Review of “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus” by Habermas and Licona, Chapter 3: Jesus was crucified and his disciples believed that he appeared to them shortly thereafter.

The highly critical scholar of the Jesus seminar, John Dominic Crossan, writes:  “That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.”   —Habermas and Licona, p. 49

Gary:  I would bet that other than mythicists, the overwhelming majority of skeptics believe that Jesus was crucified (and that he was dead when taken down from the cross).

“There is a virtual consensus among scholars who study Jesus’ resurrection that, subsequent to Jesus’ death by crucifixion, his disciples really believed that he appeared to them risen from the dead.”  —Habermas and Licona, p. 49

Gary:  Again, other than mythicists, the overwhelming majority of skeptics believe that the earliest Christians sincerely believed that Jesus had appeared to them in some form after his death.  Most skeptics do not believe that the early Christians invented this claim.  Most skeptics do not believe that the disciples lied.  We believe that the disciples were simply mistaken!  Over the many millennia of human existence, thousands and thousands of grieving family and friends of the recently departed have sincerely believed that their loved one has returned from the dead to visit them.  That does not mean that the dead person really did.

“First, Jesus’ disciples claimed he rose from the dead and appeared to them.  This conclusion can be reached from nine early and independent sources that fall into three categories:  [1] the testimony of Paul about the disciples; [2] the oral tradition that passed through the early church; and [3] the written works of the early church.”  —Habermas and Licona, p. 51

Gary:  Let’s see the evidence.  Real evidence.  But be on the look out for conjecture!

Paul provides for strong evidence for establishing the Resurrection claims of the original disciples.  He claimed that his own authority in the church was equal to that of the other apostles.  That authority was acknowledged by a number of the apostolic fathers soon after the completion of the New Testament.  Two of those early writers may have been disciples of the apostles.”  —Habermas and Licona, p. 51  (bolding, Gary)

Gary:  Did you catch that?  Do we have any evidence other than Paul’s word that Jesus had selected him to be an apostle of equal status with the Eleven?  No.  Paul established his own credentials of apostleship by declaration; by declaring that he had received his authority by private revelation.  We also have no record of any of the Eleven describing Paul as equal in authority to the Eleven (Sorry, almost all scholars agree that the Epistle of Second Peter is a forgery, so it does not count).  Habermas and Licona are trying to confirm Paul’s authority as an apostle by suggesting that two of the early Church Fathers who endorsed his apostleship were disciples of the Eleven.  However, this is conjecture!  There is no solid evidence that any of the early Church Fathers, including Ignatius, Clement, and Polycarp, were disciples of the Eleven.  This is an example of building a case on conjecture.  We will see much more of this in this chapter.

“Paul reports that he knew at least some of the other disciples, even the big three, Peter, James, and John.  Acts reports that the disciples and Paul knew and fellowshipped with one another.”  —Habermas and Licona, p. 51

Gary:  I would bet that most skeptics accept Paul’s word that he met with Peter, James, and John.  The question is:  What did they discuss in regards to their experiences of the resurrection appearances of Jesus?  Did Peter, James, and John describe the resurrection appearances of Jesus as described in the Gospels?  Did Paul describe his experience of Jesus’ appearance as described in the Book of Acts?  Answer:  We don’t know!  For all we know, all of the disciples including Paul “saw” Jesus as a bright light and that is what they and Paul talked about when they met:  Jesus as a bright light!  And that is maybe why the Early Creed in First Corinthians chapter 15 has no details about the appearances.  The detailed appearance stories we read in the Gospels could very well be later literary inventions.

“Oral tradition had to exist prior to the New Testament writings in order for the New Testament authors to include them.”  —Habermas and Licona, p. 52

Gary:  True…but.  Most skeptics will agree that sayings such as the Early Creed did exist prior to the writing of the Gospels.  But that doesn’t mean that every story we find in the Gospels existed prior to the writing of the Gospels.  It is entirely possible that some stories within the Gospels were invented by the authors for literary or theological purposes, such as for evangelization (propaganda).  Some scholars believe that Matthew’s story of guards at the tomb is an invented story by the author.  Even more scholars, including evangelical scholar, Mike Licona, one of the co-authors of this book, believe that Matthew’s story of dead saints being shaken out of their graves to walk the streets of Jerusalem at the moment of Jesus’ death is a fictional story added by the author of the Gospel.

“Sources that cannot be ignored are the Gospels themselves.  No matter how skeptical the critic might be concerning the Gospels, it is well accepted that all four gospels were written during the first century.  Each gospel attests to the resurrection of Jesus, and Acts is the sequel to the third gospel, Luke.  This means that four accounts were written within seventy years of Jesus at the latest, reporting the disciples’ claims that Jesus rose from the dead.”  —Habermas and Licona, p. 53

Gary:  Yes, we have four books, but…the second and the third books borrow heavily from the first, sometimes word for word.  And the fourth book was not written until many decades after the first so it is very likely that the author of the fourth book was at least familiar with the skeleton story of the first.  Hardly evidence of four independent sources regarding this alleged event!

“The apostolic fathers are the church leaders who succeeded the apostles.  It is probable that some of these men had fellowshipped with the apostles or were instructed and appointed by them, or they were close to others who had known the apostles.  Therefore there is strong likelihood that their teachings can be traced back to the disciples themselves.”  —Habermas and Licona, p. 53  (bolding, Gary)

Gary:  Blatant conjecture!

Habermas and Licona then give several pages of conjecture that Clement and Polycarp knew some of the Eleven.  I’m not going to address this conjecture in depth as I have addressed these conservative Christian claims elsewhere on this blog.  The evidence for these claims is weak.  Very weak.  Study these claims for yourself.

“The apostles died for holding to their own testimony that they had PERSONALLY seen the risen Jesus.  Contemporary martyrs die for what they believe to be true.  The disciples of Jesus died for what they KNEW to be either true or false.”  —Habermas and Licona, p. 59

Gary:  Conjecture.  We have no contemporaneous statements regarding the events leading to the deaths of the Eleven, other than the execution of James mentioned in Acts.  So we don’t really know why they died; how they died; or if recanting would have spared their lives.  The bottom line is this:  Most skeptics do not believe that the disciples made this story up.  Most skeptics believe that the disciples sincerely believed that Jesus had appeared to them.  We believe, however, that they were mistaken.  We believe that it is much more probable that they experienced bereavement visions of Jesus, or hallucinations of Jesus, or false sightings of Jesus, or misperceptions of natural phenomena (bright lights, shadows, etc.) that they mistook for Jesus than a never heard of before or since supernatural reanimation of a three day dead corpse.  Therefore, the martyrdom of the disciples would have been no different than the martyrdom of any other person of a minority religious sect:  They died willingly, refusing to recant, sincerely believing that their belief system is the one, true faith.

Conservative Christians always want to make it a choice between just two options:  Being willing to die for a lie or being willing to die for seeing an actual resurrected body.  They seem to not realize that there is another option:  Being willing to die because you are mistaken—you didn’t see what you thought you saw.


2 thoughts on “Review of “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus” by Habermas and Licona, Chapter 3: Jesus was crucified and his disciples believed that he appeared to them shortly thereafter.

  1. Nor can we say with any confidence that the disciples died because of their belief in the resurrection. They could just as easily have been killed when the original church community in Jerusalem was annihilated by the Romans in AD70. The Romans didn’t particularly care what these fanatics believed – they were Jews and they were being taught a lesson.
    Those who somehow survived this slaughter could just as easily have been killed for their seditious belief that their Messiah was coming back with a host of angels to overthrow the old order (just as Jesus himself appears to have been) and, as Jesus seems to have promised them, that they would rule the Earth with him when he did.
    Or, they could just have died of natural causes.
    There is no evidence anywhere that they were martyred for faith in a physically resurrected Jesus.


    1. You are absolutely correct. The stories of their martyrdom appear centuries later and could well be “spin”.


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