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Jesus, History, and Mount Darwin: Part 11

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January 23, 2012 Tags: Education
Jesus, History, and Mount Darwin: Part 11

Today's entry was written by Rick Kennedy. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Written in the genre of Henry David Thoreaus travel-thinking essays, Rick Kennedy's Jesus, History, and Mount Darwin: An Academic Excursion is the story of a three-day climb into the Evolution Range of the High Sierra mountains of California (click here to see a map of the mountains). Mount Darwin stands among other near-14,000-foot-high mountains that are named after promoters of religious versions of evolutionary thinking. Using the trek as its framing narrative, this series branches off to explore the complex and at times even murky spaces at the intersection of Christian faith, ancient and natural history, and observational science.

Darwin’s Delight

At about 11,400 feet, we rounded the shoulder of a ridge and walked into a frozen meadow filled with iced-over streams trickling among large tufts of dormant grass made brittle by the cold. Another 500 feet above us was Blue Heaven Lake. Mount Darwin dominated the western skyline. We were moving slower than I had hoped, but now our goal was in plain sight, calling us onward. The sun was bright, the sky blue, and the climb was just a matter of scrambling up, around, and over steep piles of rocks. Here in the meadow, Dave pumped our water bottles full for our ascent. Matt and Steve giggled as they tentatively inched out onto small pools, testing the ice.

Charles Darwin was more than interested in nature. He truly loved it. In The Voyage of the Beagle, he is a kid in a candy store. He was twenty-two years old when the Beagle reached the coast of Brazil after leaving England:

“The day was passed delightfully. Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest. The elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants, the beauty of the flowers, the glossy green of the foliage, but above all the general luxuriance of the vegetation, filled me with admiration. A most paradoxical mixture of sound and silence pervades the shady parts of the wood. The noise from the insects is so loud, that it may be heard even in a vessel anchored several hundred yards from the shore; yet within the recesses of the forest a universal silence appears to reign. To a person fond of natural history, such a day as this brings with it a deeper pleasure than he can ever hope to experience again.”

You have to love a guy who loves natural history that much. I want my kids to have this kind of delight. Watching my Southern California kids giggle as the walk on cold water makes me want to reach out and give them a hug.

The Fellowship in Ancient History

Today only twenty or so people in succession separate us from the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. Wendell Berry, in his novel Jayber Crow (2000), has Jayber, an aging village barber, reminisce:

“History grows shorter. I remember old men who remembered the Civil War. I have in my mind word-of-mouth memories more than a hundred years old. It is only twenty hundred years since the birth of Christ. Fifteen or twenty memories such as mine would reach all the way back to the halo-light in the manger at Bethlehem. So few rememberers could sit down together in a small room.”

Our modern schools do much to undermine the closeness of history. Our history textbooks encourage us to think of ourselves as separated from the past. We are taught to assume the past to be a foreign and exotic place. A vast distance is supposed to exist between us and the eyewitnesses to the resurrection. Trusting the reported events in the New Testament is considered a “leap” of faith, something risky, possibly unreasonable. But Jayber Crow is right. A small room of people is all that is needed to link us personally to the eyewitnesses. No leap is necessary.

Eyewitnesses were the first rememberers. The gospel and letter writers were either eyewitnesses or early hearers of eyewitness reports who wisely created a strong bond between oral and written testimony that could pass across deserts and seas and on into the future. Confident knowledge of the event of the resurrection could pass through time and space by human links of people trusting each other’s memories with the additional support of the New Testament as a memory aid. A testimonial succession of rememberers could reach through the centuries to us. To reach us, only twenty or so trustworthy and non-gullible people are all that is needed.

One of Christianity’s modern intellectual problems is that academic society has done much to downgrade the authority of eyewitnesses and responsible hearsay witnesses, both in oral and written form. Modern education enjoys teaching distrust; however, this academic romance with doubting hinders our ability to listen well and trust responsibly—especially when dealing with an extraordinary alleged event such as the resurrection. An influential academic source for downgrading the authority of historical testimony is John Locke, who took upon himself what he thought was a sober duty to downplay what he believed was the overly-optimistic trust in witnesses and hearsay evidence presented in the most popular logic textbook of the era: The Port-Royal Logic. This textbook, also called The Art of Thinking, was extraordinarily popular for two hundred years and offered several arguments supporting the reasonableness of trusting reports of the resurrection of Jesus and later miracles in church history. Locke thought The Port-Royal Logic to be too naive. Locke did not want to undermine people’s faith in the historical Jesus or the occurrence of miracles; however, he wanted to emphasize the weaknesses of trusting eyewitness testimony passed down through history.

John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding presented a sobering formula for diminishing credibility of historical reports. It is good to read Locke’s exact words on this:

“any testimony, the farther off it is from the original truth, the less force and proof it has.” An eyewitness is credible, “but if another equally credible, do witness it from his report, the testimony is weaker; and a third that attests the hear-say of an hearsay, is yet less considerable. So that in traditional truths, each remove weakens the force of the proof: And the more hands the tradition has successively passed through, the less strength and evidence does it receive from them.”

Locke, using mathematical analogies, asserted that information, at every stage of being passed on, becomes proportionally less credible. Locke extended this formula to both oral and written testimony. As for deeds and copies of deeds, “the farther still it is from the original, the less valid it is, and has always less force.”

The Port-Royal Logic had emphasized the credibility of historical reports coming down through history through a chain of people. John Locke, on the other hand, emphasized the weakness of historical reports and went so far as to create the rudiments of a mathematical formula for steadily diminishing credibility. Ten years after Locke published his Essay, a theologian named John Craig tried to develop a more exact Lockean formula for the diminishing credibility of New Testament history. In his Mathematical Principles of Christian Theology (1699), Craig proposed an exact proportion of diminishing credibility and concluded that the New Testament story of the resurrection would have zero credibility in the year 3150.

For Christians it behooves us to remind ourselves that the past presented in the gospels is not too long ago and not too far away. We Christians in universities have too often allowed ourselves too think it wise to agree with John Locke’s sobering attempts to undermine confidence in ancient history. We have become accustomed to teaching the image of a “leap” of faith, of jumping a chasm, rather than the more prosaic image of simply conscientiously passing on what has been passed to us. We have too easily fallen into John Locke’s seemingly mathematical reasonableness that says that credibility diminishes proportionally through time.

The nice thing about Jayber Crow’s historical insight is that it bridges the gap between both The Port-Royal Logic and John Locke’s Essay. Even if you agree with Locke and think historical credibility diminishes in proportion to the number of people it passes through, Jayber Crow points out that the story of Jesus only has to pass through twenty or so people to get to you and me. Credibility can’t have diminished that much even by this time. On the other hand, if you think of twenty or so people who have attested like a notary to the basic facts of the written gospel story, we can claim, at minimum, the confidence of a real estate deed coming down to us through time.

My grandmother a few years ago gave me a Griswold #8 frying pan when she was packing to move into a place where she would not have to cook. She told me that my grandfather gave that frying pan to her on their first Christmas together. She was born in 1911 and the pan would have been given in 1931. I am in my mid forties now, and my kids are not yet in high school. If I pass that frying pan and story on to a future grandchild, that pan and true story could easily still be passed on almost two centuries after the fact, having only gone through two people: me and my grandchild. A good and true story can be easily carried over hundreds of years by just a few people who want to tell a true story. To help my memory, my grandmother also wrote down the story. Even if my memory of the story gets fuzzy, I can attest to her written testimony as what she had initially told me. As Christians founded upon the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus, we only need twenty or so conscientious people linked through time to give us the confidence of listening to the eyewitnesses. And to give us greater confidence, we have written attestations that have been passed along to keep the testimony on track.

Jayber Crow is not offering a Christian apologetic; he is simply meditating on how history is close and personal. Our schools want to make history too hard. They want us to over-think it by half. Jayber is not promoting gullibility. He stands in the Classical tradition of knowing history, that history is linked to us by humans. John, who stood at the base of the cross, calls to us in his first letter to trust him as a testifier to what he has seen, heard, and touched so that we can have fellowship with him. He calls not from long ago and far away, but only from across a small room of friends and family.

Rick Kennedy received his BA, MA, and Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara and is professor of history at Point Loma Nazarene University, San Diego, California. His books include A History of Reasonableness: Testimony and Authority in the Art of Thinking (University of Rochester Press, 2004), Aristotelian and Cartesian Logic at Harvard (Colonial Society of Massachusetts and University Press of Virginia, 1995), Faith at State: A Handbook for Christians at Secular Universities (InterVarsity, 1995), Jesus, History, and Mt Darwin: An Academic Excursion (2008), and The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather (Eerdmans: 2015).

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athanasius - #67343

January 23rd 2012

The difference is that the Bible is not just a history book. It is a normative place where we encounter the Holy Spirit. We do not depend on 20+ generations. We read what the original witnesses had to say…encounter God first hand…and become witnesses ourselves.

R Kennedy - #67346

January 23rd 2012

You are right.  But it is a both-and not an either-or.  When fellowshipping with Bibles on our laps, we become witnesses ourselves.  When reading the Bible in an academic history class, we mostly are stuck with thinking about links of witnesses through time.

In this book I am interested primarily in historical facts.  When we encounter God first hand, we do not learn facts about Jesus walking on water, calming a storm, or changing water into wine.  Most of us know these facts only through the Bible and the chain of witnesses.  Our confidence in these facts is complex and arises in various ways.

But I am with you!  The Bible is not JUST a history book! 
But, then again, it IS a history book.



Roger A. Sawtelle - #67381

January 25th 2012

The more I think about this, the more I am convinced that is wrong.  There are several bases for this.

First, while eye witness testimony is valuable, we know that it is not always accurate.

Second, to say one’s memory fades with time may be true, but to say that a written account fades with time is not.  If a scholar using multiple written accounts from several view points with the additional perspective of time can often write a better narrative than those who were directly involved. 

Who can say that Paul who was a contemporary of Jesus, but not an eyewitness to His life on earth, knew Jesus better than those of us who live much later but have the advantage of four gospels, Acts, the letters of Paul, John, etc. as well as much research into Roman and Jewish history.  We also have the perspective of history which is a positive, not a negative.    

R Kennedy - #67384

January 25th 2012


I think we agree!  Locke was hedging against what you and I seem to agree upon:  the credibility of written accounts don’t necessarily fade with time.

Thanks for loyally reading each of my blogs!


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