Sunday, March 23, 2014

Myth, History, and the New Testament

An interesting fact about many "mythical" accounts from the ancient world is that they don't normally provide any details, and they certainly don't provide dates and times that have been confirmed by archaeology. Let's take, for example, the Book of Acts, which contains numerous miracle claims. It not only contains miracle claims, it also has all sorts of information about local governments that brought Paul up on trial. And guess what. Archaeology has supported the Book of Acts every time. So whoever wrote that book knew exactly what the local governments in these cities consisted in. 
Now, I live in Glendale, and I know they have a mayor and a city council of three. But what about Peoria, Avondale, Surprise, El Mirage, and Goodyear? I have no idea how many people are in their council. I can Google it and find out, but whoever wrote Acts had no Google. So how did he know all of this? That's something people would normally know only if they actually appeared before all these councils. 

Now it is possible to do a bunch of research so that you can, for example, put all sorts of accurate detail into a fictional account. But ancient people didn't  do that sort of thing. They didn't mix fact and fiction the way they do in a present-day historical novel. If they were writing legends they didn't make it look to fact-checkers as if it fit with reality. So I think there are some real difficulties in the secular story that are not easy to explain. But if any non-miraculous account has to be better than a miraculous one, then I suppose there couldn't be enough evidence.

Here is a comparison between the story of Jesus and the story of Apollonius of Tyana. 

29 comments:

planks length said...

Victor,

I am in agreement with you that Acts bears no resemblance to ancient accounts of mythological events. It does not read like a made-up narrative at all, but rather like a straightforward account of real-world events. (With the caveat that it, like many histories of the ancient world, gives us lengthy speeches from various figures. See Thucydides and Herodotus, where we see generals exhorting their troops in pages-long orations. It was a literary convention of the time.)

But my question is, you make a point of emphasizing Luke's accuracy in spelling out various details of local governments. Do we possess independent descriptions of these details outside of Acts, or is that book our only source for such minutiae as there being a "Chief Man" in Malta, for instance?

Ilíon said...

The Biblical miracles, including those in the OT, lack the fantastical nature of ancient pagan "miracle" accounts.

planks length said...

I've noticed that as well, Ilion. The sole exception may be Lot's wife turning into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19:26). But perhaps there's a meaning there that escapes me.

But other than that, there's never a hint (that I can think of off the top of my head) of people turning into constellations, or trees, or mountains, etc., like there is in most ancient mythological stories.

Papalinton said...

Clearly Holding hasn't read or made any mention in his bibliography of Dr Robert M Price, no slouch in this field, theologian, philosopher, and teacher at the Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary and founding editor of The Journal of Higher Criticism, who has written on the aretology of the jesus/Apollonius narratives, along with other strikingly similar Jesus-like stories suffused throughout the cultural mores of Middle Eastern societies at the time of Roman occupation in Palestine. Holding presents a largely Apologetical proposition that disparages any comparison between the jesus of the New Testament and other narratives of the same aretological genre. The unmistakable similarities between these stories cannot be lightly dismissed as once they had been over the centuries of harmonization, syncretization and gerrymandering of the historical record to better entrench and protect the Christian account.

But today's scientifically-focussed scholarship, no longer constrained by the contrived political correctness of Apologetical thought, as Prof David Eller, anthropologist, notes, rightly does not, nor should, accord religion any privilege it might have as an intellectual and social phenomenon, let alone as a true phenomenon; indeed religion has been found not to be a distinct phenomenon at all but an epi-phenomenon, "an effect of other non-religious causes. If it is 'true ' at all - as Durkheim and even Campbell assert - then it is 'true ' in a fashion, that fashion being very much other than what the believer believes. And the scientist will tell the believer in just what fashion his or her beliefs are true."

In today's non-apologetical scholarship, Eller continues, "by depriving religion of privilege it once more wipes away any boundaries between religion and the mundane or profane domains of politics, kinship and economics. Religion is just another domain of human culture, not a superhuman one and not even an independent one. Religion is the dependent variable to the independent variables of everyday social and physical reality."

To suggest the Book of Acts is supported by archeology and history as a factual account, is itself bit of a wishful stretch. There are many passages that are hotly disputed on their claimed historical accuracy. Some scholars and historians might hold that view but that view is more a product of their conservatism. Prof Bart Erhman, as does Dr Price, certainly do not agree that Acts is an historically reliable account unless one blurs the focal point of the lens to a more apologetical setting, à la Holding. HERE is an excellent paper that properly and scholarly challenges the historical reliability of the Book of Acts and the context around which the writer of Acts intended it to operate. [Albeit from an undergraduate it is nonetheless a good piece].

And Victor, you are correct. If any non-miraculous account has to be better than a miraculous one, then there isn't any evidence let alone 'enough' evidence. Any difficulties in the secular story are solely the result of believers' inculcated unwillingness to confront reality as they ought to, by applying the commonsense test.

im-skeptical said...

"there's never a hint (that I can think of off the top of my head) of people turning into constellations, or trees, or mountains, etc."

So you can think of some miracles that are not claimed by the bible. Well, I guess that makes Christianity different from other religions, right?

http://www.christiananswers.net/dictionary/miracle.html

planks length said...

"So you can think of some miracles that are not claimed by the bible."

What does this mean? Maybe I'm dense, but I don't get your point.

Papalinton said...

Skep
In reading over your cited post:
http://www.christiananswers.net/dictionary/miracle.html
it is truly miraculous how miracles suddenly ceased to be an automatic given after #122 SPEAKING in tongue, and #123: DIVINE INSPIRATION of Scripture (Word of God),
after which time the burden of miracle verification and determination shifted to a committee, the Magisterium.

Can anyone spot the elephant in the room?

im-skeptical said...

Speaking of divine inspiration, Bart Ehrman has some interesting things to say about the biblical text in Misquoting Jesus. (Available for free.)

DJC said...


But ancient people didn't do that sort of thing. They didn't mix fact and fiction the way they do in a present-day historical novel.


I think it would be more reasonable to say that ancient people didn't intentionally mix fact and fiction but were probably just as susceptible as modern people to getting the facts of a "miracle" wrong. That's what investigation of modern miraculous claims invariably turn up. My first try at Snopes turns up this:

http://www.snopes.com/religion/tsunami.asp

Here is an account of a miracle that never happened: 400 Christians saved miraculously from the 2004 tsunami by their desire to celebrate Christmas on a high hill. There are plenty of facts in this account: there is a town of Meulaboh in Aceh, Indonesia, a large portion of the town was destroyed by a tsunami on the morning of December 26, 2004, there is a Paster Bill Hekman of Calvary Life Fellowship in Indonesia.

But with all these facts, the account is still wrong. Not because Bill Hekman used Google to give his fantastical account some plausibility, but because the account being offered is at least fourth-hand and may be further removed than that. Bill Hekman wanted to believe more than he wanted to skeptically investigate. Perhaps, just like the author of Acts.

BeingItself said...

Peter Parker is from Queens, New York City. Because Queens is a real place, Spider-Man is real too.

Ilíon said...

"The sole exception may be Lot's wife turning into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19:26)."

Somehow, that one has never seemed fantastical to me. I mean, other than the water, a human body pretty much *is* salt (not to be conflated with sodium).

The clique of God-Shunners (that'll show him!) like to point to Eden's Serpent and Balaam's Ass as fantastical. Of course, these are the same people who willingly believe that every once in a while, one's auto will 'ooze' through the garage wall and park itself on the street. 'Cause 'Science!'

im-skeptical said...

"Of course, these are the same people who willingly believe that every once in a while, one's auto will 'ooze' through the garage wall and park itself on the street. 'Cause 'Science!'"

I agree that a body turning to a pillar of salt seems less fantastical than a talking ass. What you don't understand though, is the difference between physics and fantastical magic. No surprise there.

BeingItself said...

"But ancient people didn't do that sort of thing. They didn't mix fact and fiction the way they do in a present-day historical novel."

What is your source for this claim?

grodrigues said...

@im-skeptical:

"What you don't understand though, is the difference between physics and fantastical magic."

Then from your stellar understanding of physics you can tell us why if upon reading on the possibility of a car disappearing from the garage and appearing on the other side you think "Cool, that car just quantum tunneled through the garage!", while reading about an alleged transformation of a woman into a pillar of salt, your immediate reaction is "Fantastical magic". Why not "Cool, Lot observed a woman whose quantum state of being alive and kicking quantum tunneled into the quantum state of being a pillar of salt!". I am sure you have a convincing criterium for distinguishing which is which.

Karl Grant said...

And while he's at it, maybe Skeppy can tell us how he managed yesterday to access a link that has been inoperative since July 1, 2013 without resorting to a cache version. Maybe quantum tunneling was involved. Or maybe he just copied-and-pasted said link from a third party site without bothering to actually see what it actually lead to.

im-skeptical said...

grodrigues,

Quantum tunneling is not a transformation from one substance to another. Now I must say that we know that particles tunnel through energy barriers, but for all the particles of a car to tunnel together as described would be so unlikely that we shouldn't expect it to happen even once during the lifetime of our universe, even though it may be theoretically possible. However people often confuse quantum events with "anything goes" magical events that are not even theoretically possible. Don't count me among them.

Karl Grant said...

Skeppy,

Quantum tunneling is not a transformation from one substance to another

Tell that to Freeman Dyson (big name in physics, though you probably haven't heard of him). That's a nice little paper talking about cold fusion occurring via quantum tunneling causing light nuclei in ordinary matter to fuse into iron-56 nuclei.

Or to put it in terms you understand, all matter in the star is transmuted (you know what that word means right? transformation from one substance to another) to iron via quantum tunneling. Hmm, one of the biggest names in theoretical physics says this is possible. Anonymous internet atheist dumbass who couldn't figure out what triggers a phase change in water says it's not. Who to listen to? Decisions, decisions...

Ilíon said...

"... Maybe quantum tunneling was involved."

Just as, sometimes, all the oxygen molecules in a room suddenly all gather themselves into a mass in the upper left back corner of the room (and too bad for the people who were in the room), and just as, sometimes, gravity stops working momentarily in this or that locale (and it's a *real* bummer when the uncaused-effect encompasses an entire populated planet or stellar system), so too, sometimes, portions of the internet travel backward or forward in time while retaining network connectivity with the portions which stayed put temporally.

'Science!' 'Science!' 'Science!'

Ilíon said...

Well, ckuchie-darns, I made a mistake with the link I'd posted yesterday: 'Science!' and Miracles ... and Skepticism!

It's 'Science!' I tell you: 'Science!'

im-skeptical said...

Karl,

"a nice little paper talking about cold fusion occurring via quantum tunneling causing light nuclei in ordinary matter to fuse into iron-56 nuclei"

This is one of those cases where you have no idea what is being said in the article you post.

planks length said...

I'd like to revisit my question in the the first posting to this conversation.

"Do we possess independent descriptions of these details [of local governmental structures] outside of Acts, or is that book our only source for such minutiae as there being a "Chief Man" in Malta, for instance?

I'm mostly asking Victor, since I gather he's done some in-depth study in this area.

Ilíon said...

"... I am sure you have a convincing criterium for distinguishing which is which."

Indeed, and it is this:

On the one hand, if an "impossibility" that is claimed to have happened (whether or not witnessed) or to be "possible" to happen is of the sort that just happens -- for no cause and to no purpose -- then it is 'Science!' and you're a 'Science!' denier (and an ignorant and stupid boob, and a liar) to be skeptical of the claim.

On the other hand, if an "impossibility" that is claimed to have been witnessed is also claimed to have been intentionally caused for some purpose, then it is anti-'Science!' and you're a 'Science!' denier (and an ignorant and stupid boob, and a liar) if you are not dismissive of the claim.

Ilíon said...

"Do we possess independent descriptions of these details [of local governmental structures] outside of Acts, or is that book our only source for such minutiae as there being a "Chief Man" in Malta, for instance?"

In many cases, yes ... including that of the Chief/First Man of Malta (which title may have originated when Carthage ruled the island).


Google is your friend.

Karl Grant said...

Skeppy,

This is one of those cases where you have no idea what is being said in the article you post.

Really? Let me explain something to you, very clearly. Copying what other people say about you does not impress us. Just because you have a serious reading comprehension problem does not mean we do. When we say that you don't understand the article or subject being discussed we provide quotes and detailed arguments as to why you don't know your ass from your elbow. Your response to this is to stick your fingers in your ears and ignore the points being made. Now I seriously doubt you are actually going to try to explain what you "think", and I use that term loosely, I have wrong about Dyson's paper because the last time you tried your hand at hard physics you showed:

- you didn't understand that heat transfer triggers phase transition like water turning into steam or ice turning into water.

- that didn't know displace and supersede are synonyms of each other and used interchangeably.

- that you thought Newtonian Mechanics and Einstein's Theory of Relativity were the same because they produced similar results below a certain level.

- you declared that the indicator C represents the same thing, speed of light, in every mathematical equation in a physics paper despite the fact that it is also commonly used to represent heat capacity, constant of integration and the speed of sound.

So I think my grasp of physics is quite a bit more advanced than yours is. But regale me with how I am wrong in my interpretation of Dyson's paper.

im-skeptical said...

Karl,

You're a dolt. You still don't even understand that conversation, just like you don't understand the paper you posted.

Karl Grant said...

Skeppy,

You're a dolt. You still don't even understand that conversation, just like you don't understand the paper you posted.

Only in your dreams, in the real world you proved to everybody here you know shit-all about physics and deep down you know that yourself, which is why you are refusing to actually explain how my reading of Dyson's paper is in error.

grodrigues said...

@im-skeptical:

"However people often confuse quantum events with "anything goes" magical events that are not even theoretically possible. Don't count me among them."

In other words, you do not know. Ok.

Steven Carr said...

'Now it is possible to do a bunch of research so that you can, for example, put all sorts of accurate detail into a fictional account. But ancient people didn't do that sort of thing. They didn't mix fact and fiction the way they do in a present-day historical novel.'

So Victor claims Troy never existed.

Because ancient people never put real places in fictional stories.

Steven Carr said...

'But ancient people didn't do that sort of thing. They didn't mix fact and fiction the way they do in a present-day historical novel.'

Gosh! Jesus really was born in Bethlehem and Daniel really did exist.

This 'no fact and fiction in the same book' rule of Victor's is going to revolutionise Biblical studies.

Victor has made a major breakthrough which all the professionals in the field have missed.