William Lane Craig has a standard opening statement used when he debates the resurrection of Jesus that he varies slightly from opponent to opponent. Just for fun I thought I’d write out how I’d reply. I used his debates with Robert Price and Bart Ehrman as a basis for this post.
Dr. Craig argues that there are 4 facts agreed upon by the majority of NT scholars that must be explained by any adequate historical hypothesis. He further argues that the best explanation of these facts is his claim of resurrection.
Dr. Craig appeals to evidence and the consensus of scholarship to establish these facts. Evidential appeals are valid, but the appeal to consensus is not. Christian apologist Gary Habermas has examined every piece of scholarly information he could find on this subject written in English, French, and German from 1975 onwards. He reports that 75% of these scholars do believe that the tomb was found empty. But he further reports that over half of these scholars likewise believe that the resurrection did in fact occur. It is not surprising that believing Christians are more likely to become NT scholars. Churches encourage and financially support promising believers that are interested in going to a seminary. I know because I did the same as a Christian. I supported one such person that today is a professor at a Christian university. If you are an atheist and you want to study the Bible you shouldn’t expect similar support. The fact that scholars, most of whom are believing Christians, assent to such statements as the ones Dr. Craig has made, simply doesn’t make any difference to me. Nor would it matter to me if the majority of atheist scholars rejected these statements. The evidence is what matters.
I don’t think the evidence presented is enough to establish any of the 4 facts that Dr. Craig mentioned. I will take them in turn.
The first fact is that after the crucifixion Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimeathea. We know this because Mt, Mk, Lk, Jn, and Paul all say it. It’s part of Mark’s source material, which is dated within 7 years of the crucifixion. Paul quotes a creed that likewise is rooted to material that dates within a few years of the crucifixion. It’s contained in the sources for Mt, Lk, and Jn as well as extra-biblical gospels like the Gospel of Peter. Additionally, Joseph of Arimathea, as a member of the Jewish court that convicted Jesus, is an unlikely invention given early Christian hostility to Jews.
But the issue is not the number of sources. The issue is the quality of those sources. The sources Dr. Craig cites also assert that Jesus cast out of demons to cure illness, that he turned water into wine, that many corpses resurrected simultaneously, that Jesus could teleport, disappear, and float up to the sky. Some sources (Mt, Lk) borrow from others (Mk) and when they do so they often improve on the previous story, which suggests we’re not dealing with unbiased reporting, but attempts to one up one another. We don’t really know for sure that Mark had source material, or that the other gospel authors did. Some scholars speculate that there was, but there may not have been. Perhaps Matthew and Luke didn’t have sources beyond Q and Mark, so they just made things up. We don’t really know, so we can’t just assume they did and call them independent sources, much less quality independent sources.
Dr. Craig says that some of this material is dated very close to the crucifixion event itself. But if the crucifixion happened we don’t really know when. Was it in 100 BC as per Epiphanius, before 5 BC as per Jospehus record of when James died combined with Epiphanius claim of James’ age (96), was it at 21 CE as per the Acts of Pilate, 26-27 CE as per Tertullian, under Claudius at the age of 50 as per Ireanaeus, who reports that he got this information directly from those that knew the disciples? Even Mt and Lk can’t agree on when Jesus was born, so do we really know when he died? These claims are made by those that simply grant all kinds of claims contained in the NT about when Jesus was killed. These are claims I cannot grant, especially in light of the fact that these texts are not the best quality as I mentioned above.
Is Joseph of Arimathea an unlikely invention due to Christian hostility toward Jews? I don’t see why. If I wrote a novel that was historical fiction about the Nazis and I included a character that was a Nazi but turned out to be sympathetic to my position, I don’t know why that would need to be considered unusual or would suggest that my fictive tale was in fact historical since I don’t like Nazis.
Dr. Craig’s second supposed fact is the discovery of the empty tomb. He says that many sources mention it. But I already pointed out that he hasn’t argued that these sources are reliable. He needs to explain why we shouldn’t conclude what we normally conclude about supposed historical books that claim supernatural events or that appear to modify a story to improve on it. He further says that since women are reported as the first to discover the tomb, this makes the claim likely true because that would be otherwise embarrassing. Since women’s testimony was regarded as less reliable than that of a man, then if you were inventing the story you’d sooner report men as the first to discover the tomb. He points out that the earliest Jewish polemics against the tomb presuppose that it is empty (you stole the body). Further it is simple and lacks legendary embellishment.
The argument that women discovered the tomb presupposes that Mark intends to write a persuasive narrative. If in fact he is writing what he knows to be fiction and if he doesn’t mind if his readers take his gospel to be fictive, then there is no problem. C.S. Lewis in writing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, reports that two children were the first to discover that Aslan was raised. Children are not the most reliable witnesses. But Lewis is not concerned because he is writing fiction. There are a number of good reasons for thinking that Mark is likewise writing fiction.
Regarding the earliest Jewish response, this is nothing but tit for tat polemics. Suppose a young Jew runs home and tells his father a few decades after the events “Hey, I just heard this story about a guy named Jesus that rose from the dead and his tomb was empty.” The father might quickly rebuff the claim with “Oh, they probably just stole the body.” Did the father run out and check on the tomb decades after the events? Did he even know where the tomb was? Unlikely. He’s just offering a plausible alternative explanation to an outlandish assertion that he has heard.
The fact that a story lacks legendary embellishment is not a proof that it is historical. There’s nothing implausible about Huck Finn running away from home by floating down the river with a slave, but this doesn’t make it true.
The third supposed fact is that people had post mortem appearances of Jesus. The evidence is Paul’s claims in I Cor 15 and the claims of the Gospels. Again, the gospels need to be shown to be reliable before we can trust the reporting and I’ve shown that they are not. As to Paul’s claims, appearances to groups of people are not all that unusual. My Pentecostal family is familiar with these type of events as are the reports of visions of Mary at
The fourth supposed fact is that the disciples came to believe that Jesus was raised. But Dr. Craig did not claim that these disciples believed that Jesus rose in the exact same sense that he does. Did they believe Jesus was physically raised, and that he rose with the same body he died with as Dr. Craig believes? We don’t know that. We know that the earliest Christians held a variety of views about what the resurrected body was like. Some were docetists, claiming that Christ was never physically present but only had the appearance of flesh. Some Gnostics likewise thought Christ had never come in the flesh. A skeptic has no difficulty explaining that some people, such as the apostles, really believed that Christ rose in some sense.
Dr Craig says Jewish beliefs preclude anyone from believing that a particular resurrection could occur prior to the general resurrection. But the NT records that Herod believed Jesus was the resurrected John the Baptist, and likewise many of those that followed Jesus believed the same thing.
Finally Dr Craig asserts that the best explanation of these facts is a miraculous resurrection. He’s wrong about the four facts and he’s wrong to say that a miracle is the best explanation. Even if the 4 facts were true, and even if it were recorded by eyewitnesses (which it wasn’t) and even if it were written within a couple of years of the events rather than several decades and even if it were written in a scientific era rather than a superstitious one, it still should not be accepted. This is because we all know from experience that miraculous claims are extraordinarily unlikely. So to establish them we likewise need an extraordinary amount of evidence.
But Dr. Craig will say that he agrees. He’ll say that of course it’s unlikely that Christ was raised NATURALLY. But there’s nothing unlikely about God raising Christ supernaturally. But that’s not true. If I told you that I arrived here tonight via intergalactic spaceship, you’d dismiss my claim. Does my claim become more probable if I add that God was involved? With or without God we have no experience of such a thing, so we regard it as extremely unlikely.
Interestingly, the debate is about the interpretation of the facts that are agreed upon by scholars and historians. For you to question the actual HAPPENING of these events themselves is to pit yourself not only against Craig, but against the consensus of historians and scholars.
You argue that one cannot appeal to consensus. You mention that most of the scholars are Christians anyway. This fails to make your case, because if you took away the Christian scholars among that consensus, you are left with 100% of the consensus being atheists. It is a logical fallacy to say that just because the majority of the consensus may be Christians that the consensus can't be appealed to.
You will now have to argue with these scholars and historians over facts that they all attest to. It seems to me that that to be a good Humean, the wise man will always side with the majority of the scholars. Especially when virtually all of them attest to certain "cold facts" -- that is, elements that are not miraculous.
So you see, you are not even fighting against Christianity right now (although that is your motivation); you are fighting against experts doing good history. Right now you find yourself head-to-head with the vast majority of scholars and historians because of your firm commitment to hyper skepticism.
Since when is it valid historical practice to cherry-pick four "facts" and insist that any theory must explain them? Isn't this exactly what the 9/11 conspiracy nuts do? They pick out two or three camera angles and they find a couple of witnesses who remember hearing an explosion and they claim that the only explanation for that handful of "facts" is their theory that the Twin Towers were brought down by controlled demolition. Unfortunately for the nuts, when you look at all the evidence, the conclusion that terrorists flew planes into the buildings is so overwhelming that those few odd details can be dismissed as anomalies.
I would like to add one additional fact to Craig's mix to illustrate the problem. It is a fact upon which virtually all men of science are virtually 100% certain and it is this: ONCE YOU'RE DEAD, YOU'RE DEAD. Once you require your historical explanation to account for this fact, all those explanations that Craig so blithely dismisses start looking a lot more reasonable.
Vinny, in your analogy Jon is taking the side of the conspiracy theorists in cooking up some crazy theories. He is trying to explain away NON-MIRACULOUS "hard facts" such as the crucifixion of Jesus. Again, no serious scholar disputes those facts.
My point is that to deny the solid facts (not the miracle claims) is to become overly skeptic without proper warrant. Then you truly become the conspiracy theorist.
It is a logical fallacy to say that just because the majority of the consensus may be Christians that the consensus can't be appealed to.
Of course that's not why you can't appeal to consensus to justify a conclusion. You can't appeal to consensus to justify a conclusion because the consensus is sometimes wrong. Do you realize it was the consensus of scholars in Jesus day that Jesus be put to death? What was the consensus position on Martin Luther's theories or Galileo's theories? You owe it to yourself to actually look at the evidence and decide on that basis rather than just taking the word of a few big names. The reason I pointed out that most of these scholars are believing Christians is simply to help explain partly why I think the scholarly position is what it is. This doesn't make them wrong. The evidence and arguments are what make them wrong. You never said one thing in rebuttal to my arguments.
It seems to me that that to be a good Humean, the wise man will always side with the majority of the scholars.
Always side with the majority of scholars? Is this what you do with regards to the theory of evolution, the age of the earth, the authorship of 2 Peter or Ephesians, or that Jesus made false prophecies concerning his own imminent return? I don't think you need to take the consensus view if you think the arguments and evidence can overturn the consensus position.
This is the point Vinny is making. Craig wants to demand that our hypothesis accommodate these 4 supposed facts. How do his views accommodate the facts I mentioned in the preceding paragraph? Not too well. I don't think he regards apes and humans as having a common ancestor or that the bible is errant or that Jesus made false predictions about his return or that 2 Peter is a 2nd century forgery. Don't we need to examine the evidence for ourselves rather than just taking the word of certain big name individuals?
No. It is Craig that is on the side of the conspiracy theorists because he is the one arguing that our conclusion must be based on a limited number of facts that he chooses rather than all the facts.
Consider the following hypothetical:
The Chicago Tribune prints a fuzzy picture on the sports page that appears to show that the Cubs' base runner was mistakenly called out at the plate. 10,000 Cub fans agree that the Cubs were robbed by the umpire. Regardless of popular opinion, the evidence in that case is the one fuzzy picture, not the opinion of the 10,000 Cub fans.
For the most part, the evidence for Craig's facts are anonymous documents written thirty to sixty years after the events in question. The evidence is just as fuzzy regardless of the number of scholars who look at it.
75% of scholars?
If only 75% of professional biologists believed in Darwin's theories, creationists would have full page ads in every paper in the country pointing out how controversial the theory was.
It is a FACT that people converted to Christianity and still scoffed at the idea that God would choose to raise a corpse.
Paul cannot find one single bit of 'eyewitness' testimony when trying to explain what a resurrected body was like.
It is a fact that the author of 1 Peter wrote that 'All flesh was grass' when allegedly early Christians claimed some flesh had not seen corruption (Paul never says anything like some flesh never saw corruption)
It is a fact that in 2 Corinthians 5, Paul preaches the destruction of the body, not its salvation.
How does Craig explain these facts?
If only 75% of professional biologists believed in Darwin's theories, creationists would have full page ads in every paper in the country pointing out how controversial the theory was.
How true. Of course, even where the consensus on evolution is 99%, the creationists scream bloody murder about the biases of the majority. But if someone points out that the majority of New Testatment scholars are Bible believers, Christians feign puzzlement over how that could possibly be relevant.
Jon, Good response. A few points that I would add, but more out of personal style. Definitely not a criticism of what you wrote.
First, there is an over-arching important question which Craig blithely skips past. Which came first—the story or the writing? Just like the proverbial chicken/egg question—we currently have both chickens laying eggs and eggs hatching chickens. We are left in the conundrum of which came first.
We currently have both the story of Joseph of Arimathea, and the writing of the story of Joseph of Arimathea. Dr. Craig (perhaps unknowingly) approaches this topic with the presumption the story was in place prior to the writing by the author of Mark. (Paul obviously says nothing about Joseph of Arimathea. The earliest encounter we have is in the Gospel of Mark.)
However, what if Mark simply inserted Joseph into the story? What if the very first time Joseph is actually thought of is by the author of Mark when this tale was written? What if the writing happened before the story? In that situation, we would no longer need to explain the presence of a Sanhedrin member in this situation—since it never happened!
What ends up happening, almost surreptitiously, is Dr. Craig is presuming what he is attempting to prove. He assumes the story of Mark is correct, and then proves his assumption by using the Gospel of Mark! Further, still springing off this minor character, we see how the legends develop within the writing. Notice Matthew makes Joseph a disciple of Jesus! (Matt. 27:57). Luke retains the more translucent “waiting for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 23:51) John adds another council member—Nicodemus! (John 19:38-39)
Why didn’t Mark, Matthew or Luke include Nicodemus? Or is it more likely Nicodemus was not part of the story at the time of the writing of these Gospels? Also notice how both Joseph and Nicodemus completely drop out of the picture in Acts.
Before I am lambasted by how the story HAD to come first—I would note that many apologists change methods and DO implement the method the story is invented at the time of the writing. Take the infancy Gospel of Thomas and Jesus killing a boy who bumped into him. Many apologists would claim the author made up the tale—i.e. the writing came before the story. Or take the Gospel of Peter. Why is it claimed the author made up the tale of the two people carrying Jesus out of the tomb?
Why does the method change? Why is it “story before writing” when it comes to the Gospel of Mark; but “writing before story” when it comes to the Gospel of Peter.
There is so much more I could write on what Dr. Craig says. The dating of 1 Cor. 15 is off. I disagree with the speculative claim of dating it within a few years of Jesus’ death. Further, it does not help the veracity of the Gospels—when did Jesus appear to Peter prior to the Twelve? (Note: some apologists put Peter on the road with Cleophas in Luke.)
However, one point I would make on the Empty Tomb. Does Dr. Craig discuss burial methods of first century Judea prior to 70 C.E.? See, they had a problem—overcrowding. There were more people dying than cemetery space. (After the Jewish Wars, this was no longer a problem due to the decimation of the population. Sad.)
After a person died, they would be placed in the family tomb for a year. Basically to allow the flesh to rot off. (The Jews did not consider a person actually dead during that year.) After the year, the tomb would be re-opened (hence the rocks in front of caves being movable), the bones collected and then put into a stone box. Ossuaries. The Ossuaries would be left in the family tomb, sometimes (but not always) with the name of the dead person carved onto the box. This way the family tomb could support dozens of dead relatives.
Assuming for a moment Jesus was placed in a local tomb. This would always, always, always be considered a temporary basis. At the least, even if he stayed there, one year later they would open ‘er back up to put him in a box. Most likely, in the present situation, Jesus’ body would have been moved after the feast of unleavened bread, back to his family tomb in Galilee to wait out the year to go into an ossuary.
The question of the “empty tomb” must focus on when that question was asked. Even a week later, someone could state the tomb was “empty” and there would be a shrug. The body could be moved to Galilee as was most probable. (Also note that John has Mary Magdalene contemplating this very question: “Where did they move the body?”) A year later is far too late. An ossuary would be all that was left, at best. Again, far more likely to be in a family tomb.
This polemic presumes “empty tomb” on Sunday after Sabbath. Yet again, this presumes Mark was correct, and then proves it—by Mark!
I was successful in running down Habermas’ “75%” You state it correctly. In his article, he says”
“For the purposes of this essay, I will define moderate conservative approaches to the resurrection as those holding that Jesus was actually raised from the dead in some manner, either bodily (and thus extended in space and time), or as some sort of spiritual body (though often undefined).”
Gary Habermas Article.
After his study, he concludes a “3:1” ration of moderate conservatives to skeptical authors. In other words, for every 3 moderate conservatives, there is 1 skeptical author. In other words, 75% of the scholars are moderate conservatives—people who hold Jesus was actually raised from the dead.
Is there any surprise, that those who hold to Jesus actually being raised from the dead, believe an empty tomb is historical?
Within this particular topic, 75% of scholars writing on it believe Jesus was actually raised from the dead. The same 75% hold to an empty tomb. What is so remarkable about that percentage?
What a great post - i'll have to link xians to it when they harp on about the resurrection evidence. I just cant see why xians cant see that the bible is a fictional set of stories.
In Matthew 28 the tomb is closed when Mary Magdalene first visits and it takes an angel to open it.
In John 20 when she visits the tomb that first Easter morning it is wide open. Clearly both tales cannot be true. If an almighty, omniscient and perfect God cannot keep his inspired story straight and the matter of how many angels at the empty tomb being different in each of the gospels and the number of women who came is also different in each of the four gospels. And who did these various amounts of women tell? 'They' told the eleven disciples (Matt 28:8; Luke 24:9) OR they told nobody (Mark 16:8).
Divinely inspired = Crazy or Dishonest or both. Do we count as historians and scholars those the Bible Schools that became colleges and now call themselves Universities? No wonder the wingnut position has a greater percentage of historians and scholars than the rational one.
"The earliest extant Christian documents are the letters of Paul, who never met Jesus (in the flesh).
Hence, the Jesus that history came to know is the Jesus portrayed...recalled, reconstructed, interpreted, embellished, vividly imagined...in the New Testament by writers living one or two generations after the period covered by their narratives, the authorship of which they ascribed to Jesus' original disciples...even these writings were gradually selected...out of a larger group of such materials, some of which offered radically different perspectives on the supposed events in question." R. Tarnas, ISBN 0-517-57790-9.
Excellent information DagoodS. I'd heard the 75% claim from Habermas at a few different sources, but my claim about a majority believing the resurrection was based on a radio interview he did (The Things that Matter Most–5-28-06 at 40 minute 48 second mark) where he only described it as a majority believing the resurrection. Apparently that majority precisely maps to the 75% who believe the tomb was empty. Fascinating.
With regards to the other facts, he does even claim that the majority of unbelieving scholars accept them (The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, p149). It would be interesting to know how he defines an unbeliever. Would someone that holds to some sort of spiritual resurrection be considered an unbeliever?
Not that it matters at the end of the day, but interesting nontheless.
That's quite a can of worms with regards to the empty tomb. I was not aware of all of those details. This really does seem so suggest that even if an empty tomb were a reality, its existence certainly would not demand a supernatural explanation, since plausible naturalistic explanations could account for it. I maintain the position that we don't know there was an empty tomb regardless, but if there were it is irrational to invoke the singular most unlikely explanation (miracle) to explain it.
Now, let me say something about which came first, the story or the writing. First of all you're absolutely correct, and I'll probably expand on this in a subsequent post. Craig wants to start by assuming that Christ was crucified by order of the Sanhedrin along with Joseph of Arimethea. Now he will attribute to the skeptic the position that given that Christ was convicted by a group that included Joseph of Arimethea and given that Mark is conspiring to trick people into believing in Jesus (remember this is the view he's attributing to the skeptic) what kind of sense would this make given that Mark probably hates Joseph of Armiethea? Makes little sense of course. But as you said, are we really sure that this guy is real? What if Mark just made him up? Just like the women at the tomb issue this is all just a big question beg. Assume the truth of the story and argue on that basis.
How do we know there is a Land of Oz? Because of the yellow brick road. If there's no Land of Oz, then where does the yellow brick road lead?
Skylick, you may find this post interesting. It's an attempt to describe what happened on the Sunday morning following the crucifixion using Scripture where I talk about details such as the ones you mentioned.
Great post Jon.
I came here via the link from John Loftus' blog 'Debunking Christianity', and I'm glad that I did.
I seem to recall reading somewhere that Bill Craig does not believe the 'Easter Zombie' story in the gospel of Matthew, about the saints rising from their graves and wandering around Jeruslem. So I'm not sure that he is a complete inerrantist. I can't remember where I read it, but perhaps one of your other readers might know.
It is interesting to note that it's only the gospel of Matthew which states that the tomb belonged to Joseph of Arimathea. All the other gospels simply describe it as a tomb which was nearby to where Jesus was crucified.
Richard Carrier has written a couple of good articles rebutting Craig's arguments. You might be interested in reading them if you have not already done so.
Carrier makes the case that because the Sabbath was about to begin, Jesus was temporarily placed in the tomb with the intention of relocating the body after the Sabbath was over, which would have been Saturday evening at sundown.
The women are supposed to have gone to the tomb early on Sunday morning, so Joseph and Nichodemus would have had ample time to move the body, bury it in the criminal's graveyard, and be gone before anyone else could have known they were ever there.
This sounds far more plausible than a bodily resurrection, and I don't know why somone hasn't taken Bill Craig to task about it in any of his debates on the resurrection.
Have you heard about this hypothesis before, and have you heard anyone use it against Craig in any of his debates?
Well, Dingodave, I'd be interested to know if you're right about Craig. In my post here I provide a link from him that basically explains why someone that holds to the resurrection really needs to hold to inerrancy. Perhaps he does figure out a way to fudge on that one issue.
Carrier goes into some detail on that "moving body" hypothesis in the Empty Tomb. I don't know if that is where you saw it, but I have read that. It's not that Carrier actually believes that this happened, but only that it is a somewhat plausible naturalistic explanation of supposed facts such as what Craig puts forward. With those details you mentioned and others he does a really good job of showing that this hypothesis is really not quite as absurd as you might think. As you said, this is far more plausible than the miraculous explanation.
What Carrier actually believes is exactly what I believe. That is that our story of Jesus is so much fictional teaching material and legend that if there was a historical Jesus he's pretty much lost to us. And there is a good chance he may have entirely originated as myth. Can't be sure of course, but this is a good possibility.
I've never heard a skeptic defend the "moved body" hypothesis with Craig. Ehrman did defend a naturalistic hypothesis. And like Carrier he'd say he doesn't even believe his alternative. Only that it is more plausible than Craig's miraculous explanation. If you did defend the moved body hypothesis you'd have to get ready for all of the talk about how it couldn't have been a vision, etc. That can be done effectively in my view.
The evidence for the resurrection of Christ is quite impressive, but it's not enough to convince the skeptic. So the question becomes, "What is the role of evidence?"
Is evidence supposed to convince?
Apparently not, since the evidence is never quite good enough.
E.g., there's enough evidence to believe that the Shroud may be authentic, but there's enough evidence to doubt. The evidence always seems to end as "impressive but unconvincing."
Philosophical arguments are the same. The universe can seem as if there's a Designer, and it can seem hopelessly random and uncaring.
So are people justified in believing? I would say people are equally justified in their belief or their unbelief. I can't find a way to demonstrate that one is more rational than the other. It seems to come down to preference, as if the universe is an ink blot test.
FWIW, it is possible to quantify whether or not a person is justified in their belief using Bayes' Theorem. It is explained by my brother here, and applied to the resurrection by my brother here, here, and here. It's a subjective assessment based upon your own background assumptions, but it does lay the assumptions bare so they can be evaluated.
It's tough to know who's right on any question for which there are plausible alternatives, but I do think Bayes' Theorem is a great tool for evaluating the reasonableness of competing beliefs. I don't think we're totally in the dark.
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