Archives for June 2017

Dan Barker’s open Bible test

[Originally this article and the followup article that “graded” this test were published in my column when I wrote as the Atlanta Creationism Examiner.]

We all have our weaknesses. I’m a sucker for a good challenge. And I am especially susceptible to books with eye-grabbing, thought provoking titles such as The Book Your Church Doesn’t Want You To Read.

Naturally, I grabbed a copy from the shelf of the Roswell Public Library and added to my stack of books to check out and read. The End of Faith by Sam Harris was my other nonfiction selection. My reading interests do not often match that of the typical Christian.

The subtitle promised to be “An Enlightening Anthology by World-Renowned Theologians, Historians & Researchers that Exposes and Challenges Misrepresentations and Age-Old Beliefs!”

My beliefs are not “age-old” so I didn’t feel particularly threatened, and dead center in the book, on page 223, I discovered Dan Barker’s essay No Stone Unturned, which proposed an intriguing challenge. Mr. Barker is a former minister, now co-director of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. His biography claims Mr. Barker’s IQ is above the 99th percentile, which sounds…smart. Perhaps I’ll be biting off more than I can chew.

And perhaps not. Ominously, his essay is followed by this warning:

This article was copied and distributed around the country in many different forms. A lot of readers sent it to their area ministers and priests. Only two attempts at accepting the challenge were made and neither one of them kept to the terms, preferring to pick and choose particular contradictions to explain. Dan Barker is the public relations director for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Madison, Wisconsin.

See what’s being done here? Someone could faithfully put for their best effort after accepting the challenge and be judged a failure by Mr. Barker for failing to measure up to his standard. So beware of moving goalposts.

And this is his full challenge:

Read the resurrection accounts found in Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20-21 and Acts 1:3-12 and reconcile them without omitting a single detail from these separate accounts, but produce a simple, chronological narrative of the events between resurrection and ascension.

Before we go through these five books, should we assume that Mr. Barker concedes that the historical Jesus existed, and we won’t be asked to revisit the Jesus mythicists arguments after we finished our open Bible challenge?  That certainly will save us some time. And for the sake of time, I’m not going to list every single detail from 175 Bible different verses to keep these lists somewhat manageable…I’m simply going to list the salient points in their chronological order.  So without further ado, let’s do this!

Matthew 28

  1. Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb with another Mary, presumably the sister of Martha.
  2. The tomb is open and empty. The account suggests a violent earthquake moved the giant stone that had blocked the tomb opening
  3. An angel announces the resurrection and tells the women to inform the disciples and send them to Galilee.
  4. On their way, the women are greeted Jesus.
  5. They touch him.
  6. The chief priests concoct a cover story to explain the empty tomb and bribe the guards.
  7. Jesus appears to his followers in Galilee and gives them The Great Commission.

Mark 16

  1. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James (and Jesus, or “The Virgin Mary”), and Salome visit the empty tomb, the stone already having moved.
  2. An angel tells them of the resurrection. He sends them to inform the disciples and send them to Galilee.
  3. Jesus then appeared to Mary Magdalene. The other Mary and Salome are not mentioned.
  4. Jesus appeared in unrecognizable form to two people walking in the country.
  5. Jesus appeared to the remaining disciples as they ate.
  6. He gave them a hard time, then he gave them a muddled variation of the Great Commission.

Luke 24

  1. “The women” discovered the empty tomb. They were Mary Magdalene, the same Virgin Mary mentioned in Mark, and Joanna, not Salome, unless she was among “others with them” not mentioned in the first two accounts.
  2. The women tell the disciples about the resurrection. Peter visits the tomb for confirmation, a detail omitted from the first two accounts.
  3. Two people (one named Cleopas) are greeted by Jesus on the road to Emmaus, but they fail to recognize him at first. He admonishes them for not believing in the resurrection and goes with them to meet the disciples, who also do not immediately recognize him.
  4. Jesus reveals his true identity to his disciples while they ate.
  5. He gives the disciples another, darker version of the Great Commission and then ascends into heaven.

John 20-21

  1. Mary Magdalene is the first person to arrive at the tomb.
  2. She tells Peter, who visits the tomb. They believe the grave has been robbed.
  3. Mary sees two angels after Peter’s visit.
  4. The angels tell Mary the grave was not robbed, but Jesus was resurrected.
  5. She tells the disciples the good news.
  6. Jesus appears to Mary but she is not permitted to touch him. (obvious difference from Matthew’s acct)
  7. Jesus appears to the disciples in a closed room
  8. Thomas is not with the others (discrepancy or unique detail) / Doubting Thomas detail
  9. New detail introduced of fishing disciples and the miraculous catch post-resurrection
  10. Peter jumps into the Sea of Tiberias (also known as the Sea of Galilee) for some strange reason after realizing Jesus had returned.

At this point we now dispense with line-by-line analysis of the text in question. We’ve certainly hit all the highlights. May I concede that the books of Acts and Corinthians will also contain some level of detail with minor discrepancies in the descriptions for events that occurred between the alleged resurrection and ascension to heaven and simply grant that point rather than belabor it? We also ought to be able to agree that some books of the Bible contain information that conflicts with information found in other books of the Bible, as my article Encouraging My Christian friends to think explained.

“God” did not write the Bible. An unknown number of men, and possibly women as well, recorded. Some of these accounts conflict or provide apparently insignificant detail.  Some biblical scholars now believe just the book of Genesis had at least four contributing authors, plus an editor who expertly wove together multiple narratives. The assertion that the Bible must be inerrant, meaning indisputably true without flaw or mistake, is a false standard.

Quid est veritas?

Let’s cut right to the heart of the issue at hand. Obviously, Mr. Barker wishes us to recognize is that our “eyewitness” accounts include a few relatively minor discrepancies in order to cast doubt on the veracity of the accounts as a whole. Apparently, we are to infer that because his assignment to the Christian is assumed to be “impossible”, meaning these stories cannot be reconciled and cannot possibly be true. I have a different take on this subject.

Admittedly, my head is filled to capacity with information I often find useless. For example, in pursuit of my undergraduate degree, I absorbed enough history and political science to earn a degree with a double major in those fields of study before losing interest in pursuing a law degree. Once I realized that Perry Mason was only a fictional character and that most of my real clients would probably be guilty, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a lawyer.

I couldn’t stand the idea of doing my job to the best of my ability and having the result be a rapist or murderer escaping punishment for their crimes, literally.  I changed majors from pre-law to a BBA, and the rest is now history. Prior to that fateful decision I understood that as an attorney, knowing criminal investigation techniques and strategies could prove useful one day. So I took several classes in criminal justice.  One of my professors was a former FBI agent who entertained the class with stories about his days in the field. Now it’s my job to write detective novels, and that knowledge comes in handy. I’ve worked hard to train my mind in the art of deductive reasoning. Applying those techniques combined with logic and common sense, I’ve constructed this single narrative by synchronizing the four Gospel accounts according to the most important details:

  1. Mary Magdalene found an empty tomb. Jesus’ mother and others were probably in small group that visited the gravesite. Every gospel account agrees that the first witnesses on the scene were women.
  2. One or possibly two angels announced the resurrection of the physical body of crucified Jesus.
  3. The disciples find out about the resurrection from the women. Peter may or may not have visited the tomb to verify their account.
  4. At some point in time after the resurrection and before the ascension of Jesus into heaven, the disciples travel to Galilee.
  5. Before his ascension, Jesus gives his followers marching orders in some form of the Great Commission.

My assignment was to write a cohesive narrative that did not fail to omit every single detail, and the most important details have been carefully and accurately catalogued and ordered. The whole point of this open Bible “test” was to create doubt in the minds of Christians by focusing the fact that the four Gospel accounts contain variations of the same basic story and do not agree on every little detail.

But here’s the problem with Mr. Barker’s test: any half-decent detective who earns a living by the application of deductive reasoning will tell you that when two witnesses give the exact same account in every minor detail, those witnesses were coached and their testimony will be considered unreliable.

The gospels may be considered reliable eyewitness accounts because they don’t agree in every minor detail. The most important facts to glean from the Gospels are the crucifixion, the empty tomb, and the resurrection.  Jesus’s followers believed he was the promised Jewish Messiah so fervently that many were willing to suffer their own gruesome crucifixion and death. None of the disciples, with the possible exception of John, died of natural causes. Most were martyred in gruesome forms of execution and suffered horrible deaths.

Who on earth would die to protect a known lie?

My question for Mr. Barker in return is simply this: can you find even one prosecutor willing to try a felony case before a jury using four witnesses to the alleged crime offering the exact same testimony in every detail? Even more daunting, can he find four witnesses willing to offer testimony while in fear of their own life?

A good defense attorney like Perry Mason would turn a D. A. foolish enough to depend on obviously coached witnesses into Ham Burger.

Reincarnation, and the problem of an open mind

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: As a Christian, I will admit this is information that I have trouble reconciling with my religious beliefs, and it especially bothers me because it’s something that wouldn’t upset me if true — it actually solves theological issues I have about sticky issues such as the premature death of a child. As a human being, curiosity got the better of me, and I’ve learned that I cannot simply reject the idea of reincarnation. Like Dr. Tucker, I’m merely more open to the possibility, in the light of evidence such as that I’m about to describe.]

Little five-year-old Ryan from rural Muskogee County, Oklahoma began having nightmares involving a past life.

Ryan claimed he had been a well-known actor who lived in Hollywood, had a sister who was a famous dancer, and once knew Rita Hayworth. He said that he had been really rich, married multiple times, loved Chinatown and Chinese food, lived in a house with a swimming pool on “rocks” drive, owned some sort of agency that changed names, and provided a host of other details about this mysterious “previous life.”

Ryan’s father Kevin, a police officer with thirteen years experience, proposed that mother Cyndi should keep track of all Ryan’s past-life claims. To be precise, over a period of several months Cyndi documented 102 unique claims that her son made about a past life.

Meanwhile, Ryan’s nightmares continued to get worse. He would turn white and gasp for air, struggling for every breath. He talked about things that seemed gibberish, like a meeting in a New York graveyard with someone he called “Senator Five.” His parents desperately felt the need to do something to help their son. “Do you know who I am yet?” Ryan would regularly demand.

Cyndi had heard that if you could get books about the places where children claimed to  experience in their past lives, the children often opened up and found some relief. Cyndi began thinking it might help stop the nightmares, and she was willing to try just about anything to make them stop. So she bought a few books about Hollywood. Flipping through one of them one night, Ryan got excited when he saw a still photograph from an old movie. “You found me, Mama, you found me!”Ryan said excitedly. “That’s me, and that’s George” he said, pointing to a picture of George Raft.

The movie from which the promotional photo was taken was titled Night After Night.

Claiming he had worked on the film, Ryan proceeded to describe the plot in detail. He said that George Raft played a boxer who lived in a mansion and kept a closet full of guns.

Ryan pointed to an unidentified extra shown in the photo and claimed that had once been him. After his parents obtained a copy and watched Night After Night, they were flabbergasted as they realized Ryan had predicted specific details of the plot with eerie accuracy without ever having watched the movie.

But they were equally disappointed to discover that the actor Ryan had identified as his previous life had a minor, uncredited role. Desperate to help Ryan cope with his recurring nightmares, Kevin and Cyndi then contacted Dr. Jim Tucker, medical director of The Child and Family Psychiatry Clinic and Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia. After interviewing the young boy, Dr. Tucker decided that he and his parents were credible, and their claims merited further investigation. Tucker figured that the best way to help Ryan end his nightmares would be to identify the man from the movie, so he began to research.

Ryan and his parents looked through hundreds of head shots of actors from the 1930s. An actor named Ralf Harolde seemed to resemble the man in the photo, but Ryan wasn’t sure. Kevin and Cyndi were so determined to help their son they flew with Ryan to Hollywood, to trace the footsteps of Ralf Harolde. However, other than handling chopsticks like a seasoned pro in Fong’s Chinese restaurant, Ryan showed no signs of familiarity in his tour of Harolde’s old stomping grounds, and seemed particularly troubled to hear that Ralf Harolde didn’t have a sister. And when his mother told Ryan that Harolde’s wife’s name had been Mary, Ryan said, “Maybe that’s the wrong wife.”

But Dr. Tucker suspected Harolde was the wrong actor. And he believed Ryan harbored the same suspicion. So he enlisted the aid of professional film footage researcher Kate Coe. She went to the physical Academy Library archives and carefully pored over every scrap of information that she could find about the movie Night After Night. Finally she identified actor Marty Martyn as the man in the picture with George Raft.

With that breakthrough in hand, Tucker thoroughly researched the life of Martyn, and then put Ryan to a full battery of tests while employing the scientific method at every opportunity to ensure the results were genuine. Without mentioning his name, Tucker showed Ryan “photo lineups” of pictures in groups of four, and the boy easily identified Marty Martyn (born Marty Kolinsky) at various stages of his life.

As another test, Dr. Tucker asked Ryan’s father to read several other alliterative names such as John Johnson, Willie Wilson, and Robert Robertson, and Ryan quickly chose the name culled by Coe’s research, that of Marty Martyn. From photo lineups Ryan also correctly identified photographs of Senator “Five” (Senator Ives of New York), Martyn’s former wife Margie, and several other key figures that Ryan had mentioned on the bullet list of 102 memories from his alleged previous life.

Tucker managed to contact the daughter of Marty Martyn as part of his research efforts. He was able to confirm that 90 of 102 specific details from Ryan’s list were confirmed to be accurate and true. There was insufficient documentation to validate or refute the other 11 claims.

Next Ryan and his family traveled out to Hollywood again, this second trip to meet his “daughter”, who was now approximately the same age as Ryan’s grandmother. Seeing his “daughter” had grown to adulthood seemed to give Ryan closure. He no longer has nightmares and now acts much like any other child his age.

Now as a professed Christian, I readily admit that this sort of information falls well outside my comfort zone in terms of experience. But as someone who regularly chastises my atheist friends for being unwilling to challenge their personal system of beliefs with new information, it would be hypocritical for me to refuse to acknowledge that information such as this allegedly exists. If I’m going to “practice what I preach”, I have to investigate. And only a fool would suggest a 90 percent success rate was due to luck, or a fluke.

It turns out that Dr. Tucker is a well known, accredited expert in his field. I respected how he applied the scientific method to the bizarre, and somewhat unbelievable problem of reincarnation. And I also respected his candor in an interview with David Ian Miller about his book Life before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children’s Memories of Previous Lives when Dr. Tucker said,

What I say in the book is that after reviewing many of the strongest cases we have, the best explanation for them is that memories and emotions at times seem to be able to carry from one life to the next. So I think the evidence is there to support [reincarnation]. Now, if you are asking, Is it part of my personal belief system? Not particularly. I’m not a Buddhist or Hindu or anything like that. I’m open to the possibility, obviously, or I wouldn’t be spending time on this research. But I’m not a zealot as far as pushing some sort of religious doctrine.

The problem with information such as this is that it falls outside of our comfort zone, or our normal expectations of reality. On the surface it sounds like, well, something that could only be dreamed up in Hollywood. I can’t say I’ve experienced a previous life. I have no memories or experiences that would be in any way comparable to those Ryan claimed to have.

Could it be a hoax? Anything is possible. I can understand why Dr. Tucker might hope to perpetuate a ruse — the person who could confirm reincarnation, or life after life, might expect to achieve some level of fame and fortune. What I cannot understand is why Ryan or his parents would participate in a fraud.

I cannot simply dismiss the evidence offered in this particular case, especially in light of the fact it was so thoroughly documented, and the scientific method was applied during the data collection process. I can’t swear under oath that the information is true, either. I can only ask “Cui bono?” (who benefits) from the lie? I can also call to your attention that such alleged information exists, and relay that information as accurately as possible.

But I cannot tell you what this alleged information means, not with any certainty.

[Primary original source: The Unexplained television program on the Biography Channel, episode on reincarnation.]