6. How long was it between the time when the supposed supernatural events took place, and when they were first written down (in a document that has had copies of it preserved). Is it early enough to suggest the text is based on testimony rather than later legends?
Last time, we looked at the ancient religions of Hinduism and Judaism, which make claims about events taking place long enough ago, that there is room to doubt or deny the very existence of their foundational figures. But even in the case of founders who clearly existed in historical times, there is often a significant gap of centuries between the time they lived, and the time in which the accounts (or legends) about them were written down.
(This particular post will not focus on religious founders during the modern era, e.g. Joseph Smith, for whom lots of contemporary documentation still exists. Modern founders can usually pass this test fairly easily, although in many cases the contemporary material is sufficiently embarrassing that these religions might have been more plausible if less contemporary material had been preserved...)
Pali Canon (gap of centuries)
I'm no expert on Buddhism, but I gather that the earliest texts seem to have been written down quite a long time after his death. First of all, Buddhist traditions can't even agree on which century Gautama Buddha lived in; some traditions say 563-480 BC, others say 483-400 BC. (Although, if you think that's bad, the scholars can't even agree on which millennium Zoroaster lived in!)
According to Gautama's Wikipedia article:
Various collections of teachings attributed to him were passed down by oral tradition and first committed to writing about 400 years later.
although the article on the Pali canon (the earliest collection of Buddhist scriptures, compiled by Theravada tradition) suggests that a few of the books may have been fixed by the reign of Ashoka (268-232 BC).
Because these are some of the earliest documents we have about Buddhism, in the other parts of this series I am implicitly assuming that the Pali canon contains a more or less authentic account of Buddha's teachings. But it should be kept in mind that we have them at a significant remove.
This is a significantly longer period of time for legends and accretions to develop, compared to the interval of 20-30 years between e.g. Jesus' Resurrection and St. Paul's letters.
Lotus Sutra (more centuries, also snake people)
Other Buddhist texts were written much later still, and have no good claim whatsoever to be based on the life of the historical Buddha. For example, one of the most popular Buddhist religious texts outside the Pali canon, the Lotus Sutra of the Mahayana tradition, teaches the inspirational doctrine that anyone who seeks Enlightenment can eventually become another Buddha, helping others in turn. This text has the following origin story.
The tradition in Mahayana states that the sutras were written down during the life of the Buddha and stored for five hundred years in a nāga-realm [i.e. a parallel world populated by snake gods]. After this, they were reintroduced into the human realm at the time of the Fourth Buddhist Council in Kashmir.
which hardly inspires confidence that the text really represents the authentic teachings of the historical Gautama Buddha. (Would you trust a snake-person to accurately copy a manuscript?) It takes only a small modicum of skepticism to suspect that this document was actually written around the time of its supposed "reintroduction to the human realm", which if the above account is correct would have taken place c. 78 AD or c. 127 AD depending on when Emperor Knishka took the throne, approximately 5 or 6 centuries after the death of Buddha).
If my argument in the previous installment was right, the fact that the Lotus Sutra is legendary should also be pretty obvious from its contents and style, since it is very hard to spin convincing fake histories out of whole cloth. Let's see if this suspicion bears out.
This text opens with the Buddha surrounded by (if I've looked up the terms correctly) over 12,000 fully enlightened monks, 8,000 additional monks and nuns, 80,000 irreversibly enlightened bodhisattvas, 42,000 heavenly deities of various kinds, hundreds of thousands of snake-gods, millions of horse-headed deities, bird-headed deities, nature spirits of different kinds, and oh, a few hundred thousand normal humans too. (One wonders who was doing the catering for this event?) At this time, the Buddha emits a ray of light from his forehead that illuminates the entire multiverse. The crowds then listen to him expound his teaching of the sutra for 60 small kalpa [i.e. aeons lasting billions of years], before he passes into Nirvana.
It is hard to take this seriously as the recording of a historical event. To be very clear, my reason for saying this is not that the text contains a supernatural event. (The Bible also contains supernatural events.) Nor is the problem that the supernatural events described contradict my Christian worldview. (That would be circular reasoning, if we are trying to figure out whose religion is most plausible.) Rather, the problem is that the text makes no attempt whatsoever to fit the supernatural events into a plausible historical narrative that fits within the space and time parameters of the historical Siddhartha Gautama's life, the monastic teacher who lived for 83 years (not billions of years), during which the population of India probably did not include millions of people with animal heads, at least according to our current archaeological understanding.
Thus, it's not so much that the Lotus Sutra tries to be historically plausible, but fails to be fully convincing due to a few minor slip-ups about details. As far as historical accuracy goes, this document is not even competing in the same tournament as the canonical Gospels! Given its legendary nature, any spiritual value it has can only survive if the text is capable of standing on its own independently, apart from being historically grounded in the words of the actual Buddha. But for this particular text, I don't see how that can work very well, since a lot of the content of the Lotus Sutra consists of specific promises supposedly made by the Buddha to his disciples, on the basis of his preternatural wisdom. If the Buddha didn't actually make these promises, then what reason do we have to trust them?
(To Christians, the Lotus Sutra is also noteworthy in that it contains an alternative version of the parable of the Prodigal Son. Because of the greater complexity of the Buddhist story, my personal opinion is that the Christian version probably came first; not that it matters much theologically, because we already know that Jesus sometimes adapted illustrations from other sources. The Buddhist version of the tale is notably different though, in that the father only becomes wealthy after the son departs. Also, in the Buddhist version the son really is taken on as a hired servant; not because of any defect in the father's love, but rather because the son is skeptical that the rich man is actually his father, so the father devises it as a clever scheme to gradually entrust the son with more and more privileges, so as to eventually restore the relationship.)
The Miracles of Zoroaster (gap of millennia)
These miracles do not reflect historical events; they are always associated with the mythical and legendary history of Mazdaism and the ancient Iranian epic, although the miracle itself remains, as in other cultures, an act contrary to the laws of nature or one attributable to divine intervention (Sigal, p. 10). One might even say that there is no hagiography in Iran comparable to that which grew up in Christendom or in Islam. Even though Zoroaster can be considered a saint, the legends concerning his life and miraculous deeds are probably of late origin. They are not comparable to the miracles attributed to Jesus and his disciples, nor indeed to those attributed to Christians martyred under the Sasanians (see Gignoux, 2000). The invention of miracles in Mazdaism may be the result of competition towards the end of the Sasanian period with other established religions (i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), the aim perhaps being to show the holiness and eminence of the founder of Zoroastrianism; such hagiographic traditions can scarcely have survived for more than a millenium...
The sources concerning Zoroaster... and others are Dēnkard V and VII, the Wizīdagīhā ī Zādspram (see ZĀDSPRAM), and the Wizīrkard ī dēnīg. No historic accounts exist of the life of Zoroaster. The Mazdean theologians formulated pious legends, mainly based on their own imaginative perceptions, although one may surmise the existence of lost parts of the Avesta or the Zand that would have attested them. The existence of many variations between the texts may be construed as evidence of their authenticity, or merely an indication that there was competition to relate the most striking and demonstrative miracles. [bolded emphasis mine.]
Of the three sources mentioned above: the Zadspram dates to the 9th century AD; the Denkard dates to the 10th century AD; and the Wizīrkard ī dēnīg has an extremely controversial and convoluted textual history. Although the story of Zarathustra’s life is narrated by Medyomah in the ﬁrst person, the transmission of the manuscript can only be traced back to 1239 AD (and even this date is controversial, since when the text was published in 1848 it was rejected and suppressed, leading to the destruction of most copies of the text).
To summarize this data: Zoroaster died somewhere in the range 1500 - 600 BC. The earliest accounts of his miracles seem to date to the 800-1200's AD, which is approximately two thousand years later, in texts that written during the dominance of Christianity and Islam, when Zoroastrians needed to show that their religious founder was just as cool as those other religious founders. In this case the gap is too large to take the claims seriously.
The Oral Torah (a millenium and a half)
Rabbinic Judaism also has some relatively unconvincing claims of oral transmission from the past. It claims that its interpretations of the Torah (which are compiled in the Talmud, the first layer of which was written down c. 200 AD) are based on an unwritten "oral torah" given by God to Moses himself, more than fifteen centuries earlier. Even though we have no records of anyone talking about the oral torah before about 150 BC, when the party of Pharisees began to exist! This is staggeringly implausible, not just because of the lack of references in the written Torah to this supposed secret tradition, but also because of the tumultuous history of the Jews described in the Bible, during which the written Torah barely survived intact.
(Incidentally, Jesus was vehemently opposed to these oral traditions of the Pharisees, even though in other respects his theology was in closer agreement with the Pharisees than the other Jewish sects of the time. After the destruction of the Temple, the Pharisees and Christians were the two main sects of Judaism that survived. Although in medieval times, there was a significant sect of Jews who rejected the oral torah, called the Karaites.)
Orthodox Jews believe that the Great Sanhedrin (i.e. the supreme council of 71 rabbis who judged the most important religious cases, which existed until 358 AD), goes back all the way to the time of Moses. The Torah does say that there were 70 elders who received the Holy Spirit at the time of Moses, but there is no statement that this was intended to be a permanent body, nor are there any references to the Sanhedrin before 76 BC. Prior to the Babylonian Exile in 605 BC, decisions about the law seem to have been normally rendered by priests, not by rabbis (who did not exist before the Exile, and who therefore also do not have an unbroken chain of ordination going back to Moses).
The New Testament (decades)
In the case of the New Testament, the exact dating of the Gospels is somewhat controversial, but it is pretty uncontroversial to say that they are all products of 1st century Christianity, which places them no more than 70 years after the death of Jesus c. 33 AD. (Some unusually skeptical scholars date the Gospel of John to the early 2nd century, say 110 AD, but I believe this is currently a minority opinion.)
I personally think the Gospels were probably written significantly earlier than this. For example, one of the main reasons these scholars date the Synoptic Gospels to after c. 70 AD, is that in them Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem, about 40 years before it happened. But this argument seems to rest on the anti-supernaturalist assumption (sometimes called "Methodological Naturalism") that historians should never accept supernatural explanations on principle. These scholars are basically asking the question: "Given the premise that predictive prophecy is impossible and that Christ didn't really say this, when did this text most likely arise?" But that would be circular reasoning, if we are trying to decide which if any religion is believable in the first place!
(Sure, if a scholar has other reasons to believe Christianity is false, it would be completely rational for them to ask what historical conclusions would follow from that. But the scholarly constructions of such hypothetical scenarios, are almost always presented to the public as if they were a refutation of Christianity based on definite historical evidence, instead of what it almost always is: a speculative historical reconstruction based on the assumption that Christianity is wrong.)
Without such biased assumptions, it is just as plausible to suppose that the Synoptic Gospels were written more like 30 years after the death of Jesus, and the Gospel of John perhaps another decade or two after that. Especially if the Gospels were actually written by their traditional authors Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as testified to by nearly all subsequent Christian writings to discuss the question, beginning in the 2nd century. Earlier dates are also suggested by the kind of indicators of historicity I described last time.
One can argue for a more conservative point of view as follows: The book of Acts (a text in the New Testament describing the early history of the Christian Church) highlights the missionary work of Sts. Peter and Paul, but strangely ends at an anticlimax (St. Paul is in Rome awaiting trial, but hasn't yet been tried by Caesar or executed). One can think of several possible explanations for this omission, but the simplest one is that these events hadn't happened yet. This would put Acts in the early 60's at the latest. But Acts is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke (by the same author), and Luke's Gospel is generally believed to have used Mark as one of its sources. This would probably push Mark back to the 50's AD, i.e. less than 30 years after the Crucifixion of Jesus. (I don't claim that this argument from silence is completely watertight, not at all; but the arguments for later dates are at least equally indirect and circumstantial. What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.)
To a young person, a few decades may seem like a long time—but actually this is really good by the standards of most ancient historical texts. It means that the New Testament was written down when at least some of the people who had witnessed the key events were still alive. Similarly, most scholars of ancient literature would probably kill to get multiple sources identifying the author of their favorite text from the century after it was written.
On the other hand, the surviving Gnostic Gospels were all written much later, mostly in the 2nd-4th centuries. A possible exception is the Gospel of Thomas, which could be from the 1st century, but is more usually dated to the 2nd.
The letters by St. Paul are dated (depending on the letter) in the interval between the late 40's and his martyrdom in the early 60's. Secular scholars generally think only about half of the 13 Pauline epistles in the New Testament were actually written by him (opening the door to later dates for the rest of them). I would dispute this judgment, but it is not of great importance in this context, since the most important letters from the point of view of Christian apologetics mostly belong to the undisputed category. (Although if 1 Timothy is authentic, it would give another reason to date the Gospel of Luke earlier than Paul's death, since 1 Tim 5:18 appears to quote from Luke as if it were already authoritative Scripture.)
One particularly important passage (in a letter that is undisputedly by St. Paul himself) recites a long list of eyewitnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [i.e. Peter], and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed. (1 Cor. 15:3-11)
By cross-referencing Paul's ministry to other historical events, this letter is usually dated c. 55 AD, that is about 25 years or so after the claimed appearances. It implies that St. Paul was given a list of individuals and groups who encountered the resurrected Jesus before he himself did (although he omits the women who were the first to see Jesus, possibly because the ancient world, being sexist, did not take the testimony of women as seriously).
To get more detailed information about what actually happened during several of these appearances, you have to read the Gospels or Acts. (No one source gives all of the Resurrection Appearances, but several Appearances seem to be described by multiple sources.) This data is summarized in a table at the end of this post.
A Note about my Methodology
I'd like to make a slight digression about my methodology at this post, in order to highlight at least one potentially biasing factor in my own research.
In the last section I questioned the anti-supernaturalist assumptions of biblical critics. But I only know about these circular assumptions because I've investigated the Christian religion closely enough to have my own opinions.
On the other hand, for most of the other religions in this section like Buddhism, I have had to rely on the dates given by supposedly objective "neutral" scholarship as summarized by e.g. Wikipedia. On the other hand, I would never rely on the supposedly "neutral" scholarship on Wikipedia in the case of Christianity, which I consider to be tainted by its deference to secular biblical scholarship. So is this a fair mode of proceeding?
Well, one possible answer is this: given my current level of knowledge of other religions I don't see much alternative, so it will have to do for now. But if anyone is aware of evidence that other religious texts are dated in a way which is also cynical and biased against the claims in question, they are welcome to present this evidence in the comments.
And I do think I am able to reject similarly specious rejections of religious histories when I encounter them in the wild. For example Patricia Crone, a highly respected Islamic Studies scholar at the IAS, seriously argued that Mohammad never really lived in Mecca. This is exactly the kind of bizarre reinterpretation of Islamic history which I would never accept in the case of Christianity, and indeed I don't accept it for Islam either!
Also, even if I were to take the views of secular biblical critics at face value, the gap before the New Testament was written down would still compare very favorably to all of the cases reviewed above, where the record gap is much longer. (The large majority of secular biblical scholars date the Gospel of Mark to c. 70, which is still only four decades after the death of Christ, i.e. within the lifespan of a single individual. And this document is filled with lots of different miracles.) So I think an apples-to-apples comparison still ends up with Christianity coming out looking very favorably on this point, compared to other ancient religions.
(By the way, I don't think my rejection of manuscripts that were supposedly preserved by snake-people in a parallel universe, or manuscripts written on golden plates that are invisible almost all the time, counts as a similarly pernicious methodological assumption. There's a big difference between: 1. being open-minded enough to potentially accept manuscript evidence for supernatural claims if the texts bear the marks of being actual historical documents, and 2. being so gullible that you'll accept documents written by people who basically said to their contemporaries: "No, you can't see the previous manuscripts, they were invisible the whole time because of this additional supernatural event, an event which makes it so this totally isn't a situation where I just wrote this document right now and tried to pass it off as a lot older than it actually is".)
The Quran (effectively contemporaneous)
We now turn to the most recent of the large world religions. According to Islam, the primary source of religious knowledge is the Quran (supplemented by traditions called Hadith, see below). The Quran itself was extensively memorized by a large number of people, and written down not very long after Mohammad's death.
The evidence does not seem to support the extravagant claim by orthodox Muslims that the Quran was preserved perfectly, since there is plenty of evidence for variant readings among early Muslims. (Mohammad is said to have explained some of the variant readings among different Muslim groups by claiming that the Quran had been revealed in 7 different Arabic dialects, but this could easily have been an ex post facto rationalization in order to keep peace in the community.) Also, the third caliph Uthman ordered the destruction of all versions of the Quran except a standardized edition, thus removing most of the evidence of early variations. From a scholarly perspective, this is the worst possible way to make the exact contents of the text certain.
Nevertheless, the Quran was likely still preserved with a very high degree of accuracy, due to the large number of listeners who memorized, recorded, and preserved it. So I think we can trust that the version we have today is extremely close to the words that Mohammad himself spoke. Thus, for the practical purpose of deciding whether Islam is true, I think we can take the text of the Quran for granted as being nearly identical to the version spoken by Mohammad.
(As stated in the last section, I am assuming that the standard outline of Muslim history reported by Muslims is basically accurate in its broad outlines, and there are no giant conspiracies to make up entire cities and dynasties during the period after Mohammad. Which is not to say that there are no legends or exaggerations, or that facts are not recounted from a specific viewpoint. I think this is entirely reasonable and fair, given the number of people involved and the fact that it was founded during historical times. I don't think weird revisionist theories of early Islam should be taken seriously, any more than weird revisionist theories of early Christianity.)
So far, so good. However, the purpose of this exercise was to assess the credibility of specific supernatural claims, not merely to assess the evidence for the mere historical existence of the religion itself at the time of its supposed founding.
And for the most part, the Quran itself doesn't record any miracles actually done by Mohammad. In fact there are a great many disavowals of the miraculous, in which he explicitly refuses to perform miracles! (On occasion, the Gospels also record Jesus refusing to perform miraculous signs to convince skeptics, yet there are far more incidents described where Jesus does perform dramatic miracles, usually out of compassion for suffering people, and often in the presence of his enemies.)
There are three noteworthy exceptions:
(1) The Night Journey in which Mohammad was taken from Mecca to Jerusalem, described for example in the following verse:
Exalted is He who took His Servant by night from al-Masjid al-Haram to al-Masjid al-Aqsa, whose surroundings We have blessed, to show him of Our signs. Indeed, He is the Hearing, the Seeing. (Sura 17:1)
Later traditions (not found in the Quran) say that the journey took place on the heavenly steed Buraq, and that in his journey Mohammad also ascended to Heaven, where he met with a series of previous prophets. Suspiciously, no one on Earth witnessed any of this besides Mohammad himself, so mostly we are left with his bare claim to have done this.
(2) The Splitting of the Moon is mentioned in just 2 consecutive verses of the Quran:
The Hour has come near, and the moon has split. And if they see a miracle, they turn away and say, "Passing magic." (Sura 54:1-2)
If it weren't for later traditions (see below), it wouldn't be 100% clear that this is supposed to be a sign at the time of Mohammad's ministry (a few Islamic commentators have thought that this text refers to a sign that will take place in the End Times).
(3) The primary miracle of Islam is supposed to be the literary beauty and inimitability of the Quran. This has always seemed unconvincing to me as a supernatural sign, since there have been many other brilliant poets in history with rough backgrounds. And as far as I can judge personally from English translations, while parts of the Quran certainly have a forceful grandeur (e.g. the magnificent Rolling Up Sura), taken as a whole I do not get the same impression of stylistic beauty that I get from many other poetic books.
Admittedly, I don't know what it's like in the original Arabic. (I was never very good with foreign languages, so I'm not going to try to learn it either.) Most Muslims would say that this doesn't fully count as reading it, and I can certainly believe that it sounds far better in the original.
But this is yet another way in which Islam, despite its attempt at universalism, is much more bound to a particular culture than Christianity is. We accept translations of the Bible in all languages, because Christ is for everyone! And while no translation can capture all of the stylistic features of the original, quite a bit of the poetic beauty of e.g. the Psalms and Isaiah comes through just fine in English translations.
Hadith (a couple centuries)
There are also several reports in the Hadith (later oral traditions about Mohammad's words and deeds) that Mohammad did miracles. Now, the major collections of hadith were not written down until a couple centuries after Mohammad's death, and there are typically several people in the chain between the first person who wrote it down and the prophet. So far this may not sound all that impressive...
...but on the other hand, many of these traditions are recorded by multiple lines of transmission. For a few hadith, there are so many independent chains of transmission that it is essentially impossible for a reasonable person to doubt their validity. For other hadith, there is only a single chain of transmission, so you have to decide whether you think that the narrators were trustworthy. Muslim hadith scholars have taken great pains to try to separate out the reliable from the unreliable hadiths, by checking the accuracy of all the individuals responsible at each step of the chain of transmission (although in Sunni Islam, the Companions of Mohammad himself are pretty much just axiomatically assumed to be reliable, which is potentially problematic for those who do not already accept Islam). In many ways, their minimal threshold for accepting hadith as reliable are quite impressive—if also somewhat legalistic and rigid.
At the end of this post I will insert a "tree diagram" showing the chain of transmission for the hadith for the Splitting of the Moon, which is one of several miracles attributed to Mohammad in Hadith.
Comparison between Christian and Islamic miracle sourcing
While the 2nd century testimony for e.g. the authorship of the Gospels is quite good by the standards of ancient history (when it comes to nonbiblical texts, scholars are willing to accept authorship claims with far less evidence), as an apologist I can only wish that the early Christians put as much attention into explicitly recording chains of transmission as the early Muslims did.
On the other hand, there was also less need for them to do so. The writers of the Gospels and Acts were writing within a few decades of the events they wanted to record, and—operating within the usual conventions of Greco-Roman biography—they found it sufficient to merely name some of the individuals who were present at each event, with the implication (normally unstated) that some of these individuals were sources for the historian. What we are really seeing here is the distinction between a literate culture and an oral culture.
Since the Gospels were preserved in an essentially fixed form before the first generation of witnesses had died out, there was not the same need to construct elaborate chains of transmission, when the written documents came from the Apostles themselves or their close associates.
So I don't think that the miracle reports in the hadith can be casually ruled out as later legends. But that does not mean I am willing to concede that these miracles actually happened. (See the next question).
In order to facilitate a head-to-head comparison between the Resurrection of Jesus (the most important Christian miracle) and the Splitting of the Moon (which I consider the most impressive Islamic miracle of those that are well-attested), I include the following two charts, giving the witnesses associated with each miracle claim:
[I am grateful to my friend Ahmed for providing me with the following "tree diagram" illustrating the chains of transmission for the "Splitting of the Moon". The top 4 names are those who are claimed to be direct eyewitnesses of the miracle, while the bottom names are the last members of the chain, whose testimony was recorded in early, reputable hadith collections along with the chain of narrators]
Next: Natural Improbability