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The difference between frogs turning into Princes and Jesus turning water into wine

August 27, 2014

A little while back world famous atheist Richard Dawkins spoke about the place of fairy tales. Responding to suggestions that he thought that fairy tales were ‘pernicious’ and should perhaps be banned he spoke on a BBC interview where he clarified his thinking. Dawkins’ position is still a little puzzling as he appears to have changed his mind on the value and place of fairy tales.

Yet in this interview Dawkins made some interesting comments on the difference between fairy tales and belief in God. He said that it ‘fascinates me how to make the distinction between frogs turning into princes and Jesus turning water into wine on the other.’ Dawkins claims that there is ‘no evidence for either’.

So how do we make a distinction? Is Dawkins’ right in asserting that there is no evidence for either’?

There are a few ways in which we can make a distinction between fairy tales and Jesus’ miracles. This basically revolves around ‘genre and context’. The genre and context of the New Testament documents indicate that they are intended to communicate events that the authors intended to be understood as historical.

1. The genre of Gospels is cognizant with historical documents (bioi). The Gospels are written in the style of an ancient bioi, which is a biography of an historical character. Bioi and the Gospels present continuous prose narratives comprising stories, anecdotes, sayings and speeches focused on the main character. Understanding Gospel genre this way means that they are treated historically like other ancient biographies. Yet the genre of fairy tales is one of fiction. When you read the line ‘Once upon a time’, we are transported into the timeless world of the fairy tale. Which is in stark contrast to ‘In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea’ (Luke 3:1)

2. The Gospels were all written within a lifetime of the events. The Gospels were not the end result of years of countless improvements and embellishments. They were written between 40 to 60 years after the events they purport to record, which corresponds to the time the key eyewitnesses began to die out. This suggests that the early church were trying to preserve the memory of Jesus and the events of his life. This stands in stark contrast to fairy tales for which the timing of when they were written is irrelevant.

3. The Gospels were interpreted as historical events by those reading them. The early church certainly believed that these events really happened. They were always interpreted as documents outlining real historical events. It is very rare for fairy tales to have ever been interpreted as historical events. They may have been satirical e.g. Gulliver’s Travels, but I doubt anyone ever thought there was a real land called Lilliput.

4. Eyewitnesses of these events were still alive and were likely to be guarantors of the fidelity of the story. The work of Richard Bauckham is very important here. He makes the case in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses that through the mention of named characters in the Gospels, we have hints of the original sources of the information about Jesus and those who guarantee its credibility. These ‘hints’ root the Gospel narratives in history, something which true fairy tales never attempt to do.

Dawkins makes the unfortunate assumption that because something is ‘supernatural’ then it must be automatically false.

I spoke to my five year old daughter on this topic. She loves fairy stories with giants and fairies and magic. I asked her if the fairy tales were true and she said no. She is also aware of the miracles of Jesus and she believes that they occurred. When I asked her why she believes that she said, ‘The Bible’. It seems that even a five year old can understand the difference between the genre and context of the Gospels and fairy tales, when we tell both to her regularly.

Hence Dawkins claim is not exactly true – there is evidence for Jesus. Unfortunately Dawkins has chosen to overlook and reject the evidence. The reason that we we grow out of one and not the other is that there are some good reasons based on genre and context. Dawkins complains that we can’t explain it. Well, here is a starting point.

My five year old daughter can see the difference, I’m puzzled why an Oxford professor can’t!

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From → Bible, History

25 Comments
  1. Steven Carr permalink

    ‘Eyewitnesses of these events were still alive and were likely to be guarantors of the fidelity of the story.’

    You mean if the unknown author of Mark wrote that Jesus healed one demoniac, the eyewitnesses would prevent the unknown author of Matthew changing the story to read that Jesus healed two demoniacs?

    And somebody who saw Lazarus rise from the dead , with people not believing, would prevent the author of Luke turning the allegedly historical figure of Lazarus into somebody in a parable about claims that even if somebody rose from the dead , people would not believe?

    (Or possibly vice-versa, the author of John turning somebody in a parable into a historical figure….)

    But what eyewitnesses would prevent somebody writing that a legion of demons possessed a herd of pigs if there was no event for them to be an eyewitness of?

    And Bauckham’s book is very very bad – the sort of badness which makes New Testament studies a mockery.

    Bauckham has done good work in the past, but it seems he had to retire from academia before he could write his ‘Eyewitnesses’ book.

  2. Steven Carr permalink

    According to Bauckham in chapter 3 of his book, only Mark named Bartimaeus , because only his community would know of him.

    ‘The tendency of Matthew and Luke to omit some names mentioned in Mark can be explained by positing that these people had become too obscure for the audiences of Matthew and Luke.’

    So how come your article claims there were eyewitnesses of Bartimaeus who would stop Luke or Matthew fabricating stories, when Bauckham claims the very name would be unknown to readers of Luke or Matthew?

    You can’t claim eyewitnesses would know all about these stories, and prevent changes, and also claim that Bauckham is right on the money in claiming that famous characters in stories had become obscurities by the time Matthew and Luke wrote.

  3. Steven Carr permalink

    ‘Which is in stark contrast to ‘In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea’ (Luke 3:1)’

    In other words, the unknown author of Luke dates an event in the life of John the Baptist, but is unable to provide a single date for any event in the life of Jesus…..

  4. Ed Atkinson permalink

    On frogs turning into princes and Jesus turning water into wine, I agree with you that Dawkins’ claim that there is ‘no evidence for either’ is incorrect. The (modest) evidence for Jesus’ miracle is that the person who tells us about it, John, did think it happened.

    Where I depart from you is on eyewitnesses. The gospels are in Greek and appear not to have been writen in Palestine. And also the eyewitnesses were spread out after AD70 if not before. If stories about Jesus were circulating in a Greek or Roman town somewhere and a particular eyewitness knew they were wrong, he could tell his group that a story was wrong. But that would not stamp out the story. Even today urban myths get repeated, retold and believed despite online and mainstream media correction. Equally, once the gospels were written, if eye witnesses knew parts were wrong, they could not stop the gospels being circulated or get them corrected.

    • Baptist Joshua permalink

      John didn’t think it happened, he lived it. He witnessed it. The gospels are not in Greek. They are in Koina Greek. Koina Greek is a dead language. Of course koina Greek is used by Christian professors and students.

    • James Garth permalink

      As an aside, I am of the (not uncontroversial) opinion that the Luke-Acts narrative (and hence, Mark) was substantively composed before AD70. In particular, I find it curious that the Luke-Acts narrative relates minor details regarding certain Roman officials but neglects to mention the catastrophic siege where about a million people died (according to Josephus), that it mentions the deaths of comparatively minor figures like Stephen but fails to mention the deaths of Peter, Paul, James the Just, etc. This would all be explained perfectly reasonably if the narrative were penned pre-AD 70, but I find it difficult to explain these omissions if Luke/Acts was written a decade or two later.

      • So an argument from silence….

        Perhaps the author planned a third volume, and felt 28 chapters was enough for his second volume.

        As the anonymous author of Luke appears to be using Josephus as a source, he can be dated after Josephus writes.

      • James Garth permalink

        My understanding is that the hypothesis that the author of Luke used Josephus as a source is not one which is widely held by scholars (see http://bibleapologetics.wordpress.com/2011/04/23/did-luke-use-josephus-when-writing-acts-2/#_ftn10)

        I concur with Harrison who writes: “But it is hardly logical to hold that Luke depends on Josephus and yet be obliged to admit that Luke shows wide divergence from him in relating events that are supposedly the same.’, Harrison, ‘Introduction to the New Testament’, p. 240 (1971).

        And the question as to the omission of the temple’s destruction isn’t limited to Luke. I find it curious that Matthew doesn’t claim fulfilled prophecy for the temple’s destruction in the Olivet Discourse. After all, he was keen to claim even somewhat tenuous prophecies at every opportunity. That he would pass up this opportunity doesn’t sound plausible to me. But if Matthew were penned pre-AD70, that would make more sense.

      • So Luke can’t be using Josephus if he changed Josephus’ narrative? Amazing. I guess nobody has ever rewritten history, not ever, not even once.

  5. ” I asked her if the fairy tales were true and she said no. She is also aware of the miracles of Jesus and she believes that they occurred. When I asked her why she believes that she said, ‘The Bible’. It seems that even a five year old can understand the difference between the genre and context of the Gospels and fairy tales, when we tell both to her regularly.”

    I find this quite disturbing and recall A.C. Grayling’s words of warning in respect to the indoctrination of children. There is an *exceedingly* good reason your daughter sees the distinction; and it certainly isn’t down to intuition.

    Which, no doubt, is a contribution to this particular puzzlement:

    “My five year old daughter can see the difference, I’m puzzled why an Oxford professor can’t!”

    • Thanks for the comment. What in particular you find disturbing in my personal family life?

      • That a five year old girl would so readily accept one literary source as ‘true’ over another. As I said, it’s certainly not an intuitive stance. If she has also read the Quar’an, Panchatantra, Aesop’s Fables, the Dhammapada, etc. etc. then I stand corrected.

        Or, returning to the thrust of my point, I wonder if all of these works have been *read* to her.

    • James Garth permalink

      The problem with Grayling’s critique of “indoctrination” is that any worldview which a parent imparts to a child – including one which views miracles are impossible or that the gospels are fabrications – is, in a sense, “indoctrination”. I personally encourage my young boys to think for themselves, but I am under no illusion that I am imparting aspects of my own worldview to them each and every day in many subtle ways. I can’t help but do otherwise. I think in Rob’s case, he has taught his daughter that, in his judgment, the gospels were written by ancient writers seeking to record historical events, whereas fairy stories have been written by authors seeking to entertain. Given this, Rob is 100% correct to praise his daughter for noticing that the different stories she’s been told have come from different literary genres.

  6. Ed is absolutely right. A story will often be tenaciously believed in the face of all the evidence against it, if the story is at some level appealing to an audience. This accounts for the longevity of so many urban myths. They are just so enjoyable (even the scary ones, like the Hairy Handed Hitch Hiker) that people want them to be true. Once you want something to be true – confirmation bias rears its ugly head.

    Take the story about the murder of Kitty Genovese. 38 witnesses, in the safety of their own flats, watched her brutally raped and murdered in the street outside. Nobody lifted a finger to help, not even to call the police.

    People wrung their hands and wondered how it could happen. Sociology courses at universities used the incident as part of their course work. It was all so shocking. And there’s something in human nature which just loves to be shocked.

    Except….The story was a myth built around some basic facts:

    http://nypost.com/2014/02/16/book-reveals-real-story-behind-the-kitty-genovese-murder/

    The fact that there were witnesses who could have falsified the story,who were alive when it broke, didn’t stop the legend from becoming accepted “truth”. And that was in spite of the people who knew the truth being far better placed to hear about the false story and having much better access to media which they might have used to refute the story than 1st C Jews.

    • Ed Atkinson permalink

      Thanks fjanusz2. Here is a completely different urban myth within the Christian sphere

      It’s taken from http://www.biblicalhebrew.com/nt/camelneedle.htm which is not sceptic and this material is also used on the relevant Wikipedia page.

      ” For the last two centuries it has been common teaching in Sunday School that there is a gate in Jerusalem called the eye of the needle through which a camel could not pass unless it stooped and first had all its baggage first removed. After dark, when the main gates were shut, travellers or merchants would have to use this smaller gate, through which the camel could only enter unencumbered and crawling on its knees! Great sermon material, with the parallels of coming to God on our knees without all our baggage. A lovely story and an excellent parable for preaching but unfortunately unfounded! From at least the 15th century, and possibly as early as the 9th but not earlier, this story has been put forth, however, there is no evidence for such a gate, nor record of reprimand of the architect who may have forgotten to make a gate big enough for the camel and rider to pass through unhindered.

      Variations on this theme include that of ancient inns having small entrances to thwart thieves, or the story of an old mountain pass known as the “eye of the needle”, so narrow that merchants would have to dismount from their camels and were thus easier prey for brigands lying in wait. ”

      Once the myth gets started no amount of truth correction will work.

      Remember too that there were only 12 or so eye witnesses to correct errors in the gospel stories. A witness to a ‘non feeding of the 5000’ could not deny that it happened some other time or place. Only the 12 who saw everything over the 3 years could know. Equally the key events at the resurrection were witnessed by so few: eg where the tomb was (and whether there was one) and who saw Jesus when.

      • Baptist Joshua permalink

        Ed Atkinson, you said: “From at least the 15th century, and possibly as early as the 9th but not earlier, this story has been put forth, however, there is no evidence for such a gate,”

        The fact that people have been talking about it for so long is evidence that it MAY have existed. There is, I am told, no evidence for Pluto, outside of copies of his work made hundreds of years after his death, and yet we don’t argue that Pluto never existed. Also, realistically, in archaeological findings, there is little evidence for MOST events and other things. Or, by that reasoning, since there is not likely any evidence for your ancestry during the 15th to 9th centuries, that proves that you do not exist.

        You also said, “Equally the key events at the resurrection were witnessed by so few: eg where the tomb was (and whether there was one) and who saw Jesus when.”

        There were more than 500 witnesses. Plenty. Also, the Jewish Priesthood records Jesus as having been and having raised and needing to pay the soldiers who witnessed these events. Recently, during archaeological digs, their “checkbook” if you will, was discovered, and this was recorded in it. You will then ask for proof, which cannot be given because archaeological discoveries are not generally put into print form for about 30 years AFTER they are discovered. How many know of the pre-Babylonian empire, except for a relative few, because it may not be in print yet?

      • Er, Joshua, when you say Pluto, I think you may mean Plato? I don’t think anyone today would claim that Pluto actually existed (the Greek god, not the planet).

        I’m not entirely sure whether this is a genuine post from you, or whether you are trolling. If there’s actually evidence of the “Jewish Priesthood” (surely it was supposed to be the Sanhedrin, wasn’t it?) paying soldiers who saw the resurrection, can we have a link to it please?

      • Ed Atkinson permalink

        Thanks Joshua. Picking up some points that fjanusz2 did not cover:

        1) The quote I gave on the eye of the needle says that the small gate story first appeared in the 9th century at the earliest. So we can conclude that it arose out of the blue 800+ years after Jesus taught.
        2) Along with all the posting on this page, I was referring to the gospels, the 500 are only in 1Cor15.
        3) In fact there is a problem with the 500 – Acts 1 says that the believers were only 120. The 500+ eye witnesses had not seen enough to become believers, so Rob’s claim at the top of the page: “Eyewitnesses of these events were still alive and were likely to be guarantors of the fidelity of the story” does not apply to the 500+. We are back with the 11 and the women.

        I too am very keen to know more on the archaeological evidence on paying off the soldiers – a link please?

      • Baptist Joshua permalink

        fjanusz2: Yes, I meant Plato.

        You asked for a link concerning the “checkbook” proof. It has been awhile, but I believe I heard it in audible form and I cannot remember the source. That does not invalidate it. I now keep records of important sources on my computer.

      • Baptist Joshua permalink

        To Ed: 1.) “So we can conclude…” No we can not. There is not proof for most of anything in history, other than written proof. That does not invalidate it as a fact. I am not trying to argue that there is a gate like is spoken of, since I believe it was referring to an actual needle. But there may have been such a gate, and to say that it wasn’t heard of until the 9th century, or so, does not mean that it did not pre-exist that century. I mean, otherwise, we would presume that the Moon did not exist until someone first wrote of it. Archaeological evidence does not certify the establishing date of something, unless it specifically says it does. I believe I have repeatedly heard that 90% of movie film(Hollywood, etc.) is lost. Gone for good. So much history is lost.

      • Ed Atkinson permalink

        I agree that we can’t know anything for sure in history. The evidence suggests it was a myth that arose in the 9th C or later. The missing link here is: if there was such a small gate, would we expect written evidence of archeology to show us? I don’t know, but someone probably does.

  7. Wow! I did Religious Studies for O-level (yes, I am that old) and I was taught that very story about the eye of the needle referring to a gate in Jerusalem City wall. I never questioned it. Why would I? Although my RS teacher was certainly a Christian, she was no literalist fundamentalist and we studied the synoptic gospels on the basis that they were fallible documents created by humans who each had an agenda which they were pushing.

    It just goes to show: “Question everything” is wise advice.

  8. Rob,

    I would agree that the gospels are very different from fairy tales. The raisin d’être for the latter was be believed as historical truth. I doubt that fairy stories were ever told for any purpose other than to entertain. But that alone doesn’t make the gospels any more reliable than fairy stories. Each genre is in its different way driven by motives which are likely to make it unreliable. The fairy stories because they are concerned only with entertainment and the gospels because they are works of propaganda.

    On the subject of what we can know about the historical Jesus, I thought I’d share this with you:

    Agree or disagree, it’s an interesting perspective.

  9. *Edit* “former” not “latter”

  10. Just a brief response to James-: I don’t think Grayling is denying empirical knowledge per se or that we’re social products and so on. That is quite a sweeping comment– unless you are very familiar with his work and feel that he does, which would be an interesting but I suspect short dialogue.

    In any case:

    “Given this, Rob is 100% correct to praise his daughter for noticing that the different stories she’s been told have come from different literary genres.”

    Well, quite; except that this isn’t *all* that she has noticed, which caused my wince. I mean, you’re exactly right to the extent that if Steve Feltham, Lorraine Warren, et al., had five year old children, there’s a good chance that, at least at these very early stages, they would have quite a … distinct world view too. Shirley Phelps and the family are a wonderful example of what can be achieved at an extreme end of the spectrum. Dawkins, I suspect, at the other. Though it seems a huge shame to include them on the same spectrum and perhaps I’m being unfair.

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