I’ve said a couple of times that I would do a write-up about the Christian apologetic works of Gilbert West and George Littleton (see my posts here and here). Gilbert West was an eighteenth century thinker who attempted to disprove Jesus’ resurrection, and he ended up believing in it and becoming a Christian. George Littleton lived at the same time and sought to disprove the miraculous conversion of Saul of Tarsus, who became the apostle Paul, but Littleton came to accept it and himself converted to Christianity. My pastor told the stories of these two men, and I have read their stories on Christian sites on the Internet. What I did not see, however, was a summary of these men’s arguments. But I did find these men’s writings online, I read them, and now I will write about them. First, I’ll write about West’s argument for Jesus’ resurrection. Then, I’ll discuss Littleton’s book about the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. Finally, I’ll offer my own evaluation of their work. I did not take notes on these books, so I’m writing largely from memory. But I’ve linked to the books here so that you can read them for yourself, if you so choose.
1. Let’s start with West’s book. For a long time, I was getting really frustrated in reading it. It just seemed to me that West was assuming the historicity of the biblical text, without actually defending that historicity. He made a case that the resurrection stories in the Gospels are not contradictory but can be harmonized, but that, in my opinion, did not prove their historicity, only that one can harmonize all sorts of things if one works hard enough. Then West was arguing on the basis of the text that Mary could not have been hallucinating the risen Jesus, since the Gospel story does not present her as someone who was in a hallucinatory sort of condition. I was ready to throw my hands up into the air! How could West defend Jesus’ resurrection by just assuming the Gospels’ historicity? Isn’t that begging the question?
But West eventually did start to mount a defense of the Gospels’ historicity. I’ll list a sample of arguments that West made. First, West said that the differences in the accounts about Jesus’ resurrection demonstrate that there was no collusion, and thus we can trust them. Second, against those who claimed that there were writings in the New Testament that were not written by the authors to whom they are attributed, West essentially argues that such a fraud could not have been pulled off. Usually, West argues, the person delivering the letter was someone who knew the author, and the church receiving the letter was aware that he knew the author. Moreover, West wonders how a congregation would accept a pseudonymous letter years after the alleged author has died. For West, the authors to whom the New Testament books are attributed actually wrote those books, and they were eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus.
Third, against those who say that the story of Jesus’ resurrection was invented years after the lifetime of Jesus and was not based on the testimony of eyewitnesses, West inquires why anyone would invent that kind of story. West notes that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was unpopular—-for it was a stumblingblock to many Jews and foolishness to many Greeks (I Corinthians 1:23). For West, it’s more likely that Jesus rose from the dead, and that Jesus’ resurrection inspired early eyewitnesses to proclaim the Gospel amidst opposition. West also notes that early Christianity was discontinuous with the Jewish heritage of the apostles, as the Gospels and Acts narrate, and West’s point here may be that the resurrection of Jesus was what contributed to the dramatic change in their mindset.
Fourth, West appeals to what non-Christians said about Jesus in ancient times. He notes that Celsus and the Talmud acknowledged that Jesus performed miracles. Why West thinks that means that Jesus did perform miracles, I am not entirely certain. Perhaps West thinks that Jesus performed miracles, people told stories about those miracles for years, and these stories got passed down to Celsus and the rabbis whose views are recorded in the Talmud, such that even they could not deny the miracles’ historicity. West also appeals to Matthew 28:11-15, which states that the chief priests of Jesus’ day and Jews of Matthew’s day explained away the empty tomb by claiming that the apostles stole Jesus’ body while the Roman guards at the tomb were asleep. For West, this shows that even non-Christians accepted that Jesus’ tomb was empty. But couldn’t Matthew have made up that story? West does not think so, for West says that, had Matthew made that up, chief priests and Jews could have simply come forward and denied that they were claiming that Jesus’ body was stolen, thereby stopping Matthew’s story in its tracks. West may think that Matthew would not have written the story if Matthew realized it could be easily refuted. Fifth, West makes a big deal about Old Testament prophecy being fulfilled in Jesus.
West also addresses the question of why the risen Jesus only appeared to his followers, when he could have appeared to non-believing Jews and thereby convinced them that he was who he said he was. My impression is that West’s answer is that Jesus chose to appear only to his disciples so that people would believe on the basis of their transformed lives, not his flashy appearance. But West does believe that God confirmed the testimony of the early witnesses to Jesus through signs and wonders, so those early Christian witnesses were not simply offering their unsubstantiated accounts.
2. We’ll turn now to Littleton’s book on the conversion of Paul. A man named Henry Rogers wrote an interesting introductory essay to Littleton’s book (and Littleton’s book was also a letter to West, I should add), and I want to highlight two things about it. For one, Rogers says that Littleton did a lot of things, including writing poetry, and yet all Littleton is remembered for is his treatise on the conversion of Paul. Rogers says that this demonstrates the relevance of the topic from generation to generation. Second, Rogers criticizes such scholars as Paulus and Renan, who (according to him) dismissed what the Bible said about Paul’s conversion and substituted their own rationalistic attempts to explain what happened to Paul. One such idea was that Paul converted to Christ out of a sense of guilt. Rogers counters, however, that there is no basis for this explanation, and also that it contradicts what the Bible itself indicates: that Saul of Tarsus was not feeling guilty when Jesus appeared to him, but thought himself blameless and was prosecuting his mission against the Christians with great zeal.
Going on to Littleton’s treatise, I’d like to highlight four arguments that Littleton makes. First of all, Littleton argues that the miracles that Paul performed attested to the truth of his conversion and his Gospel. These miracles appear in Acts, and Paul refers to them in some of his letters. Against the charge that the world was pretty gullible back then, Littleton responds that Paul was performing his miracles before those who opposed his message, people who were not particularly gullible or easily fooled by any trick Paul may perform (not that Littleton thinks Paul wanted to perform any tricks), and also that some of the miracles Paul did could not be simulated through trickery. Littleton acknowledges that there were people who performed fake miracles in the ancient world, but he does not think that Paul was one of them. That brings me to another point that Littleton makes: Second, Littleton says that Paul was not the sort of person who would claim to have had a miraculous conversion to augment his own power and influence. Paul did not exercise authoritarian power over churches, Littleton argues, and (if I recall correctly) Littleton may have said that Christianity was a fairly marginalized movement. For Littleton, we can deduce from Paul’s character that he had a genuine religious experience that changed him, that the risen Christ really did appear to him.
Third, Littleton says that, if Paul’s story about seeing the risen Christ had been fraudulent, his companions on the road to Damascus (who were non-Christians) would have stepped forward to dispute Paul’s claim. This is similar to West’s argument that we can know that Matthew was telling the truth about the chief priests’ acknowledgment of Jesus’ empty tomb because the chief priests were not publicly disputing Matthew’s story, thereby stopping it in its tracks. Fourth, Littleton maintains that Paul could only have done the spectacular things that he did—-the conversion of so many Gentiles to Christianity, amidst opposition—-through the assistance of God.
3. Okay, these are the arguments of West and Littleton (and also Rogers), as I remember them. What, now, is my assessment of them?
I respect that West, Littleton, and Rogers are moved by certain biblical stories. But do they prove that these stories happened in history? Here are some points that I want to make, and these points include questions that I have.
—-I can see Rogers’ point that there are scholars who reject what the Bible says about an event, only to substitute their own unsubstantiated narratives. I would say that the narratives of the scholars Rogers criticizes may have some merit, however: Paul may very well have converted out of some sense of guilt, for Acts 9:5 says it was hard for Saul to kick against the goads. But my point is that I’m not for dismissing the biblical narratives wholesale and substituting something that is foreign to what the biblical narratives say. At the same time, I believe that Littleton goes to the other extreme and accepts biblical narratives uncritically, more so than does West (who makes more of an attempt to substantiate them). For example, whereas there are many scholars today who would point to discrepancies between Paul’s account and what we see in Acts, Littleton does not have any sensitivity to that issue, sensitivity enough at least to try to refute it.
—-I believe that Paul had a religious experience that changed his life. I doubt that he was making it up so he could attain money and power, for he did have a hard life after his conversion. I wouldn’t say that Paul refused to exercise power, however, for he did appeal to his own authority a couple of times in his letters to the Corinthians. But would I say that Paul was power-hungry, or faked his conversion out of a desire for power, money, and influence? No. The thing is, though, all sorts of people, inside and outside of the Christian religion, have religious or mystical experiences. Littleton may come back and say that these were people who were looking for such an experience, but we can know that Saul’s experience was truly miraculous and from Christ because he was not looking for it—-Christ had to strike Saul with blindness to get Saul’s attention! Perhaps. I don’t know. There are many people who talk about having conversions, and I doubt that all of these conversions were to religions that would meet the approval of conservative Christians. Moreover, I do recall reading as an undergraduate at least one tale about someone converting to Islam after opposing it.
—-West seems to dispute that pseudonymous letters could have been pulled off. While I believe that he asks good questions about this, the fact is that they were pulled off. We know about them. I’m not saying that every, or even most, of the New Testament books are forgeries, for I accept the authenticity of many of the letters attributed to Paul. But I don’t think that West was sensitive enough to the existence of forgery in the ancient world, whereas Rogers actually was sensitive to this.
—-Why would the early Christians invent an unpopular Gospel, which brought them persecution (or prosecution, if you accept Candida Moss’ thesis)? That’s a good question. I doubt that they were consciously lying, but I also don’t think that our only choice is either to see them as liars or to accept their beliefs as unvarnished historical truth. There are many scholars who say that the empty tomb stories came later, but that the earlier Christians believed Jesus was still alive for other reasons (i.e., visions). Moreover, I doubt that Christianity is the only unpopular, revolutionary religion that emerged throughout history. Muhammad encountered his share of resistance. So did Joseph Smith.
—-While Littleton asks how Paul could have had his spectacular missionary success without God’s backing, I ask if a similar question could be asked of Muhammad, who conquered a lot of lands and subordinated them to Islam. Couldn’t one argue that Muhammad had divine backing? And, if a Christian wants to attribute Muhammad’s success to naturalistic causes, I ask why the same can’t be done with Paul’s success as a missionary. There were many Gentiles in ancient times who were attracted to Judaism, but they did not want to undergo circumcision. Would it be so out of the ordinary that they would accept Christianity, a religion that was like Judaism, yet lacked the circumcision requirement?
—-I’m not sure what to make of the argument that, if certain Christian accounts were not true, non-Christians at the events discussed in the accounts would have come forward to refute them, stopping them in their tracks. I recently read a largely negative review of Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ, and its argument was that detractors wouldn’t have tried to refute early Christians’ claims for the simple reason that Christianity was too marginal for anyone to address its claims. Maybe. I think that we can tell from the Gospels and Paul’s letters that there were disputes between believers in Jesus and Jewish communities, and thus that Christians were at some point considered a force to be reckoned with, but this was decades after the time of the historical Jesus. I guess that my problem with the argument is that it presumes that life was neater than it probably was. Even today, people spread things that are not true, and this happens even though detractors can refute those things on the web—-in a public form, where anybody with internet access can see it. And even these refuttals don’t always stop the ideas in their tracks, for there are people who go on believing them. Why should we presume that detractors in ancient days would have had an easier time in stopping ideas in their tracks?
—-Why would non-Christians acknowledge that Jesus did miracles? That’s a good question, but I don’t think that fact proves the truth of Christianity. Maybe non-Christians thought that Jesus performed miracles because they knew of others who did miracles, and so why would they dismiss the possibility that Jesus did them, too? Moreover, just because there may have been Jews who sought to explain away the stories about Jesus’ empty tomb, or there were rabbis who accepted that Jesus did miracles but attributed them to sorcery, that doesn’t mean there was an empty tomb or that Jesus did miracles, does it? I suppose that Jewish detractors could have simply claimed that the empty tomb story lacked proof, but I don’t think it’s too extraordinary that they went another route in their polemics.
Anyway, some of you may think that West, Littleton, and Rogers offer good arguments, whereas my responses are merely stretches. I respect your opinion, for, even if I may not regard their arguments as air-tight, I think that I can see why one would find them powerful and convincing. Some of you may be agnostics and atheists and think that my responses are not adequate. That’s fine, too. I’m writing based on what I think and know, and I’m open to learning. Whichever perspective you hold, feel free to comment, but please refrain from any put-downs. We’re all on a journey.