Friday, January 1, 2021

On Medium: Is Jesus’s Character Miraculous?

A refutation of the underlying argument in the Evangelical Christian Tom Gilson's book, Too Good to be False.


  1. hard to think of a character from history that we have less description of, was he kind, harsh, humorous, humorless, patient or not...

    1. Well, we have the gospels. The descriptions aren't detailed like in a modern novel, but there's some authoritative character that emerges, someone who's intolerant of hypocrisy, who's a moral purist and who sacrifices himself for his message, like Socrates. We have his interactions with his followers and with his critics.

      There's all kinds of theological and political redaction going on in the gospels, though, so the "story" is quite compromised. It's like watching a movie that was directed by a committee of interfering producers. Usually, the movie suffers for that reason.

  2. Congratulations, sir. You've refuted an argument that bears no no resemblance to the one in the book.

    I do invite you to try again, though.

    1. Thanks for linking to your response. Readers can find in the comment section under that article of yours my long response to it. In case you delete that response, though, I'll post it here for interested readers.

    2. Tom Gilson,

      Who says I read your book? My article isn’t a book report. I simply address some crucial assumptions you’d have to make to support the only relevant conclusion that would be a threat to skepticism/atheism/philosophical naturalism.

      That conclusion is that the story of Jesus in the gospels must be historically accurate, in which case it has a supernatural origin. The assumptions that get you to that conclusion are that the story is too good, that is too moral, unique, and consistent to be explained in any other way.

      My article addresses all those assumptions, showing that the story isn’t so miraculous or naturally inexplicable after all. Thus, in the article I call the argument that I address the “underlying” one in your book.

      Regarding the goodness of Jesus’ character, I point out that the moral assessment would be subjective and dependent on a model of heroism. Yours comes from Christianity since you assume the greatness of altruism and self-sacrifice. And you ignore that whole section from my article.

      I address the so-called uniqueness of a story that focusses on a perfect sacrifice and on Jesus’s altruism. I point to lots of forerunners of sacrificial deaths, the most obvious and important of which is just the entire ancient history of the Jewish people as they understood it. Jews regarded themselves as the chosen ones, compared to non-Jews, which meant not that God gave them the power to rule the world, but the opposite: God tested their faith by making them nomads and periodically conquered by idolatrous empires.

      So the Jews as a people saw themselves as a sacrificial offering for God; they sacrificed their earthly happiness for love of God; they suffered out of righteousness (out of their faithfulness to the covenant). You haven’t even begun to deal with the naturalistic basis of the gospel-writers’ idea of self-sacrifice, as it’s embodied in the Jesus character.

      Regarding the perfection of Jesus’s character as it’s told in the gospels (as opposed to the abstract concept of self-sacrifice), I point out that Jesus’s sacrifice is flawed because it’s not tragic. He resurrects and ascends to Heaven. From the standpoint of anyone looking for a perfect human sacrifice, the fact that in the story Jesus triumphs over death takes away much of the power of his sacrifice. Especially if you know you’re going to triumph in the end, that knowledge will give you the strength to endure the suffering. Mind over matter. So Jesus’s sacrifice isn’t so absolute, as told in the gospels.

    3. Regarding the consistency of the portraits in the gospels, I point to what anyone who studies the New Testament already knows, which is that the consistency might be miraculous or a threat to skepticism or atheism only if the gospels were independent of each other. But they’re not, as the synoptic problem shows. Matthew and Luke copied from Mark, so that’s where their consistency comes from. Evidently, Matthew and Luke wanted to improve on Mark in relatively minor ways, not to rewrite virtually the whole thing. That natural fact alone accounts for all the points of consistency you raise.

      Arguably, John also had Mark in front of him, but the author of John decided to rewrite that gospel in a more radical way. Thus, his portrait is much less consistent with that of the synoptic gospels. You point to one author who says John and the synoptics are quite consistent. I can appeal to the rest of the scholarly community that says otherwise, since it’s standard to notice that John’s Jesus doesn’t act or speak like the Jesus of the synoptic gospels. Just read them and see for yourself.

      I could add that even if the gospels were independent and yet consistent in their presentation of Jesus’s heroic and spiritual character, that wouldn’t necessarily require positing the truth of Christianity. There may be psychological and sociological patterns (archetypes) in how legends and myths arise, which account for the commonalities not just in the gospels but in religious stories all around the world. See, for example, Joseph Campbell’s theory of the hero’s journey.

    4. Now you want to ding my criticisms for failing to deal with the logic of what you call your book’s argument. As you summarize it in your response, that logic is the appeal to the best explanation. But that inference to the Christian conclusion is hardly a threat to atheists, so you should be thankful I tried to steel-man your underlying argument.

      The claim that the Christian appeal to a miraculous origin of the gospels’ stories of Jesus is more “plausible,” as you put it in your response, than the skeptic’s naturalistic explanation founders on Occam’s razor and on David Hume’s reasoning against the appeal to miracles. All of the above already shows that the goodness, uniqueness, and consistency of the gospels’ stories aren’t so naturally inexplicable. That means there’s no anomaly that requires us to posit a miraculous cause. Any naturalistic account of how the gospel stories came to be will be superior to a miraculous one, on epistemic grounds. That’s just an application of Occam’s razor. If you want to talk causality, you’re in the naturalist’s wheelhouse which was built by modern science, so good luck with that mode of inference.

      Of course, you oversimplify the skeptical explanations of the legends and myths in the gospels since there’s hardly just one such explanation. There are many (because the historical evidence is so meager and equivocal), but indeed they’d be united in not positing anything miraculous or supernatural. So for example, these non-Christian accounts would remind us how legends tend to form and to get more unrealistic and absolute in the telling. That’s what we see from Mark (and Q) to John. John’s is the more theologically elaborate account, although as Burton Mack showed, Mark isn’t as naïve and as innocent of theological preconceptions as previously believed.

      The naturalistic accounts would point also to all the literary borrowing and transvaluations found in the gospels, from the Jewish scriptures and from Greek texts and traditions. The idea of the gospel authors was to show how Jesus is superior to various heroic figures from history, legend, and myth, such as Moses, Elisha, or a dying-and-rising god. To do that, you need to borrow the former story and retell it in a way that presents Jesus as accomplishing roughly the same feat but in a better, that is, more enlightened or Jewish way. That’s why we see the gospels taking the details and plot points from the Jewish scriptures (such as from Isaiah 53) and from other stories. Jesus fulfills and transcends the expectations.

      For example, instead of saying that the gospels report the occurrence of actual miraculous healings, critical scholars say Mark simply drew his miracle stories from the Jewish exploits of Moses, Elijah, and Elisha. It’s not like the gospel stories are so original that there were no previous accounts of miraculous deeds.

    5. Again, the reason I don’t address the more specific points of greatness that you find so dazzling is that they’re red herrings. You presuppose the validity of Christian ideals in calling attention to the greatness of the distinguishing features of the Christian narrative. Moreover, the interpretations of the literary content of the gospel stories will be subjective, having no objective basis for deciding between them. But I’ll address these details here if you like.

      You say none of the gospels portrays Jesus “using his extraordinary power for his own benefit.” But as my article says, that’s not so since everything Jesus says and does contributes to his pleasing of God the Father, which enables the Father to reward Jesus with resurrection and ascension to Heaven. Perhaps Jesus doesn’t selfishly have himself in mind when he helps other people, but the fact remains that he would have believed his moral deeds would have pleased God and that because God himself is righteous, God would reward him for being good. That’s precisely what Jesus taught his followers: the last would be first and the first would be last.

      So this point of consistency need hardly be accounted for only by a miracle. What’s so miraculous about helping others to indirectly help yourself? That type of character acts out of enlightened self-interest, which is common in ordinary human experience.

      You say none of the gospels shows Jesus ‘speaking of “Our Father,” except when he tells the disciples to do so.’ I don’t really see the point of this. Are you saying the gospels depict Jesus as assuming that he’s fatherless or that he’s identical to God the Father, whereas everyone else depends on God the Father for their creation? Yet Mark 10:18 shows Jesus chastising a man for calling him (Jesus) good since only God is good, according to Jesus. Are you saying the gospels are consistent in depicting Jesus as identical to God? There’s no such clear depiction. Hence the debates between Christians about the meaning of that thesis, and the ongoing heretical interpretations.

      You say none of the gospels shows Jesus faltering in forgiveness. Yet Mark 3:28-29 says otherwise: a sin against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven since that’s an eternal sin.

      You say none of the gospels portrays Jesus as having faith. Really? How about Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he doubts his mission but finds the courage to carry on with his sacrificial death? “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he tells his followers in Mark 14, but he prays, ‘“Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”’ How is that not a case of Jesus carrying on out of implicit faith found through prayer?

      By the way, that’s another example of Jesus referring to God the Father as someone other than himself. See also Mark 15:34, where Jesus alludes to Psalm 22 in asking God why he’s forsaken him.

      You say none of the gospels shows Jesus ‘saying “Thus says the Lord,” or relying in any way on any authority but his own.’ Yet the Gethsemane story does the opposite, since Jesus says, “not what I will, but what you will.” Only in John, the later gospel, is Jesus emphatic and explicit about his oneness with God, but even in that gospel the relationship is elaborate and confusing (because the thesis of the Incarnation is self-contradictory).

      In any case, even if the gospels were all united around saying that Jesus was God incarnate, there would be a naturalistic explanation of how that idea arose for Jews: syncretism with Greco-Roman culture, with the dying-and-rising god mytheme, Greek metaphysics, and so on. Philo had carried out just such syncretic thinking with his conception of the Logos.

    6. You say none of the gospels shows Jesus deliberating with himself. Again, the prayer at Gethsemane arguably does otherwise. But this is just a red herring. Both the Jews and the Greeks had lots of stories of heroes acting heroically. Have you gone through them all to check whether any of them presents its hero as perfectly flawless? And even if a hero comes across as somehow flawed in the story, that flaw might add to the drama and make the hero relatable to the human readers. Who would have the final word on what counts as a character flaw (unless we’re talking about pure evil)? One person’s weakness may be another’s strength. In the gospels, Jesus’s spirituality and altruism appeared weak to Jews who were expecting a rebellious, political messiah, as those qualities would have appeared to the actual pragmatic and mighty Romans (as opposed to the Christianized Romans presented in the New Testament).

      The point is that there’s no need to explain this Christian consistency by appealing to a miraculous origin, since different cultures have different models of heroism as a matter of natural fact. Christianity represented a merger of the Jewish and Greco-Roman models. No miracle necessary.

      Moreover, the gospels avoid showing Jesus’s inevitable flaws and humanity by leaving them out of the story. Thus, Jesus’s childhood and teen years are left out, in which Jesus would had to have learned to walk and to talk and so forth by trial and error. The gospels don’t talk about Jesus defecating or farting either, since those aspects of his humanity would come across as inevitable flaws. Did Jesus cry out in pain while he was being tortured and executed? If he did, would that have been a flaw as opposed to a sign of invulnerable, supernatural heroism? Or was his humanity part of his charm and of his brand of heroism since Jesus was a hybrid between a mortal and an immortal? Again, the answers are arbitrary and subjective, so this is a red herring.

      You say none of the gospels shows Jesus looking to anyone for advice. Big deal. No need to posit a miracle to explain any such consistency, since the gospels leave out Jesus’s formative years in which he would likely have learned from others how to walk, talk, eat, wipe his butt, and so on and so forth. They cut to when Jesus has already gone through his education.

      Besides, there are lots of ordinary people who are arrogant, who think they know everything and don’t ask anyone for advice. That’s a familiar human character, so there’s no need to posit a supernatural origin of such a literary representation of that character.

    7. You say, “No Gospel shows his humanity disappearing under his deity, or his deity being lost in his humanity.” Again, the gospels would do that in part just by leaving out Jesus’s early years and other awkward details like Jesus’ dealing with his digestion.

      In any case, this is wholly subjective. What would count as deity being lost to his humanity? Wouldn’t dying on the cross do that? His divinity is regained when he’s resurrected, but that happens afterward. Thus, for all the time he spends in the tomb, he’s presented as being dead like a mortal. Likewise, descending to earth in the first place is arguably a matter of his divinity taking a backseat to his humanity. And what counts as divinity in the human Jesus? His miracles and his wisdom, presumably, but those are presented as being relatively limited. Why didn’t Jesus heal a billion people all around the world? Why didn’t he teach his followers about quantum mechanics? Aren’t those cases of his humanity overshadowing his deity?

      Again, this evaluation of the story is entirely subjective. Basing your case for Christianity on this kind of literary analysis suffers from this inherent weakness, which is that literature is subject to multiple, often incompatible interpretations, with no objective way to correct them (without begging the question). That’s why in my article I don’t chase after these red herrings.

      I’d add that Luke 1:35 specifically says that the Holy Spirit overshadowed Jesus’s mother, thus accounting for his miraculous birth, since she was supposedly a virgin. How is that not a case of his deity overtaking his humanity?

      By the way, your book isn’t the first to treat the Bible as fictional literature. Jack Miles does so in “God: A Biography” and “Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.” And as for my books, I wrote one novel and several anthologies that simply collect my many philosophical articles from my blog and from Medium.