History & Philosophy FAQ

Here on Κέλσος I write about secular approaches to topics such as the historical Jesus, the New Testament, Mediterranean history, ancient literature, metaphysics, theology, epistemology, ethics, and worldview theory. Since I am an atheist, my views often clash with the arguments of Christian apologetics on these issues. I have often been asked over the years to provide secular counter-arguments to the evidence that apologists present as pointing to the truth of their religion.

The word “apologetics” comes from the Greek ἀπολογία, meaning “speech in defense,” and has also come to be associated with the intellectual, academic, or rhetorical process of defending particular religious doctrines and traditions.

While apologetic arguments can often be rhetorically persuasive to different audiences, in my own estimation, most apologetic arguments are based on dubious premises, half-truths, false dilemmas, or misrepresentations of the relevant academic disciplines. In order to respond to many apologetic arguments, however, one often needs to be familiar with the relevant historical, scientific, and philosophical literature from secular scholars who work in those disciplines. This can sometimes require a good deal of research.

This blog is designed to provide a resource that helps to educate skeptics, agnostics, and open-minded believers alike, who have not heard secular perspectives and counter-arguments on these issues before.

Since I am a Classics Ph.D. student who studies the Mediterranean world of the 1st-2nd centuries CE, I primarily work to respond to the arguments of Christian historical apologetics (e.g., apologetics that seek to “historically” prove the miracles and resurrection of Jesus). I also study philosophy in my graduate work and have devoted time to responding to apologetic arguments that are based on philosophical issues, such as epistemology and ethics. Since I do not professionally study science, I do not respond to apologetic arguments about evolution and intelligent design on this blog, but I encourage people to visit TalkOrigins for a critical examination of apologetic arguments that pertain to the hard sciences.

Below is a list of common questions and issues that come up when debating religious apologetics, with summaries of my responses to them and links to further essays that I have written. This list is by no means fully comprehensive of every apologetic argument out there, but I will add to it as I continue to write on this blog.

Historical Apologetics:

  • Question: Do you believe that Jesus of Nazareth existed as a historical person?
    • Answer: Yes, but some important qualifications need to be made. First, many apologetic arguments about the amount of historical evidence that exists for Jesus are highly exaggerated. For example, here is my response to a grossly inaccurate argument (later retracted by the author) claiming that we have more evidence for Jesus than the contemporary Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar. I have also written a similar essay refuting the claim that we have more evidence for Jesus than Alexander the Great, here. While both of these examples involve famous politicians, it should also be noted that the evidence for Jesus is still less than what we have for many other ancient figures of less public significance. For example, here is an essay explaining how we have much more reliable historical evidence for the Athenian philosopher Socrates than Jesus. So, while I do think that a historical Jesus of Nazareth existed, I also think that the evidence for this obscure figure is quite limited. There would never be a “Quest for the Historical Jesus” in Biblical Studies, were it not for the fact that historians realize that there are many, many problems with reconstructing the life of Jesus from the problematic sources that we have available. Nevertheless, for a summary of what I do think historians can say with good probability about the historical Jesus, see here.
  • Question: Do the Gospels and the other books of the New Testament provide eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ ministry?
    • Answer: The New Testament does not contain the writings of a single author that a consensus of scholars agrees was an eyewitness of Jesus. Most scholars doubt the 2nd century authorial attributions of the Gospels to Jesus’ disciples–like Matthew and John–as well as to companions of disciples–like Mark and Luke. Here is an essay explaining why most scholars agree that these later church traditions were probably spurious. (For an essay specifically discussing why John Mark probably did not write the the Gospel of Mark, see here; for another essay discussing why Matthew the disciple probably did not write the Gospel of Matthew, see here; I plan to write additional essays on the authorship of Luke and John in the future.) Beyond just the Gospels, there is likewise no scholarly consensus that any of the NT epistles were written by an eyewitness of Jesus. For arguments against the traditional authorship of most of the NT epistles, I recommend Bart Ehrman’s Forged. The closest that the New Testament comes, therefore, to a near contemporary of Jesus is the apostle Paul, who was not an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry and who only records a few details about his life. For a discussion of the limited information that Paul provides about Jesus, see Bart Ehrman’s Why Doesn’t Paul Say More About Jesus?.” I likewise discuss the minimal biographical information that think Paul’s letters provide, here.
  • Question: Are the Gospels historically reliable accounts of Jesus’ ministry and resurrection?
    • AnswerAs someone who studies ancient historiography and biography as part of my research in Classics (my M.A. thesis was on the historical biographer Suetonius), I definitely do not think the Gospels follow the literary conventions of ancient historians and historical biographers, as I explain here. That said, many NT historians have argued that the Gospels belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography; however, Greco-Roman biography is also a highly diverse genre, which includes texts about both historical and legendary figures, at varying levels of reliability. I discuss the broad spectrum of Greco-Roman biographical exampla here. If the comparison to biography is to be entertained, I think it is far more likely that the Gospels resemble legendary and popular biographies from antiquity–such as those written about figures like Homer, Aesop, and Alexander–more so than the historical biographies of Plutarch and Suetonius, as I explain here. Regardless of genre, scholars have long realized that there are a number of historical-critical problems with the Gospels’ reliability. These problems do not imply that there are no historical elements in the Gospels, but only that they are of limited historical reliability, particularly due to a large amount of legendary elements. For a discussion of historical-critical problems with the Gospels, see here.
  • Question: There are far more numerous and earlier manuscript copies of the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament than there are of historians like Tacitus and Josephus. In fact, there are more manuscript copies of the New Testament books than any other texts from antiquity. You trust Tacitus and Josephus, so isn’t it only fair that you should trust the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament?
    • Answer: For starters, the primary reason that we have more manuscript copies of the New Testament is because church monks dominated the apparatus of textual transmission throughout the Middle Ages. Copying texts before the printing press was time-consuming and expensive, and, as such, most Pagan works were neglected and lost during the Christian era, which accounts for most of the numerical disparity. More importantly, textual reliability is not the same thing as historical reliability. Just because we have more copies of a work doesn’t mean that it is more factually accurate. Otherwise, best sellers like Harry Potter would be more factually accurate than less-published encyclopedias by virtue of their manuscript copies. See here my fuller analysis of this issue.
  • Question: Haven’t legal experts Simon Greenleaf and John Warwick Montgomery applied the rules of legal evidence to the testimonies of the New Testament authors, to prove Jesus’ resurrection under courtroom standards?
    • Answer: Category Error. Greenleaf and Montgomery may have been prominent lawyers, but neither of their views about the applicability of legal testimony to the Gospels is mainstream in New Testament Studies (nor are such methods used by scholars for any other ancient text that I know of). The historical Jesus must be analyzed by the methods used in ancient history, not jurisprudence. Moreover, the New Testament texts would not even be admissible in a court of law, let alone probative. Any attempt to prove the resurrection of Jesus by legal testimony would immediately be thrown out of court, as I explain here.
  • Question: Isn’t it true that nearly all of Jesus’ disciples were martyred for their belief in the resurrection? Why would they have been willing to die for lies, if the resurrection were not true?
    • Answer: Dubious premise. We do not have the writings of any eyewitness of Jesus, so it is not clear what they preached or claimed to have seen. Furthermore, that Jesus’ disciples were martyred cannot be established with any historical certainty, since the accounts of their deaths come primarily from church traditions and century-later hagiographies that embellished their deeds. Also, other religions and movements likewise have people die as martyrs for their beliefs, but this hardly entails that dying for such beliefs makes them true. See here my full analysis of the martyrdom claim.
  • Question: Can’t historical evidence be used to prove miracles, just like any other event that has happened in the past? If you exclude miracles, doesn’t that mean you a have a philosophical “presupposition” of naturalism?
    • Answer: Historians do not analyze past claims in isolation, but regularly assume scientific, psychological, and sociological background knowledge when analyzing historical evidence. When a particular historical claim “exceeds the limits of what is deemed physically possible according to current scientific assumptions,” then it falls under the category of the “paranormal,” according to the Parapsychological Association (Glossary). The statement about “naturalist presuppositions” is a red herring, since paranormal phenomena can include things that are not generally regarded as supernatural, such as alien abductions and Sasquatch sightings. What separates paranormal claims from ordinary historical claims is that they involve phenomena that is beyond the realm of ordinary background knowledge. This, at the very least, provides a justification for methodologically bracketing paranormal claims–such as miracles–as being different than ordinary historical claims. Outside of the resurrection of Jesus, Classical historians virtually never use ancient texts to argue for for the truth of paranormal claims (despite many being documented in ancient literature), which makes “historical” arguments for the resurrection of Jesus completely different from any other pursuit in professional history that I am aware of, as I explain here. Even if we lay aside this methodological problem, however, and grant epistemically that a miracle could hypothetically be proven with ancient texts, such miraculous events are still far, far less likely than more probable non-miraculous events. For a Bayesian analysis of the probability of miracles in past events, versus non-miraculous explanations, see my essay discussing the matter here.
  • Question: Let’s assume, though, that there is no greater epistemic problem for proving miracles than ordinary historical claims. If so, couldn’t Jesus resurrection in the Gospels be taken at face value as a real event?
    • Answer: Not really. Even if you lay aside skepticism towards miracles, there are still many elements in the Gospels that point towards fictional and legendary elements. For example, entire verses in their Passion narratives of derived from Midrash of the Old Testament, such as Mt. 27:35, Mk. 15:24, Lk. 23:34, and Jn 19:23 being lifted directly from Psalm 22:18. Then there are a number of uncorroborated extraordinary events, such as the midday darkness at Jesus’ crucifixion and the ripping of the curtain in the Jewish Temple, that no outside contemporaries mention. Furthermore, there also contradictions in the order of events between the narratives. These problems show that skepticism towards the Gospels does not just derive from a prejudice against miracles, since there are many additional historical-critical reasons to doubt their veracity, as I explain here.
  • Question: Even if no Pagan or Jewish contemporaries mentioned the miracles of Jesus in non-Christian literature, isn’t it true that tons of things happened in the ancient world that only one source mentions? If so, aren’t arguments from silence are invalid?
    • Answer: Arguments from silence are valid when the evidence or testimony should be expected, if the claim were true. The miracles attributed to Jesus in the Gospels include extremely public events, such as causing a three hour darkness over the entire earth, causing dead saints to physically rise from their graves and to appear throughout Jerusalem, and flying to heaven in broad daylight. Despite these extraordinary and highly conspicuous claims, not a single contemporary of the region knows anything of them. For an analysis of why arguments from silence are valid for certain types of historical claims, such as the public miracles of Jesus, see here. For a further analysis of how we do have such evidence for real extraordinary events, such as the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, see here an essay that demonstrates how actual extraordinary events do grace the writings of contemporaries, despite the public miracles of Jesus having no such evidence.
  • Question: Isn’t it true the resurrected Jesus appeared to over 500 witnesses at the same time?
    • Answer: That’s nothing more than a dubious claim in 1 Corinthians 15. The passage does not name any of these witnesses, and there is no evidence that the Corinthians, located 800 miles from Palestine, could have ever investigated this claim. Furthermore, the passage does not specify any time or location of this appearance, nor does the actual Greek even explicitly claim that this was a “crowd” of people. The Greek claiming that Jesus “appeared” to people is extremely ambiguous and can refer to mere visions, revelation, and personal conversion. Finally, this event is not attested in the Gospels or Acts, which strongly casts doubt on whether there was any known tradition of such a crowd appearance. In short, the passage perhaps indicates that the early church grew to about 500 members in the months following Jesus’ death, or refers to some ecstatic group experience, which many scholars think refers to the Pentecost. See my exegesis of the passage here. For a further analysis of how to explain post-mortem visions and alleged sightings of Jesus in purely natural terms, see here (external link).
  • Question: How do you explain the “minimal facts” of the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and the rise of Christianity, without the resurrection of Jesus?
    • Answer: First, it should be noted that not all of those “facts” are agreed upon by a consensus of scholars. In particular, there are many scholars who doubt the historicity of the empty tomb. While it is generally agreed in mainstream NT scholarship that the earliest Christians had post-mortem experiences of Jesus, whether these experiences were physical or veridical is an area of sharp dispute. Scholars like Dale Allison and Bart Ehrman, for example, agree that the post-mortem experiences of Jesus can plausibly be explained as hallucinatory or visionary experiences. For a secular explanation of the origins of the resurrection belief, see the case that I think is most probable here.
  • Question: What would it take to convince you of Jesus’ resurrection?
    • Answer: That is a legitimate question, seeing as I argue that there is insufficient evidence to reasonably believe in the resurrection (at least on the grounds of evidence, as opposed to faith). Here is an essay where I lay out the various epistemic problems surrounding the resurrection and also provide a set of criteria whereby the onus probandi could be met for establishing the resurrection. I further explain in the essay how the evidence available is insufficient for meeting this onus, which is why I argue that is more reasonable on evidential grounds (not just presuppositional grounds) to doubt that Jesus’ resurrection ever took place.

Philosophical Apologetics:

  • Question: While many New Atheists think that science disproves God, isn’t it true that the existence of God is ultimately a philosophical question?
    • Answer: Well, the large majority of professional philosophers are atheists and naturalists. Furthermore, studies show that the higher up you go in philosophy, from the undergraduate up through the Ph.D. level, the more the ratio of atheists increases. See here my analysis of this trend. The fact that the majority of professional philosophers doubt the existence of God by no means entails that atheism must be true. Most professional philosophers could be wrong. However, the fact that so many trained philosophers identify as atheist strongly suggests that there is nothing philosophically naive about doubting the existence of God.
  • Question: How do you philosophically define atheism as the denial of theism? Also, how do you distinguish the supernatural from the natural?
    • Answer: In a general sense, atheism is the denial that any deities exist. Though, how one philosophically conceives of atheism is often influenced by how theists define the meaning of ‘G’od and/or ‘g’ods. Here is an essay where I offer a philosophical definition of atheism that interacts with the definitions of ‘G’od offered by professional theologians. I also explore the philosophical differences between the natural and the supernatural here and here.
  • Question: How do you explain the origins of the universe without the existence of God? Also, aren’t there features of our universe that suggest that it is designed and finely-tuned to produce life?
    • Answer: There is no agreement or support among professional cosmologists and other scientists for the notion that it would take a god, miracle, or supernatural intervention of any kind, in order for our universe to exist and to be capable of sustaining life. The large majority of professional cosmologists are atheist, as is explained here (external link). Likewise, the majority of professional philosophers do not accept such assertions either. In my view, apologists who assert otherwise are often not seeking to advance our knowledge of cosmology, but are only seeking to preserve gaps in our knowledge, so that a deity is still deemed necessary to explain some aspect of our universe. Here is an essay where I discuss the views of leading cosmologists about the origins of our universe and its life supporting features. In the essay, I discuss how modern cosmology does not support the idea that our universe was “created” ex nihilo, nor that there is any “fine-tuning” in our universe for the “creation” of life. Here is also another essay, where I discuss abiogenesis–the dominant theory among professional biologists for how life emerged from non-life–and explain the process of unguided evolution by which life reached the complexity we see today through purely natural mechanisms.
  • Question: How can you know anything is true, unless God designed your mind for thinking? Aren’t atheism and naturalism ultimately inconsistent, since you would never be able to know if they were true?
    • Answer: Retreats into epistemology of this sort are common when someone has no evidence for their beliefs and thus has to move to challenging the validity of the concept of evidence. But to assume that a deity is necessary for a sound epistemology is merely to beg the question. It also leaves unanswered how that deity itself acquired epistemic certainty, nor does it give us reassurance that this deity isn’t acting as a Cartesian demon and actually designing us to have false beliefs. But to address the original question, I provide here a naturalist ontology of knowledge that demonstrates how we can have the warranted belief that naturalism and atheism are true based on how our cognitive faculties would develop in a naturalistic universe.
  • Question: How can there be any foundation for moral truths and ethical realism, if God does not exist? Wouldn’t it all be just a matter of opinion?
    • Answer: This claim generally begs the question by assuming that morality, by definition, must require God. Sure, if you gerrymander the definition of morality to only be divine command theory, then you will come to that conclusion. But serious ethical philosophy is not so simplistic. First, there is the meta-ethical question of what ethical realism would even mean. I answer here through a meta-ethical analysis how theistic metaphysics provides no greater foundation for moral realism than atheistic or naturalist metaphysics. Then, one has to answer what type of moral system they are referring to, ranging from deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics. I defend a consequentialist view of ethical realism here. Finally, one needs to spell out the parameters of their normative system of ethics, which I do here. I have seen many apologists make this assertion about morality without delving into the complexity behind these ethical issues, by simply assuming that God automatically provides a foundation for moral realism, while being unequally critical of secular models of ethical realism. [Likewise, if you want to see the best defense of secular morality that I have seen in a public debate, here is an external link to a debate between professional philosopher of ethics Shelly Kagan against apologist William Lane Craig, which even many Christians agree Craig lost.]
  • Question: If atheism is true, then aren’t we nothing but bags of chemicals completely determined by our environments? But, if we do not have the freewill to control our actions, then how does the notion of moral decision-making make any sense?
    • Answer: Actually most professional philosophers do not see any problem with freewill (or agency) existing with determinism at all. The majority of professional philosophers adhere to a view known as Compatibilism, which maintains that agency is both possible and can be identified within a deterministic universe. Likewise, there are a number of problems posed by philosophers against the idea of indeterminist agency, which apologists usually assume is the only kind of freewill. Here is an essay where I discuss what human agency and decision-making are actually like and why the large majority of professional philosophers agree that we are in control of our actions, even if determinism is true.
  • Question: Let’s just say, though, that there really cannot be any foundation for moral truths and ethical realism without God. If so, how can atheists be consistent in facing that kind of existence? Wouldn’t you have to abandon everything that you once believed was moral behavior?
    • Answer: I am open to the possibility of ethical anti-realism; though, I also do not think that anti-realism is any more likely under atheism than it is under theism. Here is another essay where I explore anti-realism as a plausible alternative to ethical realism. In it I explain how the main difference between realism and anti-realism is conceptual, rather than consequential, meaning that, even if anti-realism were true, it would still not entail that there should be any changes to our behavior. In fact, even saying “should” would imply an underlying normative judgment that anti-realism would deny. As such, I think that even if anti-realism were true, it would still entail none of the negative stigmas and doomsday scenarios that are often exaggerated by anti-atheist fear mongering. In general, I think that moral argument for God is mostly a scare tactic and rhetorical device, and not really a persuasive argument for a deity.

Biblical Apologetics:

  • Question: Even if there are apparent contradictions in the Bible, can’t they all ultimately be harmonized?
    • Answer: Sure, if you twist yourself in logical pretzels and invent a number of ad hoc assumptions to explain away the discrepancies between two texts that have very different versions of events. But that is not a responsible exegetical practice, nor would anyone do it for any other set of ancient texts unless they had a presupposition of inerrancy. For an analysis of contradictions between non-biblical, Pagan historical texts and why I don’t think they should be harmonized, see my essay here. I also discuss how the discrepancies in the New Testament are not accidental mistakes, but deliberate instances where the authors disagree with each other. Attempting to harmonize the accounts ultimately undermines one’s ability to grasp the meaning of each individual author.
  • Question: Aren’t the teachings in the Bible ethically radical, and far ahead of their times?
    • Answer: No, the Bible is actually a primitive set of texts that reflects the ephemeral values, knowledge, and perspective of the time it was written in. For an examination of just one issue, gender equality, see here how the Bible is horribly backwards and sexist compared to modern day standards.
  • Question: Was the 1948 establishment of the modern nation of Israel predicted in the Bible, and is it a sign of the impending end time?
    • Answer: No, the nation of Israel is the result of poor, but well-intentioned international policy following the Holocaust and WWII. The verses in the Bible that are allegedly about a post-70 CE reestablishment of Israel are taken out of context and normally just refer Israelites returning to Palestine in previous time periods (such as the Babylonian Exile) or are nothing more than vague descriptions about the Jews reuniting before Armageddon. Furthermore, the modern Evangelical obsession with the nation of Israel is symptomatic of a post-Holocaust trend in the modern Christian mythos to believe that the Jews and Christians are kindred groups of people (after centuries of Christian anti-semitism). For an analysis for just how delusional and out of touch with reality this line of thinking is, see an analysis from a Judaic Studies major here.
  • Question: Does the God of the Bible provide a basis for human dignity and encourage us to respect human value and rights?
    • Answer: Not when you actually read the Bible. The moral values of the biblical god are actually far more in line with those of the Axis Powers and primitive warlike societies. For what the verdict would be for the biblical god, if he were tried as a war criminal, see a disturbing examination of his deeds here.

Apologetics from Personal Experience:

  • Question: Isn’t it simply more fashionable these day to be an atheist? Atheism may be a popular counter-culture movement in privileged in Western societies, but how can you tell people struggling in developing nations that there is no God?
    • Answer: Actually, studies show that atheists are one of the most hated minorities in America. Also, sorry, but atheists are not just a bunch of fat, rich, post-Enlightenment snobs. Vietnam is actually one of the most atheist countries in the world. Atheists have existed in all time periods and cultures, and have been oppressed in most of them. People are atheist because they find no compelling reason to believe in god/s. It’s that simple. For a full rebuttal to the notion that atheism is a fashion trend, see my response here.
  • Question: What do you think of C.S. Lewis (or former-atheist X) conversion, after investigating the evidence for Christianity?
    • Answer: Well, do former Christians who critically analyzed the evidence, such as Robert Price, Hector Avalos, or Bart Ehrman, and then became atheist or agnostic prove that Christianity is false? No. Furthermore, I am not very impressed at all with the “reasons” C.S. Lewis gave for his conversion, some of which I discuss here. For a further deconstruction of the conversion stories of Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, and C.S. Lewis, see here (external link). But that doesn’t matter much. What should matter is how you personally reach a conclusion after looking at the relevant issues. I’ve never seen any compelling reason to believe in god/s, which is why a respond to what I consider to be poor reasons on this blog.
  • Question: Why do you not believe in God?
    • Answer: That is a legitimate question, a good deal of which can already be figured out by reading the information above. However, for a fuller description of my experience growing up as a Christian, my de-conversion, and why, after hearing tons of apologetic arguments, I am still not even remotely convinced, see my personal testimony and reasons here.
  • Question: If you do not believe in God, then what do you believe in?
    • Answer: I believe in a naturalist metaphysical worldview, in conjunction with a secular humanist ethical worldview. I provide a detailed explanation with evidential support for each of these philosophies in my metaphysics series, “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism.” The series spells out a comprehensive secular worldview, so that neither religion nor a deity is necessary in any part of one’s life philosophy.

2 Responses to History & Philosophy FAQ

  1. Robert says:

    Hi Matthew

    Apparently an apologist named David Marshall (with whom I have had many heated debates) has concluded that you and I are one and the same person. You can check out his deluded rants on the following sites:

    http://christthetao.blogspot.co.nz/2013/08/matthew-ferguson-celsus-on-marshall.html

    http://www.amazon.com/David-Marshall-School-Apologetics/forum/Fx61EWY90T921G/Tx1FXD9GI2RBNHO/1/ref=cm_cd_notf_message?_encoding=UTF8&asin=0736922121#Mx1L83Z97O602HR

    Apparently, some of our arguments are similar, so the brilliant and insightful Mr Marshall put two and two together. It would be interesting to have some of your input on those threads, if you are so inclined.

    Celsus (real name, Robert)

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