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Did Jesus’ Resurrection Really Happen?
Is Christ’s resurrection a credible claim? Two religious scholars debate.
Kyle J. Gerkin
Kyle J. Gerkin is vice president of Internet Infidels, Inc., and the author of several articles dealing with religion.
J. P. Holding
Tekton Apologetics Ministries
J. P. Holding is president of Tekton Apologetics Ministries. He is the author of The Mormon Defenders and The Impossible Faith.
Criticism of Christianity is voluminous. Thousands of words have been written that challenge almost every aspect of the religion. All of the philosophical arguments for the existence of a God have been assaulted. The Bible’s accuracy on various points has been called into question repeatedly. The moral merits of Christianity have been disputed exhaustively. And yet, as interesting as these topics can be, I can’t help but suspect that such criticism is a waste of time more often than not. One can usually save a lot of time and effort by simply pinpointing the main premise and determining where the disagreement lies with regards to it rather than debating the superstructure ad nauseam. Fortunately, it is easy to locate the central premise of Christianity. Paul tells us himself in 1 Corinthians 15:14: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” That is hard to argue with. After all, if Jesus was not miraculously resurrected by the power of God after his execution, then all Christian teachings must collapse. Practically speaking, if you believe Jesus was resurrected, you’re probably a Christian, and if you don’t, you’re probably not.
All Things Are Not Equal
The basic narrative presented by the gospels is as follows. Jesus was crucified by the Romans in Jerusalem on a Friday. After three hours on the cross, he expired. Then Jesus’ corpse was taken down from the cross and placed in a tomb. On the following Sunday, Jesus rose from the dead and left his tomb in a glorified body. Jesus proceeded to appear in this form to various disciples and then ascended to heaven.
So what actually happened? One possibility is that the gospels are essentially accurate in their portrayal of these events. Naturally, this is the view held by most Christians. Alternate possibilities include:
- Jesus actually survived his ordeal on the cross, was mistakenly buried in a comatose state, then regained consciousness and escaped his tomb.
- The apostles conspired to remove Jesus’ body from the tomb and fabricate the story of his resurrection.
- The gospel writers deceptively invented a miraculous narrative to bolster the nascent Christian Church.
- The gospels were exaggerated and embellished over time, and a kernel of truth was obscured by legendary trappings.
Of course, some combination of the above scenarios may have occurred. For the skeptic of the resurrection, it is not so important to establish exactly what happened but simply that there are possible explanations for the gospel accounts that do not involve a genuine resurrection. A cursory Google search will reveal dozens of articles dedicated to exploring the varying probabilities. But while it can be fascinating to discuss such minutiae as whether Jesus’ tomb was guarded or not, perhaps we are once again focusing on surface details when there is a deeper issue at the root of the disagreement.
Ultimately, the contention that Jesus was resurrected is a historical claim and must be evaluated as such. Skeptics will note that the evidence for the resurrection boils down to a handful of accounts written by members of the early Church decades after Jesus’ death that describe an empty tomb and a few post-resurrection appearances to Jesus’ followers. To counter this, Christian apologists will argue that the New Testament is on as strong (or stronger) historical grounds than other ancient writings, such as those of Julius Caesar or Tacitus. Whether this is true or not, there is no question that scholars consider the New Testament to be a valuable historical resource. Given this, should we not apply the principle of Occam’s razor and, all things being equal, accept the accuracy of the recorded resurrection accounts as a simpler explanation than any speculative alternatives?
Ah, but all things are not equal, and this is where I believe the root of the debate lies. The resurrection can’t be judged by ordinary historical standards because it belongs to a special class of events. Specifically, it is a supernatural event. By supernatural, I mean an event that contravenes the way in which nature (i.e., the universe) has been widely observed to operate. Note that I am not saying that supernatural events are impossible. But we need a method to determine whether or not to believe a particular supernatural event occurred.
At this juncture, Christian apologists may object that it is unfair to hold supernatural events to a different standard than ordinary events and that anyone who does so is simply exhibiting anti-supernatural bias. But this is not a tenable argument. Scientific observation of the past is based on the principle of uniformitarianism—the idea that the natural processes operating in the past are the same as those that can be observed operating in the present. For instance, the fact that people do not rise from their graves in the present day would indicate that they did not do so in the past either. But Christians want to circumvent this rule of observation by noting that Jesus’ resurrection was not a “natural process” and therefore we should not expect to see it repeated or reproduced. The problem is that by this logic, any claim from the past, no matter how wild or absurd, can be justified as a one-off supernatural event. Are Christians prepared to accept the legitimacy of any and all historical reports that allege supernatural happenings? It seems likely that they are not.
Once again, this does not mean the resurrection did not occur; it just means we must apply a different standard when trying to determine the accuracy of supernatural claims than we would for mundane matters. Of course, historical events can never be precisely replicated. But when we read that Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army, we can reflect on the fact that present day armies often cross rivers as well, and thus we have little trouble accepting the possibility in Caesar’s case. When it comes to Jesus’ resurrection, we have no such present day observations to inform us, and that is why we must establish a rubric to decide whether or not to accept supernatural claims of this kind.
Conditions for Credibility
So what level of evidence is necessary to establish a historical report of a supernatural occurrence as accurate? Let us first consider the possible types of evidence.
1) Reproducibility. If God were regularly resurrecting people for each generation to witness and investigate, Jesus’ resurrection would not appear far fetched. Undoubtedly, events such as earthquakes and solar eclipses were once viewed as supernatural by various cultures. The fact that the natural processes behind these phenomena are understood doesn’t alter the fact that they could have been reported as supernatural events in the past. And we can use the reproducibility of such events to decide that those reports have a reasonable chance of being true. Christ’s resurrection has no evidence of this kind in its favor.
2) Corroborating reports. Naturally, the more accounts we have recording a particular event, the stronger the case for that event. But quantity is hardly the only factor. Important considerations include:
a) Temporal proximity to the event. How soon after the event was it recorded?
b) Physical proximity to the event. Was the author an eyewitness? Was the author reporting the testimony of eyewitnesses? Is it only a third-hand account?
c) Disposition of the author. Was the author sympathetic to the cause and thus possibly motivated to prop up or embellish an account? Or was the author hostile (or at least neutral), thus lending further credence to the claim?
d) Eminence of the author. What kind of reputation did the author have? Was the author an established historian with a strong track record or an average guy off the street?
In the case of Jesus’ resurrection, the handful of reports we have (the gospels) were written several decades after the event. So far as we know, none of the authors were eyewitnesses, nor do we know how far down the chain of testimony they were. All the authors were Christians with strong reasons to support the cause. No hostile or neutral accounts of the resurrection exist. No major historian of any repute recorded the resurrection. So we can see that the resurrection reports are severely lacking in almost every quality that could bolster the case.
3) Physical evidence. Despite the lack of photographs or videotapes, there are still numerous kinds of physical evidence available to record events from antiquity. Coins, inscriptions, monuments, and papyri manuscripts that can be dated to within a few years of the event in question are powerful attestations of authenticity. With regards to the resurrection, we have no physical evidence of any kind.
A Failure on All Counts
With all of that in mind, I will now suggest what I consider to be the minimal criteria necessary to justify trusting a historical report alleging a supernatural event. The precise quality and type of evidence must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, but broadly speaking:
- At least two of the three types of evidence must exist in the event’s favor.
- If the event is reproducible, it must have reoccurred within the last century.
- If corroborating reports exist, they must have been originally written within a decade of the event, they must be at least second-hand accounts, and at least one of the authors must be neutral or hostile to the cause.
- If physical evidence exists, it must date to within a decade of the event.
At this point, it should come as no surprise that the resurrection fails to meet a single criterion listed above. I have tried to develop an unbiased standard by which any supernatural report can be judged; however, it may be suggested that I (consciously or not) tailored my criteria to take the resurrection out of the running. Thus, I invite Mr. Holding to put forth his own set of criteria by which we can evaluate supernatural claims. Yet, it is hard to imagine any criteria lenient enough to allow for acceptance of the resurrection reports without also allowing for just about any supernatural claim you care to mention.
I do not claim to know exactly what happened after Jesus’ died. For that matter, I don’t even argue it is impossible that he was resurrected. But I do know that the evidence available to us is far too weak to justify belief in a supernatural resurrection. So unless better evidence appears, I can only conclude that one of the alternate possibilities is correct. As for which one, well, I can live with uncertainty.
I’d like to begin with a few words of praise for my opponent, for this is not the first time we have met or even discussed this subject. Kyle Gerkin and I met online some years ago and enjoyed each others’ online company enough to pursue a debate on the resurrection of Jesus, the record of which I still host on tektonics.org. In a sense this debate itself has been “resurrected,” and so this is actually Round 3—but in a new venue. We’re both looking forward to this renewal and the opportunity to help viewers of this debate arrive at their own conclusions about the evidence.
I’m going to do things a little backwards here, though. I’d like to start with Gerkin’s criteria for deciding whether a reported “supernatural” event is historical and then look at the proposed alternatives for the resurrection as a historical event. I put “supernatural” in quotes because I believe the dichotomy between “natural” and “supernatural” is an artificial one: When we lift a box, it is not considered supernatural, so why would it be so when God lifts a box? I don’t view the supernatural as anything more than God (or some such being) acting the same way a human may perform some act. Thus for me, the resurrection is not, as most understand it, a “supernatural” event but rather a natural act of God in history.
Now let’s move to Gerkin’s criteria. The first, reproducibility, I find problematic for three reasons.
First, it returns to David Hume’s line of reasoning that inevitably devolved to the claim that only what is experienced by a specified circle of persons can be accepted as “ordinary” or “reproducible” and therefore historically probable. Even in Hume’s day, this principle was defeated by the simple analogy of a tropical prince who had never experienced ice, and therefore, by Hume’s reasoning, would be justified in doubting that it existed. Uniformitarianism is ultimately a subjective process or a “numbers game” in which the bar is set at a predetermined point based on the suppositions of the observer.
Second, the possibility of having to accept other alleged “supernatural” happenings I consider a non-problem. As a Christian, I am not at all adverse to the idea that other such reported events may have happened; I would simply not necessarily attribute them to the activity of the Christian God, while others (such as “supernatural” events reported by the Jewish historian Josephus around Jerusalem, c. a.d.70) I can readily accept from a philosophical perspective.
Third, where does one set the categories for what must be reproduced? I regard the resurrection as something accomplished though the application of energy to matter. We apply energy to matter on a daily basis; and while we can’t do it to bring a dead body back to life in a glorified body, that is theoretically a deficiency in technology as opposed to being actually impossible. Arguably, “reproducibility,” if insisted upon, could argue for any event as ahistorical simply by defining the event in terms that are as narrow as possible.
The second criterion is corroborating reports. Here I agree with Gerkin to an extent but substantially disagree with his assessment of how well the gospels fulfill the criteria. Dating the gospels “several decades” after the events they record is unwarranted, as is the claim that (in two cases, Matthew and John) they were not eyewitnesses, or that (in the other two cases, Mark and Luke) we do not know “how far down the chain of testimony they were.” Compared to the sort of evidence we have for the authorship of secular works such as Tacitus’s Annals, the amount of evidence we have for the authorship and authority of the gospels is significant. The gospels as eyewitness testimony is something for which substantial argument can be made as well.
Appeals to problems with authors with “reasons to support the cause,” on the other hand, I find completely ineffectual. It is just as arguable that the “reason” to support a claim of resurrection is that the cause has merit and importance. This should not even be a factor in considering truth claims; indeed, it leads to self-contradiction inevitably, since the doubter can be similarly accused of having reasons to debunk the cause.
Eminence, if defined in terms of ability to do a good job reporting information, is something I can agree is necessary, but I would insist that the eminent quality need not be narrowly defined. A person such as Matthew, a tax collector, is certainly able to transmit and report information accurately. So likewise would be an experienced eyewitness. To make this effectual, one would have to demonstrate that a given reporter suffers from flaws in his presentation and so is not a qualified witness or reporter; otherwise, “guys off the street” like Gerkin and myself will be of no account even in this debate.
The request for “hostile or neutral accounts” of the resurrection (or for any event) seems unrealistic if for no other reason than that any person who saw the resurrection would hardly have not become a Christian and thus would lose any required hostility/neutrality. At the same time, it is an unrealistic request because we simply do not have this kind of testimony for the vast majority of events. One may also argue that Paul and James qualify as formerly hostile eyewitnesses.
A request for something like coins or inscriptions is also unrealistic. These sorts of things require a significant amount of resources of the sort the vast majority of persons involved in historical events did not have. Come to that, the New Testament is an inscription of a sort, so this condition is arguably satisfied.
Questioning Gerkin’s Criteria
With that, we now move to Gerkin’s “minimal criteria necessary to justify trusting a historical report alleging a supernatural event.” My question will be whether these criteria have an objective basis or are arbitrarily setting the bar high. I do believe that Gerkin has earnestly tried to set an objective standard, so my questions will serve as points in addition to others I have made above:
- Why are at least two of the three types of evidence required as opposed to just one?
- Why have the time limits been set where they are (“It must have reoccurred within the last century,” “They must have been originally written within a decade of the event”)?
- Is there any recorded “supernatural” event that Gerkin would agree meets his criteria? If not, then on what objective basis can we say that these conditions “work” as a filter for such events?
- In terms of secular (non-“supernatural” history), how much of it meets these criteria?
Pagan Supernatural Claims
I also accept the invitation to put forth my own set of criteria for evaluating claims, though with the caveat that, since it does not bother me to “allow for” other supernatural claims, I will not be as stringent as some might expect.
Simply put, my criteria are the same as for any other historical event and the same sort that have been established by legal apologists such as Greenleaf who applied legal standard of evidence to the gospels: Are there reasons to trust the authors who report them? Do they get other things they report right? Were they in a position to know what they report (or have sources that did)? Does the occurrence of the event have the best explanatory power?
At this point, someone may throw at me some claimed miracle of a deity like Baal and ask whether I accept it as historical. To answer this, I would like to add certain points that would aid me in determining a given “supernatural” event as historical.
- Acts by beings such as Baal or Mesha (god of the Moabites) have an automatic negative attached to them for me because the people associated with these gods are themselves extinct. The nature of these gods was such that they were thought to be intimately tied in with their people. If the people no longer exist as a distinct group, then by their own criteria, that god is a failure. Any reported miracles by such gods indicate that the god did not exist and that “supernatural” events attributed to that god did not happen. (Or else, that that god was defeated by a higher power, which is another matter.)
- Acts by beings such as, e.g., Zeus, whose people are not extinct today, have a question mark simply because the nature of Zeus, as he is depicted, indicates that if he were still around, he’d still be defrocking virgins. So the lack of such activity today tells me that Zeus either did not exist (and so his miracles were never done) or that he was defeated. In contrast, the Judeo-Christian God is depicted as interfering with history on an exceptionally minimal scale. The actual number of miracles recorded in the Old and New Testaments combined are few and far between considering that the record is positioned to cover several thousand years of history.
- As a Christian, I hold to a theological position called preterism, which holds that Christ defeated the supernatural powers of evil on the cross. I therefore believe that after the middle of the first century, “supernatural” acts took a nosedive in frequency.
- Singular events (such as Suetonius reporting an omen of a tree falling supernaturally) I take with the same value of a report that, for example, some person performed some individual act like eating a piece of fruit. Such isolated events may not have sufficient context to make a judgment of historicity. Put another way, they don’t make “ripples” that allow us to judge their historicity, as the resurrection does.
A further point on that last. I do not regard the fact that we can eat a piece of fruit now as any sort of support for a report of, say, Nero eating a kumquat. In other words, I want to make clear my consistency in rejecting “reproducibility” as a criteria for determining historicity. At best, reproducibility removes a barrier for rejecting historicity; it does not work as a positive support for it.
Was It All a Hoax?
And what of the possibilities that have been expressed by Gerkin for what happened to Jesus? Let’s give each brief consideration.
1) Could Jesus have survived his ordeal on the cross and escaped the tomb? No, for he would have to pass three “gatekeepers”:
a) The scrutiny of persons handling the body (Roman soldiers, Joseph of Arimathea and his retainers). Ancient people were intimately familiar with death in this age before sanitary mortuary practices. Signs such as rigor mortis and desiccation (drying out of fluids) would not have been missed.
b) The stone blocking his tomb. Even if left alive in the tomb, a man just crucified (combine blood loss with dislocation of shoulders, to start), having had nothing to eat or drink for twenty to forty hours, is simply not moving a one-ton stone.
c) The guard at the tomb. This is sometimes doubted because it is reported only by Matthew’s record, but there is good reason to think that the report is historical. Jesus was buried shamefully. A shamed person would be denied rites of mourning. The purpose of the guard would be to prevent unauthorized mourning. Because the guard would only add to Jesus’ humiliation, Jesus’ followers would be less inclined to report it unless they had a reason—in this case, Matthew used it to counter claims of theft of the body.
2) Could the apostles have conspired to remove Jesus' body from the tomb? There are also impassable “gatekeepers” here:
a) The guard at the tomb, again.
b) The social pressures that compelled the uncovering of any such conspiracy. Public proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus amounted to a challenge of honor that would demand an answer. The claim of the empty tomb would be checked, and the claimants would be tested and socially ostracized.
c) Theologically, a Jewish disciple who engaged in such a theft would have in their own minds been risking eternal damnation, for they would be bearing false witness, and this concerning an act attributed to God.
3) Could the gospel records be either invented or have been embellished over time? If this is suggested, one must be prepared to offer details. What was the original “kernel” of truth? How, why, and when did it develop into what we now have? What evidence shows that this is what happened?
Of course, each of us could discuss these options in more detail, as we have in our prior debates. My own view is that only a genuine resurrection of Jesus sufficiently accounts for the historical “ripples” from the first century onward and that the social conditions of the first century were such that Christianity could not have succeeded without solid, reasonably indisputable evidence that the resurrection actually happened.
Allow me a moment to thank my opponent, J. P. Holding, for his participation in this debate. Given our fruitful history of discussion on this issue, I was thrilled to discover we would be facing off once again.
Holes in Holding’s Holdings
Holding begins by noting that he believes the distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” is an artificial one and that “the resurrection is not, as most understand it, a ‘supernatural’ event but rather a natural act of God in history.”
I don’t have a problem with this reasoning. It does not contradict my definition of a supernatural event, which is “an event that contravenes the way in which nature (i.e., the universe) has been widely observed to operate.” The resurrection may have been an act of God in history, but if so, it was a spectacular one that ran contrary to the way nature has been widely observed to operate. Such acts of God appear to be quite rare, so we need a special category for them. Supernatural seems like a good general term to describe these anomalous occurrences, but if paranormal or miraculous or something else is more to the reader’s liking, feel free to substitute.
Holding then turns to the types of evidence for determining the historicity of supernatural events, which is the centerpiece of my argument. He criticizes reproducibility on the grounds that “only what is experienced by a specified circle of persons can be accepted as ‘ordinary’ or ‘reproducible’ and therefore historically probable.” But this experience is no minor thing. Indeed, observation shared in common (or corroborated) by a wide range of individuals is the basis for scientific reasoning. If a scientist claimed to have achieved cold fusion, but neither he nor any of his peers were able to replicate the experiment, we would be rightly skeptical of the claim. We would have to consider it historically improbable.
Holding raises the analogy of a tropical prince who has never experienced ice and thus doubts its existence when it is reported to him. But just because the prince is in error doesn’t mean his skepticism is unjustified. He is basing it on the evidence at hand. Now, a properly curious prince would send out further expeditions to investigate this alleged “ice” and perhaps even go to see it for himself, but his doubts are reasonable for the moment.
Of course, this is why the “specified circle of persons” is important. The wider the circle, the more reliable our position will be. The tropical prince is basing his conclusions on the limited experience of a provincial kingdom. Had he taken into account the experience of the wider world, he would have seen things rather differently. In the case of the resurrection, our circle is quite wide. We essentially have the experience of almost all people, in all parts of the globe, in all times, that dead people simply do not rise from their graves. This does not mean the resurrection couldn’t have happened, but it does mean it is historically improbable.
Holding also suggests that that if we define “reproducibility” loosely enough, we could consider the resurrection a special instance of merely applying energy to matter, something we accomplish on a daily basis. After all, he points out, one could “argue for any event as ahistorical simply by defining the event in terms that are as narrow as possible.” I can only appeal to common sense here. It would be difficult to define in strict terms all the possible events that could constitute a reproducible resurrection. But there must be some middle ground between an event as absurdly broad as “applying energy to matter” and as ridiculously narrow as “a preacher named Jesus, living in the first century Roman empire, who was crucified and then resurrected three days later.” I would think something like “an eighteenth-century German physician, trampled to death by a horse and then resurrected after a fortnight” would fit the bill. Now, Christians will argue that the resurrection was a unique event, and we should not expect to see it reproduced in such a fashion. And that’s fine. But it doesn’t change the fact that resurrection is severely lacking in a key area of evidence that could bolster the case for its probability.
Next, Holding looks at corroborating reports. Firstly, he says “dating the gospels ‘several decades’ after the events they record is unwarranted,” but the general scholarly consensus puts the first gospel, Mark, at a.d. 68 at the earliest and the last gospel, John, at a.d. 90 at the earliest. This means the gospels were written between three to six decades after Jesus’ death. Even using very conservative estimates, we arrive “early” dates of a.d. 50 for Matthew and 85 for John. Perhaps Holding is arguing that the gospel accounts must have been circulating orally prior to being written down decades later. This may be true, but we simply have no evidence of the resurrection accounts prior to the gospels, nor do we have any way of knowing how the accounts may have evolved prior to being written down.
Holding also takes issue with my suggestion that we don’t know whether any of the authors were eyewitnesses or how far down the chain of testimony they were. This veers into issue of gospel authorship, which we do not have the space to discuss at length here, so I will have to be satisfied with noting that none of the gospel authors introduce themselves by name, and we have no evidence that the autographs were signed, so any claims of authorship are ultimately based on attribution by later Christian tradition.
Holding would like to completely discard my “disposition of the author” consideration, arguing that “this should not even be a factor in considering truth claims; indeed, it leads to self-contradiction inevitably, since the doubter can be similarly accused of having reasons to debunk the cause.” But this misses the point. It wouldn’t matter if a hostile source was reporting the resurrection but debunking it at the same time. The simple fact that the event was being reported at all by a hostile source would demonstrate that there was something that required explanation. For instance, Matthew says the Jewish authorities accused the apostles of stealing Jesus’ body from the tomb. If we had actual Jewish accounts of this accusation, the mere acknowledgment of the empty tomb would go a long way toward establishing it as historical fact. That only Christian evangelists report the resurrection in the first century does not strengthen the case.
Holding agrees that my “eminence of the author” consideration is necessary but wants to define eminence as the “ability to do a good job reporting information.” This is not exactly what I had in mind. As I said, no major historian of any repute recorded the resurrection. As usual, this doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but such attestation would certainly be a strong point in its favor. As far as “doing a good job reporting information” is concerned, we simply do not know if the gospel authors measured up to this criterion. Indeed, we cannot know because none of them (including “the historian” Luke) ever discuss their historical methods. That information is necessary at a minimum if we are to consider any level of eminence.
With regards to physical evidence, Holding thinks a request for coins or inscriptions is unrealistic because of the resources required to produce them. Perhaps, although if the evidence for the resurrection were really so overwhelming, one might suspect there would be enough wealthy converts to commission such things within a few years of the event. We could also have less resource-intensive physical evidence, like papyrus letters carbon-dated to the first century from an eyewitness like Peter detailing the resurrection. But in any case, regardless of how “realistic” it is to expect such things to appear in the historical record, the fact is that we could have physical evidence in favor of the resurrection, but we don’t.
Holding also wants to suggest that the New Testament might count as an “inscription of sorts,” but since we do not have the autographs of the New Testament documents, this cannot count as physical evidence.
Replies to Holding’s Questions
Holding asks, “Why are at least two of the three types of evidence required, as opposed to just one?” Allowing for only a single type of evidence would seem to open the floodgates for a huge number of supernatural claims, invalidating the concept of using my criteria as a filter. However, as I said in the opening statement, my set of standards was intended as a general guide and would have to be considered on a case-by-case basis. If one type of evidence is especially compelling, I can imagine settling for that single type instead of requiring two.
Holding asks, “Why have the time limits been set where they are?” The exact time limits are necessarily arbitrary, but the general idea is that reproducible events that have occurred in the last century are far more verifiable than events in the more remote past, and reports written within a decade of an event are more likely to reflect an accurate picture, before legendary trappings can accrue.
Holding asks, “Is there any recorded ‘supernatural’ event that Gerkin would agree meets his criteria? If not, then on what objective basis can we say that these criteria ‘work’ as a filter for such events?” One event that does meet my criteria is the total solar eclipse that took place during the Battle of Halys in 585 b.c. The Medes and Lydians were engaged in a fifteen-year war, and when a total solar eclipse took place during this battle, they interpreted it as an act of the gods intended to stop the fighting. Thus, they abruptly cut off the battle and arranged a truce. Naturally, solar eclipses are reproducible and have happened within the last 100 years. The account is reported by the eminent historian Herodotus, and he is a neutral source as he points out that Thales of Miletus predicted the eclipse. As a bonus, astronomical events like eclipses can be precisely calculated, so NASA informs us that a total solar eclipse visible from the Halys river did take place in 585 b.c. The fact that modern people don’t consider solar eclipses to be supernatural events is irrelevant—the salient point is that the Medes and Lydians did.
Holding asks, “In terms of secular (non-‘supernatural’ history), how much of it meets these criteria?” I’m sure a great deal of it does not, but that is really beside the point. I explicitly said that supernatural events fall into a different category and require unique criteria to judge their accuracy because they “contravene the way in which nature has been widely observed to operate.”
It Doesn’t Stack Up
I am pleased that Holding took up my invitation to develop his own set of criteria for evaluating supernatural claims, although I must say it appears far too lax to me. Even so, I don’t think the gospels stack up all that well. Can we really trust the authors when they are evangelizing Christians of uncertain identity several decades removed from the event? How much of what they report do we know they got right, especially when we don’t know their methods? If we can’t be sure of authorship, how can we know what kind of position they were in to know what they report? This is not the most solid of foundations, especially when one is basing a belief as extraordinary as the resurrection upon it.
A final point of Holding’s is that “only a genuine resurrection of Jesus sufficiently accounts for the historical ‘ripples’ from the first century onward, and that the social conditions of the first century were such that Christianity could not have succeeded without solid, reasonably indisputable evidence that the resurrection actually happened.” But it seems that the mere cultivation of the belief that Jesus was resurrected is sufficient to account for the history of Christianity, regardless of whether the actual event occurred. After all, large numbers of conversions in the first century took place decades after the event in far-flung places around the Mediterranean where the converts had no access to eyewitnesses or the empty tomb or any real way to verify the report. Holding has suggested in the past that the wealthier converts could have (and would have) used their resources to investigate the claims more thoroughly, although it is difficult to imagine how much such an investigation would turn up, especially after the Jewish-Roman War of a.d. 70 when much evidence would have been destroyed. Nevertheless, if such investigations occurred, why do we not have any letters and documents from wealthy, literate Jews and Greeks (besides Paul) describing their experiences? Even Paul never testified to seeing Jesus’ body or the empty tomb, and his discussion of eyewitnesses is brief and unclear.
Where’s the Evidence?
So when everything is said and done, what evidence are we left with? A handful of accounts of dubious authorship written by early Christian evangelists decades after the events they attest to. That’s it. I just don’t understand how someone can justify a belief in the resurrection on that basis.
There is a story told about famous twentieth-century philosopher and outspoken atheist Bertrand Russell that elegantly summarizes my position. Russell was asked what he would do if it turned out he was wrong and he were to come face to face with his Creator on Judgment Day. Russell replied, “I would say, ‘Lord, you should have given us more evidence.’”
I’m gratified to once again engage my opponent, Kyle Gerkin, on this very important issue. If I could hire him as my full-time debate opponent, I would!
I agree with Gerkin that “experience is no minor thing,” but I do not think his example of cold fusion is suitable. By analogy, what would have to happen is that the scientist achieved cold fusion, and his colleagues (as many as hundreds, if we are to keep the analogy close to what I argue for Christianity) saw that he did and testified to it. The analogy breaks down, because replication isn’t within our control when it comes to resurrecting people. But do we still have grounds to be skeptical of the original claim? Or would we rather ask whether something changed so that the experiment could no longer be replicated?
I appreciate the way Gerkin has treated the tropical prince issue, such that the prince would reserve judgment until he was satisfied. That I can agree is a proper course of action. However, I think Gerkin is wrong to expand the circle as wide as people all over the globe. This might be the case if we were discussing resurrections in general, but not one in particular—that of Jesus. Otherwise this is like expanding the tropical prince’s circle globally and then saying that lack of experience in desert and jungle climates suggests that people in polar climates are wrong about ice. One might even dismiss the testimony of such people as a mistaken or deluded minority.
This is why I cannot accept reproducibility as a factor in considering probability. Even if we have Gerkin’s resurrected eighteenth-century German physician, how many people will say that is enough if reproducibility is rated as a factor? “It’s just two cases now, Jesus and that German guy.” I find that it remains too subjective to be of any use as a criterion in a negative sense. Yes, it could bolster the case—but I’m arguing that it doesn’t need the boost.
One reason is that I find that the records we have in the New Testament are reliable as is. Gerkin acknowledges the possibility of earlier oral accounts than the written gospels but says, “We simply have no evidence of the resurrection accounts prior to the gospels, nor do we have any way of knowing how the accounts may have evolved prior to being written down.” Social science and biblical and textual scholars address these issues and find no reason to doubt the presence of earlier oral originals or to think there was evolution in the accounts. We cannot make a special plea apart from evidence that this or that may have happened in this particular case. In terms of the oral issue, the gospels as a whole show every sign of having originated in a community’s oral tradition, which—especially as practiced in the Greco-Roman and Jewish world—was sufficiently stable that we cannot claim that there was “evolution” unless we have some evidence for it.
For such an idea to be given credence, questions need to be answered. If the accounts “evolved,” what did they evolve from, and why did the evolution occur? What was originally believed about Jesus rather than that he was resurrected? Why was the change made, and when? Does such a change cohere with what we know of the social and historical conditions? Some have argued for such scenarios, for example, John Shelby Spong and Dominic Crossan. I have never found them able to do a complete job of it or get past the simple propositional stage.
The gospel authors do indeed introduce themselves by name and sign their work, the same way that other authors of the period like Tacitus did: in their titles, e.g., “The Gospel according to Matthew.” By the standards of other documents, there is no reason to doubt the attributions of the gospels.
Disposition, Eminence, and Use of Wealth
Regarding the “disposition of the author” consideration, while I agree that the event “being reported at all by a hostile source” would “demonstrate that there was something that required explanation,” I would add that a hostile report is far from the only thing that can make such a demonstration. Certainly the very fact of belief in the resurrection requires some explanation, and we don’t need a hostile source to help us determine it. While I would hardly say that a hostile Jewish report of the empty tomb would not be a plus, I cannot say that lack of one is an impediment to accepting the historicity of the empty tomb.
A similar point can be made regarding the “eminence of the author” issue. I do not agree that “we simply do not know if the gospel authors measured up to this criterion.” It is absolutely possible to measure the gospel authors by every standard—we do not need a discussion of their historical methods, for we seldom if ever get this from any historian, ancient or modern. What we can do is what is normally done: measure how accurately they report details that are reported elsewhere, such as whether they correctly name leaders and properly report the names of their offices. In this regard, while there have been instances of dispute of the gospels’ accuracy—as much as there has been for any ancient historical work—the overall effect has been to demonstrate the gospels’ trustworthiness. At any rate, I fail to find any justification for the argument that information on methods is “necessary at minimum if we are to consider any level of eminence.” Can we not find from the texts themselves that whatever methods were used were used competently?
Gerkin says that we “might suspect there would be enough wealthy converts to commission such things” as coins and inscriptions within a few years of the resurrection. I harbor no such suspicions at all and find no basis for them. Christianity had a missionary purpose; an inscription doesn’t go anywhere and serves little purpose for such a movement. (I am not even certain—I may be wrong—that a private citizen could mint coins.) A wealthy convert would find a better investment in giving those funds to someone like Paul for travel or in helping produce what we do find: gospels, letters, and other documents that can be easily distributed. Inscriptions may seem useful, but they mostly brought honor to the person who paid for them.
Are the Floodgates Open?
I am not sure why Gerkin makes a point that the papyrus itself ought to be “dated to the first century” or why he dismisses the New Testament because we “do not have the autographs.” Certainly this isn’t a requirement for any other historical work like the Annals of Tacitus, whose earliest copies come from a thousand years after Tacitus wrote! I detect a pattern, however, in Gerkin’s criteria: It seems that what is normally considered sufficient evidence for other historical records isn’t sufficient in this case. My impression of Gerkin’s criteria is as if they say, “We need 150 percent of the evidence that would normally be needed; 100 percent will not do.” My concern is that while not impossible to live up to, the bar has been raised for what has been said to be subjective reasons rather than objective ones and that these reasons are not sufficient to bear the weight of scrutiny.
I am sympathetic to the concern that we might “open the floodgates for a huge number of supernatural claims,” but we have sufficient controls to take care of such potential problems. Let’s consider the claim of Joseph Smith that he received a visitation from God as a young man. Gerkin’s criteria would make hash of Smith’s report, certainly. But I would not apply them here more than anywhere else. Yet obviously I still do not accept Smith’s report as historical. Why? Because there are other controls that render it ahistorical: Smith clearly bungled on matters of biblical exegesis and failed prophecy—not the sort of thing we’d expect from someone who got a personal visit from God! It is this sort of evidence that leads me to the conclusion that Smith’s vision either never happened or happened only in his own mind.
I would also make the point that this is a human problem as opposed to something specifically about supernaturalism. I know of irrational skeptics with such wild ideas as that Jesus did not exist at all or that he had an evil twin who stole his body and faked his resurrection appearances. Gerkin would never endorse such foolishness, but it is clear that opening “floodgates” won’t be prevented by any criteria from either of us. This does not mean that we should not have criteria; I simply wish to stress that this is not a problem related to miracle claims alone.
In terms of time limits, Gerkin raised the matter of “legendary trappings.” This would lead us into another arena of debate concerning how quickly legends not only accrue but how quickly they become “canon” history. My own finding is that legends do not “stick” easily—especially when the matter involves a controversial claim like the resurrection. In such cases, we always have a core of devoted followers but little or no growth or conversion of outsiders at any time when claims are open to scrutiny.
I may not have been clear when I asked for a supernatural event that would meet Gerkin’s criteria. Gerkin pointed to an eclipse that was regarded as supernatural by those who saw it; I was asking for something that Gerkin himself would regard as supernatural. Perhaps I am barking up the wrong tree, since he may say, “None!” But if that is the case then I am wary of criteria for which we cannot find any positive test.
In an earlier debate I had noted that Christianity had an unusual number of converts (for the size of the movement) from the literate and somewhat well-to-do classes of Rome who would have had the ability to investigate Christian claims. Gerkin has put forth two objections to this: First, “it is difficult to imagine how much such an investigation would turn up, especially after the Jewish-Roman War of a.d. 70, when much evidence would have been destroyed.” Little or none of what I have in mind as evidence would be affected by the Jewish War. I expect that most of the investigation would have been done prior to the war so that by as early as a.d. 50 there was nothing more to investigate. Second, “why do we not have any letters and documents from wealthy, literate Jews and Greeks (besides Paul) describing their experiences?” Given the paucity of material left from the first century to begin with, I am not sure this is a valid objection. Such letters would have to be copied numerous times to survive (as the letters of Paul were), and unless we know what their content would be, we can hardly argue that they would be of any more value than what we now have. In addition, this was a predominantly oral society, such that even the literate would not be inclined to produce letters and documents unless there was good reason.
I naturally disagree that “Paul never testified to seeing Jesus’ body or the empty tomb, and his discussion of eyewitnesses is brief and unclear.” Rather, 1 Corinthians 15 is all about Paul seeing Jesus physically and testifying to the existence of an empty tomb.
How would I answer Bertrand Russell about evidence? Given that Russell expressed doubts that Jesus even existed in the first place, I don’t think he was one to talk about “not enough evidence”! If Gerkin asked the same question, though, I’d give it far more credit, and my answer to God is as I have summed up: “The evidence you had was sufficient.” And of course, deciding whether it is sufficient is why we’re both here.