Monday, May 01, 2017

Luke vs. Philostratus: Rebutting the No Evidence Charge

This is from William Neil’s 1973 commentary on the Book of Acts, published by Oliphants.
If there is one major criticism that may be levelled against the recent exponents of the theists that Luke was a theologian rather than a historian, is that they pay too little attention to the established findings of a past generation of scholars which point in the opposite direction. It is generally recognized that Sir William Ramsay latterly pressed his advocacy of Luke’s reliability almost to the point of claiming his infallibility, and came close to insisting that archaeology proves the New Testament to be true; but, in his heyday, on the basis of his own study of the inscriptions in Asia Minor, he did reach certain conclusions about the Book of acts which are still relevant.
 Ramsay was convinced that the writer of Acts knew the world of Paul in the intimate way that could only have come from first-hand knowledge; particularly is this evidence in his use official titles, which, in the days of the Roman Empire as in our day, were a peculiarly tricky problem. Yet, as he pointed out in pp. 96-7 of The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Truthworthiness of the New Testament (1914), the officials whom Paul and his party encountered were exactly those who should have been there at that time: proconsuls in senatorial provinces, Asiarchs in Ephesus, strategoi in Philippi, politarchs in Thessalonica. This sort of argument does not, of course, prove that Luke was there, but it does suggest a writer who took the trouble to get his facts right, and who might well have been on the spot himself.
Another contribution from an older generation which is still worthy of respect is the monograph by Jams Smith of Jordanhill on The Voyage and Shipwreck of the St. Paul (1848). Smith made a study of ancient ships and methods of navigation, and argued that Ac. 27 must have been written by an eye-witness who was not a sailor. The view seem more likely that the eye-witness was the author of Acts himself rather than that canvasses by Conzelmann and others, that Luke found somewhere a good story of a voyage to Rome including a shipwreck and inserted it into a few references to Paul.
            It is surely not without significance, as H. J. Cadbury pointed out in pp. 241-252 of The Making of Luke-Acts (1927), that the writer of Acts is interested in the geographical details of Paul’s journey.  He refers to Perga as being in Pamphylia, Antioch as Pisidian, Lystra and Derbe as cities in Lycaonia. Philippi is the leading city of part of Macedonia and a colony, Tarsus is in Cilicia, Myra in Lycia. He speaks of a place called Fair Havens in Crete near the town of Lasea, and of Phoenix, the Cretan harbor, looking north-east and south-east. He notes the addresses of the people in his story and the places where the missionaries find lodgings: at Philippi Paul stays with Lydia, in Thessalonica with Jason, in Corinth with Aquila and Priscilla. Paul leaves their home and hoes to lodge with Justus, whose house was next door to the synagogue. In Joppa, Peter stays with a tanner by the name of Simon, whose house was by the sea….
            In his recent Sarum lectures, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, (1963) A. N. Sherwin-White has shed new and interesting light on our problem from the angle of classical studies. He shows that the author of Acts was well-versed in the intricacies of Roman law as it was practiced in the provinces of the Empire  in the middle of the first Century; in the case of Paul’s trials before Felix, Festus and Gallio, the legal procedure is accurately described. On the question of the status and privileges of Roman citizens such as Paul, Sherwin-White maintains “Acts gets things right both at the general level, in his overall attitude, and in specific aspects.” He concludes that in Acts ‘the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming…(and)…an attempt to reject its basic historicity must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted” (p. 173, 189).
            So, we have four reasons for supposing that the author of Acts of the Apostles was a careful recorder of events, interested in facts. At the same time, in both of his books, Luke and Acts, there are numerous miracles claimed. Let us consider two hypotheses:
1) NH, or the naturalistic hypothesis. On NH, all the events that took place in the New Testament have natural, not supernatural causes.
2) SH, or the supernatural hypothesis. On SH, some of the events recorded in the New Testament have supernatural, not natural, causes.
Now, given NH, the existence of a meticulous, researching, event-recorder seems to me to be improbable. Let’s contrast Luke here with a miracle reporter whose miracle claims are often compared with those of Christianity, Apollonius of Tyana. This account is from Richard Purtill’s Thinking About Religion:
The first thing to notice is the fairy-tale atmosphere. There is a rather nice little vampire story, which inspired a major poem by Keats, entitled Lamia. There are animal stories about, for instance, snakes in India big enough to drag off and eat an elephant. The sage wanders from country to country and wherever he goes he is likely to be entertained by the king or emperor, who holds long conversations with him and sends him on his way with camels and precious stones. 

Interspersed with picturesque adventures there are occasional accounts of miracles, often involving prophecy and mind reading. A ruffian threatens to cut Apollonius’s head off and the sage laughs and shouts the name of a day three days hence; on that day the ruffian is executed for treason. Here is a typical passage about healing miracles;

Philostratus: There came a man about thirty who was an expert lion-hunter but had been attacked by a lion and dislocated his hip, and so was lame in one leg. But the Wise Man massaged his hip and this restored the man to an upright walk. Someone else who had gone blind went away with his sight fully restored, and another man with a paralysed arm left strong again. A woman too, who had had seven miscarriages was cured through the prayers of her husband as follows. The Wise Man told the husband, when his wife was in labor, to bring a live rabbit under his cloak to the place where she was, walk around her and immediately release the hare: for she would lose her womb as well as thee baby if the hare was not immediately driven away (Bk. 3, Sec. 39). 

RP again: Now the point is not that Appollonius no serious rival to Christ; no one ever thought he was except a few anti-Christian polemicists about the time of some of the early persecutions of the Church. The point is this is what you get when imagination goes to work on a historical figure in classical antiquity; you get miracle stories a little like those in the Gospels, but also snakes big enough to eat elephants, kings and emperors as supporting cast, travelers’ tales, ghosts and vampires. Once the boundaries of fact are crossed we wander into fairyland. And very nice too. But the Gospels are set firmly in the real Palestine of the first century, and the little details are not picturesque inventions but the real details that only an eyewitness or a skilled realistic novelist can give. 
VR: If I recall correctly, Philostratus also has Apollonius in Nineveh, even though it had been destroyed seven centuries earlier.
Philostratus seems like someone who has a lack of interest in facts. For his purposes, alternative facts will do just as well as real one.
Now, if NH is true, we should expect all accounts coming from the ancient world that contain miracle reports to be more like those of Philostratus than those of Luke. On SH, a chronicler like Luke is exactly what we should expect. Maybe we can explain Luke’s meticulousness on NH, but we nevertheless it is far more probable given SH than NH.
Now, I am not arguing that Christianity is unavoidable given this evidence. This evidence can be outweighed. But what seems preposterous to me upon reflection is the idea that there is NO evidence for the Christian claims, unless, of course, you have an argument that evidence for supernatural claims is impossible in principle.

1 comment:

Joe Hinman said...

Ramsey has always been one of my favorites,When I went to Perkins no one knew who he was,they just thought I was some wired fudnie, until Dr Babcock came along and was well versed in his work and still had great respect for him. That moment a friendship egan that is still going over 20 years latter.