his tormentors as they stood around his broken body. Someone finally hit him on the head with a rock to put him out of his misery. Phillip was stoned and crucified. Mark was burned alive. James, the brother of John, was beheaded. Bartholomew was beaten...then crucified...then had his head chopped off.
The question, then, is why would these simple men, once so full of fear and cowardice, suffer so outrageously for a lie?
They weren't doing it for the prestige...they were hated by Jews and Romans alike. They weren't doing it for the money...there weren't any megachurches with their megachurch salaries and million-dollar book deals in first century Palestine.
No, these men preached the Gospel at incredible risk to life and limb not because they believed. It was because they knew.
Grace and Peace...

SkyDaddy said...


Thanks very much for your addition. That was a critical point I neglected to leave out: The eyewitnesses to the Risen Christ - the conspirators, if there had been a conspiracy - died horrible deaths rather than recant their witness. No one dies for a lie that they know is a lie.

But people ARE often willing to die for an idea that they *think* is the truth. (cf. Jonestown, Heaven's Gate, jihadist suicide bombers, etc.)

Which leads to another theory I forgot to mention - the idea that the appearance of Jesus was an hysterical hallucination, brought on by grief.

Unfortunately for its proponents, this notion belies what we know of the psychology of mass suggestion as well as the psychology of grief.

Mass-suggestion events have been well-documented, and the circumstances and outcomes simply do not match up with the written record of the appearances of the Risen Jesus. The disciples weren't hopped up on ecstatic emotion and "expecting a miracle." They were scared sh**less and "expecting to be arrested."

Further, while Elizabeth Kumbler-Ross's stages of grief are well known, "denial" does not mean "delusion." The disciples had watched Jesus die, had taken his lifeless corpse down, cleaned it, wrapped it, carried it. They were under no illusions.

I remember when I got the call that my beloved Uncle Bill had been killed in an accident. I cried out, "NO! That can't be!"

I did not cry out, "NO! That can't be! He's standing right here!"