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Gary’s Summation of his Three Year Review of the Scholarship on the Resurrection of Jesus

Below is a list of books I have read on the truth claims of Christianity, in particular, the claim of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I believe this list represents a broad range of views from conservative, moderate, and liberal scholars. I have tried to be thorough and objective in my evaluation of the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus. After spending three years reviewing the scholarship on this subject, I have reached the following conclusions:

I believe that the evidence is good that Jesus of Nazareth existed, that he was crucified, and that shortly after his death, his followers came to believe that he appeared to them in some fashion. I believe that the evidence is good that Paul of Tarsus existed and that he genuinely believed that he had received a visionary experience of the resurrected Jesus in or around the city of Damascus some three years after the death of Jesus.

From there, the evidence for the Christian claims becomes quite weak.  I believe that from this point on, we can no longer talk about historical facts, only probabilities and possibilities.

I believe that the evidence suggests that the Resurrection belief developed in Galilee, probably with an appearance experience to the apostle Simon Peter due to a combined grief/guilt hallucination. This hallucination was so real, that it dramatically changed Peter from a man in fear for his life to a man willing to risk his life for his new belief in the resurrected Jesus. Peter then convinced his fellow disciples that his hallucinatory experience was a real appearance. This created ecstasy bordering on hysteria in the small group of Jesus followers. Soon others were “seeing” Jesus, due to either vivid dreams, misperceptions of natural phenomena (illusions), or in their own hallucinations…and voila…the Resurrection belief was born.

I believe that the stories of group sightings mentioned in the Early Creed, recorded by Paul in First Corinthians 15, were most likely no different than reported group sightings today of a static image of the Virgin Mary or even of Jesus.  I believe that the detailed stories in the later Gospels of a risen Jesus who talked, walked, and ate food were literary inventions for apologetic purposes.

I do not believe that groups of believers experienced group hallucinations as this is medically impossible. No skeptic should propagate this misinformed assertion.  But groups of people can “see” an illusion, and I believe that this phenomenon probably explains the appearance to the Twelve. I believe that the reference to an appearance to “Five Hundred” is probably a reference to an experience of Jesus in some fashion of a large group of believers on Pentecost. For such a fantastical appearance to completely disappear from Christian writings after Paul would be very odd. I don’t think it did. I believe this appearance claim in the Early Creed refers to the appearance of “the spirit of Jesus” at Pentecost which is mentioned in the Book of Acts.  I believe that what was “seen” was most probably an illusion generated by intense emotional hysteria, as occurred with the tens of thousands of devout Christian pilgrims in Fatima in the early twentieth century.

Some Christians may not like my hallucination theory, but it is a medical fact that persons who experience hallucinations remember them as real experiences. And to suggest that first century Jews would not, is simply conservative Christian wishful thinking.

Some Christians may counter that the other disciples, as first century Jews living in a “tactile culture”, would not have believed Peter’s resurrection sighting claim without seeing and touching the resurrected dead body themselves, but this is refuted by Paul’s statement that first century Jews in Asia Minor believed his resurrection sighting claim simply based on his testimony.

Therefore, I believe that there is really nothing unusual about the rise of Christianity. A small group of hyper-religious, hyper-superstitious people who were expecting the end of the world had mystical experiences which caused them to create a new movement. This has happened many times in world history. I see no reason to believe it was anything “miraculous”.

Gary

Books I have read since my deconversion from Christianity in the spring of 2014:

  1. “The Resurrection of the Son of God” by NT Wright
  2. “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” by Richard Bauckham
  3. “Making the Case for Christianity” by Maas, Francisco, et al.
  4. ” The Resurrection Fact” by Bombaro, Francisco, et al.
  5. “Miracles” , Volumes 1 and 2, by Craig Keener
  6. “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus” by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona
  7. “Why are There Differences in the Gospels” by Michael Licona
  8. “The Son Rises” by William Lane Craig
  9. “The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus” by Raymond Brown
  10. “The Resurrection of Jesus” by Gerd Luedemann
  11. “Resurrection Reconsidered” by Gregory Riley
  12. “John and Thomas—Gospels in Conflict?” by Christopher Skinner
  13. “Misquoting Jesus” by Bart Ehrman
  14. “Jesus, Interrupted” by Bart Ehrman
  15. “How Jesus Became God” by Bart Ehrman
  16. “Jesus Before the Gospels” by Bart Ehrman
  17. “Did Jesus Exist?” by Bart Ehrman
  18. “The Argument for the Holy Sepulchre” (journal article) by scholar Jerome Murphy-O’Connor
  19. Israel in Egypt” by James Hoffmeier
  20. “The Bible Unearthed” by Finkelstein and Silberman
  21. The Resurrection of Jesus in the Light of Jewish Burial Practices” by Craig Evans, (newsletter article) The City, a publication of Houston Baptist University, May 4, 2016
  22. “Has the Tomb of Jesus Been Discovered?” by Jodi Magness, SBL Forum
  23. “Genre, Sub-genre and Questions of Audience: A Proposed Typology for Greco-Roman biography” (article) by Justin M. Smith, St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews, Scotland
  24. “Twenty-Six Reasons Why Jews Don’t Believe in Jesus” by Asher Norman (not a work of scholarship per se, but it is endorsed by Talmudic scholars for its accuracy in presenting a Jewish perspective of Jesus and the Christian New Testament)

Gary:  Not only have I read the above books, I have reviewed most of them, often chapter by chapter, here on this blog.  You can do a google search to find and read them if you wish.

 

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A Fundamentalist Christian Discovers an Error in his Inerrant Bible

“The [Princeton Seminary] course was on the exegesis of the Gospel of Mark, at the time (and still) my favorite Gospel.  For this course we needed to be able to read the Gospel of Mark completely in Greek (I memorized the entire Greek vocabulary of the Gospel the week before the semester began); we were to keep an exegetical notebook on our reflections on the interpretation of key passages; we discussed problems in the interpretation of the text; and we had to write a final term paper on an interpretive crux of our own choosing.  I chose a passage in Mark 2, where Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees because his disciples had been walking through a grainfield, eating the grain on the Sabbath.  Jesus wants to show the Pharisees that “Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath,” and so reminds them of what the great King David had done when he and his men were hungry, how they went into the Temple “when Abiathar was the high priest” and ate the show bread, which was only for the priests to eat.  One of the well-known problems of the passage is that when one looks at the Old Testament passage that Jesus is citing (1 Samuel 21:1-6), it turns out that David did this not when Abiathar was the high priest, but, in fact, when his father Ahimelech was.  In other words, this is one of those passages that have been pointed to in order to show that the Bible is not inerrant at all, but that it contains mistakes.

In my paper for Prof. Story, I developed a long and complicated argument that even though Mark indicates this happened “when Abiathar was the high priest,” it doesn’t really mean that Abiathar was the high priest, but that the event took place in the part of the Scriptural text that has Abiathar as one of the main characters.  My argument was based on the meaning of the Greek words involved and was a bit convoluted.  I was pretty sure Prof. Story would appreciate the argument, since I knew him as a good Christian scholar who obviously (like me) would never think there could be anything like a genuine error in the Bible.   But at the end of my paper he made a simple one-line comment that for some reason went straight through me.  He wrote: “Maybe Mark just made a mistake.”  I started thinking about it, considering all the work I had put into the paper, realizing that I had had to do some pretty fancy exegetical footwork to get around the problem, and that my solution was in fact a bit of a stretch.  And I finally concluded, “Hmm… maybe Mark did make a mistake.”

Once I made that admission, the floodgates opened.  For if there could be one little, picayune mistake in Mark 2, maybe there could be mistakes in other places as well.  Maybe, when Jesus says later in Mark 4, that the mustard seed is “the smallest of all seeds on the earth,” – maybe I don’t need to come up with a fancy explanation for how the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds when I know full well it isn’t.    And maybe these “mistakes” apply to bigger issues.  Maybe when Mark says that Jesus was crucified the day after the Passover meal was eaten (Mark 14:12; 15:25) and John says he died the day before it was eaten (John 19:14) – maybe that is a genuine difference.  Or when Luke indicates in his account of Jesus’ birth that Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth just over a month after they had come to Bethlehem (and performed the rites of purification; Luke 2:39), whereas Matthew indicates they instead fled to Egypt (Matt. 2:19-22) – maybe that is a difference.  Or when Paul indicates that after he converted on the way to Damascus he did not go to Jerusalem see those who were apostles before him (Gal. 1:16-17) whereas the book of Acts indicates that that was the first thing he did after leaving Damascus (Acts 9:26) – maybe that is a difference.

For me, then, this realization that the Bible may have mistakes was a real turning point.”

Bart Ehrman, New Testament scholar, former fundamentalist/evangelical Christian

 

Bart Ehrman Explains Why Fundamentalist Christians Never Find Any Errors in the Bible

 

“I came to realize that since I was a teenager I had made an a priori assumption that the Bible was without errors and so anything that looked like an error I argued was not actually an error.  But the more appropriate methodological approach would be first to see if the Bible had errors, ones that were just flat out mistakes that simply could not be explained away without making special excuses.  Once I admitted it was theoretically possible, I started finding them.  And for me, that changed everything.”

—Bart Ehrman, agnostic New Testament scholar, former evangelical Christian, discussing the initial stages of his deconversion from Christianity

Moderate Christians and their Sophisticated Explanations for the Reality of Ghosts

Joe, a Moderate Christian:

You [Gary] are still working in that mistaken dichotomy between subject/object. There is no objectivity, an objective standard is merely less subjective, There is no perfect objectivity and cultivation of that illusion is merely something to hide behind. Personal experience is true compromise. The scientific data of my studies prove the assertions of my subjective experiences [of Jesus], 200 studies you have none, none at all. I have 200 backing my world view. Backing my experiences of God.

Learn this term. Inter=subjective, Not merely subjective but INTER-subjective. Objectivity is a sham but inter-subjectivity means it’s confirmed and validated even though subjective.

[Gary had said:]  There is another word for that concept, Joe. It’s called: an imaginary friend. Imaginary friends provide very REAL comfort and a very real sense of security but the friend itself is NOT real, Joe. It is an illusion.

Joe:  That is a mockery of the God hater club, an attempt to devalue and degrade personal experiences and the reality of God. But you have nothing like the vast body of confirming data I have backing my views.  You have not one single study proving your view.  Science does not offer you a body of conferring data.  It’s an excavate you are not scientific, there is no scientific basis for disbelief in God.  When you say we’ve reached an impasse [in our discussions] you really mean you want to quit before you have been confronted with more reality that blows your ideology out of the water.

 

Gary:

Joe, I know this will be hard for you to consider, but please think about this:

I believe that you have constructed an elaborate, very sophisticated façade in an unconscious attempt to give respectability to an ancient tale that in reality is nothing more than a ghost story.

Empty graves prove nothing, and, people claim to see ghosts all the time.

Ghosts aren’t real, Joe. They aren’t real when you think you “see” one, and they aren’t real when you “feel” that one is living inside your body. Ghosts don’t talk to you in a “still, small voice”. Ghosts don’t protect you from car crashes and cancer. Ghosts are not building a mansion for you in outer space. And ghosts cannot magically make you live forever. You are living in an elaborate delusion, Joe.

Come out of the darkness of superstition and into the light of reason, rationality, and science.

Discussion:

It really is very simple:

Modern, educated people know that people today who have been brain dead for three days do not come back to life; dead people today do not walk out of their graves to hook up with former friends for a broiled fish lunch. It NEVER happens.

So why on earth would modern, educated people believe that such an event happened in Antiquity in an age of rampant superstition and scientific ignorance?

I believe it is ONLY because our western culture, for 18 centuries, has condoned and enforced the belief in this far-fetched tall tale that it is conceivable that modern, educated people would believe in the historicity of this fable. Just as culture is the reason that many modern, very educated Muslims still believe that a man rode a winged horse to heaven, and culture is the reason that many modern, very educated Hindus believe that a man caused a water buffalo to speak in a human language, it is culture that gives acceptance for modern, educated westerners to believe that a dead corpse walked out if its first century tomb, ate a broiled fish lunch with its former fishing buddies, and then that evening, levitated into outer space where it currently sits on a golden throne on the edge of the Cosmos.

It is a ghost story, folks. It is not reality. No amount of sophisticated-sounding mumbo jumbo changes that fact.

Can Christians be Objective About the Evidence for the Resurrection? I Don’t Think So.

The post below is copied from the website of agnostic New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman.  In it, he discusses his deconversion from Christianity and his struggle with objectivity and truth.  I believe that every Christian should read this post:

My Encounter with the Enlightenment

by Bart Ehrman

I know I have talked about how I lost my faith before.  But I’ve never talked about it in the terms I’m going to be describing it in this post and the next.  It has to do with what happened with my notion of “truth” when I went to Princeton Theological Seminary.

Princeton Theological Seminary is not administratively connected to Princeton University – it simply is in the same town, across the street, and has a shared ancient history.  What is now Princeton University started off in the mid-18th century as a place to train Christian ministers.  Eventually the school split, with the Seminary, under a different administration, becoming its own entity.   By the time I went there as a 22-year-old in 1978, Princeton was a leading a Presbyterian seminary whose mission is to train ministers for the Presbyterian Church.  I had never even stepped foot in a Presbyterian church and really knew almost nothing about it, or about Princeton Seminary.  But I suspected that many of the students and faculty there were not really Christian.  They certainly weren’t my kind of Christian.

But, as I say, I literally knew nothing about the place.  When I first decided I wanted to go there I didn’t even know Princeton Seminary was Presbyterian or that it was in New Jersey.  I wanted to go there for one reason only.  In college, as I pointed out, I became obsessed with studying Greek and decided I wanted to do a PhD working on Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, to gain qualifications to teach in a secular college or university as a (lone) evangelical Christian.   The leading expert in Greek manuscripts of the New Testament was a scholar named Bruce Metzger.  He taught at Princeton Seminary.  So I decided I wanted to go there to study with him.

By the time I arrived in Princeton, of course, I knew much more about what to expect – that the seminary was Presbyterian, that it was, by my standards, crazily liberal, that it emphasized academics as much as ministerial training, and that it had a large faculty of scholars of whom I had never heard, except Metzger.  Some of that was good news for me (I wanted the most academically rigorous training I could get) and some not so good (I wasn’t thrilled about having to study theology under professors I wasn’t sure were even Christian).

My view of Princeton now is that it is not at all crazily liberal.  At the time I saw it as way left of center, but not to the extreme left (that was places like Harvard and San Francisco Theological Seminary where, we thought, it was a huge disadvantage to be a Christian in any sense at all).  Now I think that it was firmly mainline, and in my view today it is an extremely conservative place.  Not crazy conservative like fundamentalist Moody Bible Institute, but still, in the overall scheme of thing, very conservative indeed.

In any event, I went their armed to the teeth to fight for the faith.  Turns out I didn’t really need to.  I was certainly one of the most conservative students there, but I found others like me who had come from evangelical backgrounds who were a bit suspicious of what they would be getting at a place like Princeton.

I would not say that I approached my studies there with an open mind.  I was bound and determined to stand for The Truth, in the face of liberal heresy.   But eventually education has a way of getting at you.  Or at least it should.

Here is an aspect about conservative evangelical Christianity that most people have never thought about.   Conservative evangelical Christian thinkers are almost entirely committed heart and soul to the idea that there is objectivity, and the goal of thinking is to be as objective as possible.  They are sworn enemies of relativism, of subjectivity.  They think Truth is objective and can be proven.  The entire enterprise of apologetics – the “proof” of the faith – is rooted in the sense that there is objective truth out there and the goal of inquiry is to uncover that objective truth through objective modes of investigation.

This creates one of the strangest paradoxes in modern culture that I’ve never ever heard anyone ever talk about (scholar or otherwise).  The very notion of objectivity came into being in the European Enlightenment.  It was during the Enlightenment that thinkers came to believe that through science, experimentation, and the unrestricted use of human rationality (instead of appeal to church authority and tradition) it was possible to establish truth in such a way that anyone would be forced to agree to a proposition: Yes, THIS (and not some other thing) is *demonstrably* true.  It can be proven.

This Enlightenment thinking is what led thinkers away from church dogma and teaching – for example about the nature of the universe (you mean the earth is *not* the center of all things?), about human beings (think, evolution), about the etiologies of disease (am I sick because God is angry with me or because I caught a virus), about morality (is it really right to torture heretics?  Is slavery justified?), about the grounds of authority (is something true if the church has always said it is true?) about the nature of religion (is it invented rather than handed down from above?), about the possibilities of belief (is it sensible to believe in a greater being or, in fact, did we get here by a combination of matter, time, and chance?), and on and on and on.  The Enlightenment changed everything.  It made possible the modern world, whether in terms of science (the very concept of “natural law”), technology, academic disciplines (from chemistry to anthropology to history to psychology to… well, it’s a long list), and religion (agnosticism and atheism became genuine options).

We are all, of course, heirs of the Enlightenment.  Thank God, so to say.

But the irony is this.   Fundamentalist Christians, who take a very hard line precisely against the (horrible!) findings of the Enlightenment — with its Big Bang, evolution, multi-culturalism, and so on – are in one respect as much or even more the Children of the Enlightenment than anyone else on the planet.  They continue to think that Truth is completely Objective and that can be established by objective modes of inquiry.  Conservative apologists continue to think you can PROVE the truths of Christianity: There is One God, the Creator of all things; the Bible is the literally inspired Word of God; Jesus was physically raised from the dead; and so forth and so on.

The problem is that if you think truth is completely objective and that you can prove something to be true, this means you can also, in theory, objectively prove that it is false.  If you admit the possibility of objective truth you admit the possibility of objective error.  This possibility is what in the long run has proved so disastrous for evangelical Christianity.  It certainly was what proved to be disastrous for my own evangelical Christianity.  Since I was open to both proof and disproof, I eventually came to see that my views did not rest on a solid foundation.  My Enlightenment approach to truth as an evangelical ended up undercutting my anti-Enlightenment views of the truth.  That led to a crisis of faith.  And it was because I was a child of the Enlightenment when it came to my way of establishing truth, even though I didn’t accept the results of the Enlightenment when it came to what I believed about the truth.

(Dr. Ehrman continues this discussion in his next post, here, on his blog.)

Was Saul Unconsciously a Christian Before his Damascus Conversion?

Christians frequently pose this question to skeptics of the Christian supernatural claims:   Why would Paul—a devout, highly educated Jewish rabbi—convert to the very belief system which he intensely despised and vigorously persecuted unless he really had seen the resurrected Jesus on the Damascus Road?  Below is one New Testament scholar’s hypothetical resolution to that enigma:

“…the pre-Christian Paul was a committed, zealous persecutor of  Christians.  This vigorous reaction on Paul’s part presupposes that the basic elements of the preaching of Christians had had a very strong effect on him.  …behind Paul’s vehemently rejecting, aggressive attitude to Christians there was an inner build up in his person that numerous works of depth psychology have ascertained in other cases to be the basic motivation for aggressive behavior.  Is it too much to assume that the basic elements of Christian preaching and practice unconsciously attracted Paul?  However, out of fear of his unconscious strivings, he projected them on to the Christians, so as to be able to attack them there all the more wildly?

Fanatics often suppress the doubt in their own view of life and practice.  If that is true of Paul, his religious zeal was a kind of measure of his inner build-up, which was formally released in a vision of Christ.  Perhaps we can say with Jung that Paul was unconsciously a Christian before his conversion.

Jung:  ‘…because [Paul] did not want to see himself as a Christian, as a result of resistance to this, for a while he became blind.  This blindness was psychogenic.’

The unconscious ‘Christ Complex’ (presuming that there was such a thing in Paul) may have been formally brought to a boil by the Christians whom he persecuted.  He wanted to find release by fighting an external enemy.  That became his ‘destiny’.  And Saul became Paul.”

—Gerd Luedemann, German NT scholar, in his book, The Resurrection of Jesus

Luedemann goes on to suggest that Romans chapter 7 may be Paul’s reflections on his conversion experience; on his liberation from the law and from sin.  Romans chapter 7 may describe Paul’s personal conflict in making a decision…a decision which was resolved for him on the Damascus Road…a mental break from this world to “the other world of hallucination”.  And thus…his “heavenly vision”.

From Where did the Earliest Christians Derive the Concept of a Virginal Conception?

“The story of Jesus’ conception has…taken a form for which to the best of our knowledge, there is no exact parallel or antecedent in the material available to the Christians of the first century who told of this conception.  …non-Jewish parallels consistently involve a type of “hieros gamos” where a divine male, in human or other form, impregnates a woman, either through normal sexual intercourse or through some substitute form of penetration.  They are not really similar to the non-sexual virginal conception that is at the core of the infancy narratives, a conception where there is no male deity or element to impregnate Mary.”  —Raymond Brown, Catholic scholar, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, p. 62

Gary:  No male deity?  What exactly was the Holy Ghost?  And when the Bible says that the Holy Ghost “overshadowed” Mary, that certainly sounds like a sexual metaphor to me.  But, hey, I’m not a Bible scholar.