2009-05-10

Timothy Keller, ‘Reason for God’ — “The content is far too counterproductive for the gospels to be legends.”

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by Neil Godfrey

This post relates to an earlier one on Keller here.

The crucifixion counterproductive?

Why would the leaders of the early Christian movement have made up the story of the crucifixion if it didn’t happen? Any listener of the gospel in either Greek or Jewish culture would have automatically suspected that anyone who had been crucified was a criminal, whatever the speaker said to the contrary. (Timothy Keller, Reason for God, p.104)

The answer to the first question is simple. The last statement is nonsense.

To ask why a religion would make up a story of their leader being crucified is the same as asking why any religion would want to have a martyr as its founder. All martyrs are by definition falsely blamed and suffer unjust deaths.

Not a single reader of Josephus suspects for a second that the 800 Pharisees crucified by King Alexander Jannaeus deserved their fate, and this entirely because of the facts the speaker narrated to explain how it came about that they were so unjustly crucified.

Any character created in the shadow of the Old Testament heroes who suffered unjustly would attract the sympathy and praise of audiences. Prophets were martyred. Men of God, such as Joseph in particular, were betrayed by their brethren. This makes them all the more honourable and worthy in the eyes of readers. Nor was the pagan god Dionysus any less popular in the Greek and early Roman times for his cruel and unjust death.

There is evidence that Second Temple Judaism included some who came to think Isaac had literally been sacrificed and was raised again from the dead, and that at the time of the Maccabean martyrs many looked to Isaac’s act as embodying both their personal hopes and the hope of Israel. See my post from last year, Could Jews Never Have Imagined a Crucified Messiah?, and related posts, for the details.

The mental torment of Jesus counterproductive?

Why would any Christian make up the account of Jesus asking God in the garden of Gethsemane if he could get out of his mission? Or why ever make up the part on the cross when Jesus cries out that God had abandoned him? These things would only have offended or deeply confused first-century prospective converts. They would have concluded that Jesus was weak and failing his God. (p.105)

Methinks Keller knows the value to be acquired in “making these up” or “reporting them” — I am sure missionaries today are able to avoid confusing their prospective converts in the way Keller says first century folks would be confused. I think many believe, argue, that one of the very reasons for the success of Christianity from the beginning was its ability to preach a God who could identify with humanity’s sufferings, who knew the “weaknesses of the flesh”, “yet without sin”. The fact of the success of Christianity shows that they were not, as Keller suggests, offended in the least, but attracted to the idea just as many moderns are.

The success of the gospel story lies in how its hero does not succumb to the pressures of the flesh that torment him. Keller’s objection is a straw man.

The failing disciples counterproductive?

Also, why constantly depict the apostles — the eventual leaders of the early Church — as petty and jealous, almost impossibly slow-witted, and in the end as cowards who either actively or passively failed their master? (p.105)

A famous teacher have dim-witted disciples is a classic literary foil to both exalt the leader and encourage readers that there is hope for them, too. Buddha had the like, so did Apollonius of Tyana, and Elisha, and Moses. . . How many Christians don’t love Peter for his failings despite his intentions? The appeal of the disciples is universal. It has been the same from the beginning.

Matthew, Luke and John, and many would also include Mark too, acknowledge that the gospels are not as pessimistic about the disciples at all, but are stories that demonstrate how they came to emerge as leading witnesses and pillars despite their earlier faililngs. Again Timothy Keller’s argument is a straw man.

Timothy Keller seems to be arguing that a story that works for people today would not have worked for people of yesterday. But it obviously did work for it to be still here, with the same appeal as ever.

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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Timothy Keller, ‘Reason for God’ — “The content is far too counterproductive for the gospels to be legends.””

  1. Neil,

    I’ve been so impressed with your dismantling of Tim Kellers arguments that I sent him an e-mail through his churchs website inviting him to read your responses to his book. Someone identifying himself as an associate of Keller responded to me and said that Keller was in Asia at this time but he would forward my message to him when he returns.
    I’m not holding my breath but I think it would be entertaining to see Keller try and respond to your posts where you clearly show how incredibly foolish many of his arguments are.
    Your blog is one of the most interesting and insightfull that I’ve come across on the web. Keep up the great work.

    1. Thanks, but not holding my breath either. I’ve learned via the backalley internet routes that Richard Bauckham has also been made aware of my critique of his popular work pretending to be a serious argument for the gospels being based on eyewitness reports, but that he has dismissed my reviews as “not worthy of rebuttal”. Not surprised at all. I only write for those who were in the same place I was when I was myself in the process of questioning my beliefs, and who hold intellectual honesty at a higher premium than comfort.

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