Alice and Bob’s Historical Evidence

Critique of Apologetics, Thought Experiments

Thought Experiment

Setup

Alice and Bob worship Theo, a theistic god. Their revered book, “The Revelation of Theo,” was written and compiled 1919 years ago by Theo’s early followers and has many amazing accounts of the miracles performed in Theo’s name. This includes the wonderful story of Theo’s representative on Earth, Jose, who swam up what is now called Victoria Falls, in order to demonstrate the great power of Theo to release the people from the net of transgressions that bind them.

Alice and Bob are well aware that there are many religious writings from other faiths with equally amazing accounts. These writings come before, during and after the time of the writing of “The Revelation of Theo.” They are also aware that other believers point to their respective writings as evidence for their own faiths. However, these writings are in direct opposition to their own sacred book, “The Revelation of Theo,” and cannot be harmonized.

Alice and Bob are smart and well educated in history, ancient writings and languages. They want to apply an accurate and principled historical standard to review the sacred writings of others and crucially, to use the same standard on their sacred book to show that Theo is the one true God.

Questions

  • What would the historical standard look like?
  • What standard do you use when evaluating religious claims?
  • Does the standard rule out the miracle stories of other faiths?
  • Do you apply the standard equally to your own sacred writings?
  • How would you use this standard to disprove the miracle of Jose swimming up Victoria Falls, while simultaneously proving the miracles from your preferred ancient text?

Use the following statements to complete the question:

Would you be more or less inclined to believe in Theo … 

  • If the story of Jose included 707 eye witnesses testimonies?
  • If the story of Jose indicated there was no water at Victoria Falls before this miracle and now there demonstratively is?
  • If the early followers of Theo were persecuted even to death by their neighbors and yet kept the faith?
  • If we currently had tens of thousands of partial pieces of copies of “The Revelation of Theo” from two to three hundred years after its initial writing?
  • If the first independent historical reference to Jose was written 103 years later?
  • If there were 3.1 billion followers of Theo today?

Final Question

  • Is it wise, even in principle, to use ancient texts as evidence for supernatural miracles?

This post is in the series Thought Experiments for Believers.

One thought on “Alice and Bob’s Historical Evidence

  1. I’m no historian, although I like history, but here’s my reaction to these questions.
    As for setting a standard:
    1) Do the details match what is known from other (primarily contemporary) sources? Place names, local officials, customs and beliefs, clothes etc. If the book states for example that Jose lived in Rome and walked to the Victoria falls in a day, something is amiss.
    2) If there are discrepancies or details that don’t seem to be possible, are there plausible alternative explanations (such as translation mistakes, particular biases, vested interests etc)?
    3) If it wasn’t true, who would benefit from making up the story?
    4) How many different sources can be traced behind the story in its current shape?
    5) How close in time to the alleged events are the earliest copies of the book?
    6) Are the events corroborated by other contemporary sources?
    As you are probably aware, Christianity does quite well on all those counts except the last one; maybe not enough to convince a non-believer, but certainly well enough to warrant to be taken seriously.
    In the case of Jose, I would also like to understand the connection between swimming up the Victoria falls and releasing people from their transgressions. The biblical story makes internal sense, in a way I feel Jose’s story doesn’t.
    So: yes, I would apply this to the Bible as much as to other religions. That’s actually what serious apologists and theologians do all the time. This doesn’t rule out miracles in other religions, but I don’t think that’s necessary. It also doesn’t “prove” the resurrection, but it certainly confirms the general credibility of the biblical story. As I don’t have the Book of Theo handy, I can’t say anything about its factual details or internal coherence…
    However, if there were 707 eye witnesses, yes, that would obviously add to its credibility. I’m not sure what the alleged lack of water might mean, other than that he couldn’t possibly swim up a non-existent waterfall. (I’m assuming that it’s a reference to something in Christianity, like the other things, but I can’t see the parallel.) The willingness of believers to die for their faith doesn’t prove it’s true, but it proves they genuinely believe it’s true, which – at least if we’re talking about the founders of the faith – is still part of the chain of evidence The other three circumstances are fairly irrelevant, both to Theo and to the Bible (except that it helps us be fairly certain we know what the original authors wanted to say).
    My main gripe with the hypothetical question is that the resurrection of Jesus is in a different league from any other miracle, whether in the Bible or any other religion. As you yourself say, if the resurrection goes, Christianity is finished. (Paul also agrees, as you know.) I don’t think it’s possible to come up with a hypothetical miracle that can match someone dying a gruesome death and then coming back to life again.
    Which is why your final question is a bit off. I don’t use the Bible to “prove ancient miracles”, I read the Bible because it tells me about Jesus. Having said that, the only way to know what happened in the past is to read old documents, since we still haven’t invented time travel. You can’t disregard old documents just because they’re old or because they mention miracles; and you can’t disregard miracles just because they’re mentioned in old documents.
    Other than that, it’s nice little hypothetical exercise, and it would probably be good for churches to help believers think through these things. Which is why we still need (good) apologetics…

    Liked by 1 person

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