(This post is part 3 of the series entitled “Contesting Christianity.” Please see the index for the other posts in this series.)
I think it is safe to say that of all the doctrines of faith present in Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus has to be the most fundamental. Paul himself said that “if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain…. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:14,17-19). Thus, while there are some Christians who do not believe in a literal resurrection, for most Christians it seems to be critical to the faith.
But what kind of evidence is there to support such an event? Did Jesus really rise from the dead, and how can it be proven that this happened? I am going to take a look at two lines of argumentation: biblical evidence, and historical methods. The first will center around the reliability of the gospel, and the second will take a more general approach used by some Christian apologists to support the resurrection without having to argue for 100% accuracy of the gospels.
Reliability of the Gospels
The first thing to ask when determining whether the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are reliable is whether or not the copies we have today say the same thing as the original manuscripts. Many apologists point to the many copies of the New Testament that we have. And we do have many. There are thousands of copies of the New Testament, many more than those of other documents from around the same time period. Considering the scribes and the monks who copied them for a living, this is not really surprising. But these large number of manuscripts can be cross-checked with each other to find textual variants and figure out which are the most accurate; this process is called textual criticism. The more copies we have, the easier it is to determine which words are correct and which are errors. Because of the large number of copies of the New Testament, most scholars are fairly confident that the text of the New Testament we have today is essentially the same as the text as it was written.
I am willing to concede this point for the most part. However, before moving on, I think it is important to take a look at the development of the texts. Bart Ehrman, a noted New Testament scholar, mentions in his book Misquoting Jesus (amazon.ca) that during the first two or three centuries of the early Christian church, the individuals copying the texts were not typically professional scribes, but rather literate people in the Christian community. It was not until later that the task of copying Scripture was given to professional scribes and priests (p. 50-51,55). While these early copyists may certainly have been motivated to reproduce the text carefully, it is much more likely that any errors in copying occurred during this early period, under these amateur scribes. When one then considers that the first fragment of papyrus that we have of the New Testament (“P52“) was likely written in about 125 CE, and that we don’t have a full copy of the entire New Testament until the Codex Sinaiticus (written 325 CE at the earliest), this leaves a significant gap between the original documents and our existing copies, that is also the time when it is most probable for errors/changes to have been made. Thus, while I will for the remainder of this article concede that the text of the New Testament that we have is accurate, it is worth noting that this may not truly be the case.
Authors and Dates of the Gospels
It is well-known among all New Testament scholars that the four gospels were originally written anonymously. There was no name attached to them, and the names which they now bear do not seem to have been assigned until later (Irenaeus in 180 CE at the latest). Although some argue for the accuracy of the traditional authorship, most scholars acknowledge that the individuals known as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were likely not the actual authors of the texts. When combined with the dates that they assign to these books, this view seems more likely.
The majority view among scholars is the two-source hypothesis. This view claims that the Gospel of Mark was the first gospel to be written, with Matthew and Luke copying large parts of Mark’s gospel, as well as using another unknown source which has been labelled “Q“. This is due to the fact that large portions of the three gospels are virtually identical, but that there are then some portions which appear in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. The Gospel of John is then hypothesized to be a much later gospel. Scholars disagree (as scholars often do) on the date of each gospel, but most seem to date Mark around 70 CE, Matthew and Luke around 85 CE, and John anywhere between 90-110 CE. The explanations for these dates are much too intricate to be dealt with here, but the method used to determine them is called higher criticism.
Assessing the Gospels
With this background in mind, then, we can begin to assess whether the gospels should be taken as reliable documents. With scholars dating even the earliest gospel at 40 years after the events it describes (with the life and death of Jesus around 30 CE), this makes it quite difficult to argue that these texts are eyewitness testimony. Even if they were, an eyewitness writing 40 years after the fact is likely to have significant errors in his/her account. When one combines this with the life expectancy at the time, the situation becomes more grim. Although estimates tend to vary about the life expectancy in the first century CE (which also must take into account a very high mortality rate), suffice it to say that the expectancy is lower than it is today. If we posit that Matthew was approximately the same age as Jesus (who was said to be around 30), by the time he would have written his gospel he would have been at the ripe old age of 85—certainly uncommon in that day and age. John would have been pushing at least 90. To say these were eyewitnesses is straining credibility.
However, while it seems highly unlikely that the gospels were written by eyewitnesses, it is generally posited by scholars that they were written within church communities and incorporated the traditions of the local church into their writings. Thus, it is likely that they do contain some historical truth; scholars then get to argue about how much is historical and how much is legendary development. This will be dealt with in the next section. In conclusion of the present one, however, it seems fairly clear that one cannot reasonably take the stance that the gospels are 100% historically accurate, nor that they were written by eyewitnesses to the events they describe.
The Minimal Facts Argument
Because of the difficulties in establishing the reliability of the gospels (at least in their details), some Christian apologists like Michael Licona, Lee Strobel, and William Lane Craig offer a different form of argumentation that is based on historical methods. This “minimal facts” approach relies on the criteria that historians use to evaluate truth claims in the New Testament. I won’t go into detail about these methods, but there is a link at the end of this article that gives some more information about them.
The minimal facts argument is essentially an argument to the best explanation. It takes a certain number of facts (which can vary based on the speaker and the allotted time) and then shows that the resurrection is the best explanation for these facts. In The Case for the Real Jesus (amazon.ca) by Lee Strobel, Michael Licona’s interview gives one version of this argument using five facts. They are as follows:
- Jesus was killed by crucifixion.
- Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them.
- The conversion of the church persecutor Paul.
- The conversion of the skeptic James, Jesus’ half-brother.
- Jesus’ tomb was empty.
Licona uses these because a large majority of New Testament scholars accept them to be true. The last one, he admits, is only accepted by something like 75% of scholars, but the others enjoy much higher support, around 90-95%. Licona then argues that these five facts lead to the best explanation that God literally raised Jesus bodily from the dead.
I will, for the purposes of this article, assume that Licona’s meta-analysis of scholars’ views (actually done by Gary Habermas) is accurate. I will also ignore any possible bias that comes from this, considering that the majority of New Testament scholars are Christians. This might lead them to give more weight to these claims. But let us set that aside.
In the debates I have watched or listened to, when this argument is made, generally the counter-argument is to provide an alternate story that still explains all the facts. Generally this takes the form of a “spiritual resurrection”. The argument, briefly, is that the early disciples did not believe in a bodily resurrection of Jesus, but rather a spiritual one. Only later did the doctrine of the church change to encompass a bodily resurrection. This has some evidence to support it, such as the increasing stress on Jesus’ body, from Mark who does not say anything at all about it, to Luke who has Jesus breaking bread and eats fish, to John who mentions Thomas touching Jesus, Jesus cooking breakfast and eating bread and fish with the disciples. Such a theory explains all of the minimal facts except the last one, which as I mentioned earlier, is not as well-supported by scholars anyway. However, in these debates that I’ve seen, they tend to degenerate from these descriptions of facts and theories into bickering over the meaning of Greek words and verb tenses and such. Since I have little knowledge in this area, I’d like to offer a different way to critique the minimal facts approach.
Critiquing the Minimal Facts Argument
Historians rely on background knowledge in many cases to determine the historicity of a certain event. If it is known from other sources that a certain Roman general was in Gaul during a certain time period, it can be determined that a source describing him as falling ill in Greece in that same time period must be false. While these assessments are never certain, it is clear that an event that lines up with previous background knowledge should be given higher probability than one that goes against background knowledge. Thus, to piece together history, it is always necessary to take in the situation as a whole, with all previous knowledge intact.
With this in mind, I think it becomes clear that the minimal facts approach divorces these five facts from all the rest of the facts historians agree upon. For example, historians generally agree that there were other messiahs and prophets running around in the first century CE; they agree that the culture in Palestine and the surrounding area was influenced by Roman and other pagan religious beliefs; and they also agree that historical analysis must assume that the processes that happened in the past are the same as those that happen today; in other words, since miracles don’t happen today, we must assume they didn’t happen back then either.1 Broadening the scope from just history, other established facts include that people can and do die for a lie if they believe it is important enough; that people experience hallucinations, including during periods of grief; that cognitive dissonance is an important motivation (the disciples may have convinced themselves that the 3 years they spent with a guy who just got killed weren’t in vain); and that people convert to religions for all sorts of reasons, not just because of rational arguments. Several of these facts seem to counteract the force of the original five facts that we started with. As you can see, by taking just these five facts, the Christian apologist strips away other points of agreement to construct an argument that supports only the resurrection.
- Smith’s fingerprints are on the murder weapon (a gun).
- Smith was in town the weekend of the murder.
- Jones had never previously had contact with the victim.
- Smith strongly disliked the victim.
Given only these four facts, it seems clear that Smith is the culprit. However, what if I tell you that I left out some other facts such as these:
- Smith was in a serious car accident five hours before the murder and was in the hospital for three days afterward.
- Jones’s fingerprints are also on the murder weapon.
- Jones had just found out that the victim had slept with his wife.
- A witness saw Jones leaving the victim’s house around the time of the murder.
This seems to change things, doesn’t it? Now it seems clear that Jones is the real murderer. Thus, it is crucial that we look at all the relevant data before coming to a conclusion about the best explanation, rather than artificially selecting just a few. For this reason, the minimal facts argument is less than persuasive.
It seems as though a belief in the resurrection cannot be justified, because the gospels cannot be established as authoritatively accurate, and historical methods do not bridge the gap to provide justification either. Moreover, if one considers the resurrection to be a miracle (which I assume most people do), the resurrection becomes unjustifiable on other grounds as well, which will be explored in the next article. However, even without this, it seems that this fundamental doctrine of Christianity is unable to be justified.
- Criteria of Authenticity in and the Historical Jesus – A Wikipedia page giving a decent overview of the criteria used to evaluate claims in the Bible.
- Why the “Minimal Facts” Model Is Unpersuasive – An excellent critical view of the minimal facts argument.
- Putting Odds on Jesus – Examining the resurrection from a probabilistic framework.
- Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story – An essay by Richard Carrier, an historian and philosopher, about the resurrection.
- Licona vs. Carrier: On the Resurrection of Jesus Christ – An audio debate between Michael Licona and Richard Carrier (click the play button inside the gray rectangle to start it).
- This will be explored more in the next article on miracles. [↩]