The Atheist Missionary’s criteria for what he would teach his children has continued to evolve (or devolve, I’m not sure yet). That’s a good thing because it is important for him to work out the principles that guide how he raises his progeny. The key issue concerned past event types that are unique and unrepeatable. Would he teach his children that such events occurred? His initial claim was that he would only do so if there was a scientific consensus on the matter.
Oh dear! I pointed out that that would prevent him from sharing with his children how Grandpappy got his crystal commode. Even worse, that would prevent TAM from sharing with the Antiques Roadshow how he got the commode. And if family lore included the report that Jesse James had once used the commode must TAM remain silent about that as well? Such provenance cannot be shared with the world? This can’t be right!
Fortunately TAM recognized — eventually — that this cannot be right and so he came back in the comment thread to fine-tune his criterion yet again. Here was his latest version:
Whether we are talking about the resurrection of Christ or Granpappy’s three straight royal flushes, we are talking about supposed historical events. History doesn’t tell us what happened, it tells us what probably happened.
My criteria about believing in past unique and unrepeatable events? That’s easy: examine the available evidence (i.e. historical sources) and determine what is most likely to have happened.
Okay, let’s work with this a bit.
First, let’s deal with this statement: “History doesn’t tell us what happened, it tells us what probably happened.” It looks like TAM has been faithfully reading his Lessing: “Accidental truths of history can never become the necessary truths of reason.” But what a strange way for TAM to speak! Consider this statement applied in real life:
A child: “Sir, did D Day happen on June 6?”
TAM: “No. D Day probably happened on June 6.”
Here’s an even better one:
TAM’s colleague at work: “Hey TAM, were you at Doug’s party last weekend?”
TAM: “No, but I probably was.”
TAM’s colleague (puzzled): “Well did you buy your tickets for the Neil Diamond concert?”
TAM: “No, but I probably did.”
I think (or hope!) that what TAM really wants to say is that history really does aim to tell us what happened but that its deliverances are fallible. Well fine. Big deal. So are my five senses. But when I look out the window to check the weather I don’t report back to my wife “It is probably sunny today!” In other words, TAM’s comment seems to bear a skeptical double standard against history. And the danger is that the double standard would only arise whenever historical research seems to point to events in the past which go against TAM’s assumptions about the way things are. (That’s the great thing about double standards. You can restrict your reliance upon them to the precise degree that you need to retain your prejudices.)
Now on to TAM’s new criterion to guide his instruction of his children. To recap: “examine the available evidence (i.e. historical sources) and determine what is most likely to have happened.”
Hold on just a cotton-picking minute. (Pardon that dusty idiomatic expression.) Is TAM proposing that he will only teach his children events of the past from natural and human history which he, himself, has established as having occurred with respect to the available evidence?
Surely not. Rather, it must be that he is applying this to his earlier “scientific consensus” criterion. So in fact he must be proposing something like this:
I only teach my children that unique, unrepeatable events occurred in the past when those events are attested to by a majority of a relevant field of experts.
Ahh, now that’s clear. Clear as a crystal commode (at least an unused one).
Now let’s circle back to the claim that an individual was resurrected in the first century. If a majority of the relevant field of experts (New Testament historians) attest to this fact based on a reconstruction of the available data (such as is presented in N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God) then will TAM now teach the resurrection of Jesus to his children?
Let me go out on a limb and predict what the response will be: no. The reason? I hope I don’t hear sweeping ad hominems against an entire field of experts in ancient languages, form and redaction criticism, the methods of historiography, et cetera. But when we’ve determined to set ad hominems aside, what would be the reason for categorically rejecting the consensus (or majority opinion) of a relevant field of experts?*
Ahh, if we answer that question we will finally get to that which really guides how TAM instructs his children.
* It is important to note that the argument presented here does not depend on the actual majority opinion of New Testament scholars. To the extent that TAM’s skepticism about a given past historical event is uninformed or unmoved by a relevant field of experts is the extent to which he is not actually following the criterion he has presented.