In the last decade, in the course of my study of the historical Jesus and of the origins of the movement which claims to be a direct result of his life and influence, I have watched or listened to (or read the transcript of) about a dozen debates between Dr. Craig and various people. These debates usually revolve around three distinct but related topics: the historicity of the New Testament resurrection accounts, the plausibility of the existence of God, or the more simply phrased question, "is Christianity true?". The same basic arguments are consistently repeated in all of his debates. I am invariably struck and surprised by the weight given his arguments by these credulous evangelical groups because, in his rhetoric, I find all sorts of erroneous or spurious assertions which even I, a simple musician and auto-didact following along, am able to easily point out. In this essay, I'll directly challenge the validity of what he offers up as empirical "evidence".
¿Resurrection as history?
Dr. Craig usually begins his defense of the historicity of the Gospel accounts of the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus with an appeal to what he calls "the four irrefutable facts" that are supposedly accepted by a vast consensus of New Testament scholarship today (it used to be three facts, but he has since expanded his list). He claims that any explanation of the emergence of belief in Jesus' resurrection must account for these "facts".
These four "undisputable" facts, according to him, are:
fact 1 - After his crucifixion, Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in his own personal tomb.
fact 2 - On the Sunday following the crucifixion, the tomb of Jesus was found empty by a group of his women followers.
fact 3 - On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.
fact 4 - The original disciples believed that Jesus had risen from the dead despite their having every reason not to.
**(quoted from "Will the Real Jesus Please Stand" up by Craig, Crossan, Miller, Blomberg, Borg, and Witherington, pp. 26-28)
Before I address each of these individually, I'd like to make a couple of preliminary points regarding his claim to such a "vast" scholarly consensus for the historicity of these articles of faith:
That it is somewhat misleading to refer to some consensus among New Testament scholars as conclusive regarding the historical authenticity of the events the texts describe if only because the vast majority of New Testament scholars are in fact practicing Christians to begin with and thus "have a horse in the race", so to speak, and,
That his assertion that the unanimous consensus view in scholarship is that these are irrefutable "facts" is just so much hyperbole.
This became obviously clear to me when I came across a series of lists in Allan Powell's "Jesus as Figure in History", pp.117,153). These lists are of "bare minimum" facts that are sometimes compiled by contemporary scholars as a teaching aid and put forth as being the most certain things we "know" about Jesus' life and ministry. In this particular case the lists are those of N.T. Wright and E. P. Sanders, respectively.
If this overwhelming consensus was in fact the case, one would expect these four "facts" to be included in all (or at least the vast majority) of the lists of these "bare minimum" facts as compiled by the most eminent of scholars.
Yet . . .
- Neither E. P. Sanders nor N. T. Wright include fact 1 in their lists.
- Neither includes fact 2.
- Sanders does not include fact 3, and Wright phrases the "fact" in a less certain light than does Craig:
"[...]was reported (my emphasis) by his followers to have been raised from the dead".
- And, finally, fact 4 is just a derivate of fact 3 which neither mentions on his list.
Now, I realize that such lists don't really determine much one way or another. N.T. Wright, for instance, believes that every single line in the New Testament occured exactly as written, so any such listing by him is but the roughest of thumbnail sketches, but these lists DO serve to illustrate the exaggerated nature of Craig's claims of near-universal consensus.
A crucial preliminary question raises itself: If two of the most renowned NT scholars (and of these, N.T. Wright could arguably be classified as one of the more conservative scholars in the field) don't include these four "facts" in their lists, by what justification does Dr. Craig assert that the universal academic view is that these are irrefutable? This deserves more than a glossing over, and I'm amazed that his opponents don't call him on it.
I have sometimes wondered, as I listen to these debates, why someone doesn't just refute these assertions of his outright. I suspect that the reasons vary from opponent to opponent; some may feel that to engage his assertions may be to give audience to an argument that is erroneous from the starting gate (I tend to agree with this notion, but then I have no station to defend), and instead choose to focus on what they think the importance of the resurrection holds for them; some may just be sticking to their own semi-scripted approach to the debate - this possibility reveals much of what is wrong with the "sport" of debate. People tend to develop habits of style and form. Having chosen a prescribed fighting strategy, experienced debaters tend to stick to it, despite what their opponent might bring. At best, this makes for a silly ballet of evasive obstinacy; at worst, the two contenders are not even listening to each other.
Now, I am not an academic in this discipline - I am just a layman fascinated by recent work in this field who has studied the matter at length, independent of any institution, but I feel that Dr. Craig's "four-irrefutable-fact" axiom is very easily refuted.
On fact #1: Joseph of Arimathea
- - a - Jesus' burial is attested in the very old tradition quoted by Paul in 1Cor. 15:4.
Sorry, but you cannot cite any Pauline letter to lend valifity to the JoA story. Toss exhibit A right out.
- - b - The burial story is part of very old source material used by Mark in writing his gospel.
I ask myself two questions then:
1- Did the author of Mark invent J of A in order to make sense of the proto-creed espoused by Paul in 1 Cor. 15 (if Mark wrote down his gospel in Rome - as is traditionally held - near the year 70 C.E., then surely he would have been familiar with that city's best-known martyr's ministry and plight)?
2 -Was Joseph part of older source material which he incorporated into his narrative?
Though I lean toward the former, I'm open to the possibility of either one, but there is no reason to take it as a given that such "very old source material" existed without textual evidence to back the claim up. Just saying it doesn't make it so, I'm afraid.
- - c - As a member of the Jewish court that condemned Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea is unlikely to be a Christian invention.
The Judean historian Josephus tells a story about his coming upon some crucified men on the road to Jerusalem one day. He was terrified to recognize three of them as acquaintances of his, so he requested that they be brought down from their crosses, and he says that he was granted the request (although only one of the convicts actually survived the trauma of crucifixion, according to him), but then Josephus was part of a wealthy and powerful aristocratic family, so he had some pull, so to speak. Just as it does in today's world, money talked back then. Nevertheless, the norm was to let the victim rot up there, or to throw his corpse in a common grave. In my view, it seems that in order to make sense of the resurrection story, Mark saw the need to invent a powerful wealthy character that would have had some influence on the authorities. A Roman aristocrat was certainly not a likely candidate. Therefore, although it seems rather bizarre and controversial that a member of the Sanhedrin who had been a secret admirer of Jesus could have performed this act of respect and kindness, Mark could see no other choice.
I mean . . . Who else was there to do it?
- - d - The burial story itself lacks any traces of legendary development.
- - e - No competing burial story exists.
On fact #2: The Empty Tomb
- - a - The empty tomb story is part of the very old source material used by Mark.
How old is the tradition? It's hard to say, but I think it does not go back very far beyond Mark. Paul (who perhaps either had a hand in developing, or otherwise rightly understood, the metaphor of the resurrection) does not mention any empty tomb.
- - b - The old tradition cited by Paul in 1 Cor. 15: 3-5 implies the empty tomb.
- - c - The story is simple and lacks any sign of legendary embellishment.
Brevity is not synonymous with simplicity.
- - d - The fact that women's testimony was considered worthless in first-century Palestine counts in favor of the historicity of the women's discovering the empty tomb.
Certainly, life in Judea in the first century was patriarchal and androcentric (what contemporaneous culture wasn't?). However, while social roles and responsibilities did differ for women and men, there is no reason to believe that second-temple Judaism, in all its various forms, epitomized misogynism in such an extreme way. While Josephus (Antiquities iv. 8. 15) does expressly say that women should not be allowed to testify in court, the Pentateuch says not a word about the exclusion of women as witnesses. Moreover, a study of rabbinic law concerning divorce shows that there were certain conditions (see Miriam Peskowitz, Stories About Spinners and Weavers: Gendering the Everyday in Roman-period Judaism) under which a man was obligated by the court to grant a woman a divorce and to pay her a divorce settlement. My question here then is: How is this possible if she is not allowed to testify in court?
This is all really beside the point, however, since the women's claim to witnessing the empty tomb is not legal testimony. Was everything that women said not believed simply because they were women? Are we to believe that Jewish men in first-century Judea didn't believe a word that women said? What were the limits to this mass misogynous incredulity?
I think that any attempt at negatively highlighting some imagined radical misogyny as somehow being intrinsic to the Judaism of the time is simply unsupported by historical evidence.
It is simply bad history and bad theology. I would even say that it is a shameful practice, revealing an endemic anti-semitism (whether conscious or sub-conscious I cannot say).
- - e - The early Jewish allegation that the disciples had stolen Jesus' body presupposes that the body was in fact missing from the tomb.
What early Jewish allegation? Is he referring to Matt. 28?
In my view, citing Matt. 28 as evidence of early Jewish gossip is spurious from the git go because it is circular, self-referential.
Also, when Matthew wrote his gospel (the current scholarly consensus is circa 80-85 C.E.), Jews may very well have countered the resurrection claim by claiming that the body must have been stolen, but by that time Jews neither knew (nor probably cared) where Jesus had been buried. If they heard claims of Jesus' resurrection, it was only natural that they would counter with an accusation of exhumation by his followers.
Tertullian wrote a short passage (De Speculatis, 100.30) in which he describes Jewish mockery of the Christians and of Jesus. Much of what Tertullian accuses the Jews of saying and doing is taken straight out of the NT, though there is some additional material which reflects what would later be found in a sixth century polemical Jewish text called the Toledoh Yeshu (in this work, the body is even found!). Tertullian wrote the passage sometime in the late second century. Thus, this is not an "early" Jewish allegation at all.
(I'd like to add here that the modern term "Jewish" is an anachronism in this context, but I won't belabor the point further.)
On fact #3: Appearances
- - b - The Gospel traditions provide multiple, independent attestations of these appearances.
Are there really multiple independent attestations of the different post-Easter appearances?
As I survey contemporary scholarship, to my eyes it seems pretty clear that the consensus view overwhelmingly favors not only Marcan priority, that is, the fact that Mark's gospel was the first to be composed, but it is also almost unanymously accepted that this gospel was subsequently used by the later evangelists ( i.e. the authors of Matthew and Luke) as a model both for the form and the content of the story they tell. If this is so, then what were once thought to be three independent attestations in the synoptics is now reduced to one evolving tradition. Furthermore, though admittedly not as overwhelmingly a consensus view (currently right about about 50%-50% ), it is probable that the fourth evangelist also knew of and used the synoptic tradition in composing his own gospel (I think he did). If this is so, then what we have are variants of one single evolving tradition.
This leaves us with only two "independent" attestations, then. Namely, that contained in the gospels and the one in 1 Cor. 15.
And these two traditions tell different stories. The synoptics say he appeared to Mary and some women first. Paul says he appeared to Cephas.
No multiple attestation here.
- - a - The list of eyewitnesses to Jesus' post-resurrection appearances which is quoted by Paul (1Cor. 15: 5-7) and vouchsafed by his personal acquaintance with the people involved guarantees that these appearances occurred.
This list is problematic because, if the story of the physical bodily resurrection is historical, that is, if Mary of Magdalá came to the tomb and was the first to see the risen Jesus, then why has Paul, who knows of all the other earliest appearances, never heard of the appearance to her? Perhaps a better way to put it is: If it happened as literally described in the canonical gospels, why didn't that crucial piece of information make it to the creed which Paul is so intent of handing down to the Corinthians? Conversely, if Mary played no such crucial role in the passion story, then why did the evangelists, writing a generation after Paul, unanimously insist that she did, despite Paul's blaring omission (more than an omission, this is a downright contradiction). It makes more sense to me to posit that the author of Mark's gospel had to put Mary at the scene of the crucifixion and also at the tomb to solve the problem I mentioned in 1c above. I must say that despite his limitations in the written Greek language, Mark was a very astute and creative writer in this regard.
Moreover, it has always seemed strange to me that Paul would use the exact same language to describe the apparitions to Simon and to Jacob and to the others that he applies to his own vision of Jesus. If Paul's is a "vision" then I see no reason to conclude that the other appearances were of a different nature or category.
- - c - Researches have noticed signs of historical credibility in specific appearances -- for example, the unexpected activity of the disciples' fishing prior to Jesus' appearance by the Lake of Tiberias, and the otherwise inexplicable conversion of James, Jesus' younger brother.
As far as James' conversion goes, though, it seems pretty clear to me, from my reading of the NT and Josephus, that Jacob was held in very high esteem by the Jerusalem community (not just the proto-Christians) as a leader and as a man of high moral convictions. He was, in other words, a good Jew. To posit a Jacobean conversion is to beg the question: Where is his conversion mentioned in any of the texts (unless, of course, you include late works such as the Gospel of Phillip as one of your sources)? 1Cor. 15 merely describes a vision to Jacob, who we know from Josephus died an esteemed and good Jew circa 62 C.E.
I don't think it is possible to argue for such a conversion from Paul's description of his first trip to Jerusalem (seeking to placate the "three pillars" who by now had heard of his bizarre teachings), and I don't think it is correct to transfer Paul's christological constructs to Jacob just because Paul says they shook hands at the end of their meeting. In fact, I think that Paul was being a bit disingenuous (I am not saying that Paul lied - just stacking the deck in his favor is more like it - e.g. "I sure told them!") in his recounting of what really happened in Jerusalem during that first visit to see Jacob.
In my reading of the material, the first proto-Christian community was simply a sub-sect of highly pious, Torah-observing, temple-worshiping Judeans who were strongly devoted to preserving the memory of (and to applying the teachings of) their departed beloved master and teacher, Jesus, and who were led by his younger brother after his crucifixion. Jacob became the leader of the nascent community not only by virtue of his familial relation to their master, but also by that of his own well-attested piety and righteousness.
On fact #4: ¿Raised?
- - a - Their leader was dead. And Jews had no belief in a dying, much less a rising, Messiah.
Also, physical bodily resurrections may or may not be attested to in what we know about Second-Temple Judaism, but this sort of thing DOES have parallels in various Pagan legends and religious practices, a fact that supports my opinion that the belief in physical bodily resurrection stems from a misunderstanding of Paul's metaphorical language that was later interpolated into the mix by the gentile converts of the Diaspora rather than in the Judean community.
- b - According to Jewish law, Jesus' execution as a criminal showed him to be a heretic, a man literally under the curse of God.
Also, Jesus was not the only murdered would-be savior of his day; John the Baptizer had been executed as well, yet his memory inspired and nurtured many devoted disciples well into the fourth century (in fact, Josephus says a lot more about John than about Jesus). My point is that their respective memories did not become somehow "taboo" just because they had been executed. All that such an assertion (and the above one about women's testimony) shows is Dr. Craig's misreading of Jewish culture.
- - c - Jewish beliefs about the afterlife precluded anyone's rising from the dead before the general resurrection at the end of the world.
Am I to believe that someone who clearly and repeatedly misinterprets first-century Jewish culture can say anything about what it does or does not preclude?
A bit tangentially, I'd like to add a brief note about citing the phenomenon of martyrs in one's apologetics. It's not part of the "four fact" axiom, but he does appeal to the blood of the martyrs inevitably in his debates regarding the ressurection. Simply put, I think that even today there would probably be many (if not millions) of people who would gladly be martyred given a choice between that option and recounting their faith in Jesus. Yet, these contemporary people obviously have not personally witnessed the bodily risen Jesus (whatever the nature of their experience might be - my guess being that it is essentially a psychological phenomenon).
After all, there have been plenty of Muslim, Buddhist and even Mormon martyrdoms recorded in our history. Hell, even heretics were martyred (in fact, it was a Montanist ideal!) Is Dr. Craig prepared to concede the historicity of their traditions as readily as he does the orthodox Christian one? If not, I wonder what distinguishes these Christians martyrs as more credible than the others?
Here, finally, I'd like to say something about what I think is the fatal flaw in Dr. Craig's rhetorical technique, namely, his predilection to rely on rhetorical fallacies to make his case.
Some of these include:
Band wagon appeals - e.g. - "all scholars agree"His favorite one of these techniques seems to be to argue from some authority whom he believes has the last word somehow. He does it so often, in fact, that it was this frequent practice of his, specifically, which ultimately compelled me to write this critique. Every time I hear him do it, I shudder and cringe a little. It's bad enough that his arguments are historically unsupported, but for him to repeatedly engage in such rhetorical fallacies and sophistry to reinforce his case - well ... it simply begs correction.
Either/Or arguments which ignore other possibilities (where's the grey?) - e.g. - "Jesus was the Messiah like he claimed, or else he was either a liar or a madman" (C.S. Lewis' famous example)
Sentimental appeals - e.g. - Dr. Craig often closes a debate with one of these.
Appeals to authority - e.g. - Norman Perrin said "xyz", therefore it must be true.
Making hasty generalizations or misrepresentations of his opponent's position - e.g. - His insistence on substituting the word "hallucination" for his opponent's "vision", even after he has been corrected.
Begging the question - e.g. - see 1b above for an example.
I think that Dr. Craig's insistence on arguing for a literal reading of the bodily resurrection accounts is based on a theological need for biblical inerrancy and on a theological need to rule out the possibility that the story of the resurrection might be a parable about Jesus (to borrow a phrase from J.D. Crossan). Such a mythological interpretation seems to somehow threaten Dr. Craig's - and many other evangelists'- Christian faith (an irrational and unfounded fear, in my opinion). They won't have it. This insistence on literalism (and, I'm sad to say, a lot of NT scholarship that I've encountered) belongs to the category which I call "theology disguised as history".
Finally, it might be wise for Dr. Craig to keep in mind the point of the parable of the doubting Thomas, which can be interpreted as, essentially, a warning against the folly of looking for empirical evidence for the physical resurrection of the body of Jesus. Or, how about the warning that the angelic figure at the tomb asks the women:
Not only do I think that to insist on a literal reading is to miss the point of these stories, but I also think that the fact that these stories are empirically indefensible makes an apologist essentially into a fideist who insists he is not one. I find this to be a fascinating kind of state of denial.Why do you seek him here?
Originally posted on
18 Jan 2007 C.E.
18 Jan 2007 C.E.