Response to "Packham Refuted"

By Richard Packham


    I received some time ago two e-mails which informed me that a "refutation" of my critique of John Warwick Montgomery's presentation of the legal evidence for Christianity had appeared on the internet, written by "James Patrick Holding" under the title "First of All, Let's Laugh at All the Lawyers: Or, Cheap Legal Thrills at the Expense of Justice"[archived]. One of my informants urged me to "rebut" this "excellent case." The other challenged me merely to read it, saying that he thought I was not "open-minded enough" to do so.

    I did read the article. I immediately noticed two things: Holding had not indicated to his readers where my article could be found; and he referred to me as "Robert Packham."

    I e-mailed Holding and pointed out those two oversights. I also asked whether any response from me would be linked from his "refutation." I received a response apologizing for the mistake in my name, and assuring me that he would link to the original article, even though, as he said,

I generally do not link to items I critique because it is assumed that only those who have read the item (and therefore know where it is) are interested.

    The writer of the e-mail indicated that "James Patrick Holding" is his pseudonym. He also volunteered this information about himself:

By profession I am a librarian with a speciality in research and reference. I have the appropriate degree for the field (Masters' in Library Science) and my articles [on Christianity] are the product of self-study.

    In his reply to me, he assigned me my task and set the standard as follows:

I will be looking for any response to take careful consideration of the various source material I have alluded to. You are no doubt aware of my disdain for lower-level apologetic efforts like McDowell and Montgomery's (and I'll add, stuff against the Mormons like Ankerberg's, to use another parallel you may know). My point (made via my usual vehicle of satire) in that article is to make it clear that any serious critique will need to have a much broader view of Biblical scholarship to be authoritative. I grant that you may not have intended an in-depth critique, just a critique of Montgomery, but as I have said in regards to the SecWeb and their critique of McDowell, in the long run that is not enough. I perceive that you have the tools and skills to go further and would like to see you do so.

Preliminary Comments

    Before I respond to the specific points in Holding's "refutation," I feel a few remarks are appropriate.

    I find it odd that Holding is so disdainful of others' writings on apologetic issues, when his own qualifications, by his own admission, are only those of a self-taught amateur. His sloppiness with regard to my name, his failure to see the need to refer to the location of my article (he subsequently revised his original article to correct this oversight), and his abundant use of "satire" are not the marks of someone interested in a serious and rational discussion.

    The abundant use of "satire" and emotionally-charged words ("biased," "bigot," "confetti in the air," "low-level," "absurd," "showboating," etc., the ad hominem and flippant title, inviting the reader to laugh at all lawyers) should have very limited place in a rational discussion, and their overuse by a disputant generally is an indication of a realization (conscious or subconscious) that the argument at that point is weak. Such tone also is useful when one is preaching to the choir, when substance is less necessary. I try to avoid the temptation to use such tactics in my writings, but when responding to someone like Holding, it is difficult to resist the impulse to return like for like. So, first, let's laugh at all librarians and self-appointed bible scholars who think they know anything about the law.

    I also find it presumptuous that Holding feels that he can dictate to me what I must do to respond satisfactorily to his "refutation." He apparently forgets that I am not writing to convince him of anything, nor does he write to convince me, but rather we are both writing for the broad audience of readers who are the real judges and jury of these issues. Of course he can suggest issues which he feels the broader audience should hear discussed, but that is not for him to proclaim unilaterally. Such an attitude shows an ignorance of some of the fundamental etiquette of rational debate. Montgomery asserted that Christianity's claims, when examined under the legal rules of evidence, would stand clearly proven. I showed in my article that Montgomery twisted both the law and the evidence, and showed that there is considerable reason to doubt both Christianity's claims and Montgomery's. Now Holding comes along, and tells us that we are discussing the wrong thing.

Summary of Holding's "Refutation"

    It will be helpful to summarize Holding's main points:


    Notice that Holding dismisses entirely the whole issue of Montgomery's claim and my critique. He dismisses it as "anachronistic," and then does not discuss - let alone refute - the legal objections I made.

    Holding's use of the word "anachronistic" makes one wonder what dictionary he is relying upon. The terms "anachronism" and "anachronistic" are generally used in reference to the placement of an event or a person in an incorrect historical period. This occurs sometimes in poor historical novels, or in attempts to pass off a forgery as a historical document. A "practical anachronism" is when something old appears out of place in a modern setting. It appears that Holding is using the word in a completely different way, as yet unfamiliar to the compilers of the dictionaries which I consulted. He seems to be saying that it is an "anachronism" to apply modern rules of evidence, modern tests for truth, to ancient events or ancient documents. Holding thus takes the position of Humpty-Dumpty in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass:

"'When I use a word,' Humpty-Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'"
    Whatever the correct word for it is, one must ask Holding why is it inappropriate to apply our modern tests for truth to ancient documents and events? Truth is truth, whether ancient or contemporary, and our present ability to examine and test truth, whether in a legal or historical or scientific context, is the result of centuries of experience, developed through trial and error by the best human minds. Those tests are not arbitrary or capricious, nor are they inherently biased. Those tests are now universally accepted. They are rejected only by those who do not understand them or who do not like the results and unavoidable consequences which the application of those tests gives us.

    Admittedly it is more difficult to apply such tests for truth to ancient times and ancient writings. But to refuse to do so for any reason is to reject the fundamental validity of those tests.

    I want to emphasize two fundamental principles of those truths to my readers, and to Holding, before I discuss specific issues. These principles are often forgotten - or even purposely overlooked - in such discussions as this.

    First, one must keep in mind that the burden of proof in any argument is on the party making the positive assertion. In a discussion of the truth of Christianity, that burden is on the Christian apologist. Montgomery asserted that Christian claims would stand up under scrutiny if legal rules of evidence were applied to them, and thus he assumed the burden of proving that assertion.

    The opposing party in such a discussion assumes no such burden, but has only the obligation to rebut the positive assertions made by the affirmative side. Specifically, in this discussion, I have no burden - and I assumed no such burden, as Holding seems to imply I did - to prove that Christianity is false, or that Christianity can be proven false if the modern rules of evidence are applied to it. Nor am I as the opposing party obligated to bring up (and prove) issues which the affirmative side did not discuss. Holding is apparently oblivious to this fundamental principle, when he says:

"... any serious critique will need to have a much broader view of Biblical scholarship to be authoritative. I grant that you may not have intended an in-depth critique, just a critique of Montgomery, but as I have said ... in the long run that is not enough."

    The second fundamental principle which apologists often overlook, and which is somewhat related to the first, is the amount of evidence required to prove the affirmative case. All too often, apologists seem to want us to accept as proven any claim for which they can provide some evidence, any evidence. The error lies perhaps in the confusion in the popular mind between "evidence" and "proof," and the resulting erroneous conclusion that they are the same. That is not the case, either in law, history, or science. In any kind of legitimate dispute, or on any issue, there may be abundant evidence on both sides. Something is "proven" only when the evidence for it so far outweighs the evidence against it that all reasonable people would evaluate the evidence the same.

    I will use a legal context to demonstrate this point, although it is really no different in any area where rational people are searching for truth.

    In American law there are differing standards of evidence, depending on the kind of issue being tried. In an ordinary civil case, such as a suit for damages for injury or breach of contract, the plaintiff, in order to win, must prove his case by a preponderance of the evidence. That is, his evidence must simply outweigh the evidence of the defendant. If the evidence for each side is equal in weight, the plaintiff loses. This is called the burden of proof.

    Certain issues, however, require a higher standard of evidence, where more is at stake. For example, in a criminal case, where the defendant is subject to possible punishment, depriving him of his freedom or even his life, the prosecutor must convince the jury of guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." This is highest standard because the stakes are highest. If the members of the jury have any reasonable doubts that the allegations of the indictment are true, they must find the defendant not guilty. There may be a great deal of evidence against the defendant. But to find him guilty, the jury must have no reasonable doubts.

    What standard should be applied to Christian claims? If those claims are true, then it is a matter of spiritual life or death. If they are true, I would give up my present world view. I would obligate myself to order my entire life in a particular way. I would undergo some risk, if it should turn out those claims are not true, of eternal condemnation under some other, contrary religious doctrine (the Koran teaches, for example, that whoever believes that Jesus is divine will go to hell). Should we not reject Christian claims if they cannot be proven "beyond a reasonable doubt"? Whether there is, in fact, "reasonable doubt" is, of course, up to each individual to whom those claims are made. No one expects Christians to prove their case with absolute certainty. But they should at least be able to remove our reasonable doubts.

    It is sometimes said, in religious debates, that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" or "miraculous claims require miraculous evidence." I think that is a mis-statement. Evidence for any claim, even the claim of a miracle, does not have to be anything more than ordinary facts, so long as those facts are reliable, material and relevant. Apologists often assert, as does Holding, that the only reason anyone rejects claims of Christian miracles is because of a bigoted bias against the miraculous. That assertion is false, on two counts.

    I have elsewhere shown that I am perfectly willing to accept miraculous claims with ordinary evidence. I have not yet been presented with any such claim.

    I also would be willing to wager a good deal that Holding, along with most Christian apologists, would reject the claims of miraculous events that are offered by any non-Christian religion (and perhaps even those claimed by some Christians). Why the rejection? Why should Holding reject a miraculous event as reported by Tacitus, or Suetonius, or Joseph Smith, and yet accuse others of bigotry and bias who doubt the opening of the graves at the crucifixion, as reported only in Matthew?

    Since we are discussing bigotry and bias, and Holding's accusation that I am guilty of such a terrible thing, it might be appropriate to quote his own statement, referring to himself, from another article on his website:

"As far as the "mind already made up" issue - that is absolutely correct! Hopefully, the whole reason the non-professional evangelist is wanting to witness is because he KNOWS JESUS CHRIST personally. Their mind IS made up - and why else would you witness?!? The personal experience of Christ is so much more convincing than academic and intellectual discussions!"
Thus Holding himself discards the first requirement for the honest searcher for truth: the open mind. I cannot imagine a clearer statement of bias and bigotry than Holding's own statement of his position just quoted. But he accuses me of "bias."

Response to Specific Issues

    I will deal here with each of the main issues Holding believes he has "refuted." I will avoid responding to his "cheap shots," since I assume the reader will recognize them as such and ignore them.

Packham errs in asserting that the "ring true" test is invalid.

    Holding says nothing to rebut my assertion that there is no objective test for whether a story "rings true," other than to cast doubt upon my own literary sensitivity:

The "ring true" test is far from subjective, as C. S. Lewis made clear, and as I reiterated, Packham and Robert Price, they of non-literary training, notwithstanding. Perhaps Packham is (like many) too insensitive to perceive a difference between the Gospels (especially as ancient bioi) and that copy of Danielle Steel's latest novel in his library, and to discern how to detect "ring true" from "ringer." If so, that is his problem, and he has no business making authoritative statements on the subject.
    The mere fact that Holding calls it "literary sensitivity" admits that it is subjective, not objective. His reference to C. S. Lewis cites Lewis' mere assertion that Lewis finds that the Gospels "ring true," based on his lifetime reading myths as a professor of medieval literature. My own training (B.A., M.A. and four additional post-graduate years of studies in medieval and modern literature) may not be as impressive as Lewis's, but it scarcely is a lack of literary training. What I asserted was not that the Gospels did not "ring true," but that such a characteristic is no guarantee of their authenticity as history. In other words, Holding does not even understand the issue clearly. And he did nothing to supply us with any kind of objective test for "ring true" (except, perhaps, for us to ask him or C. S. Lewis whether any particular work "rings true").

Packham errs in asserting that the authorship of any of the Gospels, or of 2 Peter, is in doubt.

    Of course their authorship is in doubt. As I explained above, the mere presentation of evidence to authenticate the traditional authorship is not enough. The fact that Holding cites such evidence by no means settle the question. The world of biblical scholarship does not agree on those issues, even though Holding implies the contrary. Such an implication, however, is dishonesty on his part. He simply dismisses those Bible scholars who disagree with him, implying that they are biased or dishonest or ignorant. The reader should examine the evidence on both sides, and take neither Holding's assertions nor mine at face value.

    Holding displays here again that he is unfamiliar with the fundamental nature of rational discussion. He said:

This would have been a good point for Packham to start tackling the likes of Metzger and the Alands, but no dice: He rather decides to assume "for the sake of getting on with the discussion" that "scholars agree as to what the original words of the texts were." In other words, poison the well and run like the dickens.
To concede a point for the sake of argument is a perfectly appropriate means of narrowing the discussion, especially if it is a tangential issue. Holding seems to think that such a method of limiting the issues is inappropriate or dishonest. Holding thus exposes again his own lack of training (or, at the least, his lack of courtesy) in scholarly discussion, and utilizes the opportunity to give his cheering section a chance to feel smug.

Packham errs in asserting that the legal "ancient documents" rule does not allow acceptance of the Gospels as legal evidence

    Here Holding is clearly on unfamiliar territory. This issue deals with a rule of legal evidence. My critique of Montgomery on this issue was that Montgomery misstated the rule and grossly misapplied it. Holding does not - probably cannot - deal with the legal rule, but merely repeats what Montgomery said in his original argument, and which I refuted. The "ancient documents" rule does not say what Montgomery and Holding say it says. I cited authoritative legal sources to substantiate both the statement of the rule and the limits of what the rule can do for documents offered in evidence. Holding completely ignores this. Neither he nor Montgomery cite any contrary legal authority.

Packham is biased against the miraculous, and therefore excludes testimony of miracles

   I responded to this issue above.

Packham fails to provide possible motives by the Gospel writers for writing what is not true

    Holding makes the unnecessary assumption that the only untruths are made by those who do so purposely, that is, with a motive. He shows a pitiful inexperience with human nature if he does not realize that people often say and believe things simply because they are mistaken, because they have relied in error on statements of others, because they have drawn mistaken conclusions from what they saw or heard. Many false things are believed and asserted by people who are completely sincere in their belief that they are speaking the truth.

Packham misinterprets the reason for the contradictions and the identical passages in the Gospels
Packham errs in assuming that the Gospel writers should have told a complete story, the whole truth

    Holding says nothing more on this issue than Montgomery did, and my response is the same. The most obvious mark of fictitious testimony is contradictions in the statements of the witnesses. The Christian apologist who tries to explain those contradictions away is simply rationalizing. Let the jury decide whom to believe.

    Holding emphasizes that the Gospels are ancient bioi, and refers to his materials on the subject. Yes, and that is precisely the point. Unlike carefully written, objective biographies - either ancient or modern - such stories were not intended to be factually reliable, and therefore should be used by modern historians very carefully and very suspiciously. There is little reason to accept the gospels as anything more than any other propagandistic story of a famous person's life by authors who want to present that person's life in the most favorable light, to serve his own (or his sect's) purposes. One thinks of Parson Weems' beautiful (but largely fictitious) portrayal of the life of George Washington.

    Just one specific example of what must obviously be invention: how could any biographer of Jesus know the words that he uttered in prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, or the words that Satan spoke to him when he was tempted?

Packham errs in objecting to the Gospels as legal hearsay and in his argument against Montgomery's claim of "equivalent cross-examination"

    Holding offers nothing different on this issue than what Montgomery says, and my objection is the same. Again, Holding shows his apparent ignorance of the legal issues involved.

Packham's suggestion of an alternate scenario at the tomb (the corpse was taken secretly, or Jesus actually survived) is "absurd" - it is more believable that Jesus rose from the dead

    Here Holding outdoes himself in betraying the absurdity of his argument. At least Tertullian had the good sense to admit that Jesus' resurrection was absurd. But Holding is so accustomed to believing absurdities that he does not even recognize them. He is more to be pitied than censured.

    Holding makes much about my hesitation to admit that Jesus' tomb was empty on Easter morning, when such an eminent historian as Michael Grant is willing to admit that fact. However much I may respect Grant as a historian, it is only fair to point out that there are just as many (or more) historians of equal authority who do not accept the empty tomb as historical fact. It is a point, as we say in the law, "on which reasonable men [or historians] may differ."

    Even if one accepts the empty tomb as a fact, for the sake of argument (a legitimate debating device which Holding calls pejoratively "poisoning the well"), that does not help the Christian case. The apologist apparently reasons as follows:

If Jesus really was resurrected, his tomb would not contain a corpse.
His tomb did not contain a corpse; it was empty.
Therefore Jesus was resurrected.
This reasoning commits the logical fallacy sometimes called "affirming the consequent." It is not at all uncommon for apologists to commit logical fallacies such as this, but such arguments must be disregarded. The fallacy lies in the false assumption that Jesus' resurrection is an absolutely necessary condition for an empty tomb, that there is no other possible cause for an empty tomb. That, of course, is not the case.

Packham's dismissal of the martyrdom of the disciples as evidence of the truth of their beliefs is merely "the propensity of bigots to classify as stupid or insane those who disagree with them"

    I would be willing to wager a good deal that Holding, like most Christian apologists who use this argument, would not be willing to accept the martyrdom of anyone other than the disciples of Jesus as evidence of the truth of what they believed. Think of the martyrdom of the countless "heretics" (people who espoused doctrine unliked by the orthodox) murdered by the very doctrinal ancestors of the modern Christian apologist. Think of the Jews martyred by the Inquisition, the pagans martyred by Christians. Does the same argument apply to them? Would those pagans have been willing to die at the hands of the Christians, unless they knew that their beliefs were true?


    In any trial, the evidence must eventually be submitted to the jury. The side which feels as the trial proceeds that it is losing the case often wants the trial to continue, to give them time to think up another argument, to find the piece of evidence that will save their case.

    The same is true in a discussion of this kind. The reader is here the jury, and must decide whether the Christians have made their case beyond a reasonable doubt. They have certainly had sufficient opportunity to do so. Like many attorneys with poor cases to defend, they often appeal to emotion in their final remarks to the jury rather than to the hard facts placed in evidence. That appeal to emotion is a damning admission of the weakness of their case.

    I have made my case and am willing now to submit it to you, the reader, as jury. I think that there is not much more to be said. You must decide for yourself.

For other general and specific comments on "J. P. Holding"'s reliability, click here.

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©  2001 Richard Packham    Permission granted to reproduce for non-commercial purposes, provided text is not changed and this copyright notice is included


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