Friday, November 30, 2012
Who would Die for a Lie?
When challenged to verify the historicity of the Gospel's account of the Nazarene's life, in particular the resurrection, Christians often appeal to the "eyewitness accounts" of the Apostles. Furthermore, they argue, not only did the Apostles witness the events about which they preached but they died for doing so. They contend it is unreasonable to assume that someone would risk, even forfeit, their own life for propagating an account that they know to be fictitious. They reason that they clearly offered up their own lives as martyrs because they where certain of the truth of the Gospel. Their deaths provide us the proof that their testimony is reliable.
I would certainly concede that people generally would not risk their lives for a lie. But I'm not so sure how well this holds true when one has built their entire life around a lie. I submit that my doubt about such evidence is not unique. In truth, when they themselves are put in the role of anti missionaries in response to Mormons, Christians have rejected such arguments. Bill McKeever writes "It is highly possible for a person to die for something he knew in the beginning was not the truth. A lie, repeated often enough, becomes as truth to the teller." (Answering Mormons' Questions page 119). The Apostles were, if you will, uneducated "commoners" according to the Christian Bible (Acts 4:13). Regardless of its veracity or lack there of, the "Gospel" propelled these men from obscurity to a position of influencing hundreds, even thousands of people. It is certainly possible that they may have considered such influence worth risking their life and that loosing their life might be preferable to them than loosing the notoriety they had achieved. This is particularly true when one considers that they may have fabricated events that they believed were true or that they reflected spiritual truths. In doing so they may have remained absolutely devoted to the cause, without ulterior motives. Their dedication may not have been limited to dying for the Gospel but to fabricating eyewitness evidence for what they sincerely believed was true. So rather than being a simple choice between them believing their words or willingly spreading lies it may very well be that they believed what they taught, even if they knew some of the details where not honest.
Furthermore, we must recognize the “New Testament” records that when the disciples encountered the Nazarene they did not recognize him, “As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him.” (Luke 24:15-16), “At this she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize it was Jesus.” (John 20:14), “Afterward Jesus appeared to them in different form to two of them while they were walking in the country.” (Mark 16:12). Recall that earlier we are told that there were those who claimed that the Nazarene himself was actually John the Baptist resurrected from the dead, “King Herod heard about this, for Jesus' name had become well known. Some were saying ‘John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” (Mark 6:14). At most we could conclude that the disciples had encounters with someone they did not recognize, but eventually came to believe, or “recognize”, as being the Nazarene.
Then consider how certain we really are that the Apostles died for their beliefs? The fact is that for the most part the fate that befell the apostles is not mentioned in the Christian Bible (even if we where to take it at face value). Only James the son of Zebedee is listed as having been martyred (Acts.12:2). As a matter of fact all but a handful of the 12 disappear from the Biblical narrative shortly after the resurrection. What we are left with then is the testimony provided by Church tradition. And these traditions are at times conflicting with each other. Furthermore at times they are fanciful and conflict with Christian teaching. For example one early account regarding the death of Peter, of which I regretfully do not know the source, relates that after escaping death in Rome he encountered the Nazarene on the road. He inquired on where the Nazarene was going to which the Nazarene replied that he was going to be re-crucified in Rome for Peter. At this Peter himself returns to Rome and submits to crucifixion.
Finally we must consider what might have resulted from the Apostles recanting their story. Could the Apostles have really trusted that if they where to recant that they would not be executed? The Roman government was interested in suppressing a sect which they saw as a threat. Would the leader of such a group really have the option of walking away quietly simply by saying he had made everything up? And if they did recant would their followers accept a report that they had? Would they believe a renunciation of Christianity made under duress? And on what basis would we expect them to perpetuate the story of their confession made under duress?
What we have been presented is a faulty dilemma, either the Apostles where telling the truth or they died for something they knew was a lie. In truth it is possible that they would die for a lie because they came to accept their own lie as truth. Or they may have seen their fabrications as secondary to the Gospel which they did believe was truth. Nor is it clear that their fate is known to us or that recanting would have been of any use. Nor is it certain that if they did admit they fabricated their testimony that we would be aware of it. So while this does not in and of itself refute the testimony of the Apostles, we have shown that there is no reason we must accept it at face value.