On the Resurrection
A few weeks ago, I posted an article about Why I Am Not a Christian. My entry is one in a long line of similar declarations with that same title made by many people, from complete amateurs to inordinately famous philosophers. However, whereas most of these other declarations list whole litanies of reasoning behind their dismissal of the Christian faith, I mentioned only a single point of concern. I am not a Christian because I do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead.
In my article, I gave a quick overview of some of the reasons that I do not believe this claim. I pointed out that, contrary to stories often passed among Christian circles, there are almost no references to Jesus by non-Christians within 100 years of his death. I discussed reasons for doubting the claim that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses to the event. I talked about discrepancies between the Gospel accounts, with one another as well as with contemporary historical records. Of course, even some people who know about and understand these things still believe in the Resurrection. Some, particularly Christian apologists, even assert that Jesus’ Resurrection is the most reasonable account, given all the facts.
Given the recent Easter holiday, this tends to be the time of year where those Christian apologists lay out their arguments for the Resurrection in full force. In particular, I read an article which fairly typifies many of the usual claims made by apologists on the subject. It was written by a friend of mine named Ray Ciervo, who holds a Masters degree in Apologetics from the Southern Evangelical Seminary, and who operates a ministry called No Pat Answers. The purpose of the ministry, as declared on its website, is to help prepare Christians to defend their faith without resorting to “pat answers,” which he defines as, “trite, glib, shot[s] from the hip, that [are] not very well thought out.” The article in question was posted to the No Pat Answers blog a few days ago, with the title How Can We Be Sure of the Resurrection? Unfortunately, I do not find many of the claims made by the article to be overly defensible, nor the arguments to be very convincing.
For example, the article asserts:
First, we must consider that the church flourished in the same city where Jesus was crucified. It flourished because the disciples believed they saw the risen Jesus. The Jewish authorities had ample time to produce the corpse, but no one ever did. Threatening the disciples with torture and death didn’t stop them from preaching that Christ was risen. People die for many reasons, but very few would die for something they believed to be false.
I will absolutely agree that Christianity took root in Jerusalem after Jesus’ crucifixion (though I don’t believe I’d use the word “flourished”), and I will even agree that this is due to Jesus’ earliest followers having believed they saw the risen Jesus. However, the claim about producing Jesus’ corpse is problematic. Firstly, it assumes the entombment of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea to be historically accurate. I will discuss, later in the article, a few reasons why this is dubious. More importantly, even if we grant the entombment, this claim is flawed. The Church in Jerusalem did not take hold overnight. Decades would pass before there were enough Christians in that city to be noticeable, let alone politically relevant. By that point, even if Jesus had been entombed, and even if the opposing authorities knew the location of that tomb, the production of a corpse would have been very easily dismissed by believers, whether it actually belonged to Jesus or not.
Then there are the claims that the disciples were threatened with torture and death in an attempt to stop them from preaching that Christ was risen. Even in the New Testament, the only person explicitly so treated was Stephen, a deacon in Jerusalem and not a disciple who had witnessed Jesus’ death and Resurrection. James, son of Zebedee, was executed by Herod, and Peter was arrested around the same time, but the specifics of their offense are left to the reader’s imagination. Paul was threatened with arrest for inspiring Jews to abandon ritualistic Law, not for preaching that Christ was risen. The purported martyrdom of each of the Twelve (besides James bar Zebedee and ignoring Judas Iscariot) are all later traditions, formed after the New Testament had been written, and each is historically dubious. There is no good reason to believe that all of the men who purportedly witnessed the risen Jesus died for that belief.
The article continues by discussing the idea that early disciples really did have visions of a risen Jesus, but that these visions were hallucinatory. Ray Ciervo writes:
Could it be the disciples hallucinated? Mass hallucinations are as impossible as a multitude having the same dream. Have deceiving spirits appeared to people? It’s possible, perhaps probable. Apparitions have been reported around the world for centuries. Does this make them false? Not really, but the source may be deceptive.
I will ignore the section about apparitions, as I am not really clear on why he included it (indeed, it would seem to argue against his own position). This concern with mass hallucination is, if I understand it correctly, in reference to Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 15 that the risen Jesus was witnessed by more than 500 people at a single time (a claim which I will discuss later). For the sake of argument, let’s assume that these unnamed 500 witnesses actually did claim to have seen Jesus of Nazareth, at the same time, after his death. I would agree that this crowd sharing a single, communal hallucination is a fairly ludicrous claim; however, I would note that no historian has ever suggested that this crowd shared a single, communal hallucination. When it is suggested that the early witnesses to a risen Jesus may have been subject to a mass hallucination, no one claims that they all shared the exact same hallucination. There are numerous documented instances where groups of people all claim to have witnessed supernatural events which Evangelical Christians often dismiss as hallucinatory (visions of Mary and angels, UFO sightings, levitating Yogis, the golden plates of the Book of Mormon, et cetera). Crowds of superstitious and emotional people tend to be very susceptible to the power of suggestion. It is quite plausible that a single hallucination in such a crowd could have triggered a pareidolic response throughout an entire congregation.
The article then moves on to its next claim:
Could it be the Jews didn’t allow the body of Jesus to be buried and threw it in a ditch and he was eaten by dogs? This is one idea offered by skeptics. However, history tells us the Romans allowed criminals to be buried in proper tombs, and the Jews would not have permitted a corpse, no matter whose body it was, to be thrown in a ditch for fear of defiling the land.
Almost all of our available evidence, outside of the gospels, regarding the punishment of crucifixion shows that one of the most primary and notable aspects of this form of execution was that crucified bodies were left on display to be carrion for birds and wild animals, and to serve as humiliating deterrents for anyone who might consider repeating that offender’s crime. There are a few notable exceptions to this general rule, however. For example, one noted exception to this comes from Philo’s Against Flaccus, who notes that during the celebration of the Emperor’s birthday, crucified bodies were sometimes taken down and returned to their kin. The whole reason Philo mentions this is that it is particularly exceptional– crucified criminals were normally left on the cross to feed the birds. And he specifically notes that the reason for this exception is celebration of the Emperor’s birthday– not holidays, in general, and certainly not holidays which the Romans did not even recognize, like Passover. And even in noting this exception, Philo states that this only occurred in certain cases– it was not a general rule that crucified bodies were removed for burial even on the Emperor’s birthday. There is certainly some archaeological evidence that suggests that some crucified criminals may yet have received decent burials, in Jerusalem, but it would seem incredibly dubious to attempt to extrapolate from this that all crucified criminals were allowed such honors. While not entirely outside the realm of possibility, it does not seem very likely that Roman officials would release the body of a known seditionist to one of his followers on the eve of a holiday which was known to foment rebellion.
The next dubious set of assertions I want to discuss from the article are as follows:
One of the problems with Mr. Harrison’s call to look at the evidence is that, in his opinion, the gospel accounts are not historically reliable. This is a serious problem, because they rank as some of the most historically reliable ancient documents in existence. Without claiming the gospels are the Word of God, we can ask, “Do they have historical significance?” According to Gary Habermas, almost every New Testament scholar agrees they do.
There are two major problems with this paragraph. The first is the claim that the gospel accounts rank as some of the most historically reliable ancient documents in existence. It appears, here, that Ray Ciervo is making a mistake which is very common amongst Christian apologists and anti-religious detractors, alike. He is confusing textual reliability for historical reliability. When many anti-religious critics attempt to list the failings of the gospel accounts, they often like to claim that the actual text of the New Testament is unreliable due to the manner in which those texts were transmitted through the centuries. These critics usually make this argument based on a faulty understanding of the field of textual criticism. Most often, these days, I find that this misunderstanding traces back to someone who has misread or misrepresented Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus, one of the only books on textual criticism aimed toward a popular audience (and one which I highly recommend). Christian apologists are absolutely, 100%, and indubitably correct when they state that the New Testament is the most textually reliable literary work from antiquity in existence. However, when I say “textually reliable,” note that I am referring solely to the actual text of the manuscripts. That is to say, we are more reasonably certain that what we have, today, represents the text of the New Testament documents as they were originally written than we are for any other document from antiquity. However, the fact that we can be reasonably certain that we know what the original text said is not the same as being reasonably certain that the claims made by the text are historically reliable (that is, that these claims accurately relate things which actually occurred in history).
That brings us to the claim that almost every New Testament scholar agrees that the gospels have historical significance. I completely agree with this claim! I would even go so far as to say that nearly every historian, in general, agrees that the gospels have historical significance. The problem is that “historical significance” is an extremely loose and vague phrase. Some graffiti hastily scrawled on the wall of a Roman bathhouse has “historical significance,” as well. Historical significance is not the same as historical reliability. This is extremely important, since it is not the case that nearly every New Testament scholar agrees that the gospels are highly historically reliable. In fact, the mainstream consensus in New Testament academia is that this is precisely not the case, and that Jesus’ story is entrenched in legends and embellishments which arose in the decades between the death of Jesus and the writing of the gospels.
Moving on to the next claims made by the No Pat Answers article, we read:
Now let’s consider how the gospels present their story. One of the most compelling details is found in the gospels’ record of women being the first to discover the empty tomb. In Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures, women were considered unreliable witnesses. Thus, it would not make any sense for the disciples to make it up like this. If they were going to fabricate a story, certainly they would have relied on male witnesses of the empty tomb. Instead, Matthew’s gospel says the women were first. Each of the gospel writers reported that the resurrected Lord first appeared to women.
This is an oft-repeated claim, but one which I believe is wholly untenable. The fact of the matter is that women were not considered unreliable witnesses in Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures. Josephus relied upon the testimony of women for his discussions of Gamala and Masada in his Antiquities of the Jews, and does so without any hint of embarrassment or doubt resulting from their gender. When Cicero brought Gaius Verres to trial, as recounted in his Against Verres, he called several women as witnesses and the court trusted their testimony without regard for their sex. Even within the New Testament, there are several passages which show that the testimony and fellowship of women were actually highly regarded, rather than being dismissed out-of-hand, as apologists would have us believe! For example, in John 4:39, we are told that many Samaritans came to believe in Jesus due explicitly to the testimony of a single woman. In Romans 16, Paul specifically names several women who are teachers and leaders in the Church: Phoebe, Prisca, Mary, Junia, Julia, and the sister of Nereus. In particular, he explicitly states that Phoebe is a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, and that Junia was a prominent apostle (Gk., ἐπίσημοι ἐν τοῖς ἀποστόλοις). It is patently absurd to claim that the people of the first century would not trust the testimony of women when a significant number of the earliest Christian teachers were women!
As I promised earlier, the article now touches specifically on the claim that 500 witnesses saw the Resurrected Jesus:
The New Testament reports that Jesus appeared to not only the women but to all the disciples, James the Lord’s brother, and five hundred witnesses (see 1 Cor. 15:3–8). At the time of Paul’s writing of First Corinthians (AD 55), most of those five hundred were still alive. Why is this important? If this was a grand conspiracy, it would have been advantageous to “break” one or more of these witnesses. Again, there is no record of any of this—no recanting, no defecting. In fact, as mentioned earlier, the early church strived in the very city where the best evidence to disprove it could have been revealed.
Ray Ciervo wonders why there are no reports of the enemies of Christianity questioning the 500 witnesses who Paul claims witnessed Jesus at the same time. I’ll turn this right around on him: why are there no reports by any other Christians that 500 people witnessed the resurrected Jesus at once? That includes the other authors of the New Testament. None of the gospels mention this appearance. Acts of the Apostles does not mention it. None of the Johannine or Petrine epistles mention it. No other source, Christian or otherwise, independently corroborates Paul’s vague claim that Jesus appeared to 500 people at once. Paul, himself, never mentions these witnesses again, in any of his letters. He never names a single one of them, nor recounts what it is that they saw. He never even intimates that he has met or conversed with any of these supposed witnesses. It is far more likely that Paul is repeating a legend which had been passed around Christian communities than that he is reporting an accurate historical event.
This brings me to the worst argument presented in the piece. Towards the end of the article, this claim is made (emphasis mine):
The empty tomb is declared and implied. John the apostle became a believer at the empty tomb. The fact that the tomb never became a shrine is another evidence of its emptiness. Nothing was there. Jesus had risen.
This claim does not make much sense, to me, at all. The fact that no tomb was ever turned into a shrine should be taken as evidence that Jesus actually was buried in a tomb which was later found empty. That no tomb is known is evidence that there was a tomb. I don’t understand how one could possibly justify such a claim.
Furthermore, there actually is a tomb which has been venerated since at least the fourth century as being that of Jesus of Nazareth! This tomb is located in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem, and the shrine is considered to be so important to Christians that custody of the site is shared by several different denominations– including the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic Churches. But that’s not all! There’s also the Garden Tomb, another location which many claim to be the original tomb of Jesus and one which has been the focus of Christian pilgrimages for more than a century.
So, does the fact that there is, indeed, a tomb which became a shrine act as evidence that the tomb was not empty? Somehow, I doubt that any apologists would grant such a notion. So why are we being asked to grant the converse?
Despite claims to the contrary from apologists, it is not reasonable to conclude that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead on the basis of historical evidence, alone; just as it is not reasonable to conclude that Aristeus of Proconnesus, or Apollonius of Tyana, or the Chinese Chan master Puhua actually rose from the dead. The common arguments raised by apologists, in this matter, are far from convincing. Worse, they are often completely mistaken, supposing entirely untenable claims to be evidence for the Resurrection. Christians are absolutely free to believe the gospel accounts, and to hold to the idea that Jesus historically rose from the dead. However, if apologists want to continue to assert that such a belief is more reasonable than its antithesis, they are going to need to do a much better job of providing evidence to support the Resurrection.