Resurrection Debate – Vocab’s Rebuttal to Tim’s Opening Statement

Tim’s Opening Statement

It strikes me as strange that in a debate centered on history, Tim has devoted so much of his time to psychology. His main argument seems to go something like this:

  1. Lots of people believe lots of things that never happened
  2. Lots of people believe the resurrection happened
  3. The resurrection must have never happened

Even though I am slightly lampooning it, this still is not a particularly good or relevant argument. As such, I am going to deal with the more pertinent points Tim raised.

THE CRITERION of EMBARRASSMENT

Tim dodges the criterion of embarrassment issue by committing the genetic fallacy (or the fallacy of a bulverism, take your pick) in regards to what he labels "biblical theologians." Then he parenthetically offers: "In the Gospel of Thomas, young Jesus kills a playmate among other nasty things. According to the criterion, we should accept this story as being more reliable? It certainly is embarrassing to modern Christians…." The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is not deemed as reliable because it is a 2nd century document, as opposed to the canonical gospels, which are all 1st century documents written within the lifetime of many of the eyewitnesses.

LUKE’S RELIABILITY

Tim says, "Luke is not a historian. He tells us that he is, but he is not." Archaeologist Ramsay says, "Luke is a historian of the first rank … this author should be placed along with the very greatest historians." (The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, (1915), 222).

Tim says, "Luke shows absolutely no interest, in his Gospel or in Acts, to present the reader with any sort of fact-checking possibility…." Geisler says, "Luke names 32 countries, 54 cities and 9 islands without an error." (Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (1998), 47)

Tim says, "We have no evidence that he used any sort of reliable critical method." Historian Sherwin-White says this (in regards to Acts, which Luke wrote), "the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming…. Any attempt to reject its basic historicity must now appear absurd." (Roman Society and Roman Law in the Setting of Hellenistic History (1963), 189).

In 1990, Classical historian Colin Hemer went through Luke’s other book (Acts) and identifies 84 different historical facts that have been verified by history and archaeology (The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, Eisenbraums). Has Tim perhaps misdiagnosed Luke?

DID GREEK MYTHS INFLUENCE THE GOSPELS?

Tim is still stubbornly claiming the Gospels (and apparently all Palestinian Jews) were heavily influenced by "the general mythical landscape of the Mediterranean of the time." Why would 1st century Jews, many of whom were eagerly awaiting a military Messiah to kick out the godless Romans, want to adopt their oppressors myths? Nonetheless, since Tim offered up a few names, let’s take a look.

Zalmoxis is one of the names Tim gives as resurrecting bodily. This person – whom Herodotus is not even sure ever lived – taught his people about a common Greek belief – the immortality of the soul. It is unfortunate Tim used Zalmoxis as a forerunner for a belief in bodily resurrection when the body of teaching surrounding Zalmoxis relates to the immortality of the soul, something very different from the doctrine of bodily resurrection.

As far as Inanna’s death, I found this:

She struck her.

Inanna was turned into a corpse

A piece of rotting meat

And was hung from a hook on the wall

A dead corpse hanging from a hook on a wall does not a crucifixion make. I don’t have enough space to deal with Castor and Pollux (I did look them up and found them to be hands-down the worst of Tim’s candidates for any kind of comparison). All I can ask is for people reading this debate to Google their names, read the legends surrounding them and then ask yourself if Tim’s accusations can withstand scrutiny.

A.T. Fear, wrote a whole essay on the subject of how the Attis cult evolved as a direct reaction to Christianity. Fear specifically says the doctrine of ‘resurrection’ is a "late-comer to the cult." (Cybele, Attis and Related Cults (1996), 41-42). It’s not even really a ‘resurrection’ but rather a celebration of Attis’ arrival in the underworld; hardly a resurrection. Another Attis scholar, Maria Lancelotti, explains that only a bare hint of resurrection belief was present in the Attis cult; worse, it did not appear until the 4th Century AD. (Attis Between Myth and History (2002), 160, 288).

One problem I have encountered when people accuse Christianity of borrowing from pre-Christian cults is this: they don’t realize the amount of fluidity in cultic doctrine and practice; many of these cults may have had an origin at a certain point in time but changed drastically as they went on. This means it is not historically responsible to say, "this cult around this god started way back then so it must have influenced Christianity." One also must know when a certain belief arose within said cult. Scholars understand this fact and that is why we see very few bona fide scholars lining up to support these silly accusations; in fact (as is the case with Attis), they often directly refute such naïve notions.

Let me pause here and point out an inconsistency in Tim’s rebuttal: he says I can’t draw Witherington – a NT expert respected by both liberals and conservatives – into the debate and then he proceeds to cite Dennis McDonald as proof for his case! McDonald’s whole thesis is severely flawed so he resorts to literary wizardry to try and prove it. Here is my personal favorite: MacDonald says Jesus’ "casting his gaze" about at everything while in the Jerusalem Temple is a parallel to when Odysseus "ogled" some buildings while visiting a city. Seriously? McDonald also says although Mark "borrowed heavily" from Homer "readers for 2000 years apparently have been blind to this important aspect of Mark’s project." (The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark (2001), 6-7). This type of argumentation is tailor made for Internet conspiracy theorists but ill suited for the serious study of historical events.

A final point on the whole ‘Christianity utilized the dying and rising gods motif’ accusation. Even if there were true bodily resurrection parallels in pre-Christian religions – we have seen this is not the case – that in and of itself does not invalidate the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Don’t miss this point; it is key: even if there were similar stories prior to Jesus – which there were not – it in no way follows that his resurrection never took place. Lastly, a parallel – real or imagined – does not necessarily mean dependence.

RESURRECTION as CATALYST

Unfortunately for Tim’s case he did not address my third point, which was really a series of proofs to demonstrate the sea change that took place in the beliefs and practices of the first Jewish Christians. The question I posed was why did this happen if there was no resurrection? He declined to answer, save a denial: "I will just point out an inaccuracy: the early Christians were almost exclusively poor and downtrodden Gentiles and Hellenistic Jews, not established Jews." Many of the earliest Christians were nationalistic Jews, look at the disciples: Simon (not Peter) appears to have been a member of the Zealot Party Josephus mentions in Antiquities 18.1.6. Judas Iscariot may have had similar associations. Peter demonstrated a strong anti-Gentile bias that had to be corrected by a vision (Acts10.1-11.18) and the Apostle Paul (Gal2.11-21). Only 2 of the 12 (Andrew & Philip) went by Greek names. Tim is partially mischaracterizing the earliest followers of Jesus – they were not Hellenized to the extent he portrayed. The Apostolic Age (30-100 AD) is primarily characterized by its Jewishness and if Tim is claiming the earliest Christians weren’t practicing Jews in the first place so no real change occurred then he is at odds with most historians.

On a similar note, noted scholar R.H. Fuller pointed out, "Even the most skeptical historian has to postulate an ‘x’ … to account for the complete change in the behavior of the disciples…." (The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives (1972), 2). How do we account for the post-resurrection behavior of the disciples? How did they go from turncoats and cowards to bold proclaimers of a new faith? By all accounts, 10 of the 12 died as martyrs and proclaimed their belief in the resurrection of Jesus until the end. Who knowingly dies for a lie of this sort? Sometimes I hear people bring up Islamic terrorists as a counter example. The difference is the disciples were in a position to know whether they were lying about the resurrection; modern day Muslims are not.

Another tactic I sometimes hear used to evade this questions is "well, those accounts of their martyrdom are based on uncertain traditions." Even if we grant this point, we still must ask why the disciples would put themselves in a position to be killed for their proclamation? Even if Tim thinks we don’t know for sure how the disciples died, he still has to deal with the fact they willingly placed their lives in danger because of their new message. These last few considerations only further the case that the bodily resurrection of Jesus indeed happened … and it does not look as if Tim will be offering any real evidence to the contrary.

Resurrection Debate – Tim’s Rebuttal to Vocab’s Opening Statement

Vocab’s Opening Statement

1A: It’s Good Friday today, a suitably meaningful day to be debating the death and resurrection of Jesus. Incidentally, it’s also April Fool’s day today. There is something interesting to learn about April Fool’s day. Even in 2010, in an age of almost unlimited source material and fact-checking capabilities, millions upon millions of people are taken in by phony news reports, even if they read them on the internet where a new tab in Firefox would allow them to fact-check.

I am going to make a larger claim that people are not critical creatures by default. We are wired to believe what we hear (ask any parent of a young child and they’ll tell you!) Very rarely do we dive into the pool of primary evidence. It saves time, sure, to believe what we are told – but it leaves us open to false beliefs.

Vocab, you ask me “why were the faithful the faithful in the first place?” My answer will center around evidence for natural human credulity. (This term has a negative charge, but it is meant in its neutral sense here).

In our time, we have studied the formation of beliefs in the human mind to some extent. We have shown that authority figures can form strong beliefs in the minds of their followers, even though those beliefs are self-destructive (see Eric Hoffer, “The True Believer” (2002)) Other studies on political and religious beliefs show that we tend to echo the culture of our surroundings (see, for instance, Andrew Gelman et. al (2008) “Red State, Blue State” and Michael Argyle “The Psychology of Religious Belief, Behavior, and Experience” (1997). Margaret Gilbert and Emile Durkheim have written about “collective belief” as a sort of shared credulity which, in the minds of the sharers, become solidified as fact. This phenomenon seems endemic to all cultures, and attests to our collective method of fact-sharing and fact-gathering.

Finally, work by cognitive psychologists such as Daniel Simons have taught us that we are very unaware of the imperfections of our sensory perceptions of the world, often overlooking, misconstruing or filling in the gaps of our imperfect memory record of events to provide a narrative. This happens more or less automatically.

So, the question “why are the faithful faithful?” seems to find its answer not in fact-finding but in natural human credulity.

We must always be wary of projecting modern ideas onto ancient times, however. Can we find evidence of this form of credulous behaviour in the ancient world? Indeed we can. I can start in the Bible itself, in Acts 14:8-18. Regardless of whether you believe that the man was healed or not, what this story tells us is that the Lystraians immediately process this experience within their own Hellenistic religious framework, and they are clearly very difficult to convince otherwise. Another example from Acts is 28:6, where the Maltese need no more proof that Paul is a God than the fact that he doesn’t swell up after being bitten by a snake.

Acts 21:38 has Paul mistaken for an Egyptian who is also mentioned in Josephus (JW,2.261-2) who has 30,000 followers who believe he can perform miracles until the Romans kill most of them. Jewish Antiquities 20:97 mentions Theudas, another man who claimed divine powers and whose followers maintained he could part rivers. Plutarch decribes (and derides) in “The Life of Coriolanus” flocks of worshipping a crying statue in Tyche (sound familar?).

First and foremost, we have myriad written accounts from believers in the divine powers of Asclepius. They were healed at his temples and inscribed their testimony over a period of almost 800 years, all over the Roman Empire and beginning in the 4th century BC. (See Edelstein and Edelstein, “Asclepius: A Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies”) Clearly, belief in healing saviour God-men was possible and ubiquitous in the ancient world.

Why were the faithful faithful? The answer lies in psychology and not in evidence.

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1B: The criterion of embarrassment is an interesting one, as far as I am aware only used by biblical theologians to justify the veracity of the Gospels (correct me if I’m wrong). Since I spent a lot of time on the nature of belief, I will address this in shorthand:

i) The story of the death of Jesus is a story, from start to finish, of poignant abandonment and, ultimately, in victory against all odds. The theme is one of role reversal. The Jews do not recognize Jesus, whereas Pilate and the Centurion do; He wrote of Jewish religious leaders accusing Jesus of being the Messiah, whereas his disciples were the ones betraying him to the executioner. After all is lost, and his parents do not even tend to Jesus’ corpse (even though conveniently-named Joseph and Mary are there instead), what better role reversal could you expect from Mark than having the disciples hiding away and the lowly women discover the empty tomb? Given that Early Christianity found its followers almost exclusively in the down-trodden, poor castes, including women, such a conclusion to the tale would not be an embarrassment to them. (In the Gospel of Thomas, young Jesus kills a playmate among other nasty things. According to the criterion, we should accept this story as being more reliable? It certainly is embarrassing to modern Christians, if not to Thomas it seems.)

ii) This criterion works both ways. If statements detrimental to the author’s point can be deemed more reliable, then surely statements furthering the author’s point should be deemed less reliable. Applying the flip side like this, the least reliable parts of the Bible would be the parts which cement Jesus’ status as the Messiah – in particular, the resurrection itself.

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1C: Luke is not a historian. He tells us that he is, but he is not. He never once cites sources or uses any sort of historical method. Lest you think that no ancient historian did these things, I present as one contemporary example among many: Suetonius, regarded by most as an unreliable reteller of rumours, and yet even he manages to mention his sources and compare and assess them when he has more than one (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/suetonius-caligula.html). Luke shows absolutely no interest, in his Gospel or in Acts, to present the reader with any sort of fact-checking possibility. He does say that he his sources must be “handed down from the beginning” bue he never tells us which criteria he uses to determine if his sources are indeed handed down from the beginning. We have no evidence that he used any sort of reliable critical method.

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2: I’m going to turn this one around on Vocab. He claims that it is faulty to assume strong Hellenistic influence on the Gospels and that they must only be seen as Jewish texts. Why? In order for this claim to have value, you need to argue that the Jews at the time were not influenced by these thoughts. I know Witherington’s book which Vocab cites, but since Witherington seems quite convinced of the historicity of the Gospels from the outset, it is circular to draw him into a debate about the veracity of the Gospels themselves. In any case, the claim rests with Vocab who needs to provide historical justification that the Jews were not inside, or were immune to, the general mythical landscape of the Mediterranean of the time.

The Greeks, by the way, did not shun bodily resurrection at all. Some did – the Platonists indeed – but not all Greeks were Platonists. Indeed, as we see in the myth of Castor and Pollux, the twins who were resurrected (bodily) several times and were hugely popular as saviour Gods and are mentioned in quasi-historical myths, taking part in battles etc. This shows that bolidy resurrection was very much within the Hellenistic mindset, and, crucially, there are signs that Mark deliberately employed the Castor/Pollux typology in his Gospel (Dennis McDonald, “The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark”, 2000). Herodotus mentions Zalmoxis who resurrects bodily. Looking back even further, we find the ancient mesopotamian goddess Inanna who descends to the underworld after death (by crucifixion, incidentally) and is bodily resurrected.

This, by the way, is also a solidly dated precursor to the concept of a God-person dying and being brought back to life. I hope it’s ancient enough for you (at least 2000BC). Vocab goes on to make a long and rather startling list of demands for evidence before he will accept the rather simple idea that “the Gospels were not the first people to ever talk about a God-man dying and being bodily resurrected”. I feel no need to bow to those demands. I will agree entirely with Vocab that it is fruitless to search for an older carbon copy of Christianity (although you will find, on the internet, a long list of comparisons with Mithras. The list has little basis in historical record and can be safely ignored here). You won’t find a carbon copy because all religions are different. Attis, a God-man from around the 7th century BC, died and was resurrected by Cybele. But he died by castration, not crucifixion (indeed, the Cybele priests ritually castrated themselves because of this belief). Does that mean that there is no overlap between the two beliefs? Of course not. The general idea “God-man dies and resurrects” is found in countless religious stories, including Christianity. The details differ between them all. It doesn’t matter.It’s like saying Star Wars and Star Trek have absolutely nothing in common, not even the sharing of basic ideas.

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3: I have almost no room left to address Vocab’s third point, so I will just point out an inaccuracy: the early Christians were almost exclusively poor and downtrodden Gentiles and Hellenistic Jews, not established Jews. (Eusebius, “History of the Church”, John Polhill, “Acts: The New American Commentary”, (1992), Richard Rohrbaugh, “The Jesus Tradition” (2000)) In an age where religious shopping around was much more widespread than it is now (and my opening remarks about the nature of belief), this proves nothing about the truthfulness of the resurrection.

Resurrection Debate – Vocab’s Opening Statement

“The evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion.

It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity.” – Antony Flew [1]

::: Can the Resurrection of Jesus be historically substantiated? Yes, and every other explanation fails.

The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is quite solid on historical grounds. Even though I will be mainly focusing on the historical evidence supporting the claim that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, I have noticed even solid historical evidence has a tough time overpowering people’s philosophical objections to the resurrection. These I cannot address here, since we are mainly looking at the historical – and not the philosophical – validity of the resurrection.

How can we know the resurrection of Jesus has any historical validity? I offer three considerations:

ONE: The Nature and Literary Genre of the Gospels

A major consideration often overlooked in these discussions is the nature of the Gospels. It is not appropriate to call them biographies in the purest sense; they have elements that were common to the genre of ancient biographies, sometimes called bios.  Those who want to write the Gospels off as mere ‘myths for the faithful’ have to ask themselves why were the faithful the faithful in the first place? They also have to deal with how the Gospels describe themselves (as historical documents); this is most explicit in the highly formalized Greek prologue of Luke:

“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” (ESV)

Here, the author is claiming to have done research for the sake of certainty – this is not how one begins a religious myth. Not only that, but there are certain incidental details – many of which we are just now discovering – which are rooted and embedded in a first century Jerusalem context. One example in regards to the resurrection is the kind of tomb mentioned in connection with the burial of Jesus. It was an acrosolia or a bench tomb; these tombs were used by notables – such as Joseph of Arimethea – in Jesus’ day.

Another key point is the inclusion of women as the first witnesses to the resurrection. The testimony of women was not well regarded in first century Jewish society. If the narratives are legendary, why then would the authors include testimony by people who were not seen as credible by their peers? On a related note, if the authors were writing stories to bolster people’s faith, why would they portray all the early leaders of the church at that time as cowards and doubters? Per what historians call the ‘criterion of embarrasment’, both of these factors point to the historical veracity of the resurrection accounts.

TWO: The Religio-Historical Background of the Resurrection Accounts

One handicap some people face in talking about the historical Jesus – and hence the resurrection narratives – is they are not up on current scholarly literature. If one were to glean their information about Jesus from the Internet, one may come away with the impression that the historical Jesus sits squarely within the Hellenistic motif of ‘divine men’ or some such variation. If one thought this, one would be incorrect in their understanding of the historical Jesus and the accounts of his resurrection. From decades of recent research, we can see Jesus’ historical context is in a first century Semitic (specifically Jewish) context. This means we now understand better than ever the ‘Jewishness’ of Jesus – any other framework will not do. For more information on this fact, Ben Witherington’s book The Jesus Quest, details the quest(s) for the historical Jesus and its findings. Before any meaningful discussion about the resurrection can begin, one must understand the ancient Semitic fabric of the life, death and resurrection (the last point being debated here, of course) of Jesus of Nazareth.

I mention this because it is precisely at this point that many critiques of the resurrection fall flat. Many critics of the resurrection as history insert non-Semitic theology and Greco-Roman views of religion into the resurrection narratives and then make false parallels in an effort to discredit the resurrection of Jesus as the unique event that it was. One reason this is such a massive error is because most Greeks absolutely shunned the idea of a bodily resurrection. How can one match the Platonic view of the body – that the material element was undesirable – with the Christian teaching that because Jesus received a new resurrection body, one day Christians will, too? This collision of worldviews is illustrated in Paul’s Mars Hill discourse in Acts 17. As soon as Paul told the assembled Athenians of his hope in a bodily resurrection, they mocked and ridiculed him. The Greeks viewed the body as a prison for the soul and wanted to be rid of it, not receive it anew in the afterlife!

The tales of so-called ‘resurrections’ you so often hear about are no such thing; the attempted parallels are false and the supposed similarities are stretched beyond the point of recognition. For one, many of these gods’ so-called resurrections are post-dated after the rise of Christianity and could not have influenced it. If Tim wants to claim Greco-Roman myths played a role in formulating Christian resurrection belief, he is going to have to give us a rock solid date prior to Christianity. Further, he is going to have to demonstrate there was a transfer of ideas that can be traced from said pre-Christian source. Lastly, he is going to have to explain away any competing ‘resurrection’ tales about whatever god he may choose to use as his resurrection model. We are going to need specific details if he decides to go this route, we cannot blindly take his word on it.

THREE: The Cause of the Birth and Growth of the Early Christian Church

One can show resurrection belief arose very early in Christianity. NT scholars will tell you the earliest Kerygma (‘proclamation’ or ‘preaching’) was centered on the bodily resurrection of Jesus. There are several different strands of resurrection tradition found within the NT itself. To understand this, we must recall the NT was not originally one book but rather a collection of the earliest Christian testimony and later bound together. This means we have various literary witnesses to the resurrection from different sources within the one work we now refer to as the NT. Even the most skeptical form and source critics recognize this.

On a related note is the birth and growth of the early church itself. Here’s what I mean: how does one account for first century Jews changing their eschatological views without the resurrection of Jesus? Most Jews of this era believed there would be a general resurrection of the righteous dead at the eschaton (‘the end of the age’), not during history. Not only that, but this event would not be of one individual but of all the faithful. This belief can be seen in a statement made by Martha of Bethany in John 11:24. Since all the first Christians were Jewish, why did they suddenly start talking about and writing about a resurrection of one individual – the Messiah, no less – within space and time? This is a huge question that must be answered, since Christian resurrection belief cannot be accounted for within the Judaism of that time. If there was no resurrection, how did this belief arise?

There were other major changes in Jewish practice and doctrine for early Christians. Here are just a few of those changes:

  • Changing the Sabbath to worship on Sunday
  • Worshipping Jesus ‘in addition to’ than Yahweh
  • Loosening up or abandoning dietary restrictions
  • Accepting Gentile believers as brothers and sisters
  • Worshipping anywhere, as opposed to only a synagogue or in Jerusalem

British scholar N.T. Wright gives more reasons for Jewish views changing regarding the resurrection, which can be read at Shawn White’s post here.

::: Conclusion

From this information, we can see the NT has a variety of important source material supporting the resurrection. We can also see that pagan mythologies are not a valid explanation for the accounts we have of the resurrection. We can also see that any alternative explanation for the resurrection has to be able to give us a reason for the birth and growth of the early church, especially when we can see the amazing fact that early Jewish Christians transformed many of their central beliefs and practices. To defend his position, Tim must not only discredit the evidence I have laid out but also give us a more plausible explanation. I think history will not be in his favor in this effort.

NOTES:

[1] Gary Habermas, “My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism: An Exclusive Interview with Former British Atheist Professor Antony Flew.”

Resurrection Debate – Tim Jorgensen’s Opening Statement

Was Jesus resurrected from the dead?  I say no.

Of course, I have no way of being absolutely sure. All I can really say is that I have insufficient evidence to accept the claim. However, what is the reasonable position when you don’t have evidence enough? Is it to say "well, it’s 50-50, I have no way of assigning a truth value either way"? I don’t think so, at least not always. If the claim is extraordinary, the evidence needs to be strong enough to support it. An extraordinary claim with weak evidence earns a rating of "it seems highly unlikely, so I will not accept that claim until further evidence presents itself". This, in shorthand, becomes my "no" of the title.

Why Jesus being raised from the dead is an extraordinary claim should be obvious. Never in recorded history have we witnessed anything dead come back to life = not humans, not animals, not plants. Furthermore, we have strong scientific reasons to think that once an organism is dead, it cannot come back to life because of destructive processes like cell tissue death, oxygen deprivation (in animals) and so on.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we can’t be wrong and that resurrection can’t happen anyway. It does mean, however, that we need some pretty good evidence that it actually did happen.  If I told you that I had cornflakes for breakfast yesterday morning, you’d be inclined to make my word for it because it’s an unextraordinary claim. You know cornflakes exist, you know people eat them, you have probably eaten them yourself.  On the other hand, if I tell you that I died and came back to life yesterday morning, you would be much more skeptical of this claim. And so you should be.

Now imagine that I were in a murder trial where the only thing can could save me from a conviction would be if I had eaten cornflakes yesterday morning. That would be the bulletproof alibi. Now, when I then turn around and state, why yes, I did have cornflakes yesterday morning – well, now you would demand evidence. You wouldn’t just let me go, because the truth value of the claim now has great importance. You could get a forensic test of my stomach contents, check my house and trash to see if I have an open box of cornflakes, suitable milk, etc.

Now, finally, imagine that my only alibi would be that I died and was resurrected yesterday morning. Whatever amount of evidence you’d ask for before is now even greater, because not only is the claim extraordinary, it’s deeply important.

Jesus’ resurrection fits this profile. Christians claim that accepting this fact is the most important thing in the world – it will determine if you go to heaven or to hell. It is both extraordinary and important (to Christians). And therefore, the evidence needs to be looked at carefully.

Evidence for a resurrection

So, let us start looking at the evidence. Unfortunately, unless I have missed an important source, we find no sources that claim Jesus came back from the dead outside the New Testament.  Not that biblical sources can reasonably be discounted out of hand – but they have special interests in preserving the story that is so central to their religion. We will look at thoese documents in turn. Well, Yes, there is that one passage by Josephus which goes:

"When Pilate, upon the accusation of the first men amongst us, condemned [Jesus] to be crucified, those who had formerly loved him did not cease [to follow him], for he appeared to them on the third day, living again, as the divine prophets foretold, along with a myriad of other marvellous things concerning him."

Here’s the thing about that: in the very same text, Josephus espouses the roman General Vespasian as the expected Messiah:

"What did the most to induce the Jews to start this war, was an ambiguous oracle that was also found in their sacred writings, how, about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth. The Jews took this prediction to belong to themselves in particular, and many of the wise men were thereby deceived in their determination. Now this oracle certainly denoted the government of Vespasian, who was appointed emperor in Judea." (Flavius Josephus, Jewish War 6.312-313, emphasis mine)

This, along with Origen’s writing on Josephus where he plainly states that Josephus was not a Christian, makes it a little strange that Josephus seemingly reports the miraculous resurrection of Jesus (who he also called ‘the Christ’ in the same passage). This seems like a strange contradiction, pointing to a corruption of the text in at least one of the two places.

The passage about Jesus, sadly, seems to be the prime candidate for the "bad apple". No Christian writer quoting Josephus or otherwise familiar with him mention this amazing tale of a Jew rising from the dead – despite them having strong interest in as much proof as they could get their hands on.  Vocabulary analysis also makes the same passage stick out of the rest of The Jewish War like a sore thumb. The consensus among scholars is that the passage did originally mention Jesus, but that the content of the passage has now been entirely corrupted, probably with pious scribes wanting to emphasize the point while copying the original text.

This brings me to the biblical texts and the way I think it is reasonable to read them:  I do not think there is any fair reason to say that there are outright hoaxes and frauds in the documents. I think the authors believed that what they were writing was relevant to their readers, with no ulterior motives. The scribes corrupting Josephus were, in their own mind at least, simply adding some obviously true facts about Jesus when they came across his name. That kind of "fine tuning" of copied documents is seen all the time, to the frustration of classical scholars who are interested in the uncorrupted source. In the same way, the stories about the resurrection were passed along by people who were spreading the word of their religion as they perceived it. We must remember the historical and cultural context where these writings were made. They were written in a philosophical soup of ideas about divine beings, saviours, God-men in all the pagan religions. This was conventional wisdom at the time- tales about great men performing miracles, of divine origin, returning to the Gods, etc etc. They were everywhere at the time (just look at Roman mythology, for one. Or any of the other dozens of pagan traditions from the period.)

The early Christian writers all believed Jesus was a God–as their ancient minds understood Gods. So when they sat down to write about His life from 50AD onwards, they naturally wrote it as they understood it, in their own cultural terms. Jesus was a God who came to Earth. Gods fulfilled property. Jesus fulfilled prophesy. Gods came down from the sky through mortal women. Jesus came down from the sky through a mortal woman. Gods had the power to do miracles. Jesus had the power to do miracles(He even did the same miracles as some of the other Gods). Gods taught wisdom. Jesus taught wisdom. Gods saved. Jesus saves. Gods died on Earth and went back to the sky. Jesus died on Earth and rode a cloud back up to His God-place in the sky. There is nothing particularly amazing, from a literary point of view, about the story of Jesus – it was the way they told the story of the great, inspirational man who had appeared from Nazareth and convinced the apostles. The big mistake today would be to take it all literally. Our minds are not attuned to mythological storytelling of factual events. We expect documentary-style fly-on-the-wall stories and read the gospels like that. It’s the wrong pair of spectacles for the text.

That’s not to say that people didn’t actually believe the stories at the time, though. People believed the myths, pagan or Christian, partly because that was how the ancients understood the world – through myth. There was no more objective understanding of reality to compare the myths to – only other myths.

To this mix, all I am going to add is the human propensity to retell a good story without checking the facts, and point to modern examples of myths being created within a short time of an event. As just one example, look at the whole deal with Elvis not being really dead after all, being sighted and having thousands of believers in the "Elvis not dead" theory. I don’t intend that to be a point-by-point comparison to Jesus’ resurrection, of course. Just wanted to show that myths arise and spread quite independently of truth and evidence sometimes.

Resurrection Debate – Rules

Preface: This debate is being posted on a Christian site as well as here, and these rules are copied directly from the same source, and have been agreed on by the participants.

That said, while we encourage everyone to be civil and reasonable, and to refrain from using excessively “foul language”, we trust you to use good judgement in what you post and we do not intend to censor you.

Enjoy the debate, and please participate!

Can the Resurrection of Jesus be Historically Substantiated?

The Rules

Welcome to an online resurrection debate. I will be hosting a debate on the topic of the Resurrection between John-Mark "Vocab" and Tim Jorgensen.

Here are the particulars:

TOPIC: Can the Resurrection of Jesus be Historically Substantiated?
Affirmative: Vocab
Negative: Tim Jorgensen

Participant Rules:

  1. Opening Statements
    1. Each participant will provide an opening statement (approx. 1,500 words in length per side). Vocab will give the affirmative side and Tim will give the negative side.
  2. Rebuttals
    1. Each side will respond with a rebuttal to the other persons opening statement
  3. Cross-Examination
    1. Each participant will submit a series of questions to the other person that deal with statements made in either their opening statement or their rebuttal.
    2. Each participant will answer the questions as succinctly and as directly as possible.
    3. New questions are not permitted, unless they are of a clarifying nature.
  4. Closing Remarks
    1. Each side will end with their closing statements

Commenter Rules:

  1. Anyone is free to comment and discuss, just remember:
    1. Keep your comments relevant to the discussion/debate
    2. Attack ideas, not people
    3. No foul language
    4. Keep it civilized