The main question that is central to truth or falsity of Christianity is: did Jesus rise from the dead? The truth of Christianity literally stands or falls on this, as the apostle Paul so eloquently put it:
“If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
Thus, if Jesus rose from the dead, then Christian theism is true, but if He did not, then Christianity is false, and we have been following it in vain. Now, some might say, but belief in Jesus’ resurrection isn’t based on evidence, we just take it on faith! This is simply based on a false definition of faith. There most certainly IS evidence that we can survey to determine whether or not Jesus really rose from the dead or not.
Before continuing on to the defence of the resurrection hypothesis, we must first deal with two philosophical issues related to the methodology and practice of history: the problem of historical knowledge and the problem of miracles. Is historical knowledge possible, and what counts as historical knowledge? Can the historian identify miracles as historical events, or rather; can miracle events ever be considered historical? This is the first phase of defending the resurrection, philosophical arguments. Now I have no idea what the average person’s understanding of the theory, methodology and practice is. Their knowledge of History itself may be exceptionally bad, but their knowledge of the philosophy of History is something I will not even pretend to know. If public knowledge of History is anything to go by, then I expect the answer to be: close to nil. This may seem like an abstract subject, yet it is not just important to the question of Jesus’ resurrection, but the subject of History as a whole. What actually counts as historical knowledge has been hotly contested.
This is what philosopher William Lane Craig refers to as the problem of historical knowledge:
“This, however, brings us face-to-face with the problem of historical knowledge; that is to say, how is it possible to learn anything about the human past with any degree of assurance? On the popular level, this expresses itself in the attitude that history is uncertain and irrelevant. It has been said that history is a series of lies that everyone has decided to agree on. On the scholarly level, the problem finds expression in the outlook of historical relativism, which denies the objectivity of historical facts.”
New Testament scholar, Michael R. Licona provides the following description:
“To various degrees, postmodern historians question whether it is even possible to know and describe the past. This is in contrast to realist historians, who maintain that reality exists independently of our knowledge of it and our scientific statements and theories refer to this independent reality.”
There are two main post-modernist views, what I will call the narrative view and what I will call the radical view. The narrative view is held by those like Hayden White, who maintains that historians write narratives that are to be assessed purely on literary and aesthetic ground. The radical view is held by those like Keith Jenkins, who deny that there is actually any narrative-dependent reality, and that facts do not exist independently of the historian. Thus, we are presented with historical relativism, claiming that all we can know are historical reconstructions and that no historical reconstructions can be said to be superior to others.
Whether consciously or not, this is a view that largely pervades the new atheists. For example, when somebody claims that Christianity was plagiarised from pagan religions, or that the doctrine of the Incarnation was invented in the 4th century by a group of Bishops at the behest of a Roman Emperor, they are telling patent falsehoods that stand in contrast to known facts about the past. This historic revisionism is only permissible if historical relativism is true, and is one reason why historic relativism is an invalid approach to history. To illustrate this point further, imagine if the Nazis had won World War II. The belief that Jews were responsible for the downfall of Germany at the end of World War I would no doubt have been written into the history books as if it were actually true, and undoubtedly anybody who said otherwise would have been executed and their work destroyed. If this had been so, would this have made their version of history correct? The answer is, of course, a resounding no.
Furthermore, there is no version of history that could ever be produced where World War II never happened. Thus, the notion that, somehow, we are incapable of knowing anything about the past is completely and absolutely false. This completely destroys hardcore anti-realist models of historiography, but what about less extreme views? For example, it could be argued that whilst certain things can be known about the past, a great deal is not known, and whilst historians cannot produce whatever historical narratives they like, there is still a great variety of possible narratives that are all on equal footing. Following in this line of argumentation is that quaint though ludicrous notion that history is an art, and not a science. Whereas the scientist analyses lab data obtained by observing experiments, the historian does not have the past events on hand to directly witness, and so is forced to produce a literary narrative, rather than say a historical hypothesis. Furthermore, it is argued that a historian, no matter how objective they aim to be, is always being affected by their unconscious cultural biases, and so whatever narratives they produce will be affected by these hidden biases.
This view is, I think, more valid, in the sense it is a position that actually merits a response, however is also incorrect. As the historian, like the scientist, still has data to analyse. The fields of archaeology and textual criticism are equally concerned with evidence as are the fields of geology and evolutionary biology, and all fields are as equally removed from the events they seek to explain. The scientists has rocks and fossils, the historian has ruins and manuscripts. Obviously, interpretation of the evidence is involved, but we are not permitted to run with it in whatever direction we like. Furthermore, whilst a historian is affected by their personal biases, it for this very reason that there exists peer review. In history, evidence is collected and analysed, and a hypothesis to explain these facts is then offered. The question then is then, how do we determine if a historical hypothesis is true? Obviously, we have no means of directly accessing the past, so what methods do we use in lieu of time travel?
Perhaps the most satisfactory criteria I have read comes from historian C. Behan McCullagh:
1) The statement, together with other statements already held to be true, must imply yet other statements describing present, observable data.
2) The hypothesis must have greater explanatory scope than its rivals. That is, it implies a greater variety of observational statements.
3) The hypothesis must have greater explanatory power than its rivals. That is, it must make the observational statements it implies more probable.
4) The hypothesis must be more plausible than its rivals. That is, it must be implied by a greater number of accepted truths than any other, and more strongly than any other whereas its negation must be implied by fewer beliefs than any other, and less strongly than any other.
5) The hypothesis must be less ad hoc than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject; that is, it must include fewer new suppositions about the past that are not already implied to some extent by existing beliefs.
6) It must be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs than its rivals. That is, when conjoined with accepted truths it must imply fewer observation statements and other statements that are believed to be false.
7) It must exceed its rivals in characteristics 2 to 6 to the degree that there is little chance of a rival hypothesis, after further investigation, soon exceeding it in these respects.
Using these principles, we can than assess which hypothesis is the best explanation of the facts we are trying to explain. The hypothesis that meets all criteria can be said to be the most probably true. What then of miracle claims? How do they fit into the evidentiary scheme of things in the field of History? I would think that miracles claims, like any other claims, would need to be analysed, and evidence for or against the claim would need to be accumulated and scrutinised before any sort of judgement could be made. Yet, there are those who assert otherwise.
There are a variety of arguments against identifying events as miracles, each of them so incredibly poor that it strains credulity to imagine that someone actually think them to be valid arguments. Perhaps the most common objection is the claim that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This statement is as useless as it is banal, incoherent and self-refuting. For what is meant by “extraordinary claims” and “extraordinary evidence?” If an extraordinary claim is any claim that we do not yet have evidence for, then this applies to every unproven hypothesis. If it instead refers to claims that we personally find extraordinary and improbable, then it is simply nothing more than personal incredulity, and so has no place in conducting historical reasoning. What then of “extraordinary evidence?” In what sense can evidence be said to be “extraordinary?” If it refers to absolute proof, then this singlehandedly destroys every human enterprise from history to science, as it then becomes impossible to know pretty much anything at all. If it simply refers to evidence necessary to establish a hypothesis as the best explanation, then it simply becomes “claims requires evidence,” which nobody would dispute.
In reality, this is nothing more than a slogan proffered in lieu of a good rival hypothesis. Indeed, no matter how much evidence is presented, critics and sceptics can simply complain that, somehow, it just isn’t “extraordinary” enough. ECREE is not a logical principal at all but a subjective shibboleth that Carl Sagan pulled out of his backside. ECREE compels one to make a snap-judgment about the veracity of a claim before looking at the evidence and introduces bias such that an objective analysis of the data becomes difficult if not impossible. In essence, it is therefore nothing more than an argument from personal incredulity. All ECREE does is create a framework to hide the moving of the goalposts - ECREE is not a means of evaluating evidence; it is a means of avoiding evidence that one does not like. Ironically enough, proponents of ECREE are often forced to rely on extraordinary claims themselves. For example, there are those who assert that Jesus could have been a space alien, or that 500+ people all suffered from identical audio-visual and sensory hallucinations at the same time, rather than seriously entertain the resurrection hypothesis.
Fortunately, not all critics and sceptic are this monumentally stupid. There exist other complaints against identifying miracles as historic events. Perhaps the prime example, offered by thinkers such as David Hume and Benedict de Spinoza, is that miracles are “violations of nature” and as such are impossible. Furthermore, even if absolute proof could be given of a particular miracle claim, then it could still not be identified as a miracle, due to the proof of the regularity of nature. This is certainly a more plausible objection, but one that has, unfortunately for sceptics, been long since refuted. The most obvious point of contention being, the laws of nature are descriptive, not proscriptive. The law of gravity does not cause objects to be attracted to one other proportionally to their mass. The real reason why the universe behaves in the way it does is still entirely a mystery, and is taken by many as evidence of the divine. Furthermore, if we assume the existence of God, as Spinoza and Hume did, then what reason do we have to suppose that God is incapable of interfering in the universe that He Himself made? The answer, it seems, is: none. As contemporaries of Hume and Spinoza argued, the laws of nature merely describe how the universe behaves in the absence of divine interference, in the same way the law of motion describes the movement of a bouncing ball if it were not interrupted by, say, a human being catching it before it stopped bouncing.
Hume also offered four more arguments against miracles. Hume argued that no miracle claim has ever been attested to by a sufficient number of educated, honest men of such social standing that they would stand a great deal to lose by lying, that people crave miraculous stories and are gullible enough to believe any absurd story, that miracles have only been reported to occur amongst “barbarous” peoples, and that miracles are said to occur in all religions, thus effectively cancelling each other out. It does not take a genius to realise that such arguments are not arguments at all. For starters, his first claim is simply a bare assertion coupled with circular reasoning, in that he assumes that which he seeks to prove. His second claim is simply a red herring coupled with the genetic fallacy. His third argument is an ad hominem coupled with the genetic fallacy and his last argument is simply a non sequitur, as it does not matter that all religions claim miracles. The fact that all religions claim miracles has no impact whatsoever on the claims of a particular religion. In principle then, there is just no good a priori reason to reject miracle claims out of hand. Only after a careful analysis of the facts can such judgement as to the truth or falsehood of a miracle claim can be made. Assuming miracles are impossible prior to this is simply circular reasoning.
This leads us to the second phase of defending the resurrection, the historical evidence. What are the facts that we need to explain?
1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
2. Jesus was buried, and His tomb was discovered empty by a group of His followers.
3. The disciples had experiences that they believed were literal appearances of the risen Christ, and went from doubters to bold proclaimers.
4. Sceptics, such as Paul and James became believers.
We have already seen the evidence for Jesus’ crucifixion from the reports of historians such as Tacitus, but what evidence have we got for the other facts? Jesus’ burial, the empty tomb and the disciples’ belief are widely supported by a number of facts. The first factor is that these facts are multiply attested by early, independent sources. 1 Corinthians 15 contains perhaps the earliest Christian material. As New Testament scholar Gary Habermas writes:
“In the case of 1 Cor 15:3ff., critical scholars agree that Paul’s reception of at least the core of this proclamation, and probably the creed itself, go back to the mid-AD 30s, when he spent two weeks with Peter and James, the brother of Jesus. But these two apostles had the material before Paul did, and the events behind the reports are earlier still. This is probably the chief argument that persuades the majority of scholars today that the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection originated in the earliest church. Virtually all critical scholars think this message began with the real experiences of Jesus’ earliest disciples, who thought they had seen appearances of their risen Lord. It did not arise at some later date. Nor was it borrowed or invented.”
The section in question, reads as follows:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.”
This is paralleled in the book of Acts, and the Fours Gospels. We can reasonably assume, that belief in the risen Christ was part of the Church since its very beginning. When we come to these other facts, they are considered historical for a number reasons. Regarding Jesus’ burial, as well as the conversion of Paul and James in that they are actually rather embarrassing. In Paul’s letters, he frequently mentions that he used to persecute the Church, and constantly berates himself for it. The admission in the Gospel narratives that James, Jesus’ own brother, did not believe in Him whilst He was alive is extremely embarrassing. The Gospels explicitly mention that the disciples did not believe Jesus really had risen from the dead when the women followers first told them, with Thomas being the last holdout, and that they fled Jesus when He was captured. These are not things that someone would be apt to admit about themselves if they were true. No sane person would INVENT these things about themselves. It may not be obvious, however, how the burial of Jesus conforms to this principle.
Whilst this is a point I will discuss in detail later, it is a fact of extreme relevance to us here. Jesus’ death by crucifixion was the most shameful death the Roman Empire had to offer. Likewise, not only were crucifixion victims humiliated in their method of execution, they were humiliated in their method of burial too. This is the central premise of an article by Byron McCane:
• The processes of burial and mourning were meant to honour the dead and the denial of these honours was a further dishonour.
• Based on Jewish custom, the Jewish leadership in Jesus’ day would have wanted Jesus buried, not left on the cross.
As McCane notes:
“Ordinarily, death is an event which disrupts the functioning social order, for the death of any particular individual tears away a member of a social network and forces the network to reconstitute itself. Death rituals – i.e., burial customs and rites of mourning – are social processes which the wounds which death inflicts on the social group. By burying the dead and mourning their absence, members of a society affirm that someone significant had been lost. When the Romans did not permit the burial of crucifixion victims, then, they were doing more than merely showing off the power of Rome: they were also declaring that the deaths of these victims were not a loss to Roman society. Far from it, the deaths of condemned criminals actually served to strengthen and preserve Rome, protecting and defending the social order of the Empire.”
“For Jews, one of those values was the importance of belonging to an extended family group. The foundational narrative for Jewish culture was a story about a man whose descendents were to be more numerous than the starts in the sky, and respect for the family was enshrined in the moral charter of Judaism: “honor your father and mother.” Jews in Jesus’ day typically lived in extended family groups, and routinely identified themselves in legal documents, inscriptions, and literature as “X, son (or daughter) of Y.” At life’s end, they thought it best to be buried with their nearest kin. To be buried away from the family tomb – by design, not by fate – was to be cast adrift from these cultural patterns, and dislodged from a place in the family. To be unmourned by one’s nearest relatives was to be effaced from the cultural landscape. It was worse than unfortunate, it was a shame.”
Whilst it was customary to leave crucifixion victims on their crosses to be eaten birds, sometimes the Romans did allow them to be buried, and since it was prohibited in Judaism to leave a man hanging on a tree, then it makes sense that the Jewish authorities would have petitioned to bury Jesus. Burying Jesus away from the family tomb was their way of dishonouring Jesus themselves, and was not against the precepts of Judaism. Furthermore, the admission in the Gospels narratives that Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, buried Jesus rather than His family or disciples, is again another extremely embarrassing feature of the Gospel story. The accuracy of the burial tradition logically implies the accuracy of the empty tomb tradition. For if it was well known that Jesus was buried, then it would have been a simple matter of checking Jesus’ tomb and exhuming the body of Jesus when the disciples began proclaiming His resurrection. Yet, the earliest Jewish polemic was that they had simply stolen the body. Quite simply, if the body were still in the tomb, then Christianity would have been crushed like a bug.
We now come to the impossible faith defence, some of which has already been briefly alluded to in defence of the minimal facts above. Some claim, rather oddly, that Christianity fitted Roman, and thus classical values, like a glove. The reason Christianity took off, they claim, is that it appealed to the average Roman citizen’s values. It does not take an expert to realise how completely absurd this claim is:
“That there was an intrinsic incompatibility between Christianity and classical values was apparent from the time Romans became aware of the presence of the new religion. Christians were criticized on a variety of grounds, but principally because they had rejected the gods of their ancestors and the civic values of Greco-Roman world. Their religion was new; they had turned away from the traditions of their immediate ancestors, the Jews. Because of their refusal to attend the festivals, they were seen as atheists and misanthropists. In popular belief they even practiced incest and cannibalism. In short, they did not fit into the system that had been sanctioned by centuries of classical use.”
“Logically enough, the official response to Christianity was often repression. The new religion had none of the characteristics that would have given it an approved status.”
We can get much more specific than this. As noted, Jesus crucifixion and burial were meant to shame Him. This is an important aspect of ancient life that often gets overlooked. Jesus lived in what anthropologists refer to as an ‘agonistic society.’ That is to say, the culture of Jesus’ day revolved around honour and shame. Honour was your reputation, and your right to be treated as having certain worth, whereas shame was the opposite, an emotion associated with loss or lack of honour. Both were dependent on other people making assessments of you. In the ancient world, things that we today would personally consider insignificant could be of tremendous value to one’s honour. The accrual of honour was good, whereas the accrual of shame was bad. An example of this can be taken from Japanese culture, where soldiers would kill themselves for failing in battle out of shame.
When we come to the crucifixion, as noted, it was the most shameful method of death available at the time. It was an “utterly offensive affair, ‘obscene’ on the original sense of the word” and a “status degradation ritual” designed to humiliate the victim in every way. Not only did it signify a loss of power and having someone assert their authority over you, but crucifixion also led to other humiliating things, such as self-defecation. Crucifixion was so offensive that pagan writers were simply too revolted to write about it. The Gospel accounts therefore are among the most detailed written depiction of crucifixion from written times. The shamefulness of crucifixion also took on a new dimension in Judaism:
“But don't leave his body hanging on the tree overnight; be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone whose body is displayed on a tree is cursed by God. You must not ruin the land the LORD your God is giving you as your own.”
This was recognised by Christians and non-Christians alike:
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
“For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
“For they proclaim our madness to consist in this, that we give to a crucified man a place second to the unchangeable and eternal God…”
As noted by DeSilva:
“No member of the Jewish community or the Greco-roman society would have com o faith or joined the Christian movement without first accepting that God’s perspective on what kind of behaviour merits honor differs exceedingly from the perspective of human beings, since the message about Jesus is that both the Jewish and Gentile leaders of Jerusalem evaluated Jesus, his convictions and his deeds as meriting a shameful death, but God overturned their evaluation of Jesus by raising him from the dead and seating him at God’s own right hand as Lord.”
Talking about crucifixion in ancient society would be like someone today walking into an expensive restaurant, pulling down their trousers and defecating on somebody’s food. Critics from Celsus to Lucian of Samosata noted with great malicious pleasure to the disgracefulness of Jesus’ death. Even the lower classes expressed similar sentiments, as evidence by a piece of graffiti depicting a man supplicating before a crucified figure with an asses head, and the caption “Alexamenos worships god.”
The second to factor to consider is that Christianity began as a Jewish sect, in the region of Judea known as Galilee. The reason why this is important is because, in the ancient world, there were stereotypes associated with certain geographic regions. Whilst today, such as sentiments are noted as racist, xenophobic and bigoted, the ancients had no such noble sentiments, and such derogatory stereotypes were assumed to be Gospel truth. The Jews were regarded as a superstitious, spiteful and hateful race by the Greeks and Romans, and so knocking on their door and asking them to worship a crucified Jew would have caused them to have laughed in your face. Romans naturally considered their belief system superior to all others, and beliefs regarded as superstition were seen as undermining the social order. Christianity therefore should not have spread beyond the Jews and the small handful of Gentile converts to Judaism. However, it gets worse for Christianity.
Even in Judea, there were prejudices, and the geographic region of Galilee, which was generally considered a land of yokels and farmers largely ignorant of the Torah. Furthermore, Galilee was also well-known for producing fighters, many of whom were notorious leaders of Jewish rebellions against Rome. Thus, this would have given the Romans reasons to be very suspicious of Jesus and would have led to the educated Jews dismissing Jesus as a country bumpkin. Furthermore, Jesus hailed from Nazareth, a town of absolutely no significance and despite being born in Bethlehem, this would have placed yet further stigma on Jesus. Lastly of all, Carpentry, which was Joseph and Jesus’ profession, and Jesus’ virgin birth would have also caused problems. Carpentry was regarded as a dishonourable and proscribed occupation, whereas tales of His virgin birth led to rumours about Him being an illegitimate bastard child, which critics such as Celsus were keen to exploit.
In addition to Jesus’ death, His resurrection would have been a tremendous stumbling block too. Whilst this might not seem apparent and even bizarre to modern readers, resurrection was NOT something people back then would have looked forward too. The reason for this was because pagan gentiles believed that the ultimate hope of life after death lay in the immortal soul escaping the physical body after death. Matter, and thus the physical world was seen as evil, and that “man’s highest good consisted of emancipation from corporeal defilement.” Resurrection on the other hand was the return to life of your physical body, and subsequent transformation into a more advanced, ‘glorified’ body. Jews, however, did expect a resurrection, however, they expected it and the end of time:
“Within the context of late Jewish apocalyptic thought, to claim the resurrection of a single individual before the end of the world was to introduce quite a new element… Neither the disciples nor anyone else expected the resurrection of one person alone. Without a new, compelling reason they would not have asserted the individual resurrection of Jesus alone.”
Thus a resurrection occurring prior to the end of time would have been as absurd to a Jew as the notion of resurrection was to a gentile. Of course, this is assuming all Jews accepted belief in resurrection. There is some indication that this belief was not as widespread as previously assumed, which would have made the notion of resurrection even harder to accept amongst Jews.
There were further problems with Christianity than this. When it came to religious traditions, the Romans valued antiquity. Traditions handed down from past generations were regarded as the ideal standards to follow in order to live up to the standards of great personages of the past. Whilst the Romans recognised the antiquity of Judaism, Christianity was new and Christians were regarded as “arrogant innovators.” Despite being a Jewish sect, and Christian writers claiming to that Christianity emerged from the traditions of Judaism, critics of Christianity were quick to point out that Christians observed none of Judaism’s practices. Another factor that is still a significant factor today is that the ethical demands of Christianity were considerable. Ancient pagan religions typically appealed to human being’s base instincts by offering temple prostitutes, drunken parties and the like. Christianity, like Judaism, placed heavy ethical demands on the individual that most would have simply found unattractive. In addition to these two factors, a related factor was how Christianity claimed that it was exclusively the one true religion and that all others were wrong. Christ was not simply a deity that could be absorbed into the Roman or Greek pantheon, but the one true God that required you to reject all others:
“The message about this Christ was incompatible with the most deeply rooted religious ideology of the Gentile world, as well as the more recent message propagated in Roman imperial ideology.”
There was also a price to following Christianity. Given that Christianity was seen as not only subversive and socially deviant, but offensive, early Christians would have been universally shunned by their families and neighbours. Whilst Christians were eventually being martyred for their faith in Christ, they would have initially faced extreme social ostracisation that was geared towards getting social deviants back into the fold. This would have started with insults, reproach, possibly even physical abuse and would have progressed towards confiscation of property, etc.:
“The group would exercise measures designed to shame the transgressor (whether through insult, reproach, physical abuse, confiscation of property – at worst, execution) so that the transgressor would be pressured into returning to the conduct the group approved (if correction were possible) and so that group members would have their aversion to committing such transgressions themselves strongly reinforced.”
One interesting point is how Christianity is based on claims made about History. As noted, the truth of Christianity is predicated upon an alleged historical event, the falsification of which would render the entire religion bunk. Furthermore, the New Testament is littered with numerous claims that were as equally easily disprovable had they been false. The apostles made a big deal about the witnesses to the risen Christ, claiming that many of the 500+ witnesses were alive and so could have been interviewed. Furthermore, the Gospels claim events, such as an earthquake and darkness at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion that would have been witnessed by many thousands of people. Obviously, not every convert would have checked all of the facts in detail, but people would have critically investigated Christianity, and these things would have been easily exposed had they been false.
Two further problems arise from the fact that the first witnesses to the risen Christ were women, and the disciples themselves were ‘country bumpkins’ so to speak. Women in the ancient world were second-rate citizens, whose testimonies were considered worthless and inadmissible in court. Whereas, the disciples hailing from Galilee, and many of them having simple professions like fishing would have served to cause others to view them as disreputable characters. One’s social status was of great importance to ancient people, and affected your credibility in court amongst other things. Furthermore, as a religion that sought to erase class distinctions, Christianity would not just have been unpopular with the elite, but the lower classes too:
“When ancient Mediterraneans speak of ‘freedom,’ they generally understand the term as both freedom from slavery to one lord or master, and freedom to enter the service of another lord or benefactor.”
Everything that happened was put down to fate and providence and so your situation in life was something that you endured, not fought.
Another problem with Christianity from both a Jewish and Gentile perspective was the fact that Jesus was a man. In Judaism, YHWH was unique and transcendent, whereas in pagan religion, matter was considered evil. Thus, the idea that God became incarnate as a man would have been unthinkable for Jews and Gentiles alike. This was such a powerful issue that some Christians sought to deny that Jesus was really human at all, such as Docetism. Furthermore, certain statements of Jesus would have been unthinkable of a true deity to say in the eyes of Jews and Gentiles alike, such as Jesus’ ignorance of the date of His second coming. Other stumbling blocks included being required to leave your family and social group if needed, which, in a society that revolved around the social group rather than the individual, would have been a massive deal. Far more so than today. There are some things I have left out for sake of brevity, but the picture painted here shows Christianity to be fully and completely incompatible with Jewish and pagan beliefs. This raises the pertinent question: why then, did anybody believe in it all? Mithraism made no hard demands on people, and Islam spread through a successful series of military campaigns. No other religion faced as many disadvantaged, and Christianity certainly had none of the benefits that other religions had.
Before we get around to considering historical hypotheses to explain these facts, there are three last things to get out of the way, and they are: Jesus’ self-understanding, the mode of Jesus’ vindication and the nature of the disciples visions of the risen Christ. It has been assumed by some that Jesus never claimed He was divine, and that Jesus’ ministry and miracles were inventions of the disciples. This is a view primarily championed by the Jesus Seminar. It should be noted, however, that the Jesus Seminar is NOT scholarly, and their work The Five Gospels is NOT scholarship. The Jesus Seminar operates from the assumption that miracles are impossible, and that Jesus was nothing more than a sage who went around telling parables. Not only do they regard the Gospel of Thomas as a reliable source of information, when it is in fact a second century forgery, they also apply criteria of authenticity to sayings of Jesus inconsistently. For example, Jesus’ use of the title ‘Son of Man’ meets the criteria of dissimilarity and the criteria of multiple attestation, yet is rejected as out of hand because it presents a high Christological view of Jesus that the Seminar seeks to deny.
When assessing sayings as authentic, we generally use the following criteria:
• The criterion of dissimilarity. The saying is dissimilar from the teachings of Judaism, and/or later Christianity.
• The criterion of multiple attestation. The saying appears in multiple sources.
• The criterion of embarrassment. The saying was embarrassing for some early Christians.
• The criterion of coherence. The saying coheres with everything else scholars have discovered about Jesus.
In actual fact, there are many sayings of Jesus that meet these criteria that the Jesus seminar simply dismisses out of hand for no reason other than it paints a picture of a Jesus who thought Himself divine. It should be noted, that these criteria should not be taken in isolation, but as a group, and these criteria can only be used to make positive assessments, not negative assessments. In other words, they cannot be used to deny that Jesus said something, only confirm it.
It should also be noted that these are the same criteria that the Jesus Seminar uses, and are in fact also used by a wide number of critical scholars:
“When countering the claims of modern critics, it is often helpful to use common methodologies to provide a level playing field from which we can dismantle their conclusions with their own tools. One such strategy is to employ “criteria of authenticity” that modern critics themselves use to deny the authenticity of events in Jesus’ life.”
Yet, the Jesus Seminar consistently come to conclusions at odds with the results of the application of these criteria. No it seems as if the Jesus Seminar is nothing more than a biased ultra-liberal think-tank who. Not that they are not allowed to take liberal positions, but it is obvious they have less than honourable intentions and instead seek to impose their own views as fact rather than argue from them rationally based on evidence. Here is what actual scholars have to say about the Jesus Seminar:
“Not only is the Jesus Seminar inconsistent in applying its own principles due to a strong bias against seeing Jesus as more than a man, but such bias also leaves them with a Jesus whose death as a criminal is a huge mystery. All historians know that an effect must have a sufficient cause, But in the Jesus Seminar’s reconstructed and tame Jesus, the cause is not sufficient for the effect of his crucifixion.”
“Here is where I think many skeptical scholars, especially among the prominent members of the Jesus Seminar, go wrong. They not only misapply some of the criteria (such as dissimilarity) and ignore or misunderstand others (such as Semitisms and Palestinian background), they tend to assume that sayings and deeds not supported by the criteria must be judged as inauthentic. This severe, skeptical method leads to limited results, results that can be badly skewed, if the starting points themselves are off-base and wrong-headed.”
“According to the Seminar, the historical Jesus by definition must be a non-supernatural figure… Anything that is supernatural is by definition not historical. There’s no argument given; it’s just defined that way… But now the whole quest of the historical Jesus becomes a charade. If we begin by presupposing naturalism, then of course what we wind up with is a purely natural Jesus. This reconstructed, naturalistic Jesus is not based on evidence, but on definition. What is amazing is that the Jesus Seminar makes no attempt to defend their naturalism; it is just presupposed.”
“Here we plainly see a criterion against a high view of Jesus at work. But if the Jesus Seminar is against seeing Jesus as more than a man as an a priori assumption, wouldn’t that unduly bias them about who the real Jesus was? How can they honestly, openly assess the data if it simply not possible for Jesus to predict the future?”
“Their claim to have 200 scholars in the Seminar is grossly inflated: that figure includes anybody who in any way was involved in the Seminar’s activities, such as being on a mailing list. The real number of regular participants is only about 40. And what about the scholarly credentials of the members? Of the 74 listed in their publication The Five Gospels, only 14 would be leading figures in the field of New Testament studies. More than half are basically unknowns, who have published only two or three articles. Eighteen of the fellows have published nothing at all in New Testament studies! Most have relatively undistinguished academic positions, for example, teaching at a community college.”
In order to ascertain what Jesus thought of Himself, we need to take a look at various sayings, and also assess them via the criteria mentioned. One additional criteria that is often overlooked, however, bought up by scholar Craig Evans is the presence of Semitism and Palestinian background. That is:
“… sayings and deeds that reflect Hebrew or Aramaic language (Semitisms), or reflect first-century Palestine (geography, topography, customs, commerce)…”
We must then assess sayings of Jesus to see if they are authentic and if they show that Jesus thought of Himself as divine. Perhaps the most obvious fact about Jesus’ life is that He was believed to be the messiah, but what reasons do we have to suppose Jesus thought this about Himself, and what does this imply about Jesus if He did? The name Christ comes from the Greek Christos, which is the Greek word for the Hebrew title mashiach, meaning “anointed one” and where we get the word ‘messiah’ from. This title being identified with Jesus is evident from the consistent use of the title coupled with the fact that His followers named themselves Christians. This title therefore passes the criteria of multiple attestation and the criteria of Semitic/Palestinian background. Whilst those such as members of the Jesus Seminar would gripe that it does not pass the criteria of dissimilarity, yet as noted, such criteria cannot be used negatively, and it already has passed two criteria.
However, let’s humour them and try to find more reasons why this title goes back to Jesus Himself. When we consider the fact that Jesus’ followers thought of Him as the messiah, and later the risen, resurrected Lord, then it becomes inexplicable just why this is, unless of course Jesus Himself claimed to be the messiah. As William Lane Craig notes:
“Unless Jesus himself made messianic pretentions, it is difficult to explain the unanimous and widespread conviction that Jesus was the Messiah. Why, in the absence of any messianic claims on Jesus’ part, would Jesus’ followers come to think of him as Messiah at all, and why was there no non-messianic form of the Jesus movement?”
Ironically enough, it can be noted that the notion of the messiah being vindicated via resurrection cannot be found within Judaism, and so that such a self-identification DOES pass the criterion of dissimilarity. So it seems as if the complaints of the Jesus Seminar are simply without merit. Then again, nobody ever accused them of being interested in scholarly debate. However, let us look as specific examples from the New Testament itself. A specific verse where Jesus’ acknowledges Himself as the messiah is located in Mark 8:27-30:
“Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.”
Of course, critical scholars would not be critical scholars if they did not dispute the authenticity of this passage. However, this specific incident appears elsewhere, such as in John 6:69:
“We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.””
There are other instances in Mark and elsewhere of this kind of statement, such as in Mark 1:24, and Acts 3:14.
Another instance of note is where John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask Jesus if He is the one who is to follow John the Baptist, in Matthew 11:3:
“…“Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?””
And Luke 7:19:
“…he sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?””
Jesus’ reply in Luke 7:22-23 and Matthew 11:4-6 is to tell John’s disciples to report back to John various signs:
“So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
“Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
This reply is directly appealing to various Old Testament prophecies contained in Isaiah 35:5-6; 29:19 and 61:1, the later of which explicitly mentions being God’s anointed one.
Another example of prophetic appeal is made when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. This is a conscious fulfilment of a passage in Zechariah 9:9-10:
“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.”
Not to mention when Jesus is executed by the Roman state, a plaque with the words “King of the Jews” is nailed to His cross. This was not a Christian title, and an allusion to Jesus’ messianic claims, so we have good reason for thinking this to be authentic. Some have disputed Jesus’ riding on a donkey, however, on the grounds that the Romans would have immediately arrested Him, and that the passage in question was not considered a messianic prophecy until later Judaism. This is simply an example of critics trying to have their cake and eat it. If it was not considered a messianic prophecy until later Judaism then not only would this explain why He was not arrested, but it would also mean that it passes the criterion of authenticity.
When Jesus, on a separate occasion, cleanses the temple, as well as His proclamation that He will destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, we are again presented with messianic aspirations. Indeed, Jesus’ threats against the temple were one of things bought against Him when He was tried. The cleansing of the temple by Jesus was again a deliberate act on Jesus’ part to fulfil Old Testament prophecy:
“Every pot in Jerusalem and Judah will be holy to the Lord All-Powerful, and everyone who offers sacrifices will be able to take food from them and cook in them. At that time there will not be any buyers or sellers in the Temple of the Lord All-Powerful.”
Whereas, Jesus’ statement that He would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three times was extremely provocative, as the building of the temple was considered the work of God alone in Jewish thought. When Caiaphas demanded of Jesus if He claimed he would destroy and rebuild the temple, he was therefore asking Jesus if He was assigning divine roles to Himself. The reason why this would be of concern to the Romans was that the Jewish messiah was also said to be the new King of Israel, and so a challenge to their imperial rule. In the words of Darth Vader, Jesus was, to the Romans… “part of a rebel alliance and a traitor.” The Romans, afterall, took sedition very seriously. William Lane Craig has noted how Jesus’ statement about the temple fulfils a messianic meaning given to 2 Samuel 7:12-14:
“'When you die and join your ancestors, I will make one of your sons the next king, and I will set up his kingdom. He will build a house for me, and I will let his kingdom rule always. I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he sins, I will use other people to punish him. They will be my whips.””
In one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 4Q174, messianic meaning is given to this passage by associating it with other Old Testament writings:
“The kingdom of David is like a fallen tent, but in that day I will set it up again and mend its broken places.”
This is in standing with the placard placed upon His cross, sarcastically calling Him, the King of the Jews. Yet, what reason do we have for supposing that the messiah was a divine figure? The following passage from Isaiah, amongst other descriptions, gives the foretold messiah the title Mighty God:
“A child has been born to us; God has given a son to us. He will be responsible for leading the people. His name will be Wonderful Counselor, Powerful God, Father Who Lives Forever, Prince of Peace. Power and peace will be in his kingdom and will continue to grow forever. He will rule as king on David's throne and over David's kingdom. He will make it strong by ruling with justice and goodness from now on and forever. The LORD All-Powerful will do this because of his strong love for his people.”
This is backed up by other verses such as Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3:
“The LORD All-Powerful says, "I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way for me. Suddenly, the Lord you are looking for will come to his Temple; the messenger of the agreement, whom you want, will come."
“This is the voice of one who calls out: "Prepare in the desert the way for the LORD. Make a straight road in the dry lands for our God.”
It seems obvious then, Jesus considered Himself to be the messiah, and there is a good indication that this directly implies He also considered Himself to be divine. However, there are two more titles attributed to Jesus that further strengthen that Jesus thought Himself to be divine. The titles ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of Man’ are often considered non-divine titles. For instance, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach claims that the title ‘Son of Man’, in Hebrew ben Adam simply means a son of Adam, and thus a human title. However, a closer analysis of these titles reveals a deeper meaning that reinforces the divine nature of the messiah.
The title Son of Man is one of Jesus’ favourite self-descriptions, appearing throughout the Gospels, yet it is only found elsewhere in the New Testament once, thus meeting the criteria of dissimilarity as well as multiple attestation. However, what of this title? It is a direct allusion to Daniel 7:13-14:
““In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
In Daniel’s statement, the messianic figure only APPEARS to be like a son of man. In reality this Son of Man is, in actuality, a heavenly figure, who is given the glory and dominion of God Himself! When Jesus is tried, the high priest, Caiaphas asks Jesus if He is the Son of the Blessed. Jesus replies that He is, and that Caiaphas, et al. will see “the Son of Man” sitting at “the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” Caiaphas then tears his robes and all the Jewish authorities present agree with him when he accuses Jesus of blasphemy. Jesus has not only affirmed that He is the Messiah, God’s unique Son and Anointed One, but that he the Danielic Son of Man, and that He will be seated at God’s right hand, coming on the clouds over heaven. Sceptics and critics have asked why Caiaphas et al. took Jesus statement to be blasphemy as, without any context, it seems over the top and out of proportion with Jesus’ claims. Yet, the answer is that Jesus was assigning Himself titles and asserting roles for Himself solely reserved for YHWH, the One True, Holy and most High God of Israel.
Much more could be said in regards to how Jesus thought of Himself, and indeed, much more has been said by scholars and thinkers far greater than myself. These three titles, coupled with these authentic deeds and sayings of Jesus, are more than enough to establish beyond all reasonable doubt what Jesus thought of Himself. This leads us to the nature of the appearances of the risen Christ, and the mode of Jesus’ vindication. Bizarrely enough, there are those who claim that Christianity originally believed in a “spiritual resurrection” or that Jesus received a new body in heaven whilst his old body rotted in the tomb. When we read the Gospel accounts of the appearances of Jesus have one thing in common: they are explicitly physical in nature. The only possible exception is Paul of Tarsus (formerly Saul), who had a visionary roadside experience, but we shall get to him later. We shall first examine the nature of the immediate appearances to the women followers and to the major disciples. The risen Jesus described in the New Testament is not something revealed to the disciples in a heavenly vision or a dream, but something they claim to have seen before their very eyes. Not only is this entity something they can see, but also something that they, all of them, could even hear. Furthermore, not only could they hear but they could also actually touch this entity.
After encountering an angel who informed them that Jesus was raised from the dead, and that they should tell the other disciples, the women followers of Jesus encounter the risen Christ:
“So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
“While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.”
These traditions meet the criteria of embarrassment, as well as the criteria of multiple attestation. There are also other examples, including Jesus’ appearance to some of His followers walking along the road to Emmaus, and also to Thomas. Finally, the disciples witness the risen Jesus ascending into heaven. We also have other traditions outside of the four Gospels, in Acts and the writings of Paul, where Jesus appears to the Church in Jerusalem forty days after His resurrection (prior to His ascension.) He is also listed as appearing to Stephen, James, and 500 others. These passages clearly point to a risen Jesus was very much a physical being. Furthermore, Jesus’ body now possess certain supernatural qualities, such as the ability appear and disappear at will, and the ability to disguise His appearance.
What then of Paul? What was the nature of his experience? Paul is important as he was previously an enemy of Christianity, and some have argued that his experience being visionary in nature means this was the same for the other apostles. The specific word used in the New Testament is anastasis, appearing in the text of the New Testament 44 times. This word is directly translated into ‘resurrection,’ and a high number of instances are used to directly and explicitly describe a physical bodily, resurrection. This word appears in the writings of Paul, thus giving us reason to suppose he believed in the physical resurrection of Jesus. Paul’s experience is reported in Acts three separate times, in a narrative of Paul’s experience written by Luke, and two accounts of what Paul himself said on two different occasions, in Acts 9:3-9, Acts 22:6-1, and Acts 26:12-18 respectively. In all three accounts, Paul is on his way to Damascus at the behest of the Jewish authorities to hunt down Christians, when an awesome light, said to be brighter than the sun, blinds him and his companions. A voice then speaks to Paul in Aramaic, asking him why Paul is persecuting the speaker. When Paul asks who is speaking, the voice replies that it is Jesus. Jesus then commissions Paul to go into the city where he will receive instructions. However, whilst his companions also hear the voice, they cannot understand what is being said. After the experience is over, Paul finds himself physically blind and unable to see, and so his companions have to lead him into the city.
His experience indicates a physical phenomenon, and not a vision, as not only can he see this light and hear this voice, but so can his companions. Taken together with everything else, Paul’s experience in no way implies a spiritual resurrection, or the idea that Jesus’ old body still lay in the tomb and that He received a new body in heaven. Now, there is one further fact pointing to Jesus’ mode of vindication, and that is the background cultural milieu of 1st century Judaism. In Jewish thought, there are three modes of vindication, found in the Old and New Testaments, as well as intertestamental and later Christian tradition. These three modes are: assumption, resuscitation, and resurrection. Assumption was simply being taken up into heaven, either just before death or afterwards. This occurs in the Old Testament, to Enoch and Elijah. In extra-Biblical Jewish tradition, this also happened to Moses and various intertestamental figures, and is also said to have happened to Mary, the mother of Jesus, in late Catholic tradition. Resuscitation is a return to life from death, however it differs from resurrection in that no transformation takes place. Your original body is raised and repaired, but is not gloriously transformed. This occurs in both Old and New Testaments. For example, the prophets of Elijah, Elisha raise certain people in the dead, and in the New Testament, Jesus and later the disciples, raise people from the dead.
The general understanding of resurrection in Jewish belief was that it was reserved for the end of time, when the faithful would be raised from the dead to be with God. If the disciples wanted to invent an account of Jesus’ vindication, why would they pick resurrection? Indeed, from the Gospel accounts, the disciples can scarcely believe their eyes. In light of the above, why would the disciples either invent the notion of resurrection, or assume their visions to be of a resurrected Christ, unless He really appeared to them resurrected? It literally makes no sense whatsoever. However, as noted, the disciples did NOT expect Jesus to be vindicated. The New Testament is very clear that the disciples deserted the moment He was arrested, and that even Peter denied Jesus three times. However, what reasons do we have for thinking that this is an accurate depiction of the past? It passes all the criteria for authenticity. It passes the criteria of embarrassment and multiple attestations, but, moreover, it fits in with cultural background data we have that they did not expect a dying and rising messiah. Thus we can say that the resurrection hypothesis is strongly attested in the New Testament. To clarify, the resurrection hypothesis is more than simply positing that just some guy randomly came back from the dead, but that Jesus understood Himself as divine, that He undertook a ministry of miracle working where He assumed the authority of God, that He was executed for His messianic aspirations and was ultimately vindicated by God via resurrection from the dead. After His death and resurrection, He then appeared to various groups of his followers, including the twelve disciples, as well as Paul of Tarsus, an enemy of Christianity who converted after his roadside experience.
This is the hypothesis that has been presented by believers in Christ for nearly 2000 years. As a historian, it is my duty to give it as fair a hearing as possible, but not at the expense of ignoring or glossing over others. Given the facts outlined, what is the best explanation of them? Which historical hypothesis that attempts to explain these facts is the most probably true? There are a variety of alternative hypotheses proffered in lieu of the resurrection hypothesis that we must consider. If we can find a viable alternative to the resurrection that meets the criteria outlined earlier in the chapter, then the resurrection hypothesis can be discarded. However, if the resurrection hypothesis meets the criteria, and we have no rival hypothesis, then it can be inferred that the resurrection hypothesis is indeed, the most probably true. The hypotheses currently on the table are:
• The resurrection hypothesis.
• The swoon hypothesis.
• The decomposition hypothesis.
• The stolen body hypothesis.
• The wrong tomb hypothesis.
• The evil twin hypothesis.
• The hallucination hypothesis.
• The cognitive dissonance hypothesis.
The facts that require explaining are:
• Jesus was crucified and buried. Yet His tomb was later found empty.
• Jesus’ disciples, despite being distraught after Jesus’ death, and initially sceptical of the reports that women followers of Jesus had seen Him alive, came to believe that He had been resurrected after experiencing what they believed to be the risen Christ.
• Over 500 people were said to have had these same experiences, in groups, at the same time, and for extended periods of time.
• Former sceptic, James, the brother of Jesus, and former enemy, Paul of Tarsus, were both converted to Christianity, again after experiencing what they believed to be the risen Christ.
• Belief in Christ spread rapidly throughout the Roman Empire and survived despite horrendous persecution, and the fact that the central tenets of Christianity were absurd and offensive to both Jews and Gentiles.
Only by sufficiently explaining these facts by meeting the criteria previously laid can a hypothesis be considered the most probably true.
The first of the alternatives, the swoon hypothesis argues that Jesus did not really die on the cross. It is proposed that Jesus was taken down prematurely, as the Romans believed Him to be dead, when in reality He wasn’t, and that He revived whilst in the tomb. Jesus then emerges from the tomb, and that is how Christianity got started. However, this hypothesis is highly problematic. The first problem lies in the sheer brutality of crucifixion.
“Jesus of Nazareth underwent Jewish and Roman trials, was flogged, and was sentenced to death by crucifixion. The scourging produced deep stripelike lacerations and appreciable blood loss, and it probably set the stage for hypovolemic shock, as evidenced by the fact that Jesus was too weakened to carry the crossbar (patibulum) to Golgotha. At the site of crucifixion, his wrists were nailed to the patibulum and, after the patibulum was lifted onto the upright post (stipes), his feet were nailed to the stipes. The major pathophysiologic effect of crucifixion was an interference with normal respirations. Accordingly, death resulted primarily from hypovolemic shock and exhaustion asphyxia. Jesus' death was ensured by the thrust of a soldier's spear into his side. Modern medical interpretation of the historical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead when taken down from the cross.”
“Death, usually after 6 hours--4 days, was due to multifactorial pathology: after-effects of compulsory scourging and maiming, haemorrhage and dehydration causing hypovolaemic shock and pain, but the most important factor was progressive asphyxia caused by impairment of respiratory movement. Resultant anoxaemia exaggerated hypovolaemic shock. Death was probably commonly precipitated by cardiac arrest, caused by vasovagal reflexes, initiated inter alia by severe anoxaemia, severe pain, body blows and breaking of the large bones. The attending Roman guards could only leave the site after the victim had died, and were known to precipitate death by means of deliberate fracturing of the tibia and/or fibula, spear stab wounds into the heart, sharp blows to the front of the chest, or a smoking fire built at the foot of the cross to asphyxiate the victim.”
The only known survivor comes from an account from Josephus, whereby he saw three of his friend’s being crucified and went to Titus to have them taken down. However, despite being taken down, two of them died “under the physicians hands,” and only the third recovered.
A second problem is that we have to suppose that the Roman soldiers were incapable of diagnosing the signs of death. Now, in our modern cream-puff society, we hardly ever get to see a real dead body. Whereas back in the “good ‘ol days” death was a constant reality that everybody had to deal with. Furthermore, Jesus was placed on and taken from the cross BY HAND, by Roman soldiers. The Romans performed crucifixions regularly, and soldiers had greater experience with death than the average citizen, due to their profession. The signs of death would have been readily identifiable. The third is that if Jesus somehow survived and the Romans somehow misdiagnosed Jesus as dead when He was still alive, He would not have been able to life the stone in front of the tomb. Jesus would have been hanging on the cross for hours, and would have been in no state to do anything, much less push back a giant stone blocking the entrance. The final fact is that even if we discount these problems, nobody would have mistook Jesus for a resurrected being had He emerged from the tomb like that. Jesus was battered, bruised, enfeebled, and yet we are to suppose that the disciples believed Him to be resurrected? Furthermore, where did He go afterwards? Thus, this hypothesis fails to explain the facts.
The decomposition hypothesis proposes that Jesus’ body WAS produced, but that it was just too decomposed to be readily identifiable. The first major problem with this is that there is no mention of such a controversy in Christian and Jewish sources. The earliest Jewish polemic against Christianity pre-supposes that Jesus’ tomb was found empty, by arguing that the disciples had stolen the body. This is simply incompatible with the notion that a body was produced. If the stolen body proposal were simply an invention of the Gospel writers, then the Jewish authorities would have noted that they said no such thing. If a body was produced and the Jewish authorities were claiming it to be Jesus, then this would have forced the early Christian to address these claims, just as they were forced to address claims of Jesus’ body being stolen. Even if the Jewish authorities produced an unidentifiable body, then the burden of proof would have fallen to the Christians to show that it was not Jesus, and so we would have seen evidence in the literature of such a claim. The second problem is that we have good evidence to suppose that ancient Jews had ways of identify remains:
“Carefully observing where Jesus is buried and then returning on the Sunday morning to confirm and even mark, for identification, his corpse, is in keeping with Jewish burial customs. After all, m. Sanh. 6.5-6 implies that bodies are still identifiable, long after decomposition of the flesh. How was this done? We don’t know, but evidently the Jewish people knew how to mark or in some way identify a corpse, so that it could be retrieved some time later. We should not allow our ignorance of such customs, or our condescension, to lead us to discount such tradition as implausible.”
Thus the decomposition hypothesis is thus problematic and implausible. The original anti-apologetic argument is that the body of Jesus was stolen. Whilst back in the day, the Jewish authorities claimed it was the disciples; today we have a range of proposed body snatchers. A list of proposed thieves:
• The Roman or Jewish authorities.
• The gardener.
• The disciples.
Positing that the Jewish or Roman authorities stole Jesus’ body is just bizarre and so absurd that it hardly merits serious consideration at all. For what did the Roman or Jewish authorities seek to gain from such a deception, and why did they not then crush the upstart cult by producing the body? This makes no sense whatsoever, in any way. What then, of the proposed solution, that necromancers just happened to break into Jesus’ tomb, or perhaps deliberately sought His tomb out, due to His reputation as a holy man, to use His body parts in their arcane rituals, etc. The first problem that proponents of this claim run in to is that would need to provide some evidence that such a group existed in 1st century Judea and Jerusalem. The second problem is that grave robbers such as necromancers would have picked easier targets if they were just randomly going through graves. It would be far easier to just steal the body of a peasant than somebody buried in a tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea. The third problem is that Jesus would not have been sought out by such people as a “holy man” to be used in their various rituals, given that Jesus was executed as a criminal via crucifixion and so would have lost such a status outside of his in-group of followers. The last problem is that the whole body would not have been used. It was far easier to remove an arm or leg, rather than making of with an entire cadaver. If by some chance they wanted to use the whole body, then they would have performed their ritual in the tomb itself, as it would have been easier and reduced the risk of detection.
A second proposal is that it was the gardener. In the Gospel of John, Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener and asks Him where the body went. It is therefore supposed by some critics that she thought the gardener was a likely candidate of the mover of Jesus’ body. Furthermore, some note that the Church Father Irenaeus also mentioned that some had made this argument, which therefore shows that someone must have thought it plausible that the gardener had reason to take Jesus’ body. However, is this reasonable? Mary’s reaction merely implies that, as an employee of the garden, would thus have some knowledge of what had happened. Secondly, the mere fact that somebody made the argument that it was the gardener means nothing in terms of plausibility. The reason given in Tertullian’s day was that the gardener moved the body so that curious crowds would not trample his lettuces, a suggestion that is neither plausible nor practical. Thus we end up with the claim that the Jewish authorities made: the disciples did it! Is there any reason to suppose that this is a reasonable solution? The answer again is no, for would the disciples have suffered or died for something they knew was false? Again, as I have mentioned, the disciples and early Christians faced extensive social persecution and even martyrdom for their beliefs.
One interesting fact is how it is reported that Jesus’ grave clothes were left behind in the tomb. Tomb robbers or thieves, such as the disciples, would not have bothered unwrapping the body before stealing it, especially given the need to operate stealthily and hastily. It also does not make much sense, as why would body-snatching thieves even think of taking off Jesus’ grave clothes? Another fact that has been conceded until now, is the guards placed outside of the tomb. No doubt hyper-sceptical critics would dismiss the tomb being guarded as a “pious fiction” or something similar. The common defence of this aspect of the story is that Matthew’s account indicates that Jewish opponents of Christianity took the presence of guards outside Jesus’ tomb for granted. A further defence involves the fact that the presence of guards would have been yet another shameful thing for Christians to admit. It has been noted that Jesus was executed and buried shamefully and dishonourably. However, the presence of the guard would have been a further shame and dishonour:
“Rites of mourning were not observed for these criminals, either. Family members were supposed to keep their grieving to themselves… From the Hebrew Bible through the rabbinic literature, dishonorable Jewish burial meant two things: burial away from the family tomb, and burial without rites of mourning.”
Whilst they were presumably there to prevent theft of the body, the main purpose of such a detachment, whether they be Roman centurions or Jewish temple guards, were to prevent public mourning rites. It seems to me that the only reason why some dismiss the tomb guard is because it renders the stolen body hypothesis completely implausible.
Another proposal is that the women followers went to the wrong tomb. Instead of going to Jesus’ tomb, they erroneously went to the wrong one. One has to say that this is a view that has not commanded any deal of scholarly attention. Now, on the surface, any wrong tomb hypothesis already suffers from a myriad of problems. We are to suppose that not only did the women go to the wrong tomb, but that the other disciples did as well. Furthermore, if this had been the case then it would have been used as a polemic against Christianity, and Jesus’ body would have been produced. Some have suggested that Jesus was only temporarily buried and later moved to a graveyard reserved for criminals. Whilst this again fails to overcome the aforementioned problems, this also runs into the problem that there is no such evidence of temporary burial in Jewish law or custom. Another hypothesis is that Jesus had an “evil twin” or doppelganger that either operated in cohesion with Jesus or else used Jesus’ death as a chance to have some fun, in order to trick people into believing Jesus had risen. This hypothesis is so riddled with problems that I scarcely know where to begin. First of all, the sheer unlikelihood of someone that just happens to look exactly like Jesus is mind-boggling. Second, how would this “evil twin” pull off the hoax? Jesus’ body would still have been in the tomb, and then there is the question of where he would have gone. Thirdly, an ordinary man who looks exactly like Jesus would not convince the disciples that Jesus had been resurrected. Resuscitated, maybe, but not resurrection.
Some have proposed that the disciples suffered from hallucinations, and that this explains the post-mortem appearances of Jesus. The main problem with this hypothesis is that the disciples did not merely claim to see the risen Jesus, but that He spoke to them, and that they even touched Him! Furthermore, Jesus did not appear to one disciple in isolation, but groups of them, and for very long periods of time. In fact, the risen Jesus was said to have spent roughly 40 or so days with the disciples. The range of people who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus is also quite extensive. We have the women followers of Jesus, the remaining 11 of the 12 disciples, two disciples on the road to Emmaus, James (Jesus’ brother and a sceptic who was not a follower of his brother), Jude (another brother of Jesus, also a sceptic), and Paul (a Pharisee and enemy of Christianity who actively persecuted the church prior to his conversion). Furthermore, we are told that the risen Jesus appeared to roughly 500 people (this may or may not include the previous encounters.) The risen Jesus even was said to have eaten food with the disciples. This is extremely incompatible with the notion of ordinary hallucination. Some, however, have appealed to a phenomenon called “mass hallucination,” which some claim can account for all of these ‘appearances.’ Some have appealed to alleged “miraculous phenomenon” involving people who claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary and claimed that she revealed to them when and where a miraculous event involving the sun would occur. Thousands of people gathered to where the event was said to occur and lo and behold, they witnessed what appeared to be the sun moving and behaving erratically… despite the fact people looking through telescopes observed no change.
Appealing to such events backfires, for the sole reason that they are no comparison to the appearances of Jesus. In this case, there is a perfectly good naturalistic explanation: namely that staring directly at the sun is bad for your eyes, and causes visual phenomenon and disturbances. Secondly, a lot of people were expecting something to happen. Did Paul or James expect to encounter the risen Jesus? Not even the disciples would have expected that Jesus would be resurrected. However, a third problem is that these events happened all at once, whereas the appearances of Jesus occurred over a long period of time, well over a month, and to separate groups. Lastly, as aforementioned, people looking through specialist telescopes observed no movement of the sun, whereas those who witnessed the risen Jesus actually touched Him. However, in order to demonstrate that the appearances of the risen Jesus really were mass hallucinations, then we need to see if they match the necessary criteria for them to be classified as such. Yet from these two examples and from professional criteria, it seems that the post-mortem appearances of Jesus do not fall under the category of collective hallucinations:
“The same hallucination may be experienced by two or more persons. If the event is entirely subjective, as all hallucinations are, how do two or 200 people manage to coordinate and synchronize their lives? Recall our discussion of the role of expectation and misperception in the preceding chapter. It is expectation that plays the coordinating role in collective hallucination. Although the subject matter of individual hallucinations virtually has no limits, the topics of collective hallucinations are limited to certain categories. These categories are determined, first, by the kinds of ideas that a group of people may get excited about as a group, for emotional excitement is prerequisite of collective hallucinations. The most common causes of emotional excitement in groups are religious, and, indeed, phenomena related to religion are most often the subject of collective hallucinations. Second, the categories are limited by the fact that participants in the hallucination must be informed beforehand, at least concerning the broad outlines of the phenomenon that will constitute the collective hallucination. This may take the form of publicly announced prophecy, for example, or someone suddenly looking up and saying. “Lo, in the sky!” or words to that effect. Things in the sky, or at least overhead, are the most commonly seen collective hallucinations: radiant crosses, saints, religious symbols, flying objects, sometimes all these in combination. Once the general type of hallucination is established, it is easy to harmonize individual differences in the accounts. This may take place during the hallucination or in subsequent conversations.”
“The contents of hallucinations can vary over a very wide range of subjects for a given individual. The range of content is prescribed by the hallucinator’s past experiences, and these are heavily influenced by culture. For this reason, a Crow Indian or an Aborigine from New Hebrides would be quite unlikely to hallucinate pixies, fairies, or gnomes clad in medieval European garb. The LSD user in the Western culture will also hallucinate only that to which the culture has exposed him or her. However fantastic a given hallucination, upon examination, it will be seen to contain only elements from the hallucinator’s past experience.”
We are faced with the following criteria:
1. Expectation plays a key role.
2. Visions are not seen by everybody present.
3. Visions are seen differently.
4. Emotional excitement present in people witnessing hallucination.
5. Being informed beforehand of an event occurring.
6. Conforms to past experience and background knowledge.
7. Such phenomena are limited in duration.
Yet none of these criteria are present in the reports of the risen Jesus. There are further problems even than this. For the hallucination hypothesis does not account for either the empty tomb, or the belief in Jesus’ resurrection. If the disciples had suffered collective hallucinations then, besides from the Gospel accounts being very different, then the tomb would still have contained Jesus’ body and a resurrection before the end of time was most definitely part of the disciples’ expectations or background cultural knowledge. Furthermore, it leaves the appearances to those sceptical and critical of Christianity, who did not expect to see a risen, exalted Jesus in any form, let alone a resurrected Jesus. It therefore seems that, whilst attractive on the surface, fails to account for all the facts, and for those it attempts to explain, falls short of the mark. This failure has led to an even more extravagant hypothesis that the disciples, James, Paul, et al. all suffered from a condition known as cognitive dissonance.
What is cognitive dissonance? Cognitive dissonance, like hallucination, is another psychological phenomenon. It was first researched in the 1950s by a fellow named Leon Festinger, which led to a significant number of articles by other authors on the subject following his key experiments and publications. The nature of the experiments he conducted were as follows:
• A person arrives at an experiment where they are asked to perform a boring task involving turning pegs.
• After completing the task, they are told to greet the next person and inform them that the task is a very enjoyable one (an obvious lie) since the experimenter is too busy.
• The person is then either paid $1 or $20 in 1959 US dollars.
• The person greets the next participant and tells them that the task is enjoyable.
• After lying, they are then asked if they found the boring task interesting.
People who were paid $1 thought that the task was not interesting, whereas people who were paid $20 thought that the task was interesting. What this means is that when a person performs an action or follows behaviour that conflicts with their attitudes or values, a psychological tension, known as cognitive dissonance is felt. In order to relieve this tension, several strategies can be employed by the people who feel it:
• Changing one of the components of the situation, typically attitude.
• Adding new elements to reduce the level of inconsistency, typically claiming things such as “they probably didn’t believe me when I lied.
• Trivialising elements, such as claiming “honesty isn’t that big of a deal to me.
• A fourth response reported by different authors is denial of responsibility, such as claiming “I had no choice, it was my job to lie.”
The problem with this hypothesis is that cognitive dissonance only leads to a change in attitude or behaviour after an event. It does not lead to people inventing things out of whole cloth. Some appeal to a UFO cult studied by Festinger, et al. who believed that they would be teleported off of the planet by aliens. When the event did not come to pass, one of them claimed to have received a communication from the aliens saying that the event was merely postponed. The first problem is that the UFO cult event does not match identified strategies for dealing with cognitive dissonance. The second problem is that this occurrence is disanalogous for what happened to the disciples. After the event failed and the UFO cult modified its claims, membership declined and members became less devoted, whereas prior to the failed event, members were more plenteous and devoted. In the case of the disciples, prior to the resurrection event, they were less devoted and lesser in number. After the event, the disciples became more devoted and Christianity literally skyrocketed. Lastly, the person who claimed to receive the communication allegedly received their communication in private, whereas Jesus appeared publicly before groups of disciples as well as to enemies and sceptics. This therefore does not adequately explain belief in the resurrected Jesus.
How do these hypotheses then fair in fulfilling the seven criteria laid out earlier? The criteria are:
1. Along with the other data considered to be true, the hypothesis must imply further observational statements.
2. The hypothesis must possess greater explanatory scope, that is cover more data.
3. The hypothesis must possess greater explanatory power, that is render the data the hypothesis implies more probably.
4. The hypothesis must be more plausible, that is be implied by more accepted truths.
5. The hypothesis must be less ad hoc, that is suppose fewer new elements about the past not already implied.
6. The hypothesis must be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs.
7. The hypothesis must exceed rivals hypotheses in criteria 1-6 so as to render any other hypothesis less likely to meet these conditions by a significant order of magnitude.
All hypotheses on the table currently meet the first criterion, as they are all attempting to explain certain data. Certain hypotheses, however, fail criterion two, as they are limited in scope. The hallucination and cognitive dissonance hypotheses only attempt to explain the belief in the risen Jesus and the post-mortem appearances bust says nothing of the empty tomb. The wrong tomb hypothesis only attempts to explain the empty tomb but not the resurrection appearances. When it comes to the third criterion, this is where rival hypotheses begin to flounder. The resurrection hypothesis meets this criteria, as the data we have is what we would expect if the resurrection were true. If the stolen body hypothesis were true, then why would the disciples invent the story of the women being the first to discover the empty tomb? Why would they include so many embarrassing details in the Gospel accounts? If the swoon hypothesis were true, then how would a man who had endured hours of torture (if he even survived) be even capable of removing the stone from the tomb and convincing his disciples that he was resurrected? If the decomposition hypothesis were true, then why is there no mention of such a controversy in the written record? Instead, the earliest polemic against Christianity presupposes the empty tomb. Not to mention the fact that Jews possessed means of identifying remains. If the wrong tomb hypothesis were true, then why was not Jesus’ body produced and how does this account for the post-mortem appearances of Jesus? If the evil twin hypothesis were true, then why did the disciples come to believe in resurrection, rather than resuscitation? If the hallucination or cognitive dissonance hypotheses were true, then the Gospel accounts would be radically different and would not account for enemies and sceptics coming to believe in Christianity. Furthermore, they do not explain the empty tomb.
Regarding the fourth criterion, again rival hypotheses do not meet this criteria. Given Jesus’ self-understanding as well as the socio-cultural and religious context of the day rendering a crucified and resurrected messiah absurd to Jews and pagan Gentiles alike, the resurrection hypothesis becomes highly plausible once on abandons the prejudiced view against miracles even being possible and at least consider them possible. Hypothesis and cognitive dissonance hypotheses are implausible, given that the resurrection appearance accounts do not match known examples of collective hallucination or cognitive dissonance. Stolen body hypotheses are implausible because of just how intricate and elaborate a cover-up would be required to pull it off. Given the socio-cultural and religious background, then belief in resurrection becomes highly implausible given that no Jew believed that anybody would be resurrected prior to the end of time. Jewish heroes were either claimed to be assumed into heaven, whereas other character were resuscitated. Furthermore, groups that could be argued to have motive to steal Jesus’ body would have had to have contended with the tomb guard. The swoon hypothesis is extremely implausible, as we are to suppose that Jesus somehow survived hours of torture, was capable of removing the stone from His tomb and then persuading His disciples that He was resurrected. The decomposition hypothesis is implausible as Jews possessed means of identifying remains, and there is no mention of a body being produced. Such a controversy would have left a mark in the written record, yet we have nothing. The evil twin hypothesis is implausible because it suggests a level of intricacy, deception, and conspiracy that is even greater than stolen body hypotheses. Furthermore, why would the disciples come to believe a man that looks like Jesus is the resurrected Christ, rather than the resuscitated Christ?
Regarding the fifth criterion, the resurrection hypothesis stands head and shoulders above the rest. The only new thing that we have to suppose is the existence of God. Whereas with other hypotheses, we have to assume a variety of new elements. In the hallucination and cognitive dissonance hypotheses, we have to suppose that 500+ people (including sceptics and enemies of Christianity), over a period of 40 days, in groups as well as individually separate from one another, all had exactly the same, or at least very similar experiences that were not a part of their previously existing socio-cultural or religious background knowledge. With the stolen body hypothesis, we have to assume that the apostles knowingly lied, and somehow persuaded hundreds of others that Jesus had really risen from the dead, despite the fact a crucified and resurrected messiah would have been absurd to Jews and pagan Gentiles. The decomposition hypothesis requires us to assume that identification of remains is impossible, and that no single Christian writer addressed the charge, despite addressing stolen body charges. The swoon hypothesis requires us to assume that a man can survive hours of absolutely brutal torture, was capable of lifting a one-ton stone from the front of the tomb and then persuade people he has been resurrected despite being in an enfeebled condition. The wrong tomb hypothesis requires to believe that the Sanhedrin would not produce Jesus’ body in light of the disciples’ claims, and that the disciples would come to believe in a resurrection based on an empty tomb alone. The evil twin hypothesis requires us to believe that Jesus either had a twin, a lookalike, or doppelganger who either operated in collusion with Jesus or acted on their own volition, whereby one is crucified, and the other hides and then appears later and somehow convinces the disciples he is the risen Christ. We are also required to believe that this conspiracy escaped the notice of everybody who knew Jesus personally.
Regarding the sixth and final criterion: the resurrection is only rendered implausible or even impossible if we adopt a naturalistic, materialistic and/or atheistic worldview. If we adopt an agnostic position, then it at least becomes possible. With the other hypotheses, as mentioned above, they are disconfirmed by literally dozens of facts. No known hallucination or cognitive dissonance matches the disciples’ experiences. The concept of a crucified and resurrected messiah was absurd to Jews and pagan Gentiles. Even if the disciples had stolen the body, then they should not have secured such a following. They would have been more likely to invent a more believable hypothesis. There is no evidence that suggests someone can survive a crucifixion and all the other forms of torture used along with it and then proceed to move a one-ton stone from a guarded tomb and then persuade people they are resurrected. Jews possessed means of identifying remains, and there is no record of the Jewish or Roman authorities producing a body and claiming it to be Jesus, yet the Gospels specifically address the charge that the disciples stole the body. There is no shred of evidence of a Jesus look a like, and the level of conspiracy involved is far too intricate and convoluted to have been successful and even if by some chance it had been, nobody would have come to believe in a resurrected Jesus. If the women followers had gotten the wrong tomb, then it defies reason that the disciples could have gotten the tomb wrong too, and that the Jewish or Roman authorities would not have produced Jesus’ body. Thus, when we review these six criteria, the resurrection hypothesis stands alone in meeting them all, thus meeting the seventh and final criterion.
However, Hector Avalos, who is a Biblical scholar and critic of Christianity, has charged those who make use of such criteria (Christian philosopher William Lane Craig is singled out in particular) as misrepresenting them in his book The End of Biblical Studies. As you may recall, such criteria were taken from C. Behan McCullagh’s work. Craig, myself, et al. are therefore all charged with abusing McCullagh’s work and misrepresenting his criteria for evaluating historical hypotheses. Are there are any basis for such accusations? His claims are as follows:
1. Craig misuses McCullagh’s criteria.
2. Disproof by counter-claims can be made regarding other miracle events, such as apparitions of Mary.
3. Craig is a ‘selective supernaturalist.’
Let’s take these one at a time. In support of 1, Avalos cites a debate Craig had with Gerd Lüdemann, where Craig misses one of the criteria. The problem with such an example, is that this is a public debate, where Craig has to cut material down for sake of brevity. Secondly, Craig uses the full seven criteria multiple times in his published work. I can only call this attempt by Avalos here disingenuous, and unbecoming scholarly conduct. Avalos goes on, however, to say that McCullagh’s criteria can only be used to differentiate between rival naturalistic hypothesis, not between naturalistic and supernaturalistic hypotheses. However, this is simply a case of Avalos trying to smuggle in his personal metaphysical beliefs and pass them off as historical criteria. As we have already discussed, there is no reason to a priori dismiss miracle claims. We can only dismiss claims after a careful and considered historic approach and we find the hypothesis to be wanting. Simply dismissing hypotheses out of hand just because they conflict with your personal opinions on reality is simply non-conducive to historical research and behaviour unbecoming of a scholar.
McCullagh himself makes no such distinction that rules out supernatural hypotheses in his work. Avalos, however, points to McCullagh himself disagreeing with Craig’s conclusion that the resurrection meets the criteria. Avalos quotes McCullagh stating that the resurrection hypothesis is of greater explanatory scope and power, but that he believes it is less plausible and is more ad hoc. However, he does not dismiss the resurrection hypothesis out of hand merely because it is supernatural. Furthermore, Craig is well aware of McCullagh’s position and has been since as early as 1994. Avalos even cites one of Craig’s works where he makes such a response, yet despite being published 13 years prior to the publication of Avalos’ work, Avalos does not interact with them at all. Such conduct is truly disgusting and hideously unprofessional. It is no surprise that Avalos’ book was not peer-reviewed but instead published by Prometheus Books, a publisher of purely atheistic books. Avalos also charges McCullagh’s criteria as being subjective, and that Craig’s appeal to the majority of New Testament scholarship in support of the minimal facts is fraudulent. Are there any good reasons for thinking so? Again, the answer is no, as Avalos is once again guilty of gross misrepresentation and wilful neglect of key details.
Regarding his complaint again the criteria, he says the criterion of plausibility is subjective because it relies on one’s worldview. He gives an example of the death of William II where one of the hypotheses is that his death was the result of witchcraft. He cites McCullagh as saying that one’s view of this hypothesis is dependent on one’s view on the occult. Avalos then quips that if one accepted that Krishna works in the world, then this would allow us to consider Hindu miracle claims as plausible. The major problem with this criticism is that Avalos totally neglects to mention that McCullagh goes on to refer to medieval historian and expert on the life of William II, Christopher Brooke. Brooke addresses the witchcraft hypothesis not because it is supernatural, but due to the lack of evidence that William II was a devil-worshippers and the lack of evidence for the presence of Luciferians in England at the time. Brooke then offers the explanation of stories surrounding William IIs mysterious death were embellishments added by ecclesiastical chroniclers who suffered at William II and whom wished divine judgement upon. The only criticism of McCullagh here is that he does not directly distinguish the difference between mere possibility, and actual plausibility. Regarding his claim about Craig’s appeal to NT scholars, this is simply false. Craig refers to a wide swath of academia including those opposed to his own beliefs. Craig then extensively deals with the areas in which other scholars disagree with him. Avalos’ dishonesty is blatantly obvious here. However, Avalos’ claims can simply be demolished with the following quote from McCullagh himself:
“With extraordinarily erudition, Craig sketches the arguments of major thinkers of both past centuries and recent times, and he presents his own reasons for concluding tat traditional Christians doctrines about God and Jesus are credible. His replies to those skeptical of the existence of God, of historical knowledge, of the occurrence of miracles, and in particular the resurrection of Jesus, take debates over those difficult subjects an important stage further. Here is an admirable defender of basic Christian faith.”
What of Avalos’ second claim then, that there is disproof by counter example? It is odd how Avalos appeals to apparitions of Mary, considering these are perfectly consistent with Christianity, especially Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. Avalos would need to provide an example that passes the criteria yet would not be compatible with Christianity. The second problem is that even if Avalos could show that another supernatural hypothesis, it would not mean that the resurrection hypothesis is false, unless a miracle claim incompatible with Christianity could pass the criteria. What then of Avalos’ actual example? Again, Avalos consistently fails to deliver. Avalos cites an apparition of Mary to a group of children in Medjugorje, Yugoslavia who never recanted, and who were medically examined and diagnosed as not suffering from hallucinations. Avalos contends that this apparition meets the criteria and has the same evidentiary support that the resurrection has. However, when one analyses the facts, one finds a lot of holes in Avalos’ claims and statements. One, There at the very least four generally accepted facts relating to the resurrection of Jesus, whereas there are none regarding the assumption of Mary. Furthermore, belief in the assumption of Mary did not arise to the 5th and 6th centuries. Secondly, contrary to the belief of Jesus’ original followers, there is good prima facie evidence for a natural explanation. Thirdly, unlike Jesus, Mary made no such claims about herself. Fourthly, belief in the assumption of Mary most certainly does not exceed rival hypotheses in meeting our historical criteria. Lastly, we have no reason to accept the veridicality of the Marian apparitions unlike what we have with the appearances with Jesus.
As for the last claim, this is simply a variant of the “one less god” argument that theists who hold to particular religions are inconsistent by accepting their religion’s truth claims whilst rejecting others. However, as I have shown, there is a strong evidentiary basis for Christianity. Unless Avalos can show that another religion also passes such tests, then his claim is bunk. Ironically enough, Avalos claims Craig is a selective supernaturalist by citing certain parts of Matthew being apocalyptic imagery and not historical events. Avalos claims that is at odds with claiming the miraculous resurrection as being historical whilst rejecting other miraculous events as apocalyptic imagery. This is reminiscent of how recently, Norman Geisler, a fundamentalist Christian, accused New Testament scholar Michael Licona of “abandoning inerrancy” for reaching similar conclusions. The reasons for this are the evidence of the text itself and the literary genre of the passages in question as opposed to the resurrection accounts, Whilst the Gospels are recognised as being biographies of Jesus, some contain apocalyptic imagery, like Matthew. This is ascertained through careful literary analysis. The same analysis shows no such claims can be made about the resurrection narratives, which lack such apocalyptic imagery and language. Thus, I can only conclude that Hector Avalos is simply an imbecile who is being intentionally dishonest and disingenuous in order to attack Dr. Craig, et al.
Whilst the conclusion reached by assessing the resurrection by historical standards, when we factor in the socio-cultural facts bought up by the impossible faith approach, then these conclusions are strengthened by a significant order of magnitude. However, some have complained that nobody would have checked the facts and point to other religions that have allegedly survived “equally impossible odds.” Before we come to a close, I shall quickly address these two points. In group-orientated cultures, such as 1st century Judea, neighbours were expected to mind each other’s business. Privacy was simply unknown, unexpected and unwelcome to the point where it raised suspicion about those who were being secretive. Neighbours exerted constant vigilance over each other, as people were constantly concerned for their appearance in terms of honour and shame:
“Men and women were surveyed from every point of the social compass… The Romans believed that the person who allowed excessive privacy would lose all self-control and become shameless… The Roman way demanded a degree of mutual surveillance and inhibitions that modern Americans might find only in an Orwellian nightmare or maximum security prison.”
An example from a collectivist culture closer to modern times comes from the Sarakatsani in Greece, where within 48 hours of an incident, groups of Sarakatsani throughout the region would immediately begin passing judgment on the behaviour of the people involved and analyse critically whether or not a man displayed manliness in defending his honour. Strangers in ancient times were viewed as posing a threat to the community and would need to be checked over to see if they would fit in and subscribe to the community’s norms. Honour was assumed to exist within your own family, but outside that circle everybody is presumed as being dishonourable and untrustworthy until proved otherwise. In such a society, the idea that facts would not be checked is completely ludicrous. When the Pharisees were out in the wilderness observing Jesus and His disciples, they were purposefully minding Jesus’ business. The empty tomb would have been checked, witnesses would have been sought out. A radical divergent group like Christianity that made all sorts of offensive and absurd claims would have been given especial critical scrutiny.
What then, of other religions? As a test, we shall analyse Islam, the second most large and popular religion today after Christianity. I should note, however, that this does not automatically disprove Islam, although if Christianity can be shown to be true, then it would mean that all other religions are wrong. Muhammad was born in Axum, Arabia in the 7th century, an independent region caught between the Byzantine and Sasanian empires. These two empires were at odds politically, philosophically, and religiously, whereas Arabia was mostly a collection of independent tribes. Muhammad eventually secured enough converts to take control of Medina, and spent about 10 years consolidating his power. Muhammad proceeded to make raids against caravans that were the major source of finance of his former hometown, Mecca, leading them to negotiate a truce. Muhammad won members of his old tribe over by giving them positions of power, and became the most powerful political leader in Arabia. After Muhammad’s death, his successors then took control of the entire Arabian peninsula, as well as Northern Africa (including Egypt), Persia, and managed to defeat entirely the Sasanian empire. In time, Islam took control over Spain for a time, and seriously threatened the Byzantine empire (resulting in its eventual collapse.) If it had not been for the Spanish Reconquista and the Crusades, then it is entirely possible that Islam would have seized control over most, if not all of Europe.
Muhammad himself did not come from a shameful background. Despite being an orphan, he was raised by his uncle, who became head of his clan. Despite falling out with his home tribe, Muhammad’s constant military victories would have served to accrue honour. Although not everything was all good, Muhammad did authorise his troops to fight during sacred lunar months, permitted the cutting down of palms and married his brother’s ex-wife, all of which were serious social taboos. Furthermore, Muhammad’s treaty with his former hometown was humiliating for some Muslims. However, Islam rose in the confines of Arabia, and nothing about his geographic origins would have put off other Arabians. Islam did teach resurrection, but it was a final end of time resurrection, like Judaism, and did not come across Roman aversions to the teaching. Muhammad’s revelations were also not testable and were not witnessed by anybody else, unlike the resurrection of Jesus, which had hundreds of witnesses. Islam did face some problems, to be sure, but there were nowhere near the same level as the problems facing Christianity. Whilst Islam certainly was an underdog for a time, it managed to spread rapidly thanks to Muhammad’s brilliant military tactics and strategies, and his ability as a political leader. Indeed, without Muhammad’s initial victories with the sword, it is doubtful if Islam would have succeeded at all. The success of Islam is thus more analogous to a skilled businessman who took significant gambles and yet won. Islam most certainly did not have to contend with a state as powerful as the Roman Empire who hated everything it stood for. The origin and spread of Islam is intriguing, and even inspiring, but does not pass the test of an impossible faith.
No other religion went through and survived what Christianity went through. Christianity arose in the most hostile environment imaginable. Modern religions, such as Mormonism and Scientology, did not arise in honour-shame settings, and managed to overcome persecution by a variety of means not available to Christians. Religions such as Islam spread via the sword. Christianity succeeds in providing a good historical hypothesis explaining the facts outlined in this chapter, and succeeds in that it survived against horrendous social persecution, eventually culminating in the effort of the Roman Empire to try to stamp out the religion. Where other religions either died or were forced to change their teachings and beliefs, Christianity remained resolute in staying exactly the same and yet not only survived but also grew exponentially. Where other religions are predicated upon mystical, metaphysical claims that are untestable, Christianity makes specific historical claims that can be and were tested. Where other religions had benefits, such as the sword, or state sponsorship, Christianity had none, and almost every disadvantage possible. Why would anybody have believed in it outside of a small band of loyal fanatics? How was it able to spread beyond the boundaries of its Jewish originators and spread across Greek and Roman pagan gentiles in such vast numbers? Given the minimal facts outlined, and the sheer impossibility of Christianity’s survival had it been false, then we can stand firm and sure that the resurrection hypothesis is not only a viable alternative, but the only valid hypothesis. Critics and sceptics are forced to raise the evidentiary bar to stratospheric heights unattainable by any hypothesis, and to rely on extravagant, ad hoc hypotheses, or combine multiple hypotheses just in order to answer the challenge. What we see is simply a naturalism of the gaps. If we treat the Gospels as any other historical documents, and the resurrection hypothesis like any other historical hypothesis, then we come to the explosive position that Christianity is, in fact, true.
We have surveyed as much information as is humanly possible in this limited space, but by now it should be obvious how good the evidentiary basis for the resurrection really is, especially compared to rival hypotheses. It is not the errant claim of someone suffering from mental health problems, nor is it the gullible claims of the uneducated, but a very serious hypothesis that demands to be recognised and scrutinised. We are fortunate to live in an era with access to materials and methods denied to previous generations, and so we should not squander them. Indeed, a growing body of authors have put the Gospels to the test and found them reliable. Greater minds than my own have spent far more pages, getting right into the hardcore details, laying out the facts and utilising modern methods to analytically scrutinise the evidence and sources we have. What is surprising is the sheer evidence in favour of the resurrection hypothesis. The conclusion: that Jesus really did rise from the dead and appear to groups of His followers after His death is simply inescapable. I think the evidence for this event is just simply too good to be skimped over for some lame concoction borne from the stubborn minds of those who still cling to their cherished naturalistic beliefs. Despite being a doubter and sceptic for a long time, and even an atheist for a while, the evidence for the resurrection repeatedly came back to bite. No matter how hard I have tried, I cannot see any other explanation: Jesus rose from the dead. If Christianity had been false, then it should have either died off completely or else transmogrified its claims to be more socially acceptable.
1 1 Corinthians 15:13-20, NIV, Biblegateway, http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Corinthians%2015:13-20&version=NIV (Accessed 12th September 2011)
2 William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, Crossway, (2008), p207
3 Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, IVP, (2010) p70-71
4 C. Behan McCullagh, Justifying Historical Descriptions, Cambridge University Press, (1984), p19
5 Gary R. Habermas, The Resurrection of Jesus Time Line, from Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, eds., Contending With Christianity’s Critics, B&H Publishing Group, (2009), p125
6 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, NIV, Biblegateway.com, http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Corinthians%2015:3-5&version=NIV (Accessed 12th September 2011)
7 Byron C. McCane, Where No one Had yet Been Laid: The Shame of Jesus’ Burial, from B.D. Chilton and C.A. Evans, Authenticating the Activities of Jesus, Brill (1998), p433
8 Byron C. McCane, Where No one Had yet Been Laid: The Shame of Jesus’ Burial, from B.D. Chilton and C.A. Evans, Authenticating the Activities of Jesus, Brill (1998), p444
9 D. Brendan Nagle and Stanley M. Burstein, The Ancient World: Readings in Social and Cultural History, Third Edition, Pearson, New Jersey (2006), p314-315
10 D. Brendan Nagle and Stanley M. Burstein, The Ancient World: Readings in Social and Cultural History, Third Edition, Pearson, New Jersey (2006), p318
11 Martin Hengel, Crucifixion, Fortress, (1977), p22
12 Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, Fortress, (1998), p263-264
13 Deuteronomy 21:23, NCV, Biblegateway, http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Deuteronomy%2021:23&version=NCV (Accessed September 13th 2011)
14 1 Corinthians 1:18, NIV, Biblegateway, http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Corinthians%201:18&version=NIV (Accessed September 13th 2011)
15 Hebrews 12:2, NIV, Biblegateway, http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Hebrews%2012:2&version=NIV (Accessed September 13th 2011)
16 Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 13, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0126.htm (Accessed September 13th 2011)
17 David deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity, IVP, (2000), p51
18 Martin Hengel, Crucifixion, Fortress, (1977), p19
19 Robert Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, Yale University Press, (1985), p68
20 Geza Vermes, The Changing Faces of Jesus, New York: Viking, (2001), p241
21 Robert Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, Yale University Press, (1985), p244
22 Murray Harris, Raised Immortal Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, (1985), p116
23 Gerald O’Collins, The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, Judson Press, (1973), p31
24 Bruce Malina and Jerome Neyrey, Portraits of Paul: AN Archaeology of Ancient Personality, John Knox, (1996), p164
25 Robert Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, Yale University Press, (1984), p62
26 David deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity, IVP, (2000), p46
27 David deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity, IVP, (2000), p36
28 Bruce Malina and Richard Neyrey, Portraits of Paul, John Knox, (1983), p163
29 Bruce Malina and Richard Neyrey, Portraits of Paul, John Knox, (1983), p189
30 Michael J. Wilkins, Who Did Jesus Think He Was?, from Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, eds., Contending With Christianity’s Critics, B&H Publishing Group, (2009), p170
31 J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus, Kregel, p43
32 Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus, IVP, (2007), p51
33 William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, Crossway, (2008), p278-279
34 J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus, Kregel, p47
35 William Lane Craig, Rediscovering the Historical Jesus: Presuppositions and Pretensions of the Jesus Seminar, http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/rediscover1.html (Accessed September 13th 2011)
36 Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus, IVP, (2007), p50
37 William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, Crossway, (2008), p302
38 Mark 8:27-30, NIV, Biblegateway, http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark%208:27-30&version=NIV (Accessed September 14th 2011)
39 John 6:69, NIV, Biblegateway, http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John%206:69&version=NIV (Accessed September 14th 2011)
40 Matthew 11:3, NIV, Biblegateway, http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew%2011:3&version=NIV (Accessed September 14th 2011)
41 Luke 7:19, NIV, Biblegateway, http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%207:19&version=NIV (Accessed September 14th 2011)
42 Luke 7:22-23, NIV, Biblegateway, http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%207:22-23&version=NIV (Accessed September 14th 2011)
43 Matthew 11:4-6, NIV, Biblegateway, http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew%2011:4-6&version=NIV (Accessed September 14th 2011)
44 Zechariah 9:9-10, NIV, Biblegateway, http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Zechariah%209:9-10&version=NIV (Accessed September 14th 2011)
45 Zechariah 14:21, NCV, Biblegateway, http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Zechariah%2014:21&version=NCV (Accessed September 14th 2011)
46 2 Samuel 7:12-14, NCV, Biblegateway, http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2%20Samuel%207:12-14&version=NCV (Accessed September 14th 2011)
47 Amos 9:11, NCV, Biblegateway, http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Amos%209:11&version=NCV (Accessed September 14th 2011)
48 Isaiah 9:6-7, NCV, Biblegateway, http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Isaiah%209:6-7&version=NCV (Accessed September 14th 2011)
49 Malachi 3:1, NCV, Biblegateway, http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Malachi%203:1&version=NCV (Accessed September 14th 2011)
50 Isaiah 40:3, NCV, Biblegateway, http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Isaiah%2040:3&version=NCV (Accessed September 14th 2011)
51 Daniel 7:13-14, NIV, Biblegateway, http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel%207:13-14&version=NIV (Accessed September 14th 2011)
52 Matthew 28:8-10, NIV, Biblegateway, http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew%2028:8-10&version=NIV (Accessed September 15th 2011)
53 Luke 24:36-43, NIV, Biblegateway, http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=luke%2024:36-43&version=NIV (Accessed September 15th 2011)
54 William D. Edwards, Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, On The Physical Death of Jesus Christ, The Journal of the American Medical Association 255 (11, 1986), p1455-1463
55 FP Retief, and L Cilliers, The History and Pathology of Crucifixion, South African Medical Journal 92 (112, 1993), p938-941
56 Josephus, The Life of Flavius Josephus, 75, http://www.ccel.org/j/josephus/works/autobiog.htm (Accessed September 19th 2011)
57 Craig A. Evans, Jewish Burial Traditions and the Resurrection of Jesus, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 3/2 (06, 2005), p233-248. See also: Dale Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, T and T Clark, (2005), p318 and Byron McCane, Roll Back the Stone, Trinity Press International, (2003), p11, 14, 47, 54.
58 Byron C. McCane, Where No one Had yet Been Laid: The Shame of Jesus’ Burial, from B.D. Chilton and C.A. Evans, Authenticating the Activities of Jesus, Brill (1998), p431-452
59 This does not stop some for trying to argue otherwise. For example, Richard Carrier fraudulently appeals to two separate passages in Josephus as if they were referring to the same thing to try and support his belief that Jesus was only temporarily buried and then moved to a graveyard reserved for criminals. He uses a passage speaking about blasphemers, and then tries to link it to another passage discussing unruly and rebellious children, despite the fact that they are completely separate.
60 Leonard Zuzne and Warren H. Jones, Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Extraordinary Phenomena of Behaviour and Experience, Erlbaum Associates, (1982), p135
61 Leonard Zuzne and Warren H. Jones, Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Extraordinary Phenomena of Behaviour and Experience, Erlbaum Associates, (1982), p133
62 Leon Festinger and J. M. Carlsmith, Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, p203-211
63 P. gosling, P. M. Denizeau, and D. Orbele, Denial of Responsibility: a new Mode of Dissonance Reduction, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, p722-733
64 The study in question being: Leon Festinger, H.W. Riecken, and S. Schachter, When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World, University of Minnesota Press, (1956)
65 Hector Avalos, The End of Biblical Studies, Prometheus Books, (2007)
66 William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 2nd Edition, Crossway, (2004), p183 and William Lane Craig, Did Jesus Rise From the Dead?, from Michael Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, eds., Jesus Under Fire, Zondervan, (1996), p163-165. Avalos is not unfamiliar with works either, as he even references page 186 of the 2nd edition of Reasonable Faith. Such an oversight thus demonstrates the appalling lows that Avalos is required to stoop to in order to answer Craig.
67 C. Behan McCullagh, Justifying Historical Descriptions, Cambridge University Press, (2004), p22
68 This is endorsement can be found on the back cover of the third edition of Reasonable Faith, Crossway, (2008).
69 For more, see: Elliot Miller and Kenneth Samples, The Cult of the Virgin: Catholic Mariology and the Apparitions of Mary, Grand Rapids: Baker, (1992), p107-108, 110,114-115, 153-154, 156-157,
70 Bruce Malina and Jerome Neyrey, Portraits of Paul, John Knox, (1983), p183
71 Carlin Barton, Roman Honor, University of California Press, (2001), p21, 22, 23
72 J. K. Campbell, Honour, Family, and Patronage, Oxford University Press, (1964), p39
73 John Pilch and Bruce Malina, Handbook of Biblical Social Values, Hendrickson, (1998), p115
74 Bruce Malina, The New Testament World, John Knox, (2001), p36-37
75 John Esposito, The Oxford History of Islam, Oxford University Press, (1999), p8
76 John Esposito, The Oxford History of Islam, Oxford University Press, (1999), p10