Thursday, February 12, 2015

Aborigines, Materialists, and the Veracity of The Gospels

    Port Phillip Bay, Australia, as it looks today; it wasn't always this blue

    A couple weeks ago Klemens S posted this story ("Ancient Sea Rise Tale Told Accurately For 10,000 Years") from Scientific American, detailing how aboriginal Australians have preserved, via oral tradition, accurate information about geographical features that have been underwater since the end of the last Ice Age circa 10,000 years ago. It’s a fascinating article for its own sake, but it also shows some of the limitations of the modern scientific (better yet, the “scientistic”) worldview.  Not only that, it has some relevance to our Faith, and particularly to the question of the veracity of Scripture.
    Let’s start with the scriptural question.  A common line of attack by well-trained young atheist enthusiasts is that the books of the New Testament weren’t even written down until 30-60 years after the death of Jesus: how can we expect them to be reliable?  There are a number of good answers to this.  I point out to my students, for instance, that I have been married for just short of 30 years, and I remember the events of my wedding day quite well, and also events of my childhood and adolescence, while my parents still remember things that happened 70 years ago.  While life expectancy was far lower two thousand years ago than it is today (as best we can determine), there were still plenty of people who lived into their 70’s and 80’s.
    It’s also a fact that people in ancient societies (and people in less literate societies today) have much better powers of memory, because they needed to rely on it much more than we do.  In the  19th century Heinrich Schliemann disproved the rationalist scholars who insisted that the Iliad and Odyssey could not possibly have any real historical background when he excavated the sites of Troy and Mycenae.  In the early 20th century Milman Parry refuted the scholarly assertion that it was impossible for someone like Homer to memorize long epic poems accurately when he discovered and recorded Croatian bards who did just that.  And now we see Aborigines who have transmitted information accurately over not merely decades, but millennia.
    There’s more to all of these than simple powers of memorization.  I found this passage from the Scientific American article very interesting:

“There are aspects of storytelling in Australia that involved kin-based responsibilities to tell the stories accurately,” Reid said.  That rigor provided “cross-generational scaffolding” that “can keep a story true.”

In other words, older people who know the story will correct the story-teller who messes it up, and it’s a “kin-based responsibility” because these stories are a crucial part of the group identity: they tell people who they are. To forget is to become nobody. How much more important to “tell the stories accurately” if they are about God-become-Man, and to forget means eternal oblivion? And when the elders checking the story-tellers’ accuracy were eye witnesses . . . or when the story-tellers themselves were witnesses or participants in what they are describing?
Believing Catholics, of course, trust in the guidance of the Holy Spirit in preserving the truth, but that won’t help to convince those who don’t share our Faith.  Natural reason, however, and the available evidence, show that the earliest Christians were not only quite capable of accurately preserving the story of  Jesus, but were highly unlikely to do otherwise.  That, at least, is the rational conclusion: what evidence can the doubters offer to the contrary?