Sunday, April 15, 2012

This is the fifth in a series of posts on how to judge historical evidence on the life of Jesus. Please see the fourth post here. It contains links to the first three posts.
At the end of the fourth post in this series, I wrote:  "The historian who rejects certain historical evidence without even subjecting it to historical study has  also shown evidence of bias and prejudice, on the basis of his or her own philosophical presuppositions, but not all of the evidence has been subjected to historical scrutiny. There is no way to escape our own points of view, but all of the data must be accounted for and explained."  Is the relative success of the Apostles and the other disciples evidence of the truth of Christianity? Is the fact that the Apostles and other followers of Jesus were willing to die for their beliefs data which proves the truth of the Christian message? These are popular, but problematic arguments.

Mark Hart ‏ @LT_TheBiblegeek sent out this message on Twitter, “If Jesus didn't rise, an even greater miracle happened: 12 relatively uneducated guys changed the world & were martyred to protect a lie.” As someone who believes in the resurrection of Jesus, I am interested in whether this sort of argument is valid. I have come to have my doubts about this argument, though I have even used a variation of it before in classes. There are two premises to this argument: it is “miraculous” that 12 men with little formal education changed the world; and it is “miraculous” that 12 men were martyred for something that was essentially a “lie,” i.e., that Jesus was raised from the dead. We are supposed to be led to the conclusion that Jesus’ resurrection must be true, because these two realities are inexplicable otherwise. I think both of these premises are incorrect and that someone who does not believe in the resurrection can respond to them easily.

The first premise suggests that for a small band of people to “change the world” is miraculous, especially if they are “relatively uneducated,” and underlying this argument is a claim of “success makes right.” It is not clear to me why education or its lack ought to be a criterion for world-changing success, but if we take seriously the 3-4 years the apostles spent with Jesus, this is the equivalent of an ancient Jewish education, that is, they are part of a rabbinic circle, educated in the Torah by their teacher. Is it miraculous, though, for any small group of previously insignificant people, educated or uneducated, to “change the world”? I think not, as small groups of people have done this on a regular basis historically. I will give two examples from ancient religion: the Buddha and Muhammad. Both of these men, in short periods of time, gained adherents and shifted the religious culture of their particular geographic regions. In the case of Buddha, much of Asia was transformed by his teaching, including India, China and Japan, and Buddhist influence remains powerful today. The Buddha’s teachings were brought to China by groups of missionaries and spread throughout Asia from there. Historically, the spread of Islam was faster even than Christianity, with Muhammad gaining more power and success in his lifetime than Jesus or Buddha. If “changing the world” is the key criterion for belief, or the truth of religious claims, do we not have to grant as much “miraculousness” to the success of the followers of Buddha and Muhammad? Does their success mean that their religious claims are true?

The second premise is that the resurrection must be true or that it is “miraculous” that the Apostles “were martyred to protect a lie.” This suggests, however, two things: the Apostles thought the resurrection was a lie and still died for it; or people are never wrong about the things for which they die. I see no evidence to suggest that the Apostles thought the resurrection was a lie or concocted it in order to create a religion in which they would be the preeminent leaders. All of the NT evidence suggests that the Apostles and the other disciples believed in the truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection. So, if they were martyred, as many Apostles were, does that mean that what they believed in was true? Just because people believe something to be true does not mean that it is true and the fact that early Christians were willing to die for their beliefs is not proof of the resurrection or “miraculous.” If this is the case, if martyrdom for a belief points to the truthfulness of that belief or “miraculousness,” then one would have to grant this status to other religions and beliefs, such as the belief in the rightness of a nation’s cause in war, in which people willingly go to their deaths, thousands upon thousands. The men and women who die for their country's beliefs or die for their religion's beliefs do not necessarily thereby die for the truth, but possibly for a lie, wrong beliefs, and their deaths were not miraculous just wrongheaded. Yet, even though they died for a "lie," or a belief wrongly held,  does not mean they considered it a lie or a false belief when they gave their lives for it.

The success of the Christian message does not prove the truth of Jesus’ resurrection and the fact that people are willing to die for a belief, or body of beliefs, does not prove the truth of their message. Historically, the truth of the claims about Jesus are believed, or rejected, due to the validity of the witnesses who testify to the message and the evidence produced to support their claims. The witnesses are trustworthy if in testing their evidence we see that their explanations of the data are rational and cogent. This evidence is trustworthy if it accords with and makes sense of reality, no matter how successful the spread of the message is or how many people die for it.

 John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens


  1. I agree that no one should believe a message about truth simply because others have believed it (i.e. that it has been "successful") or just because its initial proponents died in the process of conveying the message. However, neither should be cast entirely aside these two aspects of Christ's story. For one thing, and to take the points in reverse order, it's rare to see an idea flourish when its initial proponents did not bear arms or lead armies or seek treasure or power in any way. The fact that we have so little knowledge about the eventual earthly fate of the apostles today is evidence of a selflessness that is rare in human movements. They all lie in unmarked graves. That this sort of outcome was common for such leaders makes the success of their movement all the more counterintuitive. I could say more, but my essential point is that the characteristics you cite as insufficient for faith in and of themselves, when properly correlated with the other aspects of the gospel of Christ, become relevant and consequential for faith in that gospel even if not dispositive on their own.

    1. Mike,

      Thanks for the comment. As I said, I have used a variation of this argument before in class, but I began to have doubts about its veracity. You wrote, "it's rare to see an idea flourish when its initial proponents did not bear arms or lead armies or seek treasure or power in any way." It is rare, but not unique to Jesus or the Church. I am more convinced by the Apostles' desire to seek truth not wealth or power, but other disciples of other faiths might be put in this camp as well. (I do, think, by the way that the tombs/graves of Peter, Paul and John, at least, are known to us.) The last point that you make, that these characteristics "when properly correlated with the other aspects of the gospel of Christ, become relevant and consequential for faith in that gospel," is an interesting point, but I wonder if it is relevant for those who already have come to faith in the Gospel or for those who are seeking or exploring such faith.

  2. Here's why I think it might have relevance for at least some of those who have not yet come to faith in Christ. People today are so accustomed to seeing self-serving and self-indulgent leaders. Cynicism abounds because "everyone has an agenda." Not only do the apostles demonstrate a demonstrably different ethic (perhaps, as you say, what they did was not altogether unique but to whom today can you point who is acting as they did?), they also are an echo effect of Jesus' own life. That is, they demonstrate that Jesus not only can be imitated, but that He has been imitated. If nothing else, those earliest followers give people today a picture of Jesus that is clearer than it otherwise would be.

    Having said that, I believe that only when a heart is open to repentance before God will the mind allow sufficient evidence for acceptance. In other words, there is no amount of evidence that will convince an unwilling heart.