Contesting Christianity: The Resurrection

Sign with line through Christian cross(This post is part 3 of the series entitled “Contesting Christianity.” Please see the index for the other posts in this series.)

Jesus' resurrectionI 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

Symbols for the four writers of the Gospels

Traditional symbols for the four evangelists

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.

Michael Licona

Michael Licona

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:

  1. Jesus was killed by crucifixion.
  2. Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them.
  3. The conversion of the church persecutor Paul.
  4. The conversion of the skeptic James, Jesus’ half-brother.
  5. 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.

The Counter-Argument

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.

Murder scene chalk outlineLet me give an example to make this clearer. Suppose you are investigating a murder where there are two suspects, Smith and Jones. You have gathered these facts:

  1. Smith’s fingerprints are on the murder weapon (a gun).
  2. Smith was in town the weekend of the murder.
  3. Jones had never previously had contact with the victim.
  4. 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:

  1. Smith was in a serious car accident five hours before the murder and was in the hospital for three days afterward.
  2. Jones’s fingerprints are also on the murder weapon.
  3. Jones had just found out that the victim had slept with his wife.
  4. 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.

Conclusion

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.

More Information

Notes:

  1. This will be explored more in the next article on miracles. []

2 responses to “Contesting Christianity: The Resurrection”

Bryan Norford

Hi Jeff:

I missed not hearing from you for the last while, but you obviously have pressing engagements requiring your attention. However, I am interested in continuing to read and comment on your articles, and here I attempt some responses to your article on the resurrection.

I am surprised that you suddenly dropped the bombshell that miracles don’t happen in the middle of your discussion. I note you will discuss it in the future, but being a bit of a plodder I haven’t got there yet! Perhaps that discussion should have come first, for if you demolish miracles, the whole argument for the resurrection is moot. It’s a bit like the argument that nothing exists outside of empirical data available to our five senses. Then any discussion on religion is pointless. I must admit having difficulty with this careful slicing off those things we may disagree with, especially when that discounts belief of most of the world’s people. Life doesn’t always divide up into neat rational boxes; there always seems to be a remainder left over—that indefinable quality of life that defies explanation.

However, let me respond to some of your ideas. As you may expect, I don’t disagree with you regarding the minimalist arguments, but for different reasons. Efforts at compromising to find common ground can, and in this case, does provide an explanation that satisfies neither side. Further, the idea of a “spiritual” resurrection fails on the same ground that no resurrection does—it completely undermines Christianity—as you noted. Furthermore, I concur with the general agreement on the two source hypothesis.

We can have more of a discussion on the authenticity of the Gospels. I’m glad you conditionally concede on the accuracy of the writings. At least that gives some firm ground to work on. However, your understanding of accuracy is undermined by the idea that “they were written within church communities and incorporated traditions of the local church.” How can we ascertain “accuracy” of documents that were accumulated from bits and pieces over several decades, and from contents that were fragmentary and possibly unreliable?

Two other concepts also require further examination: dating, and how to separate authenticity and legend. Both are a constant “he said, (s)he said” approach, by people who are nearly two thousand years from the events. In both cases, there is also a problem with your constant use of “well-known,” “majority view,” or “most” when referring to authorities. I don’t necessarily disagree that there are more liberal scholars that support your case than conservative. But if numbers are a final arbiter, then your views on religion must be invalid because four or five billion people disagree with you.

But let’s look at these concepts. As you point out, there are intricate arguments for and against specific dating. And, as you also state using your crime example, there can be many unknowns that deny us final certainty—particularly when the events are so distant. In the end we are left with what appears reasonable and probable. Here are some thoughts along those lines.
The idea that the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John didn’t write their gospels seems speculative at the least. Whatever ideas have been raised to support this, it is far more likely that those closest to the event would be more accurate. If you consider there was error by Irenaeus’ because of the time lag, then today’s commentators are far more likely to be in error! I’m not sure why there should be such a rush to discredit the Gospel writers other than a need to discredit their beliefs, when their writings are clearly eyewitness records. In addition, to posit a fragmentary collection over time, rather than one time writers, allows more time for error supporting an unreliable text. Again, the process is shrouded in the mists of time, and I doubt we’ll ever have all the data to support proof either way—only possibilities.

Either the writers were mistaken, or charlatans devising a clever deception. The only reason for deception is personal gain of some sort—and that they certainly didn’t achieve. The disciples don’t come across as very bright. They constantly misunderstood Jesus, while his enemies understood him perfectly! They recorded their own foolishness and errors. Unlikely candidates for an elaborate scam! In addition, their style of reporting is simple and direct, devoid of the adulation or vituperation of fanatics—with plenty of opportunity for both—or those espousing a fictitious cause. Other historians through the ages have exhibited less candour, but their reports are accepted with little question.

About dating, one item stands out as predominant over many other considerations. The Synoptic Gospels do not mention the invasion of Jerusalem in 70 AD. While—as I have pointed out previously—lack of information is no proof, this seems a remarkable omission considering the destruction of the Temple was such an important prophecy. I can’t imagine Matthew, Mark and Luke, not referring to this remarkable fulfilment. Under that circumstance, the first three gospels would have been written before 70 AD. This probability is for an earlier date than liberal scholars suggest.

It seems that we constantly come back to belief. Your contention that in conclusion “the Gospels cannot be established as authoritatively accurate,” is based on probability only, as the opposite is also true: they cannot be proven as inauthentic, only unlikely. What we believe about the gospel record—after much research on both sides of the issue—comes down to conviction and choice.
This selective approach is typified by the Jesus Seminar. Their program is to decide by democratic vote which sayings of Jesus are authentic and which were later added to conform to “later” church doctrine. Those attending the seminars by definition are sceptics of Jesus’ deity and resurrection. In theory, the outcome is a foregone conclusion, although there is no universal agreement, hence the need for a vote on each doubtful phrase.

Two problems arise from this procedure. First the decisions arrived at will vary over time and with changes in participants. A final decision is always in flux—except, of course, the resurrection. Second, to cast doubt on chunks of Scripture is to undermine the authenticity of the rest. Really, if the Bible is that unreliable, better to dump the whole thing as meaningless. Or, generally accept it at face value, recognizing proved textual discrepancies. It seems to me there is little middle ground, as all readers are driven by acceptance or rejection of the Bible’s claims.

But let’s take a look at miracles. I look forward to reading and interacting with your ideas.

However, I am facing a deadline and have a lot of traveling to do during May and June, so, like you, I may need time to get to it.

Grace to you,

Bryan

Jeff

Hi Bryan,

Like I said in my previous reply, I apologize for missing your last two comments here. I would have replied much sooner if I had seen them. But here we are now, anyway.

I am surprised that you suddenly dropped the bombshell that miracles don’t happen in the middle of your discussion…. Perhaps that discussion should have come first, for if you demolish miracles, the whole argument for the resurrection is moot.

That’s a fair point, although I had my reasons for doing things in the order that I did. I don’t dwell on the no-miracles argument here, and I am only referring to it as a plausible inference that historians make about the past. Let’s pass on this discussion for now and take it up when you get to the section on miracles.

However, your understanding of accuracy is undermined by the idea that “they were written within church communities and incorporated traditions of the local church.” How can we ascertain “accuracy” of documents that were accumulated from bits and pieces over several decades, and from contents that were fragmentary and possibly unreliable?

As I’m sure you’re aware, there are several methods that historians may use to assess the probability that an event took place. In historical Jesus research, they have several criteria that help to determine what actually happened, especially in the case where we have very few sources of Jesus’ life. (The gospels, of course, being the only substantive texts here.) A description of some of these criteria can be found here. While these do not establish anything definitively, this at least gives us a basis to judge the general accuracy of the gospels themselves.

In both cases, there is also a problem with your constant use of “well-known,” “majority view,” or “most” when referring to authorities. I don’t necessarily disagree that there are more liberal scholars that support your case than conservative. But if numbers are a final arbiter, then your views on religion must be invalid because four or five billion people disagree with you.

I understand the danger of an argument ad populum, but as I am not an expert in the subject matter, sometimes it is wise to defer to the consensus of experts. Certainly there is not total agreement among scholars by any means (with the lines most clearly drawn between conservative and liberal scholars), but where possible I have tried to discuss the reasons why scholars tend to conclude these things—while trying to keep things at a basic level and not get bogged down in the details of something that is outside my area of expertise anyway.

The idea that the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John didn’t write their gospels seems speculative at the least. Whatever ideas have been raised to support this, it is far more likely that those closest to the event would be more accurate. If you consider there was error by Irenaeus’ because of the time lag, then today’s commentators are far more likely to be in error!

The time lag is not the only relevant factor, here. We now have thousands of scholars and historians who devote much of their lives to these sorts of issues, whereas Irenaeus was a church Father who was more concerned with counselling his flock. We have well-defined historical methods, which were not in place at the time, and which Irenaeus and other church Fathers would probably not be aware of anyway even if they had been. We also place more emphasis on separating fact from fiction than people of the ancient world generally did, where tradition was an acceptable source of knowledge. All of these factors must be considered. And of course, remember that Irenaeus, the person who first provides the traditional names of the gospel writers, is also the same person who said there must be four gospels because there are four winds and four poles of the compass! This doesn’t discredit his writing as a whole, but it does suggest that perhaps he wrote some of the things he did not based on good evidence, but because of tradition (regardless of its accuracy).

I’m not sure why there should be such a rush to discredit the Gospel writers other than a need to discredit their beliefs, when their writings are clearly eyewitness records.

Clearly? We have Mark, who wasn’t supposed to be an eyewitness in the first place (at least for most of Jesus’ ministry), and then we have Matthew, allegedly a disciple of Jesus, who copied much of Mark’s book! Why would an eyewitness take material from a non-eyewitness? Then of course, we have Luke who was also not presumed to be an eyewitness, and John, whose book was almost certainly written much too late to be authored by the apostle John. Not to mention, neither Matthew nor John refer to themselves in the first person in their books. Even if these were eyewitness accounts, it is far from “clear”, as you say.

In addition, to posit a fragmentary collection over time, rather than one time writers, allows more time for error supporting an unreliable text.

I’m not entirely sure what you mean by this. I do believe the gospels were likely written by one writer each (barring further edits by later scribes, perhaps). However, the material was likely taken from multiple individuals within church communities. It’s a little like oral tradition, where various stories are compiled by one author.

Either the writers were mistaken, or charlatans devising a clever deception…. The disciples don’t come across as very bright. They constantly misunderstood Jesus, while his enemies understood him perfectly! They recorded their own foolishness and errors.

I don’t think the gospel writers intended to deceive. I don’t believe the disciples intended to deceive, either. But the foolishness of the disciples can be explained with a couple of factors. First, the focus of the gospels is on Jesus, not on the disciples. Jesus is portrayed as calm and intelligent, and the disciples only help to draw further attention to these qualities. Second, most of the stories in the gospels read very much like individual narratives. Likely, these were culled from multiple individuals, as I’ve already mentioned. So each story works with its own independent structure: The disciples don’t get something, Jesus does a miracle or teaches something, and then the disciples get it. When the next story starts, the disciples are “reset” to their ignorant state once again. If the gospels were each one continuous eyewitness account, it would be difficult to explain the monumental stupidity of the disciples. You would think that after witnessing 20 or 30 miracles, they’d get the idea that Jesus could do miracles, right?

The Synoptic Gospels do not mention the invasion of Jerusalem in 70 AD. While—as I have pointed out previously—lack of information is no proof, this seems a remarkable omission considering the destruction of the Temple was such an important prophecy. I can’t imagine Matthew, Mark and Luke, not referring to this remarkable fulfilment.

I knew that you would have to bring this up. This is, of course, one of the best pieces of evidence for an early dating of the gospels. And while you’re right that it seems strange that the gospels wouldn’t mention the fulfillment of this prophecy if they wrote after 70 CE, I don’t think it is a fatal problem. Mark, the first gospel, is typically dated (by liberal scholars) at around the 70 CE mark. He might have written before the destruction of the Temple, might have written afterwards. Even if he did write before, it would still have been clear to him that something terrible was going to come of the war between the Jews and the Romans. The Romans may have even explicitly told the Jews by that point that they would destroy the Temple. Mark may have written his book before the Temple was destroyed, but after the point when it was reasonable to believe it would be.

Then, of course, Matthew and Luke copied much of Mark’s text. While it is still strange that they wouldn’t add in a line about how the prophecy had been fulfilled, let’s keep in mind that this prophecy is not even the focus of the passage. Immediately after stating this prophecy, Jesus goes into a long discussion about the end times and various signs that it was coming. The destruction of the Temple fits into this larger scheme of things, but it is not the focus of the passage. If Jesus didn’t make a big deal about it, perhaps Matthew and Luke decided they shouldn’t either. (And let’s keep in mind that Christianity had become its own fledgling sect much earlier than that point, so the destruction of the Temple would have meant much less to them than to the Jews.)

It seems that we constantly come back to belief. Your contention that in conclusion “the Gospels cannot be established as authoritatively accurate,” is based on probability only, as the opposite is also true: they cannot be proven as inauthentic, only unlikely. What we believe about the gospel record—after much research on both sides of the issue—comes down to conviction and choice.
This selective approach is typified by the Jesus Seminar.

You’re right that we are only dealing with probabilities here. That is all history can provide us with. The best we can do is take a look at the evidence and try to assess the probabilities, then write our history books based on that assessment. You mention the Jesus Seminar, and while it is composed of many learned scholars, I have my own criticisms of their methods—in particular, their attempt to microanalyze the sayings of Jesus to determine which phrases are historical. So I’ll agree with you on that point. But liberal scholars are made up of more than just the Jesus Seminar.

Second, to cast doubt on chunks of Scripture is to undermine the authenticity of the rest. Really, if the Bible is that unreliable, better to dump the whole thing as meaningless. Or, generally accept it at face value, recognizing proved textual discrepancies.

I disagree with you here. This is only true if one assumes that the gospels were intended to be read and understood as entirely accurate eyewitness accounts. I don’t think this is necessarily the case. These are not written like historical accounts, and they were not written by historians. Inaccuracies may undermine the reliability of the author, but it doesn’t make the text “meaningless”. It is a false dichotomy to say that one must either accept it all or throw it away entirely. Given my inclination to regard it as oral tradition provided to one author (each) by numerous sources, it becomes more reasonable to dissect the gospels to see which parts are likely to be accurate and which are not. Some of those underlying sources were likely more reliable than others. It just requires some expertise and scholarly debate to try to tease apart the fact from the fiction.

Leave a Reply