The Perman-Till Debate on the Resurrection (1996-1997)
The Resurrection of Christ:Myth or Reality?
by Matthew Perman
Imagine that you have been hiking all day in the mountains ofColorado, and you are lost. An enormous snowstorm is fast approaching, and if you do not find a way out soon, it will cost you your life. Up ahead there is a fork in the road, where you see two people. One is lying down on the ground–dead. The other is standing up and wearing a park ranger’s uniform–alive. Whom would you ask for directions? Obviously, the living one.
A similar situation surrounds the questions of life after death. Many religions claim to have the answers, but they all contradict one other (Mortimer J. Adler, Truth in Religion: The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth, Macmillan, 1990). They cannot all be true. So how can we know whom to believe? Christianity seems to be unique. Its founder and leader, Jesus Christ, not only experienced death, but it is claimed that He also rose from the dead and remains alive. If this is true, whom would you believe concerning matters of eternal destiny–one who is lying in his grave, or one who has risen from the grave?
If Jesus has risen, it would seem reasonable to consider His claim to be the only way to God: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through me” (Jn. 14:6). But, according to the apostle Paul, “If Christ has not been raised, [the Christian’s] faith is worthless” (1 Cor. 15:17). So the question arises: Did Jesus really rise from the dead?
To investigate this issue, we will examine six facts that virtually all scholars–even critical non-Christian scholars–who address Christ’s resurrection accept as historical (Antony Flew and Gary Habermas, Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? pp. 19-20). We will also see that the Bible is not the only source of evidence for Christ’s resurrection. John Singleton Copley, recognized as one of the greatest legal minds in British history, sums up the matter well: “I know pretty well what evidence is; and I tell you, such evidence as that for the resurrection has never broken down yet” (Wilbur M. Smith, Therefore Stand, p. 425).
1. Jesus Christ died from the rigors of crucifixion and was buried in a tomb.
A. Jesus was crucified. Extrabiblical sources (sources apart from the Bible) confirm this fact. Of particular interest is a reference by Thallus, a non-Christian Samaritan historian. He regarded the crucifixion of Jesus as so significant that he included it in his History of the World, which he wrote about A. D. 52. Thallus tried to explain away the darkness that fell when Jesus died on the cross as an eclipse of the sun (F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Intervarsity Press, 1972, p. 113). Jewish sources also refer to Jesus’s crucifixion at Passover (The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, 43a).
B. Jesus was dead. The nature of crucifixion ensures death. After analyzing the medical and historical evidence leading to Jesus’s death, an article in the Journal of the American Medical Society concludes: “Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge” (March 21, 1986, p. 1463).
2. Jesus’s tomb was empty just a few days later.
Professor of philosophy Dr. G. R. Habermas in his Ancient Evidences for the Life of Jesus writes: “Our study [of the extrabiblical sources] has shown that Jesus taught inPalestine and was crucified and buried inJerusalem under Pontius Pilate. These sources assert that Christianity had its beginnings in the same location.” Christ’s apostles did not go to some obscure place to begin preaching about His resurrection but instead went back to the city ofJerusalem, the very place of Jesus’s execution and grave. If what the apostles were preaching had been false, it would have been evident to the people inJerusalem and Christianity more than likely would not have begun.
This situation therefore demands that Jesus was no longer in His tomb. Paul Althaus writes that the resurrection proclamation “could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb had not been established as a fact for all concerned” (Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1979, p. 217).
Second, early Jewish testimony admits the empty tomb. Matthew 28:11-15 makes reference to the Jewish assertion that the disciples stole the body. The author then adds that this story was still being spread at the time when he was writing. This text could not have been written unless there really was a Jewish counterargument to the empty tomb; otherwise, this passage would have been exposed as a fraud. Also, the passage would have been pointless, since its main purpose was to refute the Jesus allegation. The significance of this is that the early Jews did not deny the empty tomb but rather admitted the empty tomb by trying to explain it away. Additionally, Josh McDowell points out that a compilation of 5th-century Jewish writings, called the Toledoth Jeshu, acknowledges that the tomb was empty. Dr. Paul Maier calls this “positive evidence from a hostile source, the strongest kind of historical evidence. In essence, if a source admits a fact that is decidedly not in its favor, the fact is genuine.” That is exactly the case with the empty tomb.
Because of the strong case for the empty tomb, there are many natural theories that attempt to explain it away in order to deny Christ’s resurrection.
A. Did the disciples go to the wrong tomb? This cannot be the case because the Jewish authorities, since they were against Christianity, would have wasted no time producing the body of Jesus from the proper tomb, putting an end to Christianity. Surely someone would have discovered this “mistake.”
B. Did the disciples steal the body? If so, then the men who delivered to the world the highest moral standards it has ever known were frauds, liars, and hypocrites. Is this credible to believe? Paul Little asks, “Are these men, who helped transform the moral structure of society, consummate liars or deluded madmen? These alternatives are harder to believe than the fact of the resurrection, and there is not a shred of evidence to support them” (Paul Little, Know Why You Believe, Scripture Press Publications, Inc., 1971, p. 63).
C. Did the Jews or the Romans steal it? Dr. John Warwick Montgomery dispels this possibility: “It passes the bounds of credibility that the early Christians could have manufactured such a tale and preached it among those who might easily have refuted it by producing the body of Jesus” (John Warwick Montgomery, History and Christianity, Intervarsity Press, 1972, p. 78). If they had the body, why didn’t they put the corpse on a cart and wheel it throughJerusalem, thus eliminating for all time any belief in Christ’s resurrection?
D. What about grave robbers anonymous? They steal what’s on the body, not the body. Who would want to steal a dead corpse?
In addition, most scholars today reject these natural theories because they all fail to explain another crucial factor:
3. The disciples had real experiences with one whom they believed was the risen Christ.
This fact is not widely disputed today, even among critical scholars (Carl Braaten, History and Hermeneutics, p. 78) because of the firsthand testimony supporting it. The gospels, which record these appearances, claim to have been written by eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus and by those who recorded eyewitness testimony. These internal claims are confirmed by external sources (History and Christianity, pp. 31-35). In addition, the reliability and trustworthiness of the New Testament has been confirmed by extrabiblical sources and archaeology (Evidence that Demands a Verdict, pp. 65-74). For these reasons, the conclusion that the gospels record eyewitness testimony, as they claim, cannot be denied.
In these reliable eyewitness documents, Jesus is reported to have appeared physically alive to His disciples after His crucifixion. This testimony is verified by 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. In this passage, Paul is recording an early creed concerning the resurrection appearances, which, the majority of scholars believe, he received from Peter and James within six years of the crucifixion. Since Peter and James are both mentioned in this creed as having seen Jesus alive after His death, we may agree with Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide who says that this creed “may be considered the statement of eyewitnesses” (Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus, p. 99. For a more in-depth treatment of 1 Cor. 15:3-8, refer to footnote 15, pp. 67-68). Because the gospels and this creed are the early testimony of eyewitnesses (not to mention that these eyewitnesses have been shown to be trustworthy), the theory that the resurrection is a myth or legend can be ruled out. There are only three options: the disciples hallucinated, lied, or really encountered the bodily risen Christ.
The disciples could not have been hallucinating because this theory is flatly contradicted by certain psychological principles governing the appearances of hallucinations. Also, the disciples record touching Jesus and giving Him food (Luke 24:39-43), which cannot be done with a hallucination. In addition, this theory fails to account for the empty tomb. The next option is that the apostles were lying. But…
4. Jesus’s disciples were transformed into bold witnesses who died for their belief in the resurrection.
Of the twelve disciples, ten died for their belief in Christ’s resurrection and their belief in Him as the Son of God. This is significant because if Jesus had not risen from the dead, His disciples knew it. People may die for something they believe to be true, but is in fact false. But if the resurrection did not happen, the disciples did not just die for a lie which they mistakenly believed to be true, but died for a lie that they knew to be a lie.
Josh McDowell puts this well: “Jesus’s followers could not have faced torture and death unless they were convinced of His resurrection. The unanimity of their message and course of conduct was amazing…. If they were deceivers, it’s hard to explain why one of them didn’t break down under pressure” (Josh McDowell, More Than a Carpenter, Tyndale House Publishers, 1977, p. 67). After witnessing events such as Watergate, can we reasonably suppose that the disciples could have totally covered up such a lie?
5. The existence of the Christian Church.
Christianity requires a historic cause. It did not exist until about A. D. 30, when it suddenly burst to life, spread like wildfire, and changed the world. What could have started this if not the resurrection, as the early Christians claimed?
Josh McDowell writes, “The Church was founded on the resurrection, and disproving it would have destroyed the whole Christian movement. However, instead of any such disproof, through the 1st century, Christians were threatened, beaten, flogged and killed because of their faith” (Evidence, p. 218). It would have been much simpler to silence Christianity by putting forth evidence disproving the resurrection, but this could not be done.
6. The conversion of Paul.
If there was no resurrection, then Paul deceived the other apostles of an appearance of Christ to him, and they in turn deceived Paul! “Even worse, what could have motivated him to `sell out’ to his former `ministry’ of persecuting the Christians when he was convinced that it was God’s will? From his point of view, why would he risk the damnation of his own soul by converting to what he perceived as anti-Jewish beliefs?” (Gary Habermas & J. P. Moreland, Immortality: The Other Side of Death, Tyndale House Publishers, 1992, p. 58). Paul says that it was an appearance of the risen Christ that convinced him that Christianity is true.
Based on the evidence, my conclusion is that the Christian faith is a reasonable faith (not a blind faith), based not on myth or legend but on a solid historical event–the resurrection of Jesus. What do you think? Would you agree with George Ladd, who said, “The only rational explanation for these historical facts is that God raised Jesus in bodily form?” (George Ladd, I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1975, p. 141). How else would you explain all of these facts? Perhaps before you come to a conclusion, you should consider one more reason.
Jesus has transformed millions of lives throughout history.
My reasons for believing in Christ’s resurrection are not simply based on historical facts, as important as they are. I believe that Jesus rose from the dead because He lives in me and I have experienced the abundant life He offers. Millions of others have experienced this, too, which leads us to the most important question of all: What is the significance of Christ’s resurrection?
First, we can be sure that life does not end at the grave. Second, we can be certain that Jesus is who He claimed to be — fully God and fully man. Therefore, Jesus is the only one who can speak with certainty and final authority on matters of eternal destiny. This verifies Jesus’s claim to be the only way to God and the claim that Christianity is true. Third, there is genuine hope. Through the risen Jesus, we can enter into a personal relationship with the living God, have the certainty of eternal life, and experience His abundant life.
Several years ago, I began this relationship with God. I understood that God loved me and created me to know Him personally. But I was also aware that before a holy and just God I was morally guilty, i.e., sinful, and deserving of His judgment. I came to understand that a relationship with God could not be restored unless the penalty for my sin was paid — eternal death (Rom. 6:23).
The good news is that, on the cross, Jesus died in our place to pay the death penalty for our sin (Rom. 5:8). That’s what it means to say, “Christ died for us.” That is also why He is the only way to God — only Jesus has died to provide our forgiveness. If there was any other way, Jesus wouldn’t have died. His resurrection demonstrates that He conquered death and sin.
The Bible says that this relationship with God and eternal life are gifts and therefore cannot be earned by good moral behavior (Eph. 2:8-9). Like any other gift, I knew that I had to accept it before it would become mine (John 1:12). So I admitted to God that I was guilty of rebellion toward Him and made a decision to put my trust in Jesus to forgive me and to give me eternal life. I have been encouraged by His promises to come into my life (Rev. 3:20), to give me eternal life (John 5:24), and to make me a new person (2 Cor. 5:17). This gives me hope not only for the hereafter but also for the here and now.
No one wants to believe in something that isn’t true, especially me. The resurrection of Jesus has given me substantial reason to believe that my faith is not in vain.
The evidence is clear: Mohammed’s tomb — occupied. Buddha’s tomb — occupied. Confucius’ tomb — occupied. Jesus’s tomb — EMPTY. What is your verdict?
(Matthew Perman, 1120 Dancer Hall, Cedar Falls, IA 50614; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org)
Put Me Down For Myth
by Farrell Till
On April 2, 1996, I attended the Horner-Barker Debate atNorthernIowaUniversity, at which time I had the opportunity to meet Matthew Perman with whom I had been corresponding by e-mail for several weeks. Prior to the debate, I spent about four hours with Matthew and two of his friends talking about various issues related to biblical inerrancy. I found them to be particularly intense about their Christian beliefs, and it was very evident throughout our conversations that they had been thoroughly indoctrinated in fundamentalist Christian ideology. In many ways, Matthew, who was the most vocal of the three, reminded me of how I was at that age, i.e., young and idealistic and completely entrenched in inerrantist thinking.
At the debate, survey cards were distributed that among other things offered a complimentary article about the resurrection. I indicated that I would like to receive it, and two days later, the foregoing article arrived in the mail. When I requested it, I had no idea that it had been written by none other than Matthew Perman. It was a pleasant surprise.
There is certainly nothing new in the article, which is simply a rehashing of the same discredited arguments of Josh McDowell, F. F. Bruce, Gary Habermas, and other evangelical “apologists,” so an exhaustive rebuttal of Perman’s arguments should assure readers of his article that the very best evidence Christians can present for the foundation doctrine of their religion is woefully inadequate to convince rational people that the resurrection of Jesus is a historical fact.
Close to the end of his article, Perman asked, “How else would you explain ALL of these facts?” By using the word *facts* rather than *claims,* Perman begged an important question, because he is asking his readers to assume that certain claims that the New Testament and Christians make about the resurrection are facts, when in reality they are merely matters of belief for which there is nothing close to the kind of evidence that would be necessary to establish them as facts. The death of Jesus, the empty tomb, the postresurrection appearances, the willingness of the apostles to die for their beliefs–these are all touted as historical facts when in reality they are nothing more than beliefs that Christians base on an unjustified assumption that the New Testament documents are historically accurate in everything they reported.
I will have more to say about this later, but first I want to answer Perman’s question and show how all of his “facts” can be explained more rationally than does his assumption that Jesus literally died and was bodily resurrected to life. This explanation was very ably presented as Perman, his friends, and I sat together during the Horner-Barker Debate. Dan Barker devoted most of his first speech to the development of the argument, which Horner largely ignored the rest of the night. Perhaps Mr. Perman would like to respond to the argument. If so, I will publish his reply in a later issue.
When they are debating the resurrection issue, inerrantists like to forget the principle of argumentation that says, “He who asserts must prove.” They insist that their opponents have an obligation to prove that the resurrection did NOT happen or at least to offer a better hypothesis for the “data” than their claim that the resurrection literally happened. In his first speech, Barker met this challenge and presented an alternative hypothesis that explains the so-called “data” much better than the Christian claim that a resurrection literally occurred.
Starting with an analysis of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Barker showed that the Christian belief in a bodily resurrection was a result of doctrinal evolution that had begun with belief in only a spiritual resurrection. He noted that Paul’s statement in this passage is recognized by most biblical scholars, including evangelical apologists, to be the earliest known statement about the resurrection, which had probably been transmitted orally, possibly in hymns or poems, until Paul finally wrote it down in his famous defense of the resurrection. Barker noted that this earliest account of the resurrection makes no references to many of the elements that are found in the gospel accounts, which were written much later. There were no references to an earthquake and empty tomb, to women, to angels, etc. Why did this earliest account of the resurrection leave out such important events as these if they were so widely known as part of the resurrection story? It isn’t at all unreasonable to assume that they were not mentioned for the simple reason that they were traditions that had not yet developed when Paul wrote his first epistle to the Corinthians. This, however, is merely a hypothesis for which reasonable evidence should be presented, and Barker more than satisfied this requirement of logical argumentation.
He focused our attention on the words *buried, raised,* and *appeared* in Paul’s text and analyzed each as they were used in the Greek text of the New Testament. The word *thapto* (bury) meant to inter or bury and carried no necessary connotations of entombment, so this would be entirely consistent with the known practice of taking the bodies of crucifixion victims and burying them in a common grave. The word translated *rose* or *raised* in English translations of this passage was *egeiro,* which meant to “arouse” or “awaken.” Barker noted that this was the word that Paul used in referring to the resurrection in such passages as 2 Corinthians 5:15 and that it was the word used in Ephesians 5:14, where Paul said, “Awake (*egeiro*), thou that sleepest and arise (*anistemi*) from the dead.” The latter word, which meant “arise” or “raise up,” is the word used in reference to resurrection, but *egeiro* (awake) is the word that Paul used in 1 Corinthians 15:4, 12 in speaking of Christ’s arising.
*Egeiro* (awake) was used by Paul eleven other times in 1 Corinthians 15: 15-52, as he spoke about the apostles being false witnesses if the dead are not *raised,* faith being dead if the dead are not *raised,* and seed and bodies being sown in corruption but *raised* in incorruption, etc. That Paul believed only in a spiritual resurrection of Jesus is very evident from a careful analysis of this passage:
But someone will say, “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?” Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. *And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be,* but mere grain–perhaps wheat or some other grain” (vv:35-37).
We have to give Paul an “F” in botany for what he said here, because practically any elementary science student today would know that nothing can grow from a dead seed. The important thing to notice, however, is that in analogizing the resurrection of the dead with the planting of seeds, he clearly said, “*You do not sow that body that shall be.*” That is a view diametrically opposed to the subsequent doctrine of a bodily resurrection that was based on the gospel accounts. This doctrine proclaims that the physical body that was “sown” (buried) was the same body that was resurrected, but in Paul’s analogy he said the body that was sown was not the body that would be.
More evidence that Paul believed only in a spiritual resurrection of Jesus is found farther along in the text. After declaring that there are different kinds of flesh, he argued that there are also different kinds of bodies:
There are also celestial bodies and terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differs from another star in glory. *So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in CORRUPTION, it is raised in INCORRUPTION. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.* IT IS SOWN A NATURAL BODY, IT IS RAISED A *SPIRITUAL* BODY. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body (vv:40-44, emphasis added).
The statements emphasized in italics and bold print are clear enough to show that Paul believed that the body that is raised is different from the body that was buried. Since the statements were made in a context in which Paul was arguing that Christ had been raised, it is entirely reasonable to conclude that Paul believed that the natural body of Christ was “sown” when he was buried but that a spiritual body was resurrected.
A favorite expression of Mr. Perman seemed to be “most scholars” as he talked about what “most scholars” think or believe. In his case, of course, he meant “most fundamentalists,” because, as we will see, most scholars–and by this, I mean most true scholars and not evangelical apologists–decidedly do NOT believe many of the things that he attributed to “most scholars.” At any rate, since he brought up the subject of what “most scholars” think, he can’t object if I point out that most scholars–and I mean recognized scholars and not evangelical preachers whose books are published in Grand Rapids, Michigan–have dated the gospels anywhere from 15 to 70 years after Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians. By that time, legend had built the spiritual awakening that Paul taught and preached into a resurrection of the natural or physical body, which is exactly the kind of resurrection that Paul said had not happened.
This doctrinal transition from a spiritual arising to a bodily resurrection led to the writing of the gospels, which put the resurrection into a specific historical setting with tales of an empty tomb and postresurrection appearances in which disciples actually touched the physical body of the resurrected savior. Perman asked how else ALL of “these facts” could be explained, and this hypothesis explains it much more sensibly than his irrational belief that all of the fabulous claims in the resurrection narratives literally happened. More likely, they didn’t happen. They are simply legends that developed around the story of a savior-god who had arisen spiritually after his death. If Perman wants to dispute this, he can argue with his beloved apostle Paul, who clearly said, “It is sown a *natural* body; it is raised a *spiritual* body” (1 Cor. 15:44). Then he can try to explain to us why if Paul said that Jesus had risen spiritually, the gospel writers later said that he had risen bodily.
Part of Dan Barker’s argument in the debate was an analysis of the word “appear” to show that Paul and other New Testament writers had used it in visionary senses. In Matthew 17:3, Moses and Elijah “appeared” at the time of the transfiguration, and the Greek word here is the same one that Paul used in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 in listing the appearances that Jesus made to Cephas, to the twelve, to the 500 brethren, to James, and finally to Paul himself. There is nothing in the text of Matthew that even remotely hints that Moses and Elijah had been bodily resurrected in their appearances at the transfiguration. In Acts 16:9, “a vision *appeared* [same word as in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8] to Paul in the night in which a man fromMacedoniastood praying for Paul to come there to help them. Since the same word for “appear” was used in 1 Corinthians 15:8, where Paul said, “And last of all, as to the child untimely born, he *appeared* to me also,” Barker argued that there is sufficient reason to assume that the other appearances were like the appearance to Paul. Barker then showed that the only records that exist of the appearance of Jesus to Paul show clearly that this was just a vision that Paul had and that he had actually not even seen Jesus in the vision. He heard only a voice speaking from a bright light (Acts 9:3-8; 22:6-11; 26:12-18), and the men who were with him saw only the light but didn’t hear the voice (according to one of the accounts). So if this was the way that Paul “saw” Jesus, and since the same word for *see* or *appear* (depending on translation) was used for all of the appearances that Paul mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15, why should we believe that Paul considered these “appearances” any more than just the same kind of visionary appearance that he had experienced on the road to Damascus?
If there is still doubt that Paul had experienced only a visionary appearance of Jesus, we can let him settle the matter for us. In Acts 26, he related to King Agrippa the story of Christ’s appearance to him, after which he said, “Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the HEAVENLY VISION” (v:19), so if Luke told the story right, Paul himself said that he had seen Jesus in a heavenly vision, and as noted above, it was a type of appearance that none of the other men with Paul were able to see. That doesn’t sound very much like a bodily appearance.
So the “facts” of the New Testament records indicate that Christians first believed in a spiritual resurrection of Christ and that the claims of bodily appearances came much later in the gospel narratives. Even then the gospel narratives presented these appearances in a composite manner. In some ways, these postresurrection appearances of Jesus were physical in that he had a body that could be touched and examined, but in other ways, it was a spiritual body that could be teletransported, appear suddenly, and even pass through closed doors. The most rational explanation for these divergent views of the resurrection depicted in the New Testament is the one that Barker presented in his debate with Michael Horner. Christians first believed in a spiritually resurrected Jesus, but this doctrine gradually evolved into a belief in a physically resurrected savior. So if Perman is really sincere in asking if the resurrection of Christ was myth or reality, he should see that Occam’s razor favors those of us who think it was myth. This will become even more obvious as I take the points in his article and show that none of them proves anything.
Having satisfied Mr. Perman’s request for a better explanation of the “facts,” I can now discuss his arguments individually and show that they prove exactly nothing. His first major point was that “Jesus Christ died from the rigors of crucifixion and was buried in a tomb.” The only way that anyone can know this is to assume the historical accuracy of the New Testament records, because there are certainly no contemporary extrabiblical records that Perman can cite to corroborate the gospel claims, and even if such records did exist to confirm that Jesus died from crucifixion and was buried, they would prove nothing except that Jesus died from crucifixion and was buried. Lots of people were crucified in those times, but I doubt if even Perman would argue that their deaths and burials in any way constituted proof that they were later resurrected.
Of course, Perman thinks he has found “extrabiblical sources” in the discredited argument that Thallus, “a non-Christian Samaritan historian,” verified the three-hour period of darkness that the synoptic writers claimed in their gospel accounts. The front-page article in this issue of *TSR* (“Did Marco Polo Lie?”) discusses this alleged nonbiblical reference, so there is no reason to rehash it. Suffice it to say that Perman will have to find more than dubious secondhand references to darkness in nonextant writings before he can hope to convince rational people that any such event actually occurred. Edward Gibbon is a highly respected historian, and we have already seen his assessment of Matthew’s claim that three hours of darkness covered “all the land” while Jesus was on the cross.
As further “evidence” that Jesus died on the cross, Perman cited the notorious article in the *Journal of the American Medical Society.* This article, of course, had to assume that the New Testament documents were accurate in what they reported, because there simply are no references to the death of Jesus in the nonbiblical records of that time. So if one is going to assume the absolute accuracy of the New Testament documents, what is there to argue about? They obviously claim that Jesus died on the cross. However, an honest investigation of an issue like this would not beg a question that needs to be proven. How can we know that blatantly biased documents like the gospel accounts were accurate in everything they reported? Perman would not assume that the Koran is historically inerrant. He would not assume that the Book of Mormon is historically inerrant. He would not assume that the Zoroastrian Avesta is historically inerrant. So why does he insist on according the Bible privileged status? He does so because of a wishful bias that makes him want to believe that his religion is the “true” one. This bias was evident several times in his article as he labored to explain why Christianity must be considered “unique” and Jesus the “only way to God.” Is this any way to conduct honest historical research?
As for the medical-journal article itself, I will just ask Perman if he knows of any competent forensic pathologist who thinks that death can be determined without examining the body, yet this is exactly what the authors of the article in question have presumed to do. Without examining the body of Jesus, they have concluded that he had to have been dead. The only “evidence” they could possibly base that conclusion on is what the New Testament says, and so that brings us right back to square one: they have assumed the accuracy of the New Testament documents.
We have all read in newspapers stories about people who were pronounced dead by attending physicians but later were found to be alive when movement was noticed as the bodies were lying in the morgue. If such as this can happen in modern times after competent physicians have declared people dead, how can Perman or anyone argue that it is possible for physicians today to know definitively that a man who was crucified almost 2,000 years ago was dead when he was taken down from the cross? Of all the arguments for the resurrection that I have heard, this one ranks high on my list of the silliest.
*Jesus’s tomb was empty just a few days later.* Again we have an argument that is based on the assumption that the New Testament records are historically accurate. Perman can cite no contemporary nonbiblical records that refer to an empty tomb, and even if he could, they would not prove that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. An empty tomb could have several explanations, and probably the last one that would occur to a rational person would be that the body buried in it had been resurrected.
Perman said, “If what the apostles were preaching had been false, it would have been evident to the people inJerusalemand Christianity more than likely would not have begun,” but I must keep reminding readers that Perman always argues from the assumption that the New Testament records are historically accurate. Except for what the New Testament says, how does Perman know when the apostles started preaching? For that matter, how does he know that the apostles were actual historical characters? Secular history is strangely silent about these apostles who, according to the New Testament, played such prominent roles in founding Christianity. Perman spoke about how Christianity “suddenly burst to life, spread like wildfire, and changed the world,” but for some reason secular history was silent about the men who were responsible for this spreading wildfire. Everywhere Paul went, he seemed to stir up civil and religious unrest. According to Acts 14, he and Barnabas were overwhelmed by a mob intent on worshiping them as the gods Hermes and Zeus. In Antioch of Pisidia, Paul preached a stirring sermon in the synagogue, and “the next sabbath almost the whole city was gathered together to hear the word of God” (Acts 13:14-44). At Philippi, Paul and Silas were arrested and thrown into prison for having driven a “spirit of divination” from a young slave girl who was thereby rendered unprofitable to her masters (Acts 16:16-40). In the province ofAsia, Paul was almost lynched by a mob that was angry because his many conversions had almost destroyed the worship of Diana and Jupiter (Acts 19:22-41). On his return toJerusalem, the captain of the temple had to rescue him from an angry mob (Acts 21:27-36). Paul was arrested and made appearances before Felix and Agrippa and eventually was taken toRome, where one tradition says that he was tried and executed, but according to another early church tradition, Paul was released and went toSpain.
All of these remarkable events surrounded Paul, but for some reason (known perhaps to Mr. Perman) secular history left no record of his exploits. We find him mentioned only in biased New Testament and early Christian documents. Secular records don’t refer to any of the other apostles either, so what are we to make of this? Could it just possibly be that the spread of Christianity was not exactly the wildfire that Perman claims it was?
We know only that the New Testament claims that the apostles began to preach the resurrection on the day of Pentecost following the crucifixion of Jesus (Acts 2). This would have been 50 days later. Because of the long delay between that time and the writing of the gospels and the book of Acts, we must recognize the possibility that some accounts of the apostles’ activities were at least exaggerations if not outright legends. However, even if we assume a high degree of accuracy in the book of Acts, this would mean that Jesus was crucified 50 days before the apostles began to preach that he had been resurrected. How then would it have been possible for the Jewish authorities “to waste no time in producing the body of Jesus from the proper tomb”? After a body has been dead that long, a forensic expert would have been needed to establish the identity with certitude.
We must also recognize the distinct possibility that the early Christian movement was so insignificant in its influence that no organized opposition to it even developed at that time. Mr. Perman likes to think in terms of rapidly spreading wildfire, but he can find no historical support for this theory. As noted in the front-page article of this issue, the father of Josephus was a priest inJerusalemat the very time the book of Acts presented the Jewish leaders as a hand-wringing opposition anguishedly wondering what it could possibly do to counteract the influence that the preaching of the apostles was having on the people. If that picture is even halfway accurate, why wouldn’t Josephus have known about it? He made references in his works to various Messianic groups and rebels whom history has almost completely forgotten, but he didn’t even mention the Christian movement that, according to Perman, was spreading like “wildfire.” How reasonable is it to believe that? It would be as if someone should write a socio-political history of mid-19th centuryAmericaand not even mention the abolitionist movement and its underground railroads.
Furthermore, if Barker’s doctrinal-evolution argument is true, then it is likely that a bodily resurrection of Jesus wasn’t even preached until long after the time that he was allegedly crucified. That being the case, there would have been no “corpse to put on a cart and wheel throughJerusalem.” Since the gospels were written in Greek for Hellenistic readers well after the time the crucifixion presumably happened, it is likely that the bodily resurrection of Jesus was first proclaimed in places far removed fromJerusalem. This is why there is no merit at all to Paul Althaus’s claim that the resurrection proclamation “could not have been maintained inJerusalemfor a single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb had not been established as fact for all concerned.” Without assuming the historical accuracy of the New Testament documents, Althaus cannot even know when the bodily resurrection of Jesus was first preached or even if it was first preached inJerusalem.
*Early Jewish testimony admits the empty tomb.* Perman asserted this and tried to prove it by Matthew’s claim that the chief priests bribed the Roman guard into saying that the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus and that “this story was still being spread at the time when he [Matthew] was writing.” Yes, this is exactly what Matthew reported (28:11-15), but Perman’s appeal to this passage is a flagrant assumption that Matthew’s record is historically accurate. If we assume that the crucifixion and burial really did happen, how does Perman know that the disciples didn’t steal the body and that Matthew fabricated a story about the bribing of the guard as a way of counteracting the truth about what had happened? Perman seems to be an admirer of John Wenham’s *Easter Enigma,* which is a highly speculative attempt to reconcile inconsistencies in the resurrection narratives, and in this book Wenham admits that Matthew’s story of the Roman guard “bristles with improbabilities at every point” (*Easter Enigma,* Academie Books, 1984, p. 79). Wenham cited the guards’ reporting to the chief priests and their accepting a bribe to tell their officers that the body had been stolen while they had fallen asleep on duty as major improbabilities in the story.
So did Wenham find the improbabilities too hard to swallow? Certainly not, because the aim of his book was to defend the accuracy of the resurrection narratives despite their “apparent” inconsistencies. “It is a worthless piece of Christian apologetic at whatever date it was written,” Wenham concluded, “*unless it happens to be undeniably true*” (Ibid., original emphasis). So there you have it. “It is so absurd that it just has to be true,” Wenham was arguing. Well, I hope he and Matthew Perman will forgive me for saying that it is so absurd I cannot believe it, and that is a much more rational reaction to an implausible story like this..
*Did the disciples steal the body?* “If so,” Perman argued, “then the men who delivered to the world the highest moral standards it has ever known were frauds, liars, and hypocrites. Is this credible to believe?” I’m sorry, but I can’t share Perman’s enthusiasm for Christian morality. I see things in Christianity that I would consider being far from “the highest moral standards” the world has ever known. Be that as it may, let’s consider the merits of his claim. Mormonism requires an extremely high moral code of its members. They can’t use tobacco or drink beverages that contain alcohol or caffeine, and their “clean” lifestyle probably explains the increased longevity that they enjoy. Do the high moral standards of this religious group in any way prove that Joseph Smith’s claims of special revelations from God have to be true? If not, then are we to believe that a “fraud, liar, and hypocrite” gave to the world an extremely high moral standard? Or should we just recognize the complexity of human nature that results in almost all people having both their good and bad qualities? Why should we think that the early leaders of Christianity would have been any different? I would say that the burden is on Matthew Perman to prove that it just isn’t possible for “frauds, liars, and hypocrites” to teach high moral standards. Indeed, we have witnessed many times “frauds, liars, and hypocrites,” who preach high standards of morality from the pulpit but are later caught in acts that show them to be frauds, liars, and hypocrites. Does anyone really consider this a convincing argument?
*The disciples had real experiences with one who they believed was the risen Christ.* Again, I must point out that this is an argument that is based on an assumption that the New Testament is historically accurate in everything it says. These “real experiences” that Perman referred to were the appearances that Jesus allegedly made to his disciples after his resurrection. Perman claimed that the gospel accounts of these appearances are reliable, because they “claim to have been written by eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus and by those who recorded eyewitness testimony.” Oh, is that so? Just where did the writer of Matthew claim that he had been an eyewitness of the things that he wrote about? Where did the writer of Mark claim that he had been an eyewitness? The author of Mark didn’t identify himself, and only tradition says that it was written by John Mark. If this tradition is true, then he wasn’t an eyewitness, so everything that he said has to be recognized as hearsay testimony. John Singleton Copley may think that he knows “pretty well what evidence is,” but if his “legal mind” was half as great as Perman claimed it was, then he surely must have known that hearsay testimony is not even permitted in most courtroom situations.
If Perman wants to talk about what “critical scholars” believe, why doesn’t he consider that formidable body of critical works that reject the notion that the gospels were written by the individuals whose names have been associated with them? If, for example, the apostle Matthew really wrote the book that bears his name, then why did he feel the need to copy 90% of the gospel of Mark, which was written by someone who wasn’t even an eyewitness? Does Perman have a logical explanation for why someone who was an eyewitness to the life and deeds of Jesus felt the need to copy much of his gospel from the work of someone who wasn’t an eyewitness? These are matters that Mr. Perman needs to give serious consideration to.
Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome, Joanna, Cleopas, the “twelve,” Cephas, James, the 500 brethren–none of these left any firsthand testimony of their alleged experiences with the risen Christ. All of their “testimony” has been filtered to us through second- and thirdhand sources, and Paul admitted that he had experienced Jesus only in a vision in which he saw a bright light and heard a voice. That is hardly solid evidence regardless of what John Singleton Copley may think.
*The disciples of Jesus were transformed into bold witnesses who died for their belief in the resurrection.* Says who? Well, of course, the New Testament indicates that the disciples were transformed into “bold witnesses,” but James was the only apostle whose death was mentioned in the New Testament (Acts 12:1-2). As I noted earlier, stories about the martyrdom of the apostles “for what they believed” are largely legendary and highly inconsistent. So now we have Perman arguing from the assumption that both the New Testament records and church traditions are historically accurate.
For the sake of argument, let’s just assume that the traditions are true and that the apostles all died horrible deaths as martyrs for what they believed. What would this prove? If martyrdom proves the truth of what a martyr dies for, then practically every religion on earth can lay claim to being the only “true” religion. Martyrdom is as old as religion itself, so the logical axiom that says, “What proves too much proves nothing at all,” shows that there is no merit at all to the argument that the martyrdom of the apostles and earlier disciples proves the truth of what they believed.
Perman made other points that I would like to comment on, but space will not allow it. Perhaps I can address them in a future article. Meanwhile, if he wants to respond to this article, we will publish it.
The Resurrection Stands Firm: A Response to Farrell Till
by Matthew Perman
After reading Till’s response to my article defending Christ’s resurrection (both appeared in the July/August issue of TSR), I was surprised to see him reuse Dan Barker’s argument for the “evolution of a myth” (Barker argued this in a debate with Michael Horner). He argued that “the Christian belief in a bodily resurrection [of Christ] was a result of doctrinal evolution that had begun with belief in only a spiritual resurrection.” Thus, Till argued that my data are better explained by this myth theory, not an actual, bodily resurrection of Christ. But before responding to the Till/Barker claim for the “spiritual resurrection myth,” I first want to address some of Till’s general comments concerning my article.
Till repeatedly claimed that I was “always argu[ing] from the assumption that the New Testament records are historically accurate” when presenting the evidence to back up my six historical “facts” that critical scholars accept. (My points included the empty tomb, the resurrection appearances, etc.) First, we must note Aristotle’s dictum that “the benefit of the doubt should be delegated to the document itself, not arrogated by the critic to himself.” What right does Till have to operate from the extreme assumption that the New Testament is fundamentally unreliable? He says that the gospels are “blatantly biased documents.” However, all historical records are “biased” — no one wants a disinterested historian. But this doesn’t render their records completely unreliable. A Jew who was writing about the events of the Holocaust would not be discredited just because he was a victim of it and passionate over the issue, would he? In fact, this would seem to establish his credibility. There are also numerous good reasons that do establish the general reliability of the New Testament (but that’s another article).
Second, and most important, I am emphatically not arguing from the premise that the New Testament documents are reliable in everything. In each case where I assert something that the New Testament claims (such as that the tomb was empty), I give specific reasons why we should accept what it says on this specific point. For example, I appeal to Matthew 28:11-15 to show that the earliest Jewish propaganda admits the empty tomb. Till says that this is a “flagrant assumption that Matthew’s record is historically accurate.” But in my article I give two specific reasons for accepting the accuracy of this specific report from Matthew.
This leads to my next point of clarification. I specifically wrote the article to show that one can give good evidence for the resurrection without establishing that the New Testament is inerrant, or even very trustworthy. That’s why I said that I would “examine six facts that virtually all critical scholars… accept.” Till seems to think that by “critical scholars” I mean “most fundamentalists,” but that is not the case. My article clearly says that even virtually all “critical non-Christian scholars” who address Christ’s resurrection accept my six points. I mean that these data are accepted by serious scholars (whether Christian or not) across a broad spectrum of beliefs who “apply to the Bible the same investigative methods that they use in evaluating the accuracy of secular history” (this quote is from “Did Marco Polo Lie?” on page 1 of the July/August issue, where it is claimed that Christians are afraid to apply to the Bible the same historical methods applied to secular history). This puts my case on firm basis, not an “unwarranted assumption” that the New Testament is “always trustworthy” (though I believe it is). Now I can turn to Till’s attempt to explain away my six facts with his myth theory.
I’m glad that Till is willing to admit that the creed recorded by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3ff is very early. We will return to this later. But he asks why such an early account would leave out so many of the details that the gospels record. The reason is that the formula of this creed was simply meant to be a summary, or brief outline, of the core of Christian beliefs. There are many early, short creeds recorded in the New Testament (Rom. 1:3-4; 10:9; Phil. 2:6ff, 1 Tim. 3:16, etc.), and none of them go into great detail because they are only intended to be concise summaries of beliefs, not detailed records as the gospels were.
Till points out that Paul used the word thapto, which means “burial.” He insists that thapto carries with it no connotation of sepulchre, or tomb, and that this probably meant that Paul understood the body to have been thrown into a common grave. But let’s look at Acts 2:29. It reads “Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried (thapto), and his tomb is here to this day (NIV).” The KJV replaces “tomb” with “sepulchre.” So for Till (following Barker) to assert that there is no connection between sepulcher, tomb, and thapto is simply incorrect. Of course, Paul does not use mnema (tomb) or mnemeion (sepulchre)! Would the following make sense: “He died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and was sepulchered”? Till’s theory also fails to account for the wealth of evidence supporting the burial of Jesus in a tomb. (1) Archaeology supports that the crucifixion victims were buried in tombs. Look, for example, at the case of Yohanon, who was discovered in Tomb #1 at Giv’at ha-Mitvar, As el-Masaref, by Tzaferis. Yohanon was from the first-century, and was found to have his heel bones transfixed by a large iron nail and his shins broken. “Death by crucifixion” reported Dr. N. Haas after examining him. Further, (2) Jewish holy men (as was Jesus) were buried in tombs so their grave could be preserved, (3) the burial story lacks legendary development (as even Bultmann agrees in The History of the Synoptic Tradition, 2 ed., trans. John Marsh, p. 274, and most agree with him), (4) archaeology confirms the description of Christ’s tomb in the gospels and (5) the phrase “first day of the week” reveals an early date for the story since it fell out of use by the late 30s (or so) to be replaced with “on the third day.” Lastly, (6) the inclusion of Joseph of Arimathea strongly supports the burial record (we will see why later). This all suggests that the burial story is very early and accurate. Since it is so early, there is simply not enough time for legend to replace the historical core.
Till’s second point was that anistimi means “to be raised,” while egeiro means “to awaken” and sometimes lacks physical connotations. Paul used egeiro, so Till reasons that Paul is implying a spiritual resurrection. If Paul had intended a physical resurrection, says Till, Paul would have used anistimi. Now, whether or not we agree with the gospels on the resurrection or not, both skeptic and Christian can be certain that Matthew, Luke, and John record that Jesus appeared physically and bodily. Matthew 28:9 says that “they clasped his feet.” Luke 24:39 says, “Touch me and see, a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see I have them.” John 20:27 says, “Put your fingers here; see my hands.” Whatever may be said about his, they are reporting physicality. However, these same gospels also describing raising as egeiro, which is the same term Paul used. Matthew 28:6-7 says “He is not here, he has risen (egeiro) just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. He has risen (egeiro) from the dead.” Luke 24:6 says, “He is not here, he has risen (egeiro)!” And John 21:14 says “…he was raised (egeiro) from the dead.” The point is clear: the writers of Matthew, Mark, and Luke saw no contradiction in affirming that Jesus was alive bodily and physically with the word egeiro the same word that Paul used.
Later on Till examines Paul’s use of the word opethe. He argued that this word is used to describe visions in the New Testament, and therefore Paul was not recording physical appearances in 1 Corinthians 15. However, let’s go back once again to the gospel writers who did believe that He appeared physically. “There you will see (opethe) him” (Matt. 28:7); “(T)he Lord has risen (egeiro) and has appeared (opethe) to Simon” (Luke 24:24). “(T)hey will look (opethe) on the one they have pierced” (John 19:37). Did John believe they were having a vision of Jesus on the cross? Luke 24:24 is sufficient evidence alone to show that egeiro can mean both raised or waken, and that opethe can refer to a vision or a physical appearance.
Till also tried to show, mainly from his exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15:40-44, that Paul believed Christians would experience only a “spiritual resurrection,” not a physical one, and therefore Christ was only raised spiritually, not physically. But when Paul says of a believer’s body in verse 42 that “it is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption,” he is not saying that our bodies will be taken from materiality, but from mortality. Till thinks he has found further support in verse 44. However, this verse most forcefully teaches the traditional doctrine of the resurrection. “It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” Clearly Paul teaches a continuity between the “natural body” and the “spiritual body,” for it is the same “it” in both cases. He is referring to the same physical body in different states, not a change in substance. And virtually all commentators agree that “spiritual” does not mean “made out of spirit,” but “directed by and orientated to the Spirit.” It is just like when we say someone is a “spiritual” person. Paul uses the word in this way in 1 Corinthians 2:15: “The spiritual man judges all things….” Clearly Paul does not mean “immaterial, invisible man” here but “man oriented to the Spirit.” And look at 10:4, where Paul refers to a “spiritual rock.” Does Paul mean “immaterial rock”?
In verses 35-37, where Till also finds “support,” Paul says, “What you sow is not made alive unless it dies. And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain.” But he is not even referring to the substance of our future bodies. And Paul does teach a continuity between our bodies now and in the future in saying that the thing that is sown is made alive if it dies; there is continuity between the seed to the plant (they are the same organism), yet there is also change. And certainly both the seed and the plant are both physical! Christians do not have “the body that shall be” because we are not immortal yet. In support of Paul’s view of a physical resurrection, look at Romans 8:21-23. He teaches that the whole creation will be transformed into freedom, but not nonmateriality. He then says our bodies will likewise be “redeemed.” Since creation will be transformed, yet remain physical, and our bodies are part of creation, they will also be transformed, yet still be continuous with our old bodies and remain physical. Finally, Paul’s belief in the personal return of Christ (1 Thess. 4:14-17) also implies that he believed in a physical resurrection.
It is also difficult to see, using Till/Barker’s hypothesis, why the following “legendary developments” about the burial, empty tomb, and appearances would take place: (1) The use of women to discover the tomb. The testimony of women was not considered credible in first century Judaism. So if the resurrection is simply a large legendary evolution, why didn’t the early Christians have the disciples discover the tomb instead? Also, (2) why was Joseph of Arimathea used in the burial story? The members of the Sanhedrin were too well known for someone to place a fictional member on it or to spread a false story about one of its members burying Jesus. And (3) why weren’t the “hopeless contradictions” in the resurrection appearances harmonized if it was all a legend? While it does harmonize, if the whole thing was made up, shouldn’t it harmonize a little easier?
Lastly, Jewish New Testament scholar Pinchas Lapide has examined Jewish thought of the first century and found that all schools of thought held to a notion of a physical resurrection (Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective, pp. 44-65). The early Christians were Jewish (including Paul). A resurrection without the body would have been nonsense to them. This in itself should put an end to any notion of a “spiritual resurrection” myth.
Clearly Till’s attempt at my challenge to “explain all these facts” with his myth theory has failed. If, as some atheists are saying, this is the best argument against the resurrection, then Christianity will remain intellectually strong. Now we will briefly turn to his specific treatment of my six facts.
Till says that no non-Christians sources corroborate the New Testament record of the crucifixion. Till disputed my reference to the non-Christian Thallus on this point, but did not deal with the fact the in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a does record the crucifixion of Christ. He also thinks that my belief in the empty tomb must be based on the assumption that the New Testament documents are reliable, so let me give some more reasons to believe in this specific New Testament point. First, my arguments supporting Jesus’s burial also apply here, for if the burial story is accurate, the empty tomb story likely is accurate as well, since linguistic ties indicate that they form one continuous narrative from the pericope. Second, in his record of the empty tomb, Mark used a source which originated before AD 37. Scholars know this because the high priest is referred to without using his name. Caiphas (the high priest during Christ’s death) must have therefore still been the high priest when this story began circulating since there was no need to mention his name in order to distinguish him from the next high priest. Caiphas’s term ended in 37, so that is the last possible date for the source’s origination. Thus, the evidence for the empty tomb is so near to the events themselves that it is hard to argue that legend could sweep in and replace the hard core historical facts. This also confirms early Christian belief in a bodily resurrection, for clearly the gospel of Mark teaches a bodily resurrection. Lest Till claim that the empty tomb is only accepted by “fundamentalists,” I have a list of 47 critical scholars in front of me (nonfundamentalists) who accept the empty tomb (such as Blank, Delorme, Lapide, Schwank, Strobel, etc.). Till of course will say that an empty tomb proves nothing, but all natural attempts to explain it have been rejected by critics. As Craig says, “They are self-confessedly without any theory to explain it.”
There are also sources outside the New Testament which support the empty tomb. In his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Justin Martyr states, without fear of being disputed by his Jewish opponent, that the Jewish leaders had sent men around theMediterranean to further the teaching that the body had been stolen. This presupposes an empty tomb.
Concerning the resurrection appearances, Till calls into question the traditional authorship of the gospels, claiming that they were not written by eyewitnesses. But even if this were true, it would not hurt my case. First, there is still the eyewitness testimony of 1 Corinthians 15:3ff to establish the resurrection appearances (which Till admits is very early). Second, while it is true that there is a “formidable body of critical works” that reject the traditional authorship of the gospels, most of these same scholars still find a large amount of eyewitness testimony behind the gospels (Robert Grant, Cranfield, Hunter, Brown, John A.T. Robinson. Who would call these guys “fundamentalists”?). Even Raymond Brown, a skeptic who wrote a significant commentary on John, held that the apostle John was a major source behind the gospel of John.
Till calls into question the apostles’ martyrdom and very existence. He then says that the rapid spread of early Christianity is only recorded in “biased” Christian sources, and so he seems to reject the notion (and the sources) altogether. But on what basis can he just reject Christian sources because in his opinion they are biased? Again, no historian is disinterested, but as I said earlier, this is no reason to discredit the possibility of finding genuine history from them. Till is not just accusing the early Christians of bias; he is accusing them of blatant dishonesty (especially when he rejects the main events of the New Testament record)! But on what grounds can he do this, especially since the early Christians considered moral integrity and honesty more important than life itself? As secular governor Pliny the Younger said around AD 112: “They… 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…” (Pliny, Letters, vol. II, X:96). Now we can consider this early quote from Tertullian: “But go zealously on…. Kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust. . . . The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.” And even the secular Tacitus (AD 55-120) “speaks of an “immense multitude” of Christians, who were murdered in the city of Rome alone during the Neronian persecution in 64. To this must be added the silent, yet most eloquent testimony of the Roman catacombs… and are said to contain nearly seven millions of graves…” as historian Philip Schaff reports (History of the Christian Church, pp. 79-80). The catacombs alone are clear, reliable evidence to the rapid spread and resulting great persecution of the early church. As to whatever doubt some may have about the martyrdom of the apostles, we must ask this question: if the students were willing to die for their faith, how much more their teachers? Further, Eusebius is considered generally accurate in what he reports (see Schaff), and he records how each apostle died. Also, in a passage almost universally considered authentic, Josephus records the martyrdom of James. Critical scholars even acknowledge that the apostles were willing to die for their faith.
Apparently Till thinks that I said that just because the apostles were martyred, Christianity must be true. But that is not my argument. This is my argument: 1 Corinthians 15:3ff is an early creed in which Paul records the resurrection appearances. Even Till agreed to this. We have also seen that these appearances were clearly physical. Paul received this creed from Peter and James (as virtually all critical scholars agree), who are listed in this creed as eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Christ. So, in other words, Jesus’s original disciples claimed to have seen Him alive again after His death. Even the most skeptical New Testament scholars admit that the disciples really believed they saw Jesus (see Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, 44-45; Fuller, Resurrection Narratives, 27-49; Pannenberg, Brown, etc.).
We have two options if Jesus did not rise: either the disciples believed their claim that they saw Him and were mistaken, or they did not believe their own claim and were therefore deliberately lying. I clearly showed in my first article how the disciples could not have been mistaken. But the only other option forces us to concede that the apostles died, not just for a lie they mistakenly believed to be true, but for a lie that they knew was a lie! While martyrs of other religions have died for what they sincerely believed was true, the difference is that the disciples would have been dying for what they sincerely knew was a lie! As I said in my article, “Ten people would not all give their lives for something they know to be a lie.” Therefore, we must conclude that the disciples believed that Jesus rose and appeared to them because Jesus really did rise and appear to them! That is the only explanation for their claim. Taken along with our evidence for the early belief in Christ’s physical resurrection and our evidence for the empty tomb, we can conclude that the resurrection still stands tall. The testimony of 1900 years of history bears this out, and Christ continues to say today, “Whoever hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24).
(Matthew Perman, 1120 Dancer Hall, Cedar Falls, IA, 50613; e-mail email@example.com)
Standing on Quicksand
by Farrell Till
I welcome Matt Perman’s second attempt to prove the historicity of the resurrection. He is to be commended for having the courage to defend his belief in a forum like this. He is not to be commended, however, for the quality of his arguments. Most of them are as transparent as cellophane, and, like many fundamentalists, his primary defenses of the resurrection are based on (1) unsupported assertions, (2) the fallacy of the appeal to authority, and (3) an unwarranted assumption that the New Testament documents are historically accurate. His unsupported assertions are so many that I will not be able to respond to all of them in a single article, so I will publish a series of two, possibly three, responses, after which Perman may respond to them if he wishes.
There are some general observations that need to be made about Perman’s latest article before I address his “arguments” specifically. First, there is the very nature of the resurrection claim that makes it untenable, and Perman and his apologetic cohorts seem completely unable to grasp the significance of this point. There is a widely accepted rule of evidence that says extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In my debate on the resurrection with Michael Horner, he tried to impose the meaning of “miraculous” on the word extraordinary to make it appear I was arguing that it would take a miracle to prove a miracle, but this is only a straw man set up to give the appearance of responding to an argument that is very damaging to the resurrection claim. The frequent application of the word extraordinary to situations that are explainable by natural laws shows that the word extraordinary is not commonly considered just a synonym for miraculous. In reality, the word extraordinary simply means “beyond the ordinary,” and events that are “beyond the ordinary,” without being miraculous, certainly happen. As I write this, the Olympic games are in progress, and those who have been watching them have seen many athletic achievements that can properly be called “beyond the ordinary” or extraordinary. Each time an Olympic contestant breaks a world record, this can be properly called an extraordinary feat, because breaking world records doesn’t happen routinely. One swimmer, for example, broke the world record in the preliminaries and then turned around and broke that record in the final event. Who could argue that this was not an extraordinary feat, i.e., an event that was beyond the ordinary?
If, however, resurrection apologists want to quibble, we can think of “extraordinary evidence” as simply being unusually good or unimpeachable evidence. Hence, I will argue that exceptional or extraordinary claims require unusually good evidence that is so convincing it cannot be rationally impeached. I would assume that even Perman is willing to admit that a resurrection from the dead would be an event that is well “beyond the ordinary”; otherwise, we could expect resurrections from the dead to occur at least a few times in the life of the average individual, just as the average person can expect world records in athletic events to be broken at least a few times during his/her life span. Hence, Perman certainly should not object if I say that before rational people will accept the claim that a man rose from the dead, they will demand “unusually good” evidence that cannot be impeached. As we will see, the claim that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead doesn’t even come close to being supported by unimpeachable evidence.
Eyewitness Testimony. Perman has tried to prove the resurrection by claiming eyewitness testimony, but in my first rebuttal article, I showed that a scholarly consensus rejects the notion that the gospels were written by actual eyewitnesses of the events recorded. I further showed that even if we accept that the apostles Matthew and John wrote the gospels traditionally attributed to them, this still would not make people like the women who went to the tomb or the disciples on the road to Emmaus or Simon Peter eyewitness testifiers to the resurrection, because none of them left any firsthand testimony that they had seen Jesus alive after his crucifixion. The gospel writers merely said that these people said they had seen Jesus alive after his burial. So even on the assumption that the apostles Matthew and John wrote the gospels attributed to them, this would reduce the sum total of eyewitness testimony in all four of the gospels to just two people. That is hardly unimpeachable evidence for a claim as extraordinary as a resurrection. Far more people now living have claimed that they personally saw Elvis Presley after his reported death, yet no rational person gives any serious credence to such reports. Such testimony is impeachable by the very nature of what is being claimed.
To illustrate what constitutes unimpeachable evidence, let’s look again at the Olympic swimmer who broke a world record in the preliminaries and then broke that record in the finals. There is unimpeachable evidence to establish that this extraordinary event happened, because it was not just witnessed on TV by millions of people around the world but was recorded by the best electronic equipment available, which was in turn verified by other back-up systems. Let’s suppose, however, that this remarkable feat had happened under different circumstances. Suppose that the swimmer had done this in another place where the only witness was a person who had timed her with a hand-held stopwatch. Who then would be willing to accept her feat as a new world record? The question is rhetorical, because any sensible person would know that the probability for error or outright false testimony would be too high to be accepted as fact. Well, let’s suppose that 15 or 20 or even more people should come forward and claim that they too had witnessed the event. That wouldn’t make the claim any more credible, because rational people would realize that it is more likely that people poorly equipped to judge would be mistaken than that an exceptional feat like this could happen twice in the space of just two days.
Now let’s make the feat really remarkable. Let’s suppose that someone should claim that she had swum 800 meters in only 15 seconds. Who would believe her? Well, what if someone claimed that 500 people had witnessed her alleged accomplishment? Would that make it more believable? Not to rational people, because rational people would realize that it is far more likely that the claim of 500 witnesses was a lie or an honest mistake than that such an extraordinary feat had actually been accomplished. Even if the 500 people should come forward and swear under oath that they had witnessed the feat, rational people still would not believe it, because rational people would still understand that it is far more likely that 500 people would all lie or could be honestly mistaken than that a person could actually swim 800 meters in only 15 seconds.
Even if resurrection apologists could prove beyond reasonable doubt that they had personal firsthand testimony from Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, Salome, Joanna, Simon Peter, and the other apostles that they had seen Jesus alive after his burial, that still would not constitute unimpeachable evidence that Jesus literally died and rose from the dead, because there would be too many natural explanations for their testimony: (1) they all lied in order to further the cause of their Christ beliefs, (2) the cognitive dissonance they were struggling with in their extreme grief caused them to rationalize or imagine that they had seen Jesus alive again, or (3) they were mistaken in thinking that Jesus had actually died. Any of these would be a more likely explanation for firsthand testimony to a resurrection from the dead than the assumption that a resurrection had actually happened.
The historical reliability of the New Testament Documents. I have argued, and still do, that basically all of the so-called evidence for the resurrection so highly touted by Perman and his fundamentalist cohorts assumes the historical accuracy of the New Testament documents. He objects to this and says, “I am emphatically not arguing from the premise that the New Testament documents are reliable in everything,” but this is only a smoke screen intended to make him appear to be the very epitome of scholarly objectivity. Perman is a biblical inerrantist, but he wants to leave the impression that this irrational position has in no way influenced the formation of his belief that a man was once restored to life after lying dead for about two days. To his credit, he did at one point admit, as a parenthetical aside, that he does believe the New Testament is “always trustworthy.” So let’s lay this fact out on the table and keep in mind while we are discussing this issue that Perman really believes that Jesus rose from the dead for no reasons except that the New Testament says that he did. If the New Testament had said that Jesus urinated watermelon juice, Perman would believe it. Nothing could be so outrageously absurd that Perman would not believe it if the New Testament had said it. This is the kind of mentality that I am presently trying to reason with.
Perman, of course, will not appreciate my characterizing him as a slavish advocate of whatever the New Testament says, because he wants us to believe that his faith in the resurrection of Jesus has been based on reliable history rather than mere gullibility, but let’s look at some of Perman’s “reliable historical claims” and just let the facts speak for themselves.
The empty tomb. Perman said that he had “appeal[ed] to Matthew 28:11-15 to show that the earliest Jewish propaganda admits the empty tomb,” but apparently he can’t understand that appealing to the New Testament is not an appeal to Jewish propaganda but to Christian propaganda. All that any appeal to the New Testament accomplishes is to show what early Christians believed, not what non-Christian Jews believed. Perman expects us to believe that this passage proves that contemporary Jewish leaders knew that Jesus had risen from the dead but circulated a rumor that the body had been stolen in order to curtail the growth of the Jesus movement, but in my first response to Perman, I pointed out that an interpretation of Matthew 28:11-15 can lay no claim to objective analysis unless it considers the distinct possibility that this passage was written into the text as a means of countering a legitimate claim that was circulating at that time. In other words, if the death of a man named Jesus actually did occur, it is entirely possible that the body had been stolen, and Jewish leaders knew this had happened and were so informing their people. If such were the case, then it is easy to see what Matthew’s purpose was in this passage. He wanted to give his readers an explanation for why the rumor had been circulated, so he concocted an unlikely scenario that had the Roman guards reporting to the chief priests and then accepting a bribe to say that while they had been asleep on duty, the disciples had come and stolen the body.
In accepting this tale as historical fact, Perman shows an incredible lack of critical ability. How likely would it have been that Roman guards would have reported to a group of Jewish officials rather than to their own officers? How likely is it that these Roman guards would have claimed that they had fallen asleep on duty, an offense that could have brought them severe penalties? How likely is it that Jewish priests could have persuaded the Roman governor to rid the guards of blame, as they promised the guards they would do if charges were brought against them (v:14)? This whole scenario is so unlikely that John Wenham took the position in Easter Enigma that its very absurdity must mean that it is true. This is the way that Christian apologists have to reason to find support for their resurrection belief. They have to assume that the New Testament documents are historically reliable no matter how absurd their claims may be. So what Perman is actually arguing on this point is that he knows that Jewish propaganda admitted there was an empty tomb, because the New Testament says that this is so. If that is not assuming the historical reliability of the New Testament documents, I would like for Perman to explain to us why it isn’t.
Perman argues that “serious scholars (whether Christian or not) across a broad spectrum of beliefs” accept the six points (one of which was the empty tomb) that he presented in support of the resurrection doctrine. Is he right about this? Do some “serious scholars” accept the empty tomb as historical fact? Of course, they do, but what Perman conveniently left unmentioned is that probably even more “serious scholars” reject the empty-tomb claim as well as the resurrection story in general. No matter how many “serious scholars” Perman may produce who believe in the historicity of the empty tomb, one stubborn fact remains: no Jewish records, no Roman records, no contemporary records of any kind mentioned an empty tomb in Jerusalemat the time Jesus was alleged crucified and buried. The only records that mention an empty tomb are the New Testament and apocryphal gospels, which were all written well after the fact, when Christianity was becoming an established religion, so if no other records of the time mention an empty tomb in Jerusalem, how could anyone believe that such a tomb did exist except by assuming that the New Testament documents are historically reliable? Even if Perman should produce a million “serious scholars” who agree with him on this point, it would have to be true that they formed their opinion the same way Perman did. They assumed the historical reliability of the New Testament documents. If there are no contemporary secular references to Jesus, then there are no contemporary secular references to the alleged empty tomb. So how else could anyone believe that there was an empty tomb inJerusalem at this time except by assuming that the New Testament documents are accurate in their claim that there was an empty tomb? This is so obvious that I can’t believe Perman is even disputing it, so what he needs to do is produce some “serious scholars” who accept the historicity of the empty tomb on grounds other than that this is what the New Testament documents claim. We have every reason to believe that if Perman could produce evidence that corroborates the New Testament on this point, he would have done so long ago.
The Benefit of the Doubt. As a reason why the New Testament documents should be considered historically reliable, Perman cited Aristotle’s dictum that “the benefit of the doubt should be delegated to the document itself, not arrogated by the critic to himself.” I have heard this dictum before, but I have never seen it quoted in its full context. Exactly what was Aristotle saying? I would like to know if he was contending that this principle should be followed no matter what the document says or if he was only stating it as a principle that should be followed in evaluating claims of ordinary, everyday events that one’s common sense says could very well have happened. If the latter, then why is Perman quoting it in support of documents that, among many other fabulous claims, reported that a dead man returned to life? If the former, then I beg to differ with Aristotle, who, after all, was just another fallible human being, so in that case, I see no reason to evaluate historical information by a standard that would require me at times to surrender my common sense, even if Aristotle thought otherwise.
Perman asked, “What right does Till have to operate from the extreme assumption that the New Testament is fundamentally unreliable?” Extreme assumption? What right does Perman have to label a conclusion arrived at by recognized methods of historical analysis as an “extreme assumption”? When I read in the Book of Mormon all sorts of fantastic claims, such as voices speaking from heaven, the postresurrection appearances of Jesus in theLandofBountiful, multitudes of sick Nephites being healed by Jesus, etc., am I making an “extreme assumption” of fundamental unreliability when I doubt that such events actually happened? Should I follow Aristotle’s dictum and give the benefit of the doubt to the Mormon documents rather than arrogating it to myself? This is a question that Perman and other Christian apologists who are so enamored with the “historical reliability” of the New Testament need to answer. If we assume that the outrageous claims of the New Testament deserve the “benefit of the doubt,” just where does this process of according the benefit of the doubt end?
As just noted, the Book of Mormon makes many fantastic claims that rational people simply cannot accept as historical facts, yet in my opinion the evidence for the reliability of the Book of Mormon is much better than any evidence that Perman can cite in support of the New Testament. The Book of Mormon is prefaced with the firsthand testimony of Joseph Smith and the three and the eight witnesses, who tell what they claimed to have seen, experienced, and personally witnessed when the golden plates on which the book was allegedly inscribed were revealed to and translated by Smith. The following affidavit, with emphasis added, was sworn to by the three witnesses:
Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That we, through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, have seen the plates which contain this record, which is a record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites, their brethren, and also of the people of Jared, who came from the tower of which has been spoken. And we also know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true. And we also testify that we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates; and they have been shown unto us by the power of God, and not of man. And we declare with words of soberness, that an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon; and we know that it is by the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, that we beheld and bear record that these things are true. And it is marvelous in our eyes. Nevertheless, the voice of the Lord commanded us that we should bear record of it; wherefore, to be obedient unto the commandments of God, we bear testimony of these things. And we know that if we are faithful in Christ, we shall rid our garments of the blood of all men, and be found spotless before the judgment-seat of Christ, and shall dwell with him eternally in the heavens. And the honor be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen (emphasis added).
This document was signed by the three witnesses: Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris. In addition to their firsthand testimony, the Mormons also have the testimony of the eight witnesses:
Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That Joseph Smith, Jun., the translator of this work, has shown unto us the plates of which hath been spoken, which have the appearance of gold, and as many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated we did handle with our hands; and we also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship. And this we bear record with words of soberness, that the said Smith has shown unto us, for we have seen and hefted, and know of a surety that the said Smith has got the plates of which we have spoken. And we give our names unto the world, to witness unto the world that which we have seen. And we lie not, God bearing witness of it (emphasis added).
This document was signed by the eight witnesses: Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer, Jun., John Whitmer, Hiram Page, Joseph Smith, Sen., Hyrum Smith, and Samuel H. Smith.
Christian apologists would be deliriously happy if they had even a tenth as much evidence to support the New Testament resurrection accounts. They talk about eyewitness testimony, which isn’t eyewitness testimony at all but only second- and thirdhand accounts of alleged postresurrection appearances, but the Mormons do have the firsthand testimony of eleven witnesses who swore that they actually saw and handled the golden plates, and three of those witnesses swore that the angel laid the plates down right before their eyes. The closest thing to firsthand testimony to the resurrection that Christians can produce is the apostle Paul’s imprecise claim that Jesus had appeared to him (1 Cor. 15:8), and according to Luke’s secondhand account of this appearance, Paul called it a “heavenly vision” (Acts 26:19). That’s pretty weak evidence compared to the sworn detailed testimony of the Mormon eyewitnesses.
Perman, of course, rejects in toto these Mormon claims. Although I have not discussed with him his reasons for this rejection, I am sure if he were asked why he doesn’t believe the testimony of the Mormon witnesses, he would say such things as (1) the claim is too unlikely to believe without better evidence, (2) the eyewitnesses were biased followers of Joseph Smith, (3) the surnames indicate that most of the witnesses were related and therefore likely to have had self-serving family interests, (4) the Book of Mormon itself is too flawed by inconsistencies and discrepancies to believe that it is divine in its origin, etc. In other words, Perman undoubtedly rejects the Mormon claims for reasons that he arrived at by rational methods of critical analysis. Yet he denounces skeptics who by parallel reasoning reject the fantastic claims of the New Testament. There seems to be more than just a slight inconsistency in Perman’s methods of evaluating historical claims.
Furthermore, the same basic “arguments” that Christian apologists use in defense of the resurrection can be applied with equal legitimacy to prove the divine origin of Mormonism. The origin of Christianity requires an explanation, apologists say, so that is a good reason to believe that the resurrection was a crucial activating circumstance in the Christian movement. Mormons, however, can adapt this same “argument” to their religion. The Book of Mormon requires an explanation, so that is a good reason to believe that it was revealed in the manner sworn to by Joseph Smith and the three and eight witnesses. The early disciples died for their claim that Jesus had risen, Christian apologists say, and they surely would not have died for what they knew was a lie. But Mormons also suffered persecution. I live inWestern Illinoiswhere Mormons fleeing persecution in the East once tried to establish a settlement. Only about 65 miles from my home, Joseph Smith was lynched at the Carthage, Illinois, jail, which is now a Mormon shrine, and eventually Mormons were driven by persecutions farther west from their settlement at Nauvoo, Illinois. So if the Christian argument based on persecution proves the truth of the resurrection, why wouldn’t the same argument prove the truth of Mormonism? Would Mormons have suffered and, in some cases, died for what they knew was a lie?
Virtually all “critical non-Christian scholars” accept Perman’s “six points.” Undoubtedly, Perman considers a “critical non-Christian scholar” to be a non-Christian who accepts his six points, and any who don’t just aren’t “critical scholars,” no matter how impressive their academic credentials may be. It is telling to note, however, that Perman, aside from dropping a name or two, didn’t bother to list these “critical non-Christian scholars” who agree with his position. Are there really non-Christian scholars who agree with at least some of Perman’s points? Of course, there are, but Perman is a gullible victim of apologetic propaganda if he really believes that “virtually all” non-Christian scholars agree with him. Common sense should tell him that if virtually all non-Christian scholars agree with his position, then they would be Christian rather than non-Christian scholars. The truth is that not even virtually all Christian scholars are in agreement with Perman’s basic points. The Jesus Seminar, whose opinions Perman will certainly ridicule, consists of seminary professors and other biblical scholars, who as a group even reject the resurrection claim itself.
I have no desire to get into a shooting match with Perman in which he fires the name of a scholar who agrees with him, and in response I fire back the name of a scholar who agrees with me. Such an approach would be a resort to the fallacy of the appeal to authority, and would prove exactly nothing. No matter what religious opinion one may have, he can always find books that agree with him, so I will insist that we discuss the merits of our respective arguments without appealing to what alleged “scholars” may believe.
My position is that belief in the resurrection is irrational for reasons that I have noted in my responses to Perman, so if he intends to continue this discussion, I urge him to confront those arguments and explain to us why they are unreasonable. In particular, I wish Perman would address the very nature of the resurrection claim and explain to us in logical terms why rational people should give any more credence to the resurrection claim than they would give to any other fabulous claim, because this is really the crux of the matter. Rational people, even Christian apologists themselves, routinely reject miraculous claims, but Perman just can’t seem to understand that Christian claims of the fantastic and supernatural warrant no more serious consideration than other such claims. A slogan of the Democrats in the 1992 presidential election was, “It’s the economy, stupid,” so in the matter of the resurrection claim, I think it is appropriate for skeptics to keep reminding Christians of the primary reason why so many rational thinkers just can’t believe in their resurrected savior-god. It is the very nature of the claim, stupid, that makes it so unbelievable. Will some Christian apologist please try to deal with that problem?
In the next issue, I will respond to Perman’s specific counterarguments, especially those he presented in denial of the spiritual resurrection that I believe the apostle Paul argued for in 1 Corinthians 15. After that, Perman may respond to my articles if he wants to.
Still Standing on Sinking Sand
by Farrell Till
In his continuing effort to defend the unlikely New Testament claim that Jesus rose from the dead, Matthew Perman, in typical apologetic fashion, made so many unsupported assertions that I could not adequately respond to them in a single article. This time I will address his “arguments” that I didn’t have space to comment on in my last article. Then if Perman wants to respond to my rebuttals, he may do so in a later issue.
Perman expressed surprise that I would “reuse Dan Barker’s argument” that the doctrine of a bodily resurrection had evolved from an earlier belief in just a spiritual resurrection. Well, in the first place, this is not “Dan Barker’s argument”; it was an alternative view of some scholars long before Barker used it in his debate with Michael Horner. I am not saying this to take away any credit that is due Dan Barker but simply to point out a fact that Perman would surely know if he had researched the resurrection issue as thoroughly as he apparently wants us to believe he has. If Perman would tear himself away from the fundamentalist works that he obviously spends a lot of time reading, he just might find that there is much more to this issue than the simplistic, illogical apologetic arguments that the likes of Josh McDowell, Norman Geisler, and Gleason Archer keep recycling for the benefit of Christians looking not for truth but for something– anything–to extenuate their irrational presuppositions. Furthermore, I suspect that Perman’s “surprise” that I would “reuse” this argument is more a matter of dismay than surprise, because he was at the debate when Dan Barker used the argument against Michael Horner, so Perman knows that Horner’s only response to it was to quibble that a statement about a “spiritual book” would not be intended to mean that the book was made of spirit. A flagrant equivocation like this hardly constitutes a refutation of the argument.
To Perman’s credit, he has at least tried to refute the spiritual-resurrection argument. Central to this argument is the fact that the apostle Paul, in his famous defense of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, made no references at all to an earthquake, an empty tomb, women, angels, or other elements that figured so prominently in the gospel accounts of the resurrection. Perman explained Paul’s silence on these matters by claiming that Paul was merely reciting a “formula” of a “creed” that was meant to be only “a summary, or brief outline, of the core of Christian beliefs.” For the sake of argument, let’s just assume that this is so. How would that explain the fact that the whole of Paul’s writings, which constitute the major part of the New Testament, made no references to any of these? Nowhere did Paul mention Roman guards, women who visited the tomb and found it empty or an angel that descended in an earthquake, rolled the stone away from the tomb, and announced to the women that Jesus had risen. In fact, Paul nowhere mentioned the virgin birth of Jesus or the place of his birth or gave any chronological indication of when his resurrected savior-god had lived. Perman may want to cite 1 Timothy 6:13 as a text that put Jesus’s trial in the time of Pontius Pilate, but the Pauline authorship of 1 Timothy and the other pastoral epistles is too much in dispute in scholarly circles for anything they say to be considered convincing evidence of what Paul may have thought about the “historical Jesus.” In none of the undisputed Pauline epistles will Perman find any indication that Paul knew anything about the Jesus who is described in the gospels. Paul preached only a resurrected Jesus, but he knew nothing or at least indicated nothing about where this Jesus was born, when he was born, where he lived, or when and where he died and was resurrected.
Is it reasonable to believe that in all that Paul wrote about Jesus, he wanted to give only a “summary, or brief outline, of the core of Christian beliefs” and so “chose” not to mention any of the biographical information that is recorded about Jesus in the gospels? Paul’s silence in these matters, considered in the context of the time between the writing of Paul’s epistles and the gospels, is certainly compatible with the spiritual-resurrection argument that I presented in an earlier response to Perman. Paul put Jesus into no particular historical setting, but after Christianity had developed legends about when and where Jesus lived, the gospels, written decades after Paul’s epistles, filled in the gaps that he had left. With the historical setting that evolved, the spiritual resurrection that Paul described in 1 Corinthians 15 evolved into a bodily resurrection.
Some Christian scholars, by the way, do not think that Paul was reciting an “early creed” in this chapter. They argue that verses 3-11 are a post-Pauline interpolation, which interrupts the continuity that flows logically from verse two to verse twelve and also contradicts what Paul said in Galatians 1:1, 11-12 about the manner in which he had received the gospel. Christian apologists, however, argue that the disputed passage is an early creed, and so this is a position that requires them to defend their claim of the bodily resurrection of Jesus against statements in 1 Corinthians 15 that clearly indicate Paul was speaking about spiritual rather than physical resurrection.
That both Christological and ecclesiastical evolution occurred during the decades that the New Testament was being written should be apparent to all who have no fundamentalist axes to grind, so it would not be at all unreasonable to assume that evolution also occurred in the most vital of all Christian doctrines, i.e., the resurrection. As I showed in my first response to Perman, an early belief in the spiritual resurrection of Jesus is very much in evidence in 1 Corinthians 15:35-44, which I will review before addressing Perman’s attempt to make this passage not mean what it clearly says.
But someone will say, “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?” Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain–perhaps wheat or some other grain….
There are also celestial bodies and terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differs from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body (emphasis added).
In this passage, Paul presented an analogical argument by pointing out that even in nature, the body that is sown (a grain of wheat) is not the body (a stalk of wheat) that “shall be.” Anyone who has had any horticultural experience at all knows that this is true. The seed that is planted bears no resemblance at all to the plant that “rises” from the seed, so if Paul was not arguing that the body that is resurrected is radically different from the body that is planted (buried), his analogy makes no sense at all.
Let’s notice also that Paul’s analogy was actually an answer to a question: “But someone will say, `How are the dead raised up, and with what body do they come'” (v:35)? In other words, Paul understood that to sell his claim that Jesus was resurrected, he had to convince people who were skeptical about the possibility of dead bodies returning to life that resurrection from the dead was plausible. To those skeptics who questioned how it would be possible for dead bodies to return to life, Paul was, in effect, saying, “That’s not at all hard to explain. The body that is buried is not the same body that is resurrected, just as a seed that is planted is not the same as what comes from the seed.” As noted in my first response to Perman (TSR, July/August 1996, p. 5), Paul incorrectly believed that a seed, when planted, dies and from the dead seed a new body, i.e., the plant, comes forth, and so he argued by analogy that this is what happens when a physical body dies. From the dead physical body, a new body will arise. Paul wasn’t much of a botanist, but, nevertheless, this was his argument, and so Christians are stuck with it.
The important thing to note in this passage is that Paul thought resurrected bodies were not the same as the bodies that were buried. The body that was buried was a corruptible body; the body that was raised was an incorruptible body (v: 42). The body that was sown (buried) was a natural body; the body that was raised was a spiritual body (v:44).
In response to this, Perman argued, “But when Paul says of a believer’s body in verse 42 that `it is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption,’ he is not saying that our bodies will be taken from materiality, but from mortality” (TSR, November/December 1996, p. 3). Oh, really? Well, it would have been nice if Perman had made a hermeneutic attempt to show that this is a reasonable way to interpret the statement, but he made no such effort. He just arbitrarily declared that this was the meaning of the statement and went on to something else. Does he seriously expect us just to accept his arbitrary claim that this was what the statement meant, when it so obviously disagrees with the import of Paul’s argument?
To settle the matter of what Paul meant, I will just let Perman argue with what Paul said later in verse 50: “Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit thekingdom ofGod; nor does corruption inherit incorruption.” So we have Paul saying that flesh and blood cannot inherit thekingdom ofGod, but we have Perman saying that Paul never meant that “our bodies will be taken from materiality.” However, if “flesh and blood” cannot inherit thekingdom ofGod, Perman needs to explain how that the resurrected bodies of Christians will be able to inherit thekingdom ofGod without first being “taken from materiality.” If they aren’t “taken from materiality” but spirited [no pun intended] away to heaven as material bodies, then Paul was wrong when he said that flesh and blood cannot inherit thekingdom ofGod. If not, why not? Unless Perman can explain why not, he is stuck with yet another textual problem that demands explanation.
Further evidence that Paul believed that material bodies are planted (buried) from which spiritual bodies are resurrected is seen in verses 51-53: “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed–in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.” This is just one of the many New Testament passages that expressed belief in an imminent return of Jesus. Thus, those who would not “sleep” (in the mystery that Paul was explaining) would be those who were still alive when Jesus returned (see 1 Thess. 4:15-17). They would not die or sleep, but they would be changed, after the dead had been raised incorruptible. Why would they have to be “changed”? Because they would be living in flesh and blood (physical bodies) when Jesus returned, and Paul had just said that flesh and blood cannot inherit thekingdom ofGod. Therefore, a “change” would be absolutely essential before they could be taken to heaven.
In the “change” that those who were alive at the time would experience, their corruptible bodies would have to put on incorruption, and for this to happen, some change in their bodies would be necessary, just as the bodies of the dead, which had been planted as natural, “corruptible” bodies, would be raised as spiritual, “incorruptible” bodies. Otherwise, these bodies would not be able to “inherit” thekingdomofGod.
So let’s juxtapose two major statements that Paul made in this passage: (1) His conclusion from his analogy of the seed was that “the body (physical) is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption. (2) Those who were alive at the time of Jesus’ second coming would be “changed” by having “this corruptible” (the physical body) put on “incorruption” (a spiritual body). After stating this, Paul then went on to say, “So when this corruptible (physical body) has put on incorruption (spiritual body), then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: `Death is swallowed up in victory'” (v:54). By arguing that a “change” from “corruptible” to “incorruptible” would take place in the physical bodies of those living when Jesus returned, Paul removed all reasonable doubt about what he had meant earlier when he said that “(t)he body [of a dead person] is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption.” He obviously meant that the resurrected body is a spiritual, “incorruptible” body as opposed to the physical body that was buried.
Despite language as explicit as this, Perman contended that “this verse [it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body] most forcefully teaches the traditional doctrine of the resurrection,” because “it is the same it in both cases.” In other words, Perman is arguing that the body that is sown (buried) has to be the same body that is raised, because the pronoun it was used in reference to both bodies, but a simple illustration will suffice to show that Perman is wrong. Let’s suppose that someone says, “My profession has changed twice in my lifetime. First, it was preaching, then it was plumbing, and now it is teaching.” In such a statement, the pronoun it is the same pronoun, but it obviously refers to three different professions: preaching, plumbing, and teaching. So there is absolutely nothing in the way that Paul used the word it that would require “it” to refer to the same “physical body.” What Paul really meant was that it [the body] is sown [buried] as a physical body, but it [the body] is raised a spiritual body. To argue that it (the natural body) was the same as it (the spiritual body) would make Paul’s argument completely meaningless. If the two “its” were the same, then Paul would have had to say, “It is sown a natural body, and it is raised a natural body.” If not, why not?
Perman argued that the word spiritual doesn’t have to mean “made out of spirit” but can mean “directed by and orientated to the Spirit.” This is true, but the issue is not what the word spiritual can mean but what it did mean in the context where Paul was using it. Perman said that “virtually all commentators” agree that the word didn’t mean “made out of spirit,” but when Perman’s case is weak, he likes to talk about how many “commentators” agree with his position, as if that is supposed to prove he is right. The issue in a debate should never be the number of scholars or commentators who agree with one’s position but the quality and force of the arguments, and the force of argument is against Perman on this issue. Let’s notice that Paul equated the body corruptible with the body natural and the body incorruptible with the body spiritual: “The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption…. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (vs:42-44). For Perman to argue that Paul simply meant that the body is raised “orientated to the Spirit” is ludicrous, because, as noted above, he went on to explain that those who were living when Jesus returned would have to be “changed,” i.e., their corruptible (bodies) would have to put on incorruption, before they could inherit the kingdom of God. Since Paul used incorruptible synonymously with spiritual, he couldn’t have meant that these people would have to undergo a change that would “orientate them to the Spirit,” for the clear teaching of the New Testament is that unless one is already “orientated to the Spirit” when Jesus comes, he/she would not be qualified for entry into heaven. The “change,” then, would be a change from flesh and blood to spirit, i.e., from corruptible to incorruptible, which would then entitle them to go to heaven, where flesh and blood cannot enter (v:50).
That the New Testament teaches this can be seen in a similar passage in 1 Thessalonians:
“But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so shall we forever be with the Lord” (4:13-18, emphasis added).
Notice that Paul was saying in this passage that it was only those who were dead in Christ who would be resurrected to meet the Lord. In Christ is a New Testament idiom that denoted a state of salvation, which would have required a prior “orientation to the Spirit,” so those whom Paul thought were going to be resurrected to meet Jesus at his return would be those who were “asleep (dead) in Christ.” If Paul thought that only those who had died in Christ would be resurrected to meet Jesus at his return, we would hardly expect that he believed just anyone living at the time would also be caught up to “meet the Lord in the air.” Surely, Paul thought that those so honored would be those who were living in Christ at the time of his return, but if they were living in Christ, there would certainly be no need to “change” them so that they would be “orientated to the Spirit,” because such orientation would have already occurred. So what else could be the “change” that Paul mentioned except a change from corruptible or natural bodies to incorruptible or spiritual bodies?
Completely ignoring the wording of Paul’s analogy, Perman said, “(T)here is continuity between the seed to [sic] the plant (they are the same organism), yet there is also change. And certainly both the seed and the plant are both physical! Christians do not have `the body that shall be’ because we are not immortal yet” (TSR, November/December 1996, p. 3, emphasis added). If Perman would just read Paul’s analogy, he will see that Paul did not use “the body that shall be” in reference to the resurrection of the dead but in reference to the seed that is sown: “And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain–perhaps wheat or some other grain” (v:37, emphasis added). Certainly, both the seed and the plant are physical, but Paul was merely making an analogy. One thing is planted; another thing comes from what is planted. Paul believed that this illustrated to his readers how that the dead could be resurrected. They are buried as natural, corruptible bodies; they are raised as spiritual, incorruptible bodies.
In support of the theory that the Christian doctrine of the resurrection had begun as only a belief in a spiritual resurrection, I stated that the Greek word for “buried” in 1 Corinthians 15:4 was thapto and that it “meant to inter or bury and carried with it no necessary connotations of entombment” (TSR, July/August 1996, p. 4, emphasis added), but Perman is apparently trying to distort my statement into meaning that thapto could not be used in reference to a burial in a tomb. This, however, is not what I meant. Perman’s argument– which really isn’t his but only something he is parroting from fundamentalist apologetic works–is that Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 that Jesus was buried but rose again on the third day implies an empty tomb, but if there is nothing in the word thapto to imply entombment and if, as I have already noted, Paul never made any references to when Jesus lived, where he lived, where he died, where he was buried, how he was buried, etc., exactly why would saying that someone was buried and rose again necessarily imply an empty tomb, especially if that statement was made in a context in which spiritual resurrection was being discussed? If someone should say (as superstitious people sometimes do) that a certain individual died and was buried and that his ghost has appeared to several people who knew him before his death, would such a claim as this imply an empty grave? Anyone hearing such a claim would understand the claimant was saying only that the person’s ghost or spirit had returned from the dead and not that the body had left the grave. So if Paul thought that Jesus had risen as a spiritual entity (as I believe I have clearly shown that he did), that would not in any way imply that he believed an empty tomb had been found, but even if it did, this would prove nothing more than that Paul believed an empty tomb had been found. What Perman would then have to do is prove that Paul was right in believing that an empty tomb had been found. Otherwise, he becomes just another fundamentalist arguing that if the Bible says something, it must be true.
Perman also misunderstood my point about egeiro, which was the Greek word that Paul used in listing the “appearances” that Jesus had made. I merely quoted Ephesians 5:14, where Paul had urged the Ephesians to awake from sleep and arise from the dead, and pointed out that the word for “awake” in this verse is egeiro, whereas anistemi was the word he had used for “arise.” This is simply a fact, which Perman didn’t dispute, so my point was that if the word was used in the sense of awaking in this text, it could have carried this meaning in 1 Corinthians 15:5-7 too. I cited other passages where the word egeiro was obviously used in the sense of visionary appearances, but that is not the same as arguing (as Perman tried to make it appear I had done) that the word was never used in the sense of actual physical sightings. My intention was to show that the meanings of the Greek words that Paul used were completely consistent with the view that Paul was arguing in 1 Corinthians 15 only for a spiritual and not a bodily resurrection.
Perman must consider burial by entombment crucial to his case, because he claimed that there is a “wealth of evidence supporting the burial of Jesus in a tomb” (TSR, November/December 1996, p. 2). He cited six points from which he concluded that the entombment of Jesus is a historical fact:
Archaeological support: Perman alleged that archaeologists have discovered the tomb of “Yohanon, who was discovered in Tomb #1 at Giv’at ha-Mitvar, As el-Masaref by Tzaferis,” and his “heel bones [were] transfixed by a large iron nail and his shins broken,” evidence that Perman sees as proof that “Yohanon” was crucified and then buried in a tomb. I have to wonder why Perman didn’t document this information so that I could evaluate both it and his source. I’m not denying that such a discovery was made, but does Perman just expect me to accept his word that this tomb was found, with the remains exactly as he (or his source) described them? I really doubt that Perman knows any more about this discovery beyond the bare information that he cited, which I suspect that he has taken from an apologetic source that was just as sketchy with details as Perman was. At any rate, there is no way to critically evaluate this information, because Perman didn’t say when this discovery was made, who this Tzaferis is who allegedly made the discovery, what exactly was meant by heel bones that were “transfixed by a large iron nail,” whether the death of this “Yohanon” occurred under a Roman administration or some other regime, the estimated dating of the death, etc. In other words, the information is too sketchy to determine if it would materially affect other information that indicates victims of Roman crucifixion were thrown into garbage heaps or buried in common graves. Furthermore, if the archaeological information about this person Yohanon should conclusively indicate that he was crucified under a Roman administration, at about the time Jesus allegedly lived, and then buried in a tomb, it would prove only that this person was so buried. It would not prove that Jesus was, and so Perman would still face the task of having to prove that the disposal of Jesus’s body was done in a manner different from the usual practice.
Jewish holy men (as was Jesus) were buried in tombs so their graves could be preserved. This is the claim exactly as Perman made it, and beyond this mere assertion he said nothing to try to prove the claim. However, even if the claim is true, Perman must show that this practice was done even in cases of Roman executions where disposal of the bodies by entombment would have been dependent upon permission from Roman authorities. The New Testament does indicate that such permission was granted in the case of Jesus, but to accept this as conclusive proof that Jesus was entombed would be to assume the historical accuracy of the New Testament. If the historical accuracy of the New Testament is going to be assumed, then there is nothing to debate. I admit that it says that Jesus was buried in a tomb. However, I don’t admit that this is necessarily a historical fact just because the New Testament says it.
The burial story lacks legendary development. Again, this is just an unsupported assertion that Perman made. If he thinks it is true that the burial story lacks legendary development, then he must at the very least do a literary analysis of the story to explain what he finds in it to support this claim. When I read the burial story, I find it embedded in narratives that tell about three hours of darkness at midday, an earthquake that resurrected “many saints,” an angel that descended in an earthquake to roll away the stone sealing a tomb, angels that talked to women, a resurrected man who was apparently able to teletransport himself and to pass through material objects like doors, etc. If Perman can’t see “legendary development” in such literary devices as these, then he has a serious inability to interpret literature. He said that the New Testament critic Bultmann agrees that the burial story lacks “legendary development,” but this would prove only that Bultmann thought that the story lacked legendary development. At any rate, if the entire body of Bultmann’s critical works were analyzed, I suspect there would be very little in them that Perman would agree with. What we have in Matthew Perman, then, is a would-be apologist using smorgasbord research in his quest to defend the resurrection. If he finds critics who agree with him, he will cite them on their points of agreement, but he will leave uncited the many details and points on which the critics do not agree with him. Of course, Perman just has to say that “most [critics] agree with him [Bultmann],” but Perman conveniently omitted the names of these “most” who agree.
Archaeology confirms the description of Christ’s tomb in the gospels. This assertion, for which Perman offered no supporting evidence, is as meaningless as the old inerrantist argument that geographical accuracy in the Bible proves that it was inspired of God. Inerrantists will point to the many geographical places mentioned in the Bible and argue that the accuracy of the writers in these details must mean that they were inspired of God, as if uninspired writers, familiar with the locales in which they set their stories, would have been unable to report geographic and topographic details accurately unless they were divinely inspired. Libraries are filled with books in which such accuracy is contained, but simplistic biblical apologists think that a feature like this in the Bible should be accorded special significance.
So let’s suppose that “archaeology has confirmed the accuracy of the description of Christ’s tomb.” All this would prove would be that the New Testament writers accurately described a tomb as tombs were known to exist in those days. What would be so extraordinary about a writer accurately describing a tomb? If I should write a narrative in which I accurately describe a grave site as graves are now known to exist but then continue in my story to claim that the person buried in this grave later rose from the dead, what reader in his right mind would think that my accurate description of the grave would give credence to the extraordinary claim that the person buried in the grave later rose from the dead? I do wish that Christian apologists could think a little more rationally, but I’ve just about given up hope of ever finding one who can.
The phrase `first day of the week’ reveals an early date for the story, because, Perman claims, “it [the phrase] fell out of use by the late 30s or so to be replaced with `on the third day.'” Again, Perman has simply made an assertion for which he gave no supporting evidence, and, quite frankly, I get a little tired of his regurgitation of simplistic “apologetic” arguments that he finds in Josh McDowellian books and bounces back to us without even attempting to prove their validity. There are two problems with this claim: (1) the phrase did not “fall out of use” by the late thirties as evinced by its use in New Testament books that were written well after the 30s (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). (2) “The third day” was a term that came to be applied to the time that Jesus was presumably resurrected. He was resurrected on “the third day” (1 Cor. 15:4; Acts 10:4), and this was even the phrase that was used when the gospel writers reported the many times that Jesus told his disciples he would be resurrected (Matt. 16:21; 20:19; Mark 9:31; Luke 9:22). So “the third day” wasn’t an expression that came into use after the late 30s. If we are to believe that the gospels accurately reported the conversations of Jesus, this was an expression that was used even during the personal ministry of Jesus to denote the time that he would rise again.
What Perman apparently can’t see– or doesn’t want to see–is that the phrase “the first day of the week” wasn’t used in the gospel narratives to denote the time that Jesus was resurrected but the time when the women went to the tomb (Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:2: Luke 24:1; John 20:1). The sole exception to this is a statement in the Marcan Appendix, which says, “Now when he was risen early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene” (Mark 16:9), but even this statement disputes Perman’s claim that the phrase “the first day of the week” had fallen out of use by the late 30s. There is a scholarly consensus that Mark 16:9-20 was added to this gospel at a later date. The literature on this subject is too extensive to review, but since Perman likes to talk about what “most scholars” think, he might want to research what New Testament scholars think about the date of this addition to the gospel of Mark. The statement that Jesus “rose early on the first day of the week” in this late addition to Mark’s gospel demolishes Perman’s claim that the phrase “fell out of use by the late 30s.”
The inclusion of Joseph of Arimathea strongly supports the burial record. Why would this be so? Well, Perman argued that “(t)he members of the Sanhedrin were too well known for someone to place a fictional member on it or to spread a false story about one of its members burying Jesus.” Such an argument as this gives no consideration at all to the time that separated the alleged burial of Jesus and the writing of the gospels. Mark, the earliest of the four gospels, is generally dated no sooner than A. D. 70, except of course by fundamentalist apologists, so after the alleged crucifixion and burial of Jesus, 40 to 70 years passed before the gospel accounts were written. In a time when radio, television, newspapers, and other modern means of communication didn’t exist, it isn’t difficult at all to imagine that a fictional member of the Sanhedrin could have been created and passed unnoticed. Even today, how many people would know who the vice-presidents of theUnited States were 40 to 70 years ago? How many would know who the supreme court justices were that long ago? Who was the speaker of the house of representatives in 1950? 1940? 1930? Furthermore, the gospels were written in Greek by Hellenistic Christians, whose audiences would not have been Jews personally familiar with the religious/ political milieu in which Jesus had allegedly lived. If a writer today should fictionalize a member of the Israeli supreme court as it was constituted 40 years ago, how many Jews who are citizens of other countries would notice it? This argument is completely without merit, and the only thing it proves is the desperation of Christians who have no real evidence to support their resurrection belief.
In addition to his “wealth of evidence supporting the burial of Jesus in a tomb,” Perman made several other baseless claims, none of which can be proven and none of which would prove anything even if their truth could be established. They have been repeatedly discredited, but Christian apologists continue to recycle them.
Scholars know that Mark used a source that originated before A.D. 37. How does Perman know this? Are you ready for the answer? He knows, because Mark did not use the name Caiphas when referring to the high priest during the trial of Jesus! From Mark’s silence on this matter, Perman concludes… well, to be more exact, the apologetic source from which Perman gets his material has concluded that A. D. 37, the last year of Caiphas’s term, was the last possible date for the origination of the source that Mark used. I suppose it has never occurred to Perman that “Mark,” a Hellenistic writer, just may not have known the name of the high priest at that time, and so that was why he gave no name. Who was the prime minister ofIsrael 40 years ago? Who was the chief justice of the Israeli supreme court 40 years ago? How many people today would not know these things? A modern writer could easily get such information as this from the internet or a local library, but information wasn’t so easily accessible when the gospel of Mark was written. A writer back then who didn’t know the name of a Jewish high priest who had lived 40 or 50 years earlier would have had no choice except to tell his story without specifically naming the priest. Regardless, Mark’s silence on the name of the high priest is certainly no evidence of a source earlier than A. D. 37 for his burial story.
Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Mark did indeed use a source that dated before A. D. 37. Let’s even assume that his source dated even earlier than that. What would it prove? It would prove only that Mark had used an early source, but it would not prove that the information in that source was historically accurate. Anyone could write a fictional narrative and plot it with a specific contemporary setting, but this would be no guarantee that the information in the narrative is historically accurate. Surely, Perman and his apologetic cohorts can see that.
Even if the gospels were not written by actual eyewitnesses, there is still the eyewitness testimony of 1 Corinthians 15. Either Perman is not reading my responses carefully or he is being intentionally evasive, because I discussed at length in my first response (TSR, July/August 1996, p. 5) that Paul never claimed that he had seen the resurrected Jesus in bodily form. The only records we have of Paul’s experience with Jesus are Luke’s three accounts in Acts 9, 22, and 26, and they are contradictory on some points. They do agree that nobody with Paul saw Jesus, and so this wonderful eyewitness testimony that Perman is so excited about was a visionary sighting that only Paul experienced. If Luke’s accounts are accurate, then Perman must acknowledge that Paul himself described it as a “heavenly vision” (Acts 26:19). Perman is free to consider this amazing evidence if he wants to, but I consider it no more convincing than someone’s claim that he was told that another person saw Elvis Presley in a vision. What we all want to see from Perman is real evidence, but he seems unable to produce any.
The use of women to discover the tomb establishes the credibility of the resurrection story. This worn-out apologetic argument shows an incredible ignorance of the culture that produced the gospel accounts. It is true that in Jewish society, women had very little social or political status, but Perman ignores that the gospels were Hellenistic productions. If their authors were Jews, they were Hellenistic Jews who had been exposed to cultural influences that were not quite as unkind to women as was the Mosaic law, which considered women to be mere chattel. Hellenistic literature and mythology had goddesses as well as gods and heroines as well as heroes. Hera was the queen of heaven and the consort of Zeus; Athena was the goddess of wisdom, andAthens, the center of Greek learning, was her namesake; Artemis was the goddess of the moon and also the protector of wildlife; Aphrodite was the goddess of love.
These are only a few of the many goddesses and nymphs who were worshipped and respected by the Greeks, and it would be unreasonable to think that generations of Hellenistic Jews could have lived in Greek societies without having been influenced by their fascination with goddesses. Greek culture, for example, had Sibyls, who were aged women that uttered prophecies thought to have been revealed to them by the gods. They functioned much in the same way as the “oracles,” like the famous one at Delphi, and Hebrew society didn’t escape the influence of the Sibyls as evinced by writings like The Sibylline Oracles, a pseudepigraphic work purporting to contain the prophetic utterances of several Hebrew Sybils dating as far back as Sambethe, a daughter-in-law of Noah. Such works as these could not have been produced in a culture that put no credence in the testimony of women. Furthermore, a study of the Old Testament shows that the Hebrews had their prophetesses, such as Deborah and Huldah in Judges 4 and 2 Kings 21, and that the worship of goddesses like Ashtaroth was often a religious problem in early Israel (Judges 2:13; 10:6; 1 Sam. 7:3-4; 12:10). The Hebrews also had their heroines like Ruth and Esther in the canonical books and Judith in the apocryphal. To argue that the testimony of women would have commanded no respect in first-century Judaism is a claim that cannot be substantiated, and it ignores evidence that indicates the gospels were Hellenistic in origin.
Finally, I must ask Perman to explain why the apostle Paul didn’t even mention that women were the first to find the empty tomb and to see the resurrected Jesus. If “the use of women to discover the tomb” is so forceful in “establish[ing] the credibility of the resurrection story,” then why didn’t Paul realize it and include this information in 1 Corinthians 15? He labored long and hard in this chapter to convince the Corinthian Christians that Jesus had risen. In so doing, he listed six separate postresurrection appearances Jesus had allegedly made, including even the famous claim that he had appeared to “about five hundred brethren at once,” but Paul left out entirely what Perman believes is information that “establishes the credibility of the resurrection story.” That was very negligent of Paul, but it was even more negligent of the omniscient, omnipotent Holy Spirit not to have given Paul an inspirational nudge to let him know that the experiences of the women was information that he definitely needed to include. Perman’s god apparently didn’t think this information was quite as important as desperate Christian apologists think it is.
Perman attaches undue importance to the opinion of the Jewish author Pinchas Lapide that the resurrection of Jesus did actually occur. In the next issue, I will address this point and a few other loose ends. After that, if Perman insists on believing in the resurrection of his crucified savior-god, I know of nothing else to do but extend to him my sympathy. He, of course, may reply to my articles if he wishes, but unless he can show us something better than the fundamentalist flapdoodle that has characterized his other two articles, I will see no need to dignify his apologetic desperation with another response.
by Farrell Till
The Jewish author Pinchas Lapide has become the darling of Christian apologists, because even though he himself is not a Christian, he has stated a quasi-belief in the historicity of the resurrection. For some reason, apologists cite this as if it were some kind of conclusive evidence that should end controversy over the foundation doctrine of Christianity, but I find it inconsistent, to say the least, that Christians would use an argument that they would instantly reject if anyone should present it as evidence for a position contrary to what they believe. If, for example, a Christian writer should state his belief that Muhammad was a genuine prophet of God, Christians would rightly see this as proving no more than that this particular Christian thinks that Muhammad was a real prophet. So if such argumentation proves nothing about truth in other religions, it cannot be used to prove anything about Christianity.
This is all that I really need to say about the “testimony” of Pinchas Lapide, but there are other facts about this writer that shed considerable light on possible reasons why he has stated publicly a reserved belief that the resurrection did happen. In his book, The Resurrection of Jesus (Translated by W. C. Linss, London, 1984, pp. 32-34), Lapide reveals an interest in promoting dialogue and unity between Christians and Jews, a goal that would hardly be promoted if he accused Christianity of having been founded on historical falsehood or self-delusion in the first Christians. This fact alone is sufficient to make us wonder if Lapide’s position on the resurrection is a matter of sincerity or expedience. I find it hard to imagine that a non-Christian would investigate the Christian resurrection claim, decide that it is a true claim, yet not convert to Christianity. To say the least, this does not sound like a very firm belief in the resurrection.
I said earlier that Lapide’s belief in the resurrection was only a quasi-belief, and this is evident from the many problems that he noted in the resurrection story. He noted, for example, that a resurrected savior is not unique to Christianity, because there were “deities, heroes, philosophers and rulers who, all long before Jesus, suffered died and rose again on the third day” (p. 40), and he noted that resurrection from the dead was a belief that was familiar to Jews as well as pagans (pp. 46ff). He pointed out that the only people who claimed that they had encountered Jesus were those who were already believers in him. He acknowledged that the New Testament is “the only source of the resurrection” and described the gospel accounts as narratives that contain “much legend” and “glaring inconsistencies” (p. 32). A more complete discussion of the problems that Lapide pointed out in the resurrection doctrine is in The Jesus Legend by G. A. Wells, pp. 56-63.
Extrabiblical testimony: The embarrassment of not having any nonbiblical contemporary records to corroborate the New Testament claims of amazing events that accompanied the death and resurrection of Jesus has forced apologists like Perman (who is actually only parroting the simplistic “arguments” of Josh McDowellian writers) have tried to manufacture contemporary testimony where none really exists. Perman said, for example, that I had “disputed [his] reference to the non-Christian Thallus” on the matter of the midday darkness while Jesus was on the cross. What Perman was alluding to here was a statement made by Julius Africanus, a 3rd-century Christian writer, whose work survives only in fragments. In one of the fragments, he made this brief comment: “In the third book of his history, Thallus calls this darkness an eclipse of the sun–wrongly in my opinion.” On the basis of this truncated quotation, Christian apologists have argued that a non-Christian contemporary of Jesus testified to the midday darkness, but there are serious problems with their claim. (1) The surviving fragment in which Africanus made this statement has the first letter(s) of the name missing, so in actually, we know only that Africanus referred to someone named (X)allus. Whether this was a reference to a writer named Thallus is, therefore, merely conjecture. (2) Even if the name in this fragment was “Thallus,” we can’t really know who he was. (3) The actual writings of this “Thallus” have not survived; we have only the brief allusion that Africanus made to “Thallus’s” reference to an eclipse, so it isn’t possible to examine the statement in its original context.
Steven Carr, a subscriber to TSR’s errancy list on the internet, has posted some excellent comments about early church writings. In a posting dated March, 30, 1996, he addressed these and other problems in the reference that Thallus allegedly made to the three-hour darkness at midday when Jesus was crucified: “I posted the full text of Africanus’s citation of Thallus a while back. It is not very convincing. It is, as far as we can tell, Africanus, not Thallus, who identifies this eclipse with Jesus’s crucifixion…. “What do we know about this Thallus? We have two possible additional references to him. One, Eusebius tells us that this Thallus wrote in Greek an account of world history from the fall of Troy down to the midfirst century–ca. 52. Thallus’ work is generally believed to have been written in the period A. D. 50-100 [Murray Harris, JSOTGP5:344]. Eusebius wrote, `From the three books of Thallus in which he collects (material) from the fall ofTroy to the 167th Olympiad)….’
“Two, Josephus possibly refers to a certain Thallus as a wealthy Samaritan freedman of Tiberius who had lent a million drachmas to the bankrupt Herod Agrippa (Antiquities, 18.167):
Now there was one Thallus, a freedman of Caesar’s of whom he borrowed a million of dracmae, and thence repaid Antonia the debt he owed her; and by spending the surplus in paying his court to Caius, became a person of great authority with him
If these two are the same Thallus, then it would explain how he had both time to write a history and how he had access to records (being a close associate of Tiberias) and how he had knowledge of events in Palestine (being a Samaritan). The identification of these two individuals is made by Emil Schuerer (HJP: 2.2.241).
“In Volume 3, Section 33a,10 (page 543-544), Schuerer writes as follows:
Thallus, according to Julius Africanus, mentioned a solar eclipse… so either Eusebius did not hand down correctly the number of Olympiads or Thallus’ work must have been extended at a later date…. The reasons for believing Thallus to have been a Samaritan are two-fold. First, he wrote about the history ofSyria. Second… if Thallus is correctly reported by Africanus as having written about the eclipse of A. D. 29, his work goes up to at least the time of Tiberius, and it may therefore be possible to identify him with a Samaritan Thallus, whom Josephus may (depending on the text) have mentioned…. However, Thallus in Josephus’s text is only a conjecture from “x”allus in the manuscripts (x is not theta), and although the original name is difficult to understand in this context… it is possible. In that case the evidence for Thallus as a Samaritan historian would disappear…. In favour of identification with Josephus’ Samaritan Thallus is the fact that the name occurs may times on Roman inscriptions…. The conjecture is certainly reasonable and should be accepted with caution.
It hardly seems convincing to me. After all there were lots of Thalluses, and the manuscript in Josephus does not say Thallus but only something close to Thallus. It is not clear to me at all that Thallus, whoever he was, was writing about Jesus.”
Carr has pointed out some serious problems in the Christian attempts to find in Africanus’s fragmented quotation an allusion to the midday darkness that was made by a writer contemporary to the time of the alleged event, but there is another problem that must also be considered. If Christian “apologists” are correct in their identification of this (X)allus, they would still not have their contemporary witness, because this Thallus’s birth is estimated at about A. D. 50. At best, he could be considered only a near contemporary, and so if he did allude to the midday darkness in the disputed quotation, he could only have been reporting what he had heard but not what he had seen himself.
Perman complained that I did not “deal with the fact that in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a does record the crucifixion” (TSR, November/December 1996, p. 3), but Perman surely knows that the references to Jesus in the Babylonian Talmud have been dated no earlier than the 2nd century A. D., so these could not be considered contemporary references either but merely reactionary statements to the principal claims of Christianity. The same is true of Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny, and other early writers whom Christians often cite as “contemporary” witnesses to the historicity of Jesus, but none of them were contemporaries. They all were born after the alleged crucifixion of Jesus, so the few brief and disputed references that they made to him can only be considered allusions to what the Christians of their time were known to believe. Perman is going to have to keep looking for a non-Christian witness who was a contemporary of Jesus.