Saturday, October 5, 2013

Rauser v Pearce On the Historical Reliability of the Nativity

This debate ( audio | 1h 42m 34s ) took place over a couple of weeks in 2012. It was between Canadian Apologist Randal Rauser (awesome name) and Skeptic Ink's Jonathan Pearce. The debate concerned the historical reliability of the nativity scene as mentioned in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Like the Andrews v Scheiber debate I reviewed a few entries ago ( here ), this debate took place as a recorded back and forth and not as a single event in front of an audience.

3.75 stars CHECK

Never heard a debate on the historical accuracy of the nativity story, before. After listening to this one I can kind of see why.

RR essentially asserts that Matthew and Luke can be taken as historically reliable if we focus on the three assertions they all agree on concerning the virgin birth. He is more polished in giving his presentation and I think he would have come off even better if this were a live debate in front of an audience, but not in a more content driven debate such as this.

Pearce was a little shaky in his presentation and made a big mistake in his opening: he started out by listing 9 different historical methods that the Matt and Luke gospels fail to meet. Nine is just way too much, even for this debate format. But to give credit to RR, he does address them in his rebuttal, though rather poorly. But because of the time constraints, Pearce doesn't respond to all of the faulty analogies RR makes and RR (quite wisely, because it's an effective debate tactic) points this out.

Pearce would have done better to flesh out 3 of those historical methods and focus more on his other points, especially his most devastating and the one that RR failed to respond to at all: the fact that where the two gospels do make claims that can be compared to extra-biblical sources, the claims are not supported, astronomically impossible and even contradict one another. RR never addressed this, even though it overlapped with the three things in the two gospels that he felt were sufficient enough to prove them to be historically reliable.

Again, RR relies on weak analogies, one-liners and appeals to authority. And, again, this works well in a public debate (these are all the things people often claim WLC relies on). But since this was a more content-driven debate, when RR responded to Pearce's argument that Matt and Luke are not considered good historians (or shouldn't even be considered historians) because they don't uphold the same practices used by other historians (even ancient historians) by simply quoting Sir William Ramsay, it is much more obviously seen as the appeal to authority that it is.

Here's something that I noticed and haven't seen others who have talked about this debate mention*: RR also seems to suffer from mixing the normal apologetic schtick for the resurrection with his arguments for the nativity scene. Several times he describes the Matt and Luke gospels as being written merely decades after the events...but if we are to take the earliest dates given to these gospels, say 50 AD, wouldn't that mean that 50 years equates to mere decades? This wasn't a big issue in the debate, though...

But again, Pearce blundered by bringing up those 9 historical methods first. It allowed RR to focus on answering them with rather lame analogies, analogies that were not all completely shown to be off-base or misleading due to the fact that there wasn't enough time considering each rebuttal becomes shorter and shorter.

At the end of the day, it just seems like the topic was too weak for RR to defend, convincingly. He tried to make it an atheism vs theism debate by dismissing Pearce's 50 billion historical methods as being ad hoc, pointing out that it was somehow a problem that Pearce didn't refute the resurrection and by bringing up teleological arguments and the FTA in one of his rebuttals that kind of seemed out of place. But he dropped the ad hoc argument after his first rebuttal and Pearce didn't bite on the other points. Sans the historical methods,** Pearce's other points were pretty brutal and RR never gave them any substantial response.

Technical: Good AQ, it varies because each guy recorded themselves...RR seems to be better at editing than Pearce, who apparently had a pizza delivered near the end of his opening speech.

*I have seen a lot of people claim that RR started the debate by essentially claiming that he is taking the gospels of Matthew and Luke as already being historically reliable...I'll listen to it again but that would have been something that Pearce would have surely emphasized in all of his rebuttals, amirite?

**Seriously, I was impressed that RR responded to all of them. While listening to Pearce's opening I was like, "okay, move on, that's enough, move onthat'senoughhhh" and when RR started responding to them I knew it was almost a lost cause because Pearce just couldn't respond back. Mind you, they are all decent methods to perform historical research through, but they were presented in too simplistic of a way as to allow for even more simplistic (and downright silly) counter analogies to them.


  1. Thanks for the review. The doorbell audio was swapped for another but RD put the wrong one in. Dang.

    1. Hey Jonathan, no problem. Thanks for doing a debate on a more original topic. At the time I thought Rauser was a more formidable opponent but after hearing his more recent debate with Schieber I'm surprised at how timid he was.

      You thinking about doing any debates in the future?


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