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Jesus: Liar, Lunatic, Legend, Mystic, or Lord?

Jesus trilemma

For Catholics, the doctrine of Christ's divinity is central, for it is like a skeleton key that opens all the other doctrines. Catholics have not independently reasoned out and tested each of the teachings of Christ received via the Bible and the Church, but believe them all on his authority. For if Christ is divine, He can be trusted to be infallible in everything He said, even hard things like exalting suffering and poverty, forbidding divorce, giving his Church the authority to teach and forgive sins in his name, warning about hell (very often and very seriously), instituting the scandalous sacrament of eating his flesh—we often forget how many "hard sayings" he taught!

When the first Christian apologists began to give a reason for their faith to unbelievers, this doctrine of Christ's divinity naturally came under attack, for it was almost as incredible to Gentiles as it was scandalous to Jews. That a man who was born out of a woman's womb and died on a cross, a man who got tired and hungry and angry and agitated and wept at his friend's tomb, that this man who got dirt under his fingernails should be God was, quite simply, the most astonishing, incredible, crazy-sounding idea that had ever entered the mind of man in all human history.

The argument the early apologists used to defend this apparently indefensible doctrine has become a classic one. C.S. Lewis used it often, e.g. in Mere Christianity, the book that convinced Chuck Colson (and thousands of others). I once spent half a book (Between Heaven and Hell) on this one argument alone. It is the most important argument in Christian apologetics, for once an unbeliever accepts the conclusion of this argument (that Christ is divine), everything else in the Faith follows, not only intellectually (Christ's teachings must all then be true) but also personally (if Christ is God, He is also your total Lord and Savior).

The argument, like all effective arguments, is extremely simple: Christ was either God or a bad man.

Unbelievers almost always say he was a good man, not a bad man; that he was a great moral teacher, a sage, a philosopher, a moralist, and a prophet—not a criminal, not a man who deserved to be crucified. But a good man is the one thing he could not possibly have been according to simple common sense and logic, for he claimed to be God. He said, "Before Abraham was, I Am", thus speaking the word no Jew dares to speak because it is God's own private name, spoken by God himself to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14). Jesus wanted everyone to believe that he was God. He wanted people to worship him. He claimed to forgive everyone's sins against everyone. (Who can do that but God, the One offended in every sin?)

Now what would we think of a person who went around making these claims today? Certainly not that he was a good man or a sage. There are only two possibilities: he either speaks the truth or not. If he speaks the truth, he is God and the case is closed. We must believe him and worship him. If he does not speak the truth, then he is not God but a mere man. But a mere man who wants you to worship him as God is not a good man. He is a very bad man indeed, either morally or intellectually. If he knows that he is not God, then he is morally bad, a liar trying deliberately to deceive you into blasphemy. If he does not know that he is not God, if he sincerely thinks he is God, then he is intellectually bad—in fact, insane.

A measure of your insanity is the size of the gap between what you think you are and what you really are. If I think I am the greatest philosopher in America, I am only an arrogant fool; if I think I am Napoleon, I am probably over the edge; if I think I am a butterfly, I am fully embarked from the sunny shores of sanity. But if I think I am God, I am even more insane because the gap between anything finite and the infinite God is even greater than the gap between any two finite things, even a man and a butterfly.

Josh McDowell summarized the argument simply and memorably in the trilemma, "Lord, liar, or lunatic?" Those are the only options. Well, then, why not liar or lunatic? But almost no one who has read the Gospels can honestly and seriously consider that option. The savviness, the canniness, the human wisdom, the attractiveness of Jesus emerge from the Gospels with unavoidable force to any but the most hardened and prejudiced reader. Compare Jesus with liars like the Reverend Sun Myung Moon or lunatics like the dying Nietzsche. Jesus has in abundance precisely those three qualities that liars and lunatics most conspicuously lack:

  1. His practical wisdom—his ability to read human hearts, to understand people and the real, unspoken question behind their words, his ability to heal people's spirits as well as their bodies;
  2. His deep and winning love—his passionate compassion, his ability to attract people and make them feel at home and forgiven, his authority, "not as the scribes"; and above all
  3. His ability to astonish—his unpredictability, his creativity. Liars and lunatics are all so dull and predictable! No one who knows both the Gospels and human beings can seriously entertain the possibility that Jesus was a liar or a lunatic, a bad man.

No, the unbeliever almost always believes that Jesus was a good man, a prophet, a sage. Well then, if he was a sage, you can trust him and believe the essential things he says. And the essential thing he says is that he is the divine Savior of the world and that you must come to him for salvation. If he is a sage, you must accept his essential teaching as true. If his teaching is false, then he is not a sage.

The strength of this argument is that it is not merely a logical argument about concepts; it is about Jesus. The premise of the argument is the character of Jesus, the human nature of Jesus. The argument has its feet on the earth. But it takes you to heaven, like Jacob's ladder (which Jesus said meant him: Gen 28:12; Jn 1:51). Each rung follows and holds together. The argument is logically airtight.

What, then, do people say when confronted with this argument? Often, they simply confess their prejudices: "Oh, I just can't believe that!" (But if it has been proved to be true, you must believe it if you really seek the truth!)

But if they know some modern theology, they do have one of two escapes. The first escape is the attack of the Scripture scholars on the historical reliability of the Gospels. Perhaps Jesus never claimed to be divine. Perhaps all the embarrassing passages were inventions of the early Church (say "Christian community"—it sounds nicer).

In that case, who invented traditional Christianity if not Christ? A lie, like a truth, must originate somewhere. Peter? The twelve? The next generation? What was the motive of whoever first invented the myth (euphemism for lie)? What did they get out of this elaborate, blasphemous hoax? For it must have been a deliberate lie, not a sincere confusion. No Jew confuses Creator with creature, God with man. And no man confuses a dead body with a resurrected, living one.

Here is what they got out of their hoax. Their friends and families scorned them. Their social standing, possessions, and political privileges were stolen from them by both Jews and Romans. They were persecuted, imprisoned, whipped, tortured, exiled, crucified, eaten by lions, and cut to pieces by gladiators. So some silly Jews invented the whole elaborate, incredible lie of Christianity for absolutely no reason, and millions of Gentiles believed it, devoted their lives to it, and died for it—for no reason. It was only a fantastic practical joke, a hoax.

The second escape is to Orientalize Jesus, to interpret him not as the unique God-man but as one of many mystics or "adepts" who realized his own inner divinity just as a typical Hindu mystic does. This theory takes the teeth out of his claim to divinity, for he only realized that everyone is divine. The problem with that theory is simply that Jesus was not a Hindu but a Jew! When he said "God", neither he nor his hearers meant Brahman, the impersonal, pantheistic, immanent all; he meant Yahweh, the personal, theistic, transcendent Creator. It is utterly unhistorical to see Jesus as a mystic, a Jewish guru. He taught prayer, not meditation. His God is a person, not a pudding. He said he was God but not that everyone was. He taught sin and forgiveness, as no guru does. He said nothing about the "illusion" of individuality, as the mystics do.

Attack each of these evasions—Jesus as the good man, Jesus as the lunatic, Jesus as the liar, Jesus as the man who never claimed divinity, Jesus as the mystic—take away these flight squares, and there is only one square left for the unbeliever's king to move to. And on that square waits checkmate. And a joyous mating it is. The whole argument is really a wedding invitation.
Originally posted at PeterKreeft.com. Used with permission.
(Image credit: WGA)

Dr. Peter Kreeft

Written by

Dr. Peter Kreeft is a professor of philosophy at Boston College and a noted Catholic apologist and philosopher. He is a convert to the Catholic Church from reformed Protestantism. He earned an A.B. degree from Calvin College, an M.A. and Ph.D. from Fordham University, followed by post-doctoral work at Yale University. He is a regular contributor to several Christian publications, is in wide demand as a speaker at conferences, and is the author of over 60 books including Making Sense Out of Suffering (Servant, 1986); Fundamentals of the Faith: Essays in Christian Apologetics (Ignatius, 1988); Catholic Christianity (Ignatius, 2001); The Unaborted Socrates: A Dramatic Debate on the Issues Surrounding Abortion (IVP, 2002); and The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings (Ignatius, 2005). Many of Peter's books are also integrated into the Logos software. Find dozens of audio talks, essays, and book excerpts at his website, PeterKreeft.com.

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  • NicholasBeriah Cotta

    I constantly evaluate this logical proposition all of the time. Although I believe that Jesus is God, I still do think that this is the best argument and that thinking about possible counter arguments is the key to spreading this one in the first place. I think one flaw is the fact that if you're a lunatic, you'd have to be frothing at the mouth like Nietzsche - how would you explain if a man was an extremely clever pathological liar? Someone who believed in his own greatness and mission but convinced himself that self-deification was good because of all the other goods? You don't have to be insane to eventually believe your own hype, right?

  • Ben Posin

    While I find the argument completely unconvincing and without merit, I have to praise Dr. Kreeft for doing something I have seldom, if ever, seen in a StrangeNotions article. In writing this article, he recognized and acknowledged a common, well known response and complaint by atheists. Typically one sees "liar, lunatic, or lord" without any acknowledgement of "legend." So kudos to him.

    As to the argument itself: I find myself reminded of a common Muslim claim: that the Koran is so perfect, hangs together so well, is so beautiful, etc., that it's just not possible that it has any source but God. No people could have written it, its provenance is self-evident. The problem with this approach is that a non-muslim, upon reading the Koran, is not typically so moved, and doesn't find the Koran such a masterpiece as to find this claim credible.

    Here, Dr. Kreeft asserts that even an atheist reading the new testament cannot help but acknowledge Jesus' wisdom, his love, his creativity, and (if they dismiss the legend prong) must be moved to believe that Jesus was a sage, such a good man that we should find him credible when he claims he is God and older than Abraham. We are to be so moved by our positive impression of him that we couldn't think he was lying or deluded on this point.

    Now, I don't dismiss the legend prong so easily as Dr. Kreeft--and remember, "legend" could apply not just to miracles or statements about Jesus' divinity, it could also apply to his parables and "sage" sayings, just as some believe that much of what Socrates is famous for should actually be credited to Plato. But even if I did, I am not so moved by what I see in the New Testament--it does not strike me as so wise, moral, or beautiful and perfect--that I find it most reasonable to believe that Jesus was both honest and accurate if he said he was God. And I'm not sure how to comfort someone like Dr. Kreeft, who thinks that I should, just as I'm not sure what to tell a Muslim who thinks the Koran is so perfect.

    As a little end note, I think Dr. Kreeft may see people and things in a much more binary way than I do. I don't tend to class people as having one unified character, such as sage, liar, or lunatic. I think it's possible for a wise and good person to sometimes tell a lie, or to have something he's delusional about, for instance. And I think some of the supposed force of this argument comes from the belief that it makes sense to so completely divide someone into one of these categories.

    • jakael02

      It seems your response to the article is the first escape (please correct me if I'm wrong), which is attacking the historical reliability of the gospels. A fair response I must say. The historical reliablity is a detailed topic, best left to scholars. I would not rush to just describe any shortfalls in the historical reliability of the gospels as mere legend. The time frame between the life of the original 12 apostles and the time the Gospels is relatively short. To conclude legend "best fits" a theoretical gap between a Jesus who is described as a unique character to a Jesus who is described as God. IMHO, that is a large leap to make, and it would be better described as the early Christian community creating a "lie" rather than "legend".

      • Ben Posin

        No, that's really not what I said, though I do think "legend" still belongs on the table. But for my point above I said we could even put the legend aspect aside for right now. Maybe reread my post?

        I don't want to repeat everything above, but will try to boil it down: Dr. Kreeft thinks that, looking at Jesus' teachings and words, one should be so impressed by Jesus' wisdom/creativity/lucidity/insight/ intelligence/honesty etc. that when Jesus says "I am God" it's reasonable for us to take that seriously. He thinks Jesus' other statements are so impressive that we should dismiss out of hand the possibility Jesus was either confused or being untruthful when he declared himself to be God. But reading the gospels, I'm NOT so impressed by Jesus' other teachings that I think this is reasonable at all.

        I'm assuming, as the lunar/liar/lunatic argument seems to, that right now we're dealing with Jesus' teachings and sayings, not miracles and resurrection. At that point we do have to start talking about legends.

        • Just how does a Jew get to heaven from dry humping the Wailing Wall like Miley Cyrus?

  • David Nickol

    I have no problem with the idea that Jesus was a good man who may have believed things about himself that were not true, and no problem with the idea that his loyal followers may have sincerely believed and preached things about Jesus that were not true. I also have no problem believing the Gospels may contain sincere interpretations of Jesus that were not true, and that the process of handing down remembrances about Jesus could have resulted in things that never happened being mixed in with things that did.

    I agree with Ben Posin that "the argument [is] completely unconvincing and without merit." I would also say not only that "Kreeft people and things in a much more binary way than I do," he sees them in a much more binary way than they clearly and indisputably are. He seems to see the Gospels as containing verbatim transcripts of what Jesus said and journalistic accounts of what he did. (Actually, journalistic accounts are often not nearly as accurate as Kreeft seems to think the Gospels are.) Kreeft says, "The argument is logically airtight," but with all due respect, it strikes me as so simpleminded that only "true believers" could find it convincing. It is the kind of argument that only apologists would entertain. I do appreciate that he at least added legend to the "trilemma" of "Liar, Lunatic, or Lord," but he comes nowhere near doing justice to the possibility of myths or legends growing up around the person of Jesus.

    • Ben Posin

      Admittedly, acknowledging that a well known counter-argument exists without making a real effort to address it is not the world's highest bar, but I did appreciate it nonetheless.

    • Fr.Sean

      Hi David,
      He does give evidence of Jesus' historicity by his followers response, as well as how it is implausible it is for an individual to create such a legend. why in your opinion do those reasons not seem to be convincing? Or in other words; why in your opinion is this argument "unconvincing and without merit?"

      • David Nickol

        why in your opinion is this argument "unconvincing and without merit?"

        The argument that is unconvincing and without merit, in my opinion, is that Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, a legend, or God incarnate, and legend can be ruled out, so we're back to the "trilemma"—Liar, Lunatic, or Lord. Kreeft says, "The argument is logically airtight." Show me the syllogisms! To reduce the classification of any historical figure to three such extreme and mutually exclusive categories is illegitimate. I am not arguing that a good case cannot be made that Jesus was God incarnate. I am arguing that a logically airtight case can be made. If a logically airtight can be made, then I think Nostra Aetate needs to be rescinded and the Church must condemn Jews, Muslims, and anyone who does not believe Jesus is God. A logically airtight argument is one that cannot be answered by anything other than illogicality or dishonesty.

        • Fr.Sean

          .I do see your point about the argument being "airtight" and part of me agrees in the sense that it's theoretically possible that the time between Jesus's earthly life and when the gospels were written that much of his personality or the way he interacted with people could have been influenced by the oral tradition or by the Evangelist imself. I suppose there are several things that lean it towards the airtight direction. One is that many of the occurrences that had their source in the oral tradition convey not just his words but also events. Rudolph Bultman who initiated form criticism basically says that some of those events or the things Jesus would say or do were remembered by people. the evangelist would then take the specific event and have to modify the rest of the story or when it specifically occurred since they did not have any way to record the actual event. so the form criticism points
          to an actual event or discussion, with the evangelist forming the rest of the story around it largely taken from the oral tradition. the idea that all of the brightest scripture scholars could marvel at bultmann's discovery almost gives evidence to their historicity. i simply can't
          imagine some of the brightest scripture scholars who have ever lived, will all nod to bultmann's discovery if in fact it wasn't true. the only people who don't acknowledge bultmann's observations are fundamentalist who read everything in the bible literally. so some of
          the things Jesus said and did are based on historical events which perhaps leans the discussion more towards developing a personality of Jesus that is in fact based on history. the Second thing that leans it towards a convincing argument is (and i'm sure you've read it before) that all of the disciples abandoned Jesus, except for Mary and John on the night of the passion. yet a few weeks later they were all in the very places that could cause them to be apprehended and eventually crucified (which they all were except for John) I think it's possible
          that a few of them could have aroused enough courage to go and be crucified for Jesus, but not all 11. Furthermore, they would be doing so while telling a lie since the implied meaning of questioning the resurrection is the argument at hand. it indeed would be a little odd for one to give up their life in such a difficult manner all the while knowing they were lying. i can't possibly imagine all eleven would have such a change of heart so quickly and do so knowing they were doing it for something they knew wasn't true? Thus, if Jesus said he was the Son of God and also said he would rise from the dead, and it seems likely that something happened after the crucifixion to change the
          course of the disciples then we can probably assume he did in fact say he would rise from the dead and he was the son of God as also evidenced by the fact that the disciples recounted the same information. so i think you have a point, perhaps airtight may be a little too strong but
          again, i'm not sure that would call it "completely unconvincing".

      • David Nickol

        One interesting question is how many of the early followers of Jesus were people who actually encountered him. This is the only numerical estimate I have come across:

        This study examines the early Christian mission(s) to the Jews, and attempts to determine, albeit speculatively, the number of Jews in the Christian movement in the first century. It is argued that the combined Christian mission was marked by a distinct lack of success. Neither the Law-observant gospel of the Jerusalem church nor the Law-free gospel of the Hellenists and Paul made much impression upon the people of Israel. Throughout the first century the total number of Jews in the Christian movement probably never exceeded 1 000 and by the end of the century the Christian church was largely Gentile.

        According to the majority of biblical scholars, the authors of the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament never met Jesus during his lifetime. They wrote in Greek, whereas Jesus spoke Aramaic. So what we know about Jesus was written by people who never knew him and did not even speak the same language as he did. The people Jesus preached to during his earthly ministry rejected him. We do not need to read between the lines of the New Testament to discover this. It is stated as a fact. Paul was not a witness to Jesus's earthly ministry, has very little to say about it, and yet it is Paul who left us the earliest Christian writings and Paul who was the champion of bringing Gentiles into the Jesus movement. The story of Jesus was not written by followers that Jesus attracted during his earthly life. I would not say the Gospels have no historical value, but it seems to me they were not primarily (and perhaps not even partially) the work of people who knew Jesus and witnessed his ministry, nor were the Gospels written to be read by the first-generation Christians. I find the idea implausible that those who knew Jesus personally and heard him preach would have objected if the New Testament authors got something wrong.

        • Fr.Sean

          Hi David,
          I have to give you credit. You never ask a question that i can respond to right off the top of my head. But you are going to give me carpel tunnel (just kidding)

          There are good reasons why there were no known witness during the writing of the Gospels (there were i'm sure people who were Christians in 60 C.E. who were also alive in 33 C.E. but i can't prove that beyond doubt.) For the sake of argument just assume Jesus was a historical person. I'm sure you've heard of this but there are three stages in the Gospel tradition. 1. the event. 2. the oral 3. the written. In other words, something happened, people remembered and recounted the event, someone finally wrote everything down from the oral tradition. Now, Jesus claimed to be the messiah and he claimed to be the Son of God (my gut tells me you already know most of what i'm going to say, but figured i might recount it in case you aren't familiar with all of it). The Jews were anticipating a Messiah, son David etc. The Messiah they were anticipating would in fact do many of the things Jesus did, but he didn't do many of the things they had anticipated the messiah would do. They thought he was going to be a war-like Messiah, one who would amass an army, throw out the romans and restore Israel's greatness. there's a tension that developes throughout all of the Gospels, the scribes and pharisees come and here him talk, their intrigued by him, but their waiting. they even ask him if he is the messiah to give them a sign (you might want to look up, "the messianic secret") but he isn't doing anything. in fact he starts to call them out on their hypocrisy. They had great reverence for the Law, but the spirit had been lost. they weren't taking care of the poor etc.(Yes i know, and i agree, Pope Francis comes to mind). thus they begin to become hostile towards him. since they have power they use their influence to turn others against him which results in his crucifixion. ironically the apostles were still kind of thinking in a similar way that the pharisees were thinking. When Jesus tells them he's going to die on a cross Peter rebukes him. even before the night of the passion James and John want to be on his right and on his left when his kingdom is ushered in. At this point the only ones who have responded to him are the poor and uninfluential. According to scripture he rises from the dead, the Apostles go forth to preach the gospel and all eventually end up losing their lives in a similar manner (except for the beloved disciple John, or symbolically you). Now at this point the early Church is anticipating that any day he's going to return. They thought it would only be a few years, while he told them the only one who knows when he will return is the Father. But his followers simply committed to the mission and waited. by 60 A.D. it appeared that it wasn't going to be any time soon and thus Mark compiled his gospel from the Oral Tradition. Matthew and Luke compiled theirs from Mark and from Q which is quelle for "source". And John compiles his around 90 C.E. independently from the synoptics. Thus the gospels weren't written till almost 30 years later because most of the followers anticipated a short period before he would return. Scholars are unanimous about this perception and i really haven't read anything that indicated that they didn't think he would return soon. Now, if there is an implied meaning that perhaps the historical person didn't exist i don't know if i have enough time or space to give all the reasons why i believe that is fallacious but i'll just cite a few. 1. the description of Jesus as the kind of messiah that he was was not in line with what people thought. if one was going to make up a story why not make it similar to what people thought. 2. Why would all of the Apostles give up their lives for someone who didn't exist, unless we want to start saying they didn't exist either. but people remembered where they were when they lost their lives as historical places. 3. Jesus Tomb that is still reverenced. 4. extra biblical sources referring to Jesus. 5. apocryphal sources referring to Jesus The effect that he and his followers had on so many people. 6. Form Criticism discovered by Bultmann (cited above) 7.I know you mentioned Paul. i'm not sure it's a good idea to take some of the things paul said as true and assume he is being dishonest with other things. paul was noted for being a persecutor of the early church, as said by Paul and Acts. Paul had a complete change of direction after his road to Damascus. paul Claimed he encounterd Annais, who was already present in Jerusalem. paul spoke of the "Jerusalem controversy." 8.The historical account of Peter, and the body of Peter being discovered with the feet cut off after his crucifixion.
          Finally, i do think one could imply the "how do you know he existed" to just about any historical figure of 2000 years ago. for example, Socrates. how do we know he existed. Well his writings. how do we know he wrote them? Well, who else would? the other accounts of people speaking about Socrates? How do we know they were speaking of him or about someone they thought existed. which at some point you want to say, "alright i can't guarantee he existed, but he or whoever wrote for hiim wrote some pretty interesting stuff, why don't we just look at it? Incidentally, i'm sure someone else, maybe even everyone's favorite Ehrman could give better reasons than i have.

        • [---
          They wrote in Greek, whereas Jesus spoke Aramaic. So what we know about Jesus was written by people who never knew him and did not even speak the same language as he did....The story of Jesus was not written by followers that Jesus attracted during his earthly life

          The author of Matthew's Gospel was an apostle of Jesus and knew Him. The author of John's Gospel was an apostle of Jesus and knew Him. The author of Mark's Gospel was a disciple and scribe of apostle Peter who knew Him. The author of Luke was contemporary to many eyewitnesses, including the apostles and the BVM. There is also a tradition that says both Luke and Mark were once belonging to the 72 disciples of Christ, but were among those who left at the difficult teaching on the Eucharist, only to be later reconverted by Peter and Paul.

          Yes, Jesus likely spoke Aramaic, as did the apostles. But it was also a polyglot society. There were three languages written on the cross which speak to this. Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.

          While it is likely Jesus did not speak Greek, we do know that some of his apostles did. The Greek named Jews Andrew and Phillip come to mind, whom the Greeks spoke to instead of Jesus (and likely acted as translators).

          We also know that the apostle(govt tax man) Matthew knew how to write Aramaic and Greek, because he wrote Gospels in both languages. His non-Greek version is a candidate for the source known as the Q gospel. Jerome translated a portion of it to Latin in a letter to Pope Damasus. He encountered it at Caesarea, unfortunately it has since been lost.

          • David Nickol

            The author of Matthew's Gospel was an apostle of Jesus and knew Him.

            If you want to stick with ancient tradition (with a small t) instead of the majority view of mainstream contemporary scholars, that is your right. I consider your belief a religious view, not a historical or scholarly conclusion. And if people want to accept, as a matter of faith, that the Gospels are reliable accounts of what Jesus said and did, then I will not try to argue them out of it. However, if the panel of scholars that produced the New American Bible don't believe that Matthew the Apostle wrote the Gospel According to Matthew, and they don't (see quote below), then it is pretty pointless to try to convince atheists that he did.

            The ancient tradition that the author was the disciple and apostle of Jesus named Matthew (see Mt 10:3) is untenable because the gospel is based, in large part, on the Gospel according to Mark (almost all the verses of that gospel have been utilized in this), and it is hardly likely that a companion of Jesus would have followed so extensively an account that came from one who admittedly never had such an association rather than rely on his own memories. The attribution of the gospel to the disciple Matthew may have been due to his having been responsible for some of the traditions found in it, but that is far from certain.

          • However, if the panel of scholars that produced the New American Bible don't believe that Matthew the Apostle wrote the Gospel According to Matthew, and they don't, then it is pretty pointless to try to convince atheists that he did.

            First of all, I am not trying to convince you. Just pointing out that the opinion you share is not the only one. Nor is it the only plausible one. It is only the most recent one.

            Secondly, scholars are wrong on many accounts. Bart Ehrman spits out inaccuracy after inaccuracy in his videos, and yet he is considered a scholar, despite his lack of fact checking. So the term "scholar" is not by itself one worthy of trust in the field of textual criticism.

            Furthermore, the NAB panel which created the notes is not made up of only Catholics, and does not represent official Catholic opinion. In fact, there is no official Catholic opinion, only what has been handed down. However, there is a lot of criticism concerning the NAB's quality and its associated notes, so trumpeting it is hardly proof of an unassailable opinion.

            and it is hardly likely that a companion of Jesus would have followed so extensively an account that came from one who admittedly never had such an association rather than rely on his own memories

            That is just plain weak conjecture that is being passed for proof. If you are willing to accept that, then here are some equally strong counterpoints:

            Matthew has always historically been listed first in tomes, because it came out first. Matthew was written to a Jewish audience, unlike Mark which explains what rabbi means to the reader, so it was likely written as the fathers claimed in a Hebrew dialect. There is a long standing opinion among Church Fathers that Matthew is older than Mark. And this was a 1900 year old opinion until the advent of textual criticism where they got it backwards (not surprisingly).

            "As having learned by tradition concerning the four Gospels, which alone are unquestionable in the Church of God under heaven, that first was written according to Matthew, who was once a tax collector but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, who published it for those who from Judaism came to believe, composed as it was in the Hebrew language."
            Origen, ~ A.D. 184-254

            “Matthew collected the oracles in the Hebrew language, and each interpreted them as best he could.”
            St Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis AD 50-155

            "Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church."
            St. Irenaeus of Lyons - A.D. 180

            After all, when two books share verses, that alone is not enough to say which came first. What hurts the case that Matthew is older in academia is that Hebrew Matthew was lost early on. Jerome had access to the original in Caesarea, but that was the last it was heard of. So scholars are blind without it to compare.

          • David Nickol

            Just pointing out that the opinion you share is not the only one.

            I have tried to be clear that I am going by the majority opinion of New Testament scholars, which, insofar as I am competent to judge, seems correct to me. You make statements such as the following:

            The author of Matthew's Gospel was an apostle of Jesus and knew Him.

            Let's be clear that we're not dealing with proven facts here. I am not presenting my "opinions," which you then challenge by stating "facts." Neither you nor I know for a fact who Matthew really was. You're going by a traditional view, and I am going by the majority view in contemporary New Testament scholarship.

            I could attempt to argue that the majority opinion is correct and you are incorrect, but in Catholic forum devoted to dialogue with atheists, the burden of proof is on the Catholics to prove contemporary scholarship is in error. That is a very tall task even if contemporary scholarship is in error. I don't see any point, though, in me answering you point by point by repeating what the view is of contemporary scholars. It is out there for anyone who wants to look it up. As a case in point, you say the following:

            What hurts the case that Matthew is older in academia is that Hebrew Matthew was lost early on. Jerome had access to the original in Caesarea, but that was the last it was heard of. So scholars are blind without it to compare.

            All anyone needs to do is google Matthew Hebrew Gospel and they will find that the majority of contemporary scholars don't believe it ever existed. Could they be wrong? I suppose. But the burden of proof in a forum like this is on those who make claims that contradict the majority view. Atheists, non-Christians, and skeptics should be able to assume in this forum that the majority view is correct without having to counter with it or defend it.

            I have been reading a little too much philosophy lately, so I will acknowledge there is somewhat of a problem in that one can ask, "Who gets to say who is a New Testament scholar and who is not? Your definition of New Testament scholar is someone who agrees with what you claim is the contemporary majority view."

          • [---
            but in Catholic forum devoted to dialogue with atheists, the burden of proof is on the Catholics to prove contemporary scholarship is in error.
            I have already disproved it to any reasonable reader by providing three old, geographically disperse attestations to the Hebrew gospel of Matthew. I have called attention to its pride of place in the oldest extant codices as first. There is also the testimony of Jerome in the late 300's about his translation of it. We also have Jerome's letter to Pope Damasus describing it.

            Everything we know about early Christianity shows that the apostles tried to convert the Jews first. Matthew was written for the Jews in their dialect. However Mark was written for Gentiles. This conversion of Gentiles did not take off in any large way until Paul started his efforts.

            Secondly, when the Christians were kicked out of Jerusalem in 62, and the Jewish War started in 69, the evangelism of the Jews slowed down considerably. Hostility between the two groups increased. It would have been less likely for the christians to write such a gospel to the Jews afterwards. i.e. they suppressed the Ebionites, because they were too Jewish and Matthews was the most Jewish of all the Gospels.

            In short, the opinions of todays textual critics are flawed because the only reason they have for Mark being first is not rooted in any historical statements, but it is rooted in a flimsy piece of conjecture about the Greek version of Matthew sharing verses with the Greek version of Mark.

            BTW - There is no cure for academic laziness, even in supposedly peer reviewed journals.


          • joeclark77

            I've also heard it argued that Mark was likely the "rich young man" who dialogued with Jesus in all three synoptic Gospels and was dismayed to learn that he ought to give up all that he had. Luke was probably not one of the seventy, but was a Greek converted by Paul around Ephesus or some such place. Note how the book of Acts (written by Luke) switches from "they" to "we" somewhere around that part of Paul's journeys.

  • Greg Schaefer

    One basic problem with Prof. Kreeft's (and C.S. Lewis') apologetics in this regard is that we don't actually know what the historical Jesus said, what he believed about his own divinity or what he actually preached in regard to his divinity and we also have no known examples of anything supposedly written by the historical Jesus.

    What we have in the New Testament are accounts that were written between two (in the case of the genuine Pauline letters) and seven or eight (the Gospel of John and Revelations) decades after Jesus' death by well-educated, Greek speakers who never knew the historical Jesus (whom most scholars, at least in the historical-critical school, believe was himself illiterate and Aramaic-speaking). Scholarship suggests that the authors of these New Testament books drew on differing oral traditions that had developed in various different communities in the decades after the historical Jesus' death, and developed differing theological messages based upon the character of Jesus of Nazareth. (That is just one reason there are so many discrepancies, inconsistencies and outright contradictions between the four Gospel accounts.) And, it is only in the last of the canonical gospels, The Gospel of John, written three or four generations after the death of Jesus, that an explicit claim is made that Jesus was divine, preexisting with/as God from before the beginning of time, as the Word. It is, at best, curious, that the authors of the three Synoptic Gospels, all writing before the Gospel of John and closer in time to the death of the historical Jesus, appeared not to have known that the historical Jesus claimed to have been divine. Scholars also claim not to have uncovered any contemporaneous documents from non-Christian sources (e.g., Roman or Palestinian) that record claims by an itinerant, apocalyptic Jewish preacher by the name of Jesus to have been divine.

    Bart Ehrman, in his Jesus Interrupted (2009), provides a nice summary of some of the scholarship in this area.

    • Greg, see my answer above, particularly in reference to Ehrman.

  • Greg Schaefer

    "'Lord, liar, or lunactic?' Those are the only options."

    Actually, no. While Christian apologetics may proceed on the basis of binary, either-or, all-or-nothing arguments, reality is rarely so cut and dried.

    As numerous scholars have pointed out, we have essentially no contemporaneous historical knowledge regarding the historical Jesus. One other option, mentioned in the title to Prof. Kreeft's article but not considered in any significant regard in the body of the article, is "legend." And, in this context, I am not using the word legend to suggest that there was no historical man Jesus of Nazareth. It simply means that we know very little of consequence about the historical human being, and that what has come down to us in the form of the Gospel accounts are not "history," as we moderns understand the term "history" to record factual information about things that actually took place, but rather "legend" in the sense that the gospel authors were writing theological treatises based on their understanding of the theological significance of the life of a character Jesus of Nazareth. See, e.g., Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted (2009), and Harold Bloom, Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine (2005).

    • "As numerous scholars have pointed out, we have essentially no contemporaneous historical knowledge regarding the historical Jesus."

      Thanks for the comment, Greg. Unfortunately, this statements presumes, a priori, that the Gospels are untrustworthy sources on the life and death of Jesus. You've just dismissed them as historical sources of knowledge. However, all Christians and most biblical scholars would, obviously, disagree.

      "It simply means that we know very little of consequence about the historical human being,"

      This is not true and reveals a bit of your ignorance on this topic. We know many facts about the historical Jesus--even non-Christian scholars like Bart Ehrman recognize his existence, teachings, death by crucifixion and, for many, his honorable burial and empty tomb. For example, Ehrman says: "The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans is one of the most secure facts we have about his life."

      "See, e.g., Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted (2009), and Harold Bloom, Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine (2005)."

      You've mentioned Ehrman a couple times, a well-known biblical critic. I'm curious: have you read any book-length refutations of his assumptions and work? Have you read anything by scholars who consider the New Testament documents to be trustworthy historical texts?

      If not, if you've only considered one side of the conversation, I'd encourage you to be more open-minded and explore what the other side says.

      I'd highly recommend either "The Historical Reliability of the Gospels" by Craig Blomberg or Richard Bauckham's "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony".

      • Ben Posin

        Not to speak for Greg, but I note he stated there's a lack of *contemporaneous* historical knowledge. Maybe I am ignorant myself on this topic, but I don't understand any scholarly consensus to consider the Gospels contemporaneous accounts of Jesus's life or doings.

        • Ben, thanks for the comment.

          First, you subtly inserted the word "consensus" into that statement, which neither Greg nor I were debating. Scholarly consensus is extremely rare in any field, and the lack of it shouldn't discount the mainstream opinions.

          Second, the Gospels *are* contemporaneous accounts of Jesus' life. They record eyewitness testimony from Jesus' closest friends and followers. Even more, the letters of Saint Paul include references traditions and early credal statements that date to within a few years of Christ's death.

          • David Nickol

            Scholarly consensus is extremely rare in any field, and the lack of it shouldn't discount the mainstream opinions.

            Consensus does not necessarily imply unanimity of opinion. Note meaning 2b from the Merriam-Webster Unabridged definition of consensus:

            2 a : general agreement : unanimity, accord
            <the consensus of their opinion, based on reports that had drifted back from the border — John Hersey>
            b : collective opinion : the judgment arrived at by most of those concerned
            <in the consensus of a number of critics — Current Biography>

            Perhaps it would be better to refer to the majority view in New Testament scholarship, which is that Mark's gospel was the first to be written, some time in the latter half of the 7th decade of the first century. To quote Wikipedia:

            The author used a variety of oral sources, including collections of miracle stories, controversy stories, parables, and a passion narrative, which he rewrote (scholars debate by how much) and connected with introductions and conclusions; possibly the first connected narrative was not the gospel we know but an earlier proto-Mark, which underwent one or more revisions before the modern version was produced.

            Matthew and Luke used Mark as a basis for their gospels along with a document of sayings referred to as Q. John's gospel was composed very near the end of the first century. None of the evangelists were apostles

            Second, the Gospels *are* contemporaneous accounts of Jesus' life.

            This is incorrect not merely according to the scholarly consensus, but owing to the self-evident fact that the Gospels include the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. A contemporaneous account of Jesus's life would have had to be written during his life. Even if there had been stenographers taking down the sayings of Jesus or daily newspapers covering his day-to-day activities, an account of his life drawing on that material would not be contemporaneous if it was written after his death.

          • [---
            Matthew and Luke used Mark as a basis for their gospels along with a document of sayings referred to as Q.
            There is no proof that Mark came before Matthew. Only conjecture. Shared verses could easily place Matthew as the source for Mark.

          • David Nickol

            It is the majority opinion among New Testament scholars that Mark's gospel was written first and used as a source by Matthew and Luke. As I have just finished arguing at length in another comment, until such time as you or others here make a compelling case against Markan priority (raising new arguments, not rehashing old ones), it is sufficient for atheists, non-Christians, and skeptics in this forum simply to note that you are stating a minority view. The debate has been held among scholars, and Markan priority has won. This doesn't mean it is a fact, but it does mean no one here who accepts it need feel compelled to argue for it here.

          • Jimi Burden

            "This doesn't mean it is a fact,..." Yet it's treated like a fact. It is, in fact, a fact ;-) for all intents and purposes. Markan priority is a foundation for almost all nonchristian arguments against the Gospels as eyewitness accounts. It's almost as if nobody bothered to talk to the disciples themselves and the Gospel writers just sat there, read Mark and Q, and composed their works. It's indeed strange when you think of the alternative proposed by Bauckham.

          • David Nickol

            Markan priority is a foundation for almost all nonchristian arguments against the Gospels as eyewitness accounts.

            That has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not the theory of Markan priority is correct.

            It's almost as if nobody bothered to talk to the disciples themselves and the Gospel writers just sat there, read Mark and Q, and composed their works.

            You are making the unspoken assumption (probably without realizing it) that the Gospel authors said to themselves, "These accounts will be included in the New Testament, so we better track down all of the best sources and write the most historically accurate accounts we can." But the evangelists didn't know they were writing documents that would survive and some day be included in a canonical collection of documents known as the New Testament. They weren't writing for an audience two millennia in the future. They were writing for their own local communities.

            They were also writing in Greek somewhere between 35 years (Mark) to 60 years (John) after the crucifixion in locations that were not close to where Jesus had preached in Aramaic and died.

            The Gospel writers were not appointed by the Church to write official accounts of the life, teaching, and death of Jesus to be read for all times.If they had been, it might be reasonable to assume that they had felt obligated to travel far and wide looking for eyewitnesses to interview (if indeed that was how similar things were done in the first century).

            Also, there is a great deal in the Gospels that could not have been seen by followers of Jesus during his lifetime.

          • Jimi Burden

            Actually, I'm not assuming that at all. I'm assuming that these were humans similar to us with respect to wanting to find out those who were closest to their "Lord". You seem to think that people were isolated in their cities and never traveled. So, you don't think the apostles and their entourage traveled around, founding communities?

            The fact that they were written in Greek means nothing. It would be like implying that we couldn't know much about Satya Sai Baba in 20 years b/c he spoke Hindi.

            I'm not sure why skeptics make much ado about 35 years. It's almost as if all who knew Jesus fell off the face of the Earth at precisely 35 AD and the rest of the Xians were left bumbling in the dark, making up stories to suit their particular theological fancies.

          • David Nickol

            I'm assuming that these were humans similar to us with respect to wanting to find out those who were closest to their "Lord".

            It sounds to me like you are assuming there is no significant difference between 1st-century Palestine and 21st-century United States. For example:

            It would be like implying that we couldn't know much about Satya Sai Baba in 20 years b/c he spoke Hindi.

            Can you think of nothing that makes the situation 20 years after Jesus quite different from 20 years after Satya Sai Baba? The printing press? Radio? Television? The Internet? Were the early Christians 20 years after the crucifixion able to watch Youtube videos of Jesus?

            I'm not sure why skeptics make much ado about 35 years.

            One very good reason is because 35 years was longer than life expectancy in 1st-century Palestine. We have to take into account that the short life expectancy reflects a high infant-mortality rate. But a reasonable life expectancy of someone who survived childhood was probably about 40. That is not to say that some people did not live to be much older than that. But life expectancy would nevertheless have made a difference as to how many people would have been alive 20 years after the death of Jesus as opposed to how many will be alive 20 years after the death of Satya Sai Baba.

            And of course some people did travel long distances in the 1st-century, but to take an example, it is 135 miles from Jerusalem to Damascus. Walking or traveling by horse, that would have been perhaps a 5-day (or more) journey in the 1st century.

          • Jimi Burden

            The Baba comment was in regards to the fact that different languages were spoken. Take away all the technology, and we could still get accurate reports on him, even though he spoke another language.

            Yes, life expectancy was much shorter, but tradition records some of the apostles living into old age. How many followers or groupies, if you will, do you think these guys had? Dozens? Hundreds? Who knows, right? I'd guess there were dozens and they were surely around, founding communities when the NT materials were being written.

          • David Nickol

            Who knows, right? I'd guess

            You are free to trust your guesses over the work of thousands of New Testament scholars over the past two centuries, but I accept the majority view of mainstream contemporary New Testament scholarship on such matters as Markan priority, oral tradition as opposed to eyewitness testimony, the belief that the parable of the woman taken in adultery was not originally in John's Gospel, and other such matters that are within the realm of historical, textual, and literary criticism rather than matters of religious doctrine.

          • Jimi Burden

            David, did you even read my comment? "I'd guess" refers to how many disciples the apostles had -- is there a scholarly consensus on that -- if so, please show me.

            Your constant strawmen are wearing my patience. Every comment I've posted, you've misrepresented.

          • David Nickol

            Your comments have been assumptions and conjectures that appear to come off the top of your head. Presumably Blomberg and/or Bauckham show evidence in their books that what most scholars believe comes from oral tradition instead comes from eyewitness testimony. But you have given no evidence, instead relying on 21st-century assumptions and examples.

            You are perfectly free to make any conjectures and "commonsense" assumptions you like, but I don't see why anyone should accept them as evidence.

            Your constant strawmen are wearing my patience. Every comment I've posted, you've misrepresented.

            I apologize if I have misinterpreted or misrepresented your comments, but here is the heart of my position vis a vis your apparent position:

            I accept the majority view of mainstream contemporary New Testament scholarship on such matters as Markan priority, oral tradition as opposed to eyewitness testimony, the belief that the parable of the woman taken in adultery was not originally in John's Gospel, and other
            such matters that are within the realm of historical, textual, and literary criticism rather than matters of religious doctrine.

            It does not seem to me to be an unusual or controversial position to take. It also doesn't seem to me to be a position I need to defend. Anyone who wants to look deeper can find more information using Google or by consulting basic reference books.

          • Ignorant Amos

            I'm not sure why skeptics make much ado about 35 years.

            Because 35 years after the fact means it is not a contemporary account. It means that anyone the author may have spoken to that was around the same age as Jesus, and a follower, would have been around 68 years old. My mum is 69 years old and can't remember stuff in any detail, recent or aged. Given that life expectancy was a lot less than 68 in first century Palestine, well, ya get the picture.

            ,blockquote>It's almost as if all who knew Jesus fell off the face of the Earth at precisely 35 AD and the rest of the Xians were left bumbling in the dark, making up stories to suit their particular theological fancies.

            It's as if everyone who allegedly knew the alleged Jesus fell off the face of the Earth, before, during and after his alleged life. The only person writing anything about Jesus during the whole time during the period up to the first gospel, was Paul, who admits only to revelation. If Paul is read without the context of the gospels written decades later, a spiritual Jesus is all there is. No biographical details of a human being. Why is that? Why were their Docetic Christian groups in these early times of Christianity if a live, walking the world, Jesus was so fresh in all the people you assert knew Jesus were around to verify the contrary? How did such gnostic and Docetic cults thrive alongside the orthodox views until being made heretical and stamped out in the fourth century if a man Jesus was as obvious to on and all as you infer?

          • Ben Posin

            You're of course correct, and some time with a dictionary should fix Brandon's confusion about what contemporaneous means. But as you seem to have a much better handle on all this than I do, I'm curious: is there a consensus (or majority opinion among scholars) relevant to how well supported Brandon's claim is that the Gospels "record eyewitness testimony from Jesus' closest friends and followers" ???

          • David Nickol

            I suppose it is presumptuous of me to answer, but I think it is reasonable and fair to say that the majority opinion of New Testament scholars is that the Gospels are based largely on oral tradition, not eyewitness testimony. I think it is reasonable to say that based on the reaction to Richard Bauckham's 2006 book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, which Brandon recommended. For example, there is a blurb on the back from Graham Stanton saying, "Shakes the foundations of a century of scholarly study of the Gospels . . . ." I think, in a nutshell, Bauckham argues that the story of Jesus was not passed along from one person to another and one group to another by "oral tradition," and then written down, but was kept alive by people who knew Jesus and kept his memory alive by continuously talking about what they remembered.

            Here is something that gave me an "aha moment" decades ago. I was reading Saint Mark by D. E. Nineham, a volume in the Pelican New Testament Commentaries, and got to Mark 2:23-24:

            One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck ears of grain. And the Pharisees said to him, Look, why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?

            When I read the first line of the commentary, it made me laugh out loud. It said,

            It is idle to ask what the Pharisees were doing in the middle of a cornfield on a sabbath day.

            The question and so many others like it had never occurred to me. It strikes me that looking at the Gospels as oral tradition explains why we run into passages like this, which seem more like dramatizations of differences in approaches to the law than specific incidents recollected by eyewitnesses. The commentary continued

            The process of oral tradition has formalized the stories, hence the considerable element of truth in the comment: "Scribes and Pharisees appear or disappear just as the compiler requires them. They are part of the stage-property and scenery, like 'the house' and 'the mountain.'"

          • Ben Posin

            This matches my own understanding, but I take comfort in seeing that your reading and study are in agreement. Thanks for taking the time to respond.

          • Jimi Burden

            I get that point, but it could simply be that the pharisees questioned him later about it, not that they were standing in the fields waiting for him.

            Bauckham's book was important for me and makes a lot of sense... much more sense than the idea that independent communities formed without any input from those who witnessed Jesus. Of course, the disciples traveled around and taught and founded communities, and of course they would be the main repository for stories about Jesus. And, by extension, the disciples of the disciples would the next most important source of information about Jesus' life.

          • Ben Posin

            Brandon: not interested in having a fight about whether consensus was the right word, or majority, or just very reasonable/strong support for Greg's statement. But that word contemporaneous, I do not think it means what you think it means.

            EDIT: OH! I get what you're saying about consensus now. No, sorry, I can see how you'd read what I said that way I guess, but you've got me backwards: I was trying to imply that the consensus is the OPPOSITE, that the gospels are NOT contemporaneous accounts of Jesus' life. Because as David Nickol discusses, that's what the consensus actually is.

      • Greg Schaefer

        "Unfortunately, this statements [sic] presumes, a priori, that the Gospels are
        untrustworthy sources on the life and death of Jesus. You've just
        dismissed them as historical sources of knowledge."

        Brandon. As I'm not a biblical scholar myself, don't read ancient manuscripts in the original Greek or Hebrew, and am not independently an expert in the history of first century Palestine, all I can do is read books by other scholars and experts, whatever their personal religious views, and attempt to discern that which seems most likely to approach the truth based on the evidence they marshal and the arguments they make based on that evidence. That's what I've done. I surely recognize that others can, and have, arrived at different conclusions.

        The flip side of your point, of course, is that devout, believing Catholics like yourself presume, a priori, that the Gospels are trustworthy sources on the life and death of Jesus. I'm personally not a fan of unmovable a priori beliefs, and prefer to try to arrive at conclusions based upon a weighing of the evidence and critical, independent thinking.

        I can't assay what "all Christians" or "most biblical scholars" think about the extent to which the Gospel accounts contain reliable, factual historical information regarding the historical Jesus, not having seen reliable evidence of same. I very much doubt, however, that "all Christians" hold a single unified view on the extent to which the gospel accounts present historically accurate information on the life and death of Jesus. Indeed, except for those Christians holding fundamentalist literalist views of the Bible, that would seem to require some level of cognitive dissonance, given the inconsistencies and contradictions in various aspects of Jesus' life as portrayed in the four canonical gospels.

      • Greg Schaefer

        "You've mentioned Ehrman a couple times, a well-known biblical critic. I'm curious: have you read any book-length refutations of his
        assumptions and work? Have you read anything by scholars who consider the New Testament documents to be trustworthy historical texts?
        If not, if you've only considered one side of the conversation, I'd
        encourage you to be more open-minded and explore what the other side says.

        Brandon. I am aware that Prof. Ehrman has his critics (as I would presume most academics do); indeed, some of the controversy over his writings has been aired in prior Strange Notions commentary. While I haven't read any book-length refutations of any of Ehrman's books, I did receive my undergraduate degree in philosophy from Boston College (I had Prof. Kreeft as a professor, and he was one of my favorite professors, although I am much less an admirer of his apologetics work than I was of his skills in teaching philosophy), have been following Strange Notions since last June, have read several of Prof. Karen Armstrong's and Bishop John Shelby Spong's books, as well as books by the likes of Father John Haught, Prof. Garry Wills, Prof. Elaine Pagels, and Prof. Richard Elliott Friedman, not to mention several other of Prof. Ehrman's books, and so I do try to engage a wide variety of sources and experts. I consider myself open-minded, even if I arrive at conclusions different from those at which you have arrived.

        I wonder: how many of those who fall, to use your words, "on the other side" would you consider to be "open-minded." Do you think that Prof. Kreeft himself is open-minded on these issues? Are you?

        • Jimi Burden

          All of those authors you read fall on the very liberal side of scholarship. Why don't you try reading on the other side?

          The point is not to keep an open mind forever. The point is to read the other side.

          • Greg Schaefer

            Hi Jimi and Brandon.

            I'm always open to suggestions for further reading and appreciate specific recommendations (although I might not be able, for reasons of resources and time, to purchase and read everything anyone might suggest).

            However, it's not the case that I haven't read "the other side."

            Now, I recognize that responding in the manner that follows below is tedious (one of my least favorite articles posted on SN was the post a few weeks back detailing Prof. Feser's reading list) and of no interest to other commentators on this site. I've considered over the past couple days whether to respond to this point both of you raised in your responses to me for that very reason. However, while this will be of no interest to other commentators, because both of you have explicitly raised the point, I've decided to respond directly.

            My parents were devout Catholics and pillars in our parish church and I attended Mass every week as well as CCD classes throughout my primary and secondary school years.

            I obtained my undergraduate degree from Boston College, a Jesuit university (where Prof. Kreeft has been a member of the philosophy department for going on five decades). All undergraduates at BC in those days were required to take at least two theology courses, virtually all of which were taught by Jesuits, in the course of which we studied works by Church fathers (including Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, naturally), more contemporary Catholic scholars, and some papal encyclicals, in whole or in part.

            Since then, I've read publications put out by the Unites States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the local diocese (memorably, the USCCB's "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" but also others addressing various aspects of Church doctrine/dogma, particularly the past few years as it relates to the "social wedge" issues of abortion, gay rights/same sex marriage and contraception/artificial birth control). I've read sections of books by Raymond Brown, Richard McBrien, Daniel Harrington, Lawrence Boadt and Pheme Perkins with commentaries (and summarizing scholarship) on various books in both the Old and New Testaments as well as regarding Catholic teachings and doctrine. I've read lots of Christian apologetics (including every article published on SN since June 2013) and listened to hours upon hours of programming on Catholic Answers radio. I've also read books by Prof. Kreeft, C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, and Pastor Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life.

            Now, I certainly recognize that what I've read is but a fraction of what
            Jimi has in the course of his studies and of what Brandon has in the
            course of his studies and his vocation and current occupation. I also acknowledge that I've read only a fraction of the Catholic Church "approved" or "sanctioned" (I'm not sure of the appropriate word to use in this regard, but please don't take this as being pejorative) literature that many of the regular Catholic commentators to this site have read.

            My point, though, is that my current thinking and opinions on these issues has not been formed on the basis of having read only "the very liberal side of scholarship" and in the absence of any exposure to "the other side."

          • Greg Schaefer

            Hi Jimi and Brandon.

            With respect to "keeping an open mind," I mean only that I remain open to changing my views on any matter or issue based on new evidence, newly created or discovered knowledge, new life's experiences and exposure to new ways of thinking about any given issue that I've not previously encountered or considered and which would convince me that opinions I've previously held are no longer warranted.

            That is not to say that I don't have strong views, just as the two of you do -- formed over time based on life's experiences, my reading and my thinking -- on many issues that animate discussions between Catholics (or other believers) and non-believers. But, I'm not currently "searching" for "answers" and I tend to suspect that it's extremely unlikely that assaying a few books from certain "conservative" orthodox Catholic scholars would cause me fundamentally to change my mind on such issues.

            In general terms, I am inherently suspicious of claims of authority -- especially those which involve religions professing to speak the "truth" revealed to that religion's clerical class or to a founding, charismatic prophet by some supernatural being/entity/intelligence/"ground of all being" -- and unchanging dogma. So, while I could change my mind on virtually any issue for the reasons noted above in the first paragraph of this response, I cannot conceive of the possibility that I would ever change my mind and accept some "belief" because I was told by an institutional religion that such beliefs were dogmas of that "faith" that I was required to profess based on the authority of the cleric/church.

            I don't see that following a prescribed course of reading works by authors of a certain bent of mind -- be that scholarship or apologetics from a "conservative" or from a "liberal" point of view of believing clerics/scholars; from an orthodox or heterodox or even heretical point of view; or from a skeptical point of view -- is all that determinative of how and where each of us happens to come down in the end on these issues.

            For example, I'm confident both of you (and I'm certain this applies to Prof. Kreeft) have read significantly, albeit to varying degrees, from the bodies of work of Hume, Voltaire, Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Robert Ingersoll, Bertrand Russell, Richard Feynman, Stephen Weinberg, Sean Carroll, Peter Singer, Victor Stenger and AC Grayling -- not to mention
            the highly publicized books published over the past decade by the so-called Four Horsemen of the New Atheism (Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens). And yet you remain devout
            Catholic believers, not committed atheists (or agnostics).

            Rather, where each of us end up on these questions is likely more a function of our individual habits of mind, how we process and analyze information, and how we think about and understand the nature of human societies, the development of human cultures, the physical realities of the universe in which we live, and the reasons why the countless gods and religions that have been so pervasive over the course of the past several thousands of years of human civilizations developed, were maintained, and have become institutionalized.

            Highly intelligent, deeply educated and profound thinkers are to be found at all points on the spectrum from non-belief to devout, orthodox belief in virtually all institutional religions. For every Ignatius, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Augustine, Aquinas or Newman there exists a Hume, a Feuerbach, a Russell, an Einstein, a Weinberg, and a Hawking. It would be enormously instructive, I suspect -- if Aristotle, Augustine or Aquinas were alive and writing now -- to see how their views on all the matters on which they contributed so enormously to the intellectual foundations of Catholicism might be different had they the knowledge we now possess in so many areas of science and technology that were wholly unknown at the times they were writing 2,400, 1,700 and 800 years ago, respectively.

            For me, I suppose that I tend to read fewer works by scholars or apologists whom you might characterize as "conservative" because I've learned over time that such works invariably strike me as less than illuminating or persuasive or objective in their analysis than do books authored by "very liberal" believers or non-believers. To take just three examples on "big picture" issues:

            (1) The JEPD account of the authorship of the Pentateuch, summarized by Richard Elliott Friedman in his 1987 book "Who Wrote the Bible" (also addressed by Bishop Spong in several of his books and in footnotes to and commentary in the The Catholic Study Bible: New American Bible, among others) I find far more persuasive than the "traditional" account I was taught by the Catholic Church as a boy, attributing authorship of those five books to Moses.

            (2) The very old traditions in the Catholic Church attributing the Gospels of Matthew and John to two of the original 12 apostles, the Gospel of Mark to a companion or interpreter of Peter's and the Gospel of Luke to a companion/secretary of Paul's, as I was taught growing up, no longer hold up for me in light of scholarship I've since read as an adult which includes, but is hardly limited to, Prof. Ehrman's books.

            (3) The traditional Jewish, Catholic/Christian, and Muslim views that their respective holy scriptures are divinely-inspired and represent the revealed, inerrant "word" of the "God" they each worship do not withstand serious scrutiny, to my way of thinking, for reasons covered in detail in Robert Wright's 2009 book, "The Evolution of God" and Karen Armstrong's 1993 book, "A History of God."

            Obviously, my opinions regarding many of the theological dogmas and doctrines of the Catholic Church are radically different from those of the devout, believing Catholics who maintain, moderate, contribute articles to, and comment at SN.

            I don't question the intelligence, the good faith, the levels of education, study or thought, or the motives of those who are devout believing Catholics (which happen to include several members of my immediate family) and who hold opinions different from mine. I wonder why some of the Catholic commentators on this site -- and, I hasten to add, this comment is not aimed specifically at either of you, but anyone who has followed commentary at SN over any length of time will surely understand this reference -- appear so reluctant, if not outright unwilling, to extend the same degree of courtesy, charity, respect and tolerance to those who happen not to share their own religious views, especially on a site that expressly states that its goal is "to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue" between Catholics and non-believers?

            I do appreciate (to varying degrees, naturally) the dialogue that occurs on SN or else I wouldn't keep stopping by. In particular, I benefit a great deal from reading David Nickol's consistently high level of thoughtful, civil and respectful comments, not to mention my amazement at the breadth of knowledge on Catholic doctrine and teachings and the erudition with respect to the Bible and Catholic intellectual history David constantly displays. While I understand that Brandon and the other site moderators moderate SN as they see fit, and have every right to do so, from my perspective, anyway, SN unfortunately has suffered greatly from the loss over the past eight months of more than a dozen commentators I found to be extremely intelligent, highly articulate and deeply thoughtful but who disproportionately happened to fall on the "non believing" side of the spectrum.

            People of intelligence, learning and good faith can and obviously do reach different conclusions on all manner of religious, social and political issues. It is neither charitable nor in keeping with the degree of humility we should all aspire to maintain -- in recognition of our very human frailties and limitations, not to mention things like confirmation bias -- to disparage others (and, as has not happened infrequently on this site, to question non-believers' personal morality) simply because they have come to hold views different from our own on deeply-felt and oftimes emotionally-charged issues of religious belief.

            Thank you both for engaging with me.

          • Thanks for the long and reflective comment, Greg! I really appreciate your thoughts and contribution to the site, and I'm so glad you've taken on a more active posture.

            I wish I could respond to every point--if only we could chat over a drink!--but alas, time limits me to just two replies:

            First, though again you note the sources of your biblical views (namely people like Ehrman, Robert Wright, Karen Armstrong, etc.) I'd encourage you to read some authors on the other side. And by "other side," I don't necessarily mean Catholicism. The two authors I've mentioned a few times now--Richard Bauckham and Craig Blomberg--are not even Catholics. But I think their scholarship offers a devastating refutation of many of Ehrman's proposal (and those of other skeptical academics.)

            (Along the same lines, I'd also be wary of quoting the NAB translation or its associated footnotes as an authoritative source. Although it is an approved translation by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, it is not considered inerrant, and you'll find many Catholics--me included--who find serious theological problems within it.)

            Second, I'm sorry you're disappointed by the level of dialogue here. Like you, I'm never thrilled to ban commenters from Strange Notions, especially ones that display a remarkable grasp of the subjects here and offer many rich insights. However, the tone of their comments was repeatedly and unwaveringly far from the "serious and respectful" conversation we aim for. I received emails almost every day, from both Catholic and atheists, complaining about a specific group of offenders who bullied and mocked interlocutors so much that they refused to comment on the site. That's not the environment we're trying to cultivate here; charity is a prerequisite, even at the expense of losing bright commenters. We've tried to be fair when issuing warnings, deleting comments, and banning individuals. In fact, the number of Catholics and atheists we've reprimanded has been roughly equal.

            Again, thanks for your great comments and I hope they continue far in the future!

          • Susan

            Hi Brandon,

            But I think their scholarship offers a devastating refutation of many of Ehrman's proposal (and those of other skeptical academics.)

            Specifically how?

          • Susan

            the tone of their comments was repeatedly and unwaveringly far from the "serious and respectful" conversation we aim for. I received emails almost every day, from both Catholic and atheists, complaining about a specific group of offenders who bullied and mocked interlocutors so much that they refused to comment on the site.

            And yet, there was much confusion among many of the catholics and atheists who still comment here, utter confusion from those who were banned (who were mostly atheists, as far as I can tell, a list of those banned would be useful to support your claims) and not a speck of evidence to date, to support your explanation.

            A speck would not suffice but it would at least be a beginning.

            I don't generally give a whit about upvotes and downvotes as they have nothing to do with the truth of the matter, generally. But when you claim that your decisions were motivated by site participants and then were overwhelmingly downvoted and never upvoted on the subject, I have to wonder (and I can't be the only one) where are all these catholic and atheist complainants went when the subject was addressed.

            You are speaking about good people with thoughtful. highly informedl things to say who you banished without justification. I gave ,my word that I would not comment again on the subject but I can't, in good conscience, let your story slide. You keep repeating it. It's insufferable.

            As far as I can tell, no one's buying it.

            You expected strawmen. That's not who showed up. They were not helping your cause. You banned them.
            That's what the evidence shows so far. If you have evidence to the contrary, please provide it.

            If you can't, drop it. It's your site. You can do what you want. Everyone knows that.

            But stop maligning good people without evidence to justify your accusations.

          • David Nickol

            Although it is an approved translation by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, it is not considered inerrant, and you'll find many Catholics--me included--who find serious theological problems within it.

            You speak as if there actually were some Catholic English-language translation of the Bible that was considered inerrant. There is, of course, no such thing in English or in any language. The New American Bible is an excellent resource, and no Catholic should be wary of reading it or quoting it. Not everyone has to agree with it, but it is a work that has gone through four editions since first published in 1970 and is approved (as you noted) by the USCCB and is on their web site. The idea that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops would mislead American Catholics by approving and reapproving, over a period of nearly fifty years, a translation of the Bible with "theological problems" is very strange indeed, and for Catholics to imply that the American Bishops are somehow not competent to approve a translation of the Bible must bewilder non-Catholics.

            The problem for more conservative Catholics is that the NAB is very much an example of "mainstream" biblical scholarship, which they go so far (sometimes) as to brand "heretical," but which is merely the majority view of contemporary biblical scholars, including Catholic biblical scholars.

          • Ben Posin

            Seriously. As an American on the outside of the Catholic church, this seems exactly the sort of source I should be turning to, and I have to wonder: Brandon, have you taken the time to let the American Bishops know about the theological problems in their approved bible, and if so, what did they have to say? Were I an American Catholic that believed this, I'd want to get to the bottom of their error, or mine.

        • Greg, thanks for your reply. I'm so glad you've been reading Strange Notions for awhile. I hope you've found it engaging and helpful.

          As Jimi noted below, the few non-skeptical authors you mentioned above are extremely liberal and far from the mainstream of modern biblical criticism. As I mentioned above, before closing your mind on Ehrman, I suggest you read experts on the other side like Richard Bauckham and Craig Blomberg.

          And to answer your questions, I think Peter Kreeft is open-minded on these issues, and I know I am (for my mind has changed on them.)

      • David Nickol

        If not, if you've only considered one side of the conversation, I'd encourage you to be more open-minded and explore what the other side says.

        I think the idea is supposed to be that a fair-minded person would educate himself or herself on both sides of every controversy, but that is not necessarily true. Richard Baukham's view is a minority view. It is not that Bart Ehrman presents one view and Richard Baukham presents another, and a fair-minded person would read both. It's that Bart Ehrman presents the majority, mainstream view on an accessible and popular level, and to read Ehrman is roughly equivalent to reading any number of other highly respected mainstream biblical scholars. Bart Ehrman's textbook on the New Testament is one of the most widely used books (if not the most widely used) in introductory courses. If it were always necessary to be "fair" and to read both sides, those of us who take it for granted that Jesus existed would be duty bound to read Richard Carrier. We'd have to read up on the arguments for geocentrism and see Rick Delano's forthcoming movie.

        I am currently reading Richard Baukham's Jesus: A Very Short Introduction, in which he takes the same approach as Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. I think it's fair to say he makes it clear that he is expressing a minority view. I have only just begun reading it, but even Baukham stresses that what we get in the New Testament are interpretations of Jesus, since that is all we ever get when one person writes about another, even another he or she personally knows quite well. He also states that he is going to use John's Gospel cautiously, because he feels John is historically accurate when it comes to events, but when it comes to the discourses of Jesus, "John seems to avail himself of the permission generally allowed ancient historians to put into his own words the sort of things Jesus would have said. So the discourses of Jesus in John are peppered with traditional sayings on which John has expanded with his own reflective interpretation. The more interpretative nature of John's Gospel makes it appropriate, on occasion, to treat this Gospel's handling of a topic separately from that of the Synoptics." It seems to me (and I say this having read only the first 21 pages, so take it for what it is worth at this point) that Baukham is, when it comes to the words of Jesus, just setting the bar lower than other biblical scholars. The Synoptics, he says, provide historically accurate quotes from Jesus, but John does something different. Other biblical scholars see the Synoptics and John doing the same kind of thing but in different ways.

        Of course, minority views can be right and over time topple the consensus of the majority, but that does not mean that prudence or fair-mindedness requires us to read minority views. The fact is that most minority views will either remain minority views or will be abandoned altogether.

      • "As numerous scholars have pointed out, we have essentially no contemporaneous historical knowledge regarding the historical Jesus."

        Thanks for the comment, Greg. Unfortunately, this statements presumes, a priori, that the Gospels are untrustworthy sources on the life and death of Jesus. You've just dismissed them as historical sources of knowledge.

        It's unhelpful to concoct such ridiculous accusations, Brandon. Critics don't presume a priori that the Gospels are untrustworthy. They follow the evidence as best they can; this is well proved by the fact that in my lifetime as new evidence has been uncovered, the best-guess dating of the Gospels has shifted forward and back several times. The evidence we currently have available clearly indicates that the writing of the Gospels weren't contemporaneous with the lifetime of Jesus, but were at least a few decades later.

      • Greg Schaefer

        Hi Brandon.

        There are three points in yours to which I'd like to respond. (My apologies for responding at this very late date; yours just slipped through the proverbial cracks.)

        First, you write: "this statements [sic] presumes, a priori, that the Gospels are untrustworthy sources on the life and death of Jesus. You've just dismissed them as historical sources of knowledge."

        Actually, no. I didn't presume anything. I simply reported what appears to be as close to a scholarly consensus as it seems possible to reach, at this point two millennia removed from the historical events, among scholars in the historical-critical school on that particular question.

        I recognize that you, as a devout believer and apologist for Catholicism, subscribe to orthodox teachings by the Catholic Church, Church fathers and the Magisterium and privilege those teachings over other scholarly views that don't hew strictly to Catholic teachings, dogma and doctrine.

        But, that's not the same thing as establishing, to the satisfaction of non-believers, that the orthodox Catholic teachings you accept stand on sound historical footing.

        Second, one of the least attractive features, to my way of thinking, of any dogmatic tradition -- including but certainly not limited to Catholicism -- is the tendency on the part of some of its adherents to label those who think differently than they do as being "ignorant" (or less moral, another favorite charge). While I might disagree with your views, I would never accuse you of being ignorant on a specific subject without knowing you personally and lacking pertinent knowledge of what you had studied, read and otherwise been taught on a specific subject.

        Third, I wonder if you personally are as open-minded and if you yourself are as willing to explore "what the other side [of the conversation] says" as you urge non-Catholic commenters to Strange Notions to be and to consider?

        For example, when you pick up a work by Hume, Voltaire, Nietzsche, or Bertrand Russell, or a work by any of the scholars in the historical critical school not bearing a Nihil Obstat or Imprimatur on behalf of the Catholic Church (or any work by any of the prominent or influential atheist writers of the past couple decades, for that matter), would you have us understand that you read with a truly open mind and honestly seek to engage with what they have to say? Or, in those instances, might it be more accurate to say that you are bringing your own a priori beliefs -- among them that the God portrayed in the Christian Bible exists; that the Bible is the inspired and revealed word of that God; that the theological Christ portrayed in the New Testament is true; and that the Catholic Church was established by an incarnate Christ to transmit and interpret God's revelation in Christ's name -- through which you filter their thoughts, analysis and arguments?

        Every person of reasonable intelligence and education surely comes over the course of their life to develop certain habits of mind by which they process information and their experiences to form their consciences, develop their character and moral code, and seek to live a meaningful life. Over time, those habits of mind, our individual characters, and the cumulative weight of all that we've processed and experienced of course lead most of us to form views and opinions on a variety of matters which tend to require, as our lives continue to unfold, more evidence to cause us to rethink and perhaps change views and opinions once firmly established. (Jonathan Haidt has done some interesting social psychology research and written on the kinds of habits of mind and weltanschauung that he contends tend to distinguish between those holding conservative religious, social and political values and beliefs from those holding more liberal and progressive political and social values.)

        So, for example, I don't harbor any illusions, based on your own a priori beliefs and your acceptance of the claims of Catholicism, that you would abandon your Catholic beliefs and "come over to the non-believing side" if only you were to read, with an "open mind," Hume's "Natural History of Religion" and "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion," Feuerbach's "The Essence of Christianity," Nietzsche's "The Gay Science," "Thus Spake Zarathustra," "On the Genealogy of Morals," and "The Antichrist," Bertrand Russell's "Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion," Michel Onfray's "Atheist Manifesto," or various essays by Steven Weinberg, Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan that I'd be happy to recommend to you if you have genuine interest in reading them.

        As for me, it is certainly the case that scholarship that seeks to examine as objectively as possible the development of religion generally and of particular religious sects, doctrines and dogmas in the context of the historical, political and social contexts in which they arose is likely to receive a more receptive audience with me than are catechisms telling believers what they must believe and polemical apologetics seeking to strengthen the beliefs of the faithful.

        So, while I haven't read either of the books you recommend, I suspect I would be no more likely to be persuaded by them than I suspect you would be likely to be persuaded by books like Richard Elliott Friedman's "Who Wrote the Bible?" John Shelby Spong's "Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism," and Robert Wright's "The Evolution of God." But, if you'd care to lend your copies of either or both of those books to me, I'd certainly be willing to give them due consideration.

  • Steven Dillon

    Other commenters have already touched on the problem of assuming that Jesus actually claimed to be YHWH -- a claim which, whether true or not, is surely not beyond reasonable doubt. But, even if we had overwhelming evidence that Jesus claimed to be God, our initial reaction to it should be -- as it is for every other claim like it -- one of skepticism: we should be very surprised to learn that Jesus' claim -- out of all those like it -- turns out to be true.

    But, maybe there are some truly moving reasons to believe Jesus' claim. However, the minute the apologist begins presenting and defending those reasons, he shifts to an entirely new argument (probably one concerning Jesus' resurrection). Thus, it seems to me that this Trilemma is superfluous, as one can only establish its soundness by independently arguing for its conclusion.

  • Timothy Reid

    As I read this post I could hear the responses that non-believers would make to Kreeft's initial argument.
    Thankfully he did address them by the end. It is an argument that I do agree with, especially the 1st objection regarding the belief that the Gospels are not historically accurate. I also find it highly unlikely that whole entire populations would subject themselves to the persecution, tortures and full wrath of the Roman Empire simply for the sake of perpetuating a massive hoax.
    I have not read the comments below mine on purpose so I can make this comment without seeming like I am attacking anyone.
    People who say that the Gospels are completely 100% fiction appear to me to have a bias that clouds their scholarship. They'll say that Jesus is fiction because there are no writings between the years 27-50 A.D. that mention Him left in the historical record. I started in 27 because that's a rough guestimate of when His public ministry began. By the 50's when Paul is writing to Church communities, He appears to be writing to communities that, if they had NEVER heard of this guy Jesus.....Paul's letters would have been viewed as the writings of a madman. The Thessalonians or the Corinthians or the Philipians would be scratching their heads saying
    "Who is this Paul guy who keeps sending us letters???"
    Paul is obviously writing to communities that are well established churches in Asia Minor, Greece and Italy.
    By 64 A.D., (a mere 30 or so years after the events of the Gospels) the Roman Emperor Himself, Nero Caesar, is blaming the Christian communities in the city of Rome itself for being the arsonists who started the fire of Rome. This leads to the first official persecution of Christians.
    Would a hoax story in the ancient Roman Empire have enough credence and thousands upon thousands of believers to travel the thousands of miles that it did establishing churches from Jerusalem to Rome if it were based on the invention of some creative Jews?
    But the evidence! Where is the first century evidence from the years 27-50??? If there is no written evidence with the date on it, then you must conclude that Jesus is an absolute fantasy, right???

    I don't find that likely.
    One point I do disagree with is the idea that if Jesus wasn't God, He must be an evil man. There are plenty of people who are deluded and not right in the head that can be fountains of wisdom and sayings that contain amazing insight and knowledge. Many "GENIUSES" are also "a little bit off". People who don't believe Jesus is God can at least look at His teachings and see the wisdom and truth contained within them. If they don't believe He's God well then He's just another quirky guy who had his moments of clarity and lucidity and wisdom, but nothing more.
    I however see the historical record and think:
    Why Oh Why would so many people suffer and die for a fiction that has no grounding in reality?

    • Greg Schaefer

      "Why Oh Why would so many people suffer and die for a fiction that has no grounding in reality?"

      At least one obvious problem with this line of argument, Timothy, is that its application is hardly limited to devout "main line" Christians.

      To list just a few other instances of people dying for their religious beliefs, we have: (i) the mass suicide at Masada back in the first century CE; (ii) the mass suicides at Jonestown, Guyana, Waco, TX and San Diego, CA (in the wake of Comet Hale-Bopp) and (iii) countless incidents of suicide bombings by Tamil Tigers and members of various radical jihadist Muslim sects in the past three decades. And, this doesn't begin to take into account the vast numbers who have died in the course of countless wars over the past three millennia motivated, at least in part, by religious beliefs (intra-Christian, Catholic-Christian/Islamic, Jewish/Islamic, Hindu/Islamic, HIndu/Sikh, etc.).

      It hardly goes without saying that the religious beliefs of the Jewish zealots at Masada, the cultist Christians of the People's Temple, the Branch Davidians and Heaven's Gate who died at Jonestown, Waco and San Diego, respectively, not to mention the Hindu and Islamic religious beliefs of the Tamil Tigers and Muslim jihadist suicide bombers, respectively, all differ vastly from those of orthodox Catholicism or even "main line" Protestant Christians. All the religious beliefs of all of these disparate groups of religious believers cannot all be "true" and have "equal grounding in reality."

      Why, then, were all these people -- who, from the perspective of Catholicism and main line Christianity, hold religious beliefs that depart (and quite substantially so) from the "truth" -- willing to die "for a fiction that has no grounding in reality"?

      I would have thought -- with all the evidence accumulated over many centuries of all the things (including dying) that people apparently have been willing to do in the name of their religion or based on their stated religious beliefs -- that any argument predicating peoples' willingness to take specified actions on the underlying truthfulness (or degree of correspondence to reality) of their religious beliefs should long since have been retired.

      • Ignorant Amos

        Don't forget the Mormon's Greg.


        Twelve million Mormon's can't be wrong, can they? That's about the same number of Gods chosen ones.

        Joseph Smith was a convicted conman who got killed by a mob because he perpetuated his nonsense religion too far.


      • Timothy Reid

        Hello, Greg.
        The problem with all of the examples you cited of religious people dying for their religion are not comparable to the early Christian martyrs. ALL of the examples you gave were examples of people who intentionally committed suicide for their beliefs.
        The Christians of the first 3 centuries were not suicidal, they were being arrested and executed.
        Were there some like Tertullian that actually sought out martyrdom, yes, but they were not mainstream in the Church at all and actually considered heretical.
        People like Peter, Paul, Stephen, James, Polycarp, Agnes, Perpetua, Felicity, Lawrence, Januarius......they wanted to live and be left to follow Christ, but rather than deny their God and savior, they did not give into the oppressive authorities who were the guilty ones. I see a vast difference between these martyrs and the Branch Davidians or the Hale-Bop people or the Jonestown folks all of whom caused their own deaths.
        Every religion has extremists, but mainline orthodox Christianity was not a suicidal lot. They sought to live and thrive in this world and were willing to die, but did not seek to self destruct.

    • Jimi Burden

      I think what you mean, Timothy, is this: why would people knowingly invent a fantasy and then die for it. They wouldn't.

      This is a fairly strong case when you apply it to the apostles and second generation Xians who learned directly from the apostles.

      As Greg notes below, many die for false beliefs. But they don't make them up and then die for them.

      • Ignorant Amos

        I don't think anyone is suggesting that those Christians that died for their cause did believe the fantasy was true. Did the first advocate of Christianity die for it? Who knows? But at least some inventor of fantasy religions, or cults should we say because that's what early Christianity's were cults, ended up dying for it. The early heretical Christian cults members died, not because they were Christians, but a certain flavour of Christian, why? We see that right up to today.

        No one in their right mind apart from Mormons believe that Mormonism is a fantasy cult created by a fraudster to rob the gullible, but Joseph Smith went to the mixer for it all the same. The leaders of those other cults probably did believe the nonsense they were purveying, but the followers did, and paid the ultimate price for doing so.

        The details on what happened to the apostles is very vague...that's if there were any at all. What happened to them relies on premise that the NT is accurate..it is not.

  • Peter Piper

    Even at its strongest, all we can conclude from this argument is that either Jesus was God or somebody (either Jesus or some of his followers) behaved in a way which is difficult to account for. But in fact people behave in ways which are difficult to account for quite often, so I don't find this argument particularly powerful.

  • Jimi Burden

    I don't think most of us appreciate delusion. We have the idea that if you're delusional, that you must delusional or crazy in every area of life. This is not true. Muhammad was delusional. If you read the early history of Islam fairly, you may conclude that he was sincere -- and sincerely wrong. There are countless "visionaries" (see Julia Kim of Naju for a contemporary example, who even performed many "miraculous" cures) who are delusional and yet their actions and words are inspiring. Jesus could have easily imagined himself to be a voice for a God, a prophet, even the "Son of God".

    My mother in law is convinced that her daughter dies regularly and burns her family's clothes in the belief that it will ward away evil. In every other aspect of our life, she is perfectly normal.

    It's well know that temporal lobe epilepsy causes many of the symptoms that mystics experience, and from a psychological perspective, it's quite a reasonable way to understand people like Jesus and Muhammad.

    Thus, I think Kreeft's thesis fails miserably on this account. And on other accounts, but I just wanted to mention what I see as a big hole in this debate. Delusion is quite compatible with having admirable qualities, indeed, even being saintly.

    • Tim Dacey

      I can see what you are getting at Jimi but since my primary interest is (religious) epistemology, then I feel a certain need to press you on this. Though it is rather minor.

      You state: If Delusion-->'mystical vision'--> truth tracking-->miraculous/divine knowledge

      However it seems more like this:

      (X) If Delusion --> ~(Truth Tracking) : . ~(miraculous/divine knowledge)

      If 'mystical vision'-->either X or ~(X)

      If ~(X) : . miraculous/divine knowledge

      All I am suggesting (and my apologies if not clear; I am writing this out as I think about it) is that if (person) S has a 'mystical vision', it cannot be both deluded and truth tracking since being deluded would entail that the the mystical vision is not aimed at truth (which means S has no miraculous/divine knowledge).

  • Kreeft simply ignores the voluminous scholarship that shows, in detail, how the legends accrued around the historical core to become the Christianity we know consider "traditional." A close look at the sources reveals that this form of Christianity didn't even exist until 150 years after Jesus's death, and wasn't widespread among Christian believers until long after that. This scholarship isn't coming from atheists, either: it's primarily coming from believers.

    Just as one example, consider how Mark (the earliest gospel) reports that Jesus was baptised "for the forgiveness of sins." How was that possible, if Jesus was sinless? Later gospel authors (having a more exalted view of Jesus) saw a problem, and so edited Mark's story. Matthew has John object to baptizing Jesus, and has Jesus give a pretty pointless reason. (To "do all that uprightness demands.") And John omits the baptism entirely.

    Against this sort of detailed textual analysis, Kreeft only puts up a simplistic objection: "Why would they follow him, then?" Well, people follow all sorts of lunatics: take Jim Jones, Aum Shinriko, for example.

    "Legend" remains the best option, though "lunatic" and "liar" remain possibilities. Any of these is far more likely than "lord".

    • Jimi Burden

      Eh? 150 yrs later? Really? Paul's letters, the didache, Clement's letters, and Polycarp's letters, the Gospels all reveal a totally developed XIanity much earlier than what you're proposing.

      Your example of Mark reveals nothing. How do you know they "edited" it? John omits it -- so what? Your assuming Markan priority.

    • Ignorant Amos

      A close look at the sources reveals that this form of Christianity didn't even exist until 150 years after Jesus's death, and wasn't widespread among Christian believers until long after that.

      And one of many versions of the tradition.

      The Gospel of Thomas is suggested by some scholars to be earlier than the synoptic gospels. It is also suggested to be gnostic. The question has to be asked, "If there were gnostic and docetic cults this early in the tradition, how come they were unaware that Jesus was a physical, walking the Earth entity?". if indeed he was.

      • [---
        "If there were gnostic and docetic cults this early in the tradition, how come they were unaware that Jesus was a physical, walking the Earth entity?"
        Your observation is based on a false premise. The gnostic writings attributed to Thomas are not that old. And secondly, Jesus is a physical man and God in his narrative.

        • Ignorant Amos

          Your observation is based on a false premise. The gnostic writings attributed to Thomas are not that old.

          Oh it's not my observation, I'm only the messenger. Scholars date Thomas anywhere between 50-140 AD

          Quispel and his collaborators, who first published the Gospel of Thomas, suggested the date of c. A.D. 140 for the original. Some reasoned that since these gospels were heretical, they must have been written later than the gospels of the New Testament, which are dated c. 60-l l0. But recently Professor Helmut Koester of Harvard University has suggested that the collection of sayings in the Gospel of Thomas, although compiled c. 140, may include some traditions evenolder than the gospels of the New Testament, "possibly as early as the second half of the first century" (50-100)--as early as, or earlier, than Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.

          There is a growing consensus among scholars that the Gospel of Thomas – discovered over a half century ago in the Egyptian desert – dates to the very beginnings of the Christian era and may well have taken first form before any of the four traditional canonical Gospels. During the first few decades after its discovery several voices representing established orthodox biases argued that the Gospel of Thomas (abbreviated, GTh) was a late-second or third century Gnostic forgery. Scholars currently involved in Thomas studies now largely reject that view, though such arguments will still be heard from orthodox apologists and are encountered in some of the earlier publications about Thomas.


          And secondly, Jesus is a physical man...

          Is he?

          ...and God in his narrative.

          Are you sure?

          It is important to note, however, that while the Gospel of Thomas does not directly point to Jesus' divinity, it also does not directly contradict it, and therefore neither supports nor contradicts gnostic beliefs.

          The teachings of the gnostics’ Jesus flatly contradicts the Jesus of the Bible. The Gnostic-Jesus says, "When you come to know yourselves... you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty." (Thomas-3) This reflects the Gnostic concept that self-consciousness of one’s own divinity (rather than a new awareness of sinfulness and need) is the first step to salvation. The Gnostic- Jesus also says, "When you disrobe yourselves and are not ashamed, and take your garments and lay them beneath your feet like little children, and tread upon them, then [shall ye see] the Son of the living One, and ye shall not fear." (Thomas-37) This and the other ‘undressing’ saying (Thomas-21) urges us to ‘disrobe,’ to trample underfoot and despise the physical nature.


          The Gospel of Thomas is considered to be an example of gnostic literature, a body of religious writing characterized by a rejection of the flesh and the material world in favor of a focus on the spirit. Although gnosticism’s emphasis on the spiritual faintly echoes Christianity’s condemnation of worldliness and carnal living, gnosticism’s rejection of the physical world goes far beyond Christianity’s teachings.

          As for Docetism, hard to date a cult that was condemned as heretical and struck from the records, but Ignatius of Antioch writes of them 110 AD so they pre-date that.

          • I thought you were referring to the Thomas' Infancy Narratives which are also sometimes called the Gospel of Thomas. That is why i removed my post, but I would have left it had I seen your reply.

  • I guess the argument here is because Jesus' followers did not write about him as a nasty raving lying lunatic, he must have been entirely the nice, magical, honest god they did write about? Again, we do not have anything approaching the texts the apostles actually wrote. We have versions that we know have been greatly changed. Even so we do not know how close the originals were to what actually happened.

    Even if they were, as David Nickol has eloquently pointed out, it is much more plausible that the Jesus genuinely believed he was a God, that his followers did too and they wrote about him as if he was. They added a few miracles, made exaggerations and so on.

    I mean isn't this what Catholics believe about the Bhudda? Mohammed?

    • Jimi Burden

      "greatly changed"? Evidence, examples? Buddha and Muhammad are not parallel cases. The Buddha never claimed to be God and the miracles surrounding him are irrelevant to being a Buddhist. Same with Muhammad. Mo said the miracle is the Quran. The miracle for me is that anyone believes it to be a miracle.

      • The trinity, the "he who is without sin cast the first stone" do not appear in the earliest versions. We know that scribes changed the text to fit theology, not the other way round, they also excluded other books again for theological reasons, rather than form theology based on the writings. I get this from Bart Ehrman and watching an entire Intro to NT studies online course in Yale. I will defer to what most mainstream scholars agree upon.

        I am currently in Japan and I can tell you that the Bhuddha is most definitely considered a god here, and they believe in many others.

        Mohammed said the Quran was literally dictated to him by an angel, was he lying, crazy, mistaken or telling the truth?

        I am going to suggest that you dismiss these examples without sufficient knowledge of the subject. I wonder if it is because it just seems ridiculous to you that Bhudda could be a god, that reincarnation is true, that Christianity and Judaism are wrong but it is the hundreds.

        • (Continued) of millions of Muslims that are right. That without spending dozens of hours researching these claims you feel justified in dismissing them because they lack the kind of objective evidence that makes it worth investigating. This is how I feel. But I do find it interesting to learn more and discuss and I am spending the time.

          • Jimi Burden

            I dismissed Islam out of countless hundreds of hours, if not thousands, of taking the claims very seriously.

          • Can I ask what it was that made you chose Christianity instead?

          • Jimi Burden

            You could... if I were Christian. ;-)

        • The trinity, the "he who is without sin cast the first stone" do not appear in the earliest versions.

          It appears in the Vulgate, and is commented on by Church Fathers from before our earliest surviving manuscripts.

          " Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit...”
          Didache 7:1 (~90 AD)

          "… having learned that He[Jesus] is the Son of the true God Himself, and holding Him in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third, we will prove”
          St. Justin Martyr, First Apology (110-165 AD).

          "Wherefore also I praise Thee for all things, I bless Thee, I glorify Thee, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Thy beloved Son, with whom, to Thee, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen.”
          Martyrdom of Polycarp (157 AD).

          " For with Him were always present the Word and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit, by whom and in whom, freely and spontaneously, He made all things, to whom also He speaks, saying, 'Let Us make man after Our image and likeness;' He taking from Himself the substance of the creatures [formed], and the pattern of things made, and the type of all the adornments in the world.”
          St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies (180 AD)

          • David Nickol

            According to a footnote in the New American Bible

            * [7:53–8:11] The story of the woman caught in adultery is a later insertion here, missing from all early Greek manuscripts. A Western text-type insertion, attested mainly in Old Latin translations, it is found in different places in different manuscripts: here, or after Jn 7:36 or at the end of this gospel, or after Lk 21:38, or at the end of that gospel. There are many non-Johannine features in the language, and there are also many doubtful readings within the passage. The style and motifs are similar to those of Luke, and it fits better with the general situation at the end of Lk 21: but it was probably inserted here because of the allusion to Jer 17:13 (cf. note on Jn 8:6) and the statement, “I do not judge anyone,” in Jn 8:15. The Catholic Church accepts this passage as canonical scripture.

          • According to a [NAB] footnote....

            St Papias of Hierapolis (AD 50-155) refers to the pericope.
            St Jerome saw it in "many" Greek and Latin manuscripts.
            The Greek writings of Didymus have it (~A.D. 310)
            The Codex Vaticanus (~A.D. 350) has an critical mark signifying an alternate reading.

            The Codex Sianiticus is from the mid 300's which does not have it. As St. Augustine (AD 354-430) explains, it was removed by those of little faith who thought it might be interpreted as condoning adultery.

          • David Nickol

            St Papias of Hierapolis (AD 50-155) refers to the pericope.

            That statement is filled with unwarranted assumptions. We do not have Papias's text. Eusebius (ca. 260/265 – 339/340) says

            And the
            same writer uses testimonies from the first Epistle of John and from
            that of Peter likewise. And he relates another story of a woman, who was
            accused of many sins before the Lord, which is contained in the Gospel
            according to the Hebrews. These things we have thought it necessary to
            observe in addition to what has been already stated.

            It is only conjecture that this refers to the story of the woman taken in adultery, and there is no mention of the Gospel of John. We're talking about the Gospel of John here, and whether the story of the woman taken in adultery was originally to be found in that Gospel.

          • It is only conjecture that this refers to the story of the woman taken in adultery

            Yes, but it is the only candidate in the NT.

            We're talking about the Gospel of John here, and whether the story of the woman taken in adultery was originally to be found in that Gospel.

            There was no mention of John by Brian's original post. I originally responded to the trinity. Which is a much wider critique than John. While the citation of the pericope is more specific to John, the whole conversation was not.

            The Catholic Church accepts the story as canonical, but there is no requirement that Catholics believe it was written by the same author who wrote the Gospel of John.

            I did not say it demanded assent. I was responding to the original poster who seemed to think it was made up out of thin air (like the trinity), after the date of our earliest manuscripts. But it is not that clear cut.

            the majority of New Testament scholars....

            Just as convincing as saying the majority of NT scholars in this country believe in God. argumentum ad populum

          • Ignorant Amos

            This story, beloved for its revelation of God's mercy toward sinners, is found only in John. It was almost certainly not part of John's original Gospel. The NIV separates this passage off from the rest of the Gospel with the note, "The earliest and most reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53--8:11." That is, the earliest Greek manuscripts, the earliest translations and the earliest church fathers all lack reference to this story. Furthermore, some manuscripts place it at other points within John (after 7:36, 7:44 or 21:25), others include it in the Gospel of Luke (placing it after Luke 21:38), and many manuscripts have marks that indicate the scribes "were aware that it lacked satisfactory credentials" (Metzger 1994:189). Furthermore, it contains many expressions that are more like those in the Synoptic Gospels than those in John.

            It appears to have been a well-known story, one of many that circulated orally from the beginning yet that none of the Gospel writers were led to include. But some in the later church thought this one was too good to leave out. The controversy with the teachers of the law and the Pharisees (v. 3) is similar to stories found in the Synoptics, as is the theme of God's mercy mediated by Jesus.

            ~ Biblegateway

            Parallels are found in the OT...Jeremiah for example.

          • David Nickol

            Just as convincing as saying the majority of NT scholars in this country believe in God. argumentum ad populum.

            You're right. Why should it carry any more weight to say the majority of New Testament scholars believe the story of the woman taken in adultery was not in the original Gospel of John than to say the majority of dentists believe the story of the woman taken in adultery was not in the original Gospel of John?

            Also, if you have a toothache, why would you seek to do something recommended by the majority of dentists rather than the majority of New Testament scholars?

            argumentum ad populum

            Logical fallacies like argumentum ad populum and argument from authority are fallacies in deductive logic. If I were make an argument as follows, it would not be valid deductive logic.

            The majority of New Testament scholars believe the story of the woman taken in adultery was not in the original Gospel of John. Therefore, the story of the woman taken in adultery was not in the original Gospel of John.

            However, I am not making a deductive argument. I am saying it is reasonable to accept the majority opinion of New Testament scholars on a textual matter such as the one under discussion. I am not arguing that the majority opinion of New Testament scholars in a matter within their area of expertise is necessarily true. I am not making this argument:

            The majority of New Testament scholars believe X is true.
            The majority of New Testament scholars is never wrong.
            Therefore, X is true.

            There seems to be a belief that citing an authority or citing the the majority opinion of a certain group is a bad argument. That is not necessarily true. That would mean that the opinion of the majority of New Testament scholars on a matter regarding the New Testament had no value, and the opinion of a majority of physicists on a matter regarding physics had no value, and the opinion of the majority of physicians on a medical matter had no value. It would mean that if you were having trouble with your car, it would be no better to follow the advice of a majority of car mechanics than to follow the advice of a majority of marine biologists.

            The rules of deductive logic do not apply inductive logic. It is simply wrong to take an inductive argument, recast it as a deductive one, and then cry argumentum ad populum.

          • Ignorant Amos

            As St. Augustine (AD 354-430) explains, it was removed by those of little faith who thought it might be interpreted as condoning adultery.


        • Jimi Burden

          I have a degree in religious studies (haha, I know, right) and have been studying these religions for the past 20 yrs. I know well how people view Buddha, etc. I was a Buddhist before... actually, rebirth makes more sense to me than the Xian view. Almost NO Buddhist texts out of the tens of thousands say he's a God. I think Mo was delusional but sincere.

          "They" meaning the Bishops, I suppose, had to exclude books. This is natural. Buddhists do it too! And so did the Muslims in compiling the Quran. From my readings in NT studies, it seems to me that the changes were minor. You can glean the Trinity from Paul's writings, which are early enough aren't usually accused of being tampered with.

          • It would seem that the Japanese (except the tiny minority of Christians and Muslims) do not really have a concept of gods like westerners do. There is a great deal of spirituality and superstition but no concept of all powerful universe creators. Even these may not be taken too seriously. Religious worship is prevalent and serious, but seems to be more of an exercise in getting good fortune from the spiritual world. That said, the Bhudda is treated with reverence, beloved to have supernatural powers and have left behind "gods" or saints who are here to help the remaining on the path to Nirvana. Similarly Shinto beliefs see spirits in animal forms, waterfalls and so on. So why are these beliefs delusional? Because they don't have a number of ancient texts that actually say these things are gods? Are the Japanese not being entirely reasonable in rejecting western religions?

            Why do you say Mohammed was delusional, but Jesus was not?

  • Yeshua...

    Jewish biker dude that beat the shít out of the Jewish bankers, threw them out of the temple and got executed for it...

    judaic bolshevist mammonism (baphomet) = mahomet (muslim brotherhood)

    same devil

    • Tim Dacey

      flatus vocis

      • Die jüdischen Bankiers sind überschwemmen Europa mit Muslimen und Amerika mit Dritte-Welt-Papierkorb.

        Wenn die Iraner nuke Israel, die Palästinenser sterben in den Fallout... win/win situation

  • Horatio

    Slightly off-topic, but I have an actually-serious question about Christ that will seem absurd at first, but please consider it for my sake. This isn't a question I can ask my parish priest.

    Given the size and age of the cosmos, the number of stars, and the large proportion of stars around which astronomers have found evidence of planets, it seems a statistical certainty that on some worlds there exist extraterrestrial organisms. Given the advantage intelligence clearly bestowed on us humans, it is also almost certain that at least some non-zero number of these words also host or hosted intelligent creatures that were social and communicative. I find it impossible that such creatures would be any less flawed or fallen than are we.

    Starting with this assumption, how are we to understand Christ as savior? Is he simply the savior of humanity, while other fallen creatures throughout the cosmos are doomed? Would the Church, or any Church, maintain the possibility of Christ appearing on other worlds, in other forms? Or did Christ's sacrifice apply to such others who will never know him, and we were just fortuitously the race he chose to incarnate as?

    I know this seems too much science-fiction for a theological debate, but I can't think of any good reason it's actually not worth considering, given what we know in A.D. 2014 and what we are to believe as Catholics. I'm not really expecting a resolution, I just wanted to pitch the question here at SN because I think it's interesting.

  • fightforgood

    I find it interesting that a conclusion is drawn by some that Mr Kreeft is presuming that life decisions with varying actions (telling a lie vs being truthful) are set aside. So all can be lumped into a specific bucket with a nice label.
    The same person can do good and bad in the same hour, daily. This could be said of all humans.
    The difference is that if Lord is correct in Jesus' case, then he is not like every other person. It would be prudent to consider that the Lord, would never lie.