Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Real Jesus - Pagan and Jewish Sources

The following is a paper of mine I wrote for one of my classes. I found the topic to be especially interesting, so I thought I would share some musings.

There are a plethora of passages about Jesus from historical antiquity. What may surprise some people is the vastness of non-Christian (i.e. Jewish and pagan) authors who mentioned Jesus. Although not every text is equally well-attested, a number of facts the NT claims concerning Jesus are confirmed by these other sources. With that said, the NT contains the primary sources of our knowledge about the life of Jesus. These additional quotations may be used in our subsequent attempts supplement what we know, or else confirm what the NT already says. We might begin with what some early Jewish writers had to say.

A quotation from the Tannaitic period of the formation of the Talmud (ca. AD 70 to 200) has this to say:

“On the eve of the Passover Yeshu [Jesus] 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. Any one who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.' But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover.” [1]

“Yeshu” is the equivalent of both “Jesus” and “Joshua.” While one may be caught a bit off guard by the mentioning of death by “hanging,” the NT uses this term to refer to crucifixion, as well (Gal. 3:13; Luke 23:39). [2] From this text, we also find confirmed the facts of Jesus' trial, the wonders he worked (which these particular Jews considered “sorcery,” as opposed to acts of God), his following, and the disciples' desertion of him. For, even though Jesus had allegedly brought Israel to apostasy, none of the “apostates” were willing to stand by him.

The Toledoth Jesu is a controversial text that was compiled after the fifth century AD. As Habermas explains the text as follows:

“It relates that his disciples planned to steal his body. However, a gardener named Juda discovered their plans and dig a new grave in his garden. Then he removed Jesus' body from Joseph's tomb and placed it in his own newly dug grave. The disciples came to the original tomb, found Jesus' body gone and proclaimed him risen. The Jewish leaders also proceeded to Joseph's tomb and found it empty. Juda then took them to his grave and dug up the body of Jesus. The Jewish leaders were greatly relieved and wanted to take the body. Juda replied that he would sell them the body of Jesus and did so for thirty pieces of silver. The Jewish priests then dragged Jesus' body through the streets of Jerusalem.” [3]

The weakness of this polemic was its lack of explanatory power. For, if the Jewish priests really did drag the body of Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem, then there would have been no way for Christianity to originate as it did through Jerusalem; it would have been completely falsified. Moreover, this account does not explain the experiences that the disciples claimed to have had of the risen Jesus.

Despite the low reliability of this passage, it does reflect an early Jewish polemic against Christianity that the disciples stole the body of Jesus. This polemic is expressed in Matthew 28:11-15, and is confirmed by Justin Martyr (AD 150) and Tertullian (AD 200). [4]

We might now consider some of the significant pagan sources that contain information about Jesus. Perhaps the most well-known of these sources is the early second century Roman historian, Tacitus. Regarding the fire of Rome, he writes:

“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 Pilate, 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. . . .” [5]

From this passage, we know that some of the earliest Christians were well-known and persecuted. We also know that Jesus (here called “Christus”) was the originator of this group, that he was put to death at the time the NT says he was, and that there was some supernatural belief Christians had about Jesus (resurrection?). The fact that Christianity spread so quickly to Rome may also be a confirmation of traditions about Peter and Paul, who traveled to Rome in order to evangelize. Fr. Pat correctly mentions that Tacitus was technically (and somewhat trivially) wrong about Pilate being a procurator, when in fact, he was a prefect. However, this would be like mentioning John McCain as a congressman, even though he is a Senator. This is one detail that can be easily overlooked.

Thallus is another source who is quoted by the third century Christian writer, Julius Africanus. Julius comments:

“On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun.” [6]

Although there are no whole extant manuscripts of Thallus' work, Julius preserves this little slice from it. The objection that Julius had to the alternative explanation of Thallus was that an eclipse could not take place during the time of a full moon, as was the case during the Jewish Passover. [7] This has been commonly noted among popular apologists, who point out that non-Christians were trying to explain away an otherwise supernatural event by a naturalistic hypothesis. And, given the implausibility of the naturalistic hypothesis, they opt for a supernatural one.

One final pagan source to consider (and there are many others) is Pliny the Younger. Pliny was a government official who wrote around the year AD 112. [8] He explained:

“They (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.” [8]

This text is very important, given that it testifies to many of the beliefs and practices of the early Christians. From this passage, we find more confirmation that the Christians believed Jesus to be divine, that they assembled and shared food (the Eucharist?), and had high moral standards.

All of these texts in some way help to confirm things we already know about Jesus from the NT. However, it is helpful to learn what the earliest counterparts to Christians knew about Jesus and his followers, and what they themselves believed. Even though they considered Christian beliefs to be superstitions, they acknowledge that these were the earliest beliefs, which is the first part to understanding the “real Jesus.” As Luke Timothy Johnson concludes, “These are all the notices concerning Jesus from outsiders that can arguably be said to rely on observation, rumor, and reports rather than on the direct reading of the New Testament writings themselves.” [10] If this is so, then we have some independent witness that the facts about Jesus contained within the NT are truly facts, and not merely fabricated by the NT writers. The multiplication of witnesses who agree on something attests to the truth about what they agree upon. Hence, we find some good starting points for discussion on what is true about Jesus.

Works Cited

[1] Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus, College Press, 1996, p. 203.

[2] ibid., p. 203.

[3] ibid., p. 205.

[4] ibid., p. 205.

[5] ibid., p. 188.

[6] ibid., p. 196-197.

[7] ibid., p. 197.

[8] ibid., p. 198

[9] ibid., p. 199.

[10] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus, HarperCollins Publishers, 1996, p. 116.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Response to Richard Dawkins' Criticisms of the Cosmological Argument

Among the most renowned spokesmen for the new wave of atheism is British biologist, Richard Dawkins. His bestselling book, The God Delusion, is his own personal attempt to justify atheism. There are many points with which I disagree with Dawkins, but in this post, I will restrict my comments to his objections to the vertical cosmological argument.

Dawkins writes, "[Vertical cosmological arguments] make the entirely unwarranted assumption that God himself is immune to the regress. Even if we allow the dubious luxury of arbitrarily conjuring a terminator to an infinite regress and giving it a name, simply because we need one, there is absolutely no reason to endow that terminator with any of the properties normally ascribed to God . . ." [1]

In this passage, Dawkins makes three unsupported assumptions that underlie his criticisms. First, he suggests that it is unreasonable to suppose the God would not be caused, even though everything else is. This is where we hear the familiar rhetorical question, "If everything has a cause, then what caused God?" However, even a cursory glance at the various cosmological arguments will show that this objection is without merit. Take the first premise of the argument from dependency:

1. Every dependent thing has a cause.

Notice that the premise is not, "Everything has a cause," where we make God a special exception. Rather, the premise states that, "Every dependent thing has a cause." If there is a first cause, then, it would have to be self-existent, and not dependent. Hence, it would not require a cause, since its existence is based solely on the necessity of its own nature.

Secondly, Dawkins considers the conclusion that there exists a first cause, rather than an infinite regress, "arbitrary." Yet, he provides no consideration of the arguments against an ontological infinite regress. In my earlier post, I provided two arguments against such a series of causes: 1) It would require an infinite series to cause something within a finite period of time; but, it would take infinite time for an infinite series to cause anything. 2) If one removes the first cause of an ontological series, then one also removes the secondary causes, as in the case of a house that collapses if it has no foundation. In fact, these are the same arguments offered by St. Thomas Aquinas, whom Dawkins says he is responding to. If this is the case, then why not deal with the arguments that Thomas offers against an infinite regress?

Thirdly, Dawkins contends that if there is a first cause, then it doesn't have to possess the attributes traditionally associated with God (i.e. omnipotence). This might seem a reasonable objection, but it glosses over the fact that after Thomas demonstrates the existence of a first cause, he immediately sets out to demonstrate analytically what the first cause must be like. It is not unreasonable to suppose that since effects in some way resemble their causes, that every dependent thing that exists (and this includes those things with power, knowledge, etc.) resembles a powerful and knowledgeable first cause. In fact, no predication is instantiated apart from the first cause, ultimately-speaking. So, why is it unreasonable to consider the first cause "God"?

Shortly later in the same chapter, Dawkins continues, "To return to the infinite regress and the futility of invoking God to terminate it, it is more parsimonious to conjure up, say, a 'big bang singularity' . . ." [2]

I've cut the quotation here short because the mention of a big band singularity immediately presupposes that Thomas is objecting to a temporal infinite regress, when in fact, he is only arguing against an ontological infinite regress. In this instance, we find that Dawkins is treating all cosmological arguments as if they are the same; but, that's not the case at all.

To be fair, however, Dawkins does refer to what he calls the "Crumboblious Cutlets type of regress." It is here that he muses that the atom is a "natural terminator" for a regress. Yet, even he implies that atoms are not first, given that they are composed of electrons, protons, and neutrons. [3] These, too, are divisible (into quarks, strings, and whatever else scientists hypothesize). However, none of these suffices as a first cause, unless one of them is simple (rather than composed of parts and divisible). Yet, something simple cannot be a body, given that bodies are divisible. Hence, the physical first cause that Dawkins suggests as an alternative to God is impossible.

I should note before concluding that I have profound respect for Richard Dawkins as a scientist. He is certainly a man of intelligence, and one of the brightest thinkers in his field of study. However, his philosophical arguments have been found wanting, as is demonstrated by many philosophers, such as Alvin Plantinga - here

Works Cited

[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Mariner Books, 2008, p. 101.

[2] ibid., p. 101.

[3] ibid., p. 102.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Problem of Induction

The Enlightenment brought up a plethora of philosophical disputes, many of them concerning the place of religion. However, what is often overlooked is the radical skepticism that some philosophers concluded about our ability to have knowledge - any knowledge at all! Perhaps the most distinguished philosopher of this stripe is the late eighteenth-century deist, David Hume. Hume accepted a version of the teleological argument for God's existence, but most of his skeptical conclusions were things that even he didn't believe in practice. For example, he famously rejected the notion that we have a firm basis to believe in the law of causation, even though he himself affirmed it. In a February 1754 letter to John Steward, Hume explains, "But allow me to tell you that I never asserted so absurd a Proposition as that anything might arise without a cause." [1]

However, this post is dedicated to a different problem that Hume brings to our attention. This issue is known today as the "problem of induction." In our daily experiences, we use induction all the time. As I turn the knobs in my sink, I expect water to flow out in order to wash my hands. The reason I expect this is because in every past instance where I have turned the knobs, I have successfully been able to wash my hands with water. In other words, induction makes use of probability to arrive at some inference. We believe the future will be like the past.

Hume's question is this: why assume the future will be like the past? On what rational basis do we make this conclusion? It is true that we must do so in practice, but Hume and others want to know the rational foundation of this conclusion. One might suggest that we can trust in induction based on the uniformity of nature - that is, nature behaves in certain predictable ways because it has some inherent disposition toward regularity. Upon reflection, however, this explanation will not suffice. For, why do we believe in the uniformity of nature? Presumably, it is because we use induction to come to the conclusion that nature is uniform. It should be fairly obvious by now that this is nothing more than a circular argument. The interlocutor asserts that we can trust in induction because nature is uniform, but he has to justify his belief in the uniformity of nature based on his own acceptance of induction.

In my earlier posts, I referred to the uniformity of nature, but that was in the context of how we can know certain analytical truths are necessarily true (i.e. A=A is necessary true at every time and in every place). What the problem of induction raises is the issue of various physical phenomena, such as gravity or electromagnetism, which aren't logically necessary in any broad sense.

The theist justifies both the use of induction, as well as our belief in the uniformity of nature (in all its specific points) on the grounds that God created the world, and that the world reflects the order and uniformity that He imbues in it by His sovereignty. Notice that now we're not stuck in a vicious circle, but rather we have somewhat of a spiral. We are no longer arguing, "A because A," but rather, "A because B." God, who is on a higher metaphysical plane than the physical cosmos, is what provides the rational foundation for induction, according to this view.

Works Cited

[1] The Letters of David Hume, 2 Volumes, edited by J.Y.T. Greig, Clarendon Press, 1932, 1:187.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Argument From Uniformity

I agree with those who remark that philosophy begins and ends with Plato. There really wasn't anything the Socratic dialogues didn't touch upon in at least some manner. With that said, a very simple, yet overlooked argument for God's existence is based solely on the uniformity we have in our general experiences. This proof actually precedes Plato, and goes at least as far back as some of the pre-Socratics.

To begin with, we observe through experience that the universe contains order. In popular parlance, we often refer to this as the "uniformity of nature." By "order," I'm referring to patterns of regularity that allow our experiences to be intelligible. We find innumerable examples of this throughout our observations. For instance, it is true at all times and in all places that "A=A" (the law of identity), "If A=B and B=C, then A=C" (the transitive axiom), and "2+2=4" (a simple mathematical proposition).

Now, if the universe is imbued with order, then it corresponds to some ordering principle. By analogy, we might say that a red barn corresponds to the principle of redness. Likewise, everything that has order corresponds to an ordering principle. Hence, we can see that this claim is true by definition.

We can summarize the argument so far as follows:

1. Everything that has order corresponds to an ordering principle.
2. The universe has order.
3. Therefore, the universe corresponds to an ordering principle.

Very few people will actually disagree with any of this. The most likely objection is that this proof commits the fallacy of composition. An example of this fallacy is if we were to say:

1'. Every part of the floor is small.
2'. Therefore, the entire floor must be small.

The reason this is fallacious is because what may apply to the parts does not necessarily apply to the whole. The entire floor may very well be large, even if it is composed of small pieces. This is called an incidental composition.

In response to this, we can note that the proof does not rely on an incidental composition, but rather an essential composition. If every part of the floor is made of wood, then the entire floor must be made of wood. The same is true with an ordered universe. If every part of the universe contains order, then it is inconceivable how the universe as a whole could somehow lack order.

Another objection is that chaos exists. However, this objection doesn't work either for the simple reason that the reality of chaos does not do away with the reality of order. Moreover, chaotic events are still intelligible - that is, we are capable of having knowledge of them. Now, intelligibility presupposes order. Therefore, we may justifiably conclude that there exists order even behind elements of chaos.

Hence, I think it is quite certain that an ordering principle exists in the universe. The ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, referred to this ordering principle as the "Logos." Classical theists, like myself, have traditionally associated the Logos with God. In fact, John 1:1 says, "In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God." Modern English translations render the Greek "Logos" as "Word." A number of attributes of the Logos can be demonstrated analytically. The Logos must be eternal, unchanging, and one.

The first two attributes are closely tied together. The Logos must be eternal, since there is no time in which it is false that "A=A" or "2+2=4." It is logically absurd for 2 and 2 to make 5, or for A to be ~A (not-A). From this it follows that the Logos must be unchanging, because it could never be the case that "A=A" could change into its negation. Finally, the Logos must be one. The reason for this is that everything with order shares in the singular attribute of intelligibility. As I mentioned in my last post, we're talking about "uniformity," not "pluriformity."

Therefore, I believe we have demonstrated the existence of an eternal, unchanging, and singular Logos that explains the order inherent in the universe.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Cosmological Argument

The cosmological argument is, perhaps, the single oldest argument for God's existence. It was defended at length by such notable philosophers as Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Leibniz, and many others. Not every cosmological argument is the same, however. Some, like Bonaventure, argue that the universe had a beginning in time, and that this first moment was created by a first cause. This is called a horizontal cosmological argument (commonly referred to as the "kalam cosmological argument," named by William Lane Craig). This post will briefly examine a vertical form of the cosmological argument: the argument from dependency.

Does the universe have a first cause? In answering this question, I wish to make two clarifications about my terms. We can begin by analyzing the use of “first.” It is often assumed that a cause is first if and only if it is the beginning of some temporal series of events. However, this is not the way I'll be using it. Instead, I'm thinking of the “first” cause as being ontologically first – that is, first in a hierarchy of causes. This should become clearer as we continue.

Next, by “cause,” I'm not referring to a strong version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). Instead, I'm using what might be termed a minimal version of the principle (M-PSR). The M-PSR does not exclude indeterminism; it merely stresses that being cannot arise from non-being, that something cannot come from nothing. So, for example, quantum fluctuations may be “uncaused” in the sense that they're random, but they're still caused in the sense that they are dependent on the energy contained within the quantum vacuum. In other words, quantum fluctuations come from something, rather than nothing, and are caused in that sense.

To sum up my initial thoughts, I'm arguing for a first cause in the sense that the universe has some sustaining cause. One can accept this without believing that the universe was created at some moment in the finite past.

We may summarize the argument, then, as follows:

1. Every dependent thing has a cause.

2. The series of dependent causes either proceeds to infinity, or has a self-existent first cause.

3. The series cannot proceed to infinity.

4. Therefore, there exists a self-existent first cause.

From experience, we all know what (1) is saying. Take the human body, for instance. The human anatomy is dependent on its systems, its systems on organs, its organs on cells, and so forth. The human body is also dependent on external things like oxygen, etc. Cells, then, cause organs insofar as organs are dependent on cells. Hence, X is a cause of Y, so long as Y relies on X.

(2) simply puts forth our available conclusions. Either the hierarchy of causes proceeds to infinity, or else it has a self-existent first cause. Something is self-existent if and only if it exists by a necessity of its own nature. The reason the first cause would have to be self-existent is because it would be impossible for it to be dependent. If it were dependent, then it would be caused by something else; and hence, it wouldn't be first, which is a contradiction. Moreover, to say that the first cause is dependent, but isn't caused by something else, is an instance of special pleading.

Our third premise asserts that an infinite series of causes is impossible. In support of this, we might note that the series of dependent causes will be causing something at any finite period of time. However, it would take infinite time for an infinite series of causes to do anything. Therefore, the series itself must be finite.

This confirms an inductive argument we can formulate about the necessity of a first cause. For, whenever we remove the first cause of some series, it is inevitably the case that we end up removing the secondary causes. For example, if a house didn't have a foundation, then it would collapse, no matter how many parts of the house there are. Likewise, if there were only dependent things, and nothing self-existent, then nothing would exist.

As a result of the series of causes being finite, we can only conclude that it has a self-existent first cause. Objections like, “what if time were infinite?” are irrelevant, since the argument is perfectly consistent with an infinitely old universe. The only claim being made is that the ontological series of causes cannot proceed to infinity. With that said, I believe this is a strong argument in favor of a first cause, even if one believes the universe is infinitely old. Aristotle took this position, and it is one that I personally believe is a good starting point in our discussions about metaphysics, God, and the order of things.

The question for us now is this: why should the universe have only one first cause? I believe the first cause's uniqueness can be inferred from the uniformity of nature. If, in fact, there were more than one first cause, then we would expect one set of things to behave in entirely different ways than another set of things. Yet, everything that exists is at the very least intelligible, if nothing else. This means that everything that exists participates in the singular attribute of intelligibility, which is best explained by one first cause, rather than many. Remember, we're talking about uniformity, and not pluriformity. The first cause must also be eternal, since it cannot depend on anything else at any time. If it were to come into existence, or go out of existence, then it would depend on whatever conditions were necessary for that state of affairs.

Overall, then, I believe this version of the cosmological argument successfully demonstrates the existence of a self-existent first cause of the universe. Moreover, it adequately shows that the first cause is both one and eternal. In a later post, I'll put together some thoughts on why this first cause is plausibly God. In other words, I'll attempt to show that the first cause has attributes that are most consonant with the God of classical theism.