Is the Jesus of John’s Gospel Anti-Science?

In the Gospel of John, the apostle Thomas is famously (or rather, infamously) held up as a bad example to followers of Jesus, for he insisted upon evidence for Jesus’s resurrection.  Look again at the famous passage from the Gospel of John that gave Thomas the moniker “Doubting Thomas” (20:25 KJV):

The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the LORD. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.

Thomas flunked the resurrection belief test. This was the wrong answer. In fact, in verse 29 of John’s gospel, Jesus gave a blessing to those who believe absent evidence:

Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

Now, what are we to make of this? Is Jesus being anti-science? It could be argued (and it has been) that Jesus wasn’t dissing evidence as such, but dissing those who did not give proper weight to apostolic testimony. In other words, since apostolic testimony was coming from people who took their commitment to the Hebrew Bible seriously (as in, “Thou shalt not bear false witness”), Jesus was merely rebuking Thomas for not accepting the evidence offered: the evidence of eye witnesses piously committed to honesty. Thus Jesus was not anti-evidence or anti-science. 

This sounds (almost) plausible.

But look at the rebuke again:

Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

Even if we accept that, before believing something, we must at least have reliable testimony backing it up as evidence, it is also true that Jesus (at least the Jesus of John’s gospel) specifically downplays the value of another important form of evidence: independently verified public data.  

And, of course, access to public data is one of the innovative elements that makes science possible. Indeed, science goes by public data, and Jesus very specifically eschews the need for public data. And so it can be (more than plausibly) argued that the Jesus of John’s gospel, to anyone who really absorbs his admonition to not seek public data, but believe extraordinary things via testimony alone, without physical evidence, hinders an empirical outlook on the world.

And, of course, David Hume famously wrote that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” No matter how honest an eyewitness, when it comes to a miraculous claim it is always possible—indeed, likely—that he or she has misinterpreted the experience. And so independent verification of the data upon which the experience is based is a reasonable request. And that, of course, is what Thomas sought:

Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.

This is not an impious thing to insist upon; it is something that one says when you have a commitment to: (1) truth; and (2) getting the truth of matters right. The great American patriot, Thomas Paine, held the same view. In Part I of his The Age of Reason, he wrote this:

Thomas did not believe the resurrection; and, as they say, would not believe without having ocular and manual demonstration himself. So neither will I; and the reason is equally as good for me, and for every other person, as for Thomas.

And regarding the nature of eye-witness testimony, Thomas Paine wrote this:

It is a contradiction in terms and ideas to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication. After this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner, for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.

I’m with David Hume and the two Thomases (the apostle and Paine) against the Jesus of John on this issue: extraordinary testimony, to be believed, must be combined with public data that can be reasonably evaluated. Otherwise, we are apt to believe many ludicrous and implausible things, and base our subsequent reasoning on “facts” that are either faulty or poorly established. And anything that is false, or likely false, but widely treated as true is known as a factoid. I say that the claim that Jesus rose from the dead is, by any reasonable definition, a widely spread factoid based on viral memes—such as the Thomas story—that discourage close scrutiny of the claim by the normal standards of skepticism, critical thinking, and scientific verification.

What say you?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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14 Responses to Is the Jesus of John’s Gospel Anti-Science?

  1. TomH says:

    Santi,

    You make *many* mistakes. Let me show you.

    You misread the passage about Thomas. The point wasn’t that Thomas flunked the belief test. The point was that Thomas insisted on using an empirical test when a perfectly adequate test was available–corroborating the testimony of eyewitnesses.

    “In fact, in verse 29 of John’s gospel, Jesus gave a blessing to those who believe absent evidence”

    Believing on the basis of examined, corroborated testimony isn’t believing “absent evidence.”

    “Jesus was merely rebuking Thomas for not accepting the evidence offered: the evidence of eye witnesses piously committed to honesty.”

    I have pointed out before that the Jewish law requires that eyewitnesses be carefully questioned by judges and their testimony checked for corroboration. It doesn’t allow an appeal based on the witnesses’ piety. That is a concept from Thomas Reid and English law, not the Bible.

    “Jesus (at least the Jesus of John’s gospel) specifically downplays the value of another important form of evidence: independently verified public data.”

    Where do you get your idea of “independently verified public data?” Locke found exactly two methods of obtaining knowledge about the world–empirical data and the testimony of eyewitnesses, which, if true, ultimately is based on empirical data. Have you discovered some third way of obtaining knowledge about the world? If so, please be sure and send it in to the Journal of Philosophy. You’d deserve a major prize for it and you’d go down in history as a major philosopher of science.

    “Jesus of John’s gospel, to anyone who really absorbs his admonition to not seek public data, but believe extraordinary things via testimony alone, without physical evidence, hinders an empirical outlook on the world.”

    Except that examined, corroborated eyewitness testimony must be based on empirical observations. Forgeries are fairly easily eliminated by examining the witnesses.

    “And, of course, David Hume famously wrote that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.””

    Now comes the appeal to authority to believe an unsupported tautology.

    “And so independent verification of the data upon which the experience is based is a reasonable request. And that, of course, is what Thomas sought:”

    Which, as I have previously pointed out, is a misreading of the text. Aren’t you an instructor in literature? Why is it that you can’t read the Bible correctly?

    I agree that if we can reasonably validate testimonial claims empirically, that is a good thing to do regarding controversial propositions that matter. However, how was Thomas’ request reasonable? He was demanding that God jump through his hoops, which was an offense against God’s lese majeste.

    If the church hadn’t conducted various investigations where it questioned apostolic eyewitnesses (see Luke 1:1-3 and Acts 4:33) and if the independent Samaritans hadn’t also conducted their own investigations (see Acts 8:25), then you would have a point.

    Historical events necessarily cannot be directly observed after the fact, so we must rely on corroborated testimony. If the witnesses have been questioned, we are ahead of the game. It their testimony corroborates itself, we have as great a certainty about the historical events as may be had.

    Let’s suppose that you were present at an historical event along with two other people. Let’s suppose that a decade goes by and you reminisce about the event with them. You discover that your empirical evidence doesn’t agree with theirs, but that their memories corroborate one another. Will you believe your potentially faulty memories (which are based on direct empirical evidence) or their corroborated testimony?

  2. TomH says:

    I will only believe in radiometric dating of rocks if I can find the rocks and run the tests myself.

    Thanks, Santi, for showing me how to apply Thomas’ reasoning to good effect. 🙂

    • santitafarella says:

      TomH:

      It’s not enough for a scientist, however honest and however respected by colleagues, to say: “I found a fossil dinosaur that showed feathers” or “I found a rock that dates to 300 million years.” She must, instead, produce the fossil or rock for open inspection, and disclose how the data was recovered, and the rationale for her conclusions. Likewise, radiometric dating is a completely open process: you can go to university and learn how to do it, and you can read and access the rock samples and data generated by the process (and reconduct the experiments to see if the results can be duplicated, if you like).

      It is, in other words, important to add the element of public access to empiricism, for an empirical investigation may be satisfying to you, but it cannot be so for others if you cannot (or do not) give them access to the same data.

      A scientist is someone who, if she is skeptical of a conclusion, can seek out the data, reconduct the experiment, and access, say, the fossils or stones upon which the claim is made. Thomas was skeptical. He had every right to be. He had a right to access more evidence than testimony and the claim that others had looked into the matter and verified it for him. But Jesus discouraged Thomas’s understandable skepticism. He said, “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

      Mere testimony is not sufficient for such an extraordinary claim, but the Jesus of John’s gospel attempts to make it so.

      I assume, Tom, that you do not believe the testimony of people who have claimed to see UFOs or to have been abducted by UFOs. And I assume that you do not do so for very good reasons. You know, for example, that even when UFO testimony is multiple (that is, many people say they saw the same object), you also know that people are subject to misunderstanding what they perceive. And you also know that there is no physical evidence that accompanies UFO sightings or abductions. Absent actual public data—empirical evidence—it is not reasonable to put much belief in what UFO believers verbally testify to.

      It is easy to be spellcast by verbal testimony. See here for an example:

      https://santitafarella.wordpress.com/2009/08/20/the-rendlesham-forest-ufo-incident-the-testimony-of-sgt-james-penniston-and-col-charles-halt-usaf/

      My guess is that, if you look at the above link, you will hear the testimony offered and still (wisely) withhold belief. And you will do so because it is not reasonable to believe so extraordinary a claim without strong verification. And there are simply too many alternative (and more plausible) hypotheses available than the one offered by the witnesses.

      —Santi

      • TomH says:

        Santi,

        You add moral error to your other errors by your incorrigibility regarding accurately reading the Bible.

        Thomas said that he would *only* believe if he could perform certain tests. He *excluded* the adequate evidence he could have produced by questioning the witnesses.

        “She must, instead, produce the fossil or rock for open inspection….”

        Open inspection for hominid fossils? Hah! Just try to get access, even if you are a well-known degreed anthropologist. Nowadays all you get to see are plaster casts. Imagine if the only evidence experts could have looked at regarding the famous fraud, Piltdown Man, were plaster casts. The fraud would never have been discovered. It’s extraordinary when an expert gets to examine hominid fossils unless she owns them or is caretaker of the museum that houses them.

        Frauds have been discovered in paleontology from time to time. We don’t know the frauds that haven’t been discovered yet. If someone is very clever at creating a forgery, it might be near impossible to detect.

        “She must…disclose how the data was recovered”

        So you think that we must simply believe what an authority from the church of scientism says about the recovery of a fossil? (Sure, the anthropologist may not hold to scientism, but you seem to be regarding her as a holy priest of scientism whose words must be accepted without requiring corroboration.)

        Don’t you think that your epistemology is lacking just a tad?

        I still haven’t a clue what you mean by “public data.” Do you mean publicly accessible forensic evidence? Do you understand that static (and possibly forged) physical evidence is not the same kind of evidence as the empirical evidence from observing a dynamic historical event? (“Empirical” is subject to confusing shift-of-meanings.)

        How do you get that “public data” for high-energy nuclear experiments? Can you afford to build your own nuclear accelerator? Can the average person get access to one? Don’t you expect most people to simply believe what scientists say about many things? Don’t you believe because of the authority of the priesthood of the church of scientism in many cases? Does your skepticism perhaps lack some breadth?

        The biblical requirements for believing witnesses included carefully examining the witnesses. Have UFO witnesses been carefully examined? Have efforts been made to separate their empirical statements from second-order conclusions?

        Look at the words of Peter in Acts–“we cannot stop speaking what we have *seen and heard*.” He didn’t say, “We cannot stop giving our testimony.” The difference is perhaps a bit subtle if you haven’t thought about it. One might give one’s testimony which includes all kinds of second-order conclusions about an event. However, Peter is emphasizing that the apostles are only making first-order statements–those that are *purely empirical* and sensory-based. It is those first order statements that must corroborate in order to be accepted. Peter’s words indicate that he understood the difference between empirical statements and conclusions which may be given during examination by judges.

        One might learn a lot from the Bible about epistemology if she studied it *carefully*. To my disappointment, there are plenty of Christians who don’t read the Bible carefully and oppose my careful conclusions about its epistemology, so it’s not just skeptics who make reading mistakes and practice the moral error of incorrigibility.

    • I will only believe in radiometric dating of rocks if I can find the rocks and run the tests myself.

      So what are you waiting for? Go fo it!

  3. santitafarella says:

    TomH:

    Are you telling me that, if you lived at the time of the apostles, and a group of them came up to you and said, “We have seen the LORD,” that your inquiry would stop there? That you wouldn’t seek a further investigation before believing so extraordinary a tale?

    Really?

    —Santi

    • TomH says:

      I would follow the epistemic method of the law of Moses–1) sequestrate the witnesses (implied), 2) question them thoroughly, obtaining purely empirical statements, 3) compare their testimonies, eliminating forgery while establishing corroboration, and 4) repeat steps 2-3 as needed. It’s really a very simple legal method which is useful for very recent history.

      It works for UFO encounters, ghost stories, criminal investigations, etc. as well.

      • santitafarella says:

        TomH:

        Now, you are reaching.

        This is obviously an artifical narrowing of the scope of investigation. If you lived during the week following the crucifixion of Jesus, and you were going to play inspector “Columbo,” you would seek not just corroborating testimony, but corroborating physical evidence. Physical evidence can call into question testimony in precisely the same way that contradictory testimony can. And if Jesus, for example, left no evidence of his appearance to the apostles, this might be telling as well, and arouse reasonable skepticism (as it arouses skepticism when people witness a UFO but have no physical traces of the event to point to).

        I’m thinking of the Phoenix Lights incident as an example of testimony we (rightly) hold with skepticism because it lacks physical evidence and contradicts all of the background knowledge that we think we already have about the world.

        Background information is an important issue here. We not only have to get testimony and establish evidence, we have to make that data accord with what we think we already know about the world. An extraordinary claim (like UFOs or the resurrection) requires extraordinary evidence precisely because it overturns paradigms that we thought were built themselves on extraodinary evidence (such as the fact that interstellar travel is almost certainly physically impossible for organic beings to do; and dead people stay dead). To contradict a thing that we think is already well established, a person must be expected to provide to skeptics more than the testimony of unevenly educated people who, however committed to honesty, may have been prone to superstition, exaggeration, mental illness, attention seeking, bias, or other ulterior motives.

        —Santi

  4. santitafarella says:

    TomH:

    As for what I mean by public data, I’m not sure what your confusion is. A piece of testimony is a datum, a photograph is a piece of datum, a fossil is a piece of datum. Blood on a shroud is a piece of datum. A measurement of an artifact is a piece of datum. The cast of a skull is a piece of datum. Testimony concerning a chain of custody of, say, Jesus’s personal posessions is a piece of datum.

    In other words, we want public and open access to data wherever they are available and wherever we are skepical of something or seek to bolster our confidence in a conclusion. And, when the issue is important and matters to us, we want to make sure that we have gotten the data correct, and that they can be verified.

    We don’t want to just assume that data are correct, we want their pieces to be public and verifiable (that is, accessable to outside investigators).

    If we don’t have public data we are in danger of mistaking factoids as facts.

    Here’s an example: when you ask of the resurrection—“Who moved the stone?”—you’ve already assumed too much, for the stone functions for us as a factoid. There may have been no stone. We only have a story, written by an anonymous author decades later, that says that there was a stone. But we are treating something as true absent any ability to verify. The reality is that we just don’t know if there was a stone in front of Jesus’s tomb. For all we know, he may have been tossed into a public grave after being crucified.

    As for introducing second-order conclusions, that’s exactly what the apostles did when they said to Thomas, “We have seen the LORD.” Presumably they knew that the dead stay dead. On that basis, did they explore other hypotheses for their experience, as to its nature? On what grounds did they express their confidence that they had seen the restored physical body of a companion who had been crucified? We are not told. It’s like someone who sees a UFO and concludes that they saw a spaceship from another star system. What other possibilities are there?

    —Santi

  5. TomH says:

    Santi,

    Ok, I guess by “public data” you’re talking about general “stuff”, not anything specific like testimony or physical evidence. Does your “public data” include second order conclusions?

    What is the “public data” in the resurrection question? It seems to me that it includes the actions of all the people in Jerusalem, the landscape of Jerusalem, the weather of Jerusalem, the mice and rats eaten by cats, the frogs chirping, dogs barking, the wind blowing, etc. These are your “public data.” Now you have a problem–sifting this mountain of data to discover which of these things are relevant. You have more data than you can handle. You need a way to filter out the irrelevant stuff. Can you do this without losing important data or including irrelevant data? Can you do this without prejudicing the conclusion? How?

    Furthermore, suppose a witness dies. The first order “public data” has decreased. So, first order data aren’t static–they tend to be destroyed. That’s why we need to do our investigation ASAP. So the first order “public data” changes with time. As time goes on, the first order “public data” grows less and less. However, given an adequate investigation, the second order conclusions can remain constant with time, assuming that their contents are maintained by accurate copying/textual science.

    “As for introducing second-order conclusions, that’s exactly what the apostles did when they said to Thomas, “We have seen the LORD.””

    You’re mixing the content of threads here. I’ll answer this and the rest of your reply in the other section.

    • santitafarella says:

      TomH:

      You are right that evidence deteriorates. That’s why murder investigators try to get on the scene of a crime and interview witnesses as quickly as possible.

      With regard to what constitutes data for the resurrection for us, living today, I’d say, “Not much.” If you treat each individual anecdote in the gospels as a piece of data, and some things in Acts and Paul as data, and perhaps the Taipot tomb and Shroud of Turin as data, that’s about all you’ve got.

      I’m willing to accept that the gospels go back to the second half of the first century, and that 1 Corinthians 15 (where Paul talks about the resurrection) goes back to perhaps 50 CE. But we don’t know who wrote the gospels, or what their motive was for writing them in the way that they did, or where they got the stories that they have. And we don’t know on what Paul based his 1 Corinthians 15 list of witnesses, or what he meant by his own claim that he saw the Lord.

      As for the Taipot tomb, that would seem to contradict the gospels outright (if Jesus had a family tomb and he was in it).

      As for the Shroud of Turin image, it carbon dates to the Middle Ages.

      So, basically, the Jesus resurrection claim is weaker than your typical contemporary collective UFO sighting claim (like, say, the Rendalsheim Air Base incident and the Phoenix Lights incident).

      This is why I think it is folly for Christians to assert that they believe because of the evidence. Instead, they should simply say, “I believe because God has chosen me to be a believer and has revealed the truth of the gospel to my heart. And I believe this revelation to my heart is from God by faith.”

      In other words, “Blessed are those who have not seen, but believed.” And if you have been made one of God’s elect, even as the rest of us go about in blindness, bully for you! The mystery of God’s election is quite mysterious, isn’t it?

      I would say the same thing, by the way, to someone who has claimed to have received a visitation from a UFO—experienced an alien abduction. It’s a private experience, not subject to public data verification, but nevertheless confidently believed by the experiencer.

      The folly is in trying to make religion compatible with Enlightenment methods of reason and empirical investigation. Applying critical thinking to the resurrection data available to us doesn’t get the inquirer to belief, but doubt.

      In other words, if you apportion belief to: (1) the evidence; and (2) your already existing background knowledge—and these are two crucial elements to critical thinking generally—then you don’t arrive at any serious confidence that Jesus rose from the dead.

      It would be nice, though, to think that somebody did, wouldn’t it?

      —Santi

  6. I think this video of Neil de Grasse Tyson on UFOs, the argument from ignorance and the reliability of personal witnesses is spot on:

  7. When I was a christian, I read a number of works that applauded Thomas for his doubt, and advocated a testing of truth claims.

    I think Christians would suggest Thomas’ opinions were a publicly available truth-claim. I’m not sure how many were in the room at the time, but it was a miniumum of 12 and possibly a lot more.

    What makes something ‘public’? Our modern standards are quite different to those of older times, perhaps?

    Jonathan from spritzophrenia

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