Defending Visions: Answering Objections, Part Two

In a previous essay on this subject here,I answered a common objection to a hypothesis of visionary origins of Christianity such as mine in which the Christian faith began as a series of visionary experiences involving altered-states-of-conciousness. It is alleged that hypotheses or theories of visions to not explain the empty tomb. I did my best to answer that objection in my previous essay but that is not the only objection leveled at the hypothesis I advanced. Another objection is that any hypothesis of visionary origins of Christianity doesn't explain the diversity of New Testament appearances. As was the case before, I will do my best to answer this objection but I ultimately leave it to readers to judge whether I have met my burden. First a few observations about the nature of this objection are in order.

First, I began with the observation that in the study of history, documents from any time period in history are to be given the benefit of the doubt and it is the critic of any document or set of documents that must bear the burden of disputing the historical reliability of authenticity of the documents in question, especially if such documents purport to narrate an event alleged to have occured in history. Only if there are prima facie grounds for questioning the relability or authenticity of a document or set of documents arises, does the burden shift from the critic to the documents and any such defenders of the documents to defend the reliability or authenticity of the documents in question despite the charges made by critics to the documents. The New Testament is a set of documents and in particular, the canonical gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John claim to narrate the death, burial, and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Secondly, the documents in question might be harmonizable but harmonization must be defended. If a set of documents claiming to narrate an alleged event in history appear to be discrepant, harmonization should be attempted if there are excellent critical-historical arguments for supposing a core historical fact underlying the event narrated and secondary details should be harmonized as much as possible as long as there are good grounds for believing the secondary details of the narration to be historically reliable and not just the core historical fact alleged to be narrated. Just because a core historical fact underlies documents narrating an event, it doesn't meant that the secondary details that make up the narrative accounts of those documents are, in fact, reliable themselves. Suppose two documents narrate a given event and there are good critical-historical reasons for believing that there is a solid core historical fact underlying the accounts in these documents.

Suppose, further, that these two accounts contradict each other. It can be that one document is inaccuarate in a detail or more or that the other document is inaccurate in some of the details or perhaps even both documents can be inaccurate in terms of the details.
Third, we should give, as a matter of rule, the greatest benefit of any doubt to documents written by authors who have a clear authoral intent or stated purpose in which to accurately narrate history. A critical mindset is very desirable and the more critical a given document or set of them is, when it comes to narrating events, the more the benefit of the doubt should be assigned to that document or set of documents. Conversely, the more a document or set of them lacks authoral intent in terms of accuracy or any kind of stated historical interest in being historically, chronologically, or geographically accurate or an expressed, deliberate stated desire or intent to be critical and careful in the evaluation of information, tradition, sources, or reports, the more we can expect to doubt that that document or set of documents narrates. With these considerations in mind, I now turn to the objection raised and what I consider to be the best answer to the objection.

First of all, I believe that the New Testament accounts of the resurrection are highly discrepant and are impossibly inconsistent, especially in terms of secondary details despite whatever core historical facts underly the accounts. Thus I am willing to grant for the sake of discussion that the empty tomb and postmortem appearances of Jesus are core historical facts underlying the New Testament resurrection narratives and I have absolutely no problem accepting the empty tomb and postmortem appearances philosophically, as core historical facts, if historical evidence should point in that direction. I am aware of attempts made by Christians to harmonize the accounts and I believe that this should be seen rightfully for what it is-an attempt at harmonization. The attempts at harmonization in my opinion are highly contrieved and quite fantastic in the sense that it's obvious that apologists who are constructing them seem bothered by the presence of discrepancies and are willing to go to lengths to harmonize them and the harmonization process in itself seems rather tortured in some ways. Even if the attempts are reconciling the accounts are plausible and can be achieved- that in my opinion would greatly lessen the historical value of the accounts. As Robert M Price notes, the very admission of a need to harmonize the accounts is an admission that the accounts cannot be taken at face value and that the burden of proof is on the resurrection narratives themselves, not on the critics who would call these narratives into question.

What harmonizing shows is that despite appearances to the contrary, the accounts still might be true, not that they should be taken at face value. The need for harmonization shifts the burden to the defender of the accounts, not the critics who would question the reliability of the accounts. The accounts cannot be taken at face value and it is the defender, the apologist who must defend the reliability of the accounts and show how they are still reliable despite appearances to the contrary, rather than the accounts being reliable as they stand, placing the burden on the critic who would challenge the reliablity of the accounts. This is made all the more problematic, in my opinion, with the lack of clear authoral intent in some of the narratives. The closest thing we have to an authoral intent to narrative events accurately is the Lukan prologue. Such a statement of authoral intent is clearly lacking in Matthew, Mark, and John. We don't have any stated intent in the other synoptics or John that the accounts are attempts to record and narrate history accurately. There is no critical mindset that I am personally aware of!

I see this as particularly problematic because the "diversity of appearances" in the New Testament resurrection accounts presupposes that the accounts are perfectly harmonizable historically and are as a whole inerrant. Thus, Christian apologists will point to appearances in both Jerusalem and Galilee, as recorded in Matthew, Luke, and John, as evidence of diversity. But this supposes beforehand that Matthew, Luke, and John are harmonizable and, ergo, historically inerrant in the sense that if you put their accounts side by side along with, say, the 1st Corinthians 15 creed, they will naturally merge smoothly and cleanly into a coherent and logically consistent whole. But what if the accounts conflict with each other as I hold that they do? Matthew records an appearance of Jesus to his followers in Galilee while Luke places the first appearance of the risen Jesus to his followers in Jerusalem on the night he rose from the dead. Christian defenders of biblical inerrancy and the resurrection will argue that the two accounts are complementary. What if they really do contradict each other? Then there really isn't any diversity so to speak. The problem, then, is that Christian apologists like Bill Craig and Gary Habermas may be milking the New Testament for data that simply may not exist, trying to squeeze as much juice out when the accounts may be completely dry. The "diversity" they have in mind, I would contend, is simply imaginary.

This is not to say that there wasn't a diversity of appearances, only, that it seems to me that Bill Craig and Gary Habermas and their apologist cohorts are basing their argument for a diversity of appearances on illegitimate grounds. They are treating the New Testament accounts as if they are reliable narratives, to be completely accepted at face value. I see no reason to accept the accounts at face value and furthermore, I contend that they are trying to milk a "diversity of appearances" out of their harmonization efforts. The bottom line seems to me to be that any such "diversity" presupposes harmonization and inerrancy and that has to be argued for despite appearances to the contrary, not simply assumed at face value. Christian apologists and other defenders cannot have it both ways in my opinion. They cannot argue for a prima facie "diversity" of appearances and at the same time argue that the resurrection accounts are in need of harmonization. Any such diversity must be argued for and defended, not taken at face value and simply assumed if Christian defenders of the New Testament accounts admit the need for harmonization. There might be strong grounds for a diversity of appearances if the accounts were true as they stand and were not in need of harmonization because it would then fall on the critic to explain away the diversity of appearances. But if the accounts are in need of harmonization, such a diversity of appearances can only be legitimately inferred if and once a successful harmonization scheme is proposed and defended and shown to be the right way to approach the accounts.

I would ask Craig, Habermas, Licona, Holding, and others- what diversity? Most importantly, I would simply ask them for their choice: harmonization or diversity? I don't believe Christians can have it both ways. They will have to pick one or the other. If harmonization is necessary, any such diversity cannot be argued for at face value. If a diversity is inferred at face value, then harmonization is not important and I would have to ask Christians to justify taking the accounts at face value without any harmonization . Until I see a successful harmonization scheme defended and the historical inerrancy of the texts defended, I don't believe any such diversity exists outside the imagination of most Christian apologists. I see no reason to infer a diversity of appearances and no need to "explain" them. Only once an inference of such diversity is successfully defended, then would I consider adjusting the explanatory scope of any hypothesis of visions to account for the diversity. Thus, I believe that this objection fails.