Happy Thor’s Day
I suppose a disclaimer is in order. I am writing this post as test pilot of the kind of things I could probably put in a book as an ex-believer, former pastor, bible scholar and theologian. The kind of things that would cause many Christians to say: “That’s sad, I will pray for you.” Spare me, I have a better plan for you. Read this post and tell me where I am wrong. The point is I could write a book (and may do so) about the problems with the life of Jesus Nazareth, this would only represent what would probably be one section of a chapter. There is definitely many more things I could say.
Nobody likes death or the idea of ceasing to exist. Nobody. In large part I think this is why every major religion has an afterlife story. In Christianity an eschatology of where people go after they die. We want to believe that we go on and so we create religions to say when, how and why we would go on. None of this has any real verification as no one has really come back from the dead to tell us the reality of what is after death. Well, unless you can prove Jesus of Nazareth actually did so.
For four decades I believed he had. It is this central belief on which all of Christianity lives or dies. Even the Bible understands this as in 1 Corinthians 15 it is very boldly stated that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then the Christian faith is vain. Everything in Christianity hinges on the resurrection being true.
For years I was therefore a faithful apologist of the resurrection. I understood the stakes. Without this event, my faith was nonsense. Today; when it comes down to it, I have more doubts now than belief. For a long time I hinged my faith that the eyewitnesses were telling the truth. They may well have thought they were telling the truth, but were they actually reliable witnesses or subject to the same problems that plague all eyewitness accounts?
Here is the problem – everything that we know about the resurrection is based on eyewitness testimony, and it has been proven that eyewitness testimony is unreliable at best. Then you have the fact that such testimony was not solicited for being permanently written down for many years after the fact. Even by conservative christian scholarship there is a gap of twenty years between the events and the first gospel. That’s a long time for the eyewitnesses to get their story straight and they still don’t pull it off.
Eyewitness testimony has the following problems: https://www.simplypsychology.org/eyewitness-testimony.html
- Stress / Anxiety – Stress level can have a negative impact on memory. Depending on the nature of the stress. While people can remember aspects of events involving weapons very well, they forget others more readily if experiencing personal stress because their personal stress level is very highly distracting to their focus.
- Reconstructive Memory. In memory recall we DO NOT remember things like a video tape. In reality there is a lot of interpretive action in memory and we remember the gist of the event to the value judgment we placed on it more than the events. We store the information in the way that makes most sense to us. Because this is very cultural and societal it can be full of prejudice and bias. This is reflected in the fact that as people change their values, the memories change in how they are recalled. We reconstruct memories in a way that reflects our belief in the nature of the world.
- Weapon Focus – The funny thing about having a weapon pointed at you is that you remember the weapon and nothing else around it. You might ask how this applies, well when you get focused on one thing you are seeing the other things tend to get blurry. So the question comes – was the sight of an open tomb an object focus?
- Leading Questions – this is normally an issue with legal matters in testimony, but in the case of the gospels the claim is made that the writers of the gospels were interviewing eyewitnesses – did they during such interviews ask leading questions?
So, the question then becomes how accurate is any account, even four of them, when all those accounts are based entirely of eyewitness testimony many years after the fact? There is a high probability that a large amount of the second problem entered into the accounts as the disciples interpreted the events according to their values and beliefs in the world. The believed in miracles and they wanted Jesus to be alive.
I could argue that the whole thing might be made up. But let’s for the sake of this argument say that on resurrection morning the disciples did indeed see something and the interpreted that as Jesus of Nazareth risen from the dead. Let’s assume that their gospels are the eyewitness testimony they claim to be and see what problems could be there. Let’s assume thy are not being deliberately deceptive, but perhaps misjudged what they saw.
- Stress /Anxiety – the disciples would have been under a great deal of stress that would have affected their memory. They were mourning and were by their own accounts in fear of the religious leaders. In the case of the women who first went to the tomb grieving and distraught. When they arrive at the tomb, it is empty, the guards are gone and there is no body. Interpretation, because they wanted it to be true – so badly to be true – Jesus rose from the dead.
- Reconstructive Memory – this is the big problem. The gospels themselves when it comes to the resurrection accounts are varied and quite frankly at times contradictory. I am not saying there was a conspiracy to defraud but an atmosphere of want the story to be true to the point that accounts of seeing Jesus alive were probably everywhere. The gospels themselves provide evidence for reconstructive memory. Mark stops after saying the resurrection took place, the longer version being a clear addition. No events are actually recorded so you are left with the oral stories floating around. Matthew and Luke record the events but they don’t agree on some details. Like who saw Jesus first as far as who was in the group of women. Both of them record Peter being the first to reach the tomb with no second witness. John says ‘no the way it happened was I was there and I outran Peter to the tomb.’ This lack of continuity in the accounts is a direct refection of not only that memories of the resurrection are being reconstructed, but the stories are told differently to reflect each gospels writer’s own interpretations of those memories; whether their own or the testimony of others. Worse yet, if we follow even conservative scholarship on the dates of the gospels – we get a gap of time of at least two to three decades where interpretation of bias have influenced those memories over time. Cementing the values with the memories and altering those memories.
- Weapon/Object Focus: If the disciples find the tomb empty, that tomb would become the object focus of the discussion. They would focus on it and try to explain it. They many to choose from, but their founder Jesus of Nazareth told them he was going to rise from the dead. They wanted that to be true very badly so the empty tomb becomes – Jesus rose from the dead like he said. Later when the accounts are being written, ‘angels’ make that statement, and memories reconstructed with additions and changes.
- Leading Questions: The problem here is that when the gospel writers are doing their research; they being believers talking to believers would have the high possibility of doing two things. 1) Asking questions that basically assume the story is true looking for confirmation, not honest inquiry and 2) asking softball questions that are leading to get the story they want. No author of the gospels is a skeptic but rather they assume the story is true and there is no other account but theirs anywhere.
Time to Look Through the Eye:
Was this eyewitness thing the death nail to my faith. No, but it has raised more doubt than faith that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, Why? Because it is highly feasible that with the high expectations or need for comfort, that people made the story up because of wanting something to have faith in. My best example of this is Mary Magdalene seeing Christ after the other ladies leave. She is very distraught (Stress), she is focused on the empty tomb (object focus) and she sees what she perceives is the gardener and then ‘discovers’ it is Jesus (reconstructive memory?). When you add the problem of that no one but Mary experienced this with no other witnesses, it is highly like people who see aliens when they are alone. With no collaboration, you really have to dismiss the story. I have more doubts than faith anymore because most stories of seeing the resurrected Christ have these problems.
In the end it was my religion and profession that kept me at it, but the doubts kept getting bigger. This issue of eyewitness testimony actually came up in my Easter sermons because I was wrestling with it. The more I wrestled with it and looked at the gospel accounts, the more I realize these problems were very possible and that either many of the stories either had no collaboration, no outside collaboration or the witnesses were not named and thus could not be followed up on.
If there is any part of the theology I wrestle with it is life after death and its relationship to giving life meaning. Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 15 is that the only meaning to life would be ‘eat and drink for tomorrow we die. But I would argue that philosophers have taken on that point and have done so somewhat successfully. Don’t get me wrong, their answers aren’t perfect, but they are there to be considered.
I think most of us deists still cling a little to the possibility of life after death. The possibility that the universe has a grand purpose created by a designer. That said we are very interested in spirituality that reflects reality. We want something deeper that is real not the result of flaws in human reasoning and observation. For me this basically means I place more emphasis on enjoying and living a good life now, because life after death is a true unknown and not something I want to focus my spiritual life on, especially if it turns out that it doesn’t exist.
Well, I hope you enjoyed this little test pilot of what kinds of things I could write if I was so inclined. The real issue I wrestle with is truth, how much more important is truth to the value I place on fidelity and respect of others. I have to think on it more, Because the Life of Christ would be a great topic for me given my education and experience, the problem would be most of my family and friends might disown me or at the very least find it awkward to invite me to family gatherings at Christmas and Easter. I will have to meditate on it more.
Continuing to Walk the Path,
The Rabyd Skald – Wandering Soul, Bard and Philosopher. The Grey Wayfarer.