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Wednesday, February 03, 2010


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In general it would seem fair that Novak believes the trilemma is not based simply on logic, but rather on New Testament exegesis.

As far as Novak's assertions, I would like to add something to the mix.

"When someone is presenting a x-lemma, he must mean something else then: not that these are the only thinkable alternatives, but these are the only thinkable alternatives consistent both in themselves and with certain given data and reasonable assumptions.

The thinkable alternatives cannot simply be based upon consistency in themselves and with certain given data and reasonable assumptions. Vallicelli rightly concludes that it is not a reasonable assumption that God and Jesus are one. The alternatives must be consistent in themselves and be consistent with the data. I don't think reasonable assumptions is at all necessary. One might add the condition that it has to be a possible interpretation of the text, but that is quite like that is implied

I hope this is reasonably clear. Philosophy done while holding your child can be difficult to say the least.

Tim McGrew and Spur argued about Lewis's trilemma to a considerable depth at Bill's old blog at the late maverickphilosopher.powerblogs.com. Google and see the archive of "maverick philosopher lewis trilemma". I remember Bill said the discussion was even better than his original post.


"I would argue that it would be unreasonable for you not to grant that it is reasonable to view the identity as absurd."

I'd like to see that argument.

And if presented with it, I expect myself to ask you very seriously whether it is unreasonable, even by your lights, to view the argument as unsound.

Marcus Borg asserts that Christ is best understood as a mystic. The best treatment of this argument, in my opinion, is Constantin Brunner's Our Christ.


Thanks for reminding me of Brunner's Our Christ: The Revolt of the Mystical Genius. I have it but haven't dipped into it yet. The English translation is around 450 pages long. Can you point us to a precis, summary, brief critical discussion?

There has been very little critical discussion of Brunner's book. Jesuit Christologist Xavier Tilliette refers to Brunner's book as "sa magnifique théorie du Christ" (Études v.367 (1987), p. 423). Protestant theologian Kornelis Miskotte treats of it in his When the Gods are Silent. The most lengthy treatment I have found is a couple of paragraphs in Lindeskog's Die Jesusfrage im neuzeitlichen Judentum. I have translated and posted the passage here.

" If Jesus were just exaggerating, but did not wish to make God of himself, then at the first occasion he was accused of blasphemy he would say: "no, wait, you've misunderstood me, I did not mean that I am God, I was just exaggerating". Instead, he never made the
slightest attempt to evade the accusation of blasphemy, he even several times conceded the accusations and finally got executed exactly for that. So he was very clear that he is understood so that he is making a God of himself, and still made no attempt to disclaim. This is a behaviour of either a liar or a lunatic; no sane and morally competent person who is NOT God would ever do that."

The "blasphemy" that Jesus is accused of, and accepts, is not the claim that He is God, but the Son of God. And claiming to be the Son of God is not the same as claiming to make a God of yourself. There is evidence that the ancient Kings of Israel (Saul, David, Samuel) were 'adopted' by God, and thought to be 'less than a god, but more than a man'. There is little doubt that the Messiah was, at times, prophesied to be a "Super-King" of just this type. The presupposition that Christians have a handle on terms like "Son of Man" and "Son of God" is problematic. Many of the terms in the New Testament had a variety of uses at the time, and some are completely hidden from us. For instance, we only have a vague notion of what a Rabbi's role was before the destruction of the temple. Claims to be the Son of God abounded during this time. The use of the term 'Son of Man' abounded in different contexts. The idea of Judaism as a unified, coherent movement in the 1st century AD has been just shattered by modern archeology. One of the few real theologically relevant results of our finding of the Qumran texts is that it gave us a view of Judaism as far more sectarian, organic, and diverse than anyone ever dreamed. It is in that religious environment that Christianity grew up. The truth is we don't know for sure WHAT Jesus meant when He used terms like "Son of God" and "Son of Man", we can only conjecture using textual and historical tools. I think the most we can have any real certainty of is they were closely tied to His believe in His role as Messiah. And what He thought Messianism is all about is no less assured. There were as many thoughts about what the Messiah was supposed to be as there were uses of the terms "Son of Man" and "Son of God".

I apologize upfront for barging in yet, this site interests me and I felt compelled to comment.

All of this presupposes that the bible is an historical document. Is it? If it isn't, then, it's likely Jesus never said anything about being God and equally as likely that he never existed at all.

If Joshua is right, do we really want to discuss about the MEANING of "Jesus is God", on the basis of exegetical hypotheses of Bible experts so far from being assuered? If the MEANING of "Jesus is God" depends on this exegesis so tightly, how can anyone ever believe in it without engaging in biblical exegesis? And how many believers do this after all?


It is true that this argument presupposes that Jesus really did say what's written about him in the Gospels (at least those statements where he can be interpreted to claim divinity). And, as far as I gather, Lewis only used it to critize people who accepted the Gospels' testimony, yet believed Jesus was not divine. The question of whether the Gospels are reliable documents of history is another one.

(Although I must add that no serious historian would claim that Jesus did not exist; the evidence for his existence is very strong)

MOST historians believe that a certain amount of the gospels is theological reflection written into the historical record. MOST historians also accept that there was, in fact, a historical Jesus. Even Maccoby, who is invective in his approach to early Christian history, and regards little if anything in the Gospels as historical fact, accepts as given that Jesus existed. There is as much evidence that Jesus existed as that Alexander the Great, or Socrates, or Aristotle, or any other ancient figure existed. No historian can reasonably deny the existence of Jesus without concurrently adopting an attitude that would bring the existence of almost every significant ancient figure into question, which would be such as shock to our overall picture of the ancient world it would be tantamount to choosing to no longer do ancient history as a field of research.

You can back track with hard historical evidence the growth of the Christian movement. The further back you get, the smaller the circle becomes until it converges on Jersualem around 33 AD. If you don't posit the Jesus event as the source of this historical movement, you have to posit some other event to account for the sudden change. Further, textual criticism lends strong support to the view that the Gospels are based on the life of a reasl person. It is possible to identify the themes of the gospels, to get a picture of what the gospel writer was trying to do with his or her writings, to figure out the Gospel 'project'. Then when you survey the Gospel you learn there are some random scenes that don't seem to 'fit' with the rest of the theme. They problematize the Gospel Writers project. There are parables that the Gospel writers seem to have edited. The edits reflect an unfamiliarity with the cultural context in which the parable was originally told. The point is you have to posit some reason for the literary unevenness and thematic problems that these episodes cause, why would someone who invents a story for a specific purpose include things that threaten to ruin that purpose? Knowing 'rightly' that their effort would be questioned on just that basis. The most likely answer is they are episodes that had to be included because they were historical facts that were well known.

In fact there were many elements of the Jesus story that the Christian community held to when it would be easier not to. The biggest is the crucifixion. It problematized the project of growing the Christian community that Jesus was killed, in just that way. They wre made fun of for it, and often religious arguments were made that they could not be holders of the truth if Jesus was, indeed, killed this way. You just don't include this in an 'invented' strory of a religious founder. The Cross was central to early Christainity because, indeed, it was likely historical fact that Jesus died by crucifixion. This was probably so well known in Jerusalem, that it is one reason why the Jersualem-centric wing of the church never got of the ground the way the Hellenized Church did.

Finally, the Gospels cohere very, very well with archeological evidence of the time. One thing archeology has shown us is that the Jesus movement was not all that unique. There were many messianic groups running around Israel at that time. And indeed the practices of the People of the Way (the movement John started, Jesus died for, and James, all part of the same family) cohere quite well with these other groups, when there is no sign that the gospel writers knew much of anything about them. Baptism, for instance, has kinship with some practices of the Qumran community, and there is no sign the Gospel writers know anything about that community. It is the mundane nature of the thing, the fact that there were lots of groups and guys running around doing this kind of thing and making similar claims, that gives a lot of coherentist support to the Gospel outline. The things that may have made the Jesus movement somewhat different was a bit more success, a more diverse following, a pacifist tone (at times), and an effort to bring the movement into Jerusalem, which few groups did (probably wisely). Beyond those rather peripheral elements Jesus' movement was rather mundane.

Paul's letters alone (and we have so much evidence that those letters were indeed penned by Paul it is overwhelming. If you doubt Paul wrote, say, Galatians, you have no reason to believe any proposed authorship of anything written before the printing press), which include arguments with other disciples about what Jesus really thought, and really said, indicate there was a historical Jesus. The disciples question Paul's authority to do what he's doing given the fact that Paul didn't know Jesus personally. Paul claims he has such authority based on his relationship with the Risen Christ, the only real source of authority in the Church. They argue over, essentially, what kind of Church Jesus would've really supported. You don't argue these things over an invented person, Paul would've had no need to approach the issue the way he did. He could've painted an imaginary Jesus however he wanted. This argument only came up because people knew the disciples really did know Jesus, and they knew Paul didn't.

So the historical evidence for Jesus' existence is indeed 'overwhelming' BY THE STANDARDS OF ANCIENT HISTORICAL STUDY. Historical sciences of any type are much vaguer than the so-called hard sciences. But if we reject this evidence in favor of Jesus' historical existence than we might as well not do ancient history at all.

There is also a Lakatosian principle here. In science, if you have two competing theories, all things being equal, you pick the theory that has more intellectual fertility, that is, the theory that brings up more questions and opens more avenues of study. If we choose to reject this really good picture that points to a historical Jesus, and instead look for literary or pyschological reasons to 'question' the evidence, then all study of the gospels becomes an exercise in 'well they put that in there to make it sound more convincing'. This is the one, overarching answer to all textual questions. But a more interesting process is to compare what is likely history and what is likely not, and to ask the reasons for the inclusion of the suprahistorical elements. It brings up schools and schools of intellectual inquirty, both historical and theological. Rather than one full-stop question to every answer, we get questions on top of questions, and it pushes our field of study further and further. So even in the absence of all evidence, assuming Jesus' as a historical figure is the better approach from the get-go. As an aside, one can make a similar argument concerning the creationism vs evolution debates.

Let me state that this dillema has made me consider ideas that because of my religion I had already stopped searching for...

Isn't too hard to find the truth , us working against so much time and the numerous issues we as humankind don't know? God or not god, maybe what should matter most is whether that statement, which L we choose (because up to know that is our only option...what we think about this), determines the world and OUR CHOICES TODAY.

What if he was very clever, and tried a bet: "if it works I will rule all my life, if it not i will die (here goes do I care?). If it works they won't try to kill me, or in the worst case they won't kill me at the last minute. Because (motive here, maybe im pissed of my life right now...who knows? ), now I have to figure out how I will do it, I got to play my part..."

...(is it really fascinating how everything went out? Coincidence??)

Is that a lunatic thought? Ambition or misunderstood ways don't mean someone to be crazy. Of course you are not a lord, maybe you are a liar but that gives reasons for doing that, so you are a...normal person trying to escape hunger and loneliness?? I think there is some evidence to support this ambition or his need for escaping harsh conditions, in readings from his radical opinnions and limited resources.

Can this be considered another horn of the dillema? Are we reading the liar horn with extra chocolate??

So which L is more evidenced and which L is less evidenced?

I want to avoid living an entire life worrying for some damm idea someone had for his own good and he couldn't afford me for trying to understand so we have the take it and swallow it, you know.

I consider the idea that a lot of problems could be avoided if we just understood that the world, ITS A MESS, but that's the way it is. At least the rules would be on the table. And we could talk about hard facts why the world is a mess (that doesn't mean there are better ways to answer this environment).

I don't have the answer, I just want to talk about this topic and maybe we can bring it to practical conclusions. This is a great blog with sound oppinions. I like it very much. I couldn't resist. So, that is my take on the horns and if someone can give me some advice on their take I would greatly appreciate it, here is my mail for not cluttering this topic: [email protected]

Final note, I beleive in Jesus right now, at this moment, personally. I ask for his forgiveness, but I'm sure he would want for me to live in truth, right?

I said I shall refrain from reacting to Mr. Orsak's comments, but this one point I would still like to make. Mr. Orsak writes:

The "blasphemy" that Jesus is accused of, and accepts, is not the claim that He is God, but the Son of God. And claiming to be the Son of God is not the same as claiming to make a God of yourself. There is evidence that the ancient Kings of Israel (Saul, David, Samuel) were 'adopted' by God, and thought to be 'less than a god, but more than a man'. There is little doubt that the Messiah was, at times, prophesied to be a "Super-King" of just this type.

Now this seems absurd to me. What is blaphemous on making a "Super-King" of himself, I wonder??? In John 19:7 the Jews insist: "We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.". There is nothing in the Jewish law to prohibit Super-Kings - all the more so if the ancient Israel kings are regarded as examples of this cryptic role - would they all deserve death according to Mr. Orsak's interpretation of the Jewish Law?

Furthermore: the interpetation of Jesus' claim to divinity is not based merely on the statements where He claims to be the Son of God, but also on such sayings as "Even before Abraham was born, I am", "I and the Father are one" etc. You may call these statements later theological fabrications which did not in fact take place, but this is not the problem which we are discussing now. The Lewis Trilemma holds for those who take the Jesus of the Gospels (as opposed to any "historical" Jesus of the modern textual critics, of whose the basic methodical assumption is that miracles cannot happen) and say that THIS Jesus is a great moral theacher but not God.

Besides, the entire idea of a Super-King is quite suspect - it has all signs of an ad hoc fabrication to avoid a discomfortable conclusion that Jesus indeed made God of himself. Where in the entire Bible the term "Son of God" is used to denote a "Super-King"? Besides, in what sense is Samuel a "Super-King"???

I am rather skeptical to the claims that all our knowledge concerning both the meaning of terms and the facts about first century Palestine is vague and absolutely uncertain, when they refuse to take into account the prima facie evidence from our best source, that is, the NT. The NT is a bunch of texts which cohere with each other and give quite a detailed picture both of the meaning of the terms used in them and of the general historical setting. I don't say that this picture is in all respects adequate; but to dismiss it as generally doubtful purely on the basis that when we exclude the evidence of the NT, the other sources do not give us any reasonable clue to almost anything, that seems to be quite a biased approach. Ultimately, the methodology is circular: it must assume the historical unreliability of the NT in order to be able to conclude it.

It is as though someone wished to claim that it is very doubtful whether Socrates really refused to escape from the prison, because besides Plato and Xenophon we have very little independent information about Socrates' personality and beliefs, and the little we have (Aristophanes) points to quite a different direction. Besides, it is absurd to willingly suffer death. Therefore, most probably Socrates did not accept death willingly and Plato and Xenophon were just writing myths and ex post rationalizations, lonmg afetr Socrate's death. Examining carefully their claims against the contemporary source (Aristophanes) we must conclude that the figure of Socrates as a philosophical hero calmly accepting death is a mere backward projection of the later philosophers. The actual "philosophers" of Socrates' times were, as shown by Aristophanes, quite different from the later tendential idealisations.

Sounds stupid? And note that unlike the Gospels in case of Socrates the main source is NOT an attempt at a historical account, but a bunch of highly stylized philosophical and literary works. And yet we base the most of our knowledge of Socrates on them. For since no miracles are ascribed to Socrates and he did not claim divinity, the motivation to arrive at a "historical Socrates" completely different from that of Plato and Xenophon is not as urgent among scholars.

As for the evidence that Saul, David, and Solomon ("Samuel" was a typo, I mean to write "Solomon") were adopted as sons and had a special relationship with God, were superbeings, the best examples are found in the Psalms. Psalm 2 is a great example. Not only do we see the king adopted as son, but we see the special preeminence God gave the king in the world. In 1 Samuel 16:4 we see that Saul's troubles begin when the "spirit of the Lord departed from him". Moreover, the anointing ritual concerning the kings coheres well with the practices of other Canaanite tribes, which followed this same pattern. The idea of the Man from God theology, where the coming political leader of Israel will be semi-divine, is so prevalent in the prophets' writing any cursory reading of them would bring it up.

As for the issue of why Jesus was called a blasphemer. It is clear in all four gospels, the blasphemy Jesus is guilty of is calling Himself the SON of God, not God.

On the issue of the reliability of the Gospels, the problem is that the Gospels give vastly contradicting pictures of Jesus. Jesus claims that His message is for all people, but calls gentiles dogs. He talks of absolute obedience to God, but asks God how God could forsake Him. He claims in John that "He and God are one" but says that no one should call Him good, for only God is good. He says no one can find salvation outside Him, but then says that salvation is found by following the commandments. He gives parables that have clear meanings, and then gives explanations or addendums that contradict what they mean. It is the blatant contradictions in the gospels that lends weight to the view that the gospels are heavily edited, later materials. Attempts to reconcile these contradictions with dogmatic leaps of logic I've never found impressive, and betray in and of themselves a need to move 'beyond the gospels' to make a coherent picture of Jesus. The truth is that there is not one Jesus in the gospels, but a few different JesusES. There are larger stories that seem to make one point, but within them smaller stories that make a completely different point. It is just historical criticism's ability to explain these textual facts in a way that sticking to 'just the gospels' cant that makes that kind of approach seem by my lights to be more correct.

One more thing on the reliability of the Gospels and Paul's writings. Using the gospels as a guide for historical information about 1st Century Judaism has already proven to be a bad move for historians. It was assumed through most of the 19th century and the early 20th century that the gospels and Paul's letters gave us a more or less reliable picture of 1st Century Judaism. Judaism was thought to be pretty monolithic with two primary groups and one lesser group, each with specific ideas and roles. Those groups agreed on things like the nature and role of the law. This paradigm was central to studies of the religion of the time and region for a long time. But we now know that vision has been shattered by archeological evidence. The Dead Sea Scrolls and other related texts are probably the second most important archeological discovery just becuase they give us such a clear, and radically altered, vision of what 1st Century Judaism really looked like, and it looks little like what the Gospels present. There were ranges of positions on all kinds of things, groups like the Pharisees were themselves very splintered, and attitudes about the role of the law were multiform. So we already know that on some very important issues of the environment of 1st century Judea, the Gospels are wrong.

I have not had time to react earlier, but I still would like to make some remarks concerning Mr. Orsak's claims.

I do not dispute that there is some evidence that the Israel kings have had some special relation to God. What is however absolutely unsubstantiated is Mr. Orsak's claim that the expression "Son of God" as used in the Gospels only means "Superking" in this (presumed) Old Testament sense. The fact that Jesus was sentenced to death for his claiming to be Son of God is one proof that this title entailed claiming divine nature, as is also confirmed by Jesus's own words e.g. in Matthew:

The high priest said to him: “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, ‘He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy.”
Another proof of the same is John 5:18:
For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
Besides, it is not true what Mr. Orsak says, that "It is clear in all four gospels, the blasphemy Jesus is guilty of is calling Himself the SON of God, not God." See John 10, 33:
We are not stoning you for any of these,” replied the Jews, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.
Here the Jews clearly understand Jesus's claims as claims to dividnity and Jesus never corrects them.

The list could be extended: for example in Matthew 3,3 and Matthew 11, 10 Christ says of John the Baptist that he is the "vox clamantis in deserto" and "angel to prepare the way". These are allusions to Isaiah 40, 3 and Malachi 3, 1; in both places the "herald" or "angel" is herald and angel of God; so Christ claims to be God by claiming that John the Baptist is this prophecised predecessor of him. And of course in John there is a vast number of such places all pointing to one and the same conclusion.

I regard as absolutely unacceptable Mr. Orsaks claim that the Gospels "give vastly contradicting pictures of Jesus". This is absolute nonsense. It is the "critical" approach like that of Mr. Orsak which introduces the inconsistencies - only to take them in turn as a disproof of the orthodox interpretation. But there is and always has been a consistent interpretation of the Gospels. Its only problem is that it entails some strange conclusions like that Jesus was God or that he made miracles and rose from the dead, which are hardly palatable for the "critical thinkers" who are only prepared to believe such things "in a sense".

The alleged "blatant contradictions" have always been known to the theologians and have been thousand times explained away. Mr. Orsak of course does not find these explanations as impressive, but that does not change the fact that the explanations are there and therefore consistent interpretation of the Gospels is possibe.

Often the charges of inconsistence are rather contrived: this is the case of the one presented by Mr. Orsak, according to whom Jesus "says that no one should call Him good, for only God is good". But Jesus does not say this. He only asks the man, why does he call him "good". Out of context there are many possible interpretations of this passage; given the context of the Gospels it is clear that Jesus could not have meant it as a denial of his deity. Rather, it seems that Jesus wanted the man to realise the true meaning of his own words. He meant: Are you aware of what you are calling me, or are you just flattering me? Are you aware of the truth you have inadvertently spoken?

Concerning the need to "move beyond Gospels": of course, until the Reformation noone ever believed that the Gospels are self-explaining. There is the Tradition of the Church which supports the Gospels' very authority and provides an interpretation. Perhaps it is true that the orthodox doctrine could not be derived from the "sola Scriptura" without the aid of the Tradition, but what is important is that once the intrpretation is made, it is perfectly consistent both in itself and with the Scripture.

Unlike the "historico-critical interpretations" that turn Jesus into a pacifist one time and into a leader of a rebel group another time, into a communist one time and a jewish nationalist other time, and so on. There are as many "historical Jesuses" as there are critical historians.

Concerning Mr. Orsak's claims that "we already know hat on some very important issues of the environment of 1st century Judea, the Gospels are wrong." Well: It seems to me that the only thing that was disproved in Mr. Orsak's example was not the veracity of the Gospels but the veracity of one 19th century "critical" interpretation of the Gospels. I don't see how the Gospels entail e.g. such a conclusion like "Judaism was pretty monolithic" et sim. I see nothing inconsistent with the Gospels in the reportedly presently popular "radically altered" view concerning the plurality in 1st Century Judaism. All the same, I am a bit sceptical about the "radicality" of the "alteration". What I have heard on that matter is that the Dead Sea Scrolls have rather confirmed the reliability of the Gospels in general and of the traditional interpretations.

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