The Jury Is In The Ruling on McDowell’s “Evidence”

Introduction (1997, Draft)
Jeffery Jay Lowder

In terms of audience sizes and books sold, Josh McDowell is arguably the most influential apologist today. According to the back cover of the revised edition to his best-selling book Evidence That Demands a Verdict (ETDAV)[1] –which was published in 1979–“during the last 20 years he has spoken in over 60 countries to more than seven million young people and adults in over 800 universities and high schools.” And there are over one million copies of ETDAV in print.”

ETDAV is also arguably the most influential Christian apologetics book on the Internet, which is what led the Internet Infidels to write The Jury Is In: The Ruling on McDowell’s “Evidence” (hereafter Jury). We remember the old alt.atheism days when every other refutation to a post was “read McDowell;” Christians posting feedback messages to the Internet Infidels recommended ETDAV more than all other Christian apologetics books combined.

In writing Jury, the authors do not mean to suggest that ETDAV is the best that Christian scholarship has to offer. On the contrary, we are well aware that there are many books defending the Christian faith which are more contemporary and more scholarly than ETDAV.[2] Still, the fact remains that ETDAV is much more influential than any of these other books; a systematic rebuttal to ETDAV has never before been available; and many lay Christians have interpreted the lack of such a rebuttal as an admission that ETDAV is irrefutable. For these reasons, the contributors felt it was important to write a systematic rebuttal to ETDAV.

ETDAV As a Strong Apologetic

The modern word apologetics has its roots in the Greek word, apologia, which means defense. The word apologist, used to describe a person who practices or specializes in apologetics, is normally preceded by an adjective to identify which beliefs the apologist defends (e.g., Christian apologist, Muslim apologist, etc.). In theory, an apologist could be a person who defends a set of beliefs about anything, but in practice an apologist is someone who defends a set of religious beliefs or world view.

There are two options available to the apologists in defending their beliefs: positive apologetics and negative apologetics. A positive apologetic attempts to justify a world view somehow in terms of arguments, evidence, etc. A negative apologetic attempts to answer objections to that worldview, which may appear in the form of a competing world view.

An apologetic may also be defined in terms of its aggressiveness. A soft apologetic is merely an attempt to defend the rationality of accepting a world view; a hard apologetic is a much more ambitious attempt to demonstrate the irrationality of rejecting that world view. Josh McDowell’s ETDAV is a perfect example of this latter approach. Bill Bright, the President and Founder of Campus Crusade for Christ International, wrote the following in the Foreword to ETDAV:

I personally have never heard a single individual–who has honestly considered the evidence–deny that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of men. The evidence confirming the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ is overwhelmingly conclusive to any honest, objective seeker after truth. However, not all–not even the majority–of those to whom I have spoken have accepted Him as their Savior and Lord. This is not because they were unable to believe–they were simply unwilling to believe![3]

Where, we may ask, does Bright think this “overwhelmingly conclusive” evidence may be found? In ETDAV. He writes:

A careful and prayerful study of the material contained in this book will help the reader always to be prepared to make an intelligent and convincing presentation of the good news. However, there is one final word of caution and counsel: one should not assume that the average person has intellectual doubts about the deity of Jesus Christ…[4]

Bright is stating that the material contained in ETDAV is so “convincing” that most people will not question it; those who express their “doubts” about McDowell’s evidence are “unwilling to believe.” But that entails that Bright thinks ETDAV is a hard apologetic, even if he doesn’t use those exact words.

Much more telling than Bright’s comments about ETDAV, however, is what McDowell himself has to say. Just consider the title of his book, Evidence That Demands A Verdict: Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith. What is McDowell claiming with this title? That historical evidences demand a verdict for the Christian Faith. Where are those evidences to be found? In ETDAV, of course. Opening McDowell’s book, we read that

For me, Christianity was not a “leap into the dark,” but rather “a step into the light.” I took the evidence that I could gather and put it on the scales. The scales tipped the way of Christ being the Son of God and resurrected from the dead. It was overwhelmingly leaning to Christ that when I became a Christian, it was a “step into the light” rather than a “leap into the darkness.”

If I had exercised “blind faith,” I would have rejected Jesus Christ and turned my back on all the evidence.”[5]

Thus, McDowell’s claim concerning the rationality of the Christian faith is two-fold. First, McDowell argues that Christianity is true (and not just that Christian belief is rational). According to McDowell, Christ is the son of God and resurrected from the dead. But McDowell does not stop there; he goes on the offensive and makes the additional claim that the lack of Christian belief is irrational. According to McDowell, non-Christians do not deny that Christianity is true; instead they have “intellectual excuses,” “exercise blind faith,” are in “darkness,” and are “unwilling to believe.” So not only does McDowell attempt to provide a hard apologetic for Christianity, but he launches a preemptive strike against a soft apologetic for non-Christian belief as well and therefore is attempting to argue a hard apologetic for Christian faith.

To call this pair of claims bold would be a major understatement. As a Christian, it is perfectly understandable that McDowell would want to defend the truth of Christianity and therefore make the first claim. And it is obvious that the first claim is probabilistic in nature; McDowell makes it clear that his goal is to show that “the scales tip the way” of Christianity. But the second claim, that non-Christians are somehow irresponsible or intellectually dishonest in rejecting Christianity, is extremely strong. It is also by definition a hard apologetic.

Hence, this book shall construe ETDAV as an attempt both to prove Christianity and to convict unbelievers of irrationality. We shall evaluate ETDAV on the basis of how well it does.

Objections to Jury

Many believers would try to dismiss a book like this from the very start. I’d like to briefly consider some of their objections and then respond to them.

Objection #1: “You have misunderstood the purpose of ETDAV. The purpose of ETDAV is to equip Christians to be able to defend their Christian faith, not prove to skeptics that Christianity is true.”

Response to Objection #1:

(a) If “the purpose of ETDAV is to equip Christians to be able to defend their Christian faith,” then who are they supposed to be defending it against?

(b) As a former skeptic and enemy of Christianity, surely McDowell had skeptics in mind when he wrote ETDAV.

(c) Just because McDowell stated that you can’t argue someone into Christianity doesn’t mean that McDowell didn’t try to prove Christianity. It simply means that McDowell believes that apologetics are insufficient for conversion.

(d) ETDAV contains numerous statements and quotations that appear to have skeptics in mind. But if we accept the claim that skeptics are not an intended audience of ETDAV and that ETDAV is just a compilation of research notes, that would make McDowell appear intellectually dishonest, for he would be refuting skeptical objections in a book not intended for skeptics. By assuming that skeptics were an intended audience of ETDAV, we’re giving McDowell and his intellectual honesty the benefit of the doubt.

(e) Most of ETDAV‘s “evidences” are used in other McDowell books in which skeptics are the target audience. The trilemma, as well as McDowell’s evidences for the historical reliability of the Bible and the Resurrection, can be found in McDowell’s apologetic More Than a Carpenter; McDowell’s extra-biblical “evidences” for the historicity of Jesus can be found in McDowell’s apologetic He Walked Among Us; etc.[6] But if McDowell is presenting identical or highly similar “evidences” in other books that contain arguments designed to convince skeptics, it is unclear what purpose is served by distinguishing “evidences” in ETDAV from “evidences” in McDowell’s other apologetic books.

(f) If McDowell only intended ETDAV to be a collection of research and speaking notes, and not an apologetic for the Christian faith, then McDowell has presented only some of the relevant evidence, and a one-sided view at that. In a court of law or in a scientific examination, both sides of an argument are presented before conclusions are made. By weighing and evaluating both pro and con evidence, a verdict is reached. McDowell skipped the second half of the work and simply presented his evidence and his conclusions.

(g) It really doesn’t matter what McDowell may have originally intended ETDAV to be used for. What matters is how people are currently using ETDAV, which is as an apologetic. If McDowell thinks that Evangelicals are misusing his “lecture notes” for the purpose of apologetics, then he should issue a disclaimer in the next printing. And even then, ETDAV would still be one of the most popular defenses of the Christian faith and therefore worthy of consideration, review, and scrutiny.

Objection #2: “McDowell is an easy target and is not a scholar.”

Response to Objection #2: I have already addressed this objection above by pointing out that we do not portray McDowell’s works as the best which Christian scholarship has to offer. Still, it would be a mistake to suggest that ETDAV is never quoted by (Christian) scholars. For example, in his book Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland thanks “Josh McDowell for first introducing me to the joy and importance of apologetics;” moreover he endorses McDowell’s tests for the historical reliability of ancient manuscripts[7] and explicitly cites McDowell’s infamous comparison of ancient manuscripts.[8] And Moreland explicitly endorses two of McDowell’s books as “highly recommended”: Evidence That Demands a Verdict and The Resurrection Factor.[9]

Moreover, Moreland is not the only philosopher who appears to take McDowell seriously. Ravi Zacharias, who has been a visiting scholar at Cambridge University, has McDowell endorse both of his books (A Shattered Visage and Can Man Live Without God) on their back covers.[10] Likewise, Norman Geisler and Ron Brooks print McDowell’s endorsement on the back cover of their When Skeptics Ask.[11]

So it does appear that there are Christian scholars who regard McDowell highly.

But even if one classifies McDowell’s arguments as only “popular” it would be a mistake to suggest that his arguments may be dismissed as much. In the fifth-century BCE, Parminedes of Elea proposed to his fellow Greek thinkers that motion was impossible and that everything that we think is real is but an illusion. Obviously Plato (and his student Aristotle) found this notion nonsense but they had to take it seriously because it was a very popular argument. Plato eventually had to write the Sophist in order to refute Parminides’ argument. Little has changed today. It is dangerous to dismiss absurd arguments out-of-hand. When we do the arguments fester and grow, and sometimes enjoy a modicum of respectability from an audience which hasn’t the critical thinking skills to see what others find so absurd about the argument. Throughout history, whole movements such as the German National Socialists have taken on a life of their own because their absurd arguments went unchallenged. Granted, Josh McDowell’s work is certainly not anti-Semitic or as serious as the political propaganda of the Nazis, but it is apologetical propaganda nonetheless. If he is left unanswered, McDowell’s arguments could gain an undeserved legitimacy from an uncritical populace who has not heard the other side of the story.

Objection #3: “Why have you not debated Josh McDowell?”

Response to Objection #3: In the past, Farrell Till, Frank Zindler, Dan Barker, and the late Gordon Stein all challenged Josh McDowell to defend the claims he made in ETDAV in an oral debate. Yet McDowell did not answer any of these offers. We understand that McDowell has a new ministry toRussia which may well make it impossible for McDowell to debate atheists, and we have no qualms with that. What bothers us is that McDowell’s fans continue to claim that skeptics are afraid to debate McDowell. On the contrary, skeptics are not afraid to debate McDowell and would happily do so given the chance.

Objection #4: “There is something immoral about writing a book like Jury.”

Response to Objection #4: We are supposed to be after the truth. If McDowell’s arguments in ETDAV are strong (as he claims), Christians should not be reluctant to subject them to critical (or even hostile) scrutiny. If his arguments can withstand scrutiny, then Christians will lose nothing but will gain the confidence that comes from investigating an argument and knowing that it can withstand scrutiny. If, on the other hand, his arguments cannot withstand scrutiny, that fact needs to be exposed. Of course, if a critic successfully refutes a Christian apologist, that may embarrass the Christian worldview. But that is the risk one takes when one becomes an apologist. Besides, I would think that McDowell would want his opponents to be able to take their best shot and aim to triumph anyway.

Objection #5: “You can accept the claims of Jury and the atheistic world view it embraces, or you can believe that Jesus is the Son of God and resurrected from the dead.”

Response to Objection #5: Actually, Jury doesn’t promote an atheistic world view. It merely critiques or refutes bad arguments for an Evangelical Christian worldview. One could consistently reject atheism and still accept all of Jury‘s criticisms.

Objection #6: “Jury is written by a bunch of amateurs and may be dismissed as such.”

Response to Objection #6: Some of the authors are professional scholars (e.g., Robert Price, Ph.D. in New Testament and Ph.D. in Church History; Larry Taylor, M.A. in Ancient History); the others are well-informed non-experts. The fact that some of the authors do not have formal degrees in history or biblical criticism should only be an issue if their lack of academic background causes them to misrepresent or omit important trends in contemporary scholarship.

Objection #7: “I really like book X, yet Jury doesn’t deal with book X. This is a serious omission.”

Response to Objection #7: This is a response to ETDAV, not book X. Unless book X is highly influential and relevant to one of the chapters of Jury, this objection is irrelevant. Where appropriate, the authors of Jury have attempted to interact with major trends in contemporary scholarship, but even then the focus shall be on ETDAV and not on book X.

We therefore conclude that these objections to Jury fail.

Organization of this book

[This section shall not be completed until Jury is finished.]


I am grateful to Bob Sarver for constructive criticism of an earlier draft of this introduction. James Still and Robby Berry also provided useful suggestions.


[1] Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict (San Benardino, CA: Here’s Life, 1979).

[2] See J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987); Ronald H. Nash, Faith & Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988); Norman Geisler and Ron Brooks, When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook on Christian Evidences (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1990); William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (Revised edition, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994); Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland, Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995); and Gary R. Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1996).

[3] Bill Bright, Foreword, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, p. iii.

[4] Bright, p. iv. Italics added.

[5] McDowell 1979, p. 10. Italics added.

[6] Josh McDowell, More Than a Carpenter (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1987), and Josh McDowell, He Walked Among Us (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1994).

[7] Moreland, p. 134.

[8] Moreland, p. 135.

[9] Moreland, pp. 260-261.

[10] See RaviZacharias, A Shattered Visage (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1990), and Can Man Live Without God? (Dallas: Word, 1994).

[11] Norman Geisler and Ron Brooks, When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook on Christian Evidences (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1990).

The Uniqueness Of The Bible (1997)

Farrell Till

In ETDAV, McDowell begins his defense of the Bible with the claim that it is unique. He parades before us an array of “scholars” to testify to various features of the Bible that qualify it to be considered “different from all others” [books], as if anyone would seriously try to deny that the Bible is unique, i.e., different from all others. At the very beginning of my analysis of this chapter of ETDAV, I will concede that the Bible is undeniably unique. Certainly, there is no other book like it, but this fact, as we will see, becomes more of an embarrassment to the Bible than proof of its divine origin.

What Does Uniqueness Prove?

The answer to this question is that it doesn’t prove anything. If one wanted to quibble, he could argue that all books are unique in that each is different from all others, but nothing is ever gained by quibbling, so let’s cut to the heart of what McDowell really means when he speaks of the “uniqueness” of the Bible. He means that its storyline, its survival, its circulation, its influence, etc. aren’t just slightly but radically different from all other books. McDowell develops points like these at length (aided by the testimony of carefully selected “scholars” who, of course, have nothing but words of praise for the Bible) only to arrive at a rather anti-climatic conclusion. “The above does not prove the Bible is the Word of God,” he states at the end of this chapter, “but to me it proves that it is unique (different from all others; having no like or equal).” So all of the “evidence that demands a verdict” on this particular point leads McDowell to the conclusion that none of the evidence about the uniqueness of the Bible proves that it is the word of God, but the uniqueness of the Bible certainly proves that it is unique. His circular conclusion was hardly worth the effort he put into reaching it.

Although I certainly don’t consider Josh McDowell a profound biblical scholar, I will credit him with more intelligence than his conclusion to this chapter implies. When he said this, he probably understood principles of persuasion enough to know that nothing that he had said in this entire chapter in any way proved the divine origin of the Bible, but he also understood human nature sufficiently to know that uncritical readers would nevertheless be impressed with his parade of “scholars” testifying to the uniqueness of the Bible. We might equate his strategy here to that of a trial lawyer who makes a statement in court that he knows the judge will not allow the jury to consider, but the lawyer also knows that no matter how much the judge tells the members of the jury that the statement is inadmissible as evidence, they will still take it into consideration. So what McDowell very likely wanted his readers to do was to read his “evidence that demands a verdict” with a preconceived notion that the alleged uniqueness of the Bible has established its divine origin before any other type of evidence has even been considered.

Examination in detail of all of the “scholarly” testimony to the Bible’s uniqueness that McDowell presented in this chapter would require the writing of an entire volume, so I will have to confine myself to general rebuttals of what he apparently hoped to imply by his major examples of uniqueness. Then we will look at some unique characteristics of the Bible that McDowell conveniently left out of his array of “evidence that demands a verdict.”

THE BIBLE: Unique in Its Continuity

In this section of the chapter, McDowell makes a hackneyed appeal that has been elevated almost to the status of creed in many fundamentalist denominations. The Bible was written over a period of 1500 years (so the appeal goes) by 40 different writers, living in different places and even on different continents, writing in different languages, working in different occupations, etc., etc., etc., yet despite all of this diversity, the Bible presents a unified theme from beginning to end. The implication, of course, is that such marvelous continuity could not have been achieved without divine guidance.

The central point of McDowell’s claim is simply not true. Without even attacking the overstated tradition of the circumstances under which the Bible was written, one can easily show that the Bible is not unified in its theme. In 1C.9, McDowell stated that the Bible “includes hundreds of controversial subjects” and then went on to explain that “(a) controversial subject is one which would create opposing opinions when mentioned or discussed.” McDowell’s claim is that such opposing opinions on controversial issues don’t exist in the Bible. “Biblical authors spoke on hundreds of controversial subjects,” he claims, “with harmony and continuity from Genesis to Revelation.”

I could cite dozens of examples that dispute McDowell’s claim that the Bible is completely unified in its theme, but space constraints must limit me to just a few examples of disharmony and discontinuity in the Bible. First, there is the obvious fact that disagreement among prophets in biblical times did exist. Jeremiah, in particular, complained about prophets that didn’t agree with him on contemporary issues:

“Concerning the prophets: My heart is crushed within me, all my bones shake; I have become like a drunkard, like one overcome by wine, because of Yahweh and because of his holy words. For the land is full of adulterers; because of the curse the land mourns, and the pastures of the wilderness are dried up. Their course has been evil, and their might is not right. Both prophet and priest are ungodly; even in my house I have found their wickedness, says Yahweh. Therefore their way shall be to them like slippery paths in the darkness, into which they shall be driven and fall; for I will bring disaster upon them in the year of their punishment, says Yahweh. In the prophets ofSamariaI saw a disgusting thing: they prophesied by Baal and led my peopleIsraelastray. But in the prophets ofJerusalemI have seen a more shocking thing: they commit adultery and walk in lies; they strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from wickedness; all of them have become likeSodomto me, and its inhabitants likeGomorrah. Therefore thus says Yahweh of hosts concerning the prophets: ‘I am going to make them eat wormwood, and give them poisoned water to drink; for from the prophets ofJerusalemungodliness has spread throughout the land.’ Thus says Yahweh of hosts: Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you; they are deluding you. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of Yahweh. They keep saying to those who despise the word of Yahweh, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to all who stubbornly follow their own stubborn hearts, they say, ‘No calamity shall come upon you.’ For who has stood in the council of Yahweh so as to see and to hear his word? Who has given heed to his word so as to proclaim it? Look, the storm of Yahweh! Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest; it will burst upon the head of the wicked. The anger of Yahweh will not turn back until he has executed and accomplished the intents of his mind. In the latter days you will understand it clearly. I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings. Am I a God near by, says Yahweh, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says Yahweh. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says Yahweh. I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed!’ How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back–those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal. Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? says Yahweh. Is not my word like fire, says Yahweh, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? See, therefore, I am against the prophets, says Yahweh, who steal my words from one another. See, I am against the prophets, says Yahweh, who use their own tongues and say, ‘Says Yahweh.’ See, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, says Yahweh, and who tell them, and who lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or appoint them; so they do not profit this people at all, says Yahweh. When this people, or a prophet, or a priest asks you, ‘What is the burden of Yahweh?’ you shall say to them, ‘You are the burden, and I will cast you off, says Yahweh.’ And as for the prophet, priest, or the people who say, ‘The burden of Yahweh,’ I will punish them and their households. Thus shall you say to one another, among yourselves, ‘What has Yahweh answered?’ or “What has Yahweh spoken?’ But ‘the burden of Yahweh’ you shall mention no more, for the burden is everyone’s own word, and so you pervert the words of the living God, Yahweh of hosts, our God. Thus you shall ask the prophet, ‘What has Yahweh answered you?’ or ‘What has Yahweh spoken?’ But if you say, ‘the burden of Yahweh,’ thus says Yahweh: Because you have said these words, ‘the burden of Yahweh,’ when I sent to you, saying, You shall not say, ‘the burden of Yahweh,’ therefore, I will surely lift you up and cast you away from my presence, you and the city that I gave to you and your ancestors. And I will bring upon you everlasting disgrace and perpetual shame, which shall not be forgotten” (23:9-40, NRSV with Yahweh substituted for “the LORD”).

This quotation was long, but it was necessary to establish that even the Bible itself acknowledges that serious disagreements and wranglings among prophets were common in biblical times. If there is any truth at all to Jeremiah’s narration of contemporary events,Judahin his day was filled with prophets uttering lies. This complaint was recurrent in his book (27:9-10; 29:8-9), and in chapters 28 and 29:21-32, he even singled out individuals by name and accused them of speaking false prophecies. Inerrantists like McDowell, of course, will argue that these others were false prophets, and so what they prophesied cannot be compared to what was spoken and written by “true” prophets of Yahweh. This, however, would be a naively simplistic view that ignores the Bible’s own allusions to the prevalence of prophets in biblical times. Prophecy was a sort of national institution, and there were even schools maintained to train them, where the students were known as “sons of the prophets” (2 Kings 2:3; 4:1; 9:1). Prophets were so common that kings could summon them by the hundreds to give them advice in times of national emergency, and 1 Kings 22:1-28 relates an incident involving rival opinion between 400 prophets, whose counsel king Ahab had asked for prior to an attack on Ramoth-gilead, and Micaiah, a prophet whom Ahab despised for always “speaking evil” against him.

In such a scenario as this, it would be naive to think that no differences of opinion found their way into the biblical text. Just as winners always write the histories of nations, we can be certain that the same principle prevailed when the “inspired” books were arbitrarily selected by those whose theological views had triumphed, so this alone would account for whatever degree of unity there may be in the biblical canon. The process, however, was far from successful, because some dissenting views managed to survive the cutting. In 2 Kings 9-10, for example, the story of Jehu’s massacre of the royal family ofIsraelat Jezreel is related with the obvious approval of whoever wrote the account. At the end of this account, the writer declared Yahweh’s approval of Jehu’s actions: “Yahweh said to Jehu, ‘Because you have done well in carrying out what I consider right, and in accordance with all that was in my heart have dealt with the house of Ahab, your sons of the fourth generation shall sit on the throne of Israel'” (10:30). The following chapters relate the reigns of Jehu’s sons, who were described as kings who “did evil in the sight of Yahweh”; nevertheless, the writer claimed that Yahweh allowed them to reign to the fourth generation in order to fulfill his promise to Jehu. When Zechariah, the fourth-generation descendant of Jehu was assassinated inSamariaafter a reign of only six months, the writer said in summarizing the end of the dynasty that began with Jehu, “Shallum son of Jabesh conspired against him [Zechariah], and struck him down in public and killed him, and reigned in place of him. Now the rest of the deeds of Zechariah are written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel. This was the promise of Yahweh that he gave to Jehu, ‘Your sons shall sit on the throne ofIsraelto the fourth generation.’ And so it happened” (2 Kings 15:1-12).

Whoever wrote the record of Jehu’s and his descendants’ reigns obviously thought that Jehu had pleased Yahweh in the massacre of the royal family ofIsraelin order to usurp the throne. Several years later, however, the prophet Hosea expressed an entirely different opinion of Jehu’s actions. When his wife Gomer bore a son, Hosea claimed that Yahweh said to him, “Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel” (Hosea 1:4). So the writer of 2 Kings heaped praise on Jehu for the Jezreel massacre of the royal family, but years later the prophet Hosea apparently said that Yahweh would avenge the blood of Jezreel and end the reign of the house of Jehu. This was apparently a retrojected prophecy to explain the assassination of Zechariah, the last Israelite king from the house of Jehu, but, regardless, in making the “prediction,” Hosea put himself into obvious disagreement with the writer of 2 Kings, who thought that Jehu had done “all that was in [Yahweh’s] heart” in the matter of Jezreel. It’s hard to see perfect agreement and harmony in these two views of the same event.

I would have to write a book to discuss in detail even a fraction of all of the inconsistencies and conflicting theological views in the Bible, but just a few more briefly analyzed examples should be sufficient to show the absurdity of McDowell’s claim that the Bible is perfectly harmonious. All through the Old Testament, there are stories of animal sacrifices that were both commanded and savored by Yahweh. The book of Leviticus, in fact, is for the most part a catalog of the various sacrifices that Yahweh required of his “chosen people.” Here and there, however, we see indications that some biblical writers were in disagreement with this practice. The prophet Jeremiah even claimed that Yahweh said, “For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Jer. 7:22). This statement stands in flagrant contradiction of what the last four books of the Pentateuch say in too many places even to list a fraction of them. Biblical inerrantists have leaned over backwards to try to explain this discrepancy by claiming that what Jeremiah really meant was that Yahweh wanted sincerity, honesty, and mercy to accompany the outward compliance to his commands concerning burnt offerings, but this is not what the text says. It plainly states that Yahweh did not speak to the Israelites or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. If Jeremiah had meant only that Yahweh wanted certain inward attitudes to accompany the offering of sacrifices, he could have said so. But he didn’t.

If Jeremiah were the only biblical writer to express this opinion, we could perhaps be convinced that we have misunderstood this particular passage, but the same view was stated elsewhere. In Psalm 40:6, the writer speaking to Yahweh said, “Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.” Isaiah 11:10-11; Psalm 51:16; Jeremiah 6:20; and Amos 5:22 are other passages that show that some writers did not attach to sacrifices and offerings the supreme importance that was expressed in the book of Leviticus, which was undoubtedly written by an Aaronic priest intend on securing his livelihood, which would have been dependent on a continual parade of animals to be sacrificed at the temple altar.

The Bible also states that God shows no favoritism to people (Acts 10:34; Deut. 10:17; Rom. 2:11; Gal. 2:6: Eph. 6:9; Col. 3:25; 1 Peter 1:17), but it also states that Yahweh selected one people “above all people on the face of the earth” to be his chosen people (Deut. 7:6). That hardly sounds like perfect unity and harmony.

The Bible claims in far too many places to try to list them all that God is a god of love, mercy, and kindness, but the Old Testament is filled with atrocities that Yahweh presumably commanded his chosen people to commit against non-Hebraic people. In Deuteronomy 7:3, he commanded the Israelites to invadeCanaanand “utterly destroy” the people living there and “show no mercy to them.” Joshua 10:40 and 11:11 state that the Israelites obeyed these orders by utterly destroying the people in the Canaanite cities and leaving nothing alive to breathe. Joshua 11:15, 20 declares that in doing these things, they were merely obeying what Yahweh had commanded Moses.

There are many more points of contradiction and inconsistency in the Bible, but even these few of the hundreds known to exist are sufficient to show that it can hardly be claimed that the Bible is “unique in its continuity.”

THE BIBLE: Unique in Its Circulation, Translation, and Survival

In these three sections, McDowell seems to be arguing that numbers are somehow sufficient to establish truth. His claim is that the Bible has been circulated more, translated into more languages, and survived more attacks and criticisms longer than any other book; therefore, the Bible must be the word of God. Any beginning student of logic knows that truth is never decided by the number of those who adhere to a premise or claim, so there is nothing in any of these points that even comes close to establishing the truth of the Bible. Most of what McDowell said in these sections can be explained by the personal zeal and fanaticism of those who have believed the Bible through the centuries. Because of their commitment, these believers circulated the Bible, translated it, and protected it more than is usual for books. No one denies that zealous commitment has long been characteristic of Bible believers, but much more than this is required to establish the truth of any philosophical belief.

Being a Christian, McDowell would believe that although Judaism was originally instituted by Yahweh, it is no longer his true religion, but it has been the dedication of believers in this religion that has enabled it to survive through centuries of persecutions and tribulations that have far exceeded anything that Christians have had to endure. Furthermore, the circulation and survival of almost two thirds of the books in the Bible have been the result of dedicated adherents of Judaism, but McDowell would certainly not see this as any indication that Judaism is the religion that God now wants people to practice.

Much of what McDowell sees as biblical “uniqueness” is actually the result of political and social chance and circumstance. Christianity happened to take root and thrive in a geographical area that became more technologically advanced than other parts of the world, and it also enjoyed favored status from governmental institutions that suppressed opposition to it. In such circumstances, it is no wonder that the adherents of this religion would take advantage of the favored status to propagate their religion as extensively as possible. The growth and prosperity of any institution will always be the result of many factors, so it is naively simplistic of Christians to believe that their religion has thrived only because it is the “true” religion.

As for the Bible’s survival of more criticisms and attacks than any other book, McDowell surely knows that public criticism of the Bible has only recently become possible where Christianity has for centuries been the dominant religion. Until the evolution of democratic ideas within the past two centuries–and even more recently than that in some places–public criticism of the Bible was punishable by imprisonment and, in some instances, even death. As recently as the 19th century, the Reverend Robert Taylor, a clergyman who became a critic of the Bible, was imprisoned in England for blasphemy as a result of publishing materials deemed offensive to Christianity. In such an environment, criticism of the Bible could not have been as widespread as McDowell apparently wants his readers to believe. Now that freedom of expression is granted by most democratic societies where Christianity is the dominant religion, there is no wonder that the Bible has become the target of widespread critical analysis. There is much in it that needs to be criticized.

While western societies have moved in a direction that permits freedom to criticize religion, this has not been so in other societies in which Christianity is just another minority religion. A critic of the Qur’an in an Islamic society takes a great risk and understands that he could be imprisoned or even executed for blasphemy. In such an environment attacks on the Qur’an will be very limited. If, however, freedom of religious expression should be adopted in Islamic societies, does McDowell doubt for a moment that Qur’anic criticisms will increase substantially?

As for the survival of the Bible, it isn’t nearly as old as some holy books. Sections of the Zoroastrian Avesta are older than even the oldest parts of the Old Testament and so are many of the Hindu Vedas. To argue that the length of time a religion has survived is somehow an indicator of its truth, would make many religions “true religions.” The history of religion is that they arise out of political and social circumstances of the times, thrive, decline, and die. There is no reason to believe that the same will not happen to Christianity and other ancient religions that have survived for centuries. Information is religion’s greatest enemy, and in an age when information is just a few keyboard strokes away from anyone with a computer, this is going to pose a greater threat to Christianity than anything it has yet “survived.”

THE BIBLE: Unique in its Teachings.

Of all the unique attributes that McDowell listed in the opening chapter of ETDAV, this one is probably second in absurdity to his perfect-continuity-and-harmony claim. A serious study of the history of religions will show that there is nothing unique about the teachings of the Bible. The first 11 chapters of Genesis were derived from Babylonian mythology, as all serious Bible scholars know. The Hebrews thought their god Yahweh could be appeased by incinerating animals in homage to him, but all of the societies around them believed that they too could appease their gods with animal sacrifices. The Hebrews built a temple to their god, but the nations around them also built temples to their gods. The Hebrews believed that their god rewarded them when they acted “righteously” and punished them when they “did that which was evil in Yahweh’s sight,” but contemporary records like the Moabite Stone and pagan temple inscriptions show that the nations around them believed the same. Not even the highly touted “monotheism” of the Hebrews was unique to them, because Egyptian records show that monotheism was introduced inEgyptby Pharaoh Akhenaton (Amenhotep IV) before it had established roots with the Hebrews.

The New Testament story of a virgin-born, miracle-working, dead-and-resurrected savior-god was not unique to Christianity. Such figures abounded in the pagan religions that preceded Christianity. Even the famous golden rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) had its counterpoint in the ethical teachings of other religions that required its adherents to believe that they should not do to others anything that they would not want done to them.

Much of this section of McDowell’s “uniqueness” chapter was devoted to the subject of prophecy, which was about the worst topic that he could have chosen to try to make a case for the inspiration of the Bible. McDowell quoted Wilbur Smith, who said, “It [the Bible] is the only volume ever produced by man, or a group of men, in which is to be found a large body of prophecies relating to individual nations, to Israel, to all the peoples of the earth, to certain cities, and to the coming of One who was to be the Messiah.” Whether no other religious book has presented any sizable body of prophecies is a matter I am not qualified to speak to, but I certainly do feel qualified to say that there is a twofold problem in what Smith has alleged here: (1) many of the prophecies that have been identified by New Testament writers and Christian apologists are prophecies only in the fertile imaginations of those who have claimed them to be prophecies, and (2) many of the prophecies that were undoubtedly intended by their writers to be understood as prophecies were never fulfilled.

The Old Testament prophecies againstTyreandEgyptare excellent examples of prophecy failure. Ezekiel prophesied that Nebuchadnezzar would completely destroyTyreand that it would never be rebuilt (26:7-14, 21; 27:36; 28:19). We know from historical records, however, that Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion destroyed onlyTyre’s mainland villages, but his siege of the island stronghold was unsuccessful. Even Ezekiel himself acknowledged later in his book that his prophecy againstTyrehad failed, and so Yahweh, as compensation for his unpaid labors atTyre, was going to giveEgyptto Nebuchadnezzar (29:17-20).

That prophecy also failed miserably, as we will notice later, but first there is a matter of contradiction between Ezekiel’s prophecy againstTyreand one that Isaiah also made that we should look at first. As Ezekiel did, Isaiah uttered prophecies of destruction against the nations aroundIsrael, and one of those prophecies was againstTyre. In 23:1, he said, “The burden ofTyre. Howl you ships of Tarshish; for it is laid waste, so that there is no house, no entering in: from thelandofKittimit is revealed to them.” The prophecy continues in typical fashion through the chapter, predicting waste and devastation, and beginning in verse 13, Isaiah clearly indicated that the destruction ofTyrewould be only temporary, not permanent:

13 Look at the land of the Chaldeans! This is the people; it was not Assyria. They destined Tyrefor wild animals. They erected their siege towers, they tore down her palaces, they made her a ruin.
14 Wail, O ships of Tarshish, for your fortress is destroyed.
15 From that day Tyre will be forgotten for SEVENTY YEARS, the lifetime of one king. At the end of SEVENTY YEARS, it will happen to Tyre as in the song about the prostitute:
16 Take a harp, go about the city, you forgotten prostitute! Make sweet melody, sing many songs, that you may be remembered.
17 AT THE END OF SEVENTY YEARS, Yahweh will visit Tyre, and she will return to her trade, and will prostitute herself with all the kingdoms of the world on the face of the earth.
18 Her merchandise and her wages will be dedicated to Yahweh; her profits will not be stored or hoarded, but her merchandise will supply abundant food and fine clothing for those who live in the presence of Yahweh.

So we see that Isaiah had a very different opinion ofTyre’s destiny. He said that it would be destroyed and forgotten 70 years but at the end of the 70 years, Yahweh would visitTyreand it would be restored. Obviously, one could make a much better case for the fulfillment of this prophecy than for Ezekiel’s. Nevertheless, Isaiah’s prophecy againstTyreposes a serious problem for biblical apologists. They must explain why Isaiah predicted only a temporary destruction ofTyre, whereas Ezekiel predicted an everlasting destruction.

That brings us back to Ezekiel’s promise that Yahweh would giveEgyptto Nebuchadnezzar as compensation for his failure to receive “wages” for his labors againstTyre. The prophecy againstEgyptwas very specific:Egyptwould be laid completely desolate by Nebuchadnezzar and remain so for a period of 40 years.

Ezekiel 29:1 In the tenth year, in the tenth month, on the twelfth day of the month, the word of Yahweh came to me:
2 Mortal, set your face against Pharaoh king of Egypt, and prophesy against him and against all Egypt;
3 speak, and say, Thus says the Lord Yahweh: I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great dragon sprawling in the midst of its channels, saying, “My Nile is my own; I made it for myself.”
4 I will put hooks in your jaws, and make the fish of your channels stick to your scales. I will draw you up from your channels, with all the fish of your channels sticking to your scales.
5 I will fling you into the wilderness, you and all the fish of your channels; you shall fall in the open field, and not be gathered and buried. To the animals of the earth and to the birds of the air I have given you as food.
6 Then all the inhabitants of Egypt shall know that I am Yahweh because you were a staff of reed to the house of Israel;
7 when they grasped you with the hand, you broke, and tore all their shoulders; and when they leaned on you, you broke, and made all their legs unsteady.
8 Therefore, thus says the Lord Yahweh: I will bring a sword upon you, and will cut off from you human being and animal;
9 and the land of Egypt shall be a desolation and a waste. Then they shall know that I am Yahweh. Because you said, “The Nile is mine, and I made it,”
10 therefore, I am against you, and against your channels, and I will make the land of Egypt an utter waste and desolation, from Migdol to Syene, as far as the border of Ethiopia.
11 No human foot shall pass through it, and no animal foot shall pass through it; it shall be uninhabited forty years.

Notice that the prophecy is very specific in stating thatEgyptwould be “an utter waste and desolation, from Migdol to Syene, as far as the border ofEthiopia.”Ethiopiawas on the southern border ofEgypt, and Migdol was in the northern delta of theNile. Hence, the prediction was that the country would be laid waste from its northern border to its southern border. The next verse says that no human foot or animal foot would pass through it for 40 years. There is no historical evidence of any kind to suggest thatEgyptwas ever desolate and uninhabited for the space of 40 years. Hence, the prophecy obviously failed.

Some inerrantists try to claim that this is a prophecy that will be fulfilled at a future date, but the prophecy was specifically addressed to Pharaoh king ofEgypt, and the rule of the pharaohs ended long ago. Furthermore, as the verses below show, the prophecy made Nebuchadnezzar Yahweh’s instrument of vengeance againstEgypt, and Nebuchadnezzar has been dead for 25 centuries.

Ezekiel 29: 12 I will make the land of Egypt a desolation among desolated countries; and her cities shall be a desolation forty years among cities that are laid waste. I will scatter the Egyptians among the nations, and disperse them among the countries.
13 Further, thus says the Lord Yahweh: At the end of forty years I will gather the Egyptians from the peoples among whom they were scattered;
14 and I will restore the fortunes of Egypt, and bring them back to the land of Pathros, the land of their origin; and there they shall be a lowly kingdom. >15 It shall be the most lowly of the kingdoms, and never again exalt itself above the nations; and I will make them so small that they will never again rule over the nations.
16 The Egyptians shall never again be the reliance of the house of Israel; they will recall their iniquity, when they turned to them for aid. Then they shall know that I am the Lord Yahweh.
17 In the twenty-seventh year, in the first month, on the first day of the month, the word of Yahweh came to me:
18 Mortal, King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon made his army labor hard against Tyre; every head was made bald and every shoulder was rubbed bare; yet neither he nor his army got anything from Tyre to pay for the labor that he had expended against it.
19 Therefore thus says the Lord Yahweh: I will give the land of Egypt to King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon; and he shall carry off its wealth and despoil it and plunder it; and it shall be the wages for his army.
20 I have given him the land of Egypt as his payment for which he labored, because they worked for me, says the Lord Yahweh.
21 On that day I will cause a horn to sprout up for the house ofIsrael, and I will open your lips among them. Then they shall know that I am Yahweh.

The tirade againstEgyptcontinued on into the next chapter. An analysis of the chapter would show other specific details in the prophecy that were never fulfilled, but these are enough to establish that this is a clear example of a prophecy failure. Biblicists like Josh McDowell, who boast of perfect fulfillments of biblical prophecies, depend upon the ignorance of their readers to accept this claim without bothering to verify it, but it is a claim that is patently false.

THE BIBLE: Unique in Its Influence

McDowell has parroted that old Christian claim that if the Bible were destroyed, it could be reproduced in its entirety from biblical quotations that could be found in books on the shelves of city libraries. This may be true, but I seriously doubt if this is a claim that would be uniquely true. Does McDowell doubt that the Qur’an, if destroyed, could be reproduced from quotations found in books on the shelves of Islamic libraries? There are even Islamic zealots who have committed the entire Qur’an to memory and could be depended on as sources to reproduce it if it were ever destroyed. Essentially all that McDowell has focused on in this chapter are factors that result from the fanaticism of religious zealots, but much of what he has said would be true of other religions too. This just isn’t as apparent to him as the “uniqueness” of the Bible is, because he lives in a society that is permeated with and dominated by Christian thinking.

In many other ways, however, I’m inclined to agree with McDowell’s claim that the Bible has been unique in its influence. Of all the religious holy books that I personally know about, I know of none whose influence has been as negative and detrimental to society as the Bible has been. I know of no book that rivals it in the barbarity and cruelty of the god that it presents as the creator of the world and then has the audacity to call him supremely “good.” In that respect the Bible is certainly unique, but this is a uniqueness that biblical apologists like McDowell never want to talk about. They prefer not to mention the unique doctrine of eternal punishment in hellfire for all who do not obey even the pettiest of the Bible god’s decrees. They prefer not to mention the uniqueness of the persecutions, inquisitions, intolerance, and ignorance that the Bible has left in its historical wake. McDowell’s smorgasbord approach of selecting only those features of the Bible that present it in a favorable light and even at times flagrantly falsifying facts such as his claim of perfect “continuity” in the Bible is unworthy to be called biblical “scholarship.” About the only truth in this chapter was McDowell’s admission that the alleged “uniqueness” of the Bible “does not prove [that it] is the Word of God.”

The Canon of the Bible (1999)

Larry A. Taylor

But in regard to the Canon itself, which they so superciliously intrude upon us, ancient writers are not agreed. Let the mediators, then, enjoy their own as they please, provided we are at liberty to repudiate those which all men of sense, at least when informed on the subject, will perceive to be not of divine original. John Calvin.[1]

Dictionaries and researchers define the word, “canon,” as a body of books accepted as authoritative by some religious body. Thus there is no problem of the canon; most modern Protestants, and Protestant churches historically, accept exactly sixty-six books, thirty-nine books from Hebrew, which they call the Old Testament, and twenty-seven books written in Greek, which they call the New Testament. Protestants use and accept these books; therefore, there are sixty-six books in the Protestant canon.

Roman Catholics include fifteen more books or parts of books, and that is their canon; Greek Orthodox churches use most of these books, and these comprise their canon. The Jewish tradition is that of the Hebrew Bible only, of course, corresponding to the thirty-nine books of the Protestants. East Syrian Christians include fewer books than other Christians in the New Testament, while the Ethiopian churches use quite a few more books in both the Old Testament and New Testament.

The third American President, Thomas Jefferson, questioning the miracles of the New Testament while approving some of Jesus’ moral sentiments, produced a thin volume which is called “The Jefferson Bible,” edited literally with a razor and paste.[2]

One wonders, what is God’s canon?

In Evidence that Demands a Verdict, biblical apologist Josh McDowell cites the derivation of “canon” as coming from a root word meaning “reed”, coming to mean some sort of standard. With regard to the Bible, a canon is an officially accepted list of books.

This is important with regard to the fundamentalist’s attitude towards the Bible. If the Word of God is inerrant, or something close to it, then deciding that a book is a member of the canon of the Bible is to proclaim it infallible. The true believer now regards a canonical book as no mere human creation, but God-breathed and incapable of error. It now has magical powers. It has been observed by some Christians that fundamentalists do not so much worship Jesus as worship a book; thus, they are bibliolaters.

How can we discover which of thousands of religious books in the world have these magical powers? Most of the authors of this book, a response to Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict, are skeptical of all religious claims, and are content to answer that there are no magic books. However, a Christian wishing to increase the gift of knowledge in a mature faith, must ask the same questions that skeptics ask.

If God wished to send a message to us, there would have been some way to communicate directly to us; everyone, in all eras. Instead, Jews, Christians and Muslims say that God sent a series of messengers, some of whom wrote books that were preserved.

But which persons were actually inspired? Some conservative Christians answer that, it is easy to see that the books of the Protestant Bible were written by God, while the books of other religions — the Koran, for instance — were instead the products of demon possession.[3]

We’d like to hear directly from God about which books constitute his message. As Paul wrote, “Let God be true, but every man a liar.” (Rom. 3:4) But God has not spoken in this way. Instead, is there some special list, authorized by Jesus, or the original apostles, of books that are specially approved? “God says that these books are the Bible,” we’d like to hear. There is no such list.[4] Who, then, decided what books would be in our Bible?

Back in the fourth century, some bishops took a vote on it. Rather, several church councils voted for conflicting lists, the contradictions of which took centuries more to resolve. These votes came after a long period of sorting and choosing by the churches at large, so that the choice was not haphazard; it was, however, arbitrary in many respects. Because of differences over the Apocrypha, there remains no agreement about which books are in the Christian Old Testament.

A Christian may answer that the Church chose the books that were already obviously of higher quality and inspired, and the councils approved these books because they were authoritative in themselves. In this view, the books of the Bible don’t have authority because some bishops voted on it, but that they have obvious intrinsic qualities. Many scholars agree, that as a rough cut, the books that made the canon are mostly better in some ways than those that did not. However, few scholars would agree that there is a sharp line of difference between the two groups, a “bright line” definition, in lawyers’ jargon.

What qualities, then, would lead one to believe that these books were not merely good or spiritual, but actually infallible?

For unbelievers, the choice is arbitrary, almost accidental. As we shall see, the choice of the books largely depended not only whether a book concerned the things of God, but that it had to describe the right kind of God, and the right kind of Jesus.

Protestants often contrast church tradition, on the one hand, with the authority of holy scripture, on the other. But since the `Canon’ is a church tradition, there really is only one kind of authority. Since the Holy Spirit was supposed to be working in the minds of the believers, and in the Church as the body of Christ,[5] it might seem reasonable to accept as inspired the actions of church councils throughout history. The Church of England, for instance, recognizes the first four or six Ecumenical Councils as authoritative.[6] Following this logic, we should inquire what the councils of historical Christianity declare to be books of the Bible.

However, if we examine church history, it is hard for us to see inspiration at work. There is God, and then there are churches, composed of ordinary fallible humans.

Individual Christians who may not believe in the authority of church tradition or councils should choose for themselves which books they regard as infallible. This approach, in fact, is in accord with some of the major Protestant traditions. John Calvin, the reformer of Geneva, wrote that the Word of God is recognized by the interior light of the believer. The Westminister Confession of the Reformed tradition declares that, “The authority of the Holy Scripture … dependeth not on the testimony of any man or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof. … Our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness, by and with the Word, in our hearts. …”[7]

Of course, most Protestants don’t take the idea of an inner light as far as the Quakers, who found it a more important authority altogether than that of the written scriptures.[8]

In Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Josh McDowell warns us, “One thing to keep in mind is that the church did not create the canon or books included in what we call Scripture. Instead, the church recognized the books that were inspired from their inception. They were inspired by God when written.”[9] Despite attempting to sever the Bible from any authority based on history or tradition, McDowell nevertheless argues for evidence of their historical support.

Furthermore, the following assertions cannot be supported by the evidence: (1) that the church did not create the canon; and, (2) that the church recognized these books as inspired from their inception. Instead, Christians of the first century recognized the written Old Testament as scripture, but honored an oral tradition of the teaching of Jesus and his apostles, a “living and abiding voice,”[10] and did not regard their written books — when finally created — as an inspired, fixed canon.

Indeed, inspiration seems to have little to do with the selection. As Gamble notes after a detailed discussion, “The NT writings did not become canonical because they were believed to be uniquely inspired; rather, they were judged to be inspired because they had previously commended themselves to the church for other, more particular and practical reasons.”[11]

In the second century after the birth of Jesus, a core of what we know as the New Testament began to take shape. Many works that are now no longer regarded as scripture were used and included with nowcanonical works from time to time and place to place. Finally, the specific group of 27 books that are now printed in Christian New Testaments came together in the fourth century CE. Christians still do not agree which books belong in the Old Testament, and there is no prospect of agreement.

What Books Belong in the Bible?

Mr. McDowell gives us a list of tests of a book for inclusion in the canon:

1. Is it authoritative?
2. Is it prophetic?
3. Is it authentic?
4. Is it dynamic?
5. Was it received, collected, read and used?

These criteria roughly correspond to some of those used throughout the history of western religion, especially Christianity. However, each one of them has problems.

The first four categories require subjective judgment. Usually, the works considered authoritative, prophetic, authentic and dynamic are the books that include doctrines and material with which you basically agree.

Whether a particular work was received, collected, read and used can be approached historically. There at least two problems, however, applying this to one’s faith.

If you study how religious bodies use a book, you are studying the conclusions reached by humans. The books they chose reflect their own ideas. Naturally, they chose books that were in line with the religious experience of particular communities. Human reason and experience is untrustworthy; after all, “Let God be true, but every man a liar.” How can you know the word of a perfect God by studying sinning humans, even if they are church members? Bishops? Councils? Popes?

Secondly, there is no one set of books received, collected, read and used by the entire Christian Church. As documented below, the canon as we know it did not exist for the first 300 years of the church. The use of lists of books varied over time and location; entire national churches to this day use a list of inspired books either longer or shorter than that used by American Protestants.

Nevertheless, defenders of the present canons may take comfort that the bodies of works revered by each community all have long histories of relative stability and tradition. The discussion that follows, however, show that there is no one shiny list that Christians can boast about as the Bible, once and for everybody.

McDowell argues for “apostolic authority” as a criterion for inclusion of New Testament books.

What does this mean? If it means that some books seem more authoritative than others, this means that you accept the books that agree with the doctrines that you have already accepted.

Once again, this is a circular argument. Why was the Gospel of Thomas excluded? Because it was written from a doctrinal point of view that lost the political war within the established church.[12] However, from a historical point of view, there is no warrant to consider Thomas less authentic than one of the currently received gospels.[13] According to Charlesworth, “It is potentially misleading to use the terms ‘noncanonical,’ ‘canonical,’ ‘heresy,’ and ‘orthodoxy’ when describing either Early Judaism or Early Christianity.”[14]

“Apostolic authority” usually meant that a book was written either by an apostle, or by someone directed by an apostle. According to second century church writers, Mark was an associate of Peter, and Luke was a companion of Paul.

However, the authenticity of books of the New Testament was already in question in antiquity. Particularly disputed were Hebrews, James, 2 and 3 John, 2 Peter, Jude, and Revelation. The authorship of these seven books are indeed the ones questioned by Origen, about 200 CE.[15] Hebrews is an anonymous book, and not really an epistle at all. Origen had some theories about it being written by a disciple of Paul, but concluded, “God only knows,” who wrote it.[16]

Questions, however, were also raised also about other books. Technically, all four gospels are also anonymous, being given their present names, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John by church tradition.[17] Even ancient church leaders who agreed that “John” was the name of the author of the Book of Revelation disagreed about whether it was John the son of Zebedee, or a John the Elder.[18]

Modern scholarship can demonstrate that more than half of the books of the New Testament were not written by apostles, nor by the persons named in tradition. For instance, C. F. D. Moule writes that the authorship of John is widely disputed, “And Matthew, in its present form, can hardly have been written by an apostle.”[19]

The dating of the gospels is within the possible natural life spans of these illustrious persons, and the books may possibly contain some material from eyewitnesses; nevertheless, the books, in the form we have them, seem to be second-hand compilation of diverse, even contradictory traditions. According to another scholar, the idea that Matthew was written by an eyewitness of the crucifixion is chronologically possible, “But an investigation of the sources used in this Gospel will show that this cannot be the case.”[20]

Harry Y. Gamble argues concerning apostolicity, that although it was used for judgments by the early church, it is “mistaken to confine the idea of apostolicity to literary authenticity.” Several books thought to be written by apostles were rejected, while others who were anonymous or disputed made it into the canon. “Widespread and important as this criterion was, it must still be said that no NT writing secured canonical stand on the basis of apostolicity alone.”[21] Burton L. Mack writes that at the time of early Christianity in the empire under Constantine, i.e., the fourth century, “There was apparently agreement on the criterion of apostolicity but not on which books were apostolic.”[22]

If “apostolic authority” means that we accept the books approved by the original apostles, we have no idea what these figures accepted, except for the books of the Hebrew bible, and other works which they quoted. It is likely that none of what they wrote themselves – for instance, the undisputed letters of Paul –was considered inspired at the time it was written. Instead, first century Christians primarily used an oral tradition, the “words of the Lord;”[23] some of the books we now use appear to have written as secondary and complementary aids to devotion and evangelism.

Were the books read, collected, and used? Scholars posit the quality of catholicity, that they were used by the entire church, and indeed, were written to the entire church. However, most of the letters of Paul were written to particular local communities and not to the church at large, and thus were not catholic, i.e., universal.

Gamble finds that several books that met the standard of widespread usage, e. g., The Shepherd, 1 Clement, The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles (the Didache), did not make it into the canon, while other books which did not have a long history of usage and broad currency were included. Examples of books of this last category are James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John.[24]

The standard of orthodoxy is not explicitly stated by McDowell. But scholar Gamble emphasizes orthodoxy, and explains that it “means, of course, that the tradition of the church’s faith was understood to be somehow extrinsic to the writings which were judged according to it. In this sense, it rightly said that ecclesiastical tradition was prior to scripture and served the touchstone of scripture’s authority.”[25] These documents, once chosen, also influenced the doctrines that the community accepted, and so the relationship was circular. The standard of orthodoxy, however, was not applied to the writings of Paul or to the synoptic Gospels.[26] It is was not imagined that Paul could write contrary to the assumed orthodoxy. Yet the differences of theology and detail are frozen into the texts, and the diversity of the very early church is sealed into the canon.

The Old Testament

The story of the Christian Bible begins with the Hebrew scriptures. The books in the following table comprise the Hebrew arrangement of the scriptures, called by Christians the Old Testament or Old Covenant. Most Christian Bibles contain 39 books, but the table of contents in a Hebrew edition will show 24 books. This is because several groupings of the books are combined into single books, which groupings were kept on a single scroll. The 24 books are the same books as the Protestant Old Testament in a different form. Most modern editions of the Bible use or refer to the Hebrew text as a standard, consulting other ancient versions for corrections of errors.

The Law, Torah: 5 books. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy

The Prophets, Nebiim: 8 Books.

The Former Prophets, 4 books Joshua, Judges, Samuel (Our 1 Sam. and 2 Sam.), Kings (Our 1 and 2 Kings)

The Latter Prophets, 4 books Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel

The Twelve: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

The Writings, Ketubim: 11 books. Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles (our 1 and 2)

Books in the Hebrew Bible

The historical process of creating the Hebrew scriptures is reflected in the three-part structure of the tradition: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings.

The Law, or Torah, was the five books that were supposed to have been written by Moses. Traditional chronology, i.e., the little note in my King James Version, places Moses’ death at 1451 BCE.

A single book of the law was “discovered” in the temple at Jerusalem in the time of Josiah, about 641 BCE. This event brought about a religious reformation in the Kingdom of Judah.[27] Scholars believe that this was the book of Deuteronomy, or part of it. It probably was somewhat shorter than the complete book we have, because it was read twice in a single day.[28]

The greatest step in the Torah, or law, becoming canonical, is recorded in the Ezra tradition. On a new year’s day festival in the fifth century BCE, there was a public reading of the “book of the law,” and public instruction by priests and scribes. We are not told of what the law consisted at this time.[29] There eventually came to be five books of the law, either collected or edited from existing materials.

During the fourth to second century BCE, the Law reached final form and “canonical” status. The community of Samaritans uses the complete Torah, consisting of all five books, but no other part of the Hebrew Bible.[30] Despite the similarity of their beliefs, the Jews rejected the Samaritans about this time.

The Septuagint translation of the Torah (often signified by LXX, Roman numerals for seventy) probably began to be made in third-century BCE Alexandria, Egypt, for Greek-speaking Jews.[31] We read in the story of how the translation came to be made, that the Greek king wished the “law books of the Jews” to be added to the library atAlexandria, but not books of prophets or other writings at that time. This is consistent with the supposition that these last two divisions of the Hebrew Bible were not yet settled.

There are textual differences between the LXX and the Hebrew. In many of these, the Samaritan texts agree with the LXX against the Hebrew. Scholars use these clues to try to determine the original text; and in this case, witness to Hebrew usage from this period.

Some of the prophets spoke and wrote before the exile, and we believe that a portion of their writings have reached us today in the Bible. However, a great number of other writings also existed, and there is no evidence that there existed — at the time of Ezra — an exclusive collection of inspired writings outside of the Law of Moses, and yet also separate from religious writings in general.

There are a considerable number of works quoted by the Bible, but do not themselves appear in our canon. Some of them made it into the Apocrypha, some are preserved in fragments by the Jews inQumran(the site of the Dead Sea Scrolls). Here is a list of sources used by Biblical writers, but that are not themselves preserved in our canon.

The Book of the Wars of Yahweh Numbers 21:14

The Book of the Just (Jashar) Joshua 10:13

The Annals of King David 1 Chronicles 27:24

More about David written by Nathan the prophet; a book by Samuel the Seer (not 1-2 Samuel), and a book by Gad the Seer. 1 Chron. 29:29

A biography of Solomon in the history of Nathan the prophet; Visions of Iddo the seer 2 Chronicles 9:29

The Annals of the Kings ofIsrael1 Kings 14:19, 2 Chron. 33: 18; cf. 2 Chron. 20:34

The Annals of the Kings ofJudah1 Kings 14:29, 15:7

The Acts of Solomon 1 Kings 11:41

Histories written by Shemaiah the prophet, and by Iddo the seer 2 Chron. 12:15

Iddo’s History ofJudah2 Chron. 13:22

Annals of Jehu son of Hanani 2 Chron. 20:34

An unknown and untitled work of Isaiah 2 Chron. 26:22

An unknown lament for Josiah by Jeremiah 2 Chron. 35:25

‘Lost’ books: A table of citations in the Christian Old Testament of books which are not part of the Bible.[32]

We note that use of a book does not necessarily convey canonical status. However, the style of quotation is a main clue to acceptance of a work as authoritative, especially by later rabbis, and by Christian writers. Indeed, at the time of the writing of the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles, there was no canon at all, save possibly part of the Law. This list does, however, show us that were a number of books extant, from which some were later selected the ones worth preserving as scripture. A little later, we will deal with the books of the Old Testament Apocrypha, and with yet other works quoted by New Testament authors.

The progress of collection and effective “canonization” of the Hebrew Bible is shrouded in mystery. At some time after the Law was formed, the Jews collected writings attributed to the prophets. A onebook Law of Moses, developed into the five-book Torah. To the Torah was added a second group of books, collectively called “The Prophets.” There appears to have been, for some time, a two-part Hebrew “canon,” the Law and the Prophets.[33] It was believed that true prophets had become rarer, and had ceased altogether by the time of the Maccabees.[34]

Later Jewish tradition, which may have influenced the closing of the Hebrew canon, said that inspiration ceased with the time of Ezra. Some Christians and Jews believed in the continuing revelation through prophets at least to the time of John the Baptist.[35] Thus, to them, the canon could not be limited to works of a previous age.

At the time of the continued translation of the Septuagint, the Law was complete, and the list of prophets was circumscribed. However, the third category, the Writings or Kethubhim, was still open. For this reason, the Septuagint is a variable collection, usually containing all or most of what we place in the Old Testament Apocrypha, as well as what is found in the Hebrew Bible. There seems to have been no “Alexandrian canon,” for the Jews of Alexandria never had an official canon of that kind. The principles used for the LXX beyond that of the Law and the Prophets — in the vague collection called “Writings” — is not known.[36]

The earliest witness to a three-part Hebrew Bible — the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings — is in the prologue of the book of Ben Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus. The prologue in Greek, added by the translator, was written about 130 BCE. The writer refers to the Hebrew arrangement of the Old Testament in the opening passages: “the law and the prophets and the others that followed them.” This shows that he probably used approximately the same books that we know. In particular, there is no list. In the text of the book, Sirach refers to most of the Old Testament. However, he does not cite from the books of Daniel or Esther, or refer to their leading characters. This appears to have been because these books had only recently been written[37] and not yet accepted. The expression, “the others,” which stands in for the Writings division, is particularly vague and does not define what books are to be included in it.

Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian, is witness to the books used by the Jews in the first century CE. Josephus says that the Jews have exactly 22 sacred texts. Our Bibles have 39 books of the Old Testament. It is likely that certain books were folded together in the same scrolls (e.g., the Twelve Prophets), but consistent Jewish tradition after the second century C.E. makes 24 books, not 22.[38] Where are the missing books? Are they really missing?

Josephus presents a three-part division, similar to the known Hebrew canon, but he counts only 22 books. Besides five books of Moses, he writes that there are thirteen books of the prophets, and four books of hymns to God and precepts for life.[39]

His 22 books may have meant exactly the same books as the later rabbinical 24, although he does not give us the details. In order to get the same books as the Hebrew canon, it is supposed by some scholars that Ruth formed part of Judges, and Lamentations was counted with Jeremiah. Both of these assumed combinations occur across the major threefold division of the current Hebrew canon, as well as transferring all the books of the Writings to the Prophets except Psalms, Proverbs, the Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes.[40]

The joining of Ruth to Judges is supported by Christian sources, such as Origen as recorded by Eusebius.[41] Origen states that there are 22 books in the canon. So does Jerome, but he also gives the number in different passages also as 24 or 27, depending on the doubling of certain books.[42] To get to 24 from 22, Jerome specifically mentions moving Ruth and Lamentations to the Writings division of books. However, Jerome lived about three hundred years after Josephus. The number, 22, doesn’t seem necessarily to be an exact counting of anything, being an attractive round number; it is the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet.

Some scholars, based on this folding argument, are certain that Josephus is giving a fixed canon, the same as we know today. The certainty is unjustified. We just don’t know what books he was using. According to prominent canon scholar James A. Sanders, “On the other hand, in the case of Josephus there may simply have been only 22 books to count as canonical by the beginning of the fourth quarter of the first century C.E. … It is clear that there is too much certainty about Josephus’ canon has been drawn from AgAp 1.37-43 [the passage in question].”[43]

Written about the same time as Josephus, the noncanonical book of 2 Esdras (14:45-8) gives the number of books as 24. In addition, there are supposed to be 70 additional, secret books given only to selected leaders. Thus, to the writer of 2 Esdras, there are many important religious books, but that are not canonical. The Babylonian Talmud mentions only the 24 books.[44] Josephus’ 22 books can only be the same as the later canonical 24 if he is counting differently than all the early Jewish witnesses.

Even among the canonical books, there were differences in authority, and completely outside the written canon, there was oral tradition. According to James Barr, “For Jewish Law, the real canonical document is the Torah, and beside it the other parts of the biblical canon are quite subsidiary; but alongside the Torah there is from an early date the recognition of the oral tradition of law; and the elaborations of discussions of this oral tradition, eventually collected in the Mishnah and Talmud, though not termed ‘canonical’ or ‘biblical’, fulfills for Jewish law (along with the Torah itself) a role closer to that assumed by scripture, in relation to theology, in Christianity.”[45]

In Jesus’ time, it appears that it was not just the Pharisees that had oral traditions that rivaled scripture, but the Sadducees and Essenes as well.[46] Josephus, the historian, attributes some things to Moses that are not in the bible;[47] Philo’s interpretations have the same source. Some of these were interpretations of the written law, arrived at by sages; but others were received traditions, said to have come from Moses himself, but unwritten.

In summary, at the time of Jesus, the Bible in Palestineconsisted of the five books of the Torah, and the collection of the Prophets. Sometimes a third category was added to these two, the Writings, whose contents were undefined, but contained, at least, most of the books chosen for the later Hebrew bible. In Alexandria, the Writings were quite extensive, lacking a formal canon; but when the Bible was printed in Greek, it contained a varying number of books, usually most of what is now in the Apocrypha. To this was added an oral tradition of law, some of which is attributed was attributed to Moses. New Testament writers also quote from various traditions not in our Bibles quite freely, and treat them as if they were inspired.[48]

The third section of the Hebrew bible, the Writings, probably was crystallized about the end of the first century CE. Many scholars question whether the Council of Jamnia, in which Jewish scholars supposedly set the Hebrew canon, really took place at all.

The evidence for the decisions of the so-called Council of Jamnia is far from clear. From the fragments of discussions that have come down to us, we see that doubts were raised about Ezekiel, Proverbs, Esther, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Ezekiel was questioned because its description of ritual regulation differed from those of the Torah. Ecclesiastes was suspect because it appeared to contradict itself (e.g., 4:2, 9:4), and was alleged to contain heretical teaching (e.g., 1:3).[49]

Even after the supposed council of Jamnia, books of the Old Testament canon came in to question. As late as the third or possibly even fourth century CE, some rabbis denied that the book of Esther as “defiling the hands,” the closest way in Hebrew to describe a book as being officially canonical.[50]

Ezekiel, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Esther

Books of the Old Testament disputed by some rabbis in the first century C.E. and later.[51]

In any case, the 24 book practical canon was widely adopted in the next few centuries until the emergence of the Massoretic text, but not quite universally. To this day, Ethiopian Jews keep a canon closer to the Septuagint.

Bishop Melito of Sardis, in the fourth century, went to Palestineto discover which Hebrew books belonged in the canon. McDowell cites the list of the Old Testament compiled by Melito, Bishop of Sardis. He made a journey to the eastern Roman Empire, “… the place where where it all happened and the truth was proclaimed, I obtained precise information about the Old Testament books, and made out the list which I am now sending you …”[52]

Melito’s list gives us insight about Christian use of the Old Testament in the late second century. Christians generally used the Old Testament as scripture, but Melito was uncertain as to what books should be included. If he had already known what they were, he would not have to journey. His report, repeated by Eusebius, omits Esther.[53]

Esther is not quoted by Christ, nor by any of the New Testament writers. There has been no copy of Esther found at Qumran, the community of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The early Christian church made no use of it, and no church father attempted an exposition of it. Origen does not include it in the list of historical books.[54] It was also omitted by bishop Athanasius in the famous Easter Letter of 367 C.E., the first list to included the exact set of books of today’s New Testament;[55] and Gregory of Nanzianzus (d. 391 C.E.) omitted it as well.[56]

Since several early Christian lists omit Esther, and because of the urgency of Melito’s expressed intent, this is probably not a mere oversight. Lamentations and Nehemiah are also not listed, but it is probable that they are combined into Jeremiah and Ezra, respectively.

It appears that Esther is a bit of a mistake and embarrassment, and the Talmud contains relatively late criticisms of it. Finally accepted into the Hebrew Bible, more targums and midrashes were based on Esther, by subsequent rabbis, than any other portion of the OT. However, “With this verdict of late Judaism modern Christians cannot agree. The Book is so conspicuously lacking in religion that it should never have been included in the Canon of the OT., but should have been left with Judith and Tobit among the apocryphal writings,” according to scholar Lewis B. Paton.[57]

What Does the New Testament say about the Old Testament?

Scholars agree that Jesus’ use of the Old Testament books was generally the same as Palestinian Jews, so far as the use of books. Jesus refers to the Law and the Prophets, and once to the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms, an indistinct collection. The New Testament writers omit Esther, as did the Qumran Essene community, as did Sirach, and many early rabbis. Jesus is often quoted as introducing passages with the quotationformula, “as it is written.”

Seeking the testimony of Christ as witness to the Old Testament canon, Josh McDowell cites Luke 11:51 and Matthew 23:35. “From the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah.” McDowell avers that Jesus endorsed the Hebrew canon as preserved by the Jews, from Genesis to 2 Chronicles, which is the last book in scripture according to the Jewish tradition.

In referring to Matthew 23:35, Josh McDowell brings up a real can of worms. In Matt. 23:35, Jesus is quoted as saying, “the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.” However the prophet stoned in the temple in 2 Chron. 24:20-21 is Zechariah the son of Jehoiada. According to scholars, there does not appear to be a plausible solution other than it was a mistake of some kind — but of what kind, exactly? It has been suggested that “Matthew” has picked up the name of Zechariah the son of Baruch, who was also murdered in the temple precincts in 68 C. E., more than thirty years after Jesus was supposed to have spoken,[58] but within the time of the writing of the gospels.

The New Testament can’t even quote the Old Testament straight.

The most likely explanation is that Matthew confused two persons together: Zechariah the priest (son of Jehoiada, 2 Chron. 24:20-2); and Zechariah the prophet (son of Berechiah, Zech. 1:1). It is unlikely that a literate Jew would have made this mistake. The Zechariah of Chronicles was the subject of a number of rabbinical traditions, making it a “not unfamiliar part of scripture.”[59]

Of course, if Jesus was referring to some other, unknown Zechariah, then he could not have been bearing witness to the Old Testament canon — which was what McDowell was trying to prove.

Protestant founder Martin Luther knew that the Bible contained verbal errors and inconsistencies. He knew that Mat. 27:9 mistakenly cited Jeremiah for Zechariah. ‘But such points do not bother me particularly,’ he wrote.[60]

We return to the story of the canon. Besides the passages listed by McDowell where the Christian New Testament quotes from the Hebrew bible, the NT book Jude (v. 14-16) quotes the noncanonical book, Enoch (1 Enoch 1:9). Is it scripture? Jude 9 also quotes an unknown work. Later commentators say this passage is a quote from the Assumption of Moses, which may be related to The Testament of Moses, of which we have a portion. Compare Heb. 11:37 with The Martyrdom of Isaiah.

Other N.T. quotations with unknown sources: John 7:38, Luke 11:49, and James 4:5.[61]

Jude 14-16 1 Enoch 1:9

Jude 9 Unknown, perhaps The Assumption of Moses

Heb. 11:37 The Martyrdom of Isaiah

John 7:38 Unknown

Luke 11:49 Unknown

James 4:5 Unknown

2 Timothy 3:8f Jannes and Jambres

Other works cited by New Testament authors which are neither in the Bible nor the Old Testament Apocrypha.

2 Timothy 3:8f, refers to the Egyptian magicians Jannes and Jambres. It seems that the author cites The Book of Jannes and Jambres, a work now available only in fragments.[62] This work is stated to be the source of the passage in 2 Timothy by the Christian writer Origen of the third century, and by Abrosiaster of the fourth century.

When the New Testament writers quote the Hebrew Bible (OT), they usually use the Septuagint, the Greek version prepared by Jewish scholars inAlexandria,Egypt. Unfortunately, the Septuagint contains some readings widely at variance with the Massoretic text, the Hebrew bible used as a basis for the OT used by Protestants. Furthermore, the Septuagint scrolls contained a varying number of books of the Apocrypha, interspersed with now-canonical books, which books of the Apocrypha are not accepted by Protestants. In this particular matter, today’s Protestants have departed from early church tradition.

The Old Testament Apocrypha

1 Esdras

2 Esdras



Additions to Esther

Wisdom of Solomon

Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus the son of Sirach, or Sira


The Letter of Jeremiah

The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men (addition to Daniel)

Susanna (Daniel)

Bel and the Dragon (Daniel)

The Prayer of Manasseh

1 Maccabees

2 Maccabees

The Apocrypha, as included in the Revised Standard Version (1957).

The Old Testament Apocrypha consists of these fifteen books in many of today’s English language Bibles. In previous English editions of the Bible which included the Apocrypha, the Letter of Jeremiah was incorporated into Baruch, giving only fourteen books.[63]

Here are the books of the Septuagint in the Codex Vaticanus, which collection itself is an early witness of the New Testament (fourth century CE): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-4 Kingdoms (1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings), 1 and 2 Chronicles, 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras (Ezra-Nehemiah), Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, Job, the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Esther, Judith, Tobit, Hosea, Amos, Micah, Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Baruch, Lamentations, The Epistle of Jeremy, Ezekiel, Daniel.[64]

The Codex Vaticanus is cited by Josh McDowell on p. 47 of Evidence That Demands a Verdict as witness to nearly the whole Bible. It also contains six books of the Apocrypha. Esther is listed with Judith and Tobit, preceding the prophets. If Vaticanus is valid evidence for the text of the New Testament, why does it not likewise testify to the Christian use of the Old? The list of books included in the Sinaiticus scroll are similar.

Later, during the Reformation, Catholic biblical scholar Erasmus wrote to Luther over a dispute concerning the freedom of the human will. In favor of his opinion, Erasmus cited a passage from Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus), a book of the Apocrypha. “I think no one should detract from the authority of this book because Saint Jerome indicated it did not belong to the Hebrew canon,” wrote Erasmus, “since the Christians received it into their canon, and I cannot see why the Hebrews excluded it when they included the Parables of Solomon [presumably Ecclesiastes rather than Proverbs] and the amatory Canticles [Song of Solomon].” Erasmus was trying to defend Sirach, rather than to reject Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs.[65]

In favor of the Apocrypha:

Highly regarded by Christians throughout centuries.

Ideas and images from the Apocrypha are presupposed by New Testament writers.

Linked to the Septuagint, the Greek language version of the Old Testament often favored by New Testament writers.

Quoted as scripture by many early Christian writers.

Many codices of the New Testament also contain the Septuagint, including various combinations of the books of the Apocrypha.

As part of the Vulgate, the Apocrypha was accepted as a Christian standard for centuries.

It was included by Protestants in the versions of Martin Luther, albeit with a cautionary note, and of King James. Standard part of English language Bibles until 1827; still printed in German Bibles.

Against the Apocrypha.

Not accepted by later Jews. Not preserved as part of Hebrew Bible.

No direct quotes in the New Testament from the 15 books. 1 Enoch is directly quoted, however.

Not quoted as scripture by Philo, an Alexandrian Jew, about the time of Jesus. However, Philo quotes little outside of the Torah.

Disputed or recognized as of lesser value by some early Christian leaders, notably Jerome.

Disputed by leaders of the Reformation, to varying degrees, as to authenticity, and to religious value.

Egregious historical inaccuracies and other faults.

There are four main positions of the modern church concerning the Old Testament Apocrypha:[66]

(1) The Roman Catholic Church accepts all the works of the Apocrypha, except the prayer of Manasseh and 1 and 2 Esdras, as parts of the canon. This decision, regarded as binding, was made at the Council of Trent in 1546 C.E.[67]

(2) The Greek Church has had many debates about the Apocrypha, but no binding decision. It accepts and uses all the books, except 2 Esdras.

(3) The Church of England does not accept the Apocrypha as fully canonical. However, they are highly esteemed, and “the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners.” They are read in the regular cycle of readings in the public life of the Church, with the Old and New Testaments.

(4) Reformed churches — and most of the non-Anglican Protestant churches — do not accept the Apocrypha as canonical, or as nearly canonical. The Westminister Confession, for example, declares them to be “of no authority” in the Church.

Why Aren’t the Old Testament Apocryphal Books Regarded as Canonical?

Here is a list of reasons given by Josh McDowell.

1. “They abound in historical and geographical inaccuracies and anachronisms.”[68]

The canonical books also contain such inaccuracies and contradictions. For example, in Gen. 26, Ahimelech of Gerar is said to be a Philistine, but the story is set in the time of Abraham,[69] several hundred years before the Philistines.

In Genesis 14:14, reference is made to an exploit of Abraham to the northern city ofDan. This city, named after Abraham’s great grandson, was not conquered and renamed by Israelites until hundreds of years later (Judges 18:29).

Deuteronomy, supposed to be a book written by Moses, contains an account of his own death, and a summary that “There arose not a prophet since in Israellike unto Moses ….” which implies the passage of many generations.[70] Moses never crossed the river Jordan, according to the story, and remained on the east side. However, Deuteronomy was composed by someone within Palestine — one the west side — because the book refers to the east as “the other side of the Jordan.”[71]

The Chronicler, the name usually given to the anonymous author of four OT books, describes King David as collecting ten thousand darics for the construction of the temple in Jerusalem (1 Chron. 29:7). The daric is a coin named after king Darius of Persia, who lived some five hundred years after David.[72]

The book of Esther, which, as we have seen, was very late in acceptance, lacked the seal of approval of New Testament writers, and was missing at Qumran, has many historical inaccuracies. If Mordecai was carried into exile in 597 BCE (2:6), he would have been over 110 years old by the reign of Xerxes.[73] How old would that make his cousin Esther, who was supposed to be famous for her great beauty? According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the queen of Xerxes was named Amestris,[74] not Esther or Vashti, nor does Esther appear as the name of any other Persian king.[75] It was Persian practice to marry strictly between the seven Persian royal founding families.[76] Amestris was the daughter of a Persian general. It appears that the only historical person in the entire books is Xerxes.

The condition of the Jews as a scattered people (3:8), and a time in which there is hatred and tension between Jew and Gentile, fit better with the Hellenistic period rather than the Persian.

2. “They teach doctrines which are false and foster practices which are at variance with inspired scriptures.”

You have to decide first which doctrines and practices to accept. This is a circular argument: the canon endorses your doctrine, your doctrine endorses your canon.[77] Since Christians have never all agreed on either, confusion reigns.

Are we supposed to know who the real Christians are, first, and then inquire of them which books are in the Bible? Based strictly on behavior, it would be hard to find very many Christians at all.

McDowell poses as one who is arguing to non-Christian seekers, who want evidence from history to decide about Christ. As historians seeking objectivity, we should reserve judgment about the correctness of such points in dispute; I sympathize with the Roman judge who refused to judge a religious dispute of religous words and names (Acts 18:15). In the matter of the Apocrypha, apologists are asking us to first believe them that they can tell what doctrines and practices are false before determining which books are in the Bible. And so it goes around and around.

3. “They resort to literary types and display an artificiality of subject matter and styling out of keeping with inspired scripture.”

Canonical works are also filled with literary types and artificial style. Why are Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes considered inspired?[78] Song of Solomon? So far as literary types, and artificial style, the characters of the Book of Esther are especially flat and one-dimensional.

Even Jerome lamented the comparatively poor style of the Hebrew prophets compared with the polished works of the Greco-Roman culture.

Jerome and Old Testament StyleAccording to his writings, Jerome had determined to go toJerusalemand be a good soldier for Christ. Jerome, however, could not keep from reading his collected works of pagans. He would alternately fast and pray, and then read the works of Cicero, the Roman orator, or a Roman play. “After frequent night vigils, after shedding of tears which the remembrance of past sins brought forth from my inmost heart, I would take in my hands a volume of Plautus [a Roman playwright]. When I came to myself and began to read a prophet again, I rebelled at the uncouth style…”

Jerome went on to berate himself for enjoying a good Roman comedy, then wincing at the style of the Old Testament. He compared scripture to the full strength of the sun.[166] Jerome blamed his weakness on “the old serpent” — the Devil.

Jerome fell into a deep fever. He has a dream of a stern Judge who accused him of being a Ciceronian, not a Christian. In his dream, the Judge ordered him to be severely beaten. Jerome begged the forbearance of the Judge, and renounced reading books of pagan literature, indeed, any secular writings. In my opinion, this was not a sound decision. I can’t help feeling that modern chemistry could have helped poor brother Hieronymous.

In his story, Jerome acknowledges the superiority of style of the Greek and Roman writers. I like to think Jerome saw the Old Testament as vegetables–unappetizing, but necessary.

On the other hand, some of the other books, both canonical and noncanonical, have an interesting dramatic style. They belong to a genre of fiction, a kind of novella. In this category are the canonical books of Ruth, Jonah, Daniel, and Esther[79], the Joseph section of Genesis, and the noncanonical books of Judith, Tobit, 3 Ezra, and the story of Ahikar. The last five of these books mentioned have these common elements: each legend takes place in the court of a powerful and pleasure-loving king of ancient times. Daniel, Mordecai, and Ahikar all have similar positions of authority. “In all these stories the enemies of the Jews fail at the moment of their expected triumph, and perish by the same fate that they had planned for the Jews.” There are a number of parallels between Esther and the “Thousand and One Arabian Nights,” the later collection of stirring tales.[80]

In favor of some of the books of the Apocrypha, we note that Judith and Maccabees have inspired operas. Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) and Wisdom are considered to be of high literary quality, and are read and quoted in even some Protestant churches with appreciation.[81]

Martin Luther wrote about the apocryphal book of Tobit: “A truly beautiful, wholesome, and profitable fiction, the work of a gifted poet … A book useful and good for us Christians to read.”[82]

Are we saying that some of the books of the Old Testament should be dropped, and some of the books of the Apocrypha included? Maybe Christians should think about that proposition, but it is not the point at hand. The point is: there is no clear difference between the books of the Protestant OT canon, and the general body of Jewish and ancient neareastern literature.

4. “They lack the distinctive elements which give genuine Scripture their divine character, such as prophetic power and poetic and religious feeling.”

Another circular argument. You have to determine what the proper religious feeling is first. Does your canon support your attitudes, or do your religious attitudes determine which books fit in your canon? What prophetic power is to be found in Ruth or Esther?

In particular, Esther does not contain any mention of God, nor of any religious act other than fasting. According to Paton, there is not one noble character in the book. Esther gains her victories not by skill or character, but by her beauty; when she wins the upper hand, she is relentless towards her enemies, securing not merely the safety of her people, but the ruination and slaughter of their enemies. “Morally, Est. falls far short of the general level of the OT., and even of the Apocrypha.”[83]

I nominate Esther as the worst book in the Bible.

If some of the canonical works have little to recommend them but poetry, then why not admit Tobit and Judith as well?

Consistency for the New Testament?

If these standards rule against the books of the Old Testament Apocrypha on the basis of historical and geographical inaccuracies, how could some books of the New Testament be accepted by the same rules?

In Luke 2:1-3, the census of Quirinius is placed during the reign of Herod the Great, a displacement of some ten years.

The gospel of Mark seems to hold the record for the most geographical problems. Mark 7:31 says that Jesus and his disciples journeyed “out from the borders of Tyre… through Sidon, to the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the borders of Decapolis.” This is geographically nonsensical. “How many have been the headaches of commentators, trying to make sense out of that!”[84]

Mark 6:21 says that Antipas’ birthday party was for “the chief men of Galilee.” Yet in Mark 6:27, Antipas had the baptist beheaded in prison and his head brought to the party. Therefore the festivities were still in progress, and the guests must have been in Macharerus, Herod’s southern palace, where John was imprisoned, according to Josephus. This was a good 100 miles from Antipas’s Galilean headquarters. “Did ‘the chief men of Galilee’ walk all that way to a birthday party?” Or did the author of Mark “simply have no idea how far it was from Tiberias to John’s prison?”[85]

There is the story that Jesus cast out demons from a “man with a unclean spirit” to a herd of swine, who promptly drove themselves off a steep bank and drowned in the sea. Mark 5:1 specifies that the eastern side of the lakeof Galileeis the country of the Gerasenes. “Gerasa is more than thirty miles southeast of the lake, too far away for the setting of the story which demands a city in the vicinity, with a precipitous slope down to the water. … Matthew … changed Mark’s Gerasenes to Gadarenes (Mt. 8:28), Gadara being a well-known spa only eight miles from the lake.”[86]

Believers did not choose their holy books by first determining their historical or geographical accuracy.

What the Apocrypha really means

The word, “apocrypha,” simply means, “hidden books.” A Hebrew synonym is genuzim, which in several places in the Talmud is applied to Proverbs, the Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes.[87] Heretical works, such as those by Christians, were put into a category of separim hisonim, or extraneous books. Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) fragments were found at Qumran; the same book was quoted freely as scripture by rabbis as late as the third or fourth centuries C.E.[88]

The books of the Apocrypha have survived only because Christians used them. Although concerned with Jews, and written by Jews, that nation did not preserve them.[89]

2 Maccabees is rejected by Protestants partly on doctrinal grounds. 2 Macc. 12.40-6 supports the doctrine of purgatory. In that passage, reference is made to the offering of prayers and sacrifices in behalf of the dead, “that they might be delivered from their sin.”

In Luther’s Bible, the books of the Apocrypha were preceded by his explanation that he did not think these books were canonical, but that he thought them “good and useful for reading.” This action, together with the opinions of other Reformation leaders, started the Protestant rejection of the authority of the books of the Apocrypha; nevertheless, because of tradition, he could not omit them entirely. Luther did not include 1 and 2 Esdras, but they were put into the English Bible of the King James Version.[90]

The Authorized Version bible of 1611 included the Apocrypha. It was not clearly separated by a preface, as Martin Luther had included in his translation. In this English language classic, there was no clear explanation of subordinate rank.[91] The Church of England requires the books of the Apocrypha to be included in any edition of the Bible authorized for use in public worship. Indeed, the church provides for considerable use of these books in its lectionary.[92]

Historical Testimony of the exclusion of the Old Testament Apocrypha

McDowell quotes Geisler and Nix on a series of citations that support the conclusion that the Old Testament Apocrypha was never treated as inspired scripture. Other authorities disagree; some go as far as to define the Old Testament including the Old Testament simply as the traditional Christian canon.

McDowell writes that Jesus and the New Testament authors refer to almost all the books of the Hebrew canon. Almost, indeed. The New Testament writers do not refer to these canonical books: Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes and Esther.[93] However, the NT refers the following passages from the Old Testament Apocrypha:[94]

Hebrews 1:3 Wisdom of Solomon 7:25-26

Hebrews 11:35f Refers to 2 Macc. 6-7

James 1:19 Ecclesiasticus 5:11

In Evidence that Demands a Verdict, it is written (p. 36): “No canon or council of the Christian church for the first four centuries recognized the Apocrypha as inspired.” Unless we make some artificial restrictions, this is claim is untrue. The books of the Apocrypha are on Bishop Athanasius’ list in the Easter Letter of 367 CE.[95] This list is the first place that exactly the 27 books of our New Testament are to be found. If it was a good list for the New Testament, why is it not evidence for the Old? A list similar to that of Athanasius was ratified by the Synod of Carthage in 397 CE. Surely we should count this as within “the first four centuries,” and it was within a mere thirty years of the initial defining of the New Testament. After 400 CE., the Church “officially accepted a canon longer than the Jews.”

McDowell’s scholars call the Council of Trent’s 1546 inclusion of the Apocrypha in the canon a “polemical action” of the Counter Reformation. However, other scholars term this same action a reassertion of the “traditional Christian longer canon.”[96]

These books, the Apocrypha, were accepted throughout the Greek and Latin world until at least the fourth century C.E., and most early church fathers treated them as scripture. Metzger, in Introduction to the Apocrypha, showed how New Testament writers used key ideas and phrases.

Old Testament Apocryphal works are quoted by the `Apostolic Fathers.’ For instance, the Epistle of Barnabas, besides referring to Old Testament prophets, also cites as prophets the authors of the Wisdom of Solomon (2.12), 2 Esdras (12.1), and 2 Baruch (11.9f.). A statement from 1 Enoch is quoted with the formula `For the scripture says’ (16.5-6). Although it seems Barnabas knew some of the material of the New Testament, he does not quote it as scripture.[97]

Irenaeus’ Old Testament consisted of the books commonly accepted from the Greek Old Testament, including the additions to Daniel, Baruch, 2 Esdras, and 1 Enoch.[98]

Reformer John Calvin rejected the right of the Catholic Church to define a canon which included the Apocrypha. Nevertheless, Calvin quotes as scripture several of the books of the O. T. Apocrypha in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, and elsewhere in his works.

The Apocrypha was included in the early German and English Bibles, including Luther’s. It was part of the original King James Version, but American Bibles stopped printing it in 1827.

Currently most of the Apocrypha is accepted as canon among the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Ethiopian churches, and Ethiopian Jews. Catholics accept a total of 73 books as canonical, but Eastern Orthodox churches accept even more (approximately the whole list above).

The Ethiopian Christian Old Testament contains these books, plus Jubilees, 1 Enoch, and Joseph ben Gorion’s (Josippon’s) medieval history of the Jews and other nations. Together with a larger New Testament, the Ethiopian Christian Bible consists of 81 books.[99]

The New Testament Canon

Reformer John Calvin and the CanonFirst, we should note that reformer John Calvin wrote against the idea of a fixed canon of the Bible.

But the Romanists have another end in view when they say that the power of interpreting Scripture belongs to councils.

… They allege an old catalogue, which they call the Canon. and say that it originated in a decision of the Church. But I again ask, In what council was that Canon published? Here they must be dumb. Besides, I wish to know what they believe the Canon to be. For I see that the ancients are little agreed with regard to it. If effect is to be given to what Jerome says (Praef. in Lib. Solom.), the Maccabees, Tobit, Ecclesiasticus, and the like, must take their place in the Apocrypha; but this they will not tolerate on any account.[167]

Here Calvin took the line, later used by McDowell, that the books of the Bible are not authoritative because the Church has approved them. Calvin elsewhere argued that the value of the books should be evident to believers. In the present passage we see that Calvin doubted that there is such a thing as a fixed canon, and recognized the evidence of the early church that they sometimesuseded more or fewer books.

In context: Calvin was disputing with the Roman Catholic leaders about Church authority. The text, and in similar arguments elsewhere, referred specifically to a Roman Catholic canon which included the O. T. Apocrypha. Calvin also objected to Roman claims of authority to interpret the meaning of scripture, as well as which books constitute scripture.

Calvin wrote:

But in regard to the Canon itself, which they so superciliously intrude upon us, ancient writers are not agreed. Let the mediators, then, enjoy their own as they please, provided we are at liberty to repudiate those which all men of sense, at least when informed on the subject, will perceive to be not of divine original.[168]

We don’t dispute Calvin’s high views of the Bible as the Word of God. or his use of the written scriptures as we know them.

However, he argued that acceptance of any particular book of scripture depends on an individual’s knowledge and conscience. In context, Calvin specifically argued against acceptance of the O.T. Apocrypha, declared to be authoritative by the R. C. Church; logically, however. the “liberty to repudiate” given to “all men of sense” would apply also to all books of the Old Testament and New Testament.

Calvin and the Book of Revelation

With respect to Revelation, historians believe that Calvin gave this weird book less esteem. Several Protestant reformers had suggested that some books did not belong in the New Testament (Zwingli), or should be put into a New Testament Apocrypha (Luther, etc.).

First, we note that Calvin wrote commentaries on all New Testament books except 2 and 3 John, and Revelation. The two minor epistles could be excused on the basis of size; however, the Apocalypse of John could not be ignored on that account. T. H. L. Parker emphasizes that skipping Revelation could not have been an oversight; Calvin wrote commentaries on all the New Testament books in a systematic order, through the epistles. At this juncture, instead of completing the commentary with 2 and 3 John, and Revelation, Calvin instead went on to the historical books and the Old Testament. “To that extent, therefore, we may say that he was imposing a practical canon on the New Testament,” Parker concludes.[169] The practical canon excluded Revelation.

There is a famous story that Calvin is supposed to have said, when asked about Revelation, that he “was not able to understand anything in so obscure a Writer, whose Name and History were not settled among the learned.”[170] The citation is indirect, and Parker is doubtful that Calvin actually said this.

Calvin quoted the book of Revelation at least a dozen times in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. To Willem Balke, author of Calvin and the Anabaptist Radicals, this is enough to prove that Calvin accepted the book with scripture, and not in a reduced status.[171]

On the other hand, Calvin quoted the Old Testament Apocrypha in the Institutes and his other works, and also quoted several ancient secular sources.

As a second major point, we note that Calvin’s doctrinal views either ignore, allegorize, or are antagonistic to the theology expressed in Revelation. For instance, in Institutes 3.25.5, Calvin disputes the doctrine of the Millennium as a literal post-second advent rule of Christ. The Apocalypse had been used by the Anabaptists in their views of the imminent end of the world.

The town ofMuenster, Westphalia, was taken over by militant Anabaptists in 1536, who were intent on establishing theKingdomofGod. Think of Muenster asWaco,Texas, in 1993, with the Branch Davidians held at bay by the Feds. Please excuse some license in imagining the following correspondence:

From: John Calvin, Geneva
To: David Koresh, Waco
Re: Revelation, aka. the Apocalypse of John

Don’t take it so seriously.


According to McDowell, the basic factor for including a book in the New Testament was inspiration by God, and its chief test was apostolicity. We are to suppose the apostles wrote the books of the New Testament, knowing full well that they were writing scripture. The churches would then take these books, which they knew were inspired, and that became the New Testament. However, this scenario is contrary to the evidence.

For the first several generations of the Jesus movement, the idea of a “New Testament Canon” was unknown. Gradually, some books came to be used in churches for readings. The number of works used grew — including works written much later but given out as written by one apostle or another. The lists maintained by churches and various authorities for approved usage differed widely from one another. The problem is both that there were books included in these lists that are not canonical, and that some which are currently canonical were left out. The Christian church lasted for its first 300 years without the Bible as we know it.

McDowell brushes past the considerable arguments of the early church about the canon. Educated church leaders, including the reformer John Calvin, knew that the canon was the subject of numerous ancient disputes.

According to scholar R. M. Grant, ” … [W]hile Christians who were concerned with defining a New Testament canon analogous to the Old Testament canon, they were in no position, at least in the first few centuries, to say exactly what was in it. The Old Testament canon during this time was more a process than an achievement.”[100]

Bruce M. Metzger, analyzing the Apostolic Fathers (1 Clement, Ignatius, the Didache, fragments of Papias, Barnabas, Hermas of Rome i.e. The Shepherd of Hermas, and the so-called 2 Clement), concluded that for early Jewish Christians, “the Bible consisted of the Old Testament and some Jewish apocryphal literature. Along with this written authority went traditions, chiefly oral, of sayings attributed to Jesus. On the other hand, authors who belonged to the `Hellenistic Wing’ of the Church refer more frequently to writings that later came to be included in the New Testament. At the same time, however, they very rarely regarded such documents as `Scripture’.”[101]

We have evidence of the spotty development and treatment of the writings later regarded as the New Testament in the second and third centuries CE. Gradually, written Gospels, and collections of epistles, different ones in different regions, became to be more highly regarded. Sometimes they were regarded as `inspired’ but still not fully equal to the Old Testament scriptures.[102].

According to Grant: “It should be added that in the writings of most of the Apostolic Fathers and some of the apologists, not to mention Irenaeus, Clement, and Origen, there are quotations of sayings of Jesus not preserved in the canonical gospels. Some of the sayings doubtless came from oral tradition; other may well have been preserved in books. The gradual development of the Canon was a process of exclusion and it lasted at least to the fourth century.”[103] And again, “The Canon of the New Testament was the result of a long and gradual process in the course of which the books regarded as authoritative, inspired, and apostolic were selected out of a much larger body of literature. “[104]

The process was not haphazard, but it was tied to theological controversies. “Only when it could be decided that something was really Christian, while something else was not, could Christians come to make definite decisions about the authoritative books. This means that the process was somewhat circular, or at least that the mode of procedure could not be stated with logical precision. One might say ‘Bible’ and ‘Church’ grew up together.”[105]

The Bible and the Church grew up together. This is much more accurate than McDowell’s assertion that the Church did not create the canon or the books of the Bible. Yes, the Church wrote the Bible, selected and preserved the books; once chosen, the books influenced the further development of the church.

R. M. Grant discusses the divorce between historical authenticity and orthodox authority. “… This is to say that the development of the Canon and the development of Christian theology were closely interrelated, and supported one another. For this reason we cannot say that the gnostic gospels, revelations, and other books which were definitely rejected toward the end of the second century were necessarily written at a later date. They may well have been written early even though they came to be viewed as unorthodox and non-canonical later. The question of canonicity or, to put it more historically, authority–since the term ‘canon’ was not used until the fourth century–did not and could not arise until the idea of orthodoxy had clearly arisen out of the second-century anti-gnostic debates.”[106] Grant goes on to qualify his statement, allowing that the synoptic gospels and the writings of Paul were widely accepted relatively early.

Diversity of Early Christianity

Bart D. Ehrman provides the following points as summary of his introductory chapter on the New Testament and early Christian writings:

“1. Early Christianity was extremely diverse. It was not the unified monolith that modern people sometimes assume.

“2. This diversity was manifest in a wide range of writings, only some of which have come down to us in the New Testament.

“3. The New Testament canon was formed by proto-orthodox Christians who wanted to show that their views were grounded in the writings of Jesus’ own apostles.

“4. Whether these writings actually represent the views of Jesus’ own apostles, however, was in some instances debated for decades, even centuries.”[107]

The Challenge of Marcion

There is no evidence of a canon of the New Testament before that of Marcion, about 140 C.E. This rich Christian challenged the rest of church by rejection of the Old Testament, and by collecting parts of what is now the New Testament, rejecting those he thought were too Jewish.[108]

The establishment faction of the church begin to collect its own books to be held as authoritative. Over the next two hundred years, this process of rejection of competitive ideas, and the collection of scattered writings believed to have come from first century Christian leaders, i.e., apostles, became our New Testament canon.

There is no evidence that there existed any sort of canon in the first century. Marcion did not reject an existing, fixed list. Rather, the protoorthodox organized collections of existing writings after this challenge.

Certain books and collections became authoritative differently in different areas. The four gospels we know now, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were never mentioned together until 180 C.E. It seems that a collection of letters of Paul began to be put together in some areas, but that are unknown in other churches.

Early Christian Usage

Did the early Christians regard the books of our New Testament as inspired, as scripture, as a canon? To find evidence, we must examine how they were used by Christian writers. The quotation-formula, “it is written,” is usually a clue that the writer regards the work quoted as scripture. The following sources were Christians writing in the early second century CE.

Contrary to the position of Josh McDowell, Ignatius never uses “it is written” for a quotation from the New Testament in his letters. The phrase is reserved for two quotations from Proverbs.[109] He did, however, show familiarity with several New Testament books. In the fourth century, however, a creator of a ‘new Ignatius’ filled his letters with the quotations he thought Ignatius should have provided.[110]

In his single extant letter, Polycarp regarded the sayings of Jesus and the epistles of Paul as authoritative for Christians, but not as scripture. Many passages echo the language of these books. In one passage (Philadelphians 12:1), Polycarp quotes the Septuagint of Psalms 4:5 together with Paul’s Ephesians 4:26. Here, scholars believe that either he thought of ‘scripture’ as either being any writing, or that he thought he was quoting from the Old Testament. Nothing else in his letter indicates that he viewed New Testaments writings as scripture.[111]

The writer of the Epistle of Barnabas not only used Old Testament books, but also various Jewish apocalyptic writings quoting non-canonical books. He uses the formula, ‘it is written’ for books such as 1 Enoch, 2 Esdras, and 2 Baruch.[112] Barnabas never quotes any part of the New Testament as scripture, however.[113]

Barnabas 4:3 “As Enoch says.” Passage not identified.

16:5-6 “It is written” applied to 1 Enoch 91:13. Also 1 Enoch 89:56.

12:1 2 Esdras 4:33, 5:5.

11:9 2 Baruch 61:7; “a prophet.”

10:8, 11 Letter of Aristeas 128f, esp. 165.

A passage in a late manuscript Part of Psalms combined with the Apocalypse of Adam

References in Barnabas to non-canonical books as scripture[114]

The first to unmistakably quote the New Testament as scripture, “as it is written,” seems to have been Basilides, a gnostic teacher at Alexandria in the first part of the second century C. E. An account of his teaching was preserved by Hippolytus.[115] Hippolytus, however, wrote in the third century. Grant concludes that the use of the New Testament as scripture arose inAlexandria early in the second century CE, which puts it perhaps thirty to fifty years before scholars had previously thought. He also hints that this may also be the time and place for the composition of 2 Peter, which itself contains reference to the letters of Paul as scripture.

The first Christian writer to include a New Testament author among “the holy scriptures and all the inspired men” was Theophilus of Antioch, about 180 C.E.[116] However, he also regarded the Sybil, a pagan oracle, as inspired.[117]

The first to use the term, “New Testament,” was Irenaeus.[118] He “flourished” about 180 C.E. He is also the first to give the explicit formation of four gospels, and exactly four.

Incredibly, the early Christian teacher, Papias, is recorded as citing part of 2 Baruch, and ascribing it instead to the teachings of Jesus.[119]

The Didache, c. 100 CE. Primary authority is tradition, oral or written, mainly oral. May have known written Gospel of Matthew. Grant, Formation of the NT, p. 64f.

Papias, c. 110 CE. Three or more gospels, including at least Mark and John, perhaps including Gospel to the Hebrews; 1 John, 1 Peter. No trace of any Pauline epistles. Passage from 2 Baruch said to be teaching of Jesus. Grant, Formation, p. 68f.

Hermas of Rome, between 90-120 CE. Apocalyptic seems to be based on 2 Esdras. Only book quoted is the Jewish apocalypse, Eldad and Modat (Vis. 2.3.4). Allusions to Matthew and Ephesians. Grant, Formation, p. 72f.

1 Clement, c. 100 CE. Greek Old Testament used as scripture. Numerous allusions to gospels, Pauline epistles, Acts, Hebrews, but not quoted as scripture. Unknown ‘scripture’ quoted in 23.3-4 is probably a Jewish Apocalyptic work. Grant, Formation, p. 77f.

2 Clement, c. 125 CE. Refers to a saying from a gospel as scripture. In 11.2, quotes same Apocalyptic work as does 1 Clement. Uses Gospel of Thomas; oral tradition. Grant, Formation, p. 83f.

Ignatius, c. 125 CE. Uses language and images of 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Romans, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 (-2?) Thessalonians, and 1 Peter; perhaps Gospel of John; does not call them scripture. The only direct quotations are from Proverbs. Grant, Formation, p. 89f.

Polycarp, c. 130 Alludes to Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy; 1 Peter, 1 Clement; 1 or 2 John; Hebrews; at least one Gospel, Matthew; but did not regard the books as ‘scripture.’ Grant, Formation, p. 102f.

Barnabas, c. 130 Knows Matthew; probably John; phrases resemble 1, 2 Timothy. Does not quote any part of New Testament as scripture.

Justin, c. 150-c. 160 Old testament used for proof; refers to ‘memoranda of the Apostles;’ book of Revelation; uses oral tradition. Once refers to the ‘memoranda’ with the terms, “it is written that…” Grant, Formation, p. 106f.

Usage of New Testament as scripture by early Christian writers.120

Many documents were in use at this early date that were later rejected. Eusebius contains the story of Serapion, a bishop of Antiochabout 190 C. E., who hesitates with regard to the use of the Gospel of Peter.[121] That is, he and his congregation had already been using the book; what harm could come from a writing by the apostle Peter? Later, he heard from others that the book did not conform in doctrine. It was then rejected by the bishop. In the end, doctrine made a change in existing usage. It is evident that there existed at this time no fixed list of accepted, authoritative works.

Clement of Alexandriastarted writing in the last decade of the second century. He quotes explicitly from The Gospel according to the Hebrews. At one point, Clement states that there are only four received gospels, which would exclude the Gopel according to the Hebrews. After mentioning this point, Clement later quotes from The Gospel according to the Hebrews, but without giving his source;[122] he just sort of forgot where he had heard it.

There is peculiar connection between the Gospel according to the Hebrews and the canonical gospels. Scholars recognize that the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery was not originally part of the Gospel of John (7:53-8:11). It is completely absent from the early manuscripts of John in Greek, and there are no comments on it by the early Greek church writers on John in its first thousand years.[123] In a few late copies where it actually appears, it is sometimes stuck after 7:36 instead of where we now find it, or at the end of John, or even inserted into Luke (after Luke 21:38), instead. Yet there is internal and external evidence that the story is ancient, and quite attractive from a religious standpoint. It is a graceful story of forgiveness.

We read in Eusebius that “Papias relates another story of a woman who was accused of many sins before the Lord, which is contained in the Gospel according to the Hebrews.”[124] We don’t know if this is the same story that became inserted into John. But maybe, just maybe, a piece of a rejected gospel made its way into our Bibles.

Returning to the canon, by the end of the second century CE, it is correct to say that the outlines of the collections of Christian books were in place, with gospels and epistles, and that these writings were regarded as authoritative, apostolic, and inspired, but that they were not called ‘the New Testament.’[125] Irenaeus introduced the idea that the Christians had four gospels, but no more; but there was as yet no list of books accepted authoritatively and exclusively.

About this time, we have evidence that such a list was beginning to be formed. According to the Muratorian fragment (c. 200), books Christians were obliged to read included only two epistles of John; one, maybe, of Peter, if you try to correct the text; and no mention of Hebrews. Also included was the Wisdom of Solomon, and the Apocalypses of John and of Peter.[126] This document is a fragment — the beginning is missing — that probably relates the books then in use inItaly. The Shepherd of Hermas was being read in churches, but the unknown author regards it as a recent work, and not authoritative. He also already warns of still other works, which are not to be received in the catholic Church.

According to R.M. Grant, the omission of 1 Peter from the Muratorian fragment is “striking, even shocking.”[127] He thinks that the mention of this letter may simply have fallen out. However, this is the only information from this time and place; it is the tyranny of the single data point. It may be disputed as a mistake or oversight, nevertheless, the testimony as it stands is that this church did not use 1 Peter, James, or 3 John, but it did use the Apocalypse of Peter.

The church historian Eusebius, a contemporary of Constantinein the fourth century CE, listed recognized books. The list included Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; Acts; thirteen Pauline epistles; 1 Peter, 1 John, and 1 Clement (which does not appear in our Bibles). Books listed as disputed by Eusebius are Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. Eusebius makes clear that what was in dispute was not merely the usefulness of these books, but their authenticity.[128] It should be obvious that there was no pre-existing apostolic list of books; even the authorship of many of them were disputed three hundred years after the apostles.

Additional “canons”, or lists are documented in Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development and Significance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987).

First Use of Today’s Canon

The earliest exact reference to the `complete’ New Testament, as we now know it, was in the year 367 CE, in the Easter Letter by Athanasius. This did not settle the matter. Varying lists continued to be drawn up by different church authorities. Metzger feels that the influence of Jerome and Augustine was the deciding factor in favor of the exact 27 (although Jerome also favored the Shepherd of Hermas and Barnabas).[129]

The list was formally accepted by a council at Romein 382. Augustine personally campaigned for the same list at councils at Hippo, 393, at Carthagein 397, and at Carthageagain in 419.[130] However, none of these councils had effect throughout the Church, even in theRoman Empire; they were local in authority. Similarly, the various ecclesiastical letters had influence, but none had final authority.

Josh McDowell quotes from F. F. Bruce concerning the Synod of Hippo in 393, that the books did not receive “any authority the which they did not already possess, but simply recorded their previously established canonicity.”[131] Despite the positive statement of Bruce, it is in contradiction to the evidence. McDowell continues, “Since this time there has been no serious question of the 27 accepted books of the New Testament by either Roman Catholics or Protestants.” While Bruce’s statement is historically questionable, McDowell’s addition is plain wrong, in several ways. “No serious questioning?” As we will see, books of the New Testament are questioned by Catholics as “deuterocanonical,” and likewise doubted by Protestant leaders such as Luther, Calvin and Zwingli.

Furthermore, McDowell’s careful enumeration of Catholics and Protestants is much too convenient, leaving out the Eastern churches. The SyrianNationalChurchused the Diatesseron for several centuries instead of the fourfold Gospels of the West, and it held out against some of the general epistles and Revelation. The canon of the Nestorian church consists of only 22 books, excluding 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation.[132] This East Syrian church persists today.[133]

In 692 CE, a council of Eastern bishops at Constantinopleapparently adopted the list with the 27 books. It issued decrees that, so far as the books of the New Testament are concerned, quite incongruous and contradictory opinions.[134] The council sanctioned the list of the synod of Carthage, and the list of Athanasius, which recognized the minor Catholic epistles and Revelation, and also the Synod of Laodicea and the eighty-fifth Apostolic Canon, which omitted them.[135] Metzger concludes that this situation could only have happened if the council members simply had not read the documents involved. So much for the helpfulness and accuracy of the Holy Spirit working in church councils.

The apparent acceptance of the Book of Revelation by the Eastern church by a church council did not settle it for all concerned. There continued to be considerable grumbling among the Greek bishops.[136] According to a tabulation made by Westcott, in the tenth century no fewer than six different lists of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments were received in the Greek Church.[137]

The Time of The Reformation

At the time of the Reformation, the canon of the Bible, Old and New Testaments, was called into question. Generally, the Protestants disputed the Catholic claim to interpret scripture, either by Papal decree or by the action of church councils. No one had defined the limits of the Bible until the (Catholic) Council of Trent, 1546. From this time, the Roman Catholic Church declared that the Old and New Testaments, plus the deuterocanoncial books that were called Apocrypha by the Protestants, were scripture.

In this dispute, John Calvin rejected the idea of any fixed canon of the Bible. He did, indeed, use the Protestant-accepted books as the Word of God. However, Calvin had a well-known aversion to some books, such as Revelation. Some historians believe that this aversion may have taken the form of actually demoting 2 and 3 John and Revelation to a status lower in authority than the rest of scripture.[138]

Luther seemed to doubt the canon both of the Old Testament and the New. “I so hate Esther and II Maccabees that I wish they did not exist. There is too much Judaism in them and not a little heathenism.”[139]

At Geneva, where reformer Calvin held sway, one Sebastion Castellio was denied ordination because he held that the Song of Songs was not inspired.[140] However, Castellio later translated an edition of the Bible which included the Song of Songs.

In the new Testament, Martin Luther condemned the Epistle of James as worthless, an `epistle of straw.’ Others have translated his phrase as, “a right strawy epistle compared to the others.” Furthermore, he denigrated Jude, Hebrews, and the Apocalypse (Revelation). He did not omit them from his German Bible, but drew a line in the table of contents, putting them on a lower level than the rest of the New Testament.[141] If you had picked up the early German Bible translated by Martin Luther, and turned to the table of contents of the New Testament, this is what you would have seen: 23 books of the New Testament would appear in a numbered list. Below this list would be a line across the page. Below the line, unnumbered, would be Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation.[142]

I have a Martin Luther Bible printed in 1965. The German has the old Gothic script, and the table of contents page for the New Testament numbers the first 26 books as if they are fully accepted as part of the New Testament. Revelation is unnumbered.

In Prefaces to each of the four books, Luther explains his doubts as to their apostolic authority .

Hebrews Teaches, contrary to Paul, that there can be no repentance for sin after baptism [Heb. 6:4-6].

James “A right strawy epistle, compared to the others.” [This comment was omitted in Luther’s later editions.] It contradicts Paul by teaching justification by works.

Jude Dependent on 2 Peter, and quotes Apocryphal works.

Revelation Full of visions that do not belong to the task of apostolic writer; the writer recommends his own book much too highly; the book does not show Christ clearly. [1522]

Luther’s objections to New Testament Books

Luther wrote that he did not want to impose his opinion about Revelation on others, but as for himself, his spirit could not find its way into the book.[143] In other words, in deference to tradition and conservatism, he did not act on his own opinion and exclude these books altogether from his Bible.

In a later edition, this preface to Revelation is superseded by another one. The new preface seems to have been contrived to find in the book a condemnation of Thomas Müntzer. This radical leader had used Revelation. In 1545, the preface summed up the message of Revelation: “That Christ is with his Saints to the end of the world despite plagues, beasts, and evil angels.”[144] This later opinion is hard to square with a plain reading of Revelation. God is credited with sending plagues on the earth.[145] The angels of the vials of the seven last plagues, destroying the earth and sea, were working for God.

This late preface notwithstanding, Luther elsewhere also described Revelation as neither apostolic nor prophetic and resembling the dreams of the Abbot Joachim,[146] a wild visionary of the end of the world.

The test for Luther was whether a book proclaimed Christ. “That which does not preach Christ is not apostolic, though it be the work of Peter or Paul; and conversely that which does teach Christ is apostolic even though it be written by Judas, Annas, Pilate, Herod.”[147]

Zwingli, at the Bernedisputation of 1528, denied that Revelation was a book of the New Testament.[148]

Calvin, in his argument with Roman Catholic authority, rejected the idea that there was a fixed Canon. Historians have noted his aversion to the book of Revelation.

Among other Protestant leaders, the reformer known as Karlstadt divided the New Testament into three ranks of differing dignity. On the lowest level are the seven disputed books of James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, Hebrews, and the Apocalypse, i.e., Revelation.[149]

Oecolampadius declared that while all 27 books should be received, the Apocalypse, James, Jude, 2 Peter 2 and 3 John should not be compared to the rest of the books.[150]

The doubts of the major reformers were followed in some of the Protestant traditions, but not others. The same four books doubted by Luther are labeled `Apocrypha’ in a Bible fromHamburgin 1596. InSweden, beginning in 1618, the Gustavus Adolphus Bible labels the four dubious books as `Apocryphal New Testament.’ This arrangement lasted for more than a century.

Early in his career, Erasmus, the Catholic humanist at the time of the Reformation, and principal scholar of the received text of the Greek New Testament used by Protestants, doubted both that Paul was the author of Hebrews, and that James was author of the epistle bearing the name. He also questioned the authorship of 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude. The style of Revelation precluded it from being written by the author of the Fourth Gospel,[151] i.e., our book of John.

The official position of the Roman Catholic Church itself should also be considered. The Church proclaims itself to be the authority for the canon and the interpretation of scripture; therefore, it was the owner of the list of 27 books. Nevertheless, the Catholic Biblical Encyclopedia, entry “Canon,” proclaims that 20 books of the New Testament are inherently worth more than the 7 deuterocanonical books (Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, James, Jude, Revelation), acknowledging that the authenticity or reliability of them had already been challenged by ancient Christian authorities.[152] Note the terminology: many Catholics name the books of the Old Testament Apocrypha as being deuterocanonical; in other words, of a second canon, or of canon of secondary nature. Here, Catholic scholars also name seven books of the Protestant New Testament as being deuterocanonical, demoted to a secondary status.

The New Testament Apocrypha

McDowell lists, without comment, a few books not accepted in today’s NT canon. Apparently he is ignoring the occasional designation of lists of some of the pastoral epistles and Revelation as being spurious or deuterocanonical (see previous section).

Various groups of early churchmen accepted one or more of these books as ‘recognized’. For instance, the Codex Sinaiticus, celebrated even by Josh McDowell,[153] includes the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. The Shepherd of Hermas was regarded as inspired scripture by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen.[154] Both Hermas and Barnabas are favored, albeit ambiguously, by Jerome.[155]

1 Clement was widely regarded, and was included by Eusebius as one of the unquestioned, recognized books. Irenaeus uses the word scriptura for 1 Clement, but again, this may have meant merely ‘writing.’[156]. 1 Clement is included in the Codex Alexandrinus, another copy of the New Testament cited by McDowell.[157]

The Codex Claromontus contains a list of canonical books, which includes Barnabas, The Shepherd, i.e. Hermas, and the Apocalypse of Peter.

The Epistle of Paul to the Laodiceans is found in more than one hundred Latin Vulgate manuscripts, including the oldest. It is included in all eighteen German Bibles printed prior to Luther’s translation, beginning with the first German Bible of Johann Mental in 1488.[158]

Clement of Alexandriarecognized obscure works such as the Preaching of Peter and the Apocalypse of Peter.[159] He quotes from The Gospel According to the Egyptians, and once introduces a quote from The Gospel According to the Hebrews with the formula, `It is written.’ Almost everything written, including that by pagan writers, is considered `inspired’ by Clement of Alexandria.[160]

Baruch, Sirach, The Wisdom of Solomon, Tobit, Judith, 1-2 Maccabees, Additions to Daniel, 1 Enoch,  2 Esdras, Assumption of Moses, Gospel According to the Egyptians, Gospel According to the Hebrews, Traditions of Matthias, The Didache, 1 Clement, Barnabas, Hermas, The Preaching of Peter, The Apocalypse of Peter

Some books regarded as inspired by Clement of Alexandria, c. 200 CE.161

Additions to Daniel, 1 Baruch, 3 Baruch, Judith, 1-2 Maccabees, Tobit, Wisdom of Solomon, Assumption of Moses, The Apocalypse of Elijah, The Ascension of Isaiah, Jannes and Jambres, Prayer of Joseph, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs

Books used by Origen, d. 235 CE.162

The Copts, who are the modern Egyptian Christians, add more books. The Ethiopian church canon, yet larger, includes Hermas, 1 Clement and 2 Clement, the Apostolic Constitutions, making 38 books all together for its New Testament.[163] The Sahidic version, an early witness to the canon, included The Shepherd (of Hermas), 1 Clement, and the Acts of Paul.[164]

Why don’t modern American Protestants rejoice in the discovery of lost books of the Bible preserved in a corner of Christian Africa? The Ethiopian Old Testament includes 1 Enoch, which is quoted in Jude, a book of the canon of white Christians. The only copies of this ancient book known to scholarship were found written and preserved in a language of blackAfrica. Are not their traditions as valid as those of European nations?

Some Conclusions

No justification is necessary for a religious body to extend recognition to a group of books, or to declare such recognition withheld from others. However, Josh McDowell, in following a hard apologetic line, insists that the evidence for Christianity is objective, and that “Christianity is a FACTual religion.” Evidence That Demands a Verdict is supposed to be so compelling that the doubter is left without excuses.[165]

In defense of Protestant Christianity, McDowell does not merely try to show that the Protestant canon is proper to its own churches, but that the Protestant canon is better than any others, and contains exactly the right books.

There are two means to defend this position. One way is to examine the history of the canon in Christianity. Although McDowell disavows that the Bible depends on any particular church for authority, he nevertheless proceeds to build a case for the historical support of the Protestant canon. The conclusions he reaches are at variance with historical facts.

In particular, the very early Christians did not regard any part of the New Testament as scripture. Later, in developments of the second, third, and fourth centuries, Christians gradually put together patterns of usage that amounted to canons. In the fourth century, when the “bishops took a vote on it,” compromises were made between regional church traditions to reach a list of our 27 New Testament books.

The Old Testament, as used by the churches, and as codified by the councils, included what is now called the Apocrypha, contrary to current Protestant usage.

The second way to justify a particular canon is through the inner light of the believer. The inner light is supposed to bear witness to the truth and usefulness of these particular books. I say, “That is all very nice for you, but… if you’re asking me to believe you and your inner light, I would like better evidence before I think a particular set of books is infallible.”

The historical argument fails, and the appeal to believers is unsatisfying to unbelievers. Scholars agree: there is no ancient canon, no warrant from Jesus or apostles to use a particular set of books; and there is no one set of clear criteria that can be used to judge whether a book should or should not be canonical.

Sidebar: Anachronisms in Daniel

Dating Daniel to the Hellenistic period instead of the claimed time of Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon does not depend on assumptions about inspiration or the possibility or impossibility of divine prophecy. Much of the following is conveniently summarized in Gerald A. Larue’s book on the Old Testament.[172] Instead of depending on a pre-existing bias, we have evidence in the book itself that it was written during some of the events described in the prophecies.

Knowledge of the Babylonian-Persian period, roughly 600 to 500 years before the common era, as revealed in the book of Daniel is vague, and on occasion, inaccurate. The opening verse (1:1) states that Jehoiakim surrenderedJerusalemto Nebuchadrezzar. Instead, Jehoiakim was already dead by the time the city was taken, according to 2 Kings 24:1-10. (The account in 2 Chronicles has a different order of events, but it doesn’t help Daniel.) Thus, if the author really had lived in the sixth and seventh centuries BCE., he was mistaken about then-current events.

Belshazzar (Bel-shar-user) is identified in Daniel as the son of Nebuchadrezzar and is called “king” (5:1). But Belshazzar’s father was Nabonidus. Although Belshazzar was a regent, he never became king.

King Darius is called a Mede, the son of Xerxes (Ahasuerus), in Daniel 9:1, although we know that Darius was a Persian and the father of Xerxes.

As the story moves into the Greek period it becomes more accurate. Suppose we didn’t know whether the narratives of chapters 9 and 11 are divine prophecies written centuries in advance. Suppose we didn’t know, either, whether they were written during or after the events.

We would still notice, however, that the accuracy of the correspondence of the prophecy to the historical events drops off sharply at 9:27 and at 11:31. The writer knows of the desecration of Yahweh’s altar by Antiochus IV in 168 BCE, but not of the restoration of worship by Judas Maccabeus three years later. Either the divine foresight loses focus between 168 and 165, or that is when the book was actually written.

The presence of Persian and Greek loan-words lends support to the Hellenistic dating, i.e., much later than Nebuchadrezzar. Dan. 3:5 has Nebuchadrezzar commanding people to prostrate themselves at the music of the symphonia, clearly a Greek word,[173] hundreds of year before Greek influence in the area. This word, symphonia, first appears in Greek in the second century BCE, and so Daniel could not have been written before then.

Considering the evidence, scholars say Daniel clearly belongs to the time of Antiochus IV, not four hundred years earlier.


Ackroyd, P.R., and C. F. Evans, eds. The Cambridge History of the Bible. Vol. 1: From the Beginnings to Jerome. Cambridge: University Press, 1970.

Anderson, G.W. “The Old Testament: Canonical and Non-Canonical.” Ch.6. in The Cambridge History of the Bible. Vol. 1: From the Beginnings to Jerome. Ackroyd, P.R., and C. F. Evans, eds.Cambridge: University Press, 1970. Pp. 113-159.

The Augustine Club. “Development of the Biblical Canon.” <;.

Bainton, Roland H. “The Bible in the Reformation.” Ch.1. in The Cambridge History of the Bible . Vol. 3: The West From the Reformation to the Present Day. Greenslade, S.L.,ed.Cambridge: University Press, 1963; pp. 1-37.

Barr, James. The Scope and Authority of the Bible.Philadelphia:Westminster Press, 1980.

Bouwsma, William J. John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait.New York:OxfordUniv. Press, 1988.

Campenhausen, Hans von. The Formation of the Christian Bible. 1968. Trans. by J. A. Baker.Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972.

Chadwick, Henry. “The Bible and the Greek Fathers,” in The Church’s Use of the Bible, D. E. Nineham, ed.London: SPCK, 1963.

—–.The Early Church.New York:Dorset Press, 1967.

Charlesworth, James H., ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Vol. 1, Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments. Garden City,New York: Doubleday, 1983.

—–. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Vol. 2, Expansions of the “Old Testament” and Legends, Wisdom and Philosophical Literature, Prayers, Psalms, and Odes, Fragments of Lost Judeo-Hellenistic Works. Garden City,New York: Doubleday, 1985.

Christian Classics Ethereal Library,WheatonCollege <;

Crehan, F. J. “The Bible in the Roman Catholic Church from Trentto the Present Day.” Ch.6 in The Cambridge History of the Bible . Vol. 3: The West From the Reformation to the Present Day. Greenslade, S.L.,ed.Cambridge: University Press, 1963. Pp. 199-237.

Davis, Glenn. “New Testament Canon.” URL:<;.

Dentan, Robert B. “Apocrypha: Jewish Apocrypha.” Oxford Companion to the Bible. Metzger and Coogan, eds.Oxford: University Press, 1993. P. 37f.

Du Toit, A. article,”Canon: New Testament.” Oxford Companion to the Bible.

The Ecole Initiative. Early Church Documents Online. URL: <;

Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.New York:OxfordUniversity Press, 1997.

—–. The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings: A Reader.New York:OxfordUniversity Press, 1998.

Filson, Floyd V. Which Books Belong in the Bible?Philadelphia: TheWestminster Press, 1957.

Gamble, Harry Y. The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning.Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

Grant, R. M. The Formation of the New Testament.New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

—–. “The New Testament Canon.” Ch.10, The Cambridge History of the Bible. Vol. 1: From the Beginnings to Jerome. P.R. Ackroyd and C. F. Evans, eds.Cambridge: University Press, 1970. Pp. 284-308.

Greenslade, S.L.,ed. The Cambridge History of the Bible . Vol. 3: The West From the Reformation to the Present Day.Cambridge: University Press, 1963.

Hartono, W. “Canon of the New Testament.” URL: <;.

Hoffman, R. Joseph and Gerald Larue, eds. Jesus in History and Myth.Buffalo,NY: Prometheus Books, 1986.

Kelly, J. N. D. “The Bible and the Latin Fathers,” in The Church’s Use of the Bible, D. E. Nineham, ed.London: SPCK, 1963.

Lampe, G. W. H., ed. The Cambridge History of the Bible . Vol. 2. The West from the Fathers to the Reformation.Cambridge: University Press, 1969.

Lane Fox, Robin. The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible.New York: Alfred E. Knopf, 1992.

Larue, Gerald. Old Testament Life and Literature. Boston: Allyn and Bacon,1969. Electronic reprint, by permission of the author, at the Secular Web, URL <;.

Mack, BurtonL. Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth.San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1995.

Metzger, Bruce M. An Introduction to the Apocrypha: Based on the Revised Standard Version.New York:OxfordUniversity Press, 1957.

—–. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance.Oxford: Clarendon Press,1987.

Moule, C. F. D. The Birth of the New Testament. 3rd ed., rev.San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1982.

Nineham, D. E. The Church’s Use of the Bible: Past and Present.London: SPCK, 1963.

Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels.New York: Random House, 1979; Vintage Books ed., 1981.

Parker, T. H. L. Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries. 2nd ed.,Westminster,1993.

Paton, Lewis Bayles. The Book of Esther. Part of series,The International Critical Commentary. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1908; reprint ed., 1964.

Reid, George J. “Canon of the New Testament.”The Catholic Encyclopedia. Transcribed by Ernie Stefanik. URL: <;. Encyclopedia Press, 1913; Electronic version: New Advent, Inc.,1996.

Rypins, Stanley. The Book of Thirty Centuries: An Introduction to Modern Study of the Bible.New York: Macmillan, 1951.

Sanders, E. P. Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah.Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990.

Sanders, James A. “Canon: Hebrew Bible.” In the Anchor Bible Dictionary, David Noel Freedman, ed.-chief.New York: Doubleday, 1992.

—–. Torah and Canon.Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972.

Vox Reformata . Article, “Canon.” URL: <;.

WesleyCenterfor Applied Theology,NorthwestNazareneCollege. “The Noncanonical Gospels,” resource web page. <;.

—–. “The Complete Works of Josephus,” web page. <;.

—–. “The Church Fathers,” web page. Includes pointers off-site to online works: Barnabas, Hermas, Clement, Ignatius, Polybius, Irenaeus, etc. <;.

Westermann, Claus. Our Controversial Bible. Trans., ed., by Darold H. Beekman.Minneapolis,Minnesota:Augsburg Publishing House, 1960; trans. 1969.

C. S. C. Williams. “The History of the Text and Canon of the New Testament to Jerome.” Ch.2, The Cambridge History of the Bible . Vol. 2. The West from the Fathers to the Reformation. Lampe, G. W. H., ed.Cambridge: University Press, 1969. Pp. 27-53.


[1] “John Calvin on the True Method of Giving Peace to Christendom and Reforming the Church,” in Tracts and Treatises in Defense in Defense of the Reformed Faith, by John Calvin; trans. Henry Beveridge. Vol. 3.Grand Rapids,Mich: Eerdmans, 1958 (reprinted from Calvin Trans. Soc.,Edinburgh, 1851), p. 267.

[2] Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, intro. by E. Forester Church, afterword by Jaroslav Pelikan (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989; orig. published U. S. GPO., 1904).

[3] Steve Van Nattan, Allah, Divine or Demonic? online at URL: <;

[4] There exists a list in the so-called Apostolic Canons, supposedly written at the end of the first century. “The Canons of the Holy and Altogether August Apostles,” Wheaton Christian Ethereal Library, URL <;. The “Apostles'” list includes 1, 2 and 3 Maccabees, and maybe Judith and Sirach, among the books of the Old Testament, and 1 and 2 Clement in the New, along with the Apostolic Constitutions. It omits Revelation. These canons are included by name with those approved by the Synod in Trullo, 692 CE.

The Apostolic Constitutions, moreover, warn the reader not to read books that falsely claim to be written by the apostles. The work is itself reckoned as a forgery. Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 322.

[5] Matthew 18:18-20; John 14:16-17; John 16:7-13; and many other passages.

[6] Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, Appendix A, p. 335; John Cosin, a bishop, in Bettenson, p. 305.

[7] The WestminsterConfession of Faith, Article 1, 1643, in Bettenson, Henry, ed., Documents of the Christian Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 1963), p. 245. Taken from Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, v. III.

[8] Robert Barclay, Apology for the Quakers, 1678, as cited in Bettenson, Documents, p. 253.

[9] Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict (San Bernadino, Calif: Here’s Life Publishers, 1972, rev. ed. 1979), vol. 1, p. 29.

[10] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (New York: Dorset Press, 1967), p. 42. Papias, although reporting the written gospels, prefers oral traditions about Jesus, the “living and abiding voice.” Fragment in Eusebius, Church History, 3.39; Ehrman, Bart D., The New Testament and other Early Christian Writings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 362-3, for background and comment.

[11] Harry Y. Gamble, The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), p. 72.

[12] Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979; Vintage Books ed., 1981), p. 31-32. Her book-long argument documents the political side of early orthodoxy, and the struggle of a hierarchy determined to keep power.

[13] Helmut Koester, introduction, “The Gospel of Thomas,” in James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1978; paperback ed., 1981), p. 117. Koester thinks that Thomas may date as early as the second half of the first century. Bart D. Ehrman dates it to the early second century in The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings: A Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 116-7; and rounds it off to 120 CE in The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 41; extensive treatment p. 177f.

[14] ”Early,” for both religions, in this case would be before 100 CE. James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, v. 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1983), Introduction, p. xxiv.

[15] Grant, Cambridge History of the Bible, v. 1, p. 303.

[16] Eusebius, History of the Church 6.25.3-14.

[17] Papias, as recorded in Eusebius, History, 3.39. Eusebius nevertheless derides Papias as not being very intelligent. A longer list of references for Matthew is in C. F. D. Moule, The Birth of the New Testament (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1982), p. 122ff. Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979; Vintage books ed., 1981), p. 20.

[18] Oxford Companion to the Bible, article, “Revelation.”

[19] Moule, op. cit., p. 242. Moule here refers the reader to any good N. T. Introduction.

[20] J. C. Fenton, The Penguin New Testament Commentaries: Saint Matthew (London: Pelican Books, 1963; Penguin Books, 1993), pp. 12, 14.

[21] Gamble, op. cit., p. 68.

[22] BurtonL. Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament: The Making of the Christian Myth (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1995), p. 288.

[23] Chadwick, op. cit., p. 42-3. The use of oral tradition is especially apparent in 1 Clement. In 1 Thess. 2:13, Paul refers to the “word of God” — the oral Gospel of Paul’s preaching — that the Thessalonians had received.

[24] Gamble, op. cit., p. 71.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., p. 70.

[27] 2 Kings 22:8-23:25.

[28] 2 Kings 22:8-10. Larue, Old Testament Life and Literature, ch. 19 contains the story of the Deuteronomic reforms, the life of Josiah, and the reasons scholars exclude Mosaic authorship of the book.

[29] Neh. 7:73b-8:18. Larue, op. cit., ch. 31.

[30] Ibid.

[31] “Aristeas to Philocrates,” in James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, etc., vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1985), pp. 735.

[32] J. H. Charlesworth, ed., and introduction, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, v. 1, p. xxi.

[33] For example, Jesus mentions the “law and the prophets” in Mat. 22:40, leaving out the third division, “writings.” Also Mat. 5:17, 7:12, 11:13; Luke 16:16; Acts 13:15, 24:14, 28:23; Rom. 3:21. “Moses and the prophets,” Luke 16:29, 31. In Luke 24:44, a three-part division is used, “in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms.” According to Sanders, the Greek psalmoi here is vague and “inarticulate,” and could mean any collection of Jewish religious hymns, but probably represented a collection of Biblical psalms, but not a stabilized collection as we know it. James A. Sanders, article, “Canon: Hebrew Bible,” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, David Noel Freedman, ed.-chief (New York: Doubleday, 1992).

[34] I Macc. 4:46; 9:27; 14:41.

[35] Mat. 11:13.

[36] Larue, op. cit.

[37] Anderson, Cambridge Hist. Bib., p. 129.

[38] James A. Sanders, “Canon: Hebrew Bible,”Anchor Bible Dictionary, p. 840. The only exceptions are a few midrashim in which the rabbis count 35 books by unrolling The Twelve.

[39] Flavius Josephus, Against Apion 1.39-42.

[40] Anderson, CHB, p. 136.

[41] Eusebius, History of the Church, 6.25.2.

[42] Jerome, Prologus galeatus, as cited by Anderson, CHB, p. 138.

[43] James A. Sanders, op.cit. On this point Sanders cites S. Talmon, “Heiliges Schriftum und Kanonische Bücher aus jüdischer Sichtüberlegungen zur Ausbildung der Grösse ‘Die Schrift’ im Judentum,” in M. Klopfenstein et al., ed., Die Mitte der Schrift (New York: 1987).

[44] Baba Bathra 14b; cited by Grant, CHB, p. 300.

[45] James Barr, The Scope and Authority of the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980), pp. 129-30.

[46] E. P. Sanders, Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990), ch. 2.

[47] Ibid., p. 98. He cites Safrai, ‘Oral Torah,’ in Literature of the Sages, part 1 (CRINT II.3.1), ed. Safrai (Assen and Philadelphia: 1987), pp. 35-119. For a list of laws of Moses not in the Torah, E. P. Sanders, art., “Law In Judaism in the NT period,” Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), vol. 4, sect. E.2.c., pp. 259. For instance, in Against Apion 2.25, Josephus maintains that it is a law of Moses to forbid abortion, which is nowhere to be found in the Pentateuch; in Antiquities of the Jews 4.8.13, the law is supposed to enjoin prayer twice a day.

[48] Mat. 2:23, “He shall be called a Nazarene,” is attributed to words spoken by the prophets, and is in no Old Testament text.

[49] Babylonian Talmud,Yadayim 3.5; as cited by Anderson, CHB, v. 1, p. 134. The discussion refers to another passage, Shabbath 30b.

[50] Babylonian Talmud, Meg. 7a; Sanh. 2; as cited in “Esther, Book of,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 2, p. 635.

[51] R. M. Grant, Formation of the New Testament (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), p. 35.

[52] Eusebius, History of the Church 4.26.7f.

[53] Ibid., 4.36.14.

[54] Lewis Bayles Paton, The Book of Esther (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1908; reprint 1964), p. 97.

[55] Filson, Which Books Belong in the Bible? (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1957), p. 49.

[56] “Esther, Book of,” Dictionary of the Bible , James Hastings, ed.; rev. ed., Frederick C. Grant and H. H. Rowley, eds. (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1963), p. 269.

[57] Paton, op. cit., p. 97.

[58] Josephus,Wars of the Jews 4.5.4. William Whiston, trans. The reference to the anachronistic identification of the Zechariah in Matthew is given in a translator’s note to Josephus’ account.

[59] Anderson, CHB, p. 131.

[60] Cited by Bainton, CHB, v. 3, pp 12-13.

[61] Metzger, Introduction to the Apocrypha, pp. 151ff; G. Larue, Old Testament Life and Literature, pp. 440-1; Grant, Formation, p. 33-34.

[62] Charlesworth, James, ed., O. T. Pseudepigrapha, v. 2, p. 430.

[63] Metzger, Apocrypha, pp. 3-4.

[64] Anderson, CHB, v. 1, p. 142.

[65] De Libro Arbitrio, ed. J. Von Walther, Quellescriften zur Geschichte des Protestantismus. Cited by Bainton, Cambridge History of the Bible, v. 3, p. 6.

[66] Filson, op. cit., p. 89-90.

[67] See also Crehan, CHB, v. 3, pp. 202-4.

[68] The problems of Tobit and Judith are summarized in Larue, Old Testament, ch. 28 and 29, and in Metzger, Apocrypha.

[69] The listing of the numerous contradictions of the Bible is a bit tedious. However, many of the contradictions and anachronisms are clues used by scholars to discover the structure, purpose, and period of documents, including the Bible. Dr. Larue includes a short list of such fruitful clues in chapter 3 of Old Testament Life and Literature.

[70] Deut. 3:14; 10:8; 34:6.

[71] Deut. 1:1-15; 3:8; 4:46. The Holy Scriptures According to the Massoretic Text (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1955), “beyond the Jordan.” Cited by Larue, op. cit., ch. 19.

[72] Michael D. Coogan, “Money,” art. in Oxford Companion to the Bible (Oxford: University Press, 1993; H. Hamburger, art. “Daric,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (New York: Abingdon Press).

[73] “Esther, Book of,” Dictionary of the Bible (Hastings, rev. ed.), p. 269.

[74] History 9.109-13.

[75] Larue, op. cit., ch. 27.

[76] Herodotus, History 3.88.

[77] This point is recognized by historians; see Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (New York: Dorset Press, 1967), p. 45.

[78] Ruth and Esther, of course, are in the form of entertaining fictions of good story-telling style. Larue, Old Testament, ch. 25 (Ruth) and ch. 27 (Esther). As we have noted, Erasmus chided Luther in regard to the rejection of the Apocrypha, and in Erasmus’ opinion, Sirach was actually better than Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon. Luther himself derided Esther, and praised noncanonical Tobit.

[79] A “historical romance:” Dictionary of the Bible, art., “Esther;” “well-developed plot … [the] book is best understood as a novella,” Gene M. Tucker, art., “Esther, The Book of,” Anchor Bible Dictionary; “In view of these facts the conclusions seem inevitable that the Book of Est. is not historical, and that it is doubtful whether even a historical kernel underlies its narrative.” Lewis Bayles Paton, The Book of Esther, p. 75.

[80] Paton, op. cit., p. 75f.

[81] Metzger, Apocrypha, passim.

[82] ‘Preface to the Book of Tobit,’ Luther’s translation of the Bible, 1534 edition. Cited by Metzger, Apocrypha, p. 37.

[83] Paton, op. cit., p. 96.

[84] H. Anderson,The Gospel of Mark, NCB (London, 1976). Also cited by Wells, The Historical Evidence for Jesus, p. 230. The journey described is like “travelling from Cornwall to London by way of Manchester” (A.E.J. Rawlinson, Westminster Commentary); as cited in D.E. Nineham, The Gospel of Saint Mark (Penguin New Testament Commentaries, 1963), p. 203. An American example might be to go fromLos Angeles toSan Diego by way ofSanta Barbara; or,New York toPhiladelphia by way ofBaltimore.

[85] Scholar Pierson Parker compiled a long list of problems with Mark. I found his points summarized in Jesus and the Gospel: Tradition, Scripture, and Canon, by W. R. Farmer (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982).

[86] H. C. Kee, Community of the New Age: Studies in Mark’s Gospel (London,1977), pp. 102-3, as cited by Wells, Historical Evidence for Jesus, (Buffalo: Prometheus, 1988) p. 230. There are textual variants here, but, “Gerasenes: This is probably what Mark wrote, the other names being guesses by copyists …” Nineham, Saint Mark, p. 153; also, p. 40, Mark is someone “not directly acquainted withPalestine.”

[87] Aboth of Rabbi Nathan, ch. 1; Shabbath, Babylonian Talmud, esp. 13b, 30b.

[88] Anderson, CHB, v. 1, p. 156.

[89] Filson, op. cit., p. 78-9.

[90] Ibid., p. 74.

[91] Ibid., p. 75.

[92] Robert B. Dentan, “Apocrypha: Jewish Apocrypha,” Oxford Companion to the Bible, Metzger and Coogan, eds. (Oxford: University Press, 1993), p. 37f.

[93] “Canon of the Old Testament,” Dictionary of the Bible, p. 123.

[94] B. Metzger, Apocrypha, pp. 151ff; Grant, Formation, p. 33.

[95] “Canon of the Old Testament,” Dictionary of the Bible (Hastings), p. 123. Athanasius puts some of the Apocrypha in a separate list of “good reading,” including Esther. Other parts of our Apocrypha are put in among Old Testament books (Epistle of Jeremiah and Baruch).

[96] Ibid.

[97] Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin and Significance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), p. 57.

[98] Cited by Grant, Formation, p. 152.

[99] Bruce M. Metzger, article, “Bible,” in Oxford Companion to the Bible, 1993.

[100] Grant, Formation, p. 51.

[101] Metzger,Canon, p. 72.

[102] Ibid., ch. 4-6.

[103] Grant, CHB, v. 1, p. 296.

[104] Ibid., p. 284.

[105] Grant, CHB, v. 1, p. 299; also Grant, Formation, p. 186.

[106] Grant, CHB, v. 1, p. 285.

[107] Ehrman, NT: Introduction, p. 13.

[108] Gamble, op. cit., p. 59f.

[109] Grant, CHB, v. 1, p. 292.

[110] Ibid., p. 295.

[111] Ibid., p. 293.

[112] Ibid., p. 293.

[113] Barnabas 4:14 uses the phrase, “it is written” for a saying we now find in Matthew 22:14, but he does not tell us where it was written. 6:13b resembles Mat. 19:30, 20:16(?), but it refers to a saying, not writing. In the notes printed with the Letter of Barnabas, these are the only passages which are marked as even resembling the New Testament. Numerous quotations of the Old Testament of scripture are found in this book, as well as other works. In Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament and other Early Christian Writings (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998); reprinted from The Apostolic Fathers, ed. Jack Sparks (Thomas Nelson, 1978).

[114] Grant, CHB, p. 293; Grant, Formation, pp. 106-8; Jack N. Sparks, ed., “The Letter of Barnabas,” from The Apostolic Fathers, included in B. Ehrman, ed.,The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings: A Reader, pp. 344-58; A. F. J. Klijn, trans. “2 Baruch”, in J. H. Charlesworth, ed., Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1, pp. 615-80. The Letter of Aristeas is the source of the legendary origin of the Septuagint. Aristeas O.T. Pseud., v. 2, p. 21-23.

[115] Hippolytus, Refutation of Heresies, 7.25.1-3, and 7.26.7; as cited by Grant, CHB, p. 293; Formation, p. 122f.

[116] Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autolycum, 2.22; as cited by Grant, CHB, p. 294.

[117] Ad Autolycum 2.9, as cited by Grant, Formation, p. 141.

[118] Against Heresies 4.9.1; cited by Williams, CHB, v. 2, p. 50.

[119] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.33.3-4; 2 Baruch 29:6; Grant, Formation, p. 70-1.

[120] Grant, Formation, p. 62-108, 136.

[121] Eusebius, History of the Church, 6.12.3-6. Grant, CHB, p. 296.

[122] Clement of Alexandria Str. 5.96.3; cited by Grant, Formation, pp. 112, 165.

[123] Raymond E. Brown, John (i-xii), vol. 29, N.T., of the Anchor Bible series (New York: Doubleday, 1966), p. 335f.

[124] Hist. of the Church, 3.39.17.

[125] Grant, Formation, p. 161.

[126] In Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church. Also Grant, CHB, p. 301.

[127] Grant, Formation, p. 159.

[128] Eusebius, History of the Church, 3.24.15; 6.25.10.

[129] Metzger, Canon, p. 236.

[130] Ibid., p. 238.

[131] McDowell, op. cit., p. 38.

[132] A. Du Toit, “Canon: New Testament”, in Oxford Companion to the Bible, 1993.

[133] J. H. Charlesworth, ed., “Introduction: Canon,” in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, p. xxiii.

[134] Metzger, Canon, p. 216.

[135] Available in print in the Post-Nicene Fathers, and online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library atWheatonCollege <; and related pages.

[136] R. J. Hoffman, “Other Gospels, Other Christs,” in R. J. Hoffman and Gerald Larue, eds., Jesus in History and Myth (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1986), p. 145. Charlesworth, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, “Introduction,” p. xxiii.

[137] Westcott,The Bible in the Church, p. 227; as cited by Metzger, Canon, p. 217.

[138] William J. Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), p. 120 and note on p. 266. T. H. L. Parker, Calvin’s NT Commentaries, 2nd ed., 1993, pp. 116-119. Metzger, Canon, pp. 245-6 nn.

[139] Tischreden, I, no. 475, p. 208; cited by Bainton, CHB, v. 1, p. 6-7.

[140] Cal. Op. 11, 674-6 = Corpus Reformatorum 39, as cited by Bainton, CHB, p. 8-9.

[141] Metzger, Canon, p. 243.

[142] Filson, op. cit., p. 130.

[143] Erlangenedition, 63, 115, 169; as cited by Bainton, CHB, v. 3, p. 7.

[144]Erlangened., as cited by Bainton, p. 8.

[145] Rev. 22:18b, “If any man add unto these words, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book…” KJV. Also Rev. 16:1.

[146] Works of Martin Luther (Philadelphia ed. 1932, 6, 477); cited by Basil Hall, Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 3, p. 86.

[147] Erlangened., 63, 156f; cited by Bainton, CHB, p. 7.

[148] Metzger, Canon, p. 273.

[149] Ibid., p. 241.

[150] Ibid., p. 244.

[151] Metzger, Canon, p. 241.

[152] J. E. Steinmueller and K. Sullivan, article, “Canon,” Catholic Bible Encyclopedia, (New York: J. F. Wagner, 1956). Similarly, the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, which is available on the internet.

[153] McDowell, ETDAV, p. 47.

[154] Metzger, Canon, pp. 65, 188.

[155] Ibid., p. 236.

[156] Irenaeus,Against Heresies 3.3.3; cited by Grant, CHB, v. 1, p. 295.

[157] Metzger, Canon, p. 187-8.

[158] Ibid., p. 239.

[159] R. Joseph Hoffman, “Other Gospels, Heretical Christs,” in Jesus in History and Myth, R. Joseph Hoffman and Gerald Larue, eds. (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1986), p. 145.

[160] Metzger, Canon, p. 130-135.

[161] Grant, Formation, p. 164-8.

[162] Ibid., p. 169.

[163] A. Du Toit, “Canon: New Testament”, in Oxford Companion to the Bible, 1993. Also Charlesworth, OT Pseudepigrapha, v. 1, Introduction, p. xxiii-xxiv.

[164] Williams, CHB, v. 2, p. 52.

[165] McDowell, ETDAV, Introduction, passim.

[166] Jerome, Letters 22.30.2. The Letters of St. Jerome, Trans. by C. C. Mierow. Notes by T. C. Lawler. Vol. 1. In Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation, no. 33, ed. by J. Quasten and W. J. Burchardt, S.J. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1963.

[167] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.9.14 (selections).

[168] “John Calvin on the True Method of Giving Peace to Christendom and Reforming the Church,” in Tracts and Treatises in Defense in Defense of the Reformed Faith, by John Calvin; trans. Henry Beveridge. Vol. 3.Grand Rapids,Mich: Eerdmans, 1958 (reprinted from Calvin Trans. Soc.,Edinburgh, 1851), p. 267.

[169] T.H.L. Parker,Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, second edition,Westminster, 1993, p. 119.

[170] Pierre Bayle, Philosophical Dictionary, II. p. 265 note[P]. As cited by Parker, p. 118.

[171] v. Balke, p. 295.

[172] Gerald A. Larue, Old Testament Life and Literature, Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1968, p. 405f. “Daniel, Book of,” Bible Dictionary (Hastings, rev. ed.).

[173] KJV, “dulcimer,” with note, “singing, Cald. symphony.” Modern versions often render it “bagpipe.” Also vs. 10 and 15.

Reliability And Belief (1999)

James Still

 Introductory Remarks

Christianity is a religion built upon faith. Faith is central to the Apostle Paul’s vocabulary and intertwined within his theology as a whole. For Paul, to become a Christian is to believe in one’s heart that God has acted through the risen Christ to bring about the salvation of sinners.1 The gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). Indeed, Paul’s cross theology emphasizes repeatedly that faith must be in Christ (pisteuo epi) as object of salvific significance. Paul never saw a written gospel and eschewed “man’s gospel” of the world: “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11-12).

Paul’s teaching is also a “mystery” (mysterion appearing 21 times in Paul’s letters). The crucified Christ is a part of God’s redeeming plan for the world. To those who are saved by grace it cannot be fully understood. Paul writes that he imparts “a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages” (1 Cor. 2:7). Thus, Paul’s faith is based on his revelation from the risen Christ in accordance with God’s plan for humanity. Further, this faith is folly to the wisdom of the world2–a pagan world that seeks the knowledge of rational proof rather than simple childlike trust in the wisdom of God.

Josh McDowell’s theology is in tension with this familiar view of Christianity. While Paul’s faith is a mystery in Christ, in McDowell’s fundamentalism faith becomes an inerrant collection of historical facts. McDowell warns us not to trust our feelings and uses an analogy in which fact is a train engine pulling the cars of faith and feeling.3 “Christianity appeals to history, the facts of history,” which are indisputable facts, McDowell writes.4 He argues that it is the factual basis of the gospels as historical truth that supports the Christian faith.5 McDowell’s purpose in analyzing the New Testament (NT) texts is to support their empirical and historical reliability.6 In doing so, he insists that the biblical texts stand “unique” and represent the “reliable” or factually transmitted Word of God. Because the Word of God is factual, “one can hold the Scriptures in his hand and say, `The Bible is trustworthy and historically reliable’.”7 I shall call this position the “reliability doctrine” and contrast it to Pauline faith. This paper has three main sections, each of which attacks the reliability doctrine’s soundness. In the first section, I illustrate how the gospels came to be transmitted to us from the historical Jesus to demonstrate that the gospels are not literal historical records. In the second section, I challenge the findings of so-called “Biblical Archaeology” to conclude that archaeological discoveries from theNear East do not support the view of the Bible as literal historical records. Finally in the last section, I engage in a philosophical analysis of the reliability doctrine in order to expose its underlying attempt to substitute foundationalism for faith.

The Pre-Canonical Synoptic Transmission

When we speak of the NT, and the gospels in particular, as being “reliable” what exactly are we talking about? One obvious point to keep in mind is that the Bible is not a historically cohesive unit in the sense that it was exhumed in situ from the desert sand. The various texts that make up the Bible are an evolving testament to the hopes and dreams of a people who forged their religious and ethnic identity over centuries of time. The many traditions and strands that make up the Bible

express an understanding of God, of the world, and of humanity, which did not yet make distinctions between knowledge and belief, between science, philosophy, history and religion. This explains in part the parallels to the themes of the creation story in many other cultures. These parallels were not necessarily due to literary derivation; rather, questions about origins were asked everywhere in early human history. Therefore, primeval events cannot be understood or described as the beginning of history; it is misguided to inquire about their `historicity.’ The appropriate question to ask of this material is not, `Did it really happen that way?’8

The Bible is a collection of stories carefully crafted over many generations by peoples deeply concerned about the world and their place in it. Thus, an appropriate question to ask is, “What did these texts mean to the ancients who wrote them?” The Hebrew canon (Christianity’s Old Testament) is beyond the scope of this paper so I will confine my remarks to the activity of Christian kerygma (preaching) and the situation that produced the written NT gospels. I hope to show that we should not understand the gospels as literal history, but rather as edited codifications of the dynamic kerygma that promulgated the “good news” of the risen Christ.

Before the nineteenth century, scholars and church figures who studied the Bible usually did so for exposition rather than to discern critically the historical sources behind the written gospels. It was not until our century that form critics began to realize the enormous influence that the early Church had in shaping the gospel material. This should not surprise us, however. Almost all of the NT material comes from ecclesiastical collections rather than from copies of the original authors themselves. Since there was no closed canon until late in the second century, these texts were in a stage of development for many decades after they were first written. We must also remind ourselves that the Christians of the late first century did not consider the gospels to be “Holy Scripture” but rather looked to the Old Testament as the scriptures (Mk. 12:24). To the Christians of the first two centuries, the stories circulating about Jesus by word-of-mouth were just as, if not more, authoritative than those that came to be written down. Not until very late in the second century were the gospels considered normative and instructive in the faith. Before orthodox control, theological questions that could not be answered by the Old Testament, were answered by direct appeal to the “sayings of the Lord,” either as remembered in the oral tradition or revealed by the risen Christ.9

The early Church Father Papias (c. 100 CE) composed a now-lost work, which exists only insofar as Eusebius quoted from it in his Ecclesiastical History (3.39.3-4, 15-16). Papias never uses the term “gospel” but refers to his own work as an “interpretation” of the stories circulating in the oral tradition. He also refers to Mark as an interpreter whose recollection of “single points” were not written down in order. Elsewhere, Papias refers to “the sayings of the Lord written by Matthew,” leading some scholars to suggest that Matthew might have been a sayings gospel before it took the narrative form we are familiar with today. Indeed, the Church Father Clement’s first epistle (96 CE) quotes sayings of Jesus derived from the oral tradition, not a written gospel, using the aorist verb tense eipen (“he said”). We also find in Paul’s letters eschatological instructions being given on the authority of “the word of the Lord,” a reference not to a written gospel but to his revelatory experience of the risen Christ.10 Thus, those elders who, like Paul, enjoyed a direct connection to the Lord, had great authority in determining which teachings were authentic and reliable. These elders did not base their authority upon a written gospel, but upon the traditions and teachings that were taught to them by the previous generation.

The Historical Jesus

In addition to posthumous revelations from the risen Christ, the historical Jesus left teachings with the disciples during his ministry. Unfortunately, we know very little about Jesus the Jew who taught in Galilee, a small agricultural region north of Jerusalem. Jesus lived in a peasant society during a time of great social turmoil, marked by Rome’s military conquest of Palestinein 63 BCE and its eventual devastation during the First Jewish Revolt in 66-70 CE. Violent revolts, banditry, uprisings, and Roman colonial oppression were frequent and many popular politico-religious movements sprang up during this time in response to these social crises.11 Jesus was one such religious figure. He gained a reputation during his life as both a miracle-worker and a wisdom teacher. By being declared a king (or perhaps declaring himself a king) Jesus was found guilty of treason against the Emperor. The fifth Roman procurator ofJudaea, Pontius Pilate, crucified Jesus sometime during his ten-year appointment that began in 26 CE and lasted until his forced removal from office in 36 CE.

The Codification of the Kerygma

Since few people could read and write in ancient Palestine, Jesus’ words and teachings were remembered by his disciples to be later told and retold in the markets, at synagogues, and in each others’ homes. It is helpful to think of each of these stories about Jesus as solitary pearls.12 The disciples kept the stories about Jesus in the same way one might keep pearls in a bag. Just as a musician memorizes a repertoire of songs to use as the situation demands, a disciple could draw a pearl out of his bag for the immediate teaching purpose at hand. After his crucifixion, Jesus’ disciples continued to teach in and around Jerusalem. They proclaimed the belief that Jesus was physically resurrected from the dead and at the right hand of God. This proclamation forms the kerygma, which is the central theological message of the new movement. The disciples told stories about Jesus and repeated his parables, similitudes, and wisdom sayings in the marketplaces and synagogues. Since the disciples and presbyters used these stories in response to different teaching situations, they did not preserve the chronological order of the stories in relation to each other. This is why many of these short stories like Clement’s first epistle mentioned above, are prefaced only by atemporal stock phrases such as “Jesus says,” “and immediately,” “one sabbath,” or “and he said.” By the time the gospel writers received these stories, no one knew when or where they took place, only that Jesus was believed to have done or said it at some point during his life. Despite this difficulty, these stories were treasured because they were all that later generations of converts to the new movement had. Many of these stories–for example a tradition that Jesus was born in a cave–did not survive once the written gospels started to become authoritative beginning in the second century. This collection of individual stories about Jesus is called the oral tradition. Moule (1977) describes the genesis of the oral tradition when he writes:

The Christian Church began its existence simply as a handful of people bearing witness to something that they were convinced had happened . . . It was easy enough to expand [the gospel], because there were many anecdotes and sayings of Jesus circulating among his friends. These would be told as occasion arose, to meet difficulties, or to answer critics, or simply because they were interesting.13

In writing down those stories, Mark strung the pearls together on a single narrative string. Thus, Mark’s collection of stories about Jesus shaped within a loose narrative, created an ordered structure out of the dynamic oral tradition. The Gospel of Thomas is one such extant work that illustrates perfectly what the anthology of Jesus-stories that Papias collected might have looked like. The author of Thomas does not attempt to present the Jesus-stories as a narrative, but rather he is satisfied merely with listing the stories one after another, introducing most stories with the stock phrase “Jesus said.” The first century gospel called Q (from the German Quelle or “source”) which the authors of Matthew and Luke are believed to have used when composing their own gospels, was another such stringing together of Jesus’ sayings and probably looked quite similar to Thomas. Thomas and Q are representative of the earliest codifications of the orally-transmitted stories that circulated within the primitive Jesus movement. Like Thomas, the Q gospel does not share the narrative structure of the four canonical gospels nor does it in its earliest stages have a sophisticated christological layer–it simply lists the individual wisdom sayings of the historical Jesus one after another in no particular order. The evangelists that come one or two generations after Q will edit these stories and intentionally place them into a sequential narrative to look like a biography. By doing so, the evangelists are able to tell a coherent story about Jesus and his teaching within a geographical and temporal structure. Unfortunately, the Q gospel preserves no biographical details of Jesus’ life. The burden of fleshing out Jesus’ life falls to the authors of Matthew and Luke at the latter half of the first century. By then, neither evangelist had access to reliable sources of Jesus’ birth and, as evidenced by the disparate genealogy and birth stories between them, they had to resort to inventing these details.

Before I proceed, I should mention a few things about the process of harmonization. Harmonization is the attempt to create a unified story from the different narrative accounts within the written gospels in order to make the stories agree with each other and with Church teaching. When an apologist–one who defends a particular dogma against critical scrutiny–harmonizes the gospel stories he smoothes out differences that might exist between them, combining their narratives to form a single coherent picture. It must be emphasized that no critical bible scholar tolerates harmonization and it is considered a technique with little to offer biblical scholarship. The only way to learn about the theological emphasis, concerns, and point-of-view of a gospel writer is to study critically those places where he agrees and contrasts with the other writers. By noting where the gospel writers agree as well as conflict, we are in a better position to discern the original core wording of a particular saying of Jesus. With that in mind, I will now look at differences in the gospel narratives, not to emphasize so-called “contradictions” but rather to get at the theological motives of the gospel writers.

As we have seen, the oral tradition preserved many individual stories about Jesus as well as the wisdom sayings that he taught to his disciples. It was up to the gospel writers to select from among these stories, which to use in their own gospels. This dynamic, sometimes highly creative gospel-assembling process, as each evangelist struggles with his material, often causes divergences in the version of a single story. There are also places where, motivated by his own theological point-of-view, a gospel writer disagrees with the others. I have already mentioned the incompatible genealogies and birth narrative between Matthew and Luke. Other examples of outright contradiction include Matthew’s version of the Centurion’s Servant (Mt. 8:5-13). In Matthew’s version, the centurion approaches Jesus personally, while in Luke’s version (Lk. 7:1-10) the centurion instead sends Jewish elders on his behalf. In Matthew, Judas hangs himself but in Luke-Acts Judas falls from a great height and dies on impact (Mt. 27:5; Acts 1:18).

Such inconsistencies suggest to us that no reliable tradition existed for the evangelist to use in putting together that part of his gospel and so he had to make do the best he could with what material he had. What about those occasions when a single story is not contradicted but modified by each evangelist? For example, in the story of the Empty Tomb, Mark tells us that Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome discover a single white-robed man at the empty tomb (16:1-5). In Matthew’s account, Salome is not there, but the other two women arrive in time to witness a messenger (angel) roll away the stone (28:1-10). Luke substitutes a woman named Joanna for Salome, includes additional unnamed women companions, and now there are two men at the empty tomb (24:1-10). These divurgences provide valuable clues to the theological underpinnings at work in each evangelist’s community. To see how theology is crafted, I shall now look in greater depth at the story of Jesus’ baptism. I will put the synopticists’ versions side-by-side so that they can be compared:

Matthew 3:13-17Then Jesus comes from Galilee
to John at the Jordan to get
baptized by him. And John tried
to stop him with these words:
“I’m the one who needs to get
baptized by you, yet you come
to me?” In response, Jesus said
to him, “Let it go for now. After
all, in this way we are doing
what is fitting and right.” Then
John deferred to him.After Jesus had been baptized,
he got right up out of the water,
and– amazingly–the skies
opened up, he saw God’s spirit
coming down on him like a
dove, perching on him,
and–listen!–there was a voice
from the skies, which said, “This
is my favored son. I fully
approve of him!”
Mark 1:9-11During that same period Jesus
came from Nazareth, Galilee,and was baptized in the Jordan
by John. And just as he got up
out of the water, he saw the
skies torn open and the spirit
coming down toward him like a
dove. There was also a voice
from the skies: “You are my
favored son–I fully approve of
Luke 3:21-22And it so happened, when all the
people were baptized,And after Jesus had been
baptized and while he was
praying, that the sky opened up,
and the holy spirit came down on
him in bodily form like a dove,
and a voice came from the sky,
“You are my son; today I have
become your father.”

Notice that Mark’s version takes us right into the baptism event itself. Jesus goes toGalileeand is immediately baptized by John. Matthew’s author spots a problem in Mark’s version of the story and feels that he must make changes to it. How could Jesus have required baptism to repent for the forgiveness of sins? Was he not the son of Adam? Matthew solves this theological dilemma by inserting dialog into his gospel that resolves (or at least addresses) the problem. Matthew tells us that John tried to prevent Jesus from accepting baptism but that Jesus insisted he do so anyway.

Luke also notices the theological dilemma created by Mark but, unlike Matthew, he hesitates to put words into Jesus’ mouth. Taking a different approach, Luke attempts to solve the problem by de-emphasizing John’s role as baptizer. Instead of Mark’s blatant statement that Jesus “was baptized by John,” we find in Luke an uncharacteristic passive voice telling us only that “Jesus had been baptized.” In this way, Luke preserves the baptism of Jesus in conformity with Mark’s version, while simultaneously de-emphasizing John’s principle role as baptizer.

Other noncanonical gospels create their own solutions to the dilemma. The Church Father Jerome knew about and read the now-lost Gospel according to the Hebrews, which invents dialog, not just for Jesus, but also for his mother and his brothers as well.14 The Gospel of the Ebionites agrees with Mark in stating that Jesus was baptized by John but changes the heavenly voice in Mark 1:11 to agree with Psalms 2:7: “Today I have begotten you.”15 The Psalms variant is quite popular, appearing also in many of Luke’s less-reliable manuscripts. Because of space constraints, we can only look at this single example. However, scholars study all of the individual stories in the gospels in the same way that I approached the story of Jesus’ baptism. The cumulative differences between the gospel stories reveal the theology, concerns, and editorial emphasis of the evangelists. Thus, it can be seen how theological considerations mold and shape the gospels.

Luke as Historian?

Scholars have long puzzled over Luke’s central section in 9:51-19:44. Although Luke pays the most attention to historical detail, the central section does not follow a chronological or historical order, but rather is shaped to conform to the actions of Ezekiel, Elisha, and Elijah in the Old Testament. In the central section, Luke stops following Mark’s outline (and will not return to it until 18:15) to tell us that Jesus “hardened his face to go” toJerusalem(9:51). However, Jesus proceeds on a series of disconnected events that clearly do not take him toJerusalemin a concise or logical manner. For example, just after Jesus states that he is determined to go to Jerusalem, he appoints the Seventy in 10:1 and sends them out to “every town and place where he himself was about to come.” Only after some indeterminate period when the Seventy have returned do we suspect that Jesus has finally leftGalilee. He travels to an unnamed village in 10:38, prays “in a certain place” (11:1), teaches in an unknown synagogue (13:10), and travels “on his way through towns and villages, teaching, and journeying towardJerusalem” (13:22). Yet, in 13:31-33, after the Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod is out to kill him, we learn that Jesus has yet to leaveGalilee. The leisurely pace of the middle section forces us to wonder if Jesus really intends to go toJerusalemafter all. We are missing a sense of place in Jesus’ activities. Only after Herod threatens him does Jesus leave the tiny region ofGalilee.

It would be wrong, of course, to suggest that Jesus was reticent to go to Jerusalemand so delayed his journey as long as possible. Clearly the confusing atemporal series of events in the travel narrative is really nothing more than a literary device on Luke’s part, allowing him to insert vast amounts of Q material into his gospel. Luke’s travel motif is not historical but drawn directly from the prophetic model in the Old Testament where Ezekiel (another “son of man”) is likewise told to set his face toward Jerusalem(Ezek. 21:1-8). Additionally, the imagery for the “taken up” metaphor in 9:51 relies heavily upon the Elijah-Elisha cycle of 1 and 2 Kings. In his work Die Mitte der Zeit (The Middle of Time), Hans Conzelmann argued that Jesus’ ministry was the “middle of time” between the law and the prophets and the new Church. Conzelmann bases this argument primarily on Luke 16:16 where Jesus is made to say, “The law and the prophets were until John [the Baptist]; since then the good news of thekingdom ofGod is preached, and everyone enters it violently.” Thus, Luke moves beyond Jesus’ death as a small incident at the edge of theRoman Empire and reinterprets the passion as a necessary completion of events unfolding in an eschatological world order. Generally speaking, there are four broad theories that try to explain what Luke is doing in his large interpolation to Mark in 9:51-19:44:

1. Theological. Since Luke believes that Jesus’ passion is essential for salvation, he desires to present Jesus as fulfilling a preordained pattern of history-making and orders his material accordingly, perhaps even creating material where necessary.

2. Ecclesiastical. The journey motif is considered by Luke to be a metaphor for the “journey” that Jesus’ disciples must make in his absence. Thus, the journey motif did not literally occur but is a framework for instruction in the early Church.

3. Literary. Luke as writer shapes the Q and other materials in this section into a literary unit. Using templates (such as the journey in Deuteronomy), Luke writes out of consideration for tension and struggle, a component of all great literature.

4. Traditional. Luke is only aware that, after his Galilean phase, Jesus eventually journeys to Jerusalem. Luke takes advantage of this point in his narrative to insert vast amounts of church material. The journey motif represents a convenient place for Luke to pass along the teachings from his own community that he considers important.

The liberalGermanSchool under Conzelmann (1961) has argued for the first explanation while more conservative scholars like L. T. Johnson (1991) tend to favor the last theory. I prefer the third theory and see the journey motif as a literary device, providing Luke with the opportunity to include pastoral material that may or may not be original to Jesus but is nonetheless important to Luke’s community. Obviously, there is a great deal of overlap between these theories but the important point here is that no one suggests that everything Luke presents in the middle section happened exactly in the order that he reports. Luke had a great deal of freedom to shape his narrative and so he crafted a journey motif in which he could emphasize traditions and materials that were important to him and his community. This is not history, but theology at work.

The Gospel Genre

We do not pick up a novel without bringing to it some expectation of how to read it. We are not shocked by H. G. Wells’ description of an otherwise impossible time machine because we understand the genre to be fictional within a framework of realism. Similarly, we realize that it is a mistake to confuse one of Paul’s epistles with Hesiod’s Theogony since the two were not written for the same purpose. It is also a mistake to assume that the gospels were written in the genre of historical biography in any modern sense of the word. Consider the story in Mark where Jesus is driven into the wilderness for forty days after his baptism (Mk. 1:12-13). Through this symbolism, Mark makes a deep theological connection to the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness for forty years (Exod. 16:35), Moses’ forty-day communion with God (Exod. 34:28), and David’s rule of Israel that lasted for forty years (1 Kings 2:11). These mythologizing tendencies provide allegorical clues to Mark’s theology and he uses such symbolism to proclaim Jesus as the Christ. Mark’s use of symbols runs through his entire gospel. Robinson writes, “it has become clear from the study of Mark’s form of presentation that he is not an objective, disinterested historian, but an inward participant in the history he narrates” (1957, p. 54). Mythologizing tendencies must not be mistaken for historical events, but seen as proclamations of a theology emerging from the resurrection event.16

Conservative scholarship, best represented by Richard Burridge (1992), considers the gospels to be works in the genre of Greco-Roman biography. Dihle (1983) largely agrees, though he warns that due to the primitive nature of the gospels there can be no clear parallels to extant Greco-Roman biographies. We should remember that the ancient genre of biography (Bios) is not at all similar to what we moderns consider a biography to be today. Ancient biographers were not as interested in facts as they were in entertaining their readers and promoting the virtue and philosophy of the subject of their work. Thus, Burridge acknowledges that the Bios genre “nestles” comfortably between history, moral philosophy, fiction, encomium, politics, and polemic (pp. 66, 245). Today, scholars agree that the gospels are semi-biographical groupings of kerygmatic material that had circulated in the thriving oral tradition for many decades before coming to be collected together, organized, shaped, and finally written down.

Fredriksen (1988) likens Mark, the first gospel-writer, to “a sort of creative editor” who desires to redact his material into the form of a historical biographical narrative (pp. 3-4). F.F. Bruce (1954) asks the interesting question, “Does it matter whether the New Testament documents are reliable or not? Is it so very important that we should be able to accept them as truly historical records?” (p. 11). Bruce argues that it is necessary to determine their historicity. He implicitly disagrees that the NT texts should be understood as kerygma and argues that such a suggestion

can be applied to the New Testament only if we ignore the real essence of Christianity. For the Christian Gospel is not primarily a code of ethics or a metaphysical system; it is first and foremost Good News [euangelion] and as such it was proclaimed by its earliest preachers . . . And this Good News is intimately bound up with the historical order.17

Bruce understands the genre of euangelion–which existed in very early Christianity, nurtured in the diaspora by the Apostle Paul–to be objective history in a modern sense. However, this assumption is mistaken. Euangelion proclamations of the early Roman period were common propaganda tools in the cult of the emperor. The Priene inscription (9 BCE) inAsia Minor is one such example. The inscription announces the “good news” of Caesar Augustus’ birth as a god:

And since the Caesar through his appearance (epiphanein) has exceeded the hopes of all former good messages (euangelia), surpassing not only the benefactors who came before him, but also leaving no hope that anyone in the future would surpass him, and since for the world the birthday of the god was the beginning of his good messages . . . [may it therefore be decided that . . .]18

The use of the imperial propagandistic term “good news,” as well as Jewish traditions such as Second Isaiah’s heralding of good tidings (40:9), provide the vehicle for the gospel-writers to announce the good news of their own savior. It would be just as premature for us to agree with Bruce and accept the gospels as objective, historical documents as it would be for us to accept Caesar Augustus as an epiphany of a god. We cannot assume that the proclamation of Christ is based on objective history since, as we have discovered, theological motives are at work.

Apollonius and Jesus

Scholars have long recognized that a close parallel exists between the biography of Apollonius (2-95 CE) written by Philostratus in 220 CE and the New Testament gospels.19 Exploring and comparing Jesus to Apollonius, therefore, may help to determine how we should read the gospels and understand their genre.20 Ancient biography engaged in embellishment in order to enlarge the reputation of the king or emperor who is the subject of the work. In Greek civic cult and the Roman cult of the emperor, this embellishment began at birth since one god or another chose every great man.21 Thus, Apollonius experienced a supernatural birth:

Just at the moment of the birth, a thunderbolt seemed about to fall to earth and then rose up into the air and disappeared aloft; and the gods thereby indicated, I think, the great distinction to which the sage was to attain, and hinted in advance how he should transcend all things upon earth and approach the gods (I, 5).

The thunderbolt that announces the birth is an epiphany of Zeus, demonstrating the god’s favor upon Apollonius. At his baptism, an epiphany of God visits Jesus in the form of a dove, representing Sophia, the Jewish female personification of wisdom. Although Mark did not provide Jesus with a supernatural birth, Matthew and Luke decide to do so in their narratives. The community that produced the Gospel of John went one step further to insist that Jesus was not a human being at all but rather the divine Logos. The absence of a birth narrative in John’s gospel reflects this unique theological trajectory.

Josephus reports that exorcisms were common among the “descendants of Solomon” and relates an eyewitness story of how Eleazar ordered a demon out of a possessed man. To prove that the demon had indeed left the person, Josephus relates that Eleazar ordered the demon to knock over a cup full of water on its way out.22 In like manner, Jesus casts out a legion of demons and permits them to enter a herd of swine, serving as proof that they had left the demoniac (Mk. 5:1-14). For his part, Apollonius casts out a demon with great authority in a similar situation to the exorcisms performed by Jesus and Eleazar:

Now when Apollonius gazed on him, the ghost in him began to utter cries of fear and rage . . . and the ghost swore that he would leave the young man alone . . . But Apollonius addressed him with anger . . . and he ordered him to quit the young man and show by a visible sign that he had done so (IV, 20).

The demon knocks down a statue in the temple as proof that it has left the demoniac. Just as with Jesus’ disciples, the young man whom Apollonius exorcises gives up all of his worldly possessions and adopts an austere life to follow the penniless Apollonius. Stories such as these served to bolster the propagandistic value of the teacher’s philosophy and were very common in the mystery religions of the Hellenistic period. Greek healers attracted followers to their philosophy with successful demonstrations of their healing prowess. Part of the propaganda of the mystery religions involved credible stories about resurrecting the dead. Primitive Christian iconography portrays Jesus as a magician with a magic wand that he uses to raise the dead.23 Apollonius can also raise the dead, which Philostratus describes as a “miracle” witnessed by many bystanders (IV, 45).

Apollonius and Jesus both endure dangerous brushes with authority. The Sanhedrin turns Jesus over to Pilate for questioning on charges of sedition (Mk. 15:1-5 and parallels). The authorities imprison Apollonius for uttering impieties against the Emperor Nero. Tigellinus, Nero’s minister, calls for Apollonius to question him but is cautious since he has been warned that the gods favor Apollonius. When the scroll upon which the charges against Apollonius were written is opened to be read aloud, Tigellinus discovers that the words have been magically erased (IV, 44). Tigellinus takes Apollonius aside and asks who he is and whether it is true that he can exorcise demons. Apollonius answers Tigellinus’ charges cryptically but with great wisdom. In response:

Tigellinus was astonished [at Apollonius’ answers] and said: `You may go, but you must give sureties for your person.’ And Apollonius answered: `And who can go surety for a body that no one can bind?’ This answer struck Tigellinus as inspired and above the wit of man; and as he was careful not to fight with a god, he said: `You may go wherever you choose, for you are too powerful to be controlled by me’ (IV, 44).

Apollonius’ successful confrontation with those in authority serves as propaganda for his movement and such stories help to attract followers to him. Thousands of fragments from excavations at Asclepiums (such as atEpidaurus) also describe the exploits and healing powers of Asclepius. Dozens of such cults and movements sprung up in the few centuries before the emergent Christian mystery of Christ. This mythologizing tendency in Greco-Roman biography informs the New Testament gospels. The evangelists use the kerygma of the resurrection as their central message to proclaim to the world that Jesus is superior to Apollonius, Asclepius, and other healing man-gods of the time.

We have reached a preliminary, but important conclusion. The gospels are the theological product of human beings who correctly realized that the tragic life and wisdom of their Messiah was a story worth telling. Although the gospels are not historical texts, but instead represent the theology of their writers, this takes nothing away from their importance to the Christian faith. The gospel message has always reflected the eschatological hopes, dreams, faith, and essence of Christianity. What McDowell misses is that this faith need not be based on history to be meaningful to the believer. Many Christians find meaning in their faith precisely because they believe it to transcend the natural order of worldly events. Believer and nonbeliever alike can draw enormous meaning from the gospel narratives without finding it necessary to hold them as literal, historical documents. We are all captivated by the witty repartee of the Syrophoenician woman who succeeds in holding her own against a short-tempered Jesus. Who can read Mark 15 without feeling a deep sympathy for Jesus whom, abandoned, cries out to God in despair from the cross? When Jesus wearily complains that the foxes have dens, the birds their nests, but he has nowhere to lay down and rest, we are reminded that homelessness is still a problem today. Likewise, the story of Jesus’ starving disciples who pluck heads of grain in violation of the sabbath, forces us to reexamine how we provide for those who hunger. Jesus asks us to give even our shirts to those who would take our coat and to refrain from retaliating against anyone who would be our enemy. There is a deep wisdom in this teaching. Jesus’ gospel message is to love your enemies, help the poor, practice nonviolence, and give freely. A more humanistic message could not be crafted.

Biblical Archaeology

McDowell also attempts to build his reliability doctrine on an empirical foundation by citing heavily biased findings of biblical archaeology. Quite frankly, we do not need to take this attempt very seriously. One of McDowell’s sources for the theory that the NT is an inerrant work suggests, among other incredible things, that the Greek language was invented by God for the purpose of revealing the NT.24 Evangelical writer Joseph Free, McDowell’s main source, recommends that his book be used by Sunday School teachers.25 Clearly, McDowell has no intention of advancing our understanding of Near East archaeology in his discussion; rather, he desires to reassure his constituency that the events in the Bible are fully supported by archaeological findings.

However, we have to be careful about using archaeological data from theNear Eastto substantiate biblical narrative. When the Palestine Exploration Society announced its founding in 1870, they declared that their society’s main goal was the

illustration and defense of the Bible. Modern skepticism assails the Bible at the point of reality, the question of fact. Hence whatever goes to verify the Bible history as real, in time, place and circumstances is a refutation of unbelief.26

Archaeology was in its infancy then and raw apologetics became the guiding force behind biblical archaeology. During the high pointof biblical archaeology–the “AmericanSchool” under William F. Albright and his students in 1920-70–“numerous simplistic and uncritical interpretations of archaeological observations were proposed . . . as answers to complex Biblical questions.”27 Proponents of today’s “New Archaeology” have criticized the Albrightians for presupposing that the Bible is a completely reliable historical source and who shaped data to fit a procrustean bed based upon that presupposition. Indeed, an excellent example of this is with John Garstung’s excavation of Tell es-Sultan (the biblical Jericho) in which he found that the walls had been flattened exactly as the biblical account described. Later, Kathleen Kenyon’s work revealed that Garstung had made many embarrassing mistakes in his enthusiasm to prove Joshua’s Conquest of Canaan. Yet McDowell relies almost solely on the speculative findings of Garstung, Albright, Wright and other Albrightians in establishing the reliability and historicity of the Bible. McDowell’s scholarship is so poor that one could think that he outright misrepresents the data; he willfully ignores critical evidence and uncritically embraces the Albrightians in order to create the illusion of biblical historicity.

Tell es-Sultan (Jericho)

The German excavators Ernst Sellin and Carl Watzinger excavated Tell es-Sultan from 1907-09 and concluded that Late Bronze Age Jericho–about 1500 BCE when Joshua was said to have led the Conquest of Canaan (Joshua 1-11)–was destroyed much earlier, in 1600 BCE, and therefore the pan-Israelite invasion hypothesis was historically questionable. This was disturbing to some and so a well-funded John Garstung returned to the site in 1930 with the goal of reconciling these two dates in order to support the truth of the Conquest. Working under the presupposition that the biblical account was true, Garstung excavated Jerichofrom 1930-36 and allegedly uncovered the remains of a wall that was burned and had appeared to be blown outward from the inside. Garstung dated this destruction to the Late Bronze Age period of 1500 BCE in perfect agreement with Joshua’s Conquest of Canaan. Garstung’s amazing confirmation of the biblical account that the walls did indeed collapse at the sound of trumpets was quickly published in the popular press and seen by many as a triumph in “proving” the Biblical account.28 However, William Albright contested Garstung’s findings quietly and knew that the evidence did not support his conclusions.29

The controversy raged on until Kathleen Kenyon returned yet again to the site in 1955 to apply a more exacting type of systematic archaeology (called the “Wheeler-Kenyon method”) that is now used regularly throughout the field. Kenyon argued that Garstung had excavated the wrong wall and mistakenly thought that the Early Bronze Age foundations were instead the Late Bronze Age walls of the time of Joshua’s Conquest. Jerichowas destroyed, not in the Late Bronze Age, but rather nine hundred years earlier in the Early Bronze Age sometime around 2400 BCE. The site was a small village during the Late Bronze Age when Joshua was said to have crossed the Jordan River, making Tell es-Sultan’s conquest unnecessary.30 French archaeologist Judith Marquet-Krause excavated at nearby et-Tell (the biblical Ai in Joshua 7-8) and found, similarly, that it too was destroyed around 2400 BCE. By the time of Joshua’s conquest, the city had been completely abandoned.31 J. A. Callaway, of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, attempted to “circumvent the negative evidence” of Marquet-Krause during his revisit of the site in 1966 but ultimately his findings were rejected by other scholars as “shoddy” and purely apologetic in purpose.32 Given that Kenyon’s work at Tell es-Sultan and that the Wheeler-Kenyon method has become the standard for excavations, it seems incredible that McDowell would advance only Garstung’s flawed excavation as the “truth” while ignoring Kenyon’s pioneering work entirely.

Albright’s brightest pupil, George Wright, specifically understood that Biblical archaeology was to be used for apologetical purposes:

The Biblical archaeologist may or may not be an excavator himself, but he studies the discoveries of the excavations in order to glean from them every fact that throws a direct, indirect or even diffused light upon the Bible. He must be intelligently concerned with stratigraphy and typology, upon which the methodology of modern archaeology rests . . . . Yet his chief concern is not with methods or pots or weapons in themselves alone. His central and absorbing interest is the understanding and exposition of the Scriptures.33

According to Shlomo Bunimovitz of TelAvivUniversity, the Albrightian James Kelso, excavated Betheland “misinterpreted archaeological remains from various periods, mixing facts and fancy.”34 Kelso took a few unrelated artifacts from many different stratigraphic layers in time and interpreted them together to imagine “an open air sacrificial shrine to the Canaanite god El,” and “Abraham’s altar.”35 Needless to say, Kelso’s uncritical interpretive methodology is not taken seriously by Syro-Palestinian archaeologists today. In another case, the Albrightian rabbi Nelson Glueck misinterpreted a decline in settlement patterns of the third millennium BCE Transjordan as “the result of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah” (Gen. 13-19).36 Glueck seemed to strain the archaeological data through the presupposition of Biblical narrative even when it obviously did not fit. When it was later determined that other fluctuations in settlement patterns had occurred in the same region, Glueck without hesitation attributed them to the Biblical Exodus and Conquest of Canaan accounts.37 The task fell to later archaeologists to follow behind Glueck and correct his misinterpretations.38 Bunimovitz sums up the collective effort of theAmericanSchool:

Today, it is clear that Albright’s lifelong effort to demonstrate the historicity of the Patriarchal and Israelite Conquest narratives, as well as his effort to demonstrate the uniqueness of Israel’s cult, was doomed to failure, resulting from the same deficient interpretive preconceptions that used both archaeology and Biblical studies as `proof-texts’ for historical and theological propositions. Although archaeology has documented a Genesis-like pastoral nomadic life all over the ancient Near East, archaeology has been unable to uncover any direct evidence to authenticate a `Patriarchal era.’39

William Dever, a student of George Wright, thinks that Biblical archaeology failed because it was too closely tied to its Protestant apologetical roots to be objective in its research.40 By the early 1970s, the handwriting was on the wall. Biblical archaeology was discredited and dead. Even Wright retracted many of his former claims and began to align himself with the new archaeologists just emerging on the scene.41 Today, archaeologists have accepted the fact that many of the American School’s findings had “forced the data into a predetermined theological framework.”42 Menaham Mansoor gloomily admits that Biblical archaeology’s greatest failure was in not deterring “people who seek to validate religious concepts by archaeological finds.”43

Despite these unfortunate setbacks to Near Eastern archaeology, new and reasonably unbiased research is paving the way toward a better understanding ofPalestine’s past. Understandably, some still keep a weather eye on the Biblical narrative as it pertains to their work, but it is no longer true that the theology drives the interpretation of the archaeological data. Almost without exception, McDowell cites only the rejected findings of theAmericanSchoolin his argument to substantiate the Bible as historically reliable. Perhaps the most amusing example of this uncritical approach to biblical archaeology is with Henry Morris’ speculations, whom McDowell quotes as saying:

It must be extremely significant that, in view of the great mass of corroborative evidence regarding the Biblical history of these periods, there exists today not one unquestionable find of archaeology that proves the Bible to be in error at any point.44

If Morris (a civil engineer from Virginia Polytechnic Institute) expects anyone to take such a stunning announcement seriously, he should provide good research to substantiate his claim. Sadly, Morris’s methodology is another procrustean bed in which he stretches any and all data to fit his preconceived notion of “Bible history.” In their introduction to The Genesis Flood, Morris and co-author John Whitcomb of Grace Theological Seminary write:

The second purpose [in looking at the Genesis deluge] is to examine the anthropological, geological, hydrological and other scientific implications of the Biblical record of the Flood, seeking if possible to orient the data of these sciences within this Biblical framework. If this means substantial modification of the principles of uniformity and evolution which currently control the interpretation of these data, then so be it. . . . Our conclusions must unavoidably be colored by our Biblical presuppositions, and this we plainly acknowledge.45

As you might guess, Morris and Whitcomb conclude that the Biblical flood wiped out nearly all life on earth in the year 2459 BCE.46 Given Morris’s inerrancy doctrine, it is no surprise that he believes the Bible to be without error on any point.

Ebla Tablets

Despite his suggestion that while it “will be quite a while before there can be any significant research done to determine the relationship of Eblato the biblical world,” McDowell is not able to contain his speculation regarding the Eblatablets found at Tell Mardikh.47 It is McDowell’s understanding that the tablets correctly refer to all five Cities of the Plain (Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Zoar; Genesis 12) in the biblical order.48 Further, McDowell suggests that the Ebla tablets confirm that the historicity of Genesis 14 is reliable and Abraham is now known to have conquered Chedolaomer of Gomorrah.49 However, McDowell does not tell us whom he consulted or how he arrived at the conclusion that “the Ebla archives refer to all five Cities of the Plain . . . [and] reflect the culture of the patriarchal period.”50

Presumably, McDowell is referring to the work of Giovanni Pettinato, the Italian Sumerologist who deciphered some of the cuneiform tablets at Ebla. In a series of lectures promoted by David Freedman in 1976, Pettinato announced that the names of the five cities of the plain were found on a single tablet in the exact Genesis order and that the character “Ya” indicates a personal pronoun of Yahweh. As with Garstung’s findings at Tell es-Sultan, the popular press eagerly published Pettinato’s startling discoveries. However, Paolo Matthiae, who excavated Ebla, mentions no such findings in his published excavation report.51 Additionally, as other cuneiform scholars looked at Pettinato’s findings, they realized that he failed to consider the names in context so that the symbol for “Ya” could also mean “ia” or “il” or something else entirely.52

What the Eblatablets do seem to contain are devotions to Semitic gods in the Sumerian pantheon that predate the Yahweh cult. The tablets mention common Semitic deities like Haddad, a storm god, and Ishtar, goddess of love and war who later becomes transformed into Yahweh’s consort Astarte. So far there has been no evidence that the tablets contain references to early Yahweh cult. Pettinato’s “ia” or “il” was initially confused as the personal name of Yahweh, but Vigano is quick to correct this initial misinterpretation and states that “-il (El, god) in some personal names is not . . . to be identified with Yhwh, the God of Israel.”53 The Ebla tablets, dated to about 2500 BCE, show us that the early Semitic peoples of the Early Bronze Age had not yet begun to worship Yahweh. This is very much in keeping with what we know of the region at that time from other sources. Eventually it was realized that “Pettinato’s premature readings of some tablets that were naively accepted by some scholars were really responsible for all the controversy.”54 Today, we are no closer to understanding theEbla tablets than at their first discovery because of the infighting and disputes surrounding rival points of view concerning them. In any case, theEbla tablets do not provide any confirmation (nor denial) of the biblical narratives and the initial wild speculations concerning the tablets are now known to be extremely premature. That McDowell so easily accepts these speculations tells us more about his own hope of finding support in an inerrant Bible than in his interest for solid archaeological research.

We now know that the initial zeal to prove the Bible correct was misguided and led to such absurd misinterpretations of the archaeological data that biblical archaeology’s reputation has yet to recover fully from those abuses. Archaeology must be allowed to thrive on its own and for its own sake in order to provide us with substantive finds of the Patriarchs or any events in the Bible. Perhaps in due time archaeology can enhance our understanding of Biblical narratives, but it will certainly not do so by taking short cuts for apologetical purposes. With respect to archaeological evidence for the historical reliability of the Bible, we can safely conclude that archaeology has not “proven” nor “disproven” the Bible. Of course, this should not surprise us in the least, since it is not the purpose of archaeology to establish theological belief. TheAmericanSchool’s questionable research, filling almost the entire section of McDowell’s “Confirmation by Archaeology,” is now known to have been so preoccupied in its theological presuppositions that its findings were routinely shaped by them.

The Grammar of Belief

If we examine the grammar of the word “belief” as it is used within Christian discourse, we find that the truth of religious utterances are accepted on faith, not reason. Contrary to Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith,” McDowell’s reliability doctrine insists that the NT texts form an objective criterion from which the believer is justified in making the rational choice for belief in Christian doctrine. The problem with the reliability doctrine, and indeed fundamentalism as a whole, is its assumption that Christian faith is something that must rest upon and derive its reliability from historical facts. By making Christianity a set of empirical propositions, fundamentalism essentially renders faith less important, if not altogether irrelevant. Unless the gospels are completely reliable as historical texts, the transcendent cannot be believed and faith is futile. Thus, by viewing the texts as literal truth, it no longer becomes possible to view them accurately for what they are: theologically-driven expressions of faith in the risen Christ.

Saint Augustinebelieved that faith is the acceptance of things not clearly seen. In Eighty-three Different Questions, Augustine distinguishes between three kinds of objects of belief: the propositions of history; mathematical truths of reason; and matters that are believed first and understood later. Anyone can understand the truths of history and reason. However, the third kind of belief Augustine finds most profound and reserves for Christian belief. Only those who are “clean of heart” and obey the Law can hope to understand the truths of faith. Augustine reminds us that Christianity never communicates its most sacred truths through historical propositions, but rather speaks of the gnosis of Jesus in one’s life. One is told to “just believe” or “have faith” and ask God to reveal himself to you–believe now and all will be explained later. From the very beginning, Christianity has been a religion based on faith in the risen Christ. This confession is not a matter of fact in any ordinary sense of the word, but rather it is believed “in one’s heart.” The grammar of this religious utterance reveals that confessions are not treated like ordinary propositions. According to Alvin Plantinga, belief is “transrational” and properly basic to the Christian worldview. I would go even farther to point out the obvious: the believer could still have faith in the risen Christ even in the complete absence of a New Testament. McDowell has forgotten that this was the situation for the Apostle Paul and his fledgling communities in the dispersion. The gospel message was no more verifiable for Paul’s converts than it is today for the modern believer. It is not necessary to prove that the gospel texts are inerrant to hold beliefs that are essential to Christianity. Today, as in Paul’s day, the believer is told to “just believe!” and all else will follow. Ludwig Wittgenstein reminds us that:

Christianity is not based on a historical truth; rather, it offers us a (historical) narrative and says: now believe! But not, believe this narrative with the belief appropriate to a historical narrative, rather: believe, through thick and thin, which you can do only as the result of a life.55

In practice, Christian faith has no evidential foundation at all. It is self-authenticating from within the framework that its utterances derive their meaning. The believer who “just believes” accepts a whole host of propositions all at once without testing them for their historical veracity. The convert leaps into the abyss trusting God and need never pick up the NT to practice his or her faith.

If Christianity did depend upon a foundation of empirical propositions, then all one would need to do to acquire the truth is to become acquainted with the truth of those facts. After a catechism, in which someone learned the facts that established the inerrancy of the gospels, he or she would be intellectually obliged to believe. But what a sterile formula for religion this is! It is like providing to those seeking God the precise directions to the post office, and then expecting them to rejoice upon their arrival there. It is sometimes said that Christianity is not a religion or a church but instead a personal relationship with God. If this is the case, then why is it so important to establish the mundane details of God’s incarnation as a human being in ancientPalestine?

The fundamentalist who feels it necessary to justify even one proposition within Christian faith betrays his self-doubt about the veracity of them all. Saint Anselm sought to understand a concept of God, which he already found deeply meaningful in his life. He did not fashion his ontological argument so that he might be able to believe.56 A theology that draws its truths from the facts of the world is indistinguishable from naturalism. This can be seen in looking at how believers speak of the existence of God. To avoid begging the question for God’s existence, the fundamentalist must awkwardly begin from unbelief in order to reason toward belief. However, if God does not exist, then it is impossible to demonstrate that this is so. Yet, if God exists one is most certainly at a loss to demonstrate toward his existence. Kierkegaard points out that in our world of sense experience, it is nonsense to reason in conclusion to existence since we can only reason in conclusion from existence. For example, we do not build arguments that lead to the existence of a stone, we simply point to something and say that it is a stone. This is why proofs for the existence of God quickly degenerate into a surreal comedy; the demonstration of existence generally succeeds only in clarifying the concept of God within our grammar. Yet, a clarification of the concept of God was already presupposed in the language of faith from which it derived. Thus, arriving back at the beginning with nothing to show for it, we feel strangely cheated by the whole endeavor.

How much more honest the Athenian Stranger is in Plato’s Laws! Before advancing his argument for the existence of the gods to Cleinias, the Stranger says, “if ever we are to call upon the gods, let us call upon them now in all seriousness to come to the demonstration of their own existence” (893b). The Stranger presupposes the existence of the gods right from the beginning. Those who insist on rational proof do so out of a craving for certainty in a situation where faith is insufficient for their lives. This can be seen from the fact that if God were certain, faith would have no purpose. Yet, faith is central to Christianity. Faith does not follow from God’s existence but rather God’s existence is embedded a priori in the discourse of faith. “But I don’t care whether God is a meaningful concept,” the fundamentalist counters, “I want to know whether God exists or not. For if God does not exist, then my faith is false.” What can this mean? This is a person whose faith is insufficient since he or she desires that the concept of God be as certain as the sun or the moon. Unlike Saint Anselm, however, the fundamentalist tries to demonstrate God’s existence with proofs so that it might then be known whether faith is true. Thus, the paradox is that the fundamentalist seeks to verify faith with factual certainty; yet, if this attempt succeeds and God is a rational truth, faith is then exposed as an unnecessary illusion.

Christian belief in its propositions of faith is nothing like what we would call ordinary belief in the historical propositions of the world. What might it mean for someone to believe in her heart that Napoleon invaded Russia? Can one be moved by the spirit while adding a series of numbers? If I look outside and see dark clouds in the sky, I do not say, “I have faith that it will rain” but instead say “it looks like it will rain.” In our language, we treat the mundane propositions of the world very differently from those propositions made within religious utterances. The believer does not speak of Christ’s resurrection in the same manner as he or she would speak about historical propositions. One need not confess to the truth of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. One need only believe it in an ordinary sense in the way that one believes the moon is overhead. Confessional belief and ordinary belief are two very different things. To illustrate this point, Wittgenstein asks us to consider a case in which a man says that he believes in the Last Judgement.57 If a woman replies that she does not believe in a Last Judgement, we would conclude that the two were very far apart on the matter. It would appear as if a gulf separated them and the way they use language might even hinder them from understanding one another. If, however, the man were to say that he believed that an airplane was overhead and the woman replied that she very much doubted this to be the case, we would no longer characterize their disagreement as something profound. Since they share the same criterion of reliability for empirical propositions, it would simply be a matter of looking up in the sky to see if the man’s utterance is a correct report. A criterion of reliability is something that we readily agree answers the question, “how do you know that proposition p is true?” The criterion of reliability for belief in religious utterances is a very different thing from the criterion of reliability for belief in an ordinary proposition.

When investigating natural phenomena in the sciences, the criterion used to establish the truth or falsity of propositions–the scientific method–is understood and accepted by everyone who participates in the enterprise. However, in matters of theology, there can be no empirical investigation and it is wrong to demand or to impose one. For example, suppose someone were to ask, “how do you know that Goldbach’s Theorem is sound?” The criterion of reliability that we use to answer this person is radically different from that which we use to answer the question, “how do you know that Christ rose from the grave?” The belief in Christ’s resurrection is a matter of faith and is spoken about differently. If you can understand why this is so, you will also see why the gospels are not compendia of historically true propositions. If we were to think of them that way then Christianity would indeed be very lifeless.

The fact that faith is necessary to bridge the gap between God and human beings suggests that the teachings of Christianity are not at all treated like the teachings of physics or history. If Christianity were to rest upon empirical propositions, rather than faith, we would not be mystified as to how to proceed to understand or to agree with its utterances. People do not profoundly misunderstand one another’s grammar in the ordinary sense of the word “belief.” Two people do not simply look up in the sky to determine God’s presence nor can they simply verify a belief in the Last Judgement. In the case of religious utterances such as these, the grammar of the verb “to believe” is sublimed in the logic of Christian discourse.58 Mistakes arise when the fundamentalist plucks religious utterances out of the context in which they derive their meaning in the attempt to prove them as empirical facts. But as I have argued, an object of worship and an object of history are treated very differently and spoken about in different ways within language. Confusion results from the failure to distinguish how an utterance is being used in language and then making such utterances conform to an alien usage. Thus, sometimes the atheist foolishly asks, “Where?” when someone utters “God.” There are as many meanings of a word as there are uses for it within language.

“Yes, but even nonbelievers have belief! Every time they sit in a chair they believe that it will support their weight.” The grammar of the word “belief” is again sublimed in the logic of language. This utterance confuses two uses of “belief”–one use appears in ordinary language and another only within a religious context. To believe in God requires something different from the believer than to believe in the sturdiness of a chair. The confusion results from the failure to distinguish between these two uses and subsequently being misled by the surface grammar of the verb itself. The theist surely does not want religious belief to be understood in the vulgar sense. To believe in God as one might believe in rain is superstitious because it considers God to be an object of perception within the world. Both of these cases (belief in and the existence of God) illustrate that when the believer speaks of God he or she uses language of religious meaning rather than the language of empirical knowledge.

The fundamentalist had initially sought to ignore the language of meaning in his ill-fated quest for absolute certainty, but he cannot seem to avoid treating God differently from other objects of certainty. God is not like a chair and no one points to God and says, “There, that’s God.” Kant taught us that elucidation can never lead to existence; moreover, no one speaks about the existence of God in the way that they speak of the existence of ordinary objects. Since all religious utterances presuppose God’s existence, they are vehicles to clarify and to elucidate the concept of God and so necessarily speak of God in a manner quite different from our ordinary utterances of objects in the world. It cannot be known that God exists in the way that we know that ordinary objects of perception exist. “If God’s existence cannot be known,” the fundamentalist asks, “then how can Christian faith be reliable and what if we’re wrong?” I have no antidote for this craving for certainty except to remind the fundamentalist that at its core Christianity is a mystery. Faith might be folly to the world, but the world’s wisdom is death to Christianity. If the gospel message is to be believed at all, it must be solely based on faith–things that are certain are not matters of belief.

Belief in Christ is not a matter of believing in a historical proposition, rather, something additional is demanded. To embrace the propositions of Christian faith is to desire to change one’s whole life. This is why the drama within the gospels continues to have profound theological meaning without regard to literal history. McDowell’s reliability doctrine fails to take into account the utter simplicity of Christian faith. Jesus swore, “whoever doesn’t accept thekingdomofGodthe way a child would, certainly won’t ever set foot in God’s domain!” All of the knowledge in the world cannot provide a foundation for faith. One must accept the gospel message with the innocence of a child.


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Apostolic Fathers. The Loeb Classical Library, 2 vols.KirsoppLake, trans.New York: Macmillan, 1913.

Bargebuhr, Frederick Perez. The Paintings of the `New’ Catacomb of the Via Latina and the Struggle of Christianity Against Paganism. Joachim Utz, ed.Heidelberg, Universitätsverlag: Carl Winter, 1991.

Bauer, Walter. Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity.Philadelphia Seminar on Christian Origins, eds.Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971.

Benko, Stephen. Pagan Rome and the Early Christians.Bloomington,IN:IndianaUniversity Press, 1984.

Bruce, F.F. Are The New Testament Documents Reliable?Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1954.

Bruce, F.F. New Testament History.London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1969.

Bultmann, D. Rudolf. History and Eschatology.Edinburgh: The University Press, 1957.

Bunimovitz, Shlomo. “How Mute Stones Speak.” Biblical Archaeology Review March/April 1995: 58-67; 96.
Burridge, Richard A. What Are the Gospels?Cambridge:CambridgeUniversity Press, 1992.

Charlesworth, James H. and Walter P. Weaver, eds. What Has Archaeology To Do With Faith? Faith and Scholarship Colloquies.Philadelphia: Trinity Press, 1992.

Conzelmann, Hans. The Theology of St. Luke.New York: Harper, 1961.

Daniélou, Jean. A History of Early Christian Doctrine. 2 vols. David Smith and John Austin Baker, trans.Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1977.

Daniélou, Jean. The Theology of Jewish Christianity. John A. Baker, trans.Chicago: Henry Regnery Company.114 West Illinois Street,Chicago,IL60610USA, 1964.

Davies, W.D. Jewish and Pauline Studies.Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.

Deissmann, Adolf. Light From the Ancient Near East. 2nd Ed. Lionel R.M. Strachan, trans.Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1965.

Dever, William G. Recent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research.Seattle andLondon:University ofWashington Press, 1990.

Dihle, Albrecht. “Die Evangelien und die griechische Biographie,” in Das Evangelium und die Evangelien. Peter Stuhlmacher, ed. Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1983. 383-411.

Edwards, Richard A. A Theology of Q. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976.

Fredriksen, Paula. From Jesus to Christ.New Haven andLondon:YaleUniversity Press, 1988.

Free, Joseph. Archaeology and Bible History.Wheaton: Scripture Press, 1969.

Goehring, James E., Charles W. Hedrick and Jack T. Sanders, eds. Gospel Origins and Christian Beginnings.Sonoma:Calif.: Polebridge Press, 1990.

Goodenough, Erwin R. The Theology of Justin Martyr.Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1968.

Goodspeed, Edgar J. The Formation of the New Testament.Chicago:University ofChicago Press, 1926.

Gospel of Thomas. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. James M. Robinson, ed. San Franciso: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988.

Haenchen, Ernst. The Acts of the Apostles.Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1971.

Hengel, Martin. Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity.Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979.

Hoppe, Leslie J. What Are They Saying About Biblical Archaeology?New York: Paulist Press, 1984.

Horsley, Richard A. and Hanson, John S. Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus.New York: Winston-Seabury; 1985.

Johnson, L. T. The Gospel of Luke. Sacra Pagina Series, Vol. 3. Daniel J. Harrington, ed.Collegeville,MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991.

Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews, in The Works of Josephus. William Whiston, trans.Peabody,MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987.

Keller, Werner. The Bible As History. William Neil, trans.New York: William Morrow, 1981.

Kenyon, Frederic. Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament.New York: Macmillan, 1901.

Kenyon, Frederic. Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts.London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1958.

Kenyon, Kathleen M. The Bible and Recent Archaeology.Atlanta: John Knox, 1987.

Kierkegaard, Soren. The Sickness Unto Death. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, eds. and trans. Princeton:PrincetonUniversity Press, 1980.

Kloppenborg, John S. “Tradition and Redaction in the Synoptic Sayings Source,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 46 (1984): 34-62.

Koester, Helmut. History and Literature of Early Christianity. 2 vols. Philadephia: Fortress Press, 1983.

Koester, Helmut. Ancient Christian Gospels.Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990.

Lilla, Salvatore R.C. Clement of Alexandria.Oxford:OxfordUniversity Press, 1971.

Mack, BurtonL. The Lost Gospel.San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.

Mansoor, Menahem. “Scholars Speak Out.” Biblical Archaeology Review May/June 1995.

Martin, Luther H. Hellenistic Religions.New York:OxfordUniversity Press, 1987.

Matthiae, Paolo, “EblaTablets” Biblical Archaeologist March (1984): 6-16.

McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands A Verdict. 2 vols.San Bernardino,CA: Here’s Life, 1979.

Morris, Henry and John Whitcomb. The Genesis Flood.Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1963.

Moule, C.F.D. The Origen of Christology.Cambridge:CambridgeUniversity Press, 1977.

O’Collins, Gerald. Christology.Oxford:OxfordUniversity Press, 1995.

Oxford Companion to the Bible. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, eds. New York/Oxford:OxfordUniversity Press, 1993.

Phillips, D. Z. Wittgenstein and Religion.New York:St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

Philostratus, Flavius. Life of Apollonius of Tyana. The Loeb Classical Library, 2 vols. F.C. Conybeare, trans.New York: Macmillan, 1912.

Plantinga, Alvin. “Is Belief in God Properly Basic?” Nous 15 no. 1 (1981).

Roberts, Harold. Jesus and the Kingdom of God.London: The Epworth Press, 1955.

Robinson, James M. “Jesus From Easter to Valentinus,” Journal of Biblical Literature 101 no. 1 (1982): 5-37.

Robinson, James M. A New Quest of the Historical Jesus.Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.

Robinson, James M. and Helmut Koester. Trajectories Through Early Christianity.Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971.

Robinson, James M. The Problem of History in Mark.London: SCM Press Ltd., 1957.

Sanders, E.P. Jesus and Judaism.Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

Unger, Merrill F. Archaeology and the New Testament.Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1962.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief. Cyril Barrett, ed.Berkeley andLos Angeles:University ofCalifornia Press, 1966.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Vermischte Bemerkungen (Culture and Value). G. H. Von Wright, ed. Peter Wich, trans.Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980.


1Rom. 5:9-10; 2 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 2:10;3:15.

2 1 Cor. 1:18-25; 2:1-5.

3 McDowell, p. 386.

4 McDowell, p. 2.

5 McDowell, pp. 2-10.

6 McDowell, p. 39.

7 McDowell, pp. 19, 53, 74.

8 Oxford Companion (1993), p. 246.

9 For example, the “sayings of the Lord” are already being used by Luke to relate Paul’s sermon in Acts 20:35; moreoever, the earliest codifications of the oral tradition (Thomas and Q) were based on “sayings” of the Lord. Koester (1983) writes that “in controversial questions, one would rely primarily on `what the Lord had said,’ or one would ask a Christian prophet what the `Lord’ had revealed to him” (pp. 5-6).

10 1 Thess. 4:15; cf. 1 Cor. 9:9, 13, 14.

11 Horsley and Hanson (1985) present an excellent and detailed study of the socio-political situation of first-centuryPalestine.

12 Karl L. Schmidt first used this analogy in Der Rahmen der Geschicte Jesu (1919) when he wrote that Mark’s gospel was “a virtual collection of traditional pearls arrayed sequentially on a very fine authorial string.”

13 Moule, p. 2.

14 Jerome, Against Pelagius, III.2

15 Epiphanius, Against Heresies, 30.13.7-8.

16 Robinson refers to the entire NT as “a hermeneutic for the kerygma” (1971, p. 25) and Koester presents an excellent review of literature on the evolution of the kerygma (1990, pp. 1-23). For an in-depth study of kerygma and Q with respect to the gospels, see the definitive essay by John S. Kloppenborg, “Tradition and Redaction in the Synoptic Sayings Source,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 46(1984): 34-62.

17 Bruce, pp. 11-12.

18 Qtd. in Koester, 1990, pp. 3-4.

19 Apollonius’ biographer, Philostratus, was born in 172 CE and studied rhetoric inAthens at a very young age. While at the court of the Empress Domna inRome, Philostratus acquired the “memoirs of Apollonius” composed by Damis, one of Apollonius’ disciples. Together with a history written by another admirer named Maximus, and other pieces of material still in circulation, Philostratus revised and polished Damis’ rough manuscript to produce his own biography of Apollonius. In this sense, the biography of Apollonius is very similar to Luke’s biography of Jesus. Luke tells us in his prologue that others before him attempted to write about Jesus but Luke seems to find their attempts insufficient. The difference between the two, of course, is while Luke drew upon the dynamic oral tradition and a narrative structure imposed on him from Mark’s gospel, Philostratus had the good fortune of working from a manuscript that was direct from the pen of a disciple.

20 I should point out that the canonical gospels possess a different genre from other sources about Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas and the Q belong to the so-called Logoi Sophon gattung or “wisdom-sayings genre” because Jesus is portrayed in them as a wisdom teacher. The theologies that inform different portraits of Jesus–from the Markan Secret Messiah, Johannine Jesus, Thomas’ Wisdom Teacher, Paul’s Christ, the law-follower of the judaizers and James, to the Gnostic transcendent immortal–are called “trajectories” which radiate out from the historical Jesus. The current debate over the historical Jesus concerns these various trajectories as scholars try to discern which (if any) trajectory may be closer to Jesus and which are mythologizing tendencies on the part of the early Church.

21 See Luther H. Martin, Hellenistic Religions,New York: Oxford University Press, 1987, for an excellent introduction to the myths of man-gods, Hellenistic piety, and the many pagan mystery religions that inform primitive Christianity.

22 Josephus, Antiquities, 8.2.5.

23 See Frederick Perez Bargebuhr, The Paintings of the `New’ Catacomb of the Via Latina, Loachim Utz, ed., Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag, 1991 and Robin M. Jensen, “The Raising of Lazarus,” Bible Review April 1995: 21-28, 45. The catacombs represent an excellent example of a transitional period in primitive Christianity; Samson is depicted reenacting Herakles’s first labor, the Madonna and baby Jesus iconography are indistinguishable from the Isis and baby Horus mystery cult, the pagan goddess Demeter is shown alongside Jesus who uses a magic wand to resurrect Lazarus from the tomb. For Egyptian Hellenistic influence on transitional Christianity see Camden M. Cobern, The New Archaeological Discoveries, 6th ed., New York and London: Funk & Wagnalls, 1922, pp. 404-411ff, where excavations revealed that Christians made liberal use of the Ankh and mummified their dead in accordance with Egyptian ritual. Also, Egyptian Christians confused Jesus with the savior-god Osiris who died and rose again on the third day to grant immortality to his followers suggesting a great deal of overlap in early Christianity with Hellenistic mystery cults.

24 Unger 324.

25 Free xii.

26 Qtd. In Charlesworth and Weaver, p. 3.

27 Bunimovitz, p. 62.

28 Kathleen Kenyon, pp. 72-3.

29 Dever, p. 47.

30 Kathleen Kenyon, p. 74.

31 Dever, p. 47.

32 Dever, p. 48.

33 Qtd. In Dever, p. 18.

34 Bunimovitz, p. 62.

35 Qtd. In Bunimovitz, p. 62.

36 Bunimovitz, p. 62.

37 Bunimovitz, p. 62.

38 See especially Gary Pratico, “Nelson Glueck’s 1938-1940 Excavations at Tell el-Kheleifeh: A Reappraisal,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 259 (1985): 1-32.

39 Bunimovitz, pp. 62-3.

40 Dever, p. 22.

41 Dever, p. 22.

42 Charlesworth, p. 85.

43 Mansoor, p. 29.

44 Qtd. In McDowell, p. 70.

45 Morris and Whitcomb, pp. xx-xxi.

46 Morris and Whitcomb, p. 478.

47 McDowell, p. 68.

48 McDowell, p. 68.

49 McDowell, p. 68.

50 McDowell, p. 68.

51 See Paolo Matthiae in Biblical Archaeologist March (1984): 6-16.

52 Leslie J. Hoppe, What Are They Saying About Biblical Archaeology? (New York: Paulist Press, 1984) p. 37.

53 Matthiae, p. 11.

54 Hoppe, p. 40.

55 Wittgenstein (1980), p. 32.

56 Phillips, p. 10.

57 Wittgenstein (1966), p. 53.

58 Wittgenstein argued in his Philosophical Investigations that there was a strange confusion in language over the relation of a thing to its name. We have a tendency “to sublime the logic of our language” by using proper names in an ostensive fashion even though there are no connections between the proper name and the object to which it allegedly points. Thus, philosophical problems are caused needlessly when one treats the proper name “God” as if it pointed ostensively to an object when in fact it does not.

Josh McDowell’s “Evidence” for Jesus Is It Reliable?

Jeffery Jay Lowder

Last Updated: May 15, 2000

 In the fifth chapter of Evidence That Demands a Verdict (hereafter “ETDAV“) entitled, “Jesus–A Man of History,” Josh McDowell lists a series of “sources for the historicity of Jesus.”[1] According to the table of contents of ETDAV, this chapter lists “documented sources of the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth apart from the Bible.”[2] In this chapter I shall consider each of McDowell’s sources. Although I agree with McDowell that there was a historical Jesus, I shall argue that most of McDowell’s sources do not provide independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus.

McDowell’s “Sources for the Historicity of Jesus”

What about the relevant body of alleged evidence for the historicity (or existence) of Jesus? It can be conveniently grouped under two main headings: (1) Christian sources, and (2) non-Christian sources.

Christian Sources

Again, we can conveniently divide McDowell’s Christian sources for the historicity of Jesus into two categories: (1) the New Testament, and (2) other Christian texts.

The New Testament

McDowell quotes John Montgomery, who states the New Testament documents are reliable and therefore provide good evidence for the historicity of Jesus. Although I disagree with McDowell (and Montgomery) over the degree of reliability of the New Testament, that disagreement is irrelevant here. There is simply nothing intrinsically improbable about a historical Jesus; the New Testament alone (or at least portions of it) are reliable enough to provide evidence of a historical Jesus.[3] On this point, it is important to note that even G.A. Wells, who until recently was the champion of the Christ-myth hypothesis, now accepts the historicity of Jesus on the basis of ‘Q.'[4]

Other Christian Texts

The other Christian texts cited by McDowell do not provide any support for the historicity of Jesus:

1. The Church Fathers do not provide any independent confirmation of Jesus. Under the heading “Christian Sources for the Historicity of Jesus,” McDowell refers his readers back to his discussion of the church fathers in his chapter on the historical reliability of the Bible. In particular, he draws attention to Polycarp, Eusebius, Irenaeus, Ignatius, Justin, and Origen.[5] Turning to He Walked Among Us,[6] McDowell and Wilson suggest two reasons why the church fathers confirm the existence of Jesus: (a) the Church fathers did not base their belief solely on Christian tradition (he cites the ‘Acts of Pilate’ as an example); and (b) most of the church fathers died as martyrs for their beliefs.

Concerning (a), McDowell only cited one example of church fathers relying on non-Christian tradition–Justin Martyr’s reference to an alleged ‘Acts of Pilate’–so I will have to restrict my comments to that.[7] There are three problems with Justin’s reference. First, Justin Martyr was not known for his historical accuracy. For example, in his Apology (1.31), Justin incorrectly claimed that the Ptolemy who had the Septuagint translated was a contemporary of Herod; he has also been caught referring to documents which ostensibly support his exaggerated claims but in fact do not.[8] This leads to my second objection. Given Justin’s inattention to historical detail, he probably just assumed that such documents must exist. According to Felix Scheidweiler,

Justin in his First Apology refers twice (c. 35 and 48) to documents of the trial of Jesus before Pilate. The same author in c. 34, however, and in the same terms, invites us to examine the schedules of the census under Quirinius, which certainly did not exist. This prompts the suspicion that Justin’s reference to the acta of Pilate rests solely on the fact that he assumed that such documents must have existed.[9]

Perhaps Scheidweiler’s use of the word “certainly” is too strong, especially if one is inclined to regard the report in Luke as fundamentally historically reliable. Yet the fact remains that even if we assume the existence of an ‘Acts of Pilate’, it is not at all clear that such a document would have referred to a Judaean decree, since that would not have been binding on the independent provinceof Galilee. There is simply no evidence that the results of criminal trials of non-citizens would be sent to Rome. But in fact it begs the question to assume that such documentation ever existed. Such documentation surely did not exist in the fourth century, when Christians apparently felt the need to forge the apocryphal ‘Acts of Pilate’.[10] Moreover, when Pliny (see below) writes to Trajan asking for advice on his trials of Christians, he describes these trials. If records of these trials were in Rome, such a description would not be necessary. And when Trajan replies to Pliny, he mentions no precedents and no decrees.[11] Thus, it is unlikely that any such records existed.

Turning to (b), McDowell and Wilson state that Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, and Origen died for their faith, and that Irenaeus suffered for his faith.[12] For their sacrifices to have any value at all as independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus, at least two conditions would have to be met. First, they would have needed sources other than what is now included in the New Testament. Second, they would have to have been in a position to know if Jesus existed.

Does the testimony of any of the church fathers meet both conditions? At the outset, we may note that Origen (CE 185-ca. 254) was simply too late to have been in a position to know if Jesus existed. Irenaeus may also be dismissed as a possible independent source to the historicity of Jesus since, according to McDowell and Wilson, Irenaeus obtained his information from Polycarp. Polycarp, in turn, is said to have converted around 109. While he may have had access to one or more sources independent of the New Testament, our knowledge of his sources is uncertain. As for Ignatius, there is no evidence that he had any sources other than the New Testament and so he cannot be used as an independent source. Finally, we have already noted that Justin Martyr was not known for his historical accuracy and that his reference to an ‘Acts of Pilate’ is dubious. While he certainly may have had sources other than the New Testament, this is unknown. In sum, the evidence presented by McDowell and Wilson is simply too inconclusive to justify the conclusion that the church fathers had independent sources of information. Therefore, the church fathers cannot be used as independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus.

2. Tertullian’s reference to Tiberius provides inconclusive confirmation of Jesus. Tertullian (c.160-c.230), a Christian theologian, converted to Christianity (c.197) and became a vocal Christian apologist. He later (213) left the church to join the Montanists. Around CE 197 he wrote the following passage in his Apology:

Tiberius accordingly, in those days the Christian name made its entry into the world, having himself received intelligence from Palestineof events which had clearly shown the truth of Christ’s divinity, brought the matter before the senate, with his own decision in favor of Christ. The senate, because it had not given the approval itself, rejected his proposal. Caesar held to his opinion, threatening wrath against all the accusers of the Christians.[13]

Unfortunately for Christian apologists who like to use this passage as independent confirmation of Jesus, this passage is highly doubtful. There is an extremely high probability that Tiberius never converted to Christianity, in which case this passage is unreliable and can’t be used as independent confirmation of Jesus. The reasons for believing that Tiberius never converted to Christianity are as follows:

(a) Tiberius was extremely intolerant of cults. It is difficult to believe that Tiberius would have threatened “all the accusers of the Christians,” for he “had little tolerance for foreign cults and expelled all the Jews from Rome in 19 C.E. (Jos Ant 18.3-5).”[14]

(b) Paul never mentions the emperor converting to Christianity. The passage has Tiberius (in Rome) converting to Christianity before 37 CE, long before Paul arrived there to preach it. Yet Paul never mentions this conversion. Paul’s silence on the matter is inexplicable apart from the fact that Tiberius never converted to Christianity.[15]

(c) No other ancient writers mention the conversion. Obviously Tiberius’ deeds were of interest to contemporary writers of the time. (After all, he was Caesar.) Moreover, had Tiberius become a Christian, this would not have been just another one of his deeds; this would have been the most significant event in Roman history: the Pontifex Maximus, priest of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, renouncing the protection of the gods of Rome in favor of a hated foreign Jewish cult? Yet not one contemporary writer corroborates Tertullian’s second- or third-century report.[16]

(d) The passage is very late and is therefore unreliable. Even McDowell will admit that one hundred years is enough time for legendary development. Since we have no hint of this tradition before Tertullian’s writing in the late second- or early third-century, this passage is therefore highly suspect.

Non-Christian Sources

Turning to the second category of evidence for the historicity of Jesus, we now evaluate McDowell’s evidence from non-Christian sources: Jewish sources and Pagan sources. Again we shall consider first the evidence as stated by McDowell in ETDAV and then briefly interact with objections to his evidence.

Jewish Sources

McDowell quotes two lines of evidence for the historicity of Jesus from Jewish sources.

1. Josephus provides independent confirmation to the life of Jesus. The most important non-Christian witness to the historical Jesus is Josephus, who wrote five works in Greek: Life, his autobiography; Contra Apion, a defense of Judaism; The Jewish War, an eyewitness account of the revolt against Rome (66-74 CE); Discourse to the Greeks Concerning Hades; and The Jewish Antiquities, a history of the Jews from Adam to his generation. McDowell cites two references to Jesus in The Jewish Antiquities; I will discuss them in reverse order.

(a) The reference to James as the brother of Jesus. Josephus described how the high priest Ananus took advantage of the death of the Roman governor Festus in 62 CE to organize a mob to stone James. McDowell mentions this passage because Josephus identifies James as “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ:”

But the younger Ananus who, as we said, received the high priesthood, was of a bold disposition and exceptionally daring; he followed the party of the Sadducees, who are severe in judgment above all the Jews, as we have already shown. As therefore Ananus was of such a disposition, he thought he had now a good opportunity, as Festus was now dead, and Albinus was still on the road; so he assembled a council of judges, and brought it before the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, together with some others, and having accused them as law-breakers, he delivered them over to be stoned.[17]

According to Josephus scholar Louis Feldman, the authenticity of this passage “has been almost universally acknowledged.”[18] However, since there a few scholars who deny the authenticity of this passage, let’s consider the arguments for and against authenticity.

Of course, McDowell does not consider any of those arguments in ETDAV, but in his book He Walked Among Us (co-authored with Bill Wilson) he presents three arguments in favor of the authenticity of this passage.[19] Let’s consider each argument in turn:

(1) “The phrase ‘James the brother of Jesus who is called Christ’ is too noncommittal to have been inserted by a later Christian interpolator who would have desired to assert the messiahship of Jesus more definitely as well as to deny the charges against James.” This is probably the single most important argument in favor of authenticity; in my opinion, McDowell and Wilson are right about this. The phrase is incidental to the story. If this passage were an interpolation, it is surprising that so little is said about Jesus and James.[20]

(2) “Origen refers to this passage in his Commentary on Matthew 10.17, giving evidence that it was in Josephus prior to his time (approximately A.D. 200).” This is true but inconclusive. The fact that the passage was referenced by Origen around 200 is simply inconclusive as evidence for the authenticity; that still leaves well over a century when the passage could have been interpolated.

(3) The passage identifies ‘Jesus’ as the one ‘called the Christ,’ which “betrays an awareness that ‘Messiah’ was not a proper name, and therefore reflects Jewish rather than Christian usage.” Unfortunately, this is also inconclusive. From the fact that Josephus needed to distinguish this Jesus from other people in his book named Jesus, it does not follow that the phrase “called the Christ” was the most likely way Josephus could have identified Jesus. Josephus could have also said, “the one who was crucified by Pilate,” since Josephus’ earlier reference to Jesus (see below) did mention that point.[21]

McDowell and Wilson also have occasion to consider an objection by G.A. Wells to this passage, that “it is unlikely that Josephus would have mentioned Jesus here simply–as it were–in passing, when he mentions him nowhere else.”[22] In response, McDowell and Wilson argue that Wells’ “statement demonstrates that even he recognizes that the James passage is incomplete without the Testimonium.”[23] However, it is false that the James passage is incomplete without the Testimonium. Just read the passage: the meaning of the passage is quite clear without reference to the Testimonium. Moreover, McDowell’s and Wilson’s rejoinder completely neglects the primary flaw in Wells’ objection. Even if we assume that the Testimonium is completely inauthentic, there is simply no reason to expect Josephus to have said anything more about Jesus.

But the above objection is hardly the only objection to the authenticity of this passage, and it is certainly not Wells’ only objection. In Wells’ 1982 book, The Historical Evidence for Jesus, Wells objects that “the Greek does not have ‘so-called’ but ‘him called Christ,’ and this, so far from being non-Christian, is the exact wording of Mt. 1:16.”[24] Furthermore, in Wells’ later books, he presents additional objections to the authenticity of the passage.[25] So while I think McDowell’s and Wilson’s conclusion concerning this passage is correct, their discussion is incomplete. Readers interested in a complete summary of the debate concerning this shorter passage will need to go elsewhere.

(b) The Testimonium Flavianum probably contained an authentic, independent witness to Jesus. Josephus was known as “Flavius Josephus” from his patrons the Flavian emperors, Vespasian and his sons Titus and Domitian. Testimonium Flavianum means literally “Testimony of Flavius” and refers to Antiquities 18.3.3 §63-64:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ, and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians so named from him are not extinct at this day.

Unlike Josephus’ shorter reference to Jesus, this passage is extremely controversial. Indeed, even McDowell admits this when he writes that the Testimonium Flavianum is “a hotly-contested quotation.”[26] Most scholars suspect there has been at least some tampering with the text on the basis of some or all of the italicized sections. Thus scholarly opinion can be divided into three camps: those who accept the entire passage as authentic; those who reject the entire passage as a Christian interpolation into the text (perhaps authored by the fourth-century church historian Eusebius); and those who believe that the original text contained an authentic reference to Jesus but was later embellished by Christian copyists.

In He Walked Among Us, McDowell and Wilson seem to favor the third option. They begin their discussion of the evidence by considering several arguments favoring the authenticity of the Testimonium: (i) the passage exists in all extant manuscripts of Josephus; (ii) Eusebius quotes it around the beginning of the fourth century; (iii) the vocabulary and style are basically consistent with other parts of Josephus; and (iv) the passage blames for the crucifixion of Jesus on Pilate rather than on Jewish authorities.[27] However, contrary to what McDowell and Wilson assert, not all of these arguments are “strong.” (i) is irrelevant; the extant Greek manuscripts of Josephus’ Antiquities all date to the tenth century or later![28] (ii) is also irrelevant; three centuries is still plenty of time for an interpolation. (iii) is inconclusive. While the vocabulary and style are basically consistent with the writings of Josephus, McDowell and Wilson present no evidence that the vocabulary and style of Josephus would have been hard to imitate.[29] Finally, (iv) is the one good argument in the bunch. Whereas the gospels tend to blame the Jews for Jesus’ death, the Testimonium blames the Romans. Furthermore, it does not mention anything about Jewish authorities sentencing Jesus. It is difficult to explain how the hands of a Christian interpolator near the time of Eusebius would have left this intact.

McDowell and Wilson next consider several objections to the authenticity of the Testimonium: (i) it is unlikely that Josephus would have called Jesus the Messiah; (ii) it is unlikely that Josephus would have written the other italicized phrases; (iii) the passage is never quoted by Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, or Origen, despite its enormous apologetic value; and (iv) the passage interrupts the narrative flow of the surrounding text. I find McDowell’s and Wilson’s answers to all four of these objections convincing. As they correctly point out, removing the italicized sections from the passage answers objections (i)-(iii).[30] Turning to (iv), I think McDowell’s and Wilson’s answer is incomplete. In response to Gordon Stein’s objection that “the passage comes in the middle of a collection of stories about calamities which have befallen the Jews,”[31] McDowell and Wilson rightly note that in Josephus’ chapter containing the Testimonium, “[o]nly two of the five paragraphs … are true calamities.”[32] While this is certainly correct, this does not answer the objection by Wells (quoted by McDowell and Wilson), that “if the passage is excised, the argument runs on in proper sequence.”[33] Given that this objection is a common one, it deserves an answer.

My answer would be as follows. Even if the passage were out of context, that would still not make it likely that the passage is an interpolation. It was common for ancient writers to insert extraneous texts or passages which seemingly interrupt the flow of the narrative (whereas today the material would be placed in a footnote):

A further main reason why ancient historiography differed from its modern counterparts was provided by digressions. They were far more frequent in Greek and Roman writings than in our own. For one thing, there was a simple technical explanation for such digressions. Nowadays we have footnotes; the ancients did not, so that what would now be relegated to a footnote had to appear in the text. But there was also a deeper philosophical explanation. The Greek and Roman historians wanted to supply background….[34]

Moreover, as E. Mary Smallwood argues, this was particularly characteristic of Josephus:

One feature of Josephus’ writing which may be disconcerting to the modern reader and appear inartistic is the way in which at times the narrative is proceeding at a spanking pace when it is unceremoniously cut short by a paragraph or a longer passage of material unrelated or only marginally related to the subject in hand, and then resumed equally abruptly. Basically, these interruptions are of two types, with different reasons behind them, and it may therefore be helpful if a word is said here about the conventions of ancient historiography, which differed considerably from ours.

One type of interruption, such as a sudden move to another theatre of war, occurs because ancient historians usually wrote annalistically—literally, by years …

A quite different explanation lies behind other interruptions to the flow of the narrative. The ancient world never invented those useful lay-bys in which the modern author can park essential but intractable material, and thus avoid breaking the main thread of his argument, the footnote and the appendix … what we relegate to notes and appendixes appeared as digressions.[35]

But in fact I see no reason to believe the Testimonium occurs out of context. For example, New Testament scholar R.T. France has argued that Josephus is simply listing events that happened during or near Pilate’s reign.[36] And Steve Mason thinks that Josephus is merely “trying to paint a picture of escalating tension for Jews around the world.”[37] It is therefore unclear why the Testimonium is “out of context.”

There was one objection which McDowell and Wilson did not discuss, but which I think deserves to be taken seriously by anyone who defends a reconstructed Testimonium. According to that objection, the fact that there has been any tampering with the text at all makes the entire passage suspect; a heavy burden of proof falls upon anyone who defends partial authenticity. I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide what to think about this objection.

As further evidence for the authenticity of the Testimonium, McDowell and Wilson cite the Arabic version of the Testimonium preserved by tenth-century Bishop Agapius of Hierapolisin his World History. Schlomo Pines, the Israeli scholar who rediscovered the Arabic text, translates the passage as follows:

At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good, and [he] was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.[38]

McDowell and Wilson believe that this text “provides textual justification for excising the Christian passages and demonstrating that Josephus probably discussed Jesus in Antiquities 18.”[39]

However, this text is far from conclusive. Although McDowell and Wilson claim the Arabic version actually dates to the fourth century, they provide no defense or justification for that claim.[40] Yet even if the Arabic version can be dated to the fourth century, the text would still not provide any additional evidence for the authenticity of the Testimonium. Again, three centuries would still have been plenty of time for the Testimonium to have been interpolated. Indeed, for all we know, the extant Greek versions and the Arabic version have a common source, perhaps the original interpolation itself! Though McDowell and Wilson quote Pines’ translation of the text, they neglect to mention that Pines himself is quite cautious about claiming that the Arabic text represents Josephus’ original. Indeed, Pines admits there are other explanations for the text besides the one favored by McDowell and Wilson.[41]

In conclusion, I think McDowell is right to appeal to the Testimonium as independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus. However, given the centuries-old debate over how much, if any, of the Testimonium is authentic, McDowell’s mere quotation of the full Testimonium (combined with an acknowledgement that the quotation is “hotly-disputed”) is simply inexcusable. By itself, the unqualified quotation of the Testimonium in ETDAV gives readers the misleading impression that, although there is some unspecified controversy concerning the passage, McDowell accepts the full authenticity of the Testimonium. Furthermore, since skepticism concerning the authenticity of the Testimonium is fairly widespread, I think McDowell did a disservice to his mostly Christian audience by not answering these objections. Indeed, if McDowell had made it clear in ETDAV that his own view is that the Testimonium is partially authentic, that would have answered most of the objections. Of course, McDowell and Wilson have discussed the objections at some length in their 1988 book, He Walked Among Us. But many of their arguments for authenticity are weak; their response to one of the objections against authenticity is incomplete; and they neglected what I consider to be a very serious objection against their view.

2. The Talmud contains inconclusive evidence of Jesus. The Talmud [42] is a massive compilation divided into two parts, the Mishna [43] and the Gemara [44]. The Mishna was codified by Rabbi Jehudah ha-Nasi circa 200 CE but was not actually committed to writing until the fifth century; it discusses numerous subjects, including festivals, sacred things, etc. The Gemara was completed in the fifth century and is really a commentary on the Mishna.

McDowell cites six lines of evidence for the historical Jesus from the Talmudic writings:

(a) The Tol’doth Yeshu. At the outset, note that the Tol’doth Yeshu is not in any sense a part of the Talmud; in ETDAV McDowell erroneously lists the Tol’doth Yeshu as if it were a part of the Talmud. (In fairness to McDowell, I should note that he does not repeat this error in his later book, He Walked Among Us; in that volume, the Tol’doth Yeshu is listed under the heading of “References from the Rabbis.”[45]) Anyway, McDowell states that the Tol’doth Yeshu is a reference to Jesus; in that document “Jesus is referred to as `Ben Pandera'”.[46] Yet Joseph Klausner–who McDowell relies on heavily in his section on the Talmud–believed the Tol’doth Yeshu “contains no history worth the name.”[47] Furthermore, Klausner stated, “The present Hebrew Tol’Doth Yeshu, even in its simplest form, is not earlier than the present Yosippon, i.e. it was not composed before the tenth century. Therefore it cannot possibly possess any historical value nor in any way be used as material for the life of Jesus.”[48] Even on McDowell’s view, this is more than enough time for legendary development. And in He Walked Among Us, McDowell and Wilson list the Tol’doth Yeshu among the “unreliable [rabbinic] references to Jesus.”

(b) The Babylonian Talmud. McDowell next lists the opinion of the Amoraim that Jesus was hanged on the eve of Passover.[49] However, Klausner thinks that the Amoraim traditions “can have no objective historical value (since by the time of the Amoraim there was certainly no clear recollection of Jesus’ life and works).”[50] Morris Goldstein states that the passage “cannot be fixed at a definite date within the Tannaitic time-area.”[51] The value of this passage as independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus is therefore uncertain.

(c) The tradition about Jesus as the son of Pantera. Commenting on the Talmud’s references to Jesus as “Ben Pandera (or ‘Ben Pantere’)” and “Jeshu ben Pandera,” McDowell writes, “Many scholars say `pandera’ is a play on words, a travesty on the Greek word for virgin `parthenos,’ calling him `son of a virgin.'”[52] However, “Jesus is never referred to as `the son of the virgin’ in the Christian material preserved from the first century of the Church (30-130), nor in the second century apologists.”[53] As Herford argues, this passage “cannot be earlier than the beginning of the fourth century, and is moreover a report of what was said in Babylonia, not Palestine.”[54]

(d) The Baraitha describing hanging Yeshu on the eve of Passover. McDowell considers “of great historical value” the following Jewish tradition about the hanging of Jesus:

On the eve of Passover they hanged Yeshu (of Nazareth) and the herald went before him for forty days saying (Yeshu of Nazareth) is going forth to be stoned in that he hath practiced sorcery and beguiled and led astray Israel. Let everyone knowing aught in his defence come and plead for him. But they found naught in his defence and hanged him on the eve of Passover.[55]

It is unclear whether this passage refers to Jesus. As Goldstein admits, “the possibility of the Jesus named in the Talmud being someone other than Jesus of Nazareth, and identified as such only because of confusion, cannot be entirely dismissed.”[56] But even if the passage does refer to the Jesus of the New Testament, according to Goldstein, “it is of no help one way or the other in the question of the historicity of Jesus.”[57]

Following this Baraitha are some remarks of the Amora ‘Ulla, a disciple of R. Yochanan and who lived inPalestine at the end of the third century. McDowell quotes these remarks as follows:

‘Ulla said: And do you suppose that for [Yeshu of Nazareth] there was any right of appeal? He was a beguiler, and the Merciful One hath said: Thou shalt not spare neither shalt thou conceal him. It is otherwise with Yeshu, for he was near to the civil authority.[58]

Both McDowell and Klausner conclude, “The Talmud authorities do not deny that Jesus worked signs and wonders, but they look upon them as acts of sorcery.”[59] However, given our ignorance of both the date of these passages as well as the author’s sources, we simply can’t assume these passages represent independent traditions about Jesus.

(e) Talmudic references to the disciples of Jesus. McDowell writes, “Sanhedrin 43a also makes references to the disciples of Jesus.”[60] Turning to Joseph Klausner, we read:

Immediately after this Baraita comes a second (Sanh. 43a): Jesus had five disciples, Mattai, Naqai, Netser, Buni and Todah.[61]

Yet as Klausner notes, “In any case the Baraita itself is lacking in accuracy, for although the names are those of real disciples, they include some who were not disciples of Jesus himself, but disciples of the second generation.”[62] In other words, the list of names is simply a list of Christians, not a list of contemporaries of Jesus.[63]

Laible has suggested that “the story refers to the prosecution of Christians under Bar Cocheba”[64] because (1) the story occurs in the same passage which describes the death of Jesus and (2) “the key to the understanding of the statements there made about Jesus in the anti-Christian hatred of Bar Cocheba, and more especially of Aqiba, his chief supporter.”[65] If that is the case, then the passage can be dated to the second century, which would prevent it from providing independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus.

(f) The reference to such-an-one as a bastard of an adulteress. McDowell, following the lead of Klausner, cites the following passage from the Babylonian Talmud, Yebamoth 4.49a:

R. Shimeon ben Azzai said: ‘I found a geneaological roll in Jerusalemwherein was recorded, Such-an-one is a bastard of an adulteress.'”[66]

McDowell takes this to be a reliable reference to Jesus.[67]

However, there are good reasons to doubt that this passage represents an independent tradition about Jesus. First, the passage comes from the Babylonian Talmud, which dates to around the sixth century. Second, the gospel of Matthew begins with the words, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ.”[68] This “genealogical roll” or “Book of Pedigrees” may have been influenced by the gospels. Third, this passage fits the pattern of Rabbinical polemic. Thus this reference may not be based upon an independent source. Of course, it’s also possible that this passage was based on independent sources. The available evidence does not favor one view over the other; thus, we can’t use this passage as independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus.

(g) The reference to the ‘hire of a harlot.’ Finally, McDowell quotes the following passage from the Talmud:

He answered, Akiba, you have reminded me! Once I was walking along the upper market (Tosefta reads ‘street’) of Sepphoris and found one [of the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth] and Jacob of Kefar Sekanya (Tosefta reads ‘Sakkanin’) was his name. He said to me, It is written in your Law, ‘Thou shalt not bring the hire of a harlot, etc.’ What was to be done with it–a latrine for the High Priest? But I answered nothing. He said to me, so [Jesus of Nazareth] taught me (Tosefta reads, ‘Yeshu ben Pantere’): ‘For of the hire of a harlot hath she gathered them, and unto the hire of a harlot shall they return’; from the place of filth they come, and unto the place of filth they shall go. And the saying pleased me, and because of this I was arrested for Minuth. And I transgressed against what is written in the Law; ‘Keep thy way far from here’–that is Minuth; ‘and come not nigh the door of her house’–that is the civil government.[69]

What is crucial to the evidential force of this passage is the words in parentheses; yet McDowell never defends them. He simply quotes Klausner, who in turn quoted an obscure, 19th century manuscript.[70] Nonetheless, most scholars would reject the passage as McDowell has it:

To establish the reliability of this passage, Klausner must engage in a contorted argument that includes an appeal to Hegesippus’ account of the martyrdom of James–something that would not inspire confidence in many scholars today. Joachim Jeremias weighs the pros and cons of the argument about authenticity and decides in the negative–rightly in my view. The saying is a polemical invention meant to make Jesus look ridiculous.[71]

In conclusion, the value of the Talmud as a witness to the historicity of Jesus is at best uncertain. John Meier argues that the Talmud contains “no clear or probable reference to Jesus.”[72] And Twelftree states that the Talmud is “of almost no value to the historian in his search for the historical Jesus.”[73] Of course, as McDowell and Wilson point out, the Talmud never questions the historicity of Jesus.[74] But that fact cannot itself be used as evidence for the historicity of Jesus, for two reasons. First, as Goldstein points out,

we must be careful not to make too much of [the] argument [that had Jews doubted the historicity of Jesus, they would have said so]. It is not conclusive. Can we attribute to ancient peoples our modern concept of myth, or historicity? Furthermore, this manner of logic lends itself to fallacious extension whereby one could attempt to prove that whatever the early Jewish tradition does not specifically mention in contradiction to the Christian tradition must have taken place.[75]

Second, the Talmud can only provide independent confirmation of Jesus’s existence if it relied on independent sources. Given our ignorance of the sources for the Talmud as well as its late date, it simply can’t be used as independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus.

Pagan Sources

McDowell cites several pagan writers in support of the historicity of Jesus: Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Suetonius, Thallus, Phlegon, Mara Bar-Serapion, Lucian, Tertullian, and Thallus. I shall argue that none of these writers provide independent confirmation of Jesus.

1. Pliny does not offer any independent evidence for Jesus. Pliny the Younger (62?-c.113) was Governor of Bithynia (northwestern Turkey). Around 111 or 112 CE,[76] he wrote the following letter to the emperor Trajan asking for advice on how to deal with Christians.

It is a rule, Sir, which I inviolably observe, to refer myself to you in all my doubts; for who is more capable of guiding my uncertainty or informing my ignorance? Having never been present at any trials of the Christians, I am unacquainted with the method and limits to be observed either in examining or punishing them. Whether any difference is to be allowed between the youngest and the adult; whether repentance admits to a pardon, or if a man has been once a Christian it avails him nothing to recant; whether the mere profession of Christianity, albeit without crimes, or only the crimes associated therewith are punishable–in all these points I am greatly doubtful.

In the meanwhile, the method I have observed towards those who have denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed. For whatever the nature of their creed might be, I could at least feel not doubt that contumacy and inflexible obstinacy deserved chastisement. There were others also possessed with the same infatuation, but being citizens ofRome, I directed them to be carried thither.

These accusations spread (as is usually the case) from the mere fact of the matter being investigated and several forms of the mischief came to light. A placard was put up, without any signature, accusing a large number of persons by name. Those who denied they were, or had ever been, Christians, who repeated after me an invocation to the Gods, and offered adoration, with wine and frankincense, to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for that purpose, together with those of the Gods, and who finally cursed Christ–none of which acts, it is into performing–these I thought it proper to discharge. Others who were named by that informer at first confessed themselves Christians, and then denied it; true, they had been of that persuasion but they had quitted it, some three years, others many years, and a few as much as twenty-five years ago. They all worshipped your statue and the images of the Gods, and cursed Christ.

They affirmed, however, the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food–but food of an ordinary and innocent kind. Even this practice, however, they had abandoned after the publication of my edict, by which, according to your orders, I had forbidden political associations. I judged it so much the more necessary to extract the real truth, with the assistance of torture, from two female slaves, who were styled deaconesses: but I could discover nothing more than depraved and excessive superstition.

I therefore adjourned the proceedings, and betook myself at once to your counsel. For the matter seemed to me well worth referring to you, especially considering the numbers endangered. Persons of all ranks and ages, and of both sexes are, and will be, involved in the prosecution. For this contagious superstition is not confined to the cities only, but has spread through the villages and rural districts; it seems possible, however, to check and cure it. ‘Tis certain at least that the temples, which had been almost deserted, begin now to be frequented; and the sacred festivals, after a long intermission, are again revived; while there is a general demand for sacrificial animals, which for some time past have met with but few purchasers. From hence it is easy to imagine what multitudes may be reclaimed from this error, if a door be left open to repentance.[77]

Although this passage mentions only Christ, it is virtually certain that this passage refers to Jesus. Given that everything Pliny claims to know about Christians is attributed to Christian sources (the recanters who reported what Christians really did, and the two deaconesses that he tortured to find out what the religion was about), it is extremely likely that Pliny was referring to the same “Christ” they would have spoken about: Jesus.

But even if the passage refers to Jesus, how does it provide independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus? McDowell and Wilson argue the fact that Christians were willing to die for their beliefs is extremely unlikely unless there had been an historical Jesus.[78] However, it is unlikely that all of these martyrs had firsthand knowledge of the historicity of Jesus since Pliny did not even become Governor of Bithynia until around 110. Furthermore, Pliny also stated that many people had renounced Christianity years before Pliny’s interrogation. Indeed, one could argue that some of the Christians who recanted under Pliny were the very ones with firsthand knowledge of the historicity of Jesus: they knew that their beliefs were false and not worth dying for! Although I think that explanation for their recanting is rather doubtful–we don’t know if any of the martyrs had firsthand knowledge of the historicity of Jesus–it is consistent with all of the evidence we have.[79]

Christian historian Robert Wilken concludes, Pliny’s “knowledge of the new movement must have been slight and largely second-hand.”[80] And France writes, “for our purposes, looking for evidence about Jesus, [Pliny’s letter] has nothing specific to offer. … Pliny seems to have discovered nothing about him as a historical figure.”[81] Thus, Pliny’s letter cannot be used as independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus.

2. There is inconclusive evidence that Tacitus had independent sources. The Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus, writing in 115 CE, explicitly states that Nero prosecuted the Christians in order to draw attention away from himself for Rome’s devastating fire of 64 CE:

But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the prince could bestow, nor all the atonements which could be presented to the gods, availed to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.[82]

Scholarly debate surrounding this passage has been mainly concerned with Tacitus’ sources and not with the authorship of the passage (e.g., whether it is an interpolation) or its reliability.[83] Various scenarios have been proposed to explain how Tacitus got his information. One possibility is that Tacitus learned the information from another historian he trusted (e.g., Josephus). Another possibility (suggested by Harris) is that he obtained the information from Pliny the Younger. According to Harris, “Tacitus was an intimate friend and correspondent of the younger Pliny and was therefore probably acquainted with the problems Pliny encountered with the Christians during his governorship in Bithynia – Pontus (c. A.D. 110-112).”[84] (Defenders of this position may note that Tacitus was also governing in Asia in the very same years as Pliny’s encounters with Christians [112-113], making communication between them on the event very likely.)[85] Norman Perrin and Dennis C. Duling mention a related possibility; they state that Tacitus’ information “is probably based on the police interrogation of Christians.”[86] Yet another possibility (suggested by Habermas and defended by McDowell and Wilson) is that Tacitus obtained the information from official documents.[87] (I shall say more about this possibility below.) It is also possible that the information was common knowledge. Finally, there is the view (defended by Wells, France, and Sanders) that Tacitus simply repeated what Christians at the time were saying.[88] The bottom line is this: given that Tacitus did not identify his source(s), we simply don’t know how Tacitus obtained his information. Holding himself admits, “Truthfully, there is no way to tell” where Tacitus obtained his information about Jesus.[89] Therefore, we can’t use Annals XV.47 as independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus.

McDowell and Wilson disagree. They give nine reasons for believing that “Tacitus had information other than what he heard from Christians”, which may be briefly summarized as follows: (i) Tacitus does not say he was repeating information obtained from other sources; (ii) “both Justin and Tertullian challenged their readers to go read for themselves the official secular documents;” (iii) as a Roman Senator, Tacitus had access to official records; (iv) on other matters, Tacitus states that he used reliable sources and followed the majority of historians; (v) Tacitus is careful to record conflicts in his sources; (vi) he does not quote his sources uncritically; (vii) he qualifies his opinion when others do not; (viii) he distinguishes between rumor and fact; and (ix) even if Tacitus did not have independent sources concerning the historicity of Jesus, he still records the fact that Christians were willing to be martyred for their beliefs.[90]

As I argued above, it is certainly possible that Tacitus obtained his information from independent sources. But have McDowell and Wilson been able to show that it is probable that Tacitus did so? Let’s consider each of these reasons in turn. (i), (vii) and (viii) are simply beside the point. To be sure, all Tacitean scholars believe that Tacitus in general was a very reliable historian who was trustworthy, critical of his sources, and usually accurate.[91] But there are exceptions to this rule. Michael Grant, quoting Tacitean scholar R. Mellor, notes that Tacitus occasionally reported stories which were false historically[92] but were true in a literary sense[93] or a moral sense[94]. Turning to Mellor, we read that

Besides relaying unverifiable rumors, Tacitus occasionally reported a rumor or report that he knew was false. When reporting Augustus’s trip to be reconciled with his exiled grandson Agrippa, he alludes to a rumor that the emperor was killed by his wife Livia to prevent Agrippa’s reinstatement… All the components of such a tale foreshadow the murder of Claudius by his wife Agrippina to allow her son Nero to succeed before the emperor reverted to his own son Brittanicus. Tacitus is content to use the rumors to besmirch by association Livia and Tiberius who, whatever their failings, never displayed the deranged malice of an Agrippina and a Nero. It is good literature but it can be irresponsible history.[95]

There is no good reason to believe that Tacitus conducted independent research concerning the historicity of Jesus. The context of the reference was simply to explain the origin of the term “Christians,” which was in turn made in the context of documenting Nero’s vices. Tacitus thus refers to “Christus” in the context of a moral attack on Nero. Remember that according to Michael Grant, this is the very type of story in which Tacitus might be willing to repeat unhistorical information. And if Tacitus were willing to repeat unhistorical information in such a context, surely he would be willing to repeat noncontroversial, incidental, historically accurate information (such as the historicity of Jesus) without verifying the matter firsthand. Besides, in the context of the passage, it is unclear that Tacitus (or anyone else for that matter) would have even thought to investigate whether “Christus” actually existed, especially given that Tacitus called Christianity a “pernicious superstition.” (To make an analogy, although I am extremely skeptical of Mormonism, I’m willing to take the Mormon explanation for the origin of the term “Mormon” at face value!) As Robert L. Wilken, a Christian historian, states:

Christianity is not part of Tacitus’s history. Except for the one reference in the Annales, he shows no interest in the new movement. When he adverts to Christians in the book it is not because he is interested in Christianity as such or aimed to inform his readers about the new religion, as, for example, he did in a lengthy discussion in another work, the Histories (5.1-13), but because he wished to make a point about the extent of Nero’s vanity and the magnitude of his vices, and to display the crimes he committed against the Roman people.[96]

That Tacitus was uninterested in Christianity is confirmed by Mellor:

For a man who served as governor of Asia his knowledge of Jews and Christians is woefully (and unnecessarily) confused, since the Jewish historian Josephus lived in Romeand Tacitus’s good friend Pliny knew something of the Christians. But Tacitus is contemptuous of all easterners–Greeks, Jews, and Egyptians alike–and he clearly thought them unworthy of the curiosity and research he lavised on court intrigues.[97]

Mellor concludes that Tacitus “scorned or merely ignored” the Jews, Christians, and other religious groups.[98] Since the historicity of Jesus was not in doubt at the time Tacitus wrote and since Tacitus’ reference to Christus is entirely incidental, Tacitus would have had no motive for investigating the historicity of Jesus. As far as Tacitus and his “political peers” would have been concerned, the fact that Tacitus did not investigate the historicity of Jesus would have been no strike against Tacitus’ “prestige and honor.”[99] On the contrary, Tacitus still would have been considered to be exhibiting high standards of professionalism and integrity at the time he wrote![100]

As for (ii), I have already addressed both Justin’s reference to an alleged document, ‘Acts of Pilate,’ and Tertullian’s reference to Tiberius. Neither the evidence from Justin nor the information provided by Tertullian make it probable that official Roman records confirmed the historicity of Jesus. Moreover, the records may have been destroyed during the First Jewish Revolt.

Turning to (iii), Harris has doubted whether Tacitus would have had access to the imperial archives,[101] but Holding has convincingly argued that if Tacitus had wanted access to some record, he could have gotten it.[102] Nevertheless, there is no reason to believe that Tacitus had a motive for accessing those records. Moreover, we do not even know whether official records (now lost) said anything about Jesus.

Concerning (iv) and (vi), Grant notes that Tacitus was only skeptical “on occasion,” that he “persistent[ly] and lamentabl[y]” accepted many rumors, and that he “conducted extremely little independent research, quite often [he] quotes the sources that were available to him,”[103] a fact that is consistent with the hypothesis that Tacitus simply repeated what he learned from Christian sources. Grant quotes the following excerpt from Goodyear:

One feature very damaging to Tacitus’s credit is the manner in which he employs rumores. Of course, a historian may properly report the state of public opinion at particular times, or use the views of contemporaries on major historical figures as a form of ‘indirect characterisation’ of them. But Tacitus often goes far beyond this.

He implants grave suspicions which he neither substantiates nor refutes. Their cumulative effect can be damning and distorting…. Time and again Tacitus is ready with an unpleasant motive, susceptible neither of proof nor of disproof.[104]

Again, we simply don’t have enough data to justify the claim that Tacitus probably had independent sources for his information about Jesus.

(v) is a non sequitur, not to mention an argument from silence. The fact that Tacitus does not mention any conflict in his sources is just as probable on the hypothesis that Tacitus obtained his information from Roman records as it is on the hypothesis that Tacitus learned his information from Christian sources. On the latter hypothesis, this would simply imply that none of Tacitus’ Christian sources doubted their own reports, which is precisely what we would expect even if Tacitus had obtained his information from Christian sources. This is completely inconclusive.

Finally, (ix) is irrelevant to determining whether Tacitus had independent sources. Yes, Tacitus testifies that Christians were martyred for their beliefs. But his testimony can only provide independent confirmation if he had independent sources, the very point at issue. (Besides, there is no reason to believe that Christians had a choice in whether they were martyred. Thus, even if they were not willing to die, they would have died anyway. Note that Tacitus does not report whether any of them tried to escape by recanting. Moreover, initially only Christians who were “out of the closet” were seized; they were forced to reveal the others who were unknown or in hiding. Finally, from Pliny’s letters, we know that many Christians in 112 were ready to recant their beliefs in order to save their lives. And there is no evidence that Christians in 64 had any better evidence to base their faith on than Christians in 112.)[105]

In short, at best, McDowell and Wilson have presented an inconclusive case for believing that Tacitus provides independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus. And contrary to what some apologists (not necessarily McDowell or Wilson) have suggested, it is not just ‘Christ-mythicists’ who deny that Tacitus provides independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus; indeed, there are numerous Christian scholars who do the same! For example, Francewrites, Annals XV.44 “cannot carry alone the weight of the role of ‘independent testimony’ with which it has often been invested.”[106] E.P. Sanders notes, “Roman sources that mention [Jesus] are all dependent on Christian reports.”[107] And William Lane Craig states that Tacitus’ statement is “no doubt dependent on Christian tradition.”[108]

3. It is unclear that Suetonius knew of Jesus. Suetonius, the Roman historian and biographer formerly known as Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, wrote several works, including his Lives of the Twelve Caesars, which is an account of the lives of the first twelve Roman emperors. In his Life of Claudius, he writes:

As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.[109]

In order to use this as a reference to Jesus, McDowell must assume that this ‘Chrestus’ was Jesus. Thus, in He Walked Among Us, we find McDowell and Wilson declaring that “Chrestus was probably a misspelling of ‘Christ’ (Greek ‘Christus’).”[110] Quoting France, McDowell and Wilson argue that ‘Chrestus’ is a misspelling of ‘Christus’ because (i) ‘Chrestus’ is a Greek name; and (ii) the meaning of ‘Christus’ would be unfamiliar to a Gentile audience. Furthermore, McDowell and Wilson argue (iii) that Christian witnessing to the Jews in AD 49 (similar to that recorded in Acts 18) “probably resulted in the hostilities which led to the expulsion of all Jews from Rome.” This, they argue, would have led to the writing of a Roman “police report” which in turn would have attributed the violence to ‘Chrestus’ (a familiar name).[111]

I find these arguments unconvincing. Indeed, while stating that it is possible that this passage is a misspelled reference to Jesus, Francenevertheless dismisses (i) and (ii). According to France, the claim that ‘Chrestus’ is a misspelling of ‘Christus’ “can never be more than a guess, and the fact that Suetonius can elsewhere speak of ‘Christians’ as members of a new cult (without any reference to Jews) surely makes it rather unlikely that he could make such a mistake.”[112] McDowell and Wilson never offer any reasons for rejectingFrance’s argument on this point. As for (iii), this is so speculative as to be laughable. There is no evidence of such a police report and there is no evidence that Christian preaching to the Jews led to hostilities which in turn led to the Jews’ expulsion fromRome. In sum, then, McDowell and Wilson have been unable to show that this passage even refers to Jesus.

McDowell also quotes Lives of the Caesars–where Suetonius mentions Nero’s punishment of Christians–though his reference is incorrect. (McDowell lists the passage as originating in 26.2; the passage is actually found in 16.2.[113]) The passage reads as follows:

Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.

McDowell and Wilson think this “verifies” that Christians were “being put to death” for their Christian beliefs.[114]

However, Suetonius “verifies” nothing of the sort. Suetonius only says that Christians were punished, not that they were “put to death.” Moreover, Suetonius does not say that the Christians were punished simply for being Christians; indeed, Suetonius does not specify their crime at all. As the Christian New Testament scholar R.T. France, who McDowell quotes repeatedly in his 1988 work, notes

The great fire of AD 64 is not mentioned in this connection, and indeed the punishment of Christians is included in that part of the book (up to section 19) which deals with Nero’s good acts, before he turned to vice and crime. (The fire is not reported until section 38, where it is unconditionally blamed on Nero himself.) Nor does Suetonius even so much as mention the ‘Christus’ from whom their name derived.[115]

In short, this passage is not independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus. As Wells argues, this passage “tells us nothing more than what we already know about this from Tacitus and nothing about Jesus himself.”[116]

4. There is no reason to believe that Thallus is a witness, much less an independent witness, to the historicity of Jesus. Although the works of Thallus are not extant, the Christian writer Julius Africanus refers to them in the following passage cited by McDowell:

Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun–unreasonably, as it seems to me.[117]

Dating of the Thallus material referenced by Africanus is problematic. Eusebius references a “brief compendium” of world history by this Thallus in three volumes from the fall of Troy(1184 BCE) to the 167th Olympiad (109 BCE). Yet virtually all scholars have conjectured that the latter date is in error and that the original date was either the 207th Olympiad (CE 49-52) or the 217th Olympiad (CE 89-92).[118] Thus, if one accepts that the book referenced by Eusebius is the same book in which Thallus mentioned an eclipse, one could date Thallus’ book between CE 49 and CE 180 (when Theophilus mentions Thallus).

However, ancient historian Richard Carrier argues persuasively that the work described by Eusebius

does not appear to be the same work quoted by everyone else. This is because it is described as a “brief compendium” (in three volumes, which is indeed exceedingly brief–equivalent to three chapters in a modern book) covering the years from the fall of Troy (1184 BC) to the 167th Olympiad (109 BC), but Thallus is often cited for events long preceding the Fall of Troy, and on one occasion appears to be cited regarding an event at the death of Christ, which comes long after 109 BC (leading several scholars to amend the text to give a later date). In all cases the nature of the facts being drawn from Thallus further suggests a rather detailed work, and not a “brief compendium.” It is most likely that the book referenced by Eusebius is one of at least two works by Thallus, and not the work in which he mentions the darkness associated with the death of Christ (if he mentioned this at all).[119]

Thus, it appears that Eusebius was probably correct in stating that Thallus’s compendium ended with the 167th Olympiad (109 BCE).

Some scholars have suggested that a reference to this same Thallus can be found in Josephus’s Antiquities (18.167). The relevant passage in Josephus refers to a Samaritan freedman of Tiberius, whose reign began in CE 14.[120] Yet, as Carrier notes, Josephus’s “reference” to Thallus was actually invented in the 18th century:

But most importantly, the name does not in fact appear in any extant text of Josephus. The passage in question (Antiquities of the Jews 18.167) does not have the word THALLOS in any extant manuscript or translation, but ALLOS. The addition of the letter theta (TH) was conjectured by a scholar named Hudson in 1720, on the argument that ALLOS didn’t make sense, and that Thallus was the attested name of an imperial freedman of Tiberius in inscriptions: in his own words, “I put ‘Thallos’ in place of ‘allos’ by conjecture, as he is attested to have been among the freedmen of Tiberius, going by the inscriptions of Gruter” (p. 810, translated from Hudson’s Latin). But there is no good basis for this conjecture. First, the Greek actually does make sense without the added letter (it means “another”), and all extant early translations confirm this very reading. Second, an epitome of this passage does not give a name but instead the generic “someone,” which suggests that no name was mentioned in the epitomizer’s copy.[121]

Thus, Josephus cannot help us date the material referenced by Africanus.

So when did Thallus write? We know that it could not have been later than CE 180, since that is the year Theophilus mentions Thallus. As for the earliest possible date for Thallus’s book, that depends on whether Thallus ever mentioned the darkness. As the Christian scholar R.T. France writes, Africanus does not give Thallus’ words, “so we do not know whether Thallus actually mentioned Jesus’ crucifixion, or whether this was Africanus’ interpretation of a period of darkness which Thallus had not specifically linked with Jesus.”[122] Even McDowell and Wilson acknowledge that post-apostolic writers like Africanus had a tendency to exaggerate details in their interpretations and to use “questionable sources.”[123] Thus, if Thallus did mention Jesus’ crucifixion, then Thallus could have written between CE 28 and 180. If he did not, then he could have written between 109 BCE and CE 180, a range of almost three entire centuries.

In He Walked Among Us, McDowell and Wilson argue that Africanus’s reference to Thallus provides evidence for the historicity of Jesus because Thallus

does not seek to explain away the existence and crucifixion as a definite historical event, though one which needed a naturalistic explanation for the darkness which covered the earth at the time of the event.[124]

I agree that there is no evidence Thallus ever questioned the historicity of Jesus. Moreover, it is certainly possible that Thallus referred to the crucifixion and even that he did so as an independent witness. But it also possible that Thallus did not mention Jesus’ crucifixion or even Jesus himself. Thallus may have written before the crucifixion; Africanus may have simply assumed that the darkness mentioned by Thallus was the darkness associated with Jesus’ crucifixion. Since we don’t possess any extant copies of the Thallus material, there is simply no way to know if Thallus was a witness to Jesus. Likewise, we don’t know what Thallus’s sources were. Again, it is certainly possible that Thallus had an independent source for his information, but it is equally possible that Thallus was dependent on Christian sources. Thus, even if Thallus were a witness to the historicity of Jesus, there is no reason to believe he was an independent witness. Therefore, given the present data (or the lack of it, depending on your perspective) Thallus cannot be used to provide independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus.

Moreover, the darkness itself is doubtful. As Carrier notes:

Such a story has obvious mythic overtones and can easily be doubted. That a solar eclipse should mark the death of a king was common lore among Greeks and other Mediterranean peoples (Herodotus 7.37, Plutarch Pelopidas 31.3 and Aemilius Paulus 17.7-11, Dio Cassius 55.29.3, John Lydus De Ostentis 70.a), and that such events corresponded with earthquakes was also a scientific superstition (Aristotle Meteorology 367.b.2, Pliny Natural History 2.195, Virgil Georgics 2.47.478-80). It was also typical to assimilate eclipses to major historic events, even when they did not originally correspond, or to invent eclipses for this purpose (Préaux claims to have counted 200 examples in extant literature; Boeuffle and Newton have also remarked on this tendency). The gospel stories also make a solar eclipse impossible: the crucifixion passover happened during a full moon, the darkness supposedly lasted three hours, and covered the whole earth. Such an impossible event would not fail to be recorded in the works of Seneca, Pliny, Josephus or other historians, yet it is not mentioned anywhere else outside of Christian rhetoric, so we can entirely dismiss the idea of this being a real event.[125]

Thus McDowell and Wilson, in an attempt to provide independent confirmation of Jesus, are appealing to an alleged astronomical event which itself needs independent confirmation but lacks it![126] But that entails that Africanus’s reference to Thallus does not provide independent confirmation of Jesus.

Finally, the passage does not even pass the bibliographical test, one of McDowell’s three standards for assessing historical documents. McDowell defines his bibliographical test as follows:

The bibliographical test is an examination of the textual transmission by which documents reach us. In other words, since we do not have the original documents, how reliable are the copies we have in regard to the number of manuscripts (MSS) and the time interval between the original and extant copy?[127]

With McDowell’s definition in mind, does Thallus’ Histories pass the bibliographical test? Absolutely not! The original manuscripts of Thallus’ Histories are not extant and we do not possess any copies of the original. Carrier explains:

The only manuscript copies we have of this Thallus quotation date over 1600 years after the crucifixion itself. And this is not even a tradition of Thallus, but of George Syncellus, who wrote it down from his source over 800 years after Thallus would have written the original according to McDowell, and yet not even that: for Syncellus is copying not from Thallus, but from a late copy of Africanus, who was in turn writing well over 100 years after McDowell proposes that Thallus wrote. There could not be a tradition less reliable or more prone to disastrous errors and corruptions than this![128]

Thus it is utterly impossible to determine the transmission reliability of the passage. The passage fails miserably one of the same tests for historical reliability employed by McDowell to establish the historical reliability of the Bible. The Africanus passage therefore deserves to be discarded.[129]

5. References to Phlegon of Tralles provide inconclusive evidence for Jesus. Phlegon’s works are no longer extant, but they are referenced by Julius Africanus and Philopon. McDowell cites the following comment made by Africanus:

[Phlegon] records that in the time of Tiberius Caesar at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth.[130]

Although McDowell and Wilson assume without argument that this passage is authentic, Carrier has convincingly shown that the passage is an interpolation and he is by no means the only scholar to hold this view.[131] Some of the reasons for believing this passage to be an interpolation include (i) Eusebius’ quotation of Phlegon does not include a reference to a full moon or a three-hour eclipse;[132] and (ii) “we cannot accept that, having just found fault with Thallus for calling this darkness an eclipse of the sun, Africanus then went on to cite Phlegon, without any censure at all, as calling it just that, and as adding, what he has just stated to be an absurdity, that it occurred at full moon.”[133]

6. Mara Bar-Serapion is worthless as a witness to the historicity of Jesus. Mara Bar-Serapion, an imprisoned Syrian who wrote sometime after 73 CE, made the following statement in a letter to his son:

What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samosgain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that their Kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise King die for good; He lived on in the teaching which He had given.[134]

In a previous version of this essay, citing an essay by Farrell Till, I denied that ‘wise King’ was a reference to Jesus. Emphasizing that the other characters Bar-Serapion mentions by name lived long before Jesus, Till argues that “[m]essianic pretenders in Judea were a dime a dozen” and that the ‘wise King’ could have been the “Teacher of Righteousness” mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls.[135] However, it now seems to me that this is nothing more than a bare possibility. Just because Bar-Serapion discusses Pythagoras and Socrates in the same passage as he mentions this ‘wise King’ does not make it likely that this ‘wise King’ lived during roughly the same period as them. Moreover, given that Jesus was crucified by the Romans, not the Jews, Bar-Serapion’s choice of words is inexplicable unless we assume that he received his information about this ‘wise King’ from Christians. (Remember that the Christians held the Jews at least partially responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion.) However, if Bar-Serapion received his information from Christians, two conclusions follow. First, it is highly likely that this ‘wise King’ was Jesus.[136] Second, Bar-Serapion does not provide independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus.

The value of Bar-Serapion’s letter as an independent witness to the historical Jesus is further decreased by our uncertainty concerning its date. McDowell quotes the conservative scholar F.F. Bruce as stating that the letter was “written some time later than A.D. 73, but how much later we cannot be sure.“[137] Indeed we cannot. Archibald Robertson–who accepted the historicity of Jesus–reported that “such authorities as Cureton and M’Lean date it in the second or even third” century.[138] Of course, as McDowell and Wilson point out, “the letter could be as early as the first century,” but possibility must not be confused with probability.[139] For this letter to have any value at all as a witness to the historicity of Jesus, it needs to have been written earlier rather than later, and there is simply no evidence that it was.

Yet another problem with Bar-Serapion’s letter is its historical inaccuracies. In addition to the bogus claim that the Jews executed Jesus, Bar-Serapion’s letter contains other errors. Till notes that the letter implies Pythagoras had been killed by his countrymen, yet “Pythagoras left the islandof Samosin 530 B. C. and emigrated to the Greek colony of Croton in Southern Italy. He later died in Metapontum, which is now Metaponto, Italy.”[140] McDowell and Wilson admit that Mara Bar-Serapion’s “information about Athens and Samos is inaccurate.”[141]

In closing, it is interesting to note that even Holding is forced to admit that “[t]his reference to Jesus is not particularly valuable.”[142] However, that is an understatement. Bar-Serapion’s letter is virtually worthless as a witness to the historicity of Jesus: it does not provide independent confirmation.[143]

7. Lucian is not an independent witness to Jesus. Lucian of Samosata (c.125-180 CE), was a Greek satirist best known for his dialogues (Dialogues of the Gods, Dialogues of the Dead, The Sale of Lives) ridiculing Greek mythology and philosophy; he also authored a work entitled True History. McDowell cites the following statement by Lucian written around 170 CE:

… the man who was crucified in Palestinebecause he introduced this new cult into the world…. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they were all brothers one of another after they have transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws.[144]

In a previous version of this essay, quoting Michael Grant, I questioned whether Lucian was concerned with historical accuracy.[145] I misinterpreted Grant; elsewhere Grant makes it clear that Lucian was concerned with historical accuracy. According to Grant, Lucian felt it important to separate instruction from entertainment.[146] Grant notes that Lucian felt a historian should be “stateless;” in other words, Lucian thought the historian should try to remain impartial when recording events concerning the historian’s own nation.[147] Moreover, Lucian “denounced fraudulent biography” and said that “it was the sole duty of the historian to … say exactly how things happened.”[148]

Nevertheless, given that Lucian’s statement was written near the end of the second century, it seems rather unlikely that he had independent sources of information concerning the historicity of Jesus. Lucian may have relied upon Christian sources, common knowledge, or even an earlier pagan reference (e.g., Tacitus); since Lucian does not specify his sources, we will never know. Just as is the case with Tacitus, it is quite plausible that Lucian would have simply accepted the Christian claim that their founder had been crucified. There is simply no evidence that Lucian ever doubted the historicity of Jesus. Therefore, Lucian’s concern for historical accuracy is not even relevant as Lucian would have had no motive for investigating the matter.[149]


I think there is ample evidence to conclude there was a historical Jesus. To my mind, the New Testament alone provides sufficient evidence for the historicity of Jesus, but the writings of Josephus also provide two independent, authentic references to Jesus.

As for McDowell’s other sources for the historicity of Jesus, I think they are inconclusive. There is no evidence that the written works of the church fathers were based on independent sources. Tertullian’s reference to Tiberius is inconclusive, as is Africanus’ references to Thallus. Africanus’ reference to Phlegon is probably an interpolation. The Talmud is too late to be of any value in establishing the historicity of Jesus. Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, and Lucian are not independent witnesses to the historicity of Jesus. Suetonius did not refer to Jesus. And Mara Bar-Serapion’s letter is worthless as a witness to the historicity of Jesus.[150]

Appendix: Hadrian

There is one final reference I have not mentioned until this point because McDowell does not include it in ETDAV. However, I chose to discuss this reference in an appendix because McDowell and Wilson do quote the letter in their 1988 book, He Walked Among Us. The reference is the following letter preserved by Eusebius and purportedly written by Hadrian:

I do not wish, therefore, that the matter should be passed by without examination, so that these men may neither by harassed, nor opportunity of malicious proceedings be offered to informers. If, therefore, the provincials can clearly evince their charges against the Christians, so as to answer before the tribunal, let them pursue this course only, but not by mere petitions, and mere outcries against the Christians. For it is far more proper, if any one would bring an accusation, that you should examine it.[151]

McDowell and Wilson believe this letter is “indirect evidence confirming the same things Pliny had recorded.”

Unfortunately, just as Pliny’s letter does not provide independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus, the above letter preserved by Eusebius also does not provide evidence for the historicity of Jesus. The letter quoted by Eusebius simply states that there were Christians who were tried under Hadrian, which nobody denies. Furthermore, the above letter is found only in the writings of Eusebius. Given that Eusebius’ reliability is itself doubtful, we can’t even be sure that Hadrian ever actually wrote the letter Eusebius attributes to him!


[1] Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1979), pp. 81-87.

[2] Ibid., p. ix.

[3] In other words, the mere claim that “Jesus existed” is not an extraordinary claim and therefore does not require extraordinary evidence.

[4] See G.A. Wells, The Jesus Myth (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1999).

[5] Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1979), p. 81.

[6] Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson, He Walked Among Us: Evidence for the Historical Jesus (San Benardino, CA: Here’s Life, 1988).

[7] Ibid., p. 88: “[The early writers] cited the existence of government records.” McDowell claims elsewhere (1979, p. 85) that Justin Martyr had access to “the imperial archives” of Pontius Pilate.

[8] Commenting on Paul’s claim that the Old Testament provided “advance, positive information about Jesus,” Grant writes that “Justin Martyr in the second century AD could once again furnish a long list of proof texts including some apparently fictitious examples asseverating that ‘we do this because with our own eyes we see these things having happened and happening as was prophesied.'” See Grant, p. 14.

[9] Felix Scheidweiler in New Testament Apocrypha (Revised edition, edited by Wilhem Scheemelcher, translated by R. McL. Wilson, Volume I, Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991, p. 501).

[10] McDowell and Wilson 198, pp. 24, 85.

[11] I owe this point to Richard Carrier.

[12] McDowell and Wilson, p. 89.

[13] Tertullian, Apology, V.2.

[14] Scott T. Carroll, “Tiberius” Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 6, p. 550.

[15] I owe this point to Richard Carrier.

[16] I owe this point to Richard Carrier.

[17] Antiquities 20.9.1 §200-201. Cited by McDowell 1979, p. 83.

[18] Louis H. Feldman, “Josephus” Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 3, pp. 990-1.

[19] Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson, He Walked Among Us (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1988), p. 39.

[20] Evans 1995, p. 106.

[21] Earl Doherty, “Josephus Unbound” (<URL:;, n.d.), section 4.

[22] G.A. Wells, Did Jesus Exist? (London: Pemberton, 1973), p. 11.

[23] McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 40.

[24] G.A. Wells, The Historical Evidence for Jesus (Buffalo: Prometheus, 1982), p. 211.

[25] See G.A. Wells, Who Was Jesus? A Critique of the New Testament Record (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1989), p. 22; idem, The Jesus Legend (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1996), pp. 52-53, 225 n. 19; Wells 1999, pp. 217-21.

[26] McDowell 1979, p. 82.

[27] McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 41.

[28] Doherty, n.d.

[29] Doherty quotes Guignebert as stating, “It may be admitted that the style of Josephus has been cleverly imitated, a not very difficult matter.” (In contrast, it is generally agreed that the style of Tacitus would have been much more difficult for an interpolator to imitate.) See Doherty, n.d.

[30] Concerning (iii), the reconstructed Testimonium probably would not have been very useful to the early church fathers. Consider the following reconstruction of the Testimonium:

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, for he was a teacher. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. And when Pilate condemned him to the cross, the leading men among us accused him, those who loved him from the first did not cease to do so. And to the present the tribe of Christians, named after this person, has not disappeared.

On the assumption that the above reconstruction resembles the authentic Testimonium, the text establishes nothing more than the historicity of Jesus and his crucifixion. Since we have no evidence that the historicity of Jesus or his crucifixion were questioned in the first three centuries, we should not be surprised that the passage was never quoted until the fourth century. Wells (1999, p. 201) notes that Justin, in his Dialogue with Trypho, 8, was probably not debating the existence of Jesus, but whether Jesus was important enough to have been the Messiah. Likewise, the fact that Origen simply expressed disappointment that Josephus “did not believe in Jesus as Christ” but never quoted the Testimonium is consistent with the view that the reconstructed Testimonium is authentic.

In direct response to my argument, Doherty argues that, nevertheless, the reconstructed Testimonium would have been useful to the early church fathers as it was “the sole example of a non-negative comment on Christianity by an outsider until Constantine’s conversion.” But what in the passage would have been useful? As it stands, absolutely nothing; again, there is no evidence that the historicity of Jesus and his crucifixion were in dispute at the time. Thus, Doherty is forced to conjecture that the church fathers would have “put a spin on” on the Testimonium. In other words, the passage would have been useful to the church fathers if and only if they distorted it! While that is certainly possible, such speculation hardly justifies rejecting the entire Testimonium as an interpolation. See Doherty, n.d.

[31] Gordon Stein, “The Jesus of History: A Reply to Josh McDowell” American Rationalist July/August 1982, p. 2. Republished electronically at <URL:;

[32] McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 42.

[33] Wells 1973, p. 10.

[34] Michael Grant, Greek & Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation (New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 53.

[35] Josephus, “The Jewish Wars”. Translated by G.A. Williamson. Revised with introduction by E. Mary Smallwood. Penguin Books, 1981, pp. 20-21.

[36]France1986, p. 28.

[37] Steve Mason, Josephus and the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1992), p. 164.

[38] Schlomo Pines, An Arabic Version of the Testimonium Flavianum and Its Implications (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Academic Press, 1971), p. 69. Quoted in McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 45.

[39] James H. Charlesworth, “Research on the Historical Jesus Today: Jesus and the Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Nag Hammadi Codices, Josephus, and Archaeology” Princeton Seminary Bulletin, vol. VI, no. 2, p. p. 110. Quoted in McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 45.

[40] Quoted in McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 45.

[41] Wells 1999, p. 214.

[42] Literally, “learning” or “instruction.”

[43] Literally, “oral teaching.”

[44] Literally, “completion.”

[45] McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 63.

[46] McDowell 1979, p. 85.

[47] Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth: His Life, Times, and Teachings (1922,New York: Block Publishing, 1989), p. 51.

[48] Klausner 1922, pp. 52-53.

[49] Sanhedrin 43a. Quoted in McDowell 1979, p. 85.

[50] Klausner 1922, p. 20.

[51] Morris Goldstein, Jesus in the Jewish Tradition (New York: Macmillan, 1950), p. 101.

[52] McDowell 1979, p. 85.

[53] Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician (1978,New York: Barnes & Noble, 1993), p. 47.

[54] Charles Herford, Christianity in Talmud and Midrash (1903,New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1975), p. 41.

[55] McDowell 1979, p. 85. The passage is from Babylonian Sanhedrin 43a.

[56] Goldstein 1950, p. 23.

[57] Goldstein 1950, p. 30.

[58] McDowell 1979, p. 86.

[59] McDowell 1979, p. 86 and Klausner 1922, p. 27-28.

[60] McDowell 1979, p. 86.

[61] Klausner 1922, p. 28.

[62] Ibid.

[63]Herford1975, p. 94.

[64] Quoted inHerford1975, p. 94.

[65]Herford1975, p. 94.

[66] McDowell 1979, p. 86.

[67] Ibid.; McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 69.

[68]Herford1975, p. 45.

[69] McDowell 1979, p. 86.

[70] Klausner 1922, p. 38, cites “Dikduke Sof’rim to Aboda Zara, edited by Dr. Rabinovitz from theMunichMS”.

[71] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 1991), p. 97.

[72] Meier 1991, pp. 96-97.

[73] Quoted by Edwin Yamauchi 1995, p. 21..

[74] McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 70.

[75] Goldstein 1950, p. 102.

[76] McDowell has the date as circa 112; Yamauchi states that the letter was written about 111; Robert L. Wilken dates the letter to 112. See McDowell and Wilson, p. 46; Yamauchi 1995, p. 216; and Robert L. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven: Yale, 1984), p. 15.

[77] Plinius Secundus, Epistles, X.96. The portion in italics is quoted in McDowell 1979, p. 83.

[78] McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 48.

[79] Holding suggests that Pliny, as a former “state priest,” would have had firsthand knowledge of the historicity of Jesus. However, there are two problems with that view. First, Pliny makes it clear in his letter to Trajan that he was quite ignorant of Christians. When Pliny needed to deal with the Christians, he did not know what to do; he turned to Trajan for advice. He wrote, “It is a rule, Sir, which I inviolably observe, to refer myself to you in all my doubts; for who is more capable of guiding my uncertainty or informing my ignorance?” Furthermore, Pliny acknowledged that he did not have an understanding of Christians until he interrogated the deaconesses. (Holding objects that prior to torturing the deaconesses, Pliny “knew that Christianity was a ‘cult,’ for he refers to investigations in which ‘several forms of the mischief came to light.'” However, Pliny’s reference to ‘investigations’ is a reference to his interviews of Christians during the trials; Pliny had no knowledge of Christians prior to those trials.) Finally, consider Pliny’s off-hand reference to Christian belief: “For whatever the nature of [the Christians’] creed might be.” These are not the words of a man with prior knowledge of Christianity.

Second, if it were really true that priests would have investigated Christians, Holding should be able to provide multiple examples of Roman priests investigating Christianity. He has produced nothing of the sort. Twice I have asked Holding to produce any evidence that Roman priests investigated Christians; Holding has completely ignored my requests. (Indeed, in his rebuttal to me, Holding does not even acknowledge my request!) Furthermore, in private correspondence, ancient historian Richard Carrier provided the following counterexample to Holding’s unsupported claim:

Consider, for example, Plutarch, a prominent priest and elder contemporary of Pliny, whose voluminous writings almost entirely survive–and of those that don’t we still have all the titles: never once does Plutarch ever mention Christians, even though he went out of his way to write on many religious subjects, even to attack popular superstitions and foreign cults. On Superstition and Advice to Bride and Groom reveal a serious concern with superstitions and unsavory religions and a desire to elaborate and oppose them. On Isis and Osiris, On the E at Delphi, On the Oracles of the Pythia, On the Decline of Oracles, On the Slowness of Divinities to Anger, On the Demon of Socrates, etc., prove his interest in researching or discussing foreign or exotic religious views. Platonic Questions, On the Repugnant Beliefs of Stoics, Against the Stoics, Against Colotes, Table Talk, and so on, all show Plutarch to have had a keen concern to investigate and attack theological opinions opposed to his own. Also of note is the conspicuous absence of priests presenting evidence for Pliny’s prosecutions, even though Pliny mentions (and no doubt exaggerates) the decline of attention to local temples as a result of the Christian fad. Instead, Pliny has no accusers at all, only anonymous lists, and must investigate the matter himself, on the spot. Also worthy of note is the college of silversmiths in Acts: the priestesses of Artemis are again conspicuously absent, and it is only the smiths, who make her statues, that get all riled up (although even they make no effort to “investigate” Christians but simply seek to trump up charges against them).

In direct response to this point, Holding objects that “Plutarch never had a situation like Pliny’s to handle, where he had to make judgments upon Christians.” However, this is irrelevant to Holding’s claim that Pliny, as a former state priest, would have had prior knowledge of Christianity. This is only relevant to Pliny’s role as Governor which, as we’ve seen, provides no support for Holding’s conjecture.

In short, Holding has provided no evidence whatsoever that contemporary Roman priests (prior to the third century) investigated Christianity. In contrast, we’ve seen one example of a contemporary Roman priest (Plutarch) who did not investigate the Christians. As Carrier concludes, “Priests were NEVER involved in investigating Christians and would have had no interest in someone else’s cult. Only magistrates are involved.” See Holding, n.d.; idem, “A Slightly Shorter Concerto” (<URL:;, March 23, 2000), spotted April 19, 2000.

[80] Wilken 1984, p. 16.

[81]France1986, p. 43.

[82] Tacitus, Annals XV.44.

[83] Gordon Stein denied the authenticity of this passage, arguing: (1) there is no corroborating evidence that Nero persecuted the Christians; (2) there was not a multitude of Christians in Rome at that date; (3) ‘Christian’ was not a common term in the first century; (4) Nero was indifferent to various religions in his city; (5) Nero did not start the fire in Rome; (6) Tacitus does not use the name Jesus; (7) Tacitus assumes his readers know Pontius Pilate; (8) the passage is present word-for-word in the Chronicle of Sulpicius Severus. However, Stein’s arguments are extremely weak. At best, (1), (2), and (5) only cast doubt on the reliability of the passage; these are not good reasons for rejecting the authenticity of the passage. (3) and (4) are likewise irrelevant. Contrary to what Stein claims, (6) and (7) suggest that Pontius Pilate might have been relatively unknown. Finally, (8) is irrelevant. The fact that a later author expanded the passage in no way makes it probable that the original passage was interpolated. Furthermore, there are good reasons for accepting the authenticity of this passage: the anti-Christian tone of the passage, the scapegoat motif, the Latin style, and the integration of the passage with the story. Stein’s argument for interpolation is completely unconvincing. See Stein 1982.

[84] Harris 1985, p. 351.

[85] I owe this point to Richard Carrier.

[86] Norman Perrin and Dennis C. Duling, The New Testament: An Introduction (Second ed., New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982), p. 407, quoted by Earl Doherty in private correspondence.

[87] See Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus (Joplin, Missouri: College Press, 1996), p. 189; and McDowell and Wilson 1988, pp. 50-51.

[88] See Wells 1999, pp. 198-200; France1986, p. 23; and E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin, 1993), p. 49.

[89] Holding 2000.

[90] McDowell and Wilson 1988, pp. 50-51.

[91] See Grant 1995, pp. 40-43 and Tacitus: The Annals of Imperial Rome (Penguin Books, 1973), p. 18; Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans, Studying the Historical Jesus (London: E.J. Brill, 1994), p. 24; Ronald Mellor, Tacitus (New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 20, 44-45; Arnaldo Momigliano, The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography (Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1990), pp. 111-2; Donald Martin, Tacitus, (Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1981), p. 211; and Ronald Syme, Tacitus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), pp. 281-282.

[92] Mellor 1993, p. 44 no. 56.

[93] Grant 1995, pp. 98-99.

[94] See K Wellesley, Greece and Rome (1954), pp. 13-26; D.R. Dudley, The World of Tacitus (London: Secker & Warburg, 1968), p. 19.

[95] Mellor 1993, p. 44.

[96] Wilken 1984, p. 49.

[97] Mellor 1993, p. 32.

[98] Mellor 1993, pp. 33-34.

[99] Contrary to what Holding suggests, I am not claiming that “If Tacitus incorrectly reported something, that would not affect his prestige and honor.” Of course it would! Rather, my point was that if Tacitus correctly reported an uncontroversial, incidental detail (like the historicity of Jesus) without conducting an investigation to verify the truth of that detail, that would have been no strike against Tacitus’ reliability as a historian according to the standards of ancient historiography.

[100] In direct response to this objection, Holding counters that (1) Tacitus was “always” careful to identify when he was reporting rumors, yet the relevant passage does not contain such a qualification, and (2) since “nearly everything Tacitus reports has a moral context,” consistent application of my criteria would force the historian to discard nearly all of Tacitus’ work. Let’s consider these objections in order.

Turning to (1), Holding seems to assume that if Tacitus had not investigated the historicity of Jesus, Tacitus would have believed the historicity of Jesus was an unsubstantiated rumor. But why should anyone hold that assumption? Normally a person refers to a story as a “rumor” if and only if there is doubt concerning the truth of that story. Consider an analogy. No one refers to the historicity of the Prophet Mohammed as a “rumor” because no one denies the historicity of the Prophet Mohammed. Similarly, since there is no evidence of anyone doubting the historicity of Jesus at the time Tacitus wrote, Tacitus would have had literally no reason to believe that the mere existence of Jesus was a “rumor.” Indeed, at the time Tacitus wrote, the historicity of Jesus was such a non-issue that Tacitus did not even address the matter as such; rather, Tacitus simply referred to the crucifixion of ‘Christus,’ which implies the historicity of Jesus!

But suppose, for the sake of argument, Tacitus would have considered the historicity of Jesus a “rumor” unless he (Tacitus) personally investigated the matter. We would be engaging in an argument from silence if we argued that, because Tacitus never qualifies his reference to Christus as a “rumor,” Tacitus had researched the existence of Jesus. Of course, some arguments from silence are sound, so we cannot dismiss Holding’s objection (1) simply because it relies on an argument from silence. The crucial question is this: if Tacitus had considered the historicity of Jesus a rumor, would he have said so? Holding declares, “I have already noted in Tekton 1-1-1 that Tacitus’ scruples and concern for accuracy were such that he always indicated when he reported rumors as such” (my italics). Immediately we may note the ‘absolutism’ in Holding’s position. In order to rule out the possibility that Tacitus did not investigate the historicity of Jesus, Holding has to claim more than just that Tacitus usually or often identified rumors as such; Holding must claim that Tacitus always identified rumors as such. Yet, when we turn to Tekton 1-1-1, the only evidence which even specifically addresses rumor as such is a quotation of a single Tacitean scholar, Mellor. Mellor wrote that Tacitus “distinguishes fact from rumor with a scrupulosity rare in any ancient historian.” This does not support Holding’s assertion that Tacitus “always” identified a rumor as such. Indeed, as Carrier pointed out, Mellor’s statement is ambiguous: “scrupulosity” relative to other ancient historians can still mean much less than we would expect of a modern historian.

Holding also attempts to dodge his burden of proof, when he asks for a “direct proof that Tacitus reported a rumor as a fact knowing that it was merely a rumor.” Remember that Holding is the one making a claim; Holding asserted that Tacitus “always” identifies rumors as such. Moreover, a moment’s reflection will reveal the absurdity of Holding’s request: if “Tacitus reported a rumor as a fact knowing that it was merely a rumor,” we would have no way of knowing that. It is only when Tacitus identifies a rumor as such that we know a rumor was involved! Thus, at most we can only say that there are instances in which Tacitus identifies rumors as such. This tells us absolutely nothing about the number of instances in which Tacitus does not identify a rumor as such.

According to Ronald Martin (Tacitus, 1981, pp. 208-9), Tacitus claims that it is “my intention to follow my sources where they are unanimous but where they have given different reports I will record them under their names” (Ann. 13.20) yet he often does not uphold this “intention.” But assume for the sake of argument that Tacitus always fulfilled his “intention.” Since there is no evidence that anyone ever denied that ‘Christus’ was the founder of Christianity, this suggests that there would have been no contemporary reports which would have denied the historicity of Jesus. Thus, according to Tacitus’ own methodology, he would not have named his source(s).

Holding alleges that “it is debatable whether, and to what extent, [Tacitus] fulfilled his intentions” because “a good deal of his source material is lost to us.” Holding should compile a list of every source that Tacitus names in the Annals and Histories; if he did, he would discover that Tacitus almost never names his sources. According to Carrier, “We thus cannot know what he thought a ‘rumor’ was as opposed to a ‘reliable’ oral report.”

As Carrier told me in private correspondence, that Tacitus would not identify his statement as a rumor “would be so obvious to anyone widely familiar with ancient historiography in general that they would be astonished at the notion that one had to prove it!” Holding’s error is certainly understandable; Holding is a librarian, not an ancient historian. Yet, given this, it appears that many of Holding’s own words can be used against him. To paraphrase: “Holding is working outside of his field. Ancient historians have the breadth of judgment and background to know that Holding’s argument is bogus; that Holding uses such an argument indicates Holding’s radical unfamiliarity with ancient historiography in general.”

As for (2), I again can’t resist using Holding’s own words against him: his objection is not the product of careful thought, or of a genuine understanding of what I actually wrote. I did not write that Tacitus always repeated false information whenever he told a story in a moral context; rather, I stated that in such a situation Tacitus might be willing to do so. Therefore, Holding’s objection that a consistent application of my “criteria would mean having to ashcan almost all of Tacitus’ work” is false. Furthermore, Holding seems to have missed the point of the relevant Mellor quotation: relaying rumors, even when they are identified as such, “can be irresponsible history” when they are used to defame another person. In other words, Mellor is criticizing Tacitus on this point. Sometimes just the introduction of an allegation is all it takes to damage a person’s reputation. Even if the allegation ultimately turns out to be false, the damage will have already been done. Mellor writes, “Tacitus is content to use the rumors to besmirch by association Livia and Tiberius who, whatever their failings, never displayed the deranged malice of an Agrippina and a Nero.” That is to say, Tacitus identified a rumor as such in order to slander the reputations of Livia and Tiberius. If that is typical of the way in which Tacitus employs rumors, then that would be yet another reason why Tacitus had not qualified the historicity of Jesus as a rumor. Tacitus’ off-hand reference to the crucifixion of ‘Christus’ (which presupposes the historicity of that ‘Christus’) did not serve that rhetorical role.

Despite all of Holding’s hand waving about Tacitean scholars, Holding is simply unable to produce a single Tacitean scholar who directly states that Tacitus probably investigated the historicity of Jesus. Holding quibbles that Benko says Tacitus would have looked into the origin of Christianity, but that is not the same thing as investigating the historicity of Jesus. To make another analogy with Mormonism: I can investigate the claims of Joseph Smith without investigating whether Joseph Smith ever lived. In contrast, as we’ve seen, one Tacitean scholar, Mellor, has directly contradicted Holding’s speculation concerning Annals 15.44. Indeed, I’ve also shown that Wilken–an ancient historian and a Christian familiar with the relevant passage–also denies that Tacitus was interested in Christianity. If Tacitus was not interested in Christianity, he definitely would not have been interested in the then non-issue of the historicity of Jesus. And I’ve quoted Holding himself who admits that “truthfully, there is no way to tell” where Tacitus obtained his information about Jesus. But this entails that Tacitus’ general procedure as a historian provides us with no reason for believing that Tacitus had independent sources of information about the historicity of Jesus. See Holding 2000.

[101] Harris argues that the records “were secret so that even the senate needed special permission to consult them (Tacitus, Hist. 4.40)” Ibid., p. 352.

[102] Holding n.d.

[103] Grant 1995, pp. 39-40.

[104] F.R.D. Goodyear, Tacitus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), p. 31f. Quoted in Grant 1995, p. 41.

[105] I owe this point to Richard Carrier.

[106]France1986, p. 23.

[107] E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin, 1993), p. 49.

[108] William Lane Craig, “John Dominic Crossan and the Resurrection” The Resurrection: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Resurrection of Jesus (ed. Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall, Gerald O’Collins,Oxford:OxfordUniversity Press, 1997), p. 252, n. 4.

[109] Suetonius, Life of Claudius 25.4. Cited by McDowell, p. 83.

[110] McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 52. Italics are mine.

[111] Ibid., p. 53.

[112]France1986, p. 42.

[113] McDowell 1979, p. 83.

[114] McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 53.

[115]France1986, p. 40.

[116] Wells 1989, p. 20.

[117] McDowell 1979, p. 84.

[118] See Richard Carrier, “Jacoby and Müller on ‘Thallus'” (<URL:;, 1999); cf. MurrayJ. Harris, “References to Jesus in Early Classical Authors” in Gospel Perspectives: The Jesus Tradition Outside the Gospels Volume 5 (ed. David Wenham,Birmingham: JSOT Press, 1985), p. 360 n. 4.

[119] Richard Carrier, “Thallus: An Analysis” (<URL:;, 1999).

[120] See Murray J. Harris, “References to Jesus in Early Classical Authors” in Gospel Perspectives: The Jesus Tradition Outside the Gospels Volume 5 (ed. David Wenham, Birmingham: JSOT Press, 1985), pp. 343-44; E. Schürer, Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes im Zeitalter Jesu Christi III. Das Judentum in der Zerstreuung und die jüdische Literatur (Hildesheim: Olm, 1964 reprint of 1909 edition) III, 495; R. Eisler, The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist (Eng. tr. by A.H. Krappe, London: Methuen, 1931), p. 298; and Maurice Goguel, The Life of Jesus (Eng. tr. by O. Wyon, London: Allen & Unwin, 1933), p. 93. I should note that the Schürer, Eisler, and Goguel sources were referenced by Harris but are unavailable to me.

[121] Carrier 1999b.

[122]France1986, p. 24. For a contrary view, see Harris 1985, pp. 343-44.

[123] McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 73.

[124] Ibid., p. 35.

[125] Carrier 1999b.

[126] The more intrinsically improbable the historical claim, the greater the evidence we will need to accept that claim. In other words, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Since the intrinsic probability of the alleged darkness following Jesus’ crucifixion is almost nil, we are justified in requiring independent confirmation of this remarkable claim. Given that such confirmation is not available, we are justified in not accepting the claim.

[127] McDowell, p. 39.

[128] Private correspondence with Richard Carrier, January 30, 2000.

[129] Mysteriously, Holding claims that he “see[s] nothing that contradicts or overturns” what he and Glenn Miller have argued concerning Thallus. But Holding’s rebuttal to me simply refers readers to Glenn Miller’s essay on Thallus, which in turn is mainly concerned with matters of Thallus’ and Africanus’ general reliability as historians. Miller does not address the dating of Thallus’ reference. However, in my essay, I quote Carrier’s (1999b) cutting-edge scholarship which shows that there is no reason to assume that Thallus wrote in the first century, which severely undermines the evidential value of Thallus as a witness to the historicity of Jesus. If Holding wishes to defer to Miller’s work on the matter that is certainly his prerogative, but the fact remains that Miller has not yet refuted Carrier’s arguments. See Holding 2000.

[130] Quoted by McDowell 1979, p. 84.

[131] See Carrier 1999b; c.f. Martin Routh, Reliquiae Sacrae, 2nd ed. (vol. 2) 1846, quoted in Carrier 1999b; R.M. Grant, Eusebius as Church Historian (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980), pp. 99-110, quoted approvingly in Wells 1996, p. 45.

[132] Ibid.

[133] Wells 1996, p. 45.

[134] Quoted by F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1972), p. 114.

[135] Farrell Till, “The ‘Testimony’ of Mara Bar-Serapion” The Skeptical Review 1995 (4), p. ??. Republished electronically at <URL:;.France 1986, p. 23 also questions whether ‘wise King’ refers to Jesus.

[136] Cf.France1986, p. 24.

[137] Bruce 1972, p. 114, quoted by McDowell in McDowell 1979, p. 84. Emphasis is mine.

[138] Archibald Robertson, Jesus: Myth or History? (Second edition, London: Watts & Co, 1949), p. 87.

[139] McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 54. Italics are mine.

[140] Till 1995.

[141] McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 54.

[142] Holding n.d.

[143] McDowell, p. 82.

[144] Holding complains that my characterization of Mara Bar-Serapion’s witness to the historicity of Jesus as virtually worthless is “a much too extreme position.” This is completely misguided. A historical source either provides independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus or it does not. Given the uncertainty of the date of Bar-Serapion’s letter and its historical inaccuracies, the letter is not valuable as a witness to the historicity of Jesus. The letter is a valuable historical source–e.g., it provides important evidence of non-Christian knowledge of Christian claims–but it is not valuable as a witness to the historicity of Jesus. (In the latest version of his reply to this essay dated May 10, 2000 Holding complains that I treat this matter as a “black and white” issue, but Holding never explains how this issue could ever be anything but a black and white issue. I agree that some witnesses to the historicity of Jesus are more valuable than others, but that does not in any way contradict my original claim that Bar-Serapion’s letter “does not provide independent confirmation” of the historicity of Jesus.) See Holding, 2000.

[145] I quoted Grant’s remark that Lucian, as a satirist, believed that “a good historian must have ‘powers of expression.'” See Grant 1995, p. 99.

[146] Grant 1995, p. 27.

[147] Grant 1995, p. 70.

[148] Grant 1995, pp. 81,94.

[149] Holding denies this, arguing it is unlikely that Lucian would have relied on Christian sources for his information, given his “disdain” for Christians. However, this objection is multiply flawed. First, just because someone has “disdain” for Christians does not mean they are skeptical of literally everything they say. Again, I am extremely skeptical of Mormonism, but I’m willing to take the Mormon explanation for the origin of the term “Mormon” at face value! (Holding attempts to dismiss this analogy by arguing that Christian origins are tied to a public historical event of great significance, but one can be skeptical of that event without ever questioning the mere existence of Jesus. And Holding presents no evidence that Christianity was significant at the time that Lucian wrote.) In the absence of any evidence that Lucian or any other contemporary figure doubted the Christian explanation for the origin of the term “Christian,” there is simply no reason to believe that Lucian would have conducted an investigation into the matter.

Second, even if we suppose that Lucian had non-Christian sources, there is no evidence that those sources were independent. Yet for Lucian’s statement to count as independent confirmation for the historicity of Jesus, we need evidence that his knowledge of the historicity of Jesus was based upon independent sources. Given that Lucian never specifies his sources, Holding’s conjecture is nothing but speculation. Lucian’s “concern for accuracy” implies only that Lucian considered his source(s) reliable; it does not tell us that Lucian had independent sources. See Holding, n.d.

[150] I am grateful to Glenn Miller, Richard Carrier, Peter Kirby, and everyone who contributed to Jury for helpful suggestions on previous drafts of this essay.

[151] McDowell and Wilson 1988, p.


A Rejoinder to Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict

“Jesus– God’s Son” (1997)

Robert M. Price

 This chapter is typical of Evidence That Demands A Demands a Verdict, in that it presupposes a kangaroo court. McDowell is preaching to the converted. As generally throughout the long history of apologetics, the arguments of the defender of the faith seem not really to be aimed at the outsider in order to overcome his opposition to the faith. Rather, they seem intended to shore up the vulnerable faith of those already within the camp. The old saying that “the best defense is a good offense” applies here. The fundamentalist reader, whose faith has either simply been inherited from a church upbringing or embraced in a moment of emotional crisis and repentance, gets the impression as he or she reads McDowell that there must not be much reason for doubt if Josh, like his Old Testament namesake, is eager to carry the battle into the enemy camp. But the battle is by no means headed there. It is more like the Ayatollah Khomeini’s use of the American hostage crisis and the futile war againstIraq to divert the attention of his own people from the problems of his government. Apologetics is shadow-boxing.

And this is only too evident from several factors. For one, McDowell and his brethren everywhere employ the worst kind of special pleading, what Freud called “kettle logic.” This is the marshalling of any and every possible argument, whether consistent with one another or not, whether cogent on their own or not. All that matters is whether all the gums are aimed in the right direction. “I did not break your kettle! It was all in one piece when I returned it last week! And besides, I never borrowed your stupid kettle in the first place! So there!”

The vast majority of the arguments McDowell uses (every one of them culled from the works of previous writers, and by McDowell’s seminary students in a kind of research scavenger hunt) function merely as cheer-leading. By setting them forth and “demanding a verdict” sophomore apologists are just getting all charged up, as in a high school pep rally. That is about the only real utility of them, as they are incapable of impressing an outsider for a minute.

It is only too apparent to anyone who has ever tried having a discussion with an evangelical apologist that these people are able to remain oblivious to their arguments’ utter lack of cogency only because their faith has a different origin altogether. As I have already anticipated, it is usually quite plain that the apologist was himself never convinced by these or any other rational arguments. More likely, he was converted at a Billy Graham Evangelistic Crusade, or a local counterpart. He would not know what it felt like to be convinced by these arguments. He is using them merely because they have been presented to him as a new and effective tool for winning his friends to Christ. He approaches them in the spirit of a gardener trying out a new weed-killer chemical.

Otherwise, how is it that apologetics coaching (e.g., Paul Little’s popular manual, Know Why You Believe) usually includes the advice to duck difficult questions by parroting “Say, that’s a good question! I’ll have to ask my pastor and get back to you. But in the meantime, wouldn’t you like to get born again anyway?” Anyone who says such a thing is signalling that his mind is already made up and that he does not intend to let any new facts confuse him.

When the evangelist/apologist is confuted at one point he merely switches to another. This is not the strategy of truth-seeking dialogue or honest intellectual inquiry. It is instead, obviously, the slimy tactic of the spin-doctor, the party hack, the obsequious sophist who is ready, after every election debate or losing primary election, to explain why his candidate really won if you look at it right. Christ becomes a product one sells by hook or by crook, with all the honesty and sincerity of a used car salesman. This is obvious to outsiders who conclude that apologists are either scary, propaganda-spouting fanatics or pathetic neurotics so tenaciously committed to something they want to be true that they dare not stop to seriously consider any opposing view.

It will come as no surprise when I confess to having pursued the apologetics racket for some years, both as an eager reader of Inter-Varsity Press books and as a student at a major evangelical Seminary. My experience is not at all unusual. It is repeated again and again. Virtually every radical New Testament scholar one meets turns out to have rejected his or her evangelical past long ago, often after having seen through the same arguments McDowell and company keep retreading and daring the heathen to refute. Why do all those “bigoted” religion professors on secular campuses or liberal seminaries persist in ignoring McDowell and his allies? Simply because they have all been there before. They used to play on the same team McDowell coaches, only, unlike him, they realized long ago it was an unwinnable game.

Why do so many apologists wind up dropping out, switching sides? Simply because they (we) “made the mistake” of taking the apologetical arguments seriously. Here’s how it happens. Even if the arguments were valid, they would still be useless so long as the would-be apologist/evangelist failed to understand them. To be able to persuade another to see the truth in a position, you must see (or at least think you see) the truth in it yourself. Try teaching Calculus or Greek or hang-gliding if you yourself have not mastered it! This means you must try to follow the arguments through, let them register on you, give them a chance to prove their cogency to you. The perceptive witness/apologist realizes that the nonbeliever is not going to be willing to allow the benefit of the doubt to a lame-sounding argument. Remember, it sounds good to the believer already, just as a new weapon sounds good to a general as long as the defense contractor tells him it will help him win the battle. But the apologist who takes his business seriously has to, in effect, suspend his belief and put himself in the unbeliever’s shoes in order to imagine how the argument is going to strike him. This is the only way to judge whether it is an argument worth using. “If I didn’t already believe in Jesus, the Bible, etc., would I find this convincing?” Okay, so one did not first come to faith via such arguments. But the next best thing is to imagine yourself a fair-minded unbeliever and to see if this apologetic would sound compelling to you. Only if it does can you convincingly relay it to a genuine unbeliever.

Forgive a sweeping statement, but many years of arguing on both sides at one time or another have led me to conclude that there are two types of apologists. First, there are the used car salesmen who are mere and pure opportunists. They wouldn’t know a cogent historical, philosophical, intellectual argument if it bit them on the fanny. These people sound like what they are, and they convince no one. They only confirm outsiders’ suspicions that fundamentalism has no real interest in the truth, only in a dogmatic party line.

Second, there are sincere apologists who, by trying to test the arguments for themselves (rather in the spirit of Luke 14:28-31, one might add), have unwittingly accustomed themselves to weighing arguments, not simply accepting things on faith. Having learned to take the unbeliever’s side for the sake of argument (becoming one’s own intellectual sparring partner), simple faith is no longer as easy as it once was. Doubt becomes a familiar habit, however miserable it makes one. Sooner or later the honest apologist winds up looking back nostalgically to the days of childlike naivete before he got into apologetics and apologetics made everything more complicated! He may realize the irony of his position: he has learned strategies for promoting saving faith, “simple faith,” which however, have made it less and less possible for him to rest easy in such faith.

Worse yet, the longer one scrutinizes the apologetical arguments, the more one tests their merit in actual debate, the more holes one is brought inevitably to see. And, unless one feels able to descend to a level of complete cynicism in the interests of promoting faith (!), one simply cannot maintain one’s own faith any longer. If, as you used to tell unbelievers, they ought to believe Christianity only insofar as it makes sense to do so, you realize the jig is up once it no longer makes sense to you. It is too late to fall for the old saw that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men.”

This second type of apologist will sooner or later be exiting the faith. He will have tested all things and held fast to what is good: the method of rational thinking, weighing evidence, and being intellectually honest. By contrast, the apologist who continues in his ministry is a man of faith, but of what Sartre called “bad faith” (the opposite of “acting in good faith”). It will be insincere and hypocritical faith, mere adherence to a party line. I do not claim to have proved this. It is just the way of things as I have come to see it. If you happen to be an apologist, you will find out for yourself sooner or later if the shoe fits.

As we approach the specific arguments McDowell uses to “demand the verdict” that Jesus claimed to be the divine Son of God, we will see again and again how he not only constantly resorts to blatant logical fallacies, but also frames arguments that could hardly make sense to anyone but a died-in-the-wool fundamentalist and biblical inerrantist! This circularity is the result of his reliance on the stale apologetics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the Orthodox had mainly the Protestant Rationalists to deal with, a strange breed who granted the inerrant accuracy of scripture but denied supernatural causation! This was the origin of all the silly arguments over whether Jesus “knew where the stepping stones were,” or whether Mary Magdalene went to the “wrong tomb,” or how the disciples could have sneaked past the Roman guards to steal the body. It is fairly easy to win an argument with supposed “critics” who start by affirming the accuracy of the gospel accounts. But they’re all dead! McDowell is going to need to bring in a channeller to raise one of those ghosts to argue with!

IA. Direct Claims

I will follow the outline of McDowell’s syllabus, focussing on some points, skipping some minor ones. This is why, though I retain his (confusing) outline notation, I do not have all the subheadings. I will begin with the direct claims of divine status supposedly made by Jesus.

1B. Introduction

Introducing the section, McDowell quotes a statement by Albert Wells which drips with typical fundamentalist doting upon Jesus, as well as with the novelistic psychologizing that besets discussions like this. “One marvels at the way in which [Jesus] draws attention to Himself, placing himself at the center of every situation that arises.” This observation already presupposes a Christological estimate of Jesus; otherwise, it might be evident to Wells and McDowell that Wells is making Jesus sound like a self-promoting jerk, something he certainly did not intend. Rather, the statement breathes “That’s m’boy!”

An equally serious problem is that the comment tacitly treats the gospel episodes as disinterested, impartial footage shot by someone on the scene, as if Jesus had been caught debating with the scribes on the local Seven Eleven’s security camera in the motzah aisle. Again, this only seems to work if you are already a biblical inerrantist. The rest of us might be excused for wondering whether, at a remove of decades from the events, in accounts written to convert people to faith in Jesus as a divine being, we are really dealing with straight reporting. I am not saying we definitely are not dealing with accurate reporting, just that this is really the whole point at issue and McDowell just takes it for granted. No wonder he thinks he can demand a verdict: he has stacked the jury box with inerrantists!

Next Thomas Schultz is invoked as rehashing the old claim that Jesus alone of all religious prophets and founders claimed to be God. In case you hadn’t noticed, whether Jesus made any such claim is the very thing we are supposed to be trying to decide! You can’t jump the gun and wheel in his supposed divinity claims as one of your major arguments! And the fact that McDowell does just this makes it all too clear that the whole pretense of setting forth a cogent chain of reasoning is just that: a pretense.

I think there is zero evidence that Jesus claimed to be divine, but suppose he did. It is simply false to say none of the others made such claims. We can produce a catalogue of Hindu, Sufi, and Hellenistic holy men who made such claims, not to mention Mizra Ali Muhammad (the Bab) and Hussein Ali (Baha’Ullah), founders of the Babi and the Baha’i Faiths respectively. My guess is that your average apologist, thinking that it is some advantage to his case to attribute to Jesus unique claims, will want to quibble at this point, perhaps urging that al-Hallaj or Baha’Ullah was presupposing a rather different God-concept than Jesus would have. For, e.g., a Pantheist or a Monist to claim to be “God” is not precisely the same thing as a monotheistic Jew claiming to be God. But this, too, is question-begging.

First, it is to assume that we know what God-concept Jesus held! The apologist implicitly supposes Jesus to have been an Athanasian before Athanasius. He must have held the same opinions on the Hypostatic Union and the Trinity that the apologist does! Fundamentalists, even fairly sophisticated ones, tend to have an anachronistic and essentialist view of the history of dogma that envisions no real evolution of theology. No, the eternal verities were once and for all delivered unto the saints, and so Jesus must have believed it, too. Again, this is the thinking of a party-line spin doctor.

Second, it does not occur to the apologist that if a man did think himself to be God on earth, it would no longer be so clear that he was in fact a monotheist! Jews and Muslims certainly do not deem incarnationism compatible with monotheism. Again, the apologist implicitly assumes a whole intricate conglomeration of theological constructions, in this case blithely equating trinitarianism with biblical monotheism, something that, while it might be true, is not obvious enough to be taken for granted at a controversial point.

Notice, please, that it is supposed to make some difference that it is only founders of “recognized,” i.e., successful religions that Thomas Schultz’s argument considers, as if he is perhaps aware that some saints and gurus have made divine claims, but that he thinks they don’t count unless a lot of people believe in them. This is the fallacy of appeal to consensus, a favorite but utterly fallacious argument used by apologists, as when they invoke the success of Christianity as a world religion. Truth by majority vote? They are quick enough to brand this a fallacy, and rightly so, when it is adduced on behalf of some rival belief.

And did Jesus manage to “convince a great portion of the world that he is God”? Here Schultz betrays an implicit substitution of Christian devotionalism for historical judgment. A great portion of the human race believes Jesus is God for precisely the same reason a virtually equal percentage believes Muhammad was the Seal of the Prophets: they were raised to think so in a culture where virtually everyone else around them took it for granted because they, too, had been indoctrinated with the belief. No one “convinced” most Christian believers of the Godhood of Christ. They were simply “obedient to the faith” (Romans 1:5). And to say that Jesus himself managed to convince, e.g., the suburban Baptist deacon, the Italian or Polish or Spanish Catholic peasant is to smuggle into a supposedly objective argument a doctrine of the continuing work of Christ as personal savior by the mediation of the Holy Spirit, etc. It’s not like Jesus managed to gather two millenniums’ worth of people into a stadium somewhere and present his claims.

And so what if Jesus were the only religious founder to claim to be God? Would that make it true? Was Gautama necessarily the only man to have gained Buddhahood just because he alone said he was? A unique claim might be false. A claim often made might just as easily be true in one case and false in all others. Uniqueness just doesn’t make any difference.

Someone named F.J. Meldau is quoted to the effect that Jesus must have been God incarnate because he never spoke with hesitation or provisionality. He never retracted an opinion or changed his mind. “This is all so contrary to human teachers and teachings.” It never seems to occur to McDowell that such a portrait sounds good only to a dogmatist who sees no merit in considering all sides of an issue and insists he knows the ultimate truth right now. Indeed, this is contrary to the ways of teachers who rightly dismiss such a posture as that of a cock-sure, obnoxious adolescent. It is truly sad that such is the image of “Christlikeness” to which fundamentalists exhort us to aspire.

But do the gospels so depict Jesus? He is indeed said to have spoken with authority, and not as the Jewish scribes (Mark 1:22), who judiciously appealed to legal precedent and preserved varying opinions on cases of halakha. But far from contrasting Jesus with the Jewish prophets as Meldau says (“His teachings were ultimate, final – above those of Moses and the prophets.”), this apodictic certainty simply associates Jesus with their ranks. They, too, were sure they spoke with divine authority, though there is no reason to suppose Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Amos believed he was God! Remember, Meldau’s point is that Jesus’ attitude of certitude, even on matters not relating directly to his own status and role, is itself a claim to divinity. Hegel, too, one must suppose, believed himself to be God. And why stop there? McDowell, too, would seem to merit insertion into the divine plurality, as would most of his fans.

Meldau infers from the fact that no statement on record features Jesus saying, “Wait a minute, I’m afraid I misspoke there…,” that Jesus’ teaching was completely consistent. If it was self-contradictory, then his (supposedly) never correcting himself becomes more of an embarrassment than an endorsement. And the gospels do have Jesus contradicting himself on various points, as, for example, whether or not to fast (Mark 2:18 vs. Matthew 6:16), and why (Mark 2:20) or why not (Mark 2:19 vs. Mark 2:21-22), whether to divorce (Mark 10:11 vs. Matthew 19:9), to preach to Gentiles and Samaritans (Matthew 10:5 vs. Matthew 28:19 and John 4:35-42), whether the near approach of the End may be gauged by apocalyptic signs (Luke 17:20-21 vs. Mark 13:28-29), whether religious obligations supersede filial duties (Mark 7:9-15 vs. Matthew 8:21-22 and Luke 14:26), etc.

Critical scholars, whom McDowell judges to be agents of Satan, also assume that Jesus was a consistent thinker, but this causes them to try to sift the things Jesus actually may have said from the plainly contradictory sayings later attributed to him by various factions of the early church. Refusing to entertain this approach, McDowell and his colleagues leave us with a Jesus who may be quoted on either side of any debate, as the history of Christian theological disputation has shown again and again.

Others, whose declamations McDowell serves up stale, urge us to reckon with the fact that Jesus was put to death for claiming that he was “in reality God in the flesh.” Some skeptics may question whether Jesus really made such I claims for himself, suggesting rather that the disciples gratuitously portrayed him this way. ;seemingly granting that such is possible, McDowell’s sources go on to say that secular historians agree that Jesus made such claims, and that this is sufficient proof. But where in either the New Testament or in Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny, Suetonius, or whomever else McDowell may have in view, is Jesus said to make such a claim? That Pliny attests an early Christian worship of Jesus tells us nothing we wouldn’t have known otherwise: that Christians worshiped Jesus. Granted, but was this Jesus’ intent? Pliny says nothing of this.

2B. The Trial

As he habitually does throughout this book, McDowell relies here upon the fallacy of appeal to authority, calling in supposed experts whose opinions we are to accept just because McDowell tells us they know what they are talking about. This is something no careful student in any field of study ever does. Scientific inquiry in any field is ever a matter of scrutinizing and weighing the judgments of one’s honored predecessors and colleagues, none of whose opinions are to be accepted except on their own merits, not merely for the sake of their propounders’ reputations. McDowell and his minions, religious propagandists with only the most transparent pose of scholarship, seem unacquainted with genuine scholarly work, or they would know this. But why should they when their only goal is to spread the “truth” they feel sure they have lucked into. They have not a thought to seek the truth, since this would be to admit that, as mere mortals, they do not yet have it.

The supposed authority cited here is one “Judge Gaynor, the accomplished jurist of the New Yorkbench” who rules that the real complaint against Jesus at his trial was blasphemy, his “making himself God.” Why McDowell thinks a modern New Yorkjudge would necessarily have any expertise on the procedures of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin in the first century is beyond me. The level of argumentation here and throughout Evidence That Demands a Verdict is on the same level with that whereby Paul Galey “demands the verdict” that Mr. Kringle is really Santa Claus in the movie Miracle on 34th Street.

McDowell’s sources mislead him in that they pay no attention whatever to the gaping problem of the historical implausibilities in the trial accounts. It has been a subject of scholarly debate for decades, for at least two reasons. First, how are the evangelists supposed to have found out what happened at the trial? All of the disciples had fled, except for Peter who hoped to avoid detection among the crowd in the high priest’s courtyard. But the interrogation of Jesus did not transpire where Peter could hear it. Indeed, Peter is busy undergoing his own interrogation in the courtyard at the same time! One might propose that Jesus filled the disciples in on the trial after his resurrection, but this is frivolous. Picture the scene: Jesus is ready now to vouchsafe to the eleven the final teaching of the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). “Sure, sure, Lord,” Peter pipes up, “in a moment! But first, let’s hear what happened to you during the trial, huh? I’m really curious!”

The second problem with the trial narratives is that virtually every detail of them seems to fly in the face of everything we know of rabbinical jurisprudence. They are convening on Passover eve for a capital trial? Not likely! And why would a claim to be messiah, even if deemed false, amount to blasphemy? It sure didn’t some years later when no less a personage than Rabbi Akiba endorsed the ill-fated Simon bar Kochba as the messiah.

One begins to suspect that the gospel writers had no real idea of what transpired at Jesus’ trial and did the best they could to fill the gap from their imaginations, simply assuming that the point of contention between Jesus and the Sanhedrin had any role in the trial and death of debating in their own day: Jesus’ divine status, an belief which later Jews certainly did consider blasphemy once Christians began viewing Jesus as divine.

It even becomes an open question whether the Sanhedrin had any role in the trial and death of Jesus, simply because of the manner of execution. He was crucified, a Roman penalty inflicted on pirates, seditionists, and runaway slaves. A.N. Sherwin-White, though not an accomplished judge in the State of New York, was an authority on Roman law, and he argued in Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament that the Sanhedrin would have needed Pilate’s permission for Jesus to be executed, as the gospels say. Other scholars dispute Sherwin-White’s opinion. I am by no means in a position to take sides on the matter. But even if Sherwin-White is correct, the real difficulty remains unresolved: if Jesus were to be executed for blasphemy, why did Annas and Caiaphas not simply seek Pilate’s permission to have Jesus stoned to death, since stoning was the required penalty? That they did not raises the real possibility that the grounds for the execution were entirely different, perhaps political, as many scholars have held.

Personally, I do not believe the surviving evidence can ever settle the question, so I do not have a favorite theory to defend. My point here is that the trial narrative is a matter of just as much debate as the question of what Jesus may have claimed of himself. To treat the gospel trial accounts, and one particular interpretation of them, as undeniably factual, and to base on this a case for Jesus’ claiming to be God, is to build a house on sand.

One last apologetical distortion connected with the trial requires our attention. McDowell tries to minimize the fact that the Synoptic trial narratives do not have Jesus say precisely the same thing in answer to the question of the high priest. Asked, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus replies, according to Mark, “I am,” but in Matthew and Luke, “You say that I am.” First there is the problem of whether the two versions contradict one another. Second, there is the problem of whether “You say” implies evasive ambiguity.

McDowell tries to harmonize the two versions, as apologists commonly do. McDowell tries to make us believe that the ambiguous reply in Matthew and Luke really means the same as Mark’s forthright “I am.” He quotes various previous apologists as saying that “You say that I am” is actually a forthright affirmation, despite appearances. Frank Morison (author of Who Moved the Stone?, an ex-skeptic turned apologist, aDamascus Road reversal that seems to apologists to validate everything Morison says) writes, “These answers are really identical. The formulae ‘Thou hast said’ or ‘Ye say that I am,’ which to modern ears sounds evasive, had no such connotation to the contemporary Jewish mind. ‘Thou sayest’ was the traditional form in which a cultivated Jew replied to a question of grave or sad import. Courtesy forbade a direct ‘yes’ or ‘no.'”

But Morison’s own explanation refutes itself. If “thou sayest” could conceal either a “direct ‘yes’ or ‘no,”‘ then how, pray tell, is the hearer to know which of the two, yes or no, is meant? It would certainly make things a good bit easier for the apologist who wants to use Jesus as a ventriloquist dummy to mouth fourth-century Athanasian dogma if “Thou sayest” were an unambiguous “You said it!,” but it is not. And to make Matthew and Luke’s ambiguous version tantamount to Mark’s unambiguous affirmation, simply because Mark has the one in the same spot where Matthew and Luke have the other, is pure harmonization. It is like saying that if I answer “maybe” and you answer “yes” to the same question we must be giving the same answer.

But in fact, there is a way to iron out the apparent contradiction in this case, though I don’t think McDowell and his fans would like it much. As it happens, there are a couple of early manuscripts of Mark which agree with Matthew and Luke in attributing to Jesus an ambiguous answer: “You say so.” There is obviously no way to be sure how the original autograph manuscript of Mark read at this (or any other) point, since manuscript evidence from the first century or so of copying is practically non-existent (a crucial factor minimized to the vanishing point by apologists). But ask yourself which is more likely, that, faced with a clear affirmation of Jesus’ messiahship in Mark’s trial scene, Matthew and Luke would both, independently, deem it better to befog the issue by introducing the ambiguous “thou sayest” business? Or that Mark, too, originally had the ambiguous “thou sayest,” which Matthew and Luke both faithfully reproduced, but which some later copyist of Mark found theologically inadequate and changed to a nice, juicy “I am”?

I think the latter scenario makes the more sense, but really, who knows? Again, my point is that the facts are anything but clear, whereas they would have to be crystal clear to serve McDowell’s purpose. You see, scholarly New Testament criticism can afford to live with uncertainties, unable to decide between possible theories. But apologetics “demands a verdict.” It is not scholarship at all, but propaganda. If you want a secular analogue to apologetics, don’t look to the work of historians. Look to the “research” funded by the American Tobacco Institute. Or if you prefer, as McDowell does, to invoke modern legal parallels, forget about Judge Gaynor and Simon Greenleaf. O.J. Simpson’s “dream team” would be a better fit.

3B. Further Claims

lC. Equality With the Father

lD., 2D.

Attention shifts now to a pair of verses in John’s Gospel in which Jesus supposedly claims to be equal to God. One is John 10:33, where the enemies of Jesus say he is “making himself God.” The other is John 5:18, where they say he is “making himself equal to God.” We see here a good example of a universal tendency in fundamentalist apologetics to take at face value the opinions of the opponents of Jesus in the Gospel of John. I marvel that, of all the voices in the gospel, that of the stone-throwing haters of Jesus should be considered the most fundamental for understanding him! One might as well argue that Jesus was a glutton and an alcoholic (Matthew 11:19) and that he was in league with Beelzebul (Mark 3:22), was a Samaritan and demon-possessed (John 8:48), out of his mind (Mark 3:21), that he proposed offering himself as the main course at a feast for cannibals (John 6:52), that he thought he was physically older than Abraham (John 8:57), that he proposed to rebuild Herod’s temple in three days (John 2:20), or that like Superman he had descended bodily from the sky (John 6:42), all examples of what the enemies of Jesus think of him or think he is claiming. In every case, surely, the point of the gospel writers is that Jesus’ opponents have woefully misunderstood and caricatured him.

This is made clear in the case of the John 11 passage from the simply fact that Jesus issues a rejoinder to their accusation that he makes himself God. He does not say, “You got that right, folks!” Rather he shows how Psalm 82 does not hesitate to apply the very honorific “gods” to those who were merely readers of scripture, whereas he makes for himself a more modest claim, that, in that he is God’s chosen envoy, he can be called God’s son. Is not Jesus here presented as correcting the way his hostile hearers misunderstood his language about sonship? McDowell quotes another apologist as saying, “Jesus did not try to convince the Jews that they had misunderstood him.” But that seems to be precisely what John has him doing in John 10.

It strikes me as perverse that apologists, supposed zealots for the scriptures, will opportunistically quote the slanders of Jesus’ opponents when, taken out of context, they will sound superficially compatible with later Christian dogma.

When McDowell turns his attention to John’s numerous instances of Jesus calling God “My Father,” he raises, implicitly, a different point, that of the fidelity of gospel “reporting.” As Joachim Jeremias points out (The Central Message of the New Testament, p. 22), we find a dramatically increasing tendency for Jesus to call God “Father” as we move from earlier to later gospel source documents. In Mark we find but 3 instances, 4 in Q, 4 in the material peculiar to Luke. In the uniquely Matthean material we suddenly jump to 31, and John is practically off the scale at 100! If we narrow our search to instances of Jesus referring to God as “My Father,” we find not a single instance in Mark, I in Q, 2 in material unique to Luke (and one of these is a redactional addition absent in Matthew’s version: compare Luke 22:29 with Matthew 19:28), and then 12 in Matthew’s special material and 32 in John. What all this would clearly imply to anyone but the apologetical spin doctor (who feels more secure mouthing his assent to Athanasian Christology if Jesus had already believed it himself) is that, while “My Father” is indeed language denoting the speaker’s divine status (though not necessarily as more than a demigod), it appears to be theological language that has crept into the gospel portraits of Jesus at first slowly and sparingly, but then in full flood the farther from the historical Jesus we get. The massive later use of this language makes the nature of it clear even in those strata of the gospel tradition where its presence is more modest: it is theological language about Jesus only subsequently placed in his own mouth. I ask any apologist to be honest with himself: wouldn’t you really find this the most natural way to read the evidence if you weren’t just trying to get out of a tight spot?

Ironically, the idea of early Christians ascribing to Jesus clear Christological self-references he did not himself actually make should hardly sound peculiar or implausible, especially to fundamentalists, since they do it themselves. For example, the fundamentalist Targum variously marketed as The Living Bible, The Way, Reach Out, The Book, etc., shows a number of instances where paraphraser Ken Taylor apparently thought Jesus was being a bit too coy about his own messianic claims.Taylor regularly substitutes for “the Son of Man” phrases like “the Man from Heaven” or “the Messiah.” He even makes Jesus say, “I am the Messiah” in John 4:26! By contrast, in the Greek text of the gospels, or even in a straight English translation like the New American Standard Bible, there is no such explicit self-identification. (By the way, what Ken Taylor has done with John 4:26 is exactly the same sort of thing I suggested happened when an early copyist changed Mark’s original and ambiguous “Thou sayest” to a ringing affirmation, “I am.”)

In fact, it seems to me that apologists themselves are doing the same thing when they constantly say that “Jesus claimed to be God.” Hearing that Jesus “claimed to be God,” what sort of statement would you expect to find in the gospels? Presumably something like “I am God” or perhaps “I am he whom you call your God.” Every apologist secretly wishes the gospels did contain such texts, but there are none. The ambiguous passages we have been discussing certainly do not justify loaded and over-explicit language like “Jesus claimed to be God.” What apologists are essentially doing, then, is to place their own Christological inferences onto the lips of Jesus. Why couldn’t the gospel writers have done the same thing? (Ironically, as we have just seen, none of the New Testament writers goes so far in this direction as the apologists do!)

Apologists love to quote John 10:30 as a clear declaration by Jesus of his faith in Chalcedonian Christology: “I and the Father are one.” If Jesus (or, as I should think, the evangelist) so clearly and unambiguously, conveyed by these words the Christological orthodoxy of the fourth and fifth centuries, it is hard to explain why it took so many centuries of debate for the churches to settle these very issues! McDowell quotes A.T. Robertson in an amazing attempt, worthy of Paul in Galatians 3:16, to squeeze Christology out of a lexical stone. “One (hen). Neuter, no[t] masculine (heis). Not one person (cf. heis in Gal. 3:28), but one essence or nature.”

Fair enough, if all he means is to exclude the Patripassian heresy, that Jesus was the Father incarnate. But it is not so clear that “I and my Father are one” would exclude something like the Monothelite heresy, that the oneness of Jesus and the Father was simply that of harmonious will and moral purpose. In fact, another verse in the same chapter of John seems to push 10:30 in this very direction: “This is why my Father loves me; I do always that which pleases him” (John 10:17).

I should even say that “I and the Father are one” must mean something like this given that John 17:22-23 seems to predicate precisely the same oneness of Jesus and the disciples: “that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.”

It is vain to say this oneness of Jesus and the disciples refers to his consubstantiality with them in his human ousia as he is consubstantial with the Father in his divine ousia. Why? First, because this is to read absurdly too much into the text, which seems oblivious of such fine distinctions. If you can find this in the text, you can have no quarrel with Martin Luther’s papist opponents and their multiple-sense exegesis of scripture!

Second, for Jesus’ Chalcedonian consubstantiality with human beings in general to be all that is in view in John 17:22-23 would grossly trivialize the prayer Jesus is shown praying, for this abstruse metaphysical consubstantiality would unite Jesus with Judas Iscariot, Pilate, and Herod Antipas equally with Peter, Andrew, and the Beloved Disciple! Is this likely the intent of the passage? Again, no one but the sophist and the spin-doctor will think so.

2C. “I AM”.

John 8:58 has Jesus’ opponents ask the exasperated rhetorical question, “You do not have fifty years, and Abraham has seen you?” He answers, “Amen, amen, I tell you, before Abraham became, I am.” This may very well be a claim by the Johannine Jesus to divine preexistence. Indeed, I should judge that the most natural reading, though the odd juxtaposition of tenses sets a question mark beside any interpretation. That is, there is no really “natural” reading of a peculiar construction. It is not out of the question that the passage is intended as a parallel to the contrast between Jesus and Jacob in John 4:12 (“Are you greater than our father Jacob?”), and that the point is tantamount to the Matthean sequence, “Something greater than the temple/Jonah/Solomon is here” (Matthew 12: 6, 41-42). And in view of the statement that prompted the indignant reply to Jesus, “Abraham rejoiced to see my day,” perhaps we ought rather to take 8:58 to mean not so much that Jesus existed prior to Abraham but rather that “Jesus’ day” was available in the foreknowledge of God for Abraham, as a prophet, to see (cf. I Peter 1:10-12, 20; Luke 17:22).

But let us assume that the traditional interpretation captures the scriptural writer’s intent, and that this is a claim to preexistence. This should not be too surprising in view of John 1:1, which no one doubts is a Johannine claim to the preexistence of the divine Logos. But McDowell and the apologists he quotes beg two key questions. The first is that of whether the Fourth Gospel should be read as a source of historical recollection and reportage. McDowell simply takes it for granted that we are reading a transcript of Jesus’ words. Lurking behind such confidence is the fundamentalist doctrine of inerrancy, a vestige of the origin of all these arguments back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when the opponents were fellow biblicists, Rationalist Protestants and Christian Unitarians. McDowell’s arguments on behalf of the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings in the gospels, which he sets forth in a previous chapter, are nothing but a tissue of desperate rationalizations of something he really believes for a priori dogmatic reasons. You may consult the corresponding chapter in the present volume or my own book Beyond Born Again, where I deal at great length with McDowell’s arguments on the point.

After trying for years to accept the argument of William Temple (subsequently warmed over by George Eldon Ladd and others) that, despite its radical stylistic and theological differences from the Synoptics, John’s Gospel should still be read as genuine recollections of Jesus’ teaching, I found myself finally unable to deny the force of a simple point: the Johannine Jesus not only sounds nothing like the Synoptic Jesus; he sounds exactly like the narrator of the Fourth Gospel, all the other characters in the Fourth Gospel, and the author of the three Johannine Epistles. Thus the words attributed to Jesus in the Fourth Gospel are John’s, not Jesus’.

Reading the Fourth Gospel is much like reading Kahlil Gibran’s Jesus the Son of Man, in which Gibran adopts the device of having a number of Jesus’ ancient contemporaries share their recollections of what he said and did. The result is, l have found, a profound and beautiful book, just as the Gospel of John is. And, as in John’s Gospel, one notices that all Gibran’s characters sound just alike, like Jesus, and like the writer of all the other books by Kahlil Gibran. No one would argue that, oh, let’s say, Gibran has preserved a genuine set of teachings of Jesus which Jesus spoke using a special idiom, a group of sayings strangely missing from the other gospels, and that Gibran was so pervasively influenced by these sayings that the same stylistic idiom went on to permeate all of his own writings! No, no one would have the slightest difficulty in recognizing that in Jesus the Son of Man we have Gibran’s own personal vision of Jesus expressed in Gibran’s own thoughts and words. Why can we not use me same common sense in the case of the Gospel of John? Critical scholars can and do. For them the implication is quite clear. This book represents the theological reflections of its author, set in narrative form, and utilizing the literary device of divine epiphany monologues like those found in contemporary Isis aretalogies (see Philip B. Harner, The “I Am” of the Fourth Gospel) and the revelation discourses of the Mandaean scriptures.

Before one parrots the ludicrous dictum of C.S. Lewis (in “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism”) that the Johannine discourses bear no resemblance to ancient, non-historical genres, one owes it to oneself to read the Gnostic and Mandaean revelation soliloquies abundantly quoted in Bultmann’s commentary on John, something I rather doubt any apologists take the trouble to do. (I find it amusing that Lewis preferred to compare John’s discourses with Boswell’s “reportage” of Samuel Johnson’s table-talk–which, as has recently been argued, seems itself to have been a literary stylization of the kind critics suggest we find in the Fourth Gospel!)

In much of what I have said on the interpretation of various Johannine texts, my assumption is not that the apologists are putting the wrong construal on the words of the historical Jesus, but rather that they are misinterpreting the more modest Christology of the Fourth Evangelist. Just so in the case of John 8:58. My point is not that the verse does not imply ambient pre-existence of the Logos. It is rather to say that, first, the verse represents the view of the gospel writer, precisely as John 1:1 does, and not necessarily that of Jesus; and second, that this Christology may as easily be Arian as Athanasian in its slant.

But doesn’t John 8:58 have to mean that Jesus is not only the (possibly created) “Arian” Logos, but the eternal “I am” of the burning bush? Again, let us not read in anachronistic Christology and theology, whether Jewish or Christian. Jewish angelology swarmed with figures like Metatron, Yahoel, Melchizedek and others who were referred to as “your Elohim” and as “the little Yahweh”! “My name is in him.” (See Gershom G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism; Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven; Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God; Fred L. Brown, Jr., The Melchizedek Tradition). Is something like that going on in John 8:58? Again, I don’t know. The ancient evidence is at once too fragmentary and too suggestive of a wider range of options than McDowell’s argument implies.

6C. He Who Has Seen Me.

I am afraid the reply of the Johannine Jesus to Philip in John 14:9 (“Have I been with you so long, Philip, and still you do not know me? He who has seen me has seen the Father; so how is it you ask, ‘Show us the Father’?”) is of no more help to the apologist’s case. Granted, if this is all the text said (and it all McDowell cites), it would seem to constitute a pretty strong claim on the part of the Johannine Jesus to be God. In fact, it would be a bit too strong for the apologists’ palate, since it would imply Patripassianism, that Jesus is not only divine by nature, but is God the Father himself, something A.T. Robertson was just as glad to see ruled out in John 10:30.

However, the hydra-head of heresy, thus momentarily raised up, sinks back into the abyss as soon as we read on, for John’s Jesus, as if sensing the need to prevent apologist and Patripassian alike from going astray (not that it did any good in the long run!), immediately qualifies his statement (and thus renders it uselessly vague for Christology): “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me? The words which I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father in me.” Paul says the same sort of thing of every believer, and no one thinks it implies that all believers are incarnations of God.

I recall how, as an apologist myself, I felt let down at reading this continuation, since it seemed to let the air out of what had sounded at first like the strongest possible Christological self-revelation. I am reminded here of Schleiermacher’s Christology. He sought to justify and maintain traditional incarnation language while redefining it in essentially naturalistic terms. David Friedrich Strauss had little patience with such efforts, as he deemed them, at equivocation. Here is a comment from Strauss on Schleiermacher’s Christology that I believe applies with equal force to the apologists’ attempts to find Athanasian Christology in John 14:9-11. “If we think of the divine in Christ according to this analogy [or in terms of John 14:9-11], then we no longer think of it in personal terms, no longer as a divine being united with the human, but only as an effective impulse working on it, that is, as a heightening of its natural powers, especially of its God-consciousness, which we assume in Christ to be something absolute, powerful, and exclusively determinative of all aspects of life. As is known, Schleiermacher [as, by analogy, the apologists] also called this ‘constant potency of the God-consciousness’ a ‘veritable existence of God in him,’ but the very fact that he calls it a real existence shows that he rather senses that it is an unreal one” (The Christ of Faith and the Jesus of History, 24-25).

7C. “I Say Unto You”

McDowell cites the Matthean antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount, in which the Matthean Jesus contrasts his own maxims with what “you have heard… was said to the men of old.” McDowell sees Jesus as pulling rank over Moses, something he could do only if his rank were that of God himself. This argument is not holy but only full of holes.

First, as most critical New Testament scholars admit, the antitheses are Matthew’s own redactional creations. One reason for thinking so is that a couple of the examples of Jesus’ supposedly “counter”-teachings, contrasted with Jewish commandments, appear in the Lukan parallels standing on their own, without reference to any teaching “of the men of old,” which implies they were not originally uttered with such a contrast in mind.

Second, even where such Jesus-Moses contrasts may be original, it is a wild leap to conclude that Jesus must have believed himself to be God to dare draw such contrasts. For instance, when in Mark 10:5 Jesus is shown rejecting scribal opinions on divorce does he set aside the force of the Deuteronomic divorce law because he is God, or simply because he sees the will of God better represented in Genesis 2? In Jesus’ judgment, Deuteronomy represented merely God’s permissive will, a compromise with the stubbornness of the human heart. This conclusion may have been simply an inference on Jesus’ part, as when some today feel sure that pacifism would be more in accord with Jesus’ teaching than militarism, or that Jesus would oppose abortion. Or Jesus may have claimed, as did the ancient Micaiah and other prophets, to be privy to the secret councils of God. But until we can eliminate such possibilities let us not jump to the conclusion Jesus believed himself to be God.

Third, McDowell is undoubtedly unaware of it, but the very same set of contrasts the Matthean Jesus draws between the literal Torah commands against adultery, oath-breaking, and murder on the one hand, and, on the other, a “higher righteousness” of the pious heart that renders such prohibitions superfluous, is an important ancient feature of rabbinical Jewish ethics and piety. (See Solomon Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, chapter XIII, “The Law of Holiness and the Law of Goodness,” pp. 199-218). There is nothing distinctly Christian about it, much less anything requiring the authority of an avatar of Jehovah to establish such contrasts. Not that the Sermon on the Mount says there is! The urgency that Jesus’ teachings (the vast majority of which are paralleled, often word for word, in ancient Jewish and Hellenistic sources) should be new and unique is an inference drawn from the Christian belief in Jesus as a unique divine revealer. It is not that the sayings were so unigue that they led anybody to think their speaker must have been God. To argue that way would seem to lead apologists in the direction of yet another heresy, Marcionism.

And must we conclude that for Jesus to preface his sayings with the formula “Truly I say to you” instead of “Thus says the Lord” means he thought himself to be none other than the Lord? McDowell thinks so. But this is absurd for two reasons. First, when Paul uses the phrase “I say to you,” he explicitly contrasts it with having a divine revelation, which his very use of the phrase implies he does not have! “I say, not the Lord” (I Corinthians 7:12; cf, verse 25). How do we know Jesus did not mean the same thing? What if he were humbly disclaiming the thundering divine authority which the apologists, with all the self-abnegating arrogance of Eric Hoffer’s “true believer,” would like to grant him?

Second, McDowell ignores the fact of which he is ready to make so much when it suits him: namely, that the gospel writers attributed divine authority to Jesus (whether Jesus himself did or not). Thus for them to preface a saying with “Jesus said, ‘Truly I say to you…”‘ is exactly tantamount to an Old Testament prophet saying “Thus saith the Lord.” In fact the gospel writers, every time they have Jesus say “Verily I say to you,” are saying in effect “Thus saith the Lord Jesus…” The relevant analogy is not between Jesus and the Old Testament prophets, but between the New Testament evangelists and the Old Testament prophets.

Much is made both by apologists and by pious New Testament critics like Joachim Jeremias (whom, for his other opinions, despite his tender piety, McDowell would see as roasting in Gehenna) of Jesus’ use of the simple Aramaic word Abba in prayer to God. Jeremias (The Central Message of the New Testament, pp. 9-30) observed that so far no ancient Jewish source had yet surfaced attesting such direct address to God whereas surviving ancient Jewish prayer language addressed God in terms of grand formality (like Matthew’s “Our Father which art in heaven” as opposed to Luke’s plain and unadorned “Father”). Despite the fact that both Mark 14:36 and Galatians 4:6 translate Abba simply as “Father,” Jeremias contended that Jesus intended a warm current of loving intimacy between himself and his Father such as could be appropriate only between divine Father and divine Son. This inference is based on the common homiletical fallacy of confusing etymology with definition. Abba originated as the Aramaic version of “Dada” or “Papa,” but by New Testament times, it had come simply to mean “Father” (as Jeremias himself admits, p. 21).

But it is the oddest inference to attribute to the historical Jesus a consciousness of unique divine sonship on the basis of the use of Abba in Mark 14:36 and Galatians 4:6. First, Galatians says nothing whatsoever about Jesus ever having used the word. It simply says that since we have now received sonship we may address God as Abba. Contra Jeremias (“there can be no doubt at all that this primitive Christian cry is an echo of Jesus’ own praying,” p. 18), Galatians 4:6 says nothing about our imitating Jesus in this regard.

Second, we have to ask how Mark could have known what Jesus prayed in theGardenofGethsemane, since Mark has taken care explicitly to eliminate any witnesses from the scene. As Jesus prays he is far enough away from even the three closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, not to know that they are asleep till he returns to where they await him, and the other eight are even further away. Mark “knows” what Jesus prayed inGethsemanebecause he made it up. He is the typical “omniscient narrator” of a piece of fiction. McDowell and company never even notice such things because, deep down, they cannot bring themselves to look at the Bible through any other lenses than those provided by the doctrine of biblical inerrancy which presupposes that the Bible’s statements are all factually accurate because they are the product of a literally omniscient narrator-God Almighty. Here as everywhere, apologists can hardly veil the fact that what they are really doing is to offer after-the-fact rationalizations for a position taken on other grounds entirely.

Virtually all the rest of McDowell’s sixth chapter is taken up with defending what no one challenges: that various New Testament writers believed Jesus Christ was a heavenly being come to earth. That McDowell can for a moment imagine that such scripture prooftexting even begins to address the objections of nonbelievers shows once again that he really has no intention of engaging them. He is simply a cheer-leader for fundamentalism, preaching to the choir.

Works Cited

Margaret Barker. The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God.Philadelphia: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992.

Rudolf Bultmann. The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Translated by G. R. Beasley-Murray, R.W.N. Hoare, and J.K. Riches.Philadelphia:Westminster Press, 1971.

Kahlil Gibran. Jesus the Son of Man: His Words and Deeds as Recorded by Those Who Knew Him. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928.

Philip B. Harner. The “I Am” of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Johannine Usage and Thought. Facet Books, Biblical Series, Gen. ed., John Reumann. 26.Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970.

Fred L. Horton, Jr. The Melchizedek Tradition: A Critical Examination of the Sources to the Fifth Century A.D. and in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series. Gen. ed. Matthew Black, 30. NY:CambridgeUniversity Press, 1976.

Joachim Jeremias. The Central Message of the New Testament. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965.

C.S. Lewis. “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” in Walter Hooper (ed.) Christian Reflections.Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1976, pp 152-166.

Solomon Schechter. Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology. NY: Macmillan Company, 1910.

Gershom G. Scholem. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. NY: Schocken Books, 1973.

Alan F. Segal. Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports About Christianity and Gnosticism. Studies in Judaism and Late Antiquity Ed. Jacob Neusner. 25.Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1977.

A.N. Sherwin-White. Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. NY:OxfordUniversity Press, 1963.

David Friedrich Strauss. The Christ of Faith and the Jesus of History: A Critique of Schleiermacher’s The Life of Jesus. Translated by LeanderE. Keck. Lives of Jesus Series. Gen.ed. LeanderE. Keck.Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977.

The Trilemma Lord, Liar Or Lunatic? (1995)

Jim Perry

The argument which McDowell calls the “trilemma” is popular among amateur apologists for Christianity. It was first popularized by C.S. Lewis, and has become even more common since McDowell reworked it. It is logically weak, but it is rhetorically powerful–as its popularity and recurrence attest–and so worth considering in more detail than it might otherwise merit.

The name “trilemma” is somewhat misleading. Traditionally a dilemma is a situation in which one is faced with two or more alternatives, each of which is somehow bad or unpleasant[1]. “Trilemma” and the trifurcate phrase “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic” (LLL) suggest a three-way decision, two of which (according to the argument) constitute a dilemma, thus favoring the third. Structurally it might more accurately be viewed as a binary decision in which one of the branches is asserted to lead to a dilemma, thus favoring the other branch.

The original form of the argument as made by Lewis was ostensibly directed only at refuting the claim, sometimes advanced, that Jesus was a great moral teacher, but not God. In a nutshell: “If Jesus’ claims are not true, then he was either lying about them (which is morally reprehensible) or he was deluded into believing them, which would make him a raving madman (whom nobody would respect as a teacher); thus he couldn’t have been a great moral teacher.” Lewis’s version was originally for a radio broadcast, and is probably more properly construed as a rhetorical argument rather than a formal logical one.

Lewis’s actual argument as expressed in Mere Christianity[2]:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

“Ostensibly” is used above because although this limitation of scope is often raised in Lewis’s favor when the LLL argument is criticized, the particular language Lewis chose is at least suggestive of the dilemma interpretation McDowell will take. Few people in our society (and fewer in the Britain of the 1940’s) go so far as to consider Jesus “the Devil of Hell” or a raving lunatic, and by setting these up as the only alternatives to complete acceptance of Jesus’ claims, there is an implication that the claims must therefore be true. In point of fact, Lewis ends one chapter (originally, one radio talk) with the quote above, and expands on it in the beginning of the immediately following one:

We are faced, then, with a frightening alternative. This man we are talking about either was (and is) just what He said, or else a lunatic, or something worse. Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God. God has landed on this enemy-occupied world in human form.

This is the line of argument McDowell takes. He doesn’t expand much on Lewis’s basic argument, but provides a number of citations in favor of Jesus’ morality and sanity. In a nutshell, “If Jesus’ claims are not true then He was either a demon or a lunatic. But everyone knows Jesus was neither, so He must be Lord and God.”

In either case, this argument is flawed. First, it relies for impact on a premise which is is both ambiguous and controversial, which is the question of just what “Jesus’ claims” were. Second, it makes unwarranted extrapolations from the general idea of saying something known not to be literally true to the worst sort of malicious lying, and from believing something which is not true to raving lunacy. This second point is dependent upon the first, as the degree to which one can validly make such extrapolations depends on what the claims in question are, but on a reasonable view they go too far in any case.

Addressing this argument requires some degree of caution: the basic criticism lies in the fact that none of the three horns of the “trilemma” actually represent a single possibility, but rather a broad spectrum of possibilities. All that is logically required to refute the trilemma is to show that the decision “Who is Jesus of Nazareth” cannot be reduced to three and only three clear-cut possibilities. It is not necessary to positively answer the question–indeed it may be impossible to conclusively answer it.

This basic criticism of the trilemma is echoed by Christian apologist William Lane Craig[3]:

An example of such an unsound argument would be:

  1. Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or Lord.
  2. Jesus was neither a liar nor a lunatic.
  3. Therefore, Jesus is Lord.

This is a valid argument inferring one member of a disjunction from the negation of the other members. But the argument is still unsound, because the first premiss is false: there are other unmentioned alternatives, for example, that Jesus as described in the gospels is a legendary figure, so that the trilemma is false as it stands.

Jesus claims to be God

Lewis speaks vaguely of “the sort of things Jesus said” and “just what He said,” while McDowell comes right to the point[4]:

Jesus claimed to be God. He did not leave any other options. His claim to be God must be either true or false and is something that should be given serious consideration.

Exactly what Jesus claimed is not known. The gospels are the closest thing we have to an account of his claims, and there is no explicit claim of divinity by Jesus in the gospels, let alone an unambiguous theological statement of what precisely it might mean for a man to claim to be God. (Obviously the Christian church came to think that Jesus was God, though even they had trouble determining what that meant, as witnessed by centuries of “heresies” concerning this issue). Much of what is often interpreted as suggesting divinity comes from the fourth gospel, but this is considered to be of relatively late authorship (compared to the synoptics) and may reflect theological ideas developed in the early church or those of the author, and may thus be removed from the actual claims/sayings of Jesus. This is not to urge a particular interpretation of John, but to make the point that there is not a clear consensus on the historical claims of Jesus, or how his words as we have them should be interpreted in context.

In the various gospel accounts Jesus’ followers and those who turn to him for miracles treat him as a holy man, certainly, but usually no more so or differently than e.g. Elisha; a man of God but not as one who claimed to be God (at least during his life). But both Lewis and McDowell assert that whatever Jesus’ claims were, if they were true he was God.

McDowell in particular seems to work from the idea that the twentieth-century American evangelical Christian interpretation of the gospels is the clear and only possible reading. For instance[5]:

And, more than that, He was a demon, because He told others to trust Him for their eternal destiny. If He could not back up His claims and He knew it, then He was unspeakably evil.

The only way this argument can make any sense is if one is working from an orthodox evangelical view–that there is a God, that humanity as a whole has fallen away from God to the point of being in jeopardy of eternal damnation, that the only chance of reprieve from that fate is putting personal faith in a human incarnation of God, that Jesus claimed to be that incarnation, and so on–except that Jesus wasn’t really God, so we’re all damned anyway. Even then it’s not clear how it’s unspeakably evil to lie about that unless somehow all those people are damned because they believed Jesus and otherwise might have been saved.

In any event such an evangelical reading is not the only available understanding of what Jesus said according to the gospels. There is scholarly agreement that not all that is present in the gospels reflects what Jesus actually said. Some scholars have asserted that Jesus never actually existed, though this an uncommon view, while others have argued that the Jesus of history cannot be untangled from the mythical additions that make up the Christ of faith. Many scholars today do believe that the Jesus of history can to some degree be approached through careful examination of the Bible and other ancient texts–but the picture they uncover tends not to match the orthodox view very closely.

What all these alternative readings are is not important here–most readers will no doubt be familiar with several–what is important is that they exist and are at least as well supported as the orthodox reading. It is therefore not reasonable to talk in narrow terms about “Jesus claims to be God” or in broad terms about “the sort of things Jesus said” as if they were black and white alternatives, to be either entirely accepted as true or entirely rejected as false. A perfectly valid and supportable response to “Jesus claimed to be God” is “No, he didn’t.”

Liar or Lunatic?

The other flaw in the “trilemma” argument is that even if one concedes the first point for the sake of argument, and stipulates that Jesus did claim to be God, in incarnate form generally consistent with orthodox interpretation, the extremes of “lunatic” or “fiend” are not justified as the sole alternatives. In particular, it is still quite possible to consider Jesus a sound moral teacher even if one doesn’t accept the claim of divinity.

On any view it must be recalled that there are many claims and sayings attributed to Jesus. Even with the stipulation of relative orthodoxy there are inevitably matters of interpretation. In any case we can say this: if Jesus said these things, then they were either completely and literally true, or they were not. If they were not true, then either he knew this, and was saying something he knew not to be literally and completely true, or he didn’t know it, and taught them thinking them to be true. In considering specific claims, we should remember that many of the things he taught (and which are likely to be those to which a skeptical defender of Jesus as moral teacher is referring) are not directly related to claims about his divinity.

Some of Jesus’ more famous moral statements are not stated of his own authority, but are simply restatements of the existing Law of Judaism as understood in his time. When asked to name the most important commandment he cites Deuteronomy and Leviticus:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’ [Deut6:4,5] The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ [Lev19:18b] There is no commandment greater than these.” “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

Here [Mark 12:28-34, NIV], Jesus is in agreement with the teacher of the law on interpretation of Jewish scripture. Matthew’s version at 22:34-40 is terser and more adversarial (and more often quoted) but retains the notion that Jesus correctly answers his questioner, while Luke 10:25-28 turns Jesus into the questioner, but still retains the agreement. And yet, “Love God, and your neighbor as yourself” is often cited as the heart of the Christian moral message. The Golden Rule [Mt7:12a, Lk6:31] is also in this category; compare both of these with Hillel’s similar formulation, “What you don’t like, don’t do to others; that is the whole Law; the rest is commentary; go and learn!” [6]. For these citations we can probably assume that if Jesus said them, then he believed them to be true, but in any event these teachings are in accord with those attributed to other moral teachers (Hillel), and so one would be justified in lauding Jesus as an equally great moral teacher (as many people today attribute “love thy neighbor” and “do unto others” to Jesus). He may have had other problems, but as far as these moral teachings, we may consider him sound regardless.

Others of his teachings are more specific to himself; ones cited in appealing to Jesus as moralist might include “love your enemies” [Mt5:44, Lk6:27] or this [Mt 5:39-42; cf Lk6:29ff]:

But I tell you, ‘Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you for your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.’

These are less universal, but many people have argued that they are morally sound ideas–here again such sayings can be judged independently of other opinions concerning Jesus.

It should be obvious that if one sees Jesus as God or inspired, then these teachings may be taken on authority; however, even if one doesn’t so see him one can still take them on their own merit. McDowell cites Hort as saying that Jesus’ “words were so completely parts and utterances of Himself, that they had no meaning as abstract statements of truth.” This is flowery but untrue, except again in the sense that someone who does not think Jesus was God Incarnate is not likely to hold him in the same esteem as one who does. This is supported by McDowell’s citation of Kenneth Scott Latourette: “It is not His teachings which make Jesus so remarkable, although these would be enough to give Him distinction.”[7] It should go without saying that non-Christians attributing “distinction” to Jesus because of his teachings do not view him as being as “remarkable” as do Christians.

Although these things should go without saying, should be obvious, they apparently need to be stated in the face of McDowell’s black-or-white view.

So Jesus’ purely moral teachings can stand on their own, regardless of whatever else he may or may not have claimed. But what of teachings specifically concerning himself, or relying on his own authority? In these instances Jesus’ own state of mind may be more significant.


If, when Jesus made his claims, he knew they weren’t completely and literally true, was he lying? That’s one possibility, but scarcely the only one. People often speak poetically or metaphorically; Jesus more so than most. In John 10:7,9 we see:

Therefore Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth. I am the gate for the sheep. … I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. [NIV]

Now by most understandings Jesus did not mean here that he was indeed a physical gate–it’s a metaphor (though those listening seem not to understand it: Jesus often mystifies even his disciples as to what he really means). Indeed, almost all of Jesus’ sayings appear to be parables, similes, metaphors, or otherwise indirect. This is most pronounced in the synoptics; the style of John is quite different, but still uses symbolic language. It is quite reasonable, then, to take statements sometimes read as implying deity as also being metaphoric, at least provisionally. Some such statements, such as “I and the Father are one” [Jn10:30] make perfect sense interpreted as .”..are united in purpose,” while they strain the language in a trinitarian interpretation as .”..are separate persons of a single God.”

Given that Jesus spoke in metaphor constantly, indeed in rather cryptic metaphor sometimes, it seems that for no particular claim can it be conclusively ruled as intended literally rather than symbolically. A metaphorical claim is not literally true but one who speaks metaphorically is no liar (unless the “correct” metaphorical interpretation is itself misleading, but that’s much harder to discern).

Another, separate, possibility is that of the “noble lie.” Jesus may have felt that his teachings on behavior were so important as to validate falsely claiming special authority from (or at an extreme, as) God in order to persuade people to follow them. There is historical precedent for the idea that “the people” need the backing of supernatural authority to behave morally. Jesus could have believed in all sincerity that following his teachings would lead people into theKingdom ofGod and/or eternal life, and said what he thought necessary to get people to follow him. In doing so, to the extent that such a lie was against those teachings, he may have thought he was forfeiting his own eternal security. Greater love hath no man… [While this last detail wanders quite far down a specific path of speculation, it makes at least as much sense as McDowell’s argument that it would be “unspeakably evil” to lie about promising salvation]. On this view Jesus would have been a liar, but nobly motivated, and no demon.

This doesn’t by any means exhaust the possibilities, but provides some credible alternatives to McDowell’s demonic liar.

Of course, that idea is not completely ruled out. The reasoning behind Lewis’s “Devil of Hell” is not clear, but we certainly have evidence of religious leaders–some of whose movements have eventually become quite successful–who are generally considered to have been charlatans. McDowell cites a couple of character references for Jesus[8]: from J.S. Mill who favors his moral teachings as we find them in the gospels (see above), William Lecky who comments on the figure of Christ as presented by Christianity as a favorable archetype (the passage doesn’t comment on Jesus qua historical figure), and Philip Schaff who conflates the Christ of faith with the Jesus of history as if they must necessarily be identical. But this is mistaken–they need not be.

If Jesus was not telling the literal truth, then (barring a broader conspiracy) he fooled (intentionally or unintentionally) those around him, and the traditions which became the gospels and the church were based on the belief that he did speak the literal truth, and they present him in that light. On this view, the Christ of faith may effectively be a fiction–if not a conscious one.


If, when Jesus made his claims, they were false but he believed them to be true, was he insane? If, as we have stipulated in this section, his claims include being God in some sense, then this would probably be considered a delusion. To what degree it was pathological would depend on just exactly what he understood by “being God.” If he understood something akin to what is believed by the Christian faith, then it would be a quite major delusion. If he believed he was the prophesied Messiah as expected by the Jews of his time, then he might have been honestly mistaken. There are many other possibilities in between, especially since his followers may not have understood things in the same way as he did (remember that his followers often didn’t understand what he was talking about). His followers would have passed on their own understanding of Jesus’ claims, and so on by word of mouth until they were set down in the gospels.

McDowell produces some more citations from “authorities” (Lewis, Napoleon(!), Channing, and Schaff)[9] asserting in effect that one who falsely believed himself the Christ of faith would have to be such a megalomaniac that he couldn’t have taught as the Christ of faith is said to have. Of these Schaff’s comments, from The Person of Christ published by the American Tract Society, perhaps epitomize this briefly:

Is such an intellect–clear as the sky, bracing as the mountain air, sharp and penetrating as a sword, thoroughly healthy and vigorous, always ready and always self-possessed–liable to a radical and most serious delusion concerning His own character and mission? Preposterous imagination!

This is essentially circular: it’s effectively an article of faith that Jesus Christ was the ideal man, therefore that his intellect was clear, bracing, etc.–this is not directly discerned in an unambiguous way from the actual words of Jesus as we have them. Another way of viewing this is that if Jesus was deluded about his status, then he was not the Christ of faith.

But could a historical Jesus who was in fact deluded have impressed people as he did and have given rise to the tradition that became the mythic Christ? Lewis says he would be “on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg.” Surely nobody would have taken such a man seriously? And could a raving lunatic have taught the sound moral teachings Jesus did?

To the first question, one answer is that not all that many people did take Jesus seriously in his lifetime; the movement that became Christianity came after his death, and arose chiefly among people who’d never even seen or heard Jesus in person. As for those who did hear him, his appeal was largely with the lower elements in society; the religious establishment and teachers were not on the whole impressed with his wondrously clear and bracing intellect. For instance, in John 10:19-21 we see:

At these words the Jews were again divided. Many of them said, “He is demon-possessed and raving mad. Why listen to him? But others said, “These are not the sayings of a man possessed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” [NIV]

So at least some people at the time apparently felt Jesus was “raving mad.” In more recent times we know of cases of cults started by people broadly considered mentally unstable–Manson, Jones, Koresh — these familiar cases are well-known because of tragic outcomes, but they surely illustrate the capacity of some people for following charismatic but possibly deluded leaders. For cults which spread beyond the leader’s immediate following, we can expect the word of mouth to emphasize the leaders’ charisma, wisdom, and “sharp and penetrating intellect,” rather than presenting that leader as psychotic. A cult which lasted a generation beyond the death of its leader before producing written accounts of that leader would be expected to reflect that emphasis in those accounts.

More generally, though, there is the question of the nature of mental illness and delusion. There is an implication in the trilemma/LLL argument that someone with such a delusion would be a) incapable of sound rational thought on moral issues, and b) obviously raving mad, and thus incapable of influencing people. This is not the case. There are many kinds of delusional mental illness, with varying effects. Some of these occur sporadically rather than constantly–the term lunacy itself refers to a form of insanity intermixed with periods of clear thinking (the name comes from association with the cycle of the moon). The mania phase of bipolar disorder is an instance in which delusion is not necessarily constant. Paranoia is a different case in which the delusion is compartmentalized, with the delusion itself being quite rationalized, and the remaining reasoning functions largely unaffected. The Encyclopedia Britannica [1967] says paranoia is:

…a delusional psychosis, in which the delusions develop slowly into a complex, intricate and logically elaborated system, without hallucination and without general personality disorganization. Sometimes the fixed delusional system, which may be grandiose, persecutory or erotic, is more or less encapsulated, thus leaving the personality relatively intact. Though a great many patients with paranoia have to be hospitalized, some do not, and among these an occasional one succeeds in building up a following who believe him to be a genius or inspired. … Unlike the grandiose delusions in mania and in schizophrenia, paranoid grandiosity tends to be well-organized, relatively stable and persistent. The complexity of delusional conviction varies from rather simple beliefs in one’s alleged talents, attractiveness or inspiration to highly complex, systematized beliefs that one is a great prophet, author, poet, inventor or scientist.

So not only can we make a case that a relatively obvious nut might found a religion and still be remembered as wise, but a paranoiac or a sufferer of various other forms of delusion might be quite convincing on the subject of their delusion, while furthermore being quite capable of sound reasoning on e.g. moral issues. Once again, the story would have been passed on by people who believed what the leader said.


McDowell concludes[10]:

Who you decide Jesus Christ is must not be an idle intellectual exercise. You cannot put Him on the shelf as a great moral teacher. That is not a valid option. He is either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. You must make a choice.

As has been shown above, it is not the case that there are three and only three precisely-defined choices to be made here, but rather a vast continuum of possibilities. We don’t know with any level of confidence precisely what Jesus as a historical figure claimed for himself, and in any event if whatever he claimed was false there are a great diversity of possibilities, which include liar and lunatic (which McDowell has not successfully ruled out) but which also include many other options which do allow Jesus to be considered a sage or moral teacher and no more.

The trilemma argument does not support any particular opinion one way or another concerning Jesus. If one already believes that Jesus was the Christ of the Christian faith and hence Lord, then naturally one is disinclined to believe that he was anything else, and may favor the idea that other options are untenable. This argument, however, provides no logical support for one who doesn’t already believe to choose the “Lord” option out of all the others.

One way to judge the logical quality of an argument like this is to consider a similar argument about someone one feels differently about, for instance Muhammad: liar, lunatic, or prophet of God? One can find muslims making essentially similar arguments to those cited by McDowell about his sterling honesty and clarity of mind. The same again for Baha’ullah and other religious figures.

McDowell continues:

The evidence is clearly in favor of Jesus as Lord. However, some people reject the clear evidence because of moral implications involved. There needs to be a moral honesty in the above consideration of Jesus as either a liar, lunatic, or Lord and God.

The “evidence” McDowell brings into court dissolves readily into flimsy shreds upon the slightest cross-examination. He therefore falls back upon the technique of “poisoning the well”–a variation of the ad hominem fallacy in which any opposing argument is dismissed out of hand because of the imputed motives of the opponent. Here he asserts that anybody questioning this “clear evidence” is doing so not because the evidence itself is flimsy or nonexistent, but because of “moral implications involved” in accepting the evidence. Just what those implications might be are left unstated here, but the implied imagery of all sorts of debauchery and idolatry that would have to be given up if one became a Christian can be assumed (one can assume it in part because St. Paul writes about some of it in Romans 1 –McDowell didn’t invent this “argument” either). In point of fact Christians on the whole are no more (nor less) moral than non-Christians, even by Christian standards, and Christianity doesn’t call for a more stringent moral code than most alternatives. Furthermore, many Christians will readily admit not only this latter fact but also that the evidence McDowell presents (in general, but specifically the trilemma argument) is not in itself persuasive. There needs to be an intellectual honesty in consideration of the “liar, lunatic, or Lord” argument.


[1] Copi, Irving M., Introduction to Logic, fifth edition,New York: Macmillan, 1978, p. 255.

[2] Lewis, C.S. (Clive Staples), Mere Christianity, revised edition,New York, Macmillan/Collier, 1952, p. 55 ff.

[3] Craig, William Lane, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, revised edition, 1994, pp. 38-39.

[4] McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict. revised edition,San Bernardino, Here’s Life, 1979, p. 104.

[5] Ibid., p. 105.

[6] Talmud Babli, Sabbath 31a, cited in Kaufmann, Walter, The Faith of a Heretic, New York, Doubleday/Anchor, 1961, p. 212

[7] McDowell, p. 103.

[8] Ibid., pp. 105-6.

[9] Ibid., p. 106-7.

[10] Ibid., p. 107.

The Great Preposterous (1997)

Robert M. Price

 If oxen and horses or lions had hands and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms of the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds.

–Xenophanes ofColophon

If anyone needed further proof that apologetics as practiced by Josh McDowell is merely an exercise in after-the-fact rationalization of beliefs held on prior emotional grounds, I welcome him to Chapter 8 of Evidence That Demands a Verdict. One can only say again that McDowell is the worst enemy of his own faith: with defenders like this, who needs attackers? The more seriously one takes him as a representative of his faith, the more seriously one will be tempted to thrust Christianity aside as a tissue of grotesque absurdities capable of commending itself only to fools and bigots. Before I turn to the smorgasbord of fallacious arguments, let me point out the massive irony of the chapter as a whole. McDowell is concerned here to answer the question, “‘If God became man THEN what would He be like?'”[1] Since McDowell is in great danger of losing sight of the enchanted forest for the trees, an initial look at the whole approach will be helpful. Here is his thumbnail sketch for recognizing God next time you see him in the Burger King line next to Elvis:


1. Have an unusual entrance into life.
2. Be without sin.
3. Manifest the supernatural in the form of miracles.
4. Have an acute sense of difference from other men.
5. Speak the greatest words ever spoken.
6. Have a lasting and universal influence.
7. Satisfy the spiritual hunger in man.
8. Exercise power over death.[2]

And of course we have to conclude that God did become incarnate. His name was Apollonius of Tyana. And Gautama Buddha, and Caesar Augustus, and Moses, and Pythagoras, and Empedocles, and Alexander the Great, and Muhammad.

The irony of McDowell’s argument is not so simple as the skeptic might first think, namely that he has simply abstracted the outlines of the Christian story of Jesus. There is a point to that, but I think that criticism would better apply to J.B. Phillips’s version of the argument in his Your God Is Too Small.[3] What McDowell has unwittingly done is to list off the basic outline of the Mythic Hero Archetype as described by Joseph Campbell, Lord Raglan, Otto Ranck, Alan Dundes, and others. He is quite right that people would expect an incarnate god or divine hero to conform to the job description he has outlined. What he does not seem to see is that his very apologetic recapitulates the mythopoetic tendency of the human imagination to flesh out the outlines of the Hero Archetype by lending it a concrete form and name, in McDowell’s case, those of Jesus of Nazareth.

Form-critic Martin Dibelius called it the Law of Biographical Analogy. The human imagination operates pretty much the same way all over the world, and faced with the same issues and questions, it’s going to resort to a certain limited menu of options. This means that when we find similar myths (flood stories, dying-&-rising saviors, sacred time and space) or ideas (the Golden Rule or the Ten Commandments or God) or inventions (Aztec and Egyptian pyramids), we need not assume borrowing (though of course that sometimes happens, too). People are just as likely to come up with these things over and over again independently and spontaneously. And when they start asking themselves what an avatar or a messiah would be like, they’re usually going to have, e.g., some sort of a miraculous nativity. It is an irresistible metaphor for the epoch-making significance (as they see it, anyway) of the advent of their hero into their history. And so on with the rest of McDowell’s (and Raglan’s and Ranck’s) list.

In fact, the conformity of the gospel portraits of Jesus to the Mythic Hero Archetype (though McDowell obviously wouldn’t want to call it that) is one major reason that some scholars have questioned the historical existence of Jesus. The more a character’s life conforms to familiar myth-patterns, the more likely it is that the character’s biography has been subsumed into myth. If there is nothing left but mythic traits, then you have to start seriously asking if this figure ever lived at all. The same question has justly been raised in the case of Gautama Buddha. There is much more to be said on the subject of the Christ Myth theory, but since McDowell only raises this question by accident, I will leave it for another time and move on.

The Astonishing Ant-Man

McDowell uses a striking analogy for the incarnation: if you were observing ants building an ant-hill and you wished you could share a bit of human architectural know-how with them, what would be necessary? Why, you’d have to become an ant yourself! And that’s what God decided he had to do to communicate with us puny humans. I think the analogy both succeeds brilliantly and fails miserably. That is because it well expresses the idea of the incarnation, only that idea itself is a mass of confusions. The basic problem (at least as long as we are, with McDowell’s analogy, focusing on the issue of God revealing knowledge to the human race) is the dilemma posed by the Prophet Isaiah: “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says Yahve. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (55:8-9). If we look past the great many places where prophets simply announce they are giving forth the word of God, as if this were no difficult thing to do, just picking up the Royal Telephone, as the old chorus has it, occasionally in the Bible we find intimations of the paradox involved with any claim to be speaking the word of God. Next door inGreece, the Delphic Oracle would rant in glossolalia with the verba ipsissima of Apollo, leaving it for the interpreter standing beside her to derive from it an articulate answer for the questioner, only the resultant utterance was notoriously ambivalent. This last feature no doubt functioned as a butt-covering device (“Well, she didn’t actually say that you’d win the battle, your Majesty! She just said a mighty empire would fall. Heh heh.”), but it is also an insightful piece of theology, denoting that the infinite qualitative distinction between God’s mind and the human mind can never really be bridged, any more than you could ever succeed in explaining your ideas to an ant even if you had a set of their antenna.

This is why there can never be genuine translation of the word of God into the words of men. “No one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received… the Spirit which is from God” (1 Corinthians 2:11-12). So doesn’t Paul think it is possible to tap God’s phone? To speak his language? Yes, but then one ends up like the Oracle of Delphi again: speaking in tongues, things it is not lawful for a man to utter, unutterable utterances, the tongues of angels, speaking in the spirit. One experiences the mystery as mystery, as Tillich puts it, one does not crack some code, solve some problem. If it is a word, it cannot be from God. Conversely, if it from God, it cannot be a word.

For this reason, the fundamentalist doctrine of propositional revelation is so much idolatrous nonsense. Any human word which purports to interpret God’s word is really only playing charades. It is only pointing, symbolizing, and finally deceiving anyone who forgets for a second the ambivalent, ambiguous character of that word. It is something like trying to translate the Chinese Tao te Ching into English. The Taoist epigrams are so terse, and the two languages so different, that translations differ wildly. All are edifying, but one would be intemperate to quote any one version and say one had grasped the intent of the author.

Aquinas understood the problem here, though one may wonder whether the great philosopher really came to grips with it. He knew that God’s ways and words must be so vastly different from our own that human words about God could never simply be univocal in their reference to God. Love, for instance, is all bound up with human associations and limitations that could not touch the infinite God, He Who Is. But if by saying “God is love,” we use the word equivocally, so that God’s love bears no similarity to human love, there is no point in using the same word at all. (This error is constantly made by theodicy arguments which try to get God off the hook by saying that, while it would be unjust for us to stand by and let someone suffer, it is not unjust for God.) So Aquinas sought to settle down in the middle, saying our God-language is analogous. In other words, as Francis Schaeffer said, it is true enough without being exhaustively true. Pardon me if I think this is a case of trying to have one’s cake and eat it too. “I’ll just take the best of both! Wrap it up for me, will you?”

As the Zen masters teach, human talk pretends to convey Reality but is wholly inadequate to the job and always inevitably ends up substituting for that which it claims to convey, thus cutting us off from it! It was brilliant theology for the Old Testament to forbid any image of God. There can be no image of an invisible God. Christian incarnationism risks (to put it mildly) losing this essential insight by calling Jesus the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), by having Jesus say, “He who has seen me has seen the father” (John 14:9). What winds up happening is perfectly summed up by Albrecht Ritschl, who said that for liberal Protestants like himself, “Jesus has the value of God for us.” In other words, Jesus has become an idol usurping the place of God. And that, to my mind, is the confusion of the “idea” of the Incarnation. Theologians only admit this when they obsequiously pronounce the incarnation a “mystery of the faith.” This, too, is no real admission, only a rhetorical diversion, since they will talk quite confidently about the incarnation and its importance, as if they knew quite well what the doctrine meant–until they get pinned down on it, and then it’s time to hide demurely behind the petticoat of “mystery.”

Prophetic Ventriloquism

McDowell zeroes in on the virgin birth of Jesus, but digresses immediately into the mine field of “fulfilled prophecy.” He shows himself as heedless of the original context of biblical prophecies as his colleague in charlatanry Hal Lindsey (you know you’re dealing with real scholarship when your authorities go by names like “Josh” and “Hal”). He can unblinkingly cite Genesis 3:15, an etiological myth for why humans hate snakes, as a prediction of the defeat of Satan by Jesus! This medieval eisegesis makes utter gibberish of the context, but that’s okay with Josh. Context means nothing to a proof-texter. It simply does not occur to McDowell that no one living in pre-Christian times could have possibly understood any of the texts he blithely cites as predictions of the Messiah’s birth. These interpretations arose only after the fact, once Christians began to proof-text them as square pegs jammed into the round holes of Christian dogma. In other words, they sound like predictions of Jesus only once you read them through Christian lenses. Thus they have no evidential value in the endeavor to prove someone should adopt the Christian standpoint. It only seems to work once you’ve done so, and even then it is only an optical illusion.

“A clearer prophecy occurs in Isaiah 7:14 which states that ‘… a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel’ (KJV). This is very specific in that the reference is to a virgin. This most logically, refers to the woman in Genesis 3:15.”[4] Does it? One only need do what McDowell apparently has never done and open Isaiah 7:14 itself, which, as ought to be obvious even to the veriest fool, concerns itself with the birth of a child contemporary with Isaiah himself, as his birth will herald the imminent downfall of the Israelite-Syrian alliance against Judah. At this point McDowell’s argument is simply moronic, unworthy of a pimply adolescent Hi-BA member. It appears to be good enough for McDowell that Matthew cites Isaiah 7:14 as a prediction of Jesus’ virgin birth, only he ignores the implication of Matthew 13:51-52 that Matthew understood all such prophecies as allegorical double fulfillments, something inconsistent with McDowell’s inherited Protestant literalism, so he just ignores the context and pretends Isaiah was an ancient Jeanne Dixon.

Parenthetically, it is this sort of idiocy that explains why up to now scholars have not given McDowell’s tripe the time of day, for fear of appearing to dignify it with a response. My fellow contributors to The Jury Is In and I, however, feel that something ought to be done for the sake of the weaker brethren who do not know better and whom McDowell is causing to stumble into misinformation and delusion.

Immaculate Misconception

McDowell tries to defend the myth of the virgin birth of Jesus by the simple expedient of ignoring the yawning gulf that stretches between the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke. He quotes James Orr’s lame response to such critical analyses as Strauss’s in The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. But the result, ironically, is to admit the force of Strauss’s argument. “The critics speak of the discrepancies of the narratives. Much more remarkable, it seems to me, are their agreements, and the subtle harmonies that pervade them. The agreements, if we study them carefully, prove to be far more numerous than may at first strike us.”[5] This is as much as saying, “Gee, they are so divergent, it’s amazing they have even this much in common!” But McDowell, every bit as much the true believer as Orr, simply dismisses the gross conflicts between the narratives. He just doesn’t care about them and knows that his readership, for whom he functions as a cheer-leader, doesn’t want to bother with them either, And the Orr quote functions simply to give them permission to say “Yeah, I didn’t think there was a problem, praise the Lord,” and move on.

Is nothing at all to be made of the fact that, e.g., while Matthew has Mary and Joseph living in Bethlehem where Jesus is born in their home, and only later relocating in Nazareth to seek shelter from Archelaeus, Luke makes the couple residents of Nazareth who only “happen” to be on their way to Bethlehem for a census registration when Mary’s water breaks? Luke’s manifold historical inaccuracies and narrative absurdities pose no problem at all for the true believer, but McDowell can hardly expect an outsider to be persuaded of Luke’s reliability simply by the sleight-of-hand of ignoring them. A census requiring people to register where their remote ancestors lived a millennium before? A man stupid enough to take his nine-months-pregnant wife on a donkey ride over unpaved hill trails?

And the notorious gaff placing the birth of Jesus both before Herod’s death (4 B.C.) and during the census of Quirinius (6 A.D.) will not go away. Of this last McDowell says, “some now believe that Quirinius served two terms of office, the first of these being 10-7 B.C., which would put his first census at the time, roughly, of Christ’s birth shortly before Herod’s death in 4 B.C.”[6] Some apologists now believe it, but no one else. It is a piece of pure guesswork floated by apologist William Ramsey on the basis of a single ambiguous inscription which noted Quirinius had been rewarded for a great military victory. There is no hint of the nature of this reward, but Ramsey figures it might as well have been another term of office! Yeah, that’s the ticket! Sorry, but that’s ruled out by the fact that we know who the Roman governors were at the time of Herod’s death, namely Quintilius Varus and Sentius Saturninus. And there couldn’t have been a census previous to the one in 6 A.D., since the outrageous novelty of that one (to think: that Romans should exact tribute from Jews!), sparked the bloody uprising of Judas the Galilean. A related problem is that no census Quirinius conducted would have involved residents ofBethlehem, since in Quirinius’ reign, Judea was a technically independent client state allied withRome, not subject to taxation, unlikeNazareth, part of the Romanprovince ofSyria. Of all this Josh is as ignorant or as heedless as Luke himself.

Pregnant Silence

One of the obstacles standing in the way of the virgin birth as any more than a myth is the sparseness of its attestation in the New Testament. Only Matthew and Luke mention it (and even there, some early manuscripts of Luke imply the virgin birth is an interpolation into that gospel, while as Jane Schaberg shows in The Illegitimacy of Jesus, Matthew never really mentions a miraculous conception, only a providential one).[7] But this doesn’t bother McDowell who simply takes for granted a picture of a united “early church” who can be safely assumed all to have believed the same things. Thus if Luke mentions it, Jude must have believed it, too. This is merely a reflection of the fundamentalist dogma of the harmony of scripture. The writers of the Bible must all have agreed with each other since there were all merely ventriloquist dummies for God.

Robert Gromacki is cited thusly:

… it is not tenable to argue from silence to disbelief or from silence to an ignorance of the doctrine. The apostles did not record everything that they taught or knew (cf. John 20:30). In fact, the so-called silence argument of the liberal can boomerang on him. Since Paul did not mention any human father for the person Jesus, does that mean that he believed that Jesus had no human father? Most regard silence as an assent. If Paul and the others did not believe in the virgin birth, should they not have corrected the earlier birth narratives? [8]

This is just asinine. You mean to tell me that if someone never mentioned something as remarkable as a virgin birth, that means he did believe in it? And as for Paul never mentioning that Jesus had a human father, well, come to think of it, he never mentioned Jesus having two legs or two eyes, either! Can Gromacki and McDowell really be so obtuse, can their credulous acceptance of Christian catechism have so blinded them, that they cannot see that one does not mention that which does not call for mention, but that if something is remarkable, and one fails to mention it, especially when it would be relevant, then at least we have no right to assume that he believed it anyway? The medieval Catholic Church used the same sort of preposterous argument to claim apostolic pedigree for the selling of indulgences, relic-mongering, and priestly celibacy. “True, the apostles didn’t happen to write it down, but we can be sure they believed this was a piece of the true cross anyway. Want to buy it?” With arguments like this, one is forced to conclude that McDowell is either just plain stupid or a damn liar. They demand that verdict, it seems to me.

And speaking of subordinating the text of scripture to gratuitous church traditions, McDowell is a sucker for the fanciful hadith of Papias which identifies the author of the anonymous Third Gospel with Luke the companion of Paul. This comes in handy, as it enables the apologist to treat everything in the Gospel of Luke as if it were written by Paul, which is precisely why the link was first made, by ancient apologists.

And it would certainly have been difficult for Paul to correct virgin birth narratives which had not yet been composed! That’s the whole point of the argument Gromacki and McDowell think they are refuting.

Strike the Harp and Join the Chorus

McDowell holds to the epistemology of the popularity contest: the virgin birth must be factual because everybody in the early church believed it. Well, maybe not quite everybody! “Apart from the Ebionites… and a few Gnostic sects, no body of Christians in early times is known who did not accept as part of their faith the birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary.”[9] Again, Orr undermines his own case even as he states it. Who are these Ebionites? As it happens, they were the surviving remnants of theJerusalemChurch. If, of all people, these Christians rejected the virgin birth, as they did, as a paganizing admixture to the faith of Jesus, we are obliged to take their witness seriously! I am reminded of the 1988 presidential election, when, for all of Michael Dukakis’s crowing about his economic “Massachusetts miracle,” someMassachusetts citizens started calling his bluff: “What miracle?,” they wanted to know. So did the Ebionites.

And, as Orr admits, the Ebionites were hardly alone in rejecting the virgin birth. Why does he brush them aside? It is part and parcel of the Eusebian propaganda on behalf of the imperialchurchofConstantine, who had ruthlessly exterminated all the believers in other types of Christianity than the one he believed in. Many, many more Christians were persecuted and killed by fellow Christians than pagan emperors had ever killed. Even today, the mainstream churches like to maintain the party-line myth of an early Catholic Orthodoxy solidly established by Jesus, who catechized the 12, who trained the bishops and wrote the creeds. “Heretics,” the official (rewritten) history said, were Hell’s fifth-columnists sent on sabotage raids by their spy-master Satan. Orr presupposes all this; hence he simply doesn’t feel the opinions of these ancient, dissenting Christians count. But of course they do. Their very presence gives the lie to the propaganda that the early church agreed on much of anything, or that Jesus had made anything very clear.

Christianity Bastardized

Apologists love to smuggle in evidence where it does not appear to the naked eye. They also insist on reading the gospels as if they were written as a set of four to read together. This stops the reader from drawing any unorthodox inferences from a single gospel by itself. For instance, knowing that adoptionism was rife in the early church (Acts 2:36; 13:33; Romans 1:3-4), itself a fact that completely ruins McDowell’s fallacious claim that everyone in the early days believed, or even knew of, the virgin birth, it makes sense that Mark should begin with the baptism of Jesus, with Jesus being informed by the heavenly voice that he is God’s son. Matthew and Luke supplement the account by a prior virgin birth. Again, Mark has Jesus’ family decide he is out of his mind and must be taken in hand (3:19b-21); thus he has Jesus repudiate them (3:31-35). Matthew and Luke realize this is simply impossible if his mother had been told by an angel that her son would be a divine savior, so Matthew (chapter 12) and Luke (chapter 8) both omit the reason for their visit, while Luke even softens the rebuke. It seems pretty apparent that Mark had no virgin birth in mind. But just as Matthew and Luke felt they had to add stories of the virgin birth when expanding Mark, so do modern apologists insist on injecting the notion into Mark. They find their toehold in the story of Jesus returning to his home town and speaking in the synagogue (Mark 6:1-6). The crowd is impressed that a local boy, known to them for so long, has become the master of such great deeds and fine words. They proudly ask the rhetorical question, “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”

Is this supposed to be one of those 3-D pictures where, if you stare at it long enough, the virgin birth will suddenly pop out? Where does one find the virgin birth in this picture? First we have to see how Mark continues the story. He has the crowd suddenly and arbitrarily turn ugly: “And they took offense at him.” Why? Mark did not know. All he knew was that a saying attributed to Jesus makes prophets unacceptable in their own hometowns, physicians unable to cure those who know them (the complete form of it, alluded to in Mark, is preserved in the Gospel of Thomas, saying 31). So he felt he had to reverse course and have the audience turn hostile, as little sense as this made in terms of the narrative. This is important: the rhetorical question of the crowd, “Isn’t this the son of Mary and brother of James, etc.?”, is in no way to be construed as an insult. How can it be, when they are praising the wisdom of his words and the marvelous character of his works?

But on the peculiar assumption that the statements attributed to the crowd are insults, Ethelbert Stauffer conjured up the strange hypothesis that they are cat-calling Jesus: “You bastard!” Huh? How’s that again? “This account… which appears only in Mark does full justice to the situation. The Jews had strict rules governing name-giving. A Jew was named after his father (Johanan ben Sakkai, for example) even if his father had died before his birth. He was named after his mother only when his father was unknown.”[10] I’m not sure Stauffer, a Nazi and author of the book On the Unification of the Cross and the Swastika, is to be trusted as an authority on Jewish customs! In fact, the whole interpretation is a piece of anti-Semitic vilification, injecting Jewish hostility toward the Christian savior where there was none. Admittedly, Mark himself had already turned things in this direction, but Stauffer is carrying it even farther.

Is Commandant Stauffer were correct, the point would be that the crowd knew of some irregularity concerning the birth of Jesus and were exploiting it. For a Christian apologist this would mean that the news of Jesus’ virgin birth had circulated but met with hostile skepticism. Notice that it simply does not occur to the apologists that things might be the other way around: that Jesus might actually have been a bastard and that the virgin conception tale was circulated as a theological euphemism, just as Livy tells us that the claim of Rhea Silvia (mother of Romulus and Remus) to have been miraculously impregnated by the god Mars might well have been a desperate stratagem to avoid being executed for violating her vows of sacerdotal celibacy. Why not take the virgin birth story as evidence of Jesus’ illegitimacy?

In either case, Mark is innocent of all such matters. Jesus is not being given the epithet “bar-Miriam” in this story. This is simply out of the question since in the same breath he is called “brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon.” The point is simply to identify Jesus as a local boy whose surviving family members are well known to the audience.

Stauffer also cites a Talmudic tradition that Rabbi Shimeon ben Azzai said, “I found a genealogical scroll in Jerusalem, and therein was written, ‘so-and-so, bastard son of an adulteress.'” So does Hugh J. Schonfield, whom McDowell sneeringly deprecates as a “Jewish skeptic.” (McDowell seems not to know, or not to care, that the author of The Passover Plot was in fact a believer in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. He just didn’t identify with the Christian religion and its deification of Messiah Jesus.[11]) The point, once again, is to place Jewish sarcasm about the virgin birth, and thus the Christian belief in the virgin birth, as early as possible, before the fall of Jerusalem, as if to make it early were to lessen the likelihood of its being a late legendary accretion. Does this tradition prove this? No. First, in case you hadn’t noticed, Jesus’ name is conspicuously absent! Though Jesus might be the one intended, we just don’t know. From “so-and-so” to Jesus is something of a leap!

Second, even if the intent is to discredit Jesus, McDowell and Stauffer are all too willing to step into the trap set for them (though of course they are trying to spin apologetical gold out of anti-Christian polemical straw). As Jacob Neusner has shown, the attribution of this or that rabbinical saying to this or that famous rabbinic name has more to do with the redactional point the compiler of the mishnaic tract is trying to make than with the history of the matter.[12] And in this case, the choice of the name of a pre-70 A.D. rabbi is needful for the sake of the story, which is a polemical construction, since all genealogical records such as the story envisions were destroyed with the fall of Jerusalem. No one could have claimed a peek at the geneaological records later than 70 A.D. McDowell, like Stauffer, wants the polemic to date that early so they can place the Christian belief parodied in it to the same early date. But no luck.

Why Do You Call Me Good?

McDowell moves on to make his case for the sinlessness of Jesus, something he would expect if God became a man. First he tells us that Jesus claimed to be sinless, a real Mr. Humility. “Which of you convicts me of sin?” (John 8:46). “He received no answer.”[13] None that the gospel writer recorded, anyhow. Again and again McDowell treats the gospels as if they were the Akashic Records, impartial objective newsreels of what happened. It does not occur to him that he is reading and quoting tendential pro-Christian propaganda. But how could he be aware of it, any more than a fish realizes there is such a thing as water as long as it surrounds him and he breathes it?

Christ’s self-conscious purity is astonishing in that it is totally unlike the experience of the other believers. Every Christian knows that the nearer he approaches God, the more aware he becomes of his sin. However, with Christ this is not the case. Jesus lived more closely to God than anyone else and was free from all sense of sin.

It doesn’t sound like McDowell has read Mark’s gospel lately, since it forthrightly has Jesus seek out the baptism of John, a ritual in which one confessed one’s sins and resolved to repent of them (Mark 1:4). Later on, when flattered by the rich young ruler, who calls him “Good teacher,” Jesus parries his praise, “Why do you call me good? Only one is good, God” (Mark 10:18). Matthew did not like either passage, so he changed them, as is well known (Matthew 3:14-15; 19:16-17). McDowell just ignores the Markan versions, though if he were pressed, I think we can be sure he would resort, at least in the second case, to the old fundamentalist harmonization that Jesus was giving the man a quick lesson in trinitarianism, but no one would ever take such a piece of text-twisting seriously if he weren’t already committed to the doctrine of the incarnation. And in that case, we are not talking about an inductive examination of the evidence. But then again with McDowell we never are.

McDowell next quotes a number of New Testament statements of the Christian dogma of the sinlessness of Christ, taking them to be personal character references, as if all the writers knew Jesus personally, even Paul! There is quite a difference between the original apologetical claim that, though executed as a criminal, Jesus was actually innocent of all charges, and the later abstraction whereby Jesus becomes absolutely sinless, a piece of docetic Christology.

Then, we are told, even the enemies of Jesus admitted his sinlessness![14] One may wonder in this case why they wanted Jesus dead. But of course, McDowell takes for granted the anti-Semitic nonsense that “the Jews” were perversely determined to get rid of Jesus, not despite his sinlessness, but rather because of it, since they were Satan-inspired. But did Jesus’ enemies endorse his sinlessness? Hardly! In the gospels they accuse Jesus of being in league with the devil and of being a drunk and a glutton. I’m not saying that he was, but these are hardly glowing appraisals by his enemies.

Is Jesus depicted as absolutely sinless, not susceptible to irritation and unkindness? What about the fig-tree legend? In it Jesus is so annoyed with a hapless fig-tree that he supernaturally zaps it to death, the very picture of a peevish demigod. Of course no one in his right mind considers this to be an episode from the life of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean McDowell mustn’t take it seriously.

A Wicked Generation Seeks after a Sign

How do you suppose it is possible, in view of Jesus’ own repudiation of evidential miracles in Mark (8:12) and Luke (16:31) that apologists like Bernard Ramm, C.S. Lewis, and McDowell can elevate paranormal phenomena to epistemological centrality? We need miracles, Ramm says, to establish which is the true religion. And without the miracles, Lewis says, Christianity loses its essential character. Not only does such prodigy-mongering overthrow the agenda of Jesus; it is useless in practice, since, faced with comparable miracle claims from other religions, fundamentalists, like the biblical writers themselves, will not hesitate to brand these miracles “false,” “lying wonders,” “Satanic counterfeits.” But since it is the criterion of prior theology that determines which miracles are “false” and which are true, it is obvious that miracles can in no way authenticate the theology.

For McDowell and those he quotes to point out that Jesus’ enemies and the enemies of Christianity did not deny his wonders but ascribed them to sorcery is futile for the purpose for which they are cited. McDowell implies that Celsus, the scribes, etc., would have denied the reality of the miracles if they could have. They were skeptics, after all, weren’t they? Yes, but not of the type McDowell is trying to refute/persuade. They were skeptical about Jesus, not about the supernatural. They had no problem with miracles in general. They preferred to depict Jesus as a miracle-worker because this enabled them to paint him as a false prophet and a magician. The miracles could be turned into negative testimony of a miraculously evil Jesus. It’s not as if McDowell can cite Bertrand Russell or Robert Ingersoll admitting that Jesus performed miracles. That is something quite different.

You Heard It Here First

McDowell’s wish-list of traits of an incarnate God include that he (not she, God forbid!) should have “spake as never a man spake.” The notion that Jesus’ teachings are in any measure or sense unique is not the basis for a belief in his divinity but rather an erroneous inference from it. The belief in uniqueness cannot survive the slightest acquaintance with the ethical and spiritual traditions of other religions and philosophies. It is a simple matter of fact that virtually every saying of Jesus treating of morality or piety can be paralleled, often virtually verbatim, from the Mishnah. Ditto if you restrict yourself to Greek philosophy, or to the Buddhist Dhammapada. On the other hand, even the most sublime revelation discourses of the Fourth Gospel can be paralleled from Gnostic and Hermetic sources. None of it is particularly unique. In the case of the ethical and pious teaching, this is no surprise. It only becomes an embarrassment to the incarnation doctrine: why should God become man in order to “reveal” what the wise of all the nations had already known for many centuries? Ancient apologists already had to come to grips with the problem. Their back-peddling strategy was called the Logos doctrine. They said Socrates, for example, was a “Christian before Christ.” So the truth the “noble pagans” knew was still the unique possession of Jesus, but he had already begun sharing it with the human race some hundreds or thousands of years before he appeared in the flesh. Then what was the urgency of his appearing? One can always shift over to the salvific death of Jesus as the reason for the incarnation, but that is not the point here. McDowell wants to have an incarnate God who comes to tell humanity what it could have learned in no other way. And this just does not work once we recognize the plain fact that nothing attributed to Jesus is unique.

Beyond Death and Humanity

McDowell’s mythopoetic imagination, which draws up a job description of the Mythic Hero and then grants the position to Jesus, ends up where the gospels end up: “If God became man, we would expect him to exercise power over death.”[15] And again the inherent instability, the essential confusion of the doctrine, is illuminated. If it was God who came to earth in the likeness of human flesh, okay, death hath no dominion over him. This is the logic of docetism: the suffering and death, even the real humanity of Jesus, were a sham. Because how could God suffer and die? Christian theology has always tried to shy away from this, and few “heresies” have been so despised and condemned as any which denied the genuine death of Jesus.

And yet, as Thomas J.J. Altizer (The Descent into Hell) has repeatedly pointed out, a “real” death of some two to two and a half days’ duration is hardly more of a real death than the old Swoon Theory postulated.[16] Did Jesus not actually suffer, as the Gospel of Peter had it? Was the cross actually empty, as in some Gnostic gospels? Was it someone else on the cross in Jesus’ place, as one billion Muslims believe? Or did Jesus die only for the weekend? In any of these cases, it is what we would expect of an epiphany of the eternal Spirit whom death’s pangs could not hold. But it has little in common with real humanity. People do not die just for a weekend.


[1] Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, p. 111.

[2] McDowell, p. 111-112.

[3] J. B. Phillip, Your God Is Too Small (New York: Macmillan, 1961), pp. 72-86.

[4] McDowell, p. 112.

[5] James Orr, The Virgin Birth of Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907), pp. 36-37. Quoted in McDowell, p. 113.

[6] McDowell, p. 112.

[7] Jane Schaberg, The Illegitimacy of Jesus (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987)

[8] Robert Glenn Gromacki, The Virgin Birth (New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1907). Quoted in McDowell, pp. 113-114.

[9] Orr, p. 138. Quoted in McDowell, p. 115.

[10] Ethelbert Stauffer, Jesus and His Story (trans. Richard and Clara Winston,New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), p. 16. Quoted in McDowell, p. 117.

[11] Hugh J. Schonfield, The Passover Plot (London, Hutchinson [1965]).

[12] Jacob Neusner, “In Search of Talmudic Biography: The Problem of the Attributed Saying” Brown Judaic Studies 70.Chico. CA: Scholars Press, 1984.

[13] McDowell, p. 118.

[14] McDowell, p. 120.

[15] McDowell, p. 137

[16] Thomas J. Alitzer, The Descent into Hell (Philadelphia, Lippincott [1970])

Did “Top Psychics” Predict Jesus? (1999)

Robert M. Price

For many centuries, indeed from the first century on, Christians have urged as proof of their faith that certain aspects of the life of Jesus corresponded to the predictions of ancient prophets in such a way as to rule out either coincidence or human design. Critical study of the Bible has both made such an apologetic highly implausible for many and at the same time provided a floodlight of new clarity on the texts involved. The result is ironic: those who want nothing more than a more accurate grasp of the biblical text rejoice in the great advances in understanding both Old and New Testaments, while those who profess to love the Bible most while merely using it as a prooftext for a particular theological position have been deprived of one of their chief rhetorical tools. As I will try to show in this article, defenders of the fundamentalist Christian faith, like Josh McDowell, have in fact lost the luxury of an easy appeal to fulfilled prophecy even if they remain stubbornly oblivious of the advances of modern biblical scholarship; this is because biblical scholarship has thrown their appeals to the “proof from prophecy” so seriously into question that their task is now to defend it, no longer to use it as a powerful defense for something else, i.e., the true messiahship of Jesus. Any appeal to “proof from prophecy” today only lengthens the line of defense rather than shortening it.

What Was Messianic Prophecy?

We must begin our task by reframing McDowell’s question. Rather than accepting his question-begging query “Did Jesus fulfill all these Messianic prophecies?” we have to go back and ask first what was a messianic prophecy. As we will see, a great number of the texts McDowell (with the historic tradition of apologetics) deems messianic predictions are actually passages taken completely out of context and matched up with gospel events by means of fortuitous word-associations. These Old Testament texts, in other words, become messianic prophecies only in the New Testament, not in the Old. This is a vital point simply because the “proof from prophecy” presupposes that Jesus managed the humanly impossible task of meeting the requirements of messianic prophecy already established and long recognized. It would be quite a different thing, though by no means a bad one, if he had instead created, or prompted the creation of, a whole new way of viewing old texts, which is what I think he did. But in this event, there can be no question of evidence and proof.

It appears that the hope of a “messiah,” or anointed king, appeared first in ancient Judah (not Israel, for which we lack evidence, given the Judean bias of the eventual compilers of the Bible), after the destruction of the Davidic monarchy by the Babylonian conquerors in 586 B.C.E. Jeremiah made this crisis understandable by announcing that the conquest was the result of God punishing his people for their failure to live up to Josiah’s Deuteronomic Covenant. No, the people continued to worship the Baals and reneged on their pledges to free their slaves. Such disobedience would cost them their independence. While most Jews remained in their homeland, their aristocracy and priesthood were deported toBabylon. King Zedekiah lived under house arrest in the Babylonian court. For centuries Jews, whether under foreign rule in their own land, or among the Diaspora, longed for the return of national sovereignty. Since, unlike the North (theKingdomofIsrael), their monarchy was restricted to Davidic rulers, a return to national sovereignty meant a return to Davidic rule. 2 Samuel 2:11-16, repeated in Jeremiah 33:14-18, served as the dynastic charter for the house of David.

In the cold dawn of the Babylonian conquest, the hope for a restored dynasty of David began to express itself in prophecies like that in Isaiah 10:33-12:6, in which Yahve is said to have taken an ax to the roots of the Davidic monarchy, but hope is nonetheless expressed that eventually he will relent and allow a tender shoot of new life to emerge from the old, apparently dead stump of the royal family tree: a new Davidic heir. “The stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1) refers to the moribund monarchy of David, Jesse being David’s father. Some scholars have suggested that the point of the prophecy is to abandon David’s lineal descendants (perhaps because they might all have been eradicated in a purge) and claim credentials for a related, collateral line also descending from the same clan; hence the reference to Jesse rather than David. In this case, the prophet would be picking up the pieces, saying that God would go back to the same source. The interpretation has much to be said for it, but who knows? The reference to Jesse rather than to David himself may merely be a piece of metonymy, allowing the source to stand for the product, father for son.

It may be significant that down in 11:10, the beginning of a prose section (the preceding portion being verse, hence a different source), we read of the “root of Jesse,” a metaphor lacking the crucial element implied by the “shoot and stump” metaphor, namely the idea of restoration of a failed dynasty, a resumption after a severing of the thread. In other words, this part of the Isaiah text may have referred originally to the projected glories of a reigning, not a future, king.

Another text apparently treating of a future restoration of the monarchy of David is Micah 5:2-4, which speaks of a future ruler with ancient origins, “from of old,” namely fromBethlehem, the town ofDavid. While early Christians took this verse to mean the messiah would be born literally inBethlehem, it may well be another piece of metonymy, this time using David’s hometown rather than his father as a metonymic substitute for his name. The point would be that God would return to the same place for a Judean king, not, as inIsraelto the north, beginning again with a new dynasty. It seemed important to point this out because of the status 2 Samuel 7 enjoyed as a prophetic guarantee of the rights of David’s line (witness the problems that arose centuries later when the Levitical Hasmonean dynasty took over after winning independence for Judah).

A third “messianic” text would be Zechariah 9:9, where we are told that the monarchy will reinaugurated in peace time, denoted by the conveyance of the donkey, rather than a stallion appropriate to triumph in war. The point would seem to be to make the hoped-for restoration a providential gift of God rather than the hard-won product of bloody conflict.

Ezekiel 34:22-24; 37:24 has in view the return of the leaders ofJudahfrom the Babylonian exile, and, again, it envisions a restoration of the Davidic monarchy. Whereas Isaiah 11 uses the apparent metonym “Jesse” and Micah uses the metonym “Bethlehem,” Ezekiel uses the name of “David” himself to stand for the restored monarchy. Then again, can we rule out a literal belief on Ezekiel’s part that David himself would return, just as Malachi seems to have predicted a literal return of Elijah? We cannot say for certain.

It is crucial to note that in all these cases, what we read of is an expectation, a promise, of the resumption of Judean independence under the Davidic dynasty. What we do not read of is the coming of one immortal, divine man who will reign forever. This element will eventually appear in later Judaism, e.g., in 4 Ezra 7:28-29, where we read that the Messiah will reign for four centuries. But we are interested not so much in the history of messianic speculation as we are in what the Old Testament prophets actually say concerning a Davidic messiah.

To understand some of the language of the relevant texts we need to acquaint ourselves with what some scholars call the “royal ideology” of the Davidic monarchy. Sigmund Mowinkel’s He That Cometh: The Messiah Concept in the Old Testament and Later Judaism (1954) is the classic treatment. As all Bible students know, the very institution of the monarchy was simply lifted from the surrounding nations, replacing an earlier, much looser tribal confederation (1 Samuel 8:4-5). It should come as no surprise then, that the accoutrements of the institution were borrowed, too, lock, stock and barrel (which is what the warnings against monarchy in 1 Samuel 8:10-18 and Deuteronomy 17:14-20 were concerned with). Among these were an ideology exalting the king’s authority to that of a god on earth. The propaganda value of this is obvious: what would Richard Nixon not have given for such an aura of, or legitimation for, absolute power? This is why the king could actually be addressed as God (Psalm 45:6-7, a royal wedding song) or as the earthly son of God (Psalm 2:7, a birth oracle or coronation song–see below)–just like the Egyptian Pharaohs, whose names denoted their divine parentage: Thutmose (Son of Thoth), Ramses (Son of Ra). When each new king was crowned, he came into possession of his divine status or nature, and hopes were expressed for a reign of perfect righteousness, universal justice and amnesty to prisoners, even peace among animals. We find the same pattern attested for the sacred kings of ancientIran. Finally, we ought to note that all Judean kings were “messiahs,” anointed with oil as a symbol of consecration to their office.

Now we are in a position to recognize that several passages which were reinterpreted by New Testament writers as predictions of a messiah were first intended as birth or enthronement oracles, or as coronation anthems. The “messiah” and “son” of Yahve in Psalm 2 is every new king ofJudah, as the song was ritually performed by king and levitical singer each time a new king came to the throne. Psalm 110 makes pro forma predictions for military victories by the new sovereign and secures for him the hereditary prerogatives of the old Melchizedek priesthood (taken over by David when he annexed Jebusite [Jeru-]Salemand made it his capital). It (110:3) also makes him, like the king ofBabylon(Isaiah 14:12), the son of the Semitic dawn goddess Shahar (translated incorrectly as a common noun, “dawn,” in most Bibles). Isaiah 9:2-7 is either a coronation oracle or a birth oracle in honor of a newborn heir to the throne, depending on whether “unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” (verse 6) refers to the literal birth or the adoption as Yahve’s “son” on the day of coronation (“this day I have begotten thee,” Psalm 2:7). The epithets bestowed on the king in Isaiah 9:6, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father [cf., 1 Kings 1:31: “May my lord King David live forever!”], Prince of Peace,” are the divine titles of Pharaoh and have been borrowed directly from Egyptian court rhetoric.

Isaiah 61:1-4 is apparently yet another piece of inauguration liturgy, much like the inaugural oath sworn by the President of the United States, hand on Bible, pledging universal justice and amnesty to prisoners (which may or may not have actually have been granted!).

Isaiah 7:14 may perhaps have been a similar birth oracle, casting the newly conceived or newborn royal heir in the role of the son of the virgin goddess Anath (equivalent to Shahar as in Psalm 110), though if so, it has been reapplied by the writer/redactor of Isaiah 7 as a reference to one of Isaiah’s own sons, whom he named after his prophecies so as to remind people of his words once they came to pass (as if he had named his son Mark, to stand for “Mark my words!”), as he also does in Isaiah 8:1-4, similar in other important details to 7:14 as well.

It now becomes easy to recognize two other pieces of supposed “messianic prophecy” as birth/coronation oracles of this type, and thus as ornamental court rhetoric, not as genuine predictive prophecies at all, or at least not predictions of distant events. The first of these is Jeremiah 33:14-18, where the “righteous branch” (notice: nothing about a cut-off stump this time) seems certainly to be Zedekiah (“Yahve is Righteous”), the Judean king carried off into exile, whose ignominious fate thus belied the early hopes expressed on his behalf. If this optimistic appraisal of Zedekiah seems little to comport with Jeremiah’s dim view of this king expressed elsewhere in the book (contrast also 33:18 with 7:22; 8:8), it may come as no surprise to find that these verses do not appear in the Septuagint version of Jeremiah and thus may be later interpolations.

The other possible birth/coronation oracle is Isaiah 11:1-9, to which we have already given some attention. Now let us consider the possibility that in this case an old birth/coronation oracle has been reapplied as a prediction of an eventual restoration of the monarchy. All that would have been necessary is the alteration of a reference to a branch of Jesse’s line to a shoot from Jesse’s stump. Remember that 11:10 speaks of the “root” of Jesse, implying perhaps that the reference is to a currently reigning king, not some future successor. If this alteration has occurred, it would be a very instructive one, for it would be the beginning of the otherwise post-Old Testament tendency to reinterpret royal texts as future-restoration texts, i.e., messianic texts in the traditional sense.

By my reckoning there remain a pair of other messianic texts in the Old Testament, but these, too, are more in the nature of enthronement oracles, royal propaganda. They are Haggai 2:20-23 and Zechariah chapter 4 and 6:9-13a, which are post-Exilic and presuppose civil war in the Persian Empire, which these prophets supposed would lead to the fall of Persia and the restoration of Jewish sovereignty. Haggai and Zechariah were great champions of Zerubbabel and Joshua, the former a Davidic descendant appointed governor ofJudeaby the Persian overlords, the latter the current high priest. These two had seen to the rebuilding of theTemple, and for this Haggai and Zechariah decided they must both be anointed, messiahs, one royal, the other priestly. (Here we can observe the beginning of the two-messiah doctrine traceable through the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and the Rabbinic expectation of Messiah ben-David and Messiah ben-Joseph.)

Haggai and Zechariah, then, do not so much predict the future coming of some Davidic successor; they are already unstoppering the anointing oil! They have a candidate in mind! For them, Zerubbabel was the Davidic messiah. Sadly, they were a bit premature. And this casts a somewhat different light on the business in Zechariah 9:9 about the messianic entry intoJerusalem: is this even a predictive prophecy if the point was to call attention to the supposed messianic advent of a contemporary figure?

We might as well consider Isaiah 52:13-15; 53:1-12 here; nothing in the text suggests any connection with the hope of a coming messiah, and it seems to have had nothing to do with birth or coronation oracles, it does represent an aspect of the royal ideology of the ancient Judean god-king, again, derived from the adjacent civilizations. This time, as Helmer Ringgren shows at considerable length (The Messiah in the Old Testament, 1956) we are dealing with a fossil of the ancient New Year’s Festival, which, like its prototype in Babylon, renewed the heavenly mandate of the monarchy by having the king undergo, in ritual drama, the fate of the ancient gods whose kingship he represented on earth. Psalm 74 and 89 preserve substantial fragments of the myth of Yahve’s primordial combat with the dragons Leviathan, Behemoth, Rahab and Tiamat, as well as the ensuing creation of the world and ascension of the young warrior god to kingship among his brethren, the sons of El Elyon. Like his analogues inBabylon and elsewhere, the king ofJudah must have annually renewed his divine right to rule by ritually reenacting this combat. It is to such continued ritual use that we owe their preservation of such mythemes in the biblical canon at all.

In the same way, the kings ofBabylon,Iran, etc., as part of the same ritual, would re-enact the death and resurrection of a god (Tammuz, Baal. etc.), a drama in which the king ritually assumed the burden of the fertility of the land and the sins of his people. Sometimes this entailed a mock death, sometimes the actual death of a poor surrogate chosen by lot, sometimes a mere ritual humiliation, as when the Babylonian high priest publicly removed the king’s crown, tweaked his ears, and slapped his face. Protesting his innocence, the king would don his robe and crown again and rise to full power once more, redeeming his people in a ritual atonement in which he himself had played the role of scapegoat. Isaiah 52:13-15; 53:1-12 seems to reflect the Hebrew version of the same liturgy, which gave way after the Exile (with no king on the throne any more) to the familiar Yom Kippur ritual. Another surviving vestige of the worship of Tammuz and his divine consort Ishtar Shalmith (“the Shulamite”) is the Song of Songs. Remember that Ezekiel attests explicitly the continuation of the worship of Tammuz inJerusalemin Ezekiel 8:14.

But what is the function of the text in its present context, the announcement of glad tidings of the impending return of the Exilic community of aristocrats and priests to the Holy Land? The old text has been updated, reapplied to a new situation. As Morna Hooker (Jesus and the Servant, 1959), argues, the text as we now read it functions as part of an apologetic for the returning exiles who sought to enhance their position in the eyes of their contemporaries who had remained in the homeland all this time and had ascribed the deportation of their leaders to the leaders’ sinfulness, not their own. The so-called Servant Song of Isaiah 52-53 attempts to turn the tables by insisting that it was the innocent minority (or righteous remnant) which was taken away to punishment not because of their own sins but in the place of those who actually did the sinning, the reprobate who remained behind! Thus did they think to theologize the privilege accorded them by their royal Persian patrons. We are not surprised to learn in Ezra and Nehemiah of severe tensions between the newly-returned leaders, with heir arrogant “take-charge” attitude, and the people of the land who had never left. So Isaiah 52-53 in its present context represents a secondary reinterpretation where by the returning exiles are the suffering servant of Yahve, once mistakenly blamed for their own punishment when, from their own viewpoint, they were taking it on behalf of the very upstarts who contemned them as sinners. It is they who, having suffered on behalf of sinners, will be exalted to the glory due them (in their own estimation, anyway).

Some (Ivan Engnell, Studies in Divine Kingship, 1943, followed by Helmer Ringgren, The Messiah in the Old Testament, 1956) would see Psalm 22 as part of the same royal-divine humiliation liturgy, seeing that various of the Psalms (all of which had a ritual setting in the Temple–none were private lyric poems) are written just for the king’s use and that the Psalm does share Isaiah 52-53’s pattern of shameful suffering giving way to final (if only implied) vindication. That may be, but I tend rather to go with Hermann Gunkel (The Psalms, 1967) and Sigmund Mowinkel (The Psalms in Israel’s Worship, 1962) in seeing Psalm 22 as simply a member of the larger category of Lament Psalms. For examples, see Psalms 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 17, 25, 26, 28, 31, 35.

These were essentially scripts of suffering and prayers for vindication, pledging to return to theTempleto present a sacrificial feast to which the poor should be invited, to celebrate Yahve’s deliverance. On that occasion, “a new song,” one of the Thank-offering Psalms (e.g., 9, 30, 32, 33, 34), would be sung instead of the present gloomy lament. The “Everyman” character of the Lament Psalm is evident from the vagueness and symbolism with which the envisioned trials and tribulations are described: wild dogs nipping at one’s heels, strong bulls and lions, rising waters up to one’s neck. Fill in the blanks as appropriate. “They have pierced my hands and feet” (22:16b), cited by apologists as a reference to the nail-wounds of crucifixion, make more sense in context as bite- and claw-wounds incurred by the sufferer as he tries to fend off the wild animals snapping at him (22:16a), the symbols of his real-life dilemmas. What/who were these? Creditors? Political enemies? Romantic rivals? Vendetta avengers? Legal plaintiffs?

Psalm 22, any more than any other lament psalm, is no prophecy of any kind, no prediction of anything, much less of the crucifixion of Jesus. One can, on the other hand, easily imagine Jesus taking such a psalm as a fitting prayer in his hour of desperation, as Mark seems to imply he is doing, by having him quoting the first lines of it, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

When we see what sort of ancient meaning-contexts gave rise to the several texts that Christian apologists claim as messianic prophecies, we can readily see many points of correspondence between the ancient texts and the Gospel story of Jesus. But the connection is not as the apologists imagine, that Old Testament prophets made predictions and Jesus fulfilled them. Rather, the texts, very few of them prophecies at all, contain potent mythemes which recur in the Hellenistic Jewish milieu of early Christianity: the divine king, the dying and rising savior, the atoning suffering of the innocent on behalf of the guilty who blame him, etc. So the New and the Old Testament texts share common roots: the rich mulch of religious and mythical ideas of the ancient Mediterranean world. It is by no means necessary to posit divine prediction in one or the other to explain the correspondences.

What Were Messianic Fulfillments?

We have seen that the apologists’ notion of messianic prophecy has precious little to do with the apparent intentions of the Old Testament scriptures they cite. Now we shall see how little their notion of the fulfillment of messianic prophecy has to do with the New Testament concept of fulfillment. First, what do the apologists seem to have in mind? They seem to mean that there was a raft of predictions of things that would happen to God’s anointed one, things no mortal could engineer on his own initiative. The predictions, supposedly, were there on the books for anyone to read, much like the legend of the sword in the stone: He who draws the sword shall be king of allEngland. Many try to dislodge the blade Excalibur, but all fail till young Arthur tries and succeeds. Thus, there was a publicly understood prophecy functioning as a credential or condition for a coming king, and someone met that condition, proving himself the rightful king. A similar story is told of Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian Knot (“He who undoes the knot shall be ruler of allAsia”). But is this what the New Testament writers meant when they affirmed that Jesus had fulfilled Old Testament prophecy? I think not. Of all the New Testament writers, Matthew provides us with the clearest idea of what such an early Christian appeal to prophecy meant.

Matthew appears to have shared the hermeneutical assumption of the scribes of the Dead Sea Scrolls Habakkuk Commentary, namely that old texts were full of hitherto-hidden cipher-allusions to recent events transpiring in the life of his particular sect. The idea was that specific predictions had long ago been “smuggled in” by divine inspiration below any discernible straightforward reading of the text. One could most certainly not have read the Old Testament texts to determine beforehand what would happen. Rather, it was only in retrospect, once the secretly predicted events had come to pass, that the initiated reader could, by means of striking, punlike verbal associations, tune in to the esoteric meaning of the text. In this manner, the Dead Sea Scrolls sectarians read any reference to “the righteous” as predicting some aspect of the life and work of their guru, the Righteous Teacher. For an excellent discussion of this “pesher” technique and its use by the New Testament writers see Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (1975) by Richard Longenecker, a veteran Evangelical New Testament scholar.

Such an approach to “fulfilled prophecy” was the very opposite of the traditional Christian notion that reading publicly, literally understood predictions should have lead any Bible reader to faith in Jesus as Messiah, since anyone could have seen that he fulfilled them, e.g., by being born in the right place. The idea was not that the publicly discernible correspondence between predictions and events in the life of Jesus would lead one to faith (the apologists’ own aim to “demand a verdict”), but rather that, once one had Christian faith, old texts took on a new layer of meaning which hitherto, before the “prophesied” fact and before one accepted faith in Jesus, could never have been recognized as a prophecy in the first place! It was not that if you refused to hear the voice of prophecy you weren’t entitled to be part of Jesus flock. Rather, you could only hear the voice of prophecy if you were already part of that flock. Faith provided a new and esoteric hermeneutical perspective. Exoteric, publicly available exegesis did not lead to faith. You came to faith in Jesus first on other grounds, the simple preaching of the gospel, and then Christ began to open the scriptures to your wondering eyes. Only then did your heart begin to burn within you.

As I say, Matthew appears to have been operating with this sort of understanding. His programmatic statement is to be found in Matthew 13:52, where we read of the distinctive role and prerogative of the Christian exegete, the “scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven.” He is like a householder who is able to display out of the store-house treasures old and new. The treasury of a scribe is certainly the scriptures. The old goods he brings forth from there are the literal, conventional interpretations, while the new items are new readings made possible by the new esoteric key he possesses as a Christian, thanks to the charismatic illumination of the Holy Spirit. This understanding is borne out by Matthew’s treatment of Old Testament scripture throughout the rest of his Gospel, notably the series of “formula quotations” (see Krister Stendahl, The School of St. Matthew and Its Use of the Old Testament, 1954). Matthew has a number of stories which he announces as having happened in order that the word of the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled. In virtually every case, the fulfillment works only if one completely disregards the Old Testament context.

One example would be Isaiah 7:14, which Matthew sees as predicting the birth of Jesus. Yet, as a simple reading of the whole chapter of Isaiah makes unmistakably clear, that prophecy of Isaiah dealt with contemporary events many centuries before: the birth of a child who would not be old enough to spit out food he didn’t like by the time the threatening coalition of Israel and Syria had been wiped off the map by the Assyrian Empire. The original, literal relevance of the passage was long ago exhausted, save as a testimonial to God’s faithfulness toJudah. Matthew certainly knew this; no one could miss it. By the same token, he could never have invoked the Isaiah passage as a proof in the manner of subsequent apologists, i.e., as a straightforward prediction of Jesus’ birth, as any skeptics would immediately dismiss the citation, understood literally. Matthew would only be inviting ridicule.

Similarly, when he cited Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I have called my son,” and refers it to the return of the Holy Family from Egypt after the death of Herod the Great, he just cannot have thought he was reproducing the literal, historical intent of Hosea, which has rather to do with the Exodus. No reader of Hosea could possibly think it meant anything else. Nor could Matthew have expected him to. In both cases (and in many others), it seems much more likely that Matthew was interpreting scriptural passages as theQumransectarians did. The references to events in King Ahaz’s day and the time of the Exodus were the exoteric, universally recognized “old treasures” available to any reader, to the old scribe and the new, while the references perceived in these verses to the nativity of Jesus are examples of the new goods available only to the scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven by means of esoteric exegesis. Matthew gives no sign of rejecting the old, conventional interpretations; he merely adds new levels of meaning newly available to the eye of Christian faith.

Whence the Proof from Prophecy?

In all this, there is nothing of the apologetical appeal to public, long-standing messianic claims. Matthew was not aiming at the same thing subsequent Christian apologists were. Why the change? Why did apologists, ancient (I would include Luke) and modern, shift over to an incredible appeal to Old Testament proof texts as if the Christian reinterpretation represented the original intentions of the prophets to predict Jesus? I think it is because very shortly, the vast majority of Christians, and Christian scholars, were Greek-speaking Gentiles who were accustomed to reading only the Greek Septuagint and reading it with only a Christian application in mind. They viewed the Old Testament dispensation simply as the time of waiting for the Christ, and the Old Testament characters as pretty much “Christians before Christ” (to borrow Justin Martyr’s term for Socrates and other Greek spokesmen for the Logos). They read the Old Testament anachronistically, made it into a Christian book, and began to suppose that Isaiah had nothing in mind other than predicting Jesus Christ. Here and there one catches an early Christian voice protesting that the Old Testament author could not have had Jesus in mind, e.g., Marcion of Pontus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, who held out for a literal, non-messianic reading of most or all of the Old Testament, but these, obviously, are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Even if most did read the Old Testament as a Christian document even on the surface, Christian hermeneutics did not theoretically demand this. Most exegetes held in common with Origen some sort of multi-sense hermeneutic, whereby the surface, literal sense was often not even the most important one. One could still find the messianic sense in one of these esoteric levels of meaning, and many of the supposed “messianic” predictions that Hal Lindsay and others today seem to take as the surface meaning were relegated to secondary, non-literal interpretations by the ancients. Where the crisis really came was at the time of the Protestant Reformation, when to rule out Catholic appeals to non-literal meanings on behalf of the papacy or the sale of indulgences, Martin Luther rejected, on principle, any but the straightforward, surface sense of any text as recoverable by means of the grammatico-historical method. At the same time, it did not occur to him to break with traditional appeals to Old Testament prophecy to prove that Christians were right and Jews were wrong about Jesus. This is what created the intolerable bind in which fundamentalist apologists find themselves in today (though they seem oblivious to the difficulty, one suspects because they share the same merely opportunistic interest that ancient Christians had in the Old Testament as a source of Christian proof texts).

If you do not believe there is a secret zone of subtle, esoteric meaning in Scripture, placed there (or placed in the mind of the Christian reader) by the Holy Spirit, if you insist that what the Bible says, it can say only by grammatico-historical interpretation, and you are hell-bent on finding Jesus in the Old Testament, you are inevitably going to assume that all of Matthew’s Old Testament citations represent the literal, authorial intention of the Old Testament writers. And since any straightforward reading of the Old Testament texts in question makes it apparent that no such reference to Jesus was in view, the appeal to prophecy becomes something quite different from what it was either for Matthew (who sought to prove nothing by it) or for ancient and medieval apologists who had completely lost sight of the historic meaning of the Old Testament texts or were more interested in imaginary “deeper” levels of meaning. Now you had the spectacle of exegetes who insisted on the literal, grammatico-historical meaning of Old Testament text as well as New Testament text– and had their work cut out for them since the two seldom seemed to agree. This means, in short, that the appeal to prophecy had passed from the offensive to the defensive: to square the Old Testament “prediction” with the New Testament “fulfillment,” you had to try to show they agreed despite appearances. In other words, the proof from prophecy had become but another case of harmonizing apparent contradictions in the text.

And harmonized contradictions can never be the basis of appeal for assertions as dubious as they. You cannot get very far appealing to something as evidence which you have just admitted does not look like evidence but may be read that way if you try hard enough.

Though I have never run across an apologist (certainly there may be some) who is even aware of the original contexts and meanings of the passages I have reviewed above, I can imagine the strategy of such an apologist would be to charge that scholars have just invented all these clever categories (“birth oracles,” “lament psalms,” etc.) to evade the force of messianic prophecy. Why anyone would do that is beyond me. In any case, such a desperate suggestion has to come to grips with the wider utility of the categories. That is, if these form-critical categories are mere exegetical phantoms invented to make mischief for apologetics, why do they, how can they, make so much sense in illuminating the sense of many other similar Old Testament texts which are irrelevant to the apologetics debate? The categories in which I have placed most of the major “messianic” texts do not exist for the sake of denying the texts to apologetical use. They exist as an interpretive tool for a much broader selection of texts in their own right.

But we can recognize a familiar style of apologetical argumentation here: to argue for the uniqueness of an item the apologist wants, for dogmatic reasons, to privilege. In the same way, Creationists go to any imaginable lengths to deny that humans evolved from ape-like ancestors despite the fact that the two seem so much alike. The strong, apparently “family” resemblances between reptiles and amphibians, etc., would seem to imply a common descent, but, no, the fundamentalist wants to have it that God simply made a lot of similar things discretely at different times, that he just happened to like the basic design and kept repeating parts of it. If ancient myths of dying and rising gods, of miracle-working divine men, of world-drenching floods and saints walking on water seem so close to biblical stories as to imply a common membership in a body of myth and folklore, the fundamentalist will insist that the resemblances are illusory, or that in the particular case he has a vested interest in, “myth became fact.” Tillich saw the urgency here: religion never easily allows itself to be subsumed as one of a larger species under a larger category, for this takes away the uniqueness, the ultimacy, and the absolute explanatory power religion likes to claim as a divine revelation discontinuous with mere human speculation and therefore superior to it. The Grand Inquisitor never wants his divine truth to be revealed as being no less a human creation than that of the rivals he persecutes. The Wizard of Oz never wants to have anyone pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

What About Jesus?

I mentioned that there were a small number of genuine predictions of a coming messiah, a king who would be the first in a renewed series of David heirs. Does Jesus fulfill these modest predictions? By this time it almost seems moot even to ask. Did he ride a donkey intoJerusalem? Yes, like thousands of other people. The claim that he fulfilled this prophecy fails to understand the point of prediction, namely that the messianic king would not have to fight his way to the throne since, in the providence of God who shakes the thrones of kingdoms, the Persian Empire would shortly collapse under its own weight, leaving Jews free to reassert their national sovereignty as, say, little Moldova did after the fall of the Soviet Union. And since the Triumphal Entry stories do not issue in Jesus being inaugurated as king of an earthly kingdom, the question of how he came to that throne, violently or peacefully, does not even arise. And besides, as we have seen, to ask if he fulfilled the prophecy is moot since Zechariah had someone else in mind: his contemporary Zerubbabel. It is like modern fundamentalist efforts to decode 666 as Henry Kissinger or the Universal Product Code: save your breath; it was already Nero (Neron Kaisar = 666).

Was the Messiah to be born inBethlehem? One might read Micah 5 that way, as some Jews did, but it is not necessary. And even if it was, the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus inBethlehemnotoriously contradict each other. And there will never be any way of proving that early Christians did not simply begin from the assumption that, being the messiah, Jesus must have been born inBethlehem. Mere assertion of the contrary will not make it so, will not win any arguments, if that’s what we want to do.

But suppose Jesus was born inBethlehem. The 17th century messianic claimant Sabbatai Sevi was born on the 9th of Av (or so our sources tell us), the date that later messianic speculation stipulated for Messiah’s nativity. Does that mean he was the messiah? In both cases we might simply have a coincidence that helped fuel the fire of speculation that eventually elevated two possible candidates to messiahship in the eyes of their followers. Stranger things have happened.

But, really, what does it matter? There is something inherently grotesque about the very idea of seeking verification by appeal to clairvoyant predictions. Verification of what? What on earth would such proof, even if possible, have to do with, for example, the contents of the Sermon on the Mount? Is one’s conscience likely to take such sayings more seriously if one can prove their author to have been predicted in advance by ancient seers? Does not the felt need to secure such “verification” demote and demean the self-evident power of the spiritual truths at issue? We do not need miraculous proofs to force us to take the truths of the Gospel seriously, nor can we be taking those truths very seriously if we still feel the need to seek afar off for some supernatural warrant for heeding them. The teaching of scripture does not need and will not be helped by proofs from miracle. The continued insistence on such paranormal props only invites the suspicion that for fundamentalism, moral and spiritual wisdom is not enough, that religion has gone off track and degenerated, like the modern New Age movement, with its pyramids and channelers, into a crass hankering after signs and wonders. Let us learn instead from the Old Testament prophets that all else is a snare and a delusion save for doing justly and walking humbly with a clear conscience.

Works Cited

Ivan Engnell, Studies in Divine Kingship (Uppsala: University of Uppsala Press, 1943)

Hermann Gunkel, The Psalms: A Form-Critical Introduction (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967) Facet Books, Biblical Series no. 19.

Morna Hooker, Jesus and the Servant: The Influence of the Servant Concept of Deutero-Isaiah in the New Testament (London: SPCK 1959)

Richard Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Inc., 1975)

Sigmund Mowinckel, He That Cometh: The Messiah Concept in the Old Testament and Later Judaism (Nashville: Abingdon, 1954)

Sigmund Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israel’s Worship (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962)

Helmer Ringgren, The Messiah in the Old Testament (London: SCM Press, 1956) Studies in Biblical Theology no. 18.

Krister Stendahl, The School of St. Matthew and Its Use of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1954)

Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story (6th ed., 2006)

I don’t buy the resurrection story. That would normally be all I need say. But I am routinely asked why. This collection of short essays serves to answer that question. There are many reasons I am not a Christian. My atheism is based on findings more fundamental than anything to do with particular religions, but the arguments in favor of the Christian worldview as opposed to any other are ubiquitous in my culture and always center around the historical claim that Jesus was raised from the dead. As an historian, expert in ancient Greco-Roman society, and with a good knowledge of Greek, I’m qualified to make a professional judgement in the matter. This essay explains why I find the Resurrection to be an unconvincing argument for becoming a Christian.

This project began in 1998 and has grown enormously with many new editions over the years, and my thanks go to all those who helped to improve it. The present edition, completed in 2004, updates and reorganizes all previous materials. My debate against Mike Licona at UCLA that same year adds even more perspective to my reasons for not believing Jesus was raised from the dead, as will three scholarly chapters I have contributed to an anthology due to be released next year. I also discuss more of my reasons in other online essays besides this one (see Note 1). Altogether, there are basically four so-called “naturalistic” theories of how the first Christians came to believe Jesus was raised from the dead: either he survived, or his corpse was misplaced, or his corpse was stolen, or the belief arose solely from epiphanies (as dreams, hallucinations, or inspirations from scripture), not from any missing or revived body.

Survival is the least probable (as I will demonstrate, the odds that this can explain the evidence are less than 1 in 700). Misplacement fits the evidence better than most scholars think, and theft fits the evidence even better still, though I only discuss these possibilities elsewhere (see Note 2). I think it is most likely by far that the original belief was derived from dreams, hallucinations, or “inspired” readings of scripture, which later became embellished into fabulous legends serving different dogmas. This could arise in either of two different ways: either a belief arose that Jesus had risen in the flesh, and all evidence to the contrary was dismissed as a trick of the Jews, or a belief arose that Jesus had risen into a new body entirely, leaving his old body behind–in which case there could not have been any contrary physical evidence. The latter I think is the most probable account of all (and I make a preliminary case for it here–while much more evidence and argument will be found elsewhere: see Note 3).

The three key reasons I reject the resurrection story that are elaborated here are these: (1) the evidence is insufficient to warrant belief in this case; (2) even survival (mistaken as a resurrection), despite being the least probable unmiraculous explanation, is more probable than a miracle; and (3) some evidence suggests the original conception of the resurrection of Jesus was spiritual in nature and did not involve his flesh (contrary to what some of the Gospels struggle to claim).

Special Note from 2009:This collection of essays is growing increasingly out of date, and I have no plans to update this collection any further. Though I’m not aware of anything egregiously wrong here, I may have changed some of my views or understanding of the methods and facts in the intervening ten years since this collection first began. My most recent published work (in print and online) should be considered as superseding anything it may contradict here, and the following materials should be used with that caution in mind.

Note 1: I have discussed some of my reasons for rejecting the resurrection story in other essays besides this one, and in three chapters I contributed to the book The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005), including “The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb” (pp. 105-232) and “The Plausibility of Theft” (pp. 349-68). For works online see: Jewish Law, the Burial of Jesus, and the Third Day (2002), which was significantly updated in The Empty Tomb (pp. 369-92); Review of “In Defense of Miracles” (1999), especially sections 4b (Geivett’s Exercise in Hyperbole) and 4e (Craig’s Empty Tomb and Habermas on the Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus); Review of “The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark” (2000); Thallus: An Analysis (1999); Osiris and Pagan Resurrection Myths: Assessing the Till-McFall Exchange (2002); and Kersey Graves and “The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors” (2003). And more are always being added to my Secular Web Index.

Note 2: These two possibilities (misplacement and theft) I do not discuss here, but I do discuss them in separate chapters that I contributed to the book The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005), in “The Plausibility of Theft” (pp. 349-68) and “The Burial of Jesus in Light of Jewish Law” (pp. 369-92). Those chapters are significant updates to my preliminary case for misplacement in Jewish Law, the Burial of Jesus, and the Third Day (2002), and my preliminary case for the plausibility of theft in “The Guarded Tomb of Jesus and Daniel in the Lion’s Den: An Argument for the Plausibility of Theft,” Journal of Higher Criticism 8.2 (Fall 2001), pp. 304-18. I have also composed FAQs for those who have read The Empty Tomb and still have questions: Burial of Jesus FAQ and Plausibility of Theft FAQ.

Note 3: See the video of my UCLA debate with Mike Licona or, better yet, the far more detailed chapter on the subject that I contributed to the book The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005), which answers most objections anyone might have raised against my case in the UCLA debate (since there was too little time to present all the relevant evidence there), while any others I probably address in a FAQ for the The Empty Tomb chapter on this theory: Spiritual Body FAQ.


What is the purpose of this collection of essays? Many things could be said which cast doubt on the story of the Resurrection of Jesus by God, but there are three above all that are most decisive in leading me to reject the story as unworthy of belief (see Summary). This collection of essays details these three primary reasons. The importance of this collection is to explain a major reason why I am not a Christian: since I cannot rationally bring myself to believe this story, I cannot rationally bring myself to be a Christian. Those eager to convert me respond that few Christians hold the resurrection to be the sole revelation of God, but I do not claim this. The resurrection is only the central revelation justifying the Christian faith, i.e. not just belief in god, but in a particular God with a particular plan that we have to follow or be damned. As Paul writes, “If Christ has not been raised, then your faith is groundless” (1 Corinthians 15.17). Indeed, the only reason I wrote these essays was because hundreds of Christians have e-mailed me or knocked on my door making exactly this argument: the resurrection of Christ proves that the Christian God is all-powerful and will save us in the same way. It is this argument that this essay responds to.

My would-be benefactors are not alone: a joint work of 14 leading Christian apologists, including William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, Gary Habermas, and Douglas Geivett, concludes with the argument “If God has acted in human history, particularly in the Incarnation, earthly life and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then human beings clearly are a focus of God’s interest and concern” (p. 276, In Defense of Miracles, InterVarsity Press, 1997) and “the resurrection of Jesus represents victory over the grave, not only for Jesus but for all who believe in him” (p. 279, Ibid.). Josh McDowell is even more adamant: “The resurrection of Jesus Christ and Christianity stand or fall together” (1st ed., §, p. 179; 2nd ed., p. 203, § 9.1A; cf. also 9.2A and 9.3A). On subsequent pages he cites, as affirming the same sentiment, Theodosus Harnack, W.J. Sparrow-Simpson, H.P. Liddon, Wilbur Smith, D.F. Strauss, B.B. Warfield, Frederick Godet, Michael Green, John Locke, Philip Schaff, and even St. Peter himself (as well as Jesus, cf. § 10.2B). In my ten years of experience in this field, I have seen this to be the standard argument for converting to Christianity, regularly used to persuade others to join, and hailed as the reason many believers themselves came to believe.

There may be other good arguments for believing some kind of god or other exists. The present essay does not address that question. But if the resurrection is not a proof of the Christian creed, what is? If anyone wants to think that the Christian system allows even doubters of the resurrection to be saved, then perhaps the resurrection need not be a proof of anything. But insofar as “whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16.16), and so long as the resurrection stories were written “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20.31), the resurrection must be a proof equal to the task of saving lives, and my essay remains pertinent in pointing out that the resurrection fails to meet that standard.

There are other reasons why I consider Christianity to be an ill-chosen creed, such as the morals actually taught in the Bible, many of which are abhorrent to a compassionate and just man, or other details of its theology which run counter to observable facts. These have been discussed at length by others here in our Modern Library, and in part in some of my other essays, such as From Taoist to Infidel (2001) and Musonius Rufus: A Brief Essay (1999). Even though other aspects of the creed are agreeable, the falsehood of its most important claims, and the imperfection of its teachings, are sufficient grounds to abandon it–just as these are sufficient reasons for Christians to abandon every other religious faith in the world, no matter how well-meaning or wise in their teachings. This does not mean I throw out the baby with the bathwater–for if there is anything good in Christianity which can be defended as good without appeal to the supernatural, I am probably a firm believer in it. I just don’t see the need to call such things “Christian” as opposed to merely “human.” Christians do not hold a monopoly on wisdom. At any rate, here I will only discuss the falsehood of the central Christian “supernatural” claim, that of the Resurrection. In other words, here I only answer the question “Why don’t I buy the resurrection story?”

Faith vs. Proof: Some argue that conversion is entirely about faith, not evidence. This is a moot point here, since this collection of essays is only addressed to those who believe the evidence is sufficient to convince–it is not addressed to those who think belief can be warranted without sufficient evidence. I find the latter to be a thoroughly unacceptable way to approach questions of truth anyway. For example, Ryan Renn (whose critique of my earlier edition no longer exists online) once asserted that he does “not desire to be ‘just as right’ as Thomas was in the Gospel of John,” meaning he does not want even to ask for sufficient evidence, as Thomas did. This is an issue of the ethics of belief, of what Renn thinks a person ought to believe, given certain reasons, and this is based upon his own subjective values. I simply disagree with him. In my opinion, Thomas behaved far more ethically than any other character in the stores we have. Other critics, too, have told me that reason and facts don’t belong in questions of faith, and that they are only a barrier to a personal relationship with Jesus. This is also a claim about the ethics of belief, and it is a sentiment that I find to be quite immoral. But I will not argue this here. I have addressed the ethics of belief in other essays (e.g. Do Religious Life and Critical Thought Need Each Other?, What Atheists Ought to Stand For, and A Fish Did Not Write This Essay). And many of my other online essays address related issues (click the link on my name in the title above for a complete list), including my credentials, epistemology, and attitude toward history.

Background and history of this collection: This lengthy collection of essays was heavily revised in 1999 from the original 1998 version, was revised twice more in 2000, and then most recently again in 2004. The second edition united the original with the thirty-three addenda that accumulated over that year, and reconsidered many probabilities and added a few new details. I am very grateful to all those who criticized the original or offered suggestions. The thirty-three addenda were inspired by all of my readers, and the incorporation of these now into the new text is a further recognition of their valuable contribution. The text then grew so large that I was obliged to break it up into a directory of its own, putting each entry as a separate page. Subsequent editions met new needs by revising and adding to the whole.

The third edition aimed to complete the utility of these essays as an addition to the Jury Project, addressing arguments in chapter 10 of the 1st Revised Edition of Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict (now chapter 9 of the 2nd edition, the The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict). Since my essays were not originally designed for this purpose, their format does not follow McDowell’s. Instead, sections or points have simply been added where appropriate when something peculiar to McDowell begs for a response. No matter the format, this paper has always effectively stood as a rebuttal to McDowell’s certainty that “Christ is risen indeed” (McDowell, 1st ed., p. 260, § 10.6A; 2nd ed., p. 284, § 9.8A), and now it will do so even more directly than before, even though very little had to be added. Both his first (1972, slightly revised in 1979) and his second (1999) editions will be addressed, though they do not differ greatly on this subject. Even so, if you, the reader, find any important points McDowell makes (in either edition) that are not addressed here, please announce that fact in our Feedback Forum. This also goes for any facts or details that I have failed to address or take into account anywhere in this essay.

The fourth edition involved two changes: First, I had lectured on this topic at Yale, using a shorter summary text of the same title that actually brings in points I made in other essays, as well as entirely new material, and still more ideas came to me after the nearly two hour Q & A session that followed. I then gave this lecture on several other occasions, and wanted to reproduce it online with footnotes on sources and critical issues I never have time to address in person. Second, after receiving a lot of mail from people who clearly failed to understand what I said at several points in the original essays, I decided to rewrite certain sentences throughout all my materials to make them clearer. No substantial changes were made apart from how I said the same things this essay already said in the third edition. The fifth edition of 2004, however, completely reorganized the collection in a more streamlined and integrated way, drawing what had become scores of pages into a smaller collection of a few longer essays. I also updated several arguments in light of my more recent research, changed the way I said some things, and made everything more accessible with hyperlinked tables of contents. Finally, I changed many of my estimates of probability to make them as low as I could believe possible, to eliminate any charge of bias.

Main Argument

What follows is a half-hour lecture I have given on several public occasions, first at Yale on 26 October 2000 at the request of the Yale College Humanists and Secularists. It was followed by a Q & A session of nearly two hours. Many in my audiences have asked that I reproduce the speech online, with hyperlinked footnotes in brackets giving more detail than I am able to provide in person. I have now made this the central argument in my collection of essays on why I don’t buy the resurrection story. In this 2004 edit, I have made only a few minor changes to the original 2000 text.

Today I am going to tell you why I don’t buy the resurrection story. By that I mean the tales in the Gospels, of Jesus physically rising again from the grave. As a professional historian, I do not believe we have anywhere near sufficient evidence or reason to believe this, and I’ve been asked by the Yale College Humanists and Secularists to explain why. If any of you want to know more about this than what few points I can cover in thirty minutes, I have several writings on this and other subjects on the Secular Web. But here I will cover the most important reasons why I don’t buy the resurrection story.

It actually begins with a different tale. In 520 A.D. an anonymous monk recorded the life of Saint Genevieve, who had died only ten years before that. In his account of her life, he describes how, when she ordered a cursed tree cut down, monsters sprang from it and breathed a fatal stench on many men for two hours; while she was sailing, eleven ships capsized, but at her prayers they were righted again spontaneously; she cast out demons, calmed storms, miraculously created water and oil from nothing before astonished crowds, healed the blind and lame, and several people who stole things from her actually went blind instead. No one wrote anything to contradict or challenge these claims, and they were written very near the time the events supposedly happened–by a religious man whom we suppose regarded lying to be a sin. Yet do we believe any of it? Not really. And we shouldn’t.[1]

As David Hume once said, why do such things not happen now?[2] Is it a coincidence that the very time when these things no longer happen is the same time that we have the means and methods to check them in the light of science and careful investigation? I’ve never seen monsters spring from a tree, and I don’t know anyone who has, and there are no women touring the country transmuting matter or levitating ships. These events look like tall tales, sound like tall tales, and smell like tall tales. Odds are, they’re tall tales.

But we should try to be more specific in our reasons, and not rely solely on common sense impressions. And there are specific reasons to disbelieve the story of Genevieve, and they are the same reasons we have to doubt the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection of Jesus. For the parallel is clear: the Gospels were written no sooner to the death of their main character–and more likely many decades later–than was the case for the account of Genevieve; and like that account, the Gospels were also originally anonymous–the names now attached to them were added by speculation and oral tradition half a century after they were actually written. Both contain fabulous miracles supposedly witnessed by numerous people. Both belong to the same genre of literature: what we call a “hagiography,” a sacred account of a holy person regarded as representing a moral and divine ideal. Such a genre had as its principal aim the glorification of the religion itself and of the example set by the perfect holy person represented as its central focus. Such literature was also a tool of propaganda, used to promote certain moral or religious views, and to oppose different points of view. The life of Genevieve, for example, was written to combat Arianism. The canonical Gospels, on the other hand, appear to combat various forms of proto-Gnosticism. So being skeptical of what they say is sensible from the start.[3]

It is certainly reasonable to doubt the resurrection of Jesus in the flesh, an event placed some time between 26 and 36 A.D. For this we have only a few written sources near the event, all of it sacred writing, and entirely pro-Christian. Pliny the Younger was the first non-Christian to even mention the religion, in 110 A.D., but he doesn’t mention the resurrection. No non-Christian mentions the resurrection until many decades later–Lucian, a critic of superstition, was the first, writing in the mid-2nd century, and likely getting his information from Christian sources. So the evidence is not what any historian would consider good.[4]

Nevertheless, Christian apologist Douglas Geivett has declared that the evidence for the physical resurrection of Jesus meets, and I quote, “the highest standards of historical inquiry” and “if one takes the historian’s own criteria for assessing the historicity of ancient events, the resurrection passes muster as a historically well-attested event of the ancient world,” as well-attested, he says, as Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon in 49 B.C.[5] Well, it is common in Christian apologetics, throughout history, to make absurdly exaggerated claims, and this is no exception. Let’s look at Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon for a minute:

  • First of all, we have Caesar’s own word on the subject. Indeed, The Civil War has been a Latin classic for two thousand years, written by Caesar himself and by one of his generals and closest of friends. In contrast, we do not have anything written by Jesus, and we do not know for certain the name of any author of any of the accounts of his earthly resurrection.
  • Second, we have many of Caesar’s enemies, including Cicero, a contemporary of the event, reporting the crossing of the Rubicon, whereas we have no hostile or even neutral records of the resurrection until over a hundred years after the event, which is fifty years after the Christians’ own claims had been widely spread around.
  • Third, we have a number of inscriptions and coins produced soon after the Republican Civil War related to the Rubicon crossing, including mentions of battles and conscriptions and judgments, which provide evidence for Caesar’s march. On the other hand, we have absolutely no physical evidence of any kind in the case of the resurrection.
  • Fourth, we have the story of the “Rubicon Crossing” in almost every historian of the period, including the most prominent scholars of the age: Suetonius, Appian, Cassius Dio, Plutarch. Moreover, these scholars have a measure of proven reliability, since a great many of their reports on other matters have been confirmed in material evidence and in other sources. In addition, they often quote and name many different sources, showing a wide reading of the witnesses and documents, and they show a desire to critically examine claims for which there is any dispute. If that wasn’t enough, all of them cite or quote sources written by witnesses, hostile andfriendly, of the Rubicon crossing and its repercussions.Compare this with the resurrection: we have not even a single established historian mentioning the event until the 3rd and 4th centuries, and then only by Christian historians.[6] And of those few others who do mention it within a century of the event, none of them show any wide reading, never cite any other sources, show no sign of a skilled or critical examination of conflicting claims, have no other literature or scholarship to their credit that we can test for their skill and accuracy, are completely unknown, and have an overtly declared bias towards persuasion and conversion.[7]
  • Fifth, the history of Rome could not have proceeded as it did had Caesar not physically moved an army into Italy. Even if Caesar could have somehow cultivated the mere belief that he had done this, he could not have captured Rome or conscripted Italian men against Pompey’s forces in Greece. On the other hand, all that is needed to explain the rise of Christianity is a belief–a belief that the resurrection happened. There is nothing that an actual resurrection would have caused that could not have been caused by a mere belief in that resurrection. Thus, an actual resurrection is not necessary to explain all subsequent history, unlike Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon.[8]

It should be clear that we have many reasons to believe that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, all of which are lacking in the case of the resurrection. In fact, when we compare all five points, we see that in four of the five proofs of an event’s historicity, the resurrection has no evidence at all, and in the one proof that it does have, it has not the best, but the very worst kind of evidence–a handful of biased, uncritical, unscholarly, unknown, second-hand witnesses. Indeed, you really have to look hard to find another event that is in a worse condition than this as far as evidence goes. So Geivett is guilty of a rather extreme exaggeration. This is not a historically well-attested event, and it does not meet the highest standards of evidence.

But reasons to be skeptical do not stop there. We must consider the setting–the place and time in which these stories spread. This was an age of fables and wonder. Magic and miracles and ghosts were everywhere, and almost never doubted. I’ll give one example that illustrates this: we have several accounts of what the common people thought about lunar eclipses. They apparently had no doubt that this horrible event was the result of witches calling the moon down with diabolical spells. So when an eclipse occurred, everyone would frantically start banging pots and blowing brass horns furiously, to confuse the witches’ spells. So tremendous was this din that many better-educated authors complain of how the racket filled entire cities and countrysides. This was a superstitious people.[9]

Only a small class of elite well-educated men adopted more skeptical points of view, and because they belonged to the upper class, both them and their arrogant skepticism were scorned by the common people, rather than respected. Plutarch laments how doctors were willing to attend to the sick among the poor for little or no fee, but they were usually sent away, in preference for the local wizard.[10] By modern standards, almost no one had any sort of education at all, and there were no mass media disseminating scientific facts in any form. By the estimates of William Harris, author of Ancient Literacy [1989], only 20% of the population could read anything at all, fewer than 10% could read well, and far fewer still had any access to books. He found that in comparative terms, even a single page of blank papyrus cost the equivalent of thirty dollars–ink, and the labor to hand copy every word, cost many times more. We find that books could run to the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars each. Consequently, only the rich had books, and only elite scholars had access to libraries, of which there were few. The result was that the masses had no understanding of science or critical thought. They were neither equipped nor skilled, nor even interested, in challenging an inspiring story, especially a story like that of the Gospels: utopian, wonderful, critical of upper class society–even more a story that, if believed, secured eternal life. Who wouldn’t have bought a ticket to that lottery? Opposition arose mainly from prior commitments to other dogmas, not reason or evidence.

The differences between society then and now cannot be stressed enough. There didn’t exist such things as coroners, reporters, cameras, newspapers, forensic science, or even police detectives. All the technology, all the people we have pursuing the truth of various claims now, did not exist then. In those days, few would even be able to check the details of a story if they wanted to–and few wanted to. Instead, people based their judgment on the display of sincerity by the storyteller, by his ability to impress them with a show or simply to persuade and “sell” his story, and by the potential rewards his story had to offer.[11] At the same time, doubters didn’t care to waste the time or money debunking yet another crazy cult, of which there were hundreds then.[12] And so it should not surprise us that we have no writings by anyone hostile to Christianity until a century after it began–not even slanders or lies. Clearly, no doubter cared to check or even challenge the story in print until it was too late to investigate the facts.[13]

These are just some of the reasons why we cannot trust extraordinary reports from that time without excellent evidence, which we do not have in the case of the physical resurrection of Jesus. For on the same quality of evidence we have reports of talking dogs, flying wizards, magical statues, and monsters springing from trees.[14] Can you imagine a movement today claiming that a soldier in World War Two rose physically from the dead, but when you asked for proof all they offered you were a mere handful of anonymous religious tracts written in the 1980’s? Would it be even remotely reasonable to believe such a thing on so feeble a proof? Well–no.[15] What about alien bodies recovered from a crashed flying saucer in Roswell, New Mexico? Many people sincerely believe that legend today, yet this is the modern age, with ample evidence against it in print that is easily accessible to anyone, and this legend began only thirty years after the event.[16]

Even so, it is often said in objection that we can trust the Gospels more than we normally would because they were based on the reports of eye-witnesses of the event who were willing to die for their belief in the physical resurrection, for surely no one would die for a lie. To quote a Christian website: “the first disciples were willing to suffer and die for their faith…for their claims to have seen Jesus…risen bodily from the dead.” Of course, the Gospel of Matthew 28:17 actually claims that some eye-witnesses didn’t believe what they saw and might not have become Christians, which suggests the experience was not so convincing after all. But there are two other key reasons why this argument sounds great in sermons but doesn’t hold water under rational scrutiny.

First, it is based on nothing in the New Testament itself, or on any reliable evidence of any kind. None of the Gospels or Epistles mention anyone dying for their belief in the “physical” resurrection of Jesus. The only martyrdoms recorded in the New Testament are, first, the stoning of Stephen in the Book of Acts. But Stephen was not a witness. He was a later convert. So if he died for anything, he died for hearsay alone. But even in Acts the story has it that he was not killed for what he believed, but for some trumped up false charge, and by a mob, whom he could not have escaped even if he had recanted. So his death does not prove anything in that respect. Moreover, in his last breaths, we are told, he says nothing about dying for any belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus, but mentions only his belief that Jesus was the messiah, and was at that moment in heaven.[17] And then he sees Jesus–yet no one else does, so this was clearly a vision, not a physical appearance, and there is no good reason to believe earlier appearances were any different.

The second and only other “martyr” recorded in Acts is the execution of the Apostle James, but we are not told anything about why he was killed or whether recanting would have saved him, or what he thought he died for.[18] In fact, we have one independent account in the Jewish history of Josephus, of the stoning of a certain “James the brother of Jesus” in 62 A.D., possibly but not necessarily the very same James, and in that account he is stoned for breaking the Jewish law, which recanting would not escape, and in the account of the late 2nd century Christian hagiographer Hegesippus, as reported by Eusebius, he dies not for his belief in a physical resurrection, but, just like Stephen, solely for proclaiming Jesus the messiah, who was at that moment in heaven.[19]

Yet that is the last record of any martyrdom we have until the 2nd century. Then we start to hear about some unnamed Christians burned for arson by Nero in 64 A.D.,[20] but we do not know if any eye-witnesses were included in that group–and even if we did it would not matter, for they were killed on a false charge of arson, not for refusing to deny belief in a physical resurrection. So even if they had recanted, it would not have saved them, and therefore their deaths also do not prove anything, especially since such persecution was so rare and unpredictable in that century. We also do not even know what it was they believed–after all, Stephen and James did not appear to regard the physical resurrection as an essential component of their belief. It is not what they died for.

As far as we can tell, apart from perhaps James, no one knew what the fate was of any of the original eye-witnesses. People were even unclear about who the original eye-witnesses were. There were a variety of legends circulating centuries later about their travels and deaths, but it is clear from our earliest sources that no one knew for certain.[21] There was only one notable exception: the martyrdom of Peter. This we do not hear about until two or three generations after the event, and it is told in only one place: the Gnostic Acts of Peter, which was rejected as a false document by many Christians of the day. But even if this account is true, it claims that Peter was executed for political meddling and not for his beliefs. Even more important, it states that Peter believed Jesus was resurrected as a spirit, not in the flesh…[22]

Which brings us to the second point: it seems distinctly possible, if not definite, that the original Christians did not in fact believe in a physical resurrection (meaning a resurrection of his corpse), but that Jesus was taken up to heaven and given a new body–a more perfect, spiritual body–and then “the risen Jesus” was seen in visions and dreams, just like the vision Stephen has before he dies, and which Paul has on the road to Damascus. Visions of gods were not at all unusual, a cultural commonplace in those days, well documented by Robin Lane Fox in his excellent book Pagans and Christians.[23] But whatever their cause, if this is how Christianity actually started, it means that the resurrection story told in the Gospels, of a Jesus risen in the flesh, does not represent what the original disciples believed, but was made up generations later. So even if they did die for their beliefs, they did not die for the belief that Jesus was physically resurrected from the grave.

That the original Christians believed in a spiritual resurrection is hinted at in many strange features of the Gospel accounts of the appearances of Jesus after death, which may be survivals of an original mystical tradition later corrupted by the growing legend of a bodily resurrection, such as a Jesus that they do not recognize, or who vanishes into thin air.[24] But more importantly, it is also suggested by the letters of Paul, our earliest source of information on any of the details of the original Christian beliefs. For Paul never mentions or quotes any of the Gospels, so it seems clear that they were not written in his lifetime. This is supported by internal evidence that suggests all the Gospels were written around or after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., well after Paul’s last surviving letter, which was written around the year 58.[25]

Yet Paul never mentions Jesus having been resurrected in the flesh. He never mentions empty tombs, physical appearances, or the ascension of Jesus into heaven afterward (i.e. when Paul mentions the ascension, he never ties it to appearances in this way, and never distinguishes it from the resurrection event itself). In Galatians 1 he tells us that he first met Jesus in a “revelation” on the road to Damascus, not in the flesh, and the Book of Acts gives several embellished accounts of this event that all clearly reflect not any tradition of a physical encounter, but a startling vision (a light and a voice, nothing more).[26] Then in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul reports that all the original eye-witnesses–Peter, James, the Twelve Disciples, and hundreds of others–saw Jesus in essentially the same way Paul did. The only difference, he says, was that they saw it before him. He then goes on to build an elaborate description of how the body that dies is not the body that rises, that the flesh cannot inherit the kingdom of God, and how the resurrected body is a new, spiritual body. All this seems good evidence that Paul did not believe in the resurrection of a corpse, but something fundamentally different.[27]

Finally, when we examine the Gospel record closely, it becomes apparent that the physical nature of the resurrection was a growing legend, becoming more and more fabulous over time, a good sign that it wasn’t the original story. Now, we don’t actually know when any of the Gospels were written, but we can infer their chronological order. Luke and Matthew both copy whole phrases from Mark and arrange them in an identical order as found in Mark, so it is clear that Mark came first among those three. Scholars dispute whether Luke preceded Matthew or the other way around, but it seems to me that, since they show no apparent awareness of each other, they were written around the same time, though scholars generally hold that Luke perhaps wrote later than Matthew. John presents the most theologically elaborate of the accounts, suggesting a late development, and even earliest Christian tradition held that this Gospel was the last to be written, and scholars generally agree on this.

So we start with Mark. It is little known among the laity, but in fact the ending of Mark, everything after verse 16:8, does not actually exist in the earliest versions of that Gospel that survive.[28] It was added some time late in the 2nd century or even later. Before that, as far as we can tell, Mark ended at verse 16:8. But that means his Gospel ended only with an empty tomb, and a pronouncement by a mysterious young man [29] that Jesus would be seen in Galilee–nothing is said of how he would be seen. This was clearly unsatisfactory for the growing powerful arm of the Church a century later, which had staked its claim on a physical resurrection, against competing segments of the Church usually collectively referred to as the Gnostics (though not always accurately). So an ending was added that quickly pinned some physical appearances of Jesus onto the story, and for good measure put in the mouth of Christ rabid condemnations of those who didn’t believe it.[30] But when we consider the original story, it supports the notion that the original belief was of a spiritual rather than a physical event. The empty tomb for Mark was likely meant to be a symbol, not a historical reality, but even if he was repeating what was told him as true, it was not unusual in the ancient world for the bodies of heroes who became gods to vanish from this world: being deified entailed being taken up into heaven, as happened to men as diverse as Hercules and Apollonius of Tyana, and Mark’s story of an empty tomb would simply represent that expectation.[31]

A decade or two passes, and then Matthew appears. As this Gospel tells it, there was a vast earthquake, and instead of a mere boy standing around beside an already-opened tomb, an angel–blazing like lightning–descended from the sky and paralyzed two guards that happened to be there, rolled away the stone single handedly before several witnesses–and then announced that Jesus will appear in Galilee. Obviously we are seeing a clear case of legendary embellishment of the otherwise simple story in Mark. Then in Matthew a report is given (similar to what was later added to Mark), where, contrary to the angel’s announcement, Jesus immediately meets the women that attended to his grave and repeats what the angel said. Matthew is careful to add a hint that this was a physical Jesus, having the women grovel and grab his feet as he speaks.[32]

Then, maybe a little later still, Luke appears, and suddenly what was a vague and perhaps symbolic allusion to an ascension in Mark has now become a bodily appearance, complete with a dramatic reenactment of Peter rushing to the tomb and seeing the empty death shroud for himself.[32a] As happened in Matthew, other details have grown. The one young man of Mark, which became a flying angel in Matthew, in this account has suddenly become two men, this time not merely in white, but in dazzling raiment. And to make the new story even more suspicious as a doctrinal invention, Jesus goes out of his way to say he is not a vision, and proves it by asking the Disciples to touch him, and then by eating a fish. And though both Mark and Matthew said the visions would happen in Galilee, Luke changes the story, and places this particular experience in the more populous and prestigious Jerusalem.[33]

Finally along comes John, perhaps after another decade or more. Now the legend has grown full flower, and instead of one boy, or two men, or one angel, now we have two angels at the empty tomb. And outdoing Luke in style, John has Jesus prove he is solid by showing his wounds, and breathing on people, and even obliging the Doubting Thomas by letting him put his fingers into the very wounds themselves. Like Luke, the most grandiose appearances to the Disciples happen in Jerusalem, not Galilee as Mark originally claimed. In all, John devotes more space and detail than either Luke or Matthew to demonstrations of the physicality of the resurrection, details nowhere present or even implied in Mark. It is obvious that John is trying very hard to create proof that the resurrection was the physical raising of a corpse, and at the end of a steady growth of fable, he takes license to make up a lot of details.[34]

We have no primary sources on what was going on in the forty years of the Church between Paul in the year 58 and Clement of Rome in the year 95, and Paul tells us almost nothing about what happened in the beginning. We only conjecture that the Gospels were written between Paul and Clement, though they may have been written even ten or twenty years later still. But what I suspect happened is something like this: Jesus died, was buried, and then in a vision or dream appeared to one or more of his Disciples, convincing them he had ascended to heaven, marking the beginning of the fast-approaching End Times as the first to be raised, and then what began in the simple story of Mark as a symbolic allusion to an ascended Christ soon to reveal himself in visions from heaven, in time led some Christians to believe that the resurrection was a physical rising of a corpse. Then they heard or came up with increasingly elaborate stories proving themselves right. Overzealous people often add details and color to a story they’ve been told without even thinking about it, and as the story passed from each to the next more detail and elaboration was added, securing the notion of a physical resurrection in popular imagination and belief.

It would have been a natural mistake to make at the time, since gods were expected to be able to raise people bodily from the dead, and physical resurrections were actually in vogue in the very 1st century when Christianity began. Consider the god Asclepius. Doctors associated themselves with this god, and many legends were circulating of doctors becoming famous by restoring the dead to life, as recounted by Pliny the Elder, Apuleius and others.[35] Asclepius was also called SOTER, “The Savior,” as many gods were in that day. He was especially so-named for being able to cure the sick and bring back the dead, and since “Jesus” (properly, Joshua) means “The Savior” in Hebrew it may have been expected that his resurrection would be physical in nature, too. After all, so was that of Lazarus, or of the boy raised by Elijah in 1 Kings–a prophet with whom Jesus was often equated.[36] Jesus’ association with many healing miracles may also have implied a deliberate rivalry with Asclepius, and indeed, Jesus was actually called SOTER, and still is today: we see the Christian fishes on the backs of cars now, containing the Greek word ICHTHUS, the last letter of which stands for: SOTER. Not standing to be outdone by a pagan god, Christians may have simply expected that their god could raise himself physically from the grave.[37]

Then there is Herodotus, who was always a popular author and had been for centuries. He told of a Thracian religion that began with the physical resurrection of a man called Zalmoxis, who then started a cult in which it was taught that believers went to heaven when they died. We also know that circulating in the Middle East were very ancient legends regarding the resurrection of the goddess Inanna (also known as Ishtar), who was crucified in the underworld, then rescued and raised back to earth by her divine attendant, a tale recounted in a four thousand year old clay tablet from Sumeria.[38] Finally, Plutarch writes in the latter half of the 1st century how “Romeo-and-Juliet-style” returns from the dead were a popular theme in contemporary theatre, and we know from surviving summaries and fragments that they were also a feature in romance novels of that day. This trend is discussed at some length in G. W. Bowersock’s book Fiction as History.[39]

So the idea of “physical resurrection” was popular, and circulating everywhere. Associating Jesus with this trend would have been a very easy mistake to make. Since religious trust was won in those days by the charisma of speakers and the audience’s subjective estimation of their sincerity, it would not be long before a charismatic man, who heard the embellished accounts, came into a position of power, inspiring complete faith from his congregation, who then sought to defend the story, and so began the transformation of the Christian idea of the resurrection from a spiritual concept to a physical one–naturally, calling themselves the “true church” and attacking all rivals, as has sadly so often happened in history.

Lending plausibility to this chain of events was the Jewish War between 66 and 70 A.D.[40], which ended with the complete destruction of the original Christian Church in Jerusalem, and much of the entire city, after all Judaea itself was ravaged by war. It is likely that many if not all of the original believers still living were killed in this war, or in Nero’s persecution of 64, and with the loss of the central source of Christian authority and tradition, legends were ripe for the growing. This would explain why later Christians were so in the dark about the history of their own Church between 58 and 95. It was a kind of mini-dark age for them, a time of confusion and uncertainty. But what exactly happened we may never know. However it came to change, it seems more than likely that the first Christians, among them Paul, believed in a spiritual resurrection, and not the resurrection story told in the Gospels.

So this is where we end up. We have no trustworthy evidence of a physical resurrection, no reliable witnesses. It is among the most poorly attested of historical events. The earliest evidence, from the letters of Paul, does not appear to be of a physical resurrection, but a spiritual one. And we have at least one plausible reason available to us as to why and how the legend grew into something else. Finally, the original accounts of a resurrection of a flesh-and-blood corpse show obvious signs of legendary embellishment over time, and were written in an age of little education and even less science, a time overflowing with superstition and credulity. And, ultimately, the Gospels match perfectly the same genre of hagiography as that life of Genevieve with which I began. There the legends quickly arose, undoubted and unchallenged, of treeborn monsters and righted ships and blinded thieves. In the Gospels, we get angels and earthquakes and a resurrection of the flesh. So we have to admit that neither is any more believable than the other.

It should not be lost on us that Thomas was depicted as no less righteous for refusing to believe so wild a claim without physical proof. We have as much right, and ought to follow his example. He got to see and feel the wounds before believing, and so should we. I haven’t, so I can’t be expected to believe it.[41] And this leads me to one final reason why I don’t buy the resurrection story. No wise or compassionate God would demand this from us. Such a god would not leave us so poorly informed about something so important.[42] If we have a message for someone that is urgently vital for their survival, and we have any compassion, that compassion will compel us to communicate that message clearly and with every necessary proof–not ambiguously, not through unreliable mediaries presenting no real evidence. Conversely, if we see something incredible, we do not attack or punish audiences who don’t believe us, we don’t even expect them to believe–unless and until we can present decisive proof.

There is a heroic legend in the technology community about the man who invented elevator safety brakes. He claimed that any elevator fitted with his brakes, even if all the cables broke, would be safely and swiftly stopped by his new invention. No one trusted it. Did he get angry or indignant? No. He simply put himself in an elevator, ordered the cables cut, and proved to the world, by risking his own life, that his brakes worked.[43] This is the very principle that has delivered us from superstition to science. Any claim can be made about a drug, but people are rightly wary of swallowing anything that hasn’t been thoroughly tested and re-tested and tested again. Since I have no such proofs regarding the resurrection story, I’m not going to swallow it, and it would be cruel, even for a god, to expect otherwise of me. So I can reason rightly that a god of all humankind would not appear in one tiny backwater of the Earth, in a backward time, revealing himself to a tiny unknown few, and then expect the billions of the rest of us to take their word for it, and not even their word, but the word of some unknown person many times removed.

Yet, if one returns to what was probably Paul’s conception of a Christ risen into a new, spiritual body, then the resurrection becomes no longer a historical proof of the truth of Christianity, but an article of faith, an affirmation that is supposed to follow nothing other than a personal revelation of Christ–not to be believed on hearsay, but experienced for oneself. Though I do not believe this is a reliable way to come to a true understanding of the world, as internal experience only tells us about ourselves and not the truth of the world outside of us,[44] I leave it to the Christians here to consider a spiritual resurrection as a different way to understand their faith. But I don’t see any reason to buy the resurrection story found in the Gospels.

 The Rubicon Analogy

James Holding claims that we have as much evidence that Jesus rose from his grave as we have that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon (“Julie’s River Run: On Comparing the Rubicon to the Resurrection“). There are numerous errors in his argument. This rebuttal responds briefly to the most important issues. In the end, my claim remains unchallenged: we have better evidence that Caesar crossed the Rubicon than we have that Jesus rose from the grave. Therefore, the claim that this resurrection is “as well attested” as the Rubicon crossing is false. The Resurrection could still be a better explanation of its evidence, but that is not the issue under debate here. I take that up elsewhere.

Issues of Fact

1. Does Caesar Mention Crossing the Rubicon? Holding claims that Caesar’s book The Civil War does not mention any crossing of the Rubicon. Perhaps Holding is just being picky. What Caesar does say, in his own words, is that he was “atRavenna” where he assembled and spoke to his troops whenRome declared war upon him (1.4-6). He straightaway adds: “Once the will of his soldiers was known, he marched with this legion to Ariminum,” modernRimini, where several defectors with messages fromRome were waiting to receive him (1.8.1).Ravenna lies on the Italian coast twenty miles north of the Rubicon. Ariminum lies on the Italian coast ten miles south of the Rubicon. The towns were directly connected by a major Roman road that crossed the Rubicon, the Via Flaminia. You do the math.

In case you are still skeptical, take a good look at a map: there is no way to march an army from Ravennato Ariminum except through the Rubicon. The only other road available was the Via Aemilia, and though there would have been no logical reason for Caesar to take such a detour, this road also crosses the Rubicon. And the Rubicon at the time flowed from nearby mountains impassable to an army. So there is no possible way Caesar could have marched from Ravennato Ariminum without crossing the Rubicon. Therefore, when Caesar says he made that march, he is saying he crossed the Rubicon. By analogy, no one reports ever having seen Jesus rise from the grave. They only infer this from related facts (a burial, an empty tomb, and subsequent appearances), and these have various possible explanations. Caesar’s march from Ravennato Ariminum has only one.[1]

2. What about Cicero? Holding claims (to the horrified astonishment of all historians ofRome!) that it is “questionable” whetherCicero was Caesar’s enemy. Doesn’t Holding even think to check these things? Holding often does this: asserts what every historian knows is completely false, makes claims exactly the opposite of what we learn even in the most introductory courses on the subject, and then poor sods like me have to do the legwork to prove him wrong. It is as if he insists the grass on my lawn is not green, so that I actually have to take the absurd step of bringing in witnesses to testify that my grass is in fact green.

Okay. Here we go. Cicero himself says others argued against him because Cicerowas Caesar’s enemy, and anything he said about Caesar should carry little weight (Phillipics 1.11.28). Cicero admits he sided with Pompey against Caesar in the Civil War (Phillipics 2.9.23) and claims that had Pompey listened to Cicero before the war and taken action against Caesar as Cicero advised, the entire war would have been averted (Phillipics 2.10). In fact, Cicero was so prominently Caesar’s enemy that Brutus shouted only one name after stabbing Caesar to death: “Thanks to Cicero!” (Phillipics 2.12.28).

Though Ciceroasserts he always preferred peace to violence, he nevertheless says that even though people wrongly accuse him of planning the assassination of Caesar, he counts this accusation as praise, for he regards Caesar’s assassination as “a glorious act” carried out by “a gallant band” of men to whom “the republic owes a debt of gratitude.” Additionally, Cicero “admires” them for performing a deed so excellent that it would be absurd for his accusers to believe he would deny involvement unless he really wasn’t involved, for their name and number is “glorious” and “honorable” (Phillipics 2.11), and no greater or more glorious a deed was ever done at Rome, to the point that Cicero is happy to be included in their number (Phillipics 2.13.32-33).

Despite all that, Holding has the audacity to claim Ciceroshowed no sign of approving the assassination. Obviously, Holding just says what he pleases, and doesn’t even bother checking the facts. Even besides Cicero’s political opposition to Caesar and approval of his assassination, Ciceroalso called Caesar “wicked” (Phillipics 3.6.14) and regarded many of Caesar’s legislative acts to be unconscionable (Phillipics 1.7.16, 1.9.23).

In the end, Cicerowas the enemy of Caesar every bit as much as anyone who sided with the South in the American Civil War was the enemy of Lincoln. The fact that Cicerohad previously been Caesar’s friend actually makes Cicero’s testimony more persuasive, and that is exactly my point in citing him. Just as Christians use the fact that Paul converted from an enemy to a friend of Christianity as evidence he really saw a revelation of Christ, so does Cicero’s conversion from friend to enemy stand as evidence that Caesar really crossed the Rubicon.[2] This crossing was the final event that launched the war, the last point of no return, before which Caesar could have averted the war. For the Rubicon was the border of the legally assigned province of Caesar, and it was an act of treason for a general to march an army outside his assigned province, especially into Italy (see Cicero, Phillipics 6.3.5 and 7.8.26). This is why “crossing the Rubicon” has become a catch phrase, and why the Rubicon, otherwise a small and insignificant river, became symbolic of Caesar’s war againstRome.

Cicerorecords Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon in the same way Caesar himself does. In his letter to his freedman Tiro (letter 311, or Letters to Friends and Family 16.12, dated 27 January in the year of the war, 49 B.C), Cicero says: “[W]hen Caesar yielded to the promptings of what may be called downright insanity, and–forgetting his name and his honours–had successively occupied Ariminum, Pisaurum, Ancona, and Arretium, I left the city [Rome].” In other words, Caesar invadedItaly at Ariminum and proceeded down the coast seizing every town on the way. The only way Caesar could have invadedItaly at Ariminum was to cross the Rubicon (Ariminum is only ten miles down the road from the Rubicon).

Therefore, Ciceroattests that Caesar crossed the Rubicon in the very year he did so (in fact, within the very same month). Likewise, in a previous letter to Tiro dated 12 January, Cicerois aware that Caesar is about to invade Italy, and preparations are being made to hold Italyagainst his advance (300, Letters to Friends and Family 16.2). Then in a letter to Atticus dated 19 January (303, Letters to Atticus 7.2),Cicero reveals there is all manner of confusion as to how far Caesar has advanced. By the 27th he has an accurate account of Caesar’s march.

So these three letters together represent a contemporary report that Caesar had not crossed more than a few days before January 12, definitely crossed before January 19, and had gotten as far as Arretium by January 27.Ciceroalso included actual letters from Caesar and Pompey on the further conduct of the war between them down the coast ofItaly, and letters from other people fighting against Caesar, confirming his advance all the way to Brundisium, finally chasing Pompey out ofItalyaltogether.

If we had this kind of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, we would definitely have much better evidence than we do now.[3] Imagine letters by Caiaphas or Joseph of Arimathea reporting the things they did, saw, heard, and investigated, all dated the very year and on the very days these things were going on.[4] Even if they never used the word “resurrection,” that would not matter–describing details of the event would be the same thing, just as describing a march into Italy beginning at Ariminum is the same thing as saying “Caesar crossed the Rubicon.”

3. What Counts as Physical Evidence? Holding correctly interprets my wording when he infers I did not claim we had any actual physical depictions of an army crossing a Rubicon (or inscriptions saying “I, Caesar, crossed the Rubicon”). That is not what I mean by physical evidence. Though such things would surely count (if they dated from the life of Caesar), they are not the only things we could have. This is true for the Resurrection, too. It is not necessary to have an inscription stating “Jesus rose from this grave” or a coin depicting this. Though such things would indeed constitute better evidence than we actually have, so would other kinds of physical evidence.

If we had an actual papyrus carbon-dated to the first century containing a letter by Pilate or Peter documenting or detailing any of the key facts surrounding the resurrection claim, that would be physical evidence. If we had an inscription commissioned by Joseph of Arimathea attesting to the fact that he found his tomb empty and that Jesus then appeared to his disciples, that would be physical evidence. If we had a coin issued by Agrippa just a few years later declaring faith in Christ, that would be physical evidence. If the empty tomb acquired miraculous powers as a result of so momentous a miracle there, or if the angels never left but remained there to converse with all who sought to know the truth, so that either fact could be physically confirmed today–so that we could go there now and see these miracles or angels for ourselves–that would be physical evidence.

But in no way is it “just as well to appeal to, say, the letters of Paul as equivalent to” the inscriptions and coins of Caesar, because the letters of Paul do not physically date to the life of Paul. This is a considerable problem, since we have already purged numerous interpolations and emendations from these letters by later scribes, and suspect many more, thus exemplifying the difference in reliability between having the actual letters written by Paul and having copies of copies of copies made by fallible scribes with a religious agenda.[5] This does not mean the letters we have should be rejected as wholly unreliable. What I am saying is that actually having the original letters is better evidence than having these flawed and tampered copies, and therefore such physical objects fall into their own category of evidence.

Consider what we have for Caesar. In 47 B.C. coins were struck by the government of Antioch(which Caesar had just liberated from Pompey) declaring it to be “year two of the era of Caesar.” Cicero’s letters confirm that Caesar’s conquest of the Roman Empirebegan in 49 B.C., two years before this coin was struck. This is corroborating physical evidence. Comparably, if we had coins struck in Damascusin 33 A.D. declaring “year two of the era of Jesus Christ,” that would be physical evidence corroborating the resurrection of Jesus.[6]

We have other coins struck by Caesar himself during the war to pay his soldiers, then coins struck celebrating Caesar’s victory over Rome(and then coins struck by Brutus celebrating his assassination of Caesar). In a similar fashion, inscriptions document Caesar’s victory over Rome, his capture of Italy, and his founding of colonies for veterans of the war there. We could certainly have had similar inscriptions by or about Jesus erected during his life, or shortly thereafter, documenting his miracles in life or appearances after death, or the subsequent commitments of the Church, and so on. But we don’t.

Issues of Method

1. Is Oral History as Reliable as Written? Holding claims that distrust of oral history is “a thoroughly modern, graphocentric prejudice.” In so speaking, Holding is parting company with every professional historian I know or have ever read. It is not a “prejudice” to employ the best methods available for avoiding error and getting at the truth. And historians know that written records are preserved more accurately and honestly than oral tradition.[7]

Oral tradition cannot be confirmed–it is taken solely on someone’s word, and is subject to restatement, embellishment, and mistake. The latter entails either misunderstanding what was said or mistaking what one person said as what someone else said. Moreover, oral history lacks controls: there is no way to go back and “check” to make sure a statement was gotten right or correctly attributed–or genuinely said at all.[8] In contrast, though written transmission can be doctored, this is not so easy as in the case of oral tradition. Since many people have a text to compare a written transmission to, claims can often be checked. Furthermore, manuscript traditions often survive, allowing us to identify errors and corruptions. And though written transmission was subject to error, its errors were usually minor and often easily identified, for the kinds of mistakes a copyist makes are much more limited than mistakes of memory and formulation.

Moreover, the ancients had developed a professional system for ensuring the reliability of transmitted writings, with supervisors who checked copies against originals and made corrections, as well as standards and processes for collating critical editions. No comparable system was in place for oral transmission–at least none that we know was used by Christians. For example, Jewish oral law was institutionally taught in formal schools and routinely recited daily in courts of law, and there is no evidence of any such institutional system of memorization in the first-century Church. Likewise, scientific evidence for an imperfect but modestly reliable transmission of oral epics and songs pertains only to stories constrained by meter and rhyme, or to brief apothegms and proverbs, never to long prose narratives or speeches, which we’ve instead found very prone to distortion and change. The wide diversion among all the resurrection narratives of the Gospels are a case in point.[9] Finally, all evidence of reliability in oral transmission pertains not only to these limited and categorically different circumstances, but relates only to memory, not the ability to deliberately add, subtract, or change things.

Consider how many changes and interpolations were already allowed into the written Bible–which we can now exclude and “correct” precisely because we have other manuscripts to compare. If the tradition were oral, we would have nothing to check our current version by, and would therefore have a very incorrect Bible on our hands. The problem would even be worse, since oral transmission is much more subject to distortion, alteration, and error than written tradition. This is so precisely because the mechanisms available to check and correct distortions were available only in the latter case, as physical documents were copied and disseminated. Moreover, oral transmission requires much more rapid copying, and therefore entails a far greater number of opportunities for distortion.

This is because the same physical manuscript can be read by (or to) thousands of people and stored for a hundred years or more, but an oral record has to be “copied,” often dozens of times, to reach this same audience. And then it is inevitably copied again as all these people spread it, each in their own way, while those who hear it from them copy it, again in their own way. It quickly becomes impossible to identify which version is the original, even for a skilled investigator. And there is no evidence that any such highly skilled personnel were involved in controlling the Christian story in the first century.

Obviously, the closer a written source is to the actual things said, the better. Recent studies of oral transmission have confirmed that prose stories become distorted–in fact, they are routinely altered to suit the needs and interests of each particular audience or circumstance. This is especially true when an oral tradition becomes important to some political, social, or religious agenda (for example, see the works of Rosalind Thomas or Greg Sarris). In fact, this is exactly why we turned to a reliance on writing and developed a distrust of oral transmission. Everyone knows that “this guy told this other guy who told this other guy who told me” is never a trustworthy source.

The ancients knew this too. That is why the best historians of the day, such as Thucydides and Polybius, insisted on relying only on direct eyewitness testimony, distrusting oral traditions altogether. Even mediocre historians, such as Herodotus, made a point of relying on no more than one generation removed from eyewitness testimony, and were suspicious of oral reports of more distant origin. Tacitus specifically wrote: “That everything gets exaggerated is typical for any story” and “all the greatest events are obscure–while some people accept whatever they hear as beyond doubt, others twist the truth into its opposite, and both errors grow over subsequent generations” (Annals 3.44 & 3.19).

In Roman law, oral contracts were still common, but often required five witnesses (especially to verify weddings, wills, and the emancipation of slaves), and when contested in court, all five witnesses often had to be presented to confirm what they saw. Second hand testimony was never trusted. So for any contract expected to outlive its witnesses, Romans got it in writing. They knew better than to trust oral tradition. So did the Jews, who also banned second-hand testimony from the courts in almost every case.

Therefore, it simply is not true that “Jesus’ own speech to his disciples is thus as good as Caesar’s own hand” because we have sound reasons to believe the Civil War we now have is a copy (with minor errors) of what Caesar wrote. The required standards and mechanisms of checked-and-corrected copying were demonstrably in place, and Caesar’s style is too difficult to fabricate. But we have no way to know whether what some unknown people claimed Jesus said is what Jesus said.[10] Even if we accept the names attributed to these stories (and few scholars do), we still don’t know for sure who these people were, when they wrote, or how they got any of their information. Indeed, because they never name or assess their sources, we have no idea what the reliability of transmission was, how many people the claims passed through, or what they originally looked like at the start of this process.

Moreover, when the Gospel authors wrote their stories down, there may have been no way for anyone to check their claims–we have no evidence any witnesses were alive by the time these documents circulated. Indeed, even the authors themselves might not have been able to check. We simply don’t know, because they don’t tell us. Even the dubious “added” ending to John (chapter 21; cf. 20:30-31) only claims an anonymous “we” heard the account from an anonymous eyewitness never mentioned anywhere else–not even in Luke, the only author who claimed to have “followed everything precisely from the beginning.”

Finally, oral tradition wasn’t the only bugbear. It was typical for writers to invent speeches, too. Even when they wanted to try and capture what really was said, the rules were very flexible, and no one expected exact words to be written down. Thucydides was one of the most strict historians, yet even he said “my practice has been to make the speakers say what in my opinion was demanded of them by the various occasions–or what in my opinion they had to say on the various occasions–of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what was really said,” insofar as he knew what that was (1.22.1). This is the strictest standard we know from the time–and yet it amounts to admitting he is often making things up, ultimately limiting himself only to what he thinks people “must have” said.

Few historians in antiquity were so strict, and in fact many complaints are heard from ancient authors about how much liberty numerous historians actually took in constructing speeches and even entire narratives. When we add the incentive to defend dogmas, the possibility of readily believing a claim of questionable origin, or simply fabricating a claim that someone knew “had” to be true but couldn’t find actual evidence of, we find ourselves in a very problematic position. We can’t rule any of this out because the authors give us no information to go on. This is universally true throughout the field of ancient history, not just in the study of Jesus. How much more this would have been the case for oral transmission, where there is no constraint to copy a written account faithfully, and no written account to check claims against.

Then there is Holding’s last objection, that Caesar would have dictated his book, which is just silly. Even if that were true (and it often wasn’t–many aristocratic writers put their own hand to scroll or wax), Caesar still would have continually checked and corrected the text, and the words written would still be his in both content and style. That is, they would have without doubt originated with him and not someone else. Therefore, there is no analogy here to oral transmission. This is still Caesar’s words, as Caesar himself wrote or spoke them. Had Jesus done the same–had someone recorded what he said in writing after he rose from the dead, and Jesus checked and corrected and signed off on it–that would count as an eyewitness report direct from Jesus. It would indeed provide better evidence for the Resurrection than we now have–if we had as much reason to believe the document was authentic as we do for Caesar’s Civil War.

But the truth is, “after Jesus rose from the dead” our earliest and only eyewitness report says he only spoke “in a revelation” and not in “flesh and blood” (Gal. 1:11-12, 1:15-16). In other words, it was a subjective experience in the mind of the believer that Jesus was speaking to him. We know there are many other causes of such an experience besides an actual spirit of a deceased person contacting us, and have never yet confirmed that any such contact can or ever has happened to anyone. Therefore, this is not comparable to Caesar dictating to a slave. “Jesus said it” is exactly the proposition that remains to be proven, before we can trust that he did.

2. What about Hostile and Neutral Sources? Holding objects to my application of the criterion of hostile attestation on the grounds that “we would never expect ‘enemies’ of Christianity to record it, since it would not serve their purposes.” Of course, if the evidence were really so clear, there would not be many enemies in the first place: many leading, literate Jews would have converted, many more than just Paul, and all would have left us letters and documents about their experiences and reasons. But that would fall under the category of eyewitness testimony, of which we have none, except Paul, who of course never testifies to ever meeting Jesus in the flesh, to seeing the empty grave, or to seeing the actual corpse of Jesus rising and talking. In fact, Paul never really says anyone saw these things.

Instead, my category of hostile attestation is distinct from this, for if even those who don’t like it or don’t believe it nevertheless report it, even if only to denounce or deny it or explain it away, that is itself stronger evidence than we now have. For example, if we had what Matthew claims the Jews were saying in Matthew 28:11-15 from a first-century Jewish writer, that would be hostile attestation.[11] Certainly many Jews would have an interest in publishing such lies or explanations, if in fact Christians were making such claims then, and there really were enough Christians making these claims for anyone to care. Instead, the complete absence of any Jewish texts attacking Christianity in the first century is astonishing–unless Christianity was a socially microscopic cult making unverifiably subjective claims of revelations from God that no one could falsify. Otherwise, ancient authors were not beneath writing tracts slandering other people, and later pagan authors had no scruple against attacking the Christians. So why did no one attack the Christians earlier? There are problems here, surely.

But that isn’t the only kind of evidence I meant. Neutral parties also count under this criterion. For example, if we had genuine letters from Pilate recording what claims were made and how his investigations turned out, he would have simply reported the facts, probably attributing them to sorcery or the miracles of just another god among many, or at worse speculating on possible trickery. But because he wouldn’t be a believer or have any interest in defending the belief, this would count as hostile contemporary attestation.

Indeed, it would matter a very great deal if we had a hostile or neutral attestation to the actual content of the original Christian belief. If the Jews were in fact accusing the Christians of stealing the body within a year of their movement’s origin, that would be proof that the first Christians believed the tomb was empty. That would indeed be something–a lot more than we actually have. Instead, we don’t have this claim from any Jewish author, only a Christian author defending the empty tomb claim many decades after the fact. Or imagine a letter from Pilate to a friend or an official describing the full content of the dispute between the Christians and the Jews, even including the report of Thomas that he handled the wounded body. If Pilate dismissed this as idle nonsense, he would be a hostile witness to the claim being made from the very beginning, thus ruling out legendary development.

And contrary to Holding’s strange assertion, there is no reason such hostile or neutral corroboration “would not serve their purposes.” Pliny’s letters on the Christians, Matthew’s purported “Jewish lie,” and Lucian’s account of Glycon served their authors’ purposes.[12] The latter, in fact, is a perfect example of hostile attestation to the existence and miracles of Glycon. Lucian didn’t believe Glycon’s miracles were real, but nevertheless he records them–with his own explanations. We have nothing like that for Jesus. It doesn’t matter if we have no reason to expect it, due to the poor chance of records surviving or even being written (though such momentous events as are claimed in the Gospels hardly seem the type to escape records). The fact that this evidence is not available now still means we lack evidence for this claim that we otherwise have for the Rubicon crossing. It doesn’t matter why this is the case. It still is the case.

In the same fashion, Holding objects to my criterion of physical evidence by claiming that “to expect coins and inscriptions from such an event as the resurrection would be unreasonable.” Again, that is irrelevant–the issue is what evidence we have, not why we have none. But we can still question Holding’s assumption that we should expect no physical evidence. Was it unreasonable of Diogenes of Oenoanda to erect an inscription conveying the complete gospel of his beloved philosopher Epicurus? Was it unreasonable of pagans who saw God to erect inscriptions honoring the event (as documented by Robin Lane Fox in Pagans and Christians)? Was it unreasonable of people to erect inscriptions documenting the miracles performed on them or for them by various gods? Or of various Jewish sects to erect inscriptions honoring their God? No.

Nor would it be unreasonable to expect some Christians to have done the same. If any king had been converted, for example, it would not be unreasonable for him to mint coins honoring his new god, just as Vardaman has tried to claim for king Aretas. If Joseph of Arimathea was indeed a rich believer, it would not be unreasonable for him to do what Diogenes did and inscribe his own beloved gospel in stone somewhere. And motives aside, the point remains we still don’t have any such evidence. It doesn’t matter why we don’t have it. We still don’t have it. But we do have some such corroborating evidence for the Rubicon crossing. And that is a material difference.

Combining both points, if we had the actual papyrus letter supposedly written by Claudius Lysias quoted in Acts (23:26-30), that would be much better evidence than we have now. That is, if it had mentioned anything relevant, though apparently it didn’t. It doesn’t even name Paul, much less Jesus, and makes no mention of the resurrection of Jesus being the point of dispute between Paul and the other Jews. But it could have. Lysias could have spelled out the dispute. And if he did, and we actually had the datable papyrus itself, we would have both physical evidence and hostile or neutral corroboration. But in fact we have neither.

3. Are the Evangelists as Good as Historians? Holding claims it doesn’t matter that many major historians record the Rubicon crossing, but not the resurrection of Jesus.[13] This seems rather silly. Clearly we would have better evidence if the resurrection story were discussed in all these same historians–especially if they in turn cited earlier historians whose works otherwise don’t survive, and even more if they also cited (as they often do) official or eyewitness documents. So when I claim that we have better evidence for the Rubicon crossing than the resurrection of Jesus, this is plainly true. Holding’s attempt to deny this is simply bizarre. Surely if we had such accounts, he would cite this fact in support of the Resurrection. So he can’t claim it “makes no difference.”

But what matters most for the issue of method is Holding’s apparent presumption that I dismiss the Gospels “merely” because they are late, and therefore later historians should count even less for me.[14] This totally mischaracterizes what I’ve argued in several places, including the section he is criticizing. Lateness is a problem, but not in itself grounds for dismissing a source. The quality and reliability of a source requires an assessment of all the relevant factors. The Gospels fail to count as reliable histories because they fail on every criterion, not because they fail on only one or two.[15] I address this issue at greater length elsewhere, including the problems with the best of them (Luke-Acts) by comparing its features with good ancient historians.[16] But to make a long story short, Luke exhibits none of the markers of a careful, critical historian, but instead preaches and propagandizes, and implicitly serves an ideological agenda, not an objective inquiry into the truth.

For a good extreme comparison unrelated to the Rubicon question, compare the explicit methods of Arrian with Luke-Acts: Arrian records the history of Alexander the Great five hundred years after the fact. But he does so by explicitly stating a sound method. Arrian says he ignored all works not written by eyewitnesses, and instead only followed surviving ancient texts by actual eyewitnesses to Alexander’s campaign. He names them and discusses their connections to Alexander. He then says that on every point on which they agree, he will simply record what they say, but where they significantly disagree, he will cite both accounts and identify the sources who disagree (and he appears to have followed this method as promised, though not always faithfully).

Now, this is not the best method–modern methods have improved considerably upon Arrian–but this is among the best methods ever employed in antiquity. And it is considerably different than just writing stories five hundred years later. Quite clearly, if Arrian did what he says, he is almost as good as an eyewitness source (in fact, arguably better). But notice how Luke does none of this (nor do any of the other Gospel authors). We have no idea whom Luke used for what information (he doesn’t even tell us he used Mark, even though we can prove he did). We also have no idea how he chose whom to trust or whom to include or exclude.[17] Luke is therefore not even in Arrian’s league as a critical historian. He fares even worse when compared with Polybius or Thucydides. Nor does he reach the level of lesser historians like Tacitus or Josephus, either–who, though they do not give such clear discussions of their methods, nevertheless often name their sources and explicitly show critical acumen in choosing between conflicting or confusing accounts.

The significance of all this is simple: we know for a fact these historians carried out at least some decent research and critically examined evidence and admitted doubt or conflicting information. We don’t trust any ancient historian as much as we’d trust a good modern historian–all ancient historians get things wrong on a variety of points for a variety of reasons (and therefore, by extension, we can be certain Luke did, too). But we do trust ancient historians to the extent that they exhibit the qualities of a trustworthy historian, such as being a critical thinker with an explicit interest in checking claims against documents and eyewitness accounts.

Now, Holding claims that for the Gospel authors “there was no dispute over source material,” but this is plainly false. All the Gospels disagree.[18] Even Luke, who claims to follow everything precisely, leaves out many things. Luke also recasts what Jesus said or did in a slightly different way than his one known source (Mark) and provides a completely different chronology than John. Obviously, there must have been disagreements. A critical historian would address them and, if possible, resolve them by naming and citing sources. For example, consider current Christian efforts at harmonizing the Gospel accounts. That is exactly what an author like Luke would have done–had he been a critical historian, and not a mere mouthpiece defending an ideology.

But what I actually said goes beyond what Holding tries to dodge. The problem is not just that Luke made no effort to resolve disputes and differences among his sources, and made no effort to name, verify, or establish the merits of any of his sources. Those are both serious problems. But the bigger of the two is that Luke doesn’t tell us anything about his methods–so we can’t know how reliable they are–or his sources–so we can’t know how reliable they are–or even who he is. Many other historians at least tell us this somewhere–some, like Appian and Josephus, even wrote entire autobiographies.

Even in general, Luke does not behave like a critical thinker. A critical thinker starts skeptical and only ends up a believer after finding the evidence strong–and then expects his audience to approach the truth the same way.[19] Consequently, he expresses doubt at amazing claims and then goes the extra mile to explain why he nevertheless believes, or admits where he believes but isn’t sure, and so on. Ancient historians aren’t always very good at this. But they at least do it a little. Luke does not.

Therefore, as I originally said, Luke and the other Gospel authors are, in terms of overt markers of reliability, among the lowest echelon of “historians” (and properly speaking, in the entire New Testament only Luke claims to be writing history). They are not neutral observers, but believers selling a religion, whereas we have the Rubicon crossing in numerous neutral and demonstrably critical historians, about whom we know a lot more than we do about Luke. Therefore, the evidence for the Rubicon crossing is better than the evidence for the Resurrection, and any claim to the contrary is false.


Clearly my argument stands unrefuted. On the Rubicon crossing we have corroborating physical evidence, and we know several contemporaries wrote on the war and thus provided direct or indirect evidence for the crossing. Apart from the direct testimony of Caesar himself, we have the letters of Cicero and his friends, and the letters he had from Caesar and Pompey, and we know Livy, Pollio, and others also recorded the event (for later historians used their accounts). Later, several known critical historians investigated and documented the event. And the course of history–including abundant physical evidence, eyewitness testimony, and the records of contemporaries and later critical historians–demonstrates decisively that Caesar invadedItaly’s east coast all the way down, chased Pompey out ofItaly, and eventually seizedRome. There is absolutely no way this could have happened had he not crossed the Rubicon. The “belief” that he had done so could not cause any of this evidence to exist nor have produced the subsequent historical outcome.

On the Resurrection, however, no eyewitness wrote anything–not Jesus, not Peter, not Mary, not any of the Twelve, nor any of the Seventy, nor any of the Five Hundred. All we have is Paul, who saw nothing but a “revelation,” and who mentions no other kind of experience or evidence being reported by anyone. On the Resurrection, no neutral or hostile witness or contemporary wrote anything–not Joseph, not Caiaphas, not Gamaliel, not Agrippa, not Pilate, not Lysias, not Sergius, not anyone alive at the time, whether Jewish, Greek, or Roman. On the Resurrection, no critical historian documents a single detail, or even the claim itself, until centuries later, and then only by Christian apologists who can only cite the New Testament as their source (and occasionally bogus documents like the letter sent by Jesus to Abgar that Eusebius tries to pass off as authentic). On the Resurrection, no physical evidence of any kind was produced–no coins, no inscriptions, no documentary papyri, no perpetual miracles. And everything that followed in history was caused by the belief in that resurrection, not the resurrection itself–and we know an actual resurrection is not the only possible cause of a belief in a resurrection.

So, again, we still have no eyewitness testimony to the Resurrection. But we do have this for the Rubicon crossing. We still have no neutral or hostile witnesses to the resurrection claim. But we do have this for the Rubicon crossing. We still have no critical historical work on the resurrection claim. But we do have this for the Rubicon crossing. We still have no corroborating physical evidence for the Resurrection. But we do have this for the Rubicon crossing. We still have no need of an actual resurrection to explain the belief that influenced the course of historical events. But we do need an actual crossing of the Rubicon to explain the subsequent course of historical events. Therefore, on all five points, we have better evidence that Caesar crossed the Rubicon than that Jesus rose from his grave. In fact, on four of the five, we have absolutely nothing for the Resurrection. And on the one single criterion it meets, we do not have the best kind of evidence, but among the worst.

[1] This refutes Holding’s suggestion that Caesar didn’t cross with his army. See Addendum A below.

[2] On the importance of this point, see Addendum B below. Note that I have little quarrel with the idea of Paul having a vision of Christ. Paul may well have thought he saw Christ in a revelation, as I have argued elsewhere. For example, see Richard Carrier, “The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb” in Jeff Lowder & Bob Price, eds., The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005): pp. 105-232.

[3] Holding continues to claim that “we have just as much evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus,” but if we discovered the actual, direct testimony of any ideologically neutral or hostile witness like Pilate, Caiaphas, Joseph, the alleged guards of the tomb, bystanders, or anything like that, Holding would not hesitate to argue we had discovered more and better evidence for the Resurrection than we previously had.

[4] Note that I do not assume Joseph of Arimathea was a “disciple,” as the Gospels of Matthew and John claim, because no other Gospel mentions this–neither Mark, the first Gospel written, nor Luke, the only author who claims to have written a careful history–and Acts fails to mention Joseph being a disciple or continuing with the Church in any capacity.

[5] This holds even for Caesar’s text: if we had a papyrus copy of it dated to the 1st century, we would have better evidence than we already do. But this is even more the case for the Bible. See Addendum C below.

[6] Obviously, this alone would not prove the Resurrection genuine. Rather, the point is, if we had any evidence like this corroborating any element of the Resurrection claim (coins, inscriptions, documentary papyri, or anything), we would have better evidence than we have now. Though Holding claims such evidence “doesn’t make a whit of difference,” I doubt he is being honest. If we found any such evidence, Holding would not hesitate to claim it makes a difference. He would argue it makes the Resurrection claim even more credible and skepticism even less tenable. I agree. That’s exactly my point. Whether we “need” such evidence, or whether it would be enough to justify our believing Jesus rose from the dead, is not the issue. That it would be more evidence than we have now is the issue.

[7] Holding plays rhetorical games at this point, claiming “written tradition cannot be confirmed any more than oral tradition,” “is taken solely on someone’s word,” and “is subject to restatement, embellishment, and mistake, just as readily as oral tradition.” I have placed in italics the words that render these statements false. As I go on to explain, though there are similar problems attending written transmission, they are greatly reduced in kind, degree, scale, and rate of accumulation, due to the very features that distinguish written transmission from oral.

[8] Certainly, if we could show that a recorded oral report was checked (for example, by the recorder questioning several witnesses as to whether something said is correct), then we would be dealing with critical history, not oral history. This is a distinction Holding fails to grasp. See Addendum D below.

[9] Holding correctly observed that my original wording was too sweeping. Some of the content of the Gospels conforms to the structural features of proverbs and apothegms that aid in their memorization, which may well be the reason the record of what Jesus said consists of so many short, often disconnected sayings. I acknowledge my error and corrected it.

[10] In other words, even those elements of the sayings of Jesus that may have made memorization easier or more accurate do not themselves confirm that those sayings came from Jesus.

[11] Holding provides us with another example when he asks rhetorically whether I have “read the speech of Gamaliel in Acts.” If we had Gamaliel’s speech from Gamaliel, or from anyone who actually heard it, even that would be more than we now have–if he had even bothered to mention what the Christians were preaching that he was asking his colleagues to ignore. Holding spends a lot of time making excuses for why we don’t have any of this, even citing this speech to that effect, but that doesn’t change the fact that we don’t have any of this evidence, nor the fact that we do have such evidence for Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon. That is the entire point and thesis of my rebuttal. I can only conclude that Holding doesn’t want his readers to notice this.

[12] Holding falsely alleges I “lied” about his argument here because “Josephus and Tacitus are the equivalent to a Lucian reporting Glycon’s miracles,” but he can only support this claim by being dishonest himself. See Addendum E below.

[13] Holding claims he didn’t say this, but in the same sentence admits to having said what amounts to the same thing. See Addendum F below.

[14] Holding claims he didn’t say this, but I never said he did. I only said this was an “apparent presumption” of his. And despite his protestations, it is still an apparent presumption of his. See Addendum G below.

[15] As almost all ancient histories do. Modern history leaves ancient methods in the dust, as far as reliability is concerned, which is why no historian today trusts any ancient historian implicitly. See: Michael Grant, Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation (1995); Charles Fornara, The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome (1983); John Marincola, Authority and Tradition in Ancient Historiography (1997); Averil Cameron, ed. History As Text: The Writing of Ancient History (1990); Bruno Gentili & Giovanni Cerri, History and Biography in Ancient Thought (1988).

[16] Richard Carrier, “Was Christianity Highly Vulnerable to Inspection and Disproof?,” chapter 7 of “Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False?” (2005).

[17] Holding continues to make excuses for why Luke didn’t do any of this, but excuses don’t change the fact that he still didn’t do them. So, unlike Arrian, we are not in a position to assess the quality or reliability of Luke’s sources or methods.

[18] Holding claims there are no significant disagreements, not even in the chronologies of Luke and John. The general consensus of experts does not agree with him. But see Addendum H below.

[19] Holding incorrectly claims this “amounts to saying that Luke didn’t end up with Carrier’s own view of the world, so therefore he must have been uncritical from the start.” To the contrary, had Luke actually engaged a proper critical method and still found what he reports to be true, then I would not expect him to end up with my worldview. Indeed, had that happened to me, even I would not have ended up with my worldview. The difference is not in where we ended up. The difference lies in whether we used sound methods and thus have a reasonable claim to have discovered the actual truth. We can’t prove that Luke did, because he tells us nothing at all about his methods and offers no clear evidence he employed sound ones. See the links provided in Addendum D below.

Responses to Holding’s Dishonest Addendum

Addendum A: Holding’s attempt to distinguish personal and corporate crossing is irrelevant for two obvious reasons: (1) the evidence from Caesar himself, Cicero, and every historian plainly says Caesar personally crossed with his army; and (2) no evidence whatsoever even hints at Caesar taking a different route toRome than that taken by his army.

Bayesian analysis confirms the conclusion. First, the “alternate route” theory has a lower prior probability. We know from many historical precedents that a charismatic leader embarking on treason would not likely leave his troops to their own devices, nor pit his main force against his most capable foe (Pompey) without his most capable leader and tactician in command (Caesar himself). Second, the “alternate route” theory makes the evidence we have less probable. All the eyewitnesses, contemporaries, and critical historians say Caesar was with and went with his army, and no hint or record survives of anything else. And the probability of his army maintaining loyalty and success (and thus achieving victory) without Caesar’s leadership presence, especially when invading their own country and killing their own countrymen, is also lower (thanks to Paul Doland for inspiring this point). According to the formal logic of Bayes Theorem, a theory that has a lower prior probability than personal crossing and makes the evidence less probable than personal crossing will always have a lower final epistemic probability than personal crossing. Therefore, if we believe Caesar’s army crossed the Rubicon, we must also believe Caesar personally crossed the Rubicon with his army, since that has an even greater probability of being true.

By analogy, Holding claims I “suggest that Jesus survived the crucifixion,” but he fails to tell his readers that I actually found this very improbable–far less probable than many other theories, except miracle, for which we have no basis for assigning a higher prior probability (see Probability of Survival vs. Miracle). Thus, the possibility that Jesus survived the cross has a lower epistemic probability than other theories, hence even I concluded the “survival hypothesis” is not worth considering unless and until all other theories bearing a higher epistemic probability are eliminated. The survival hypothesis is therefore as unworthy of credit as “Caesar took a different route than his army.” And yet, unlike that theory, we do have some evidence supporting survival: being seen alive after being declared dead would certainly be cited as evidence of survival in a court of law, being taken down from the cross so early greatly magnifies the probability of survival, and so on. Yet even with that evidence in place (to which we have nothing comparable in the case of “Caesar taking a different route than his army”), survival is still too improbable to credit because other theories bear a higher epistemic probability. For exactly the same reason, “Caesar went with his army” has a higher final epistemic probability than “Caesar took a different route than his army.” Since a less probable theory is ruled out by one more probable, we have no reason to consider whether Caesar took a different route. All the evidence we have more strongly supports personal crossing than not.

In his effort to make this distinction between corporate and personal crossing seem even remotely relevant, not only did Holding fail to tell his readers what I actually concluded about the survival hypothesis (which would have readily exposed why I consider the corporate-but-not-personal distinction irrelevant), he then repeatedly implies I sympathize with those who advance even more ridiculous theories about the origins of Christianity. This is the contemptible fallacy of “poisoning the well,” another example of Holding’s lack of honesty.

Addendum B: On the question ofCicero’s hostility to Caesar, Holding deploys at least four dirty tricks:

(1) When Holding says “we get no actual quote from any historian ofRomethat says any such thing,” i.e. thatCicerowas Caesar’s enemy, he is clearly implying none do. In actual fact, every historian who discusses the matter saysCicerowas Caesar’s enemy. But since I know Holding plays games with quotations by simply gainsaying anyone whose expert opinion I might care to cite, I pipped him at the post by going straight to the primary evidence itself, which is clear, unambiguous, and irrefutable. Let Holding find any real historian ofRomeclaiming anything else. He cannot. And he knows it. Will he admit it? Probably not.

(2) Holding then deceptively claims I demand “testimony from hostile witnesses for the Resurrection” when in fact I only said having “hostile or even neutral records” counts as better evidence than not having them. Thus, I said hostile or neutral, and I didn’t “demand” it, I simply stated the fact that having it is better than not. The very first paragraph of my original rebuttal said, “The Resurrection could still be a better explanation of its evidence, but that is not the issue under debate here.” Instead, Holding consistently ignores the point in dispute, which is whether we have as much evidence for one event as we have for another, not whether we have enough evidence to believe either.

(3) Holding willfully ignores my point that whyCicero was Caesar’s enemy is what lends credibility to his testimony.Cicero had no religious or dogmatic motive to report the crossing. His salvation did not depend on it. He did not base his system of moral values on it, nor did he believe it would morally improve people who believed it. His participation in a society of friendship and support did not require affirming it. And he was not at all predisposed to believe it. To the contrary, it wasn’t what he wanted to hear, nor is it what he expected. It dashed his very hopes, which were settled quite strongly on the contrary, that there would be no civil war. His letters make clear he was shocked and surprised by it. It is the very event that converted him from friend to enemy. That makesCicero’s testimony stronger than that of someone, for example, who thought he would benefit strategically by spreading propaganda about a crossing that hadn’t occurred, or someone who believed that affirming it would secure him an eternal life in paradise, or turn people back to God.

(4) Holding makes the clear, and dishonest, implication that I lied about what my source said, claiming Cicero’s Phillipics somehow says something other than what I claimed. But what I actually said (contrary to Holding’s bogus misrepresentation of what I said) is that “Cicero was the enemy of Caesar every bit as much as anyone who sided with the South in the American Civil War was the enemy of Lincoln,” an example of ideological, not personal, enmity, the very distinction Holding accuses me of ignoring. I also used the analogy of Paul’s hostility to the Church, which was also ideological and not personal. And let’s be honest: If President Bush were assassinated and I said this was a “glorious” act that I would consider it praise indeed to be accused of, Holding wouldn’t let anyone get away with claiming “to call Carrier an ‘enemy’ of Bush is questionable.” So Holding’s irrelevant distinction between hating the man and hating what he stood for has nothing to do with anything I said, and is essentially a pointless distinction designed solely to rescue Holding from the embarrassment of having falsely insinuated thatCicero was not Caesar’s enemy.

Addendum C: Experts have found considerable evidence that there was an atmosphere of religious and dogmatic doctoring and editing of the New Testament wholly unlike anything affecting Caesar’s text. Holding pretends I am just making this up, but it is a mainstream and recognized fact. Indeed, most experts already agree several entire letters claiming to be from Paul are forgeries, while others have clearly been tampered with (e.g. Romans has two endings, and the manuscripts don’t even agree whether the letter was actually written to the Romans; 1 Cor. 15:51 and 2 Cor. 5:3 were fudged to sound more orthodox; etc.). See the entries for each of the letters attributed to Paul in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (2000) and The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd. ed. (1997), and see the introductory chapters to each of them in The New Interpreter’s Bible (1995). Also see Bart Ehrman’s library of scholarly studies on the subject: The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (1996); Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (2005); The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 3rd ed. (2003); The Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (2003).

Addendum D: Holding says oral transmission can have controls, but a possibility is not an actuality. I am talking about what actually is the case, not what could have been the case. At no point, anywhere in the Gospels, is any such critical inquiry or “checking” of the facts ever mentioned, much less discussed in enough detail for us to assess their merit in establishing the truth and correcting error, such as by naming a witness and identifying his or her qualifications, or by discussing how conflicting reports were reconciled. Since we have no evidence of this, we cannot conclude there were any effective controls on what we actually find written in the Gospels. If we did have such evidence, then we would not be looking at oral history anymore, but critical history, and what I say about oral history pertains to the former, not the latter. For more on the problem of critical transmission in early Christianity, see Richard Carrier, “Was Christianity Highly Vulnerable to Inspection and Disproof?,” “Would the Facts Be Checked?,” and “Did the Earliest Christians Encourage Critical Inquiry?,” chapters 7, 13, and 17 (respectively) of “Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False?” (2005).

Addendum E: Holding claims “Josephus and Tacitus are the equivalent to a Lucian reporting Glycon’s miracles.” This is dishonest.

(1) Tacitus never once mentions any miracles associated with Jesus, or even that there were any miracles associated with Jesus. He doesn’t even mention there being a claim that Jesus rose from the dead. Indeed, if all we had about Jesus was this passage in Annals 15.44, we would never even know anyone had claimed Jesus rose from the dead. See “Tacitus” in Jeffery Jay Lowder, “Josh McDowell’s ‘Evidence’ for Jesus: Is It Reliable? (2000). Holding knows this. So how can Holding honestly claim that Tacitus failing to mention any miracle whatsoever is “the equivalent” of “Lucian reporting Glycon’s miracles”? He can’t. Not honestly.

(2) It is very unlikely that Josephus ever mentioned any miracles associated with Jesus, and it cannot be established that he mentioned his resurrection. Qualified experts on the question are virtually unanimous that the only passage in Josephus mentioning this has been extensively tampered with, or forged in its entirety, by Christian scribes. Since the text has been compromised, no definitive conclusions can be reached as to what, if anything, Josephus himself actually said. Scholars agree the evidence is fairly strong that whatever Josephus may have wrote, he didn’t mention the resurrection of Jesus (e.g. if he had, Origen would have mentioned this fact). Holding knows this. So when he neglects to mention any of this to his readers, and instead simply asserts that Josephus “directly” reports “that Christians believed Jesus was resurrected,” he is not being honest.

Even the Christian apologist Josh McDowell agrees that Josephus did not mention the resurrection of Jesus, affirming that after he looked at all the evidence, McDowell found himself “agreeing with those scholars” who conclude that “some Christian additions” have been added to what Josephus wrote, and one of those additions McDowell himself concedes is the only reference to Jesus having risen from the dead. See Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict (1999), pp. 123-24. Holding is thus in a radical and untenable fringe if he believes what even McDowell doesn’t. And it is dishonest to assert as a settled fact what few experts believe, even among conservative Christians. For more on Josephus, see “Josephus” in Jeffery Jay Lowder, “Josh McDowell’s ‘Evidence’ for Jesus: Is It Reliable? (2000).

Not only is Holding dishonest here, but he would be wrong even if he was telling the truth. Neither Tacitus nor Josephus were witnesses or even contemporaries of the Resurrection. So they bear no analogy at all to Cicero or Lucian, the original examples he was responding to, or to any of the other examples I brought up in my rebuttal. In other words, Holding dodges my entire argument by changing the subject. Suddenly, without reason, though rebutting my citation of an unfriendly contemporary, Holding jumps all the way to later critical historians (even though those sources fall into my fourth category of evidence, not my second). Since all my examples and discussion related to contemporaries, Holding’s reference to later historians is wholly irrelevant to my argument. That is why I addressed his remarks as pertaining to the absence of contemporary neutral or hostile records of the Resurrection claim: because that was the claim he was purporting to rebut.

Maybe Holding goofed and meant to put those original remarks lower down in his rebuttal to my fourth point instead of my second, but that’s his mistake, not mine. I simply defended my second point against the arguments he made against it, and for that he accuses me of lying. Yet Holding continues to reference my use of the example of Lucian, even though treatments of Jesus in Tacitus or Josephus do not resemble Lucian’s treatment of Glycon, who reported miracles he himself actually saw or learned first hand, orCicero’s treatment of Caesar, who reported events he heard from several sources within weeks of their happening. Did Holding not understand my original argument?

Perhaps not. When Holding claims his “point” was that “we would not expect Lucian to record Glycon’s miracles as real,” he seems to think this is something he has to explain to me, when I had already said that very thing–in fact, that was my very point in citing Lucian as an example. My very words were: “Lucian didn’t believe Glycon’s miracles were real, but nevertheless he records them.” So what exactly was Holding arguing in his original rebuttal my second point? I have no idea. He claims “it would not serve the purposes of enemies of Christianity to report the Resurrection as real,” but I never said they would report it as real. I even gave specific examples making absolutely clear I meant no such thing. So in what way does Holding’s “point” rebut anything I said? Again, I have no idea. I can only assume Holding goofed and is trying to smokescreen his way out of it, instead of acknowledging that his original argument wasn’t applicable or correct.

Addendum F: In response to my remark that “Holding claims it doesn’t matter that many major historians record the Rubicon crossing, but not the resurrection of Jesus,” Holding now makes the following claim:

In fact I nowhere say it “doesn’t matter” and I never even use those words anywhere. I make no comment at all of this sort anywhere, and make no such “bizarre” denial as Carrier claims. The closest I come to any such statement is in explaining why such historians would not make note of the Resurrection, or how they would if they knew about the claims of it.

Holding’s entire argument, the entire thesis of his rebuttal, is that we don’t have less evidence for the Resurrection than for the Rubicon crossing. In defense of this thesis, as he concedes even above, he offers the fact that he can explain “why” we don’t have this evidence. That amounts to arguing it doesn’t matter that we don’t have the evidence. If it mattered, then he would be agreeing with me that we have more evidence for the Rubicon crossing than we have for the resurrection of Jesus (in the form of discussions in several critical historians).

Anyone who says having these references doesn’t provide more evidence for the Rubicon crossing than we have for the Resurrection, in rebuttal against someone explicitly arguing it does, is saying these references don’t matter. And that is clearly what Holding meant. When I said we “have the story of the Rubicon crossing in almost every historian of the period, including the most prominent scholars of the age,” but nothing like this for the Resurrection, Holding’s immediate rebuttal was, “This is true, but what of it?” What of it? Holding’s first response is to flippantly dismiss as irrelevant the facts I just stated. That clearly amounts to saying that “having the story of the Rubicon crossing in almost every historian of the period” doesn’t matter. I believe Holding’s denial of this is dishonest.

Addendum G: When I said Holding has an “apparent presumption” that I dismiss the Gospels “merely” because they are late–because he argues that “therefore later historians should count even less for me”–Holding seems to think I was asserting he said this. No, I said it was an “apparent presumption” in what he did say. And Holding’s attempt to deny this only reinforces my point, and further confirms his dishonesty:

Carrier manufactures arguments for me out of thin air; I say nowhere (despite the quote marks) that Carrier “merely” dismisses the Gospels because they are late. No such word is found in my article related to that issue. He does admit here that he sees lateness as a problem, and that is as far as my point went: That his bald appeal to sources for the Rubicon crossing contains a “problem” that he blithely covers up, while he would (as he has in the past) be all over this “problem.”

Holding thus denies the presumption and then immediately embraces that very presumption! He claims that as far as his point went, my “appeal to sources for the Rubicon crossing contains a problem” that I “cover up.” What problem is that? He mentions only one: “lateness.” In other words, even here Holding presumes that mere lateness presents a problem for my use of those sources. He mentions no other.

And that is exactly his original presumption. I claimed that having “the story of the Rubicon crossing in almost every historian of the period” counts as more evidence than we have for the Resurrection. In his first rebuttal, the very first argument Holding advanced against this claim was that these historians are late, “later than even Carrier believes the Gospels to be.” In fact, he says, “to make matters worse for Carrier, our earliest manuscripts of these works are as much as a millennium removed from the originals.” And so, merely because of this, he says his point is that “to treat these documents in the same way Carrier treats the Gospels would be an absurdity.” In other words, Holding concludes that my treating the Gospels differently than these critical historians is absurd for no other reason than that they are as late as the Gospels.

There is no other argument he could possibly be making here than that I am absurdly dismissing the Gospels because they are late, because the only evidence he offers that my dismissing them is absurd is that it would be absurd to dismiss critical historians because they are late. Since he had discussed no other criterion by the time he made this statement, that is the only thing he could mean when he says, “to treat these documents in the same way Carrier treats the Gospels would be an absurdity.” For the presumption here must be that I am dismissing the Gospels because they are late. Otherwise, if I dismiss them for some other reason, his argument makes exactly zero sense. He could not claim I am doing something absurd because those historians are at least as late as the Gospels, because the latter fact would have nothing whatever to do with why I treat the Gospels differently, and would therefore have no bearing on whether my treating them differently was “absurd.”

Since there is nothing else Holding could possibly have meant, his attempt now to deny it is appalling. And accusing me of dishonesty for saying his argument contained this apparent presumption is even more appalling.

Addendum H: Holding claims there are no significant disagreements among the Gospels, not even in the chronologies of Luke and John. The general consensus of experts does not agree with him. But I will grant that with some interpretive acrobatics, one could force the chronology of John to fit that of Luke–by admitting, for example, that John erred when he said Jesus was crucified on “the day of preparation for the Passover” (19:14-16 and 19:31), or that Luke erred when he said it was already the Passover when Jesus was crucified (22:7-16; also the interpolated verse at 23:17), and by admitting that Luke did not “carefully follow everything from the beginning” as he claims to (1:3), since he left a lot out. For example, John describes the ministry of Jesus through three Passovers (John 2:13-23; 6:4, 6:10; 11:55, 12:1, 13:1, 18:28, 18:39, 19:14); but Luke, only one (Luke 22). John also only mentions Jesus clearing the Temple once, years before he is executed (John 2:13-23), and long before his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (John 12:12-20), but Luke only mentions Jesus clearing the Temple once, mere days before he is executed, and after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Luke 19:28-48). Similarly, John records a miraculous catch of fish after Jesus died, not before (John 21), while Luke only records a miraculous catch long before Jesus died, not after (Luke 5:1-11). And so on. But other contradictions are just too huge to allow any rational harmony. For example, see the closing example in my Plausibility of Theft FAQ. For more, see the articles relating to the New Testament in the Secular Web section on Biblical Errancy.

General Case for Insufficiency:
The Event is Not Proportionate to the Theory

According to the Christian theory, God is god of All Humankind, and more than that, He is god of All the Universe. This is inconsistent with the proof offered for such a deity, that of the Resurrection of Jesus. This event is said to defy nature and thus prove God’s supremacy over death and to assure us that, by believing in this deed, God will perform the same deed for us. An inconsistency exists here in two respects:

(1) A miracle whose purpose is to prove something to all humanity must logically be an event that can be observed by all humanity.

(2) An event that is to demonstrate the power and existence of a “god of the universe” must logically demonstrate divine powers of such a magnitude, and not of a vastly lesser magnitude.

These are different problems. The first concerns whether the resurrection is adequate to prove to all humanity that Jesus is the path to salvation. The second concerns whether the resurrection is adequate to prove the Christian God exists, as opposed to some other God (or gods).

For example, a “god of all humankind” could have carved “Jesus Lives” on the face of the moon, where all humankind could witness the miracle, and observe it for all time without relying on hearsay–at the very least, he could have extended the darkness and earthquake and mass rising of dead people, reported to have occurred at his crucifixion by Matthew (27:45-54)[Note 1], over the whole earth, where it would be recorded by every historian of every civilization, so that all humanity could share in the prodigy–he could have attended the moment with a voice or vision seen and heard by every human being, affirming his divinity and sending the message of Life to all. Why, a “god of the universe” could have even rearranged the stars to spell “Jesus Lives”–the sort of feat that can never be replicated by technology and which would demonstrate a truly universal power over all of nature. Without miracles of such magnitude, a god fails to show the extent of his power, fails to advertise to all his subjects, and fails to prove himself thereby. He fails to exhibit his means and message in a manner proportionate to what we are supposed to believe about him.

And it misses the point to object that IHSOUS ZWN in giant letters across the moon could not be understood by any but Greek speakers, since those who later heard the Gospel and wanted to confirm it was true would simply have to learn Greek, just as anyone today who wants to confirm what the Bible really says must, and can easily, learn Greek. And it would not matter that this mysterious change in the moon would not be immediately understood around the world. People everywhere, India, China, Rome, would record the event before knowing its significance, and thus we could today check these unbiased and independent records of the day the moon changed to bear the new carvings, and upon hearing the Gospel, we would have a strong, independent proof that it’s central message, “Jesus Lives,” was confirmed by a fantastic and universally confirmable miracle. And if God needed more room to write more, just to be sure, then the stars are available for an entire book to be written in the sky, only legible when seen from Earth, confirming our cosmic importance in a way that no natural explanation could dismiss. Or the big words on the moon could be surrounded by a whole book carved into the face of it, which could then be read when telescopes were invented, a technology which Jesus could even have given to mankind, with the call to use them to read God’s message on the moon.

That’s just an example. The point is that we only need a universally confirmable divine proof that the events related by the Gospels were in fact under divine sanction and did in fact happen when they say: “Jesus is not dead” sums up the one key event that needs independent proof. The rest is just the detail. But again, the stars are available, telescopes are available. Or, if it is vital to have the whole New Testament confirmed as God’s word, God can simply make every true and correct copy of the New Testament indestructible. If anyone wanted to test which Bible was correct, he need only slice a knife through a page and watch it heal miraculously, or see it resist the blade miraculously. Gods can do a hell of a lot. That’s why the resurrection is not impressive relative to what a God can actually do to prove a point. And thus the resurrection does not prove its point. I could literally list a hundred things that would be better evidence than what we have, which is a religious book of questionable accuracy and authority.[Note 2]

So, first of all, a resurrection of one man observed by a handful of others in one tiny spot on one tiny planet in one tiny corner of the cosmos is more consistent with a very minor deity (or a very stingy and secretive one), or even more likely a natural event: for there is an easy naturalistic explanation in religious zealotry or scientific ignorance. Of course, even if we grant it was supernatural, there is no good reason to believe in, or even care about, a petty Palestinian deity–some spirit, mage, or alien capable of pulling off such a small-time swami trick. So even assuming the whole story is genuine, this proof still does not fit the claim.

The following three sections elaborate on this central point: I. Even Granting the Supernatural Makes No Difference; II. “No Miracles Today Implies None Then“; and III. A Message for All Would be Sent to All, and Not By the Fallible and Limited.

I. Even Granting the Supernatural Makes No Difference

Now, as William Lane Craig writes, “It would be very odd, indeed, were an atheist to grant the resurrection of Jesus as a historical and miraculous event and yet assert that perhaps only an angel raised him from the dead.”[Note 3] But to say “an angel did it” is to presume there was a greater being around who sent him. Thus, naturally, anyone who makes such an argument is behaving very oddly, indeed. But I know of no one who has ever made that argument, except perhaps early Christian heretics and pagan critics, who were content to believe in many gods, even those who would pull off tricks just to lead the credulous astray (as even the Christians believed the Devil had already done many times).

I only grant the possibility of other supernatural powers here for the sake of making a philosophical point: the resurrection, even if genuine, is an inadequate reason to become a Christian, for carving the moon or rearranging the stars is more consistent with the Christian’s description of God, as well as more consistent with that god’s purported objectives. Yet, despite the importance of those objectives, despite the reputed magnitude of God’s powers, we see nothing even remotely like this. Thus the event is, at best, poorly planned, considering its intended effect and declared purpose, and, at worst, no more a proof that the Christian god is One and All and Good than the feats of Indian gurus, if also genuine, would be proof of the Hindu cosmology.

But the fact is that I no more believe that Sarapis used Vespasian to heal the blind and lame than I believe that Simon Magus used magic to fly through the air. But if we allow any evidence to point to the supernatural, to any unobserved possibilities like gods, then we allow all the evidence to do so. We must be consistent. If we think the resurrection story as we have it proves anything supernatural, then if Tacitus insists that eye-witnesses saw Vespasian, at the command of Sarapis, heal the blind and lame, if Aelius Aristides insists that Asclepius came to him in a dream and cured his disease, we must accept that as proof that Sarapis and Asclepius exist, too. There is abundant evidence of magic and demons and ghosts in antiquity. What are we to make of it?

My point is thus not that, e.g., it is actually possible that Jesus used magic to restore himself to life, but that if he did so, God would then have failed “to exhibit his means and message in a manner proportionate to what we are supposed to believe about him.” That is, even were I to grant it was supernatural, I am left with no reason to grant that there is a god of all the universe, and one and only one god, and that not believing in this event would secure my eternal damnation. For if I were to allow the possibility of the supernatural on such feeble evidence, I must allow much more than this. I must allow the possibility that there are many gods, that there is such a thing as magic, that I may be reincarnated, that I may be able to escape this unreasonable Palestinian demonlord by hurtling my soul into Nirvana. In other words, the event itself is not sufficient to accomplish the task of saving my life–it is like throwing a life preserver to the victims of the Titanic, knowing full well they will freeze to death anyway. It is too little, too long ago. A god ought to know better.

II. No Miracles Today Implies None Then

The Resurrection demonstrates no more than amazing natural events or, at best, supernatural events of a minor scale. That is one reason why the “Christian God of the Universe is Proven by the Resurrection” argument fails to be rationally convincing. Such a god would not use a mere Resurrection as proof of his particular existence and divine plan for our salvation, and even if he did, we cannot accept it as such, for we cannot rule out the equally probable actions of a lesser deity, nor even natural causes–natural causes of the event itself, or of the account of it.

But the point goes even deeper still. An event only observed by a few men can only be a proof, as Thomas Paine wrote, for those men. It can never be a proof for all mankind, who did not observe it. No amount of argument can convince me to trust a 2000 year-old second-hand report, over what I see, myself, directly, here and now, with my own eyes. If I observe facts that entail that I will cease to exist when I die, then the Jesus story can never override that observation, being infinitely weaker as a proof. And yet all the evidence before my senses confirms my mortality. My identity is inexorably connected with my ability to see, hear, think, feel, and remember–it is built necessarily upon my memories, derived from all these things. Yet we know for a fact that by removing certain portions of one’s brain, or removing the materials needed for the brain to function, such as oxygen, we cause each of these elements of human identity to be lost or altered. The memory of words has its place in the brain, the ability to imagine images has its place, and we know them. When our brain loses blood, as I know from direct experience, it stops working, and when it stops working, all thinking ceases to exist.

Yet if you can remove my memories by removing sections of my brain, if you can remove my will or my reason or my emotional control by damaging other sections of my brain, if you can cause my whole consciousness to grind to a halt so that it fails to notice a whole minute of time, all by merely draining me of blood, then it follows necessarily that if you remove all the parts of the brain, if you remove all of its blood and put none back in, then there will not be anything left to call “me.” A 2000 year-old second-hand tale from the backwaters of an illiterate and ignorant land can never overpower these facts. I see no one returning to life after their brain has completely died from lack of oxygen. I have had no conversations with spirits of the dead. What I see is quite the opposite of everything this tall tale claims. How can it command more respect than my own two eyes? It cannot.

This argument that such a radical restoration of life is “impossible,” based on present observations, does not presuppose naturalism or materialism. It only presupposes that what we observe now is how things worked then. Indeed, I do not really claim that a radical restoration of life is impossible–I think it is very definitely possible–I simply don’t know of anyone (or thing) who can pull it off, and thus I don’t believe that anyone (or thing) has. If God were regularly performing unquestionable miracles today, perhaps turning all guns in the world into flowers, rendering the innocent impervious to harm, protecting churches with mysterious energy fields, and all the queer things we would expect if there really was a god, then the very same argument that I use here would actually vindicate the resurrection as most probably miraculous. After all, even the followers of Jesus reputedly got to watch him raise Lazarus from the dead, drive demons into pigs, walk on water, glow, and talk face-to-face with Moses, and converts got to watch disciples resist snake poison, stand beneath flaming tongues appearing in mid-air, and speak in a dozen languages without having learned them–if this were really going on now, I just might be a Christian. Thus, I do not presuppose materialism at all. My argument is perfectly consistent with godism. The evidence of today simply does not produce any godist conclusions, leaving us to wonder which is more likely: that God stopped parting seas and raising the dead, or that these stories are, for various historical reasons, fictions.[Note 4]

Nor am I even arguing that “no resurrections now means none then” on the false analogy that ordinary people today are like Jesus. Since Jesus was a special case, you might say, obviously his resurrection hasn’t been repeated. But my argument has nothing to do with this analogy. It has to do with the fact that “no miracles now means none then”–in other words, it would not be necessary to repeat the exact same miracles of Jesus to change my conclusion. All that is needed is the demonstration that God, like the laws of nature, is a regular, functioning part of what exists today, and that he actually has powers sufficient to work a resurrection. There is, in my experience, no such demonstration of present miracle-working, of any kind, sufficient to suggest that a particular miracle, like the resurrection of Jesus, is likely to be a miracle from a god. This is actually the way everyone thinks, all the time: we do not believe stories that come to us second-hand which contradict our direct experience, because each fact presents us with two possible realities, the only evidence of one is a story, the only evidence of the other is direct observation. The latter always wins: for no amount of persuasion will convince me that a poisonous snake won’t kill me, no matter how many men named Jesus are reported to have said otherwise. Above all, even the author of the Gospel of John depicts Thomas the Doubter as rational and wise for refusing to believe without direct observation, and this shows that we have no more grounds to believe than Thomas did, and until granted the same evidence as he, we are as right as he was to call it bunk.

III. A Message for All Would be Sent to All, and Not By the Fallible and Limited

The miracle of the resurrection is inadequate to the task of convincing all humankind, and so a failure as far as divine plans go. The colloquialism of a tiny event happening only inPalestinemakes no sense if a god wanted all humankind, including the Chinese, to witness the event and be saved. It makes more sense if it was a local idiosyncracy and not a divine event at all. That is to say, The Resurrection, as told, is more consistent with a mere natural occurrence that inspired a few locals, than with an act of a cosmic god aimed at saving all humanity. It is too small, too obscure, too long ago. Again, a god ought to know better. But men, we know, are prone to think of their little tiny place as the whole of creation, and of their little tiny slice of history as the whole of time. Men, we know, are more than capable of making this story up, or of believing it without really checking the details. The story is all too sensible as a yarn, whether sincere or devious. But as the centerpiece of a divine, cosmic plan, it makes no sense at all.

A resurrection, after all, is not all that impressive a feat. If so, why haven’t there been more of them? To be honest, there have been. I give examples later in Section V of the next chapter (Probability of Survival vs. Miracle). I could even add the obvious: how many “resurrections” have been secured by CPR and electric defibrillators? We don’t think about it now because it is so common that we take it for granted, but thousands of people every year die and come back to life. It’s routine. Moreover, one reason the office of the coroner was established was to prevent people mistaken for dead being buried or cremated alive. It is precisely because cases of people surviving or being revived from seemingly fatal circumstances are replete throughout history that the case of Jesus’ survival is not unique at all. As I will note, even if we take all records as entirely true, we have no account at all of anyone confirming that Jesus was actually dead: heart stopped, brain degenerating. And since we cannot have a true resurrection without an actual death, we have no record at all, not even an invented one, that Jesus was actually resurrected from the dead.

But all that aside, a resurrection is localized, not cosmic in scale, and it is not that technically difficult. Carving the moon or rearranging the stars is more consistent with the Christian’s description of God, as well as more consistent with that god’s objectives. We already expect that we, mere humans, will be capable of accomplishing true resurrection (i.e. reanimation of a long-dead corpse) in fifty to a hundred years. Even a miraculous resurrection can only prove a wonderworker of meager, within-the-realm-of-humanly-possible powers. It cannot prove a god of cosmic, supernatural might. And a god of cosmic might would want to prove he was the latter, not the former. Thus, the Resurrection is not consistent with what a cosmic god would do, but it is consistent with what ignorant men would dream up and believe with all credulity. So the falsehood of the Resurrection is thus more reasonable, more likely, than its truth, even within the theory of Christianity itself.

This is a point lost on Josh McDowell, who for some reason thinks an isolated historical event, far out of the reach of all decisive investigation, with what little that can be checked being open only to experts in ancient history, cultures, and languages, is actually better than a “mere” philosophical system that is based on universally observable truths open to every human being’s examination. This is the premise of his entire section 10.1A (Evidence That Demands a Verdict, 1st ed.; § 9.3A in his 2nd ed.), yet obviously the latter is far superior in effect and utility than the former, and so no intelligent God would set up the inferior system when he has ready recourse to the superior. Since no God would do this, it is reasonable to believe that no God did. And as I explain in my Lecture on the resurrection, it would actually be cruel of a god to expect us to come to any other conclusion, much less punish us for it–or through inaction let us suffer for it.

Note 1: Matthew uses the word polla, which translates in English as “many” but in Greek usually means quite a lot, from dozens to hundreds or even thousands. It is the exact same word as hoi polloi, which means “The Masses.” Hence, “a mass” is an accurate translation here. In contrast, the word tis “some, several” was more usually used for smaller numbers, like around a dozen or less, but is not used by Matthew here. He clearly envisioned a mass event.

Note 2: See Geivett’s Exercise in Hyperbole, and also Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire: A Look into the World of the Gospels; The Date of the Nativity in Luke; and The Formation of the New Testament Canon; and also questions raised by my Review of The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark; Luke and Josephus; and Musonius Rufus: A Brief Essay, among many others (click my name in the title above for a complete list).

Note 3: W. L. Craig, Historical Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus, Edwin Mellen, 1985, p. 497).

Note 4: I have written on the related matter of the gullibility of witnesses in the time of Jesus in another essay “Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire,” and on the question of miracles in general in my Review of In Defense of Miracles.

Probability of Survival vs. Miracle:
Assessing the Odds

After years of study as an historian, I now believe that Jesus simply died, and the rest was invented, consciously or not, by his disciples, as a means to carry on his teaching and gain divine authority for it–precisely the same thing preachers use the story for today (for what I think really is most likely, see Summary). But even if we posit that there is some truth to the appearances of Jesus after his death, even if we grant half of the argument, as I am willing to do here, the argument fails to convince. Why? Because there are too many reasons to doubt that a miracle occurred at all.

For the event to be a miracle, the Resurrection must defy the course of nature, and for that to happen, Jesus had to have died. His heart had to have lain still and quiet for up to half an hour, his brain had to have starved from lack of oxygen, with the whole network of neurons largely disintegrated, dissolved from massive cell death and the pooling of blood acids. Gases and fluids had to pool in his extremities and body cavities, with rigor mortis setting in, and coming and going as it does. His body had to begin to rot. Anything less than this cannot be considered death. If his heart kept beating, perhaps one can argue it was only in defiance of nature that it did so, and perhaps one can extend this argument to the brain, to the decay of the corpse, or to every aspect of death. Perhaps Jesus lay in a magical, miraculous stasis. This would entail that he was not Resurrected from death, but that he survived by a miracle instead. But this would still be the claim that he survived by miraculous intervention, and that his survival was in spite of nature, and not an exhibition of the natural, if extraordinary, course of physics, chemistry, and biology. I claim that we have no reason to believe that either miracle occurred. For we have no reliable evidence that Jesus died, and we certainly have none whatsoever that he survived by some magical kind of stasis: no one observed the corpse of Jesus while it lay in the tomb, and no doctors examined him, on the cross or off it.

Indeed, not only do we have no way of really knowing that Jesus died on the cross (we can’t travel back in time with the medical machinery and team of doctors necessary to certify it), there is an abundance of evidence which throws suspicion on the claim that he did. This suspicion, even though it does not produce a belief that he survived, is nevertheless sufficient for any rational person to remain unconvinced that anything miraculous happened, even if it actually did. That is, even if a god wanted this to be a proof of something, he failed to make it so. The evidence leaves enough room for survival to be naturally possible. But even though the survival of Jesus is very unlikely, it still cannot be excluded with enough certainty to justify categorically denying it as something impossible, and so it cannot be excluded with enough force for one to believe that divine intervention is the most sensible explanation. This is all that this essay will show.

It is easy to test the Christian’s honesty in claiming that the evidence warrants rational belief. Simply posit essentially the same evidence and essentially the same account, but given of a modern Bob, whose central message was that Christianity was a lie, and that his was the true word of God, and his resurrection was proof of that. Would the Christian convert? Logically, he must, for the evidence is exactly equal in merit but for these details: the new message is more recent and has not had the opportunity of being doctored or mishandled in transmission, and it has occurred in an age where almost everyone is literate and in possession of more scientific literacy than even the most educated scholar of two millennia ago. These two advantages are enough to give the evidence for the new messiah far more weight than that for the old (we might even add a third: the fact that the means and personnel would be available to test the event in ways never possible two millennia ago). But would the Christian convert, and renounce Christ? I doubt it. I think, then, the Christian would see all that is really wrong with his own evidence. It is far too weak to warrant conversion to Bob. But this entails that it is even weaker still in the case of Christ.

I. A Cumulative Case Can be Made that Jesus did not Really Die

Decision theory is the science of making our decisions more accurate, and more capable of being analyzed. The idea is simple: instead of trusting intuitive judgments that others cannot examine, and that we cannot consistently weigh against other judgments, we can try instead to assign numerical values to the weight of our judgments, and use math to analyze them. In this section, I will use a simple form of this method, so you can follow along and do your own math with your own judgments, and so you can see what weight I give to my own judgments. The statistics that I employ from here on out are thus given to quantify my estimations of the relative weight of options, so that you, and I, can see more clearly what I mean when I say “this is unlikely” or “this is very likely” or “this is more likely than that.” I am doing the same thing everyone does when they evaluate evidence and make a decision concerning what to believe, only I am doing it more openly and with greater precision. I am committing to more concrete guesses, and not hiding behind vague allusions.

Why? The first reason is because this allows other readers like yourself to insert your own values for each probability, based on your own beliefs about, and familiarity with, reality. And, using exactly the same evidence that I present, you can come to your own conclusion. That is the merit of applying decision theory to something like this–especially an issue that is so very complicated. In the end, I will consider the possibility that my estimates are greatly in error, and then show that even if they are ten times off the mark, then my conclusion is still valid. Indeed, they could be a hundred times off the mark, and I think my conclusion would still be valid, for even a royal flush is a very unlikely event, yet hardly a miracle. And it is important to emphasize all that this conclusion is: the realization that the probability of survival is not low enough to make it impossible. For I actually conclude that the probability is low enough to disbelieve in survival, since we have more probable natural explanations available (see Summary but especially General Case for Spiritual Resurrection and Main Argument), but if we had no other explanations, the probability of survival is still high enough to believe he survived before believing in a miracle.

This leads me to another reason I use numbers here: it is often claimed that an event is a miracle when it is so unlikely to happen naturally that there is no way we could expect it ever to happen. This invites us to test this theory by estimating the unlikelihood of survival, a natural explanation of the Resurrection, to see if we must conclude that it is a miracle (see Note 1). There are certainly natural events that are so rare that they only happen to one person every generation, and though this means that there is a 1 in 6 billion chance of such an event happening naturally, we see that this is almost certain to happen once every generation. Even reducing the population to a low ancient value of 100 million, an event as unlikely as 1 in 100 million persons-per-generation will often happen once every generation. So the odds of a natural explanation for the Resurrection must be less than at least this figure before we can conclude that natural explanations are too implausible to believe. Therefore, the chance that Jesus survived and this was interpreted or refashioned into a claim that he rose from the dead must be less than 1 in 100 million, before we can begin to claim a miracle must have happened instead.

It must be added, however, that some events that are even very likely may still only ever happen once: that a man exactly like Winston Churchill should be born and grow up to lead England during a war with a Nazi-run Germany is certainly no miracle, even though it is almost certain to happen only once in all of time. This is because the convergence of all the right circumstances must be present, and even though such a convergence is not improbable in itself, that such a convergence would happen again is improbable, to the point of being almost impossible. Thus, even though I find the Resurrection to be more likely than an event that happens only once in a generation, it does not follow that it should have happened more than once, despite the passing of hundreds of generations. Like Winston Churchill, that the right circumstances could converge once may be likely, but that they would do so twice might be extremely unlikely indeed–although we do have a record of a resurrection, giving birth to a religion, happening at least one other time: the resurrection of the Thracian Zalmoxis, which Herodotus (4.94-6) feels happy to give a natural explanation in trickery, even though he could not really have had any more proof than we do in the case of Jesus (see Main Argument).

It is important to emphasize that my use of statistical numbers in this section is not science, nor is it a new method of “doing history.” I do not claim scientific accuracy, and I am not solving a historical problem–this section is not about what happened, but what could have happened. It is about historical potential, not historical truth. Hence, I only claim to be making decisions about probability and likelihood, which everyone does, with less care, every time they decide what to believe, and using this to reveal why I do not believe survival to be impossible enough to ensure it was miraculous. And if you agree with my estimations, or using your own still come to the same conclusion, that then entails you should not believe it either. So this is not a trick or a pseudo-argument, but an attempt to make my reasoning more transparent and thus more easily tested against your own subjective understanding of the same facts. I thus encourage, and expect, every reader to consider each fact on their own, and determine in each case their own estimations of probability, and then do the math again, based on your own estimations.

Decision theory is designed for this very purpose, and before the Conclusion I give the complete equation that is built up throughout this section. In developing it, I believe I have accounted for all the significant questions in how I personally arrive at the odds of survival. Yet each distinct estimation of odds involves a collection of assumptions about the circumstances and setting, and I try to mention all of them that influence my decision regarding probability. This leaves two ways in which I can be corrected: first, if I fail to account for a significant factor in my equation; and second, if, in any one of the factors I do consider, I have neglected a feature of the situation or time as we know it, or gotten one wrong. The second error, once pointed out, may change my estimate of the odds for that factor. The first error, once pointed out, may change the equation itself. If you find any such errors, please call them to my attention in the Feedback Forum. Even if I end up rejecting certain factors as irrelevant or insignificant, you can still account for them yourself, by letting them affect your own estimation of the odds of the relevant factor in the equation when you calculate your own conclusion. And before rejecting my conclusions, I ask all readers to run through the equations themselves, and honestly, to see what you actually must believe on your own assumptions.

II. What Are the Odds that Jesus Could Have Survived?

Jesus, we are told, was taken down the same day he was put up, without breaking his legs, unlike the others crucified with him (John 19:32; nor does any other Gospel mention his legs being broken). Death by crucifixion typically took days, and breaking the legs is, based on this passage, taken as a possible means of hastening death, by perhaps cutting off the airway under the weight of the crucified’s own body. Thus, the possibility of his survival remains. Being removed before the typical time of death, and being treated uniquely among all others in the same place and time, in such a way as to increase greatly his chances of survival, casts great doubt on his death. If we imagine that even as few as 75% of all victims survived on the cross more than a day (at least such odds are necessary for Pilate to express amazement at Jesus’ early demise in Mark 15:44), then already we have a 75% chance that Jesus did not die on the cross.

It has been noted that we must also explain how Jesus survived his scourging or torture, as well as the crucifixion itself and the burial. But this is not necessary. All victims of crucifixion were routinely scourged, and frequently tortured, beforehand, and thus if people regularly survived for days (and all evidence suggests they did), this means they regularly survived for days despite their additional scourging and torture. All accounts as we have them show Jesus alive after any torture he suffered, so we do not have to account for his surviving it–all witnesses already claim that he did. It is also not remarkable. People in history have survived far worse. The removing of tongue, nose, and ears was a common punishment in Sumeria, and you can bet they did not use antiseptics, anesthetics, or sutures, and this was all too often survived–that was, in fact, the point of doing it. As for the burial, being carefully swaddled and lain on a slab in an open, roomy tomb is never going to present a survival problem.

Evidence from Josephus has been used to make the survival of Jesus seem less likely (Life of Flavius Josephus § 420-21). Josephus himself witnessed three crucified people taken down, and one survived. However, the passage says nothing about what wounds the victims received before being crucified (they were war captives, after all, not peacefully arrested criminals), nor does it say how long they were up, or how long they lived before finally giving in, only that they died while under the care of a physician. Of course, in antiquity, care by a physician, sometimes employing unsterilized needles and knives for surgery and suturing, and using unscientific folk remedies like hot baths or poisonous hellebore, could sometimes magnify rather than alleviate the chances of death, but more usually medicine at the time was sufficiently advanced for one to be better off with it than without it. At any rate, we are told by Josephus that one out of the three rescued lived. At worst, this calls for changing my estimate of surviving a few hours, after a mere beating beforehand, from 75% to 33%. I think the circumstances are too different (even though there is no doubt that if Jesus lived, he most likely did not live long–how long did Josephus’ friends live?) and the data too limited: his two dying friends could merely have been unlucky, or longing for death from their crushed spirits, or they could have suffered war wounds beforehand, or they could have been up more than a day, etc. But I will grant it anyway, and say the basic odds of survival are 33%.

III. What Are the Odds of Trickery?

Three of the gospel accounts of the crucifixion depict a sponge soaked in some liquid being pressed into Jesus’ face, with Jesus expiring immediately thereafter (Matthew 27.48-50, Mark 15.36-37, John 19.29-30). We are told it was sour wine (oxos), which was often used to revive the swooning, yet Jesus expires immediately afterward, a suspicious reaction indeed. So the possibility of his being drugged is distinct. We cannot check what was really placed on the sponge, and we have no neutral account of the sponge-offering. Certainly, I will not bet my life that it was not a drug that was supplied, and his immediate and otherwise inexplicable death after receiving the sponge makes the chances of a drug greater still. What are the odds that Jesus was drugged into the mere appearance of death? Even though it is highly suspicious and no one can bring forward any evidence against the possibility, I will be overly skeptical of such a clever trick, and say that the odds are only 1%.

It has been said that if one offers a secret plot to explain how this all happened, not only is it all conjecture (or worse), it must be based on a selectively inerrantist reading of the gospels. Both objections are misapplied. One must admit, conjecture or not, that a secret plot was possible, no matter how unlikely. All we need estimate is exactly how unlikely. Indeed, as we know from the elaborate frauds pulled off by Alexander of Abonuteichos recorded by Lucian, and the witches who drew down the moon by various schemes recorded by Hippolytus, fraud was evident in antiquity, and had it not been for the mere chance of these keen fellows happening upon them and bothering to root them out, we would never know anything about the fraud behind their schemes. Most observers were credulous, or didn’t care to prove false what they already rejected out-of-hand (see Note 2). And it is in the nature of trickery for the evidence to be buried.

All that remains is to see, based on what evidence supports that possibility, what the odds are it could have been done. The sponge event, for example, is very odd. So is the fact that Jesus was removed so early and treated so well. But added to this, the opportunities were rather great, as I will soon note: a day of no guards, a wealthy supporter, and being placed in that man’s tomb by him. Thus, trickery is no blind conjecture. It is actually plausible, explaining some unusual elements of the received story, and made more probable by them. So the objections to trickery are already built in to my decision-theory analysis: despite my suspicions, I have decided to be generous and yield to the objectors, and that is why I give odds of only 1% that a trick was pulled. What odds do you give?

As for this charge of “selective inerrantism”, it is misapplied here. One can say as much about every work of history or fiction ever written. If I read Sol Yurick’s The Warriors and note that his hero’s use of a penny gum machine shows that gum only cost a penny when the book was written (1965), am I being “selectively inerrantist” simply because I acknowledge that this book is otherwise a work of fiction? And if I conclude from a study of available water supplies in Greece that Xerxes could not possibly have fielded as many men as Herodotus claims he did, but accept as true the rest of that historian’s account of the Persian War, am I to be impugned for being “selectively inerrantist”? You decide.

Many of my points depend on certain New Testament passages being historically accurate, without making any argument for their accuracy. Doesn’t that, at least, weaken my argument? Not really. For we must face the Catch 22: if someone argues that the verses my theory is based on are false, then it becomes likely that the resurrection story itself is false. For if lies or errors exist in important details of the story, though this does not prove the story false, it throws greater doubt on that story being correct, not less. The probability of it not being a miracle is then even greater than I make it out to be. But I am deliberately giving the Christian argument a reasonable chance, by allowing at least some truth to the resurrection accounts, even though it is possible (albeit unlikely, in my opinion) that they are totally fabricated. Only when I can offer definite reasons for a passage to be regarded as false will I consider that possibility in this section. Otherwise, I will treat the accounts of the crucifixion as we have them as if they are true.

Thus, I do address at several points in my essay the possibility that certain passages are false, like my discussion of how rejecting the Spearing Story affects the leg-breaking story. There I also make the point that if we reject that account entirely, then we also have no reason to think his legs were broken, since no other account remarks on this practice. The same holds true of my analysis of the spear wound’s location: it has been rightly noted that John’s description may not be accurate, but it then follows that we have no idea where the spear wound was, and thus we still cannot know whether the wound would have been fatal. In a similar fashion, if we reject any passage as false which I grant as true, then my argument becomes stronger as a result, not weaker. This is because, unless there is a contradictory passage already in existence (and those relevant cases I address, such as the varying accounts of Paul’s “visitation” discussed in my General Case for Spiritual Resurrection), if we reject any given passage, then we are left with no basis for any assumptions at all, much less the assumption of a genuine resurrection.

I ask all readers, if they think any particular passage being false creates a particular problem for my conclusion that the Resurrection was not a miracle from a god, to please point out the fact so that I may consider the matter and address it, or correct my conclusion accordingly. But I cannot answer general, unspecified objections. I must also note that it is completely improper to “invent” aspects of the story that support a Resurrection. For if someone is allowed to make up something that we are not in fact told in any of the accounts, we can just as easily make up something else that makes a Resurrection less likely, and nothing can be gained from such a game of make believe. We either trust what we are told, or admit we cannot trust it. Nothing more is rationally appropriate. And following this rule, we have a distinct possibility trickery was involved, yet I assign it a low probability of only 1%. I do not think anyone can argue the probability was any lower.

IV. A Digression on Witnesses Being Willing to Die

It is still rather unlikely, I am told, that the original believers were making what they believed up for personal gain, in light of the persecution they suffered, and I have a lot to say about this, requiring a substantial digression. It is neither necessary to assume they made it up, nor is it certain that if they did they would be unwilling to die for some greater good that they saw in their creed. And if any original eyewitness did face death and recanted we might not have heard about it: Matthew’s remark at 28.17 that some eyewitnesses didn’t believe may be seen as a rhetorical defense against evidence of recanters. But most importantly, as I will argue in detail, most believers, and all whom we know died for their belief, were not eyewitnesses. This proves without a doubt that people were willing to die for something that they believed merely on someone else’s word. And if they were willing to do that, might they not be willing to die for other equally feeble reasons? From kamikaze Japanese dive-bombers and torpedo-peddlers, Islamic suicide-bombers, to any of the dozens of suicide cults in history, or indeed the whole nation of Israel, twice fighting against an obviously unbeatable and demonstrably vindictive Rome, because of beliefs in prophecies of their victory, it is clear that people have a tendency to be willing to die for a seemingly good cause, even when their reasoning really isn’t that good.

It is important not to forget that, in actual fact, we have no reliable record of any eyewitness dying for their belief. The closest we have are brief mentions, like that of the execution of James the brother of John in Acts 12. But that is not an “account,” containing few details about the circumstances of his death, or whether recanting would have saved him, or what it actually was he thought he was dying for. All real martyrdom accounts are of converts, not witnesses, except for that of Peter. But the account of his death is first found in the Gnostic Acts of Peter, a tale which includes, among other things, a talking dog, a flying wizard, and the resurrection of a tunafish. Moreover, the account is Gnostic and assumes, as in Peter’s dying words in it, that the Resurrection was spiritual, not physical, a point I will be discussing in more detail in General Case for Spiritual Resurrection (and in my Main Argument). But most importantly, he would not have escaped death if he had recanted, for he was killed by a magistrate, as the story relates, whom he had angered with his political meddling, and not because he was a Christian. So his death does not prove that he was willing to maintain his faith despite being threatened with death if he didn’t recant, because he wasn’t. He was condemned no matter what his profession of faith, so his devotion proves nothing here.

Let us also not forget that Paul himself, the one without whom there would have been no Christianity as we know it, was not an eye witness. And the first actual account of a martyr is that of Stephen (Acts 7.54-60). But Stephen was not recorded anywhere as being among the original disciples or among the witnesses of any appearance of Jesus: he is listed as being a very devout member of the later converts (Acts 6.5). One might say that as he is being set upon by a mob, he has a vision of Jesus sitting next to God in the sky, but this is clearly not a physical appearance: none of the mob or onlookers saw this, and the details are far from being that of a physical appearance. Moreover, if Jesus was alive and walking about at this time, surely he would be mentioned in Acts as still participating in the movement, but instead, he had already been taken up (Acts 1.9-11), and surely he would have stepped in front of Stephen and intervened if he were “there.” Moreover, Stephen gives a speech, professing the belief for which he is killed and is willing to die, yet he does not mention the appearances of Jesus after death, nor the empty tomb, or anything like that. He merely professes that Jesus was the messiah, fulfilling Jewish anticipations, and that Jesus was unjustly killed. Indeed, he does not even claim that Jesus was God or the son of God. Stephen seems to be treating Jesus like all the other famous prophets who were killed, and whose deaths were regarded as a rebuke upon the wickedness of Jewish authorities who reject God’s message. Stephen, and others in the early church, may thus have seen their victory in the belief and salvation of the believer, not in Jesus’ resurrection. At any rate, Stephen was willing to die for a lot less than the claims of Jesus’ appearances or even divinity (for more on this whole issue see my Main Argument).

And it is not enough to say that Stephen “could” have been thinking of the resurrection when he died, because the point is that we have no evidence of any kind that he died for that reason, and therefore no basis for assuming that he did. If any of the eyewitnesses stood firm for the same reasons Stephen did, then we don’t even need to explain why they would be willing to, since Stephen’s reasons contain nothing miraculous in them. There is also the possibility that the early creed was of a spiritual resurrection, as I will discuss later. Of course, we must also consider the unlikely but still possible notion that the resurrection beliefs were produced by delusion or expectation or deception by untouchable parties. Joseph of Arimathea, or Jesus by himself, or with accomplices who went unnamed and unnoticed but aided him for money or for a sense of a greater good, could all have brought the event about without the disciples being any the wiser, as I discuss above and below. Such possibilities allow one to hold that there was never anything but sincere belief, and in such a case their very belief would actually cause them to disregard death (as is evident in all martyrdom tales, cf. also Acts 5.41).

There is still the problem of the “original believers,” those who would have been privy to any kind of deception or hyperbole (if we conclude that there was such). But history is replete with people willing to die for a seemingly greater good. Remember Jonestown. And do not forget the image, still burned in my brain, of the Buddhist monk setting himself on fire before the American embassy to protest the Viet Nam War. In antiquity we have the case of Proteus Peregrinus, and various suicidal Brahmen. I will eventually outline several reasons why the Christian creed, even if known to be in some sense a lie, would be believed to be a necessary change for the good ofIsrael, and there have been millions of revolutionaries in history willing to die for just such a cause.

But I have been accepting an assumption here: that the original believers were actually willing to die. Yet by all accounts, they avoided violence by any means possible. Look at the adventures of Paul, for example, e.g. Acts 9.23-25, 29-30. And why did what happened to Stephen never happen to Peter or any eyewitness? Is it an accident that Peter recants precisely when he cannot protect himself from sudden retribution, but then reconverts when safe? And who else among the original cast could fall back on Roman citizenship for self-defense like Paul did? Even the one early account of Peter’s death that we have, if true at all, claims that he was killed for political reasons, and not for his belief. If their story was in any sense a sham, the conspirators would actually seek to spread their message while guarding themselves. They could have easily maneuvered other followers into the path of violence (a deed no more unscrupulous than the possible murder of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5.1-11), or even left town when it suited them (see, for example, Acts 8.1)–and what are they doing in Tyre, begging Paul not to go back to Jerusalem in Acts 21.3-6? See also 22.18, etc.

There is also the bigger problem that persecution could not possibly have been so serious as it is often painted to be. As both Suetonius and Tacitus show regarding the persecutions in Rome, it was unusual, and politically motivated by one or two events, and the onlookers were sympathetic. I must also add that we have no good evidence that there was any eyewitness in Rome–even if Paul was there, he was not a true eye witness. There is no other record in any history of any other persecution until that under Pliny in the 2nd century (apart from a poorly attested act of Domitian, equally sporadic and atypical). In Jerusalem, as far as we are told, there was also no unified opposition to the creed (Acts 5.33ff., 23.6ff.), there was large enough support to actually instill fear in the persecutors (Acts 5.26, 4.21-22), no other source records any persecution in Jerusalem, not even Josephus (though he describes many riots and violent disputes), the legal powers of the Sanhedrin did not extend to any Greek quarter or city in the region (like Tyre), and Paul and the other persecutors merely put people in prison (Acts 5.17, 8.1-3), which was always, for whatever reason, easily escaped (Acts 5.19, 5.22). Moreover, no non-Jews would have cared, and there were whole cities of non-Jews in the Palestinian area, as well as Samaritans right between Galilee andJudaea, who also would not have cared. Acts even says there were often times of peace (Acts 2.47, 9.31). Surely the opposition must have been rather fickle, if it allowed this.

But there are more direct questions we can ask: When Paul returns to Jerusalem, preaches the creed, and starts a riot, it is only he, and no one else in the church–who were clearly there (Acts 21.17ff.)–who is attacked or arrested. Why is that? And why do the reasons he is attacked have nothing to do with his profession of Christianity? (21.29, 21.38) Why does there have to be a conspiracy of foreigners to trump up a false charge and drag out false witnesses to get Stephen arrested? (6.8-14) And why does Paul only report that it was refusal of circumcision that caused persecution, not belief in the resurrection? (Galatians 6:12) On the other hand, how is it possible that a persecuted church can maintain its council of elders right inJerusalem for years on end? They must have been very wily indeed. Why were they not all killed or arrested? Why is the only actual death we hear about in this persecution that of Stephen, which was an isolated riot, begun over what was actually a trumped-up misunderstanding of what the Christians were actually preaching (Acts 6.13-14), and not a reaction against what they actually believed? There is simply too much reason to doubt that the “persecution” of any eyewitnesses would have been serious enough to dissuade them from any plan that had enough merit to get them going in the first place.

V. How Do We Know He was Dead?

Above all, what evidence do we have that Jesus was dead? We are not told of doctors. Only one centurion gives his assessment. But officers in the Roman army have no training in diagnostics. They are among the least knowledgeable in medical theory, and they never seem to even touch him to examine him, except, by one account, at spear’s length (John 19:34; and this probably did not happen, cf. Section VII). In fact, in the one account that gives any detail, the centurion who answers that he is dead when asked (Mark 15:44) actually seems to have arrived at that conclusion in a very unreliable way: “when the centurion standing just opposite him saw that he breathed out [his life] in such a way, he said ‘Truly this was the son of God'” (Mark 15:39; some manuscripts have it “that by crying out in such a way he breathed out [his life]”). The past tense in the centurion’s remark makes it clear that, as the story is told, the centurion already concluded Jesus was dead, having made no other observation than that he appeared to breathe his last. And when Pilate later raises a question about it, he does not go back to make sure or apply any other tests, but immediately affirms that Jesus is dead. And then no one touches Jesus but Joseph of Arimathea, who alone takes Jesus down from the cross (Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53). None of the other accounts mention anyone else taking him down first to get a better look at whether he was really dead (cf. Matt. 27:57-60; John 19:38).

McDowell, citing Michael Green, also very strangely thinks that this hearing of Jesus cry out counts as proof he was dead (1st ed., p. 198; § 10.4A.1B.1C; 2nd ed., p. 223, § 9.6A.1B.1C). It is a good thing modern doctors do not announce someone’s death on such evidence! McDowell cites Green and E.H. Day in the same place as asserting that the Roman soldiers at the crucifixion were “specialists” in assessing death, though that is a bit silly. Seeing people die does not make one a medical expert, nor does being an expert in killing people result in the discovery of how to check a pulse or touch the eye or apply any other technique that is necessary to reliably check someone for life who appears to be dead. After movies and TV educated the public, the idea of checking a pulse, for instance, has become common knowledge (and mass novels in the 19th century spread the word somewhat), but in antiquity only an elite few even knew of such a thing. So there is absolutely no reason to believe that common soldiers knew what a pulse was, much less how to check one–and certainly, we hear of no such detailed examination: the accounts we have explicitly deny it by asserting that Jesus was declared dead before he was even taken down. If we reject the accounts as false, we have nothing left to show that survival was less likely–we become completely ignorant of what really happened that day.

Being mistaken for dead is not impossible. Ancient accounts of misdiagnosed deaths exist. Pliny the Elder, writing in the 60’s and 70’s AD, collects several of them in his Natural History (7.176-179): people who were deemed dead, observed as dead all through their funeral, and on the pyre, ready to be set aflame, but who walked away nonetheless (and since all Romans served in the army, one can see from this fact that arguments about the special skills of soldiers are moot). One account includes a wound that would seem almost certainly fatal (a cut throat, 7.176). Alexander the Great himself was impaled by a spear, which punctured one of his lungs, yet he recovered. Even modern accounts of misdiagnosed deaths exist, proving that even medical experts can be in error: as recently as 1989 in Springfield, Ohio (cf. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Aug. 17, pg. 2A) and 1994 in San Leandro, California (Orlando Sentinel, Jan. 29, pg. A20). Indeed, before the 20th century this was more common than we would imagine, sometimes causing widespread hysteria (see Jan Bondeson’s Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear, 2001).

More interesting is what an unnamed member of the school of Aristotle recorded sometime in the 3rd or 2nd century B.C. in a collection of amazing things (many of which are known natural phenomena) called “On Marvellous Things Heard.” An excerpt from entry 101 reads as follows:

They say that there is a tomb on Lipara, one of the seven islands called the Isles of Aeolus, about which they tell many marvels . . . [including the story] that someone who got himself drunk before dawn fell asleep there. His servants searched for him for three whole days, and on the fourth they found him seemingly dead and carried him to his own tomb. After all the funeral rites were finished he suddenly rose and related what happened to him.

The author doubts the story simply because it sounds more like a legend, but he admits it should be recorded, and it seems evident from Pliny that this was a common theme throughout the known world at the time–reflected in the similar legend told by Socrates according to Plato (Republic 614.b-c), and in that story the man in question actually journeyed into the afterlife and returned to talk about it (another story like this appears in Plutarch’s Divine Vengeance 563d-567f, cf. also On the Sign of Socrates 590a-592e). This no doubt reflects the fact that such misdiagnoses were commonplace enough that several authors had heard at least one such story (e.g. Apuleius Florida 19; Philostratus Life of Apollonius of Tyana 4.45; Aulus Cornelius Celsus On Medicine 2.6.15; Pliny Natural History 26.15; Diogenes Laertius, 8.67-8; compare 1 Kings 17:17-22, 2 Kings 4:19-37, Mark 5:21-43 [Matt. 9:18-26, Luke 8:40-56], Luke 7:11-17, Acts 9:36-43 & 14:19-20, John 11:5-44; etc.), and it had even entered mythic consciousness: several related stories involve bright lights or experiences in heaven before returning, possibly reflecting Near Death Experiences. See Susan Blackmore’s book on the subject in modern times, Dying to Live; ancient examples include Cicero’s Dream of Scipio and stories related in the Philopseudes of Lucian (esp. ch. 26), and the Dionysian mystery tablets recovered from graves (Miroslav Marcovich, “The Gold Leaf From Hipponion,” Zeitschrift fur Papyrologie und Epigraphik, bd. 23, 1976, pp. 221-4).

Most interesting of all is an ancient Jewish document called the Tractate of Mourning (Semahot), which describes the very reasons for the tradition of going to the tomb on the third day (counting inclusively–thus, the second day after burial, by our reckoning): “One should go to the cemetery to check the dead within three days, and not fear that such smacks of pagan practices. There was actually one buried man who was visited after three days and lived for twenty-five more years and had sons, and died afterward” (8.1, translation by Shmuel Safrai, “Home and Family,” The Jewish People in the First Century (1976), vol. 2, pp. 784-5). In other words, misdiagnosis was actually common enough that an entire tradition was developed to make sure people were not buried by mistake–the very tradition which probably lay behind Mary’s visit to the tomb of Jesus in the first place! The Romans also delayed funerals for the very same reason (reported by Ps.-Quintilian, as discussed by D.R. Shackleton Bailey in Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 88 (1984), pp. 113-37). Moreover, Celsus, a medical encyclopedist of the 1st century, estimated that even the best doctors erred in misdiagnosing death roughly 1 in 1000 times (De Medicina 1.109-17), a sentiment corroborated by Pliny (NH 2.619-31). Worse doctors, and non-doctors, must then have erred far more often still.

All this evidence does not mean that this mistake happened often–it was certainly still a rare event–but it happened. What are the odds that Jesus was misdiagnosed as dead? As it is, we must grant at least a 0.1% chance that the centurion mistook him for dead, and that is granting him an excellent diagnostic skill (according to Celsus, the best of the day), especially to assess this at a distance as the story says he did. If Jesus was drugged, this chance would certainly have to rise to at least a 50% chance, for how would a centurion know anything of the possible effects of drugs, much less that they had been administered? As far as he knew, the sponge was soaked in vinegar. Since I give the odds of being drugged at 1%, we can assess the total chance of misdiagnosis at (0.01 x 0.50) + (0.99 x 0.001) = 0.00599 = 0.6%. With a basic chance of survival of 33%, this makes a chance of actual survival, misdiagnosed as death, of 0.2% (0.33 x 0.00599 = 0.0019767). Though McDowell cites Samuel Chandler arguing that the absurdly excessive anointing of the body recorded in John (19:39) would surely have exposed Jesus as alive if he were (1st ed., pp. 199-200, § 10.4A.1B.1C), this can be dismissed for two reasons: these were sympathizers, and thus could easily have concealed the fact if they knew Jesus were alive; and this burial anointing almost certainly didn’t even happen (see below).

We also have accounts of survival despite incredible injuries. Josephus watched one of three particular victims of crucifixion survive (Life of Flavius Josephus § 420-21), and John’s implication that the legs of the crucified were broken to hasten death entails that survival was common enough to require such an extraordinary measure (cf. Section VII). A few doctors have tried to assert that death by crucifixion was certain, by appealing to graphic analyses of the speculated procedures and effects of execution in antiquity (see Doctors Pronounce Jesus Dead! for my analysis of a prominent and typical example of this literature), but even the best of these analyses produce insufficient certainty, and are refuted by the eye-witness observation of Josephus that crucified people could survive. There is no doubt that crucifixion was hideously painful and meant to kill–but slowly, and the survival of a passionate, possibly even drugged, fanatic, after only a few hours on the cross, is distinctly possible.

Indeed, people have survived far worse. The Coast Guard WWII hero Douglas Munro was impaled a dozen times by Japanese rifle bullets, yet continued to drive his landing boat, dying only after completing his mission–receiving the Medal of Honor posthumously. So even when very unlikely, survival is demonstrably possible. And complete recovery need not be assumed. Jesus had no known ministry after his death, wrote nothing, and commissioned no inscriptions, despite having wealthy benefactors who could have arranged it (although it is still strange, even if he actually was resurrected, that such things were not commissioned). In my opinion, he certainly must have died soon after his ordeal (unless he secretly secured medical attention), but this does not entail that his survival could not have been mistaken, or preached, as a resurrection (cf. Section XI).

It can happen after surviving such ordeals that a sudden but temporary upswing in health precedes eventual downturn and death. In the National Library of Medicine MEDLINE database, record no. 68403724, such an account is recorded: a terrorist bomb threw so many fragments into the brain of Assaf Ben-Or that surgery was ruled out as impossible without killing him. His brain was bleeding heavily internally and the doctors could do nothing about it. A week later, he was listed in good condition and was talking and walking. He then died shortly thereafter. Certainly, passion, religious fanaticism or drugs can improve chances of such a temporary upswing: it is not impossible, and not even remarkably unlikely. The possibility of such a thing cannot be dismissed in the case of Jesus, who was far less injured than Assaf Ben-Or, and who had no cut throat, no impaled lung as far as we know, no dozen rifle wounds. So survival is certainly more likely in the case of Jesus than that of Assaf or any of these other survivors.

McDowell cites the absurdly quaint pseudo-medical observations of Bishop LeCamus against survival, asserting the most ridiculous causes of death: “contact of the body with the cold stone of the sepulchre,” never mind that he was wrapped in linen, “would have been enough to bring on syncope through the congelation of the blood, owing to the fact that the regular circulation was already checked” (1st ed., p. 200; § 10.4A.1B.1C). From this farcical medical terminology one would think LeCamus a believer in warts caused by toads. It hardly deserves comment. Nor does the claim that the tomb was “hermetically sealed.” One wonders what sort of space age technology the Jews were supposed to have–at any rate, the Tractate cited above proves that survival over several days was so possible that a ritual visit had to be established to rescue those buried alive. We also know from surviving examples that tomb stones were placed loosely enough that air could circulate. It is also absurd to suppose that a “stench” of spices would be lethal to an injured man–indeed, McDowell contradicts himself here, citing the smell of spices as a cause of death right after he cited that same smell as what would have been a certain cause of his revival!

It is also unlikely spices were even present. Their quantity is ridiculously exaggerated in John, the only one to mention them (19:38-40). In contrast, Mark, the earliest and least fantastic source, leaves no one time to anoint the body (15:42, 16:1), Luke concurs with this, saying that the spices had to be prepared later for application Sunday (23:53-6), and Matthew, like all of them, mentions only a cloth. So John’s lie is exposed by the universal disagreement of his colleagues. Indeed, packing bodies in spices was not a Jewish practice, contrary to John’s assertion that it was–instead, it was Egyptian, and the mention of spices here may be an invention meant to link the burial of Jesus with that of Israel (Jacob) and Joseph (Genesis 50:2, 50:26). To the contrary, Jews washed corpses and wrapped them in a clean cloth. But even supposing such an odd burial, a packing of a mere hundred pounds of spices would not do much to kill anyone. Imagine spreading 100 pounds of mud over your whole body–the hazard would be minimal, especially for a prone person, and would have the beneficial effect of providing warmth to counter-act systemic shock, and pressure against blood loss. Perhaps we could insist they mashed the stuff into his face, but we are not told they did, and the Jewish law I cited above would presuppose against it. So we can dismiss all far fetched objections like these. They are speculations upon speculations, often contradicted by the actual evidence. And without evidence, the possibility of survival remains, regardless of the number of speculations you wish to heap up.

The fact of the matter is that we know far too little about the actual details of crucifixion, making even the opinions of physiological experts all but irrelevant to the case. One must first do the work of a historian before such opinions can relate to the actual facts of crucifixion, but even the most capable historians have not been able to establish the details that physiologists need to know for their opinions to be relevant. And this general reality is only compounded by the fact that the Gospel narratives are not very reliable for eyewitness details, not having been written by eyewitnesses, and having theological and soteriological reasons for adding the details they do (e.g. Section VII). For what little we know or can conjecture, see “Crucifixion in Antiquity” by Joe Zias. Zias presents the best lay summary I’ve seen so far (though one of his diagrams misleads in giving the impression that a cross was a cross–what little evidence we have is unanimous in one respect: the “cross” was actually a flat T-shape).

All these considerations make it clear that no one can argue that the odds of misdiagnosis were less than 0.6% (0.00599), making the odds of survival-plus-misdiagnosis 0.2% (0.0019767).

VI. How Could He Get Out of the Tomb?

Typical tomb blocking stone, exterior view on left, interior view on right (from Biblical Archaeology Review Sep/Oct 1999, 25:5, p. 25)

Some argue that we have to account for the odds Jesus could get out of the tomb. I conclude that the odds are effectively 100%, if he survived, that he could move a tombstone given a day of trying, and so this does not have to be accounted for. But if it must affect your own analysis, let it affect how you estimate the odds that Jesus could escape (Section IX).

Tomb blocking stones in 1st-centuryJudaeawere quite small. We know of no stones larger than 4.5 ft. in height, and that only on the tomb of king Herod’s family. Most are typically between three and four feet. The one shown above is under 4′ x 3′ x 2′, and all are made of limestone, which would make this one about a ton in weight–too heavy to lift, but not too heavy to push over (for comparison, consider how easy it is for one person to rock a car–the average automobile weighs at least a ton). It was easy to open a tomb from the inside: all one had to do was shove, and the stone would fall away under its own weight. The Gospels of Mark and Matthew even describe a single elderly man rolling the stone into place (Mk. 15:46, Mt. 27:60), so if we believe them, the stone in question could not have been too hard to manage, even if in a fit of dramatic exaggeration it is later described as “very large” (whatever that means: Mk. 16:4).

Indeed, there would have been a difference between carefully moving the stone such that it could be placed back over the tomb–a task that might have required many men–and simply pushing it over, which a single man could accomplish, even as the task of putting the stone back would be much more difficult. In all likelihood however, based on the use of the word “roll” throughout the narratives, the actual stone that the Gospel writers had in mind was the thin, round type which fell into use after the Jewish War, long after the time of Jesus. This was lighter and very easy for one person to move by rolling it on its edge. See my discussion of “new evidence” in my review of In Defense of Miracles.

McDowell cites T.J. Thorburn calling on a curious reading in the margins of the Codex Bezae manuscript of Mark that the tomb cover-stone was so large that even twenty men could not roll it away (1st ed., p. 208; § 10.4A.1B.4C). Of course, this is immensely improbable, as already noted above, and would not relate to whether the stone could be merely pushed over, but only to the task of carefully moving it. Even so, the argument McDowell makes that this spurious reading (and a gloss at that, not even incorporated into the text itself) from a late, 4th century manuscript, found in no other versions or translations, is somehow closer to the original, is so groundless it is astonishing he would even advance it. On the true nature of textual criticism, see the material in my Critique of Douglas Wilson, and on the more realistic fate of manuscript interpolations, see the relevant parts of my discussion of Thallus and Phlegon.

This particular gloss is too much like a story in Josephus to be genuine. Josephus wrote an account of the miracles related to the great Temple in Jerusalem that immediately presaged the doom of Judaea in 66 A.D., among them was a bronze gate, which scarcely twenty men could move, that unbolted, unlocked and opened itself at midnight right in front of the temple guards (Jewish War 6.288). Here we have a story with an identical number of men mentioned with almost identical phrases (scarcely twenty men could move it, not twenty men could roll it away), in similar contexts (the tomb is being compared with the temple, and a bad omen for the Jews is made into a good omen for Christians). Josephus reports of his account that the common people thought “God did thereby open the gate of happiness,” while the learned took it as signifying that “the security of their holy house was dissolved of its own accord, and that the gate was opened for the advantage of their enemies.” To transfer this legend to the tomb of Christ therefore makes too much sense to be a coincidence: the moving of this stone did, like the moving of the doors of the temple, presage the opening of the gate of happiness for the people, as well as the looming destruction of the temple of the Jews (also symbolized in all manuscripts of Mark by the rending of the temple veil). The story is thus almost certainly a symbolic invention by a later scribe seeking to embellish the story. Considering this, and the implausibility of so large a tomb stone for anyone inPalestine, in addition to the fact of its late appearance as a gloss in a single manuscript, this account is to be dismissed.

VII. What Are the Odds That Jesus Was Speared?

Though he must have had at least a 33% chance of not having died on the cross, John records a spear wound. It has been said that the description of the wound pouring out blood and water (19:34) suggests a mortal wound, being a blow near the heart (McDowell, citing James Thompson, E.H. Day, and William Stroud: 1st ed., p. 198, § 10.4A.1B.1C; 2nd ed., pp. 223-5, § 9.6A.1B.1C). Of course, this is probably an invention–there was a belief that the messiah came “with water and blood” (1 John 5:6-8), representing baptism and death. Consequently, several church fathers (Ambrose, Augustin, and Chrysostom in particular) understood this spearing passage symbolically, not literally: the blood represented the eucharist; the water, baptism. Perhaps also this referred to the Jewish tradition of the time that the rock in the wilderness that Moses smote twice “poured out blood at the first stroke, and water at the second” (Shemoth Rabba, folio 122), the sign of God’s grace and the gift of life (and Christ was understood by Paul as representing this rock: 1 Cor. 10:4). Moreover, John is alone in having Jesus perform a transmutation of water to wine (atCana, 2:1ff.), and this is unlikely to be coincidence. The same symbolism is no doubt intended there. Thus, the wound thus testified to the fact that this was the messiah, and it could therefore be an invention for that purpose. John himself already reports a scriptural reason to invent the spearing (19:37), and makes suspiciously excessive assertions of its truth (19:35).

But even supposing this wound to be genuine, anyone who knows anything about anatomy will agree that the only place in the body where a noticeable amount of water or any clear liquid would ever be visible, along with blood, to a medically ignorant soldier a spear’s length away, is the large intestine (and even then only abnormally, e.g. diarrhea), suggesting a wound that is unlikely to be fatal until many days later. I conclude this after consulting several real doctors, contrary to McDowell’s citation of Michael Green (1st ed., p. 199, § 10.4A.1B.1C; 2nd ed., p. 225, § 9.6A.1B.1C), since we do not know that the blood did not spurt (the description is too brief and vague for such claims), and blood pouring from a vein does not spurt in any case–only that from an artery does. Moreover, the effect of a flow of distinctly separated serum and clotted blood, visible to a distant layman, is exceedingly unlikely. Unabsorbed water from the large intestine is far more likely in such a case, and even that would only occur if Jesus were suffering from some sort of medical condition that would cause an abnormal accumulation of water there. One might imagine a blow to a full bladder as having the same visible effect, but there are two reasons to discount this: struck from below, the bladder is well-guarded behind one of the thickest bones in the human body and thus is unlikely even to be targeted by a soldier, much less actually pierced from that angle, and it is inconceivable that a man who endured hours of beatings and crucifixion would be able to hold his water throughout.

Munro and Assaf and those other amazing survivals mentioned earlier (Section V) probably occur, let’s say, no more than 1 in 1000 times, but a spear wound to the large intestine, though likely to kill in time, is nothing compared to the wounds these people temporarily survived. I must say the odds of surviving such a wound for up to a week must be at least 10%. Throw in the chances of surviving a partial day of crucifixion (33%), and we get a chance of survival, with the spear wound, of 0.33 x 0.10 = 3.3%. With misdiagnosis as well, we get a final chance of 0.00599 x 0.033 = 0.00019767 (roughly 1 in 5000).

But the account of his being speared is illogical and late. It appears only in John, the last of the gospels to be written (after 90 AD). There, soldiers decide not to break his legs because he is dead, and then spear him to make sure he is dead. This is contradictory and inexplicable behavior. The spear wound later comes up in the context of the doubting Thomas story, which also only appears in John. As a late insertion in the story, it looks an awful lot like a rhetorical “vicarious conversion” aimed at answering arguments of skeptics, and being late this is to be expected: such doubts had certainly been voiced by then, and John would have liked to answer them (see also Main Argument). Thus John has as much a motive to invent the spear wound as he has to invent the entire Thomas story, which, after all, is found in no other account, not even in the writings of Paul. All three facts create great doubt that Jesus was stabbed with a spear. This makes survival even more likely. The odds that the spear story is false, based on the fact that three earlier accounts fail to mention it, that John has several rhetorical reasons to invent it, and the account of it does not make sense, I think must be at least 75%. This gives us a 75% chance that the odds of survival and misdiagnosis are 0.0019767 and a 25% chance that they are 0.00019767, for a combined chance of (0.75 x 0.0019767) + (0.25 x 0.00019767) = 0.0015319425 (0.15%).

One might argue that the “not breaking his legs” account must be dropped if we drop the spearing account. In fact, some argue that John felt the need to claim that Christ’s bones were not broken in support of prophecy, as is stated explicitly in John 19:36, and many commentators find a connection with the passover-prohibition on bone-breaking, based on Exodus 12.46 and Numbers 9.12, and John’s other predilections for such an analogy. Of course, the same passover rule also prohibits taking the flesh outside the house, which doesn’t fit here, and John’s words are also taken directly from Psalm 34:20, a passage which discusses righteous men in general, and has no overt connection with the messiah or crucifixion or anyone’s death. Still, John alone has Jesus buried in the same place he is crucified (19:41), which could be meant as fulfilling the prophecy that the bones never left their house. So there are good reasons for John to invent the whole leg-breaking story to justify his passover lamb analogy (maybe even drawing on a real practice: see Note 3). But even if John invented the story of the leg-breaking, we are still left with no reason to think Jesus’ legs were broken, and if the leg-breaking story is true, John still tells us Jesus’ legs weren’t broken, and no other gospel claims otherwise.

The spearing also has a scriptural reason to be invented or mentioned. Since it is taken from an actual messianic passage in Zechariah 12, it could reasonably be expected to be about the messiah and thus anyone in John’s position might assume it ought to apply to Jesus, or they would want it to apply, to “prove” Jesus was the messiah. But that passage also mentions other things, like the blinding of the world’s horses, and the besieging ofJerusalem at the same time as the coming of the messiah, which John omits. Thus, he is borrowing only what he wants to use. Our question is thus “why?” The use of the wound to have the symbolism of blood and water and to dramatize the Doubting Thomas story give the most obvious reasons, as I note above. It is also possible that in this or even also the leg-breaking account John may have needed a scriptural passage to justify what really happened. But this is less likely given: (1) the illogic of spearing him after leaving his legs alone, (2) the fact that it dovetails with the already-suspicious Doubting Thomas story and allows the symbolic introduction of blood and water, and (3) it is not mentioned by anyone else, including the three earlier evangelists.

So the conclusion stands so far that the odds of survival and misdiagnosis are (0.75 x 0.0019767) + (0.25 x 0.00019767) = 0.001532 (0.15%).

VIII. Was the Tomb Guarded?

But what about the guards? Doesn’t the fact that the tomb was guarded make escape unlikely, even if Jesus survived? Although one gospel accuses the Jews of making up the theft story, it is only that same gospel, after all, which mentions a guard on the tomb, and the authors have the same motive to make that up as the Jews would have had to make up the theft story: by inventing guards on the tomb the authors create a rhetorical means of putting the theft story into question, especially for the majority of converts who did not live in Palestine. And it is most suspicious that the other gospel accounts omit any mention of a guard, even when Mary visits the tomb (compare Matthew 28:1-15 with Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-12, and John 20:1-9), and also do not mention the theft story–this claim is not even reported in Acts, where a lot of hostile Jewish attacks on the church are recorded, yet somehow this one fails to be mentioned. Neither Peter nor Paul mention either fact, either, even though their letters predate the gospels by decades. Worse, Matthew’s account involves reporting privileged conversations between priests and Pilate, and then secret ones between priests and guards that no Christian could have known about (27.62-65, 28.11-15). This is always a very suspicious sign of fiction. Such a story could very easily be a Christian invention. They had the motive to make it up, to answer the objections of later skeptics (just like the Thomas story in John), and the story looks like an invention, because it narrates events that could not be known by the author.

How would this story develop? If a doubter had claimed that the Christians “could have” stolen the body, and someone overheard this charge and, in the manner of all rumors which get altered in transmission, thought that they heard the body was stolen and then accused the Christians of theft, the Christians could have responded that “the Jews said that, to thwart us” (as Matthew says, “this story is spread around among Jews to the present day,” 28.15). This would be quite plausible, since the story does portray the Jews as having a motive to torpedo the cause. One can easily imagine the skeptics answering back that if the Jews really feared theft, they would have guarded the tomb. This skeptical charge would then inspire the addition of guards, which would also require a story of bribery to explain why there are no guards around who could vouch for the resurrection, as well as the invention of an earthquake and angelic intervention to explain why the guards would not interfere with Mary, since, now that he has placed guards on the scene, Matthew has to invent some bizarre reason for their cowering before a woman, a strange story appearing in no other accounts of Mary’s visit to the tomb.

It seems, then, that a lie might have been getting larger and more implausible, in a desperate attempt to make it more plausible, a fate that has befallen many a tall story. This fits with the fact that Matthew is the most prone to recording implausibilities: cf. the earthquake, recorded nowhere else, even though it split rocks, cf. 27.51; the zombies, 27.52-53; not to forget the fable concerning Herod and the killing of the babies, cf. 2.16, a story told of kings and great men for centuries before and after Jesus, and yet not mentioned by anyone else in this case, not even by other New Testament authors (especially Luke, who dates the birth of Jesus ten years after Herod died! cf. 2:1-3, and my essay on Luke and Quirinius), and not even by Josephus, who mentions many other atrocities of Herod. So we have good grounds to suspect the story of guards to be fiction.

McDowell makes too much of the claim there were guards, and ironically gave me a crucial piece of information that makes the guard-story even more likely an invention: an important achievement of the Matthew story is the placing of the seal on the stone covering the tomb. In fact, one can view the entire story as being a pretext for this single act. Why is this event so important? Because it converts the tomb of Jesus into the lion’s den of Daniel: for when Daniel was entombed with the lions, and thus faced certain death, King Darius placed a seal on the stone “so that nothing might be changed in regard to Daniel” (Daniel 6:17; I thank McDowell’s quotation of D.D. Whedon for this find, 1st ed., p. 209, § 4A.1B.5C), exactly the same purpose of the Jews in Matthew. Thus, Jesus, facing real death, and sealed in the den like Daniel, would, like Daniel, escape death by divine miracle, defying the seals of man.

The parallels here are far too dense to be accidental: like the women who visit the tomb of Jesus, the king visits the tomb of Daniel at the break of dawn (6:19); the escape of Jesus signified eternal life, and Daniel at the same dramatic moment wished the king with eternal life (6:21; the identical phrase appears in reference to God in 6:26); in both stories, an angel performs the key miracle (Matt. 28:2, Daniel 6:22); after this miracle, the guards become “like dead men,” just as Daniel’s accusers are thrown to the lions and killed (6:24). Matthew alone among the Gospels ends his story with a commission from Jesus (28:18-20), whose power extends “in heaven and on earth,” to “go and make disciples of all nations” and teach them to observe the Lord’s commands, for Jesus is with them “always.” Curious, then, that the same author who alone creates a parallel with Daniel, is also alone in borrowing language from the same story for this commission: for King Darius, after the rescue of Daniel, sends forth a decree “to all nations” commanding reverence for God, who lives and reigns “always,” with power “in heaven and on earth” (Daniel 6:25-28; the Greek phrase is identical in both cases: en ouranôi kai epi tês gês). The stories thus have nearly identical endings.

In both texts (Matthew and the Septuagint text of Daniel) the stories have in their beginning the verb “to seal” (sphragizô), and in their endings the noun “eon” (aiôn, Daniel says “Oh king, live through all ages,” Darius decrees “He is the living God through all ages,” Jesus says “I am with you through all days until the end of the age”). Furthermore, in earliest Christian art, Daniel was the hero with whom Jesus was most commonly equated (cf. Thomas Matthews, The Clash of the Gods, 1993, pp. 77ff.), and Matthew alone depicts Magi visiting Christ at birth, whereas in the whole of the Old Testament the actual term “Magi” only appears in Daniel–for Daniel was most commonly associated with miracle working in the East. Since Matthew is clearly creating the guard story to create a seal and thus link Jesus with Daniel in death as in birth, the story is even less likely genuine than I grant above (see Note 4). The guard-placing account also involves the Sanhedrin both holding a meeting and placing a seal on a tombstone on the Sabbath, which is strictly prohibited by Jewish law. Thus, Matthew shows them violating the Sabbath to work against the good, after having shown them attacking Jesus for violating the Sabbath to do good (12:1-14). So Matthew may be deliberately crafting a story to create a symbolic contrast, another reason we cannot be sure it is true.

An additional reason to reject Matthew’s story is that it contradicts all other accounts and is illogical: if the tomb was sealed until the angel came and moved the stone before the women and the guards, how did Jesus leave the tomb undetected? Did he teleport? For he wasn’t in the tomb: it was already empty. Even if we want to imagine that he did teleport, all the other Gospels record that the stone had already been moved when the women arrived (Mark 16:4, Luke 24:2, John 20:1). Thus, Matthew’s account is contradicted three times, even by an earlier source (Mark), and does not make a lot of sense. That is further grounds for rejecting it: for Matthew alone must have the angel open the tomb when the women are present in order to silence the guards that he alone has put there. Thus, if his account of the opening is false, the reason for that account–the guards–is likely also false.

So what do I think are the odds that the guard story is an invention? Considering all the evidence above that it is a fabrication, the chance it’s true cannot be better than 1 in 3 (33%).

IX. If the Tomb Had Guards, What Are the Odds of Evading Them?

At best, neither the story of an accusation of theft nor that of guards is more likely to be true than the other. But even if we assume a guard, the gospel also depicts these guards as accepting a bribe to lie about theft, and thus it follows that the guards would be just as likely to accept a bribe to allow Jesus to escape. Indeed, they would probably have no qualms about accepting both bribes, being twice the richer for it. And since Jesus was placed in the tomb of his rich and influential supporter, Joseph of Arimathea, there is a strong possibility of bribery.

McDowell suggests that Roman legionaries were immune to bribery, out of loyalty to Rome, superhuman discipline, or fear of horrible punishment, even though this contradicts everything we know about human nature, and no one has yet offered any evidence that it was even rare among the legions. Since they were tried by juries comprised of their fellow soldiers, it was sometimes easy to escape punishment–a serious social problem mentioned more than once in surviving sources. Moreover, Matthew’s entire story must be false unless they did take bribes. But this question is actually moot, for if there were guards at all, it is almost impossible they would be legionaries. McDowell cites Albert Roper claiming that they were and that we know the name of the centurion in charge–but that, and all other details like the number of men and the use of an Imperial Roman Seal, do not exist in the New Testament and are very late legends or the imaginative inventions of scholars (1st ed., p. 210, § 4A.1B.6C.1D; 2nd ed., p. 235, § 9.6A.1B.6C.1D). Pilate would not care that much about petty religious squabbles among the natives, nor about the fate of a body of a foreign criminal that he already released to the dead man’s followers. Pilate’s trial behavior makes his disinterest clear even in the Christian sources, but it is even greater than they make out, as any perusal of Josephus would show. Thus, if Pilate provided a guard at all, it would have been, at best, an auxiliary–a non-citizen soldier. But even more likely, it would have been the local militia–not necessarily the temple guards, but city watchmen, or simply picked men, who were under the command of the local city councils, and who were often slaves or freedmen.

The story, as it is told to us, actually supports this. First of all, the Greek says the Jews only tell Pilate “order the tomb to be secured” (keleuson oun asphalisthênai ton taphon, Matt. 27:64), which permits but does not entail providing a guard, for it could also mean only allowing one to be set. Pilate responds “you have a guard” or “have a guard” (echete koustôdian, 27.65), and the verb here may be indicative or imperative: the former actually denies that he meant them to take one of his men, and the latter only allows but does not entail this. But then he tells them to make the tomb secure as they know how (i.e. he does not give these orders to the guards, but the Jews), and then the Jews themselves “secure the tomb with the guard” (êsphalisanto ton taphon…meta tês koustôdias, 27.66), and they, not the guard, place the seal (therefore it could not have been a Roman seal). In other words, the passage as written does not entail sending a guard, but more likely means allowing the Jews to arrange their own guard. They had temple guards of their own, or could have simply appointed anyone to the task. As members of the city council, that was their job.

This interpretation has further support in Matthew: when legionaries or Pilate’s men are meant, this author usually says so (cf. Matt. 27.27, 27.54), and the word for “guard” used by Pilate (koustôdia) does not mean an actual person (that would be koustos) but the general idea of “a guarding.” So when Matthew describes Pilate as saying “have a guard” he means “set a watch,” not “take some guards.” Moreover, Matthew 28:11-15 reports that these guards go immediately to the Jews after the discovery of a missing body, not to Pilate or any superior officer, yet this would be even stranger behavior for a Roman soldier than accepting bribes. That the Jews promise to keep Pilate from punishing them offers no proof that they were Roman, since the governor could punish anyone tasked with failing to prevent a theft, and it would be strange for Jews to claim influence over a Roman military court unless legionaries, who formed the jury, could be bribed after all. For Roman legionaries were citizens and thus had the right to a trial, and in the military trial juries were comprised of fellow legionaries–who, by the way, would have no interest in condemning their comrades to death for what was nothing more than a disgrace to mere Jews. There was no death penalty for being overpowered while standing watch anyway. The guards, after all, did not abandon their watch but were overcome by superior force–and if Pilate would not have believed the supernatural truth, a suitable lie about armed men would have sufficed. But even this is moot. Whether legionary or auxiliary, Roman or Jew, we have ample grounds for believing a bribery possible.

But even if we exclude bribery, there are other ways in which the guards would be ineffective. We do not know the configuration of the tomb site, yet we know it belonged to a wealthy supporter, and that the body was placed in the tomb by that supporter, and that the disappearance occurred on a high holy day, when, due to religious laws and observances, the fewest potential witnesses would be about. The possibility of covert escape, given these facts, is great indeed. There is also the possibility of a switcheroo: the body could have been taken to another tomb than the one claimed, and thus the guards could have been guarding an empty grave all along. And it cannot be forgotten that there is no account given of why the Jews would know where the tomb was. If they had been told which tomb he was buried in, a different tomb could have been deliberately pointed out, or the body already removed. This is especially important, because we have no record of Jews or guards looking in the tomb to make sure a body was there before closing it up. Matthew only says that they put a seal on a tomb which had already been closed by Joseph (27.66). So we must admit that the actual body could have been taken anywhere from the start, especially since it was “taken” by a wealthy supporter, who could buy anyone’s silence or complicity. The mere fact that Pilate allowed him to take the body shows that Joseph had an awesome degree of influence: that he was a rich and influential member of the elite, and a Christian convert, is claimed by the gospels themselves (cf. Matt. 27.57, Mk. 15.43, Luke 23.50-51, John 19.38).

Most importantly, no guards or suspicions of mischief were raised until a day later (27.62-63). This means that Joseph had carte blanche with the body. Matthew 27.57-61 records that Joseph was given the body directly, and sealed the tomb himself. The only ones recorded as being with him are the two women, also supporters of the movement. So even if the accusation of theft, even if the guards, are genuine events, as Matthew himself writes the guards were only requested a day later. By then the body could already have been stolen, Jesus could already have escaped, or never even been in the supposed tomb when guards were finally posted on watch.

As one can see, these factors make the chance of Jesus escaping detection rather great. What do I think the odds are that Jesus escaped detection, given the fact that he had at least a full day with no one guarding him? I will say the odds cannot possibly be lower than 1 in 5 (20%). The chance that he did in fact have a full day to himself and his supporters? Based on the account as given by the Christians themselves, at least 80%. And if we include the odds that the guard story is an invention, and thus that there were no guards at all, there is an additional 33% chance that Jesus had a day or more to himself. What about the chance that guards were immediately posted, yet that Jesus, having survived, still escaped detection by some means like a hole in the tomb or a switcheroo or bribery? I will give this a mere 1% chance. We end up with a 33% chance of a 20% chance of escape, and a 67% chance that the odds of escaping are roughly 33%, based on an 80% chance it was 20% vs. a 20% chance it was only 1%, or (.8 x .2) + (.2 x .01) = 0.162. This makes for a total chance of escape equal to (0.33 x 0.2) + (0.67 x 0.162) = 17% (0.17454).

X. Adding Things Up

The combined odds of survival, misdiagnosis, and escape are thus, in my opinion, 0.0002674 (roughly 1 in 4000; see equation below). That means that given what we know about this event, as calculated so far, I must believe there is at least 1 chance in 4000 that nothing miraculous occurred, since even survival is as likely as that. However, another important factor (the chance a resurrection claim would be believed after a mere survival: explained next in Section XI) pulls these odds down to 0.000147363, or 0.015%–roughly 1 chance in 6800. So we will conclude with that.

Am I being too liberal? I doubt it. In every case I have estimated odds even lower than are probably correct, and as low as I think any reasonable person could honestly set them. But cut the final odds in half, quarter them, even cut them to a tenth that figure, and we still have odds that are too great to rule out. Even if there were only 1 chance in 68,000 of survival accounting for the evidence, that would still be good enough a chance to discount any miraculous explanation. For who needs to resort to “miracles” to account for what can occur even once in 68,000 times under the same conditions? It is amazing, truly, but not impossible–as we began, we noted that even an event that occurs only once in 100 million lives is still not miraculous. You might as well use a royal flush in a local poker game as proof of God’s divine might. Royal flushes and resurrections are two separate things, so comparing them directly would be a false analogy. But I do not mean to compare the events. I compare only the odds of either event being natural rather than miraculous. If survival in all the same circumstances (as far as we can know them) by natural means can happen once in 68,000 tries, yet the odds of a royal flush happening naturally are roughly 1 in 650,000 (see Royal Flush Odds), and we know royal flushes happen without being regarded as miracles, why should we regard something that is over four thousand times more likely as miraculous? Even if we try to argue that more poker hands have been dealt than people have died, we still don’t escape the fact that this comparison is merely an illustration. For even if only one hand of poker were ever dealt in history, and it was a royal flush, we would still be unjustified in calling it a miracle. In fact, it would hardly occur to us to make such a claim. We would merely say “Wow! What a coincidence!”

Thus, no matter what you argue, an event that can happen 1 in 68,000 times is still not rare enough to regard as a miracle. That it has not happened more often is due to the fact that the same circumstances have not presented themselves, just as they have not generated another Winston Churchill. Indeed, I will say that the odds of an eclipse meeting the Battle of Pydna were astronomical–pardon the pun. Yet it happened. Do we need a miracle to explain it, simply because it was so amazing a coincidence? A 1 in 68,000 chance of survival is vastly more likely to see out than the event at Pydna, and yet every reasonable consideration leads us to a hugely more achievable 1 in 6800 chance of survival. Thus, we cannot seek an explanation in miracle. We simply have no grounds. We would have something to argue with if we could state how often miracles happen. If we knew 1 in every 1000 amazing events was a genuine miracle, if we could prove miracles that common, then miracle would be more likely than survival in this case. But since we do not really know for sure of any miracles happening at all, much less how often an amazing event is genuinely miraculous, we are left back where we started: natural explanations are simply more likely. Indeed, this is true even if the resurrection just happened to be a real miracle. Hence the point made in my General Case for Insufficiency.


  • A = Odds of Surviving Several Hours on the Cross: 33% (0.33) [II]
  • B = Odds of Being Drugged: 1% (0.01) [III]
  • C = Odds of Being Mistaken for Dead if he was not Drugged: 0.1% (0.001) [V]
  • D = Odds of Being Mistaken for Dead if he was Drugged: 50% (0.50) [V]
  • E = Odds of Surviving the Spear Wound: 10% (0.10) [VII]
  • F = Odds that Spearing Story is False: 75% (0.75) [VII]
  • G = Odds that there were no Guards: 33% (0.33) [VIII]
  • H = Odds of Jesus Escaping Tomb Given at Least a Day Unguarded: 20% (0.20) [IX]
  • K = Odds of Guards Being a Day Late: 80% (0.80) [IX]
  • L = Odds of Jesus Escaping Given Immediate Guards: 1% (0.01) [IX]
  • M = Odds that Whole Event Was a Well-Planned Trick: 1% (0.01) [XI]
  • N = Odds that Whole Story Was Made Up Later: 10% (0.10) [XI]
  • P = Odds that Whole Story Started from a Mistake or Delusion: 50% (0.50) [XI]
  • Q = Odds of Such a Well-Planned Trick Being Successful: 25% (0.25) [XI]

[{F x A x [(B x D) + ([1 – B] x C)]}
survival unspeared
{(1 – F) x A x E x [(B x D) + ([1 – B] x C)]}]
survival speared
[(G x H) + ([1 – G] x [(K x H) + {(1 – K) x L}])]
[1 – {(1 – [M x Q]) x (1 – N) x (1 – P)}]
story believed


[{0.75 x 0.33 x [(0.01 x 0.50) + ([1 – 0.01] x 0.001)]}
{(1 – 0.75) x 0.33 x 0.10 x [(0.01 x 0.50) + ([1 – 0.01] x 0.001)]}]
[(0.33 x 0.20) + ([1 – 0.33] x [(0.80 x 0.20) + {(1 – 0.80) x 0.01}])]
[1 – {(1 – [0.01 x 0.25]) x (1 – 0.10) x (1 – 0.50)}]




0.000147363 = 0.015% = 1 in 6786

XI. How Do We Account for the Rise of Christianity?

I do not believe Jesus survived. I think my General Case for Spiritual Resurrection more closely describes what happened, since the rise of a religion from the ashes of a defeat is more probable than its continuation from some kind of survival scenario, at least given the evidence as we have it. This essay’s aim has not been to argue what I think happened, but to show that the event does not qualify as a miracle, on the grounds that at least one natural explanation (survival), possibly even the least likely one at that, is still within the realm of the naturally possible (see Section I). But an interesting question can still be asked: “How do you explain the development of early Christianity if Jesus was not truly raised from the dead?” This question has been asked many times in many different forms, and it deserves a lot of space here. Although my essay seeks only to examine whether the “resurrection” itself was a miracle from a god, and not the development of the Christian creed, the two are not unrelated.

In general, it would be sufficient that the original witnesses thought (or deceitfully taught) that Jesus was truly raised from the dead, either spiritually or physically. It is not at all necessary, nor even more likely, that such teachings should follow only a true resurrection, and this is why I think an actual death is more likely than survival to have generated the faith of Christianity, so I will say something on why I come to this conclusion. I will discuss in my General Case for Spiritual Resurrection various reasons and motives why this story would be believed or told by eye-witnesses (and I say more in my Main Argument). As for men like Paul (the true father of Christianity) and all converts to the creed, their faith in the original story’s truth would not really depend on whether the story was true, since they could not, and as far as we know did not, check. All that mattered was whether the story’s tellers were believed, and it is quite demonstrable that audiences were ready to believe almost anything in those days. I have written an essay on this very point, “Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire.”

Thus, the only relevant concern is the probability that those few eye-witnesses would transmit such a story given that it was not a genuine resurrection. This is complicated by the fact that the early Christian creed may not have involved a physical resurrection at all. It is most likely, in my opinion, that Christianity began with the message that Jesus was raised in a spiritual sense (by being given a new, better body and leaving the old one behind), which was inspired the same way most religious beliefs are: through dreams, hallucinations, or inspired interpretations of scripture, etc. If so, then we do not need to explain why the “witnesses” would tell such a story, since such a story can arise by natural causes and would be very easy to believe, and there were sufficient motives and expectations that would lead to such a belief. All that would then need explaining is how this early faith transformed into the belief in a physical resurrection (see Note 5).

But if we allow the alternative, that a physical resurrection was believed or taught by some of the eye-witnesses as a result of (or in combination with) Jesus surviving, we must explain why they would do that. Of course, it may not have been taught by all of them: the earliest source we have is Paul, who was not an eye-witness and may have taught a different gospel, the others agreeing that in principle it was the same message and that the details were less relevant. This is suggested by the letters of Peter, where emphasis is placed on the transfiguration and none on the resurrection, and Paul’s claim that he was willing to adjust his message to suit his audience (1 Corinthians 9.19-23). But if a physical resurrection was in the message of at least some of the eye-witnesses who preached the creed, there are the possibilities of design (whether with or without the collusion of the witnesses, e.g. the sponge theory, the escape theory, etc.), or of fabrication or delusion, which allow plenty of room for stories of miraculous survival to arise or be developed among the followers of Jesus after he actually died.

If he survived, however, some argue this would produce a different result: namely, the witnesses would see him as having narrowly escaped death, and not as having been divinely resurrected. This is not necessarily true. Although this is more likely if the survival was an accident, it is less so if it was by some design, and if it was design, we will never know it, for any definite proof of fraud would have been covered up at once, and it is only when keen skeptics were on hand that ancient fraudulent miracles were uncovered (cf. Hippolytus Refutation of All Heresies, Lucian Alexander the Quack Prophet, etc.). We have no writings from any such person who is even aware of Christianity in the first century, thus no keen skeptic checked the facts when they were still able to be checked. It may also have been partly both: Jesus may have, as he is portrayed to have, preached that he would be resurrected, and may have even believed it himself, such that his accidental survival would be readily interpreted in light of this expectation, even by himself.

But the question remains: Why would appearing half-dead and desperately in need of medical attention evoke worship of Jesus as triumphant? This question was first advanced by David Friedrich Strauss in his second “Life of Jesus” in 1864. The question assumes, naturally, that there was no plan, before or afterward, by anyone, to alter the account for the greater good of the cause, and that Jesus did in fact appear half-dead and “desperately” in need of medical attention. Assaf did not, after given a brief time to recover, and Jesus was not as badly injured as he. There is also the possibility that Jesus held a self-delusion of immortality, or other religious passions, which could cause him to ignore his state or act as if he was unhurt, behavior which might actually have prevented his long-term survival at the expense of seeming fine in the short term, a course of events not unheard of in history or medical science. The question also assumes that the witnesses would not delude themselves, because of their own needs and expectations, something I think was very likely, based on what even I have seen of the behavior of fanatics. Finally, Jesus might not have appeared so unwell as Strauss suggests. Moreover, John records Jesus was still wounded when Thomas handled him, for example, so clearly Jesus looking wounded did not dissuade any Christians from believing he was raised. Fanaticism, drugs, or delusion could sustain Jesus in the appearance of remaining strong and victorious in spite of his injuries–at first–but the problem of “after” remains.

Thus, we are left with the question of where he went afterwards, for which we have no clue as to the answer, but then we would not expect to. This is one of the reasons that I find survival, though still possible, to be the weaker explanation, though I don’t think it entirely incredible. Did he go into the wilds somewhere and die anonymously? Indeed, he could have gone into a secluded spot to pray and died, or dropped dead on a road to anywhere, never to be found, devoured by animals, or buried by an unknowing stranger. He may even have intended to preach to Jews in Persia, and died on the way, or in some other foreign country. Or did one or two faithful converts, or all of them, quickly cover up his genuine death for the good of the cause? See my discussion of Paul’s Vision for what that greater good could have been. Or was his second death interpreted as an ascension by most observers by reason of delusion or expectation, and his body disposed of in some secret fashion, by someone more privy to the truth? These hypotheses become increasingly unlikely. Still, whether his brief survival was seen as miraculous or not (assuming he survived at all), there remained good reasons to cover it up and portray it as miraculous, or to miss his death altogether.

His message may have been seen as too important, or his followers may have seen their position as too precarious, to let the truth escape. There also remain good reasons to misinterpret it as miraculous: it would be natural for the defeated followers to deny the reality, to find any delusion to cling to, in order to restore their faith in his divinity and power, and justify all the time and credulous faith they had placed in him and his message, as well as to convince themselves that they, too, will be chosen and resurrected, and thus escape death, the hope of all hopes. Lest anyone think this unlikely, I offer the case of Jonestown: several survivors have, in order to preserve their faith that Jim Jones was good and divine, concocted stories of secret government hit squads, and still today stick by their “eye-witness” accounts of groups of soldiers firing machineguns into the crowds, despite overwhelming evidence that only a few dozen were killed by firearms (and they only by single pistol-shot to the head each), the other 900 by suicidal doses of poisoned punch. For example, see Michael Meiers, Was Jonestown a CIA Medical Experiment? A Review of the Evidence, published by Mellon Press, which also published four other books by Jonestown survivors, all with bizarre “eyewitness” accounts justifying their participation in, and one might think, guilt-ridden survival of, the Jonestown disaster (see Note 6).

Nevertheless, after considering all of this, I agree the odds that Jesus “survived” are affected by the evidence that his survival was eventually taught as miraculous. One must consider the possibilities of design, before or after the fact, of fabrication or hyperbole, and of misinterpretation or delusion, and then account for the possibilities that his actual death afterward would be covered up or unmentioned in any record.

(1) The first possibility is that of design. I have already estimated the odds of this at 1%, based on the very odd detail of the sponge (not to mention the odd burial arrangements, early removal, etc.). It is interesting to note that the Zalmoxis story may have been heard by Jesus or a colleague and inspired the idea of a similar plan. It is even possible that this plan failed, and that Jesus died even though he expected to survive by deceit, at which his colleagues might have tried to salvage the plan by hiding the body. Regardless of these musings, given that the resurrection was in any way a set-up, what do I think are the chances that it would go off as planned and thus produce the desired result (the story as we have it)? In that day and age, and given the unusual arrangements allowed as shown in the record, and the fact that such a plot had probably worked before (in the case of Zalmoxis), such a plan must have had at least a 25% chance of success, including covering up his actual death later, for a final chance of 0.01 x 0.25 = 0.25%.

(2) The second possibility is fabrication. I will detail in my next essay some reasons to suspect this, but I will still only give it a 10% chance, giving the followers the benefit of a doubt, and accounting for the difficulties of pulling off such a lie–even though they are not actually great, especially if the first story was ambiguous as to whether it was a physical resurrection, and considering that, according to Acts 1:3 (and 2:1-14), they waited over 40 days before spreading the story, and that Christianity was mainly initially successful outside of Palestine, and then eventually had to expand to Gentiles, failing to increase its success among Jews. All these facts tend to support a scam of some sort, over a real miracle. But certainly at least 1 in 10 people would be willing to try something like this, even if they were entirely well-meaning–in fact, because of such higher motives–and we know there were dozens of people following Jesus, thus several would have been willing to attempt a pious fraud if they saw the merit in it, for furthering the moral cause of Jesus or their own standing among their peers.

(3) The third possibility is misinterpretation or delusion. This encompasses all cases where Jesus dies without anyone’s knowledge in an unknown place. I think the chances of this are not bad. Even in the accounts themselves, the witnesses seem overly receptive to such an effect. For instance, Mary sees a gardener and then thinks it is Jesus and acts as such (cf. Section IX of my General Case for Spiritual Resurrection). Normally, I would make the odds at least 75%, based on my belief that natural explanations are more likely than supernatural ones. But if I put aside that belief for a moment, I must still make the odds 50%, since the accounts themselves as analyzed in my next essay do not completely fit with an actual resurrection, but do largely fit the misinterpretation hypothesis (and on delusion or hallucination, see the relevant part of my discussion of Habermas on the Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus).

I concluded that the odds of survival were about 1 in 4000. I can now recalculate this according to the above observations, to account for the odds that survival would actually generate the religion as we have it. The odds that survival would produce the stories as we have them are, in my own estimation, equal to one minus the product of the chances that each option above would fail to account for the evidence, i.e. 1 – (0.9975 x 0.9 x 0.50) = 0.551125, so about 55%. Thus, the combined odds of both survival as reckoned above, and the production of the stories as we have them, is 0.0002674 x 0.551125 = 0.0001474, or 0.015%, roughly 1 in 6800 (see Previous Section). Again, even if we cut the odds by a factor of ten this remains true, since even 1 chance in 68,000 is still too good a chance to dismiss, given the extent of human history and comparisons with other, even more unlikely things, which have happened, and still happen, regularly.

Some ask “Well, isn’t it a little coincidental that the one who was purported to be the Christ was also the one who survived the rigors of crucifixion? What are the odds of that?” The odds are very good indeed. Countless people have survived even worse rigors, but no story of miracles surrounded their survival precisely because neither they nor their companions ever claimed such. What are the odds that an amazing event being trumped up as miraculous would produce stories that it was a miraculous event? Pretty good, I imagine. On the theory that he survived, it is precisely because Jesus’ extraordinary claims coincided with an otherwise unusual event that it became told as a miracle from a god rather than just an ordinary miracle of natural causes, like that of Assaf Ben-Orr. Few would even suspect a natural explanation in that day, for hardly anyone knew any better. To make anything more out of this is even worse than arguing that an eclipse occurring the very day of the Battle of Pydna, the most decisive victory ofRome overMacedonia, sealing the fate ofGreece for the next thousand years, is so improbable that it must have been a miracle from a god. It may have been a miracle by some definitions, but it was by no means a special act of a god. It is what reasonable people call a coincidence.

Note 1: I am not seeking the epistemic probability of what actually happened, and thus I am not engaging in Bayesian logic here. I am not, for example, ascertaining the relative likelihood of all possible explanations of the evidence (and there are far more than two), but only identifying how unlikely I think one particular explanation is given the relevant evidence and background knowledge (in effect this would form only the numerator of a Bayesian equation, though I arrive there in a roundabout way). For instance, it is often argued without any appeal to Bayes that the odds of life forming by chance are beyond all possibility of actually happening within the given size and age of the universe. This becomes groundless on careful examination (see, for example, my essay A Comprehensive Refutation of all Attempts to Calculate the Improbability of Life, with my forthcoming article in Biology & Philosophy). But the principle is the same: it is argued that an explanation is too improbable even to consider. That is the only argument I am addressing here–not an argument to the best explanation, which is what Bayes quantifies. For more details on how this relates to the definition of a “miracle,” see my discussion of Purtill’s Case for Miracles.

Note 2: I discuss the historical and philosophical issues surrounding ancient miracles in detail in my Review of In Defense of Miracles, and of the credulity of witnesses in “Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire.

Note 3: There is evidence in archaeology and in Philo (a 1st century Jewish writer) suggesting there was such a practice, used on occasions like the onset of a major Holy Day, which may or may not have taken place on the day Jesus was removed. For the whole story on the likely treatment of the crucified, see my other essays Jewish Law, the Burial of Jesus, and the Third Day and Doctors Pronounce Jesus Dead!; see also: Jesus and Jehohanan: An Archaeological Note on Crucifixion.

Note 4: For a more thorough case, see: Richard Carrier, “The Guarded Tomb of Jesus and Daniel in the Lion’s Den: An Argument for the Plausibility of Theft,” Journal of Higher Criticism 8.2 (Fall 2001), pp. 304-18, which I have updated as a chapter in a forthcoming anthology on the resurrection from Prometheus Books.

Note 5: I believe this change could have occurred as a result of any or all of the following possibilities:

How Christianity Could Change from a Spiritual to a Physical Resurrection Belief

(1) Increased rhetorical need to win converts. A physical resurrection is a more concrete and wonderful proof of victory over death, and we have indications that these stories were changed to make them more convincing or impressive, e.g. compare Paul’s three conversion stories in Acts with his own account in Galatians (cf. 3a); also, the late Coptic development of an appearance story for Mark, all the way to John’s Doubting Thomas story (cf. Lecture), the possible fiction of the guarded tomb (cf. 2g), and so on. There is some evidence, too, that more people wanted a resurrection of the flesh, thus making Christianity more popular would require serving the needs of its market.

(2) Confusion by later members over what the original message was. This is likely especially at a distance. Paul shows in his many letters, especially 1 Corinthians, that perversion of doctrine was a going problem even when he was alive. And this is even more likely after the death of the original preachers, and the widespread ruin and confusion caused by the Jewish War in the 60’s AD, resulting in the destruction of the church at its source. Indeed, the fact that the appearance stories are very ambiguous as to whether they were physical or spiritual (as I argue in my General Case for Spiritual Resurrection) could easily be the product of the confusing nature of a message being differently told, and differently heard, by numerous preachers and hearers of the creed. In fact, a belief in the physicality of the resurrection may have been inspired by the Gospel of Mark, whose original version had no appearances but did depict an empty tomb, which may have been a literary invention with a merely symbolic meaning, later misinterpreted as historical and leading to elaborations of physical appearances. This confusion might even be expected, as the result of defensive “hedging,” as Paul declares to be his own strategy: “I am all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9.19-23). This would result in alterations and ambiguities in the story, in an attempt to satisfy all hearers, which would exacerbate confusion over what really happened.

(3) Some doctrinal dispute now lost to us. Lost, that is, due to the victory of one orthodoxy and the suppression of all other views under the title of “heresy.” In other words, the physical resurrection may simply have been one interpretation that won the propaganda war after the church was well under way, and thus only the Gospels favorable to such an interpretation survive. The four gospels were selected in the 160’s by Tatian, and the other books chosen by Irenaeus in the 180’s, yet heresies were being declared even as early as the 140’s (against Marcion, for example). We know there were controversial versions of events that were suppressed before the orthodox canon was chosen (see my essay The New Testament Canon). Most scholars agree there were divisions in the Church from very early on, and even Paul attests to their existence in his letters–yet gives us very little information about his opponents or their views.

(4) The idea was imported through syncretism with other religious beliefs. This is especially likely when the creed mingled in Greek society, where traditions of physical resurrection already existed (cf. Herodotus 4.94-96, Plutarch Moralia 973e-974a, Lucian Philospeudes / Lover of Lies 13 & 26, Origen Contra Celsum 2.55, 3.26, 3.32-33, Diogenes Laertius 8.67-8, Apuleius Metamorphoses 2.28 and Florida 19, 10.11-12, Apollonius Mirabilia 2-6, Pseudo Aristotle De Mirabilibus Auscultationibus 839a, Phlegon De Mirabilibus 1-3; later, Philostratus Life of Apollonius of Tyana 4.45). In fact, there were even Hebrew precedents (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:19-37) and the Christians clearly accepted something like it very early (Mark 5:21-43 [Matt. 9:18-26, Luke 8:40-56], Luke 7:11-17, Acts 9:36-43 & 14:19-20, John 11:5-44). Apologists often parrot the false claim that a physical resurrection was “anathema” to the Greek mind, yet the evidence I cite above shows otherwise (and I give a clearer argument with new information in my Main Argument). Moreover, the only evidence Christians offer for this “anathema” theory is Acts 17:30-32, but that passage actually proves that many Greeks were receptive to the idea. The passage tells us that “some of [the Greeks] sneered, but others said ‘we want to hear you again on this subject’…[and] a few became followers of Paul and believed.” Does this look like the idea was “anathema” to the Greek mind? Hardly. Likewise, the distinction between “resurrection” and “resuscitation” did not exist in the Greek or Hebrew languages: the same words meant both. The conceptual distinction was Jewish, inherited long before from their Zoroastrian captors, and would fully explain how the Jews would adopt pagan resuscitation beliefs and transform them into Jewish resurrection beliefs.

Note 6: In addition to this example, Kenneth & Talita Paolini document the desperation to believe that typifies many people, who get involved in cults even today, in their book 400 Years of Imaginary Friends (2000), and then there is the famous analysis of fanatics by Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (1951).

General Case for Spiritual Resurrection:
Evidence Against Resurrection of the Flesh

I do not believe Jesus survived. Still, the fact that we can cast some doubt on it (see Probability of Survival vs. Miracle) proves that an apparent “resurrection” was not improbable enough to demand a miraculous explanation. On the other hand, if we accept that he died, as I do, then there is an even greater suspicion cast on his actually appearing afterward, “in the flesh” so to speak. My arguments in the following sections do not seek to prove that the appearance accounts, as stated in the texts, can’t be true. Rather, I argue they have ready alternative explanations. Numerous aspects of the stories make more sense when given natural rather than supernatural explanations (e.g. seeing a gardener as Jesus, adding legendary embellishments to the story to sell or attack a particular dogma, etc.), and these natural explanations are credible enough that there is no good reason to resort to miraculous explanations. Ultimately, there are enough fishy details in these accounts to suggest they are not telling us everything.

This chapter presents only some of the evidence convincing me. I present and defend all the evidence known to me, in thorough and scholarly detail, in an extensive chapter entitled “The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb,” in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (2005), edited by Bob Price and Jeff Lowder (pp. 105-232), for which I have also composed a FAQ that covers any remaining ground. I summarized only some of the evidence presented in that book in a public debate at UCLA (below). Readers should be advised that in many ways the content of the following article is out of date, being improved, revised, and superseded by those materials just mentioned.

I. Paul’s Vision: Causes and Motives

The first recorded appearance story (in terms of when it was written, not when it was supposed to have happened) is of the appearance to Paul, and it is clearly a vision. In one account, he does not see Jesus, only a flash of light (9.3-5), and those with him do not see Jesus, but only hear him (Acts 9.7). Paul could have been speaking in another voice, which the others took as Jesus (or which the author of Acts portrays them as taking to be Jesus, since we don’t have their account of it, after all). But the fact that no one, not even Paul, saw Jesus in the flesh makes the point well enough. Most importantly, Paul never says in his letters that he ever saw Jesus in the flesh (he even denies it in Galatians 1). Moreover, this particular encounter in Acts has all the earmarks of something like a seizure-induced hallucination: Paul alone sees a flash of light, collapses, hears voices, and goes blind for a short period. An embolism is sufficient to cause or explain all of this. We can add to this the fact that the earliest manuscripts of the earliest gospel, Mark, do not describe any appearances of Jesus.

Paul gives other accounts of his vision which claim that others saw it, too. Doesn’t this suggest a genuine vision from God? First of all, there is still never any mention of Jesus appearing in the flesh. Rather, all that appears is a light from heaven (phôs ek tou ouranou, 9.3; ek tou ouranou…phôs, 22.6; ouranothen…phôs, 26.13). So even if several saw the light, it can still have a natural explanation, from lightning to a reflection from a distant object, or even a simple ray of sunlight peaking through a cloud, any of which could also have induced a seizure or affected Paul emotionally, causing an hallucination (or inspiration). And since we don’t have the story from any of these other observers, the story could be embellished or fabricated at leisure, for whatever reason. In my opinion, Paul may have seen in Christianity a way to save the Jews from destruction at the hands of the Romans by displacing their messianic motives to rebel, and creating a new Judaism more agreeable to the Gentiles, open to all and thus uniting rather than dividing, and more submissive to outside authority by internalizing and spiritualizing religious faith, eliminating messianic (and violent) emphasis on the Temple, and postponing material and social complaints by referring them to an afterlife. This could have been a deliberate or a subconscious motivator for Paul and others leading the movement. In Paul’s case, guilt at what he had done to good people, and admiration for their moral program and fortitude, may have also played an emotional role.

It is important to consider what this “greater good” was that Paul may have seen in the Christian reform of Judaism. Paul may have seen the clouds gathering on the horizon–the coming Jewish War. The Judaism of Jesus–Jesus was not a heretic, after all, but a proper Jew, and taught a reform of Judaism–offered an ideal solution to what any intelligent man would have seen to be the impending doom of his people and his faith. Violence was certain to bring about the destruction ofJerusalembyRome. The fate two centuries earlier ofCarthage, andCorinth–a place with whose history Paul must have been very familiar–proved that. And the Jewish desire for a savior was becoming militarized. Josephus records the rising violent messianism rising from the twenties all the way to the war in the sixties. Then,Jerusalemwas destroyed. Millions were enslaved or killed. TheTempleTaxwas redirected to Jupiter.

This is why I see in the teachings of Jesus what Paul may have seen: an obvious way for him to save his people and his faith, by teaching a non-violent submission to Rome, a concentration on inner rather than outer expressions of faith, and a displacement of present complaints by promising an accounting after death, and in an apocalypse, and the expansion of the faith beyond racial limits, which was already the secret to the success and acceptance of other Asian religions by Rome, such as that of Cybele and Isis. In doing this, he would succeed in removing those features of other popular messianic movements which were increasingly violent, and overtly divisive and offensive to the occupying power. Moreover, tens of thousands had been killed in riots over the Roman treatment of the Temple, and a reform which would take attention away from that hotbed of violence would have been ideal (note how this destructive focus persists even to this day, as Muslims and Jews kill each other over what is really no more than an old pile of stones).

We also have to consider, as I note, the effects of guilt. Paul persecuted the early followers, but what if he realized this was wrong? Indeed, if he realized, consciously or not, that this new reform was essential to the survival of his people and their faith, the guilt may have been unbearable–yet it could be easily atoned for by conversion, support, and penance in the form of enduring the persecution that he “deserved” (an eye for an eye). This becomes even more likely when we consider that Paul never saw Jesus in the flesh. Since he only saw a light and heard a voice, long after Jesus had died, if his guilt and his realization of the need for this new reform led to an epiphany, a moment of clarity, or even combined with the physical effects of an optical illusion, embolism, or other event, which he interpreted as a vision from God, telling him what his conscience was already coming to realize, then all of this becomes a plausible, realistic, and unsupernatural explanation, which happens to fit the facts fairly well.

I think it is most likely that the original experience was a real, seizure-induced vision, or a psychosomatic effect produced by guilt, because the author of Acts gives the first account as narrative, but the other two are Paul’s speeches and thus affected by their need to persuade a particular audience. Thus, the second two accounts contradict the first by claiming his attendants saw the light but did not hear the voice (Acts 22.9 vs. 9.7, where they hear the voice but see no one), and the third account is suspiciously elaborated (26.13-19), with important details omitted from the other two accounts: he claims that his attendants fell to the ground in reaction to the light, yet the first account said that they stood (9.7 vs. 26:14) and did not see anything, and in both previous accounts he also says that he, not ‘they’, fell (9:4, 22:7 vs. 26:14), and that the light flashed around him, not ‘them’ (9:3, 22:6 vs. 26:13), and though the light was so bright it blinded him (brighter than the sun: 26:13), for some reason it did not blind them (22:11, 9:8); he also claims in the last speech that God gave full instructions, yet in the other two accounts God says to Paul that he will get these instructions later, from Ananias. But Ananias is not even mentioned in the third account. Is Paul modifying his story for different audiences? Has the story grown over time? Which account are we to believe? They can’t all be true.

The most troubling detail is that Paul claims that he was blinded because of the extreme brightness of the light (9:8, 22.11, 26:13), yet was led for days by his attendants, who could obviously still see. This casts suspicion on his claim that the others saw the light. And since all three accounts are presumably from Paul, he may certainly have altered his memory, or embellished the story to make it more persuasive. Indeed, he might have assumed, or wanted to believe, that the others also saw the light and heard “something” (though obviously they did not hear what he did, since they didn’t understand any voice that he heard) or even fell along with him (which he could not really have observed, being blinded). Since, again, we don’t have their account we cannot know what they actually saw or heard or did. It is likely they neither saw nor heard anything, but respected Paul’s experience as genuine, and might even have told him they thought they might have seen or heard something (and may have stooped to catch him as he fell, which he interpreted as their falling with him).

It is also rather likely that the author of Acts is taking liberties with what Paul actually reported. This suspicion rises in force if we notice that when Paul gives us his own account in his own writings, we get an incompatible story: in particular, no mention of attendants, or Ananias. Indeed, he flatly states that he did not receive the gospel from man, and that excludes Ananias or anyone else (Galatians 1.12); he says there that he ‘returned’ to Damascus right away, but still does not mention Ananias. In fact, he would be contradicting himself if he did, since his point is that he did not speak to any Christians after his vision, until three years later, and then only to Peter and James (Galatians 1.17-20), and did not return to Jerusalem with Barnabas to reveal his conversion and missionary activities to the church until fourteen years after that (Galatians 2.1-2). Nowhere in this account does he mention people being with him during his conversion. No one else is reported to have seen or heard or even been present when Paul had his vision. Since Paul’s own writings are earlier and more authoritative concerning his own life than Acts, which was written by another man almost certainly after Paul had been dead for some years, all the accounts given in Acts are highly suspect, especially any claims that others saw the same light as Paul or heard “something” (that they could not understand).

II. Was There an Early Tradition of Appearances in the Flesh?

Contrary to my argument that there is no evidence in the earliest traditions of any appearances by Jesus in the body that had been buried, it has been suggested that 1 Corinthians 15:5-7 and Mark 14:28 and 16:7 show that Paul and Mark obviously believed in postmortem appearances of Christ of some sort. But I don’t argue against this. When Paul writes about appearances, just as that very passage shows (15.8), he includes his own vision, and makes no special distinction for meeting a restored corpse (he only makes a special distinction for the timing of his vision). I think it is almost certain that many people, such as Stephen (cf. Section IV of Probability of Survival vs. Miracle), had visions. People still do. People had visions of almost every god in antiquity, and still have visions of many gods and beings now, as well as of the deceased, among other bizarre things (cf. Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, for the ancient cultural context of this kind of thing). The Markan passages likewise make no clear distinction, and thus could refer to visions, not appearances in the flesh. Acts reports many clear examples of hypnagogic hallucinations and similar phenomena (7:55-56, 10:1-7, 11:5-14, 12:6-11, 16:9-10, 22:17-21; all the gospels, likewise, place the appearances of Jesus very near dawn, exactly when hypnagogia is most common). Moreover, that Jesus claimed he would appear, and that someone else also claimed that he would, does not constitute an actual appearance, though it does explain how the expectation would be stirred. The Markan passage does not tell us whether the author thought there were appearances, or what sort of appearances he thought they might be.

This produces two interesting possibilities:

(1) Without the late addition to Mark, all Mark says is that there was the expectation of an appearance. He does not record an actual appearance. Why would that be? The Christian must explain this. It is not enough to say some ending was lost and then added or replaced, since the manuscripts of Mark are among the earliest we have, and these lack any ending at all. Why would an ending be lost so quickly? And if it was, what did it say? I am inclined to think that Mark ended it there because appearances were a private, personal experience to be related only in secret. The disappearance was enough to represent his victory over death and hence his divinity. An ascension, whether deduced from or associated with a missing body or not, is a standard motif in the deification of mortals in antiquity. The meaning of the resurrection could also have originally been part of a secret doctrine of initiation. Peter’s use of the terminology of a mystery religion suggests this possibility, and John’s description of the Thomas episode behind closed doors also looks like such a ceremony (more on this below), and the obvious confusion in all the gospels as to what actually happened after his death could easily be the result of a once-secret doctrine now being corrupted as bits of it enter public knowledge, or as speculation generates its own answers.

(2) The Markan passages are consistent with the possibility that resurrection into a spiritual body was meant, and the wording even suggests that. The most basic meaning of both passages in Greek is “I will escort you {plural} into Galilee” (proaxô hymas eis tên Galilaian, 14.28) and “he escorts you {plural} into Galilee” (proagei hymas eis tên Galilaian, 16.7). The verb proagô means “to lead forward, or to lead before.” By analogy this verb can mean various other things, including “to go before,” but usually only in the sense of going with, e.g. as in leading a military advance, leading the way in a dark room, etc. The verb can also mean to increase, to produce, to call up an apparition, to persuade, etc., in each case by analogy with the idea of “leading foreward.” Note, for example, the verb as used in 1 Timothy 1.18: “the prophecies previously made concerning you,” literally, “the prophecies having lead the way to you” (tas proagousas epi se prophêteias). Furthermore, even those uses which mean in some sense “going before” are intransitive, i.e. they cannot take an accusative object (cf. The Greek New Testament, 4th revised ed., p. 149). When an accusative object appears (and in both passages it does: the plural pronoun “you” hymas), it must be transitive, and that means it must mean in some sense lead. Why would Jesus (or Mark) choose this verb, instead of a dozen others that actually mean “go before”? It may be idiosyncratic, it may be bad grammar, but it may be that something else was meant than later Christian interpreters thought. That this exact phrase appears twice in the oldest known gospel suggests that it may be a very early proverb associated with Jesus or the disciples’ perception of him, but this also means it is very prone to reinterpretation by later readers, as most Christian doctrine has been. The phrase may have simply meant that his spirit would be upon them and lead them, inspire them, to go toGalilee–where, for instance, there would be a dream or vision concerning him, a concept present throughout Acts and the epistles. Indeed, I believe this is the most likely interpretation.

III. What About the “Hundreds” of Eye Witnesses?

Paul claims there are hundreds of eye witnesses, many alive at the very time of his writing (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Doesn’t that make invention as well as delusion unlikely? Paul, remember, includes himself among the witnesses (15:8). Yet we know that Paul was not an eye-witness. He only saw a light and heard a voice, well after Jesus had already been “taken up.” So this passage cannot mean anything more than that hundreds have seen Jesus in visions, not necessarily in person. The verb “appeared” used several times in this passage is ôphthê (from horaô), which is as vague in Greek as in English. Used in the passive voice, as it is here, it means only “was seen” or “appeared” and frequently means “appeared in a vision” (as in the case of Paul’s vision, cf. Acts 9:17), and could have meant something merely internal and spiritual in the same sense as that of the vision of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2 (indeed, this is the only event in the New Testament that corresponds at all with what Paul claims–otherwise, there is no account anywhere of an appearance to hundreds).

Of course, one second-hand report of over 500 unnamed people, being sent to men in Greece (too far from Palestine to have any chance of checking the account), who may have seen a vision no more material than that of Paul himself–a man who all but declares that he is willing to fib, at least a little, to save lives by winning converts (1 Cor. 9:19-27)–is the flimsiest of evidence. And a vague, unconfirmable, hyperbolic assertion is just the sort of claim all men ought to suspect as rhetorical. Note also that Paul does not name any one of these witnesses, except Peter and James (though he does mention “the twelve” even though there were only eleven disciples when Jesus supposedly appeared, according to all the Gospels). These are not new witnesses being reported, but the same ones (or rhetorically invented ones). For all we know, Paul could have been including men who had an experience that was like that of Stephen in his list of witnesses (a martyr whose death he watched), even though we have no reason to believe Stephen was an eyewitness to any appearance of Jesus in the flesh. Paul could also have been reporting hearsay, which I think is most likely–after all, I seriously doubt he interviewed over 500 people, and so should you.

The bottom line is, this does not tell us anything about who saw what. Were there hundreds? What did they see? When exactly? Who were these people? Paul doesn’t say. So we can’t claim to know. See my discussion of hallucination in Habermas on the Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus.

IV. Could the Original Gospel Have Been a Resurrection of a Spiritual Body?

The following material is only a sample of a much greater body of evidence. See above for where I present more of the available evidence than I can include here.

All of the above is compounded by the fact that Paul fervently portrays the Resurrection as into a spiritual body, not the rising of a corpse: “the body you sow is not the body that will rise” (1 Corinthians 15:37, kai ho speireis, ou sôma to genêsomenon), for “a natural body is sown, but a spiritual body is raised” (1 Corinthians 15:44, speiretai sôma psychikon, egeiretai sôma pneumatikon, see also 15:50). This does not mean that Jesus was resurrected as a bodiless soul (there is no evidence Paul even believed in such a thing), but that he was resurrected by being given a new body, one not made of flesh or physical matter as we know it, but of some kind of ethereal, spiritual material. Thus, the distinction is not between bodily and nonbodily resurrection, but between a resurrection of a corpse vs. resurrection of a person into a superior body, leaving the corpse behind like a spent shell (or, as Origen called it, the corpse is like the discarded placenta).

Paul ardently insists (Galatians 1:11-24) that he was not taught the gospel by anyone in the flesh (“I did not consult with flesh and blood,” ou prosanethemên sarki kai haimati, 1:16), but by revelation from God (“I did not receive it from a man nor was I taught it, but through a revelation of Jesus the Messiah,” oude gar egô para anthrôpou parelabon auto oute edidachthên alla di’ apokalypseôs Iêsou Christou). The word for “revelation” is apokalypsis, the same word used for the title of the New Testament book of Revelations, and as there and elsewhere it means “manifestation” in a spiritual sense–a vision. (Pseudo-)Peter also argues this quite explicitly: 1 Peter 3:18 declares that Jesus was “put to death in flesh but made alive in spirit” (thanatôtheis men sarki zôopoiêtheis de pneumati), and in 1 Peter 5:1 he curiously omits any mention of an empty tomb or a resurrection in the flesh, even though the context would lead us to expect him to.

Certainly, nowhere in the account given in the Gnostic Acts of Peter is it said that Peter believed Jesus appeared in the flesh after death, but it gives exactly the opposite message. Likewise, the two epistles of Peter also make no mention of a resurrection of a corpse, nor even of an empty tomb for that matter. Indeed, when Peter (if we accept the letter as genuine) argues that he was an eyewitness (epoptê, literally an initiate in the highest rank of a mystery religion, but also meaning spectator) and that his teachings are not “cleverly devised tales” (sesophismenois mythois) he does not mention after-death appearances or the empty tomb, but only the transfiguration, and a voice from heaven heard at that time (2 Peter 1:16-19), which appeared in private to only a few (Peter, James, and John) before Jesus was killed. This is important, for it shows that the Resurrection appearances were not considered important evidence of divinity. Indeed, even if we accept the authenticity of the letters of James, Jude, and John, none of them mention an empty tomb or a resurrection of the flesh either.

The most decisive case of Paul’s view comes from an analysis of 1 Corinthians 15 (there is even more evidence than I have included here):

  1. Paul makes no distinction between his vision and appearances to the others, apart from when it happened (vv. 8, vs. 1-7). This makes it prima facie reasonable that all the appearances were understood by him to be visions and not literally physical in the sense portrayed by the Gospels of Luke and John.
  2. Paul’s distinction between “perishable” and “imperishable” bodies (vv. 42) is based on a distinction between earthly things and things of heaven (vv. 40, 47-9), and it was common belief in antiquity that the heavenly things were ethereal. Since Paul does not disclaim the common belief, he must be assuming his readers already accept it. This makes it prima facie reasonable that he means the “imperishable body” to be an ethereal one, not a body of flesh.
  3. Paul literally makes this distinction, calling the one a “natural body” (psychikos) and the other a “spiritual body” (pneumatikos), and says that they both coexist in one person (vv. 44), in that first there is a natural body which is then infused with a spiritual one (vv. 46), thus the resurrected body is clearly in his mind something lacking the physical body we know, the body that is conceived in a womb and only later infused with a sprit. He says outright (here and in 2 Cor. 4:16-5:9) that the body we know, the body of flesh, is sown only to die, and only this other, second body, the body of the spirit, rises to new life.
  4. The Christian lexicographer Photius understood psychikos to mean the “animal” part of man (Lexicon, s.v.), as opposed to the higher, spiritual part that was made in the image of God (and God is certainly not a body of flesh), and there is a lot of evidence that Paul meant this as well (cf. Section V).
  5. Paul distinguishes Adam and Jesus in a certain way that supports this: Adam is regarded as being alive in the psychic sense, Jesus as giving life in the pneumatic sense (vv. 45), and Paul relates them as opposites (also vv. 22), so that as Adam was given physical form, beginning the age of sin, Jesus transcended it, ending sin. For Adam was made of dust (crude matter), but the resurrected Jesus was not (vv.47, cf. 48-9).
  6. Paul says point blank that “flesh and blood cannot inherit thekingdomofGod” (vv. 50), because flesh and blood is the mortal, perishable body, and we are resurrected as an imperishable body (ibid.). It is thus plain that he does not believe that the resurrection involved flesh and blood, i.e a physical body in our familiar sense, but a different, ethereal body, like the same sort of body angels have (and according to the Gospels, Jesus said we shall be like angels, cf. Mk. 12:25; Mt. 22:30; Lk. 20:34-36).

We can also note how the entire context of 1 Corinthians 15, especially vv. 33ff., supports this interpretation. Paul is clearly trying to explain what the resurrected body is like, of which Christ’s resurrection is the first fruit, to Christians inCorinthwho want to know. Yet he works entirely from first principles, building a theological, scripturally-based argument. He never once does the obvious: simply quote the witness of the Disciples who saw Jesus’ resurrected body. Yet wouldn’t that make more sense? The only rationale Paul could have for not simply saying “The resurrected body is like this, because Peter saw it, and Thomas handled it,” etc. is that these things did not happen. Rather, just like Paul’s revelation, the original disciples must have seen Christ only in visions, so that appealing to them would add nothing to Paul’s case. Otherwise, why would he ignore this most important proof in defending his position against apparent heretics inCorinth?

We can find further support for such an idea in Philippians 3: this entire chapter is couched within a spurn-the-flesh and glorify-the-spirit theme. Paul has no confidence in the flesh anymore (3:3), and he equates confidence in the flesh with living as a Pharisee (3:4-5) when he was a persecutor (3:6) and not a Christian, and he rejected that law (and thus Pharisaism, by implication from 3:5) when he took to Christ (3:9). Thus, Paul is emphasizing that he is not a Pharisee any more, but a Christian, and has rejected Pharisaic obsessions with the law and with the flesh. This dovetails with the above perfectly: it is feasible that as long as Paul had a hard time accepting a spiritual resurrection, he persecuted the church, but when a vision taught to him that spiritual resurrection was real, he converted.

This answers the common objection that a Pharisee would not have believed a spiritual resurrection, since the Talmud and Mishnah (both Pharisaic texts) tell only of the rising of corpses. Upon converting to Christ, Paul flatly rejected Pharisaic doctrine. This is especially evident in the fact that as a Christian he rejected strict adherence to Jewish laws on diet and circumcision, things no Pharisee could ever have done. It is sometimes said that no Jew would have believed in a spiritual resurrection, but that is not true: it was only the sect of the Pharisees, not the Sadducees or Essenes or myriad other ideological factions among the Jews, which insisted on a resurrection of the flesh (though it is still not clear they all did), and this may explain Paul’s avid persecution of the church, just as his complete rejection of Pharisaism upon conversion could be explained if Christianity rejected the Pharisaic concept of a resurrection of the flesh.

This invites an opportunity to reveal how Evangelical apologists distort the facts and ignore scholarship, using assertion rather than evidence for their views. The entry “Resurrection” in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible reveals this quite elegantly. For Robinson, the man who writes the New Testament section of this, uses it as a podium for Evangelical apologetics rather than a presentation of objective scholarship, whereas Gaster, the man who writes the Old Testament section, is the only one who actually cites evidence and reflects the actual state of scholarship. It is evident the editors made no attempt to reconcile the contradictions created by these two halves of the same entry.

For instance, Gaster writes that “There was…some difference of opinion as to whether resurrection was spiritual or corporeal. This divergence comes out especially in the book of Enoch…” etc. He gives several examples. In contrast, Robinson writes that “it would have been inconceivable for a Jew to think of resurrection except in bodily terms,” etc. He gives no evidence outside the New Testament: a Christian, not a Jewish collection of documents, which were selected by only one particular sect of Christians at that. Worse, even this irrelevant “evidence” is extremely conjectural, based on Evangelical and apologetic interpretations of ambiguous statements. Instead, Gaster writes “There was no consensus concerning resurrection among the various Jewish sects which flourished in the days of the Second Commonwealth” and he examines each sect in turn, noting especially the Essene’s spiritualist view, and we know that the Essenes resembled the early Christians more than any other Jewish sect (for example, see Sid Green ‘s From Which Religious Sect Did Jesus Emerge?). This strongly suggests that the Christian sect of Judaism to which Paul converted was more like the Essenes in their views regarding the resurrection. Robinson makes no mention of varying sectarian views among the Jews and doesn’t even seem aware that there were other sects like the Essenes.

While Robinson quotes no scholarship and cites no evidence for his assertion, but merely gives an unjustified sweeping generalization about 1st century Judaism, Gaster writes that:

The view expressed in the [Dead Sea] Scrolls accord in general with those attributed by Josephus (Antiq. XVIII.i.5; War II.viii.11) to the Essenes, with whom, indeed, the Qumran sectaries may be identical…They held that although bodies were perishable, souls endured and mounted upward, the good to the realm of bliss, the evil to be consigned to a place of torment. This view is expressed also in Wisd. Sol. 3:1ff.; 5:16; Jub. 25; while something of the same kind–though without the reference to ultimate judgment–appears in Eccl. 12:7 (‘the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it’). The latter statement, it may be added, reproduces to a nicety the Iranian doctrine in the funeral inscription of Antiochus I of Commagene [ruled 69-36 BC in Commagene, a territory at the nape of Turkey and Syria], to the effect that the body will rest in the tomb ‘through immeasurable time,’ after the soul, ‘beloved of God, has been sent to the heavenly throne of Zeus Oromasdes’.

Thus, Gaster produces a wealth of evidence that what seems clearly to be Paul’s view (the flesh rots and only a spiritual body rises to inherit heaven) was in fact the view of many Essenes at the time, and was found in other nearby cultures influencing Judaism: for Zeus Oromasdes is Ahura Mazda, supreme lord of Zoroastrianism, and we know Judaism was infused with Zoroastrian ideas after the diaspora, which brought them into Persian lands; even the return was under Persian power, and Persian influence remained for some time, e.g. a flaming hell is clearly the mark of Zoroastrianism on Jewish thought, since it exists nowhere in the Old Testament, but is found in Judaism after their return from Zoroastrian Persia, which did have such a view. The very idea of resurrection itself was originally Zoroastrian, and borrowed by the Jews later (cf. Diogenes Laertius 1.9). Thus, it was more than possible for a Jew like Paul to imagine that Jesus had risen even if his old body was still in the grave. In contrast to Gaster, who proves his claim with abundant evidence and references, Robinson asserts the exact opposite, that “the notion that a man might be ‘spiritually’ raised while his body lay on in the tomb, would have seemed to the Jew an absurdity.” Robinson offers no evidence or references in support of this claim. Gaster’s article shames Robinson as much as it refutes him, yet they are back to back in the same reference book.

I say a little more in my Main Argument, and for more on why it is likely that Paul originally preached a spiritual resurrection, see David Friedman’s “Does 1 Corinthians Chapter 15 Teach a Physical or a Spiritual Resurrection?.” For rebuttals of some objections to this kind of argument, see my essay “Craig’s Empty Tomb and Habermas on the Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus.” Also important is the next section.

 V. What Do ‘Pneumatikos’ and ‘Psychikos’ Mean?

The following material is only a sample of a much greater body of evidence. See above for where I present more of the available evidence than I can include here.

aka “Psyche-like”

aka “Pneuma-like”

aka “Living Person”

aka “Holy Spirit”

[always something one can lose (Php. 2:30)]

[always something ethereal (2 Cor. 5:5)]

The above chart makes the meaning of these Greek words clear: psychikos and pneumatikos are adjectives, meaning something is made of, or is like, or shares the properties of the noun they are derived from, in this case psychê and pneuma respectively. When we look at the nouns, we find that their associations are clear: one is used typically to refer to a living body, hence a body of flesh and blood (a search of the letters of Paul shows this to be his usual use of the word); the other, always to a disembodied spirit. The word sôma, which they modify in 1 Cor. 15:44, means only a distinct thing with volume and location, it does not entail what that thing is made of or what its properties are or where it came from. Paul calls the resurrected a pneumatikos sôma to distinguish this pneuma from “the” Pneuma, or Holy Spirit, which is not a sôma because it is everywhere, whereas a resurrected soul is not everywhere, but has a distinct and localized existence as an individual. Paul clearly means to say that when we are resurrected, we become like the Holy Spirit, and cease to be what we are when we were alive (a living body made of dust), but unlike the Holy Spirit, our spirit is still organized as a new kind of body, more like Casper the Ghost.

It has been noted that Paul’s assertion that the resurrection is spiritual rather than natural, based on 1 Corinthians 15.44, requires that psychikos mean “physical.” This is not quite correct–even with a different sense, the distinction remains. There are six uses of this adjective in the New Testament: some translate 1 Corinthians 2:14-15 as:

The natural person does not accept what pertains to the Spirit of God, for to him it is foolishness, and he cannot understand it, because it is judged spiritually. The spiritual person, however, can judge everything but is not subject to judgment by anyone.

From this some conclude that psychikos does not mean ‘physical’ or ‘spatially-extended’ but means ‘under the control of natural desires’. That is correct–but the distinction is between the physical desires which stem from the animal body, the body of flesh (cf. Romans 7), and the spiritual desires that are apart from the body, and need to be freed from it. Hence, only the spirit (we might say “soul”) of man can know his own thoughts, and man’s spirit is the same as God’s spirit (1 Cor. 2:11), which of course is bodiless. That is the distinction made in 1 Cor. 15:45, where Adam, by being given a body–meaning a body of flesh–became a living soul, but Jesus, by dying, became a life-giving spirit. The juxtaposition suggests the addition of a body in the one case, and its subtraction in the other, with instead the addition of a new body: an ethereal one, one that is appropriate to spiritual beings (like angels).

When we read 1 Corinthians 15:44 in context, then, Paul appears to be going to great lengths, using numerous repetitive analogies and dichotomies, to explain a difficult idea of a difference between the spirit tied to a body and a spirit that is free and forms its own, independent body–a body stripped of flesh and blood. This suggests that he is trying to explain something novel, at least to his audience among the Corinthians. The section begins with the question “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” (15:35), and goes on from there, trashing the idea of the corpse being raised, and discussing how there are different kinds of bodies, and answering with a distinction between this kind of life, and that of the spirit. In other words, a contrast between heavenly and earthly matter is the most rational interpretation of what he is arguing here: beginning with vv. 42, “So it will be with the resurrection of the dead: the body that is sown perishable [i.e. all bodies die] is raised imperishable [i.e. the spirit-body is immortal]…it is sown a natural body [i.e. a body bound to an animal substance, a biological body, a body made of earth], it is raised a spiritual body [i.e. a body that is free of all its animal, earthly substance]…the first man was of the dust of the earth [i.e. made of familiar physical substance, the stuff that rots and remains behind as bones and dust], the second man from heaven [i.e. ethereal like all other spiritual beings in heaven]” (cf. also vv. 47-49 where this idea is drummed in further) and then vv. 50: “I tell you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” Can there be any doubt what he means here?

The next relevant passage is James 3:14-16 (which can have little to do with what Paul thought, as it was written by a certain James). Literally translated, vv. 15 reads “this wisdom [i.e that which leads to jealousy, etc.] has not come down from above [or ‘from the beginning’ or ‘from more general principles’], but is of the earth [lit. ‘a thing on the ground’], natural, demonic [lit. ‘in the category of divine-spirit-things’ from daimones or ‘demon’–only Christians and Jews regularly used this word in a negative way].” From this passage some conclude that psychikos is referring to origin (‘not from above’), rather than materiality. But even if that is what it means here, this is still consistent with it meaning “tied to the physical” in the main Pauline passage above: the body would then be “not from above,” and thus “of a physical origin,” meaning “linked with the earthly” (made of dust, rather than made of spirit-stuff). James has placed three adjectives in a row: concerning this wisdom he tells us its location (earth), nature (earthly, naturalistic, “animal”), and value (demonic, bad). And these were all, in fact, synonymous in Aristotelian philosophy. Aristotle divided the universe into the ethereal heavens (which could not be material–since, for example, the stars moved in perpetuity and never decayed) and the elemental material world of Earth and its immediate atmosphere, which was the realm of nature or physis. Thus, the natural and the earthly are synonymous in the whole of his physics, and his was the most popularly known. Aristotle also calls physis daemonic in On the Divination of Dreams (463b12-15), since it is the realm in which the worldly spirits, the daimones, resided and acted (as guardians and messengers). In the context of the intellectual culture of the time, James 3:14-16 would most readily be understood as referring to material nature, in opposition to the ethereal and heavenly.

Then comes Jude 19, again not from Paul’s hand, and the date of its writing is unknown (scholars suspect it is at least second generation). Some say psychikos here means only ‘separated from the Spirit,’ rather than having to do with corporeality. Again, I cannot see how this contradicts its additional connotation as “of material flesh” in the main Pauline passage, for if there are two kinds of body, and one is “separated from the spirit” then it must be physical in the sense of being comprised of flesh. It is true that vv. 10 suggests that the whole letter is attacking those who don’t understand the gospel and, bound to the flesh and earthly concerns, pervert it–people who have their mind on things rather than salvation (vv. 20), and are thus stuck in the physical, earthly world (by reason of their attachment to it), lacking contact with the spiritual, heavenly world. Though this includes the meaning “being controlled by one’s nature,” this entails that one is controlled by one’s nature by being preoccupied with the natural world, by being attached to the natural world (one’s animal or earthly “nature”), rather than the heavenly world.

The same analysis follows for pneumatikos. Things of the spirit are divorced from the things of the natural world, and that is why they lead to and are associated with a particular attitude. To Paul, it appears that pneuma is ethereal, celestial, “higher” and “purer” than the earthly flesh, and lacking its traits (such as decay and animal passions), whereas psychê is to Paul like the Aristotelian concept of a physical soul composed of a thin kind of earthly matter (air) that disperses at death, and when alive is driven by animal passions, and subject to perturbation and decay

Besides the above analysis, it is important to know that adjectives can be both substantiative and associative, in different contexts. So even though the adjective has an associative meaning in one place (“having to do with the spirit”), it does not follow that it never has a substantiative meaning (“made of a spiritual substance” or “spiritual” in the sense of composition or existential quality). As an adjective it will naturally change connotation according to context. All adjectives do, in all languages that I know of. For example, associatively, a metallic hue is obviously not (necessarily) made of metal, but, substantively, a metallic car is. And note how in either example the nature of the adjective could be reversed, e.g. if the pigment includes metals or if only the color of the car is being described. And this can be known only from context. Likewise, demonic wisdom may mean evil wisdom or it may mean knowledge of demons, or knowledge from demons, and a psychikos may be a man preoccupied with material things, a man who follows his inborn nature, a man who is made of or bound to his earthly substance, and so on.

Even without a knowledge of Greek one can see how this explains changing meanings in all the passages critics cite. Many of these passages are consistent with a substantiative (sub.) interpretation, others with both a substantive and associative meaning (both), and some with only an associative (ass.) meaning: Rom 1:11-12 (both), 7:14 (sub.; it is contrasted with sarkikos, “made of flesh” or “having to do with flesh,” from sarx, cf. 1 Cor 9.11 in light of the context set at 9.1-7 where the contrast is between spiritual work and physical work, and cf. Rom 15.26-27–all clearly a contrast between “earthly” and “ethereal”),  1 Cor 2:13-16 (both; see above), 3:1-3 (ass., and then sub., i.e. spiritual food contrasted with physical food–clearly a contrast between “earthly” and “ethereal”), 10:3-4 (sub.),  12:1 (sub.), 14:1 (sub.), 14:37 (ass.), 15:44-46 (sub.; note that to read it as ass. requires also believing Paul thinks no one is spiritual until raised from the dead, which contradicts all his other associative uses of the term), Gal 6.1 (ass.), Eph 1:3 (sub.), 5:18-20 (ass.), 6:12 (sub.), Col 1:9-12 (ass.), 3:16 (ass.), 1 Pet 2:5 (both). As one can see, pneumatikos is constantly contrasted with physical, earthly things: physical food, work, flesh, etc. Thus, when psychikos is contrasted with it, he almost certainly has in mind something at least linked to the physical, the earthly, the flesh–as opposed to the ethereal, the celestial, the spirit.

VI. Does an Empty Tomb Entail the Resurrection of a Corpse?

The following material is only a sample of a much greater body of evidence. See above for where I present more of the available evidence than I can include here.

In all the gospel accounts, no one sees Jesus rise from the dead. They only observe a missing body, and later are visited. William Lane Craig wisely sidesteps this issue by focusing on this empty tomb, as if that were such a proof of anything–as if no one even in modern times has ever lost track of a body, as if there were no grave robbers, as if thievery by design were so improbable for a group who had a desperate need for some story to keep their movement alive. I do not mean to imply here that Craig never discusses any other evidence (like the appearances), but that he sidesteps the fact that no one saw Jesus rise from the dead, and that the evidence strongly suggests that there may have been no early tradition of appearances in the flesh at all. His arguments, in all his works, dismiss both interpretations at once, by appealing to the empty tomb.

Indeed, I find that Craig often gets himself tangled into a mess by doing this: for example, he argues against theft by saying that “no one but Joseph, those with him,” (like who?) “and the women initially knew exactly where the tomb was. Joseph probably surprised his fellow Sanhedrists by placing the body in his own tomb instead of having it buried in the criminals’ graveyard” (In Defense of Miracles, InterVarsity Press, 1997, p. 259). Yet this is a fact which actually makes theft more likely, and has no effect at all on random grave robbers who might not care who they were stealing. Lest one think stealing a body is odd, any Egyptologist can tell you that dozens of mummies are missing from tombs looted thousands of years ago. Corpses (actually, certain parts of them, like the skull) were used by sorcerers, and these body parts were likely to be a hot item on the black market–and the skull of a sorcerer or holy man would be even more valuable still. As far as the rest, that only Joseph and other followers knew where he was buried makes it even more likely that a switcheroo, an escape, or confusion resulted, as well as a planned theft. Yet Craig ignores this consequence of his own argument (see also my discussion of Craig’s “Empty Tomb” argument).

For if only disciples knew where the body was, how can Craig argue (as he does elsewhere) that the Sanhedrists needed only to go point at the body to refute the claim that it was raised? How would they know where to point? Ever hear of the old switcheroo? By Craig’s own assertion, only Joseph of Arimathea and a few loyal women are certain to have known his burial place. When it came time to point to his empty tomb later on as proof, any empty tomb would do. If, as Craig says, the Sanhedrists would have been surprised at Joseph’s choice, they would not have known about it unless the disciples told them, and that means they could have told them anything, even if only to prevent his body’s defilement or any attempt to extract it and toss it in with criminals. It is also possible that a general plan to deceive was afoot, or that only one or two people arranged this confusion, and that all those disciples we know by name were also duped by this. There are many other problems with his argument, such as that the body, wrapped and inviolate, would be indistinguishable from others in the tomb and untouchable (cf. n. 14 from my essay on the Nazareth Inscription) especially after the burial was formally completed. And since the Gospel was not preached until over forty days after the Resurrection (Acts 1:3, 2:1-14), Jewish skeptics would have heard the story too late to have any chance of identifying the body. There is also another possibility: it might not have originally been a theft at all–the body may have simply been legitimately moved, before guards were posted or Mary visited the tomb. I discuss this possibility in my essay Jewish Law, the Burial of Jesus, and the Third Day.

Finally, it is not so hard to doubt the account of the empty tomb in the first place. Jerusalem was totally sacked and destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, so any white lies about whether Jesus was in his tomb, or which tomb he was supposed to be in, could never be checked against the facts after that time, and we have no account in the letters of Paul or Peter that anyone cared to check them before that time–nor in the letters of James, Jude, or John (although their authenticity has been questioned). It is significant that we have no evidence that anyone cared to look. Of all the attacks against the church recorded in Acts, Jews checking the tomb is not once mentioned. Yet what a nice rhetorical coup that story would have been for the Christians! And of all the things actually written before 70 A.D. (that is, most of the epistles) none ever mentions checking the tomb–none even mentions the empty tomb, despite many offerings of other kinds of proof (such as Peter’s witness of the transfiguration), and despite the fact that Paul’s letters are rife with attempts to resolve doctrinal disputes in the early church. Yet a dispute over whether the tomb was actually empty, something we would naturally expect to pop up in distant congregations, like the unruly Corinthians, never appears (for much more on this issue, see my review of Craig).

All this makes perfect sense when we look at Galatians and 1 Corinthians as revealing that Paul does not preach the resurrection of a corpse (cf. Section I, Section IV, etc.), for then he would have no reason to mention or even need an empty tomb to justify himself or his gospel. Even if someone else was teaching the resurrection of a corpse then, the fact is that we have no evidence that checking the tomb was ever raised as an issue except in post-70 A.D. accounts. And even if it was–though the Christian is left to explain why we never hear of it–the fact remains that, given the accounts we have, a body might still not be found, even if (or indeed because) Joseph buried Jesus in a private tomb and informed the disciples of this, of the various possibilities of theft, etc.

McDowell presents at least three arguments in favor of an empty tomb. First, he gives numerous statements about how the empty tomb is mentioned in the Gospels–but that is not much of an argument, since if the tomb story was a later invention it is precisely in the Gospels, which are essentially the hagiography of Christ, that we should expect this legend to appear. Second, he argues that a certain inscription found in or around Nazarethcontains the decree of an early emperor sentencing those who disturb graves to death (1st ed., p. 218, § 10.4A.2B.1C; 2nd ed., pp. 244-5, § 9.6A.2B.1C; cf. also 2nd ed., p. 67, § 3.3A.3B.2C.6D). From this he concludes that the emperor must have heard of the empty tomb, assumed it was theft, and set forth a law to prevent this. However, the evidence does not support him (see The Nazareth Inscription).

Third, McDowell advances the total absence of any veneration of the tomb of Jesus as evidence that it was empty, since no one would venerate an empty tomb. Yet, body or not, the location of the greatest and most important miracle in human history, the very stone slab literally touched by God Almighty himself, could not possibly have been of no significance. To the contrary, this place would certainly have been venerated. It would have been the place believers would most want to see, to touch, in the whole world. Consider the throngs who gather and camp out to see unwashed windows with a vague hint of Christ’s face in them even today, and realize that this is a modern world–in the ancient world, such superstitious passions were even more powerful and prevalent. Therefore, the lack of veneration is incredible–it can most logically be explained by the fact that no one knew where the tomb or body was. If, on the other hand, it was known but no one cared, this would just as easily fit the belief that Jesus was resurrected spiritually–such that the body was simply an empty husk, of no importance in the face of the Great Truth. This fits just as easily (or just as poorly) as the belief that the tomb was empty. It is also possible that the tomb was venerated, but that its location was lost after the Jewish War (66-70 A.D.) and its veneration forgotten to history.

VII. Appearances in Matthew and the Late Addition to Mark

But what about the appearances? In all the gospel accounts of the appearances, there are features of those accounts which cast some doubt on those appearances actually being of Jesus. For example, Matthew 28:17 reports that only “some” people who actually saw Jesus worshipped him, while “others” doubted it was him (hoi…idontes auton prosekynêsan hoi de edistasan, the verb distazô means “to doubt, to be doubtful” and the hoi…hoi construction translates as “some…others…”). Why would some who saw Jesus doubt it was him? The other gospels provide some clues that might explain this, and which also make the appearances of Jesus doubtful in their own right: Jesus did not look like Jesus, but someone else they didn’t recognize.

Mark 16:12 records that Jesus “appeared in a different form.” The verb is phaneroô, and in a passive voice, which means “he was made known, he was revealed” or “he became known, became famous.” The choice of verb suggests, and certainly allows, that it is a vision being described. The phrase en heterai morphêi means “with another appearance” or “in another shape” and this means that, in some way, what appeared to them did not look like Jesus, or else it fell into a different category than the ordinarily physical–and in conjunction with the particular verb above, this also suggests a vision of some kind. This certainly places the event in doubt. It has been claimed that Jesus appearing “in a different form” only means that his body looked different–it could have been radiant, luminous, or something along those lines, or some other glorious change in appearance, and such changes do not necessarily mean that the body is no longer the same one that was buried. But this is taking the evidence much too far, in my opinion. If the body was glowing, for example, this would surely have been remarked upon.

The phrase ephanerôthê en heterai morphêi is simply odd. Why would the author add en heterai morphêi at all? If the body was radiant or luminous or something like that, why not simply say so, just as all gospel authors describe the transfiguration? It seems to me that this phrase is just the sort of confusing description of events that one would expect if the stories had become confused, if by the time this passage was written it was no longer certain what the original story was, because there were stories of both physical and spiritual appearances, and of different kinds, perhaps due to speculation and misinterpretation, or rhetorical hyperbole, or the role of mystery and metaphor, or doctrinal disputes or differences, etc. (cf. Section XI of Probability of Survival vs. Miracle). This is why I still call to account passages like this one which are late interpolations. Even though it is an interpolation, it is still suggestive of a spiritual experience, evidence that the story was no longer clear, and thus it reflects an uncertainty about the early tradition. Though the forger of this ending to Mark was probably aiming at the idea of a risen corpse, he may have been using a traditional story of a mystical vision that even he did not understand or wish to alter beyond need. But either way, it is clear that the appearance tradition contained a very early idea that Jesus was not recognized, that the risen Jesus did not look like Jesus, but some stranger, whom disciples only interpreted as being Jesus, Jesus “in another form.”

VIII. Appearances in Luke

Luke 24:16 records that when Jesus appeared to two men, Kleopas and (presumably) Peter (based on 24:13, 18, and 34), they did not recognize him (mê epignônai auton), even after conversing with him, inviting him home, and eating dinner with him. They only conclude that he is Jesus based on his words and behavior (24:31-32). Many translations say that they “recognize” him and then he “vanishes,” as if something magical happened. The Greek is more mundane, saying only autôn de diênoichthêsan hoi ophthalmoi kai epegnôsan auton kai autos aphantos egeneto ap’ autôn, which literally means “their eyes were opened and they recognized him and he became hidden from them.” In other words, they “see Jesus” in the stranger but then quickly lose sight of this “vision.” This could mean the man vanished, or that he merely left, or that they thought he was Jesus for a moment, and this led them to think that he was in fact Jesus. This also suggests that it was not him, but a stranger whom they thought was Jesus. Certainly, there is enough that is odd about this account to place in doubt the belief that Jesus actually appeared to them.

Luke 24:36-50, which portrays a more concrete appearance, looks a lot like the ending added later to the earlier gospel of Mark (and has the same apparent rhetorical usefulness as John’s account of Thomas), and it is possible that this ending did not exist in this form in earlier versions of Luke. It is worth noting that when the accounts are arranged in order of being written, the accounts of Jesus’ appearances become increasingly elaborate: from none at all in the original Mark, to the vague account in Matthew (with the equally vague note that some doubted), to Luke with this proto-Thomas story, then to John with his elaborate Thomas story (see my Main Argument). Even if we accept the record as genuine, though there is no truly compelling reason to do so, this appearance occurs only among the disciples, and only when the above story is being related. This makes possible a group vision arising from religious passion or hysteria (cf. Habermas), or even more likely, the invention of the story by the eleven in order to give their continuation of Jesus’ ministry more authority.

 IX. Appearances in John

Much like Mark and Luke, and as is implied by Matthew, John 20:14 records that Mary, too, “sees Jesus but does not know it is him” (theôrei ton Iêsoun hestôta kai ouk êidei hoti Iêsous estin). The verb theôreô means to “perceive” in a very general sense, including mentally, for it can mean “experience,” “observe,” “look at,” “watch” (a theôros is a spectator, a member of an audience), or “contemplate,” “theorize.” The verb oida means “to know” (by having seen or understood). Some call into question this interpretation of the Greek verb oida, asking how this definition applies to Matthew 2:2. The verb in Matthew 2:2, however, is eidon, not oida. The former does mean “saw,” i.e. in an aorist (past) tense only. It is a defective verb, using horaô for its present tense; oida is its perfect form, but took on its own meaning even before Greek began to be written. The latter, though grammatically and etymologically related, only ever means in one or another sense “to know” (as in Ephesians 5:5, 1 Corinthians 1:11, etc.): “The verb oida is an irregular perfect…which means ‘I have seen (with my mind)’ = ‘I know'” (Athenaze: An Introduction to Ancient Greek, revised ed., Oxford University Press, 1991, vol. 2, p. 181); and the compilers of the dictionary of biblical Greek appended to the official research text of The Greek New Testament, 4th revised ed. (1994, p. 123) leave no doubt, “oida: know, understand, perceive, experience, learn, know how, be acquainted with, recognize, acknowledge, remember” (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:16), or “pay proper respect to” (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:12); and as the Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon (9th ed., Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 483) agrees, in the entry for eidô, “eidon always in sense of see…but pf. oida, in pres. sense, know.” In other words, oida never means “see” (except in a metaphorical sense, e.g. “I see what you mean”).

So the story is as follows: Mary assumes at first that it is the gardener, then she falls into his arms weeping (20:13-17) and takes him to be Jesus, reporting some religious message of his to her later listeners. All of this suggests a vision, or at least that what she saw was not Jesus but some bystander, like the gardener, that she took to be Jesus, and she then imagined the rest or made it up so as to encourage the other mourners with the possibility that their leader was spiritually triumphant. Some of this passage could be redactional, or it may have still been dark outside (Jn 20:1) and that Mary was simply confused (vv. 14-15). The former is hardly a problem for my argument, but the latter does not seem a likely explanation, and redaction actually entails an admission that the story was altered, which increases the chance that other details have been altered, too. But though I believe the possibility that these stories are all or in part works of fiction, I do not want to rely too much on this obvious possibility.

As for the “confusion” account, it is precisely because it does not fit that I quote that passage: Mary would surely have recognized his voice at once (yet she doesn’t, 20:15-16), even if it was pitch dark outside–which it most likely was not: Mark 16:2 and Matthew 28:1 say it was around sunrise, which matches Luke’s claim at 24:1 that it was early in the morning, since the ancients’ reckoned morning (and began counting hours) from sunrise, unlike today. John’s words are prôi skotias eti ousês, literally “in the early (or in the morn), while it was still dark,” but skotia can mean also the gloominess of shadows, and since Mary had no trouble finding the tomb, she and others had no trouble running back and forth to and from the tomb, and all the other accounts clearly state it was around sunrise, it could not have been so dark as to make it difficult to recognize someone. If the author wanted to emphasize that it was truly dark, he would, as Mark does at 1:35, use something like prôi ennucha lian, “in the early, when it was very much night.” I must also add that Mary seeing angels just before this further improves the possibility of delusion, at least as easily as it allows actually seeing angels–even more so if we have good reasons to doubt that there are such things, or to doubt that they were so commonly seen then but not now. Moreover, the other passages of “recognition” suggest and support a tradition of seeing Jesus in other people.

Certainly, it is very odd that she did not know who it was until after he spoke. Above all, why didn’t he accompany her when she went to the others? Why does she only relate the experience to them, when she could have taken Jesus with her? And when doubters rush to the tomb to check her story, all they find is an empty tomb–no Jesus. An empty tomb, let me remind you, that the disciples did not know the location of, apart from whatever directions Mary gave them. All of the details of this account are suspicious and add to the swelling doubt.

John 20:19 records that when Jesus appeared to the others, it is after Mary’s impassioned story, while all are mourning and have locked themselves indoors “in fear of the Jews” (tôn thurôn kekleismenôn…dia ton phobon tôn Ioudaiôn). This is a situation ripe for hallucination (dark place, hopes stirred, fear raging, strong desire for reassurance; see my discussion of hallucination and the Gospel stories), or invention (what goes on behind locked doors to a privileged few, who need to cook up something to save their skins by gaining supporters to protect them from their persecutors, is easily suspect). But above all, the purpose for this appearance–and another, also behind locked doors (to Thomas, 20:26–one wonders if is this actually some kind of an initiation ceremony into an early Christian mystery religion, where “I saw Jesus” becomes a metaphor for something deeper)–is to impart belief to the readers in the truth of the disciple’s teaching (explicitly stated, 20:27-29, 31) and in their authority to teach it (also explicitly stated, 20:21-23). This raises more suspicion against the truth of the account, for the disciples have both the motive (something to teach, the need for spiritual authority to teach it, and the need to gain supporters to help them escape hostile authorities) and the means (goings-on behind locked doors that are only privy to the disciples) to fabricate it. Means, motive, and opportunity. That makes the basis for a solid case. It is certainly a strong enough case for reasonable doubt.

John 21:4 then records that Jesus appeared outside, but on that occasion his own disciples again do not know it is him (ou mentoi êideisan hoi mathêtai hoti Iêsous estin). One disciple, “the one Jesus loved” (êgapa), who was resting on Jesus’ chest during the last supper (13:23 and 21:20), merely says it is Jesus, and Peter swims ashore, presumably to see for sure. But when they all come to eat with this stranger, 21:12 says that “none of them dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’, knowing that he was the lord” (oudeis de etolma tôn mathêtôn exetasai auton su tis ei eidotes hoti ho kyrios estin). Why would they feel the need to ask him who he is, unless it was not obvious to them? The verb tolmaô means “be brave enough to, dare to” and this entails that they were afraid to ask, in other words afraid to gainsay their leader Peter, or Jesus’ unnamed favorite. Perhaps they went along out of compassion for this distraught man, or perhaps they were persuaded by his conviction–for they certainly did not see Jesus, or at least the account does not say so. The verb oida here, again, means to know (by having seen or understood), and so they may have understood the stranger to be Jesus even though it did not appear to be him. Ultimately, the way the passage is written is odd enough to cast great doubt on other interpretations, and confirms what all the accounts share in common: that when Jesus appeared, he looked like someone else, not Jesus.

X. What Good are “Anonymous” Eye-Witnesses Anyway?

Now, this “beloved” disciple is reputedly the source for John’s account (cf. 21:24), though it is highly unusual that the author would not mention his name, and even more unusual that no other Gospel, or any other source, mentions him at all. It has been said that authors often omitted their names from what they wrote, but this is not true for any other complete ancient work that I know of. It is only true for forgeries and fictions–and the gospels. And that casts even greater suspicion on them. All of the Gospels are by unknown authors. From as early as we have anything like titles for them, which were apparently assigned to them several generations after they were written, those titles are given with the Greek phrase “Gospel according to…,” using kata, which ordinarily means that the contents of the books were not written by the person named, but that the person named was used as their source. No other book from antiquity contains such an unusual title, and scholars are unanimous that this must mean no authors were originally identified in the titulature. Rather, the use of “kata” means the authorship was assigned later, meaning the Gospels were originally unsigned. None of the books identify who Mark, Matthew, Luke, or John are, or how we are to know they were the sources used, or who actually did the writing, or who assigned the names, or why.

This is significant: for no ancient work I know of, which claims to be factual and for which we have the complete text, truly went unsigned. Someone has suggested that the Gallic Wars of Julius Caesar and the dialogues of Plato went unsigned. As for the Gallic Wars, many modern editions and translations make it seem as though the work is anonymous, particularly since Caesar writes in the 3rd person. But all written manuscripts of De Bello Gallico (including the oldest, the codex Paris Latinus 5763, from the 9th century) begin incipit liber gaii caesaris belli gallici iuliani… (i.e. the “Julian Gallic War” by “Gaius Caesar”), with only minor variations (see Note 1). Thus, it was not anonymous by any means. One should certainly not mistake writing in the 3rd person for “anonymous authorship.”

I have heard some “claim” that many authors did not sign their works, but none of these claims are true. Examples forwarded include Livy, Tacitus, Pausanias, and Plutarch’s biographies. But all have titles that include the author’s name, in all extant manuscripts, as is clearly stated and shown in the Oxfordand Teubner editions of these texts. All mss. of Livy begin T. Livi Ab Urbe Condita…. The sole ms. we have for the first book of the Annals begins Cornelii Taciti Ab Excessu Divi Augusti Annalium… and the sole ms. we have for the first book of the Histories places it as a direct continuation of the sixteenth book of the Annals with the title Decimus Septimus Ab Excessu Divi Augusti… = “the seventeenth” book of the annals. Likewise, the Agricola begins Cornelii Taciti De Vita Iulii Agricolae…, and all mss. contain this material, some only adding additional elements (e.g. “…vita et moribus…”), while the Germania begins Cornelii Taciti De Origine et Situ Germanorum…, and again all mss. contain this, some only adding minor elements. The text of Pausanius begins PAUSANIOU ELLADOS PERIHGHSEWS, “Tour of Greece by Pausanias,” and all mss. agree, with only minor variations, that the biographies of Plutarch begin ARCHAIOLOGIAS PLOUTARCHOU PARALLHLWN…, “History of Parallels by Plutarch.”

As for Plato’s works, they are all fictional dialogues, or forgeries (depending on how you interpret them). For example, the Apology of Socrates is written in 1st person and is portrayed as dictated to Plato by Socrates himself, a matter that is doubted, but possible. But at any rate its content is still attributed to either its real or pseudonymous author (Socrates). On the other hand, all of Plato’s dialogues traditionally begin with the Euthyphro, which in turn begins “Euthyphro, or On Holiness, a tentative work, in the artifice of a dialogue of Euthyphro and Socrates” where “in the artifice of” is peirastikos, meaning “mask” or “fictional pretense.” Thus, Plato outright admits to this work being fiction, not fact. So it is irrelevant that he does not put his name to it.

There were certainly many anonymous works of fiction. There are also works for which the inscription, sometimes along with the beginning of the work, is lost, leaving us to guess at the author, as is the case with certain rare works of Sophocles. For example, someone suggested that the works of Suetonius are unsigned, but this only proves my point. The first several pages of his collected lives are lost. The Twelve Ceasars begins abruptly at the death of Caesar’s father, when Caesar himself was already fifteen years old. Had we those missing pages, we can be quite confident that the titulature would include Suetonius’ name. His Lives of Eminent Men likewise only survives in fragments. But the gospels claim to be fact, and they are complete, yet they are all unsigned, making their anonymity effectively unique and therefore suspicious.

Some have pointed out that other Christian works, like the letters of Clement of Rome, are unsigned. However, offering another work of dubious authorship and authenticity only proves my point again. Indeed, the idea of the unsigned letter, just like the unsigned biography, is a peculiar feature of Christian writing–in all the other collections of letters that survive, the letters or their collection are signed (and the genuine letters of Paul fit this tradition). Of course, we may be too quick to judge in the case of Clement, since only one manuscript of his letters exists, and that manuscript–a Bible–plainly attributes the letters to Clement in its table of contents, so the erasure of the title and its removal to the front of the codex may have been an act of scribal license, or the outcome of carelessly extracting the letters from a larger collection now lost, and thus does not mean the letter originally went unsigned. Of course, none of these possibilities instills much confidence, and for all we know the attribution was conjectural. We certainly don’t know if the letter is genuine. So anonymity throws as much doubt on the authority of Clement as on the Gospels, and we have little reason to trust such sources.

XI. Was Luke a Learned Man? Would That Even Matter?

“What you can’t dispute,” a critic wrote to me some time ago, “is that the book of Luke was written by a learned man, a physician and historian. If Luke had written a ‘secular’ history book, nobody would dispute his accounts.” That isn’t true (see below). It is also important to note that whoever wrote Acts was not a critical historian, nor were they necessarily “learned” (more on that below, too). We know of no critical history of Christianity until centuries after the fact. The first true “historian” of Christianity is Eusebius, writing in the 4th century (the Christian Julius Africanus wrote a chronicle in the 3rd century, but that is not a critical history either; nothing else survives).

Luke’s being a doctor is also merely a supposition. It can certainly be disputed. The physician companion of Paul may not be the author of Acts or the gospel attributed to him. We have no evidence, in fact, that he was. It was merely presumed by others, a century later. Luke doesn’t sign either book, much less tell us his profession. His accounts are less fabulous, and thus show signs of an educated seriousness lacking in the other gospels, but these works display no details that would require him to have had an actual medical education. So we cannot know if he was a doctor.

One might argue that there is then no basis for disputing the notion that the author of Luke was a doctor, but if it were sensible to believe everything that we have “no basis for disputing” we would have a lot of very odd beliefs. Why, by that reasoning, Alexander the Great was a sausage seller and an acrobat, and a magician on Wednesdays. But we have positive reasons to doubt that Luke, the author, was Paul’s companion, “Luke the doctor.” First of all, Luke the author tells us the wrong stories about Paul’s conversion, and gets many of Paul’s ethical opinions wrong. His companion would not likely have made such mistakes. Luke also explains insanity as the product of demons, a very unmedical opinion of the matter, certainly showing that Luke was not a member of any of the schools of medicine with rational views about the world. Thus, if Luke was a doctor, he was not a scientific one even by ancient standards, and therefore no more reliable a witness to fact than any other superstitious man of his age. For instance, compare how two doctors report the miracles of Vespasian in Tacitus (Histories, 4.81). Nothing like that is in Luke or Acts.

It has also been lamely argued that if all we are left with is tradition, that will have to do until proof becomes available. But by that reasoning, Jesus wrote a letter to the King of Persia. For we have that letter: it is in Eusebius’ history of the church, the same place where both Lukes are proclaimed the same. If you doubt the veracity of Eusebius in offering a letter as actually written by Jesus (and he displays absolutely no doubt of its authenticity), then you must be prepared to doubt the veracity of his other claims to tradition, including the equation of the two Lukes.

Not that all this matters. Doctors could be just as superstitious as anyone else in antiquity, even employ magic in their healing practices (consider the medical writings of Theophrastus). And we are not told which school of medicine Paul’s companion belonged to. Nor did being “learned” make one less gullible or more reliable. Herodian, a learned historian of the Roman Empire, is notoriously unreliable. Pliny the Elder reports a lot of marvels as facts, and he was one of the most learned men in antiquity. Certainly the gospel author was educated. He could write very well, better that every other NT author. And no more than 2% of the population at the time could claim that. But was he “learned”? The only men whom we feel qualified to call learned are those who cite or quote many other ancient authorities–the definition of being learned is, after all, having read many authorities. Plutarch and Pliny were learned. I see not even a single piece of ancient source material even mentioned in Luke. So he does not qualify as learned–at least not on what we have of his work. And Luke proves a serious lack of academic skill in one respect that has already been noted: he appears to have not read Paul’s letters–also a good reason to reject the claim that he was Paul’s companion. He seems ignorant of many of Paul’s theological positions, including his views on justification. And many other details, such as his account in Acts of Paul’s conversion and travels, contradict many of Paul’s own accounts (such as in Galatians). Moreover, Luke seems to have drawn details from Josephus, but in doing so screwed them up (see my essay Luke and Josephus). None of this fits a “learned” man.

One final word about “secular” history is necessary. It amazes me how Christians think us historians are all gullible dupes who “never” dispute anything an ancient historian writes. Indeed, I know of no ancient author, of any genre or subject, whom any modern historian completely trusts–and that even includes the most meticulous of them all: Polybius and Thucydides. The first thing we are taught as historians is not to trust any source. We are taught to find ulterior motives, weaknesses of evidence, the tendency to embellish and regard rumor and myth as fact, the attraction of amazing tales over sober reality (an attraction more than once explicitly stated, in even serious historians like Tacitus), as well as literary features such as redaction, propaganda, and agenda. And all these distortions find their way into all ancient sources, secular or otherwise.

Physical evidence is also essential to the reliability of many historical claims. Yet we have none to support the miracles of Jesus, but plenty to “support” the healing miracles of Asclepius. Certainly, if amazing recoveries happened in the temples of a pagan god, there can be nothing divine about the same thing happening in the presence of a Jewish holy man. So, too, for literary evidence. If we can be told about giant ants by Herodotus, who treats this tall tale as if it were true, then the tall tale of the zombies in Matthew should not surprise us either. The same things can be said of every aspect of the gospel accounts, in Luke or otherwise. Even treating them as purely secular history, they remain just as dubious as other secular histories of the time.

I have been asked if physical evidence is really all that important, and the answer is often yes. If there is a reason to doubt the reality of a person, it is generally doubted without physical evidence. Historians doubted the existence of Alexander of Abonuteichos, an account of whom we only hear in Lucian, until we recovered evidence corroborating Lucian’s account: coins and statues. Many of the people attested in early books of Livy are still dismissed as inventions simply because there is no physical evidence. Likewise the Historia Augusta is divided into “reliable” and “unreliable” halves, based on the observation that after a certain point the people it refers to are not attested anywhere else, whereas in the first half we have coins, inscriptions, and papyri confirming their existence (on the use of evidence in establishing the historicity of persons and events, see my Main Argument).

However, I do not dispute the existence of a man called Jesus. Nor do I think even physical evidence is a guarantee of truth. It is possible that “Jesus” was invented.[2] But there were many men named Jesus, many of whom preachers of religious reform, so his existence is plausible. What is in doubt is whether the miracles and other claims about Jesus are true. And whereas we have physical inscriptions of the miracles of Asclepius, we have none for Jesus, so that his miracles are even more doubtful than those of Asclepius (or have natural explanations, cf. my discussion elsewhere of historiography). And although he is claimed to have had wealthy supporters (Joseph of Arimathea), by whom he was supposedly believed to be the divine savior of all mankind–the most important person ever to have lived, God Incarnate–somehow no inscriptions of any kind were ever commissioned. But we have the Gospel of Epicurus on stone, commissioned by Diogenes of Oenoanda. He obviously cared more about his savior’s message than Joseph did about that of Jesus. What does that tell you?

See my review of In Defense of Miracles for a much more thorough discussion of this issue, especially my comparison of Julius Caesar with Jesus (the same material is used in my Main Argument), where I refute absurd claims such as that made by Edwin Gordon Selwyn: “The fact that Christ rose from the dead on the third day in full continuity of body and soul–that fact seems as secure as historical evidence can make it” (cited by Josh McDowell, 1st ed., § 10.3A.2B, p. 190). That is simply false.

XII. Concluding Remarks in Support of the Unreliability of the Gospels

There are many other details in the gospels which impugn their reliability, including:

  • …the fact that Matthew dates the birth of Jesus to before 4 BC (the year Herod the Great died), whereas Luke dates it to 6 AD (the year of the first census under Quirinius)–see my essay on Luke and Quirinius.
  • …the fact that Matthew records a horde of zombies descending onJerusalemafter the death of Jesus.
  • …the blatant and repetitive account of demon possession as an explanation for insanity.
  • …the fact that none of the miracles of healing in the record defy natural causes (no missing limbs are ever regrown, no one is resurrected from ashes, cf. historiography).
  • …the fact that Mark has modeled his stories after similar tales in Homer (see my review of The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark) and material in Psalms 22-24, and so on.
  • …the false claim that a solar eclipse took place at the death of Jesus (cf. my essay on Thallus).

The list could go on. But besides all that, I have already shown with more than enough evidence that the Resurrection as Miracle From God is unbelievable, even improbable, and that is sufficient grounds to reject the Christian faith. All the other reasons one could add to this also add to the crushing weight of conviction that Christianity is an old superstition, dusty with time, outdated, outmoded, and better replaced by a new world view. The best discussion of the evidential value of the New Testament can be found in an excellent article by Richard Packham, which also soundly refutes claims that the evidence is on par with that required to prove a case in court, a claim made by Edward Clarke, as cited by McDowell (1st ed., § 10.3A.2B, p. 190; cf. also 2nd ed., § 9.5A.2B). McDowell also cites the argument (1st ed., p. 220, § 4A.1B.2C) that details of the story are so vivid they must be eye-witness accounts, yet this completely forgets that fiction is also vivid, and that fiction specifically aims to add such vivid details, whereas history, even eye-witness history, does not usually dwell on such things in a narrative, without reflection or qualification or the identification of sources–and even when it does it is almost always adding fictional details to spice up a real story, as was very often the practice in the ancient world. Thus, these details do not add any merit to the Gospels. For the real markers of merit, see the historical sections (4a through 4e) of my review of In Defense of Miracles.

Still, there are those who think Christianity itself is so unique and thus so improbable that it must be inspired by God. In particular, some have claimed that the idea of a personal rather than a general resurrection, as well as of a “crucified messiah” would have been rather absurd to people in the time of Jesus. But crucified deities were not absurd to the Sumerians, who worshipped the crucified Innana (cf. Samuel Noah Kramer, History Begins at Sumer, 3rd. revised ed., 1981, pp. 154ff.). The Greeks had Prometheus, who suffered a similar fate, and the very popular religion of Cybele had Attis, a castrated deity whose male priests castrated themselves in their god’s honor. Clearly absurdity was no barrier to devotion. So what is really absurd is to look at all of human history and still think it is a reasonable argument that because something is absurd or distasteful, no one will do it. It is even more absurd when the thing in question is saddled inside a very attractive, pleasing, and useful package. Who cares if your god was crucified, so long as you will live forever by believing it? Fear of death is a far more serious motivator than distaste for absurdity, and a man who has been persuaded that if he loses his body his soul will live forever, he will be happy to die for any number of absurd ideas, as history has proven.

As to the “uniqueness” argument, that is also an absurd statement in light of fact. Based on the exact same reasoning, we should doubt that there has ever been a major religious innovation in all of human history. But until you can explain away Mormonism, Buddhism, Isidism, Islam, Transcendental Meditation, Taoism, Shintoism, the Korean Chondogyo (whose leader was also executed, yet the creed is going strong), and all other major religious innovations–which always, by definition, have included unique ideas–there will never be a more absurd argument than “they wouldn’t invent something much unlike anything they had been exposed to.” This argument is further flawed by the fact that the authors of Christianity were exposed to a lot more than just Judaism, and just as the Jews adopted a unique concept of Hell and Resurrection by combining ideas from Persians and Greeks, it would be an easy thing to adopt from Greek individualism and theories of the soul (including Pythagorean reincarnation) the natural conclusion that if there can be a general resurrection in the flesh, there may instead be an individual resurrection of the spirit, with its own superior body. Indeed, I have yet to see any attribute of Christianity that could not have been assembled from ideas already existing in the cultures that surrounded it. By all reasonable accounts, Christianity is a product of human history, not the product of a god.

Note 1: The “minor variations” include: incipiunt libri gaii caesaris belli gallici iuliani… appears in a marginal note in the codex Parisinus Latinus (which merely converts the singular to a plural to suit conversion of the books from scroll to codex format), and in later commentaries–which also convert the adjective iuliani to a noun, moving it back to join the name as iulii, which was clearly a scribal attempt to improve the text and not the original form, for the other version, by omitting the nomen, is less expected, and scribes did not correct texts to make them stranger, but more in line with expectation. When the text was typeset for the first printed edition in 1477, the title was changed to Iuli Caesaris commentariorum de bello gallico… and the abbreviation for Gaius (“C.”) was added in the following century, and this is how the standard Oxford critical edition reconstructs the text, being the most familiar to educators, but the original beginnings are supplied in the apparatus beneath. One old manuscript (codex Amstelodamensis 81) misattributes the text to Suetonius, clearly an error.

Note 2: For an assessment of the best case, see: Richard Carrier, “Did Jesus Exist? Earl Doherty and the Argument to Ahistoricity” (2002).

Rebutting Lesser Arguments

Many devout believers will take issue with what I have said so far in the essays listed in the table above. So far, they have yet to give any good reason to actually come to a different conclusion. But some really bad arguments keep cropping up again and again, so often that they deserve rebuttal here.

The following three sections elaborate on this central point: I. The Two Lamest Arguments Ever Made; II. “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?“; and III. The Fact of Changed Lives.

I. The Two Lamest Arguments Ever Made

“You are wrong because the Bible is infallible.” Yes, this is a direct quote from a critic of the original version of this essay, and he was not alone. This is the lamest argument in the universe, but it has been made so many times I must say something about it here. To claim the Bible infallible is to say the Bible is true because the Bible is true. This is circular reasoning, a non-argument. If you wish to call a book infallible which claims the main character was born both before 4 BC (when Herod was king: Matt. 2:1) and in 6 AD (when there were no kings and the Romans took over: Luke 2:1-3, see my essay The Date of the Nativity in Luke), or that Darius was the son of Xerxes (Daniel 9.1: Xerxes is the Greek for Ahasuerus, which is Hebrew for Xerxes)–when in fact he was the father of Xerxes (and son of Hystaspes, see elsewhere my Note on Daniel)–then I can only offer an invitation for you to step into the real world, and hope you accept.

McDowell advances fulfilled prophecies as a proof of the resurrection (1st ed., § 10.2A; 2nd ed., § 9.4A.1B-2B), but this fails as an argument, since the predictions can too easily have been invented after the fact, or even, for instance, inspired dreams or visions of Jesus that were interpreted as a confirmation (see the principles discussed in my review of Newman). This does not mean miracles and prophecies are impossible, but it does mean that, in all actual cases I am familiar with, we cannot know if they happened. Usually, just as Herodotus reporting the existence of giant ants is dismissed for the sole reason that it is implausible, so we must dismiss men walking on water. Lacking any reason to grant them more merit than none, this is the only sensible response. But for the specific reasons to discount most miracle stories, see my Main Argument, as well as my discussion of Purtill and the rest of my Review of In Defense of Miracles.

Indeed, the Bible fails, on one occasion or another, every check against plausibility, and thus cannot be infallible. Not only does it fail by proposing absurd miracle accounts such as hoardes of zombies walking in Jerusalem, three-hour-long eclipses, and massive rock-splitting earthquakes, which are attested nowhere else despite their awesome scale (Matthew 27:45-53, cf. Thallus), or the attribution of insanity to possession by spirits, and the recording of demons entering and drowing a herd of pigs (Luke 8:26-33), but also by recording events as factual that neither the author nor any friendly source could ever have witnessed (such as secret conversations of Jews and officials: Matt. 27:62-65; 28:11-15), and claims that do not fit the known facts, such as when Jesus was born or the succession of Persian kings (mentioned above). In the end, the Bible is very fallible, and to believe otherwise is to cling to a blind faith indeed (see the Secular Web’s section on Biblical Errancy). A man who believes without thinking is no kin or kindred of mine, and he will have to excuse me for being inexorably different of mind and spirit in the profoundest of ways.

The second lamest argument ever made is the wicked threat: “There will be a ‘time’,” one thoughtful would-be savior of mine wrote, “when we will all have all the ‘evidence’ we need to prove our beliefs correct or wrong. By then it may be too late.” This was the kindest way it was put by dozens of Christians. “I will dance with glee in Heaven as you roast in Hell!” said another. It surprises me that for all this man’s devotion and sincerity, he somehow missed the most important lesson any man can learn: threats are the hallmark of a wicked creed. A God who would create a hell, or allow any good person to fall there by mere error, would be a wicked god by definition, and anyone who admired such a god would be just as wicked, and therefore those Christians who admire such are truly frightening. They have taken evil and called it good, under the banner of self-righteousness, and by this they justify the most horrible ideas and wishes–and then have the gall to pretend they believe in love.

II. “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?”

The claim is often made that Jesus must have been God–or else he was a liar or a lunatic; and since both can be dismissed on the evidence, as he was the greatest moral teacher and behaved like a sane man, therefore he was God. Josh McDowell devotes his seventh chapter to this argument (in both editions). Though this does not bear directly on the resurrection, it does relate indirectly. So I briefly address it here. First, this argument has already been well-criticised by others: see Lord, Liar or Lunatic? by James Still, The Trilemma– Lord, Liar Or Lunatic? by Jim Perry, and A False Trilemma by Robert Price.

My own observations are these: First, there is a fourth possibility that this “trilemma” fails to consider–simply being mistaken. The real choices are, “lord, liar, lunatic, or fallible human.” Second, it is questionable whether Jesus was so great a moral teacher, as moral teachers go. See my essay on Musonius Rufus, for example, and our section on the Character of Jesus. It is also questionable that Jesus actually claimed to be God. See, for instance, Thomas Sheehan’s book The First Coming. Moreover, Jesus’ claims to be God even as represented in the Gospels are not very clear in their meaning, and it is neither certain what Jesus himself meant nor what his audience thought he meant, or recorded him as saying (see, for instance, questions raised by the Jesus Seminar).

However, even if we can wade through those difficulties (and I don’t believe we can), the fact that such a claim was outrageous, unusual, and unique would not prevent Jesus from being honestly mistaken about it. Besides the fact that many kings claimed this very same thing without a blush in Jesus’ day, the reasons for Jesus’ own belief could have been perfectly convincing to him even if he was occasionally doubtful. For instance, seeing the placebo effects of his charisma on the sick and “possessed,” reading and interpreting signs and prophecies in a certain way, and being told by others he was almost divine in his teachings or actions, and being treated by his followers as if he were divine, even if it was never outright said that he was God, it is easy to see how he could be misled in that day and time into a seemingly rational belief that he was God made manifest as an ordinary human for a particular purpose.

This is all the more so since we know for a fact that many individuals were claiming to be, or were proclaimed to be, messiahs of one form or another in Jesus’ day (Josephus recounts several), and everyone in Judaea was looking for just this sort of thing: God made manifest to liberate Israel–physically or spiritually (see Note 1). The Danielic prophecy was likely on everyone’s mind, since Josephus and Suetonius report that the Jews were expecting a messiah to appear in these very decades. Thus, heightened expectation, eager seeking by the troubled masses, and widespread superstition (cf. Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire) would all make the situation ripe for a case of mistaken identity. It would also have made it hard for anyone to doubt him–so long as his divinity remained proven by his successful preaching, his bold behavior, his high-minded message, and his healings and exorcisms, who could question it? Even a skeptic could not have presented any evidence against it, since demands for proof were met with warnings that God is not to be tested (e.g. cf. Luke 4:12, 11:29, etc.), the time is not yet right, he was on Earth for a different purpose (to be abused and rejected as the prophets predicted, and to suffer and die as a sin-sacrifice on behalf of mankind as the prophets foretold) and so on (cf. Mark 6:4-5)–which would not have to be tricks, but could be sincerely-believed ‘wisdom’. We see some examples of doubters in the Gospels. What could they do? Nothing.

Finally, the issue of insanity is not as, for example, someone like C.S. Lewis represents it. It is quite possible to be delusional or even psychotic and otherwise behave with perfectly rationality, even exhibit the creativity and insight of a genius. That it does not follow that delusional people are “mentally unstable” is well known: a delusional person, with or without a schizotypal personality, can behave very rationally and ordinary in every other respect apart from their mistaken beliefs or experiences: as Claridge McCreery writes in “A Study of Hallucination in Normal Subjects” (Personality and Individual Differences 2:5; November, 1996; pp. 739-747), many a psychotic has been found to be “a relatively well-adjusted person who is functional despite, and in some cases even because of, his or her anomalous perceptual experiences” (see also my discussion of hallucination elsewhere).

It is also all too easy for devout believers to overlook or misinterpret even disturbing signs, if there still happened to be any, and thus such details could easily have failed to be recorded, or been given a different spin (of the latter, Jesus’ treatment of the fig tree, and his conversation with the Devil in the desert, are just two possible examples of madness reinterpreted as genius). But consider also that having such visions and voices do not require one to be insane: hypnagogic hallucinations are an ordinary occurrence for everyone, and it has been observed that visions in antiquity were most common in the early afternoon, the time all Mediterranean cultures enjoyed a post-meal siesta, and they become extremely likely after prolonged periods of fasting or sleep deprivation (such as going 40 days and 40 nights with little food or sleep in a mesmerizing desert landscape). Any manner of delusions could arise from such experiences.

So is “Jesus really was God” the best explanation of the evidence? Not even remotely. We have six lines of doubt: we do not really know what he said; we do not really know what people at that time thought he said; we do not know whether Jesus was merely mistaken or deluded (which are problems faced by sane people as well as the insane); we do not have an unbiased, unsuperstitious account of his behavior or thoughts; and we do not really know what he actually did, and indeed are not even clear exactly why he was executed or on what pretext. To top it all off, none of his teachings or behaviors or “miracles” are at all suggestive of being acts of God (see my Review of In Defense of Miracles). And this is before we even interject the very real possibilities that he was insane, or that he did lie, since there is no real, reliable evidence to refute these possibilities: psychotics can live otherwise normal, even inspired lives, and there are countless pious and well-meaning reasons for lying (for the greater good–Christianity could have been seen as good for Israel even if it was secretly untrue, as I discussed earlier regarding Paul).

To top it all off, consider a parallel: Alexander the Great thought he was the Son of God. Was he a liar? Maybe. Maybe not. Even if he was, his intentions might have been good: to keep the peace in a newly subjugated empire, where the people expected their kings to be divine as an assurance that all was well. Was he insane? Maybe. Maybe not. Even if he was, he accomplished great things nonetheless, such as only a man both rational and wise could have achieved. But the possibility remains that he was genuinely mistaken. For the Oracle at Siwah had proclaimed the story of his divine patrinomy, and his mother saw no reason to deny the honor to her son (and every reason to see the honor she would receive as a result). He had certainly performed godlike deeds and may have truly believed only a son of a god could have been so successful so quickly. For a man in his position, in his culture, this would not be a remarkable conclusion, but would make a great deal of sense, to him and others. Jesus could have been in an essentially identical situation–after all, unlike all the Roman triumphators, no one records that Jesus had a man behind him constantly whispering in his ear, “Remember thou art mortal.”

III. The Fact of Changed Lives

What does the power of belief have to do with that belief being true? As Josh McDowell puts it (1st ed., p. 228, § 10.4A.3B.3C;cf. also 2nd ed., § 9.6A.4B.1-3C):

The established psychological fact of changed lives…is a credible reason for believing in the resurrection. It is subjective evidence bearing witness to the objective fact that Jesus Christ arose on the third day. For only a risen Christ could have such transforming power in a person’s life.

Besides the obvious objection that an idea believed to be true has the same effect on someone’s life whether it is really true or false, there is an arrogant presumption here: that no one but Christians are profoundly changed by conversion to a profound belief. I have heard enough first-hand tales of converts to Buddhism, Islam, Ba’hai, even Atheism (see Losing Faith in Faith by Dan Barker), to know that McDowell is engaging in snobbish elitism here.

Any belief system that involves a radical break with past belief toward a positive acceptance of new hope or wisdom will have a powerful transformative effect on a person, whether their new belief is true or not. I myself “converted” from an all-but-areligious childhood to Taoism, and its effect on me was certainly profound. Am I so ignorant of the world that I would actually claim that “only the true Tao could have such a transforming power in a person’s life”? No. I am more honest than that, and more aware of the ways of the world. I was overcome by the genius and beauty of a belief, and the hope and wisdom it granted in a shining moment of revelation. But after long examination I found it was not the correct world view, that there were flaws only visible to careful study. The same thing can and has happened to a great many Christians, and I offer Dan Barker as only one famous example. Does that prove that Christianity, like Taoism, however beautiful and good, is nevertheless false? No. Nor does the contrary evidence of transformation prove it is true. Truth and falsehood are not ascertained by measuring belief, but by measuring evidence. The most relevant thing I have written on this matter is Do Religious Life and Critical Thought Need Each Other?.

What Can We Infer from the Present about the Past? (2006)

In “Do No Miracles Today Imply None in the Past? A Critique of Richard Carrier’s Methodology,” Amy Sayers responds to an argument in my collection of essays “Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story” (6th ed., 2006). In particular, she responds to the argument I summarize under “No Miracles Today Implies None Then” (part II of the chapter “General Case for Insufficiency: The Event is Not Proportionate to the Theory“).

First, Sayers claims that an “argument of analogy between present and past cannot work in the negative sense,” yet all negative propositions entail positive propositions, and vice versa, eliminating the merit of any such distinction.[1] For example, I can say “if all the events I observe or know about today have natural causes, then as far as I know all events had natural causes then,” which is a positive analogy (and she grants such analogies in principle can be valid), and yet this analogy logically entails the concurrent analogy that if there are no miracles today, then probably there were none then. So her argument is illogical from the start.

Moreover, the notion that negative analogies are invalid is also unfounded. Clearly we can argue, for example, “sail-powered ships cannot travel a hundred miles per hour today, therefore they probably couldn’t then” as a basis for concluding that a sailboat could not have circumnavigatedAfricain a day. Likewise, we can argue that “the earth is not flat today, so probably it was not flat then” as a basis for concluding that tales of people falling off the edge of the earth are not true, or that “human beings cannot breathe in outer space today, therefore they couldn’t then” as a basis for concluding that Lucian’s report of taking an open-decked sailboat to the moon cannot be true. Obviously, negative analogies are valid and we use them all the time. Sayers is simply wrong to claim otherwise.

Sayers gets this wrong because she commits the fallacy of false generalization: she presents one invalid negative analogy and argues from this that all negative analogies are invalid. But, in fact, the one example she gives would be invalid even if it were a positive analogy. She selects the invalid argument “there are no dinosaurs today, therefore there were none then,” but this argument is not invalid because it is negative–for the positive analogy “there is paper money today, therefore there was paper money then” is also invalid for exactly the same reason: both arguments ignore relevant facts. As Sayers herself points out, “we have evidence that dinosaurs once existed” and “we have reasonable theories explaining why they don’t any longer,” and similar observations hold regarding paper money. Sayers claims that this shifts the burden of evidence, but that has nothing to do with whether negative analogies are valid arguments. Rather, all it has to do with is when analogies are valid, regardless of whether they are positive or negative.

Consequently, Sayers completely misconstrues the argument from analogy when she presents her own deductive syllogism, which is an incorrect formulation of the argument. An argument from analogy proceeds from observations of relative probability, and is not about what actually is the case, but what we are warranted in believing. This is a crucial distinction. For example, we know for a fact that people fabricate stories of the fabulous[2], but we do not know that anyone could plant the vast, worldwide geological evidence of the past existence and extinction of dinosaurs (much less that anyone has actually done this). Essential to this observation is that we proceed from what we know, not from what we don’t know. Just because we don’t know of anyone who could plant all the evidence for dinosaurs does not mean no such person exists. It is a fact that all that evidence could be planted and no one would know about it. But we don’t know that this is the case, and since we can only proceed on what we know, we are not warranted in believing that the evidence was planted. And because we otherwise do have good explanations of the evidence, we are warranted in believing it was not planted–until such time as we discover new evidence that justifies changing our mind about this.

That is why the dinosaurs analogy does not compare to the miracles analogy. We can only argue from what we know, and all we know is that (1) miracles don’t happen around us and (2) miracle stories are often false. In other words, though it may indeed be the case that miracles once happened, or are happening now, we do not know that this is the case, whereas we do know that miracle stories are often false, and that no such things are happening around us. And the bottom line is that we can only proceed from what we know. So until we know something different, it is entirely valid to reason that past miracle stories are probably not true, by analogy from the present. In no way does it matter whether that analogy is negative or positive.

However, Sayers is correct to object to the blind use of this argument as an excuse to ignore evidence, and I think that is the point Sayers actually wanted to make. For it is indeed possible to have evidence of past miracles that is as strong as the evidence for past dinosaurs, and in such a case we could not argue from analogy against the past existence of miracles. I have always maintained this position.[3] So I think what Sayers really means to argue is that an argument from analogy (negative or otherwise) only works when there is not a greater weight of evidence to the contrary. For example, we could find extensive archaeological evidence that Lucian in fact did travel to the moon: astronauts could find “Lucian was here” scrawled on the moon in ancient Greek, Lucian’s house could be dug up and found full of lunar rocks, abundant and reliable eyewitness testimony could be on record of his flight, and so on. In the same fashion, it is possible to acquire convincing evidence of miracles in past history, and I argue this very point in my book Sense and Goodness without God (2005).

But then Sayers goes too far when she misconstrues the often-heard premise “there is no evidence of miracles today” as meaning something other than “there is insufficient evidence to warrant my believing there are any genuine miracles today.” She is close to getting it right, but not quite. There may indeed be evidence available to someone else that is sufficient to warrant them believing in genuine miracles, but until the atheist is provided with that evidence, he can only reason from what he himself knows. So if there is no evidence of miracles today that is sufficient to warrant his believing there are any genuine miracles, then he can argue from that premise. To refute his argument is simple: provide the evidence that his premise is false. But beyond that contingency, Sayers cannot claim it is invalid to adopt that premise.

For instance, there could be evidence of Lucian’s trip to the moon that Sayers doesn’t know about, and she certainly hasn’t exhausted all possible research on the matter, not even what she is capable of. Nevertheless, Sayers could still rightly conclude that Lucian made no such trip based on the fact that we have no evidence today that such a trip was possible given the resources available to him. Her conclusion would be that, given what she knows at the present time, she is not warranted in believing Lucian went to the moon. But she would probably express this as simply “Lucian didn’t go to the moon,” leaving it as understood what she actually means by this. So, too, for those who argue by analogy against miracles.

This brings us to her specific discussion of my presentation of the argument, where she commits all the same errors. Right from the start, she incorrectly formulates my argument as the following deductive syllogism:

  1. If dead people are not resurrected today, they were not resurrected in the past.
  2. Dead people stay dead today.
  3. There is no evidence that a God exists who would or could perform a miracle that interferes with the dead’s state of staying dead.
  4. Therefore, Jesus, who died “back then,” stayed dead, too.

This is not at all how my argument proceeds. A correct formulation of my argument would look something like this:

  1. If I have insufficient evidence to believe miracles like resurrections happen today, and if I do not have better evidence for miracles in the past than I have for their absence in the present, then I have insufficient evidence to believe miracles like resurrections happened in the past.
  2. I have insufficient evidence to believe miracles like resurrections happen today and I do not have better evidence for miracles in the past than I have for their absence in the present.
  3. Therefore, I have insufficient evidence to believe miracles like resurrections happened in the past.

This argument is valid and sound, and its conclusion would logically encompass all particular cases like Jesus.

Clearly, Sayers has gotten my argument wrong in many ways. She mistakes assertions about what I am warranted in believing with assertions about what is the case apart from what I know. Indeed, contrary to her allegation, in the relevant essay I explicitly deny that I need evidence of resurrections specifically, and instead seek evidence of any comparable agent or phenomena that would make resurrections both possible and more likely than other explanations of the same evidence.[4] Sayers also gets wrong what I said about God: I did not mean “there is no evidence that a God exists who would or could perform a miracle” as if there could never be, but rather that I myself, at the present time, have no evidence that there is such an agent. Obviously, if I get some such evidence, then I might very well change my mind about the resurrection, or the miracles of Asclepius, Mohammed, or Krishna, or any number of other past miracle claims. Sayers also gets wrong what I said about God: I did not say that “there is no evidence that a God exists who would or could perform a miracle.” Rather, I said that I myself had no evidence that there is such an agent. Maybe someone else has that evidence, or maybe there is some such evidence out there waiting to be found, but until I have it, I can only reason from what I know. And from what I know, when I ask myself “Which is more likely: that God stopped parting seas and raising the dead, or that these stories are, for various historical reasons, fictions?” I am compelled by what I know to conclude that the latter is more likely. I could be wrong. But until someone proves me wrong, I cannot warrant believing otherwise. That is my argument. And Sayers says nothing against it.

As I conclude in the relevant essay, “we do not believe stories that come to us second-hand which contradict our direct experience, because each fact [the second hand story, and our own direct experience] presents us with two possible realities, the only evidence of one is a story, the only evidence of the other is direct observation.” We know stories are more often mistaken or untrue than our direct experience, and our direct experience provides no support for these sorts of stories. If our direct experience instead provided some support, then we would have an argument from analogy that would support rather than count against the case for past miracles. But since our direct experience produces the opposite information, it produces the opposite support–and that is where things will remain until such time as our experience changes.

But that isn’t the only way to overcome the argument. For we also know of conditions when stories and other evidence are less often mistaken or untrue than our direct experience, so we can also construct an argument from analogy in support of a past miracle whenever those same conditions obtain. The most common example is the heliocentric theory, which flatly contradicts direct perception since the Sun “obviously” moves while the Earth sits still. Though anyone can directly perceive all the facts that entail the truth of the heliocentric theory (and many a scientist and enthusiast has done so), by far most people only know the facts supporting the theory through testimony (of experts, teachers, TV shows, authors, etc.). Thus, it is clearly reasonable for testimony to overcome direct experience when that testimony is sufficiently overwhelming. But the amount, quality, and degree of testimony required for this reversal is vastly greater than what we have for any miracle claim in history, and thus there is no parallel.

But there could be. If we only had the same scale of testimonial evidence, in quantity, scope, and reliability, for any miracle claim, then that claim would be as believable as any other amazing but credible story. Hence I agree we could still overcome the inference a