We donʼt see genes or organisms simply popping into existence out of nowhere. They all appear to have natural lineages. Connections abound in nature, not disconnections and miracles. Hereʼs what Intelligent Design advocates WANT to say happened, notice how unconcerned they are with continuing to examine all the connections in nature, and how eager they are to promote disconnections in nature and miracles:
“Michael Behe told us his hypothesis a few years ago. We both took part in a week–long lecture series on the intelligent design debate at Hillsdale College. After Michael Beheʼs lecture, some of us pressed him to explain exactly how ‘irreducibly complex’ mechanisms arose—mechanisms that cannot, according to Behe, be explained as products of evolution by natural selection. He repeatedly refused to answer. But after a long night of drinking he finally answered: ‘A puff of smoke!’ A physicist in the group asked, Do you mean a suspension of the laws of physics? Yes, Behe answered. Not very persuasive as a scientific answer.” —RBH July 9, 2012
Reminds me of what Berlinski wrote:
“Before the Cambrian era, a brief 600 million years ago, very little is inscribed in the fossil record; but then, signaled by what I imagine as a spectral puff of smoke and a deafening ta–da!, an astonishing number of novel biological structures come into creation, and they come into creation at once.” —Berlinski, “The Deniable Darwin” (June 1996), Commentary magazine. Oh, and Berlinski and Stephen C. Meyer are wrong about the Cambrian providing evidence of I.D., simply repeating an old creationist lie.
There is no evidence of things popping into existence via Beheʼs puff of smoke. But there is endless evidence of natural connections, i.e., of atoms and molecules naturally interacting and nudging each other, and organisms naturally replicating, dividing into individuals and new species, with only a select number of each new generation of organisms passing along their genes to future generations—the rest unable to leap over the many hurdles nature puts in the way (from zygote to the age of sexual reproduction), and hence a large percentage usually die off or leave behind smaller proportions of offspring than others.
Compare the pro–I.D. stance with that of BIOLOGOS. The latter was founded by a leader of the Human Genome Project, and it is an organization of Christians who are scientists who support evolution and critically analyze I.D. arguments.
Biologist Jeffery P. Schloss used to be a senior member of the pro–I.D. Discovery Institute but left after the Instituteʼs film, Expelled, was released, and he wrote a lengthy review and rebuttal of the filmʼs arguments. Schloss has since joined BIOLOGOS.
DNA does not copy itself perfectly. Study all the mutations that happen during meiosis. Study the variety of known mutations and mutagenic substances inside cells, and mutagentic energies that enter cells from the outside. Most mutations do not appear to be guided, and most mutations appear to be neutral, no great benefit or harm.
Speaking of genetic diversity, all the cells in your body are not uniquely your own. Your DNA and identity are not as entwined as once thought. In fact most people have multiple genomes floating around inside them. Nature is more malleable than we previously thought (speaking of natureʼs malleability, one might even note instances of whole genome duplication events with subsequent mutations and whittling down).
Some people have undergone rare mutations even today that lead to things like people who are super tasters, super hearers, or super seers who can see with greater resolution, or who can distinguish a wider spectra of colors. Such people exist, do some googling. One can also read about the evolution of our own tri–color vision, related to a gene duplication event in our monkey ancestors, apparently humans with greater color detecting abilities underwent a recent added gene duplication event with subsequent minor mutations and the mutated protein molecule in their retina now absorbs slightly different spectra of light, adding to their color sensing spectra.
Which isnʼt to say we are ALL headed in the direction of becoming super seers and super tasters, etc. The mutation that led to the ability to digest milk sugar spread quickly after the domestication of cattle and the drinking of milk began in one part of the world, but has not yet spread to everyone on earth, especially some people in parts of Asia.
Also, evolution via mutation being what it is, some species are better endowed than the human species in key cognitive regions:
If I.D. were true and every single mosquito had the same intelligently amazing non–Darwinian ability to adapt, why was DDT still so great at killing millions of them until that odd random mutation took decades to spread throughout the gene pool? Keep in mind also how many mosquito eggs a female lays each generation and how many of them simply perished without leaving behind their genes. A mosquito happened to be born with multiple copies of the esterase gene that helps detoxify DDT. That one mosquito got lucky. We also now know that there is more than one mutation that can accomplish greater survival of DDT (I.D.ists employ phony statistical arguments, as if thereʼs only a single target and a single arrow that has to hit the exact center of that target, and then they ask, “what are the odds?” But nature doesnʼt work that way. Nature has redundancies, and keeps mutating. And as I said most mutations are neutral). For instance a cotton budworm at some point was born with a mutation that changed the target of the DDT poison. A housefly was born with a mutation that altered the proteins that transport the DDT poison. So we know a variety of possible mutations could reduce the killing effects of DDT, and only one of those different mutations has to occur in order for the organism to develop some resistance, and of course the organism that survives gets to continue passing that gene along while all the rest that did not experience that mutation died or left behind far fewer offspring.
We donʼt know all the possible mutations that might allow Plasmodium (the malaria parasite) to survive anti–malaria. drugs either. See this recent Take Down Of Beheʼs Argument That Malariaʼs Resistance To A Drug Could Not Have Evolved, “New research on the evolution of drug resistance in malaria contradicts Michael Beheʼs claims in The Edge of Evolution.”
See also, “Natural selection in the time of cholera. Using a recently developed computational method, the researchers have been able to detect patterns of strong natural selection left behind in the genomes of a population that has been contending with cholera for generations.”
Mutations come in many sizes, from simple point mutations in DNA to the duplication of whole genes or other parts of the genome, to whole chromosome duplication events, to whole genome duplication events. Once you have such extra genetic material you have redundant genes for evolution to continue working on, usually via neutral mutations, since as I said most mutations are neither horribly deleterious nor marvelously beneficial.
Another way to gain extra genetic material is via swapping DNA packets like bacteria do continually. Or in the case of the human genome via invasions of viruses or bacteria whose RNA or DNA gets incorporated into a human germ cell in the gonads (testes/ovaries), which is the only way such extra DNA will get passed on to future generations, i.e., if that particular egg or sperm forms a viable zygote in future.
In many cases there are not only neutral mutations, but also degrees of functionality or dysfunctionality when it comes to proteins formed by mutated DNA. Itʼs not a simple matter of the protein being either on or off, active or inactive. Thereʼs degrees. For instance, a simple frame shift mutation in one bacterium allowed it to obtain some energy from partially digesting a man–made substance, nylon, reducing it to a gooey slime. This bacterium was discovered in a bin of discarded nylon at a factory. But it does not break down the nylon wholly, only partially, so it is a partially effective mutation. Mutations need not start out wholly effective, and as I said, neutral mutations are slightly changing the genome all the time as well, raising the chances for unforeseen future changes.
There is a known estimate of human genome mutations that accumulate per generation. I believe this estimate has been further substantiated by the 1000 genomes project which analyzed the whole genomes of over 1000 individuals from around the world. And that estimate of naturally occurring mutations per generation greatly exceeds what would have been needed to provide enough mutations to transform our great ape ancestors into modern day human beings over a period of about five million years. (Keep in mind that the genetic distance from modern day humans to modern day chimpanzees is greater than the distance from either of us to our common ancestor because both humans and chimps have continued to mutate in their own unique ways after splitting off from a common ancestor. And even though the genetic distance has grown between us and chimps, we are still as close to chimp DNA as the DNA of sibling species of fruit flies are to one another.)
All living things are mashups and mixes of genetic material that has been traded between replicators over untold eons. The human genome contains both viral and bacterial genes, and the amount of viral genetic material that has wheedled its way inside our cells is equal to or exceeds the number of genes that make us peculiarly human.
The simplest replicators are not viruses but transposons, transposable genetic elements (TE) or retrotransposons which are DNA sequences that can change its sequence within the genome sometimes causing or reversing mutations and altering the cellʼs genome size. These transposons have been found inside viruses that infect other viruses, which in turn affect amoebas that infect human beings. As one microbiologist put it, “I think itʼs difficult to see where one organism begins and another one ends, we are only beginning to appreciate how intertwined these layers of organisms are in large flora and fauna.” [from “The Dexter of Parasites” on the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast for Nov 14, 2013, the podcast also discusses a species of wasp that lays its eggs inside caterpillars that have already been infected by wasp eggs, but the larva of this species of wasp not only eats the caterpillar but also the larva of the other wasp species whose eggs hatched earlier inside the caterpillar, basically hot parasite on parasite action]
We even know via experiments that a single strand of RNA (usually taken from a virus) can make more strands that then make more strands in test tubes filled with that strand & some basic building block molecules & a little zinc as a catalyst. So a single strand of RNA can self–replicate. They even put some RNA dissolving chemicals in one of those test tubes (a dilute amount of chemical that was poisonous to RNA) and then siphoned out of the tube any RNA strands that survived and placed them in a fresh test tube to produce more strands, and then slowly increased the dosage of the poison, and then took out any surviving RNA strands and placed them in a fresh test tube to make more RNA, etc., until an RNA strand that was more highly resistant to the poison was produced, demonstrating the naturally growing adaptability of a strand of RNA to poisonous chemicals over several generations and via a selection of surviving strands.
Viruses. Viruses are so adaptable they can have either RNA or DNA as their genetic material (in other words their nucleic acid may be single– or double–stranded). The entire infectious virus particle, called a virion, consists of nucleic acid covered by an outer shell of protein. The simplest viruses contain only enough RNA or DNA to encode 4 proteins. But the largest known virus, the Pandora salinus virus, is larger than many bacteria and contains more than 2,500 genes! Nor do viruses have proof reading mechanisms, so more mutations occur in them each generation than other replicators on earth. Also, giant viruses are known to be infected by much smaller viruses that invade them! Hot virus on virus action.
Viruses are the most abundant replicators on earth, with each drop of healthy sea water containing exponentially larger numbers of viruses than either bacteria (prokaryotes) or single–celled organisms (eukaryotes). Viruses attack other viruses, prokaryotes, eukaryotes, and the Archaea (single–celled organisms that were recently discovered to constitute their own separate kingdom of living things neither bacterial nor eukaryotic).
Bacteria. Most bacteria are larger than most viruses. Bacteria passively absorb genetic material they happen to run into. And they actively exchange packets of genetic material. This means they are filled with loads of odd genetic material at all times. And keep in mind how many countless viruses and bacteria are perishing every second on earth (never passing along their genetic material to future generations, while others are busy producing far more offspring than others) and you begin to realize just how much genetic shuffling and natural selecting has been going on for a long time. In fact for the majority of biological history on earth there was nothing but single–celled organisms on earth. Multicelluar organisms havenʼt been around nearly as long as single–celled organisms. So however amazing the internal architecture of single–celled organisms, they had a long long time to develop that internal architecture—far longer than the time multi–cellular organism have been around.
“Little Bessie,” The Myth of Providence by Mark Twain
“In His wisdom and mercy the Lord sends us afflictions to discipline us and make us better…All of them. None of them comes by accident; He alone sends them, and always out of love for us, and to make us better, my child.”
“Did He give Billy Norris the typhus, mamma?”
“Why, to discipline him and make him good.”
“But he died, mamma, and so it couldnʼt make him good.”
“Well, then, I suppose it was for some other reason. We know it was a good reason, whatever it was.”
After a pause: “Did He make the roof fall on the stranger that was trying to save the crippled old woman from the fire, mamma?”
“Yes, my child. Wait! Donʼt ask me why, because I donʼt know. I only know it was to discipline some one, or be a judgment upon somebody, or to show His power.”
“That drunken man that stuck a pitchfork into Mrs. Welchʼs baby when…”
“Never mind about it, you neednʼt go into particulars; it was to discipline the child - that much is certain, anyway.”
“Mamma, Mr. Burgess said in his sermon that billions of little creatures are sent into us to give us cholera, and typhoid, and lockjaw, and more than a thousand other sicknesses and, mamma, does He send them?”
“Oh, certainly, child, certainly. Of course.”
“Oh, to discipline us! Havenʼt I told you so, over and over again?”
“Itʼs awful cruel, mamma! And silly! And if I…”
“Hush, oh hush! Do you want to bring the lightning?”
“You know the lightning did come last week, mamma, and struck the new church, and burnt it down. Was it to discipline the church?”
(Wearily) “Oh, I suppose so.”
“But it killed a hog that wasnʼt doing anything. Was it to discipline the hog, mamma?”
“Dear child, donʼt you want to run out and play a while? If you would like to…”
“Mamma, Mr. Hollister says there isnʼt a bird or fish or reptile or any other animal that hasnʼt got an enemy that Providence has sent to bite it and chase it and pester it, and kill it, and suck its blood and discipline it and make it good and religious. Is that true, mamma, because if it is true, why did Mr. Hollister laugh at it?”
“That Hollister is a scandalous person, and I donʼt want you to listen to anything he says.”
“Why, mamma, he is very interesting, and I think he tries to be good. He says the wasps catch spiders and cram them down their nests in the ground - alive, mama! - and there they live and suffer days and days and days, and hungry little baby wasps chew the spiderʼs legs and gnaw into their bellies all the time, to make them good and religious and praise God for His infinite mercies. I think Mr. Hollister is just lovely, and ever so kind; for when I asked him if he would treat a spider like that, he said he hoped to be damned if he would; and then he…”
“My child! oh, do for goodnessʼ sake…”
“And mamma, he says the spider is appointed to catch the fly, and drive her fangs into his bowels, and sucks and sucks and sucks his blood, to discipline him and make him a Christian; and whenever the fly buzzes his wings with the pain and misery of it, you can see by the spiderʼs grateful eye that she is thanking the Giver of All Good for…well, sheʼs saying grace, as he says; and also, he…”
“Oh, arenʼt you ever going to get tired chattering! If you want to go out and play…”
“Mamma, he says himself that all troubles and pains and miseries and rotten diseases and horrors and villainies are sent to us in mercy and kindness to discipline us; and he says it is the duty of every father and mother to help Providence, every way they can; and says they canʼt do it by just scolding and whipping, for that wonʼt answer, it is weak and no good - Providenceʼs invention for disciplining us and the animals is the very brightest idea that ever was. Mamma, brother Eddie needs disciplining, right away; and I know where you can get the smallpox for him, and the itch, and the diphtheria, and bone-rot, and heart disease, and tuberculosis, and…
Dear mama, have you fainted?”
Was Benjamin Franklin a Christian? Or to be more precise, did Benjamin Franklin convert to “true Christianity” in middle-age as Christian apologist Bill Fortenberry suggests? (HT: James Patrick Holding J.P.Holding)
Before proceeding, one might ask, does such a question matter? If you are a Christian apologist who seeks to prove that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation, it might. But if one is trying to prove that converting to Christianity provides a great boon to every individualʼs life in this case Franklinʼs, there is little evidence of him changing much if at all (provided he did convert, which is the question at issue). Obviously one can convert to Christianity and not develop half as curious an intellect and remarkable career as Benʼs, nor grow half as tolerant of othersʼ religious beliefs as Ben was. Benʼs friends included adherents to all sects of Christianity as well as heretical (Socians, Arians, Unitarians (like Joseph Priestly, whom Ben called “honest”—and Ben lauded, supported and attended the opening of the first official Unitarian Church in England). Ben even befriended non-Christian deists and atheists and admired the teachings of Confucius.
Franklin also supported and praised the erection of a new meeting house in Philadelphia that he hoped would “not accommodate any particular [religious] sect, but the inhabitants in general. So that even if the Muslim ruler of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mahometanism [Islam] to us, he would find a pulpit at his service,” because as Franklin wrote, “If the Turks [Muslims], believing us in the wrong, as we think them, should out of the same charitable disposition, send a missionary to preach Mahometanism to us, shouldnʼt we in the same manner give him free liberty of preaching his doctrine?” When a trustee involved in the meeting houseʼs construction died—leaving an imbalance in the religious sects contributing to its construction—it was decided that Franklin take his place because Franklin was a man of “no sect.” (But after the meeting house was finished Franklinʼs tolerant view did not prevail and only preachers from a limited number of Protestant sects were allowed to use the facility—no Catholics, Jews or people of non-Christian religions.)
Franklinʼs religious tolerance can also be inferred from his dislike of the oath that all office-holders of the colony of Pennsylvania, including Franklin, had to sign prior to the American Revolution when Protestant Britain ruled the American colonies. The oath ran in part, “Each of us for himself do solemnly and sincerely profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ his Eternal Son, the true God, and in the Holy Spirit, one God, blessed for evermore. And we do acknowledge the Holy Scripture to be by divine inspiration,” and “I solemnly promise and declare that… our heart abhor, detest and renounce as impious and heretical that damnable doctrine and position that princes who are excommunicated and deprived by the Pope… may be deposed or murdered by their subjects,” and “solemnly and sincerely profess and testify that in the sacrament of the Lordʼs Supper there is no transubstantiation of the elements of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ,” and that “the invocation or adoration of the Virgin Mary or any other saint, or the sacrifice of the Mass, as they are now used in the Church of Rome, are superstitious and idolatrous.”
After 1776, when the colonies revolted against Britain and began setting up their own governments Franklin urged that no oaths of political office in Pennsylvania should demand one believe in sectarian religious views, instead, Ben urged that people be allowed to worship “according to the dictates of their own consciences, no one should be compelled to attend religious worship, or to erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any ministry against their free will and consent. Nor can any man who acknowledges the being of a God [a belief that would include heretics and deists] be justly deprived or abridged of any civil right as a citizen on account of his religious sentiments or peculiar mode of religious worship.” Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, Declaration of Rights (composed when Franklin was the leader of that state constitutional convention).
However, the state constitutional convention was not content with Benʼs statement and added a Religious Claus that demanded belief in the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. The Religious Claus stated that office holders in Pennsylvania must swear: “I DO believe in one God, the Creator and Governor of the Universe, the rewarder of the good and punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be give by Divine Inspiration.” Not pleased by the Religious Claus, Franklin wrote a letter to a friend, “I agreed with you in sentiments concerning the Old Testament, and thought the Clause in our Constitution, which required the Members of Assembly to declare their belief that the whole of it [the Old Testament] was given by divine Inspiration, had better have been omitted. That I had opposed the Clause but being overpowerʼd by numbers, and fearing what might in future times be added onto it, I insisted on the additional Clause that no further or more extended profession of faith should ever be required.”
Franklin admitted he had doubts about the faithful transmission of the Bible, and doubts about the “inspiration of several things in the Old Testament” that he viewed as “impossible to be given by divine inspiration, such as the praise ascribed to the angel of the Lord of that abominably wicked and detestable action of Jael [see cartoon illustrating some of the difficulties Franklin had with the ethical lesson embedded in the tale of Jael]… If the rest of the Book were like that, I should rather… renounce the whole.” Ben also doubted Jesusʼs divinity and wrote numerous words about virtue/good works being of far greater importance than oneʼs religious beliefs.
Concerning Franklinʼs religious journey, he was raised Presbyterian but in his youth joined a club of writers known for lampooning the clergy of Massachusetts in articles published in the New-England Courant. Later he was drawn to Deism. He also studied Confucianism. In fact it was Ben who first introduced Confucius to the American colonies. In 1737, Franklin published a series of papers “From the Morals of Confucius” in his weekly magazine The Pennsylvania Gazette. Franklin called the Chinese masterʼs philosophy “the gateway through which it is necessary to pass to arrive at the sublimest wisdom.” Franklinʼs list of virtues paralleled Confucian virtues, see Benjamin Franklin and Chinese Civilization. Franklin also mentioned Confuciusʼs plan for positive change in a letter to famed Christian evangelist George Whitefield. And when Rev. Hemphill began to stress the importance of virtue/good works to such a degree that the orthodoxy of the Reverendʼs beliefs were investigated by Christian authorities, Franklin composed several anonymous defenses of the Reverendʼs views. (The Rev. Jedediah Andrews, an elder clergyman who had taken Rev. Hemphill for his assistant, came to view Hemphillʼs sermons as part of a “dreadful plot laid by Satan to root Christianity out of the world,” and charged that the eloquent preacher drew about him only “Free Thinkers, Deists and nothings.”)
Throughout his life Franklin rarely attended church, was never confirmed, nor did he participate in sacraments and ordinances of any church per Prof. David Holmes, author of The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. He held little respect for doctrinal religious beliefs. As Franklin wrote in his autobiography near the end of his life:
“I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian; and though some of the dogmas of that persuasion, such as the eternal decrees of God, election, reprobation, etc. appeared to me unintelligible, others doubtful, and I early absented myself from the public assemblies of the sect, Sunday being my studying-day, I never was without some religious principles; I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the deity, that he made the world, and governed it by his providence; that the most acceptable Service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished and virtue rewarded either here or hereafter; these I esteemʼd the essentials of every religion, and being to be found in all the religions we had in our country I respected them all, though with different degrees of respect as I found them more or less mixed with other articles which without any tendency to inspire, promote or confirm morality, servʼd principally to divide us and make us unfriendly to one another. This respect to all, with an opinion that the worst had some good effects, induced me to avoid all discourse that might tend to lessen the good opinion another might have of his own religion; and as our province increased in people and new places of worship were continually wanted, and generally erected by voluntary contribution, my mite for such purpose, whatever might be the sect, was never refused.”
With so little respect for church going and doctrine, Franklinʼs family and friends remained concerned that he might not get to heaven, for example…
In 1738 Franklin wrote in response to his parentsʼ concern, “My mother grieves that one of her sons is an Arian, another an Arminian… I think opinions should be judged by their influences and effects; and if a man holds none that tend to make him less virtuous or more vicious, it may be concluded he holds none that are dangerous; which I hope is the case with me.”
In 1740 the famed Christian evangelist George Whitefield wrote to Franklin, “I do not despair of your seeing the reasonableness of Christianity. Apply to God; be willing to do the divine will, and you shall know it.”
In 1743, Franklin wrote in response to his dearest sister Jennyʼs [Jane Franklin Mecom] concern, “I took your Admonition very kindly, and was far from being offended at you for it… There are some things in your New England [Presbyterian] doctrines and worship which I do not agree with, but I do not therefore condemn them or desire to shake your belief or practice of them. We may dislike things that are nevertheless right in themselves. I would only have you make me the same allowances, and have a better opinion both of morality and your brother… If you can perceive the fruit to be good, donʼt terrify yourself that the tree may be evil.”
In 1764, replying to the famed Christian evangelist George Whitefield, Franklin wrote, “Your frequently repeated wishes and prayers for my eternal as well as temporal happiness are very obliging. I can only thank you for them, and offer you mine in return. I have myself no doubts that I shall enjoy as much of both as is proper for me. That Being who gave me existence, and through almost sixty years has been continually showering his favors upon me, whose very chastisements have been blessings to me, can I doubt that he loves me? And if he loves me, can I doubt that he will go on to take care of me not only here but hereafter? This to some may seem presumption; to me it appears the best grounded hope; hope of the Future; built on experience of the past.”
In 1768 Whitefield wrote to Franklin, continuing to attempt to convert him, adding, “Your daughter I find is beginning the world. I wish you joy from the bottom of my heart. You and I shall soon go out of it—before long we shall see it burnt—Angels shall summon us to attend on the funeral of time—And (Oh transporting thought!) we shall see eternity rising out of its ashes. That you and I may be in the happy number of those who in the midst of the tremendous final blaze shall cry Amen—Hallelujah—is the hearty prayer of, my dear Doctor…”
In 1769 Franklin wrote Whitefield, “I see with you [we agree] that our affairs are not well managed by our rulers here below [on earth]; I wish I could believe with you, that they are well attended to by those above [in heaven]; I rather suspect, from certain circumstances, that though the general government of the universe is well administered, our particular little affairs [here on earth] are perhaps below notice, and left to take the chance of human prudence [wisdom] or imprudence, as either may happen to be uppermost. It is, however, an uncomfortable thought, and I leave it.”
In 1790, a year before his death, Franklin published Part Four of his autobiography in which he wrote of his relationship with the famed Christian evangelist George Whitefield the following, “We had no religious connection. He used indeed sometimes to pray for my conversion but never had the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard. Ours was a mere civil friendship, sincere on both sides, and lasted to his death. The following instance will show something of the terms on which we stood. Upon one of his [Whitefieldʼs] arrivals from England he wrote to me that he should come soon to Philadelphia, but knew not where he could lodge. My answer was; You know my house… you will be most heartily welcome. He replied that if I made that kind offer for Christʼs sake, I should not miss of a reward. And I replied, Donʼt let me be mistaken; it was not for Christʼs sake, but for your sake.”
In 1795, Dr. Joseph Priestley (a Unitarian Christian), wrote in his Memoirs of his friend Franklin, “It is much to be lamented, that a man of Dr. Franklinʼs general good character, and great influence, should have been an unbeliever in Christianity, and also have done so much as he did to make others unbelievers.”
Now for the question…
Is Fortenberry correct? Can we detect Franklin “Becoming a Christian” circa 1735, during the period when Franklin composed defenses of Reverend Hemphillʼs sermons?
Franklin for his part never denied he was a “Christian” in some completely non-sectarian sense based on his understanding of Jesus as an inspired moral exemplar (but not necessarily God incarnate), and that the teaching of morality was the main thing, the primary point of religion. For instance he wrote in Poor Richardʼs Almanac, “Serving God is Doing good to Man, but Praying is thought an easier Service, and therefore more generally chosen.” As Dr. Joseph Waligore points out “All of the Christian deists [of that era] claimed to be Christian and the vast majority of them claimed they were the only ones advocating the Christianity Jesus taught. A better name for them might be ‘Jesus-centered deists’ because they identified Christianity with Jesusʼ moral teachings.”
Meanwhile, the vast majority of Christian religious historians as well as secular historians continue to doubt that Franklin was a Christian in the same way that orthodox doctrinal believing Christians (especially Evangelicals) believe themselves to be Christians today. See for instance these two pieces both titled, “Was Benjamin Franklin a Christian?”
However, Christian apologist, Bill Fortenberry, suggests in his piece, The Conversion of Benjamin Franklin that Ben “converted” in mid-life circa 1735, based mainly on statements found in Franklinʼs four defenses of Rev. Hemphillʼs preaching, all written the same year. Fortenberry begins by focusing on Franklinʼs use of the term “Our Savior” in one of Franklinʼs early defenses of Rev. Hemphillʼs sermons. But Franklin has the term come out of the mouth of a Presbyterian character he named “S.” who defends Hemphillʼs views against another Presbyterian character named “T.” Franklinʼs character, “S.,” says, “Our Saviour was a Teacher of Morality or Virtue, and they that were deficient and desired to be taught, ought first to believe in him as an able and faithful Teacher.” But where in Franklinʼs lifetime of writing before or after that one year do you find Ben using the phrase “Our Savior” again? Even Fortenberry admits, “If these are the opinions of Franklin himself, then this dialogue marks the first recorded instance that I know of in which he referred to Jesus as the Savior and as the Christ.” Also, Franklin knew that a Presbyterian minister must preach about Jesus as “Savior” or get fired, and Franklin was writing in defense of the Presbyterian minister, so why wouldnʼt Franklin employ the requisite term, speak the lingo, for that is precisely what Franklin knew was necessary in this case to keep Hemphill in the pulpit. The same goes for the other statement Fortenberry mentions, from Franklinʼs piece written the same year titled, A Defense of Mr. Hemphillʼs Observations. Hemphill was charged by his fellow Presbyterian ministers with having preached “against the Doctrine of Christʼs merit and satisfaction.” So Franklin, writing a defense of Hemphill states, “Let us then consider what the scripture doctrine of this affair is, and in a word it is this: Christ by his Death and Sufferings has purchased for us those easy terms and conditions of our acceptance with God, proposed in the Gospel, to wit, faith and repentance: By his death and sufferings, he has assured us of Godʼs being ready and willing to accept of our sincere, though imperfect obedience to his revealed will; By his death and sufferings he has atoned for all sins forsaken and amended, but surely not for such as are wilfully and obstinately persisted in. This is Hemphillʼs notion of this affair [notice that Ben distances himself from declaring such beliefs in Franklinʼs own name], and this he has always preachʼd; and he believes, ʻtis what no wise man will contradict.” Note how Franklin is writing about “the scripture doctrine of this affair” in an intellectually distant fashion. What does Franklin mean by “the scriptural doctrine of this affair” but the Presbyterian scriptural doctrine? Does this mean such doctrine equals Franklinʼs view? I donʼt see how one could leap to such a conclusion because Franklin was never eager to defend either “scripture” or “doctrine,” not before the Hemphill affair and not afterwards. Franklin adds toward the end of this paragraph, “This is Hemphillʼs notion of this affair,” again distancing himself from the matter. Franklin is obviously speaking the lingo to try and keep Hemphill in the pulpit. But Fortenberry sees none of this, only a firm decision on Franklinʼs part to convert to doctrinal Christianity at that point in his life and declare it to the world—well, anonymously declare it in defenses geared toward keeping a morally-fixated minister in the local pulpit preaching sermons that even heretics might enjoy, nothing either new or surprising there.
Fortenberry also remains blind to everything else Franklin has to say in his four defenses of Hemphill written that year, such as Franklinʼs many lines advocating the priority of moral teachings and practices over doctrinal beliefs. Letʼs look at what Fortenberry missed beginning with Franklinʼs anonymously composed work…
As Hemphillʼs ecclesiastical trial began, Franklin came to his defense with an article purporting to be a dialogue between two local Presbyterians. “Mr. S.,” speaking in defense of Hemphillʼs views, and “Mr. T.,” who complains, “I do not love to hear so much of morality [in sermons]; I am sure it will carry no man to heaven.” To which “Mr. S.” replies, “Faith is recommended as a means of producing morality: our savior was a teacher of morality or virtue, and they that were deficient and desired to be taught, ought first to believe in him as an able and faithful teacher [of morality and virtue]. Thus faith would be a means of producing morality, and morality of salvation. But that from such faith alone salvation may be expected, appears to me to be neither a Christian doctrine nor a reasonable one. And I should as soon expect, that my bare believing Mr. Grew to be an excellent teacher of the mathematics, would make me a mathematician, as that believing Christ would itself make a man a Christian.”
Franklin also had Hemphillʼs defender, “Mr. S.” say, “Morality or virtue is the end, faith only a means to obtain that end: and if the end be obtained, it is not matter by what means;” and, “No point of faith is so plain as that morality is our duty, for all sides agree in that. A virtuous heretic shall be saved before a wicked Christian.”
Now letʼs look at what Franklin says in…
“The Commission reassuming the third Article of Accusation against Mr. Hemphill [notes that] while he amply insists upon Christ as a king and law-giver, giving the best system of Laws, he takes no notice of his making satisfaction to the justice of God, but once barely mentions him as a Savior.” The paragraph [from Hemphillʼs sermons] upon which the censure [of Hemphill] is grounded [is this one]:
“To preach Christ is universally allowed to be the duty of every Christian minister, but what does that mean? It is not to use his name as a charm, to work up the hearers to a warm pitch of enthusiasm, without any foundation in reason to support it: It is not to make his person or his offices incomprehensible: It is not to exalt his glory as a kind condescending savior, to the dishonor of the unlimited goodness of the creator and Father of the universe, who is represented as stern and inexorable, expressing no indulgence to his guilty creatures, but demanding full and rigorous satisfaction for their offences: It is not to encourage undue and presumptuous reliances on his merits and satisfaction to the contempt of virtue and good works. No, but to represent him as a law-giver as well as a saviour, as a preacher of righteousness, as one who hath given us the most noble and complete system of morals enforced by the most substantial and worthy motives; and shows that the whole scheme of our redemption is a doctrine according to godliness.” [from one of Hemphillʼs sermons]
[Franklin then asks]…If the Reader will consider the paragraph [by Hemphill], he will find the whole meaning of it [Hemphillʼs meaning] to be this, We are not to preach up Christ so as to dishonor God the Father, nor are we to make such undue reliances upon his merits as to neglect good works; but we are to look upon him in both characters of saviour and lawgiver; that if we expect he has atoned for our sins, we must sincerely endeavor to obey his laws.”
Note that whether Franklin himself agrees with the Christian idea of atonement via Jesusʼs death is not answered, since this was written primarily in defense of what Hemphill preached. These Observations were published without Franklinʼs name on them, and you can see that Franklinʼs strongest points of agreement with this ministerʼs sermons were with the preacherʼs emphasis on following Jesus as “a preacher of righteousness who hath given us the most noble and compete system of morals.”
Franklin also wrote…
Defending Hemphill, Franklin stated, “Hemphill has said, ‘That what he means in his account of Christianity, is, that our saviorʼs design in coming into the world was to restore mankind to that state of perfection in which Adam was at first created; and that all those laws that he has given us are agreeable to that original law, as having such a natural tendency to our own ease and quiet, that they carry their own reward, etc.’ That is, that our saviorʼs design in coming into the world was to publish such a system of laws as have a natural tendency to restore mankind to that state of perfection in which Adam was at first created, etc.”
So, our saviorʼs design in coming into the world was to publish a system of laws. In other sections, Franklin writes:
“We are now justified by a faith, the very life and soul of which consists in good works.”
“All hopes of [eternal] happiness to Christians, as such, considered separately and distinctly from the practice of the moral virtues are vain and delusory [delusional].”
“[Speaking of] our lost and undone state by nature, as it is commonly called, proceeding undoubtedly from the imputation of old Father Adamʼs first guilt. To this I answer once for all, that I look upon this opinion [of imputed or Original Sin] every whit as ridiculous as that of Imputed Righteousness… It is absurd in itself, and therefore cannot be fathered upon the Christian religion as delivered in the Gospel. Moral guilt is so personal a thing, that it cannot possibly in the nature of things be transferred from one man to myriads of others, that were no way accessary to it. And to suppose a man liable to punishment upon account of the guilt of another is unreasonable; and actually to punish him for it, is unjust and cruel.”
“What do [they] mean here, by these words, justification by his (Christʼs) righteousness, or as they elsewhere call it his imputed righteousness to justify us in the sight of God? Do they mean that the Almighty transfers the personal and perfect righteousness of Christ to men, or that he infuses it into them, and looks upon it, as the same thing with their own actual obedience to his law, and that in him they fulfill the law? Such a notion is abominably ridiculous and absurd in itself; and is so far from being a peculiar of Christianity, that the holy Scripture is absolutely a stranger to it.”
In fact, Franklin was so set on defending the teaching of morality as Jesusʼs primary role and blessing on humanity that Franklin shed his usual velvet gloved approach to religious disputes and instead “became his [Hemphillʼs] zealous partisan,” accusing the Presbyterian synod of “malice and envy,” “pious fraud… bigotry and prejudice.” Franklinʼs resentment of the entrenched, pious clerical establishment seemed to get the better of his temper. Perhaps the local heresy trial of a preacher so zealous for good works (as was Franklin himself) was too much for Franklin who was well aware of the history of Christians subjecting each other to heresy trials, and exiling or persecuting the opposition. For Franklin wrote in a London paper in 1772:
“If we look back into history for the character of the present sects in Christianity, we shall find few that have not in their turns been persecutors, and complainers of persecution. The primitive Christians thought persecution extremely wrong in the Pagans, but practiced it on one another. The first Protestants of the Church of England blamed persecution in the Romish Church, but practiced it upon the Puritans. These found it wrong in the Bishops, but fell into the same practice themselves both here [Britain] and in New England.”
Even when it was discovered that Hemphill had plagiarized many of his sermons (from a heterodox or heretical preacher in England!), Franklin continued to defend Hemphill, explaining, “I rather approved his giving us good sermons composed by others, than bad ones of his own manufacture, though the latter was the practice of our common teachers.” In the end, Hemphill left town and Franklin quit the Presbyterian congregation.
Fortenberryʼs attempt to convince others that Franklin “converted to Christianity” hasnʼt convinced Franklin experts.
For instance, Fortenberry quotes Franklin correctly as admitting that no one deserves heaven based on the good works they do on earth, and one cannot earn the gift of eternal life. But one cannot build on the idea of eternal life as a gift the idea that believing in Jesusʼs sufferings and resurrection alone guaranteed such life. Instead, Franklin merely spoke of it as a gift of God, admitting, in a letter in 1753, “You will see in this my notion of good works that I am far from expecting (as you suppose) that I shall merit heaven by them. By heaven we understand, a state of happiness, infinite in degree, and eternal in duration: I can do nothing to deserve such reward,” which isnʼt to say that Jesusʼs death and resurrection was what secured one heaven as Fortenberry would like Ben to have written. Instead, in the rest of the letter one can read that Franklin viewed all mankind as his “brethren,” not just “Christians,” and Franklin took pains to explain why doing good to each other was far more important than any doctrinal religious beliefs. Franklin wrote, “Mankind are all of a Family… I have received much kindness from men, to whom I shall never have any opportunity of making the least direct return. And numberless mercies from God, who is infinitely above being benefited by our services. These kindnesses from men I can therefore only return on their fellow-Men; and I can only show my gratitude for those mercies from God, by a readiness to help his other children and my brethren. For I do not think that ‘thanks, and compliments,’ thoʼ repeated weekly, can discharge our real obligations to each other, and much less those to our Creator.” Franklin continued his letter in a Gandhi-like way so as not to get into a debate over religious doctrines of salvation by adding, “The faith you mention has doubtless its use in the world; I do not desire to see it diminished, nor would I endeavor to lessen it in any man. But I wish it were more productive of good works than I have generally seen it: I mean real good works, works of kindness, charity, mercy, and public spirit; not [religious] holiday-keeping, sermon-Reading or hearing, performing church ceremonies, or making long prayers, fillʼd with flatteries and compliments, despised even by wise Men, and much less capable of pleasing the Deity. The Worship of God is a duty, the hearing and reading of sermons may be useful; but if men rest in hearing and praying, as too many do, it is as if a tree should value itself on being watered and putting forth Leaves, thoʼ it never produced any fruit. Your great master [Jesus] thought much less of these outward appearances and professions [of faith] than many of his modern disciples. He preferred the doers of the word to the mere hearers; the son that seemingly refused to obey his father and yet performed his commands to him that professed his readiness but neglected the works [i.e., the parable of the prodigal son]; the heretical but charitable Samaritan to the uncharitable though orthodox priest and sanctified Levite [i.e., the parable of the Good Samaritan]: and those who gave food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, raiment to the Naked, entertainment to the stranger, and relief to the sick, etc. though they never heard of his name, he declares shall in the last day be accepted, when those who cry ‘Lord, Lord’ who value themselves on their faith though great enough to perform miracles but have neglected good works shall be rejected. He [Jesus] professed that he came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance; which implied his modest opinion that there were some in his time so good that they need not hear even him for improvement.”
As for the rest of Fortenberryʼs interpretations, I will let Franklinʼs own words and opinions as I have cited throughout this piece speak for themselves.
Lucky for Fortenberry he defines being “a Christian” as something that has nothing to do with a belief in Jesusʼs divinity, nor a belief in the Trinity, so he has opened up the door to possibly labeling Franklin a Christian even though Franklin doubted Jesusʼs divinity. But unlike Franklin, Fortenberry believes that “every word of Scripture was directly and intentionally authored by God Himself for the purpose of being included in the Bible.” And unlike Franklin, Fortenberry emphasizes the necessity of believing that Jesusʼs death and resurrection was what secured one eternal life. But as we have seen, Franklinʼs beliefs throughout his entire life emphasized that Jesusʼs greatest gift was being a moral teacher, and only used “savior” and the idea of atonement when citing and defending Hemphill against heresy accusations, and Ben always prefaced such statements as being either those of Hemphill or “doctrinal” Presbyterian views that Ben did not say were his own since he was never confirmed as a man of any sect. We also know how Ben felt about the necessity (or rather the lack of necessity) of believing in doctrines compared with the necessity of doing good, as pointed out many times in Benʼs life both before and after the year Hemphill was on ecclesiastical trial. One can only wish Fortenberry luck in propagating his idiosyncratic interpretations of Benʼs beliefs in lieu of discussions Fortenberry has already had with other experts on Franklinʼs life and religious views, like these:
From Dr. Kiddʼs piece:
Part of the problem with calling any of the Founders deists is the difficulty of defining deism. What did that term mean in the eighteenth century? Could you be a deist and somehow believe in prayer, as Franklin apparently did, at least as of the Constitutional Convention? (Franklin made a failed motion for the convention to open its sessions in prayer.) Could you be a deist and say with Jefferson, “I am a real Christian”?
Arguments about whether any or all the Founders were deists usually are hamstrung by overly precise definitions of deism. Deists believed in God as the cosmic watchmaker, critics protest, so any sign that a person believed in prayer or Providence automatically disqualifies them. But deism in eighteenth-century Europe and America could mean many different things. Its adherents could range from people who had qualms about Calvinism, to those who criticized the corruptions of the church as “priestcraft,” to more radical deists who espoused beliefs that seem close to atheism. We should also remember that “deism” and “deists” were terms probably more often used by critics against their opponents, rather than by deists themselves…
Both Franklin and Jefferson wanted to dispense with Christian dogma and recover the true faith, which was a quality of living rather than a set of arcane propositions which (as they saw it) the guardians of orthodoxy defended in order to protect their own power. This is why Franklin gave so much attention to tests of personal virtue, and experimented constantly with charitable projects. Likewise, Jefferson was almost obsessed with the person and teachings of Jesus, but believed that in his teaching and behavior Jesus served as the preeminent example of “human excellence,” and that his followers imposed claims about his divinity and resurrection after the teacherʼs death. But neither Jefferson nor Franklin imagined that we could do without this recovered rationalist Christianity—it was the best guide we had to real virtue.
The deistsʼ closest descendants today are not the “new atheists” who have stirred up so much media chatter in recent years. Their closest descendants are probably liberal mainline Christians who see Jesus as their model but who eschew (or even deny) the particular, exclusive doctrines that have been associated with Christian orthodoxy for millennia. …
Looks Like Humans & Apes Share Common Ancestry ADMIT Leading I.D.ists & Creationists (with citations!)
The evidence for common ancestry is so overwhelming that even the biologist Michael Behe (whose books advocate “intelligent design,” and who is a senior member at the Discovery Institute) concurs. Behe wrote in his second book:
“Evolution from a common ancestor, via DNA changes, is very well supported” (p. 12).
“[O]ne leg of Darwinʼs theory—common descent—is correct” (p. 65).
“The bottom line is this: Common descent is true” (p. 72).
“Despite some remaining puzzles, thereʼs no reason to doubt that Darwin had this point right, that all creatures on earth are biological relatives” (p. 72, emp. added).
On page 60, he writes: “For the past ten million years the population of the line of primates leading to humans is thought at best to have been roughly about a million or so” (emp. added).
Another senior member at the Discovery Institute, Michael Denton wrote a bestselling anti-evolution book (before Behe) in which Denton questioned common ancestry, but in his next book Denton accepted the evidence for common ancestry. In fact Denton went from espousing the impossibility of evolution to espousing the inevitability of evolution. All he had to do was look at the evidence. Source
Another senior member at the Discovery Institute, the biologist, Jeffrey P Schloss, is pro-common ancestry as well. But he left the Discovery Institute and the I.D. movement, and wrote a lengthy critique of the Expelled film. Source
There are also prominent young-earth creationists who admit that the evidence appears to favor (it looks like) humans and apes share a common ancestry. Below are some of their admissions:
Dr. Kurt Wise (Ph. D. in paleontology from Harvard as a student of Dr. Stephen Jay Gould, the nationʼs most famous evolutionist; Wise is a young-earth creationist who has spoken at many creationist conferences):
At a creationist conference Dr. Kurt Wise showed a slide of a fossil sequence that moved from reptile to mammal, with some transitional fossils in between. He veered suddenly from his usual hyperactive mode to contemplative. “Itʼs a pain in the neck,” he said. “It fits the evolutionary prediction quite well.” Source
In various macroevolutionary models, intermediate [species found in their expected evolutionary order relative to one another in the geological strata]…It is a Very Good Evolutionary Argument…Evidences for Darwinʼs expectation of stratomorphic intermediate species include Baragwanathia [intermediate] between rhyniophytes and lycopods, Pikaia [intermediate] between echinoderms and chordates, Purgatorius [intermediate] between the tree shrews and the primates, and Proconsul [intermediate] between the non-hominoid primates and the hominoids. Darwinʼs expectation of higher-taxon intermediates has been confirmed by such examples as the mammal-like reptile groups between the reptiles and the mammals, and the phenacdontids between the horses and their presumed ancestors. Darwinʼs expectation of [fossil] series has been confirmed by such examples as the early bird series, the tetrapod series, the whale series, the various mammal series of the Cenozoic (for example, the horse series, the camel series, the elephant series, the pig series, the titanothere series, etc.), the Cantius and Plesiadapus primate series, and the hominid series. Evidence for not just one but for all three of the species level and above types of stratomorphic intermediates expected by macroevolutionary theory is surely strong evidence for macroevolutionary theory. Creationists therefore need to accept this fact. It certainly Can Not said that traditional creation theory expected (predicted) any of these fossil finds. Source
Dr. Todd Wood (Ph. D. in biochemistry. His advisor was developed a suite of computer programs used for DNA analyses; Dr. Wood works at the Center for Origins Research at Bryan College):
Evolution is not a theory in crisis. It is not teetering on the verge of collapse. It has not failed as a scientific explanation. There is evidence for evolution, gobs and gobs of it. It is not just speculation or a faith choice or an assumption or a religion. It is a productive framework for lots of biological research, and it has amazing explanatory power. There is no conspiracy to hide the truth about the failure of evolution. There has really been no failure of evolution as a scientific theory. It works, and it works well…I say these things not because Iʼm crazy or because Iʼve “converted” to evolution. I say these things because they are true. Iʼm motivated this morning by reading yet another clueless, well-meaning person pompously declaring that evolution is a failure…Creationist students, listen to me very carefully: There is evidence for evolution, and evolution is an extremely successful scientific theory. That doesnʼt make it ultimately true, and it doesnʼt mean that there could not possibly be viable alternatives. It is my own faith choice to reject evolution, because I believe the Bible reveals true information about the history of the earth that is fundamentally incompatible with evolution. I am motivated to understand Godʼs creation from what I believe to be a biblical, creationist perspective. Evolution itself is not flawed or without evidence. Please donʼt be duped into thinking that somehow evolution itself is a failure. Please donʼt idolize your own ability to reason. Faith is enough. If God said it, that should settle it. Maybe thatʼs not enough for your scoffing professor or your non-Christian friends, but it should be enough for you. Source See also Woodʼs admission that the chimpanzee and human genomes are as near as those of different species of cats, yet creationists admit cats all share a common ancestry, so why not chimps and humans? Source
Dr. Gerald E. Aardsma(Ph. D. in nuclear physics from the University of Toronto, conservative Christian, young-earth creationist):
I think there is enormous evidence of biological evolution(meaning extensive changes to flora and fauna)—again, in virtual history. Note that the Bible does not say that biological evolution Can Not happen;it says that biological evolution Did Not happen. That is, the Bible clearly teaches that we got here by Creation, not by Evolution. [emphasis by Dr. Aardsma]“In the beginning God Created the heavens and the earth,” not “In the beginning God Evolvedthe heavens and the earth. ”But none of this excludes the possibility of biological evolution in virtual history. In fact, the teaching in Romans 8:20, that the creation was subjected to futility at the time of the Fall, meshes rather well with evolution being the thing seen in the virtual history data, for the hallmark of evolution is not purpose, but random chance and meaninglessness.
Click here for lengthier statements from the above creationists.
Let me add the following:
The evidence for common ancestry coheres in ways that creationism does not. We get the same tree of life with the same relative branches and order of species succession when we line up the relative geological order in which fossils of species are found arising over time(from fish to amphibians to reptiles and mammals though evidence on much finer scales also exist), and again when we compare the most likely morphological changes such as starting with fish leaving the sea partially to become amphibians, then wandering from the sea more to lay hard eggs on land as reptiles, and finally developing better hearing as in mammals and full warm bloodedness with limbs aligned vertically beneath the torso supporting it directly from below instead of legs splayed out to the side as in amphibians and reptiles. Early mammals then moved from egg-laying echinoderms to being able to rear their young internally. But a third line of evidence dovetails with the fossil and morphological evidence, namely the evolutionary trees of life based on the comparative biochemistry and comparative genomes of living species.
Christians Who Are Pro-Evolution
Around 2010 the Christian and biologist who headed The Human Genome Project helped produce a new organization for pro-evolutionary Christians called BIOLOGOS that features articles by biologist Dennis Venema (a former I. D. ist). So the bandwidth of discussion between Christians concerning the question of “origins” now includes pro-evolutionary Evangelical Christians. And things are starting to look especially bleak for the “historical Adam & Eve” point of view. Besides the genetic difficulties involved (that Venema discusses at BIOLOGOS) thereʼs the question of how one can speak of death as a special curse passed along to Adamʼs descendants when pain, death and extinction were commonplace for over a billion years before species of upright hominids began to evolve, and, ironically, without death the last upright hominid species left standing(our own modern day species of human)would never have evolved in the first place.
Why Does the Idea of All Living Things Being Related in the Flesh, Rather than Solely in Godʼs Mind, Sound So Repulsive to Some Believers in God? Are there Parts of Creation that are Unworthy of Being the Physical Predecessors of Humanity?
The Apostle Paul “Winged It” According To Christian N.T. Scholar, Peter Enns, author of The Sin of Certainty (Scrivenings: Paul Fanaticus Extremis Series)
See previous parts of this series here.
According to Christian New Testament scholar, Peter Enns:
As I read Romans, I donʼt walk away thinking, “My, what a carefully planned out letter.” I think more, “Paul is winging it.” I know that might not seem very reverent, especially since Romans is often thought of as the primo example of Paul at his difficult yet nevertheless logically consistent best, where he once and for all lays out the basics of the gospel for all to hear and for all time… Romans reads more like Paul is in creative-problem-solving mode for Roman Christians facing a pressing problem (how Jews and Gentiles make up one people of God)…
Hereʼs what I mean. Look at how Paul uses the Old Testament, which he does throughout the letter. It doesnʼt take long before you get the impression that Paul is riffing, For example:
Abraham was declared righteous by faith (Genesis 15) before the command to circumcision (Genesis 17) and long before the Law of Moses. Hence, according to Paul, Abraham models that itʼs always been about faith and not law keeping as the mark of being the true people of God (Romans 4). This is somewhat of a forced, selective, reading of the Abraham story (especially as he is hailed as a law keeper before Moses in Genesis 26:4-5).
Paul claims that, all along, Gentiles have been called by God right alongside of Jews and supports that claim by a string of Old Testament citations (Romans 9:25-29). But those passages (from Hosea and Isaiah) are not referring to Gentile inclusion but the restoration of repentant Israel.
To support his claim that Christ is the ‘end’ (better ‘culmination’ or ‘completion’) of the law, Paul pits two passages from Torah against each other. Leviticus 18:5, which speaks of obedience to Torah, is a ‘righteousness that comes from the law.’ But the ‘righteousness that comes by faith’ is about Christ, which Paul sees in Deuteronomy 30:11-14 (Romans 10:4-13). The problem is that the passage in Deuteronomy is about as strong a language as one can find about the dire consequences for not keeping the Law of Moses. Paul bypasses the clear meaning of that text—Torah obedience—in favor of a creative Christ-centered reading that marginalizes Torah obedience.
In Romans 11:26-27, Paul cites Isaiah 59:20-21 but changes one crucial word to allow him to make his theological point. In context, Isaiah speaks of God (the Deliverer) coming to Zion (Israel) to deliver them from Babylonian captivity. Paul, however, uses this passage to speak of a different kind of deliverance that will come not to Zion but out of Zion—meaning (I think) that the deliverance of both Jews and Gentiles originates with a Jewish Jesus.
We could go on.
Paul appeals to the Old Testament in order to support what is hardly an obvious notion to Jews at the time: that Jesus, a crucified and risen son of a working-class family, is the long-hoped for Jewish messiah and that Gentiles as Gentiles are full and equal partners along with Jews in this messianic age—meaning the only requirement is faith/trust in Jesus and not ‘zeal’ for Torah (Romans 10:2-4).
Preaching that message is one thing. Saying, as Paul does relentlessly in Romans, that that message is already encoded into the Old Testament (provided one reads against the grain and/or beneath the surface) is something else altogether. Hence, Paulʼs necessarily creative handling of Israelʼs scriptures and traditions.
Making this sort of argument raised an even deeper problem: If encoded in the Old Testament is the gospel of Jesus—where Torah is decentered and the door is flung open to the Gentiles without their needing to uphold things like circumcision and dietary laws (both of which are commanded in the Old Testament)—then whatʼs so special about being a Jew?
Paulʼs passionate argument for Jesus is too good: it puts Jesus in the place of Torah as central to Godʼs plan, thus calling into question the central place Torah plays in Israelʼs scriptures and traditions. He has painted himself into a corner that he knows he has to get out of, especially if he hopes to keep his Jewish audience on board. Two examples:
In chapters 1-2, Paul passionately levels the playing field between Jews and Gentiles, that neither has the upper hand. In fact “real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal” (Romans 2:29). With this kind of rhetoric, Paul is right to voice an anticipated question (3:1): “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much, in every way.” His answer (3:2) seems inadequate for truly answering the objection: “For in the first place, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God [Torah].” OK, they have the Bible. Anything else? There is no “in the second and third place.” And then he flips back in verse 9 to say that Jews really arenʼt better off at all, since “both Jews and Greeks are under the power of sin.” Itʼs not really clear where Paul stands on the true advantage of Jews have now that Jesus is raised from the dead.
In chapter 6 Paul talks about the power of sin to which the unbeliever is enslaved, and from which one is freed by the gospel. In 7:1-7, however, Paul uses the same rhetoric to describe not sin but the Law of Moses—to which one is enslaved and from which we are “discharged” and given “new life of the Spirit” rather than being “slaves . . under the written code” (7:6). So it seems that sin and Law are two sides of the same coin for Paul, which is a shocking argument from a Jewish point of view. And so Paul anticipates this objection and asks yet another rhetorical question (7:7), “What then should we say? That the law is sin?” Paul answers, “By no means!” but commentators (at least the ones Iʼve read) see in the following verses (8-13) a rather unsatisfying attempt by Paul to extricate himself from he seems to have just done, namely equating law and sin, and thus potentially throwing the Old Testament under the bus. (It doesnʼt help Paulʼs case that earlier, in 5:20, he sums up the lawʼs value as revealing the depth of sin rather than being a solution.)
Paul has a few other such moments in the letter where he seems to be backpedaling. By the force of his excitement to preach the gospel, perhaps Paul ran ahead of himself.
Think about it. The more airtight Paul makes his argument (by citing the Old Testament) that it has been Godʼs plan all along to show no partiality (2:11; 3:21-31) to Jews, the more Jewish followers of Jesus might want to ask, “So, was all that back then about keeping the covenant just a big smokescreen? And what about all those Jews over the centuries who lived their lives according to Torah, some of whom were martyred—does that mean nothing?”
Paulʼs argument threatened to call into question the very faithfulness, justice, and righteousness of God. “If this is the kind of about-face God can pull, is this God trustworthy?” Which is to ask, “Is this God at all?”
Of course Enns “wings it” himself at the end of his post, ‘riffing’ up some excuses as to why Christians might still be able to view Paulʼs writings as divinely inspired, when it looks like yet another common case in the development of religions, called, “religious supersessionism,” where one religion steals and twists enough of a previous religion to claim they are its heir and successor; as Buddhism did to Hinduism; as Islam did to Judaism and Christianity; as rival schools of Islam, Sunni and Shia, did to each other; as Protestantism did to Catholicism; as later Protestant offshoots did to earlier versions of Protestantism; as Pentecostalism did to Protestantism; and as Mormonism, Jehovahʼs Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventism did to more widespread versions of Christianity.
“Eyewitness” Reports of Jesus's Resurrection? Or Gospel Trajectories? (A Piece I Wrote Years Ago, When Dr. Gary Habermas and I Were Exchanging Letters)
Concerning Jesusʼs post-resurrection appearances some apologists contend that we have accurate objective ‘eyewitness’ reports in 1 Cor. 15 and the Gospels and book of Acts.
Yet Paul does not give a single detail as to what anyoneʼs eyes ‘witnessed,’ not even himself (except for Lukeʼs account of what Paul saw, which amounts to no more than a bright light and a voice — which seems to be what most religions are based on). How does such evidence constitute ‘eyewitness reports?’
As for the Gospels, they were written at a later date than Paulʼs ‘witness.’ And the Gospels raise questions of their own:
Approximately 91% of Mark is paralleled with only minor variations in Luke and/or Matthew. The same thing can be said of about 50% of Matthew and about 41% of Luke. Of these parallels, many of them agree in exact order and wording. This has lead to the elucidation of the ‘synoptic problem.’ How are we to explain the obvious similarities in wording that we find in these passages, especially since Jesus spoke and taught primarily in Aramaic, and these agreements in exact wording are in Greek? A related problem is the question of why, when John reports a similar incident or saying in the life of Jesus, there is little or no exactness present in the wording, i.e., compared with the three synoptic Gospels.
Such data suggest literary links between the three synoptic gospels, i.e., they do not resemble each other because they are three separate ‘eyewitness’ reports of what Jesus said and did, but because they were based upon shared written documents, i.e., branches of the same literary tree, individually ‘ornamented’ (revised/redacted). One of the most prevalent theories so far is that Mark was one such primary document. The other primary document contained the parallels shared by Matthew and Luke but not shared by Mark, this second document being known as ‘Q’ (the first letter of the German word for ‘source’ — I am adding these explanations for the benefit of our readers, not for you, as I know you are familiar with all of this).
In ‘Q’ the message of Jesusʼs death and resurrection was not central. While the other major literary source, Mark, ends merely with the empty tomb, and no appearances, only a ‘young man’ who tells the women, “He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him.” No ‘eyewitness’ data here, like Paul, the other earliest source of evidence.
A quick sidelight here on the ‘young man in a long white garment’ sitting in Jesusʼs empty tomb in the Gospel of Mark. There is no mention of the ‘young man’ being an ‘angel.’ In fact Mark mentions a ‘young man’ (same Greek phrase) at Jesusʼs arrest. Again, attention was paid to what the ‘young man’ was wearing, which was only a ‘linen cloth’ when Jesus was arrested. Someone tried to grab the ‘young man’ who ‘fled’ away ‘naked,’ leaving behind the linen cloth. (Mark 14: 50-52) So the ‘young man in a long white garment’ sitting in Jesusʼs empty tomb on Sunday morning could be the same ‘young man’ at Jesusʼs arrest. Mark could be trying to impress the reader with the faith of an anonymous ‘young man’ who was the last to leave Jesus when he was arrested (who had to flee away naked), and also the first to arrive at the empty tomb, clothed in a ‘long white garment’ covering his previously naked body. The ‘young man’ could remain unidentified in both cases to draw readers into the tale of Jesusʼs resurrection, to allow them to envision themselves as that young man, and imagine how he went from being naked to clothed in a long white garment - the last to leave Jesus on the night of his betrayal and the first to arrive at Jesusʼs empty tomb full of faith. So by using the phrase, ‘young man’ twice at such crucial times in that Gospel, the author may have been trying to get his readers to identify with that human figure and his faith. But sometime between the writing of Markʼs Gospel and the later three (Matthew, Luke and Johnʼs Gospels) Markʼs description of a ‘young man’ was dropped in favor of purely ‘angelic’ figures. The other Gospels also failed to mention Markʼs story about the ‘young man’ who ‘fled naked at Jesusʼs arrest.’ Instead, at the tomb they have ‘two men in shining garments…a vision of angels’ (Luke 24:4 & 23), or “the angel of the Lord who descended from heaven; his countenance like lightening, and his raiment white as snow” (Matthew), or ‘two angels in white’ (John).
Nor do comparisons between the Gospels, and the questions they raise, end there. In Mark, the words spoken at the tomb are changed from “He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see him” to “Remember how he spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day raise again.” Luke has ‘redacted’ (revised) Mark. Neither is the Lukan redaction difficult to spot. ‘Galilee’ was changed from a place to go to see Jesus (in Mark), to the place where Jesus gave his discourse about the Son of Man being raised (in Luke). But why should it be important where Jesus merely spoke about the resurrection? Didnʼt Jesus speak about the resurrection not just in Galilee, but also in Judea? The Markan announcement is more to the point: “He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see him.” But Luke needed the disciples to remain in Jerusalem to make his Jerusalem appearance stories make sense. So Luke redacted the message at the tomb, otherwise the disciples would have been depicted as running off to Galilee (fifty miles from Jerusalem) to see Jesus who had gone on there before them, as Mark (and Matthew) say.
The Jerusalem appearance stories in Luke include seeing Jesus in Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem; then in Jerusalem, where the disciples are gathered; and then on a mountain in Bethany (again not very far from Jerusalem), where Jesus ‘parted from them.’ In Acts, Luke added that Jesus told his disciples ‘not to leave Jerusalem.’ and that Jesus ascended from mount Olivet, ‘near Jerusalem, a Sabbathʼs day journey away.’
The difference between Mark and Luke is clear. The earliest known manuscripts of Mark contain no appearance accounts, and say Jesus went on before them to Galilee for that was where they would see him. But Luke contains stories of appearances solely around and in Jerusalem. Which is true? This is an honest question based on a “face value” reading of the Gospels.
Even Robert H. Stein, an Evangelical Christian professor at Bethel Theological Seminary, has examined arguments both for and against Markʼs literary priority, and concluded in favor of it in his book The Synoptic Problem: An Introduction (Baker, 1987). But, such a priority affects how ‘literally’ you view the resurrection stories in later Gospels, like Luke and John. Need I add that among the synoptics, Matthew and Luke diverge most from each other exactly at those points where they could not follow Mark, namely, in their accounts of Jesusʼs infancy and resurrection. (Mark lacks an infancy narrative and the earliest copies of Mark end simply with an empty tomb and a promise of a sighting in Galilee, so Mark supplies no details about Jesusʼs resurrection appearances.)
Further comparisons raise further questions. Both Matthean and Markan stories agree in having the ‘young man’ (Mark) or ‘angel’ (Matthew) announce at the tomb, “He is going before you into Galilee, there you will see him.” However in Mark the women ‘flee from the tomb, and say nothing to anyone’ out of ‘fear,’ while in Matthew the women depart quickly ‘to report’ what the angel told them to the disciples. In Matthew the women even meet Jesus on the way! Jesus says, ‘Do not be afraid!’ Matthew is not only redacting but also strengthening Markʼs story. Neither is such a process of redacting and strengthening difficult to spot when other stories in Mark and Matthew are compared. For instance after Jesus walks on the water in Mark 6:51-52 the disciples “were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” However when Jesus walks on the water in Matthew 14:33, “They worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” Matthew even relates similar events to Mark but doubles the number of lepers healed (one becomes two), blind men healed (one becomes two), demon-possessed men exorcised (one becomes two), even the number of animals that Jesus rode into Jerusalem (one becomes two). The Matthean strengthening process at work in the resurrection story is also not difficult to spot. Matthew adds guards at the tomb, and the raising of many saints. And it is not difficult to spot the further redaction that was made to justify the ‘guards at the tomb’ story. Mark mentions no guards, and the women go to the tomb ‘to anoint’ Jesusʼs body. But in Matthew where ‘guards’ are assumed, and contact with the body would not be foreseen as possible, the women no longer go to anoint Jesus, but merely to ‘look at the grave.’
Matthew, like Mark, agrees that the disciples saw Jesus in Galilee. Though the Gospel of Matthew adds details about two resurrection appearances, one to the women leaving the tomb, and one on a mountain in Galilee (not Mt. Olivet in Judea, as in Luke)., they are relatively brief, and only serve to illustrate later Christian dogmas about Jesusʼs authority, baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, etc.
Comparing Mark with both Matthew and Luke we see additional redactions. Luke agrees with Matthew that the women immediately reported what an ‘angel(s)’ told them (contra Mark which stated ‘they told no one’). Luke omits Jesusʼs appearances to the women (in Matthew) on the way back to the disciples. However, some manuscripts of Luke add that Peter ran to the tomb to verify the womanʼs tale of its emptiness. Luke adds more appearances, Matthew listing only two. Luke adds the road to Emmaus appearance, the appearance to the eleven during which Jesus ate a piece of fish and honeycomb to convince them he was not a spirit, but had flesh and bones, “And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them.” (Luke 24) (Imagine parading through Jerusalem ‘led’ by a resurrected Jesus! Makes you wonder whether Jesus led them via a path that took them past Pilateʼs, Herodʼs, or the chief priestʼs house. Surely, if there was a time for palms being flung in his path, and Hosannas, this was it). And Luke adds an appearance to Simon alone(though no description is given of it).
By the time we get to the fourth and last Gospel, John, we find yet more appearances. In that Gospel we have Mary Magdalene seeing Jesus; Peter and a second disciple verifying the tombʼs emptiness; Jesus appearing in Jerusalem to all the disciples but Thomas; Jesus returning to convince Thomas; ‘many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;’ Jesus manifesting himself again, at the sea of Galilee.
It is part of a theological progression it would seem from Mark-Matthew-Luke-John to the many additional Gospel stories and Acts of the Apostles that continued to be composed by Christians afterwards — or, as the fourth and last Gospel states, “There are many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.” Thatʼs a lot of books for a ministry that lasted only a few years. All four Gospels total no more than about 100 pages (in my NASB), which makes them skimpy collections of what Jesus ‘did’ by the reckoning of that verse mentioned above in John. Two of them even repeat about 91% of what appears in one Gospel, Mark! “The world could not contain all the books?” That is the language of faith speaking, not reason. It sounds to me like the author is hinting at the existence of many apocryphal stories circulating among Christian in his day. He is certainly leaving the door open for such stories to grow even more widespread.
Speaking of apocryphal stories, there is evidence that the Gospels themselves contain them. There is the added ending to Mark (16:9-20). We both agree that “almost no scholars would argue for the authority of those verses. I donʼt think we should use the passage in Mark when that text is rejected by most scholars. (The problem here is that most believe that those last twelve verses are a later addition to the manuscript)” [from your March 21st letter]. Yet these ‘additions’ are of resurrection appearances.
Or take Johnʼs story of the woman caught in the act of adultery. It first appears in some Old Latin New Testament manuscripts written in the fifth century or later, and in Codex D (5th or 6th c.), but not earlier.
Another addition is Luke 22:43-44, the story of an angel from heaven appearing and strengthening Jesus in Gethsemane, while Jesus in agony sweat drops of blood. This story is not in the 3rd cent. Papyrus P75, nor in Codex B, written in the middle of the fourth century. It appeared later.
How can the Gospels be considered ‘eyewitness’ testimony knowing such additions took place, the most embarrassing one being the addition in Mark of a resurrection appearance? There are in fact three different endings to Mark that feature brief resurrection appearances reminiscent of those at the end of Matthew. However none of those alternative endings are found in the earliest known manuscripts of Mark, only in later ones. It would seem that Markʼs original ending, which featured merely an empty tomb and women ‘telling no one,’ was not an ending that early Christians considered satisfactory. Perhaps that also explains the need for additional Gospels and their redactions and ‘enhancements?’
Another sidelight on the fourth and last Gospel concerns the story it alone contains of the ‘raising of Lazarus.’ In your Dec. 21st letter you proposed that “we have good reason to believe that these [resurrected] individuals [like Lazarus and others in the Gospels] appeared in their natural bodies.” I admit to being ignorant of ‘good’ reasons to that effect.
Concerning the raising of those other than Lazarus, the Gospel stories are few and unspectacular. For instance in Mark (which I take to be the earliest source) the synagogue rulerʼs daughter was ‘at the point of death,’ or in Matthew ‘had just died’ when Jesus healed/raised her. Such things seem possible. In one afterlife book (Beyond the Light, I think), I read about a man who had been declared dead in the hospital, then a little while later he woke up alone on a stretcher in the hallway. According to another book, Dannion Brinkley was struck by lightning, declared dead, but then came back to life. But none of those people had been dead for long. The Lazarus story involves someone dead for ‘four days,’ whose body ‘stinketh.’ What ‘good reason’ do we have to believe that story?
Letʼs look at the story of Lazarus in depth also, beginning with our knowledge of another story in John, the story of Lazarusʼs alleged sisters, ‘Mary and Martha,’ and how ‘Mary sat at Jesusʼs feet,’ ‘anointed them’ with perfume, and ‘wiped them with her hair’ in the town of ‘Bethany.’ (John 12) Stories similar to that one are found in the earlier three Gospels, but with a few differences:
Mark 14:3 — An unnamed woman anointed Jesusʼs head in Bethany at the house of Simon the Leper.
Luke 7:37-38 — An unnamed sinner anointed Jesusʼs feet and wiped them with her hair in Nain at the house of a Pharisee.
Luke 10:38-39 — Mary, the sister of Martha, listened at Jesusʼs feet in an unnamed town at her house.
Now consider this: Did you ever get confused about similar events like those listed above? Say, in a Sunday School discussion, you mixed up the name of the town where the woman anointed Jesusʼs ‘head’ with the name of the town where the woman anointed Jesusʼs ‘feet.’ Was it Nain or Bethany? Or you confused the woman who ‘listened’ at Jesusʼs feet with the woman who ‘anointed’ Jesusʼs feet? The unnamed sinner lady in Nain, became, until you looked it up, Mary, sister of Martha? Well, something like that appears to have happened in the minds of Christians before the Gospel of John was composed, the last written of the four Gospels. By that time, similar persons and events from the earlier Gospels had become amalgamated in peopleʼs minds. In John 12:3, Mary, the woman who simply ‘listened’ at Jesusʼs feet is now also anointing them and wiping them with her hair. Thus the unnamed woman of the town of Nain became amalgamated in peopleʼs minds with ‘Mary, Marthaʼs sister.’ And the unnamed town where Mary lived became amalgamated with the town where the woman who anointed Jesusʼs ‘head’ lived, ‘Bethany.’ And Mary used expensive ‘spikenard ointment’ on them, as the lady in Mark (and possibly Luke) did. Only this time is it not at Simon the Leperʼs house, nor at the house of a Pharisee, but at ‘Maryʼs house.’
What does the above discussion have to do with the ‘resurrection of Lazarus’ story? Well, it shows how the Gospel of John amalgamates things from earlier Gospels. And only the Gospel of John depicts Lazarus as a real person. Luke mentions a real Mary and Martha, but says nothing about them having a brother, nor in which town they lived. So the author(s) of the Gospel of John appear to have amalgamated Mary and Martha, the town of Bethany, and the ‘Lazarus’ from a parable in the Gospel of Luke — a parable in which a poor beggar named ‘Lazarus’ dies and goes to ‘Abrahamʼs bosom,’ while a rich man suffering in nearby ‘Hades’ sees Lazarus and pleads with Abraham to ‘send Lazarus to my Fatherʼs house, to warn my brothers, so they may repent [and avoid going to Hades],’ to which the answer was, “neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.”
Think about it. A ‘Lazarus’ who dies and someone who hopes Lazarus will be ‘raised from the dead’ to ‘persuade others’ ‘to repent.’ But such persuasion is predicted not to work. Where does that appear outside of Luke?
Why in John. Johnʼs ‘Lazarus’ is now a concrete person, the ‘brother’ of Mary and Martha from Luke. (Neither is this Lazarus a poor ‘beggar,’ since heʼs rich enough to have his own tomb and live in a house with his ‘sisters.’) He is ‘raised from the dead’ — a parable come true. And, as predicted in the parable, such a miracle fails to persuade those who refuse to listen to Moses and the prophets, namely the Pharisees: “Many therefore of the Jews, who had come to Mary and beheld what He had done, believed in Him. But some of them went away to the Pharisees, and told them the things which Jesus had done.” The Pharisees refuse to repent, and even decide, after hearing of this great miracle, to seize Jesus and have him executed. What a coincidence! Two ‘Lazaruses,’ one in Luke and one in John, both die, both illustrate that “even though he be raised from the dead, they will not be persuaded,” in fact, ‘Lazarusʼs resurrection’ in the Gospel of John elicits even a stronger negative response!
Not surprisingly, when you add a whole new miracle found in none of the other Gospels, and make it the focal point for the Phariseesʼ decision to have Jesus seized and executed, you have to do something with the fact that all three of the earlier Gospels agreed that it was Jesusʼs overturning of the tables in the Temple that made the Pharisees decide to have Jesus crucified. So the author(s) of John decided to remove the table-turning episode from the end of Jesusʼs ministry and move it to the beginning of Jesusʼs ministry. All so that the Pharisees would decide to have Jesus seized and killed due to the unsettling nature of the stunning resurrection miracle that was added to the last Gospel.
The question remains, did the ‘raising of Lazarus’ actually take place or might the story have been a later invention, based on an amalgamation of information and names found in earlier Gospels? The moving of Jesusʼs ‘table-turning’ episode from the end of the earlier Gospels to the beginning of the last written Gospel adds to the force of such a question, since the author(s) of John made it appear quite obvious that it was now necessary to make room at the end of their Gospel to display the totally new miracle and make it the new reason why the Pharisees decided to seize and crucify Jesus.
And there is also the even wider question raised by the fact that the Gospel of John concentrates on a handful of major miracles in Jesusʼs ministry, the Lazarus miracle being used to illustrate that Jesus was ‘the resurrection and the life.’ The author(s) have Jesus speak those very words, along with a lot of ‘I ams,’ one after each major miracle. How unlike the Jesus who is portrayed in the earlier three Gospels, who asked his disciples not to tell anyone he was the Messiah, and who did not speak in such an ‘I am’ manner even after healing people, performing exorcisms, or raising the synagogue rulerʼs daughter who was ‘at the point of death’ (in Markʼs version) or who had ‘just died’ (per Matthewʼs version).
The Gospel of John is a theological creation from its opening verses of Greek philosophy which constitute the author(s)ʼ interpretation of Jesus (“In the beginning was the Word.”) — to Jesusʼs long-winded prayer in the garden, allegedly spoken on the eve of his death. Keeping in mind that the latter prayer was uttered only once in Jesusʼs life, and while the apostles were all asleep, or at least falling in and out of sleep, it seems quite a feat to be able to write down all twenty-six verses of it (chapter 17). (The Gospel of John also has Jesus speaking in the same semi-gnostic language as John the Baptist and the author of the prologue to that Gospel.) And the Fourth Gospel ends by stating that it was written ‘that ye may believe.’ How objective could such a work be?
Oh, and concerning the parable in Luke that may have been the inspiration for the “Lazarus story” that later grew and found its way into the Fourth Gospel, not even the Lukan parable may have been original. Stories about a rich and poor man both dying, and the rich man getting sent some place bad and the poor man getting sent some place good, have been found in both ancient Egypt and ancient Judaism. Itʼs a typical ‘reversal of fortune’ parable. [Richard Bauckham, “The Rich Man and Lazarus: The Parable and the Parallels,” New Testament Studies, Vol. 37, 1991, pp. 225-246]
Those are some of the reasons I doubt the N.T. literature, written by and for believers, containing second-hand stories of resurrection appearances that appear, even by a ‘face value’ comparison of all the Gospels, to have grown in the telling.
A further important point. Regardless of how ‘real’ a person views the ‘appearances’ I do not believe that the evidence substantiates a bodily resurrection. I base my opinion on the reasons given in my letters, notably, on the earliest stories including those in 1 Cor., and the ‘concretization’ process that may be traced in the Gospels, from Mark to John. Even you admitted in your Dec. 21st letter that the “‘middle ground’ position [of a ‘less than physical resurrection’] is very popular in critical circles at this present time, perhaps even the predominant view.”
I remain a little to the left of middle. I suggest that these ‘middle ground’ scholars maintain such a view of less-than-physical yet ‘real’ appearances because they are Christians or somewhat conservative Jews, and their faith has to have something ‘real’ to hold onto.
As I see it, for the faithful, all it takes is a possibility (no matter how remote) that their interpretation might be right, for them to believe it is. A ‘maybe’ is as good as a ‘certainty,’ or increases the faith they already possess. For the non-faithful, a possibility is just that, a maybe is as good as a maybe, an ‘appearance’ remains an ‘appearance,’ nothing more, nothing less: Protestants see Jesus and angels but seldom Mary because the awe/respect that Catholics pay Mary is denigrated by Protestants. Catholics see Jesus and Mary. Native Americans experience illuminating visions of animal spirits. Hindus may be visited by personae from their vast pantheon, while Buddhists may experience the compassionate ‘amida Buddha’ as they pray, ‘Save me, amida Buddha.’ A different school of Buddhists even experiences ‘born again’ like experiences of hellish fears followed by the relief of salvation (as discussed in Conrad Hyersʼs book, One-Born, Twice-Born Zen). New Agers see chakra colors and UFOs. A Gallup poll revealed that Southerners hear Godʼs voice much more often than Northerners. Just whose voice are these people hearing and does it sound Southern to them? (Protestants stress hearing Godʼs voice more and the value of ‘the Word,’ while Catholics stress seeing God more, which may explain the greater number of visions they experience in general.) What about J. B. Phillipsʼs story that C. S. Lewis ‘appeared’ to him after Lewis had died? (Cannon Phillips had corresponded with Lewis ‘a fair amount’ before Lewis died, and only saw him in the flesh once before. When Phillips mentioned that appearance to a certain saintly Bishop, the Bishopʼs reply was, “My dear J., this sort of thing is happening all the time.”) My friend, Will Bagley, told me that in a very realistic dream, Rajneesh, the Hindu guru, once appeared to Will at the foot of his bed with a brief message. My former fiancé told me about how a Catholic aunt of hers once saw Jesus before going to bed one night. (She told Jesus she was tired, and went to bed!) Dr. Robert Price knew a woman who ran a religious bookstore who claimed that Jesus appeared to her often. (Ask him about that story sometime.) My step-fatherʼs great aunt was very ill and staying with me and my Mom and Step-Dad when she seemed to be hearing voices and seeing lights before she passed away. I have also read stories on the web of Near Death Experiences as told by people from different cultures such as a person in Thailand who claimed to have seen some deities from their Buddhist religious backgrounds, including a talking turtle.
Statistically, Near Death Experiences do not often involve religious figures, and of those that involve figures of any kind they are usually compassionate beings of light who leave people of all religions (or even no religion) with the feeling that love is whatʼs important and death isnʼt as scary as they once thought it was. There are some nightmarish NDEs as well, but they are a distinct minority. And in fact I know of one that started out hellish but the person was saved by a compassionate ‘being of light.’ (Howard Storm was the fellowʼs name who had that last mentioned NDE, and he was transformed by it from a self avowed egotist and chair of a university art department to becoming a universalistic type of Christian minister.)
After reading the above it should become clear that a personʼs life and culture play a role in how things ‘appear’ to them. Also, if there is ‘reality’ involved in such appearances, it appears to be a universal reality, not a solely Christian or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist one.
The difference between my approach and that of, say, a Christian apologist, is that I am not trying to say Christianity is ‘it,’ and then when faced with a difficulty in proving my apologetics superior, retreat into mystery and faith. My ideas originate in mystery, doubt, etc. I endorse Protagorasʼs (and Robert Anton Wilsonʼs) approach: During our brief spans of life, limited to our particular language and culture and whatever scientific/historical/philosophical knowledge each of us has time to pursue, we each gain only a limited understanding of ‘God’ and other immense questions. Heck, we havenʼt even crawled off the surface of the cradle planet.
Concerning the Bible, it raises ‘face value’ questions it does not answer. So ‘fundamentalistic’ Christians take the ‘face value’ method only so far, except when they run into knotty questions. Then they opt for ad hoc explanations of their own making to deliver themselves from historical-critical questions and more open-ended explanations. So, in my opinion, even the most rigid fundamentalists are as ‘humanistic’ in their boundless faith in their own ad hoc subsidiary explanations, as their most uncompromising critics.
A point I neglected to cover, above, concerning the account of the empty tomb — you “just do not think it is the case that the writers had to simply use women because there was no other alternative.” My reply is to study the Gospels. In Mark, ostensibly the earliest, the story goes that the disciples ‘all left him and fled’ in the garden. A young man following Jesusʼs captors was seized and escaped naked. Peter is afraid to admit to knowing Jesus. While at Jesusʼs crucifixion, only women are mentioned, “And there were also women looking on from afar.” “And Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of Joses were looking on where Jesus was laid.” Any subsequent empty tomb story would therefore be limited to women, since we are told in the earliest Gospel that the men fled.
In Matthew, ‘all the disciples left him and fled,’ adding at the crucifixion that ‘many women were looking on from a distance.’ And when Joseph sealed Jesusʼs grave, “Mary Magdalene was there, and the other Mary, sitting opposite the grave.” Only women again.
Luke is the first to omit that the disciples all fled at Jesusʼs arrest. But he does note that it was “the women [who] followed after, and saw the tomb and how His body was laid,” i.e., women again, who saw where Jesus was buried. [Luke 24:12 about ‘Peter running to the tomb’ is a later insertion that does not appear in the earliest manuscripts.]
John, the last Gospel written, bursts this mold open. The women are no longer watching the crucifixion ‘at a distance’ as in Mark and Matthew, but ‘they were standing by the cross of Jesus,’ and now there is also at least one man with them. This is a necessary redaction, since John has two men race each other to the tomb once Mary Magdalene tells the disciples it is empty, and they couldnʼt run there unless they knew where it was, and they couldnʼt know unless they had attended the crucifixion, which John says they did.
I would say the earliest version of the empty tomb story had to employ women (see Mark above about the men ‘all’ having ‘fled’). And the earliest story about the women ‘not telling anyone’ (in Mark) explains the relatively late appearance of the legend of the empty tomb, i.e., ‘no one’ was ‘told,’ nor heard, about an empty tomb until later. The empty tomb legend only arose after various ‘appearance’ stories, like those related by Paul (who does not mention an ‘empty tomb’) had already spread.
Numerous theologians (See for instance, The Anglican Archbishop of Perth, Peter Carnelyʼs, The Structure of Resurrection Belief; or Thomas Sheehanʼs The First Coming) have suggested on the basis of a comparative study of the Gospels that the earliest stories of Jesusʼs resurrection and subsequent ‘appearance(s)’ probably arose in Galilee after Jesusʼs disciples fled there. According to the earliest Gospel, Galilee was where the risen Jesus ‘went’ and where they would ‘see’ him. That was where ‘the eleven’ pondered for weeks their leaderʼs tragic fate and came to believe that matters would not, must not, could not end simply with Jesusʼs death. We have no records of what the apostles when through in Galilee, but it is no secret that small groups can exert enormous influence over their individual members, shaping perceptions, including conformity, and so forth. All the more so when the groups in question are fiercely partisan, and in the grip of some transcendent passion. And a passion for resurrection was not uncommon to that time and place, neither was a passion for a soon coming resurrection of all the dead in final apocalyptic judgment. Perhaps a ‘visionary experience’ or very real ‘dream(s)’ that he had appeared to them to continue his movement, mission, passion, to preach the soon coming kingdom of God, of which his resurrection was the first-fruits.
The historical order of accretion of what (the Jewish theologian) Pinchas Lapide has called a “dense wreath of resurrection legends” would then be:
- Claims of ‘appearances,’ no details — Paul
- Claims of ‘appearances’ (“You shall see him in Galilee”), augmented by the claim of an ‘empty tomb,’ but still no details as to any of those appearances, since the earliest Markan manuscripts end with merely the promise of an appearance in Galilee. And no appearances mentioned in Jerusalem. — Mark
- Two relatively brief ‘appearance’ stories with a few sparse details and words of the risen Jesus (to go with the new empty tomb legend), one near the tomb, and the second in Galilee — Matthew
- More appearance stories, longer, more detailed, that all take place in and around Jerusalem (for which the angelʼs message at the tomb had to be changed), including a tendency to ‘concretize’ Jesus more (he eats some fish and honeycomb to convince them he is not a ‘spirit,’ and even takes them on a little walk to Bethany). — Luke
[Note: The long ending to Mark (16:9-20) was probably composed sometimes between 3) & 4)]
- Yet more appearance stories in Jerusalem and also some in Galilee, including Jesus appearing to ten of the apostles, then appearing to them all again with Thomas present, so he could be offered a chance to ‘put’ his ‘hand’ in ‘Jesusʼs side;’ Jesus fixing [and eating?] food with the disciples [in both Jerusalem and Galilee respectively]; and the announcement, “…there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written, every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written,” a supposition they may have been based on the spread of further Jesus stories among the faithful. (I am not judging the nature of such stories, only the fact that they seem to keep growing from Mark to John and beyond.) — John
- Among those ‘many other things which Jesus did,’ some of which can no doubt be found in the bevy of other Gospels and Acts that believers continued to write, most of which we know only by brief mentions in other Christian works. One of which (The Gospel of Nicodemus) expanded on the incident in Matthew of ‘the raising of the many’ (identifying them as ‘Adam and Eve’ and some other Hebrew prophets). Others told of miracles Jesus performed in his infancy and youth. And one of which (the Gospel of Peter) told of Jesus actually being seen stepping out of his opened tomb (and followed by a talking cross).
A joke I recently heard maybe add a bit of lightness to this otherwise top heavy exchange:
After serving his followers for decades, the revered rabbi of an orthodox congregation died. His faithful flock, wailing and crying, beseeched God to grant them a glimpse of their beloved rabbi now that he had gone to meet his reward. God was moved by their prayers and granted them their request. The congregation looked up at the vision before them, and there was their beloved rabbi, sitting in heaven with a beautiful blonde on his lap.
“Rebbe, rebbe,” they cried. “How could you, the most holy man we know, after a lifetime of exemplary behavior, end up with a buxom blonde as your reward?”
“My good people,” replied the rabbi, peering down. “This woman is not my reward. Iʼm her punishment.”