Tom Gilson

Too Good To Be False

Slides from the talk (PDF)

Sources Quoted and Referred To In the Talk

Barker, D. “Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead?”
Borg, M. J. (1995). Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith. HarperOne.
Ehrman, B. D. (2009). Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them) (First Edition ed.). HarperOne.
Festinger, L., Riecken, H. W., & Schachter, S. (1956). When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of A Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World. Harper-Torchbooks.
Holy Bible
Komarnitsky, K. D. “The Cognitive Dissonance Theory of Christian Origins: A Cordial Reply to Dr. William Craig.”
Komarnitsky, K. D. (2009). Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box? Stone Arrow Books.
Price, R. M. “N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God (Review)”.


Specific quotes and their sources:

“The Gospels are not, nor were they ever meant to be, historical documentation issues of his life. These are not the eyewitnesses accounts of Jesus’s words and deeds recorded by people who knew him. They are testimonies of faith composed by communities of faith and written many years after the events they describe. Simply put the Gospels tell us about Jesus the Christ not Jesus the man. (Aslan, 2013, p. xxvi)

“Once someone converted to the religion and became a member of a Christian church, they, too, would tell the stories. And the people they converted would then tell the stories, as would those whom those people converted. And so it went, a religion spread entirely by word of mouth, in a world of no mass media.

“But who was telling the stories about Jesus? In almost every instance, it was someone who would not have known Jesus or known anyone else who had known Jesus. Let me illustrate with a hypothetical example. I’m a coppersmith who lives in Ephesus, in Asia Minor. A stranger comes to town and begins to preach about the miraculous life and death of Jesus. I hear all the stories he has to tell, and decide to give up my devotion to the local pagan divinity, Athena, and become a follower of the Jewish God and Jesus his son. I then convert my wife, based on the stories that I repeat. She tells the next-door neighbor, and she converts. This neighbor tells the stories to her husband, a merchant, and he converts. He goes on a business trip to the city of Smyrna and tells his business associate the stories. He converts, and then tells his wife who also converts.” (Ehrman, 2009, p. 146)

“This is how Christianity spread, year after year, decade after decade, until eventually someone wrote down the stories. What do you suppose happened to the stories over the years, as they were told and retold, not as disinterested news stories reported by eyewitnesses but as propaganda meant to convert people to faith, told by people who had themselves heard them fifth-or sixth-or 19th-hand? Did you or your kids ever play the telephone game at a birthday party? The kids sit in a circle, and one child tells a story to the girl sitting next to her, who tells it to the next girl, who tells it to the next, and so on, until it comes back to the one who first told the story. And now it’s a different story. (If it wasn’t a different story the game would be a bit pointless.) Imagine playing telephone not among a group of kids of the same socioeconomic class from the same neighborhood in same school and of the same age speaking the same language, but imagine playing it for 40 or more years, in different countries, in different contexts, in different languages. What happens to the stories? They change.” (Ehrman, 2009, pp. 146-147)

“It is therefore plausible that the traditions of the appearance to the Twelve and to all the apostles was born out of a desire to designate who had the authority to lead, not out of a desire to accurately record appearances.” (Komarnitsky, 2009, p. 93)

“The gospels were written in and for communities that had begun to move beyond Palestine and into the larger Mediterranean world, and the gospel writers adapted the materials about Jesus to these new settings. Second, the movement’s beliefs about Jesus *grew* during these decades…. As the decades passed, the early Christian movement increasingly spoke of Jesus as divine and as having the qualities of God…. The gospels are the products of communities experiencing these developments.”(Borg, 1995, pp. 9-10)

“A legend begins with a basic story (true or false) that grows into something more embellished and exaggerated as the years pass.”
“We do know that the human race possesses an immense propensity to create, believe, and propagate falsehood. So, what makes the early Christians exempt? Weren’t they just people? Did they never make mistakes? Were they so superhuman that they always resisted the temptations of exaggeration and rhetoric? Did they have perfect memories?” (Barker)

“The accounts they produced are not disinterested; they are narratives produced by Christians who actually believed in Jesus, and therefore were not immune from slanting the stories in light of their biases. They are not completely free of collaboration, since Mark was used as a source for Matthew and Luke. And rather than being fully consistent with one another, they are widely inconsistent, with discrepancies filling their pages, both contradictions in details and divergent large – scale understandings of who Jesus was.” (Ehrman, 2009, p. 144)

It is therefore plausible that the traditions of the appearance to the Twelve and to all the apostles was born out of a desire to designate who had the authority to lead, not out of a desire to accurately record appearances. … From our perspective 2000 years later, the emergence of such traditions for the sake of giving authority might seem like an implausibly large lie. But from the perspective of the earliest Christians, the inaccuracy was probably inconsequential given that they genuinely believed that Jesus was raised from the dead, they thought he was appearing to many people, some of the Twelve and the apostles probably did see Jesus individually, many or all of the Twelve and the apostles probably shared in group ecstatic experiences where it was believed Jesus was present, and such an understanding added to the authority that the Twelve and the apostles deserved and needed. A similar well intended and from their point of view minor distortion of the truth happened in the early moment Mormon movement. (Komarnitsky, 2009, p. 93)

The gospels are the products of communities experiencing these developments. As such, they contain not only the movement’s memories of the historical Jesus, but those memories added to and modified by the growing beliefs and changing circumstances of the movement. Thus the gospels are the church’s memories of the historical Jesus transformed by the community’s experience and reflection in the decades after Easter. They therefore tell us what these early Christian communities had come to believe about Jesus by the last third of the first century. They are not, first and foremost, reports of the ministry itself. (Borg, 1995, p. 10)

A legend begins with a basic story (true or false) that grows into something more embellished and exaggerated as the years pass. When we look at the documents of the resurrection of Jesus, we see that the earliest accounts are very simple, later retellings are more complex, and the latest tales are fantastic. In other words, they look exactly like a legend….
If the story is not true, then how did it originate? We don’t really know, but we can make some good guesses, based on what happened with other legends and religious movements, and what we know about human nature. (Barker)

“The more I studied the Christian tradition, the more transparent its human origins became. Religions in general (including Christianity), it seemed to me, were manifestly cultural products. I could see how their readily identifiable psychological and social functions served human needs and cultural ends. The notion that we made it all up was somewhat alarming, but also increasingly compelling.” (Borg, 1995, p. 13)

Festinger, Riecken, & Schachter, 1956); summarized well enough at

Komarnitsky: “This can result in extremely radical rationalizations when unexpected things happen, especially in a religious context. … the beliefs that Jesus died for our sins and was raised from the dead may have been a way for Jesus’ followers to reconcile in their minds his death with their previous hope that he was the messiah.” And, “if after Jesus’ death his inner circle fled Jerusalem as a group to Galilee, it seems most likely that it was on that several day trek, or very shortly after, that the ideas contained in 1 Cor. 15:3-4 were born. Their rationalization did not need to be perfect, but it did need to adequately answer what would seem to be the two most natural and pressing questions: why did the Messiah have to die, and how can a dead person be the Messiah?”(Komarnitsky)

“Of course there are many viable explanations, not least Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance reduction, whereby more than one disappointed sect has turned defeat into zeal by means of face-saving denial. Wright suicidally mentions this theory, only to dismiss it, as usual, with no serious attempt at refutation.” (Price)

Dan Barker quotes Price as elaborating on this: When a group has staked everything on a religious belief, and ‘burned their bridges behind them,’ only to find this belief disconfirmed by events, they may find disillusionment too painful to endure. They soon come up with some explanatory rationalization, the plausibility of which will be reinforced by the mutual encouragement of fellow-believers in the group. In order to increase further the plausibility of their threatened belief, they may engage in a massive new effort at proselytizing. The more people who can be convinced, the truer it will seem. In the final analysis, then, a radical disconfirmation of belief may be just what a religious movement needs to get off the ground.” (Barker)

Lord Acton (1834-1902) wrote in an 1887 letter to one Mandell Creighton, accessible on any Internet search:

I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases…. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.

Jesus’ Immense Power

Luke 1:26-38, 2:7: Virgin born, “son of the Most High, …”
Matthew 2:11, Luke 2:8-14: Was worshipped as a baby
Matthew 7:28-29 (summarizing much, much): teaches with authority
Matthew 8:23-27, Mark 4:35-41 (calms the storm)
Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 8:1-20 (heals the demon-possessed men)
Matthew 9:1-8, Mark 2:1-12, Luke 5:17-26: heals the paralytic (and forgives)
Luke 6:1-10: Claims Lordship of the Sabbath
Matthew 9:23-27, Mark 5:35-43: Rasis Jairus’s daughter to life;
Matthew 14:13-21, Mark6:30-42, John 6:1-15: feeds the 5,000
Matthew 14:22-33, Mark 6:45-52, John 6:16-20: Walks on water
Matthew 15:29-31, Mark 6:53-56, Luke 4:38-41: (among others!) heals many
Matthew 15:32-39, Mark 8:1-10: feeds the 4,000
Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-12, Luke 9:28-36: Transfigured
Mark 9:14-29, Luke 9:37-43: Heals the unclean-spirit (epileptic) boy
Luke 17:20-37: Presents self as key to the coming of the Kingdom
All the Resurrection accounts!
Matthew 28:18-20: Claim of all authority in heaven and earth
Incredible wisdom with respect to opponents: Mark 12:1-40

… from the book of John:

Twenty-five “truly, truly’s,” in which he is claiming total authority over his own teaching
1:1-5: Creator of all that is; the light that lights the whole world and overcomes darkness
4:26: Identifies as Messiah
5:18: Made self equal with God
6:20-59: Bread of life
8:12: Light of the world
8:51: If anyone keeps my word he will not see death
8:54: Before Abraham was…
John 10:30 “I and the father are one”
11: Raises Lazarus
14: Way, truth, life, “seen the Father”
16: Overcome the world
18:33 Kingdom not of this world

Jesus’ Other-Orientedness

Incarnation: Phil. 2:5-11
Matthew 5:43-48, Luke 6:27-36: Love for enemies
Receives the children: Matthew 18:1-6, 19:13-15, Mark 10:13, Luke 9:46-48
Teaches the Good Samaritan: Luke 10:25-37
Matthew 18:10: Seeks the lost
Matthew 18:21-35: Teaches forgiveness
Trial, torture, crucifixion; cf. Phillipians 2
Came to serve: Mark 10:35
Presented as without sin
John 10:1-18: The Good Shepherd

From the appendix to the talk:

The “Lord/Liar/Lunatic” trilemma may be found at the end of chapter 3 in Lewis’s Mere Christianity. There are so many editions I will not try to suggest one in particular, or to tell you what page to look at. The quote at Wikipedia is accurate as of this writing.

The second Lewis quote,

I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage – though it may no doubt contain errors – pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors, or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative. If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind. The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learned to read.

… may be found online here.

Related arguments long preceding this one (with a hat tip to Professor Timothy McGrew):

The sum of the argument… Is— Here is a perfect character, “which is not the result of patient revision and successive improvements, but which, in its perfection, rose upon the world in full-orbed majesty, and its glory has never been surpassed or increased unto this hour” – here is a character perfect in all known human and God-like virtues – perfect in all those opposite graces whose harmonious code-operation is so difficult to maintain, and which, in no other character, fictitious or real, have been found in harmonious co-operation – here is a character conspicuous for excellences and beauties that were looked upon rather as weaknesses and blemishes by the age in which the character was maintained, and, moreover, by the very men in whose narratives the character is revealed – here is a character perfect beyond all previous conception and all subsequent experience; and yet its perfection is not described to us, but is dramatically revealed in one of the most simple, unadorned and unimpassioned stories in the world, and revealed with a consistency that is never violated, and a completeness that has never been equaled.

Charles Vince (1865), The Character of Christ. An Argument for the Historical Verity of the Four Gospels (excerpt here)

And also the final chapter, beginning page 393, of C.A. Row (1864), The Nature and Extent of Divine Inspiration, As Stated By the Writers, and Deduced From the Facts of the New Testament

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