Review of “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus” by Habermas and Licona, Chapter 4: The Conversions of Paul and James and the Empty Tomb

“Certainly a skeptic may comment that Paul’s conversion is no big deal, since many people have converted from one set of beliefs to another.  However, the cause of Paul’s conversion makes his different.  People usually convert to a particular religion because they have heard the message of that religion from a secondary source and believed the message.  Paul’s conversion was based on what he perceived to be a personal appearance of the risen Jesus.”  —Habermas and Licona, p. 65

Gary:  How is Paul’s conversion any different from the conversion of Constantine?  Both claimed to have converted based on a “vision”.  People convert to new belief systems for the oddest of reasons!  Human beings do weird things all the time.  There is a radical Muslim cleric in Israel today who only a few years ago was an Orthodox Jewish rabbinical student and Jewish settler!!!  Weird conversions happen, folks!  They don’t prove anything.  Any rational person (who is not a Christian) can list several reasonable explanations for Paul’s conversion before arriving at the conclusion that he really did see a real, flesh and blood, walking/talking CORPSE!  Mental illness, such as Bipolar Disorder with episodes of psychosis, would be just one.  People with Bipolar Disorder can be highly functioning people who only occasionally suffer delusions and hallucinations.  To skeptics, this or some other form of mental illness is much more likely to be the explanation of Paul’s conversion than the Christian supernatural explanation.  Why in the world do Christians jump to the conclusion that the most probable explanation for Paul’s conversion is that he really did see a reanimated corpse???  I’m not going to say that such a phenomenon is impossible, but it is the LAST explanation that most rational (non-Christian) people would consider.

“With James [the brother of Jesus], we have another case of a skeptic converting to Christianity based on what he perceived to be a personal appearance by the risen Jesus.  As with Paul, we must ask the question:  What happened to cause James to have such a conviction?”  —Habermas and Licona, p. 69

Gary:  Well, let me list just a couple of possibilities; possibilities that in the real world (outside the Christian “bubble”) are much, much more probable than seeing the reanimated corpse of your dead brother:

-After Jesus’ brutal death James suffers horrific grief regarding the loss of his brother and terrible guilt regarding the fact that he abandoned Jesus at his trial and at the foot of the cross.  One night James has a vivid dream, otherwise known as a “bereavement hallucination”, in which his brother Jesus “appears” to him, reassures him,  and tells him that he really is the Messiah and that he (James) should help spread the message of the impending Kingdom.  Based on this hallucination, James becomes a Christian.

-Shortly after Jesus’ death, a bright light appears one night in James’ bedroom.  It hovers on the ceiling over his bed for several minutes, then disappears.  James believes it was the resurrected Jesus.  James believes and becomes a devout Christian.

“Ridiculous ad hoc speculation!” Christians will say.

And my response will be:  “No more ridiculous than the obviously-concocted, riddled-with-discrepancies, appearance stories found in the Gospels!”

“The empty tomb of Jesus does not meet our two criteria of being a “minimal fact” because it is not accepted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject.  Nevertheless, there is strong evidence for it, and it is accepted as a fact of history by an impressive majority of critical scholars.  Gary Habermas has discovered that roughly 75 percent of scholars on the subject accept the empty tomb as a historical fact.  Let’s look now at just three arguments of the empty tomb.”  —Habermas and Licona, pp. 69-70

Gary:  The truth is that Habermas’ claim is based on his literature search of articles written on the subject of the Empty Tomb between 1975 and 2005.  He found that 75% of the authors who wrote on this topic favored the historicity of the Empty Tomb.  The big question is this:  is that the same as the above statement that “roughly 75% of scholars on the subject accept the empty tomb”?  What if 50% of moderate and liberal critical scholars never wrote an article on the topic of the Empty Tomb during this time period but 98% of conservative critical scholars did?  Wouldn’t that give skewed results?  Well, we don’t know because Habermas has never released his data for review.

Argument for the Empty Tomb, #1:

“Jesus was publicly executed in Jerusalem.  His post-mortem appearances and empty tomb were first proclaimed publicly there.  It would have been impossible for Christianity to get off the ground in Jerusalem if the body had still been in the tomb.”  —Habermas and Licona, p. 70

Gary:  Who says that Jesus’ alleged appearances and the Empty Tomb were first proclaimed in Jerusalem?  Answer:  The very documents whose historical veracity are in question:  the Gospels and the Book of Acts!  There are a good many scholars who believe that the appearance stories most probably originated in Galilee.  Note that the earliest appearance stories found in the Early Creed quoted by Paul in First Corinthians 15 say nothing about appearances to women in a Garden or to disciples in the Upper Room.  There are in fact no geographical descriptions to these alleged appearances.  The next Christian document to appear chronologically, the Gospel of Mark, has no appearances whatsoever, but hints at future appearances in…Galilee, not Jerusalem!  Habermas and Licona are using the false logical argument of Begging the Question.  You cannot use the four canonical Gospels and the Book of Acts as your sole sources of historical evidence when the point of this discussion is the historical accuracy of the four canonical Gospels and the Book of Acts!

So it is very possible that the Christian Resurrection Belief began in Galilee weeks or months after Jesus death.  There was no need to demonstrate an empty tomb because everyone knew that Jesus’ body had been disposed of in the usual Roman fashion:  it had been left up on the cross for days to be picked apart by birds and dogs and then what was left…was unceremoniously tossed into an unmarked hole in the ground, a site known only to a few Roman soldiers, the hole then covered over with dirt, and forgotten.

There was no compulsion on the part of non-believing Jews to dig up the remains of Jesus to disprove the disciples’ resurrection claims because…no one knew where to dig!!!  The Empty Tomb story was a later invention of the author of the Gospel of Mark, writing in Rome or some other far away land, who thought the J. of A. Empty Tomb pericope made for much better reading than an unwitnessed resurrection from an unmarked hole in the ground!  This literary embellishment was perfectly acceptable in Greco-Roman biographies and it did not change one single Christian doctrine…and that is why no one complained about it!

Christians today do not need to see an Empty Tomb to believe, so why should we expect it was any different for the earliest Christians?  They believed because Jesus appeared to them (in some fashion), not because his grave was empty.

“If Acts is correct, the disciples began to proclaim the risen Jesus approximately fifty days [in Jerusalem] after Jesus’ crucifixion.  Accordingly, although the Jewish and Roman authorities would desire to produce the corpse, they understood that it would be unrecognizable due to decomposition.”  —Habermas and Licona, p. 70

Gary:  Stop!  That is the whole point, gentlemen!  We sketpics do question the historical accuracy of the Book of Acts and the Gospels.   We question the historical accuracy of everything except for the very basic core story of Jesus:  he was an apocalyptic preacher who got on the wrong side of the Jewish authorities, who told the Romans that Jesus was claiming to be the King of the Jews, an act of treason against Rome.  The Romans then crucified him.  We believe that the rest is unsubstantiated and therefore unreliable.  We believe that the rest of the story could well be religious propaganda, not history.

Think about this, Readers:   Jesus the great healer, the great worker of miracles, the raiser of the dead, is not mentioned by any contemporary.  Philo of Alexandria, for example, mentions Pilate extensively, but says not one word about Pilate’s most famous subject; a man who allegedly raised more people from the dead than all the prophets of the Old Testament combined!  Philo never mentions the man who the Gospels claim brought all of Judea and Galilee to the boiling point of open rebellion.

My point:  Jesus probably wasn’t the big deal that the Gospels make him out to be.  The story of the triumphant entry into Jerusalem on “Palm Sunday” is yet another literary invention of the Gospel authors.  There was no timid Pilate wringing his hands in front of a furious mob of Jews.  That is yet another literary invention by the skilled Gospel authors writing very good Greco-Roman biographies.  Jesus was no big deal.  His execution was just another day’s work for the execution squad of the local Roman garrison.  So if this was the case, after his death, the Jews and Romans probably cared less that a small sect of “Galilean hillbillies” were claiming that Jesus had been raised from the dead.  So what!  Why bother looking for the stinking corpse of some nut job messiah pretender?  The Jews had seen many pretenders come and go.  The fact that the followers of this one claimed he had returned from the dead was hand waved away with a chuckle and a grin.  The claim that “thousands” were converting to Christianity in Jerusalem within fifty days of Jesus’ death is not confirmed by any non-Christian sources.  Again, if such had been the case, why didn’t Philo mention this phenomenon?

Once again, Habermas and Licona are Begging the Question.  They use the Gospels and the Book of Acts as the sole sources of evidence to prove that a detail stated in the Gospels or the Book of Acts is historical fact, when it is these very documents that are in dispute.  YOU CAN’T DO THAT!  It is bad logic.

Argument for the Empty Tomb, #2:  Enemy Attestation

“If someone who hates you admits that you are an honest person, we have a stronger reason to believe what is being asserted, since potential bias does not exist.  The empty tomb is attested not only by Christian sources.  Jesus’ enemies admitted it as well, albeit indirectly.  Hence, we are not employing an argument from silence.  Rather than point to an occupied tomb, early critics accused Jesus’ disciples of stealing the body (Matt. 28:12-13; Justin Martyr, Trypho 108; Tertullian, De Spectaculis 30).  There would have been no need for an attempt to account for a missing body, if the body had still been in the tomb.”  —Habermas and Licona, p. 71

Gary:  Must I repeat myself???  The story from the Gospel of Matthew may well be the invention of the author of the Gospel of Matthew.  Many scholars believe it is.  Was the author a fly on the wall in the hall of the Sanhedrin when the Jewish authorities interviewed the Roman guards regarding the missing body (guards whom no other Gospel author bothers to mention existed)?  This whole pericope sounds like an invented story with an omniscient narrator.

Let’s look at the next source, Justin Martyr in Trypho 108.  Read here:  New Advent:

Gary:  Where did Justin Martyr get the information that the Jews were disseminating the story that Jesus’ body had been stolen by night from the tomb?  It wouldn’t have been from…the author of the Gospel of Matthew, would it???  After all, the Gospel of Matthew was written in circa 80 CE and scholars believe that Justin Martyr wrote the Dialogue with Trypho circa 150-160 CE.

We don’t know.

Bottom line:  This is not confirmable “enemy” attestation!

And how about Tertullian, De Spectaculis 30

Here is the pertinent excerpt, again from New Advent:

…unless even then I shall not care to attend to such ministers of sin, in my eager wish rather to fix a gaze insatiable on those whose fury vented itself against the Lord. This, I shall say, this is that carpenter’s or hireling’s son, that Sabbath-breaker, that Samaritan and devil-possessed! This is He whom you purchased from Judas! This is He whom you struck with reed and fist, whom you contemptuously spat upon, to whom you gave gall and vinegar to drink! This is He whom His disciples secretly stole away, that it might be said He had risen again, or the gardener abstracted, that his lettuces might come to no harm from the crowds of visitants!

Gary:  Tertullian was born circa 155 CE, that is about the same time that Justin Martyr was writing his Dialogue with Trypho.  So where did Tertullian hear that Jews had spread the rumor that the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus, or that the gardener had taken his body?  Answer:  He doesn’t say.  Isn’t it possible that Tertullian heard the first tale about the disciples stealing the body from the Gospel of Matthew and the second tale about the gardener taking the body from the Gospel of John???  Anti-semitism in early Christianity can already be seen in the Gospels, with John, the last Gospel to be written near the end of the first century, being the most anti-semitic.  Dear Readers, isn’t it entirely possible that the entire concept of “the Jews” spreading rumors about Jesus’ disciples stealing the body originated solely with the authors of the Gospels?  Maybe the Jewish people never had anything to do with these rumors?

Bottom line:  The is no confirmable, “enemy” attestation of an Empty Tomb!

Argument for the Empty Tomb, #3:  The Testimony of Women

“If someone concocted a story in an attempt to deceive others, we presume that they would not knowingly invent data that could hurt the credibility of their story.  …women are listed as the primary witnesses [to the Empty Tomb].  They are also mentioned in all four gospels, whereas male witnesses appear only later and in two gospels.  This would be an odd invention, since in both Jewish and Roman cultures, women were lowly esteemed and their testimony was regarded as questionable, certainly not as credible as a man’s.”  Habermas and Licona, p. 71

Gary:  Who said that authors of the Gospels were trying to deceive anyone?  The authors of the Gospels were writing Greco-Roman biographies, and in Greco-Roman biographies, certain liberties were allowed with the facts.  For instance, New Testament scholar NT Wright believes that the reason that the author of the Book of Acts gives “conflicting” accounts regarding what exactly the companions of Paul saw or heard on the Damascus Road in the three passages in Acts in which this scene is described is because the author wanted to stimulate the reader’s interest!  The discrepancies are real.  They are there in the story for a purpose:  to make a good story!!! 

So why isn’t it possible that this is the purpose of the women as witnesses in the Empty Tomb pericope?  Their purpose in the story is not to serve as potential witnesses in a court of law.  Their purpose is to create a good story:  Jesus’ male disciples have abandoned him…but the women have remained faithful.  What a great story!

And one should notice that in the earliest account of the appearances of Jesus, the Early Creed found in First Corinthians 15, there is no mention of an appearance to women in a garden with an empty tomb.  To me, and to a number of scholars, this is more evidence that the Empty Tomb story, and the women as the first witnesses to an empty tomb, are most likely literary inventions.

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