Gainsaying the Gospels

“The Gospels were written in such a temporal and geographical proximity to the events they record that it would have been almost impossible to fabricate events….The fact that the disciples were able to proclaim the resurrection in Jerusalem in the face of their enemies a few weeks after the crucifixion shows that what they proclaimed was true, for they could never have proclaimed the resurrection (and been believed) under such circumstances had it not occurred.” (William Lane Craig, Knowing the Truth About the Resurrection, chapter 6)

It is strange (to me) sometimes how apologists become so totally caught up in their pre-conceptions that they cannot see what must be obvious to any more objective observer. The quote above comes from William Lane Craig but you can find the argument on almost any Christian apologetics site: if the disciples had said anything about Jesus which wasn’t true, they couldn’t have got away with it, because they were surrounded by people who could have called them out.  This is just one example of how the fallacy of “boot-strapping” is used in apologetics: 

  1. We know the books of the New Testament are reliable because of the evidence.  
  2. Where does that evidence come from?  
  3. The books of the New Testament. 
  4. Why should we rely on it?  
  5. See 1 above. 

The following  unwarranted assumptions are embedded in WLC’s argument (and in all similar arguments using the gospels, or Acts to prove the NT)

  • That we can know what the disciples did preach a few weeks after the crucifixion. 
  • That Jesus was a sufficiently Big Cheese for all the locals to know him and know what was true or false   about him. 
  • That people would have cared enough about the claims made by this Jewish sect to think it worthwhile refuting them. 

It is, at best, question-begging to claim that the temporal and geographical proximity of the gospels to the events they describe precludes fabrication (even if flat out fabrication were what is alleged by those who dispute their accuracy, which for the most part, it isn’t.)  The Gospels are generally dated between the 70s and 90s, CE.  The concensus view is that they were written in Greek and so it is unlikely that they were written by “locals” from any of the scenes where the events described are supposed to have taken place.  

WLC says that the disciples could never have “proclaimed the resurrection (and been believed) under such circumstances had it not occurred.”  Why not?  It is implicit in the need to proclaim it that it had not been witnessed by those to whom the proclamation was made.  Which would mean that any proclaiming was based on nothing more than the word of the proclaimers.  If you believe Acts (which presumably WLC does) then the first converts accepted what somebody else told them about something which the converts hadn’t seen and so weren’t in a position to challenge.  On top of that, there is precious little in the accounts of the preaching contained in Acts which indicates that what was preached was specific enough to be easily rebutted.  It all seems to be pretty generalised “He was really special, you screwed up, he came back to life, join us or you’re in big trouble” kind of stuff.  

It is difficult to refute that sort of vague claim.   Without specifics, how do you go about disproving the claim that Jesus worked miracles and was raised from the dead?  Unless you say you were with him 24/7, any attempt to rebut those assertions is going to be shrugged off with the response “You just weren’t around at the right times.”    

But even with specifics, nailing a lie can be hard. You’ve heard that saying about how a lie can be half-way round the world before the truth has even got its boots on?  Well, here’s an illustration.  

Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered outside her own apartment block. When the story about the attack came out in the press, it sent shock waves through New York, where the crime took place and beyond it across America even to the rest of the world. Because during the 35 minutes it took before Kitty Genovese died 38 people in the flats overlooking the murder did nothing.   Twice the murderer was disturbed by the lights coming on in some of the apartments but each time he returned and Kitty Genovese died. In spite of her calls for help, nobody lifted a finger to stop the murderer or even just call police. 

Here is a link to a reproduction of the original New York Times article.

The murder became a case-study for academia. It was extensively debated.  How could it happen?  The more people who witness an incident, sociologists theorised, the less likely any one of them is to take any action, because all will assume that one of the others is doing something.  It became a recognised sociological syndrome: “the diffusion  of responsibility” or “the bystander effect” even “the Genovese syndrome” (see the footnote to the link above).  

It was a lesson in human behaviour and how hard our hearts had become. 

Except. 

It didn’t happen like that.  The myth of the 38 who did nothing has been thoroughly debunked.  Kitty Genovese was attacked that night and received fatal injuries.  By the time help arrived, it was too late.   But that’s about all the report got right.  Whilst the behaviour of two of the witnesses was highly discreditable, for the most part, those who could help did their best and failed because of lack of sufficient information about what was going on, rather than lack of concern for a neighbour. The figure of “38” appears to have been plucked from the air.  

Let’s  test this Kitty Genovese report against WLC’s gospels argument:

  1. Temporal proximity: check.  In fact, the NYT article was far more proximate in time than the gospels to events they record – less than two weeks, which not even the most conservative evangelical would claim for the gospels.
  2. Geographical proximity: check.  Happened in NYC, written up in NYT.  Again, the gospels fall way short on this criterion. 

But more than that, the inaccuracies of the Kitty Genovese story were far more likely to come to the attention of those who knew the truth than any inaccuracies in the gospels were to those who might have corrected them. The people who had been there at the murder were members of a literate and technologically advanced society where reports like this were swiftly disseminated through the media.  And for the same reasons, they had more resources avaiable to them for rebutting those false reports.  

Furthermore, they were more motivated to rebut the story than the people who were witnesses to gospel events, because the story was greatly to the discredit of each one of them.

If you accept WLC’s reasoning you must conclude that it is simply impossible that the NYT article could be false because if it were, the witnesses would have disproved it.  But a story can take on a momentum of its own and truth can struggle to resist that momentum. Kitty Genovese’s is just one such story.

So the next time an apologist tells you that the gospels can’t be wrong because if they had been, too many people would have known the truth and put them right, tell them about Kitty Genovese.