Derek Lambert and the Very Clever Burglars (MythVision Response)

In my refreshingly friendly discussion with Derek Lambert from the MythVision Podcast, my biggest takeaway was that I don’t see how his mythic theory is falsifiable. Please bear with my post-discussion shower thoughts here. I wish I had this clarity during the conversation but I think we’ve all been there when the light bulb turns on in our heads and we think “oh, right. This is what I should’ve said to X! Ugh!”

Anywho, Derek is willing to admit that the Gospel authors display historical knowledge about the geography, customs, and culture of the times, but he doesn’t see this as counting towards their historical accuracy.

Derek essentially argues that even if many factual items in the Gospels can be established as historical, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the Gospels are straightforward historical accounts. Instead, the historical items are just bits of background information inserted to give the accounts verisimilitude. However, this hypothesis has a serious problem: it’s incredibly ad hoc. For all his talk about Christians seeing through their goggles, this appears to be a blindfold.

Very Clever Burglars

It reminds me of an illustration in Lydia McGrew’s book, The Eye of the Beholder. She asks us to imagine a scenario where a friend who believes in the “Very Clever Burglars” hypothesis stays overnight at your house. He believes that a group of burglars follows him around and breaks into any house where he stays while he sleeps. When you point out that all the doors and windows were locked, he argues that the burglars he has in mind are so clever that they can lock everything behind them and leave no trace. Even when you point out that the doors have deadbolts and the vacuum tracks are undisturbed, he remains unmoved, arguing that the burglars he has in mind always enter the house through an uncarpeted location. In this case, your friend’s hypothesis is constructed in such a way that it cannot be disproven, making it unreliable.

My friend refuses to accept any evidence that contradicts his hypothesis. He claims that his theory of Very Clever Burglars is so flexible that it can account for the absence of any evidence of a break-in. No matter what I say, he insists that his hypothesis remains untouched, making it impossible to prove that the night was normal. McGrew says that this is an example of what philosophers call ad hocness, which is closely related to the problem of empirical equivalence. By gradually manipulating a hypothesis, one can make it appear to be just as plausible as a more reasonable explanation. This is how, for instance, someone might argue that a Deceiver is behind all of our sensory experiences, and that there is no external world. However, the mere possibility of a contrived Very Clever Burglars theory doesn’t imply that there is no compelling evidence that the night was peaceful.

Derek’s approach to historical inquiry seems to block the force of contrary evidence. The theory that the evangelists were careful, honest reporters should be on the table, and we should acknowledge evidence that inductively supports this theory. But it seems enough for him if there are miracles or things that resemble stories in other legends, that’s enough to make it legendary. In a recent video where he share his post-conversation thoughts, he even went so far to suggest that the evangelists probably traveled to Palestine to learn the geography. 

Derek says:

“You know, some scholars actually point out that they think Mark is writing in Rome and Palestine. Rome and Palestine are two different geographical locations that are far apart, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t know the geography or may have not visited this region at some point. I tend to think they get some of the geographical locations quite on point. They go up to Jerusalem or going down to Jericho and stuff, or in the Galilee when you’re reading about it. I’ve been to these geographical locations myself, and they seem to know some of the geography. Interesting, right? Did they have to be there? Maybe they visited because they’re fans of Jesus, so they went to these locations where they heard rumors or stories. Who knows? But, of course, Christian apologists want them to be eyewitnesses, etc., etc. Then we’re down a whole different rabbit trail of trying to make a case.”

The duck talk isn’t all that it’s quacked up to be

Bro, what? It goes without saying that this ‘fans of Jesus’ scenario is wildly ad hoc. For all of the “looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck” talk, it seems like he’s falling into something of a black swan fallacy. The black swan fallacy refers to the mistake of dismissing the likelihood of something because it hasn’t been observed or experienced in the past, despite the presence of contradictory evidence. We can’t dismiss all the evidence to the contrary that we find in the Gospels just because there are semi-similar stories of virgin births and resurrections in legends, and often those comparisons are also pretty tenuous.

Speaking of “quacking like a duck.” In the video, Derek brings up a fantastic claim that he thinks is on par with the resurrection:

 “Lucian of Samosata talks about an account we’re going to get into with Dr. Richard C. Miller about a philosopher who went and cast himself into the fire, the pyre full of flames, in front of everybody and eyewitnesses. The next day, they were talking about how they saw Phoenix arise to Mount Olympus, the whole nine, in 24 hours. Holy smokes, you better start believing in that guy! No, when I say it walks like a duck, it talks like a duck, it looks like fiction, like common fiction that was told about other figures, and I know this is why I keep saying special pleading, this is why I keep saying this one’s special but all others aren’t.”

So what is Derek talking about here? Lucian of Samosata recounts a philosopher named Peregrinus Proteus, who was known for his theatrical self-presentation and controversial beliefs. According to Lucian’s account, Peregrinus threw himself into a flaming pyre at the Olympic Games, in front of a large crowd of spectators. The next day, witnesses reported seeing a phoenix rising from the ashes of the pyre and flying away to Mount Olympus.

Lucian portrays the story as an example of the gullibility and superstition of the ancient world, suggesting that people were willing to believe in miraculous events without critical examination. It is worth noting that many scholars believe that it is likely that Lucian invented or exaggerated aspects of the tale to make his satirical point. What’s surprising is that this example of a miracle claim fails the very criteria I discussed with him. When miracles confirm or affirm established opinions and prejudices, we have reason to be skeptical. It’s also a brief and confusing episode, which make it uncertain. This is certainly not the same as the “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have” experiences we read about in the Gospels.

Lucian makes this point clear. Therefore, this particular example is not worthy of serious investigation. The Gospels tell us that the resurrection was unexpected by the disciples and opposed by the religious leaders of the time. These opponents had means, motive, and opportunity to discredit the story if possible. The resurrection is not a good comparison here. 

As my friend David Pallman pointed out in a discussion thread regarding the “debate”, all we’re asking is that one considers the sources of information.

  1. What do they claim to be? (Just read Luke 1:1-4 or John 19:35 for the answer)
  2. How were they understood by the early church? (Hint: Writing in 150 AD, Justin Martyr called them “memoirs of the apostles.”
  3. What is their quality? (Read Lydia McGrew’s new book Testimonies to the Truth to find out)

In comparing the Gospels to documents about other heroes, the Gospels stand head and shoulders above the others and I’ve outlined why here and on my channel. There is no special pleading when we choose to believe the Gospels and reject other fantastical stories. It is not the miraculous elements that lead us to reject the historicity of the story of Apollonius of Tyana, but the quality of the source recording those stories. In the case of Apollonius, his miracles were first reported 100 years after his death by his biographer Philostratus. Many of Apollonius’ miracles were reportedly performed in Spain, Turkey, India, and Egypt, far away from where Philostratus was writing in the Roman Empire. One of Derek’s favorite examples is Romulus’ apotheosis. It’s documented by Tacitus who wrote 800 years after the alleged event. This is a hard fail.

No double standards

The same standard applies to the Protoevangelium of James, the Acts of Thomas, or the Acts of John. These are later works that were not widely accepted as historical by the early church, and don’t have the same quality and quantity of internal and external confirmations that the Gospels do. According to the “Acts of John,” the apostle John was brought before the Roman emperor Domitian, who ordered that he be boiled in oil as punishment for his Christian faith. However, when John emerged from the oil unharmed, the emperor was impressed and decided to spare his life by exiling him to the island of Patmos.

The story of John’s miraculous survival has been widely circulated in Christian tradition and is often cited as evidence of his special status as the “beloved disciple” and the only one of the twelve apostles to die of natural causes. However, the first report of this alleged event is written nearly 100 years after the events it reports, and so this story is likely not true, as much as I’d like to believe it.

In short, I don’t think the special pleading charge sticks. What few examples of miracles in the ancient world that Derek has come up with so far are either first reported at a great distance from the alleged event, or are reported long after the event, or affirm established opinions and prejudices of where they are reported. If Derek can find a miracle claim that doesn’t run afoul of those three criteria and the other religiously neutral criteria I’ve discussed elsewhere in another other video (see above), then I’m all ears. 

In the meantime, if you want to see a thorough drubbing of the “Christians are guilty of special pleading” claim, watch this debate with Dr. Tim McGrew vs skeptic Zach Moore.

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