Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Martyr Complexities, Part 1

As readers may know, my own version of the well-worn "who would die for a lie" argument isn't quite that simple; I tie it in to my "impossible faith" arguments and the social and cultural background of the NT. In this light, I have been asked to critique a certain atheist blog (which I will not permit the dignity or attention of being named or linked to, per my usual policy with respect to what I consider to be insignificant drivel) which tackles the standard "die for a lie" argument. We'll look at this material over the next entries as needed.

The entry author -- who I'll call Wolf, for reasons that can remain obscure -- seeks a way to argue that early Christians had some other motive for lying about the risen Jesus. It takes some time for Wolf to get down to the actual case for this, prefacing his core arguments with all manner of examples (none of them applicable to the early Christians) of people lying for all manner of reasons. They then present quotes from several Christian apologists summarizing the "die for a lie" argument (starting with Josh McDowell, which gives you a fair idea of the depth Wolf has reached in his knowledge of Christian apologetics; after that, he has but a handful of obscure no-names to offer). In the end he sums up the argument as:

If a person knows their claim is a lie—such as a claim someone made up himself—it is impossible that person would die for it.

Now of course my own version of this isn't quite so simple, and perhaps cannot be so readily simplified. There are matters of the balance of honor and shame, and the importance placed on them in the Biblical world; the use of lies, indeed, to stay out of trouble (so if anything, a Christian in trouble would have been trained to lie to get out of it, not to tell the truth), and so on. So while this may be a fair summary of the popular form of the argument, it doesn't do my version any real justice.

Wolf continues with what he calls "three giveaways" which are said to be examples of persons dying for lies. The purpose of these is apparently to further define the "die for a lie" argument, but just for the record, let's look at these and ask how well they cohere with the situation in the New Testament world.

Coercion 1: This would be a situation where someone who knows you is being interrogated, and they name you as someone who was running around preaching the resurrection. It is a lie. You know it is a lie. You are brought in and beaten and questioned. You, like many people today who admit to murder due to police interrogations that I will wager are not nearly as horrible as what I would expect to encounter in antiquity, tell them whatever they want to hear to get them to stop beating you. You hope for leniency, but you are executed. You have now become a Christian resurrection martyr who died for a lie.

You do? Not hardly. The record indicates that those who renounced Christ were shown immediate leniency after being "roughed up" with interrogation. Pliny the Younger recounts:

Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.

...Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

And Trajan the Emperor replied to Pliny:

They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it--that is, by worshiping our gods--even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.

So scenario 1 is already unrealistic as an example. Scenario 2 is only slightly varied, supposing you know you will be executed, which again does not cohere with the testimony of Pliny and how the Romans treated Christians.

The third example is different but no less fruitful:

Protecting Someone You Love: Someone reports to the authorities that a person in your house was preaching the resurrection. You know it was your child, who is involved with the Christians. You lie and say it was you. You are arrested and executed. You have now become a Christian resurrection martyr who died for a lie.

No, you don't, actually. This presupposes a sort of inter-familial love virtually unknown in the NT era. Matthew 10 records the actual scenario: The deviant Christian being stripped of family rights, or shunned, or held in check by others. The scenario described would be unknown. (If there was a desire to save a child, it would be done with a much better lie -- the child is insane, for example -- that would not rebound responsibility to the parent.)

All that said, Wolf restates the Christian argument (I think properly) as:

Nobody would voluntarily, and without external coercion or pressure, offer a false confession to a capital offense, knowing it was false—up to, and including, something he, himself, manufactured.

Though I think that "no one would die for a lie" (even as presented by McDowell) already implied as much as this.

After an excursus on the option of simply denying the historicity of martyr stories -- which he deems it appropriate not to address in this context -- Wolf returns to the main subject, and to his main weapon, which is a psychological paper on false confessions, Right away this may be deemed irrelevant, since the paper was a study done on persons in the modern world, and not on persons in an agonistic society. Specifically, the paper is summed as saying that people make false confessions in order to get attention. But agonistic peoples do not seek "attention" -- they seek honor. And if they seek honor by way of some claim, that claim will be challenged at once so as to ensure that they do not undeservedly draw from the limited pool of honor available. This is no "limelight" as the article describes it -- it is a penetrating and uncomfortable searchlight; there would be no mass media giving them TV time (what media there was would ignore or denigrate them), which is what modern "false confessors" as described are all about. The early Christians would not have received "immediate fame or infamy" but would have been shut away in dark jails, their fate and presence unknown to all save their family and some neighbors, their fellow prisoners and the roaches.

Furthermore, what Wolf misses about the situation is that these false confessors are fully aware that the evidence will lead them to be found not guilty of the crime to which they confess. Christians would have no such option. His comparison to 200+ false confessors to the Lindbergh kidnapping is rather ludicrous in that regard; all knew that once the police had asked a few questions, the game was up and the attention was over. In contrast, Christians were convicted by their own witness and beliefs, which would be confirmed by witnesses (per Pliny) and chances at recantation in light of threats of punishment. (Wolf notes that H. L. Mencken called the Lindbergh kidnapping to the Resurrection in terms of being a big story; Mencken was not particularly bright, but I doubt if even he meant to imply, as Wolf seems to suppose, that there was any parallel to false confession; most likely Mencken was being obnoxious, as he frequently was, by denigrating the Resurrection.)

So it is that a desire for "notoriety" doesn't have any application for the matter of early Christianity. We'll look at some more from Wolf Friday, and word ahead: It's even more anachronistic. In one case, he even suggests "low self-esteem" as a possible motive for lying.

Yep. You know where THAT will be going.


  1. Are you that bored to be looking into something that was written almost two years ago? Nothing posted recently by those kids that's even notable, huh?

  2. I am pretty bored, but I did this one on request.