Cliffe Knechtle Acknowledges Errors in the 10/42 Apologetic

I was just informed today, June 20, 2013, that apologist Cliffe Knechtle has acknowledged factual errors in the 10/42 apologetic on his website:

My apologies for not posting this sooner, since Cliffe appears to have acknowledged the mistake in 2012, but I just now saw his post. First, I would like to thank Mr. Knechtle for his reply. I will update my original post and annotate my YouTube video to acknowledge this admission.

In the post, Cliffe asks me a series of questions, to which I will now respond.

First, Cliffe states:

“I agree with you. Tiberius Caesar really lived. I apologize for my oversight of all the documents that mention Tiberius Caesar. Thank you for listing them. The overwhelming historical evidence is that Jesus Christ lived, died on a cross, and three days later rose from the dead.”

This statement makes me wonder if Cliffe even paid attention to the what I said in both my video and essay (and when I talked to Cliffe back in 2011).

I acknowledge in the video and the original post (and when I first argued with Cliffe at UofA) that I believe Jesus of Nazareth was a historical person. My point was that Jesus is an obscure historical figure, whereas Tiberius is far better documented, so it is a very poor argument to compare the two. Saying that the evidence for Jesus is greater than that of a Roman emperor creates the impression that there is “overwhelming” evidence for Jesus, when such an impression is completely bogus. The actual amount of contemporary historical documents during Tiberius’ lifetime are in the hundreds (14 literary, 100+ epigraphical, ~100 papyrological), compared to a whopping zero for Jesus (all of our sources for Jesus date much later and are acknowledged by NT scholars to contain many historical problems). The fact that Cliffe would even make such a comparison only shows that he really knows nothing about Tiberius Caesar, ancient historical documents, and the surrounding historical context of the 1st century CE. Otherwise he would have never made such a blunder.

That’s why, as someone who is a graduate student in Classics and studies the reign of Tiberius, I tried to explain to Cliffe his error before he posted his video.

This does not mean that Jesus did not exist, but it does mean that the evidence for his life is not as strong as it is for many more established historical figures from antiquity. Hence why there has been a “Quest for the Historical Jesus” in Biblical Studies, whereas there have not been nearly as many problems for historians reconstructing the lives of figures like Cicero, Socrates, and Julius Caesar. For what actual historians think about the historical Jesus, see Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?.

I disagree with Cliffe that there is good historical reason to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, both due to the improbability of miracles (argued here), the unreliable nature of the Easter Resurrection narratives (argued here), and the plausibility of natural explanations accounting for all of the facts surrounding origins of Christianity (argued here).

Note that me doubting Jesus’ resurrection has absolutely nothing to do with me doubting a historical person of Jesus. I also believe that Mohammed was a historical person, but not a prophet inspired by God. Joseph Smith was a historical person, who I believe never found any golden plates. I also believe that Loch Ness is a real lake, but do not believe that a monster named Nessy inhabits it.

Jesus was a historical person, who I do not believe miraculously resurrected from brain death, before appearing to his disciples, and then flying into space. As seen from all of the examples above, one can accept historical kernels in improbable stories, while still doubting their extraordinary claims.

Cliffe next states:

“To deny the impact he has had on our lives around the world in light of the fact that we live in the year 2012 is unacceptable to a thinking person.”

Christianity has had a large impact on Western Civilization, just as Islam has had a large impact on the Near East. However, there is no reason that such an impact could not be achieved through natural means, and, accordingly, there is no reason to believe that the later historical impact of Christianity was the result of anything miraculous.

Likewise, Jesus was a demonstrable nobody during his own lifetime (which my refutation of the 10/42 apologetic demonstrates), and Christianity did not take over Europe until the 4th century CE. That has nothing to do with Jesus resurrecting in the 1st century CE, rather than emperors like Constantine and Theodosius I in the 4th century CE imposing Christianity on the Roman Empire. For a further discussion of how Christianity could have risen to its present popularity without any miracles, see ancient historian Richard Carrier’s Not the Impossible Faith.

“The evidence supports the historical reliability of the Gospels. Due to the small number of years between the life of Christ and the writing of the New Testament, it was impossible for legend to spring up.”

Here is an essay where I lay out a number of reasons why scholars find the Gospels to be historically problematic. For a further essay contrasting the Gospels from the writings of ancient historians like Thucydides, Tacitus, or Plutarch, see here. For a yet another essay explaining why the large majority of scholars agree that the Gospels are anonymous accounts not written by eyewitnesses (contrary to what Cliffe claims), see here.

Cliffe’s argument about the “small number of years between the life of Christ and the writing of the New Testament” is poorly supported. I have already shown in my blog about miracles (here) how legends about Vespasian curing the blind sprung up in a shorter gap than the legends in the Gospels and were recorded by more reliable sources. Likewise, see Kris Komernitsky’s article, “Myth Growth Rates and the Gospels: A Close Look at A.N. Sherwin-White’s Two-Generation Rule,” for discussion of how legends have developed around other historical figures, particularly Alexander the Great, in a very short time following their death. I do not believe the legends about Alexander simply because of temporal proximity, and, accordingly, the the temporal proximity of the New Testament cannot be used to deny the legendary elements in the Gospels.

Cliffe next states:

“The Gospels are not analogous to folk tales like those of Paul Bunyan. Josephus wrote about Pontius Pilate, Joseph Caiaphas, and even John the Baptist.”

Here, Cliffe is arguing for a very black and white view of historicity. Something does not have to be a complete fairy tale to have legendary and unreliable elements. Many myths are set in real places, depicting real historical figures (e.g. the legends about Alexander). However, that is no reasonable grounds for believing the unreliable aspects of the story.

For a further discussion of the Gospels’ literary genre and how they do not reflect the research or analysis of ancient historical works, and likewise contain many more legendary elements, see here.

Cliffe next asks:

“What criteria of authenticity do you use to determine historical reliability?”

I provide and fully explain my historical criteria here.

Cliffe then asks six questions about historical reliability, to which I will now respond:

“One: does the incident fit the known historical facts of that time and place?”

In many regards, no. There are a number of historical implausibilities in the Gospel of Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth during the Census of Quirinius (which ancient historian Richard Carrier lays out in his article “The Date of the Nativity in Luke”), there is no corroboration of Matthew’s claim that Herod slaughtered a bunch of infants in Bethlehem simply because of a rumor from a couple of Magi (very strange that Josephus, who catalogs Herod’s other atrocities, would skip past this), and there is no evidence of a three hour midday darkness during Jesus’ crucifixion, despite the fact that there were hundreds of astrologers in the Roman Empire who corroborate such an event (Carrier explains here why Thallus is not such a source and would not provide sufficient evidence). Accordingly, the Gospels have many dubious stories that do not fit the historical facts of the time and place.

“Two: is the historical event recorded in multiple sources that are not carbon copies?”

Here, Cliffe seems to be using the criterion of independent attestation. Unfortunately, while the Gospels are not carbon copies, they all borrow material from each other and are extremely close. Matthew copies as much as 80% of Mark’s material (almost a carbon copy), Luke copies 65% of Mark’s verses, and while John does not quote the ipsissima verba, the author still seems to loosely follows the earlier narratives (See Louis Ruprecht’s This Tragic Gospel for more information about this).

“Three: Are incidents included that are awkward or counterproductive for the cause being pushed?”

Here, Cliffe seems to be using the criterion of embarrassment. Carrier (pp. 124-169) in Proving History has a detailed analysis for how this criterion is invalid with regard to the Gospels. Furthermore, Dennis MacDonald (pp. 20-24) in his chapter “Foolish Companions” in The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark demonstrates how many of the things that are typically considered to be too embarrassing to record in the Gospels, such as the foolishness and cowardice of the disciples, can be explained in terms of ancient literary motifs.

“Four: are the incidents simply copied from previous or later ideas?”

This question seems little different than Cliffe’s second question. The Gospels show interdependence, so yes, they copy previous ideas. Likewise, multiple textual redactions in later manuscripts (e.g. the ending of Mark 16) show how later theological ideas were imputed into the original texts. See Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus for more about this.

“Five: are there traces of Hebrew or Aramaic language spoken by Jesus and his friends in the Greek Gospels?”

There are a few traces of Aramaic in the Gospels, but the fact that the authors of the NT used Greek translations when quoting the OT shows a lack of understanding of Hebrew or Aramaic composition. The books of the NT are written in Koine Greek and most (if not all) were written in the Jewish Diaspora outside of Palestine. This poses a considerable linguistic and geographical gap between the original Aramaic oral traditions of Christianity and the Greek texts written half a century later.

See my essay “Matthew the τελώνης (“Toll Collector”) and the Authorship of the First Gospel,” where I discuss a number of the problems with illiteracy, translation gaps, and both chronological and geographical distance that would have separated the historical Jesus from the first written documents about him.

“Six: is there an internal coherence in each document as well as between the different documents?”

I have already discussed here how the Gospels contain multiple contradictions between each other. See also Ehrman’s Jesus Interrupted for a further analysis of biblical contradictions. If Cliffe is referring to textual coherence, see my post here about problems with the manuscript traditions of the NT.

Cliffe’s last paragraph is about how he will pray for me to come to Jesus. While prayer notifications can be well-intended, I would prefer that Cliffe spend that time praying instead reading Carrier’s Sense & Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism to see how one does not need religion to answer the big questions in life.

Nevertheless, I greatly appreciate Cliffe’s respectful admission of error.

-Matthew Ferguson

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9 Responses to Cliffe Knechtle Acknowledges Errors in the 10/42 Apologetic

  1. “To deny the impact he has had on our lives around the world in light of the fact that we live in the year 2012 is unacceptable to a thinking person.”

    You know when you are watching the evening news and the newsreader insists on telling you how to feel about the story afterwards…. even though they might themselves not understand it.

    Thanks Cliffe, I didn’t realize how unacceptable the things are that MWF is revealing to me.


    “What criteria of authenticity do you use to determine historical reliability?”

    This is really an ingenious device. Ask a version of it when you are getting your teeth cleaned or arguing a traffic ticket. Not that the dental assistant/judge are obtaining credentials in the field that you just ADMITTED you were lying about all the time. Chutzpah.

    Better man than me MWF. Cliffe does have game, obviously.

    • It was a very meager admission of error from Cliffe, but it’s virtually the only one I have seen from him in years. I realize that I let him off a bit easy with that, but when a dog piddles on the tile rather than the carpet, it’s something of an improvement.

      I too loath how Cliffe will ask these complex questions to apathetic freshman going between classes, whip out his staged routine, and then make it look like he dribbled circles around the skeptic. Obviously these are questions that requires a more than on-the-spot response and should be answered through research and analysis. But it feeds well into his routine of making it look like he is actually having a dialogue with people, when all he is really doing is bombarding them with specious arguments and dubious information with a commanding voice that makes him sound like an authority.

      Fortunately, I do have answers to all of his questions, so I was glad he asked. They served as a bunch of softballs that were easy to hit out of the park.

  2. Nathan says:

    I am continually astonished at the oft-repeated apologist claim that legends cannot arise in only a few years, or the related claim that untrue claims would be easily debunked by contemporaries. What world do these people live in? One needn’t scour through ancient history to see the absurdity of this position. Every day, thousands of absurd rumors, legends, lies, conspiracy theories and other nonsense circulate and mutate throughout the Internet. In most cases, debunking these requires less than a minute on snopes, and yet people keep hitting that forward button. Furthermore, even when confronted with proof of the untruth of their beliefs, many people continue to hold them. One can only imagine how much misinformation floated about 2000 years ago, among superstitious, largely illiterate people who lacked the time, inclination, or resources to verify or debunk particular rumors.

    That anyone could possibly think “Magic, virgin-born god-man came back from the dead” is more plausible than “Some combination of rumor, legend, exaggeration, confusion, and wishful thinking lead to this belief” demonstrates the complete intellectual bankruptcy of Christian apologetics.

  3. valerie lea says:

    the greatest proof that the gospels are reliable , as are the epistles of the New Testament, is the incredible effect both Jesus and these writings have had on countless lives during the last two millenia – as far as i am concerned, people can present wonderful arguments against Jesus message and against the very existence of God, well prepared arguments, wonderfully delivered , but it wont make a scrap of difference to me because i have met with Jesus spiritually, experienced the effect He has had on my life and the lives of many born again christians, seen |Him work in the most impossible situations and seen Him turn around the lives of the most hardened wicked men and women and brought beauty out of ashes- atheism offers you nothing except to rely on your own talents and personality strengths, but just tell that to someone who cant see they have any!!! i find these blogs a waste of time and wont be reading anymore.

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