"First, none of the authors actually claim in the text that he was an eyewitness to these events. This would obviously be important if the disciple himself had been writing it or influencing the text. Instead the Gospels read as if it's a collection of stories heard from someone else."
That was the way texts were usually written in that day. Julius Caesar and Josephus witnessed some of the stuff they wrote about also, but still generally wrote about them in third-person, not first-person.
"Secondly, if the authors were disciples, they wouldn't title their Gospels "The Gospel according to...." Think of it this way. If you saw a book titled "Politics According to Barack Obama" does it imply that Barack Obama wrote the book? Not at all, and in fact implies the opposite: that it's a book written by someone else concerning Obama's politics. Does it imply the author personally knows Barack Obama, or consulted with Barack Obama, or even has a positive view of Barack Obama? Again, not at all."
And someone quoting from that book around the same time it was written wouldn't be saying "Obama said this" or "Obama said that", yet the early church fathers did, when quoting the books, say that "Mark said this" or "John said that". Therefore, the "according to"s were understood as authorship credits in that day.
Besides, why would the "real" authors of Mark and Luke say that they were writing "according to" what Mark and Luke said, when Mark and Luke weren't eyewitnesses to those events? There is very little doubt, per the evidence, that Mark and Luke were the actual authors of those texts, Mark writing what Peter told him, and Luke being a general historian of the events, using multiple sources. All evidence says that Mark and Luke actually wrote their texts, so the fact that, in their case, there is an "according to" in the title clearly shows that this is to be taken as an authorship credit.
"Thirdly, if Matthew or John were written by their accredited disciples, why are their stories and quotes of Jesus so different on so many levels? And at some points blatantly contradictory in theological message?"
Because independant accounts of the same series of events always differ in details, since people remember things differently. Honestly, had the stories matched in all details, wouldn't you be using that as proof that the stories were based on a single account? The historical accounts of Caesar's assassination differ in certain areas, as well. We see it pretty much any time there are multiple historical accounts of the same series of events.
"MATTHEW is written in the third person, about what "they" - Jesus and the disciples - were doing. Never what "we" were doing. Even the stories in Matt about Matthew becoming a disciple, it says "him" not "me."
So is Josephus, when he talks about things he was a personal witness to, such as the seige on Jerusalem. He says things like "While Josephus was making this exhortation to the Jews..." and "Upon this, Josephus stood in such a place where he might be heard..." First-person was rare in texts of importance. Even Julius Caesar generally wrote about himself in third-person within his historical texts.
"JOHN is obviously not written by a disciple, but the author claims the info came from a disciple. The Gospel ends with "This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true." Translation: We (the narrator/writer) know that his (the disciple) testimony is true. A disciple did not write this Gospel."
Huh? So even though that passage specifically says that the disciple "wrote them down", you're taking this as evidence that a disciple did *not* write them down? How does that make sense?
"MARK, even if he was the author, he was said to be a companion of Peter. He wasn't a disciple.
LUKE, even if he was the author, was a companion of Paul. Neither were disciples."
The issue here is whether they wrote the texts credited to them, and all evidence says they did.
"It is better to cut against the grain. If a tradition is changed by an author, it is so the tradition better conforms to their personal theology. Any tradition of Jesus that is dissimilar to what the early Christians would have likely wanted to say about him is more likely authentic."
I don't disagree that something cutting against the grain implies truthfulness, but, unfortunately, I've seen many people try to argue that this means that something *not* cutting against the grain implies *untruthfulness*, which is obviously nonsense. Most of what Christianity teaches is obviously going to be in line with what Jesus said and did.
"the story of Nicodemus being confused on the meaning of "from above" (John 19:11). Nicodemus, according to the story, gets confused on the Greek word for "from above" because it can also mean "born again" - Nic asks if he should crawl back in his mothers womb. However, Jesus didn't speak Greek and neither did Nic, so this confusion never would've happened in the first place when they were having a conversation in Aramaic. Thus we can say the story is fabricated by whoever wrote John."
Actually, both Jesus and Nicodemus probably spoke Greek. It was the most common language in Rome in the day. Pilate almost certainly spoke Greek when addressing Jesus and the Jewish people in the area, so if they weren't fluent in it, how would they have understood him? It's true that Greek wasn't the native tongue for Jesus or Nicodemus, but they would have been conversant in Greek, and there's nothing unusual about two people who speak a second language conversing that language.
"Why? Early Christians no doubt believed that Jesus IS the Son of Man, but in this passage, and others, Jesus makes no such implication. If you read these verses it sounds as if Jesus and the Son of Man are two different people."
If you read them in a vacuum, perhaps. But there are other passages in which Jesus makes it clear that He *is* the "Son of Man" (see John 9:35-37, for example). Unless you're going to argue that "cutting with the grain implies untruthfulness", there is no doubt that Jesus considered Himself the Son of Man.
"There is another very important dissimilarity which I won't quote fully here. Go read Matthew 25:31-46. Jesus says that those who do humanitarian works will go to Heaven, and those who don't will go to hell. Period. There is nothing else you need to do: no believing Jesus is God, no believing in a resurrection."
Hardly. Jesus was simply making a point stressing the importance of helping the poor, of treating the worst-off in society the same way we would treat Jesus Himself. The point being made isn't about what one must do in order to be saved. Besides, do you think that Jesus was saying that if one person does only one humanitarian act in his entire life, but is a heartless monster for the rest of his life, he's still saved? Jesus is simply talking about the nature of people who are righteous, that they treat the poor with decency.
"And importantly, why did Jesus want people to change their behavior? The reason to change your behavior was to gain entrance to the kingdom when it came. It was not in order to make society a happy place for the foreseeable future."
Really? Considering that Jesus' commandments to His followers were mostly about loving their fellow man, showing mercy, forgiveness, charity, kindness, sympathy, etc. - I find it a bit bizarre to claim that Jesus asked people to change their behavior for no other reason than to improve things for themselves.
"Jesus was widely believed to have done miracles. The miracles occur in multiple independent sources. The traditions cannot pass the criterion of dissimilarity of course; storytellers in the early church naturally wanted the people they were trying to convert to understand that Jesus was not a mere mortal but was especially empowered by God."
But more than that, they clearly believed it themselves. If so, why? If Jesus was not resurrected, then why did those closest to Jesus seem to believe that He was? Are you arguing that they knew He wasn't resurrected, and therefore had nothing to offer any of His followers, but went ahead and tried to convince people that believing in Jesus would grant them eternal life, knowing full well that all it would get them is persecution from Rome? I don't see evidence of such cruelty and deception in the New Testament writings.
"There were pagan holy men such as Apollonius of Tyana, a philosopher who could allegedly heal the sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead. He was allegedly supernaturally born and at the end of his life he allegedly ascended to heaven. Sound familiar?"
Sure. His story was, by all evidence, based on Jesus. His stories appear to date to the late 2nd century at the earliest. His biographer, Philostratus, wrote in the 3rd century.
"Anyone who is willing to believe in the miracles of Jesus need to concede the possibility of other people performing miracles, in Jesus' day and in all eras down to the present day and in other religions such as Islam and indigenous religions of Africa and Asia."
Yes, I concede the possibility of other people being miracle-workers. But I have yet to find any with the amount of evidence for their miracles as I do for Jesus.
"Historians show what probably happened in the past, but miracles, by their very nature, are always the least probable explanation for what happened."
Not always. I agree that there is cause to be skeptical when it comes to claims of miracles, but when the "alternate explanations" have trouble explaining the facts, then there is cause to be skeptical of them, as well. That Jesus rose from the dead is an "extraordinary claim" and thus deserves more skepticism than more mundane claims. But the idea that all of those who claimed to have seen Jesus resurrected suffered from a "mass delusion", or that all (or at least most) of the NT authors were knowingly lying about the resurrection, or that the Gospels were intended as fiction, but their audience (in the same century) somehow failed to grasp this fact, are also "extraordinary claims" and should be treated with skepticism as well. When we're dealing with opposing "extraordinary claims" with no "mundane claims" satisfying the issue, then we have to go with the "extraordinary claim" that best explains the evidence.
"Why did disciples claim to see Jesus alive? Here's an explanation that's more probable than a miracle: It's extremely well-documented that people sometimes have visions of their loved ones after they died. A man sees his wife in his bedroom a month after she was buried; a woman sees her dead daughter; a girl sees her dead grandmother. Happens all the time. In many instances the person having this experience can talk to the dead person, can give them a hug and feel them. There are documented instances of multiple people having some such visionary experience together, and not just visions of relatives. The blessed Virgin Mary appears to groups of people all the time --- there are thousands of eyewitnesses. Postmortem visionary experiences could've easily led to the idea of Jesus' resurrection."
Not in this case. For one thing, such visions tend to happen to people who are expecting them to happen. In the post-resurrection sightings, they clearly were not. Mary did not recognize Jesus at first. The apostles were astonished - they thought His death was the end of it all. Thomas refused to believe in the resurrection when he was first told about it - he clearly wasn't expecting to see Jesus. And such visions are usually momentary, but the Gospels describe Jesus being with them for many days, even eating with them, in broad daylight. Mass hallucination explaining the facts here isn't easy at all.
"You claim a miracle is the likeliest event according to the Gospels. Do you really think that a miracle is a more likely explanation than a postmortem visionary experience?"
In this case, yes.
"You think a miracle is more likely than a lie, a hallucination, or an intentional work of fiction?"
In this case, yes. Don't get me wrong, though. As a former atheist, I was skeptical of the claims of resurrection and treated them as such. But the claims of "hallucination", "lie", or "intentional work of fiction" don't add up, and don't explain what we have in this event. Not that they're impossible, but they are, in this case "extraordinary claims" that must compete with the "extraordinary claim" of Jesus being resurrected. I think it makes the most sense to go with the answer that best fits the evidence - which in this case, is the answer that Jesus really was resurrected.
"Believers believe that miracles happen. But they cannot believe them because of historical evidence."
That's only true if you believe that miracles are impossible. I don't.
"Historians can only establish what probably happened in the past, and by definition, miracles are the least probable of occurrences."
By whose definition?
"Jesus' life is, in my view, a tale of a failed prophet. He believed in Apocalyptical events that would happen soon. To the dismay of the disciples and others of that "generation," none of it occurred, leading to reinterpretations of his message. Evolving doctrines began implying maybe Jesus was actually Messiah and God. Maybe Jesus wasn't really talking about this current generation. Maybe the Kingdom of God, which will rid the world of all evil, won't come soon after all. These reinterpretations, found in later manuscripts, were nothing that Jesus taught according to the earliest texts."
You're welcome to your view, but with most (if not all) of the NT texts being written in the same century in which Jesus lived, it's difficult to fathom doctrine evolving that much over such a short period.
"In the end, the two of us are different in fundamental ways. I say accounts of Gospel miracles are false until proven otherwise. On the other hand, you say accounts of Gospel miracles are true unless proven otherwise. I am a skeptic who bases probabilities on the laws of science; you are a believer who gives all options equal probability, even when they violate natural law."
No, I consider claims of miracles to be "extraordinary claims" and hold them to a higher standard than I do for "mundane claims". The problem here is that there is no "mundane" explanation for the NT texts. What we have are competing "extraordinary claims" which must be decided between. I find "it happened" to be the one which makes the most sense.
"Your faith in, and acceptance of, the supernatural provokes you into believing a miracle can happen just as easily as a complex lie or a mistaken hallucination."
That depends on the situation. I do believe in complex lies and hallucinations (heck, I experienced a hallucination myself one time, when I was very tired). In this event, though, "complex lie" and "hallucination" are very problematic explanations for the facts.
"This is made obvious in your last reply:
"But unless we have strong reason to believe that what a historian said isn't true (such as that it conflicts with what another historian said, or conflicts with geographical data, or is a bizarre claim), we generally believe it to be true."
It seems you don't view miracles as a "bizarre claim" even though, by all accounts of what we can provably say about the world and about the laws of nature, they are as bizarre as you can get."
I do view miracles as "bizarre", or at least "extraordinary" claims, and hold them to a different standard. But there is no "mundane claim" that nicely explains the facts surrounding the events here. Had Jesus appeared very briefly to only one or two people during a time that they were expecting Him to appear, then I'd say that "hallucination" would be a much better explanation than bodily resurrection. Had only one or two people claimed to have seen the resurrected Jesus, and everyone else simply took their word for it, then I'd find it believable that maybe those one or two people were lying. But as it is, there is no theory regarding the claims surrounding Jesus' resurrection that don't defy some kind of logic. For those who believe that miracles are possible, miracles are an option that must be considered. For those who believe that miracles are impossible and cannot happen, then I certainly understand them being drawn towards a different explanation, no matter how unlikely that explanation is. Personally, I accept that miracles are possible, so I have to consider that possibility here, and I find that it's the possibility which best explains the evidence. The other options simply try to "explain away" the evidence, and fail to do so.