Gary describes himself as a former “devout orthodox (fundamentalist) Christian,” who has rejected the Christian faith and appears to be on a quest to discredit the Christian religion (only the conservative/moderate versions of it. I have no issue with liberal, universalist, Christianity). He recently entered my tiny speck of the blogosphere, insisting (“insisting” is a little strong. I would say, “requesting”) that I read his review of his former pastor’s defense of the Lord’s resurrection. He claims that belief in the resurrection lacks any good evidence and is “based on nothing more than assumptions, second century hearsay, superstition, and giant leaps of faith.” I read his review <Link>. Here is my response.
Evaluating the Evidence
Gary maintains that “the overwhelming majority” of skeptics accept the testimonies of early Christians as valid evidence, although the evidence must be scrutinized “with the caveat that there may well be bias present in their statements.” I agree with this approach and with Gary’s observation that “both sides have a bias, but biases do NOT necessarily invalidate the evidence.”1
Gary then affirms that he and most other skeptics “view the Bible as a mixture of truths and fiction. The key to understanding the Bible is examining each biblical claim to determine which category it belongs to, and not assuming every claim is true or every claim is false.” The problem here is that no one approaches the biblical record with a completely blank tablet, and one’s deep-seated presuppositions inevitably affect how the scriptures are evaluated. The pendulum swings in both directions. (I agree.) If one has little or no respect for the Bible or has a predisposition against it and examines the text merely to find fault, then the final assessment will almost certainly be negative.2 (Very true. But I believe it is an assumption to state that most skeptics look at the Bible in this manner. Some, yes, but, “most”? I doubt it. Most of us are looking for the truth. If all we wanted is to bash Christianity, we would all claim that Jesus never existed and that ALL information about Jesus contained in the Gospels is fiction. Most of us do not hold this extreme view because we respect evidence. I for one believe that there is sufficient evidence to believe that Jesus existed, was an apocalyptic first century Jewish preacher, who got on the wrong side of the Jewish authorities of his day, and was then crucified at the hands of the Romans. I also believe that very soon after this death, his followers came to believe that Jesus had been bodily resurrected and had appeared to them in some form.
Would Gary deny this about most, some, or any skeptics? (Some skeptics very definitely have a deep animosity towards Christianity and therefore want to reject any fact claims about Jesus. These people, however, are a minority, a small minority, among skeptics.)
It is commendable that he argues for an unbiased, objective analysis of the biblical evidence (I concur!), yet his own approach seems very one-sided. He repeatedly makes the very broad, anecdotal appeal to “the overwhelming majority” of skeptics and biblical scholars, but the only one he actually names is agnostic professor Bart Ehrman. How many scholarly critics are there (past and present), and where does each fit on the liberal-conservative theological spectrum, and who determines the percentage of the ones espousing a particular view? While I don’t know how many of these alleged experts Gary has read or listened to (presumably not all of them), it is apparent that his primary focus is pretty much limited to those who already agree with him. A clear example of this is his contention that “the Epistle of Second Peter is a known work of fraud! No scholar that I know of believes that Peter or any other eyewitness wrote that epistle.” There are numerous scholars that Gary evidently doesn’t “know of” who would disagree (e.g. D. A. Carson, E. M. B. Green, D. Guthrie, D. J. Moo, B. Reicke, etc.). Irrespective of which position one embraces, plethoric “scholars” can be cited for support. (It is absolutely correct that there are some scholars who believe that the Apostle Peter wrote the Second Epistle of Peter. But I would bet that you could count them on one hand. I would also bet that this handful of scholars consists of evangelical/fundamentalist Protestant inerrantists.)
The Biblical Evidence
The main thrust of Gary’s argument is an attempt to discredit the veracity of the biblical record in general, and eyewitness testimony in particular. “But all we have,” Gary assures his readers, “are four accounts written decades later, two of which and maybe three borrow heavily (plagiarize) from the first, by anonymous persons writing in far away lands, whom most scholars do NOT believe were eyewitnesses. Yes, dear Reader, you read that correctly: the majority of New Testament scholars living today do NOT believe that eyewitnesses wrote the four Gospels and the Book of Acts.”
First of all, the four Gospel accounts are not “all we have.” Secondly, the assertion that “maybe three” of them plagiarize from the first is an allegation that no reputable scholar, to my knowledge, has ever made. That two of the Gospels borrowed from the first is a popular theory among non-conservatives, but this is not universally conceded nor is it proven. In fact, the striking differences among the synoptic accounts argue more readily for literary independence.3 Thirdly, the charge that most scholars deny “that eyewitnesses wrote the four Gospels and the Book of Acts” is not the earthshattering revelation that Gary seems to think it is. No one who is aware of the facts, even among extreme fundamentalists, believes that Luke-Acts and the Gospel of Mark were penned by eyewitnesses. The real issue is whether these two authors were acquainted with eyewitnesses and based their respective reports on eyewitness testimony, and whether the other two Gospel writers themselves were eyewitnesses (see Authorship of the NT Gospels, and Biblical Authorship Part 1). My reference to “all we have” is meant in this sense: Christians do not accept the Gospel of Peter as a document written by an apostle or an associate of an apostle. And the epistles of the Apostle Paul provide little detail about the life of the historical Jesus. So, I think it is very fair to say that “all we have” are the four Gospels when it comes to trying to establish the historical facts related to the life, death, and alleged resurrection of Jesus. Maybe I am guilty of over-exuberance in this statement, but for the point of my argument, I think it is still accurate.If I write a book about a ante-bellum woman in Georgia, named Scarlett, who falls in love with a man named Ashley, but is rejected, later marrying multiple men that she doesn’t love, to finally fall for a rascal named Rhett, who rescues her from a burning city of Atlanta to take her home safely to her family plantation…THAT IS PLAGIARISM! Just because I do not copy sections of Margaret Mitchell’s novel word for word does not excuse the fact that I have stolen her basic story.The authors of Matthew and Luke blatantly plagiarized the first gospel written, which we today call “Mark”, by copying, at times, word for word whole sections of “Mark’s” work. Although it is true that the author of the Gospel of John did not commit this type of blatant plagiarism, it is entirely possible that the core story about Jesus was borrowed from the Gospel of Mark. That is still plagiarism. I am not claiming that most scholars can prove this. I am just claiming that it is possible, as the Gospel of Mark was written circa 70 AD and the Gospel of John was written in circa 95-100 AD. Can anyone be certain that the author of John had never heard the stories of Jesus originally told in the Gospel of Mark and then had simply added his own details to this core Markian story to create his own “gospel?? What proof is there that the author of the Gospel of John had never heard any stories as told by “Mark”, “Luke”, and “Matthew”? If he had heard these stories, and included these stories in his gospel without giving credit to these authors and without having witnessed these events himself, then THAT is plagiarism.Of course I know that Christians claim that the Gospels of Mark and John were not written by eyewitnesses. But they do claim that they are eyewitness accounts! Christians allege that Peter’s traveling companion, John Mark, wrote down Peter’s sermons to give us the Gospel of Mark, hence an “eyewitness gospel”, and Christians claim that Luke received his information directly from eyewitnesses, therefore we can trust the Gospel of Luke as an “eyewitness gospel”. But this is NOT what the author of Luke states in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. He states that he believes that he had received eyewitness testimony, but never makes clear if this eyewitness testimony came directly from specific eyewitnesses speaking to him personally, or the stories simply came from people who told Luke that the stories they were giving to him had originally come from eyewitnesses??Big difference.
Gary has boarded the trendy anti-conservative bandwagon and asserts that the Gospel of Luke “wasn’t written until the 80s at the earliest, so the Book of Acts was probably not written until the last decades of the first century, if not the early second century!” Gary is trying to argue that it’s “quite possible that NO ONE was alive at the time of the writing and subsequent distribution of the Book of Acts who had witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus!” However, by taking the internal textual evidence at face value rather than relying on subjective literary theory and philosophical presuppositions, Luke’s Gospel would appear to have been completed as early as 59.
You are welcome to your personal opinion, but that it not what the majority of NT scholars believe. If I wanted to, I could claim that the Book of Acts was not written until the second century in an effort to lend credence to my belief that none of these books contain eyewitness testimony. But again, that is not the position of the majority of NT scholars.
Attention to the “we” sections in Acts reveals that the author arrived in Jerusalem with Paul in late spring 57 (Acts 20:6, 16; 21:17) and faded out of the picture for a couple of years until autumn 59 when he and Paul departed from Caesarea on the voyage to Rome (Acts 27:1-9). An extended period in Jerusalem would have afforded him the ideal opportunity to gather the necessary information for his “orderly account” (Luke 1:1-4). The historical record of Acts concludes at the end of Paul’s two-year Roman imprisonment, i.e., spring of 62. The most obvious explanation for the abrupt ending is that the historical account had actually reached this point.4 The textual/historical evidence does not support Gary’s unfounded assumption.
Once again, your position is held by a minority of NT scholars. You could be right, but the majority of experts think you are wrong.
Gary reduces the eyewitness testimony to “Paul and a few Galilean peasants,” who allegedly believed a couple of appearance stories “based solely on vivid dreams, trances, and visions.” Is this a fair representation of the facts? Gary provides NO historical evidence for his explanation.
I said that his is a possible cause for the belief in the post-death appearances of Jesus. I never stated that this is what happened, as a fact.
Despite the popularity of the Markan priority theory, the Gospels of Mark and John are clearly independent of one another, while Matthew and Luke differ enough from Mark to establish them as independent sources. Minority scholarly opinion! Most scholars believe that Matthew and Luke relied heavily on Mark for their own gospels.The book of Acts is replete with recorded testimonies (Acts 1:22; 2:32; 3:15; 4:18-20; 5:30-32; 10:39-40). Luke and the Hebrews epistle explicitly claim eyewitness corroboration (Luke 1:1-4; Heb. 2:3-4), while there are first-hand statements in the writings of John (John 19:33-35; 1 John 1:1-3) and the Petrine documents (1 Pet. 5:1; 2 Pet. 1:16). And then there’s Paul.
Oh my goodness. Don’t tell me that you believe that the Epistle to the Hebrews was written by an eyewitness or even Paul! The majority of NT scholars say you are wrong. The majority of scholars also do not believe that John the Apostle wrote the Gospel of John or the epistles of John, nor do they believe that whoever wrote these books was an eyewitness. Again, you are appealing to minority, even fringe, fundamentalist/evangelical scholarship. This is no different than me appealing to Richard Carrier’s mythicist research.
In 1 Cor. 15:3-8 (an undisputed Pauline document by the way), the apostle mentions over 500 eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ, most of whom were still alive at the time, (So this early Creed states, but did Paul know this as a fact? We don’t know. Paul states that he received this information from others. It is hearsay. And what did these “five hundred” see? We don’t know. Maybe all they saw was a “bright light” on a dark, desert highway, just like Paul’s experience of “seeing” Jesus on the Road to Damascus.
We would label anyone today claiming to have recently conducted a conversation with a talking bright light on a desert highway as a complete loon. If five hundred, mostly uneducated, superstitious, peasants in Central America claim to have seen the Virgin Mary, all at once in the same place, how many Protestants will believe these claims?? Not many. So why should we believe a second hand claim about a bunch of mostly uneducated, superstitious, first century peasants in Palestine “seeing”, in some unknown form (we are given no details of this event), a resurrected dead guy??
Christians believe these ancient claims because they WANT TO, not because there is good evidence.) and no less than fourteen of the names were known (with additional names in the other accounts) and could be verified. Read the witness list in First Corinthians 15, folks, and compare it to the witness lists in the Gospels. VERY different. I suggest that based on the limited evidence we have, it is very possible that the early Christian Resurrection Belief was based solely on claims made by prominent MALE members of the early Church governing body, who claimed to have received, alone or in a group, a visitation from the dead Jesus. Remember, in the Early Church, the only way one could claim to have apostolic authority was by having received an appearance from Jesus. That is pretty strong motivation to “see” Jesus!
Why no mention in the First Corinthians Witness List of women being the first witnesses to the Resurrection? Well, Christians have all kinds of harmonizations for why Mary Magdalene and the other women, who the Gospels claim arrived first at the Empty Tomb, are not mentioned as witnesses in the First Corinthians 15 list of eyewitnesses. But, I would humbly suggest that these excuses are nothing but spin. It is very possible that the reason why the List of Eyewitnesses in First Corinthians 15 does not mention any women is because the story of women finding an Empty Tomb did not exist until the author of the Gospel of Mark made up this story in circa 70 AD, …for theological purposes only, of course…
It’s as though he’s challenging his readers to check him out (cf. Acts 26:26). Remember that the New Testament is not merely a single record; it is the compilation of twenty-seven separate documents spanning multiple geographical locations and time periods, representing numerous independent sources that remarkably harmonize. (And what does this prove? It does NOT prove that the original story of Jesus had not been “fattened up” by the time the author of Mark got around to writing his gospel.)
While an individual might have “vivid dreams, trances, and visions,” we’re talking about hundreds of people on dozens of occasions over an extended period of time! (Then using the same logic, all Protestants should accept as fact the claims by tens of thousands of Roman Catholics who have claimed to have seen the dead mother of Jesus appear to them over the last 2,000 years!) Jesus was not only seen alive after his crucifixion, he was also communicated with and touched. (So the anonymously-written stories say. And notice this, readers. The first Gospel, Mark, in its original form, had ZERO resurrection appearances. But as each gospel was written, more and more physical details were added to this story until we have disciples sticking their fingers in Jesus’ wounds, watching Jesus wolf-down a broiled fish lunch, and finally, hanging out on the Sea of Tiberius for several days while the resurrected Jesus cooks them a fried fish breakfast! These are sure signs of legendary development, folks! Christians don’t see the obvious because THEY DON’T WANT TO!) And then there’s the empty tomb. If the ardent claims of these professed eyewitnesses are false, why didn’t the Roman or Jewish authorities produce the corpse to dispel the crazy rumors and stop the Christian movement in its tracks? Possibly because no one in early Christianity claimed that Jesus had been buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s rock tomb until circa 70 AD…and who was left in Jerusalem in 70 AD to discredit this claim?
Gary asks, “Did Paul claim that there was an Empty Tomb?” and concludes that the empty tomb is “a fact NEVER mentioned in any of the writings of Paul! …. Paul never mentions this detail ONCE!” Gary is right if we’re limiting our discussion to these specific words. However, the apostle makes numerous implicit references to the empty tomb with his repeated and adamant allusions to the resurrected Lord (Rom. 1:4; 4:24-25; 6:4-9; 7:4; 8:11, 34; 10:9; 1 Cor. 6:14; 15:1-8, 12-21; 2 Cor. 4:14; 5:15; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:20; Phil. 3:10; Col. 2:12; 1 Thess. 1:10; 2 Tim. 2:8; cf. Acts 13:30, 33, 34, 37; 17:3, 18, 31, 32; 24:21; 25:19). Wrong. There is a big distinction between a hand-hewn rock tomb and a hole in the ground. Jesus, or what was left of him, was most likely buried, but in an unmarked, common grave with other criminals executed that week, as was the Roman custom. I agree that Paul believed that Jesus had been “buried”, but one can be buried in the ground. Jewish NT scholar Jill Levine states that in the first century, poor people would have been buried in dirt trenches, not in rock tombs.
How Much Evidence is Needed?
Gary says that “if scholars could point to the confirmed testimony of even ONE of the original eleven disciples, most skeptics would consider this fantastic, very relevant evidence. But unfortunately we do not have such evidence.” He also cynically requests: “Please provide ONE verified statement by just ONE eyewitness who claims to have seen and touched the walking/talking dead body of Jesus.”
The problem with these demands is that no amount of evidence, especially from the Bible, is going to satisfy those who are predisposed to dismissing biblical (supernatural) claims. Assumption. I have proven that I respect evidence. You don’t have the evidence I am requesting so you concoct the unproven allegation that no matter what evidence you provide, I will not accept it. False.If secular authors were held to the same critical scrutiny as biblical authors, no one could be certain that anyone in particular wrote or said anything. False. This is another baseless Christian assumption. If the historical evidence for Christ’s resurrection, including abundant eyewitness corroboration, is not enough to convince someone, how can he/she be sure about any historical event? But the entire point of the discussion, my Christian friend, is that I do not believe that you have even ONE eyewitness to the resurrection of Jesus. Provide the eyewitness evidence, friend, and let’s evaluate it.
The bottom line is this: what is one’s standard of proof, and what presuppositions influence the evaluative process? If a person is limited to a strictly naturalistic worldview, then the possibility of God and supernatural occurrences is automatically ruled out from the start. But what if the evidence points beyond the natural world? Absolutely true. But I have never said that anyone should a priori rule out the existence of the supernatural. I have simply said that we should IGNORE supernatural claims until better evidence is provided. I don’t believe in Big Foot, fairies, and goblins, not because I know as a fact that they do not exist, but because there is no good evidence to suggest that these very extra-ordinary claims are true. In western culture, the burden of proof is on the person making the extra-ordinary claim, NOT on those who doubt or question the extra-ordinary claim. The onus is on YOU, my Christian friend, to provide eyewitness testimony of this alleged event, not on me to disprove it.
Here are the indisputable facts:
o Jesus of Nazareth was a real person in history. Very probably true.
o He died in 1st-century Palestine by crucifixion. Very probably true.
o Numerous individuals and groups adamantly believed that he appeared to them alive. Probably true.
o The tomb was empty. Unproven. But for the sake of the argument, I will allow it. However, empty Tombs are not proof of resurrected dead people only of empty tombs. There are many naturalistic explanations for an empty tomb in first century Palestine. I would encourage everyone to read Jewish NT scholar and archeologist Dr. Jill Levine on this topic.
o The movement quickly spread, and thousands of these early Christians suffered brutal persecution, even tortuous deaths, for their testimony and unrelenting faith. Tens of thousands of persons belonging to new, minority religious sects have willingly endured torture and death over the many millennia of human existence. Intense, devout belief is not evidence that the belief is true.
o Paul of Tarsus, a violent persecutor of the Jesus followers, became a steadfast believer and proclaimer of the resurrected Jesus. There is a man living in Israel today who at one time was a Zionist Jewish settler and orthodox Jewish rabbinic student. He is now radical, fundamentalist Muslim cleric. Strange conversions happen. Strange conversions are not proof of the veracity of the new religion, only proof that human beings frequently make very dramatic, life-altering life choices.
The Bible consistently makes historical claims about real people and events in actual places and times, presenting its case for either confirmation or falsification. If Jesus didn’t walk out of the tomb, the biblical record is a lie and “we are of all men the most pitiable” (1 Cor. 15:19). If, however, he did conquer death, it is the most significant event in all of human history and it would be foolish to ignore it. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has radically shaped the course of history and countless lives and is as certain as any fact of history can be. Hundreds of millions of people over the last two millennia have accepted as fact the teachings of one man named Mohammad. The world has been dramatically changed by this one man too. However, I highly doubt that Christians would claim that this massive movement which has now reached practically every continent on the planet is proof of the validity of the supernatural claims of Islam.
—Kevin L. Moore
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