RESPONDblogs: Can Science Answer Moral Questions?

moral_landscape

I regularly watch TED Talks. As a regular public speaker myself, I love to learn from the best speakers. I recently watched a TED talk by Sam Harris which dealt with why Science and not Religion can answer the deepest questions about right, and wrong and human morality. In fact – Harris argues that science’s objectivity can give us better moral answers than religion can.

 

You can watch his talk here.

Science Can Answer Moral Questions | Sam Harris | TED Talks

I have a lot of sympathy for Harris’s arguments. And judging by the standing ovation he received at the end, so did his audience. I feel that Harris plugs in to our intuitive sense of right and wrong in this talk. He appeals to our inner call for justice in the face of injustice towards women and children. His condemnation of religious extremism? I wanted to stand up and applaud him for these points too!

 

But do I agree with him that science can give us any answers on the questions of right and wrong? No – I don’t follow his argument at all. It doesn’t make sense to me. And I’ll tell you why.

 

Harris uses the term “flourishing” as he builds his case. He claims that the scientific method can help us to work out what enables human beings and human society to flourish. Moral behavior, therefore, is simply that which causes the majority of people to flourish. I agree with him that human flourishing is important. And I am sure he’s right that scientific observation can assist in this process. But there’s a big question that is looming over his argument.

 

1 – Harris’s Argument Never Answers WHY?

WHY? Why is it right and good for the most number of people to flourish, and bad to frustrate this moral agenda?  Ah – a reply comes – it’s all about survival. We promote human flourishing to ensure the survival of the species in a Darwinian sense.

 

No – hang on a moment. Survival is not the “ought” that promotes human flourishing. Survival of the fittest is not going to work for you here. Because when it comes down to it, moral good isn’t actually defined as the best for the most people. History is full of examples of that sort of reasoning, where the majority benefit at the expense of the minority. A morality based on the principle, “might is right” is no morality at all. History shows us that it opens the door instead to all sorts of inhuman acts.

 

Why shouldn’t I flourish at your expense? Whether “I” is me personally or my community of my ethnicity or whatever? If I’m unfortunate enough to be in the minority who is not permitted to flourish…then that’s just tough luck to Sam Harris. Agreed – it is tough luck. But is that morally right? I think we would intuitively say – no it’s not morally right. So why is it allowed to happen? Harris’s argument has nothing to say beyond, that’s just the way things are.

 

The problem is, Harris measures morality purely on the basis of observation, watching how people behave. It is locked into human society. It has no way to appeal beyond human society to a higher ideal. Science cannot reach beyond “what is”. It cannot touch on “what should be”. The scientific method was never intended for this purpose. It is the wrong tool for the job.

 

 

2 – Harris’s Argument ASSUMES Moral Values Exist in Order to Work

This is the deeper issue for Sam Harris.

 

His Moral Landscape imports human morality in order to work. He assumes that it is morally good to encourage people, to promote value and purpose and all these things. And he is right – it is good! But the problem is – he is not deducing these things. He is just assuming them. His logical argument “begs the question” over morals and their existence.

“Concepts of sacrifice, nobility and honour must be assumed foundationally, but these are not morally neutral notions….He’s borrowing pre-existent, objective moral notions about worth, value and purpose, while holding a worldview that argues against any pre-existent moral notions.”[1]

 

Harris needs morality to exist in order for his moral landscape to make any sort of sense. But these morals are precisely the things he is trying to explain! Where do these notions come from? Ironically they come from the Christian foundation that he has benefitted from as a citizen of a Western nation. The humane, people valuing society that is promoted through the teaching of the Bible. A million miles from the religious extremist caricature he paints.

 

 

 

So…

 

I applaud Sam Harris as he calls for the protection and the flourishing of persecuted people groups. I’m with him on that. But we part company when it comes to his line of reasoning. Science cannot derive issues of ultimate value to human life. Because by definition it is locked into the human condition.

 

Rather, it seems to me that science needs to import and assume Christian moral values in order to become humane. And so do people. There’s a transcendent source for the moral values that Sam…and each one of us…appeal to. And whether we like it or not…we are ultimately answerable to that source. A Holy God.

[1] J Warner Wallace, Is “Right” and “Wrong” Simply a Matter of “Human Flourishing”, Cold Case Christianity, http://coldcasechristianity.com/2013/is-right-and-wrong-simply-a-matter-of-human-flourishing/.

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RESPONDblogs: How Cultural Differences Point TO Absolute Morality – Not Away From It

culture

I think there are many strong arguments that point to the existence of the God who is presented to us by the Bible. And one of those arguments is – the human moral code.

 

I suggest that human morality points to God. And human morality is all about how people SHOULD behave.

 

Yet one of the common responses I get – is that morality is not about how people should behave. Morality is just how people DO behave. And that has changed over time. Further, just look at people in the world today. Moral values are clearly different between (for example) the members of the ISIS terror organization, and the average British person who looks on in horror at what they are doing to innocent people.

 

Each people group appears to have its own set of moral laws. These laws guide each people group as they seek to satisfy their wants and desires. And most compelling of all – each group thinks they are right! One group feels morally justified in its terror tactics – another group disagrees. In the face of this – to claim that a single, absolute moral code exists seems unlikely at best!

 

My response to this is – really? Are you sure about that? Perhaps you share this opinion that – morals are just what society does. Ok – let’s look at this claim closely.

 

FIRST – the person who says that morality is just what society does – is making a self-refuting claim. It is a claim that cancels itself out. Why?

They are saying that everyone is basically imprisoned in their own culture – we all have cultural biases – we all think we are right. We cannot see beyond our cultural biases. So it is just meaningless to claim that an objective moral standard exists.

Why does this claim cancel itself out? Well – because the person who makes this claim must have escaped his own culture, he must have somehow arrived at an objective perspective himself to have discovered that fact. So they can look down objectively on all the different cultures around them, who are locked in to their own way of doing morality. They see clearly, while the rest of us mere mortals are slaves to our individual societies.

So why is this a self-refuting claim? On the one hand – you are saying that no objective morals exist. And to prove it – you are making an objectively moral claim and expecting to make it stick. This is contradictory – you are denying the very thing to make your argument work.

It’s a bit like the story about the elephant surrounded by a bunch of blind men. You’ve heard this one, right? One can feel the trunk, another the ears, still others the legs. And they each think an elephant looks like the single bit that they can feel. And so they each have a very different idea of what an elephant looks like. But to truly understand what an elephant looks like, it takes a guy above them in a balcony – who is not blind and can see the elephant – to shout out, “The elephant is a big animal. Each man touched only one part. You must put all the parts together to find out what an elephant is like.”[1]

In order to assert that culture and morality are the same thing – you need to be the guy in the balcony looking down on the elephant. Yet that’s the very position that you deny – God’s absolute moral position.

 

SECOND – just because cultures disagree on moral viewpoints doesn’t mean there are no objective morals. It just means some societies differ on some moral viewpoints!

Just because societies disagree on what is morally acceptable does not lead us to the inescapable conclusion that there is no objective morality. Not at all!

“Currently there are conflicting views on many things…Is there life after death, or do we perish with our bodies? Does the disappearance of equatorial rain forests pose a threat to civilisation? Is the protective ozone layer that covers the earth being destroyed? Opinions on each of these issues vary. The fact that there is disagreement, however, does not mean that no view can be correct. The same is true with differences of opinion on morality.”[2]

Anthropology allows us to conclude that different people have different views about right and wrong. It does not let us conclude that there is no objective morality.

 

 

 

THIRD – differences in cultural moral practice POINT TO objective morality. These difference do not point away from objective morality.

This seems an odd thing to say – so let me explain what I mean. What might look like moral differences – often turn out to simply be a difference in perception of the circumstances, not a conflict in the core underlying values. There can be a difference in the facts…but the values stay the same.

  • A fact is – a fetus has developed for 16 weeks and has toes, fingers, a nose, eyes and a mouth.
  • A value is – a fetus is a human being.

Facts answer the question – what IS the case? Values answer the question – what OUGHT to be the case.

Killing human beings for no reason is and has been wrong in every culture at every time in history. It is an absolute moral value. What changes – is the justification for the killing. The abortion debate does not turn out to be a conflict about facts at all – rather, it’s a conflict on values.

Pro-life people think abortion wrong in 99.9% of the time because it involves taking the life of an innocent human being without proper justification.

Those favouring abortion agree completely that human beings – particularly the mother involved here – is a valuable human person! They disagree though on whether or not the unborn child qualifies to be seen as a human person.

But this debate points to a single, absolute human moral requirement – human beings are always of value and must be respected at all times. On both sides of the debate, we share a point of morality.

Here’s another example. In India cows roam free because they are considered sacred. Yet people in Britain eat beef burgers. This would seem to show a conflicting moral value between our cultures on the treatment of cattle.  Yet BOTH our cultures would agree that it is wrong to kill and eat human beings. So what has that to do with anything?

“In (Britain) when Grandma dies, we don’t eat her, we bury her. In India, Hindus don’t eat cattle because they believe the cow MAY BE grandma reincarnated in another form.”[3]

In other words – we share the absolute moral value of each human life. We just express that moral value differently.

There are many different examples of this. Recently someone pointed me to the ancient Roman Coliseum and said, “Morals have evolved since the barbaric Roman times. We don’t have a Coliseum any more. We don’t watch slaves being torn apart by wild animals and soldiers”. And my response is precisely this point. No – we don’t. But we kill our unborn children on an industrial scale. Is that any more or less barbaric? The Romans justified the killing of slaves as sport…by dehumanising them. They wouldn’t have treated Roman citizens that way – proper human beings. They would only treat sub humans to the horrors of the Coliseum. The Romans agreed with us that human life is precious. They shared this absolute human moral requirement. Yet they justified the killing by lowering their assessment of the value of their victims to subhuman levels. We do the same with the unborn child.

 

And ISIS? Well – I wouldn’t claim to understand their motivations. But I will say this. Their killing is not indiscriminate. You don’t see ISIS members randomly killing each other. They value friendship and human relationship and common purpose. Just like us. They are particular about who they murder. What you see is ISIS killing specific Christians and Muslims…and anyone else who they devalue to such an extent – that immediate death is our only option.

 

 

 

Is there evidence of absolute morality amidst the confusing mess of different cultures and peoples? Yes I think so. When you look beneath the surface – it is there at the centre. We all just cover it over with a different cultural coat of paint. It’s a common code of conduction that presses in on us…and that sounds very much like a pointer to God himself.

 

The God who cares about you and me so much…that he wants us to live a safe and productive life together. So he coded it into each one of us…

 

[1] Francis J. Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism Feet Planted in Mid-Air, (BakerBooks, 2011), 45.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

RESPONDblogs: I think it’s Great to be British!

woolf

It is a mistake to lump all world religions into the same bucket. Are we learning yet? It appears not.

At the beginning of December, a report on “religion and belief in British public life” was published by the Woolf Institute.[1] This organisation is dedicated to encouraging inter-faith dialogue between the different religious groups in Britain. Their report says that – Britain is no longer a Christian country, so Christianity should not be given priority in public life. Faith schools should be abolished, thought for the day on the radio should be opened to atheists, the next coronation should have input from other religious groups…and so on. Because the vast majority of people in our nation don’t regularly attend church…the Woolf Institute say we need to abandon our society’s Christian foundations.

Okay – there’s some truth here that I know this as a Pastor and a Christian for over 40 years. I know very well that the vast majority of British people do not align themselves with a local church. I agree with them on that. I also agree that there are many benefits to a multi-cultural society, which should be celebrated and protected. But what I don’t agree with – is their next recommendation. Which is to abandon Britain’s Christian roots.

Why don’t I agree with them? Because I’m a Christian and so I’m blinded by my bias? No – because I know how much light that Jesus Christ gives to each person stumbling in the darkness. Myself included. But yes – you’ve got me – I have a perspective on Christianity informed by both my life and from the lives of others. But my disagreement with the Woolf report also comes from historical realities…the part Christianity has played in the establishment of Christian Britain. It has been absolutely foundational.

I do not agree we should abandon this Christian foundation. Because as I read their report, what the report does not do…is describe what should replace those foundations. They have no idea! But the priority seems to be side-lining Christianity from public life. Call me old and “stuck in the past”, but don’t you think someone needs to decide ahead of time what will go in the place of our Christian foundations…so that we can decide whether it’s a good idea and whether we want that? Or is everyone happy just to stumble forward into the darkness together?

Does Britain have a Christian foundation? Well – let me ask another question. Did you notice what both the British Monarch and the Prime Minister said in their Christmas addresses this year? The Queen reminded us that, “Christ’s unchanging message was not one of revenge or violence but simply that we should love one another….and to look for ways of spreading that love to others.” And then she quotes an old saying. “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”[2]

The Prime Minister was even more “on the nose” with his Christmas speech. “As a Christian country, we must remember what [Jesus’] birth represents: peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope….it is because of these important religious roots and Christian values that Britain has been such a successful home to people of all faiths and none.”[3]

I think they are right. But an honest look at British history would confirm it. Jesus – his life, his words and his church have been foundational to the British nation thus far.

One of the brilliant things about Britain is our diverse, varied society. It makes for a rich tapestry of life. Every part of our society has the potential to make a positive contribution. But the foundation of this country is and has been the message of the Christian Gospel. It is always better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. This was God’s plan all along.

“The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” John 1:9

Jesus lights up the darkness for everyone, whatever our background. Whatever our life experiences have been so far.

 

There are those who want to stuff that light into a bag jumbled full of all sorts of religions and worldviews. What effect will that have on our country? I honestly don’t think they have considered that question. Can I suggest it’s only going to deepen the darkness and the confusion in our nation?

 

All religions are not the same. Look at them. They all make contradictory claims about God and the nature of life. Purely at the factual level…the religions are incompatible. And yet they do have at least one important place of overlap. One person who they all appeal to in greater or lesser degrees. And that’s the person Jesus Christ. Everyone wants Jesus on their side. All the religions do. Hey – I even know atheists who also want Jesus on their side!

Here’s my point. Britain has looked to Jesus Christ for its foundations. It has been part of our genius.  Are we really sure we want to turn that light off now? Are we sure we want to replace him with secular humanism? To open ourselves up to the sole foundation of the checks and balances of purely human government? Which has a habit of deciding for each of us what is ultimately right – and then forcefully imposing it on us using their might? Personally – I would rather we stuck with the Jesus who changes hearts by his love and grace.

 

Britain is a country where different faith systems can flourish. Christianity has been the foundation for that to happen. It creates an environment where people can exercise free will, while also giving people the choice whether or not to follow Christ. Don’t believe me? Check out other countries where Christianity has not been the foundation. I’m proud to be a citizen of a country where I can discuss matters of faith and belief with people of other religions and those with none.

 

I would suggest…that this sort of open and affirming foundation is one of the things that has made Britain great. So let’s keep it that way.

[1] http://www.woolf.cam.ac.uk/practice/commission-on-religion-and-belief.asp

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-35178485

[3] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/david-cameron-christmas-message-pm-to-hail-britains-christian-values-a6785021.html

RESPONDblogs: Darwin’s Doubt

Darwin-Doubt2

Western culture has soaked in the theories of Neo Darwinian Evolution for 150 years. Particularly common descent, the tree of life. And yet many people in scientific roles who are studying the origins of life are beginning to have the courage to stand up and challenge the long held assumptions of Neo Darwinism.

 

My background is Computer Science, not Biology. I’ve never been convinced by traditional Darwinism. Clearly life adapts, it is designed to be able to do so. But that does not mean all life can be traced to a single ancestor. I see evidence in Biology for the adaption of species, not the origin of species.

 

Philosopher of Science, Dr. Stephen C Meyer, would agree with me…for better and more thoughtful reasons! He helped to found the Center for Science and Culture. This is NOT a religious organization. This is an organization focussed on examining the evidence we have, building scientific models to help understand past processes and predict future outcomes in Biology.

 

“We are the institutional hub for scientists, educators, and inquiring minds who think that nature supplies compelling evidence of intelligent design. We support research, sponsor educational programs, defend free speech, and produce articles, books, and multimedia content.”[1]

 

Dr. Meyer points out that, contrary to the prevailing theories, the fossil record does not show gradual evolution. It shows “sudden” life emergence.

Evolutionary Biologists have to cope with the observable evidence of “sudden” life emergence from the Cambrian period. Multiple animal phyla appear “suddenly” during a very narrow period of geological time. By “sudden”…they are talking about millions of years. But this is certainly not long enough for the evolution of a complex protein by traditional Darwinian models…never mind the formation of a complete life form like Anomalocaris.

 

Why not zoom into the summary below for more…?

darwins-doubt-3

 

I am a fan of following the evidence where it leads in all areas of life. And I’m watching what Dr. Meyer says closely.

[1] http://www.discovery.org/id/

RESPONDblog: Evidence for Bible Miracle Claims – a Dangerous Edict

5 Claudius Nazareth Inscription - Paris copy

Some skeptical folks will want evidence for the claims of Christianity. Fair enough!  After all, one of the core claims of Christianity is – that God entered human history as Jesus of Nazareth at a specific point in history. If this is true – then surely he has left behind evidence of his time on earth?

I would argue that the New Testament documents form the basis of that historical evidence. Yet there is other supporting evidence to be found too. Little supporting pieces of history, like shards of buried treasure that point towards the truthfulness and the reliability of the New Testament record. And we find this evidence in the most surprising of places.

 

Back in 1878, amongst the ancient remains of the town Nazareth, archaeologists found a fascinating inscription engraved on marble. The inscription – which is housed in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris today – has been named the Nazareth Inscription. The text says this:

“Proclamation of Ceasar. It is my desire that graves and tombs remain sealed for the benefit of those who have made them and for their children, family members and their religion. If, however, anyone accuses that another has either destroyed them, removed the buried, or with ill intent has taken them to other places in order to wrong them, or has removed the sealing on other stones, I order that person be brought to trial. Just as a man should respect the gods, so also with regard to men, for all should respect the buried. It is therefore forbidden for anyone to disturb them. Should this edict be violated, the offender is to be sentenced to capital punishment on the charge of violating a sepulcher.”

 

The marble inscription has been dated to around 41AD, less than 10 years after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and this edict is believed to have been made by Claudius Ceasar. The language fits with other surviving edicts from him.

 

So – the leader of the entire Roman Empire is making an edict here. Breaking the terms of this edict will lead to the death penalty – this is a big and serious deal. So which criminal act is being doubled down on, here? What is so threatening to the Roman Empire that such a clear warning would be given?

 

Removing dead bodies from Jewish Sepulcher graves

 

Seems a bit over the top, don’t you think? Surely robbing of valuable items from graves – which I am sure, was common – is a more serious crime compared to stealing a dead body? What use is a decomposing corpse, after all?

 

It is a baffling edict – unless you choose to view it in the context of the New Testament’s report that …

“He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay” Matthew 28:6

 

One of the oldest explanations for the empty tomb of Jesus of Nazareth is – the disciples stole his body. According to Matthew’s gospel, this was the message that the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem urged the Roman Tomb Guards to give. They even go on to say that, if this story gets passed up the Roman chain of command…we will make sure you don’t get into any trouble for it guys. You can read about this in Matthew 28:11-15.

Well it seems from the wording of the Nazareth Inscription edict that the Jewish Chief Priests story reached those in charge – and the response was a modification of the law in Palestine. STOP STEALING DEAD BODIES out of Jewish sealing tombs…or else!

 

I have no doubt that the 1st century Romans dismissed the preaching of the early Church as lies. They didn’t believe Jesus had been raised. They believed – as the Sanhedrin and the Guards had claimed – that Jesus’ Disciples stole the body following Jesus’ death. This theft had clearly led to social unrest, as described in part in Acts chapters 5 to 8. And so – the Roman Government’s  solution – was to make the stealing of dead bodies illegal.

 

It seems to me that the Nazareth Inscription corroborates parts of Matthew’s Gospel post resurrection account – namely the claim the Jesus had risen, and the counter claim that his disciples stole the body. It also seems very significant to me that the Nazareth Inscription itself was presumably installed…but certainly found in Jesus’ very home town.

 

What am I saying here?

I am NOT saying that the Nazareth Inscription provides archaeological proof of Jesus’ Resurrection. What I am suggesting however – is that the story of Jesus’ Resurrection was widely known in the years following the 33AD event; even to the Roman Emperor. What does this mean? It means that Jesus’ first Disciples were the ones who circulated the resurrection reports. Jesus Resurrection was not an invention hundreds of years later, as has been claimed by some skeptical scholars who have tried to discredit Christianity.

 

It seems to me – the Nazareth Inscription is evidence that presents a question to us. Did the disciples steal Jesus body, or was Jesus really raised from the dead as they claimed?

 

 

Two final thoughts about the Stolen Body Explanation:

First – it assumes Jesus tomb was empty. And people knew then where  Jesus’ dead body was placed after his crucifixion.

Second – the record shows that Jesus’ friends were broken by his crucifixion. But something happened very quickly to turn this dispirited band into dynamic world changers. These men stood for truth and morality. And each one of Jesus original circle went to a premature death, standing for Jesus, his resurrection and the forgiveness of our sins.

It seems to me that it would take a lot more than a mistakenly missing body to turn frightened nobody’s into radical world changers.

Also – the idea that they knowingly stole the body in order to manufacture the birth of the Christian Church – does not fit with the record of these first Disciples. These people stood for truth and went to their deaths proclaiming it. What reason would they have for making this sacrifice, if they knew all along that the whole thing had been an elaborate hoax?

Surely meeting the risen Jesus Christ – and being commissioned by him to spread his life changing truth – is a historically reasonable explanation for their positively changed lives?

RESPONDblog: Evidence for Bible Miracle Claims – an Unexpected Darkness

Capture

In my experience, one of the first questions that Biblical skeptics ask about the miracle claims in the Bible is this – “Is there any evidence for this event outside the Bible?” I think this is a very reasonable question.

My previous blog focused on extra-Biblical evidence for Jesus Resurrection and his claims to be God.  http://tinyurl.com/k7ltbp9

 

For this one, I’d like to focus on a very specific event that the Bible records as happening on the day Jesus of Nazareth was crucified.

 

The Synoptic Gospel accounts (Matthew 27:45; 51-52, Mark 15:33 and Luke 23:44-45) all record an unexpected period of darkness during Jesus’ crucifixion. Matthew goes further to give it duration – 3 hours – and also claims it was accompanied by something like an earthquake.

Are there any extra-Biblical references to this?

If it really happened then surely it would have been a source of shock and surprise to the wider population of Jerusalem that day? The gospel account does not give any clue as to how large an area was affected by the claimed darkness. Was it restricted to the areas surrounding Jerusalem in some way? Was it felt by people living elsewhere on the planet? The text does not tell us. Again – we can assume it…but we don’t know from the Gospel itself.

 

Well – a very ancient extra-Bibical account of the 3 hour long darkness and rock splitting earthquake – does in fact exist. To find it we need to read reports from one pagan Roman historian who was a contemporary of Jesus living in Palestine, one pagan Roman historian from the 1st century and another who lived two hundred years later in Jerusalem.

 

Thallus, est. AD50:

Roman historian Thallus, believed to be a Samaritan, recorded strange events during Tiberius Ceasar’s reign around Jerusalem. Thallus is mentioned by various historical sources including his colleague Josephus. Thallus describes an “eclipse of the sun”; he gives a naturalistic explanation of an event which is dated to the time period of the crucifixion.

Phlegon, est. AD137:

Phlegon was believed to have been born around the time of Jesus crucifixion, and wrote an account later in the 1st century. He too mentions the darkness and even records the time and duration of the event; and it lines up with Matthew’s report – between the 6th hour and the 9th hour. He also mentions the earthquake affecting Bythinia and part of Nicea (hundreds of miles north of Jerusalem). I will quote a surviving fragment of his “The Olympiads” below.

Neither Thallus or Phlegon appear to have made any attempt to link the events specifically to Jesus crucifixion. Why would they? Yet a later 3rd century historian – Julius Africanus – did just that.

Julius Africanus, est. AD230:

He researched the earlier Thallus and Phlegon reports…and he added some commentary of his own. I will quote Julius Africanus at the bottom of this blog…but let me pull out some threads of what he is saying – and what he is not saying – in his account.

 

1 – He points specifically to “This darkness” . It was a well-known historical event that is being discussed. The three hour darkness –  and its associated earthquake – clearly affected a large region because many people got caught up in the discussion about it afterwards. Just how large the region was, though, is hard to tell.

2 – He quotes Thallus’ historical mention of the darkness. But he challenges Thallus’ reasoning for its occurrence. How can this have been an eclipse of the sun when the dates and times were all wrong? There was a full moon at that point in the Jewish calendar, and an eclipse of the sun would have been impossible.

3 – It seems that there were many different conflicting explanations suggested for this darkness at the time.  This is to be expected; people are curious – and inquisitive. We aren’t talking a cloudy day or a sudden rain downpour. This was a significant event that was debated amongst learned people at the time. There must have been many theories for what had happened that day! Julius is not convinced by Thallus’ naturalistic explanation. This is not just any astronomical event that is being discussed here – this is a very specific one which occurred during the reign of Tiberius Ceasar – around the time when Jesus Christ was crucified.

4 – He also points out Phlegon’s precise timing of the darkness and rock splitting event. This lines the account up with the claims in Matthew’s Gospel. He goes further and mentions the “resurrection of the dead” – a claim that Matthew’s Gospel specifically makes as having occurred at the moment of Jesus’ death. (Matthew 27:52-53). Julius is writing a hundred years after these events. But his report seems to refer to events that were known from the time.

5 – Julius is not specifically arguing that a supernatural event occurred that day. I will sometimes hear skeptics talk down to those who lived in 1st century Palestine. “Oh, they would have believed anything back then!” But these people were not stupid – and not as naive as many folks assume. Julius’  focus here is on recording what happened that day and when. He is also very focused on arguing what did not happen – this event could NOT have simply been a natural eclipse.

6 – Julius is not writing a Christian apologetic on the crucifixion, here. This is written as a historical commentary underpinning the tradition that had been communicated by the canonical Gospels for over 100 years prior to Julius investigations.

 

 

In summary, we have independent, extra-Biblical witnesses of an unexpected and specific 3 hour period of darkness on the day Jesus was crucified.  And we have historical evidence of a debate for the cause of this unexpected astronomical event.  We also have the Phlegon account of the earthquake felt as far north from Jerusalem as Nicea. I am unsure whether Thallus or Phlegon mentioned the resurrections as well; but Julius certainly does (although Julius was not an eyewitness of those events himself).

So the answer to my question is – YES. I think we DO have corroborative evidence outside the Bible for another of its miracle claims.

 

 

On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun. For the Hebrews celebrate the passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Savior falls on the day before the passover; but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun. And it cannot happen at any other time but in the interval between the first day of the new moon and the last of the old, that is, at their junction: how then should an eclipse be supposed to happen when the moon is almost diametrically opposite the sun? Let opinion pass however; let it carry the majority with it; and let this portent of the world be deemed an eclipse of the sun, like others a portent only to the eye. Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth–manifestly that one of which we speak. But what has an eclipse in common with an earthquake, the rending rocks, and the resurrection of the dead, and so great a perturbation throughout the universe? Surely no such event as this is recorded for a long period. (The Extant Fragments of the five Books of Chronography of Julius Africanus XVIII.1)

 

In the 4th year of the 202nd Olympiad, there was a great eclipse of the sun, greater than had ever been known before, for at the sixth hour the day was changed into night, and the stars were seen in the heavens. An earthquake occured in Bythinia and overthrew a great part of the city of Nicea. (The Extant Fragments of The Olympiads of phlegon)

 

 

 

RESPONDblog: Are Jesus’ Miracles confirmed outside of the Bible?

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Earlier today, someone said this to me:

“There is historical evidence for Jesus crucifixion…but not any of his miracles.”

As those words hit me, I groaned inside. Why? Because I think this guy is just expressing something that is mistakenly assumed by so many skeptics of Christianity. And it saddens me because it is so NOT true!

 

I try to reach a skeptical audience with this blog – i’m not always successful. Having said that…it strikes me that, if I’m a Biblical skeptic, i’m not going to be too impressed by evidence of Jesus miracles from the pages of the Bible itself. So…what about evidence of Jesus miracles OUTSIDE the pages of the Bible? Does any of this corroborating evidence exist…evidence that supports the evidence in the Bible?

Yep.

Are you willing to lay aside your pre-conceived notions…and begin to consider it?

 

Alexamenos-Graffiti

First – the earliest portrayal of Jesus Christ we are aware of is a piece of graffiti that is drawn with the intention of insulting Jesus and Christians in general. It shows a man with a donkey’s head being crucified…and another man standing to the side with one hand outstretched. Beneath this is written in Greek, “Alexamenos worships [his] God.”

Weird, eh? But actually, the early Christian claims of a crucified God were viewed as ridiculous. This graffiti qualifies as ancient satire and it corroborates an important fact to my skeptical friend. Early Christians – strict monotheists – worshiped Jesus. What would cause them to do that?

 

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Second – two inscriptions found on ossuaries (jars containing skeletal remains) dated around AD 50 – are actually prayers addressed to Jesus…asking for his help. Mark Mittleberg asks a penetrating question. “How is it that Jesus – if he never lived or never rose from the dead – is invoked in prayer a mere twenty years after his death?”

 

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Third – historical sources like the Roman historian Josephus, Tacitucs and Pliny the Younger were no friends of early Christianity. Yet they mention facts about Jesus and his followers that line up with the New Testament accounts. Scholar Gary Habermas (in his book The Historical Jesus) provides over 100 extra Biblical facts about Jesus life, his death, his resurrection and his teaching. Jesus credentials are solidly historical. there’s no getting away from this.

Where does this leave us? Well – if we are willing to look at the available evidence, it gives us corroborating evidence that supports the text of the New Testament. Specifically – that Jesus lived, he died, he rose from the dead and as his followers worshipped him as God; they genuinely and honestly initiated the spread of Christianity in the light of the historical Jesus.

If the history is right…and Jesus rose from the dead as the New Testament Gospels affirm…then it confirms His recorded claims to be God Himself. Why? Because the thing that eventually masters each and every one of us – death – has no power over Him. In the light of that…wouldn’t it make sense to bring our lives under His love and care?

 

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matthew 11:28-29, NIV